Write a Review

Wildflowers Sprout on the Battlefields (Work in Progress)

All Rights Reserved ©

Chapter I | Daughter of Chance


Roman Province of Dacia Malvensis

Her home was an old rustic-villa, with layers of dust settled in the corners though they’ve been swept over and over again. It had cracks in the frescoes conveying a certain character, and dark alcoves behind sturdy cupboards, good for hiding something or someone. Tita found the perfect one to conceal herself, pinching her nose until her eyes stopped watering from the musty smell.

Most of the time this was the place she hid from Duras chasing her while reenacting mythical monsters during the make-belief-hour–that time ahead of dinner when hunger must be supplanted by something else. But this morning there was no better place to escape those tedious lectures in the kitchen.

Wear your slippers inside. Wear your sandals outside. Why do you always have something smudged on your face?At least once a day, act like a true daughter of Rome, would you?

She had no time to waste with advice that would enter through one ear and exit through the other. Grandfather’s journals awaited in the study, keeping her curiosity alive and stirring, like all forbidden things.

Tita crawled from behind the cupboard when the voice calling her was so faint that it must have come from the backyard. She shook off the dust-motes clinging to her homespun tunic and dashed to hug the wall, padding across the cool stone-slabs on the floor.

Her shoulders scraped the cracks slicing Ceres’ basket on the painted mural. Tita picked at a couple of flakes, unable to abstain. “Look how much I’ve grown since last autumn”, she said to herself with a sense of pride, remembering her ninth birthday when she had to get on her toes to reach that high. Her fingers traced the peels in the plaster, the veins of the house guiding her to the heart - the atrium.

No walls or closed doors could stop her from having her way. She had to put her berry-stained, little hands on those books. What laid between the old parchments was the truth. She could trust more the written word from long ago than she could trust her ears and what she eavesdropped the other night and left her restless.

Like she did not already have the other thing to sulk about.

A strong breeze carrying the scent of linden flowers in bloom came through the shutters, blowing aside the long, faded curtains. They covered Tita in their folds as if she was one with the walls, a perfect fixture like the life-size painted figures behind her, stuck in the same scene. She was free to move though, and behind the linen fabric she did, gliding by the wall without being seen, pretending to be a household spirit that no walls or closed doors could stop her from having her way.

Her shoulders scraped the cracks slicing Ceres’ basket on the painted fresco. Look how much I’ve grown since last autumn, Tita said to herself with a sense of pride, remembering her eight birthday when she had to get on her toes to reach that high. Her fingers came to trace the flaking in the plaster, the veins of the house, guiding her to the heart - the atrium.

Sprinting down the hallway, Tita reached the villa’s entrance. She ducked behind a pillar, set in place for decoration rather than for support, then crawled under one of the recliners flanking the study’s closed door. She remained there waiting for anyone to make an appearance, heat rising to her cheeks in anticipation, giggling at her silliness. At this hour no one was around so she could have strolled right inside, but where was the fun in that?

The atrium was the perfect place to sneak around, with hand knotted rugs, tasselled pillows flowing from the couches and plenty of clunky furniture to hide behind or use in make-belief games.

Grandfather had built a proper atrium, around a slanted roof and an impluvium to collect rainwater, although it rained too much and it got too cold around these parts. They could banish the man out of Rome, but not Rome out of the man, their guests would comment accompanied by a raised cup or a pat on the old man’s back. And he never looked more Roman in Tita’s eyes.

Everything that spelled Rome, in the literal sense as in words on paper, awaited for Tita behind the closed double doors in Grandfather’s mysterious journals–his days in the eternal city that he spoke about with a tinge of sorrow in his voice and longing in his eyes. She wanted to know everything about Rome. How could she not when it was all he talked about even if they lived so far away. “The Empire’s border trips over my land,” he would say, keeping a straight face. “But it doesn’t fall,” came the punch line, his chest rumbling from laughter. Surprisingly, his guests from Rome did not laugh, instead they sipped from their cups in awkward silence. And he never looked more audacious in her Tita’s eyes.

Chewing on her bottom lip and nerves itching under her skin, Tita could wait no longer. She rolled from under her cover and came crawling to stand in front of the door. Without hesitation, she grasped the iron handle and pulled. The hinges shrieked, and her heart shot to her throat. Curse them. What else to expect from a house that spanned seventy years since its foundation was first laid, mortar over stone. What she wouldn’t give to live in one of those sumptuous mansions in Rome where nothing screeched.

For a few moments Tita held her breath, keeping completely silent, listening.

From the kitchen muffled sighs and kissing sounds travelled to her ears. So this is why Harina stopped looking for her; she had found Ursus Tarbus. Thank the gods she escaped the woman’s unceasing lectures about never walking barefoot and proper lady-like behaviour or she would have been stuck wrinkling her little nose at the nauseating display of affection between the two of them. So what if Grandfather’s overseer and the most dependable woman in the house were man and wife and lost into each other. How anyone could look so exhilarated unless enjoying warm walnut cookies dipped in honey remained a mystery to Tita. At least the two of them were sure to keep busy for an hour or so.

Tita looked in the direction of the kitchen with a confident smile then stared behind her at the front doors, left wide open to air the house. She frowned. Now that she thought about it, open doors, with a straight view to her grandfather’s study, might pose a problem.

Outside, the same old canvas greeted her: washed-out columns, trimmed hedges and herb pots baking in the sun. But no human shadow gliding towards the house, no other sounds except the constant trickle of a water fountain, and in the distance, farm-hands clamouring and chicken squawking. Tita chewed her lip and pondered–yes, she might have enough time for a quick look around, she reassured herself and took one big step over the study’s threshold, then stopped to gloat in the moment–she was doing this on her own. She was brave.

A familiar scent of old documents, mixed in with cinnamon and nard from the incense box, slowly hit her senses. It might have been infused deep in the plastered, painted walls, making for an unmistakable memory – Grandfather, and their quiet, barely lit nights spent together, as he was bent over his desk while she was smudging her fingers making drawings. The coolness of the stone floor from spring to autumn, and how in winter time the heat from underneath turned it comfortably warm. Memories of Duras The-Dung-Head Tarbus and their mid-afternoon childish curiosities, itching at their fingers to come snooping around past the boredom hour, when Grandfather was away with business. A sense of belonging. Her childhood and everything she knew, encompassed in a single deep inhale. This room was unmistakably part of her home so she should be allowed to enter whenever it pleased her.

Something was out of place though. The one chest that was always locked and sat in Grandfather’s sleeping room, the one she was not supposed to touch, was placed against the opposite wall, under the red banner belonging to Grandfather’s beloved former legion.

Ignoring the judgmental looks of the sculpted Lares from their altar in the atrium, Tita tiptoed over the precious Parthian rug and around Grandfather’s desk with its heavy oak top resting on two carved marble slabs. Sitting anxiously on the worn out chair behind it, with her feet dangling, she lifted the parchments bound in leather and the half open scrolls, searching for a small honeycomb shaped key. Careless, she tipped over the glass inkwell.

“Cacat, gods and heroes!” Tita jumped to save whatever important documents laid there, but the first sitting on Grandfather’s desk was already smudged. Heat coursed through her veins. “How are you going to explain this, Tita, you idiot!” she chided herself, knowing any of the Twelve Labors of Hercules would have been easier. Looking closer at it, it seemed she had just ruined a letter. Hopefully, Grandfather had already read it. Of course he did, she reassured herself. It laid open on his desk. He would not miss it. And with that thought she snatched the stained piece of paper, crumpled it to a small piece and hid it in the folds of her tunic, under the belt. And no key was in sight.

Snooping around would have gone smoothly if Duras was here, keeping watch and spearing her the angst of being caught in the act. Except he wasn’t, and this was how it was going to be from now on. She was trying to learn to do things without Duras The Vow-Breaker, Duras The Dung-Head. Whatever it took not to see his annoying, turned up nose sifted with freckles and his smug look mocking her at every turn. Her annoyance bubbled to the surface.

Tita thinned out her voice, mimicking, “I am Duras. I am so smart. I am going to–” but she stopped when the thought occurred to her–perhaps the chest of wonders was already unlocked.

She came to kneel beside the sizable box with studded bronze pins, and tried the lid. It opened to reveal its contents. A gasp escaped her. Her eyes glistened while her fingers brushed over the leather casing of carefully ordered books– Grandfather’s precious war journals, since he was a legate and ruled a fort, in the mountains not far from here. And long before that. Dates were scribbled in ink on the tarnished leather covers. Judging by their number, her grandfather had done quite a lot of traveling in his days, or was very fond of writing.

She muffled her excited squeal. The stories of far away places that these pages must contain.

Her life on Grandfather’s estate was nothing but a dull story, repeating itself everyday, but whatever layed beyond its boundary stones was another thing altogether. How she hungered to escape, to see more, to learn about all the wonders Grandfather bragged to have seen in his legionnaire days. Traveling, even marching as he called it, sounded good to her – especially lately, given Duras impending flight from the nest, while she remained among the same four walls, forever a hatchling dreaming to leave behind the ever constant scenery of the hills surrounding her.

And now, she would bring the world to her, one page after another, one piece of imagination at a time. These journals must contain a lot more than the couple of stories Grandfather told on repeat. So much more.

It was strange and unfair how every boring book was placed in her lap for her to read, but never these. How difficult could that be? She had mastered the alphabet, the true one and the Greek one. She may not read as fast or as easily as Duras but there was no incentive to keep on practising like these pages. No more waiting. Now she had her pick. She would snatch a book and take it to her room like a prized spoil of war.

“Tita Valeria Corvina!” A stern, hoarse voice came from the doorway, making her stomach jump to her throat. “Is there no order left in this world? What do you think you are doing here?”

Tita jumped to her feet, hands placidly clasped in front of her while she stood frozen, staring at Grandfather’s perplexed face. “A – a mouse, I was sure I saw a mouse in here,” she fumbled for words.

Deep lines creased Grandfather’s forehead, looking out of place even under strands of graying hair. The red toga fluttered behind him as he darted across the room, slamming shut the lid with enough force to make Tita flinch. Such an unexpected reaction made her little heart race, but added layers to her curiosity. Now she simply had to know what those journals contained.

“I am sorry, Grandfather. I wanted some paper –” she scrambled to utter an excuse, fretting.

“And you could not wait to ask for it? You disappoint me. I thought you old enough not to snoop around anymore,” he cut her off, arms akimbo and making visible attempts to stifle his annoyance. He looked around the room, as if inspecting what else was out of place. “We will eat soon. Where is Duras?”

Tita pouted, until she noticed Lucius standing behind her grandfather. Shout at the gods! She had embarrassed herself in front of him. Her cheeks better not turn pink.

“Why should I care where he is?” she muttered, arranging her tunic while stealing glances at the young man.

With amusement tugging at his beautiful features, no doubt at her expense, Lucius casually leaned against the sculpted door frame, observing them like a spectator. But she was the true spectator, for Lucius offered a vision of the heroes depicted on the murals around him. Taut muscles bulged on his arms, curls spun in his short dark hair. A square jaw, freshly shaved, balanced a resolute nose. He was lavishly clothed, looking dashing in his long tunic with purple inlacing which was held together by elegant clasps over the shoulders. Gold bangles tightly encircled his wrists. He might not have been as handsome as Tita viewed him, but her adoration blurred any of the man’s flaws, if he had any.

“What’s this, my sweet wildflower?” Grandfather sweetened his tone as he often did when reciting her name of endearment. “What’s been going on between you and Duras? I could swear you were each other’s shadow.” Tita kept her gaze down and only jerked her shoulders. “Is it because I am sending him to Rome?” Grandfather caressed her cheek, making her look up at him.

She was mad. Duras was going in her place. He was going to stay at Lucius’ villa, which was supposed to be ten times more sumptuous than hers. Lucius would show him that marble triumphal column that stood so high, it could scrape the clouds on a cloudy day. The one raised by Divinus Trajanus and adorned with sculptures, telling the story of the Roman conquest of these lands and of her great grandfather’s military deeds. The most renowned of all of the Valerii Mesallae, who had his mask hanging on the honorable place in the atrium of their villa rustica. He was her ancestor, from a long line of Legates and military devotees, but she would not be the one to search for his face on that column.

From now on, it will be Duras and Lucius, together. And they would see gladiator fights together, go to fairs together, make memories together while she – she was being left behind. She would have been willing even to go to the school Duras was supposed to attend. Everyone praised him for being so smart, but they had praised her too. They ran shoulder to shoulder when it came to grandfather’s teaching in numbers, history and rites. Only her reading was a little slow, but she could practice. She wanted to practice. Isn’t that what they did in schools? So why was he going instead of her? Unless she was deemed unworthy.

Staring Grandfather in the eye gave her no answer and no consolation, but it reminded her he did prod her about something and the silence was thickening.

“Wise Gaius Valerius, leave the girl be. Do not twist that pointed dagger when it hurts the most. There is a time for questions and answers.” Lucius’ words, delivered in that smooth, honey smoke croon voice of his, came as a relief and worked its magic.

Grandfather did not insist. A good thing, because her answer might not have been polite. She struggled every day to be good, so that maybe he would change his mind and say she could go to Rome as well. But she could not ask him now, after he caught her snooping.

“Wipe that pout off your lips, granddaughter. It is almost time for the midday meal and I want us all to sit together, while we still can. Go and fetch Duras,” Grandfather requested.

“I’m no dog,” Tita snapped, before she realized a devoted granddaughter should not talk back; she would offer obedience. She glanced again at Lucius with his intrigued look and felt her cheeks turn pink. Under her grandfather’s crooked eyebrow, she mumbled a curt excuse. If the gods willed it, perhaps he was not angered.

Upsetting Grandfather brought consequences upon herself. Not physical, no. He’d never raised his hand at her, or at anyone else for that matter. Never in the almost nine years since she was born had he raised his voice in anger. But the way he enunciated his words was something else. Calm, collected and stinging, his reprimands came down heavy, every time he threw them at her.

Don’t you go disappointing me, wildflower.

I thought you better than this.

I had such hope for you, Tita.

You better not break my heart too, you pesky little girl.

Then there was that expression in his eyes, carrying sadness. Somedays, simply looking at her, spurred sorrow in Grandfather’s eyes. As if a pang of remorse, weighing more than a wooden cart filled with grain, and its horses, rested on his shoulders. As if pain slowly chipped away at his happiness. When she was in the wrong, at least she knew she was the cause of his sorrow. The other times all she could do was silently wonder where it all came from.

One thing was certain. Her Grandfather was the centre of her world. She belonged to him and he belonged to her, sharing in the warmth and the care as only a real family would. She was part of his flesh and blood, the only relative he still had in this world, as far as she knew. Surely, she had a special place in his heart. Surely today, if she did what she was told, he would pity her and perhaps, if she asked him later, he would allow her to go see the world with Lucius.

Tita grabbed her gradanfather to plant a kiss on his cheek and darted for the atrium’s massive double doors, passing Lucius. She dared to spare him another brief look. He winked at her in that casual manner of his, as if they had been sharing secrets since the beginning of time. It quickened the flutter in her stomach, so she quickened her steps.

In no time, she was out on the veranda, flying by the weathered down columns of the peristyle.

At the far end, a few steps awaited her to descend in the main courtyard. Tita would not climb them down delicately, by lifting the hem of a dress just enough to offer a peek at her ankles; long and flowy dresses were annoying and encumbersome and did not bode well with a day of fun in the sun. Nor would she climb down by treading one foot in front of the other, swaying her hips graciously like Harina did. She didn’t have the appetizing apple-shaped hips of a woman. When Time and Mother Nature would grant her those, she might indulge in such antics.

For now she did what Duras would have done. She leaped across the stairs, swatting at the masonry of the arched gateway. It hung low, like a hunched Janus, the god of doorways, watching over the boundary between Dominus’ house and Dominus’ rural estate.

As soon as her feet were planted safely on the trodden soil, their bareness caught her eye. She wouldn’t want Lucius to look at her like a provincial patrician, easily mistaken for a village girl with dirty toes. Better go back and look for her day sandals, probably laying forgotten behind a door or under a cupboard.

Grandfather and Lucius were still talking in the tablinum, their voices becoming clearer as she approached the entrance.

“Gaius Valerius,” Lucius punctuated Grandfather’s name, ”do not burden yourself with worry. A paterfamilias’ command is the law for a pupil of the house.”

“Yes, it should be, but I fear I need to be stricter with my Tita to rely on that.” Grandfather’s reply came more like a complaint. “Has… has your uncle ever mentioned to you the circumstances of her father and mother’s death?” He asked, hesitating.

Tita instinctively stopped to listen while she was out of sight. She knew how her parents died so why the sudden hesitation? Her heartbeat raced and her concentration deepened.

Lucius chuckled. “When Marcus Claudius Fronto is caught up in his ever-important chores there is little else dominating his head, or his discussions, let alone reminiscents from years ago. And the chores of a Province’s Governor leave little to no room for anything else.”

“Ha! The better half of our lives he and I spent together, and a couple of close death encounters, too and it seems good old Marcus is no different now than he was then.”

“You should know.” A long pause and Lucius asked, casually, “is there something to know about the girl’s parents?”

“I–” Gaius hesitated again. “I am sure we could find a better time for such a discussion. I will need my wine to keep myself numb. You might need some also.”

“Edepol! Then there must be more than what I already know.” Lucius sounded surprised.

“Aye, there is more and more sorrowful,” he said with pain in his voice and Tita’s stomach dropped. “Agh, better another time. Now let’s focus on something more gay. You are leaving us tomorrow after all.”

The topic was swiftly changed to some amusing memory involving Lucius’ uncle, but Tita could no longer focus. Her mind was doing vaults trying to piece together the meaning behind Grandfather’s words and what she knew about her parents.

Her mother died when she was born, she was told. Her father was lost in a voyage soon after. Tita found it strange that he did not have a mask hanging on the atrium, that there were no bodies entombed in the small mausoleum they kept on the other side of the river cutting through their land.

Every year they crossed the bridge to honor them, leaving offerings of food and wine as sustenance for their travels through the underworld. As Grandfather sat with his head leaned on an empty sarcophagus, his prayer echoing off the stony walls, Tita stared at their tombstones. The epitaphs carved there were unflattering, laconic; Petrus, beloved son of Gaius Valerius Messalla Corvinus and Zia Maris, beloved daughter. Under the short text, what remained of the long, smooth, milky marble slate, stared back, challenging her to imagine more.

Tita stopped her praying. Instead she weaved her parents’ imaginary life story as if it was written on their tombstones. “Maris and Petrus saw each other for the first time when they were promised one to another. They had their wedding on a spring day at Maris’ ancestral home, in the peristyle garden. Juno Pronuba blessed them, because the geese were loud that day. Petrus gave Maris as a wedding gift a set of wrist bangles, with oval emeralds, shining like the world had never seen. The stones had the same color as Petrus’ eyes. To his gift, she said she was honored but wildflowers would have made her just as happy. Maris promised to weave on her loom a long cloth for her husband’s capes, to better dress his wide shoulders. Petrus fell in love with Maris’ caring words and her dark golden hair. Soon they had a daughter and they fell in love once more.”

The prayers Grandfather uttered for the dead were but fleeting whispers, while tombstones – tombstones were meant to endure forever. Only her parents’ names would stand the test of time, carved in stone, and nothing else about who they were.

Tears would swell in her eyes and she did not understand why. Perhaps because all she had when it came to her mother and father were made up stories, and questions. And the little things they’d told her, about how she had her mother’s hair and her father’s eyes.

In the house, her father’s name was rarely spoken. When it came to her mother, her ears might have caught wind of something or perhaps her thoughts rang too loud. It was not like she had not pressed to learn more about them. The reply she got was bleak - she resembled both, they loved each other very much and there was not much else to say about them. The end to the conversation was delivered with the same stale statement: she was lucky enough to have a grandfather who loved her as a mother and father, if their love was sealed in amber.

Lost in her thoughts, Tita found her feet had carried her down the steps, back to the courtyard where she stopped. Those journals. Everything would be revealed to her if only she could get her hands on grandfather’s journals.

More determined than ever, she remembered she had to find Duras. The faster she ridden herself of this task, the faster she could go back to hatching a plan to snatch some books before they would be sealed under lock and key once more.

Continue Reading Next Chapter

About Us

Inkitt is the world’s first reader-powered publisher, providing a platform to discover hidden talents and turn them into globally successful authors. Write captivating stories, read enchanting novels, and we’ll publish the books our readers love most on our sister app, GALATEA and other formats.