They say history is written by the victors, and while that is often true, it is not always true. There are times in which the loser is yet the power most able to share the story, to write the event unfolding in such a way as to make their defeat seem more glorious than perhaps it truly was.
It suited the Roman Empire to believe Arminius of the Cherusci died at the hands of his allies, that his wife and child were lost to history, sent to Rome to live out the rest of their lives as naught but slaves. It soothed them to claim the legacy of one of their greatest foes was thus buried by the might of Rome and never again to challenge the Empire.
That is the history their scholars have written. But it is not the only tale told about Thusnelda and Arminius. It is not what their tribe, their still-independent Cherusci believe.
For there is history, and there is truth, and the latter is no weaker for never being recorded on paper.
This then, is the tale the Cherusci still tell around their fires. This is the truth they still know.
It begins, as all those with a womb know all life must, with pain.
Thusnelda bit her lip, refusing to cry out as yet another birthing pain snarled through her. Beside her, Aline bathed her forehead with a torn bit of cloth while her sister Grizel, the Cherusci midwife who’d been caring for Thusnelda when their village was discovered, lifted up Thusnelda’s skirt to check her progress again.
“Lady, we need to stop. I know you don’t wish to–”
Thusnelda interrupted her whispered words. “If they see a weakness, you know what they will do.” She shook her head and bit her lip again, unable to keep a whimper from escaping her this time. “You cannot ask them to stop, my friend. They will kill you if you do.”
“But mayhap not you,” Aline said softly. “We all heard their commander. You’re meant to survive the journey. If we tell them it will be your death if we do not stop…”
“It won’t be,” Thusnelda insisted.
“It might well be,” Grizel snapped back, her voice louder than she’d intended due to her vexation.
All three women, as well as the other women and boys crammed into the cage-like wagon, froze, hoping the soldiers would not be drawn by the sudden voice. After a beat, they all breathed sighs of relief, and Aline calmly finished her twice over interrupted words. “If we tell them, they may indeed let us tend to you to avoid that bastard Flavus’s rage.”
“And if they kill you for speaking up, even for me?” Thusnelda asked, her hand gripping Aline’s through another round of pain. Her words had Grizel’s eyes snapping up to look at her younger sister, who reached out a free hand to her lady’s cheek.
“Then I die here instead of being some Roman’s bed slave.” Aline’s voice was still calm, but there was a quaver in it now that she couldn’t hide. She’d never wanted a husband or a lover in all the time Thusnelda had known her, never wanted more than a home with her sister, and too, Thusnelda knew well Aline certainly never wanted an enemy in her bed. Death, indeed, might be preferable than that fate.
Thusnelda had wondered herself if she might better wish herself dead than captured, but as long as she lived, as long as her Arminius lived, there was a chance, however slight, that fate and their ancestors might see them reunited.
And too there was the babe within her. She dared not die before the child was safely born, and even then, without its mother to nurse upon, the babe would be good as dead.
No, Thusnelda needed to live, and would do all she must to make it so. She closed her eyes briefly and thought of her husband. He stood strong, towering over even their people, and so brave. Brave enough to challenge those who tried to remake him into their image.
Her husband was strong, and so must she be as well.
Thusnelda opened her eyes, and then threw back her head to shout. “Stop! Stop the cart. You must let us out!”
The effort of the shout exhausted her, and she slumped back against the walls of the cart even as the guards come stomping over to rattle the cage and demand silence. Aline was the one to ask them for help, as she’d as much as said she would be. “Sirs, she’s – General Flavus said she must be cared for. The baby’s coming, and the midwife says she’ll die if she tries to give birth in here.”
This paused the angry retorts, just as Aline had thought they would, and Thusnelda gave her a slow nod, barely more than a blink, of respect when after a few rounds of arguments and disgusted curses at the captives, the soldiers agreed and the cart came to a halt. “Get her out of there,” one of them ordered. “You two, go with her. Get the babe out of her, so we can get moving again.”
“I’ll need water,” Grizel said, not bothering to keep her scorn out of her voice as she and Aline helped Thusnelda carefully out of the cart. “Hot water if we can get it, and a knife to cut the cord.”
“If you think I’m handing you a knife, then you’re even stupider than I thought barbarians were supposed to be,” the nearest Roman scoffed.
Grizel leveled a steady stare at him. “Infection, as everyone knows – even stupid barbarians like me – is the greatest risk to a birthing mother. If I try to tear the child free with my bare hands, especially without getting water to wash them, then it’s as good as certain she’ll catch a birth fever and die, taking the child with her.” She raised her chin slightly, glaring down her nose at him. “Or do you want to be the one to tell your general that your carelessness caused the girl to die. All because you were too afraid to hand us a single knife.”
One of the other Romans huffed out a laugh, and the first scowled over his shoulder at him. After a moment, he turned that scowl back on Grizel before shouting at the men to start a fire and heat some of their rations of water. Then he drew his own knife and lunged forward to place it against Grizel’s neck, ignoring Thusnelda and Aline’s sharp gasps. Grizel never flinched, though, not even when he leaned forward and threatened all manner of awful death in her ears if she dared try to keep the knife instead of returning it.
“I am not a fool,” she said calmly, still ignoring the blade at her throat. “I know what I’m about. The only thing I’m after is keeping this one alive and delivering a living child.”
The soldier slowly removed his knife and handed it to Aline instead of Grizel, as if assuming it was only the midwife he needed to worry about. The three women deliberately didn’t not look at each other as the foolishness of his action sunk in. Instead, they went about the business of tending to Thusnelda’s labor. It was not long, though in such pain, even an hour can feel an eternity. The soldiers clearly thought it was taking an age, as they’d made camp after only a short wait, determined to sit about in comfort if they were forced to sit due to the inconvenience of childbirth.
Thusnelda kept her cries smothered as best she could, not wanting the soldiers to know how close to her time she was, knowing that any extra moment of time after birth would be needed by herself and her attendants. Finally, finally, Grizel told her one last time to push, and through her agony, Thusnelda felt her child slip free, followed by the afterbirth.
She waited, but the child didn’t cry, and her heart began to sink until Aline leaned in close to whisper, “You have a son, lady, strong but silent, as if he knows to keep quiet.”
Just like his father, she thought exhaustedly. Grizel and Aline bustled about washing off the child and cleaning up Thusnelda as best they could with the meager supplies they’d been given, all the while staying as quiet and unobtrusive as they could.
It was pure chance that had the soldier who’d begrudgingly loaned the knife wandering over to check their progress just as the women had finished their labors, as prepared for whatever happened next as they could be. There was a beat of silent surprised as the soldier realized the baby had already been born, and before he could open his mouth to speak, Aline surged up, his knife in hand to bury it in his throat. She held him carefully, sinking to the ground with him and propping him up in a parody of a kneel. The silence still held as the three women waited to see if his fellows would notice anything was wrong. Then they climbed carefully to their feet, the boy clasped carefully against Grizel’s chest, and Thusnelda standing under her own power through sheer force of will alone. Aline stooped to press a kiss to her sister’s forehead and the blade into her hand, and then leaned down to pull the soldier’s sword free and turn toward the lounging men about the fire.
There were few guards for a caravan of only slaves, and those slaves of poor value save for Thusnelda and the few boys. Fools that the Romans were, they would never guess their captives might be capable of fighting back, might be determined to escape.
Aline silently approached, then spun into action among them like a furious wind, her stolen sword biting into the flesh of the unwary soldiers.
Thusnelda and Grizel allowed themselves only a breath to watch her, knowing as they did that she would soon perish, as the Romans were still soldiers, and still outnumbered her. Then together, the pair turned and slipped into the forest.
They did not run, knowing that haste would only lead them to make mistakes, and knowing too that hunters always looked for movement, for fleeing prey to goad them into the chase. Soon, all too soon, the surviving Romans would think to count their prisoners, would realize their prized captive was out of their reach. They would never expect Thusnelda, so soon after giving birth, to move as fast as she could, as she forced herself to because she must, even with another woman to aid her.
The hours and days blurred together, as off in the distance the shouts of their pursuers drove them onward, ever onward, trusting their instincts to keep marching north to home and freedom. They barely paused to sleep when night fell, and Thusnelda nursed the boy while they walked. Every footstep led them that much closer to Germany, and that much farther from Rome.
Thusnelda still bled from the birthing, still felt her life’s blood seeping from her core, a sacrifice she gladly paid for the life of her child. She found herself more than grateful for Grizel’s knowledge of the plants they passed as they crept through the forest. They didn’t dare a fire for teas or poultices, but many herbs and barks could be eaten raw, their nutrients released as Thusnelda dutifully chewed them down and swallowed. The forest offered the battered trio more than medicine, too. Late summer turning to autumn meant a crop ripe for harvesting all around them. They hunted their vegetable prey carefully as they went, avoiding the mushrooms that might stop their hearts while eagerly gathering those that were near as much a meal as the squirrels and doves might have been, had the women the snares or weapons to hunt them and the flame to cook them with.
Such gleanings made for meager meals, true, but it was enough to keep Thusnelda’s milk flowing for her son, enough to keep him full and happy and still so strangely quiet for a newborn. It was as if he somehow knew to keep silent except for his soft coos as Grizel rocked him on the march, freeing up Thusnelda’s strength except for when he needed to nurse.
They were all three of them filthy in a way that near had Thusnelda clawing at her skin, but the smell would make them even harder to track for the perfumed Romans hunting them.
If they still hunted them. Neither woman had heard or seen any sign of them in several days, and both silently prayed the soldiers had been forced to abandon their prey for now and instead hurried back to their master to report their failure.
Thusnelda wondered if Flavus would leave any of them alive. She had met the man that sweet boy had grown to be but once, and he’d not left the impression of a merciful man, just a merciless Roman soldier. It was strange to think her husband could have been the same when he returned to Germany; indeed had been forced to act as if he was to keep his ruse undiscovered as long as he had. For all Rome’s many faults, Thusnelda had to admit, they knew what they were about when it came to brainwashing the peoples they conquered. She silently praised all the gods and her ancestors that they had ultimately failed in their purpose with her Arminius.
She could not be certain of how far they were from the borders of her homeland, now. The pain of the wagon and the dizziness from hunger and her pregnancy had kept that knowledge from her. And yet.
It was as if her feet knew the way home.
There was a sparkle through the trees ahead and the scent of water as familiar to her as the smell of a hearth fire, as the unique tang of her son beneath the grime that was caking all three of them thanks to their retreat. She slowed her steps even more than exhaustion had already done, somehow terrified of what she would find when the forest ended. Grizel followed behind, eyes on the trail that had taken them here as opposed to the one ahead, knowing as Thusnelda did that the danger was truly behind them. They both wondered if they might have finally finally lost their pursuers, but neither dared believe it until they were well and truly safe.
Thusnelda broke the trees and all but reeled at the sight before her, clinging to her son to ground her.
Her feet, indeed, had known where they should lead. Before her like a glittering road in the sunlight was the Rhine. As unbelievable as that fact alone might be, even more stunning was that she knew this place, this individual bend of the river. One she had bathed in all her life, most recently with her Arminius watching over her.
She took a breath and stepped closer to the bank, knowing leaving cover might reveal her to their enemies but unable to resist the draw of their home on the other side. It took her another breath and a skip of her heart’s beat before she realized what else was drawing her gaze across the water.
There, in much the same spot as he’d always stood while she swam, was her husband. He didn’t see her, not yet, not with his head bowed and shoulders slumped beneath the weight of what she could only guess must be grief. For her, for their son, for any chance of brothers reuniting as proper Cherusci instead of enemies.
Thusnelda could not be surprised to find him there. There was an ache in her chest that said this was how it was always meant to be, that the forest itself would guide her home to him, that he would see his son and know they were together and a family once more.
Behind her, Grizel slipped from the trees, and it was her gasp at the sight of her leader that broke the silence, louder than either woman had dared allowed themselves to be on their flight from slavery. It was that sound that triggered another, as the babe in Thusnelda’s arms seemed to take it as his invitation to finally cry out, a joyful squeal of delight at life itself that soothed his mother’s heart even as it brought his father’s head snapping up to stare across the river to them.
Even at that distance, Thusnelda’s eyes met those of her Arminius, met and held as tight as his arms always wrapped around her, as sure and safe as their future stretching out in front of him.
There was still a river between them of course, but that was an easy obstacle to ford. They were home, Thusnelda breathed with a sigh of relief. They were home.
There are no records that confirm such a tale, no written words to shout its truth to the world. Those that met the married pair later in life, long after Rome claimed Germania’s strongest son to have died, those did not dare to set pen to paper or even chisel to stone to tell the story.
They knew the danger of that truth, just as Thusnelda and Arminius knew it.
They would live their rest of their lives and die, in the falsifications of the Romans, but also in legend, in stories told around the hearth fires of their people.
The Cherusci know how they lived. And that is enough.