I'm walking back from the soldiers' camp when an impulse overwhelms any logical thoughts. The olive grove is empty of slaves during the summer months as the trees are not yet yielding their fruit. My eyes flicker around the grove but I see no one. I slip off my sandals and set the tray on the floor, cups clattering softly. The sun-warmed earth is hard beneath my toes as I step into the grove and I delight in the simple pleasure.
I start to walk, tracing the knotted pattern in the wood. In the quiet grove, with only the budding trees as an audience, my thoughts wander. Then my foot catches on something. My body lurch forward. Pain blooms through my palms as they smack into the tree trunk. Sighing at the pinpricks of blood that ooze from a shallow cut, I lay my forehead against the trunk. Its cool ridges scratch my skin but I ignore the feeling.
Groves, with their silent trees and vines, have always soothed me. At the age of ten Bein had been forbidden by our parents to play games with me as they were considered too childish. I found consolation for the separation from Bein in the trees of our family groves. Bein had no such pleasure and was sent away to my uncle. My uncle moulded Bein in his own image, made him into a man who was capable of deceit and cruelty. Yet when I picture Bein it is not the selfish brute who I remember, but the boy who would begrudgingly play games with his sister to make her smile.
It is for the boy that I will kill Nikolaos Caecilius.
It is only when darkening shadows edge towards me that I realise how long I have stayed in the grove. Scooping up my tray, I hasten to my uncle's villa, praying that I will not get my first beating as a slave.
The wounds on my back split open as I bend over to set the tray on the ground. Immediately flocks of soldiers are upon me, snatching mixed wine and bread off the tray. I swiftly back away. The way the soldiers shovel food into their greedy mouths never fails to repulse me. Feeling a little nauseated, I turn to leave, only to spot a pair of polished boots planted firmly in my path.
'Please follow me, Korrina.'
I would expect a murderer's voice to be cold or calculating, but no emotion colours Caecilus's voice.
Assuming that I would follow, he strides towards the olive grove and stops under the arching branches, seemingly staring deep into the trees.
I approach his back warily. When I am a foot from him, he wheels around, staring at me intently.
'What were you doing in the olive grove?' he demands.
The pain of my wounds flares in remembrance of my whipping. I cannot let the Commander report me. I leap forward and clutch at his forearm.
'Please don't tell anyone, I'm begging you. I know I shouldn't have been there but- '
'Hush.' His sharp reply silences my babbling. Eyes wide, I stare at him fearfully. His face softens, the tension leaking from his features. I do not notice our close proximity until his warmth breath touches my face. My sheltered life as an aristocratic female has never allowed me to be so close to a man before. I've never been close enough to breathe in the scent of leather.
I lean in unconsciously, my body responding to the soft look in his eye. His hand haltingly reaches up. My eyes close. I feel his fingertips brush my cheekbone. I ache for him to press his palm against my cheek, his insubstantial touch too light to sate my longing.
'Who are you?'
Why did he have to ask me that? The softly uttered question against my ear reminds me of my duty to my family. I rip myself from his arms. His hand hovers in the air for a single moment, and then falls.
Gazing resolutely at the ground, I shake my head.
'I'm just a slave.'
The letter from my mother is oddly comforting despite its grim contents. The familiar flow of my mother's handwriting reminds me of when I would watch her pen her letters to Bein. I was always so happy when she would allow me to write my name at the bottom of the scroll, even if I would receive a sharp tap to the cheek if I were too messy. However, my sentimental thoughts are dampened by the news that my family has fallen further from grace. The crowds of citizens have grown more bold, what before were malicious whispers have grown to spiteful jeering whenever my father walks through the streets. My mother ends the letter succinctly, and her concise words move me more than my father's pleading ever did.
Hurry, and finish the deed. Whether it is with knife, rope or hands kill Caecilius. Our reputation can stand no more shame.
My mother is right. If there is one thing that my moment with Nikolaus Caecilius showed me, it is that I cannot afford to let this charade continue. He is dangerous and I fear for myself. The next time he is so close to me must be after I have avenged my family with his death.
I will do it when he sleeps.
With fire burning in my veins, I decide on the weapon. A glance around my sparse living quarters reveals no obvious choices. There is a small measure of rope hanging up on the wall which I could use…but no, rope may be easy to find but my victim would awaken as soon as the course fabric touched his skin. The same would go for strangling him with my hands. Besides, I doubt I have the strength for that.
My only option is a knife. A murderer deserves a painful death.
There is a knife in the kitchens that I spotted earlier when I collecting lunch for his men. It was rather blunt and unwieldy but I believe it will dispatch him without too much hassle.
A terrible idea occurs to me. I will not use the kitchen knife. I will use his dagger. That was how Bein died. The beautiful irony of the murderer dying by the dagger he used to kill my brother will curb my guilt and grief.
My blood thirsty thoughts shock me for a moment and I reread my mother's letter to remind me of my duty. I must not let naive thoughts distract me from my goal. I must face the truth which I have been denying ever since Bein's funeral. I am no longer a child, I have to forget the woman I was when entering this camp and become someone new. That person must not be sentimental or weak.
If I have to forget every touch or look I have shared with Caeciliius then so be it.
Rising from my bed, I walk to the window to look at the sky. I need his dagger. Night has fallen and the dark will hide me if a lone sentry should happen to look my way. I slip through the corridors of the villa, encountering no one. I pray that my luck will continue as I approach the soldier's tents. I do not halt when the sound of laughter drifts towards me on a stray breeze. By the time the soldiers have recovered from their night of merriment, their commander will be dead and I will be returning to my family as a victor. The thick material rustles gently as I duck inside his tent.
A soft snuffle of sleep causes me to pause. I do not fear he has awoken. I recognise that small sound of contentment. Bein had often emitted the very same sound. A sudden wash of calmness floods me and I relax ,my fears over being caught vanished. Instead of leaving, I walk towards the bed.
I run my eyes over his sleeping face dispassionately. This man is the first to have touched me. He is also the man who killed my brother.
I realise it is not calmness that I feel, but numbness.
Nikolaos' dagger rests at the end of the straw mattress. Slowly, I slide the dagger from its sheath and lightly balance it in my palm. There is very little light filtering in through the heavy canvas material of the tent but as I gaze at it I can still see the shine of the blade. I test its edge. It is sharp enough to draw blood. Before kneeling on the thin mattress I wonder at the irony of the situation. I never did imagine growing up to be a killer.
But I cannot fight Tyche, Goddess of fate. I focus on the soft patch of skin below Nikolaos' jaw, knowing that his pulse lies below. My father taught me about the four humours of the body –yellow bile, black bile, blood and phlegm. I know that if these humours become unbalanced, it causes death. Father advised that if I cut deep enough then I will sever the channel for his humours, causing blood to flow out, unbalancing the other three. Focusing on the soft patch of skin beneath his jaw, I lower the blade. When the edge rests against his pulse I prepare to slice. The dagger quivers, gently tapping his skin as my hand twitches.
With a jerk of my wrist, I slide the blade across his throat. But it is not hard enough. An orb of blood wells up from the cut and I am thrown from the mattress as Nikolaos jolts awake. From my position on the dirt floor I see one hand cup the wound on his neck, while the other gropes at the vacant dagger sheath at the end of the mattress.
Scanning the tent, his tense posture relaxes when he catches sight of me splayed across the floor. But a moment later,as I stare guiltily at the blood on his neck, he recoils, one hand rising to meet the other at his neck.
'Rina, please tell me you didn't do this.'
His tone is pleading, as if he couldn't believe a woman would dare hurt him.
'I did.' My voice is soft in the silence of the night.
'Why? You ambushed me as I sleep. You tried to slit my throat.'
'You are a murderer and therefore do not deserve an honourable death,' I enunciate my words slowly. I want him to feel the weight of each insult.
'Murderer? You are the murderer here. Why kill me? I don't understand.'
'Can you even remember murdering a man named Bein? Or have you so easily forgotten your victims?'
At my brother's name, he blanches.
'Bein? Was he…was he your husband or-?'
'Brother. He was my brother.'
A pregnant pause passes as I gaze impassively at him. His throat moves convulsively as if searching for the right words.
'Korrina, I'm so sorry, it was an accident, we were fighting and he retrieved his knife so I had to take out mine to protect myself and…'
His admission of guilt gives me the strength to push myself of the floor. I can feel the ornate carving of the dagger handle digging into my palm.
'You are sorry? What use is an apology? Does that wind back all the months of grieving? All the jeers and taunts my father has endured?'
Righteous anger swells inside of me as all the confusion and anxiety I feel over this one man rises to the surface.
'My family doesn't need an apology, it needs revenge.'
Whipping the dagger out again I slash at his face. The tip of the dagger catches his cheekbone but I am too slow to retract my arm. He grabs my wrist and yanks me towards him. I cry out as I fall against him, my wrist bending uncomfortably against his chest. We wrestle for the dagger.
'Let it go before I break your wrist,' he says.
I do not know whether it is a threat or a caution but I am so far gone in my fury that I pay him no heed, instead redoubling my efforts to gain control of the blade.
I sink my teeth into the tender flesh of his wrist just as he angles the blade so it touches my ribcage.
'Just stop it, Korrina; you are going to get yourself killed.'
'No, I won't stop fighting you until you are dead. That I promise you.'
But despite my brave words, my muscles are tiring and growing weak. With the knowledge that I cannot fight him much longer, I gather all my strength and push off with my feet, shoving him backwards.
I land on top of his body. I feel triumphant for a moment before a sharp sensation pierces my side. Confused, I stared into Nikolaos' wide eyes. The dagger clatters to the floor.
'Gods, Rina, I'm so sorry.'
He is still underneath me, our fight forgotten. Panicked eyes sweep over my torso and he curses under his breath. Hesitantly, he touches his hand against my waist.
Agony explodes in my side and I double over, my head coming to rest on Nikolaos's torso.
'You will be fine, just calm down. I need to get you help. Forgive me, I am so sorry; I didn't mean to do this.' He pleads softly to me as a hand strokes my hair from root to tip.
Wetness seeps through my toga. In the moonlight it appears black. After finding Bein dead on the threshold, I know that it is blood.
Rotating my head slightly, I see the dagger lying innocuously a few feet away, the same black material glistening on its tip.
I wonder who will avenge my death. Neither of my parents are strong enough to fight Nikolaos and survive. Will the entire house of Glauce die at his dagger?
His soft pleading in my ear is a lullaby. I listen to the haunting voice of my brother's killer and think of my father, mother, and Bein. I imagine the moment that the messenger tells my family that I've have been slain.
Perhaps it will bring my father comfort to know that I died in my murderer's arms while his low sobs of apology fill the air.
A/N- Ive had a few readers questioning how long this story is so just to let anyone ineterested know that this is the end, it was always meant to be a short story! Thanks for reading :)