Candles flickered around her brightly as she knelt next to the prayer table. Her eyes were closed, eyebrows deeply furrowed, completely lost in channeling her thoughts on the gods and the offering she made.
The rebel camp stood still, a few hours remaining till dawn's break when another day's toil of blood would claim them again.
There was no sound except for her gentle whispers of praise to the deities and soft pleads for their guidance in the days to come. The darkness around enveloped her, the candles exhausting effort to light her serene features as words and prayers tumbled forth .
Once offering was made, she bent her head on the table reverently, placing a soft kiss on the idol gifted to her by her mother. She said one final humble supplication, before sprinkling some cinnamon and spice into the prayer bowl.
The ritual was complete.
A loud sigh escaped her. She had not made such an offering in a really long time, the effort and concentration required exhausting her beyond measure. Three hours of solitude, with only her own voice to calm nerves and the importance of the ritual providing motivation.
As she moved to get up, she was suddenly engulfed by strong arms, clasping her tightly against hard chest.
Sibyl wasn't startled, the feel of those arms and the scent surrounding them a thing too familiar by now. She melted into them, running her fingers across the bare arms holding her.
"Your touch has been missed," she whispered softly, as Gannicus nipped at her ear, trailing the sweetest kisses to her neck.
"Not as much as feeling you in my arms," he returned, head buried at the nape of her neck, drawing in deep breaths to inhale her scent, "If Spartacus had it my way, you would never be without them, and I would fight off Rome from this fucking tent."
Sibyl let out a small laugh and turned, facing him, "God of the arena, confined to a tent with a woman, fighting off the mighty republic? I'm afraid you'll find the glory rather ill-matched," she winked.
"I but seek glory attained from your lips of late," he chuckled, bending down and capturing her soft mouth, immediately seeking entrance. She held on to him tightly, running fingers through his golden strands, matching his fevered kisses with passionate intent, both forgetting time and place.
It had been almost two days since they had last laid eyes upon each other, demands of the upcoming battle and duty sending Gannicus away, sometimes for days upon end. Only thing that kept him going was the thought of seeing her smiling face upon return, to touch her and taste her again and again, feeling the reality of her being his and his alone envelope him entirely.
When breathing became a necessity, he reluctantly parted his mouth from hers, instead resting their foreheads together and tracing her lips with his fingers, etching their perfection to memory.
"Days before seemed to pass as a haze yet now they stretch and test patience which I no longer possess," he whispered.
"Before?" she looked at him questioningly.
"Before Melia Ridge," he said, his smile wicked.
She could still blush, he thought, as he witnessed her cheeks grow a hint of crimson before she confidently retorted, "So I am to gather the events passing the day before in Sinuessa are not vividly recalled?"
"I speak of moments not spent by your side," he returned with a teasing smile, "That day had it not been for you, I would not be standing here"
"You brought down every man who stood in our way, and" she reminded, "helped save a Roman you had no reason to save." she gently rubbed her nose against his, "the gods truly blessed you that day, with courage and strength to fight off all who stood in our path"
"I'm afraid the gods favored us for your sake, not mine" he grinned, "and I would have you recall you wanted Laeta with us, not me. If I had had it my way..."
"You would have done no different," she interjected, intertwining her fingers at the base of his neck, "do not think you can fool me with your posturing."
"So you think you have me calculated?" he raised his eyebrow, pressing her even closer.
"I have peered into your very heart," she smiled back, placing a feather-light kiss on his lips, "seen and cherished what you refuse to give voice to."
The silent pain creeping onto his features did not escape her.
"Then you are it's echo," he said, "to resonate what has been buried deep within long ago. Things I never thought I would ever be capable of" He brushed a strand of hair from her face fondly, peering into her eyes, conveying what tongue was incapable of voicing.
"Like love," she whispered, gently cupping his face, her expression etched with understanding.
It never ceased to overwhelm him how easily she could read his thoughts.
"And having some measure of honor in seeing the blood I shed makes difference to some," he nodded slowly before expression darkened, "There are other ways I have been reason for blood to spill. Things that will forever haunt memory"
Her heart constricted, knowing all too well where the direction of his thoughts drifted.
She took him in her arms, slowly running her fingers up his back, each stroke meant to soothe and calm troubled nerves. He clung to her small frame, his arms winding around her tightly, afraid to have them without her touch. They stood like that for a moment.
Closing her eyes, she asked the gods for what she desired beyond everything else.
Still holding her, he opened his eyes briefly, gaze resting upon the prayer table.
He looked at her questioningly.
"You made blood sacrifice during my absence?"
She shook her head, "Not since Melia Ridge," she paused before adding, "on your account."
"I stand grateful the gods saw us from expected defeat that day and despite knowing your prayers had hand in this, I will not have your blood be the price for anything." he peered at her, his concerned expression almost her undoing, "Not ever"
It was only her radiant smile that put him at ease, "I will not have you worry so I made do with alternative ritual, " she raised her eyebrows disapprovingly, "one that, I would have you know, took more then twice the time and tenfold the energy that a few drops of blood would have balanced"
"A compromise I would always see struck," he said with a wicked smile, "perhaps even lending opportunity to kiss each ounce of exhaustion away from your limbs upon night?"
"And since when have you required opportunity?" she shook her head smiling, kissing his temple before taking his hand.
She knew what she was about to do would disarm him completely, yet it had to be done. Over the course of months since love had blossomed between them, she had garnered him as a man full of complexities. To the world, he appeared as a man content with the life he led, one filled with easy laughs and a constant thirst for blood, yet there was a sadness behind the mask he presented, something he soon discovered she had unraveled.
She would never ask him about it. She was well versed with the ways of the world to realize that some memories run so deep that if exposed, when heart is unwilling, only causes it to bleed. So she patiently waited for when the moment would finally come, when Gannicus himself would bind his heart to hers in sorrow as well as happiness.
And that moment came.
It came as naturally as though the gods themselves had planned it. There was no detail left uncovered, no crevice of his heart left unexplored that night, and she held him close till the break of dawn, his pain now her own in every way that mattered.
The whispers of his past did not frighten her. All she felt was the bond of affection growing ever stronger between them as days went by, each look carved with more tenderness and understanding, every touch imprinting their lasting connection to one another.
With her, he could finally forget. But even she knew, deep down, that he would not forgive.
This is what had moved her to do what she did. To make loving effort to make him understand. And perhaps, in small measures, loosen the chains he still clung to.
She registered his confused expression as she silently led him to the prayer table.
Offering final plea to the heavens, she mustered up the strength to confess.
"I but made offering for memory of one that troubles thoughts."
Gannicus looked at the offering in the bowl and the flickering candles and his gaze shot up at her and then back, his expression going soft.
As understanding dawned, he slowly swallowed, feeling nothing but parched throat. The emptiness that he had felt for so long was gradually filling up with her by his side, yet what she held before him now washed over him completely.
He felt her hand tighten around his as she looked at him, her voice barely above a whisper.
"You loved her" she said, "despite everything you have endured, that will always remain true. That is what she would have wanted you to remember. Not the pain nor guilt, not even her death. But the love that beat in your heart for her."
Moving closer to him, she looked into his eyes and with a voice close to trembling said, "You learned to love because of her Gannicus, for the first time you found purpose other than a life of blood and battle," she gently caressed the side of his face, trying to discern his thoughts, "Above all, she was dearest friend, one with whom you shared some of the happiest moments of this life."
She bowed her head, a tear slowly making its way down her cheek, "I have never known her in this life, yet through the words and stories of your past, I have garnered a love for her that astounds." She looked up, her gaze colliding with his "but one that feels real" With tears trickling down still, she shook her head half laughing, "You must think me a fool, for binding myself as such to your memories of her."
He let the meaning of her words sink in, absorbing each like man starved.
She could always surprise him and for the first time in many years, Gannicus stood completely and utterly paralyzed.
How could he possibly find words to tell her how this moved him?
Seconds stretched into eternity before he finally found his voice. Clasping her chin as he was oft to do, he made her look at him, his thumb wiping away at the glistening drops on her face.
"In doing so you but bind yourself ever closer to my heart. If such a thing was even possible" he took her in her arms, stroking her hair as she melted into them.
"I have given my entire life to the will of the gods, to serve and love them with everything I have. Yet I question their will when it came to wresting all you held dear from reach," she burst out, "I see the way you look at Crixus, at Spartacus, they are your brothers." She paused, lifting her head to look at him, "Yet when you speak of Oenamaus and Melitta, it is not just bonds of brotherhood, it runs deeper than that. Much deeper." They were your family, she thought.
"I would gladly die for my brothers and battle thousands in their honor." A longing pain was fixed upon expression, his easy grin forgotten. "yet nothing would ever hold the place in my heart I have for Oenamaus and Melitta. They were my closest friends," a sad chuckle escaped him, "Melitta even ventured to say once that they were the only true friends I ever had."
"Of that I have no doubt," Sibyl finally smiled, "your brashness is only too easy to read for some despite your fondest wish to prove otherwise."
"Gratitude," he whispered, gathering her close and resting their foreheads together, "I had forgotten time of year amidst this war."
She smiled at him, her eyes earnest, "If memory serves right, you spoke of how it was in the month of Janus, god of the sky, that you earned your freedom. I remember you said Melitta would have favored that moment since you stood amidst blazing fire under the full moon, the crowd chanting your name as champion," she explained, "it made for vivid memory, not easily forgotten."
Gannicus frowned, his confusion slightly unnerving her.
A little cautiously, she continued, "and I recalled you mention she left this world two nights before." Trying to read his expression, she softly added, "when we entered Janus this year, I had begun marking the moon to be sure we made offering upon right moment."
She flushed slightly, not entirely sure if disclosure of the extent to which she had planned this would please or alarm.
Hearing his chuckle, she chanced a glance at him, and saw the warmth radiating from his eyes.
Without word, he bent down and pressed his lips to hers, every brush and touch meant to convey how her actions moved him. Here she was, counting days to bless a woman she had never met, a woman he had loved before his heart had found her own. For him.
Only she could have the heart and strength to do this, he mused silently, as his lips continued to ravish hers.
Never could he fully understand the power she held over him, her mere presence acting as balm to aching soul. Little by little, she had begun sealing his shredded heart, healing pain he had grown accustomed to.
There is no one like her, he thought. There is only her. And she loves him.
His lips still pressed to hers, he softly murmured, "I do not deserve you."
"That shall never be for you to decide," she returned, and he felt her smile against his lips.
"Come," she slowly untangled herself from his grip, "before appointed hour slips and dearest friend is left without your offering."
This is the moment she knew he anticipated. He scarcely ever prayed, yet it fascinated him to watch her as she did so. Now, however, he must jump off cliff and embrace it. If not for himself, but for Melitta.
"She would have done the same for you," she said warmly, trying to ease his nerves as he stood next to her, utterly clueless.
"I said prayers from both of us, much like I did on behalf of Spartacus on Melia Ridge." she said, her hold on his hand tightening to give comfort, "I did not know when you would
return but since you have, it would carry more meaning for her if you said the words."
"Sibyl... I. I do not..." he stammered, his look flustered
"There is no cause to falter," she said gently, cupping the side of his face, "you but need to repeat the words I say and follow my instructions."
He still looked uncertain of this, and she let out a small laugh, "Did you know I spilled the entire offering on my mother's lap when I said my first prayer? It was cause for much unpleasantness since we were in the company of many. Ever since, she had me deliver blessings each night so I would grow accustomed to it."
He raised his eyebrows at her disclosure, "So you would have me practice every night as well?"
"When you hardly ever let me leave our bed and pray at that hour?" she said laughing, "This once is enough for now. It is a funeral prayer, not meant for yourself but for one you hold dear."
His face turned grave as he looked at her and she took his hands and slowly folded them like hers had been. She asked him to bend his head in reverence, to close his eyes, and to repeat after her.
All this time, she gazed at him fondly as he said the words. With each prayer, she explained the meaning to him, and with his eyes still closed he would nod silently, the
significance of her words resonating deep within him.
And slowly yet steadily, Gannicus felt the invisible tethers over him unfolding. He had not expected it.
For the longest time he had felt exhilaration at sound of clashing steel and gushing blood. He was like a storm and the battlefield his arena to demolish and conquer. He had created this delusion for himself and he sought to pacify himself with it; to bury what was left of him in it and never awaken.
Yet now simple words seemed to exert similar effort. Words he had never uttered nor had cause to voice. His pain, his longing, and everything he kept dark and hidden was slowly unveiling itself in a way he did not fully comprehend. They were her words, not even his own. But they were coming from inside him, things left unspoken long before, which had grown mute with time but had never ceased to exist.
He listened intently as she explained the words to him and he inhaled each with a hunger he did not know he possessed. Was it for the prayers she offered? Or was it for something deeper he had craved his entire life?
Storm. That was him, and she, she was as a soothing breeze. Calm and pacifying like nothing before.
His heart welled at each spoken word, he had forgotten the last time he had prayed for Melitta. Thoughts about her were always wrenched in guilt and self loathing, not leaving room for any other emotion or action. Every year when Janus drew near, he would feel his pain grow, but never had a prayer escaped his lips. He had been too occupied dwelling on bad memories to recall good ones, forgetting even to ask for her peace, if not his own.
And this year would have passed the same. Had it not been for Sibyl.
He felt her take his hands and asked him to open his eyes. It was time for the offering. They did not have the luxury of attaining copious essentials to present for the ritual, but they would make do with what they had.
"She would understand", he heard Sibyl whisper gently, as if reading his thoughts.
She guided his hands into lighting new candles and burning the incense, and slowly the fragrant smoke surrounded them. He looked at her hesitantly as he held his offering and upon seeing her reassuring smile, he added what little they had to sacrifice.
When ritual was almost complete, Sibyl told him that her words had ended and now it was time for ones that came from his own heart.
His silent prayer.
And for the first time in Gannicus's life, his heart did not barricade the words that tumbled forth. For the first time, he was not afraid to ask for her forgiveness, to let her know all he had so keenly felt all these years.
He thanked her for having been in his life, for showing him that he was capable of love. He blessed her for all the good memories she had shared with him in this life and above all, he prayed for her peace. A prayer he had denied her all these years. A prayer he had felt unworthy of voicing.
It was odd how he could feel connected to her through something as simple as some words and this stretching silence. Yet he could feel the intensity of it taking over him.
Faith. Perhaps that is what they call it, he mused.
When he finally opened his eyes upon completion, he saw Sibyl's gaze transfixed upon him. He was drained and she could sense that. Years of not having said anything was bound to take it toll, yet heart felt as though a terrible burden had lifted.
He felt a strange feeling brewing inside, slowly unclasping chains and allowing room to breathe. After having done nothing for so long, having done this felt like something. And it was enough for now.
There was a certain pride in the way Sibyl looked at him, her eyes telling him she understood how difficult yet fulfilling this feat had been. He smiled back at her.
Gently swooping her into his arms, he took her to their bed.
"She would have loved you," he said, lying next to her. "It stands fact that she had part in sending you my way"
Sibyl laughed poking him lightly on his chest, "and how do you conjecture that?"
Gannicus pressed her closer, "only she could have the foresight to see how easy it would be for you to possess my heart."
Her hands fondled lovingly in his hair, releasing its bound strands as he looked at her, "Gratitude," he said again, his eyes burning into hers.
"Oenamaus and Melitta are a part of you Gannicus. You hold them in your heart like no other, but it does not do to dwell only on painful memories. I but sought to remind you of the ones to cherish, in hope that it may ease weight of all that you bear."
She caressed the side of his face, "some words, if kept sealed, can be a powerful predicament. The same if granted voice can help provide answer."
"Had it not been for your patience, I would not have the strength to unlock them," he admitted, linking their fingers.
"You have always had it," she returned playfully, "but at times even the most ferocious warriors require swaying."
"Ah," he chuckled, wrapping his fingers in her long braid, slowly unraveling it, "And where would you stand to hold such power over stubborn subject?"
Sibyl merely shrugged and she pulled him in for a sweet kiss, his hands already moving with purpose to shed her dress.
He pulled away briefly,
"You stand above all," he stated simply looking into her brilliant eyes, before reaching for her again.
She did not know, but the gods had heard her.
This night, they gave Gannicus the taste and the beginning of all that she had always desired.