10.The Egyptian Desert.
“…he only offered to parley and says the whole thing was your fault,” Pullo sat on the bench at the front of the cart bringing Vorenus up to date with what had been happening in Rome, “and me and him should make peace.”
“What did you reply?” Vorenus wanted to know.
“I-er head butted the fucker and bit his tongue out,” Pullo replied matter-of-factly.
“He took that as a ‘no’ then?” Vorenus commented with a grin.
Both men laughed in a comradely way, even Willow found herself smiling at the story, after all it was as good a way as any to stop an argument in its tracks. Willow sat in the back of the little cart with Caesarion. As promised they had all met up in the desert the night before. At first, Willow had been a little surprised to find the big Roman soldier there, but after Vorenus had introduced him she’d felt quite comfortable in the man’s presence.
It had been that night that Pullo had told Caesarion that his mother had died. He told him in his (what Willow later found out to be) usual blunt manner. The boy had not taken it well of course and Willow had tried to comfort him. The little brat had rejected her advances and pushed her away. Sighing, Willow had cast a low power sleep spell over the child. Watching as he’d fallen asleep, Willow had covered him with a blanket and then joined the two men to discuss what was to be done.
‘Discuss’, wasn’t really the right word; what actually happened was that Pullo and Vorenus planned what they were going to do and Willow just nodded her head. After all, she was just a woman, what did she know? To be honest Willow was too tired to care. She was pregnant, she’d been up for nearly twenty-four hours and she’d used a lot of magic, she was beat.
After the men had decided to make their way across the desert to the sea; Pullo would then take the boy back to Rome while Vorenus went east to sell his sword. Willow was a little concerned that she and her child didn’t seem to feature in any of Vorenus’ plans, but she was too tired to worry overly much about it. It could all wait until tomorrow.
They’d awoken early the next morning and had set out across the stony sand that made up the desert in these parts. Around mid-morning they’d come on a village where they’d bought supplies and the cart. After a short rest by midday they continued their journey on towards the Mediterranean coast where they hoped to pick up a ship to take Pullo and the boy on to Rome.
“You bit out his tongue!?” Caesarion sounded as if he was going to be sick; Willow giggled a little at the look on the boy’s face.
“I did,” Pullo replied happily, “it tasted like chicken!”
“That’s disgusting!” Caesarion’s look of ickiness turned to one of distaste; Willow laughed out loud, then…
“OH!” Willow cried as they went over a rut in the track, she clutched at her tummy, “Are you two deliberately driving over every rut and pothole in Egypt? What are you trying to do? Shake this child out of me instead of waiting for nature to take its course?”
“Does she always complain so much?” Pullo glanced first at Vorenus and then back at Willow; wisely Vorenus said nothing and just shrugged his shoulders. Opening his mouth to speak, Pullo was silenced by the look on Willow’s face.
“Don’t you dare try and patronise me,” Willow snapped at Pullo, “just say one wrong word and its elephant balls for you.”
The big soldier turned to give his friend a puzzled frown unsure of what Willow was talking about.
“Best keep your mouth shut,” Vorenus suggested, “she can, you know…”
“What?” Pullo was totally mystified by now.
“Give you elephant balls,” Vorenus explained.
“Rubbish,” Pullo tutted in disbelief.
“I’ve seen her do some strange things,” Vorenus explained in a low voice, “just watch your words around her, eh?” he paused for a moment, “Anyway, you know what pregnant women are like?”
Pullo nodded his head sadly; he did indeed know what pregnant women were like; he decided to try and be a little more caring, after all she was Vorenus’ woman.
“Damned straight buster,” Willow muttered almost as if she’d been reading Pullo’s mind.0=0=0=0
All went well until mid-afternoon, Vorenus was at least trying to avoid the worst of the potholes and they appeared to be in a more pleasant part of the country. They were travelling along a track between high bluffs; there was even a river with reeds and birds along its bank. They’d just come around a long shallow bend in the track when they saw the road block up ahead. About a dozen Roman soldiers stood near the barricade or in the little camp that stood next to the road.
“Cack!” Pullo exclaimed when he caught sight of the soldiers, “Fifteen gold says I kill more than you.” He turned slightly to look into the rear of the cart, “Best keep down, it’s gonna get wet.”
Getting up onto her knees to see what was going on; Willow cast the sky a wary look.
“Doesn’t look like…” catching sight of the soldiers she realised what Pullo was talking about, “Oh!”
“Wait,” Vorenus said calmly, “we can talk our way through.”
“Gerrae,” Pullo shook his head, “as soon as his majesty opens his mouth, we’re cooked.”
Willow nodded to herself; Pullo had a point. The boy was bound to give them away, if only she’d had some warning she might have been able to disguise the child in some way. As it was the best she could do was to make sure the boy put on his travelling cloak to cover his good clothes and put up the hood to hide his face.
“Let’s just go at ‘em,” Pullo suggested in a whisper.
“No,” Vorenus replied firmly, “and that’s an order.”
“Grumpy and cautious as ever,” Pullo muttered with just a hint of amusement; Willow found herself smiling in agreement, “like an old sheepdog, you.”
Peering between the two men, Willow could see the barrier across the road with two soldiers guarding it, a third walked slowly out to meet them.
“Salve, captain!” Vorenus called out pleasantly as he brought the cart to a halt in front of the road block.
“Romans are you?” the solder asked walking over to stand looking up at Vorenus. “Don’t see many citizens out here,” the officer said conversationally, “what’s your business?”
“Hunting sphinxes!” Pullo said with a smile.
“No such thing as sphinxes,” the officer returned Pullo’s grin.
“Now he tells us,” Pullo shook his head in mock disappointment.
“We’re grain merchants,” Vorenus explained before Pullo could say anything else, “we’ve just lost out way, we’re looking for the road to Memphis.”
“Grain merchants eh,” the officer moved to look into the back of the Cart.
At first the soldier didn’t pay Caesarion any heed, he looked down a Willow and nodded his head to her in greeting; Willow smiled back. Icy fingers were running up and down her spine, she was sure this wasn’t going to end well. Gathering her magic, Willow waited for the fight to begin.
“Lost your way?” the officer shifted his gaze from Willow to Caesarion, “What’s y’name, boy?”
“Aeneas,” Caesarion replied a little too haughtily, Willow cringed inside and felt the magics tingle at her finger tips.
“Bit haughty for a slave?” the officer looked up at Vorenus and Pullo.
“He is,” agreed Pullo, “I beat him every day but it doesn’t seem to do any good.”
“On you way then,” the officer smiled broadly at Pullo and started to walk back towards the road block; as he did so he said some thing in Egyptian that neither Vorenus or Pullo understood but Willow did.
‘Please bless us with your forgiveness, sacred majesty’, was what the soldier said. Willow willed the boy to keep quiet.
“Granted, mortal!” Caesarion replied imperiously.
“Crap!” muttered Willow under her breath; if they survived this maybe she’d help Pullo beat the boy every day. After all she’d developed some muscle over the years carrying water and the like; it would be a pity to see it go to waste. But first they had to live through the next few minutes.
“I told you,” Pullo looked at Vorenus just before he jumped from the cart; Vorenus kicked the officer in the face before he joined Pullo in leaping to the ground.
Grabbing a sword from under the seat of the cart Vorenus turned to confront one of the soldiers who’d been guarding the road block. Willow grabbed hold of Caesarion and pulled him down onto the floor of the cart from where he’d been sitting. Glancing over the side of the cart, Willow saw Vorenus cut down the first soldier and felt a great feeling of pride in her chest.
On the other side of the cart Pullo had also taken up a sword from somewhere and was at present gutting the other soldier from the road block. She found herself admiring the big man’s muscles and sword work while she held Caesarion firmly preventing him from interfering and probably getting killed in the process. Turning back to watch Vorenus, Willow gasped in horror as a soldier came up behind her lover and thrust his sword in Vorenus’ back. Vorenus cried out in pain as Willow felt her heart jump into her mouth. She sighed with relief as Vorenus turned and slashed open his attacker’s throat sending a fountain of blood squirting into the air.
Back on the other side of the cart, Pullo had dispatched another two soldiers: he’d climbed up onto the cart and jumped down on the other side to join Vorenus. As he passed he ordered Caesarion and Willow to take cover. Willow let go of the boy and pushed him towards the back of the cart. Caesarion, for once realising that he had to do as he was told, scrambled off the back of the cart and took shelter under it. Willow looked down at her swollen belly and realised she wasn’t going anywhere fast, or even slowly. She’d say where she was and take her chances.
Almost before she’d made her decision a soldier jumped up on the driving seat of the cart and raised his sword to take a swing at Pullo. Reacting without thinking, Willow raised her hand hitting the man with a blast of magic. The soldier screamed as his chest was caved in and he flew from the cart to land in the river several yards away.
“Golly!” Willow gasped looking at her hand in wonder.
By now Vorenus and Pullo were fighting as a team. Willow watched as they met every attack with flashing blades and a welter of blood. Roman soldiers fell clutching at wounds that oozed bright red. By now all of the little garrison was engaged, dead or wounded. The fight appeared to be coming to a climax; Willow found herself cheering her side on to final victory. A noise made her turn; a lightly injured soldier was reaching into the back of the cart and was trying to grab hold of her ankle.
“No you don’t!” Willow snapped gesturing with her hand; a discarded sword that had been lying on the track suddenly flew through the air and rammed itself into the soldier’s back.
Crying out in pain and alarm the soldier crashed to the ground right in front of Caesarion’s nose who was still hiding under the cart. The sight of the dead man proved too much for what remained of the boy’s courage. He crawled out from under the cart and made a dash for the reeds by the river bank.
“NO!” Willow screamed after the boy; she saw the Roman officer, the man who’d stopped them and tricked Caesarion into giving himself away, stand up and stagger sword in hand after Caesarion.
The officer quickly caught up with the panicking boy and was just about to plunge his sword into the boy’s back. With a loud, wet, *PHUT!* the officer’s head exploded sending skull, brains and blood in every direction. Climbing slowly down from the cart, Willow waddled over to where Caesarion cowered, she dabbed at the blood that dripped from her nose.
“Don’t you ever run off again,” Willow warned the boy angrily, “or I’ll do the same to you!”
By the time Willow and Caesarion got back to the cart, Vorenus and Pullo stood triumphant surrounded by a pile of dead or groaning Roman soldiers. As Pullo turned to congratulate his old friend, Vorenus groaned and fell to the ground. In an instant Pullo and Willow were kneeling at his side.
“Is he alright?” Caesarion called from the back of the cart.
“Huh?” Pullo knelt beside his friend shocked at his sudden collapse.
“Of course he’s not, you stupid little brat!” Snapped Willow as her hands roamed over Vorenus’ body trying to find the wound, she looked into Pullo’s face, “Turn him over for me.”
“I’ve seem worse,” Pullo turned Vorenus onto his side and looked at the wound in his friends back, he glanced up at Willow with worried eyes, “He’ll be fine.”
“Yes,” Willow nodded her head as her fingers probed the wound, it was deep and wide; it was important not to let on how badly injured a man was.
While Vorenus had never struck Willow as the type of man who’d just give up you had to be careful.
“No I’m done,” Vorenus was breathing heavily every movement brought a look of pain to his face.
“Gerrae,” Pullo tried to make light of everything, “you big girl.”
“Boy!” Willow turned to look at Caesarion, “Bring me my bag…now!”
The boy jumped from the back of the cart clutching Willow’s bag full of poultices and dressings. He ran over and gave it to Willow.
“Its just a few scratches,” Pullo looked at the blood on his hand then at Willow.
“I’ll do what I can,” Willow reassured him but in her mind she knew it wouldn’t be enough; if only there was a modern hospital close by. But she couldn’t wait two thousand years so she’d have to do what she could.
“We just need to rest up somewhere,” Pullo glanced at Willow and got an answering nod for his suggestion. “Just a couple of days, you’ll be back on your feet then.”
Willow snorted as she packed Vorenus’ wound with a poultice and started to wrap a bandage around him to keep it in place.
“Take me home,” Vorenus groaned.
“We won’t be going anywhere,” Willow pointed out, “if you don’t help me with this bandage…Pullo?”
“Yes, yes,” the big man turned Vorenus onto his side again so Willow could work more easily, “of course.” He turned to look down at Vorenus, “Home’s a long way, its best we just…”
“I don’t want to die in this fucking shit hole,” Vorenus held onto both Pullo and Willow with surprising strength. “I want to see my children…take me home.”
“Alright, brother,” Pullo spoke softly as Willow felt the tears start to fill her eyes as she worked on her injured lover. “We’ll do that.”0=0=0=0
It took them a month to get Vorenus home to Rome. Willow could never understand how she’d managed to keep the man alive for so long but some how she did. Often working long into the night she tried to stop the wound from becoming infected, but in the end she knew she’d lose the fight. Death would have its way and Vorenus’ fever would get worse and he’d eventually die. It was on the voyage home that she gave birth to Vorenus’ son who she called Lucius after his father. Seeing his new born son had made Vorenus rally a little and it was probably that which kept him alive long enough to reach Rome on the day of Octavian’s triumph. A few days later Vorenus died of his wounds, Willow thanked the Goddess that he’d lived long enough to see his children again and make his peace with them. It was only then that Willow started to wonder what was to become of her.0=0=0=0Back in the SPQR.
“Shani,” Pullo walked across the tavern and sat down on the bench next to Willow, “how’s young Lucius today?”
“Fine,” replied Willow, she looked down at her son as he lay in his crib, “he’s got a fine set of lungs on him that’s for sure.”
“Yes,” Pullo let the child grasp hold of one of his fingers, “his father could yell an order across the battlefield. Used to sound like he was standing right behind me.”
“He never really loved me, you know?” Willow said softly, “Not deep down were it matters.”
“No,” Pullo shook his head, “I don’t suppose he did…tortured soul was our Lucius Vorenus.”
“Hey!” Willow looked at Pullo sharply, “Aren’t you supposed to say something like, ‘of course he loved you’?”
“Would you want me to lie to you?” Pullo glanced out of the corner of his eye at Willow.
“No,” Willow sighed, “I don’t suppose I do…so what now?”
“Well,” Pullo stood up all business, a big smile on his face, “responsible man, me…” his smile got wider, “least ways I am now. Wasn’t always so, anyway you’ve got a home here for as long as you want it…”
“Thanks but…” Willow began but was interrupted by Pullo.
“Vorenus said you’d start to say ‘no thank-you’,” for a moment Pullo’s face lost its grin.
“He did?” Willow wondered if Vorenus had known her better than she’s suspected.
“He did,” Pullo nodded, “but I swore to look after you and his son…and knowing you had an independent nature…”
“And?” Willow moved to pick up her son.
“Local wise woman died a few weeks ago,” Pullo shrugged his massive shoulders, “maybe she wasn’t that wise, eh? Well, her shop is still empty, I can see to it that its yours. Good position it is, you should make a good living if you’re half the witch Vorenus claimed you were.”0=0=0=0
A month after Vorenus’ death, Willow found herself standing on the corner of an alley that led off the plaza outside the Senate building. Her hand rested on the shoulder of Caesarion (now called Aeneas) as they waited for Pullo to reappear after his meeting with First Citizen Octavian.
Rome was something of a disappointment to Willow; she’d expected pristine white marble buildings with great columns and sweeping boulevards. What she had found were narrow fetid alleys, brick buildings covered in gaudily painted, crumbling plaster and of course graffiti. It was everywhere and some of its content had shocked Willow to her core. She’d thought herself unshockable after living at Cleopatra’s court for so long.
Movement over by the senate building caught her eye, she smiled to see Pullo’s tall, well muscled frame plough through the crowd towards her. Willow felt her heart beat a little faster at Pullo’s approach, she wasn’t simply glad to see him leave the senate; she was glad just to see him again. Willow called herself a slut under her breath before smiling in greeting at Pullo as he towered over herself and Caesarion.
“So?” demanded Caesarion; Willow cuffed the boy across the back of his head.
“Don’t speak to your…” Willow stopped herself from saying ‘father’ at the last moment, she corrected herself, “guardian like that. Keep a civil tongue in your head.”
“He bought it,” ‘he’ meaning Octavian; Pullo held up a heavy purse of gold coins, payment for ‘killing’ Caesarion.
Bouncing on the balls of her feet, Willow clapped her hands with joy and then, quite spontaneously stood on tip-toe and kissed Pullo on the cheek. The big soldier actually blushed and then slipped his arm around Willow’s shoulders and gave her an affectionate squeeze. By this time Caesarion had started to walk briskly off towards the tavern run by Pullo and his gang.
“Brother Osiris,” Caesarion looked up to the heavens, “let me live to spit in his face and remind him of this day!”
“Didn't I tell you,” Pullo warned the boy gruffly, “there's to be no more of that blather?”
“Yes,” agreed Willow, “no more blather, right?”
“Blather?” the boy stopped in the middle of the street and turned to face the two adults, “It's my sacred duty. By my blood-oath, I will not rest until I have avenged my mother and redeemed my father's name.”
“Listen,” Pullo looked down at Willow and received an answering shrug to his unasked question; it was up to him what he told the boy, “about your father...”The End.