A Maximus story
The old woman watched the column of soldiers passing by on the road they had built. "They love building things like babies,” she said to herself, laughing. Some were walking, some riding, At the head of the group was their general, in his long cape adorned with wolf furs, with a half-wolf trotting near the horse. He was riding a big black horse, powerful and strong.
"Just like his rider,” she thought. She had seen this man before and heard stories about him. The tribesmen hated him because he was the commander of the army of their enemies, but at the same time they admired him as a warrior. He was big and powerfully built, but not as big as some Germans. Those who had seen him fighting and survived to report, said that he was courageous and while he could appear to have run berserk, his mind was always cool enough to allow him to think.
"A smart warrior. Dangerous combination,” she added.
Maximus deftly dismounted Argento, his expression sad. Travelling throughout the lands near Vindobona, he had seen many things, but what had hit him had been the poverty, the hunger, and the utter desperation. He knew he was doing his task of bringing the light of Roman civilization to these countries, but he wished that he had come here when Pax Romana was already a reality, not merely a promise. Not for the first time he thought of being on the other side of the fence. Hispania was a Roman province now, but it hadn't always been so. When had his ancestors started to admit that they'd been conquered? He knew that this thought was unhealthy, not with a major battle to come, hopefully the last one, and the Emperor himself in the camp, but he was so tired of sadness and pain. All he wanted badly was going home, harvesting the crop, playing with his son, and making love to his wife.
He just wanted some peace.
Isolde nodded to a man who had respectfully bowed in her direction, a glint of amusement in her light eyes. She knew that she was lucky, as an old woman, to still be alive, but even the warriors were afraid of her transparent cold gaze. They stood in awe of her powers and they always brought her food and presents. As a matter of fact, she didn't need those things; she was fully capable of taking care of her old self, but she kept them to help young female children, often forgotten for the advantage of the boys. Food had to be spared for the future warriors, men said, conveniently forgetting who gave birth to the warriors. Her thoughts went once again to the Roman general. Unlike his predecessor, he discouraged the rape of women, punishing those who indulged in it. More fairly than most tribesmen. It was a pity that his purpose in Vindobona was war. She thought he could have been a good ruler in peace. Not that she had known a lot of it, and not only because of the intruders. Tribes had always been busy fighting for one reason or another, or without one, just for blood lust.
"Men!” she spat "They never even consider preserving life instead of destroying it!”
A shy sun peeped in from the dark sky and Maximus decided to take a bath in a pond near the Roman camp. The Emperor was on his way to Vindobona and he couldn't present himself smelling of horses. Cicero had questioned his choice of swimming instead of taking a hot bath in his tent, but the general just needed to relax even if it meant a cold dive. He reached the shingle beach and began to undress. Taking a last look around, he entered the water.
Gods, it was freezing and yet he felt so good. Maximus began to swim, using his powerful arms to propel himself ahead. When he reached the middle of the pond, he slowed down, rolling on his back, staring at the sky. His mind was lost in his thoughts when his warrior instinct registered a presence. Not wanting to startle the observer, pushing him into action, he went on as if nothing had happened. All of a sudden he went under water and swam toward the side of the shore opposite to where he had left his clothes.
Isolde had come to the pond to fetch water and, seeing the Roman, she had decided to remain. She had watched him swimming and then relaxing. As she saw him vanishing underwater she had thought that he had gotten sick because of the cold water. Her eyes had scanned the surface, thinking about what to do. Helping him was out of question. She was probably half his size, or less, and she had no intention of taking a freezing dive. Looking for help could be a problem, too. The tribesmen would have loved to know him dead and the Roman soldiers might well think that she had had a part in his accident. While she was still debating on what to do, she felt a faint smell of water and a big hand grabbing her throat.
"Who are you? What are you doing here?” the Roman whispered in a thick German accent near her ears. The hand on her neck prevented her from escaping but wasn't hurting.
"Enjoying the view,” she answered in Latin, a heavy irony in her words. He gave a short laugh. "You move fast, Roman,” she added, admitting only to herself that it had been the first time in years that someone had managed to take her by surprise.
"If I let you go, will you give me your word not to act against me?”
"You, great general, are afraid of a helpless, frail, old woman?” she asked in a whimpering tone.
"You are surely old, but you do not look that frail and I suspect you have never been helpless a single day of your life.”
Isolde laughed out loud at his answer. She liked this man. "You're probably right, Roman, and I knew you were smart enough to notice. But would you trust my word?”
"That's right. You have it!”
The big calloused hand left her throat and he stepped backward. Isolde noticed that he didn't try to cover himself and she looked at his naked body with admiration. He smiled and turned to fetch his clothes, showing her his back. He dressed quickly, wrapping himself in the rich fur cloak and she thought it was a shame that he had hidden such a frame.
"You're not ashamed of showing your body, are you?” she asked.
"Should I be? Did I embarrass you?”
"No, to both questions. You're not from Rome,” she said and it wasn't a question.
"Why do you think so?”
"Because you're different from the other generals who came before. Despite your trimmed beard and short hair you look more like a tribesman. Too many muscles and power for a high-placed Roman.”
"I will take that as a compliment.”
"It was meant to be. Where are you from?”
"Hispania. Do you know it?”
"Yes, I do. I know many things.”
"Who are you?”
"I'm a witch.”
"I knew it. Do you know the future?”
"Sometimes. Do you want to know yours, General?”
Maximus considered his words before replying. "No, I do not. Life is a challenge. Knowing things in advance is of no use if you cannot change the outcome.”
"But I saw your priests reading the signs in the animals' entrails before the battles.”
"I prefer relying on the strength of my arm and my training to save my life and my men's. It has proven safer and I think that the gods prefer a bit of cooperation,” he added, grinning.
"Where's your wolf?”
"Hunting. He was born somewhere in these hills.”
"How did you get him?”
"I was riding in a forest when I sensed someone was watching me. It was a wolf cub. We looked in each other's eyes and I brought him to the camp.”
"You're a perfect match, General.”
Before he could answer, they heard footsteps. Maximus grabbed his sword, moving to protect the woman with his body. Cicero emerged from the woods and the General lowered the weapon.
"Are you all right, Sir?”
"Of course, Cicero. What are you doing here?”
"I came to see if you needed help.”
"No, thank you.”
Maximus noticed that Cicero was staring at Isolde, not trusting her wicked gaze.
"Don't worry, Roman. I didn't bite your General,” she said, catching the glint in the eyes of the younger man. "And if I'd tried, he's fully capable of taking care of himself.”
Cicero glared at her and Maximus laughed.
"You have not been introduced. This is Cicero, my orderly, and this is ...” he said, watching the old woman.
Cicero mumbled something resembling a greeting and Isolde smiled.
"I salute you, General. I don't want to frighten your friend further. I think he's still afraid I could .. harm you.”
Not wanting to embarrass Cicero, Maximus restrained the laughter that was about to well up and nodded a goodbye to her, before her disappearance into the forest.
The day passed eerily, with the heat of the up-coming battle warming the air, together with a freezing sensation of discomfort for the deaths that would result. Isolde had spied the manoeuvres of both the tribesmen and the Romans and she really felt disturbed by the idea of how many lives were going to be wasted. She knew that this would be a meaningful step of the war, for even the Roman Emperor was there. She had gotten a glimpse of him, a white-haired skinny old man, yet with an aura of power around his wrinkled face and in his sky-blue eyes. And she could tell that the General loved and respected this old man. She had once seen the younger soldier helping him onto the saddle of a big white horse with the care of a son, not of a flatterer. She asked herself if the Emperor was able to understand the difference and if the old man cared for Maximus, as Maximus seemed to care for him. She was walking near the Roman road, lost in her thoughts, when she heard hoofbeats approaching. She turned and saw the General riding at full speed with some of his men. She was tempted to wave at him before she realized that a child was getting too close to the road and the horses. She called her but the child couldn't hear her. She began running, afraid of being too late. Abruptly, Isolde heard a halt shouted by Maximus while the entire group struggled to remain in their saddles after such a sudden stop. The General himself dismounted to reach the child, who stood frozen in the middle of the road, watching the animals and the men in front of her. Maximus approached her slowly, and then went down on his knees not to frighten the child further with his height. He kept talking soothing words and even if he was quite sure that the little girl didn't understand, she began to relax listening to his sweet tone. He picked her up in his arms and she began to play with the chain of his cape. The General gazed around in search for the child's mother. Seeing Isolde, he smiled and the smile travelled to his aquamarine eyes.
Isolde's first thought was: "Damn Spaniard, why weren't you around when I was 20?”
"Isolde, would you please tell this child that there is nothing to be afraid of?”
"I think, General, that your charm has already worked the magic. Do you use it also with the grown-ups? In that case, I'm right here.”
Maximus laughed softly and his gaze shone even more. "So would you please tell her to be careful near the horses?”
Isolde approached and when she was close she spoke to the baby in German. The child nodded then said something and the old woman grinned.
"What did she say?” Maximus asked curiously.
"She said she was afraid of the horses, but then came the man with the eyes that had the colour of water and everything was just fine. I told you, General, that your charm worked wonders.”
The old woman wasn't sure, but she thought she had seen him blush, before chuckling. Seeing the child safe in her arms, Maximus returned to his horse and mounted. Nodding a salute to Isolde, he gave a signal and the riders continued toward their destination.
A cold morning, smelling of snow, greeted the armies ready for battle. Isolde was busy preparing herbs and medicaments for the wounded. She had sensed the fury fill the air. She didn't need to question the gods to know that the tribesmen were going to lose. Unfortunately it was quite clear that the Romans were far better armed and resolute to end their campaign here in Vindobona and with such a General, their victory was nearer. She had, nonetheless, questioned the gods about Maximus' fate. She was curious. She knew he was a great warrior, but even great warriors may be wounded or remain alone and be killed. Without a reason, not a good one at least, she needed to know. She had asked and received an answer. Now she knew and she decided that this proud and honourable man deserved a gift, an unknown gift from a witch of a land so different from his sunny home. Hers would be silence.
She would never tell him what she had seen in his future.
Long forgotten tears welled up in her eyes as she continued her work.
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