THE CENTURION & THE QUEEN

CHAPTER ONE

       
        Blood dripped from the sword onto the centurion’s sandals, staining his naked toes and mingling with the spattered Breton mud. An unconscious shiver of disgust ran through Marius. He was not prejudiced; after all, he had spent sixteen years on this sodden island and was quite used to these people. But it did not stop the unwelcome flash of sentiment that the blood filtering down through his toes was somehow infected, impure. Marius knew better, but that did not help either. [MSOffice1] Twenty-five years of rigorous military training and a forty year lifetime of Roman indoctrination was difficult to avoid. He wanted nothing more than to wash his feet.
        Merda!” he swore under his breath.
        Marius stood above the body of a Breton warrior sinking into the mud and a kind of pity moved him. Although he knew this was part of a centurion’s duty, an integral part of being a Roman soldier, he hated killing, avoided it as often as he could. This man had given him no choice. The Breton, large even by native standards, had bellowed when the Roman soldiers came out of the woods and ran straight for him with what Marius thought was a sword. It was not, of course. By the time he realized it, it was too late—his trained reflexes had responded on their own. The man was dead before he hit the ground, the old rusted javelin askew in his limp fingers. After twenty-five years and close to three hundred kills, Marius still hated it. Compassion made him a good centurion; compassion had also landed him on this wretched island. The irony was not lost on him.
        He looked down at the crumpled, blood-soaked body as he wiped his blade on the dead man’s tunic.
        Sheathing the sword, Marius shot a glance at the woods lining the open field and caught the fleeting wisp of a woman with golden-red hair standing inside the shadow of a tree. When he blinked, the wisp was gone, but he knew she was watching and had been for quite some time. Marius was certain she was not going anywhere. The woman was probably part of a contingent representing the small king of this area, the one that owed the empire repayment of loans, the one they had come here to investigate, ultimately to obligate. They did not need the tribute. What they needed was the alliance. Conall? The name flashed through his mind along with a hundred other details he cataloged with a single hard glance. He would handle it, as he always did, in due time.
        The angry glares of the remaining four Bretons, quickly pushed to their knees by Marius’ men, reminded him sharply of the aggravations he and his soldiers faced on a daily basis. Even though they had contributed countless improvements to these people, made their lives more productive, richer and safer, the legions had never been exactly welcomed in Britannia; but neither had they been aggressively repelled either. The truce was abundantly frail. His thoughts turned, as they often did these days, to the unverified news of impending Breton revolts. Whether real or imagined, the echoing gossip that recently filtered from camp to camp could not be stopped—or ignored. Marius knew the next few weeks would either verify or disprove the rumors. Again, he would handle it in due time. He was a very patient man.
        “Aelius,” he called in a quiet, commanding voice.
        “Sir?” The young man was dark, short and although Roman-trim and very neat, there was always a look of rumple about him, as if he and those deep blue eyes had just tumbled out of his bedroll. A roguish half smile sometimes charmed his face, as it did now, and it was difficult not to return the expression, even though Marius usually managed it.
        Before the centurion could turn to his aide, he felt an overwhelming urge to scan the forest again. He found himself distracted by the startling loveliness that peered at him from the coarse pines, and had to constrain his moment of weakness. Forcing down the unexpected stirring, he straightened his shoulders and took a short breath.
        “Tell them they are under arrest for cultivating Roman land and we are taking them to our camp for interrogation.”
        Marius had never learned their language. He always meant to, but the strange guttural consonants and awful combined vowels made his throat hurt. The language, like the people who spoke it, was peculiar and alien, and he could not get used to it.
        Aelius, on the other hand, spoke three languages fluently and several others with nearly as much skill, always lisping in that strange Greek/Roman accent, making him an excellent aide. Aelius had a Greek mother, a Roman father, and an unacknowledged Breton grandmother who taught him her native tongue.
        In perfect Gaelic, Aelius repeated the order to the four Bretons. They merely stared up at him, their knees soaking in the sopping clay. The foreign eyes sparked with a mixture of fear, anger, or outright loathing. They had their hands tied behind their backs as a murky drizzle intensified the misery and displeasure on their weather worn faces. Each man had long dark or reddish hair with his calves wrapped in tightly hitched furred leggings. Around the shoulders of each was a colorful tunic in blues and yellows that was striking even when wet and dirty. The bright fabric seemed strangely out of place in this grey-drenched world. Their clothes were sharp contrast to the highly meticulous Roman soldiers with their polished metal adornments and crisp, segmented silver armor. The red of their wool tunics looked bright and bloody against the half-plowed field.
        Marius ordered the Bretons tied together and the dead one wrapped and strapped to one of the spare plow horses. The other animals were unshackled and tied behind the men as Marius mounted his own. The Breton horses seemed small and squat next to the tall Roman breeds. As dusk sifted in through the leaves, the rest of the fifteen soldiers marched into the forest to return to their camp and dinner, slowly pulling the Bretons behind them. Marius’ mind wandered involuntarily to the woman hiding just inside the woods, and was keen to have her follow.
        Well behind his scrupulous self-control, held deeply away from the light where no one else could see, was the first ardent thought he had in very, very long time. He would make it a point to see the woman again with her flash of golden-red hair. Marius wistfully [MSOffice2] hoped she would do something wrong, even a minor infraction, so he could find leverage to get her into his bed. It was extremely doubtful, but it did not stop the desire. He could feel his body respond again, which surprised him; it had been a long time since a woman could move him with a glance. He smiled at Aelius who frowned suspiciously, but said nothing. Marius leaned over to whisper to him and his second, Leonius. They nodded obediently, taking up positions on the outside of the men. He whistled to his beast and picked up the pace, making the soldiers lunge to catch up.
        Fifteen minutes into the march, Marius silently gestured to the two men. It was such a subtle thing even the other soldiers did not catch it. As softly as a breeze, they peeled away from the outside of the advancing Romans and disappeared like smoke into the woods as Marius and the remaining soldiers continued forward. He knew he would not see them again until they reached camp only a few miles away, with any luck, an additional Breton in tow.
       
        A bhides!” Delia cursed. She watched from a dark break in the woods, praying it would conceal her.
        The Roman leader, a tall, handsome man with salted-midnight hair, suddenly looked directly at her. For an instant, their eyes locked and Delia felt an unexpected flush of excitement course through her. She gasped and tucked herself behind the tree, surprised by the intensity and suddenness of the feeling. She took a deep breath, motioning the small woman behind her to silence, then stillness. Neither one moved for several heartbeats. When Delia dared to look again, the men were intent on their charges, their leader apparently not interested in the presence of women.
        “Your Majesty…what are you doing?” the young woman whispered to her.
        Delia jerked a silencing hand to her mouth. “Quiet, Glenys,” she hissed.
        Tying her long mane of wayward hair into a knot and securing it with a silver Roman brooch, she raised her tunic out of the mud. Without looking to see if Glenys was following, Delia quickly backed into the woods without taking her eyes off the Romans.
        Delia had warned the villagers about going into the field, knowing there were Roman patrols all over the Corieltauvi lands. The men had not listened. She did not blame them. After all, their families were hungry.
        Conall cares nothing for his people, even if he is their king.
        She scowled at the trees. Delia had taken it upon herself to warn them since her brother would not send out couriers.
        Some king!
        Four of the families had been working the field, trying to coax stunted tubers out of the rocky, untilled ground when the soldiers appeared. The Romans had thundered down the road, the sound of the hooves echoing across the open field. The farmers wasted no time in throwing the children into their mothers’ arms and ordering them into the trees to hide. Delia and Glenys had rushed from the village to stop them, but it was too late. All Delia could do was order the women and children to return to the village. Reluctantly, the wives and their charges scurried through the woods, shooting frightened glances at the men, with only Delia’s assurances she would do...something. She just wished she knew what that was.
        Perhaps if she could talk to the Romans, she could make them understand. The thought sent a bemused smile across her lips. Make a Roman understand about starving wives and children? Not likely, but she was not going to watch as her men were pressed into slavery. They had lost too many over the last seventeen years of occupation. Her brother paid tribute to them—one of the few kings who did—and she prayed that would be worth something.
        Delia had waited in the woods to see what the Romans would do, assuming they would give the men a warning and send them on their way. However, the Roman leader had killed one of the farmers when the Breton had stupidly run screaming at them, ruining any chance they had. Delia chided herself for not having more compassion toward the dead. Like so many other Breton men, his heart and his loins had ruled him. How many oafs died on Roman swords thinking it was brave to run blindly into them, screeching their defiance? The only mark the act left on the world was a starving family. The numbers were staggering. Delia had seen it too many times in her twenty-nine winters. If the men had stood quietly and answered the Romans’ questions, more than likely they would have been let go.
        She watched from the shadows for a long time, not really having any clear idea what she was going to do. When they finally left the clearing, she impulsively motioned to Glenys and followed. Glenys gaped at her mistress as if she had lost her mind, but nodded with a barely stifled sigh and a nervous curl of her lip.
        As she and Glenys ran behind them, they stayed well back, unable to see the advancing Romans. The beat of walking horses suddenly turned to trotting and the soldiers put distance between them. Delia was not concerned about falling behind; she had a notion where they would be camping and their trail was easy to follow.
        Horses would have made Delia’s journey faster, of course, and there were several in the village, but she had declined. She detested the creatures, much to the shame of her dead father who had never understood how his daughter, one of the fiercest warriors he ever trained, would not take a horse. It should have been as natural as breathing. Delia could not help it. From the time she could hold a sword, every animal she tried to mount seemed bent on biting her no matter what she did. She hated having to ride behind one of the dusty ancient warriors, so had become a runner, a talent that was rare in a tribe that practically lived on horseback.
        It felt good to be running again, something she had not done in a long time. When Delia ran, the world became a flurry of wind and green, caressing her face like a new lover and tantalizing her skin with a rush of bliss. When she ran, she felt invincible and alive. In an increasingly harsh life, it was one of her only pleasures.
        But she still hated horses.
        The air suffused her skin with blood, and a pleasant warmth spread throughout her body. Delia’s thoughts inadvertently turned to the man who had affected so strangely. For some reason she could not get him out of her head. The Roman officer was dark, deeply muscled, commanding, and so different from the men she was accustomed to. More importantly, with a single glimpse he had torn through her well-established emotional defenses, making the heat rise in her cheeks. Most men would have found that exceedingly difficult. The thought made her uncomfortable, sparking a sensual response she could not suppress.
        Delia suddenly stopped and Glenys almost ran into her. “My lady, what is it?”
        “Nothing,” she said. “I…we need to rest.”
        Glenys looked at her suspiciously, but did not press, and Delia was grateful. She did not want to explain that she suddenly dreaded the thought of speaking with the Romans. Unreasonably, she thought a few more minutes and a dark night would make the task easier. Doubtful, but the truth was she was all at once afraid of meeting a man who could make her [MSOffice3] blush with a glance.
        As Delia scanned the trees around them, Glenys took off her heavy belt and set it on a stump, smiling back at her mistress. “Well, since we are stopping…” Without waiting for a reply, she scurried off into the forest to relieve herself.
        “Not too far,” Delia called distractedly, but Glenys had disappeared. Delia was irritated at first, but then shook her head. The girl had always been impetuous and reminded Delia so much of herself as a young woman, she had to smile.
        Glenys was only eighteen winters, with rich brown wavy hair, deep olive skin, and black Mediterranean eyes that made her appear several years older. Her father had been a Roman soldier and her mother a Breton from a neighboring tribe. When her father died, the village had shunned her poor mother, and Delia had taken them in, much to Conall’s displeasure. Delia shivered at the memory. She never understood how people could be so cruel. Glenys could not help that a Roman had fathered her. However, Delia herself often had to shake off the disgust the thought would bring. Just imagining a Roman soldier touching her sent her skin crawling.
        She realized the man in the field had been Roman. With an effort, Delia shook the unwanted image from her mind and forced herself to focus on the task at hand. They would have to hurry if they wanted to make camp before it turned dark—or she completely lost her nerve.
        When she spotted Glenys’ knife, she picked it up and frowned. “Glenys?” Delia called, but the only reply was the crickets breek-reeking from the wall of darkening trees. A cold terror shifted through her shoulder blades sending a flash of heat into her cheeks. Something was wrong.
        “Glenys!” The quiet late afternoon breeze shuffled through the branches, but again, it was all she heard.