Disclaimer: Buffy the Vampire Slayer and King Arthur belong to their respective creators, Joss Whedon and Jerry Bruckheimer/Antoine Fuqua/Touchstone Pictures/David Franzoni/lots of other people who aren't me.
The land here is thick and green and wet. The trees grow tall and unnatural, menacing in their height and sinister in their clumping together, so that we are either in weak, gloomy light, chilled despite it being the meridian of the afternoon, or struggling through woods so dense that we cannot keep formation or make any haste. The equipage of the bishop has already stuck in the mud and ruts upwards of three times, so that I and the other men have had to get up to the knees in the wretched mire that is Britannia to unstick it.
Lupus maintains that it is not all bad here, and that the Emperor would not abandon the province if weren't for the troubles back on the continent. I maintain that this is the shithole of the Gaulish territories and I regret ever leaving Rome.
The bishop rides in front of us, preening in his armor. I want nothing more than to put my sword in his throat, but these are my orders. As a centurion I will not disobey them, though as a decent equestrian of good birth I consider it my sacred duty to God to cleanse the earth of such sinners as this bastard.
Lupus told me last night that the bishop would get what was coming to him, at God's Hands if not at ours, and I submit to the wisdom of this if not to its immediate results. I think the men agree with me, all except for the optios and the signifier, who are the bishop's beasts from head to foot and wouldn't mind seeing me arrested and stripped of my office, as my loss of rank would be promotions for two of them. I hate them, too, not for wanting my rank—which is only the natural motivation of every good Roman, after all—but for being so willing to turn a blind eye to the bishop's evil.
I think of her, and my stomach constricts.
Lupus glances at me, and, whispering from the side of his mouth so that the bishop cannot see or hear, mutters, “Steady, Albus. We're almost there.”
Wounds of Christ, I hate this country. Dank and sullen as a Syrian slut, full of howling barbarians until you actually need some. What I wouldn't give for a raid of blue-painted savages to put an arrow in His Highness's eye. I'd take his finger off at the knuckle and then the men, Lupus, and I could be back over the Fretum Gallicum before the Sarmatians stopped molesting their horses long enough to find out what happened.
I'd take her to Rome, to the house of my mother, and tell her she had nothing to worry about, ever again.
The sun is setting in the west, purple over the treetops. We're coming down from what passes for a mountain in this rolling midden heap, into the foothills where the ground is greener than anything I've ever seen, yellow-fringed with heather and wisps of blue fog hanging over it all. I can tell she's been here, from the grooves of her horse's hooves in the ground and the bodies sprawling in the grass at the edge of the forest and below the ridge near a stream. There the ground is slick with blood, and she's been so careless about where she rode that even I, who once got lost in the orchards of my family's farm, can see the courses she took.
The bishop reigns in, making noises of satisfaction under his breath. “Good, good,” he mutters. “Ah! There they are.”
We all look up, even I, and there indeed they are, seven mounted figures sitting on the ridgeline, watching us come, soon-to-be recipients of their discharges. One of them, I can see, wears the scarlet of a Roman officer, and I deduce this to be Lucius Artorius Castus, the one Bishop Germanius is so impatient to meet. I suppose this is the end of all my hopes of seeing the bishop slaughtered by pagans, and Lupus shakes his head at my disappointed look.
We form up around the bishop, the bishop's decoy peering from the equipage, and the Sarmatians come at a slow canter down the hill. Apparently, they are no more hot to put up with His Highness than we are, and I find myself sympathizing with barbarians.
The bishop waits for Lucius Castus to come to him, and I see his lips moving as he whispers into his hand as he pretends to stroke his beard. I try not to reach for the hilt of my sword, but my feelings must be evident in my face, for Lupus glares at me the way my father always did when he knew I was out to make trouble. I try to compose myself, but it is hard.
The cornicen is ordered to blow his horn in the manner the bishop instructed him before, but we all of us know that this is only for show.
The Sarmatians are a motley lot, with no regular armor or weapons or standards, and even Lucius Castus is carrying a non-regulation weapon, something distasteful in an officer of the legions. Still, he is only an auxiliary prefect, and I suppose that excuses his behavior here in Britannia, where it would not anywhere else.
He is a dark-haired, dark-eyed man, large and rugged, exactly the type I would never let near my sister. His men are worse, braided and long-haired or denuded and wearing all manner of barbaric stuff. A younger man, with dark curls and a boyish face, grins insolently at me, and the fleshy bald one barks something filthy that makes a taller, shaven-headed brute laugh. Their horses, however, are glorious, and I resolve to inquire as to where they got them, providing there's anyone in this swamp who happens to speak a decent language.
“Arthur,” says the bishop as the commander comes near, “Arthur Castus. Your father's image. I haven't seen you since childhood.”
Lucius Castus looks from the equipage, where the lesser priest is watching, to the bishop, mounted and wearing armor. “Bishop Germanius. Welcome to Britain.” He takes us all in with another, sweeping look. “I see your military skills are still of use to you.”
“Ancient tricks of an ancient dog,” demurs the bishop. “Unnecessary, it seems, but one cannot be too careful.”
Then there is a slight hesitation as Lucius Castus decides what to say and the bishop waits in gloating patience. The Sarmatians have not failed to notice the bodies that litter the ground, and are beginning to look at us with traces of respect. I am embarrassed, and at the same time enraged. The men shift uneasily in their saddles, giving each other black and uncomfortable glances.
“Your guards were chosen well,” says Castus carefully. He perceives the expression on the bishop's face. “They made quick work of these Woads.”
The bishop laughs out loud, long and hearty, and I burn with shame. Lupus's lips are pressed so tightly that they are white even against his usual complexion. The Sarmatians exchange looks.
“My guards are good legionnaires,” says the bishop when he recovers. “I have no complaints! But they are not responsible for this...” He looks around, smiling. “Work, if you will.” He bestows a truly prideful countenance on Castus, who is frowning. “No. This was done by my bodyguard.”
“Bodyguard?” Castus straightens, searches the hills even as he remains attentive to the bishop. His men look about, as well, and their abrupt scowls are murderous. “We saw no one.”
“You would not have,” the bishop tells him. “She leaves no witnesses.”
There is a moment where the Sarmatians say nothing, and I think they are trying to determine if they have mistranslated. Castus is very still, and then says, slowly, “ 'She?' ”
The bishop does not need to answer, for that is when we hear it, that high, piercing whinny that always precedes her, a horse's scream that is more wolfish than horseish, and when we turn to look, as we always do, she is there.
She sits her horse at the top of the ridge the Sarmatians have just quit, and she is a black shape against the bloody sky. She is holding her spear aloft, the butt resting against her thigh, and her shield is balanced on the opposite leg. From this distance that is all I can make out, and the color of her horse, white as the foam of the ocean in which Britannia lies.
“My Amazon,” says Bishop Germanius, his voice warm with pleasure, and it is all I can do not to draw my sword and cut his head from his body.
She lowers the spear and then the horse shakes her head and stomps her foot before beginning to descend. There is no hurry, and they come leisurely down the steep, spear and shield hanging low, and the wings of her helm are like the lazy flight of an eagle as she comes toward us.
No matter how many times I see her, I always think the same thing: she is so small
. I don't understand how she can bear the weight of her helm, much less the armor she wears, the sword at her belt, the spear in her hand, the shield on her arm. She is dwarfed by her own horse, and would look preposterous if it were not for something, some quality of her form, her position, her grip, that takes what should be absurd and makes it into something deadly.
She uses neither saddle nor bridle, rides completely bareback, and so it is almost miraculously impressive when her horse, responding to no sign or word that we can see or hear, canters right up to where we face each other and stops barely a spear-length away from the closest Sarmatian, neither blowing hard nor fidgeting but standing completely, unnaturally still.
The girl regards us from cold, green eyes. Her hair, the most perfect gold I have ever seen, lies gently against her skin, flowing from beneath the helm. Her face, though expressionless, is the sweetest, most flawless face I have ever seen, in Rome or anywhere, without blemish of any kind.
The Sarmatians gape to see her, the shorter bald one uttering a guttural noise that cannot be anything other than some blasphemous oath, and I cannot blame him.
Castus is staring at her, his eyes widened. The bishop cannot restrain himself.
“My Amazon,” he says again. “I acquired her by accident in Macedonia, when I had occasion to go there a year ago. Her name is Penthesilea.”
That is the name the bishop gives her, and I refuse to call her by it. I do not call her anything, for we are forbidden to speak with her, though we have tried often in secret. Now we know it is really she who cannot speak to us.
In my heart, I name her Kyrte.
The point of her spear is black with blood, as is the sword she has swung from her belt, having had no time to strip the gore from it. The horse also bears signs of battle, painted red in streaks and uneven blotches. Kyrte's face is smeared crimson on one cheek.
“Come, commander,” says the bishop, and his voice is smug. “Let us carry on to the fort, and there you may ask me about my Amazon at our ease. Penthesilea!
At his sudden shout, Kyrte stiffens, turns her face in his direction. Her eyes, however, refuse to light on him, and stare off into the distance.
“Scout ahead,” says Bishop Germanius, “and clear the way of Woads. Kill any you find.”
Kyrte neither speaks nor makes any gesture. She simply sets her spear and the horse wheels, again without urge or command, and then they are gone, a bronze and silver shadow flying over the green. The Sarmatians crane their heads after her until she disappears into the trees.
I watch as well.
Castus seems unable to think of anything to say. He looks at his men, then at the bishop, and then, by some queer chance, at me. I am uncertain, but it seems that something communicates between us, as if he recognizes my calm, and the helpless wrath and frustrated violence that rages beneath it.
“An Amazon,” he says, as if still trying to catch up, and I can almost hear him thinking All those bodies, all that blood
. “A...a female bodyguard.” He tries to retrieve himself. “You must trust her well.”
“Oh, not trust, commander,” says the bishop as he turns his horse, nodding to the legionnaire guiding the equipage. “Not trust.”
He smiles a secretive, clerical smile, and makes a trifling, almost imperceptible movement as if he rubs his thumb over the thick, dull ring of bronze that sits on the index finger of his right hand.
I swallow my bile and look at Lupus, who is diplomatically not looking at anything, though I know him well enough to know by the whitening of his knuckles that he is stewing with disgust.
I look at Castus, who is looking at the bishop, and at me.
I do not think I am the only one who saw.