The walk began in silence, but they had not gone very far before Greta prompted the old soldier. “Go ahead,” she said. “Tell me what you wish.” She easily saw that there were things Gaius wanted to say.
“Tribune Darius is a good man,” Gaius began. “He is a good soldier and commander, and he cares about the men under his command as much as any I have known. He is honest, fair and hardworking. All in all, about the best young man I have known.”
“Admirable,” Greta said. “You are a good spokesperson, loyal to your commander, and that is also admirable.”
“Tonight, he was singing your praises. I am sure he will make you a good husband.”
“Was he indeed?” Greta did not mean to sound sarcastic. “Tell me so I can see if he can carry a tune.” Gaius looked reluctant. Greta had to insist.
“I am no poet,” Gaius hedged. “And I hardly remember, at least not exactly. But he did say your hair was like the moonbeams, light and soft, to make a halo around your face. Your eyes, he said, were the softest brown, like two fauns, wild and free. And your cheeks were like currant and your lips, full and pink, like new raspberries. Surely they must taste as sweet.” Gaius stopped and cleared his throat. This was hard for him. Greta thought her Lord’s poetry might be improving, but that would not change the way she felt. Despite his familial connection with Mother Hulda, he remained a Roman and that made him the enemy in all but fact.
They walked past a bonfire where several men were celebrating with gusto. When they could talk again, Greta told him to finish. She knew there was something more, the crux of the matter.
“It is your father,” Gaius said. “And Lord Marcus, especially. My Tribune does not drink apart from wine with his meals. But tonight, they insisted, and they kept giving him more, and they kept insisting.” He stopped to face Greta so she had to stop. She could tell this was the essence of the whole thing. “Please, lady. Do not judge him on this night. He does not know how to handle drink and I am afraid his condition is not the best. Please keep an open mind tonight so you can get to know him as himself.”
“First impressions are lasting impressions,” Greta said. She stopped talking. She was not sure why she did not tell him she had already met Darius and felt suitable impressed by the way he defended her even when speaking in a language she presumably did not understand. She knew him to be a good man, only she did not love him, and she decided that mattered to her.
Gaius turned around heavily and led the way without another word apart from asking her to wait at the door while he announced her. Greta pictured him lifting his Tribune from the ground and setting his drunken Lord in a chair where he might stand a reasonable chance of staying upright. When she entered the tent, she saw that was not the case. Darius stood beside a small table and stool. A parchment covered the table. He appeared to have been writing. Now, he looked only at her, and he did not even need the table to lean on. He dismissed Gaius.
Greta set her scarf on a stool by the door, and thought, In for a pound. She removed her red cloak and laid it on top of the scarf.
“I will be just outside.” Gaius saluted and left. Greta did not know if Gaius said that for Darius’ sake or hers.
“Please sit,” Darius said, very stiff and formal. He offered another stool, but Greta declined. Darius requested to see her so she thought he should have the first go. It might have been a Koren kind of awkward silence if the drink had not loosened his tongue. She could hear the slight slur in everything he said and she recognized the will it took to pronounce his words properly.
“I have been writing to Mother,” he said, is a casual tone. “I thought perhaps you could help me with some choice phrases in your tongue, excuse me, in our tongue.”
Greta shook her head. “It is not a written language,” she said. “Besides, I will not help you do something you will later regret.”
She saw the anger flash across his face. “I want to curse her for not telling me.”
“No,” Greta countered with equal fervor. “Mother Hulda is precious to me, and I am sure her niece is a fine woman. I will not help you curse her.”
“I thought she was Greek, you know.” Darius spoke lightly, as if not giving the letter a second thought. “There is no shame in having a Greek mother.” She watched the anger in his face turn to pain. The drink started to play havoc with his emotions.
“There is no shame in being of the people.” Greta said. She felt for the shock he must have suffered. In time, he would see his blood as good and honorable, but it must have been a shock at first.
The drink turned his thoughts again. “If it had to be someone. I am glad it was you. You are educated, and now I see you also have a heart.” He took one staggering step forward, but stopped. Greta felt the pressure on her own mind.
“I will be a good wife. I will do my duty,” Greta said. “But it is only fair to tell you my heart belongs to another.”
Instead of the anger or disappointment she expected, he smiled. “How convenient,” he said. “I also love another.” Greta did not like the sound of that. “But my dear Potrucias has not written to me in months. I fear I have lost her to someone else, only no one will tell me.” He got angry again. “I have lived my whole life in the dark, blind, stupid…” He turned and knocked over the table and sent the quill and ink flying. He turned back to look again at Greta. “By Jupiter, you are lovely. Perfect, really. He stepped to face her and she did not stop him. He set his hands on her shoulders as much to steady himself as for any other reason. “More than pretty to satisfy a man for a lifetime.” When Greta looked up into his face, she saw the deep desire there and she thought she had better leave.
“We are not married yet,” she whispered
“What is marriage?” he quipped. “How do we barbarians do it? Ah yes, the men get drunk and take their women by force.” He staggered back a step, but his ring caught on her stitching and tore her dress, nearly exposing her.
“Oh.” He said, “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean.” He apologized, utterly, but extracting his ring did not prove easy, and he nearly tore her top some more.
“Gaius!” Greta called before her anger could get the better of her.
“I.” His eyes pleaded innocence as he staggered back and plopped down on the stool.
“How could you?” She said and held her torn dress up to cover herself. “We are not animals, and I am not Lucretia.” Just when she felt sorry for him, she was glad to be reminded that he was the enemy. Gaius came in and covered her with her red cloak and then placed his big cloak around hers. He started to guide her from the tent, but she turned her head for a last word. “I will do my duty,” she said, a bit sharply, and left.
Gaius guided her home muttering to himself about how he should never have left them alone. About half way there, Greta calmed down enough to speak. “Forget it,” she said. She knew full well it was an accident.
“Pardon?” Gaius asked.
“This night never happened. Just don’t let him drink anymore, ever.” Greta pulled the soldier’s cloak tighter because it started getting cold. “My scarf!” She remembered taking it off with her cloak and setting it down in the tent. Gaius must have missed it in his haste to cover her up. “Return it quietly if you find it, and then, as far as I am concerned, this evening never happened.”
“Not really.” Though it pained Greta to say it. “I will be his wife whether I like it or not, only I will have no drunken fool for a husband. You say he does not drink. Good. See that he stays that way.”
“On my honor,” Gaius promised.
Greta looked at him as they walked. She felt certain he spent his whole life in the army, and he seemed the right age. When they were almost home, she ventured a statement, though it came out like a question.
“You were with Trajan in the valley the night his weapons factory exploded,” she said. “You were preparing to face the united front of Parthians, Persians and Arabs.” Gaius stumbled.
“Yes. How did you know?” They stopped and Gaius answered his own question. “Little Mother.” He called her that in the vernacular. “I was Lord Darius’ age, just twenty-two, an excited soldier in the ranks. I got handed a weapon and taught hastily how to use it. And I did use it.” His voice trailed off.
“But now?” Greta prompted.
“But now I am a gray beard over fifty and I no longer find war exciting. Peace is better, preferably peace with honor, but peace,” he said. Greta liked what he said, but not what she was probing for. She decided on the direct approach.
“I mean, if you were handed a gun today, would you use it?”
Gaius stood perfectly still and spoke with absolute certainty. “No. Such weapons do not discriminate. Men, horses, women, children, they do not care. I saw guns in Mesopotamia. I saw blood and body parts everywhere. No test of strength, courage, determination, discipline. Such weapons do nothing to make a man into a man. They make only carnage, for the sake of killing. As far as the world is concerned, those weapons never existed, and those who remember do not talk about it.”
“Some of those weapons still exist,” Greta said, as she turned toward the door of her house. “I may very well need your help to destroy them.” She handed him his cloak and went inside before he could answer. She shut the door, believing it best to let him think about it. Perhaps there were others of the same frame of mind. She hoped by the time she found out where the weapons were, she might have some help.
Somehow, Greta got to the back and changed without waking Mama or Hans. She then took the dress outside and started a little celebration bonfire of her own. She did not want there to be any questions. In the light of the fire, she thought of Salacia’s charge. She saw no way around it. The goddess clearly said that Greta would have to deal with it. It hardly seemed fair. Then it occurred to Greta that Salacia was simply herself in another life. In a sense, she had to say she only did it to herself. She could not blame anyone else. She thought long about the implications of that, but concluded that it was still not fair.
When the fire burned down, she went straight to bed. She dreamed in the night about Darius caressing her and she responded. She felt glad, at least, that it was not a nightmare.