Work Header

More Than Longing

Work Text:

Sometimes Murna nearly forgot that her husband was a Roman, one of the invaders from beyond the eastern waters. She never forgot that he was born Treveri, in northern Gaul, for his speech has never lost its Gaulish edge, but when she looked on him, his lean body inked with the patterns of the Selgovae, his hair worn in the same fashion as that of her father and brother, she could see nothing Roman left. He had sworn himself to the Selgovae, and to her, and she had two strong boys and a little girl-child for it, her own house-place and a bronze cauldron, a herd of cattle and bracelets of blue Egyptian glass.

Then the southerners came.

They were an odd pair, the eye-healer in his dirty saffron-colored braccae and scarlet cap and his long-haired British spear-bearer. The spear-bearer was clearly of the tribes, although Murna did not recognize the pattern of the tattoos curling out of the neck of his tunic.

“Good fortune on the house, and on the women of the house,” the healer said, politely but with a thick southern accent. “I am Demetrius of Alexandria, and it is my friend Esca Mac Cunoval who has just followed your husband back outside.”

“I am the only woman of this house,” Murna murmured as she spread a roe deerskin over the heather of the bed-place, that Demetrius might be able to sit, “but I thank you for your courtesy.” He seemed young for an eye-healer, but she supposed that mattered little, as they did not need his services.

“Your daughter is charming,” Demetrius offered, watching her at the fire. “What is her name?” She looked up for a moment from the stew, surprised; he could not know the tribes well, to ask such a thing. He was smiling, friendly, the firelight winking off the silver talisman shaped like an open hand that lay against his forehead.

“I call her my little bird,” she finally said cautiously, “for she is too young for a name.”

“My apologies,” Demetrius said, “it is not so among my people, in Greece.”

Under the scruffy beard Demetrius had the sharp-cut bones and dark, proud face of the Roman soldiers who had marched north these twelve years past, and left her a husband, bleeding like a deer wounded and let to run by a bad hunter.

Murna shivered, stirring the stew more vigorously than she had to. She did not think Demetrius was truly of Alexandria, and if he was Roman, if he knew about Guern, he might want to take her husband away.

They would not have him, she thought fiercely, but she smiled at him as a woman should to her guests, and said nothing.

All during that awkward meal, Guern and Demetrius spoke of hunting, and of happenings in the south, while Murna fed the girl bites of stew. Caiton sat with her, still young enough to think that helping to feed the baby was a great game, but over the course of the meal her elder son Matus overcame his wariness of the strangers and went to sit with Demetrius.

Every time Murna looked up she found Esca’s eyes on her, hungry. It was not the hunger of a man for a woman he could not have. She might almost have thought it was envy, akin to the way some of her neighbors eyed her bronze cauldron and her amber-headed pins, but what could he envy of hers, a man and the spear-bearer to an eye-doctor like this Demetrius of Alexandria? So long as there were sore eyes among the tribes, Esca would never know the ache of an empty belly, or the fear of a cold winter with no sheltering roof.

And then Demetrius would turn to him and say something and whatever pain Esca felt would be veiled by a quiet smile. Whatever bonds of love or loyalty tied Esca to Demetrius, they were stronger than his longing.

She glanced over at her husband, suddenly fearful of what she might see in his face--was he thinking of the south and stone-built cities?--but he was no friendlier than he was with guests in the ordinary way of things.

In the morning, the southerners left, and Murna stood there at the threshhold of her house-place, her daughter balanced on her hip, and felt the tension leave her, like water rushing from a broken cup. They were gone, and would not trouble her life again.

And then, carried on the breeze, she heard her husband whistling, that soldier’s marching-song he’d sung for her once, years ago, and which he always whistled when he was thinking of the past, but only when he thought she could not hear.

At night Murna lay curled under the bed-furs against her husband’s lean, wiry body. The Selgovae way of inking left faintly raised scars in the skin, and after their years together she could trace the spirals and lines of his tattoos by touch alone. He had bound himself to the Selgovae, she reminded herself, in oath and blood, and to her in flesh, by their two strong sons and their little daughter, the daughter Murna was sure in her heart would live to see her name-day, unlike the last babe.

She silently felt his scars under her fingertips, slightly rough, the planes and angles of his face, the curling hair on his chest, the strength of his arms, as if by touching him she could hold him to her forever. After a moment he caught her wrist and said in a sleep-husky voice, “Woman, do you mean to finish what you begin?”

And she was not so very tired after all, so she put her fears from her mind and bent to kiss him, thinking only of the comfort of his callused hands on her hips, his familiar touch that could still wake her blood after twelve years and three children.

“Why do you worry?” he said after, as she rested her head against his shoulder, lazy and half-content. He sounded near sleep already, as if speaking took him a great effort. “Do not lie and tell me you do not worry. I know you too well.”

“Demetrius of Alexandria,” she whispered at last, and felt Guern stiffen against her. “He is a Roman.”

In the darkness she heard Guern let out a long breath. “And if he is?”

“I heard you whistling that song earlier.” Murna’s throat felt tight and aching, and it hurt to force the words out. “Will you go south with them, if they return?” Her belly felt sick with waiting, waiting for him to say yes.

He was silent a very long time after that, although he reached up to stroke her shoulder, his hand warm against her cooling skin. “You are a good wife to me,” he said finally, “and I will not lie to you. There is a part of me that longs for it, no matter the cost, but--” He brushed his lips against her brow. “I am a man of the tribe now, and any other life I had is forgotten. There is no way back, and if I see Demetrius of Alexandria again I will tell him that.”

Murna began to breathe again, and in the release of sick tension she felt tears welling up.

“And besides--” Guern said, with a smile in his voice, and then sang softly and slightly off the tune, “A Selgovae maid with hair of gold I love the most of all.” The huskiness in his voice was more than sleep, and this time Murna found that she did not hate the song quite so much.

“I will not leave you or our boys, or miss the girl-child’s name-day.” He reached up to brush his hand against her cheek, and then, with that peculiarly male distress at a woman’s tears, he was patting her back awkwardly, his hands tangling in her unpinned hair. “There now, my heart, don’t weep--”

But he pulled her into his arms anyway and kissed her forehead and her tear-wet cheeks and her mouth, and she knew that he loved her more than his longing.

As she loved him, her man of the Selgovae.