Fifteen years was a long time to go unwed. There were girls among the neighboring tribes wed at only fifteen years of age, let alone twenty-five as Thusnelda was. Once, so many years ago, she was promised to a boy, the chieftain’s heir, tall and comely even as a lad. Only Rome took him away, as it did so many of the boys of their village and those throughout Germania.
Those stolen boys were part of the reason Thusnelda had gone so long a maid. Few remained out of Rome’s clutches, and fewer still of any rank. Her father would settle for nothing less than a noble marriage for his daughter, a chieftain’s son or none at all. Over and over, Thusnelda found herself promised to this lad or another, but the betrothals all fell to pieces. This man was taken older than usual, exchanged for the taxes his father refused to pay; that man paid his own taxes, but thus no longer could afford the bride price Thusnelda’s father set.
Years passed along with each offer of marriage, yet Thusnelda was not unhappy in her lot. She had a home to care for, though it was her father’s and not her own.
And she had a necklace, worn long about her throat, one several times restrung as the leather snapped from age or wear. One that meant more than she would admit to her father.
One her first betrothed had given her as his last act as a free Cherusci, before the Romans took him away with his brother.
That boy went farther than the others, deep into the heart of Rome and even to the Emperor’s side or so Germania’s snide jailers were quick to crow. It was common practice for news about their stolen sons to return to the villages, the stories salt in the wounds left by the theft of them. Never the sons themselves, just those terrible stories rich in triumphs of those boys in their new homeland. Boys rising through the ranks of the very army that had invaded their country in their youth. But none so far as Thusnelda’s once-betrothed. The news about him spoke of a meteoric rise higher than any other barbarian, granted the rank of Equestrian by the Emperor himself.
Most in her village hated those stories and spat on the ground at the memory of their chieftain’s son, so obedient to Rome.
Thusnelda simply sorrowed for the once kind boy so far from home. She wished him well, and hoped he would do his ancestors proud in whatever way he could.
Then came the news that Arminius was coming home.
The man who returned under the bastard Varus’s command was far more than the comely lad he had been. Near taller than the horse he rode and bearing broad shoulders and muscled arms clad in Roman armor, he cast an intimidating sight. Beneath the helmet he was handsome, too handsome she thought. A man of the terrible deeds he’d done for his adopted country should look the part of a monster.
Not like him. Nothing like him.
Her father met him first while she kept back and watched from around the edge of the smith’s home, near hidden from view. Thusnelda watched as her father sought a fight, as he so often did with the other tribal leaders, but the tall Equestrian held his temper and continued past her father into the village.
And then, though she would tell no one, for no one would believe her if she did, Arminius remembered her.
In that moment in the village, he met her eyes, and she watched the shock of recognition light in them as he stared, drinking in her features. Only then did he glance down, searching for the confirmation of the necklace she wore to assure him of her identity.
“Thusnelda,” he said, and she could not help her heart beating faster beneath where his knuckles, wrapped tight around the claws and beads, brushed against the front of her gown. His eyes were dark with a painful hope as he stared at her, gaze never wavering when he spoke, near begging her to believe him. “I am not what they think I am.”
He turned and walked away without another word, but Thusnelda knew with a certainty beyond any other that he was still the Arminius she’d once known. Still a child of the village. Still Cherusci.
Still hers if she wished to claim him.
Thusnelda found she wished it so, and when he came for her, she was waiting.