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The Roman Disciplines

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Her mother speaks to her in Welsh for the first four years of her life. She has a voice like honey and the language moves on her tongue like a river, flowing in at Sian’s ears with all the weight of its history. The hills are alive, even in this modern day, with the spirits of people long dead and gone and forgotten in the united country’s history books.

Her father speaks English, because, he says, she’ll have to learn it eventually to get on in the world. Occasionally, he questions why they teach her Welsh anyway, but Sian is yet too young to know, too young to see the pools opening in her mother’s eyes at the question.

“Heritage,” is her mother’s only answer, every time. Her father’s God and her mother’s spirits and fairytale creatures coexist inside her head in a way that is less contradictory than either of her parents assume. After all, both in fairytales and in religion, those who break the rules feel the consequences.

She’s a blond ball of energy that exasperates her mother and father, and most of her teachers. At eight years old, she argues with a teacher about fellow pupils not being punished for chatting, and when the teacher doesn’t make any moves to, she takes it upon herself.

Her parents are called into school. It’s tense in the house when they come back. Her father takes her aside gently and explains that she can’t behave like that with other kids.

“You’re not an adult,” he says. “You’re not a teacher. You can’t act like one.”

“But he didn’t, and someone had to!”

Her father shakes his head, then strokes her hair.

“You’ll just have to wait.”

She doesn’t understand, but every day on her birthday, she remembers the conversation as she eagerly marks off another year on the calendar.

She likes playing sports most of all. There are rules and people to enforce them, and it’s always clear who wins and why. She’s by far not the strongest, or fastest, but she wants to be, and her PE teacher doesn’t roll his eyes at her behind her back like she knows her father does. There’s a particular way that he turns to hide it, but he’s not always quick enough. She joins the athletics club at eleven and spends every free minute on the sports field.

When she’s not on the playing field, she gets lost in language books. Latin is her favourite – completely useless in the modern world, as her mother tells anyone willing to listen, but clear and logical like nothing else. The whole world is a balancing beam but Latin’s safe ground to walk on, and it helps with the more scientific aspects of sports as she grows older. She’s passable at French, too, once they get introduced to that.

One night her brother jokes that she’ll be able to chat up people in four different languages. She glares at him over dinner and listens with satisfaction to her father rebuking him later while she doodles in the margins of her Latin textbook.

She joins the army at eighteen. It’s not the worst career for a young woman with her very specific skillset, and there are various sports programmes that she’ll be able to join. Her mother weeps, her father is stern-faced and probably happy that he doesn’t have to be around such a puzzling human being as much anymore.

She becomes Llewellyn, and then Fluellen, because no one here can pronounce it anyway. No one can pronounce her first name either without making it sound like an Irish man’s name. She still remembers the sounds and the landscapes of her first language, carries a book of fairytales in her pack disguised as a Steven King novel, to read when things get bad. They rarely do, but it’s a comfort to know that it’s there.
She’s quick to learn the use of equipment, to learn the rules of training and battle and keep to them. For the first time in her life, this oddity of hers makes an impression on people rather than scaring them off. The intricacies of rank take a bit longer to master but she applies herself to it with her usual determination and it pays off. She rises through the ranks year on year, crawls through mud, runs more miles than she cares to count, obeys the seniors’ orders and gloriously, finally, gets to bark her own at troops much older than herself.

She writes home not without a sense of having stuck it to her father, that conversation from her childhood never quite forgotten. She’s never quite been able to shake off this sense of not fitting in, but it’s better now. It’s not the best job in the world, by far, she thinks; to some, like her mother, it’s the absolute, unthinkable, incredible worst, but her mother’s feelings are her own to sort out and Sian doesn’t want to think about that. It is definitely not the worst, as far as she herself is concerned – though, of course, the day may come when she’s given an order that she can’t obey without serious moral objections, or worse, one that comes from bad leadership, one that will lead troops into needless disaster.

She puts off thinking about that too. It’ll come eventually, she knows, but she hopes it’s far off yet, and maybe, if she progresses upwards at the rate she’s been going, she can outrank it before its time. For now, she has troops to command and wounded to look after and a war to fight.

She’s standing in a muddy field when the moment comes, trying to keep the black flies and mosquitoes from stinging her face to a pulp, and listening to the general trying to rally them to fight a battle they can’t possibly win.

She realises that her intention to outrank the moment has failed; realises with a start that she isn’t eight years old anymore, and crosses herself before going to prepare one last time.