It was one of those blustery spring days when the wind grabs everything it can lift and scurries it half way across the village before it can be caught. Greta purposefully braided her hair on both sides, tied both braids off with her heaviest ties, and pulled them in front just to keep her hair from whipping into her face and eyes with every turn of the wind. That particular spring day was also wet and heavy from recent spring rains, so she pulled her dress up at times and watched where she put her foot to avoid the puddles and piles of mud. It all made for very slow progress.
Even that early in the morning, there were others in the village square and the signs and sounds of life were all around. Several horses paraded across the road on their way to hillside pastures, and several Romans grunted and groaned in some kind of physical exercise at the far end of the square, beyond the fountain. Greta, though sixteen, felt sure the horses were more interesting than a group of sweaty soldiers. She got upset when the wind caught her scarf and carried it right into the midst of the Romans. She felt more unhappy with what she heard when she walked carefully from the fountain to retrieve her property.
“Hey, hey.” A man spoke and pointed and the two wrestlers stopped grunting to stand and watch her progress. Greta felt glad that at least they had modest cloth coverings and did not wrestle in the naked Greek style.
“Here comes one now, Lord Darius. She is not the most beautiful I have seen, but more than just pleasant to look at. Nice Tits. Good butt. I bet she squeals in bed.”
“Marcus!” It felt hard to tell if Lord Darius was offended or just pretending.
“That may be,” Lord Darius responded. “But that is still no excuse to be crude. This is a young woman worthy of respect. Note the downcast eyes, demure in maidenly virtue. A virgin, I’ll bet. See the slim waist of a youth not yet fully mature, and yet the hips are well rounded, awaiting only a child to carry, and the breasts are full and firm, awaiting the child’s cry to suckle him with the milk of life.”
“Waaa!” One of the men in the crowd spoke up and most of the rest snickered.
Marcus had a grin on his face when he rebutted his friend. “I say her downcast eyes are because she knows her place in the presence of her master and she knows where her pleasure lies should she please him. Her ample breasts are waiting her lover’s caress, and her slim waist and hips are surely designed to be a handle for a man’s hands. Note the lips beneath the small, sharp nose, how full and thick and red they are. They await only her lover’s kiss to remove the pout so seductively formed there. And the twists in her braids that adorn her golden hair, they say, tell how many lovers she has taken to her bed.”
“I’ve heard it tells how old she is,” Darius retorted. “Nothing more.”
“Women lie about such things,” Marcus responded, still smiling. “You can’t trust the braids. Besides, I like my version better.”
Greta arrived and stopped. Her eyes still looked down because she had them focused on her scarf which sat under Marcus’ feet, and she wondered how hard she would have to kick the man to get him to move. Lord Darius put his hand to her chin and gently lifted her head to look into her light brown eyes. Darius’ eyes were Roman dark, but his hair looked nearly light enough to pass for one of the people.
“What can we do for you, maiden?” Darius asked, in his best Dacian.
“Both of you poets lack grace,” Greta responded in perfect Latin. “Though what you say, Lord Darius, may be nearer to the truth. My eyes were downcast, however, to avoid stepping in something unseemly, and otherwise I am simply waiting for your crude friend to get his fat foot off my scarf.”
Darien let go and he and the others present laughed, loud. Marcus turned sunburn red, looked down and jumped back rather awkwardly. He and Greta both began to reach for the scarf, but Greta pulled up sharply, not wanting to knock heads with the man. Marcus brushed off the scarf and handed it over, still red, though the laughter had subsided.
“Pardon, m’lady.” Marcus spoke most humbly. “It appears as if I have been clumsy in more ways than one this morning.”
“Thank you.” Greta spoke out of courtesy, but then she could not help herself. “You big oaf.”
The men snickered again, but Greta turned toward Lord Darius. “My Lord.” She curtsied a bit. It felt appropriate. Lord Darius was the centurion and commander of the little troop that regularly camped at Boarshag, her home. Besides that, he was reported to be a good man, never harsh with the people, and he kept his soldiers in line. Greta appreciated that.
“My lady.” Lord Darius gave a slight bow and grinned, deeply. Greta turned, then and lifted her dress above the mud, revealing her ankles, though she knew it would get a reaction from the men. She kind of wanted a reaction, and she was not disappointed when one man whistled. It got cut off quickly by an, “Ow!” Greta did not know if Marcus or Darius hit the man, nor did she care. She did glimpse Marcus slap Darius on the shoulder and heard what he said, his volume probably due to his embarrassment.
“Live and learn, eh Darius?”
“Yes, my lord.” Darius answered, and suddenly Greta wondered who this Marcus—this Lord Marcus might be. He was certainly no ordinary soldier. One recently arrived from Rome? He seemed too young to be a high dignitary.
Boarshag, called Tibiscum by the Romans, was a small but important village on the Tibuscus River. It rested on the main road half way between the Danube and the capital of Dacia at Ravenshold, a place the Romans called Ulpia Traiana. On the maps the capital got called Sarmizegetusa, but no one locally, including the Romans, called it that, because the true Sarmizegetusa, the old capital of Free Dacia, was thirty miles away and razed to the ground by Trajan and his legions. So, it became Ulpia Traiana to the Romans, but mostly it was Ravenshold.
The main road from the Danube wandered three days through the valley and into the lowland hills where it passed through rich fields of grain and luxurious pasturelands. It wandered, a very non-Roman road, even if it had been paved after the Roman style. After that, the road began to climb, sometimes going around but often going over the low hills, three more days to Boarshag. The fields around Boarshag were not nearly as rich and their pastures were rock-strewn, yet Greta had a good life, and in most years they had more than enough to spare; a reality not missed by the Roman tax collectors.
Above Boarshag, the road continued due east for two miles where it came face to face with the primeval forest. The old Dacian road then turned abruptly south, as if the forest presented an impenetrable wall, and there followed roughly a seven-day arc along the main branch of the Tibiscus River south to east and north, to Ravenshold. No one went into the old growth forest, much less through it. They said if you could walk due east, it would cut the trip to Ravenshold down to three days. Some said two, but no one went into the woods to test it out.
The most recent story told about a century of Romans in the days of the last rebellion, when Hadrian was emperor. The century, now often called a whole legion, went into the woods to make a swift, surprise attack on the capitol from an unexpected quarter, to catch the rebels unprepared and make a quick end to the rebellion. The Romans never came out the other side, and the story said the Romans continued to wander aimlessly among the trees. There were, of course, other stories about witches, goblins, ghosts and all sorts of devils who inhabited the darkness under the canopy. Some were said to drink blood or feed on human flesh, or on the soul, or change luckless people into stone or stumps or mad animals of the darkness such as wolves or bears. Though Greta would be seventeen in two days and no longer a child to be frightened by such stories, she figured even an ordinary forest full or ordinary wolves, bears, and perhaps even a few big cats would be dangerous enough for ordinary folks. No one went into the forest.