So, fiction friday… it rhymes, right? I don’t know yet if this is going to be A Thing. But it might. I mean, I write, and I noodle with writing, and occasionally something needs to be released into the wild. Like this thing. (wish me luck with the formatting…)
This isn’t how you kill an empire.
Foolish damn girl. I should never have brought her to my tent, never let myself take that first step. But there she was in the slave market, standing in a circle of filth and color untouched and pale, like a statue before paint, still half wrapped in Northern wool, and even I, burned dark from the sun and South, could feel the cold in her stare, measuring us all for hate.
She had a right to hate. Has a right to hate. There is nothing left of her part of the North after the advance of my armies, the ever-fluid border retreating to the peninsulas and forests, leaving the mountains and plains for Rome.
Gallia est omnis divisa in partes tres.
But this is not how you kill an empire, and I will defend the Emperor of Rome to the death. Here, in this city, among the marble statues and the columns stained with the blood of citizens, among the bodies of senators whose Senate has already begun to grind to a halt among the debates of old, fearful men. My sandal slips in blood and I give ground, regain a pace as her boot turns on the cobblestones.
“I know you,” she told me, standing in the market, looking up at me through all that flaxen hair. “I know you,” again, later, in the dim oily lamplight of my hide tent. All those travelled days, who would have guessed, the Viking’s daughter playing in the dust with the Rom girl’s rag dolls, her hair and eyes like nothing I’d ever seen, like stories of sun on the distant sea, she enchanted by our rolling homes and the fire dances when the sky darkened like my eyes, my mother’s eyes and her mother’s. Years and leagues ago.
My scutum is heavier than her round shield, but I don’t have to be as dexterous with it as I drive her back, step by step, from the door to the chamber where the Emperor sits wrapped in purple and scarlet. I can hear my breath and hers mingle as we pant and shout and stomp, shoving for minute advantages.
I left those rolling wagons, afire in the night. They dragged me by my hair and I bit and squealed until they threw me in the pit with the boys, not the girls. Threw me in with the fighters, and I learnt to hold the short spear, wield the net, wait for the roar of the crowd and fight until my opponent lay bleeding in the arena before me. Rome, finally, and the big crowds, arenas, purses. Rome, although even in the provinces being female is not the obstacle it would be outside the Empire. And in Rome… the Emperor. I attract notice.
I should be barefoot. My sandals are no better than her hobnailed boots on this floor. Almost by agreement, we step to the rugs, neither wanting to give ground but neither wanting to fall. A fall will be death, here. She cannot win. I have range, mobility, experience. She has her hate and her training, which was enough to bring her this far but no farther.
From gladiator to legionnaire. From slave to citizen. I buy in, buy my freedom, buy my commission. And they eat it up, these man-children. Swallow my legend. Beg for a night in my tent, and some of them I let come in. They enter thinking they can tame me, that all I have waited for all my life is them. They leave in the morning and I do not require them again. Some of them curse me for it and are mocked by their fellows. The women are gentler, more subtle in their flatteries, more open in their acknowledgment of what they need, what I can give them. I keep two, tall girls from the mountains, who carry their own gear and set my tent, who I can trust.
The draperies are on fire where the oil spilled, but the smoke pours out the window before it can do more than sting my eyes. She curses the Emperor, curses Rome and its citizens, tells me I can do better. I am doing better. Better than she is. Her short sword is wrapped with leather, stained with the blood of citizens. Her men are outside waiting, dying, being driven back inevitably by my troops without her there to protect them, bind their wounds, promise them miracles.
And then she’s there, in the market. Surely no-one else has those eyes. She won’t remember me, but I remember her, and my hands ache to learn the new curves I can see under her thin shift. That night, my slaves try to take her life as I sleep. That night, I give their lives to her instead. We make love on the skin of a bear that might once have danced by a trader’s wagon.
She just fundamentally doesn’t understand. She thinks that the hydra of the Empire can be killed by cutting off one head. The way to kill an empire, my lover, my love, is to feed it, to bloat it on the corpses of other countries, to gorge it with troops and citizens and bureaucracy until it cannot stand under its own weight and topples, writhing its last on the ground where my people died. To give it children, to give it ever more incompetent children on its throne, to watch them fuck their sisters and their mothers and to learn to play music instead of standing in the street hearing the pulse of the crowd.
She leaves me one morning and I let her go, watch her walk into the pine-studded hills with a blanket rolled on her back and my food in her laden pony’s saddlebags. “Come with me,” she tells me. “Come with me and we can make the world a better place.” “I am,” I tell her, and she misunderstands me. She doesn’t look back as she leaves, and I don’t follow. I think we both cry, but I never know with her. The hate swallows her tears, births her invincible will.
I have her now. She’s tired, slipping, and I’ve fought this battle a thousand times. I’m bleeding, but it looks worse than it is, tiny cuts given up to stop larger injuries. She’s barely holding her shield up and I can rest a corner of mine on the ground, saving time, saving strength. Her sword comes back for a blow that will be too slow and the edge of her shield tips just enough to make the opening I’ve been waiting for, the hole that I can fill and penetrate with the spear the Empire gave me, drive up between her ribs and into her heart, shattering what’s already broken. Her swing will stop, her wrist will soften, the blow will glance off the edge of my shield and drop as her weapon falls to the floor. I will stand on her corpse and declare victory and the Emperor will come out from his hiding place and name me a hero of the citizens. I see all of this, as I’ve seen it a hundred times. My hand opens, and my spear falls to the ground. I wait for my love to take me.
Alea iacta est.