The young girl’s hands tingled. The ropes that bound her wrists and ankles dug into her flesh, and her shoulder burned, scraped by the cart’s rough planks. Night’s mantle pressed the tears in her eyes, while a frightened moan escaped her saliva sodden gag. She struggled to rise. The heavy wheels creaked and bumped over brambles and stones, telling her that the oxen had left the rutted tracks. A sudden lurch forward and all motion stopped. Weightlessness overpowered. She closed her eyes and held her breath.
* * *
A cloak is a useful companion, I thought as I gazed at the iron gates. It can shadow the biggest, most sinister culprit from the light, and in my diminutive case, I was no exception. The moonlight threatened my vigil on the archway, but I regressed into the shadow, cheating Luna of any satisfaction. The marble column beside me, just one in a row lining the atrium of my father’s villa, met my hand with its furrows of cool, polished stone, and I waited.
Our gatekeeper finished lighting the torches braced to the villa walls. Feeling a slight chill, I clutched the woolen folds around me. I must be patient. Juniper waves rippled through my curls, and I rounded a fallen tendril behind my ear. Even in the spring’s gentle wind another escaped and laughed at me in the breeze as I subdued it beneath my hood. My curls were as stubborn as I could be at times. The missive addressed to Lady Arria had been cryptic. It requested an audience with me, concerning a disappearance. It had been signed—Desperate.
I was not surprised. My reputation as an investigator spread throughout the Tuscian countryside. A mystery concerning a series of demonic symbols carved into our wheat fields was solved by my skills of observation and deduction and my willing involvement by status as the landowner’s daughter. Of course, our bishop sermonized that there was no longer room in fifth century Italia for lingering strains of pagan practices that allowed for Satan’s grip on the land and Christian souls. I had thought differently; my father had seen to this, and I looked to the ways of men rather than demons for an explanation. However, the mystery of Satan’s symbols had awakened in me a passion for investigation into baffling matters.
When my father, the esteemed Senator Felix, heard of my involvement and resolution of this agrarian mystery, he summoned me to his study. I seated myself before him. His graying hair, dark brows, and long nose portrayed his intelligent nature well. He shook his head. “Why wasn’t I informed about your investigation?”
“Forgive me, Father. My passion for the truth drove me.”
He frowned. “Since your mother’s death, Arria, I have sanctioned your education and independence. Other fathers would expect you follow the domestic traditions of a Roman lady.” Folding his hands on the desk, he leaned forward. “My peers have criticized me, but I’ve held to my conviction. In times of upheaval, knowledge and strength can be your allies.” He sighed and relaxed into his chair. “Arria, I pay an overseer to manage this estate and any problems it may encounter. Spend your days in more pleasant pursuits.” Pushing a scroll across his desk, he smiled. “I’ve acquired a treasure. One of Cicero’s philosophic writings, On Ends. Aetius was quite envious. I informed him that when he returned from chasing that barbarian, Attila, I would lend it to him.” His smile turned to a full grin, “The General was definitely annoyed.”
“Really Father, if you weren’t fast friends, I would question this rivalry over antiquities.” My father chuckled. I gave him a serious look. “I crave something that will intrigue me. Since Marcian’s death, I feel empty… that I lack… purpose.”
“Marcian was a good soldier and husband. He is sorely missed, but you’re just twenty years.” My father observed. “There will be time for adventure, even love. Rest, study. Grief will dull. I long for the sparkle in your green eyes.”
“But Father,” I insisted, “with my help the farmers discovered that the symbols were not carved by the hand of Lucifer, but by our neighbor, Sagittarius. I used the knowledge I was taught and put the fears of our tenants and slaves to rest.”
Again, my father shook his head. “You’re as stubborn as you are smart. The demon symbols may have captured your interest, but be careful. Although Sagittarius pleaded a drunken prank, your disclosure embarrassed him—cost him a heavy fine. A vindictive man plays hard.”
“A stubborn and smart woman can play just as hard.”
“Temper your confidence, Arria,” my father cautioned. “This isn’t a game. When a man’s reputation and wealth, are threatened, it may become a deadly affair.”
In the pale shade of moonlight, my father’s warning echoed in my mind. Instinctively, I clutched my pendant, an alabaster heart. A gift from Marcian, it was a comfort. I felt safe on our villa grounds. The initiator of this rendezvous was meeting me here, but I thought it best to hide myself. I wanted the first assessment.
Before long, a hooded figure approached the archway. The gatekeeper snored in a chair propped against the wall. The stranger avoided the bell hanging for visitors and rattled the gate. Startled, the gatekeeper jumped up. They exchanged words and the slave ran toward my quarters. The stranger’s size indicated that it was a man, but his hood and the shadows hid his features. He gripped the bars of the gate, and his leather boots measured him a person of means. Upon seeing the bewildered gatekeeper return, I boldly approached the stranger. “Who is requesting to see the Lady Arria?”
“Someone seeking answers,” the stranger answered.
“Uncover your head or leave this place.”
He hesitated, then dropped his hood. Sad brown eyes confronted me. “Are you the Lady Arria?”
I shifted uncomfortably. “I am. But before I let you enter, tell me your name.”
“Why an audience at this late hour?”
“Excuse my need for secrecy—the girl I love is missing. The locals say that you have the powers of observation. Lady Arria, please help me.”
I judged Darrifius a bit younger than my twenty years. His black hair and angular cheekbones lent handsomely to a smooth face that reflected his innocence. His eyes searched my face. “What’s her name?” I asked.
“The daughter of Arminius, the magistrate?”
“Yes. She’s disappeared. I’ll die if I do not discover her whereabouts.”
“Come,” I answered. At the wave of my hand, the gatekeeper unlocked the gate.
Darrifius entered. “Thank you, Lady Arria, I’m most grateful.”
“Follow me. You can explain further over a spiced wine.”
I felt uneasy. Placidana was the only daughter of the provincial magistrate, Arminius. Was Darrifius a welcomed suitor or a lovesick boy beneath the girl’s station? And, where was Placidana?
In my quarters, Samuel, my trusted slave and confidant, approached us. Taking our cloaks, he motioned Darrifius to a chair beside the burning brazier. Samuel and I exchanged glances.
I took a seat opposite Darrifius. “Tell me what concerns you about Placidana’s absence? Perhaps, her parents have sent her away.”
“I think not. Two nights ago, I learned she was missing when I went to her villa. We’ve been meeting secretly for a while. We first met at a party thrown by my father, Sagittarius.”
I stifled a frown. “Sagittarius, the owner of the estate to the north?”
Darrifius bit into a honeyed fig Samuel offered him from a tray. “Yes.”
“Your father is quite famous in the province for his unusual love for architecture… and design,” I quipped, “but go on.”
“We met again on the feast day of St. Martin. Her father held a banquet for all the prominent landowners in Tuscia. Were you and the Senator not invited?”
“We were, but as my dress reveals, I’m in mourning. My father wouldn’t leave me.
A slight color rose in Darrifius’ cheeks. “I’m sorry for your loss, my lady.”
“Thank you,” I replied, then added quickly, “Was the gathering wonderful?”
Darrifius’ eyes shined as he licked the honey from his fingers. “It was beyond my expectation. Seeing Placidana made it even more exciting. The young people, with an older woman as a chaperone, were allowed a room for conversation and games. When the chaperone fell asleep, Placidana went to the terrace for some air. I followed. We held hands. She giggled when I recited a love poem in her ear.” Darrifius paused, the picture stealing his thoughts. “After that night, I begged my father to arrange our introductions. He did inquire, but with little luck.”
“Why is that?”
“Placidana’s mother favored us, but her father did not. My father felt disgruntled. He felt the magistrate was holding out for a better prospect.”
“So, how do you know she’s missing?”
“A week after my father’s inquiry, a slave girl from the market place approached me. Raising a finger to her lips, she handed me a sealed parchment and disappeared between the fish stalls. I couldn’t believe my good fortune. Behind a flower cart, I opened the missive. A drawing revealed Placidana’s villa, the garden beside it and a tree. Beneath the drawing was written: If you love me, find your way to this tree and my heart when the moon shines highest.” The young man’s gaze met mine but darted upward as if the beams would comfort him.
I glanced toward Samuel’s reassuring smile and reached for Darrifius’ glass. “Drink,” I said.
He took the cup. “I must seem the fool.”
“Quite the contrary,” I answered and tasted my wine. “Surely, Placidana knows her good fortune. Why do you believe she’s been missing for two days?”
“If one of us cannot meet, we leave a note in a small chest beneath the vines in her father’s garden. Two nights ago, when she didn’t appear, I checked the box. There was nothing. Worried, I slipped into the villa through the slave’s entrance and questioned a passing servant. Pretending that I was a newly arrived slave, I asked where I might find the Lady Placidana. I explained that I was to deliver her a message from her brother, Proculus. The servant seemed suspicious and replied, ‘The Lady Placidana has been missing since morning. Has her brother forgotten?’”
What did you do?” I interrupted.
Darrifius leaned in, “I froze. Then a fire leaped inside of me and I snapped, ‘Her brother hasn’t forgotten, you oaf! He wants that his sister should find a welcome note upon her return!’ I pulled Placidana’s love letter from beneath my tunic and waved it before the servant. ‘He prays she’s found and you should pray, too!’”
“‘Oh, I will,’” he answered and pointed to a door just above the courtyard. ‘The Lady is loved by all.’ Then he gave an eerie chuckle and disappeared into the dark corridor.”
“An odd reaction,” I commented, while Samuel in a servant’s chair, nodded in agreement.
Darrifius continued, “I hurried home determined to find her. In the morning, I rode the land near her villa. I hoped I would find her cold, tired, and perhaps with a bruised or broken ankle, but safe—alive. Night fell, forcing me home without success.” He took a gulp of wine and sat back. “However, I remembered the day in the market, before Placidana’s slave found me. The women were speaking about Felix’s daughter, Lady Arria, proving that the symbols carved in the fields came not from demons but drunken men. They cackled like hens. I listened with some embarrassment having heard of my father’s part in the affair.” Darrifius glanced away.
I raised an eyebrow. Could this be a trick posed by Sagittarius? Who better than a son to perpetrate a man’s revenge? Yet, Darrifius’ concern for the girl seemed quite genuine. “In the morning, I’ll arrange a visit to the magistrate’s home. I’ll inquire about Placidana. I need a woman companion to join me in my widow’s pilgrimage to Rome. Why not a lady from a respected family?”
Darrifius grabbed my hand and pressed it to his lips. “Thank you!”
“I’ll soon bring you news. The hour is late. Please, stay the night. Samuel will show you to your room.”
“You’re most gracious. Good night, my lady.” Darrifius bowed and followed Samuel.
“Sleep well, Darrifius.” Taking a seat beside the copper brazier, I held my alabaster pendant and stared into the coals. What had happened to Placidana? Or, was this an act of revenge?
“My lord, Arminius, thank you for seeing me. And Lady Deuteria, it’s always a pleasure.” I sat in the chair offered by a servant. My gaze floated over the ferns and grasses edging the veranda. A vista of red poppies, reborn beneath the April sun, held the Tuscian countryside and my attention captive.
“A marvelous view!” I sparkled and sipped the wine served to me. I answered the magistrate’s questions concerning my father’s health and my welfare. Although cordial, Deuteria seemed strained and somewhat absent. “I hope you’ll forgive this sudden visit, but I’m making a pilgrimage to Basilica Apostolorum in memory of my late husband, Lucius Marcian. It occurred to me that your lovely daughter, Placidana, might accompany me to Rome, if you approve. It’s said that she’s most amicable. Her companionship would be welcome and would allow her to visit this sacred shrine. Soldiers will safeguard our travel and the accommodations will be of the highest quality. Would Placidana find this excursion to her liking?”
Deuteria glanced at her husband.
Arminius cleared his throat, “Lady Arria, our Placidana has been missing for several days. She’s vanished.”
“Vanished, my lord, how so?”
“It’s not known. Her slave found her missing when she went to wake her for the day. The soldiers searched the house and grounds, but my daughter is gone.” I glimpsed a fearful uncertainty in his eyes, but they quickly hardened. “If she’s been kidnapped, her captor, when caught, will beg for a quick death.”
I straightened in my chair. “Do you believe she was abducted?”
“There’s no reason for her to run away,” he snapped, gripping his armrests. “She lives a privileged life. She has a brother who adores her. Her mother is devoted to her welfare, and I’ve always considered her happiness my highest priority. For months, I’ve searched for a husband suitable for her, with no result.” A reverence filled his voice, “There are few men worthy of my beautiful, Placidana.”
“I’m afraid I’ve come at a bad time. Have hope. If I can help, please call on me.” I rose and lifted my palla over my shoulders, then paused. “This might seem an odd request, but may I see Placidana’s bedchamber?” I gave Arminius a confident look.
Arminius looked wary for a moment, then curious. “I’ve checked the room numerous times, but a fresh pair of eyes might find something missed.”
Along the corridor leading to the stairway to Placidana’s room, I noted a passageway to an outer gate. “What a beautiful villa, you have. The courtyard is majestic and the garden outside its walls is remarkable. Can the back gate be accessed any time of the day?”
“The servants use that gate to come and go, but after dark, I require it be locked. Although, I suspect that on occasion this household rule goes unobserved.”
“So, the servant’s gate is the only way in or out besides the main entrance?”
“Does the gate show signs of a forced entry?”
Arminius abruptly faced me. “The wood planks are solid and the lock is intact. Do you believe she left her home, willingly?” His question hinted anger.
“I’m only curious,” I answered discreetly. We arrived at the girl’s bedchamber and I waited as Arminius let me in. He called a slave who flung open the shutters, filling the room with light. I was drawn to her bedroom slippers, still neatly placed beneath her bed. It was obvious that she’d either been carried away, her feet bare, or she left on her own accord.
I moved to her wardrobe. “How many pairs of shoes does Placidana own?”
Arminius glared. “Would I know the inventory of my daughter’s apparel?”
“Of course, forgive me. Would her mother know?” I turned my gaze on Deuteria.
Deuteria’s impassive face gazed back at me. “I believe she has several: a pair for walking, the household, and dress, of course.”
I looked. A pretty pair of sandals studded with pearls sat beside soft leather slippers.
I noted the absence of boots, but kept my observation to myself. I walked on to the balcony and noted the flowered trellis leading to the ground. I faced them. “Thank you, I’ve seen enough.”
The magistrate’s eyes narrowed. “Does anything seem out of order?”
“I believe everything is in order. In fact, too ordered to be a kidnapping, don’t you think? And your daughter’s walking boots—they’re gone.”
“You’re implying that my daughter ran away.”
“Not in the least. But, if this room has been untouched since her disappearance—there is no sign of a struggle. And the matter of the shoes. Would Placidana’s abductor stop to get her walking boots?”
Deuteria finally spoke. “What if my daughter had a lover?”
“Silence, woman!” Arminius hissed.
Arminius’ outburst took me off guard, but I recovered quickly, “I must leave. If your daughter has had a flight of fancy, I pray that she’ll return unharmed.”
“We thank you for your visit and your interest in our daughter’s welfare. I don’t believe she would desert her loving family for a fancy and my men will keep searching until we find her.” Arminius replied, resolve set in his tightened jaw.
I did not doubt that Arminius’ words were true.
Outside the atrium, while a slave fetched my horse, I noted a cloud of riders advancing on the villa. My curiosity piqued, I decided to linger. Reins in hand, I fed my horse a biscuit. Arminius, absorbed in the arrival of what I determined to be his soldiers, stood under the arched entrance. Slowing to a trot the horsemen came before the magistrate. It was apparent that a blanket hung over the saddle of the second rider.
Arminius ran to the inert bundle as two soldiers rested it on the ground before his feet. “Open it!” he cried hoarsely.
I positioned myself for careful observation. I noted that Deuteria only moved several paces closer; yet, dread filled her eyes. We held our breath and stared. The centurion in charge tenderly revealed the body of a delicate young girl. In the sun, her alabaster skin, like my pendant heart and her rich brown tresses, shined. A wounded creature cradled silent, she rested on the woolen blanket, a coarse contrast to her lifeless beauty.
Arminius fell to his knees and clutched his daughter to him. Placidana came limply into her father’s arms, while her fragile fingers scraped the dusty earth. Her vacant stare validated her death. The blue hollows of broken bones, bruises, and her blood crusted brow and skull were a perverse insult against her budding youth.
Deuteria ran and knelt beside her husband, crossed herself and began to weep. I stood transfixed by the sight before me. It was only after a few minutes that the centurion and an old slave knelt beside Arminius and whispered their concern. The body had been found in a ravine among the broken planks of a wooden cart and the battered ox that apparently led the wagon and rider over the cliff above. The cool weather and surrounding juniper had kept the decay minimal and any serious scavengers away. I wondered what had happened to the driver or had Placidana been at the reins?
With help from the guards, Placidana was taken to the house and her body was placed in one of the storerooms. Arminius and Deuteria retired to their quarters, while I pursued the old servant. “I’m here to assist your master. Where are the women who’ll prepare the girl for burial?” The servant hesitated, but knowing that I had been in his master’s company nodded and directed me to a storeroom where a few curious slaves lingered and two women bent over the body. I entered and all stepped back. Candles burned, while fragrant spirals of sandalwood drifted from a hanging censer and floated over Placidana’s body.
I approached her ashen face and peered intently at the mouth, now blue. The beauty shaped by God but lost to death had begun to fade. Only days before, her lips were vibrant and sweet. I imagined her and Darrifius kissing for the first time and my own first kiss from my beloved husband chased the lovers’ image away replaced by ours. Unconsciously, my fingers found my lips, but as quickly, I rejoined my cause and scanned her face. Bits of dried blood nestled in the corners of her pale blue lips. Was Placidana gagged? My gaze roamed her neck, then her breast. Her torn dress still covered her. Bare arms broken in several places rested awkwardly at her side. Upon closer inspection, I discovered that a purple bruise circled each wrist. They had been bound. There was no question; Placidana was taken against her will. Had the person responsible for her death led the ox driven cart to the cliff, then forced its plunge to the ravine below?
I was pulled from my thoughts when Deuteria entered and came beside me. “She was a good daughter,” was all Deuteria said, and placed her hand on the lifeless hand before her. Even in the dim light, I noticed two red lines stretched across the surface of Deuteria’s hand.
“Your pain must be difficult to bear,” I replied and turned to leave.
I turned back. Deuteria paled and Placidana’s face reflected momentarily before me.
“There was a boy, you know. ”
“Do you think him responsible?”
“Who else could it be? All loved Placidana, especially her father. My daughter was the light in his eyes.” Her tone rang strangely bitter.
“I imagine she was. She appears to have been very beautiful.”
“Yes. She is—even in death.”
Deuteria’s hollow glance and staid demeanor made my blood shudder, but I quelled the odd sensation and turned once again only to be called back.
“The boy caused her death,” she accused.
“Would he kill the object of his desire, forcing her bound and gagged over a cliff in an ox driven cart?”
Deuteria’s brow raised just a fraction. “She may have resisted him.”
“Or someone else,” I interjected and then took my leave.
Into the sunlit court, I rested on a bench near the central fountain. Looking for a drinking ladle, I was approached by a lad with a cup.
“Are you the lady that is spoken of in town?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I answered brightly. “I imagine many women in town are the subjects of gossip. What do they say about the lady in question?”
“That she’s Felix’s daughter and sees what most cannot perceive.”
I realized that by his question and my forthcoming answer, I had found my purpose. “I’m Arria Felix. I unravel perplexing mysteries.”
Hearing my affirmation, the boy smiled and looked about, then pulled a leather glove from his tunic pocket. “This belonged to my sister, Placidana. I’m Proculus, her brother. I found it at the bottom of her bedroom trellis the morning of her disappearance.”
“Did she climb down the ladder, often?” I asked softly.
Proculus looked about again. “She loved her gloves and wore them whenever she rode. If she misplaced them, she would make me search until they were found. She confided that they were a gift from an admirer, but bound me to secrecy.” Clasping the glove in his fist, he shoved his hand inside his pocket.
“Why are you telling me?” I continued.
“My sister didn’t lose them, they were taken from her.
“By whom and why?”
“I don’t know. You’re the investigator…I loved my sister. Find the one who killed her.”
“You think it not an accident?”
“Placidana would never drive an ox cart, without her gloves, in the middle of the night.”
“Where’s the glove’s mate?”
“Proculus! I’ve been looking for you!” Deuteria approached the fountain and ordered her son, “Funeral preparations must be made. Find the steward, he’ll direct you.”
Proculus glanced quizzically at Arria and scampered away.
“He meant no harm. In fact, he was quite helpful.” Arria dipped the cup into the fountain and took a sip, watching Deuteria over the rim.
Deuteria smiled thinly. “I’m glad he was of service. Forgive my lack of hospitality, but I must rest now.”
Uncomfortable in her presence, I felt that her sorrow was mistress over her emotions. “Deuteria, please take your recess. The loss of a child is a difficult cross.”
She acknowledged my condolences with a nod and swept past me. I noticed a leather edge peeking from her pocket. Did Deuteria find the missing glove? If so, where?
The next day, Placidana was buried. My father and I attended the funeral. The following morning, I acted as a witness for the inquiry into his daughter’s death. Arminius’ grief and desire for justice made his actions swift. What were once guarded whispers now had reached the ears of an angry, mournful father. Learning of the romance between his daughter and the love-struck, Darrifius, Arminius could not be calmed. The magistrate dispatched soldiers to the home of Darrifius with an order demanding his presence.
Darrifius came before Arminius trailed by his father, Sagittarius. The entire household, including my father and Samuel, was seated in a semi-circle facing the magistrate. Arminius’ hate shined in his steely gaze. A person found guilty of murder was subject to execution. Darrifius stood visibly shaken, while Sagittarius kept wiping his brow, despite the cool day.
“Were you and my daughter lovers?” Arminius snarled at Darrifius.
“In our hearts, my lord.”
“Don’t lie to me, boy. Were you lovers?”
“Not in the flesh.” Darrifius replied, adamantly.
A distrustful look crossed Arminius’ face and he glanced at Deuteria who showed signs of bridled stress. “Did you meet at night in the vineyard garden?”
“We met, but not every night—not that night.”
“That’s not true, my lord!” A sudden voice rang out from among the servants. A clamor erupted as the handsome slave stepped forward.
Arminius stood and shouted, “Quiet! What are you saying, Cyrus?”
“Master, Darrifius was in the courtyard. He pretended to be a servant.”
“Is this true Darrifius, were you in the villa?”
I silenced Darrifius with a sharp look, while my father and I stepped forward. Samuel, who arrived earlier from an errand confirming a suspicion of mine, stood behind me. My father glanced at me and I spoke, “My lord, Darrifius never came to the villa the night that Placidana disappeared. He was at home in the company of his family, celebrating his father’s birthday. It was the following night that he came to meet with Placidana. When she didn’t appear, he searched for some explanation of her whereabouts, but finding nothing, he entered the villa and spoke with a slave who confirmed her missing. Darrifius then returned to his home where he penned and delivered to our gatekeeper a note addressed to me. This morning, my servant, Samuel, confirmed with the gatekeeper that the person who carried the missive to my home was indeed the Darrifius who appeared at my villa the next night.”
The magistrate’s slave, Cyrus attempted to speak, but Deuteria stopped him with a slightly raised hand.
I continued, “My lord, Darrifius did speak with a servant, but it was a day later. It would have been impossible for him to travel the distance between our homes, return to your villa and abduct and kill Placidana all before morning. Besides, what reason would he have to kill the girl he loved?”
“Anger,” Arminius spat, “I refused him as a suitor. Perhaps this rejection has bred his spite’s revenge.”
“Then I think it would be aimed at you Arminius, not Placidana.”
Arminius crumpled in his chair and stared at those before him. He was caught in despair. “Who would gain by hurting her?” he hissed.
“Earlier in the day, I spoke with Proculus. Your son indicated that his sister never traveled without her gloves, and that he found one at the foot of the trellis the morning after her disappearance. I believe Placidana left the house that night in good faith. Her gloves were lost when her hands were bound and she was gagged.”
“Gagged! Bound!” Arminius roared.
“Your daughter’s wrists were bruised by rope and the corners of her mouth scraped and cut. Someone who lived in your house saw to her demise.” Silence permeated the room, but Arria continued, “There’s the servant that Darrifius saw the night after Placidana went missing.”
“It was Cyrus!” Darrifius cried, pointing an indignant finger at the handsome slave.
My voice rose, “My lord! Cyrus mocked to Darrifius that your daughter was loved by all. Who desired your daughter, possibly making her an object of envy or even hatred?”
Arminius glared at Cyrus and clenched his fists.
Cyrus looked desperately about, and then leaped toward the nearby centurion. Stealing his sword, he held it to the soldier’s throat. “I’ll not die for his crime,” he screamed. “Tell them Deuteria! Tell them!”
The entrance guards immediately focused on the crazed Cyrus. One circled before him, while the second jumped him from behind, freeing the centurion. The soldiers wrestled Cyrus to the ground, and the centurion relieved him of his weapon. As the soldiers hauled Cyrus to his feet, he shouted. “I’ll not pay for their crime!”
“Quiet! You fool!” Like a chorus in unison all eyes turned toward Deuteria.
“I would die for you mistress,” Cyrus choked, “but not for him.”
“Tell them, Deuteria,” I demanded and walked to her side. I pulled the leather edge peeking from her dress pocket. Displaying the missing glove, I lifted her resistant hand in mine. “These scratches were the parting gift of a frantic daughter who realized what you were about to do. Cyrus bound and gagged Placidana after you led her down the trellis. She believed you would bring her to Darrifius. Why did you lie to your daughter? Why did you kill her?” I entreated, letting her now limp hand, drop. Deuteria’s voice scorched the room. “You don’t understand. I saved her… from a monster.”
“What monster do you speak of Deuteria?” I prodded.
A frightening monster. One who creeps into a girl’s room at night. The monster guardian fallen from the grace of God, who knows only his perverse lust.”
“Deuteria, of whom do you speak?” I insisted.
For a second, she glanced behind her toward Arminius, and then her lips parted. A dull thud arched her back and a thin, ruby line trickled from the corner of her mouth. Her anguished eyes met mine. Slowly, she sank to the ground at my feet.
Before me the room spun and Samuel grabbed me to him, while my father’s shouts “Arrest him!” reverberated in my ears. I watched in horror as Cyrus, breaking free, bent over Deuteria her blood seeping onto the stone tiles, and the centurion and his men apprehended Arminius.
Several days later, Darrifius came to see me. His boyish good looks were brighter in the daylight as we shared the knowledge of a painful loss.
“My lady, what will happen to Arminius? Will his punishment be just or lost in political friendships?”
“My father has gone to Rome to relate the circumstances of Deuteria’s crime and death to the Emperor’s court. Mercy is constrained for a man who defiles his daughter. Placidana’s murder won’t go unpunished.”
“Will Cyrus suffer for leading the cart off the cliff?”
“He will live his life in a prison or face the horrors of a battlefield. My father thinks it will be the latter. Rome needs soldiers more than ever. Attila and his Huns grow closer.”
Darrifius’ voice grew hollow, “Why would a mother kill her own daughter?”
“It’s a difficult question. The answer lies buried with them; but perhaps, Deuteria envied Arminius’ love for Placidana beyond loyalty and nature. Or, maybe her damaged heart sought to protect her daughter from something she believed worse than death. I suspect that Arminius was not only Placidana’s monster but Deuteria’s as well. Possibly, Arminius succeeded another monster in Deuteria’s life. We’ll never know.”
Tears welled in Darrifius’ eyes. “I’ll never forget my beautiful, Placidana.”
“I know,” was all I could offer, but my pendant heart rested heavy on my chest.