“I’m worried about your friend,” a deep voice rumbled in my ear, startling me from my fantasy of hiking my skirts and having Arthur take me from behind as we rode double on his horse. I was mounted in front of him as I had been for the past three days of travel, his thighs and arms cradling me in place. It had been comforting at first to feel his strong, solid form behind me, keeping me safe and secure, and then that comfort had begun to change. I became aware of every point of contact between our bodies, of the scent of him, of the rhythm of his breathing and the beating of his heart. My muscles were loose, my body growing heavy with an incoming tide of desire.
Arthur had done nothing to encourage my lust, had behaved with perfect correctness throughout the journey, and still my breasts were full and aching for his touch, my sex feeling the rocking caress of the saddle leather beneath it as a mocking taunt. We’d reach Corinium before nightfall, and none too soon. I was dangerously close to grabbing his hand and forcing it under my skirts to gain a moment’s relief.
“Worried? About Daella or Terix?” I asked, and leaned side
ways to peer around him, back to where Daella and Terix shared a horse. A stone-faced Fenwig rode beside them, while Maerlin had gone on ahead. Our donkeys, the packhorses, and two of Arthur’s men-at-arms followed up. My dog Bone loped alongside us and periodically disappeared into the woods to harass squirrels and rabbits.
Daella saw me looking and smiled. She had been irrepressibly gleeful since the moment of our reunion after Fenwig’s foiled abduction, as well she should be. Her plan had succeeded, to free Terix of her odious brother Uern and the threat of sacrifice in a Saxon ritual. She had saved Terix’s life, and for the past few days had enjoyed—as only an infatuated girl could—riding in front of Terix and feeling his body supporting hers.
Not that I was infatuated with Arthur; I was guarding carefully against it, having wasted too much of my life pining for men who were never to be mine, while I forgot my own needs and goals. And yet . . .
And yet. His body was big, hard, and warm behind me; he smelled of strong, healthy male; when he spoke, his voice was a low rumble that vibrated inside my chest; and he had an easy manner that lowered my guard. Add to that the fact that he had rescued me from Fenwig and that he felt our futures were somehow linked, and it was impossible not to feel an attraction.
That was all I would let it be, however: an attraction, unfulfilled. Except for the mention of our entwined futures, Arthur had given no sign that he had an interest in me that went beyond common courtesy; and even that “entwined futures” comment had said nothing of love or lust.
“It would be foolish to worry about Daella,” Arthur said. “That girl is too sensible to fall prey to dark thoughts. I meant Terix: he hasn’t recovered his spirits.”
My gaze shifted to Terix. I hadn’t seen it before, had taken Terix’s joking and laughter for sincere, but now that I looked I could see the bleakness in his eyes.
“He’s been melancholy more often than not, of late,” I said,
facing forward again.
“He wishes he were better with a sword.” It was a simple answer, but said much below the surface to those who looked.
Arthur made a male noise of understanding. In a woman it would have been an unseemly grunt, but from him it was deliciously masculine.
I knew that Terix wished he could protect me, and he wished he were skilled in the art of warfare, by which so many men were judged. He found it humiliating that his life had been saved by Daella, a young girl, and that if not for her he would have had a Saxon’s sacrificial axe at his throat. Then, once he was free from the Saxons, he’d had to wait uselessly while Arthur rescued me from Fenwig’s hands.
He was feeling that he had little to be proud of.
Maerlin, I’d since learned, had been the mind behind my rescue. He had made careful, deliberate comments to Fenwig about Wynnetha wanting me gone, and had subtly given him the idea of recruiting Wynnetha to help steal me from Mordred. Arthur had then needed only to follow Fenwig, to find me.
The beauty of Maerlin’s plan was that Fenwig would get the blame for my disappearance. Mordred would believe me out of his reach, and on my way to Gaul. Arthur and Maerlin would be innocent of causing trouble, and Wynnetha’s father, Horsa, would bear them no grudge.
Fenwig, having yielded to Arthur at the point of his sword, had now given his word not to attempt to abduct me again. He had instead vowed to protect me, until I chose to return to Clovis.
Another reason, then, for Terix to feel low: his role as my protector had been usurped by a man better skilled at the task. Never mind that protection was not what I’d ever sought from Terix, and never mind that what he gave me—his friendship, his humor, his natural wisdom—were more valuable to me than a legion of fighting men.
The more reassurance I gave Terix, the more annoyed he became, until I realized that coddling from a female was only mak
ing him feel worse. That which he needed, I could not give—but that didn’t stop me from fishing through my mind for some way I could help.
The sun was halfway to the horizon when the road we’d been following along a wooded ridgeline came out into the open and I caught my first sight of Corinium. It lay below us in a gentle valley between the low hills, a large town surrounded by a wall with towers and grand gates; our road ran straight to one of them. I could see tiled roofs and the dominating structure of a basilica, that Roman building used for conducting the legal affairs of a town.
My breath stopped, and for a disoriented moment I thought I was back in Gaul. This was a Roman town in full flourish: smoke rose from workshops, the walls were in good repair, and even from this distance I could scent the life of the place: roasting meat, woodsmoke, dung, and the very stones themselves, damp and mineral, their scent carrying as they released the fading warmth of the day.
“That’s the Corin,” Arthur said, gesturing at the narrow river undulating through the valley like a snake, the sun setting its scales aglitter. “The road going in from the south is the Fosse Way. We’re on Ermin Street right now.”
Instead of continuing on the street and into Corinium, however, we took a small side road across the ridge of another wooded hill, and then descended into farmland in the center of which sprawled a grand villa. It was a welcome sight to my travel-weary, filthy bones: I hadn’t had a proper bath in longer than I could remember. Surely a villa such as this would offer one, and perhaps a small room to sleep in, in that greatest luxury of all: privacy.
Our arrival was met with a bustling, cheerful mob of household and stables staff, their quick hands unloading our belongings from our mounts and leading the animals away before I’d found my bearings. I was still blinking at the hubbub when I felt someone watching me, and turned to see a hideously scarred face in the shadows of a colonnade: an older man with a leather patch where his right eye should have been. His left eye stared at me, intense
and penetrating—or did until I met his gaze, at which point he ducked behind a column, clearly not wanting to be seen. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. I’d never seen the man with the frightening scars before, and had no idea what his interest in me could mean.
A serving woman came to lead me away, chattering in Latin about the room that awaited me, and how I would have a chance to rest and clean up before meeting our host at dinner. I peered over my shoulder at where the man had been, but he was gone.
“Who’s the man with one eye?” I asked the woman.
“Hmm? Oh, that’s Brenn. Maerlin brought him home with him from Byzantium, many years ago. They say that both his eye and his arm were taken by a leopard, but no one knows if it’s true. No one has the courage to ask. But his lower leg; now that I know had to be cut off after it was crushed by a horse falling on him, on a rocky slope.”
I swore under my breath. How many parts had the man lost?
“Still, he’s the best fighter for training the men, and can take down anyone except Maerlin.”
“Even missing two limbs and an eye?”
She tilted her head at me and raised her brows. “Which tells you why no one has the courage to ask him personal questions. He’s too clever; he may not have the strength or swiftness of the younger men with all their parts, but he can predict every move they’ll make, and counter it before they even know themselves what they’re about to do. There is no deadlier soldier than Brenn, either with a blade or without.”
I hoped his staring had been only out of curiosity. The last thing I needed was a man like that taking an interest in me.
The villa was all that I’d hoped, and then some. The courtyards, gardens, atrium, and every large room that we passed through were filled with sculptures, paved and walled with mosaics, and held thrice as much furniture as I’d ever seen in a villa in Gaul. Terix, Daella, and I were given three small sleeping chambers next to each other, and Daella fell onto her bed in a helpless fit of giggles when she saw the statue of a naked Apollo looming
in her room. He took up so much space, she had to brush against his muscled thighs to get past the corner of her bed.
She was scarlet and silent with embarrassment when it came time for the bath, however. Even with Terix and everyone else ejected from the bathing chambers, she was as shy as a baby mouse at taking off her clothes, and only began to relax when, after scrubbing off the dirt of travel, I led her to the pool of hot water and coaxed her in. She sank into the steaming waters up to her neck, her face going still with wonder.
“I’m never going back to Tannet Fortress; I’m staying right here, forever,” she said, making me laugh. “Grandmother said that her father helped keep the baths at Aquae Sulis. I always tried to imagine what it was like, to bathe like that—I’d dunk my hand in a cauldron of heating water and swish it back and forth—but I never guessed it would feel like this. I wish she could see me right now.”
“You miss her, don’t you?”
A small nod of the head, a wavering smile. “When I feel homesick, I remind myself how angry she would be if I went back. She told me she’d beat me bloody with a stick if she ever saw my face at Tannet Fortress again.”
“She didn’t want you to feel guilty about leaving her, and building a better life elsewhere.”
Daella sank until her lips were underwater and the water surface touched the base of her nose. She blinked back a sheen of tears, then lifted her head just high enough to speak, the water rippling at her lips. “I don’t think I can ever be as brave and selfless as her.”
“You already are.”
She shook her head at such nonsense, and I let it go. If life was kind to her, she’d never again have to test how much she was willing to risk for others.
I had to force her out of the warm water and into the frigidarium to cool down, and she cast me baleful looks for doing it. By the time we were finished, servants had brought clean clothes for us, gathered from I knew not what forgotten Roman chest. Finely woven of foreign cotton, they were lovely, delicate gowns unsuit
ed to the chill of a Britannic autumn. Woolen shawls helped, as did putting up our damp hair, but Daella was not the only one casting longing looks back at the hot pool.
Not everything at the villa was done in the Roman style, however. When Terix, Daella, Bone (who refused to leave our sides), and I made our way to the banqueting hall, it was not a Roman array of couches around low tables that I saw for dining, but rather hip-high rectangular tables laid out in a three-sided U. Linen covered their tops, and long benches padded with crimson cushions lined their sides. Braziers set around the room helped take the chill off the air.
I took all of that in at a glance; it was the people already present who captured my attention. All eyes were on an elderly man: a once-vigorous, tall figure now slightly stooped, one hand on a cane and the other holding a goblet of blown glass. His bald, liver-spotted head was rimmed with white hair, and a bulbous, broken nose sprouted from between two pale blue eyes gone watery with age.
“. . . a raiding party of Picts took thirty sheep from Cydwyn, and herded them off through Dunnech’s lands; if Cydwyn had only—” He cut himself off as he saw us and, after handing his goblet to someone, came forward to greet us, his cane clacking on the mosaic floor with each step. Bushy white brows lowered as he looked us over, and I felt Terix straighten like a soldier under inspection, while Daella leaned closer to me.
“So these are the three who have caused such a disruption in our peaceful life,” the man said, planting the cane in front of him with both hands resting atop it. His jaw worked, as if chewing his gums. He didn’t look happy to see us.
Maerlin stepped forward. “Ambrosius, I’d like to introduce my lady Nimia, former consort of Clovis, King of the Franks; her friend Terix; and Daella, a healer formerly of Tannet Fortress.” His mouth quirked. “And their dog, Bone Cruncher. Nimia, Terix, Daella: my great-uncle, Ambrosius Aurelianus.”
We murmured our greetings, which Ambrosius ignored, still squinting his eyes at us. “Only the dog looks clever. Are you cer
tain these are the three who outfoxed Mordred?” he asked Maerlin.
I thought I detected a glint of humor under those bushy brows, and dared to speak. “The dog came up with the plan. We only did as he advised.”
Ambrosius gaped at me a moment, and then a deep guffaw burst from his throat. “Ha! Then well done, Bone Cruncher!” He bowed to Bone, who whined in confusion and cast his gaze at me for reassurance. “You shall sit beside me at the table, in a place of honor.”
Bone retreated behind us, then stuck his muzzle out between my and Daella’s hips, making Ambrosius and the others laugh. “Welcome, welcome, Nimia, Terix, Daella,” Ambrosius said, his façade of sternness dropping away. “And mighty Bone Cruncher.”
The atmosphere in the room relaxed, and Maerlin introduced the other people to us, though they were a blur of faces and unpronounceable names to me. Except for one.
“Nimia,” Maerlin said, taking my hand. I felt again that shock of pleasing coldness, and tried to tug away, but he would not let me. Even worse, he led me to the one-eyed, one-armed, one-legged man who was staring at me as fiercely now as he had been in the courtyard. His eye, seen up close, was a strange shade of amber-yellow in the center, surrounded by warm brown; it made his eye look almost orange. “I most especially want you to meet Brenn.”
I cast a questioning look at Maerlin—why especially Brenn?—and felt his answer through his touch: trust me.
I looked back at Brenn. At that watching eye.
An eye whose color I had only seen once before, in a silver mirror.
A cold rush went through me, and sickening thoughts of possibilities. But no—how could— This man? This terrifying man? Disbelief and shock froze me to my bones.
As Brenn stared at me, some of the same flustered thoughts seemed to go through his own mind. His eye widened, his face flooding with color.
“Brenn knew your mother, Ligeia,” Maerlin said. “Eighteen,
nineteen years ago, was it?” he asked Brenn.
“Jupiter’s balls,” I whispered, as the room swam around me and sound seemed to come from a far distance, dampened by an ocean of water. It couldn’t be.
It had to be.
A shudder of emotion shook me, and my tongue seemed not to belong to my body when I spoke. My words felt as if they came from someone else’s mouth. “You must be my father.”
Brenn, fiercest of the warriors under Ambrosius Aurelianus, deadliest man with a blade or without, lost all color in his face, rolled his one eye up into his scarred head, and crumpled to the floor.