This story is by Michael J. Miller and was part of our 2020 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
He stood against the howling winds and harsh rains. He stood against the changing of the reigns of the world from the hands of one great power to another. He stood against the passage of time itself, yet no one even knew he was there.
To Bilius, the days went by without either measure or meaning. He had lost his sense of the temporal after years spent watching as others went about their lives. For unnumbered years he had kept his vigil under the dancing shadow of an old oak-tree until time seemed to both crawl and race by.
He stood, watched, and waited for her.
Bilius waited as green leaves sprung forth through the harsh cold of a fading winter like a king’s robes, then shriveled away upon the cold’s return. Nature was ever faithful to her silent vow of cyclical change. Everything was loyal to its promise that it would return. Everything except his wife.
He had met Betua when they were both young.
He had been amongst the men of his village sitting around the central campfire. His people, the Parisii, had had a great harvest that year. The Chieftain had thrown a celebratory feast for the village ending with their women performing a joyful dance around the fire.
As they did, the way Betua’s golden hair swayed with each passionate motion as the crimson flames reflected off her azure eyes lit a flame inside of him. He started to dance with her, and much to his delight, she had not declined as he followed her lead. He ignored the drunken taunts of his fellow warriors for dancing with the women as his eyes remained locked on Betua’s and hers on his.
What followed was a dance of life and marriage as months after, he took her to be his own. She had stuck close to him through the harshest winters and the bitterest famines. Through it all they clung together.
Then one day the priests came to their village, warning them of an impending, great storm. They had made animal sacrifices to the gods for protection.
But not even the gods could have known that the great storm to come was not one of raging winds, but of wrathful men in shining armor. It would bring with it a downpour of arrows and gales of galloping cavalry, the lightening flash of swords unsheathed and the thunder of shields crashing against shields.
The storm’s ferocity was driven by an all-devouring ambition embodied in the Golden Eagle of their battle standard. The talons of the Roman Empire bore down on Northern Gaul, and at the head of its legions was a man whose very name to the Gauls was fear itself, an upstart General among the armies of Rome: Gaius Julius Caesar.
Caesar’s armies swept upon their lands like a plague, striking down any resistance. Bilius had been among the men sent to join the confederacy against the Romans. Before he left, he spent one last passionate night with Betua. There they had sworn an oath to each other. Should he survive then he would return and stay forever by her side. But should he perish, neither of them would depart for the next life until she had found his body and buried him so that they might be together thereafter. Betua had kissed him goodbye before he departed.
Bilius and other tribesmen met the Romans at an open plain and charged. It was quick, he remembered, as a Legionnaire slid his blade between his ribs and out through his back.
He fell to the ground, feeling cold. But he was calm amidst the chaos as he closed his eyes and breathed his last.
Since then his eyes never closed.
Even as the armies of Rome moved on, victorious, he remained on that battlefield. He had stood alone, watching as his body decayed and grass overtook his bones.
‘Where was she?’ he had thought. ‘She promised, didn’t she?’
But his bones remained there and so did he. He kept watch even as an oak tree took root near his remains. Soon a city arose around him, becoming the capital of a new Kingdom: France. As centuries passed, he saw its numerous transformations.
Now, a tri-colored flag hung from a pole in the grassy park where he stood, one of many that had been there prior.
Over the years, only those who grieved could see him and even then, only for the briefest second. He would appear to them under the oak tree as a bare-chested warrior of Gaul with sword and shield. Once they blinked, he would disappear. They would search for him not knowing he was still there.
Sometimes he wondered if the reason they could see him was because of the wound in his own heart.
‘Where is she?’
Every day he fought with the fear that she had forgotten him. That she never actually loved him, and that his love meant nothing to her. He fought to hang onto the hope that she would come. It was the only thing keeping him from sinking into the void within himself that always whispered: ‘She will never come. She abandoned you to spend an eternity alone.’
He had staved off his doubt for years, decades and centuries. Two millennia later found him still fighting.
Then one night someone walked into the empty park and towards the tree.
Bilius had assumed they were simply strolling around. But then he looked closer and saw that it was a woman dressed in pants, shirt, and a cap. Yet her face seemed timeless as her azure gaze met his own . . . and kept it.
He watched her eyes fill with tears.
It took Bilius only a moment to recognize those eyes. He felt weak as she took off her cap and let her long blonde hair slip past her shoulders.
Bilius’ lips quivered.
She took hesitant steps closer to him then fell to her knees as sobbing overtook her. He met her the rest of the way and pulled her up. He rested his rough hand against her delicate, tear-stained cheek and looked her in the eyes.
“Betua?” His voice shook as he asked.
Her eyes shut in pain and she nodded. “I have had many names since then,” she cried. “But no one has called me that . . . in a long time.”
Without another word, Bilius pulled her into his chest, feeling relief flood over him at having her warmth in his arms again. She was here. She had remembered.
Betua lay her head against him, finding peace in the warmth of his embrace. “I’m sorry that I took so long to fulfill my oath.”
“What happened?” He asked in a tender voice, gently pushing aside a lock of hair that had fallen into her eyes.
“I was delayed.” She whispered. “The Romans. After that battle, they came to our village. No one was spared. Not even . . .”
The pain of the past again made her cry. His hold on her tightened, letting her know he was still there.
“Because of my oath,” she continued “I was reborn. I kept coming back in different lives, not able to move on until I had completed it. It was only after learning about the legend of a warrior that appeared to people in this park, that I finally found you.” She reached up and lay her hand on his cheek. He leaned into it, enjoying its soft touch.
“It seems I’m the only one able to fully see you.”
“Only the brokenhearted can see me.” He said.
Betua nodded, her eyes glazed by moonlight. “I know.”
Bilius leaned in, she rose up, and they kissed. The two remained there, savoring the other’s presence as their hearts reconnected. At length, Betua gently pulled away.
“I’m ready.” She said with a sudden confidence.
Bilius looked at her for a moment, a smile slowly crossing his lips. He nodded, pointing to the base of the oak tree.
Betua took one last second to savor the feel of her husband’s arms. It took all her strength to get up. When she turned, Bilius was gone. She exhaled deeply before leaning back down to dig into the base of the tree.
It didn’t take long before she had found his bones. She collected them and headed to a nearby cemetery.
There, she shoveled a hole in the far corner where no one was likely to come. She delicately placed the bones inside then covered them in earth.
But Betua could sense he was still there.
As the dawn skies began dispelling the dark, she stood up. “Can you wait for me . . . just a little while longer?”
She felt his answer when an early morning wind ran through the cemetery and planted a cool kiss on her cheek as it whispered past. She watched it ruffle through the trees and flow up towards the dawning skies above.