A Fine White Mist

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Author's notes: Much gratitude to all of you who have taken the time to review "A Dream of Rain" or "Sometimes the Heart." You made this author very happy.

Disclaimer: Dreamworks, not mine. No profit or infringement intended.

*****

It has rained now for seven days without possibility for respite. Clouds shield the sun from view, the colors ranging from light gray to the darkness of night. The rain falls in sheets of gray, hitting the ground so hard that the mud splatters up, leaving pock marks behind.

The horses have disturbed the grass and road with their hooves; water runs down in thin streams, weaving through the tracks left by the wagons and each step my soldiers take, they sink deeper into the mud.

We have camped here now for two days. It is impossible to go further. The men are cold, soaked to their bones by the rain that seems to fall endlessly. They huddle around their campfires beneath their tarps and draw their cloaks in tighter around their shivering shoulders.

In my tent, I watch from my chair as the water slowly makes its way beneath the hem, darkening the edges of the material and dampening the ground. Still in my furs and with the glow of my private fire, I am as comfortable as I can be.
The decision must be made and Caesar once told me he could think of no man more willing to risk all for what was right, what was correct.

"You I trust, Maximus," Caesar had told me as we stood in the courtyard of the great palace in Rome. His hands were on my shoulders, and the intensity of his gaze made me believe him entirely; he was placing this campaign in my hands and I knew Caesar wanted nothing less than greatness, nothing less than victory.

However, I cannot bring myself to order my men forth, knowing that the river, just one mile to our east, swells angrily with the added water. I dare not make the crossing, knowing that mysterious currents swirl beneath the surface. Foolish risks I will not take and to condemn some of my men to certain death by drowning or cold appeals to me not at all.

Yet if I miss this opportunity to proceed into Germania, to vanquish the tribes bearing arms against us, then we shall have to wait until the harshness of winter has passed and the snow has melted from the ground. The men will become bored, perhaps even afraid when they have time idle on their hands; half will desert the ranks before the leaves begin to bud once again.

The whine of a horse and the call, "Maximus!" shifts my gaze to the flap in the tent and the hand pushing aside the cloth.

"What is it?" I rise.

My visitor pushes back his hood. I smile.

"Marcus." I smile and seize my old friend's hand between both of mine. "You must have ridden hard."

"I came as fast as I could, Maximus," Marcus says. "Give me leave to warm my hands."

"You must be bitter cold. This rain is enough to chill and freeze."

"I do not think the ice is far ahead of us, Maximus," Marcus says. He moves his hands gently over the fire, closing his eyes. "I have brought fresh troops from Rome, yet I see already the snow on the mountains. It will not be an easy passage nor a safe one. I consulted with the fortune teller before I left Rome and they says this shall be the harshest winter of them all."

I laugh. "Perhaps then we will have respite from the fighting."

"A great soldier does not say such things," Marcus says reprovingly. "Not to an old friend, not after all this time. Or have you become weary of such things and wish only to retire to your farm and toil after grapes in the sunlight?"

I offer the smallest of smiles, the one someone close to me once described as "thin-lipped, as if you are trying not to show your humor at all."

"Is that entirely wrong? Or perhaps you will call it selfish," I answer. I nod towards a chair. "Sit, Marcus. Would you like wine?"

"Please."

I pour him a glass of wine from the pewter decanter on my table and hand it to him. Marcus drinks deeply and sighs.

"It warms me through to the heart, sir," he says.

"Food?"

"In a while, not now."

"As you wish." I settle back into my chair, watching Marcus. We were school friends, Marcus and I, and we have grown together in so many ways. Our ways part and then meet again, and while we may not always be in contact, there is a familiarity between us, always welcome, always needed. "What is the word in Rome?"

"I brought you some letters," Marcus says. He reaches into his pack. "They should reveal all. This one be from Caesar himself."

"Ah," I say. "Doubtless he wishes to know of our progress."

"Doubtless. And this one -" he pauses significantly - "is from my lady."

I blink at him. "Who?"

"The Lady Lucilla," Marcus says, a hint of exasperation inserting itself into his normally calm, smooth voice. "You remember?"

I feel the tension in my shoulders grow tighter. I remember an aristocratic tilt of head, a sly smile growing wider and long, tapered fingers that alternately stroked and scratched. And I remember her only in the way I can, in color and emotion. She is gold against the backdrop of my memory, slightly out of focus and always out of reach.

I finger the parchment lightly, feeling the thickness and richness of the paper. It is sealed with red wax, the design of Lucilla's signet ring pressed into it.

"The lady commands your response," Marcus says without irony. I glance at my old friend.

"She commands the general of her father's armies?" I ask. I smile. Only Lucilla would have such impudence and as the Gods are with me, it is such insolence that endears her to me. "I will obey only if I believe if her missive is worthy enough of a reply."

"I believe it will be," Marcus answers. He puts his wine goblet down. "Ah, that was good, Maximus. Be it from your own farms?"

"No," I answer, my fingers still caressing the red seal. In my mind, I imagine my fingers running the straight length of Lucilla's leg, feeling the soft, smooth skin beneath my touch. "The crop was not good this year and the results were dismal. Perhaps better luck next year."

"Perhaps you shall be there next year."

"God willing," I answer gloomily. Outside, the rain has ceased, at least for the moment. A puddle of water has formed beneath the flap of my tent, the water trickling off in all directions. "Though if this rain will not stop, I daresay we shall all sink into the mud before long and be lost."

Marcus laughs. "Don't say such things, Maximus. It becomes not the general of Rome's great armies." He pauses and looks at the letter. "You will have much to say in response to my lady."

I bristle at his suggestion. It is hard enough to know that my friend is aware that I can deny Lucilla nothing, that I desperately try to pull away from her and yet, the moment she drifts by, I am seduced.

"Give me Caesar's letter then," I tell Marcus. My mouth is dry as I reach for the letter. Caesar's handwriting, always strong and fluid across the parchment, reveals no surprises. He commends our victories and asks for an update on our progress towards Germania. He ends with a simple statement of his faith in me. "All is well with Rome then."

"As the sun sets and rises, my friend," Marcus says. "How can anyone stand against Rome?"

"But they do, Marcus. They rebel despite the knowledge they should surely die in the attempt. They fear not for their own lives, only that they do not become one with Rome."

"You sound disenchanted."

"Not disenchanted, no." I shake my head. Already water trickles down the sides of my tent. I think of my soldiers, many of whom are lying in the mud now, miserable and cold, missing their families, missing especially their women... inadvertently, I shiver. "I only wonder at the choices we have made to continue this war. Perhaps to ensure that the sun shall always rise and set on our great empire?"

"Few have defined this life of ours better," Marcus answers. He rises from his chair. "I shall leave you to your letter, General. I believe you would value the time alone. I have horses to see to. Wish me luck that I do not catch cold and die here in this place."

I laugh at him. "Death here would not merit you a song as would death in glorious battle," I tell him. "I will pray for you, sir, if you will do the same for me."

Marcus nods and ducks out into the cold. I carefully slit open Lucilla's letter. Her script, as always, flows delicately across the page, the letters curving up and down and slanting to the right elegantly enough. The parchment smells of Lucilla, of her delicate floral scent, and I imagine her seated at her desk, clad in the colors of spring with jewels at her throat, ears and wrists. It is, I think, a fantastical world that Lucilla dwells in, one far removed from the red-stained battlefields.

She begins by asking after my health and then progresses onto to other matters. Her letter is curiously shallow, far removed from the woman I've come to care deeply for, and perhaps, even love. Yet I understand her distance for the possibility that her letters might fall into the hands of another is very strong. There are many who would wish to know of the romance between a general and Caesar's daughter. Lucilla is aware of this as much as I am.

"Maximus, I am to be married," the letter reads. "I wish with all of my heart that it be different, but some things cannot be delayed. Circumstances, rather than the heart, must dictate in some respects. I wish you good health and victory on the battlefield. That you return to Rome, celebrated and safe, remains my strongest and deepest desire. Perhaps you would not obey me now, but in time you will understand. I beg your forgiveness for all and remain, respectfully, yours, Lucilla."

I close the letter and hold it tightly, the paper crumpling beneath my grip. I breathe in deeply, calming myself over this news, and then pull myself together. I put the letter in a plate and tip the candle towards it. The flame catches at the paper and soon, the letter crumples into nothing but ash.

I try not to think of those nights in her bed with those fine sheets wrapped around my legs, but my strength fails me. I laugh at the irony. I have faced dozens of soldiers, armed with spears, axes and bowes, with courage, yet the memory of Lucilla's lips against my neck disarms me utterly. I bow my head, remembering how I saw her last, sitting at the window in her rooms, dressed in the softest white.

I shake my head, trying desperately to disassociate my mind from all thoughts of Lucilla.

"You can be strong when you will it," I tell the pile of ash. "You do not allow yourself to be forced into those things you do not wish to do."

For this epiphany, there can only be one conclusion. So I banish all thoughts of Lucilla in her white dress with the delicate white veil floating over her chestnut hair. I pray that my nights will not be plagued by the memory of her legs wrapping around my waist or her cheek against mine.

Outside, I can hear the horses and the shouts of the men. I blow out the candle and step outside. The rain is only a drizzle now, soft and cold against the skin. I blink since the water blurs my vision. The wind whistles through the tree branches; the leaves have long withered and fallen, leaving only the skeletal black branches against the gray sky. Those branches reach up to the sky like claws, reaching for something they cannot possibly have.

I see Marcus covering his horse with a blanket and he looks up as I approach.

"You read the letter," he stated.

"It is of no consequence."

"She desires a response."

"Tell my lady," I say and then pause. Marcus is eyeing me closely, one hand resting on his sword.

"Beware, Maximus," Marcus says gently, but needlessly. I'm aware of this danger, aware of the risk Lucilla took in writing to me and aware that what I could say now could mar her honor.

"Shall you defend her honor?" I ask. "For I assure you, I desire nothing but her happiness and that this marriage brings her nothing but what she deserves."

Marcus visibly relaxes. "That be all then. I'll tell the boy."

"You do that," I tell him sharply. I turn and walk away. I tell myself that it's a trick of the rain that I cannot see clearly. I make my way to my tent, knowing that inside the fire will warm my cold fingers and feet. I pause as Marcus' messenger rides by me, without care or thought to my presence.

As mud splatters up from the horse's hooves, I make the decision that we shall winter here. When the leaves bud once again and the warmth returns to the air, we shall try for Germania again.

~ finis ~