“…his resentment being heightened by personal motives, as Arminius had carried off his daughter who was betrothed to another.” (The Annals, Tacitus, 1.55)
I hated him the first moment I saw him. Erminatz - Arminius - the great prince of our tribe, stolen then returned to us a Roman. We were mere barbarians at his proud Roman feet, bowing and scraping before the vaunted Equestrian. He was a red cloak and plumed helmet sent to take our money, round up our boys for service, and enslave our people under the Roman yoke. Like all Romans, he was a thief with an army. He cut his hair and shaved his face. He smelled of their bathing oil and drank their wine. He even spoke like one of them.
Yet, for all his Romanization, he was undeniably, unforgivably Cherusci. The Romans couldn’t stunt his growth and the way he towered over everyone but the German auxiliaries under his command, who still stood shorter. They couldn’t hide his stormy blue eyes, eyes unnaturally bright to their own people. They couldn’t diminish the way he shown gold from his skin to his hair, like Donar himself come to stand among little lumps of self-important coal. It must have been humiliating for the Roman boys he was raised alongside.
Hate, I later learned, is quite similar to love. In his own infuriating way, Erminatz always knew this. He was surprised the first time he caught me scowling at him. After that, he met my sneer with a smile. He took an absurd delight in those early unspoken exchanges.
After that, falling in love with him was easy. First, my father, Segestes forbid me to see him.
“You are betrothed,” he hissed, “and even if you weren’t, I would never allow that two-faced princeling to get one past me.” He’d gotten great sums of my father’s money and crops, but that was neither here nor there.
Then he made me laugh.
He approached me within days of my father’s strict admonition and like a dutiful daughter, I made no effort to avoid the man, just as he was a font of excuses to run into me.
“Is that him?” Erminatz took a loud bite of an apple and pointed with the fruit toward Reimar, my intended, where he stood at the edge of the village with a few Cherusci men. Reimar came to visit my father and brother every third turn of the moon from his own Chatti lands.
I paused my milking long enough to look from Erminatz to Reimar and back again. Erminatz had nearly two hands height on Reimar and a decade of muscle honed from brutal Roman training, but Reimar had an impressive beard, even more so than his chieftain father. Reimar would make me a queen. Reimar was a true Germanian son. “Yes.” I turned back to my work. The goat mewled and gave me a gentle head-butt against my shoulder.
Erminatz took another bite, crunching away. “Really? He doesn’t look like much.” He leaned indolently against the barn gate. Reimar kept shooting worried looks from across the village, but he was busy helping with the fruit harvest. “Reimar, son of Reginald, chief of the Chatti. He is a coward. He would be a Roman bitch if not for his father.”
I was done with the goat, which gave me an opportunity to scoff at this ridiculous creature. Before ushering the animal away to take the next one, I leveled a hard gaze up and down Ermanitz’s long form and smacked the Roman eagle on his boiled leather breast plate.
“Fair enough.” He raised his hands in surrender and tossed the apple core into the goat pen. “He is a coward, though.”
I bit my tongue but couldn’t stop the eye roll. I tried to focus on my work, but his mere presence was incendiary. “Why? Why is he a coward?”
“Watch this.” He stood straight and crossed his thick arms across his chest. His plumed helmet sat next to him on the fence, blowing gently in the spring breeze, belying the authority that came with it. The easy, open expression he wore only with me vanished into a solid wall broken only by a pair of ice blue eyes narrowed to dangerous slits, his jaw turned to granite. He took a breath through his nostrils, then released it in a thunderous bark, “EY.” I’d heard the Romans shout like this at each other, usually when they wanted some junior soldier to come running like his tail end was on fire, but I’d never been this close and, in my defense, I wasn’t expecting it. I must have jumped three feet in the air, which was hilariously overshadowed by Reimar’s reaction.
From clear across the village, like Erminatz’s shout had been shot by a bow, Reimar jumped and whirled in our direction, then tangled in his own feet and fell clean over.
Erminatz guffawed and turned his grinning, beaming face at me. I had to clap a hand over my mouth to quell my own laughter. I turned away so Reimar could not see my amusement at his expense. Erminatz had drifted so close to me we nearly collided. I did not want to step away from him. I didn’t even think of it. I wonder now what I must have looked like in his eyes, shining with unconstrained laughter. He looked so happy that day, so pleased with himself for finally eliciting something other than an angry dismissal from me.
“You’re terrible!” I smacked his chest again, but it was all a poor farce in the face of my giggling.
He caught my hand in his and held it where it landed. The day felt markedly warmer just then. “You do like me. I know the truth now.”
He was right, and I could not hate him for it.
After several months, I pieced together his rebellious plot from my father and brother’s conversations. I didn’t tell him for nearly a year, but that was when I knew I loved him.
“How did you find out?” he asked. His face was a knot of concern. His eyes shifted, scanning, searching for interlopers. There were none. There never were at this little bend in the river. We had been meeting here every time he reappeared in my village.
“My father rants about you every chance he gets.”
He was chagrined but not surprised. After a long silence, he pulled a necklace over his head and held the icon in his hand, rubbing it between his thumb and forefinger. “You know what’s coming, then?” I nodded. The auxiliary encampments had been cleaning and packing, ready to leave with the legions within the month to their winter barracks. “So you know why I can’t marry you yet. I want you to have this.” He held out the necklace to me.
It was Donar’s hammer. I felt my mouth tick up in a smile. No other god would suit Erminatz. I slipped the chain over my head, tugging my heavy golden braid free. “You can’t marry me at all. I am marrying Reimar tomorrow.” It pained me to speak the words aloud, but I kept my voice and manner light. This wedding brought the leaders from all the Cherusci villages, the Chatti, and most of our tribal neighbors. My father took it as an additional insult that Erminatz was capitalizing on the occasion to finalize his battle strategy with my wedding guests.
“Scheiß auf ihn.” Erminatz spit on the ground on his other side, away from me. “I can take you to my father’s longhouse today and post guards. No one would dare-”
“No.” I shook my head. I wanted to hold him and kiss him. We had avoided this conversation for nearly a year, dancing around it, offering each other non-answers for these questions. “It’s too late to repair your relationship with Segestes, but you cannot lose the Chatti.”
“I don’t give a shit about the Chatti!” his voice rose and he pushed to his feet in his agitation. He paced back and forth on the wet, sandy riverbank before me. “They haven’t even committed to fight unless I’m already winning. I’ve planned to win without them. And since when are you a military tactician? You don’t even know-”
He was still ranting when I stood and took his hands in mine. He abruptly stopped and looked at me. Fear, anger, hurt, and confusion warred on his face, emotions he hid well from everyone but me. “I don’t need to be a Roman officer to know that you need every warrior you can find and I know the Chatti bring nearly 5,000 men. It would be foolish to make enemies of them.”
His expression softened. He reached forward to take a curly lock of my hair between his fingers. “You would marry Reimar just to help me win a single battle?”
“Yes,” I said. There was no question there for me. When I learned more about his plans, it quickly became clear what I’d have to do. It gave me a sense of peace to know that although I may never love Reimar, I was doing the right thing for my people. For Erminatz.
He pulled me into his arms and pressed a kiss to my forehead. “I don’t deserve you, Thusnelda.”
We stayed like this for a long time. I memorized the way his hand rubbed up and down my back, the way he smelled of soap and saddle oil, the way his stubbled chin felt against my temple. These stolen moments were coming to a close and I could not show him how their loss would gut me.
“When we break camp,” he pulled away just far enough to look me in the eye, “please go to my mother. She knows what to do. She’ll keep you safe.” I hummed my consent, but it wasn’t enough. He tilted my chin up, forcing me to look at him. I knew I would never forget those eyes. “Promise me, Thusnelda. If I can’t convince you to marry me, can I at least convince you to stay hidden until I win?”
This made me smile. “My Erminatz, so audacious he believes he can defeat three legions, but will not simply steal his bride.”
“Only a scoundrel steals his bride. And I’d face ten legions easier than your wrath.”
That evening I sat at my father’s table, a safe distance from my intended, drinking ale far too quickly and praying to the thunder god to send me a scoundrel. Nobly sacrificing my life to keep Ermintaz’s plans from collapsing was less appealing than I thought it would be. The course of my life ran before my eyes. How was I supposed to live with this man as his wife? He couldn’t look me in the eye, but had no problem following the movement of the more buxom thralls. I grew up watching my father cow before everyone and anyone who could improve his standing with the Cherusci. Reimar would be no better. He and his weak father wouldn’t even help Erminatz until Erminatz no longer needed their help. They were soft men and I could not fathom how I was supposed to live my life on my knees beside them.
“Where are you going?” My brother blinked up at me as I pushed away from the table. Segestes fell silent, studying me through beady eyes.
“I just need air. I’m fine.” I didn’t have to look at my father to know he didn’t believe me, but he wouldn’t make a scene in front of so many guests.
I pushed and danced my way through the crowd until the cool autumn air hit me. I rubbed my hands up and down my bare arms. Winter would be upon us soon. It was strangely silent outside with everyone back in the longhouse. The wind whispered through the woods and an owl sang its eerie song somewhere in the distance.
A mad impulse overtook me: I could run to the auxiliary encampment in just a few hours. By dawn, I could be Erminatz’s wife instead of Reimar’s. Everyone was deep into their cups already, they wouldn’t notice my absence until I was well ahead of them. I could run straight through the woods and they would have to go around by horse. There was no time to get any of my things, but what would a few old dresses and trinkets matter when I was finally free?
I started walking right down the main road in the village without looking back to see if I was being followed. If I looked back, I might doubt myself and then I’d never leave.
Hoof beats thumped ahead of me on the dirt-packed road, but I could see neither horse nor rider in the shadows. I knew it was him before the torchlight revealed anything other than a tall, broad silhouette. Even without his armor he cut an impressive figure.
My feet picked up the pace and I was running to him before he dismounted. He caught me up in his arms, raining kisses on my cheeks, my temples, my hair, and finally my lips. He spun me around in a happy twirl and led me back to his horse.
We stopped next to the animal and Erminatz grinned down at me, then leaned in for a lingering, slow kiss. I would never love anyone the way I loved him. “You’ll marry me?” He broke off the kiss long enough to breathe the words into me. “Tonight?”
I answered him by pressing my lips against his again. “Yes. Yes, make me your wife.”
He lifted me onto the saddle so quickly and easily I could only squeak in surprise. He swung up behind me, took the reins in one hand and my waist in the other. Before urging the horse into action, he turned my chin to look at him. “Only a scoundrel steals his bride.”
“Then we are a matched set,” I said. “Since I ran to you willingly, I am a scoundrel, too.”
He threw his head back for a loud bark of laughter. Shouts rose up from the longhouse. Anyone else might have been frightened by the prospect of all those warriors running him to ground, but Erminatz just laughed more and squeezed his calves against the horse, spurring her into action.
We rode until the sun began its crest over the horizon and I never once looked back. There was only Erminatz in my future, and even now, I would have it no other way.
My father told anyone who would listen that Arminius took me by force; that I was dragged screaming from my family and rightful husband, but that’s simply not true.
You cannot steal that which is given freely.