Black and Red
The Roman walked around the deserted streets of the small town and turned to look to every side: He was paying attention to his right and his left, to his front and to his back. The place was too silent for his liking, but he had to admit that the army he belonged to was not the kind to pass inconspicuously. It was still very early in the morning and he knew the place would be soon filled with people from everywhere. The man sighed as he looked around one more time.
“Lucius…” a fellow soldier, and his subordinate actually, called him and he turned to listen to their requests for moving. Hurry, they said for they had to reach the next town soon, since their purpose on that place was to get to know it and acknowledge it as a possible future part of Rome. Lucius Feles Silvanus, praetorian from the II Aquila division and commander of the explorers patrol observed movement in the peripheral area and realised that it was a shadow what was moving in the sides of the square and was walking as if it wanted not to be seen. Of course, he knew it wasn’t an illusion created by the Druids who followed gods that were unknown to him. Conquering didn’t mean to destroy and obliterate, or at least, that’s what he believed, and thanked his own gods for being there just as observes.
Rome was still supporting the kingdoms of the South after Tiberius had given them his protection even though Britain had sent the Emperor’s first ships back to the Gaul. He laughed at himself, remembering the tales of that day when Macellius and his family, the ones who had provided for them, had been talking about: tales of tall monsters who arrived at the British coastline.
Rome’s intentions regarding Britannia were not clear yet. Rome supported the British kings; who have asked for Rome’s help, and they were living in times of a pacific understanding among them. At the thought of that, Lucius accepted that being in the Isle was more than just recognising the terrain and getting to know its people. The land as he saw it was beautiful. Many of his comrades had started to complain about this Britannia that was so foreign to them. He breathed deeply as he looked around and noticed how people were starting to stare at them. The weather made him feel attracted to it. The ambiance was musky and it had a particular charm that he hadn’t been able to find anywhere else. It was as if he could only find it there and felt as if a spell had been cast upon him.
He’d fallen for the long green fields and how the campament felt like there. The mornings came to him with a smell he’d begun to love and he feared to not being able to find it anywhere else.
Gaius came to him and touched his arm. As predicted, the villagers were coming along the town’s main square and as dawn fell upon them all with the first sun shines, it began to get crowded, which made him think that maybe all the movement he’d seen before was nothing but all those people coming to their encounter. Lucius nodded and greeted Gaius as he indicated the way out of town.
So far, the Sirules had proven to be the biggest problem for them for they were tough and untrusting, Gaius was telling him and he added how that would be troublesome if they were to conquer Britannia. He was talking about getting into the country with full force if they wanted to rule that land and dominate it. Savage, Gaius was saying though he, Lucius, couldn’t see it like that. That Island was alluring as no other place he’d ever been to. Everything about it called him, made him fall for it, for that earth so different from his very own.
“Calm down, Gaius.” His voice sounded strangely calm while he smiled at his friend, “we’re to know the place, nothing more. Tiberius would never allow us to conquer a place that needs us not.” His latest remarks won him a bizarre, reproachful look from his friend. Lucius patted him on the back and had him walk along with him.
Of course, Gaius would not understand his fascination with the place and didn’t mind that at all. Britannia had become important to him, and he’d request his commander to let him come back to that land that he now felt his own; and he’d do that as soon as he could.
The water hadn’t lied in years, and Mairead knew it wouldn’t begin now. The young girl saw the other women sigh as they saw the omens themselves; yet she remained calm. Death meant no end; it was just another step in a person’s eternity. She just wished they saw it like that and stopped giving her their pitiful looks.
“She’s too young.” Some began to say, and as more joined the discussion, she preferred to leave the place and walked away from the circle of priestesses and found some refuge for her soul. Outside, the full moon shone with pride. She had assisted them on their council, Mairead thought while she smiled as she did so, for it all had led to her.
The child shall offer herself. A child from the Dragon will face the Eagle and will stop her advances. Earth and water shall protect her and keep her. That’s what the Oracle had said. They all knew what it meant and she could still feel the words echoing inside of her. The chilling air caressed her; Summer had finally started to give place to Autumn. The girl smiled while a bigger figure came to her side and sat next to her.
“Shouldn’t you be in bed with the other apprentices?”
“And shouldn’t you be with the ‘old ones’?” Sienna looked at her cousin and smiled as well. Mairead was all she wouldn’t be: brave and cunning beyond measure. Many times before she’d wondered where all that would take the little one and yet she knew it would lead to their paths separating at some point.
“’The old ones’, young lady, are still locked in the chamber.” Sienna said and sat in front of her, “What’s happened there that they called you who are nothing but an apprentice while me or some of the others are already priestesses?”
Mairead lowered her head. The voice of the Oracle still sounded strong in her head, as if the words had just been said all over again: A child from the Dragon... and the priestess had pointed at her, who’d been doing nothing but attending on them, “She said...”
“That your fate is only yours and nobody else’s, or is it not, Mairead?” The firm voice of Anna rumbled in her head and her body responded by stiffening at the sight of the shadow of the older woman, who was standing behind them. “Go to bed Sienna, Mairead’s night and mine is not over yet.”
The younger priestess nodded and left, her head lowered before the woman who was higher in hierarchy than she was. Anna watched her as Sienna walked away and stood next to the child. Mairead looked at her smiling and Anna took her hands, as she pointed at some stones for them to sit. “Why did you leave child?”
“You didn’t want me there and I didn’t want to argue the Oracle, plus, I’ve seen the way you were all looking at me.” The moonlight shone in her eyes as Anna stared into them. Determined, fierce, just like her grandmother had been; and yet, she too had died. Another daughter of the Dragon who was now with the gods. “Mairead, child, you can’t...”
“The land and the gods demand my blood. I’ll ask why when I face them, but it’s their will what must be done, Lady.”
Anna meant to argue further, to explain to her that it could all be nonsense coming from the Oracle’s voice; and yet, to do so, meant to deny what she herself had believed all her life and the teachings she had given Mairead.
“You are a maiden consecrated to the land and the water; a daughter of the Dragon who’s nothing but a child.” Anna forced her to look at her. Mairead stood small as she was, a girl not older than twelve staring back at her with the wisdom of someone who has lived long enough to be old. The girl touched her face and grabbed her. In it, Mairead saw the gods and goddesses she loved and worshipped and smiled yet again.
“I am Mairead, remember my name so that when you pray to Arianrhod, she’s got mercy of me and watches over my soul until the day I am reborn.”
When Gaius came to wake him up, Lucius was already dressed with his armour. He wasn’t wearing his regular red and somehow he missed it. It was customary that whenever a patrol was to explore, its members were bound to wear black instead of red. Even the body armour and the shoulder plates were made of pieces of black painted hard leather. Gaius walked inside Lucius’s tent and asked him if he needed anything. Lucius shook his head and moved his body armour, adjusting it better. Gaius fetched the other’s cloak and helped him put it over his shoulders.
“It’s chilly out there.” Gaius commented as he rubbed his hands over Lucius’s shoulders, who smiled as he returned his stare through the polished surface that served him as a mirror. “This bloody weather is going to kill me, Lucius, I’m telling you. If we don’t go back to Rome soon…I swear…”
“You’re a praetorian soldier, Gaius; act like one.” The commander in him spoke this time as much as he grinned. His attendant then entered the tent, bringing some bread with honey spread on it and some warm wine mixed with more honey for him to drink. It was then that Gaius stared at him with interest. Damn Lucius, he said to himself, the bastard was really enjoying Britannia. “What is the route for today’s excursion, Gaius? Have the scouts brought any news yet?”
Gaius nodded and sat in the chair that was placed in front of Lucius’s.
“They say the weather is good for our excursion, though you know that I don’t trust it.” Lucius smiled while he sipped from his goblet. He received the liquid with gratitude. That Gaius complained about the place was no news for him, but he never exaggerated when he told him about the weather. “They haven’t said anything about people in the surroundings, though I don’t think them silly enough to be walking here and there. At least not today.” Lucius saw him grin while he finished his drink. He stood up and cleaned his mouth and hands in the basin that was prepared for him.
“We better hurry then, my friend. If we want to advance to the north, we have to do it early. Give the order to pick up the camp and let’s start moving. I don’t think there’ll be a better time today.”
Both men walked to the entrance and Lucius stood out first. The wet smell of the land reached his nostrils and filled him with an excitement he hadn’t known before. Britannia, Britannia, he repeated to himself and feared. The thought of not finding that smell and the sensations it provoked in him, scared him. It was the thrill of what was known to him, so familiar and yet not his own. Lucius closed his eyes and breathed deep again.
“It’s time for us to go, Lucius.”
He nodded when Gaius spoke and was ready to start his journey north.
Mairead was nothing but a twelve-year old girl. Most apprentices and priestesses knew who she was, but no one really understood. Especially not now when she was being prepared for a ritual, which would lead her to her death. Anna had kept silent while the matrons and the older priestesses looked at them astonished. How was she to let Mairead sacrifice herself?
However, the will of the gods was before their will. Not once in her life had she complained about that or had ever doubted it; still now, when she looked at Mairead, she felt it was all a mistake.
That dawn, Anna called Sienna to help her. The young one had brought water from the Sacred Well. She’d been instructed to bring it from the first stream that fell from the small river before the moon hid because it had to be done before the first rays of sun. Anna was looking at both of them with interest. While Sienna appeared resigned to her preparing her cousin; Mairead’s stoicism was as scary as knowing that she was to die.
“Mairead, daughter of the Dragon, do you present to me willingly to be the sacrifice of the gods before the Eagle?”
“I do, Lady.” Her voice didn’t shiver despite being naked at the beginning of the Autumn. They all knew that her nakedness meant her readiness and that her soul was honest about her action.
Sienna was now drying Mairead’s body. The girl seemed fragile in that fair frame of hers; her long blonde hair falling down her back. Anna then called Sienna and ordered her to fetch the brushes and the ink that had been put on the small tray on the other side of the room. The oldest priestess ordered Mairead to lie in bed while she took a brush. Anna turned to her right and stuck the brush in the ink, then rested it slightly over the edge of the plate. She started to murmur words of power as she drew symbols that tied Mairead with the land.
‘Blood and water Anna, that’s what awaits her! Don’t let her do this folly!’
‘She’ll never forgive me if I stop her, Danais.’
‘She was your mother not your goddess! You can’t keep a promise to…’
‘Not keeping a promise to her would mean that I don’t deserve to be who I am. You know this child’s destiny as well as I do. To the land and to the water she belongs…’
‘Is to die for us all!’
Words that no one was ever to know, so different from those coming from her lips. Soon, however, she was finished and she ordered Mairead to stand yet again. “May these remind you where you come from and where your strength lies.”
Anna had with her a simple linen dress and over a small table nearby, there was a leathered braided belt. Next to it, some bracelets that belonge to her mother and grandmother from the time when they priestesses themselves and Mairead recognised them along with the medallion with the symbol of the moon next to them.
“This dress represents the simple life of the land and the water and the gods an you, child.”
Mairead rose her arms and the gown covered her, warming her body a little. Then, Sienna took the belt and gave it to Anna, who put it around the girl’s waist.
“This represents our work. It was braided with the power of our spells that were sung by the most powerful voices, so that your courage never fails you.”
It was Sienna who knelt before the girl and after a deep sigh, she spoke: “Gold, carved by our druids, gold that came from the water and that connects you with the land, my cousin, gold that is a symbol of your femininity.” She closed the bracelets on the girl’s ankles and wrists.
Anna called her name again and Mairead sat before the Lady. Anna took black powder and mixed it with oil. She took a new brush, a thick one, an started to paint around Mairead’s eyes, over to her forehead and up to the birth of her hair on the sides. As soon as the whole area was painted in black and dried, she took a thinner brush and repeated the procedure, this time using red painting. She followed the border of the black painting.
Sienna brought Anna a delicate, thin golden tiara. While Anna placed it on the girl’s head, Sienna put rings on her fingers and more bracelets on her wrists. “You look like a bride, Mair.” Sienna giggled and Anna gave her a reproachful look.
“You are ready now, daughter of the Moon and my sister,” She then put the medallion around her neck and over her chest, “I shall now pray to Arianrhod so that She keeps your soul until the day of your return.” Anna commanded and Mairead embraced her in the only show of fear from her part.
It had been chilly that morning. The cold wind touched the girl’s body through the light dress; yet, she felt no cold. She looked at herself and her ornaments and thought of all the stories she’d heard as a child; stories of the sacrifice her people had always been willing to make in order to protect those who they loved the most and the land. There was nothing in their lives that could be more important than the earth that served them as home.
The river was the one she was offering herself to. It was him who was to take her down to his core and was to let her lie between himself and the earth for she belonged to them.
Mairead smiled a little as she walked through the trees and to the shore of the river. There was a seat made with stones, which she’d never known whether had been there forever or if someone had placed them there for her. Either way, that’s where he was to wait the man with the hands tainted by blood.
He body reacted as she thought those words. That’d been part of what she’d dreamt of the night before. “His hands were tainted with blood and a voice told me to wait for them, you know?” She spoke to the river as if he were to respond, “Because those hands will bring my blood into you, to flow with you…that’s why he’s coming here.” Her voice sounded steady though childish and the river responded by following its path.
She then put her feet in the water; it was cold, as expected, and though the water touched her ankles, the ink didn’t go away. Mairead went silent for a moment, listening to the sounds of nature as they talked to her. She was analysing them while she heard the water confirm her what was about to happen.
The girl wasn’t aware of the time she’d spent sitting on the place. The river had remained; its sounds as it flowed being the only notion she had of being accompanied. It was like that until she heard the crack of leaves and branches as they subsided to the weight of a body and she turned silent. Her body stiffened because of the knowledge of what was about to take place, but she feared nothing. The determination in her spirit proved to be stronger than herself making the child stand up and turn to face the one that was approaching her.
Lucius had gone away from his troop and had walked towards the river. He’d followed his steps, trusting they’d take him to a place he could find and claim his own if only for a few moments.
It was then that they saw each other. The girl saw the Roman and she felt attracted to him by his sole presence. The man on the other hand, saw in the child’s face, that which he’d been looking for. Yet, though she was nothing but a little girl, the eyes that were staring back were everything but childish.
The painting in her face caught his attention. The black and red framed the hazel of Mairead’s eyes. It contrasted with the fairness of her skin and the pale of her gown. Still, the flicker in her eyes started to burn, showing her vehemence, making Lucius grin as he became aware of that. He knew however, that he didn’t want to harm her in any way possible.
Mairead’s eyes caught sight of his gladius and took particular notice of the hand that wielded it and the body of the man. He was tall; taller than any man she’d ever seen; he had long legs, and was gorgeous. She knew by just that, that he’d been one of those men who outstood amongst his group. She reached his shoulder only and he knew that when she approached him in a slow pace.
Mairead focused on his eyes, cat-like eyes, which were blue like the sky and shining like a ray of moonlight. Those eyes were impressive and sweet, she told herself. That man had his hands tainted with blood, just like in her dream. He was to bring death and change, and the sword in his hand showed her that unavoidable fact.
“Fulfill your destiny and mine, Soldier.” She spoke in her tongue and took advantage of the way her words had startled him. She grabbed the hand that held the sword with her own two hands, feeling the strong and firm grip Lucius had over the metal, and thrusted it in her stomach. Lucius screamed, overwhelmed as he still was. Not knowing how to react for he hadn’t been able to move one inch.
“No!” He finally yelled. “By the gods, no!” He cried once again.
Mairead’s body then fell on top of him. As her soul abandoned it, she knew this was the sacrifice the river had demanded so that her people were saved. A sacrifice, not murder; she knew that; and before she let go in the arms of death, she felt sorry; for those eyes belonged to someone who was worthy of his people. Not murder, she thought for the last time; and embraced the moment as she went back to the mother earth. Lucius on the other hand, felt more hurt as he pushed the sword out of the young body and fell to his knees with it against its chest.
Lucius lost consciousness of time. He remained in the same place where he’d fallen before, while his fellow soldiers came to him and saw him with the small body in his arms. He hadn’t been able to look somewhere else. It had all been so sudden; and yet, he knew the pain would last forever, for he knew he couldn’t let go. He was not to forget those eyes which were going to haunt him until the day of his own death.
Gaius came to them first. He got frightened for a second. They were scouts send to patrol the land of Britannia. They weren’t supposed to have more contact with the locals than it was actually needed, and yet, it was Lucius’ gladius what was on the floor covered in blood. He then felt himself being pushed and realised the other soldiers were coming to Lucius, talking about the jewellery she was wearing. ‘Let’s take it.’ Some said, but Gaius came back to his senses when he saw Lucius standing up, gladius in hand, ready to face his soldiers.
“Who shall be the one to join her?” Gaius heard him say and jumped to his aid, stepping between the soldiers and Lucius.
The ones who’d talked about stealing from her, backed away the moment they saw Lucius steady his sword and face them. Gaius came to him, and looked at him in the eye. The resolution he saw in Lucius’ eyes made him wonder about what’d happened; however, it was the pain that was there what almost drove him to ask right away, yet he decided to do so later.
Gaius drove the other soldiers away, telling them they needed to worry about things that were more important than a local dead. Perhaps he was royalty, he thought thanks to the ornaments on her. Once gone, he turned to see Lucius kneeling next to the girl.
Gaius simply looked at his commander and friend totally lost in the sight of the girl who should’ve died of cold, with that light sleeveless dress she had been wearing. Who was she, he wondered and knew he’d have to be careful when he asked later; for Lucius seemed deeply touched by whatever thing had happened before he’d arrived there.
Lucius was staring at her. His eyes were fixed on the painting around her eyes; those eyes who’d seemed to him the sweetest thing he’d ever seen. Not only had they been of the colour of the purest honey, he thought the were kind behind the veil of fierceness that shrouded them.
He hadn’t meant to kill her. She was just someone he’d met there by the river, and she seemed to have been waiting for him, though the reasons were something he had no idea of. Why, he kept asking himself as he took notice of everything in her. The tiara in her blonde hair, the bracelets in her wrists and the medallion in her chest. He saw the braided belt and the jewellery embroidered in it, and of course, what could be seen of her legs and the symbols that ended in her feet. Still, it was her face, the black and red that hadn’t been able to hide the intensity of her eyes, what impressed him the most.
The man cleaned the girl’s face, completely ignoring Gaius who was somewhere nearby. He took her in his arms and got into the water; that’s where she’d been when he saw the silhouette from afar. He let her body rest on the surface of the water and breathed deep as her blood tainted it; so different from the stain on the ground. It seemed to him as if the water was taking her spirit away, because he’d been the one who killed her.
Some more minutes passed before he turned and walked out of the river. He walked to where his gladius had been and sheathed it; refusing to have it unsheathed and in his hand as he walked. At the moment, all he could think of was that he couldn’t keep his soldiers waiting, much less insisting on desecrating a corpse, especially not the girl’s.
Gaius waited for him, and before he could speak, Lucius walked past him and left the place, not knowing that by his hand, an era was coming to its end.
For many days and nights Mairead’s eyes haunted the Roman Praetorian; whether in his dreams or on the things that crosses his path. Whenever he saw a mask, he remembered the painting on her face and got lost in his thoughts for they reminded him of her; though they’d become a fascination of his. Other times, he’d take bowls with painting of all colours and he’d poured them on running water, and stayed watching it dissolve for hours, just like he’d stayed back when he’d encountered that mysterious girl months ago, now.
Many things had happened ever since. Although it’d been Autumn when they went to Britannia, it wasn’t only until late in Spring that they could reach their destination. The river that they needed to cross–the same one by which he’d met the local child–hadn’t allowed them to pass. Winter and most of the Spring time was spent trying to wade the river in order to reach the other shore. The flow of it had been intense and high and they’d been stuck without being able to cross. When they finally made it, he realised that if they’d done otherwise, and waited, they’d never been able to cross at all.
Few did pass, though.
As he’d believed, he hallucinated with the girl’s eyes for a very long time, and it happened still. Sometimes he dreamt of her eyes shining in the middle of the night, some other times, he dreamed with her red blood staining the clear water.
Whatever it was, he’d decided to let himself go for there was no turning back.
After achieving his goal in Britannia, he’d been assigned to Africa. He never requested permission to return to the northern land which caused him to never find again the smell he’d enjoyed so much when he’d been there. Africa was hot, dry, nothing like Britannia.
A sacred man from the tribe they were at called his name and motioned his hand, inviting him to sit next him. The wood was ready and he was about to start his lesson. Lucius followed the command and sat, preparing the black and red pigments and the oil for him to make another mask. His teacher saw him and thought him a weird man. He decided then that he needed to talk to the tribe’s chiefs, for the foreigner needed help: every mask he’d learnt how to make was painted in the same way; black and red framing the holes of the eyes.
May 22nd, 2thousand9
To Cannia and Septimus.