The steady, peeling ring of a hammer on iron echoed through the clearing.
Edlyn paused in his work and turned to look where his apprentice and son was pointing. One of the men, Shepard, was waving for him. Edlyn handed off the sword blade to his eldest boy.
“Finish that,” Edlyn said gruffly. The boy nodded solemnly and pumped the bellows. Edlyn crossed the clearing, wiping his forehead, damp from working even in the temporary open air smithy
Most of the men were drifting toward Shepard. The road was just visible some distance off, paved with stones and perfectly straight.
“What is it?” Edlyn asked.
“A rider.” Shepard answered.
Edlyn squinted, but could only make out a blur down the road. “Who?”
“A stranger. Roman, I think.”
Edlyn grimaced. “But alone?”
“It’s a woman!” someone exclaimed. A general murmur of disbelief rose from the crowd. Rarely did Roman soldiers come this far west and never alone. And never a woman.
“Aye, a woman. And riding hard.”
“Shall we capture her?”
Edlyn scowled, searching for the man who had suggested it. “Are we savages? No! Let her be. What those heathen dogs do is none of our concern. Unless,” he drawled, eying the muttering men. “You have grown so spineless that even a Roman female can strike terror in your craven hearts.” They all shifted, sheepish and ashamed.
Edlyn could hear the pounding of the horse’s hooves, shod with iron. They struck the paving blocks with high, clear notes.
Most of their little village was watching now. It was only a hunting stop, a rest for some weeks before they moved back north, following the herds. Never had they come so far into the Empire. They had of course fought with the Romans, traded with them, even fought alongside them. What would today bring?
Edlyn spat on the ground and murmured a prayer to ward off bad luck.
“She’ll pass us by,” a voice muttered.
But as the woman came nearer, she drew up her mount. She then left the road and cut through the trees, headed straight for them.
Women gathered up their children and vanished into their tents. It would do no good for the little ones to see a barbarian woman. They were said to go around barely clothed, committing base acts with whomever they pleased.
Edlyn was not surprised when none of the men left. They made a tight bunch by the first tent. The hide shelters were arranged in a rough circle, a large blackened space in the middle where they had smoked deer meat for days after their hunting.
It was in fact a woman. No matter she wore a long flowing cloak; it was easy to see in the way she moved, the shape of her.
She led her horse directly to them. She spoke softly and her horse slowed and then stilled.
“Do any of you speak Latin?”
“I do, a little.” Edlyn said, coming to the front. The other men made way for him.
She spoke, too fast for him to follow.
“Mistress, mistress,” he said. “Please, slower.”
She took a deep breath and began again. “I beg your assistance. I am being chased, hunted. I will give you everything I have if you will hide me.”
Edlyn frowned in surprise. “Hide you from what?”
She looked over her shoulder, clearly agitated and distressed. “A group, maybe twelve miles. I beg of you, please help me.”
“What’s she saying?” Was the general question.
Edlyn explained and they all looked to her in surprise.
“What is it you have to offer?” Edlyn asked slowly.
In answer, she drew a bag from under her cloak. Edlyn caught it as she tossed it, surprised at its weight. It was filled with gold, a few gems mixed in.
“That is mine. I did not steal it.” She said quietly. “Please, help me.”
Edlyn showed the contents to the other hunters. They gasped as he shook out a ruby as large as a man’s fingernail into his palm.
“And all she wants is for us to hide her?” Shepard asked, bewildered.
“And when these…er…miles…come?” Edlyn asked her. “What do we tell them?”
“That you saw me and that I rode on alone.”
“And if they don’t believe us?”
Her face was bleak. “Then they will hunt me down and kill me.”
“Why do they want to do that?”
She shook her head. “Please, there isn’t much time.”
She was right. Edlyn caught the distant rumble of hooves. He hesitated, then gestured for her to follow.
“His tracks,” she hissed as she slid to the ground. “Here.” She turned the horse’s head, giving its nose a scratch. Then she drew her knife and gave its hindquarters a sharp jab.
The horse screamed and bolted. It veered onto the road of its own volition and was quickly lost from sight.
“This way,” Edlyn directed. He led the woman to his own tent.
“What are you doing?” his wife, Durna, demanded as he showed the stranger in.
“Securing our fortunes.” Edlyn snapped back. He tossed the coin purse onto the ground. “Hide her. And that.”
The stranger disappeared beneath a heavy cloak, dark and nothing like the one she had been wearing, which his wife stuffed into a basket and hid under some cured hides.
“You’ll be safe in here,” Edlyn assured her.
“Thank you, sir, goodwife,” the strange woman said softly. “The blessings of Juno on you and your household.”
Durna sniffed. She knew enough Latin to understand that heathen prayer.
Edlyn went to stand with the other men. The low rumbling became a steady drone, then the ringing of hooves as a group of men came up the road, their horses trotting swiftly.
The man at their head raised a hand in signal and they veered off the road as the woman had. Their leader slowed, looking down into the loamy earth. The woman’s tracks were clearly visible. She had been wise to send her horse on; this one was smart.
The leader waved his men to wait and kicked his horse up to Edlyn’s people.
“Latin?” he asked, his voice strong and clear.
“Aye,” Edlyn drawled out. He crossed his arms over his chest. “What is it you want, roman?”
“A woman,” the man barked. “Fair, dark hair. On a brown horse. Did you see her?”
“What is it to you?” Edlyn sneered.
The man went still and Edlyn felt his men tense around him. The man must have seen it as well, their wariness. His dark gaze swept over the tents, eyes shadowed by his helmet. Edlyn knew the man had counted them, made an assessment of their weapons, the defenses of the little camp.
Without speaking, the man dismounted, landing with a jangle of metal. He was a soldier of some kind, his breastplate chased with gold and of the finest steel, polished to a soft gleam. Edlyn eyed it appreciatively.
The man came closer and drew off his horsehair plumed helmet.
“I am Maursus Latviuan, son of Aquilius. The woman I seek is a traitor and a criminal. Her name is Titania. She is the wife of Justin Oratan Janusin, Lord of the Fifth Hill District. I will ask you again, barbarian. Have you seen her?”
Very interesting. Edlyn waved vaguely at the road. “She rode by, some time ago.”
“Her tracks lead here.” This Maursus insisted coldly, gesturing to the ground.
“Aye, she stopped here. Wanted to buy food, as if we’ve any to spare. She rode on.”
The man’s eyes narrowed. “If you are lying, barbarian…”
Edlyn spat at the man’s boots. “She rode on, roman. And you’d best be following her.”
Maursus flicked a glance over the men, taking in their crude but effective weapons, their set faces. “Thank you, sir. For your pains.”
He tossed a handful of coins across the crowd. Edlyn watched him narrowly as his people tried to discretely pick up the money. The man was looking over their little village much more intently that Edlyn liked. It was obvious he did not believe Edlyn’s story at all.
The man mounted, his horse dancing in agitation. He called to his men and they kicked up, coming to bunch around him. They were quickly lost down the road once more.
Edlyn waited until all sound or sight of them had faded. Then he returned to Durna.
The woman called Titania came out of the tent, now fully dressed in some of Durna’s sturdy clothing.
“Thank you,” this Titania said with feeling. “A blessing on you and your people. I will go now.”
“Is what he says true?”
She dropped her eyes. “I did what I felt I must.”
“And what was that?”
She took a slow breath in. “My brother, he…” she sighed. “I had to save him. He had been captured, condemned as a traitor. My husband-” her lovely face distorted with hate.
Edlyn shrugged. The intrigues of Roman nobles were beyond him. She gave a little shake and settled her satchels.
“Again, thank you, good sir.” She made a graceful little bow and turned to walk into the forest.
“There is nothing but wilderness up there.” Edlyn called after her.
She lifted a hand in acknowledgment and farewell and dropped below a rise.
Edlyn sat by the fire that night puzzling over it. After he had counted out the treasure, dividing it evenly among men, they had settled down to gossip about it to their hearts’ content.
The story was being told over and over, with various ridiculous embellishments. She was a murderess, or a heathen, or one of the many roman goddesses. The men chasing her were trying to bring her to justice, to make her marry against her will, they were going to feed her to some horrible creature kept locked below the pleasure houses in the great city.As he slowly stripped a stick of bark and threw the pieces one by one into the blaze,
Edlyn looked after the direction she had taken. There were people up there, but primitive compared to what she would have known in the cities.
Edlyn had been there once, all the way to Rome. He shuddered remembering the way the stone buildings had closed around him, the noise and heat and press of people. He much preferred being out here, traveling between the hamlets and little towns that made up his world. They might not have the riches rumored to be stored in the great city, but they had freedom. Room to breathe and ride and hunt as they wished.
Sighing, Edlyn stood and nudged his drowsing boys to their feet. They whined about having to leave the fire so early, yawns breaking into their complaints.
“Come,” he said firmly. He took the youngest, Far, by his tiny hand. “Your mother will be upset.”
They submitted grumbling. Durna settled them in their furs and they were the four of them asleep in moments. Edlyn hugged his wife close, pressing a kiss to her tanned cheek.
She sighed softly as they stretched out in their own bed, asleep in moments. Edlyn lay awake, listening to her breathe and thinking about the roman woman.
Who was that Maursus to chase her and Justin to want her back so badly? His people’s camp was five days ride from the first of the stone cities. From Rome, it was nearly two weeks.
Banishing his musings, Edlyn held his wife close and went to sleep.
The sun was barely lighting the world, everything a soft, indistinct gray, when Edlyn jolted awake. Leaving Durna asleep, he rose and went to the door of their tent.
The camp was quiet. The fire was smoldering, waiting to be fed back into life. A few other men were up, guarding, but nearly everyone was still asleep.
Edlyn pulled on his boots and went out. Dew hung on everything, a chill in the air. He went still as he heard what had woken him. Hoof beats.
Hoof beats on bare earth, not on the road. Coming overland? Edlyn scanned the woods around them. They were empty, the wide spaces beneath the towering trees holding nothing but mist.
“Edlyn,” Graeme called softly. “Look.”
Edlyn went to him, cursing his failing eyesight. “A rider?”
“It’s that roman from yesterday.”
Edlyn could see that. He recognized the glowing crimson of the man’s cloak, the streaming plume on the man’s helmet. He was riding back slowly along the road, but not on it.
Edlyn, gripped the handle of his knife as the man came near. Maursus drew up some distance from the camp and made the final steps on foot, leading his horse.
“You again?” Edlyn asked rudely.
Maursus said nothing at first. He drew off his helmet, his hair soaked with sweat and his eyes shadowed. He reached down and untied his sword from his belt, dropping it to the earth.
Edlyn frowned at him. “What are you doing?”
“Where is she?” he asked softly. “Where did she go?”
“The woman, Titania. Where is she?”
“She rode on, roman, yesterday-”
Edlyn broke off as the man stepped closer. Graeme drew his own sword a finger length. Edlyn held his ground, glaring at the man. He looked exhausted, dirty. And wounded; he moved with a limp, grimacing as his left foot hit the ground.
“Please,” this Maursus whispered. “Please, where did she go?”
“What’s it to you?”
“I must find her. Please, I mean her no harm. Please tell me.”
Edlyn was sure this man had never begged in his life, but he was coming close now. Edlyn hesitated, searching the man’s face. His eyes were dark with pain and not just from his injured leg. Edlyn jerked a thumb over his shoulder. “After you rode by, she walked north.”
“She is afoot?” Maursus demanded. He was up in his saddle in an instant.
Edlyn stuck out his chin. “We’ve no horses to spare, roman.”
“No, I meant…” the man shook his head. “Never mind. Thank you.”
“What shall we tell your comrades, when they pass by again?”
Maursus face was grim. “They won’t. They’re dead.”
Edlyn glanced down to the man’s sword in the dirt. It was stained with blood. Roman blood?
“Thank you, sir.” Maursus said. He directed his horse past the camp and went below the hill that had swallowed Titania.
Edlyn exchanged looks with Graeme. The man shrugged and picked up the sword. “Gold on the hilt. And these are pearls, I think. Why’d he leave it?”
Edlyn took it from him. “We’ll keep it in case he returns. If we break camp before then, we’ll divide it up.”
Graeme nodded acceptance. “Sounds fair to me.”
Her trail was obvious and easy to follow in the loamy earth. She was making no pains to hide it, trading speed for stealth. She had always been strong, riding, swimming, boating at her husband’s villa.
The leather of his reins creaked as his fists clenched with fury.
Mid morning, he slowed as he came upon a rough circle of grasses still bent over, wet with mist. Had she slept here? Rested? It was hard to tell. Her tracks continued on, angling nearly due north. Where was she going?
The soaring trees made the way easy. Their canopies blocked out much of the sun, so only the grass and a few smaller bushes grew underneath. The terrain was hilly and rough.
He saw where she had slipped climbing a steep embankment. He paused and examined where the dirt had been scuffed, gouged dug into the earth.
Kicking his mount, it heaved over the top. Her tracks rushed forward, the space between her footfalls lengthening. If she was on foot, he should be catching up to her. He was moving too fast for safety, racing through the trees. But he had to find her before she stumbled upon another band of barbarians, ones less amiable than the bunch by the road.
Her path veered suddenly, cutting back east. He followed, wary. She was intelligent, raised in a family of men and soldiers. She had hunted with them: wild boars, deer, game cats. Who knew what traps she might have laid.
Maursus eased off her trail, riding parallel to it. Any pits or stakes she had planted would be in her line of travel.
He swore as her trail met with a worn path, something more than a game trail. He circled it, studying it for a long time. She had turned up it, still away from land the empire controlled. Really controlled, not just claimed. More and more of their territory was falling into the latter category. Declared property of the emperor, but not patrolled or guarded or even taxed.
She was weary now, her steps closer together. Would he find her sleeping in some hollow? Fool girl! Why had she run? She should have stayed, should have hidden in one of the lower cities. Justin, the dog, could have searched for her for months and never found her. Why had she run out here?
She had fallen again. When she got up, her steps were uneven, staggering. Gritting his teeth, Maursus raced up the trail, desperation overriding his caution. The sun slid down the sky, lengthening the shadows.
His heart leapt at a flash of color. She was lying huddled behind a wide tree, only the edge of her stained dress showing.
Maursus jumped free of his horse, hitting the ground with a hiss as his sprained ankle throbbed. He fell to his knees before her and pulled her into his arms.
She was shivering, trembling violently. She clutched at him, sobbing brokenly. He kissed her hair, her neck, her dirty face.
“Why did you come?” she demanded. “Why are you here?”
He pulled away enough to look at her. He brushed her tangled hair back, cupping her chin in his palm. “Do you not know, my love?”
She pushed at him, her hands flat against his breastplate. “Go! Go away!”
“Hush, dear one.”
“Leave me! I command it!”
He laughed mirthlessly. “I am not one of your soldiers, Titania. My oaths are to your husband, remember?”
She gasped, horror white. “Y-you are here to take me back?”
“No!” he snarled. “Never! He will never touch you again! You are mine, Titania! Mine!”
He had to calm his breathing. She was staring at him in fear, her face bloodless. He eased his grip on her arms.
“You are hurt?” he asked in a softer tone.
She nodded, showing her skinned and bruised palms, her scraped legs. He tucked his cloak around her and got his supplies from his saddle bags.
Carefully he cleaned her wounds and dressed them, tearing strips from her dress to bind them. He fed her some bread and wine, urging her to eat when she turned away her face. Her cheeks were hollow.
Three weeks they had been chasing her. Three endless, torturous weeks, him praying to every god he knew for her safety. At war with himself. He was charged by his lord to return her to him, dead or alive. He yearned with every fiber in his body that she would vanish, lost forever, dead, whatever it took to get her away from her husband.
Maursus needed her, wanted her, since the day he had first seen her young and afraid, dressed in flowing bridal white, her flammeum tumbling down her shoulders in a cascade of rich yellow, glowing like a flame.
“The others?” she asked.
He shook his head, unable to speak of it. By chance, or fate, his unit had been set upon by bandits, ambushed along the road. Reduced to four men under the hail of arrows, Maursus had led them to a bitter victory, killing the rogues. Then, while his men stripped the stinking bodies of valuables, he had killed them. His honor lay with them, rotting in the sun. For her.
Maursus stood with a grunt. His ankle and leg ached. His horse had fallen, killed in the attack; he was lucky not to have broken his leg.
Titania was weak with hunger and fatigue, barely able to stand. He mounted and leaned down for her. Carefully gathering her into his arms, he lifted her and settled her across his lap.
Where now? What possible future did they have?
Rome was dead to them. There was nothing to the north or west. East seemed the best option, to the straights and the cities along the eastern coast of the sea.
Titania’s arms slid around his neck, her face resting on his shoulder.
“Thank you, Maursus.” She breathed.
“For you, anything.” He vowed. “Sleep now. I will not let you fall.”
She smiled, the corners of her full mouth tilting up. He wrapped an arm around her securely and gave the horse a gentle kick.
Edlyn threw up his hands in exasperation as some of the boys shouted, pointing excitedly into the forest.
“What is it now?” He demanded. “Dancing bears? Ice demons?”
“That man, that roman. And he has the woman!”
Edlyn’s gruff amusement faded, tinged now with uncertainty. To what end had the man captured her? What did they do to female criminals in Rome?
The man Maursus topped the rise. The woman was across his lap, her feet bare and hanging limply. Was she already dead?
This Maursus came to the edge of the camp. He was smiling, his teeth white in his grime streaked face. He shook the woman gently. She blinked awake, looking around in surprise. Carefully, he let her down to the ground, then slipped free himself.
He staggered as he hit the earth. The woman braced him up, her face creased with worry. He patted her shoulder and limped over to Edlyn.
“You’re the one who speaks Latin?”
Edlyn nodded, eying them closely. The woman was staring up at the man with adoring eyes. “I am. What do you want now, roman?”
He gave a sharp laugh. “Nothing. Here.” With practiced movements, he stripped off his breast plate, throwing it to the ground. With his knife, he pried the golden emblems off his wrist guards, stylized eagles for the empire. They clattered against the breast plate, landing in the dirt. His helmet was next, tossed aside carelessly.
“I need a weapon, a sword. You have any to trade?”
“Do you wish your own sword returned?”
“No,” Maursus said harshly. “Destroy it, sell it.”
Edlyn raised an eyebrow.
“You have no metal smith?” Maursus asked. Edlyn spoke to his son. The boy hurried away and returned with the unfinished weapon they had been working on for the past week.
“It needs sharpening.” He said, handing it over.
“I can do that,” Maursus said. He hefted it and looked it over. “A fine blade. Who made it?”
“I did,” Edlyn said.
Maursus nodded. “We are in your debt.” He went back to the horse and mounted. The woman, Titania, climbed up behind him, her arms around his waist.
“You there,” Maursus called. “A day’s ride west, my men were ambushed. There were no survivors.”
Edlyn couldn’t stop a chill from running down his spine at the man’s words. “So, roman?”
“You found that breastplate, traded for it with the ones who attacked us. You haven’t seen me or the woman since we rode on. Yes?”
Edlyn grimaced. “Yes, roman.”
Maursus laughed again, dry and mirthless. “No, not roman anymore, my man. Blessings on you and your family.” He saluted them and turned the horse away.
The entire camp watched as they went back down the road.
Edlyn sighed. “I think we should move on,” he suggested. He wasn’t a leader, didn’t want to be a leader. But they all seemed to listen to him, anyway. He gave his people a rueful smile. “Otherwise, who knows what else will come down the road. Maybe the emperor himself.”
They all laughed and went to start packing up the tents.