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Chapter I

        The ex-centurion knew if the Romans caught him, he was dead. Marius felt the horse strain under his thighs. The animal’s head split the air in front of them. Wind roared, mingling with the pounding of Marius’ heart and the jolting rumble of hooves against the forest floor. Blood flowed from a throbbing wound on his shoulder and spattered behind him, staining the horse’s rump. He tightened his grip on the reins, bowing his head low over the animal’s neck. The smell of horseflesh was stringent in his nose.
        A grim thought flashed through his mind. He may never hold Delia again. Marius’ throat tightened. He dug his heels into Brutus and forced him to move faster. He would make it up to the horse later, if he survived.
        The forest blurred around him. Brown, green, branches growing like twisted mirages charging at him out of the foggy morning. He dodged them, sometimes successfully–sometimes not. His head and good shoulder ached where they sliced him. The movement of the horse’s massive leg muscles deadened his thighs, making it difficult to manipulate the beast. Despite the speed, Brutus knew his master well and needed little guidance. Marius missed the Roman armor he had worn for twenty-five years, but the Celtic clothes gave him more freedom to manage the animal. He was slowly adjusting to being a citizen—very slowly.
        Risking another glimpse over his shoulder, Marius saw nothing but the trees receding. The sound of jangling Roman horse tack, the shouts of Latin curses, and the frustrated bellows of General Suetonius had also faded. If he was lucky, the soldiers followed him into the woods, giving the refugees a chance to escape the blades or manacles of the governor’s revenge. A wave of satisfaction sent a bemused smile across his face knowing they had once again out maneuvered the general. Except for the unexpected pila that grazed his arm, he had done well. If they did not catch him, he would count this a success.
        When it was safe, Marius stopped and examined the wound, wincing when the gap opened a little wider beneath his fingers. It would need a surgeon’s needle to close it properly. Delia was going to be furious. He could almost hear her voice; Not ONLY have your ruined the shirt I made for you, but they could have killed you. You have to be more careful! I will not raise this child on my own. Do you understand me?
        Even seven months pregnant, Delia was still a fortune of fire, a passion of untamed spirit. Marius sighed. This would not improve her mood and another fight was inevitable. He sometimes forgot Delia was a Briton queen and leader of the Corieltauvi tribe. This always made their relationship interesting.
        “You are going to have to be faster than that, liberatio.”
        Marius drew his sword, forcing Brutus to rear onto his back legs when the voice bounced against the trees to his right. The armored figure emerged from the forest with seven Roman soldiers at his back. Marius swore.
        “Aelius, that is a damn good way to get yourself killed.” He slammed his sword into the scabbard, pulling the red mask from his head. He patted the horse’s neck to calm him. “Report.”
        The young man’s dark blue eyes sparkled from underneath a crown of rumpled black hair. Aelius threw him a half-crooked smile. The innocence Marius used to associate with his ward was gone now, burned out of his eyes on the battlefield the year before, and replaced by the grim countenance of a veteran. He had seen it too many times and in too many men. It was disturbing to see it in the young man he had raised.
        With a silent hand signal, Aelius ordered his men to take up their positions. “Forgive me—sir—but you should learn to pay more attention. Had this been a patrol...”
        “You would be dead,” Marius snorted and urged Brutus forward. “Report, soldier.”
        “Yes, sir.” Aelius suppressed the grin that edged its way around his mouth. “The general’s men abandoned the chase about two miles back. They were confounded by the woods and by the fact that there were four different trails to follow and four different masked men. The centurion had us lead the bulk of Suetonius’ men north. The road should be clear for the refugees. The queen’s warriors are leading them to Hillfort. They will probably beat us there. The queen sent word that you should...” Aelius pursed his lips and tightened his fists on the reins. “Well, that you should get home soon, sir.”
        “Very good.” Marius carefully tucked the red mask into an inside pocket of his heavy tartan cloak.
        “Careful they do not catch you with that. It would be worth your head. The bounty has quadrupled in the last five days.” The mischievous glint in his eyes made them twitch in the muted early morning sunlight sifting through the boughs. “Almost high enough for me to collect it myself.”
        Marius grunted and increased his pace when they hit the main road. “The higher it goes, the better we are doing our job. How many this time?”
        Aelius shrugged and examined his men. “Two hundred, maybe a few more; mostly women and children. I think that is the last of them here. Do you want us to search for more this week?”
        “No. You need to get the century to your patrol area before command gets suspicious. We will start again next week. Is Kuna coming back tonight?”
        “No, sir.” Aelius fell into step. “The centurion has gone to Londinium to fetch Aunt Antonia, and then he has been ordered to command camp by Tribune Quintius. Kuna says to tell you he would prefer to ignore the order again, but that they are getting insistent. He cannot disregard it. He will see us at Hillfort in the morning.”
        Marius nodded and watched the fog dissipate.
        They were out of danger for the time being but it was getting more difficult every day. Marius’ time was running out. His guise as the liberatio mysticus would soon do nothing for Delia’s people. The Romans were forcing their advantage and more Britons were dying every day.
        * * * *
        “... do you have any idea what would happen to us without you?” Delia tried without success to remove Marius’ arms from around her swollen belly.
        They stood naked next to the balcony in their bedroom. The late moon was the only light in the room. It streamed through the intricate balustrade.
        He ignored her outburst and kissed her behind the ear. “Do you really want to argue, my love?”
        “No. Yes!” She gave him a frustrated huff. “I could not bear it without you, you must understand that.” Tears saturated her dark lashes, making the green eyes shine in the soft light. “Please be more careful.”
        “I promise,” he whispered, breathing in her scent and luxuriating in her presence.
        “Do you remember the day we were married?” he asked.
        “Of course, I do.”
        “I had never been anywhere that held such power of spirit than that small clearing in the woods with its pillar of stone. I began to think your gods might hold sway over even Mars.”
        Delia smiled in his arms. “I remember.”
        “You told me the goddess had blessed the standing stone… that the sanctuary was a sacred place.”
        “It is. My ancestors have been crowned and married there for generations.”
        “You also told me something I will never forget.”
        “Which is?”
        Marius ran long fingers through her hair. It was warm and soft in his hand. “That you would trust me. You promised me.”
        “Yes, well…”
        “I will hold you to that promise, my queen. Trust me now. I will always come home to you.” The passion of the words whispered into her ear surprised him.
        Marius leaned down, touched his lips very softly to the side of her neck, and a gratifying shiver run through her body. Encouraged, he cupped her breasts in his hands and gently touched the nipples with his thumbs, one after the other, making her take a deep inward breath. The sound set off a twinge deep in his loins and he tightened his buttocks to increase it.
        Marius shifted his weight so that his hardness rubbed against her naked back. “I missed you.”
        Delia chuckled and put her hands behind her to encircle his neck, allowing him full access to her body. “Obviously.”
        Marius ran his hands down her belly where the moonlight shimmered against the taut skin. Strands of hair lay softly against it, golden in the light. He could feel the bulge of her distended belly and allowed his fingers to linger. The stretched skin was silky under his rough fingertips. He loved touching the softness. A quick movement responded to his caress and Delia let out a gasp.
        “Oh, he moved,” she said. She took Marius’ hand and guided his fingers a little lower, making him push in. His fingers brushed the hard outline of something, a leg, or an arm, but then it shifted on its own. “There, feel?”
        A kind of satisfaction sent waves of warmth through him when a little kick of life blossomed in her belly.
        A sudden deep revelation struck him, chasing away the warmth.
        The stern, self-assured centurion he had once been was gone. He could not stop the wash of fear sending shivers up his spine. The loss constricted his abdomen. Marius would never again feel the power of command coursing through his blood, never again hear the tromp of hundreds of marching horses, the jingle of armor, or the clash of blade against shield in battle. He would never again be a centurion. The notion sent regret through every corner of his mind. The hero was gone.
        Only a man, like other men. The thought thundered through his head.
        Marius pulled his hands away and stared at the back of Delia’s head.
        “What is the matter?” Delia turned to examine his face.
        Marius forced a smile onto his lips and took her in his arms. “Nothing. A little pain. Your healer is less skilled with the needle than my medico.” Marius bent down to kiss her, but she pushed him back.
        “No, there is something wrong.”
        He rubbed his face with one hand, scrambling for a response.
        “It is nothing. Now, come here.” He coerced the smile more successfully, swept her up into a long kiss, and then lifted her into his arms. Delia softened against his body and the moment of doubt melted under the heat of her skin. When he looked into her eyes, he knew he had made the right decision a year ago.
        Marius carried her to a thick mat on the floor and laid her down. He kissed her eyelids, her nose and then tenderly brushed her lips with his own. She sighed deeply and ran her hands through his hair, bringing fire to the kiss. Marius pulled away and moved a lock of hair from her face.
        “Are you certain? I can wait,” he said.
        The radiating smile shining back at him gripped his heart. “But I cannot. I know you will be gentle.” Delia pulled him back to her lips and he basked in her warmth.
        Marius ran his lips over her face, neck, and shoulders slowly, until he came to the delicate breasts. The soft flesh yielded to his rough hands and a jolt of passion sparked every nerve in his body. He took each nipple into his mouth, one at a time, biting gently until they hardened against his tongue. A satisfying gasp escaped Delia’s lips. She reached down to take his erection into her hot hand and caressed it lightly, sending another surge of lust through his body. He bit down firmly and Delia let out a playful ouch.
        Careful not to move too quickly, Marius ran his hand over her swollen belly and then along her thighs, until her back arched at his touch. He brought his fingers up slowly and then cupped them between her open legs, pushing with a measured caress that made her gasp again. Running his tongue mercilessly over her nipple, he slid his middle finger to open her so slowly her whispered please let him know the rhythm was right. Using her moisture, he ran his finger up and down until the swollen lips were completely open to his advance. He lingered at the top, rubbing her until the silky wetness covered his fingers. He pulled his erection out of her reluctant hand.
        Kneeling between her legs, Marius opened them wide and ran his tongue along the crevice, up and then down, prolonging the motion until Delia moaned in need. Taking the button between his lips and sucking lightly, he watched as her belly quivered in short, panting breaths. When she drew close, he withdrew his mouth and stopped, causing her to whimper and swear. He laughed at her.
        Repositioning himself on his side next to her, he lifted Delia’s leg over his waist and ran his hand up her inner thigh, positioning himself to enter her torrid body. In a measured stroke, he pushed inside her, feeling her heat as it slowly engulfed him, inch by inch, concentrating to keep the sensation from overwhelming him, careful not to enter too quickly. The incredibly hot folds of silky skin and tight muscle bore down on him, craving the extent of his firmness. Marius kept it slow, even, allowing Delia to set the depth, the pace. In and out, again and again, gradually increasing the speed, he sank into her, watching her hair fly from side to side like wind-blown rushes.
        Delia reached down to touch both herself and him, her wet fingers sliding against the engorged muscle as he thrust it forward and then back. The touch nearly sent him over the edge, but he held it back. Again, he took her nipple into his mouth and bit on it, increasing the pace of his thrusts until neither of them could take anymore. The screams of release resounded through the house when they gave into the intensity and let the spasms consume them. Lost in their passion, the trembling contortions knocked them off the mat.
        Laughing from the floor, Marius inspected her thoroughly, making certain she and the baby were all right.
        “Maybe we should stop…”
        “Not on your life, sir.” Delia wrapped her arms around him. “You are not getting away that easily.”
        Marius touched her golden hair and took in a breath of air when her jade eyes sparkled in the moonlight. His doubt slipped into a memory.
            * * * *
        The next day, Marius and Delia interviewed a parade of poor Briton mothers, daughters, sons, uncles, and other relatives. The fortitude of these displaced people impressed Marius; they were all gaunt and dark with exhaustion, yet they held themselves with a quiet dignity he had seldom seen in a defeated people. Every day his respect for the Celts deepened. He was ashamed he had not taken the time before now to explore it.
        “Mother,” he said to the older woman staring up at him now. Attached to her hands were two small children dressed in tatters with dirty faces and awe-filled eyes. “You are welcome to take refuge with us as long as you need. We will do what we can to find the children’s mother.” He glanced at his wife who smiled back at him proudly. “Perhaps she will be in the next group we find. Just give her name to one of my warriors and they will…”
        A loud murmur rose from the milling crowd and Marius looked up sharply. Making his way through the few people remaining, Delia’s commander, Evyn, firmly gripped the elbow of a hooded figure, who stumbled next to him. The figure struggled, but Evyn had a good grip.
        “We caught this one trying to sneak in through the back gate.” He yanked the hood off her head.
        The woman was beautiful, tall, a tangle of deep auburn hair surrounding light blue eyes, with an aristocratic sulk lining an otherwise striking face.
        “Rheydyn!” Delia cried.
        Evyn drew his sword.
        Standing before them was a ghost; the woman who had enslaved Delia, fought with the warriors to challenge the Romans almost a year ago, the proud princess of a dead kingdom. Boudiga’s daughter frowned at them and the room went silent.