When Locusta had cut both men free, their first action was to cast about frantically for their shoes and leggings, even as they tore off the leather collars from round their throats.
Truly, they looked ridiculous. Were Locusta given to merriment, the sight of two Romans, without belts or weapons, ripped tunics flapping on their bare groins, would have made her laugh. Perhaps she did give a quick smile, because the bulkier of the two men, the one called Narbo, raged at her:
“Don’t stand there gaping, girl. Help find our things.”
“You’ll find nothing. So poor is our region that a Roman’s clothing is a treasure to us. Your clothes are gone, along with your weapons…”
“And my cingulum! It was my grandfather’s in Africa. It…”
Locusta tried to remain grave and speak low:
“You had best be glad of your lives. What we must do is cast the fresh animal skins further down into the gully. That will give you time to get well clear of the forest and back on the road to your camp.”
“But if we wash the skins off we will at least have something for our loins…or our feet, in any case…”
“No! The wolves of the Morgarita are no ordinary wolves. Some say they have bred with giant dogs that came through with your first Caesar. The slightest wind change will have them here. We need to roll the skins around stones and cast them as far down as possible. With the dry weather the wolves will be looking along the streams for prey.”
Frustrated as well as ridiculous, the two Romans hurled the weighted skins as far down into the gully as they could.
“Good. Now follow me. I will take you to the ridge-line you can follow west to the road. If you get to the road before dark you only need to keep walking and you will arrive at your castrum tomorrow. It’s one of those Roman roads, nice and straight, is it not? The important thing is to get to it before nightfall. You may be wise to shred your tunics to wrap your feet.”
“I’ll not go naked, if it’s all the same. Though a wild tart of the forest might enjoy the spectacle. Show us the way, girl. We will keep pace.”
As the group made its way upward Locusta pretended to ignore the men while studying them. The larger one had a fleshy, sensuous, sneering face, the smaller looked sly and wore a pleading expression. A natural businesswoman, Locusta studied faces. She liked neither of these two.
At one point the men spoke to each other in Latin and grinned. Locusta pretended not to care.
To reach the right point it was necessary to leave the heath and walk the fringe of the forest. The fallen pine branches and cones amid sharp granite made for slow progress by the barefoot Romans.
At last they arrived at the ridge top, where the view was clear and the way simple.
“From here you stay on the spine of the ridge and descend west. There is even a faint goat trail. Farewell.”
But the men merely stood and glared at her, Narbo with his arms folded to exude authority, the other with an adolescent leer.
“We’ve changed our minds. We want to stay with you. Take us to your home.”
“Impossible! If the rebels guess…”
“Take us to your home. We’ll see what you’ve got there which might serve. And you yourself may prove serviceable…”
Narbo grabbed Locusta by an arm and grinned.
“You’re a strong, tall girl. Hair like crow feathers but shoulders like a German. Are you sure your daddy didn’t come through here as one of those northern raiders…”
“You need to leave now, Roman. The rebels will spare neither you nor me if they guess I have helped you. Go!”
“It seems you don’t know who has authority here. Perhaps a little quick love…”
The big Roman threw his whole weight over her and they both fell to the ground. The other Roman emitted a weak laugh as Narbo grabbed at the hem of Locusta’s smock.
Then complete stillness. It was as if the big man had fallen asleep.
Next, he rolled off Locusta and stayed on his side, inert.
Even as the smaller man crouched over his comrade in bewilderment, Locusta was on her feet and brandishing her flint knife, the point glistening red. By the time the other had located the gush of blood coming the neck of the dead man, Locusta had stepped back and, after tossing the knife to her other hand, was already whirling her sling, all her attention on the movements of the man still living. Not for the first time, Locusta had killed. How well she could kill. How well she knew the physical, the technical side of death. How did she know?
The sling hummed as she took another step away. Then she stood side on, shifting her weight from front foot to back and then to front again, in concert with the revolutions of the sling.
“The stone in my sling has been chosen well and polished. I will lodge it behind your eye if you take a step toward me. Go! Find the road to your castrum.”
“But…this man was my comrade…a respected Roman of Gaul…Our commander will want to know…”
“Make up a lie. If you are a true Roman you are a good liar. Leave your friend to the wolves or you will both be wolf meat by evening. Take your life from me a second time – and go!”
“You have no choice. Tear your comrade’s tunic to fashion wrapping for your feet. Take extra fabric, the granite will shred it quickly.”
“Leave me with my comrade’s body, and I’ll decide.”
“Stay here and the wolves will decide. They will surround you silently then tear your throat and groin before eating your liver. Try to follow me and you will get lost in the Morgarita. Advance on me now and this stone will be in your right eye socket. Argue one more time and the stone flies. Enough talk.”
As the sling whirred and whirred Locusta followed the man’s every movement with her perfect concentration. Soon the tunic of the dead Roman was converted to foot wrapping by the survivor. He used what was left as a loincloth.
“Now go immediately and without a word. I will be observing you from an outcrop. You won’t see me. Walk west and live. If you turn back it is your death.”
When the man had gone quite a distance he turned and screamed:
“Witch! Slut of a German witch!”
Then he turned back round and scampered on his way.
Outside her hovel later that afternoon, Locusta took a large bronze mirror which had been fashioned locally from an ancient breastplate and placed it on a rock. She let the low sun catch her full so that much of her body was visible in the bronze, in spite of the smearing and bobbles.
She had observed herself in this way before, especially as she became aware of her womanhood. Yet she had been quick to know the erotic as function, as power, not just sensation. Locusta could step back from her own urges and observe them the way she observed seed, sap and leaf. As surely as there were no gods, there were physical forces far more mystery-laden and potent. Ask a pharmacist of the Morgarita Forest. Ask Locusta of the Arverni.
Now Locusta touched her neck at the very place where she had stabbed the Roman. She had often felt her pulse there, but was surprised by the quick instinct which had prompted her to find the exact point on a stranger’s body – especially in the moment she was about to be raped.
She had expected to feel shock as she made her way home after the killing; but instead there was just this overwhelming curiosity about her body, starting with that point in the neck. The interest was not just anatomical: Locusta was also intrigued by what the big Roman had said of her appearance.
Still studying her reflection, she moved her hand to one shoulder then the other. They were indeed broader than those of most women. Perhaps that was what gave her the pivoting strength she had always possessed, the strength which had saved her this very day.
She continued to observe. Her face was more handsome than pretty, though it was not like a man’s face. The forehead was high, the jawline pronounced. The eyes were large, dark and well apart.
She stepped back to get a longer view. Her body was curved like a woman’s, but more taut and upright. There was that extra breadth in the shoulders, a firmness around the buttocks. Locusta had force. And it was not in her body shape alone. Her speech was clear, measured, formal, even in medical emergencies; and her speech showed the pattern of her thinking, sequential and never merely reactive.
This force, neither masculine nor feminine, where did it come from? Was it the careful diet she had always observed, adding many snails and small stream fish to the herbs, root vegetables and fungi which usually made up her evening soup. Even Alana had not been as attentive as Locusta to food. Did anybody have such a deep and immediate instinct for the physical as Locusta? Where others felt supernatural influences above or beyond the world of objects, Locusta perceived within what was solid vibrating webs far more powerful than spirits or demons. These physical webs were too intricate to unmesh – but they could be guessed at, used.
Locusta absorbed and exerted power, willingly or not, and saw only power. While others might consider rock inert, Locusta saw even a granite pebble as a bundle of energy, only tighter than what showed obvious movement or growth. No, it was not the diet which gave Locusta the force, it was the innate force which demanded the potent diet. What was the name of that force?
And why did it drive to the extremes?
The voices told her as much, told her there would be no middle way for Locusta, only a choice of extremes, every moment of a very long life. She was like the Morgarita she-wolf nurturing its famished litter, ever savage and ever protective.
Born to heal and kill, nothing else. The two extremes. She was destined to improve life and inflict death; and in that she had but one rival in all the world.
Her voices often spoke of a rival, another she-wolf. The voices called it by name…
The name of her rival was Rome.
Some days later Locusta was inside pounding and soaking willow bark for a patient with fever. By the time she was aware of the sounds of tramping feet and clinking metal it was too late. With her speed of understanding, she knew perfectly what the sounds meant. The clearing about the hovel was surrounded by soldiers.
Her first reaction was not fear but fury. How could she not have anticipated?
She stepped outside and waited, preferring to face what was coming.
A flash of red, gleam of metal amid the trees. Into the small clearing stepped one fully armed Roman, then another. She knew not to run. There would be soldiers advancing from all sides. The Romans had strict and elaborate methods for such actions, something all Gaul had come to learn.
“That’s her. The witch who pig-stuck our Narbo after she drugged him senseless!”
Locusta turned toward the sound and observed the weasel-faced Roman she had saved from the worst of deaths just days before, now smirking in triumph.
“You’re coming with us, witch.”
She spat on the ground, looked away from the man and said nothing as the detachment advanced on her.
Rome and Locusta of the Arverni. So it must be. So it always had to be.