"Take my sons, I beg you," said Norma; "take them to Pollione, take them with you when you go with him to Rome!"
Norma looked at Adalgisa pleadingly, her heart wrenched. For herself she would ask nothing; she accepted that Pollione had abandoned her. She would die. But at least, she thought, Adalgisa might convince Pollione not to abandon his children.
But Adalgisa had a mulish look on her face, a look Norma knew well; she had often seen it while Adalgisa was an acolyte priestess and knew she was about to say something Norma would disagree with. "No, never!"
Norma drew in a breath -- was she saying that she would leave Norma's children to be doomed? -- but Adalgisa went on. "Please, Norma, let me go to Pollione, let me tell him of your love. He will leave me and cleave to you, he will!"
Norma shook her head. She felt inside of her a great coiling love and anger towards Pollione. She had thought Pollione was not like that, but now she looked at herself and Adalgisa as Pollione must see them: Adalgisa, with her sweet lovely face, young body, and large liquid eyes staring fervently into Norma's; and Norma herself not so much older, to be sure, but her own body bearing the marks of bringing two children into the world. And she had never been as lovely as Adalgisa. She could see why Pollione had loved her.
But Adalgisa herself was blameless; she had known nothing of Pollione's treachery. She was the girl Norma had known since childhood, the girl who had grown up in the tribe a few years younger than her, though they had not become close friends until they both entered the order of the priesthood. But they were close as sisters now; they had been priestesses together when the great sickness came to the tribe and they were the ones who had to intercede with the gods and nurse the sick ones to health; they had together seen the Romans come to this part of Gaul, and clutched at each other's hands at the altar, knowing dimly what this must mean for their people sooner or later: axes and swords and blood.
These bonds could not be broken in a moment, not even by Pollione. She found she could still care what happened to Adalgisa. "Ah, my dear -- but what of you?"
"I loved him -- my soul now feels only friendship."
Norma knew that Adalgisa was not telling the truth, much as she would have liked it to be true. She knew, none better, the all-consuming love that Pollione inspired, and her heart twisted within her again thinking of how Adalgisa must be hurt. "Adalgisa, what will you do?"
Adalgisa whispered, "I want to give back to you what is yours; or else I swear to hide myself with you from heaven and men forever."
The other thing, Norma remembered, was that when Adalgisa had that look on her face, when she disagreed with Norma though Norma was the elder priestess, she was usually right.
She could feel a change taking place in her. Her soul had been on fire since she understood how Pollione had betrayed both of them, but now something in it was soothed. She knew Adagisa meant with all her will to give back Pollione to her; she knew the sweetness and purity of Adalgisa's spirit from all their days as priestesses together, and she recognized it again now in Adalgisa's generosity. And yet at Adalgisa's oath, she found her heart yearning towards the picture Adalgisa's words conveyed, of them both going away from men and the world of war they lived in.
Norma placed a hand on Adalgisa's cheek; Adalgisa closed her eyes. "My dear-- you have won. Embrace me; I have found my friend again."
Adalgisa moved into her arms, and Norma felt the warmth and softness of the body against hers, Adalgisa's heart beating against her own. Norma's hand came up to rest on her shoulder. Adalgisa said, so low that Norma would not have heard her had her lips not been against Norma's ear, "For the rest of my life I wish only to stay with you."
A shock ran through Norma. She had thought only to die and leave her children with Adalgisa, but -- but perhaps there was something else, perhaps death was not the only way. "Yes," Norma murmured, "the earth is very wide, to shelter us together. Shall we go from here together, my dear?" Somehow, without knowing how or why, she had started to weep, the tears falling down her cheeks without her consent.
"Yes," Adalgisa said, shivering, looking at Norma. She reached out and wiped Norma's tears away with her thumb, and at the touch Norma shivered as well. "Yes, I will go with you, wherever you go, whatever you do, if you will have me."
Norma said slowly, "I know of a place, several days' walk away. Perhaps a week away, at the pace the boys would set. I came across it during my initiation rites. At the edge of a wood. There are edible plants enough there, and game and fish in abundance. Two of us, together, could construct a shelter there, before the rains came --"
Adalgisa's heart was troubled and unhappy as Norma spoke. Ah, Pollione! she thought. Pollione, I thought I loved you, and yet -- and yet, there was Norma, as there had always been Norma --
From her earliest days she remembered Norma, the older girl in the tribe that Adalgisa had most looked up to, had most wanted to be like. She had followed Norma everywhere, as a very small child, and thought the other girl was perfect. Norma had been carelessly kind to her, once pointing out a fox in the woods to her, once showing her how to plait together grass and flowers to make a crown, but had otherwise not seemed to notice the small Adalgisa.
Adalgisa had thought as a girl that she might be a huntress of the tribe, but when Norma had become a priestess, as Adalgisa herself came to womanhood, Adalgisa had thought for the first time that she might also do so. By the time this happened, she had shed some of her childhood hero-worship of Norma. But as she grew in her realization of what she was meant to do, as she started to understand that indeed the goddess' voice rose within her, and as she became closer friends with Norma, she understood that Norma was indeed worth all her friendship and love. Not because Norma was perfect, as Adalgisa's girlhood self had thought, but because Norma was, in all her imperfections, herself; fierce and quick to anger, and even quicker to love, generous to a fault. And when Norma sang the prayers of the goddess at the altar, at the time of the new moon, there was something in Adalgisa's heart that vibrated to the clear pure sound of Norma's voice in the darkness.
And Pollione --
She had thought she loved Pollione, the caresses of his large hands on hers, the way he had drawn her to him. He had betrayed her, by not being free to love her when he had said he was, but that she might have forgiven. If it were only that, she might have gone back to him. But he had betrayed not only her but the person above all that she would never have wanted to hurt, and whom she had hurt more deeply than she had imagined possible without knowing it.
She could not go with him. She could not go with one who had hurt Norma. She did not know what to do. She had wept and prayed in the woods, asking the god of the wind and the goddess of the moon to give her guidance; but they had been silent.
Then Norma had summoned her. And as Norma spoke of the place she knew of, spoke of how they could live there, away from all the heartbreak and anguish, she could discern a faint ray of hope among the despair that had clouded her mind, and Norma's too. Perhaps they could, after all, find a way; perhaps they could find a way together, the two of them.
But she thought of the others of the tribe, and she could not help but worry for them as well. "What of our tribe? What of the Romans?" Adalgisa asked. "Pollione is departing, but a new proconsul is replacing him, and without you or me, what will happen to our people? We cannot just leave them without a word, Norma."
Norma said uneasily, "But Pollione will try to move against us if we stay, I know he will. And I am a priestess who is forsworn, so perhaps the priestesses who remain are better for them, after all."
"No," Adalgisa said urgently, "do not say that, Norma." She knew that Norma had gone against her vows, but still her heart refused to believe that the goddess would wholly abandon her priestess.
Norma hesitated for a long moment. "Adalgisa, there is one thing -- I remember, Pollione called you a maiden, when we all spoke together, and I --" She cut herself off. "Did you do aught, with him, that would lead to children, to having a child?"
"No," said Adalgisa, blushing. "He -- he kissed me. That is all." She glanced sideways at Norma, thinking that Norma would not like to hear that Pollione had kissed her, and found herself looking at Norma's lips, wondering about Pollione kissing Norma.
But Norma's mind had gone ahead in a different direction. "Then," said Norma, "perhaps the god has not forsaken you. Pray, Adalgisa," said Norma fiercely. "Pray to Irminsul, pray to the goddess, that she will forgive your offense, that you may lead the people one last time. And I, too, shall pray for you, dear heart."
Adalgisa knelt before Norma, who put her hand gently on Adalgisa's shoulder. But Adalgisa did not follow Norma's command, and had she only seen her own face, she would have seen the set, mulish look that Norma was familiar with. Instead she prayed for Norma. O goddess, she said silently in her mind, I have been taught that you are a goddess who is quick to anger, but also quick to mercy. Forgive and defend Norma, for the sake of her love for Pollione, for the sake of her love for her sons, for the sake of my love for her. Forgive and defend our people, for the sake of our love for them.
But she did not feel the coming of the god, as sometimes she had felt it when performing the rites in the temple; she felt nothing, only a vast calmness, as if her body and mind had been emptied of all the surges of emotion and frantic thought that had occupied it.
But Norma drew in a breath, and Adalgisa felt Norma's hand tighten on her shoulder. "Adalgisa," she said, tension thrumming through her voice, "this is the way; follow me."
"What?" said Adalgisa blankly, and then, "Yes, of course, Norma --" but Norma had already gone, and Adalgisa ran after her as she made her way to the sacred grove.
And as Adalgisa entered the temple she heard in her ears the great deep sound as if the heavens themselves shook; she heard Norma striking the sacred shield of Irminsul.
As Adalgisa hastened to her usual place, Norma stood tall and silent at the altar of the god as the people hurried near, drawn by the sound she had made. Norma's father Oroveso was one of the first to come near the altar; he stayed a respectful distance away, staying with the rest of the people of the tribe, but his eyes rested on Norma, questioning. Why has the sacred gong of Irminsul been sounded?
When all had come to the grove, Norma said, her voice ringing out across the sacred grove, "Hear, O my people! I come to call you to war, and also to peace."
The people shuffled uneasily. Finally one of them said, "O Norma, how can this be? What is your meaning?"
"Oroveso, come forth!"
Frowning, her father stepped forward from the crowd and stood before her.
"Is it your will and the will of this people that you throw off the Romans' yoke?"
"Yes!" Oroveso said immediately. "Indeed it is our will." And the people behind him murmured assent.
Norma's face, in the darkness, was like stone, Adalgisa thought: almost completely still and unmoving. "Here is the sign, my people: I, Norma, speak it. You, Oroveso, my father, shall lead these people; you shall travel from this place to speak with other tribes, and forge an alliance with the tribes around us. You shall seek out those who would ally with us. You shall find those who know of the Romans' tactics, and use their knowledge. You shall join with them, and only then shall you move against the Romans."
Muffled sounds of dissent came from the crowd. "But," Oroveso said hoarsely, "we have old feuds with them, bad blood between us."
"These must be forgotten, should you wish to overcome the Romans," said Norma, her voice carrying to the corners of the grove. "And more: if the Romans come against us in war, we shall fight, but if they accept a truce, then you shall not fight them, so long as they go from our land and leave us in peace."
There were more sounds of dissent, and Oroveso raised his head, as if he would speak against her. Norma said, "Will you desire to kill for the sake of killing, or will you take peace if the goddess offers it?"
At this all were silent. Finally Oroveso dropped to his knees before her. "I hear and obey," Oroveso muttered, and then rising again: "Then will you not fulfill the rite?"
Norma wavered, and she turned her head; and her eyes met Adalgisa's. Adalgisa stared back, her heart filled with misgiving, for she knew, beyond hope or pity, what was in Norma's eyes, and what victim she had in mind for the god's sacrifice, now that she no longer wished her own death. And yet, though Pollione had hurt them both -- had hurt Norma even more than herself -- she could not find it in her to wish him dead, and she also thought that, perhaps, it was not what the god asked for either, not now, not in this place, if what Norma spoke was true. Adalgisa stepped forward. "No. For these tasks must be discharged before vengeance is claimed. Only when these words are accomplished shall the rite be fulfilled, and in that hour the victim of the altar will be made known to you, and the priestess who will see the ritual to completion." And she saw out of the corner of her eye Norma inclining her head slowly in assent.
Oroveso's eyes shifted from Norma to Adalgisa, and back again. "The priestess who will see the ritual to completion: not you, Norma?" Oroveso questioned, and the people murmured behind him.
"Not I," answered Norma from behind Adalgisa. "For this is the other sign: Adalgisa and I will depart, will go away from you. But the other priestesses of this tribe shall carry on the work and the ritual, if so called by the god. And now I make an end of speaking."
And such was the power she held, that all the people of the tribe stood still while Norma walked through them, head high, looking neither to the left nor to the right; and Adalgisa followed her.
And in that moment Adalgisa knew with finality that she would follow Norma to the ends of the earth and back, if only she could stay with her, if only she might love her: not Pollione, no, no! but Norma, always Norma.
The four of them had walked all day. The boys had shouldered their packs without protest; they had caught some of the sense of urgency from the women, and did not whine or complain. For this Norma was grateful; she knew that it would not last forever, but it made the travel much easier.
The boys jabbered to each other as they walked, pointing out birds and throwing rocks into any small streams they passed over, but Norma and Adalgisa were mostly silent. Adalgisa was usually something of a chatterbox, and Norma looked at her and worried.
Late in the day, they found a flat place to spread out their bedding. The boys lay down and were immediately asleep, exhausted by the day's activity. Norma and Adalgisa sat up a while longer, silently, their shoulders touching. Norma looked at the stars overhead; they were large and bright. A part of her was comforted knowing that the same stars shone over their tribe, wherever they were and whatever they were doing. A little while later she realized how tired she was, after all, from all that had happened, and said as much to Adalgisa. "Good night, my friend," she said, embracing the other woman, and she lay down and was engulfed by oblivion.
She woke later that night to the sound of suppressed weeping. Her first thought was worry for her children, which woke her to complete alertness; but a moment later she understood they slept on, oblivious to the world.
She sat up. Beside her, Adalgisa lay curled into a ball, crying as if her heart would break, and trying to muffle the sound of it. "Adalgisa, my dear, my dear." She gathered Adalgisa into her arms, stroked Adalgisa's hair. "What is it?"
Norma realized after saying the words how nonsensical they sounded. Adalgisa had had her world turned upside down; she had left her lover, and the world she had known, all for Norma; a terrible bargain. She said, haltingly, trying to put some of this into words, "I know you loved him, Adalgisa. I loved him too; he was not worth your love, nor mine, and yet we still loved him. I understand, my dear."
Adalgisa clung to her, her head against Norma's breast, and Norma kissed her brow and hair, and covered Adalgisa's hand with her own. "Do you regret going with me?" Norma asked gently. "You need not have gone with me. You could go back, to the tribe. The boys and I will be fine. You see how well they took the journey today."
"Oh no, no," Adalgisa whispered, "I could never regret that. I could never regret going with you, Norma. And Pollione, he will return to Rome when he sees we are gone; my heart has forgotten him, if ever it truly loved him. It is only that --"
"That we have lost so much, as well as gained," Norma said softly against her hair. "O Adalgisa, I would not wish you unhappy, not for anything."
"But I have gained much, as well as lost," said Adalgisa. "And learned things I did not know before --" She tilted her head back to look at Norma. "O Norma, I have at last come to understand my own heart." She took a deep breath. Norma could see, by the silver light of the moon, the pulse in Adalgisa's throat, beating like a trapped bird.
"I have always loved you," Adalgisa whispered, and kissed her on the mouth, and Norma's heart gave a great leap of surprised joy.
"Adalgisa," she murmured against Adalgisa's mouth, "I did not know -- I never thought --" And her heart too was made known to her, that it was not Pollione, not now, that she yearned for. She ran her hands over Adalgisa's body, the lovely curve of her hip, the softness of the hollow where her shoulder met her neck.
Adalgisa trembled, and kissed her mouth and her neck, and Norma suddenly could not touch her enough, her breasts and thighs and between her thighs, Adalgisa breathing hard, gasping as Norma taught her all she knew about desire and passion, and learning too what Adalgisa had to teach her, as their bodies touched and moved and came to completion together.
And in the silence and darkness as they lay together, tangled and sated, Norma knew that she was happy, happier than she had ever been, without guilt or fear. She touched Adalgisa's lips, and felt them curl up in a smile against her fingers, and knew that Adalgisa shared her happiness.
There is a small hut at the edge of a great wood near the Po River. It is regarded as holy by the inhabitants of this land. Two priestesses live there, with two boys who are rapidly growing up into manhood. Both the women and the youths are cheerful and pleasant, and they always have a kind word or a helping hand for anyone they meet. Though they keep to themselves for the most part, feeding themselves by foraging and hunting and trapping, sometimes the nearby villagers will come to them for counsel, and bring them food or other useful items as gifts. And sometimes, if there is a girl or a woman in distress, she will learn about the hut, and find her way there, and stay a while with them until she has recovered from whatever cruelty to body or soul drove her there.
The priestesses deny that they are priestesses, saying they are ordinary women only, but the villagers know better, for they came on the eve of the Great Alliance of the Gallic tribes, the alliance that made the truce with Rome. Surely, the villagers say, these priestesses were harbingers of these times, the messengers of the gods.
Peace-bringers, the people call them, and sometimes when they hear it, the women look at each other, and clasp hands, and smile.