Love, Eternally
Author:Morgan O'Neill

chapter 15

Alaric searched in vain for Randegund all morning. The sun was high, and he cursed his parched throat and growling stomach.

“Read these runes!”

The words came from somewhere beyond the bushes. He crept forward, parting branches, until he spotted her. He could see she was in a trance by the way she held herself still, her spine so straight, her blue eyes glassy.

She rattled small, carved pieces of bone in her fist, then cast them on the ground. “Read these runes!” she repeated to the air. Her eyes rolled back into her head, and she chanted in Latin, “Penetrabis ad Urbem. Penetrabis ad Urbem.” You will penetrate the city …

It was the same each time Alaric heard the chant — it resounded like thunder in his soul. The foretelling of the fall of Rome, spoken by Randegund in the enemy tongue. For as long as he could remember, she had told him he was destined to be Rome’s conqueror.

With a wail, Randegund shook herself free of the spell and looked down at the runes. Alaric heard her gasp, and then mutter something about Magnus.

He stepped forward. “Mother, stop this.”

“Gasts!” she fumed at him. “You must listen to me. The Roman filth — ”

“Say no more, Mother. He is my friend and a friend to our people. You must treat him with respect and you must also honor his bride. I will tolerate nothing less.”

Her gaze wavered, and Alaric reached out and gently stroked her hair. She was old now, by his reckoning some nine and fifty years. And her wits were not as they once were, her mind clouded by a muddle of hatred and fear.

He kissed her brow. “Mother, do this for me, your chosen son.”

She grumbled, then nodded. Alaric closed his eyes in relief, for he loved her openly, with all his heart. By God, he would do everything in his power to ensure she had a peaceful death one day, honorable, in her own bed, surrounded by her birth children and himself. She deserved as much, and when the time came, he would make certain it happened.

• • •

As calm took hold of the camp, and the women sought their beds to rest before the wedding, Randegund stood at the doorway of the tent and stared blankly into the dark. She was right to have done what she did, so many years ago. Magnus deserved it! So did all the filthy Roman pigs!

A shiver ran through her body at the recollection of the heartache they had caused her people, the heartache he had caused her.

The Romans hired the Visigoths as mercenaries, promising much in return for their service — lands, wealth, prosperity — if only they would fight for the Empire. And when the promises were broken, what had they gained? Nothing! The Visigoths rebelled, and the Romans kidnapped their children, murdering many innocents in the process. The heavy bounty paid to recover their own — an orphaned Alaric among them — had brought them to near ruin. Still, they had recovered. Later, forgetting hard lessons learned, the Visigoths came into agreement again, fought for the Empire again, for promises of land, wealth, and prosperity, and all for naught … again.

The sound of bawdy laughter coming from Athaulf’s tent made her smile, but it faded when she remembered whom they fêted.

I cursed him for his cold heart. I cursed him for his iniquity. Twice cursed is he!

When the Huns threatened her people, Honorius disallowed their crossing of the Danubius for their own protection. Magnus had done nothing to dissuade his evil emperor from taking this course, then had the gall to try and explain his reasoning to a disappointed Alaric.

Since then, there was no turning back. Randegund remembered how she’d crept into Magnus’s tent in the night. She’d drugged his wine to assure he wouldn’t waken, then took the ring from his finger. She spent the night calling to Nemesis, the Great Avenger Goddess, laying curse after curse upon it.

Years later, she’d felt like the Phoenix, rising from its ashes, when her curses matured and finally came to fruition. She had looked upon Magnus at Pollentia, had seen him fall and be taken captive, and she had gloated as his life hung so precariously close to the great precipice. He’d lost the ring during the battle, and Randegund had crowed inwardly when he despaired over its loss.

Now he was back, and he was the one soaring, so virile and potent, so in love.

Randegund gazed up at the clouds scuttling across the night sky, knowing she’d done the correct thing back then, but now times had changed. She had quailed at the sight of that blood-red ring, when Magnus displayed it on Jolie’s finger. How had he found it? And why did he choose it, of all things, to give to his bride? Only the gods knew why such mysteries happened, but Randegund must now obey Alaric and set things to right, before the sun rose anew.

She hesitated, furious at Alaric’s demand, for Magnus’s very bones still reeked of treachery and double-dealing. But she had no choice.

Going to Jolie’s bed, Randegund scowled as she bent and eased the ring off the cursed girl’s finger. Jolie muttered something in a foreign tongue and turned over, but didn’t wake.

The vile object felt as if it would burn a hole in Randegund’s flesh. She wrapped it in her skirt, then hurried outside, through the camp, and up to the top of the rise. Wheezing with the effort, she lowered herself to her knees, wincing with the pain the climb had caused. The breeze was brisk, whipping her hair in every direction, and she quickly grew chilled.

Holding the ring out, Randegund noted how beautiful it was, how the moonlight glinted off its carving, and she worried. The curse she’d laid upon it so long ago had been powerful — that its bearer would be the destroyer of Rome — thus bringing about two curses with one. She’d been quite proud of that, because Magnus would surely die in shame and grief if Rome’s downfall came by his own hand.

But now … now, Alaric must be obeyed. Could she do it? Could she lift the curse?

Raising her arms skyward, she stared past the twinkling stars to the hazy glow of mother’s milk, spilt from the breasts of the Great Goddess at the dawning of the world. She closed her eyes, wishing she could curse the ring anew, yet knowing in doing so, she would lose all she held dear: her foster-son, her family, her life.

• • •

Nervous, Gigi swallowed as Verica approached, cradling a gossamer-thin, flame-colored veil. The queen brought it down over Gigi’s special hairdo. Using grease, ashes, and butter as a kind of sapo mousse, Verica had twisted her hair into six separate coils, each wrapped and knotted with silver ribbons. Really gross. The veil covered her head and shoulders, and the world around her took on a brilliant, fiery hue. How weird to wear orange on her wedding day, not to mention smelling like butter.

As Verica fiddled with the tunica recta, Gigi was happy at least the gown was white. The fabric was soft and woven in one piece, the style simple, elegant, and one-size-fits-all. She wondered if Magnus was being fussed over like this. She doubted it. She hadn’t seen him since he’d announced their engagement, but by the sounds in camp last night, she knew he’d spent a long evening at an obviously raucous bachelor party.

Hopefully, he’s had a chance to sleep it off, she thought with some jealousy, wishing she’d had a bachelorette party. So, he’s gonna be hung over and well hung, all in the same day. She grinned. All she’d gotten was a crash course on wreath weaving and rituals — no martinis, no lingerie party, and not a single Chippendale dancer to tip!

She turned Magnus’s ring on her finger. Wow, this fits really well now — the yarn around the band makes it snug. Randegund’s idea. I wonder why she’s being so nice to me?

Verica placed the wreath on Gigi’s head and stood back. “Almost done.”

“Are you ready?” Athaulf asked from outside the tent.

“A moment more, brother,” Verica responded. She pulled out a length of coarse rope from the chest that held her bridal vestments.

“My mother fastened this belt around me,” Verica said, wiping a tear, “and now I will tie it on you, as one day I shall tie it for Berga.”

Gigi watched as Verica wove the rope around and around, looping it together in the front, then tying it off in the back. She began to chant, “What has been bound together by this knot of Heracles, no man shall untie excepting Magnus, who alone takes possession of this body, of this woman, this day, and forevermore.”

Verica drew one final item from the chest, a saffron cape, and draped it over Gigi’s shoulders. “There, now you are ready to be wed.”

The queen threw the tent flap back and sunlight poured in, dazzling Gigi, causing her to shade her eyes. Cheers went up, and she followed Verica outside.

Theodoric stepped in behind Verica. He held a hawthorn stick, bound with pitch and rags to make a torch, as yet unlit. Next came Verica’s twins, who served as Gigi’s escorts, followed by little Berga holding flowers — Gigi’s own touch to the proceedings.

She looked up and saw Magnus standing with King Alaric beside a makeshift altar. Gigi caught her breath. Magnus was resplendent in his crimson dalmatica, a heavily embroidered, long-sleeved tunic. He was handsome beyond belief, his hair crowned with the silly wreath she’d made for him. Grinning like the devil, he looked totally hung over — maybe still drunk.

As Gigi was led out, Randegund fell into step behind her, carrying a distaff and spindle, reminding her of Sleeping Beauty’s wicked queen, making the hair rise on the back of Gigi’s neck. When they reached the altar, Alaric and Verica stepped up to face the bride and groom. The boys offered Gigi’s hands to their mother, then retreated to one side as Magnus placed both of his hands on Verica’s other outstretched palm.

“Angelina Jolie,” King Alaric said, and Gigi grinned, “do you willingly, in front of these witnesses, consent to marriage with this man, Quintus Pontius Flavus, called Magnus?”

Magnus leaned toward Alaric. “I call her Gigiperrin. Use that name.”

Alaric nodded and started again, “Do you, Gigiperrin, consent — ?”

“I do.” For the first time, she looked directly at Magnus through the veil, and a surge of emotion swept over her as he teetered slightly and grinned back. She laughed. “I do willingly consent.”

“Then show us this,” Alaric said, “by taking his hands in yours before the witnesses here gathered.”

Gigi grasped Magnus’s unsteady hands and squeezed hard, hoping to forestall his tumbling headlong into the crowd. Cheers erupted and Magnus beamed. Three expressions of consent were mandatory, Gigi remembered. The words, the rituals had been drummed into her head — okay, one down, two to go.

“And what have you to say?” Alaric asked her.

Gigi silently repeated the words she’d been made to memorize, then spoke carefully, “Quando tu Gaius, ego Gaia.” Where you go, Gaius, there am I, Gaia.

Gigi saw Verica nod her approval ever so slightly.

“Et quando tu Gaia, ego Gaius,” Magnus replied promptly, slurring his words.

Gigi grinned again. Okay, two down.

“Have you gifts for one another?” Alaric asked solemnly.

A smile crept across Verica’s face, and she winked at Gigi.

Magnus held up Gigi’s left hand, presenting the ring for all to see. “This ring I freely bestow upon my bride, as a token of my love for her and the eternal bond we share.”

Catching her breath as murmurs of surprise ran through the crowd, Gigi glanced at Verica, who was giggling. Verica had told her to expect the traditional declaration of duty and honor, and instead he’d made a bold declaration of love!

Gigi let go of Magnus’s hands. “I too have a gift. Given now thrice in love, thrice to honor,” she withdrew Rufus’s ring from her mesh bag, “this ring I give to my husband, as a token of my love for him, and the eternal bond we share.”

Gigi slipped the ring on Magnus’s finger, and then stood back and smiled. He stared at his hand, stunned, unmoving, suddenly looking cold sober.

“Magnus?” Gigi whispered, fearful her gesture had backfired.

He cleared his throat and raised his hand for all to see. “I am deeply honored,” Magnus said, his voice trembling, “deeply honored to … to bear this ring.”

Gigi let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. Another cheer went up around them.

“The marriage ring,” Verica called out, “binds that finger which is connected directly through nerve and sinew with the heart, thus binding the two of you as one, forever.”

Third down, Gigi thought, and glanced again at Magnus, who reached out and touched her hand.

“We’re married,” he said.

Stools were placed side by side in front of the altar and they sat together, ready for the final part of the pagan service. Verica lifted a piece of cloth from the altar and revealed a spelt and honey cake. “I say these words out of the love we all share for ancient tradition, and in honor of your request, Magnus, but I no longer say them out of belief, as I told you I must confess.”

Magnus smiled and tipped his head. “I understand and thank you.”

She raised the cake over her head, calling out, “With this, our couple makes their offering to Jupiter Ferreus, Keeper of the Bond of the Hearth. May he bless their union!”

Gigi noticed Randegund chanting feverishly nearby, her palms turned outward and raised. The other onlookers remained noticeably silent while Magnus broke off pieces of the cake and handed one to Gigi. She lifted the edge of her veil and took a bite.

It was hearty, thick on her tongue, but sweet, and she realized how very hungry she was. But she wouldn’t eat anything more until the big feast this evening, after she and Magnus went to their tent and consummated their union. Blushing, she glanced at him. His gaze caught hers, his look holding her with such heart-stopping desire she felt the jolt right down to her toes.

Verica backed away, nodding to Alaric, who said, “Magnus and Jolie, er, Gigiperrin, stand before me. As king and as a Christian, it is my privilege to pronounce God’s blessing upon this union. Magnus, you may kiss your bride.”

Magnus lifted the veil, wrapped his arms around Gigi, then surprised everyone by bending her backward and grinning as he looked into her eyes. Cheers drummed in Gigi’s ears, then catcalls, as everyone waited for the big moment. He kissed her, his lips warm, tasting of honeyed wine. Everything went still, the cheers drowned out by the thumping of Gigi’s heart.

The rest was a whirl of wedding traditions, some, like a good deal of the ceremony, strikingly familiar.

She and Magnus ran together hand-in-hand toward their tent, while the crowd chanted blessings and pelted them with nuts. Outside the tent, Theodoric gave Magnus the now blazing hawthorn stick. Together, he and Gigi lit their communal hearth fire, then Magnus took the stick and stomped it out.

“Toss it to the crowd,” he said, passing it back to Gigi. “We’ll see who is getting married next.”

Gigi grinned and searched for handsome Athaulf, whom she’d recently learned was a widower. She found him distracted, standing among his flock of children. She flung the stick straight at him, and he caught it in surprise.

As the crowd applauded, Magnus took Gigi in his arms and carried her over the threshold of their tent. They were finally alone.

Outside, cheers, hoots, and bawdy songs began. He let her down, then took her hands and pulled her close. “I must tell you something. I looked for Rufus’s ring among his remains. I knew it was he, because of his armor. His corpse was … the site was badly damaged by animals.”

“Magnus, I’m so sorry if — ”

“Listen to me.” He looked into her eyes. “Do not be sorry. I must explain. Because the ring was missing, I was sure you had been taken by thieves, and in that moment I was certain I had lost you both — one, a loyal friend, a man who’d saved my life, the other, a woman who had become my reason for living. I searched the breadth of Italia for you, and there was no sign, no sign at all. It was a very fortunate thing Alaric’s men found me when they did, or I don’t know what I might have done.” He paused. “I could not fall on my sword for Honorius or for Rome, but I would have done it, had I lost you.”

Gigi put her cheek against his chest and closed her eyes.

“My sweet,” Magnus went on, “when you brought the ring out just now, when you presented it to me, I could hear Rufus’s happy laughter very clearly, and I knew, ultimately, it was his doing and he approved. You did me a very great honor indeed, in giving me this ring.” He rested his chin against her knotted hair. “You will never know how much. You will never know.”

Gigi reached up, pulling his face to hers, kissing him, tears streaming down her cheeks. “Don’t you dare ever consider killing yourself for me, or anyone for that matter. Magnus, promise me. Don’t you dare.”

He held her tightly, but didn’t respond.

She looked into his eyes. “Swear it,” she said, holding out her ring. “Swear on this.”

He firmly kissed the carved surface of the ring. “I do swear it. I love life too much — and you even more — to ever again consider doing such a thing.”

Silence hung between them. The sober look on his face made her wonder if their conversation had spoiled the mood. “Would you rather go straight out to the feast?”

He smiled and then gave her a lingering kiss, chasing away all doubt of his intentions.

“I once thought you a goddess,” he whispered, “but now I am glad you are mortal flesh.” He took her hand and placed it over his heart. “I will worship you with my body until the day I die.”

She could feel the drumming of his heart, the heat of his skin rising through the fabric of his tunic. “Untie the knot,” she murmured, filled with an unbearable desire, the throbbing pulse like a chanting in her veins. She pressed herself against him, only vaguely aware of other chants outside, bawdy and interspersed with laughter, in opposition to the deeper purpose she felt within.

Gigi could feel Magnus tugging at the knot as her veil and cape fell to the floor.

“Magnus.” Kissing his neck, she tried to take off his tunic, but his arms were surrounding hers, blocking her efforts. “Forget the belt. It’s only ceremonial,” she said. She had his clothes up over his hips, then pulled at her gown and pressed against him. “It’s not in the way.”

Still, he fumbled with the knot between kisses, determined to see it undone. Suddenly, the belt loosened and dropped away, and they fell into bed. She moved against him, insistent, demanding, kissing his neck; in turn, his kisses feathered her throat with little nips, then her stomach, where the knot had been. She ran her hands into his hair as he moved lower, tasting, caressing, claiming every inch of her with his tongue.

Her body felt liquid, a hot, whirling pool of desire, and she moaned his name over and over, “Magnus, Magnus.”

Then he loomed over her again and entered her with a great thrust.

“Magnus!” she cried out, feeling an urgency she had never experienced before, a need to be one with him, to merge with him completely.

And he met her needs, until finally she lay spent in his arms. Until at last she stirred and smiled.

• • •

Lightheaded from the power of their exertions, Magnus kissed Gigi and rose from the bed. He needed a drink — badly — and made for the beer he had stashed away for the long, happy night ahead. He poured two mugs and glanced back, seeing her smile, her happiness more important to him than anything in the world.

He gave her one of the mugs and took a long drink.

“Magnus, I don’t want to go,” she said, “but everyone is waiting for us. Help me retie this rope.”

He grinned. “They are fully aware of why we tarry. Can’t you hear their singing? And besides, a bride cannot retie a knot of Heracles once it has been undone.”

“And I was definitely undone!”

He laughed, feeling the effects of the beer, glad she was his wife. He put on his tunic, then motioned toward her hair. “We have to go out and face them, but first I suggest you fix those knots, if you can. They’re a mess. Forgive me.”

Gigi felt around on her head, finding the greasy, twisted tresses sticking out at every angle, with bits of ribbon hung up in the wreckage. “Oh, no!”

“Actually, you look beautiful, like a woman recently sated yet still lustful, still very, very lustful! We have a lot of work yet to do tonight.”

Gigi laughed, and Magnus grabbed her hand, then threw open the tent flap to a roar of laughter and acclaim.

“Come, my sweet,” he said. “I would like to present my wife to the world.”

• • •

Deep in the night, Gigi lay in Magnus’s sheltering arms, wishing she could capture this moment and hold it fast, knowing she could not. The path they would follow was set, indisputable, and she was well aware of the dangers looming before them.

Rome. They would stay with the Visigoths and march on Rome. She listened to Magnus breathe softly, felt the slow beat of his heart. She loved him. She was bound to him now, whatever the future, their fates forever entwined.

Magnus shifted, then woke. Smiling, he kissed her thoroughly, and the heat that rose between them burned hot, but seemed different, fiercer, more real this time, more … eternal.

Rome. As eternal as Rome.

Authors’ Note

Galla Placidia’s early life might very well have happened as described in this novel: her relationship with her brother, Emperor Honorius, ever challenging; her flight from Ravenna wholly understandable, given her looming future as the intended bride of the much older Constantius. Some sources state Placidia was engaged to be married to Stilicho and Serena’s son, Eucherius, and we have deliberately ignored this for the sake of clarity in our work.

Additionally, the Visigoth names of Verica and Randegund were selected by us out of necessity, because the real names of Alaric’s queen and his foster mother are lost to history. As to the actual number of Athaulf’s children by his first wife, accounts vary from four to six, and we’ve chosen the larger number, to give him a real brood of youngsters in need of a mother.

The reason for Stilicho’s sudden murderous hatred of Honorius has long been the subject of debate by historians. We hope our fictional solution involving Stilicho’s daughter Thermantia will give the reader a sense of what might have been.

Although we strive to maintain historical accuracy in our work, Love, Eternally is, of course, a work of fiction. For the purposes of our novel, we ask the reader to forgive our literary license and to enjoy our historical time travel fantasy — and those sequels yet to come.

About the Authors

Two authors writing as one, Cary Morgan Frates and Deborah O’Neill Cordes specialize in recreating pivotal moments in history, epic adventure and romance — with a time travel twist. This is the first novel in their Roman time travel series. They live with their families in the Pacific Northwest.