The campaign had been underway for four weeks already although tonight was the eve of their first battle. They had sailed across the sea with triremes full of battle ready soldiers but an illness had traveled with them and they had lost more than a battalion of men. Gaius had anticipated they wouldn’t reach Hispania’s shores with the same army that had sailed from Rome, he had seen enough of war to know that their Germanic enemies weren’t the only killer.
Gaius felt the familiar pre-battle energy in the air. Their camp volume had dimmed as soldiers retired for prayer to the gods before they marched on Toledo at sunrise. He was lost in his own quiet reflection as the fire danced in front of him. The clinking of swords further up the beach mingled with laughter around another fire where men were opting to drink wine and celebrate one more night alive, one more night together, possibly sharing tales of their lovers or their children who slept safely back home. Those children slept safely tonight because the Roman army had pushed the Visigoths back from their city, an attempted siege thwarted. The only success of it was the retaliation it inspired.
Gaius allowed his mind to wander past what tomorrow would bring to picture the reception they would have in the streets on their triumphant return. He had been part of many such parades. He remembered still the ones where he marched as a lowly milites in the infantry. He remembered how it felt as the crowds cheered for the riches they brought back and the safety they had guaranteed for their people. He did not remember the words in the address made by the Legatus Legionis, his eyes had found a beautiful face in the crowd and the intensity with which she returned his gaze had allowed him to focus on little else.
He thought of that face now remembering the passion they had shared before his departure. Julia had been sad to part with him but there had been no fear on her face. The decade they had spent together since that first meeting was a strong foundation, she had not seen him in battle but she did not have to. His military exploits were many and were recorded in their great libraries and sung of during their festivals.
His reverie was cut short as the good natured clinking of swords across the camp ceased and then true swordplay began. The clinking of steel turned into grinding and the men in the fray were shouting about an ambush to wake the camp.
Gaius’ sword leaned next to him on a driftwood bench, he reached for the handle and jumped to his feet, turning to rouse those who had already retired to their tents behind him. As he turned he opened his mouth to shout but the noise that came out resembled the gurgling non-words his young son was so fond of. Hate filled eyes looked into his own and he looked down to see that he had been run through by a spear.
A foolish trick, the small army they had driven back from their shores just a month ago was descending on the beach and he saw no end to their ranks. Ignoring what was surely his death blow Gaius swung his sword and struck down the soldier who had run him through. He would have little time to use his body as he felt the life draining from him even now but he would fight until he was no longer able. He brought his sword down on the wooden shaft and cried out as the action reverberated through him. He threw away the separated wood and grabbed his sword once more to slay the intruders that ran out from their hiding places behind the tents and boulders. Gaius saw Felix, a centurion whom he had trained, erupt from his tent and throw himself at two oncoming soldiers.
Felix was efficient, barely needing to parry the oncoming swords and felling them one after the other. He saw the shortened spear planted in Gaius’ torso and his eyes widened in shock, “frater meus!” He cried out, my brother!
Gaius had little time left, he took his stance again to ready himself for the next challenger only to feel a pain shoot through his shoulder, his knees giving out under the strain of the attacks. He saw the arrow tip that had pierced him and the blood pooling around his wounds. He looked once more to Felix for someone to witness his end. Felix was trying to close the distance between them but the night seemed to be filled with their enemies. Gaius heard his rattling breaths coming faster together now, felt the blood pump through his veins spurred on by the heat of battle and the ambush and knew it would only dampen the sand in which he kneeled.
The fire crackled beside him and he thought again of Julia. He said a final prayer to the gods to protect her and his young son. Then he fell asleep one last time to the sound of the ocean waves, to the crackling fire and to a battle he could no longer help win.
Whatever prayer he made had worked. He heard birds singing and felt a soft bed beneath him. He felt none of the pain he last remembered. He was face down and lifted his arm to cover the light that was managing to seep through his closed eyelids. He brushed against something pillowy and was startled when a woman’s voice sounded in his ears “I loooove you little Sadie!” He sat up quickly and struggled to take in where he was. A gauzy canopy hung over him, the bed he was on was covered in a bright pink quilt and little dolls and animals. The animal that had spoken when he jostled it fell off the bed at his movements and he heard again “I loooove you little Sadie!” as it hit the ground.
The room’s door opened and a man stuck his head in, “Good! You’re up. Your mother has breakfast ready for you downstairs. Your brothers are already down there so you better hurry or there won’t be any left.” He pushed the door the rest of the way open and Gaius was stunned trying to process what was happening. He had no brothers, his mother had passed away when he was a boy.
What had he done in the past when he was disoriented like this? Gather information. Observe what was around him and figure out his mission and how he could accomplish it. He started now by assessing his own body and the wounds he remembered so vividly. When he looked down he was not in the tunic and sandals he had been wearing before bed but a knee length frock covered with something that glittered and the garish face of an unrealistic woman with flaxen hair. Below his knees his legs seemed too small, he threw off the blankets and saw tiny feet also with every color painted on his toes.
He jumped out of the bed and found a mirror leaning against the wall across the room. The face that looked back at him was not one he knew. It was the face of a child, a young girl with golden ringlets around her face. His face? He absentmindedly lifted his hand to the curls and pulled one so that it stretched out to nearly double its length and bounced back into rank among the others. That action was his own, so this body must be too. What gods had answered his prayers? What masters?
“Sadie! Hurry up, the waffles are getting cold!”
Gaius moved his body in what he thought was a deft way only to tangle his feet as he ran, the young body still uncoordinated. He tripped and staggered but stood upright and took the stairs down into the unfamiliar home. There were portraits on the wall next to the railing that showed the little face he had seen in the mirror, two more similar ones on a pair of boys and finally the man who he had seen in the doorway and a beautiful woman. The renderings from this portrait maker were exceptional, he couldn’t see the brush strokes or figure out what material they might be.
He followed the clatter and voices in the kitchen and was met with all the faces he had seen on the stairs.
“There you are hon, we have to leave soon or we’ll be late.” The woman put a plate in front of a wooden chair that had a strange box affixed to it. He climbed up onto it with his small body and found it was a comfortable seat that put him on the level with everyone else at the table. Two circle cakes sat on his plate and he stared at them too confused to think of anything like hunger.
“Come on Sadie we don’t have time for you to be picky today, you loved the Eggos all last week.”
“If she won’t eat them I will!” one of the boys proclaimed.
“No you won’t Jack,” the woman said absently while standing and taking her empty plate from the table.
The boy called Jack eyed the food hungrily and checking to see that the woman’s back was still turned moved his fork to spear them. Reflexively Gauis/Sadie lifted their own fork to block the oncomer. Jack blinked in surprise, apparently unaccustomed to being thwarted. The other little boy watched the exchange avidly from behind glasses that were the only visual differentiator between the identical pair. Jack made for the plate again and again Sadie parried the attack. Jack came back for one final attempt and Sadie knocked the fork from his hand eliciting a huff from Jack and a conspiratorial smile from his twin across the table. Having won the battle Sadie took her reward, suddenly very hungry.
After cleaning their plates the children were shooed upstairs to get dressed for school. Looking at the chest of clothes meant for this little female body was overwhelming with the whirling colors and designs. She grabbed the things that least assaulted her, a red cotton top and a thicker material skirt in blue. Amongst the toys around the room there was another basket of clothing, this one with a shining crown with large jewels inset and something that comforted her immediately, a red cloak. She fixed it around her neck and glanced in the mirror again trying to adjust to the little person who stared back. Feeling foreign in this body and in these clothes she tugged at the neck of their shirt only to see a blooming birthmark on their shoulder, the memory of the arrow and the pain that came with it flashed in her mind. Slowly they lifted their shirt to see another similar mark on their stomach, the memory of the ambush flickered but the details were hard to hold onto like remembering a dream upon waking.
The twin boys thundered down the hall past the open bedroom door and Sadie turned to join them not wanting to be left behind.
Soon they came to a stop in front of a building among a stream of other vehicles. “Alright you three, Elysium Elementary for all this year! You won’t always be in the same buildings for school so I want you to look out for each other, you understand?”
“Yes ma’am,” Sadie and Ian chorused.
Their mother paused, not missing the absence of a third voice, “Jack?”
“Yes ma’am,” He muttered in reply.
“Good, now let me get a photo real quick! Line up right there by the sign” The kids did as she requested while she got an impatient beep from a car behind them. Photos acquired the boys quickly ran away already knowing where they needed to go, Sadie wasn’t concerned with that yet. She tugged her mother’s shirt to get her attention, “What happened to them? The attack on Toledo?”
Her mother furrowed her brow, “Toledo? Where’d you hear that sweetie? That’s on the other side of the state.”
Sadie was overwhelmed with a desire to get an answer to her question although part of her couldn’t understand why, “The Romans and the Visigoths? what happened?” it came out Romanth and Vithigoth with her childish lisp.
Her mother’s brow furrowed deeper, “Has daddy been putting CNN on again? Or History Channel?”
Sadie just blinked at her not knowing how to answer, already assuming the answer since she was in this body and strange place “I’ll never see Julia again…”
Her mother’s brow smoothed at this “Oh you’ll make new friends Sadie, I don’t remember a Julia from pre-k but you’ll meet lots of kids today. I can’t wait to hear about it but I have to go now, there’s Miss Prentice in the door she’ll take you inside!”
Sadie marched on not knowing what else she could do.
Sadie had the discomfort of being in an entirely new situation and body but she wasn’t alone in her discomfort since it was the first day of school for all students. She had a nagging feeling like she was forgetting something, some important task or communication. Most of the day was guided by teachers and every minute accounted for so at least her hands and body were busy.
At lunch they had the least structure, once they arrived at the large cafeteria they filed through the line and sat at their Kindergarten table with the other low grades nearby. Sadie spotted Ian and Jack across the lunchroom, Ian with his nose in a book and Jack holding court with a group of boys all laughing at some joke he had told.
Sadie picked at her food, the unsettling nagging feeling stronger than her hungry stomach. The teachers had left the room except for a few who hung by the doors watching the kids and gossiping about their summer adventures. The low din of the room was comforting and her mind wandered as the kids around her babbled on about their favorite colors and their dog’s names. Suddenly the din came to a crescendo and a halt, Sadie looked up to see what the disturbance was and saw a 1st grader at their neighboring table with a smear of some food across his face. He was completely stunned by it then broke the silence with a heartbreaking wail.
“Food Fight!!!!!” One of the boys at the 5th grade table yelled and started slinging contents from his tray. Sadie’s classmates looked terrified and chaos was erupting around the room. The teachers by the door were being sent their share of missiles and covering their heads with their arms in an effort to protect themselves. No one was doing anything! The bigger kids were being so mean and she had to do something.
Sadie saw the bright orange trays on their table and stacked in the kitchen window behind them. She stood on her chair and shouted, “The trays! Hold them up like this.” She held hers like a shield just in time for a hard roll to hit it and bounce harmlessly on the table. The other kids shook off their remaining meals and held their trays up like her. The big bully leading the attack was still firing away at the youngest of the students so Sadie pushed on.
“Stand next to me! Shoulders touching, and march!” The 1st graders had received a bulk of the assault and there were more than a few tears being shed at the table but a few saw the Kindergarten class and took up their trays to join in.
“Hold them over our heads!” Sadie ordered the taller children. They lifted them up to creat a roof that met the wall made in the front and they moved easily through the assault past the 2nd then 3rd then 4th grade tables. Finally on the brink of the 5th grade table Sadie moved her tray aside to peek through and saw that the large boy took their defensive tactic as a personal affront. He and a few of his friends were hurling anything they could find at the wall of trays. She wasn’t sure what to do now that they had come so far, this new body of hers was weak but she couldn’t stand to see her classmates helpless to these giants when they were already so vulnerable in this new place.
Then she felt a hand on her shoulder and heard a familiar voice in her ear, “We’re with you Sadie!” She turned to see Jack’s face lit up with a smile and righteous anger.
Ian was with him too, the book long forgotten and a serious look in eyes from behind food stained glassed, “Let’s get this jerk!”
With a yell all three of them burst through their protective cover and the surprise on the big bully’s face was worth every second of the detentions they got for tackling him and spraining his coccyx.
When their mother came to pick them up from the principal’s office she had a similar look of righteous anger on her face until she saw them sitting together covered in mustard and peas and God knows what else. Ian was reading his book again and Sadie and Jack were animatedly reliving their exploits. Their mother broke into laughter and pulled out her phone to take another first day of school picture. Her laughter was cut short by the principal’s disgruntled look and she went into the office to have the conversation about physical violence having no place in their school etc etc.
Sadie sat in the too big chair swinging her feet feeling for the first time no nagging feeling, just contentedness from a battle won.