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Discontent is almost a physical presence, these days. Ever present like the forest bird song; mostly noticeable only in its absence. Grīmaz grew up surrounded by the violence of constant Roman incursion, even on the far side of Cherusci land. It used to be that few Romans could make it that far, let alone set foot on Semnones territory. Back before the Cherusci crumbled, accepting treaty and yoke and subjugation.

Not that the Suebi are much better, overall. None of the Cherusci’s damned friendship but the Marcomanni have their Roman treaty and their king and most of the Suebi have maintained this careful balance of distasteful neutrality ever since since. Year after year of war and skirmish leads to nothing but fatigue, he knows this - has been told this, even as others continue to attack and harry the Roman troops. Grīmaz is too young to have fought any Romans, their forces having turned back towards Cherusci and Chatti and the Rhine before he had the chance. He is not tired. Grīmaz is ready to show the Romans they cannot tread where they like, eyeing the land that his grandfathers and their grandfathers roamed like little more than starved beasts.

Grīmaz knows that he is not the only person to feel this; war comes once more, a looming spectre that he welcomes, despite everything it shall bring with it. A storm cloud gathering over all their heads, darker and darker with each night that passes, each Roman that walks unobstructed on their land. If this is what he feels like in Suebi territory, only on the edges of the lands the Romans believe themselves to have pacified, then those to the west must burn with rage inside. 

The time will come soon, but today is not a day for war or bloodshed or anything but chasing his first niece through the forest. Mahtihildiz is past his knees now, fast and sprightly as her tiny body slips through gaps in the trees that Grīmaz has to swerve entirely. She has a new sister, born only three days past, and Grīmaz’s older brother and his wife are grateful now for two healthy children - but they would be much more grateful, after a day without Mahtihildiz and her boundless energy.

So Grīmaz chases the sound of giggling and the occasional glimpse of hair the colour of the sun, laughing as she taunts him. Childish things and childish amusement; Grīmaz has not played like this for long enough that he had forgotten the enjoyment of it. Since before he was old enough to style his hair properly, perhaps, as he cannot remember his hair ever being snagged so often by leaves and twigs. The respectable knot of it must look truly atrocious, by now. He can feel more and more of it falling on his neck as he moves; he begins to craft a complaint in his head to Haimarīks - your daughter, he thinks, ruined my hair more than my first battle.

The forest is silent around them and Grīmaz is able to see Mahtihildiz’s cheeky grin as she spins in place and waves at him. There’s a straight shot between them, now, the trees thinning. Unless he’s gotten ridiculously turned around, there’s a road near here somewhere. Trees falling back to make way for worn dirt and the snaking path which will take them to trade and talk with some Cherusci before too long. 

The trees part and the sun shines off Mahtihildiz’s golden hair and the Roman’s soldier’s helmet at the same moment, stealing Grīmaz’s breath and his heart in one fell swoop. There are Romans on the road, both mounted and not and Grīmaz can spare no time to self-recrimination but he wants to. How had he not noticed, not heard

Mahtihildiz does not stop running, does not stop laughing; barrels straight into the legs of a Roman man near the head of the column and ricochets away from the force of her impact. She lands in the dirt, at the feet of all those Romans and their horses, and Grīmaz feels the bitter bite of bile staining his throat. 

He has no spear, nothing but a small bone knife that will do nothing against Roman iron and armour. He can do nothing but follow her out of the forest, chasing her so quickly, so desperately, that he almost shares her path exactly - barely avoids slamming his entire body into the same man Mahtihildiz had bounced off. The man is halfway through crouching down before her but pauses his movement with Grīmaz’s appearance. Stands, as Grīmaz kneels beside his niece. 

Romans are not tall men but with Grīmaz on his knees and this man standing proud, the red plume on his helm swaying slightly in the breeze… 

Grīmaz has never felt so small in all his life. 

Never has he felt so afraid, knowing that not even his death could guarantee Mahtihildiz’s safety. He can see that the mounted men have their hands on the hilts of their swords, that some have gone so far as to draw their blades for nothing more than a child. He’s so angry he could spit fire; he might cry, so many emotions swirling unidentifiably in his chest. A scream claws at his throat along with the threat of vomit. He swallows down everything and keeps his face as blank as he's able.

The mounted Romans might have their weapons close at hand but Grīmaz cannot take his eyes away from the Roman casting them both in shadow. Feels that dark gaze like a touch as it roams across him; lingering on his golden hair, his rounded jaw, the mud which now stains his braccae. Those eyes finally meet his own blue-green and Grīmaz wonders what he looks like, to the other man - is this Roman witness to his soul deep terror, like no other man has ever before?

Between the helmet and the halo of the sun behind him, it is hard to see much of the Roman past his plume, his eyes and the metal on his sandals, so close to Grīmaz’s face. 

The Romans speak above and around them but Grīmaz understands little. His scant knowledge of Latin comes from traders, useless words which cannot help them now. He does not know how to plead for a life, how to bargain everything he has or ever could be in exchange for a child who, even now, only looks confused.

“Uncle,” She calls, thankfully unbloodied as she pulls herself upright using his arm and pulls his attention away from the piercing stare of the Roman man.

“Mahtihildiz, are you hurt?” He keeps his voice low, quiet. If his voice failed before these Romans he would not be able to stand it. She grins at him, crooked teeth and waves of golden hair now a mess about her shoulders.

“Noooooo. Uncle, which people?” She asks and gestures to the man who watches them, still. Grīmaz is sickened at the realisation that he feels - not quite hope, but something that could be its wounded cousin. The way the man watches him is too intense for the situation they have found themselves in. Perhaps... perhaps this Roman likes the look of him; Grīmaz would do worse things that let a Roman have him, so long as Mahtihildiz was long gone and safe, first.

“Romans, child,” Replies the man in passable enough Cherusci dialect, which is not quite entirely the same as the Irminonic that west Suebi speak. It is accented and oddly… smooth, but better than any attempt Grīmaz could make of Latin. “I am Aulus Postumius Pyrgensis, Tribunus Angusticlavii of the nineteenth legion. Who do I speak with?”

“Mahtihildiz!” She shouts, any reservation at the idea of Romans swept away at the opportunity to talk to someone new. With the traders and the other Suebi, such a thing is endearing. Now, Grīmaz wishes his niece’s personality was anything other than what it is. The Roman - their names are so long that Grīmaz forgets the start by the time they’ve reached the end. Awoolis? Grīmaz is not even good at remembering Suebi names after the first hearing of them.

“Grīmaz. Good to... meet… you,” He replies before the other man can wait too long and grow impatient. One of the mounted Romans engages the man who stands before them in conversation again. This time, the man turns his head to converse. His profile is a severe thing, dominated by a strong, hooked nose and sharp chin that his helmet cannot hope to hide.

“What are they saying?” Mahtihildiz asks, her attention waning almost immediately when Grīmaz can do nothing but confess his own ignorance. She turns her attention to his hair, tittering at his misfortune before she begins to pull out the forest which is caught in it. She is gentle enough, though her chubby children’s fingers make clumsy, slow work of it. Grīmaz rubs a hand up and down her back, soothing himself more than her. She cannot comprehend the gravity of the situation they’re in, not when the currents of this interaction are subtle enough that they drowned Grīmaz before he’d even noticed.

The Roman, Awoolesp?, smiles. He’s turned halfway between the man talking to him and Grīmaz, angled just right that the sunlight now illuminates his tanned face instead of casting it in foreboding shadow. The sight of it chills Grīmaz to the bone. The other Romans are smiling, starting to chuckle, blades sliding back into sheaths and hands falling from hilts, but - Grīmaz does not have enough knowledge of Latin to be fooled by pretty words. All he has is body language and facial expressions and the Roman standing before them smiles with nothing but his mouth. He says something and the column of Romans ripples with laughter. Grīmaz can feel his hand trembling on Mahtihildiz’s back, presses the other one to his knee to keep it from showing. 

“Is that not right, friend Grīmaz?” The Roman says, butchering Grīmaz’s name in that same, smooth way he has the rest of the language. Hrimas, he says. Grīmaz doesn’t move anything apart from his hand, rubbing slowly up and down Mahtihildiz spine. How can he agree, without knowing a single word they’ve said? How can he disagree, a single wrong move away from a pitiful death on his knees. Worse, maybe. His hair has fallen almost entirely free, barely any sign of the knot or his status as a free man. They could slave him and Mahtihildiz and then there would not even be bodies for his brother to find. 

“I don’t understand. …Friend Awoolesp,” he admits, knowing that he has butchered the other man’s name in return. The laughter of the Romans grates against his ears; he has been afraid for too long and now there is nothing for it to turn into but anger. He bites his own tongue to keep it from digging their graves.

“We laugh with you, not at you, Grīmaz. After all, what does one of our allied Cherusci tribesmen have to fear from us?”

Grīmaz blinks up at him. Awoolesp stares back, those piercing eyes unchanged. He knows, Grīmaz knows that the other man knows, that they are no Cherusci. Their clothes are mostly animal skin, Grīmaz’s Suebian knot might be ruined but not even Mahtihildiz’s questing hands could have rendered it unrecognisable, to a man who knows what he's looking for - there is no way this Roman who speaks in the Cherusci way would ever mistake them like this.

Those dark eyes sear him, right down to his soul.

“Nothing. We fear… nothing, friend Awoolesp.” Grīmaz stands, pulling Mahtihildiz up with him, resting her on his hip. She settles into the position easily, resting her cheek on his shoulder. She must be tired, after so much running. No Roman strikes them down for moving. Most of the Romans, in fact, seem to have lost interest in the scene entirely. 

Grīmaz’s heart is thundering in his chest once more, at the realisation that maybe both he and Mahtihildiz will both get to go home, safe. 

The Roman takes a step forward, close enough that Grīmaz can see every detail of his face. The faint age lines around his eyes and mouth; the crook at the bridge of his hooked nose where a break has healed unevenly; his wide lips and the unfathomable brown of his eyes.

“What do you say as you go home safe, Grīmaz?” The man asks, all false humour wiped from his face. Like this, it is easy to tell that most of the man's height comes from his helmet, though he is broader at the shoulders than Grīmaz. Being eyes to chin with Grīmaz does not stop the Roman from looming, somehow. Grīmaz wants to spit in his face.

“Thank you,” he says, not able to muster up the derision he feels bubbling in his chest; or… perhaps all he can feel is relief, no space within him for anything else. Either way, it makes him light-headed, sets a tremor through his limbs. 

“Aulus.” It takes Grīmaz a second to understand. He can feel the too dry click of his throat as he swallows, then parrots,

“Awulis.” 

“Ah-oo-lus,” Aulus enunciates slowly, voice deep and serious. As though it’s of vital importance that Grīmaz mimic the right pronunciation. Maybe it is.

“Aulus,” he repeats and Aulus… does not smile, not truly. But the lines around his eyes crease with satisfaction and one corner of his wide lips quirk upwards, small enough that Grīmaz would have missed it were he not so close.

“Go home, Grīmaz.” Aulus says. Grīmaz wishes he could find the bravery to repeat the Romans stunt, make him stand there until he could pronounce the guttural sound sound important to Grīmaz’s name. Instead, he whispers,

“Thank you, Aulus,”

And goes home.



It’s hard to distinguish much, in the aftermath. So much blood has been spilled that the earth has turned to mud, staining the corpses and wounded and walking all alike. And still, it is easier to distinguish between friend and foe than any other battle Grīmaz has been in. The glint of Roman metal is still visible, even though the mud and shit and gore. He feels not quite steady on his feet, exhausted and weightless with victory, and still he haunts the battlefield for the work is not yet done.

It is not quiet, despite the killing field that sprawls out around him, through the clearings and the trees. Grīmaz walks over and around the still figures, searching out the source of the low, haunting moans. Underneath the chatter of the victors, the shouted questions and orders and familiar language, is the unending, agonising sound of those wounded; screaming, wailing, whimpering. Ally and enemy alike still nourish the earth with their blood and Grīmaz listens to their calls and answers.

His spear was lost before the battle ended, his axe now cleaned and back on his belt. The small knife he carries is enough for this job, solemn as it is. 

The mangled red catches his eye, brighter than the brown that has failed to drown it. He taps it with his wrapped ankle and, when it rolls, he can see that it is no centurion helmet. He has held Roman helmets before, has cut the plume off a centurion just to see the fruitless anger bloom on his enemies faces. This one, the swirls of its decorations familiar, should not weigh any more than those. 

Grīmaz can almost taste the mid-spring air on his tongue, once more. Imagines he can feel the weight of those dark eyes; the weight of his own sickening relief, his cowardice and gratitude and the knowledge of what he would’ve done, what he would’ve offered had the Roman not shown them mercy. There is a dent in one side of the helmet, the brow piece crumbled from what must have been a punishing blow. 

Blue-green eyes drift from the helmet to the bodies strewn about him. Familiar styles of leathers and hides are scattered around and there, but a few steps away lay a single Roman. He keeps the helmet in hand as he slowly crosses the distance. The man looks different, without the gilt of the helmet. Or maybe it’s the swelling around his right eye; the blood splattered across his neck and mouth and cheeks. 

Even like this, there is no mistaking that face. Grīmaz has dreamt of it, in the months since. Occasionally nightmares, yes, but not often. Instead… There is no shame in wanting a man so intimately but to think of a Roman so often, so frequently - to wake up aching at the thought of the Roman taking the price of Grīmaz’s freedom from his body; he is pathetic and he knows it, viscerally.

He crouches by the Roman, by Aulus. His body will rot here with the rest; a field full of Roman bodies to warn away all the others. Grīmaz stares down at Aulus and Aulus stares back with glazed brown eyes.

“Aulus,” he greets. He has not forgotten how to pronounce it, could not even if he tried. Grīmaz has spent furtive nights stripping his own cock to the idea of further lessons; Aulus using that sibilant accent to say that if the younger man cannot speak properly, Aulus will use his mouth for a better purpose. 

Aulus’s eyelashes flutter. Grīmaz drops the helmet, metal clattering against the metal of the Romans chest plate. He shoves one bloodied hand against Aulus’s mouth and nose, doesn’t need to feel the man’s weak breath as confirmation, for the man tries to turn his head away. Perhaps he thinks Grīmaz means to smother him. If he wanted to, the older man could do nothing about it. He could not even turn his head properly, weak with whatever injury plagues him. Grīmaz moves his hand away, shoves the helmet off Aulus’s chest and assesses his body the way he would any injured ally he found. 

The wound is easy to find. Even fine Roman armour can do nothing when the leather binding it together has been cut. Either in the same blow, or another, Aulus was struck. It takes some work to pull away the faintly muscled chest armour, cutting the remaining straps with his small knife quickly but carefully enough to keep from cutting Aulus further. Grīmaz has learnt wounds. He knows the stench of a gut wound that cannot be saved, knows the rattle of a chest which has been too deeply pierced, has seen the festering rot of a wound gone bad.

Aulus has none of this. He was struck twice, two long wounds scored up his tunic and into flesh but - neither are deeper into his side than Grīmaz’s first knuckle at their very deepest point. For most of their length, not even the full depth of his fingernail. The blood has flowed, soaked into his tunic and the ground and now it has clotted, a thin scab already attempting to form across the open wound. Aulus is weak from blood loss and nothing more.

Grīmaz feels only dread at this knowledge. Had Aulus been alive with no prospect but a slow, excruciating death, the bite of Grīmaz’s blade would be nothing but a mercy. 

Aulus will live, if only someone aids him. Binds his wounds properly, cares for him while he is weak. 

Grīmaz stares at the wound, then at Aulus’s face once more. Those dark eyes have no weight behind them, this time. Wide and dazed and barely conscious. He could do nothing, should Grīmaz make the right choice and put him out of everyone’s misery. That should be Grīmaz’s mercy - a quick death instead of slavery.

The wound has stopped bleeding but it will tear open again when Aulus is moved. Grīmaz strips off his own tunic, filthy though it is. He draws his knife across the mottled brown fabric of it rather than Aulus’s throat, like the fool that he is.

Movement in his peripheral vision. Grīmaz flinches, knife at the ready, but it is only Aulus’s open hand. It wavers in the air for a moment before landing against Grīmaz’s face. Fingers against his cheek, sliding across his jaw, his lips, the hand falling away quicker than it had appeared. Grīmaz catches Aulus’s hand before it can drop to the ground, limp. Those wide, blood splattered lips move. Whatever he says, it is too faint for Grīmaz to understand. It was likely in Latin, anyway.

“Grīmaz, what are you doing?” A familiar voice rings across the clearing.

“Haimarīks, come. Quickly. I am doing something foolish and now you are, too.” He hears his older brother jog over but does not look away from Aulus’s face until Haimarīks is standing on the other side of Aulus, next to the discarded helmet.

“Are you holding hands with a dead Roman?” Haimarīks looks extremely dubious, as much as he can without pulling at the wounds on his face. It’s all cosmetic, nothing dangerous so long as it’s kept clean. A thin slice across his cheekbone, slitting the tip of his ear and cutting most of his golden red hair. Small enough that it did not need stitching, as uninjured as Grīmaz himself is. They have always looked more like twins than brothers separated by several years. Now, Grīmaz supposes, there will be more to tell them apart than their eyes and height. Grīmaz is the taller one, for the record. Two fingers widths taller than his brother since his seventeenth year and delighted with it.

“He lives. Help me bind his wounds.” To his credit, Haimarīks crouches to help even as he scowls, then winces, then scowls even harder at the pain. His eyes are a stormy grey, staring suspiciously at the Romans prone form. Aulus's eyes have finally slid shut but, now that Grīmaz is paying attention, he can see the slight rise and fall of Aulus’s chest. Can feel the weak pulse beating in his wrist. 

“Did you perhaps forget to mention something to me, brother? This is no way to find you had a Roman lover.” Despite his obvious disapproval, Haimarīks starts cutting away the Roman tunic instantly. There is no way Haimarīks has missed the bodies of their allies, dead around Aulus and almost surely his handiwork. Despite this, Haimarīks is as careful at cutting the tunic away as Grīmaz had been, when he cut the armour off.

“This is the Roman Mahtihildiz and I met, in spring.”

Haimarīks says nothing more but, together, they bind Aulus’s wound and take him back to camp.