As A Flower Blooms
He was still panting from the battle, when she first saw him, his face shimmering with sweat, and blood was glistening wetly on his sword. He stood there for a moment, a thin wiry man, weariness carving lines at the sides of his mouth, and looked around at them all, the weak ones huddled about the columns, women and children and old and wounded. And he laid his sword and buckler aside, and there was a little clang as they touched the floor.
Cilla rocked the baby softly in her arms. The little pinch-faced mother had been almost pathetically grateful when she offered to hold it; there were three other children, two little toddling, terrified girls, and a small boy, scarcely older, biting his lip manfully to keep tears from his eyes.
The thin man glanced around dartingly at the wounded. And there were so many wounded, lying about the main hall, and blood, more blood than Cilla had seen before in her life, fresh and red and flowing freely. She watched as he bent over the panicking, terrified old physician, and something about his strained young face made her wonder if he might be a surgeon himself.
Cilla shifted forward a little, almost unconsciously. I could help. I'm not – much afraid. I'm not too young. Let me try.
'Do you give the little one back to me, and go and help, then,' said the little mother softly, watching her. 'These two are quiet now.' The two tiny girls were huddled with their brother, listening as he talked to them in a small brave voice. So Cilla handed the baby back and stood up, smoothing her clothing with hands that were almost steady.
The man was speaking, instructing the gathering helpers on where to move the wounded, asking for their women's tunics to staunch the wounds. He had a reassuring sort of voice, with a trace of a stutter that made him sound oddly boyish. Cilla stripped off the fine, pale yellow linen of her outer tunic, standing in her soft white shift and tearing the delicate cloth into strips, watching the thin surgeon.
He was looking around, his eyes bright and quick, sizing up the injuries, setting women to bind up sword cuts and staunch the blood of the lesser wounds. She stepped forward – please let me help – and he said to her, with a quick beckoning gesture, 'Will you help me – see, hold his head…' and crouched down by a man who was moaning weakly, the whole side of his face hacked and slashed and red-raw.
Cilla drew her breath in for an instant, because there was so much, so much blood, but then she knelt down quickly and did as he bid her. Her hands were red and sticky with the blood, but she held the man's head quite still, quite steady, as the thin soldier-surgeon used his little bright shiningly-sharp instruments to do things that she didn't want to watch.
She watched him, instead, looked at his intent, downturned face as he worked. A kind sort of face, it was, under the grime and weather-darkening. Not the least bit handsome, but with a quiet gentleness about it that made one feel oddly as though they could trust their life into the keeping of his hands. His hair was dark and tufty and damp, bits of it sticking up in all directions on his head like a wild Pictish warrior, and his ears stuck out defiantly on either side of his head, but Cilla liked the looks of him very much, and she wondered what his name was.
'That's d-done it,' he said triumphantly at last, and then he was up again, eyes searching, searching for the most sorely hurt. 'Here,' he said, and beckoned her to follow him.
He moved about the wounded, kneeling by those who needed him most, and Cilla helped him, keeping her hands quite steady as she held men's arms and shoulders and heads still for him to work on their hurts. It was easier to forget about the distant battle-shouts and blows, when one had something to concentrate on like this.
Then he was bending over a man's arm – a spear had sliced near right through it – and there was more and more and more blood, so that he couldn't see to work.
'Here,' she whispered, and she soaked up the worst of the blood with a wad of cloth, and he glanced at her in quick approval, so that she felt a little pleased warmth in her chest. I am helping him.
'That's right,' he said, and after that he showed her things as he worked, where to press and bind to staunch the bleeding of different wounds, and Cilla did exactly what he told her, so that he could do his surgeon's work more easily. And once he glanced at her and smiled, when he had finished; a small fleeting smile, to be sure, but it made Cilla's heart gave a little bound.
He had just finished getting a javelin-head out of the shoulder of a big fair man, whose head Cilla was cradling in her lap, and who had sunk into merciful unconsciousness from the pain of the surgery. And then the pounding and shouting grew suddenly tenfold louder, and Cilla caught in a little frightened breath, realising in a rush what it would mean for them all, if the Saxons broke through. She wondered, suddenly and horribly, what it would be like to be taken by force, ravished, by a huge angry wild barbarian – would it hurt terribly? – would they kill her when they were finished with her?
The soldier-surgeon was standing and looking towards the main door with his mouth in a straight firm line. And then he looked back down at her quickly and told her to stay with the fair man, no matter what.
'I will stay with him,' Cilla said in a little quiet voice that was nearly steady, but he was already snatching up his fierce man-sword and running to help the defenders.
And Cilla stayed, and stayed, the big man's unconscious head heavy in her lap, and trying, trying not to listen for the fighting sounds that were so horribly close. Now the attackers were at the other door, too, and there was the crackling of flames and smoke curling on the air, thicker and thicker. She tried desperately to think which god or goddess she should pray to for deliverance, but they all seemed very far away and remote.
She suddenly remembered one god, though – a strange Jewish god that she had once heard tell of. The Christos, he was called, and her old nurse had said that he was a kind god, the god of the helpless and oppressed and fearful.
Cilla looked down at the man's head on her lap, and stretched out her free hand, very slightly, palm upturned in a gesture of supplication.
'Christos,' she whispered, 'Oh, great Christos, help me… I have nothing to offer you now, but I beseech you…'
She heard them, the Roman trumpets, clear and distant and sweet, and she knew they were saved. And then, the fighting was over, and the thin soldier-surgeon was there again, cradling a little dark man in his arms. And as he glanced around, his eyes fell on Cilla, still sitting where he had left her, and he gave her a little quick nod of his head, as though he were pleased.
'Lady Priscilla – Lady Priscilla, your father…'
She clasped her hands together quickly, waiting. She had forgotten her merchant father completely, in the tumult of fleeing to the basilica. She didn't know him very well – he paid very little attention to his daughter, because she was not a son, after all – and she had the sudden shameful realisation that she had not thought once about him in the last tumultuous hours.
'What – what of him?' she asked the man.
'My Lady, he is dead… I am sorry…'
It felt curiously unreal, as though it were another girl who was standing there in her shift, clasping her hands, another girl who had just been told she was an orphan, and not Cilla at all. She wondered detachedly what that other girl would do – where she would stay – who would take care of her, in this blood-streaked, upturned, confusing new world?
What had her father done, in his merchant-trading? She knew he had dealt in beautiful foreign glassware – the villa had been full of lovely glassy things, gold-leafed bowls and goblets and vases with twining serpentine trails of glass running about the sides of them. Perhaps it was all gone now, smashed and destroyed by barbarian hands… perhaps he had been trying to save something, when he had been killed…
Everything seemed oddly tip-tilted, as though whatever it was that held her feet to the ground, and made the ground feel like the ground, had come unpinned and loose. She was vaguely unsure of which way up she should be standing, and she swayed, a coiling sickness in the pit of her stomach.
An arm caught her around the waist before she could fall – an immensely cushiony, fat arm, and a comfortable, wheezy sort of voice was saying, 'There now, dearie, come, sit down. Poor lamb!'
And another, very different voice was speaking, clear-cut, authoritative, presumably to the man who had brought the news.
'My poor fool, do you suppose that is the manner in which to deliver such news?'
'I – ah…'
'Exactly. You did not think… now go, and fetch some water for the lady, before she collapses completely.'
'What is the m-matter, Aunt Honoria?' She recognised that suddenly as the soldier-surgeon's voice, and she twisted up to look at him; and with the sight of his concerned, drawn face, the world slowly righted itself around her and the sickness went away a little.
'Ah, Justin. I see you have water.'
Then the owner of the cushiony arm and the comfortable voice was steering her, sitting her down on something cool and hard, and she saw that it was an immensely fat old woman, with the kindest face she had ever seen. 'There, dearie, there,' she kept saying soothingly, and she patted Cilla's hand gently with her own soft plump one.
The surgeon knelt down next to her, close enough that she could see the deep-carved lines of weariness about his eyes and mouth. Justin, someone had called him. He was holding a beaker to her lips. 'Here, drink this,' he said, and she swallowed the water, which was cool but tasted faintly of ash.
There was an old lady behind him, a very different old lady to the soft fat one. She was brown and wrinkled and holding herself as straight as a queen, and her nose was hooked like a beak. She looked from the soldier-surgeon – Justin – to Cilla, and back again, and pursed her lips. There was a great streak of dirt on her face.
'I think,' she said, 'that we will take you home ourselves and look after you.'
Living at the Lady Honoria's house felt strange, at first. Cilla was nervous and quiet and shy, but no-one could stay like that for long around the huge comfortable Volumnia, who hugged you and petted you and smoothed your hair. Normally Cilla wouldn't have liked this at all – she wasn't accustomed to people touching her, much – but with Volumnia it was different. Cilla thought that she felt like a mother would feel.
The Lady Honoria was quite different, sharp and keen and warrior-like, and her eyes had a bright laughing sparkle to them. Cilla admired her immensely, but was quite afraid of her, so that sometimes her tongue would twist itself in knots when she tried to speak. But the Lady Honoria seemed to understand when one looked at her appealingly, because the words wouldn't come, and she was quite able to keep a conversation going on her own without it sounding strange.
And, always, there was the thin soldier-surgeon, Justin.
He would come quietly to the house, shoulder-to-shoulder with his red-haired friend, Flavius, who was friendly and laughing and very handsome. But he was rather loud, and – not quite the same as Justin, and Cilla had a different smile for each of them, when she met them, and she thought that she preferred Justin.
She made her thanks-offering to the Christos – not a large offering, for she remembered another thing that she had heard about him, that he did not like to have animals sacrificed to him, only that people should be kind to one another, even to slaves and strangers and people who hurt you.
So Cilla just clipped a lock of her fair hair and bound it around with blue silk thread, so that it looked a sheaf of grain. That would be her offering; and she would make the other offering every day, the kindness-offering to others.
It was a strange request, from a god, but Cilla wondered how it would be if everyone did as the Christos commanded. Would there be no more fighting, if everyone tried to be kind to each other?
She left the little sheaf of hair in a tiny hollow in a tree, because she didn't know where else the Christos might receive it. Perhaps, as he asked for no sacrifices, he had no temples either, just the world with his followers being kind to everyone they met.
Oh, great Christos, she prayed, kneeling with her palms out just as she had on that day in the basilica. Oh, Christos, please accept my thank-offering to you, a lock of my hair, and my kindness to others from this day.
One day Justin came out to the garden, where she was sitting on the bench beneath the big old tree. He smiled at her, his shy lopsided smile, and she smiled back just as shyly, a hesitant invitation for him to come and sit beside her.
He did sit, leaving a calculated two-hands'-width of space between them, and something jumped high and sudden in her chest, as it always did when they were so close together.
They sat silently for a long while. Cilla listened to his breathing – long and quiet, his chest rising and falling slowly beneath his tunic. She made hers match it – in, out, in, out, like the tide – and it was oddly soothing, as though all the worry and fear and darkness of things was being washed away. In, out. In, out.
'I m-march north, in two days, with Constantius,' Justin said at last, not looking at her.
And then, quickly, in the manner of one getting the words out before his nerve fails, and stuttering rather more than usual, he said, 'W-will you – wait for m-me, Cilla?'
She looked up at him, disbelieving, her breath catching in her throat. 'Me?' she whispered, after a moment.
A flush spread over his face, all the way to the tips of his sticking-out ears, and Cilla felt a sudden fierce rush of affection for him – for those unfortunate ears, the awkward shift of his shoulders, that little betraying stutter. She would – she would wait for him, if he were gone for twenty years, and she opened her mouth to tell him so.
But he was still not looking at her, and his face was redder than ever, and before she could say a thing he had risen to his feet with a little flicker of a laugh that was not really a laugh at all.
'S-sorry,' he said, 'of c-course, shouldn't have…' And he turned to go, rather blindly.
But she rose to her feet and touched his arm before he could take a step, finding her tongue. 'Wait,' she said softly. 'Justin, I will – wait for you with a glad heart.' And she turned her face up to look into his, like a flower to the sun.
He looked down at her, a bewildered look, as though he could not quite believe it. 'Cilla?' he said unsteadily, and she gave a small uncertain half-smile, waiting.
Then he laughed softly, joyously, and it was a real laugh this time; and her heart flew and her body quivered. 'Cilla – Cilla,' he said, and put his slim sure surgeon's hands on her shoulders, very gently, as though she were made of precious glass. And then he bent down and kissed her, soft and a little clumsy, but honey-sweet.
'Justin? Oh, he went off somewhere on his own,' said Flavius, glancing sideways up at his aunt, who had gone to stand at the very corner of the peristyle, and was craning her neck at something beyond the rows of bushes in the garden. 'Said he needed some air, or something of that sort.'
'Of course,' said Aunt Honoria, very dryly. 'That would of course explain why he is currently kissing the Lady Priscilla in the far corner of my garden.'
'What!' Flavius leapt to his feet.
'Hush, Flavius dear. I very much doubt that they are aware that they can be seen from the house, and it would be much better for their peace of mind if they remain in ignorance of the fact. Now do stop laughing and behave yourself when they come in!'