Lives Lived 2: "What men or gods are these?"
This one belongs to Masae
M. Crassus Aperivus, once an officer in the Roman cavalry, now the leader of a squad of soldiers for hire, toiled up the heavily forested mountain side. He and his men were currently in the pay of Nicanor, brother of Nicomides the king of Bithynia, who was ambitious to replace his sibling in that position. Crassus had no special fondness for his employer or his employer's cause, but money was money and Nicanor paid promptly and well. The thick forests of Bithynia, on the other hand, irritated the Roman past telling. He was a plainsman by birth, and he had no use for a landscape where a man couldn't gallop his horse into the midst of the foe. Forests gave him claustrophobia: too many shadows, too much cover for the enemy, not enough room to swing a sword.
This area had changed hands because of the battle fought a week ago and was now, in theory at least, part of Nicanor's domain. The battle had been satisfying enough, but there remained the weary dog-work of securing the region. Crassus and his men were pursuing the scattered remnants of the King's army, the ones who might have thrown away their allegiance and become marauding bandits; and what better place for fugitives to hide than in the damned woods of these damned mountains?
The village at the mountain's foot had received his squad with no more sullenness than one could expect from barbarian peasants who distrusted anything outside their own valley. On being interrogated through an interpreter, the headman had denied seeing any of the enemy troops. "What chance that they're sheltering up on the mountain?" Crassus had asked, and been assured that was an impossibility. "Men do not climb this mountain," the interpreter had explained. "It is--" he waved hands, looking for a word- 'fanis--' sacred, not to be touched. Crassus had scowled in annoyance, knowing what that meant: he'd have to send a party to reconnoitre to the peak. The villagers' simple faith in their mountain gods wouldn't save their skins when bandits came roaring down on them like wolves in winter.
And so now he was fighting his way through the forests that reached to the top, scouting his section of the hillside. They'd gone out singly to keep the noise to a minimum, intending to stay within hail of each other. But in the dark gloom he'd soon lost track of Lucius who was supposed to be off on his right and of Manlius on his left. That didn't bother Crassus. He knew he could stand off a phalanx on his own if he had to. And he refused to notice the heavy unmoving air beneath the tree canopy, or the sweat running down his back and soaking his tunic under its cuirass, or the swarms of little insects that buzzed about his head and clouded his eyes. All that was the discomfort of a soldier's life, and as unremarkable as the bad food and the hard pallet beds.
The ground grew steeper, and he found himself climbing, holding on to tree roots and branches as he scrambled higher up. The insects were singing in his ears, an annoying shrill buzz, but he couldn't spare a hand to wave them away. No decent country for a man, this barbarian land. Not like the rolling ploughed farmland of Italy- the Italy he'd never see again. He'd backed Pompey over the upstart Caesar, and now he was an exile, doing what he'd been trained to do, doing what his soldier ancestors had always done, and doing it for pay. But what he'd been trained to do wasn't this- this climbing up walls like a monkey...
Abruptly the ground flattened off into a shallow plateau, and Crassus drew himself up onto it. He stood still, listening. It was a perfect spot for a bivouac or encampment, but he knew that he was alone. He could sense no human life near him, nor- and this was odd- any animal life either. Wind rustled the leaves overhead, but there was no twittering of birds, no buzz of insects. Only, over on his left, the gurgle of water. He went to it and found a small stream meandering through the deep groundcover and wildflowers of the dell. Its water revived him and cooled his sweaty face, while suggesting, less comfortingly, that if he followed it to its source he might find a hidden enemy camp. Loosening his sword in its sheathe, he began to walk ahead. The trees were more slender here, younger than the ancient oaks that grew on the mountain's sides. The going was easy, and for that very reason Crassus was more on his guard. But there was nothing to alarm him as he walked, only the purling of the little brook and the soft wind in the trees, until he came through an arch of laurel trees and found himself facing the mountain's side again. And here the mountain became perpendicular stone, treeless and unscalable except by goats. Down its stony face ran a narrow sparkling ribbon of water that collected in a pool below, then overflowed to make its way outwards as the little brook. So much for that, then. No man would climb higher than this, when he could camp at his ease in the dell below.
Crassus looked about the untouched grass and the wide pool of water with a mixture of satisfaction because the enemy wasn't here and annoyance because he didn't know where they were. He'd have to go back now, find the others, and hope they hadn't messed things up too badly on their own. The idea of sliding back through the humid undergrowth was distasteful. Up here a small breeze was drying the sweat in his hair, and Crassus took off his breastplate to let it do the same thing to his chest. Oh, Hades take it. He was alone here, he could give himself a moment's pleasure. He stripped off his clothes, unsheathed his sword, and waded into the cool waters of the pool. The sword he put on a flat stone at the edge, within easy reach, and proceeded to wash himself thoroughly. Clean water and enough of it was always rare- rare for the Roman army, even rarer for the mercenary. He dipped his head underwater, into the cool blue, and eased onto his belly, swimming a few shallow strokes in the pool. His black hair fanned about his head, and he came up gasping- to see trousered legs standing at the pool's edge before his very eyes. Crassus spun to see who was at his back- no-one, and he dove mightily for the pool's far edge and grasped his sword before turning to face the lone man on the other side.
The barbarian hadn't moved. He was still as a statue. Crassus frowned at the motley garments the man wore, at the appalling length of his hair, and most of all at the fact that he was swordless and weaponless.
"Who are you?" Crassus challenged him in the little Bithynian he'd picked up.
The other said nothing, didn't so much as alter his stance. There was something wrong about him and his focussed stare. Half- witted, perhaps? But Crassus' instincts told him it was more than that. The man certainly wasn't some mountain peasant. Gaudy and outlandish as they might be, the green Scythian trousers he wore and the orange tunic above them were marvels of the dyers' art, patterned in a delicate flower motif. One muscular arm was bare, but the other was covered by a flowing sleeve that looked to be fine, glossy silk. A simple elegant bracelet of silver and green enamel encircled his right wrist. The impossibly long curly hair had a sheen to it as if oiled. Men like him were found down in the king's palace, among the pampered nobles and courtiers of this effeminate people. What was such a one doing on top of this god-forsaken mountain?
Crassus backed to the pool's edge and climbed out. If the man had followers or servants, why hadn't he called to his fellows? What was he waiting for?
"Who are you?" Crassus demanded again. The man's eyes had followed him as he emerged from the pool and were fixed now on his phallus. The blue eyes had widened a little, and there was an unreadable curve to the carved mouth. Crassus looked more closely at the man, saw the fair skin of his cheeks smooth as a boy's, and felt a shudder of disgust ripple his spine. A eunuch. Someone's slave and fancy-boy, captured in a raid perhaps, or castrated by his barbarous captors. Or else, even worse, a priest of the vile goddess Cybele, mutilated by his own hand. Yes, he realized, it must be the latter. That would explain the hair long as a woman's, the delicate feminine clothing, even his presence here in the open. There must be a shrine nearby where the castrate priests practised their abominable rites. No wonder men stayed away from this mountain.
Crassus turned away in distaste and went to pick up his clothes. There was nothing to fear from one who lacked the basic qualification of manhood- certainly not from one who'd sacrificed it willingly. He pulled his tunic over his head and jumped in shock at the touch of a cool hand on his shoulder. The man had crept up on him, impossibly swift and noiseless, and was standing right next to him. Crassus recoiled automatically.
"Keep away!" he snarled. "You--" he had to use Latin- "-you mutilated pervert! Keep your filthy hands from me!"
The other smiled at him, a meaningful intimate smile, and the blue eyes danced.
"Absolutely not!" Crassus bellowed in fury. The tastes of the priests of Cybele were infamous- insatiable as women in their desire to open their wobbling buttocks to a real man's flesh, and more shameless in pursuit of it than any Roman whore with a liking for slaves and gladiators. Crassus stepped back a pace, grabbed his underdrawers and pulled them on hastily. The other smiled merrily and reached out to pull them back off. Crassus swung hard. His fist connected with a satisfying thud that sent the other flying back onto the grass. He picked up his cuirass-- and stopped, senses prickling. Something-- danger- a robber band approaching?-- He snatched his sword up, eyes raking the surrounding woods... eyes that came slowly, with a strange unwillingness, back to the eunuch priest who had gotten to his feet again. The young face was very still, the eyes set, and there was a thin line between the beautifully curved arches of his eyebrows. The air about Crassus felt heavy, as it does before a storm or an earthquake. Unthinkingly he raised his sword to strike, and the blade shivered and crumbled into a cascade of shining metal dust that glinted in the air. With a wild yell of surprise and terror, Crassus reversed the empty hilt in his hand and threw himself on the blond eunuch, aiming for his temple with the heavy pommel. But strong hands caught his arms, strong arms caught his body and held him still in an iron clasp, warm and unbreakable. The blue eyes were directly in front of his and they looked at him with an expression not of the mortal world. Crassus' mind reeled. One of Them- this was- how could it be- This was one of Them--
"Mithras!" Unthinkingly he called on his god, the soldiers' god, to save him from from the foreign demon. "Mithras! Aid me!"
"Oh come," a voice said- a voice in his ear, a voice in his soul, a voice carrying a thread of unhuman amusement-- "Mithras aids soldiers in battle. Believe me, he cares nothing about their bedtime combats. Those he leaves to me."
"Let me go!" Crassus pushed in hot fury at the hard muscled chest, a chest that felt enticingly strong and smooth under the thin silk. He wriggled in the unyielding grip and felt, through the other's loose trousers, an increasing bulkiness where none should be. He stopped his movements abruptly, eyes wide.
"You-- you're a man!"
"Hardly," the other smiled. "I'm a god." He wriggled his own pelvis against Crassus'. "And you can see how hardly a god I am."
"I'll have no truck with barbarian perverts, god or man!" Crassus declared stubbornly. "I am Marcus Crassus Aperivus, formerly of the sixteenth cavalry of Apuleia, son of Lucius Crassus Aperivus, son of Caius Crassus Aperivus who was consul in the year--" Two lips placed themselves on his own, impossibly soft and full, and a tongue entered his mouth, choking him.
"You're a very beautiful man," the voice said inside him, "and you talk far too much."
"Aaunngh--" Crassus protested, writhing to get free, but the hard flesh under the soft garments was doing strange things to his own flesh, which hardened harder and harder, distracting him from what he wanted to remember, and two divinely strong hands had worked their way into his drawers and were squeezing his buttocks in a way that took the words from his head. The silken lower garments of the god felt like silken flesh against his naked skin- thighs warm and strong, covered with supple muscle, long slender legs that his own legs opened to encircle, his feet lifting into the air it almost seemed above his body--
"No!!" Crassus cried in horror as realization hit him. "I'll be no man's woman--"
"Mortal," the god said in his ear, but all he could see was the wave of golden hair like the wheatfields of Apuleia dancing before his eyes. "Mortal, you climbed my mountain. You entered my sanctuary. You bathed in my waters. Now you shall climb my peak again while I enter your sanctuary and bathe in your waters. Fair's fair, after all," the god added, reasonably.
And before Crassus could protest further, his senses were taken from him in an ecstasy of divine ravishment.
A hand touched his shoulder. He opened uncertain eyes, saw blue eyes above him and sat up abruptly. Agrippa, his second in command, took a quick pace backwards. "Sir..."
"Agrippa..." He looked about him. They were in the headman's hut in the village at the mountain's foot. "What happened?"
"Bessus and Calvus found you unconscious on the mountainside, sir, but there was no sign of anyone else. Were you attacked?"
"No..." His mind was unclear, but he knew he hadn't been attacked. "What did the others find?"
"Nothing," the burly Bessus said. "Not a sniff of a robber or deserter anywhere."
"Hmm," Crassus said. "So maybe King Nicomides' men share the local superstitions."
"Seems so, sir. Uhh- are you alright, then? We couldn't find any head wounds..."
"I'm fine," Crassus snarled. "Do you think I stumbled and knocked myself out?"
"No, of course not, sir," Bessus said hastily.
"But someone took your armour off you--" Agrippa began, and fell silent in response to Crassus' glare.
"We'll spend the night here and move on at daybreak. Commandeer provisions from the village, and post the usual guards round the camp. Dismissed."
"Yes sir," the other two said, saluting, and left on the double.
Crassus sat in the darkening hut, not noticing when the headman humbly came with an oil lamp to dispel the shadows. He ought to get up- join his men in their bivouac- he ought--- But all he could do was sit looking into the darkness as though there were something he should be able to remember. Something that might come back to him if he simply waited long enough.
The door opened again. "Sir?" a tentative voice asked.
"Zeno." The newest recruit, one of those clever Greeks.
"I brought you dinner, sir."
"Mh." Crassus took the bowl of stew and the wooden spoon the young man handed him. Zeno stayed down beside him, crouched on one knee. Crassus' eyes slid over to look at him in the gloom.
"I was talking to the interpreter," Zeno said without preamble. "There's a shrine at the top of the mountain. It belongs to a godling they call Dolian. Men don't go up the mountain, the interpreter said, because Dolian might take them for his own."
An intelligent young man, Zeno, and unlike most Greeks, one who only talked when he had something to say. "They don't come back?" Crassus asked neutrally.
"No, they come back, but changed. They carry Dolian's mark with them. Not only them, but their sons and their sons' sons and their great-grandsons for a hundred generations. The interpreter said Dolian is faithful to those he favors, but-- well, he's a god. He has different values from men. He's likely to draw a man's attention away from his ploughing and his sowing, say, or to distract him from his family or a feud- or well, basically, from the things a man ought to be paying attention to."
"How inconvenient." Crassus spooned stew.
"No-one mentioned this when we set out this morning."
"A Bithynian god wouldn't be interested in Romans, I'm told."
"No," said Crassus, and felt an unplaceable emotion like a sweet scent on the wind. He shut the doors of his mind upon it. "And a Roman wouldn't be interested in him. Dismissed, Zeno."
"Yes sir." The young man saluted and was gone. Deliberately, Crassus finished eating the rest of his stew.
Note: aper, apris = boar; rivus, rivi = brook, stream