It was snowing again. The first timid flakes came down from the blackness of the night sky, showing themselves briefly by the light of the watch fire. They came slowly at first, but soon their numbers were enough to dim the light of the fire beyond the walls. Suetonius wrapped his cloak tighter around him. He slipped his right hand through the opening and tentatively loosened the gladius in its scabbard. It didn't hurt to be too careful. By degrees, he could feel his legs going numb. He shifted his feet and stamped them against the wet bark of the wooden platform. From his post on the wall of the castrum, he could peer out into the depths of the forest. Green and radiant by day, at night it was black and thick as stew. His feet soon grew cold again. He stamped them again but it did little good other than to make him feel better. The snow slackened and he could just make out the shapes of other members of his century grouped around the fire. They were sharing hot tea and cleaning their weapons. He wondered how long it was before he was due to be relieved of his watch. It would feel good to warm his feet by that fire and get a little of that tea. He turned from the forest for a moment and glanced across the castrum to the other side. He could see down the length of the decumanus to the gate where another sentry paced the far rampart. Looking over the walls of the armory and across the barracks, the figure was just a blur through the freshening snow. No one was near. He reached inside his cloak and found the small purse that hung from his belt. He felt around till he found the dried beef strips he had taken from the quartermaster. He used his teeth to tear off a chunk and began to chew. The centurion was not fond of people who ate on watch. In fact, there were more than enough willing to curry favor by pointing out breaches in discipline. You couldn't be too careful.
He frowned looking across the extent of their winter quarters. This castrum followed the proper four square plan of Roman fortresses all over the world, but its walls were made of the dark trees of this forest, not the honest clean stone they should have been built of. Actually everything about this accursed place was wrong. The food was vile and bland, fit maybe for flies and worms, but not for men of the Caesar's Tenth Legion. Damp and wet and filthy, he often thought Rome should give these miserable trees back to the barbarians. He sneered in disgust at the thought. First we defeat the Gauls. Then we give them back their land. Then we fight the accursed Germans to save the Gauls. Rome would be great still with the loss of so much useless lumber, and he and his fellows could go home.
Then there were the stories that ran through the camp. Tales of the fate of other frontier garrisons. Stories as dark as this damn forest. Soldiers who awoke to find their tent mates dead, throats cut by the barbarians who could swoop down and kill at will. But they didn't just kill wantonly. Instead they murdered every other man as he slept. Silently and without warning. It may not have worn the legion as much as outright slaughter may have, but it worked wonders on the nerves. You simply never knew what you would wake to find. Some couldn't sleep anymore, but choose instead to find their own peace. Others fled, the stink of urine clinging to them as they ran crying.
Suetonius spat out the gristle from the meat. It left a steaming hole at his feet as it cut through the snow. He supposed the worst part was the waiting. He thought he could take the fight, and he prayed to the gods he wouldn't dishonor the legion by running. But the waiting. Which castrum would be next? Sometimes the barbarians wouldn't attack for weeks. Each day that passed without the relief of action would turn the screws even tighter, till the men were brawling for no reason. After another glance around he bit off another piece of beef.
The worst was the attack the men had come to call the 'dinner party'. When a legionnaire went missing they would say "Oh, he's gone to a dinner party." One of the new troops here, raw and green, had asked what this dinner party was. Some special honor given to soldiers of merit? The veterans had laughed and walked away. Finally, he took the boy aside and had told him the truth of it. Lone sentries were taken silently in the night. Days later, their half eaten bodies would be found lying near the gate of one of the castra. He remembered the first time he found one of the 'guests'. The soldier was stripped naked, his arms bound behind his back. He had starred silently at the corpse, unable to turn his eyes. One part of his mind revolted, the other part coming to the cold conclusion that whatever it was had eaten all the soft parts first. Suetonius spat the precious beef into the snow. Suddenly he wasn't hungry any more.
Rumors did strange things to men's imaginations, the strangest being that the ghouls were led by a woman twenty spans tall. She had raven black hair and wore a necklace of skulls. Suetonius was sure there were no flesh eating witches out hiding in the trees. Still, he reached again inside his cloak to be sure the blade would slide free. You could never be too careful.
Suetonius spun, the gladius sliding out of the cloak. He assumed the standard fighting stance. Where was the sound? Quarter turn. Scan. Steady. Whatever it was, it was gone now. So damn cold. He stomped his feet again but now the effort did no good at all. A hollow sound told him the walkway had been stamped on, but he felt nothing below his knees. If his feet were still down there they certainly weren't on speaking terms with the rest of his body.
He reluctantly sheathed the sword. He hated this damn place. Damn snow. Not like home. Home was warm and dry. He would run through father's vineyards, the dogs at his heels, the hot air searing his lungs as he ran up and down the hillsides. Below him the warm ocean would invite him for an afternoon swim. Lydia, his little sister, the eternal pest would follow him everywhere he went. Somehow she knew all his secret places. The hollow behind the wine press, the tidal cave. He used to wish she would drop dead. Now he would give anything to see her again. Was it only two years since he came here? He felt like an old man. He wanted real food. He yearned for the taste of fresh warm figs pulled from the tree. The thoughts of food reminded him of dinner parties again, and he pushed it from his mind. No use thinking of home. The only way to get there was to earn it. To serve the years here, and go home with honor. Who knows? There might even be a farm of his own waiting for him. Caesar was a great warrior and a generous man, he rewarded those who served him well. Once this wilderness was secured, he would return home a hero.
For a moment, the world stood still, and the platform held steady, and Suetonius dreamed of the sun. Then the world fell. From out of the black shadow of the dark forest came a screeching cry that raised the hairs on the back of his neck. The witch. Then, before he had time to draw his blade, the world collapsed. The palisade trembled briefly, then swayed, then with a loud creaking and groaning, the wall came tumbling down. The platform shifted and skewed, and Suetonius found himself briefly standing on nothing. He wind milled his arms to try to regain his balance. The earth rushed up toward him. He heard, rather than felt, the logs collapse atop him. His left foot was ground to meat by the force of one log crashing down on it. In his last few moments of consciousness he heard the cry of that witch demon and the clash of swords. The barbarians poured into the compound.
Xena connected her foot with the face of the soldier. The sound of his skull cracking was very satisfactory. His body slid backward down the slope of the hummock, grass and soil and snow furrowed up by the bottom edge of his breastplate. The look of astonishment on his face was comical. Fine, let him go to meet Hades and eternity with that permanent look of stupid surprise on his face. Roman bastard. Xena looked up. Dawn was arriving by degrees, penetrating through the black depths of the forest. The snow under her feet was slick and treacherous, as she carefully studied the fight trying to decide where she was needed the most. Around her men waded shin deep through snow stained a pink that the gods had never sent from the skies. She climbed further up the little hummock. The battle had swirled first one direction then the next, a stream of violence flowing around the ruined walls of the fort. By now most Roman resistance was over and nothing was left but a few small pockets that stood like islands amidst the rising tide of her band. To her left one of her men exchanged sword blows with a legionnaire. The Roman suddenly clutched at his abdomen, the pulpy red and gray mess of his intestines pouring out into the winter air. His face was clothed in the hot steam of his own death as he fell.
As Xena watched, a short sword shot past her ear, nicking off the top of the ear and glancing off her scalp. Her head rang with the force of the blow. The Roman, expecting Xena's skull to split, had leaned too far forward. Xena ducked and rammed her shoulder into his gut, then straightened suddenly. His momentum carried him through the air and over to a snowbank where he sank and remained unmoving. They were bastards, alright, but they were damned good soldiers. Xena wiped a hand along her cheek where warm blood was trickling down from her ear and scalp. Already it was beginning to freeze against her face. She swayed for a moment, then regained her balance.
Behind her the local tribesmen fought the Romans with insane rage. These Germans, with their fur coats and greasy braided hair looked more like wild animals than men. They smelled like animals too. They never bathed. They stank like shit. Her disgust for them was surpassed only by her hatred of the Romans. If she had her way, she would have slit their throats too. Still, they shared a marriage of convenience. Both they and she wanted to kill as many Romans as possible. The last few months of alliance had been uneasy. She had to endure their constant attempts at her. Xena smirked, remembering the remedy for that problem. After she had cut off the hands of the first one that had touched her, there had been fewer attempts. Still, there were the hardy ones who believed it was worth the risk.
Around the field Romans were dropping their swords and offering themselves in surrender to her band.
"No survivors!" she shouted, her voice cracked and hoarse with fatigue. She really needn't have bothered. The Germans quickly surrounded the captives like flies on a corpse, their swords and clubs rising and falling in bloody arcs. What was left of the Romans who surrendered was not much more than bloody pulp in uniforms. They looked like a child's toy soldier that had been crushed beneath careless feet. Only a few slick pink bones bursting into the morning light ruined the illusion.
Still, she knew the Germans would save at least one or two. Sometimes they would interrogate the captives first. But that was just a formality. The real fun for them was the victory feast back in their villages. They had their own sickening ideas of entertainment. The Germans were in the habit of keeping wild animals as pets. Most commonly wolves, maybe a bear or two. These animals were starved, kept on the edge of life, granted only enough strength to fight each other to survive. In the center of the village was a deep pit, perhaps twice her height. Over the pit was suspended a frame of poles. The prisoners were stripped, trussed up like meat, then swung kicking and screaming down into the pit. The Germans would ring the pit and wager how long the victim would survive. When it seemed the victim was near fainting from shock or blood loss, they would haul him back up and revive him. Then it was back down into the pit. It was a horrible way to die, even for a Roman. She would rather see them die fighting, or savor the pleasure of killing them herself.
It was a waste too. After a little convincing, the leader of the tribe had allowed her to have the bodies when they were done. She ordered her men to dump the corpses at the gates of the Roman fortresses. That, at least, would give the bastards something to think about.
She had watched the first captive Roman thrown to the wolves. After that first time she hadn't watched anymore. She always seemed to find herself too busy planning with her lieutenants to enjoy the feasts. She noticed most of her band likewise found important chores that kept them away from the festivities. There were horses to be fed, blades to be sharpened. But a few of her men did go. She made careful note of this. They were the ones to watch.
Even now she could see the last of the Romans surrendering. This one had fallen to his knees and was thanking the Germans in tearful gratitude. He thought himself lucky for being spared. In a few hours he would scream and beg for death. Like all the others.
Borias picked his way carefully through the smoldering ruins of the fortress. The footing was treacherous, and more than once he had slipped, his shins slamming painfully into the collapsed logs. Ribbons of steam seeped up beneath his feet where melting snow struck the still smoldering wood. The sun was just beginning to set, a filthy orange smudge on the horizon. The attack had been an incredible success. One entire side of the fortress had collapsed. Borias remembered the arguments over strategy. The Germans had wanted to charge the walls and scale them, using men to absorb arrows until sheer numbers overcame the defenders. Xena had argued for a more subtle approach. Weaken the fortress by mining beneath the walls, shore them up, then release the shoring as the attack came. It had worked perfectly. The garrison had been shocked by the sudden collapse of their defenses. Resistance had been half-hearted and poorly organized. They never stood a chance. Nearly a hundred Romans dead and only ten of their own lost. Borias would take odds like that any day.
As he searched the ruins he ran a hand nervously through his sandy hair. This was the part he hated the most. He always felt like a jackal. But he understood the reason for it. Nothing could be left to waste. They always needed new swords and useful armor. Around him the other men of the band went about the task of pillaging whatever was left worth having. In front of him Dagnine knelt down, intently searched the corpse of a Roman. He ripped away the armor and rolled the body to one side looking for weapons. He stood suddenly and held his arm up in triumph. He held a small glittering gold ring. Unfortunately in his haste he hadn't been too thorough in removing the former owner's finger. Borias looked away to hide his distaste. Dagnine was a pig. A filthy mercenary who would kill his mother if there were enough gold in it. Borias watched him stamp on the corpse and wave his bloody trophy. On second thought, maybe killing his mother wouldn't be such a bad idea. A little too late, though.
Dagnine wasn't the only problem around here. Lately there were more and more men in the band he couldn't trust. Dagnine and the others weren't of the original band who defended Amphipolis. They had all hired on later when Xena's successes began to make her look like a good bet. Borias looked around him. There were in fact, so few left that were from Amphipolis. Most had fallen in battle, been slaughtered by the Romans, or wandered back home. Xena herself lived a charmed life. She won every battle and emerged unscathed, while the others died around her. The gods truly smiled on her. She was brilliant. But lately it seemed as though that brilliance were tarnished. A lovely piece of gold covered with dirt. Or blood. Everyday she shone a little less. He had fought by her side for Amphipolis. He had understood that. He had held her when she cried for Lyceus. He understood that. Now this. They were thousands of leagues from home. What did this have to do with Amphipolis? He knew the answer to that one. He couldn't say exactly when things changed, but it was surely different now. This wasn't about preserving anymore, this was about destroying. He ran his hand through his hair again. Sometimes he wondered why he stayed.
Back to business. Xena had ordered them to scavenge for supplies in the Roman storehouses. It seemed there was never enough food to go around these days. The Germans were none too eager to share with the Greeks. The wretched Gauls had little left to steal in the dead of winter. Borias watched his feet as his carefully made his way across the remains of the wall. He was about to place his foot when he looked down and saw a face. Startled, he withdrew his foot and almost slid on the log. He stared down at his feet. Not just another dead body, but a live human was looking up at him. The eyes blinked, the mouth moved. A sound came out, soft and weak. It seemed one of the legionnaires was alive after all. Borias drew his sword. Then stopped. The man, no, the boy was calmly looking at him. Still, he had his orders. There were to be no survivors. The boy spoke again, this time Borias caught some of it. Something about the water. Yes, he racked his brain for the little Latin he knew and it seemed the boy was talking about going swimming. Going swimming? The boy was delirious. The Rhineland in the winter was not a great place for swimming. Borias glanced around. The others were busy picking over loot. Dagnine was grunting and tugging at something on one of the corpses. The boy was smiling and calmly going on about something. Borias looked down. The soldier was pretty lucky to have survived the battle. The heavy logs of the fortress where stacked around him like twigs, leaving just a little space for his body. His blue eyes were clouded, but his short black hair was unmussed. He might have been serenely lying on a couch in his house. Except that he wore a uniform. Except that he held a sword in his fist. Except that one of his feet was horribly flattened between the logs. One glance was enough to know he would never use that foot again. Only the freezing cold must have kept him from bleeding to death. He was already slipping into shock. He wouldn't last long anyway. It would be an act of mercy.
The others had reached the storehouses and were stacking supplies outside. They shouted for Borias to join them, was he having a nap? Their laughter drew him back to the present. He realized he must look pretty foolish standing there staring down at his feet. Dagnine lifted his head from his foraging, like a pig scenting something tasty. "What you find there, Borias?"
A little lump of ice formed in Borias' gut. His hands grew slick with sweat. He knew what Dagnine's solution would be. Even now, the little bastard was picking his way across the logs, headed for Borias. Borias bent down and tore the short sword out of the boy's clenched fist. He raised it to show Dagnine. Forcing his voice to stay level he said, "I thought Xena might like a trophy!"
Perfect choice. Borias could see a moment of calculation cross Dagnine's face. Dagnine was crude but he was a master at self-preservation. Dagnine grunted something about that being a good idea. Borias let the tension go from his shoulders, and let out a bare sigh.
Borias headed for the storehouses. "Let's get to work."
The sun was long gone. The moon was high and bright. Through the trees Borias could see the campfires of the Germans. From all the noise they were making he suspected they were at their sport. There should be sentries around here somewhere, so he had to move carefully. Borias wasn't sure he could find the spot again in all the debris. He prayed the boy would be dead. Disobeying Xena's orders was not a good idea. Even for old friends. He almost stepped on the body again before he realized where he was. He reached down and jostled the body. The boy moaned. Damn. Borias drew his sword. He had a duty to do here. He glanced around, a guilty thief. A short and powerful arc finished the job. The ankle gave away. The boy screamed and Borias dropped against the logs to hide his silhouette. How could the sentries miss that? After a while, he realized no one was coming to get him. Heart pounding, he lifted the boy and carried him to where his horse waited.
Dagnine emerged from the shadows of the storehouses. His eyes shone a malignant yellow in the bright light of the moon.
The Centurion stood at a brace. Occasionally he would steal a glance at the man standing before him. Julius Gaius Caesar stood in the courtyard of his villa in Ostia reading and rereading the same packet of dispatches. His eyes flew across them like a hawk scanning for prey. Caesar wore a plain linen tunic belted at the waist. Only the elaborate embroidery that adorned its hem marked him as something more than a common citizen. Well, not precisely. With his intense gaze and bearing he would have been marked as a nobleman even if he had been carrying slops in Rome. Centurion had to take a moment to suppress the urge to smile. The image of the Princeps hauling filth was intriguing but dangerous. Caesar was not renowned for his sense of humor. It had been an hour since Flavius had ridden down from Rome, yet Caesar had not yet ordered him to stand at ease. The winter sun was cooler than the summer, yet standing under it had left him with sweat running down both sides of his face. Drops of sweat pooled in the Centurion's thick black eyebrows and hung suspended till they fell by their own weight into his eyes. He dared not move, nor raise his hand to wipe his brow. Finally Caesar seemed to have tired of the dispatches.
Caesar snapped his attention to the Centurion standing there, his eyes finding his prey. Flavius suddenly and fervently wished to be ignored again. Caesar spoke, "A fortified Century destroyed? The Germans tunneled beneath a wall of the castrum? All of this went unnoticed by the garrison for the time it must have taken. Perhaps weeks?" Each word flew at the soldier and each was an attack aimed at him personally. He himself had spent the last several years in Judea. Flavius no more knew a German from a rock, yet he was expected to account for the failures of some far-flung outpost above the Rhine? He had only just this moment learned of the contents of the packet. He had been on duty when the post rider had ridden in from the north. Honored to ride to Caesar's home with urgent dispatches he had dreamed of recognition by Caesar. He had strode into Caesar's villa full of swagger. Now he was seriously considering how he cause himself to shrink and disappear into the cracks between the tiles of the courtyard.
Caesar began to pace, thoughtfully striking the packet against his thigh as he spoke aloud. "We have never seen such subtlety from the Germans before. In the years of our battles they have proven themselves time and again happy to throw themselves away on direct frontal assaults. Why now patience and planning? They scream and attack and dream of dying in battle. They have suddenly learned strategy? Is this some miraculous event?" This question was directed at the sweating Centurion. Flavius was unsure if he were expected to reply, but could think of no reply that would not earn him the cross, so he remained silent.
Caesar apparently had not expected a reply because he continued on, "No, something has changed. What has changed for our friends the Germans?" Caesar seemed more interested in this puzzlement than in the loss of the men who manned the garrison. "If this is a mark of things to come then Rome needs be wary." Just at that moment, another figure entered the courtyard from the shadow of the house.
"What keeps you, Julius?" The man who spoke was a hand shorter than Caesar, his thick curly hair going to gray. His chin was sported a full beard, unusual for a man of Rome. And though the man wore the same air of authority that Caesar did, his was affected by a silken red toga and gold rings on his fingers. Unlike the hawkish gaze of Caesar, this man wore a closed and cautious look. His was not the body of a predator. The beard could not hide the soft flesh of his chin, nor the sallow complexion. The smell of oils and perfumes floated off him in waves. Flavius would had guessed that this general had not seen the battlefield in many years. This could only be Brutus, friend to Caesar. Brutus scowled at the Centurion and switched his tone to one of greater formality. "Caesar, may I ask what news you have?"
"It seems the Germans have mysteriously acquired the art of war. I am concerned that this may require closer attention by Rome." Caesar signaled to a house slave who came trotting over. "Send a rider to Rome to order the Senate to assemble." The slave bolted toward the stables. Caesar returned his attention to Flavius and scowled. "What is your name again, Centurion?"
Flavius' stomach tightened into a small hard knot.
"I want to strike at his heart." Xena ran her fingertips across the smooth muscles of Borias' abdomen. They traced a dry path through his sweat. An old scar cut a valley across his stomach. She followed it idly with her finger, enjoying the texture of the ruined skin.
"You don't have to do this, you know", his thumb ran down her breast, stopping at the nipple. He closed his fingers and squeezed. She arched her back inviting him to continue. He rolled on his side to look into her eyes. They were the same clear blue they had been for all the years he knew her. Clear and bright like the sea in summer.
He chose his words carefully, like a man looking for safe footing amid quicksand. "Xena, you have struck him back. You've won. Let it go. Let him go. You've proven you're ten times the warrior he is. Amphipolis is safe now. It's over. Please." The last came out more like a whine than he had wished. He looked into her eyes for any agreement. They were the same brilliant blue they always were. But something moved behind them. Something dark and hungry swam in the clear waters of the sea.
She pushed his hand away from her breast. Her voice was the low growl of an animal. "After what he did to me, don't I deserve my vengeance? He left me to hang like a piece of meat. I could find a hundred men who would take a sword to his throat at my command. But you! You say you love me, but will do nothing to see my honor restored. You don't really love me at all, you only want my protection. You are a coward." She rose and turned away from him in contempt.
Borias felt a red rage build up inside him. He sprang to his feet and grabbed her shoulder, spinning her around roughly. His anger choked his air till he was not sure he had enough to speak. "You don't think I hung there too?" He held his wrists out before him until they were bare inches from her face. Obscene red bracelets of scar encircled his wrists. For two days the ropes had sawn into his flesh. They had rubbed his flesh away. Hanging in the heat of the sun he had prayed. Prayed for relief. Prayed for death. The gods had sent the relief of rain to the dying men. But like every gift of the gods it was cursed with hidden dangers. Swollen with rain water, the hemp ropes had pressed soft flesh till the bone was bared. He would bare the tattoo of the rope's weave till the day he died. Xena's eyes focused on the grooves. She brought her own wrist up and held it beside his. Her skin was as smooth and perfect as a child's. Her eyes looked at his. This time they were full of compassion. Then a wind cooled the surface of the sea and the dark hungry things returned.
She spoke without anger. Without compassion. As calmly as another woman might tell a vendor what color fabric she wished to buy.
"I will kill him."
Borias walked through the shadows of the forest. The golden crown of his head reflected the moonlight. He glowed like a faint and distant sun. A bag hung from one shoulder, the pale leather stretched taut by its contents. The hut was still there where he remembered. Barely more than a few paces across, it looked as ancient as the forest. Its wattle sides were rudely patched where years of abuse taken their toll. The hut was almost overcome by foliage. The only sign that humans lived there was a small muddy spot in front of the door where years of feet had defeated any plants that tried to grow there. A few stray pigs rustled through the undergrowth looking for roots and nuts. Faint light showed through one small window set high in the wall.
Borias pounded on the door. The light quickly went out. The door flew open and something shot past his head. Borias ducked mere moments before a branch cut the air where his head had formerly been. He reached above his head and grabbed the stick, throwing his weight backward. The other end of the stick came out into the clearing with his attacker still attached to it. Borias yanked again till the body flew to the ground. He rose and drew his sword. At the sound of the metal scraping the scabbard, a wailing filled the air. It came from all around him and was of such a volume that he thought only a Harpy could produce it. Borias paused a moment and looked down at his feet. A young girl of about twelve still clutched the stick. She was filthy and her brown hair was matted against her scalp. Her eyes stared up at him, wet with tears and fierce with hatred.
The source of the wailing sprang from the door and threw itself over the girl, offering its body to his sword. The wailer, a woman of maybe fifty, added her glare to the girl's. The two faces looked up at him, and he saw the unmistakable resemblance. Grandmother? Probably. He could look into the old woman's face and see the girl in another few years. Beneath the filth the girl still held the beauty of youth. It was a losing battle. What would years of hard living do for any face? The three figures stood frozen, some strange statue. Then the old woman's features relaxed with recognition. She got to her feet shakily, pulling the young one up with her. She stared a few more moments at Borias. He sheathed his sword, then offered his palms outstretched to show he hid no weapons. The old hag mumbled something to the young hag. The young one backed her way into the hut, never turning her back on Borias. In a moment the feeble candle came to life again, a sickly yellow light seeping out into the mud.
He followed her into the hut. It was cramped, and its smells struck him as he entered. Not the clean earthy smell of the forest, but the smell of unwashed humans. Sweat. Cooking. Piss. The interior was small, no more than a few paces across. The only furniture was a small table and three pallets. The table was a ragged pile of splinters that seemed to hold together only under protest. The candle sat atop it, a carefully conserved nub of wax and fat that flickered and threatened to die at any moment. By its pathetic light Borias looked around the room. One pallet was empty, its straw stuffing gray with age and probably crawling with vermin. The next held the master of the house. The old swineherd lay so still that Borias was convinced he was dead until his body suddenly shook, emitting a wet and violent cough. Death was not far off for this one. The change in seasons would be too much for him. The third pallet held the purpose of his visit. The young Roman also lay still, yet breathed in the steady and sound rhythm of health. He was stripped of his uniform and dressed simply in a woolen tunic. A light blanket covered his legs. It sloped abnormally off to one side where the boy's foot should have been. A fresh growth of beard showed on his face. He almost looked like a Gaul. Good. Maybe he could escape the notice of the Germans. And others. He threw back the blanket and examined the stump of the boy's leg. It was a tender pink color, but showed no signs of going to rot .
Borias turned to the mistress of the house, unshouldered his burden, and lowered it to the floor. He made no sudden movements, but withdrew the items one by one from his pack. The Roman storehouses were proving useful. Two candles first, then a woven blanket, then a small cask of brandy. One by one he handed these and other treasures to the old woman in payment. She snatched each from his hand, passing them behind her to where the girl stood by the table. For the lack of furniture, each item nonetheless vanished into safe hiding. Now you see it, now you don't. Borias' uncle had taken him to Athens when he was young and he had seen a street magician there. He had truly thought the man was magic for all the wonders he could produce from air. He realized now that that man was an absolute amateur. When the pack was empty, he drew a final item from his belt. It was a small folded square of parchment covered with a few sentences. With many gestures he showed that she was to give the letter to the young soldier the next time he awoke. She accepted the letter far more slowly than she had the others, holding it at arm's length as though it dripped deadly poison.
Borias drew a cooper from his purse and pressed it into her palm. This
too vanished like a magician's trick. Borias threw the empty pack over his
shoulder and left, closing the door behind him. This would be his last trip
here. He shouldn't risk any more. In just a few days they would be headed
south. The last of the feeble candlelight went out for the night and he
was left to the moonlight. A freshening breeze cleared the stink of the
house from his nose. As his eyes accustomed themselves to the night, he
thought about the boy. Would it do any good? What would stop them from slitting
the boy's throat when the food stopped coming? But that was an easy answer.
The old man lay dying. The Spring would take him for sure. Who would tend
the pigs? Who would protect the girl? With a wry smile Borias suddenly understood
their willingness to hide the boy. A strong back, foot missing or no, was
not to be thrown away.
Forever it seemed there was no day, no night. Just a gray mist that danced with bright colored lights. Suetonius dreamed of the sun. He stood on the familiar hillsides of home that overlooked the sea. Not too far off his mother and father patiently harvested the grapes, bearing them in wicker baskets tied to their backs. He called to them but they passed on, unheeding. He wished he could find shade, for even in this strange half light there was terrible heat. Not the good dry heat of home, but a terrible dampness that soaked his hair and sent sweat running down his back. There were voices in the gray too, taunting him from just beyond his sight. He would turn circles to try to find them, but always they just eluded him. One of his father's dogs played with him. He held Suetonius' foot in his jaws and would not release it. At first Suetonius wrestled with the animal and was amused, but then the dog tightened his jaws and the bone of his ankle began to splinter in protest. He could see the flecks of his own white sinew shining around the animal's yellowed teeth. He beat the dog with his fists, but it only tightened its jaws further. Its eyes burned hot and eager as Suetonius' blood clung to the bristled brown fur muzzle. It whimpered and tugged on the leg, playfully gnawing as tears streamed down Suetonius' face. Begging, screaming, beating. Nothing would loose the beast from his foot. But when the voices came, the animal fled. The heat relented. Just a little. In time he welcomed the magic of the voices that could drive away the terrible beast. Women's voices, high and sweet. Speaking nonsense. Always nonsense. He couldn't decide what they said, but their words were always welcome. Eventually the beast left for good. Driven away by the sweet voices. But his foot ached fiercely where the jaws had dug to the bone.
Then the sun set and the world became dark. Dim figures moved just beyond his sight. He was in a dark and cold place. Soon the days became days and the nights became nights and he began to remember. He had left the sun far behind. Far to the south somewhere the dogs still ran, and his parents still patiently climbed the hills, backs swayed under the weight of the harvest. But that was long ago. He was a soldier now, he was sure of it. He had pledged his life over in the service of Rome. But where was he? One day light joined him again. He opened his eyes to see a ceiling. And a face. A girl leaned over his bed and stared down at him. His eyes were caked and dry but he saw a girl. The girl jerked suddenly as though she were startled, then she began to babble in the same sweet confusion of sound he had grown used to. So these are the voices in the mist. With a shock equal to the girl's Suetonius suddenly realized he was not at his post. My post. Why have I abandoned my post? His head spun and he clenched his eyes shut again to try to remember what had happened. If the Centurion learned of this he would have him crucified. Suetonius fainted back into darkness to wrestle with fear.
For the Centurion, he cared very little about the disobedience of this soldier. He was weeks before chewed and digested in the name of good sport. Even his meat had long passed the bowels of the beasts that had him. His bones were only a gnawed plaything for wolf pups.
The party made its way through the narrow winding streets. Four persons walked silently and slowly. The houses in this quarter of Rome were four stories high, their tops teetering unsteadily over the street. They were made of wood and mud and they reeked of moisture and old cooking fires. Rats flowed like water through the little places. Little dark places best kept clear of. Small shops huddled beneath the towering slums. They choked the street with pottery and baskets and reeking debris that only the poorest would buy. In the dim light of the night a dog lay in the center of the way, protectively gnawing a piece of bone. It rose and slunk away as they approached, growling to protect its prize.
Xena felt as though she were walking down a canyon. Attack could come from any side, and there would be few places to stand and defend. Ahead the darkness of the street was broken by dirty yellow light coming out a tavern. The sounds of laughter and song and pain flowed into the street. A couple burst out of the doorway, the man greedily lifting the shift of the courtesan, not even waiting for the quiet of the nearby alleyway. Xena signaled her party and they switched to the opposite side of the street. The couple was too busy to notice the small band as it passed them. Gradually the streets widened, and the houses grew shorter and sturdier. Plaster and stone replaced the teetering wood of the slums. Xena paused and consulted a scrap of parchment in her fist.
The place was a small house like many in Rome. Only a narrow wooden door presented itself to the street. Xena tried the door and it swung open. Unlocked. Foolish. There was a short passage that led to an open courtyard in the center of the house. A marble arcade ran around the courtyard, and doors to the other rooms could be seen standing in the shadows. Beyond the passageway, a fountain reflected the moon. Bright mosaics decorated the floor, the signs of the zodiac radiating out in a circle from the fountain. From all indications, the owner of this house seemed to be doing quite well. Not locking the door was a woeful error, though.
A figure emerged from the shadows on the far side of the fountain. It stepped boldly to the center of the courtyard. The moonlight showed a tall woman with long red hair and a face so fair that it seemed to glow of itself. She wore a gown of black silk. Gold embroidered vines wound their way around the bodice. Xena signaled for the others to wait under the shadow of the arcade. Xena stepped forward to face the woman, stopping a few paces away. She began in halting Latin, "Are you the sibyl who...?"
"Don't inconvenience yourself, I can speak your tongue" The woman said in perfect Greek. She looked down on Xena and spoke lightly. "This is not necessary. You could have entered unarmed and achieved the same end."
"Oh, have you foreseen this?" Xena sneered, "Or are you afraid for your life?"
The Sybil smiled a small smile. Mirth shone from her eyes. She spoke to Xena as a mother would to a slow child, "I think there is very little that you can threaten me with."
Xena approached her steadily, at the last instant flinging her arm out to strike the woman full across the face. The backhand strike smashed the woman's jaws together and sent teeth cutting through her lower lip. Blood ran freely from the seer's mouth and dripped from her chin to the tiles below. Xena smiled, "I think there are quite a few things I can threaten you with."
The sibyl regained her small smile, now ruined by the gash along her lower lip. Somehow she seemed gratified by the attack. Her smile was confident . The woman's voice was slurred with the wet sounds of her own blood, yet serene none-the-less. "Would you like a prophecy, Xena? For free, for you. No offering required, no coin to give, just a free prophecy for you."
Xena felt her face grow hot with anger. The bitch was actually taunting her. Xena's voice was tightly controlled. There were traitors here. Someone must have warned her. " I want none of your bones and ashes, save it for your own future. I foresee it growing shorter every moment." Xena snapped her fingers and gestured to her men. One stepped forward, drew his belt knife and handed it to her.
"Then grant a dying woman this one indulgence." The sibyl's eyes closed briefly. When they opened again she began to speak. Her voice was small and perfect. Free of the drunken slur of blood. Free of error.
"Hear what you must never forget:
Where the earth burns,
Where the heavens freeze.
From light without darkness,
From darkness without light.
Victory is in defeat."
The sibyl opened her eyes. Xena glanced at the men behind her and motioned them towards the other woman. Enough of this now. They came forward and roughly grabbed the woman by her arms.
"Now I have one for you, wise woman.." Xena circled around her until she stood directly behind her. She leaned to whisper in the woman's ear, like an earnest friend sharing a secret. "Do seers bleed as quickly as common folk?" With that Xena grabbed the woman's hair and yanked her head backward, the chin pointed sharply upward.
Xena's arm arced outward, and down to the softness of the throat. The blade cut a ragged path through the sinew and skin on the woman's neck. The cool white flesh yielded to the edge of the blade, her blood bursting forth and spraying across the courtyard. The two soldiers who had held the seer stepped back fastidiously, to avoid the red shower that fanned across the mosaic. Xena held the prophetess' hair until the body began to slump, then she released it. The body fell with a dull thud punctuated by the crack of the skull striking the tiles. A lazy stream of blood ran through the sign of ram. Xena bent to wipe the blade on the dress of the woman, then returned it to the soldier.
Xena snapped, "It's dull. See to it you maintain your equipment."
He pulled himself up and thrust his fist against his chest in a sharp salute. "Yes, Xena!"
She began to walk to the door, stopped, and turned casually. "Oh, and clean up this trash. Dump it in the Tiber tonight with the rest of the filth."
Suetonius opened his eyes. In the thin light of the hovel he may have been an old man. His cheeks had lost the smooth perfection of youth. His beard was coarse and shot through with gray. The dying swineherd whose breath pushed unsteadily from his lungs may have been his brother. His own mother, had she seen him, would have taken him for a madman and shut him out of the house, or set the dogs to him. Dogs. There had been a dog, a hungry dog who had attacked him. His foot ached fiercely from ankle down. Where was the dog now? Gone, the voices had chased it away. He tried to sit up, but the effort left him exhausted. The fever had left him shaken and tired. He sank back down on the bed.
From somewhere out of sight, a door opened. The hut became bright as daylight rushed inside. Suetonius shut his eyes in pain. When he opened them again, it was mercifully dark, and a young girl was looking down at him. The sight of the young face brought all the memories back with a snap. A peaceful watch. A sudden war cry. Nothing. His memories were a pastel struck by rain, the colors were still there, but he could make no sense of the picture. How had he come to this hut? He should be dead. The girl was talking again. Shouting. In a few moments the door opened in response. He shut his eyes again, but the pain wasn't as bad this time. A very old woman now leaned over his bed. They babbled at each other again. There seemed to be an argument of some sort. The young girl reached out to restrain the woman. The woman removed her hand from her arm and disappeared from view again. When she returned she held something in her hand, a square of parchment. The old one held it out to him and gestured that he was to take it. Suetonius cautiously lifted his hand. the effort left him exhausted, and he paused for a moment. Some warrior of Rome. His heart thudded and fluttered in his chest as though he had run up a mountain. He cautiously unfolded the square. The writing inside was in a large and cautious hand, each letter carefully formed, as a student may have practiced their writing. There were only a few sentences but they struck his mind and cleared away the last of the cobwebs.
Suetonius felt a wave of rage and flame flow through him. He clutched the message in one hand, reading it again several times. He wanted to ask a thousand questions, but he knew these women could not answer them. He had to get going and now. There was no time to wonder, only time to act.
He tried to sit up again, this time the girl offered a hand to his back to help him up. The room swayed dangerously, and for a moment he believed he would fall back, girl or no. His ears buzzed and his temples thudded. After a moment things focused again, and he looked around at his surroundings. He looked down at his legs. For a moment he stared at the blanket, uneasy, yet unable to define what bothered him. He thought his vision was failing again. His left hand moved down the blanket, unable to reach, but trying to comprehend what he saw. His foot was gone. Yet he felt it there. The toes were burning. He was sure he could move the toes. Yes, he gave the order to his toes, and he could feel them moving, but the blanket remained still. He moved his right foot and was answered by a faint motion under the blanket. He looked up at the two women. The older one shook her head and made a cutting motion with her hand. The gesture was clear; they needed no common language to send that message. Suetonius looked back at his leg and bit his lower lip. Fresh rage flooded his body. He pushed the girl aside and swung his legs violently over the edge of the bed. In a burst of will he rose to his feet in denial of the obvious. His right foot twisted beneath him trying to balance. The stub of his left shin ground painfully against the floor. The room was suddenly filled with an incredible white light radiating from all around him. He felt hands grab at him and lower him back to the bed.
Borias cinched the clasp on the saddle bag and took a last look around the camp. The others were doing much the same, securing saddles and checking their weapons. It would be good to be clear of these dark forests and back to the sun. Even if it meant Rome. He almost forgot what it was like to be warm. To close your eyes and lie in the sun. It would be good to see Xena again. She had ordered him to wait four days then follow with the rest of the band. She should be in Rome by now. She didn't need the army for what she wanted. She made it perfectly clear that this was a personal thing. Intimate. Like love, only with a far more powerful pull for her. Either she had succeeded or not. Borias grimaced and glanced about, suddenly confused. What did he really want for her? Since she had ridden off, he had searched for a path out of this mess, some way back to sanity. He had briefly toyed with the idea of simply leaving. She was gone, he was in command here. All he had to do was ride out on scout and just keep going. In a few weeks he could be home again. Let her have her blood revenge. But he knew he couldn't do that. If he was going home, it was going to be with her. The others were swinging up onto their mounts. A small party remained camped still, a rear guard to ride the back trail and guard against pursuit by the Germans. Borias had little doubt that their love had gone sour since their mutual enemies were defeated. Borias walked his mount over to the smaller group.
Dagnine crouched in front of a small cooking fire, stirring the coals with a long stick. He looked up at Borias. "Heading out now?"
Borias nodded. Dagnine rose and folded his arms across his chest. "We'll follow at midday, I don't think they'll be any trouble."
He had expected Dagnine to protest last night when he gave him the rear guard, but he had accepted it very calmly. It was a strange show of cooperation. It surprised Borias because Dagnine never passed up an opportunity to lick Xena's feet. He always wanted to be within her sight, gaining favor. Dagnine never did anything that didn't help Dagnine. This would put him a full day behind. Still, Borias would be glad to be free of him if only for a little while. With a little luck, the Germans would pursue and solve Borias' troubles.
A suspicion fluttered at the back of Borias' mind, but he pushed it away. Dagnine was too coarse and too stupid to know what he had done. He looked at the others Dagnine had asked to ride with him. All scum. The fighters and the malingerers. Good riddance. Borias grunted at him and swung up into the saddle. Around him the others continued mounting up. In a few days he would be back with Xena again, that's all that mattered.
Dagnine smiled as they rode away. He watched until the last of the riders were out of sight. He turned to the others. "Well, gentlemen, here we are with a whole day to kill." The others laughed at this like eager puppies expecting some new game from their master. Dagnine looked at the faces of the others. He had picked his best five. The ones he knew he could count on. Not that he expected much fight from an old woman and a crippled soldier, but you just never knew about these things. That soldier might be feeling a bit more frisky these days, oh yes he might. And he was certain to be armed.
The path was familiar by now. He had followed Borias here often enough. Although he was accustomed to seeing it in the dark, it was easy enough to find by the light of morning. Borias, cocky Borias, so sure no one knew of his treachery. Well, my friend, lets just see what we can see. Maybe it was time that things got set straight. Set the way they ought to be. Dagnine held up his hand to order a halt. The others reined in, no sound but the breath of the horses and the creak of leather saddles. Dagnine jumped off his horse and hit the ground softly. His feet splashed in mud and stirred the faint odor of rotting leaves. The others followed, tying their reins off to the trees. While Dagnine debated how to sneak up on the cabin , the door suddenly opened. The old one came out. She was looking the other way, moving toward a woodpile. Something made her turn towards them. She froze for a second, like some ancient doe sighting a hunter, then she bolted back for the door. Pretty fast for her age. But not fast enough. Dagnine crashed through the underbrush and reached the door just as she tried to close it. Without stopping, he hit the door with his shoulder. The door was heavy, but unbolted. The weight of the woman's body on the other side offered resistance for a moment, then gave way. She went spinning across the floor and crashed into the far wall. She stood facing the wall for just a moment, then slowly descended. She sat stunned, blood from a gash across her forehead running black in the dim light.
The others came pounding up behind him and burst in a few moments later. The six men filled the space in the middle of the small room. Dagnine looked around. The Roman was there, sitting up on a bed, talking to a girl. Oh my, now here was a special treat. He hadn't counted on the girl. The girl looked at the old one, then over at the doorway. If she were a bird she could have flown out through the small window, but there was no way she was going through that door. Dagnine slowly advanced on the two, a moving wall of menace. The Roman tried to stand, but Dagnine shoved him back down. The girl had stood, and was trying to press her body back into the wall of the hut, willing herself to vanish. Dagnine saw that the soldier was holding something. He grabbed it out of his hand. It was a little note. A love note from Borias, perhaps? Shit, it was in Latin. He could barely read Greek, so the Latin was almost beyond him, and yet he struggled through it. As he read it, a smile slowly spread over Dagnine's face. He looked at the others, then slowly folded and tucked the square into his belt. Suddenly, a whole new opportunity spread itself before his eyes. He had come to kill a Roman, but this was so much better. This was worth more than all the gold in Rome if he could use it correctly. Unfortunately, it made killing the Roman a no-no. Still, the others were expecting entertainment. He would be a poor host if he didn't think of his friends.
The girl must have sensed his change in thought because she suddenly decided the door wasn't too far after all. She almost made it, but Dagnine threw out his hand and hooked her arm as she ran past, drawing her roughly against him. The soldier was trying to get up off the bed. Dagnine passed the girl over to one of the others and stood looking down at him. "Xena sent us for you." Dagnine struck him across the face. The soldier fell backward on the bed, blood spraying from his nose. The stump of his leg still dangled over the edge of the bed. Dagnine drew back his foot and kicked it as hard as he could.
Xena stood on a cold, rocky plain. The ground was softened by the moss that seemed to cover everything in sight. She was wearing a heavy fur cape, its hood drawn up against the cold. In the distance a massive white and gray wall loomed. She squinted. As impossible as it seemed, this was an entire mountain made of ice. The sun was low in the sky, white and unforgiving. It reflected mercilessly from the mountain of ice, glaring into her eyes. A few tentative snowflakes skittered in front of her vision. Her eyes followed them as they flew past. Even now she was fascinated with the novelty of snow. This year of campaigning in the forests of the north could not change the fact that she was a child of the sun. She sensed that someone stood beside her. She knew with the surety of a dreamer that it was the sibyl.
Xena turned to regard the woman. The seer stood looking as serene and beautiful as she had the night Xena slit her throat. Only now that throat was smooth and undamaged once more. Xena sneered, "So, you are here to haunt me? If so, you'd better get in line."
The woman smiled, her red hair fanning around her face, pushed from behind by an unfelt wind . "I am here to advise you."
Xena laughed without humor, "I told you before I wanted none of your advice. In fact, I thought I made that perfectly clear." Xena scanned the horizon. The plain of rock and moss seemed to stretch on forever. She measured it with her warrior's eye. It was treacherous footing by any measure, not a good place for a fight. The rocky black and green of the ground was dusted lightly with white. "Very well, if I can't get rid of you, then tell me where am I and what am I doing here?"
Those red lips twitched into that infuriatingly superior smile, "You are at the end of the world, Xena. You are here to learn. Here to teach. Here to suffer." The last was said with a decided and undisguised lilt to her voice. The sibyl seemed to be enjoying a simply marvelous joke.
"Stop talking in riddles." , anger tightened Xena's voice.
"Very well, you wanted to be a seer. " The sibyl reached out to rest a hand and Xena's shoulder and laughed. "Then see!"
A jolt of heat shot through Xena's body. Her first thought was that she had been stabbed. Her hand drew back in retaliation, but the pain was gone as suddenly as it came. When it passed, Xena realized she could hear the sound of the wind snapping her cloak, and feel the bite of the cold against her cheeks. The air was impossibly cold. Ice crystals glimmered around her. Her breath froze as it left her nostrils. She reached a hand to her face, surprised to find frost on her upper lip.
"What's going on?" she demanded. Xena looked where the sibyl had been, but nothing remained. Even the snow dusted rocks remained undisturbed.
Xena turned back to the line of the horizon. It was no longer unbroken. Something moved against the fierce white of the glacial edge. A small army moved afoot across the ice and rock, advancing toward Xena. Xena turned around. The Sybil was still gone, but now her own army stood at her back. They wore the same sort of fur cloak she did, hoods drawn up against the cold. Beneath the fur fringes of their hoods she could see the intricate bead work and feathers of Amazonian war masks. What was she doing with an army of Amazons standing at her defense? Xena turned again to consider the advancing enemy. The glare of the late sun blinded her to the advancing foe. She squinted, trying to discern their numbers. One figure advanced from the rest. Its shape was hidden by furs, but Xena knew this was the leader of the enemy. The other stopped about ten paces from where Xena stood. It reached a hand up and threw back its hood. A young woman. The wind drew her hair from the hood of the cloak. Her blonde hair streamed back like a battle standard, like a pennon snapping in the wind. Xena sneered. The woman was at least two hand shorter than she, and several stone lighter. This would be an easy kill. Xena rolled her sword arm at the shoulder, limbering up to draw her weapon.
Suddenly something was terribly wrong. Fear sent her stomach roiling unexpectedly. Yet there was nothing to fear here. Xena took a step backward, shocked by the force of the reaction. Very wrong. Fear wrapped her body in a another sheet of flame. She shuddered. The enemy spoke. Xena couldn't understand what she said, her words borne away by the wind.
The sibyl was once more at her side as if she had never left. "Draw your weapon, Xena."
"No." Tears threatened Xena, a horrible hot need for release. Terribly wrong.
"Why not? She is your enemy, draw your weapon." Something about the sibyl's voice reminded Xena of childhood. It was the tone, the taunting song of children everywhere, the dare that had to be answered.
She did not know this blonde woman, of this she was sure. Yet she could see the dark fury on the other's face. The enemy drew closer. Please don't come any closer. Xena glanced behind her. Her army remained motionless. No support there. The Sibyl had vanished again too. She stood alone.
The Sibyl teased Xena from just out of sight, "Why are you afraid, Xena? You know you can take her. Kill her."
Xena's voice trembled with the effort of speech, "No."
"Draw your weapon." Taunting.
"No." Confused, Xena searched for another answer.
"Draw or die. Defend yourself." The voice was pleased and smug.
"No!" This time Xena's answer was a shout. She knew this was the one thing she must not do. To fight was to lose. Against her will she dropped to her knees. The cold wet of the moss sank through the cloth of her breeches, wetting her skin. The tears came at last, racing silently down her cheeks, freezing as they fled, cutting red paths down her face. The other was speaking again. If only she could hear what she was saying. Xena strained to listen, but the wind scattered the words away from her ears. The other drew a blade in a smooth and practiced motion. Xena screamed .
Xena sat upright in the bed. Her heart was racing when she awoke. Instantly, she felt the first warning ripple of nausea. She slipped a hand to her belly and rubbed the spot where the child moved. She lowered herself back down into the bed and stared up at the ceiling. She wished Borias were here. She could tell him about the dream. What was it about the dream? The dream was already losing strength, breaking up like a cloud pushed by the wind. There was snow and a battle and the strangest feeling that something terribly wrong was about to happen. She should have felt the searing metal of hate. She should have felt cold calculation of the kill. Instead, she had felt the pain of love.
(more coming soon)
All works remain the © copyright of the original author. These may not be republished without the author's consent. Copyright 1997 Susan L. Wilson