Whom the Gods Would Destroy…

Arretium, circa 128 BCE

Death, when it comes, rarely arrives with a knock at the door, waiting politely while one prepares oneself. This is a lesson I had learned long before, yet still the following events struck me with a force beyond any I had experienced in many centuries.

Two days before it came, Salia was playing in the library while I read. Her childish musings were no distraction to me; indeed, they were almost calming. Sometimes this place was simply too quiet for my liking?a thought that would have seemed passing strange not so long before. In a way her presence there was also an act of defiance, for Marieko had forbidden her to speak to me. This naturally rendered me irresistible to her, but I respected her grandfather’s wishes as best I could, feeling that I outraged the old man sufficiently as it was.

I was reading Euripides that morning, finishing up what Rufus had of his writings with Troiades. It struck me that Euripides seemed certain the gods were much like mortals: so petty, so childish. It made little sense to me. In my domain I had most certainly punished those who slighted me, but mortals with the good sense to run away seldom had much to fear from me. Indeed, the more I read of the doings of the gods of the Greeks and Romans, the less kinship I felt with them, extending even to my counterpart Diana.

It was while ruminating on these things that a phrase caught my attention, something Salia whispered as she toyed with a rag doll on the floor near my feet.

“No she’s not a tricker, you’re a tricker. You should be nice to her?she’s so lonely.”

My head snapped about and I stared at her down on the floor. She looked up at me, then looked to her side and made a shushing gesture.

In a calm and friendly voice I asked her, “Who are you talking to, little one?”

“Nobody,” she replied, looking up at me wide-eyed.

I smiled at her. “Ah, it sounded like you were talking to somebody. Perhaps you were talking to your doll?”

“Dolls don’t talk,” she said in a very matter-of-fact tone, “they’re just dolls.”

“That’s true, but tell me, does anyone talk to you? Anyone… special? Perhaps someone who only talks to you?”

She tried not to smile, but her face gave her away, then she giggled. It took no small amount of will for me to maintain my calm demeanor, for inside I was roiling.

“I’m not supposed to say,” she told me, “but you already know…”

“Yes, Salia, I do know. What is your friend’s name?”

“It’s a secret. He won’t tell me.”

Even as she spoke I knew the truth of it and began to calm myself. With a few more questions I confirmed it: an imaginary friend. Lonely children often created those and, though I had never been a child, I recognized the phenomenon well. I found myself uncomfortably remembering my past, from the time before I became a goddess, memories I had pushed away but which came suddenly to the fore. I remembered times when I had cared for children… and remembered seeing people be very cruel to children who imagined friends, accusing them of consorting with demons. I knew it was merely harmless play.

Yet that knowledge could not completely erase the flash of trepidation I had felt, for I had thought for one brief, terrifying moment that my nemesis, Loghaz, had found the path to place his voice in this child’s ear.

Loghaz: the trickster, demon whisperer of lies and fear. Not since the day that voice had driven me back into the arms of the man I had hated, then feared and now loved, had he deigned to speak to me again. Indeed neither Loghaz nor any other of the familiar voices of the gods ever came to me. It was as if leaving my lands had stripped them from me.

An unbidden thought startled me: Or perhaps we were never more than a lonely dream… It was as a whisper from some secret place, yet I knew it to be merely my own words, and that realization chilled me such that I shivered in my seat.

I gazed again at the tome I held. Now the tale of Cassandra and Hecuba and the gods held no lure for me. I had felt for some time something was amiss and this sudden remembrance had focused my mind and fixed my heart upon it. The gods of the Romans might be powerful and hold sway over these people, but they were not my kin. They did not speak to me.

If that were the case, if these unfamiliar feelings of doubt were indeed simple and undeniable truth, then what of Rufus? What of his certainty that my divinity would guide his plans to fruition? This revelation was sudden and crushing, all the more so for having built within me these many weeks as I partook of the fountain of knowledge given me by the written word. Rufus, so confident, so certain…

Whom the gods would destroy they first make proud.

One old Greek had taught me the meaning of written words. Now the written words of another old Greek taught me the meaning of doubt: doubts I had long suppressed, doubts I had never even considered.

I sent Salia on her way, and then set out to find Marieko. I had questions for the old man, and I hoped to find him in a talkative mood.

“A question? You? The wise and immortal Felicitas, O child of Jupiter and Priestess of Diana, you seek to ask me a question?” He cast his eyes skyward and grimaced. “What great power have I so wronged that he sets you on my doorstep again!?

“Please,” I whispered, “old teacher… this is not a moment for your ranting against me. You have knowledge and I have fears. My questions may be your very own.”

He stopped then, and regarded me with narrowing eyes. I had never used either of those words with him before, neither ?please’ nor ?teacher’, and hearing them from me clearly gave him pause.

“Well, speak your questions quickly then,” he said, “for I am busy. Rufus’s wife is coming to visit you know.”

This caught me up short. “His wife?” I asked. Rufus had gone to Rome twice without me to attend to business matters with his wife, but he had assured me she meant nothing to him and that she would never come here.

“Yes indeed,” Marieko continued to speak while my mind wrestled with several conflicting emotions and ideas at once. “An advance courier arrived not an hour ago to say she would be arriving no later than sunset with important business matters for Rufus. We will of course need to sort out what to do with you while she’s here.”

“What do you mean, ?do with me?'” I asked, a flush of anger and jealousy injecting itself into my confusion as my mind caught up with his words.

“Come now, barbarian, you’ve been carrying on as this man’s mistress, shamefully above your station, and now his rightful wife is….”

“Enough, Marieko!” Rufus’s voice barked from down the tiled hallway. He was striding toward us purposefully, a moderately manic look marring his normally cool and controlled features. As he approached he gave the old Greek a withering glare, then stopped and gently took my elbow. “Felicitas, please come, we must speak privately.”

I locked my knees and glared at him. “Oh we must speak, must we?” I said. Sudden anger drove all my earlier thoughts and concerns away. “And of what must we speak that the old man must not hear?”

A look of anger whipped across his countenance, and then suddenly turned?for a breath?to a flash of fear that he quickly put under control. Then he laughed jovially.

“Ah, my Felicitas. You are so lovely when you are like this. Come with me and we shall talk.” As he chuckled, he tugged at me, and I reluctantly allowed him to draw me away. Fury warred with what I had to admit was petty jealousy as he guided me to the privacy of our shared bedroom, quickly shutting the door against other ears.

“My lovely Felicia…” he began. I merely glared at him. “A complication has arisen in our plans.”

“Your plans,” I said coolly.

His look became cold. “Our plans,” he said firmly. “We have spoken of this. You know that a Roman wife does not begrudge her husband casual dalliances but that I must still honor the contract with Vipsania until such time as I can divorce her.”

My eyes narrowed. “Yes…”

“Would it make sense for either of you to meet, then?”

“You wish to hide me. In shame.”

“My darling no, of course not,” he said, sounding a little rushed. “But again please, my dear… have I ever begrudged you anything you requested?my sweet lovely goddess?” He said it with that gentle purring noise that usually made my knees a little weak.

“Perhaps, but…”

“And surely one so wise as yourself would not wish to be forced into the same room with this other woman?the woman your man does not love? Would you be so cruel as to torment her so?”

I stopped. I had been so jealous I had not even thought of that. I cared not a jot for her discomfort, but what of my own? “So you are not ashamed of me,” I said, my voice betraying a bit of an edge, “yet you wish to send me from our home.”

“My darling…” he said, embracing me, cooing in my ear, nuzzling and kissing my neck between his words. “Never, never…. But would it not be beneath your dignity… to have to play… Vipsania’s petty jealousy games? Would it not be…. Perhaps better…. To take a shopping trip to the sea for a few days… perhaps with a few of the… household servants…?”

He always was able to make me shiver with delight and forget my cares. By the time we were done making love, I almost believed it was my idea to leave the villa that very day.

Still feeling a bit confused between my doubts about Rufus’ plans, my anger, and my jealousy, I made to leave for a few days with a three of the household servants?two girls, and a boy to drive the cart?in tow.

They were loading up the cart in the stable behind the villa, packing some belongings and goods for our stay as we prepared to take our leave when a commotion broke out by the front gate. As I had agreed that a confrontation with Rufus’s wife would be a pointless exercise I urged the girls to finish and ordered the boy to take us away. Yet as he whipped the horses into motion and we began to trot away, I suddenly grabbed his shoulder and demanded that he stop.

Some two hundred paces from the villa, we halted. Motioning the slaves to hold still, I found myself walking quickly away from them, traveling back down the alleyway to the villa, then slipping surreptitiously around the side of the house to spy the front entranceway.

Rufus’s wife was a striking woman. Tall for a woman, with a mane of dark hair gathered about her ears with barrettes, with a proud nose buttressing blazing black eyes that glowed with power?not unlike Rufus’s very own eyes, I found myself thinking. She waited with her retinue some 20 paces from the front entrance, expecting her husband to greet her. In that moment I knew I hated her, and wanted to kill her: who was she to claim my Rufus’s affections?

Within a few breaths Rufus came through the front entrance, walking with his regal and arrogant way, to greet her. As he grasped her hands, I turned away, and ran back along the side of the house and into the alleyway, at once both repulsed and understanding: surely he must greet her cordially now, and yet I wished he would set her aside this very moment. Yet it would make no sense to confront her here and now, would it? So I sped down the alleyway, knowing now that there was no good purpose to my being there. I returned to the other slaves in the cart. We sped away to the west, towards the coast.

We planned to spend a few days at a local inn, observing the sea and spending Rufus’ money shopping for trinkets and whatever exotic goods might be brought in by merchants from Africa and other lands. We would stay until Rufus sent for us, but the next morning, before we had a chance to do almost anything, a boy from the household arrived at the inn. He was a good boy, one of Rufus’ favorites, and he showed up at my door in the inn looking a little flustered.

“My apologies for awaking you, mistress, but I have a message from our master,” he said.

I opened the scroll. On it were written words that made my heart drop to my toes:

My darling, I have made a terrible blunder. Our plans together are come to naught. When last I visited Vipsania, too much wine and a loose tongue made me speak foolishly, and now I am undone. All is lost. I have told you many times that you might take your freedom any time you wished, and now I say to you: take it. By the time you read this, I shall likely have perished. Take what wealth you have garnered from me, including the slaves if you wish, and depart back to Gaul. Run with all speed my darling?all our plans our come to naught.

It was marked with his seal. The boy just stared at me as I looked up from the scroll into his face.

“No,” I said to myself. “No!” I screamed at the boy. As he cowered away, I slapped him in the face. Then I quickly turned back into the room in the inn, gathered up a few of my belongings, including my favorite knife, and strode out into the courtyard and on to the stables where I demanded a riding horse, much to the consternation of the stable hands. There was some difficulty, but Rufus’s money smoothed the way and in short order I was galloping east to Arretium, to him. It was most of a day’s ride back, and I ignored everyone who might chance across my path as I made my way.

It was early evening when the exhausted gelding trotted me back down the alleyway toward our villa?Rufus’ villa. Slipping quietly off the horse’s back, my knife secured in my belt, I made toward the back-corner window?Marieko’s chambers. Pulling back the shutters, I was stunned at the scene I saw. Marieko’s grandson and granddaughter lay by his straw-stuffed wooden bed. As I pulled myself through the carved stone window, hefting my legs over the opening and setting my feet upon the tiled floor, Marieko’s grandchildren stared at me.

Marieko… the old Greek lay in his bed, his pallor grey, his body unmoving.

“You!” his grandson said, hoarsely. Little Salia ran into a corner and hid her eyes, clutching her doll. “You!” he said a little louder.

“Tell me what has happened here young man,” I said evenly. Yet my eyes already told the tale. In Marieko’s hand was a cup containing the remnants of a crimson liquid. It appeared that he had drunk poison, and died in the arms of all that was left of his family.

“He died because of you!” the young man suddenly screamed, charging toward me with his arms flailing. I struck him in the belly just under the ribs and he folded over, falling to his knees as he gasped for air.

I realized that I must find my Rufus now, at this very instant, and charged to the bedroom door, unlatching it and flinging it open. Two armed men who had obviously been guarding the door and heard the commotion inside confronted me. With a shrieked curse I lashed out with one foot, striking the one on the left in the knee as I seized my knife, lunging low at the other and raking the blade along his arm as he reached for me. He cursed, but his stout arms encircled me, lifting me from my feet as I twisted in his grasp. Other men came running, attracted by the shouting and I kicked another hard in the groin before they overwhelmed me, forcing me to the ground. They rained kicks and punches upon me as I shrieked and struggled. Soon the clutch of them had stripped me of all my belongings and even my clothes, pummeling me with their fists until I was silent and then dragging me to the room Rufus and I had shared, bellowing at me to be silent as they made fast my limbs with iron shackles.

“No,” I heard myself sobbing. “No, no, you cannot do this to us….”

They left me alone in a room, bound hand and foot like a criminal, unable to stand or even move in more than the smallest way. As I sat there shaking, my limbs screaming to reach out and kill all of these Roman bastards, I realized I was alone in the bedroom that Rufus and I had made our own, and that I could do nothing but await what might come.

After what seemed an eternity two stout Roman soldiers came in and siezed me by my arms, hoisting me to my feet and then, half-carrying me, forced me to hobble out into the main Atrium of our house…. of our home together… of….

…of Rufus’ villa in Arretium.

Rufus was there, on the high couch where he had often reclined while friends and political acquaintances sat on the couches strewn about at many a banquet. Suddenly I was afraid for him more than for me. How could all of this, which had seemed so obviously right and proper and inevitable, have gone so terribly wrong? I had thought we had the world at our fingertips. I had thought that this was the answer, the reason I had been so tortured for so long. I had thought this was the final ending of centuries of fear and loneliness and pain.

Rufus just stared at me as they dragged me in and threw my on the ground at the foot of his couch.

“Oh my Felicitas… my Tiwazō… how could I have led us both so far astray?”

His wife was standing at his left, looking down her haughty nose at me as she said, “This? This is the barbarian strumpet you preferred over me?” Her voice dripped with disgust.

From his right, a fey, slender middle-aged man said, “Oh really now Rufus, this filth is what you thought to conquer me with?” I suddenly realized that this must be Livius.

As I stared at my lovely, beautiful Rufus, I was horrified to realize both his wrists were slashed with angry red welts across them and along his forearm; laid open, palm out, both of his arms slowly bleeding into cups held by servant boys. The cups already overflowed onto the tiled floor.

Naked, my hands and feet bound with chains, on my knees, I could only look helplessly into his beautiful, beautiful face?which I had never seen so dark.

“Rufus, you always were a stupid fool,” said Vipsania.

“Honestly, Rufus, had I known you were such a fool I would never have taken your efforts to poison my name so seriously,” Livius added, simpering as he laughed.

Rufus’ eyes seized my own?pleading, apologizing. “Felicitas, you should have fled…. I stand accused of slander and of fomenting rebellion. If I do not destroy myself, my entire family’s estate will be forfeit… and I realize now that this was all my folly.” He glared accusingly at Vipsania, and I suddenly realized: likely he had told her just enough that she was able to betray him. I looked at the woman and felt sick inside. Rufus was going to die, and that bitch he called a wife was positively ecstatic behind her glowering visage. I could not let this happen.

“I am to blame for this!” I suddenly yelled. “No, please, it was my plot! Please, you cannot blame him!”

Vipsania and Livius merely smirked as Rufus shook his head.

Rufus looked at me and said, “No, no, my darling one, you seek to save me but you did no wrong… I will have no one blame you…. I love you… there is nothing in this world that matters more to me. Not my life or the life of any other man or woman, slave or free?nothing do I hold above you!” Livius and Vipsania both made disgusted noises at that, and he looked defiantly at them before focusing on me again. “Nothing means more, not my life, nor the Gods…”

“Gods?” I laughed, “Oh, I am certain that there is much laughter amongst the Gods this day! ?Look at that fool mortal, Rufus! Stumbled on a whore in the woods and thought he’d made a Goddess his slave!'”

“Do not take this upon yourself!” he pleaded.

“Enough!” Vipsania screeched, “Are we all to stand and listen to this nonsense? Bind her mouth!”

Strong hands seized me again and a rag was thrust into my mouth. Prostrate and helpless I pleaded with my eyes as my beloved launched in to his final oration, declaring that his own life was far too compromised to continue, that his acts, though taken with the good and security of the Senate and the People of Rome always first and foremost in mind, had led him to believe that his innocence might be questioned and his honor impugned. That to make good on his failings, and to preserve the honor of his family he would take his own life, protesting to the end that he was innocent of charges of Treason and Tyranny.

A low moan erupted from the family slaves and the handful of Rufus’ friends who had come to bear witness as he finished his oration. Then he settled back onto his couch and took a cup of wine, using both hands now that his arms were so crippled. For perhaps the next hour, he ate and drank wine, his life oozing from the wounds he had inflicted as a result of our madness. Muted by my gag I pleaded with my eyes, but he would not look upon me. His gaze always avoided the naked girl bound and gagged at his feet. I would sometimes try to gain my knees, but one of his retainers would always force me down, grinding my face in the spreading pool of his blood. Though he refused to allow them to blame me, clearly they all felt me guilty.

As he grew weaker, his speech slurring, he finally looked upon me again. Though he could no longer muster the strength or will to move, he made his voice heard clearly.

“Unbind her mouth,” he finally whispered, “and bring her to me.” Vipsania protested, but no one listened, and the gag was finally removed. I crawled up to him, and took his hand in mine.

“Behold our handiwork… are you Diana, or perhaps Discord… what would you say to me now as my end approaches?”

“Forgive me,” I wept, “I should have known with what wisdom might be mine, I should have seen…”

“Forgive?” he whispered, his hand reaching out clumsily to grasp my shoulder and draw me close, “There is nothing to forgive… I know whose folly this is… fear not?Vipsania is a calculating woman, but she’ll not begrudge me my dying decree… you are not to be harmed….” Drawing a deep breath he said it loudly, “She is not to be harmed…”

Then his hand slid from my shoulder as his head slacked backwards. Though my wrists were still bound together as I sat shamed at his feet, a sudden wild thought came upon me. As his eyes began to glaze over, I took my left wrist to my mouth, bound as it was in chains, and bit into it hard, feeling pain and a sudden gush of blood, and I thrust it to his lips screaming, “Drink my darling, drink of my blood and live forever with me!”

With his last breath his eyes looked upon mine. Then he turned to drink from the blood that flowed from my hand…. and with a long sigh he died before my eyes, my blood flowing across his teeth, over his lips, and down his face.

I wept over him, “I love you… we should have been as gods together… we could have been… we should have been….”

After that I remember nothing but the cold, distant laughter of Vipsania as the guards dragged me away.

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