Authors: Eva Scott
“Better men? Indeed! There’s a challenge and I could never resist a challenge.” A lazy confident grin crinkled the corners of his sky-blue eyes. There was something magnetic about this man Klara couldn’t define. Was it the dangerous air he carried about him? Or his undeniably attractive scruffiness? Perhaps it was simply because he was a foreigner, exotic and forbidden. Whatever the allure, she wasn’t going to hang around to explore it.
He laughed and held the beads out. As she reached for them he snatched his hand away. “Wait!” Taking one strand of beads out of the pile he tucked them in his pocket. “Something to remember you by. If you want them back you can come and find me later.” He winked and dropped the remaining beads into her outstretched hand.
“You’ve as much chance of that as of waking up tomorrow morning a proper Hun!”
The stranger threw back his head let out a bellowing laugh. “You don’t need to be a Hun to be a proper man, Princess. Come by a little later after the feast and I’ll be happy to show you.”
Klara turned away in a swirl of skirts, her cheeks flushed pink. Accustomed to wearing leggings and tunics, she hadn’t quite got the knack of the masses of fine silk that had gone into making up her wedding attire. As she straightened her skirts and prepared to storm off, the stranger delivered a smack to her bottom. Letting out a yelp of indignation she leapt around to give him a piece of her mind.
“How dare you…” but he was already gone. She could hear him singing softly off-key as he went about his business in his tent as if their exchange had never taken place. The stranger’s lofty attitude only served to fan the flames of her fury as she strode back through the camp the way she had come.
“How dare he? Who does he think he is? Doesn’t he know who I am?” she muttered. His outrageous and rude behaviour could not disguise the power of his kiss or her reaction to it. Klara slowed her pace as new thoughts assaulted her.
Would it be like that with Bleda?
Their kisses to date had been chaste—those of brother and sister, not of lovers. The stranger had kissed her like a lover. The memory of his lips on hers caused her body to suffuse with heat and an unfamiliar sensation uncoiled deep within her.
Klara shook her head to empty it of unwanted images which sprung unbidden.
What did it matter if the stranger’s kisses set her on fire? Bleda’s kisses would be just as good once they kissed each other properly
. Confident of her logic she lengthened her stride.
But what if Bleda couldn’t arouse her like the stranger? What if she woke up tomorrow to discover she’d married her ‘brother’ and not a lover?
She frowned at the sneaking suspicion Bleda might not live up to her expectations. There was only one thing to do.
She wound her way through the many cook fires, cauldrons bubbling away filled with chunks of meat boiling for the feast. Slipping her beads over her head as she approached her father’s tent she threw her shoulders back and tossed her long plait over her shoulder. Klara marched through the assembled guests, all laughing at some jest while tossing back cup after cup of kumis. She walked up to Bleda who, clearly drunk on the fermented mare’s milk, took a moment to focus on her.
“Bleda, stand up,” she said. Bleda gave her a wobbly smile, getting unsteadily to his feet.
“Yes, my bride, your wish is my command,” he slurred, causing the men around him to chuckle. He stood there, blinking in the last rays of sunlight, and Klara knew before she even asked. But she asked anyway.
“Bleda, will you kiss me properly? Right now.”
Lucius Aurelius hummed off-key as he rummaged in his pack for a clean tunic. Tonight’s feast promised to be a hearty one with much to drink and eat. He didn’t often get a chance to eat well when travelling. The import business kept him constantly moving and he ate what he could catch or exchange with other travellers. He liked his life. True, it was not a life his father approved of, but Lucius was not the sort of man to spend too much time worrying about his father’s opinion.
The sun was well on its way to setting when he left his tent. He stood for a moment and surveyed the grass plain stretching unbroken to the horizon where the sun’s great orange orb seemed to sink into the very ground itself. Sighing contentedly he pulled on his thick coat with the eagle of Rome embroidered on the back against the increasing chill. Growing up in Rome meant warmth and endless sunshine. His bones weren’t used to the extreme changes of temperature the Great Steppes offered. Patting his pockets Lucius checked for the string of beads he’d procured from the luscious young Hun woman he’d encountered that afternoon.
Not normally given to such crass displays of boldness, something had overtaken him and he’d had her in his arms before he’d realised what he was doing. Her long hair the colour of midnight and those almond-shaped eyes, so dark as to have no end to their depths, captivated him. He could not let her go without tasting her sweet full lips and they had been delicious. If only he could convince her to share his bed… Perhaps she’d be agreeable to travel with him as his woman? Of course, she’d played hard to get but that was expected. She was a Hun and he, a Roman. It was an unlikely match although he had no doubt with her it would be a good one. Looking forward to finding her again he set off into the night humming a drinking song.
The camp was abuzz with energy and laughter. Many of the guests were far drunker than they ought to be and it looked like there would be fewer mouths to feed as a result. Fine by him. He was hungry and looking forward to the meat he smelled cooking all afternoon. No stuffed swans served here, only good old-fashioned meat and kumis. Was it any wonder he preferred to be out here in the world rather than shut up in some stuffy Roman villa pretending to be interested in inane conversation and inedible food?
It did not take Lucius long to reach the centre of the camp. The huge felt tent of the Hun chieftain, Rugila, created a backdrop to the feast laid out before it. Men and women sat shoulder to shoulder, meat piled high on platters in front of them. Children ducked and weaved, unable to sit still for excitement. He looked about until he spotted his companions.
“Bataar!” Lucius dropped down beside his friend, clapping him on the shoulder in greeting.
“Lucius, you’re just in time. Any later and Ellac here would have eaten the lot!”
Ellac replied with a mouth full of mutton, his words lost to comprehension. Lucius laughed and thumped him on the back.
“Never mind, I am here now. Pass me some of that meat.” He settled back and took a look around. The crowd was mostly Hun although there were many Mongolians, Persians and other races dotted about. He was the only Roman, the only man with light hair, so it was expected he’d attract attention. As well-travelled as he was, he’d become used to the curiosity of others. He smiled and nodded whenever he caught someone staring. Mostly people were content to look and some returned his smile. Every now and then he’d come across someone who wanted to start trouble, but that was rare and he doubted it would occur here at Rugila’s daughter’s wedding.
“Have you seen the bride?” he asked.
“She’s over there,” Ellac gestured with a shank bone. “If you ask me, Bleda has his hands full.”
Bataar chuckled. “I hear she can hunt and fight as well as any man. If Bleda steps out of line she’ll cut his balls off.” This statement sent both Ellac and Bataar into peals of laughter. Lucius peered across the gathering, the only light coming from the fire pit in the middle of the clearing. Shadowy figures of women moved back and forth, replenishing the plates of food. He looked for a large, strong woman. Surely the bride would be robust if she could outfight a man!
he’d like to see, although he’d heard Hun women were more than capable of fighting alongside their men and often did so.
“Is that her?” he asked, pointing to a thickset young woman dressed in a heavily embroidered skirt, her long hair carefully threaded with semi-precious stones. Bataar shook his head.
“No. Look a little to the left. See there? Next to Rugila, the large man with the pointed felt cap, that little fellow next to him is Bleda the groom. Next to him is the bride, Klara.”
Lucius squinted through the gloom. As the woman in question came into focus he felt the blood drain from his face.
His hand went instinctively to the beads nestled in his pocket.
His thief was the bride?
Klara was bored. There was no fun to be had sitting in the bridal party. She was expected to be demure and well behaved—neither state appealed to her—while everyone else around her had fun. Her eyes roamed around the gathering, watching people laughing and jesting with each other. How she longed to join in! Her gaze came to rest on the figure of a fair haired man; there on the other side of the fire sat her stranger talking with two men who looked vaguely familiar. Klara watched for a moment before prodding her father in the ribs with her elbow. Rugila grunted and turned from his drinking to see what she wanted.
“Who is that stranger sitting over there?” she indicated the direction with her chin.
Rugila squinted in the half light. “The one sitting with Ellac and Bataar? That’s Lucius Something-or-other. Roman. Can’t pronounce his name. Trades in Roman goods I believe. Ugly if you ask me.” He belched loudly.
Klara said nothing as her father returned to his drinking.
. She longed to say his name aloud, hear how it rolled off her tongue. A Roman man! No wonder his accent had sounded so strange. She’d never met a Roman before although she’d heard tales of their debauchery.
That might explain his poor manners
. Still, there was something about him. She studied him, as the firelight flickered across his features. As if he could feel the weight of her gaze, he raised his eyes to hers. For a moment their eyes locked and the rest of the world disappeared. There was nothing, and no one, but Lucius.
Klara inhaled sharply, her heart beating a tattoo against her ribs. They stared at each other until she thought she would explode with tension. Then Bleda spoke to her, breaking the spell. She turned to see what he wanted, trying to hide her annoyance. It wasn’t Bleda’s fault he didn’t set her aflame with his kisses. To make up for her churlish thoughts Klara listened intently with a smile on her face.
“What’s the matter with you?” Ellac asked. “You look pale. Bad meat?”
Lucius coughed to cover his confusion. “Something like that.” He couldn’t take his eyes from her face. She was radiant in the firelight, impossibly beautiful. How could he have known who she was? She never said a thing, never let on she was the Chieftain’s daughter. For a second their eyes met across the fire and he knew she had seen him. He held his breath while her gaze penetrated his soul, unwavering in her regard. Then Bleda spoke to her, shattering the moment as she turned her attention to her groom. He took the opportunity to make himself scarce before she could point him out to her father and have him flayed alive. “If you will excuse me, I’m suddenly not so hungry.”
“You’ll miss out on the kumis!” Bataar shouted after him. “Ellac will drink it all.”
“What are you saying? That I’m a drunk?”
“If the cap fits…”
Lucius left Bataar and Ellac to their argument. Suddenly, it was necessary to get as far away from the wedding festivities as possible. He’d taken advantage of his host’s daughter! Not only had he kissed the bride, he’d asked her to sleep with him. At this point he’d consider himself lucky if he got out of here in one piece.
This is bad, very bad
. If he lay low, out of sight, he might be able to leave tomorrow with no damage done. Swallowing hard, he made his way as casually as possible through the tents and away from the feast.
The camp was still busy with many people choosing to wait until the ceremony tomorrow when the Shaman would join Klara and Bleda as man and wife. Lucius had no desire to be there. He had no intention of hanging around to see the woman he wanted for himself marry another man. Somewhere the Fates were laughing at him. Picking his way around the tents, Lucius headed aimlessly towards his own. Up until this point he had enjoyed travelling and trading, having adventures, occasionally embarrassing his father the Roman Senator. His life in this moment now seemed strangely hollow and pointless. He sighed and stopped walking.
Looking about him, Lucius spotted a group of men gambling in a clearing between the tents. Their raucous, alcohol-fuelled laughter drew him closer. Going back to his tent to spend the night alone seemed too grim for words. This was what he needed, to gamble and get drunk until he couldn’t remember Klara had ever existed. Shouldering his way into the ring of men he threw down his purse full of gold coins and joined the game.
The candle flickered briefly, their illumination sending long shadows racing up the walls of the wedding tent. Klara lay in the semi-darkness next to her sleeping husband. They had been married as the Shaman danced through the afternoon, singing down the blessings of the spirits upon them. He must have known they’d need a lot of blessings. Things were not off to a good start. Bleda had been so ill during the ceremony she’d been surprised he’d lasted through it at all. Then to make matters worse he picked up where he’d left off the night before, consuming more kumis than was wise for anyone. Consequently they’d ridden out to their wedding tent with Bleda hanging from his saddle singing at the top of his lungs.
As for consummating the marriage, that had been perfunctory at best. Bleda had passed out the minute his head had hit the bed, snoring ever since. Klara sighed, stretched and placed her hands behind her head, counting the little silver plaques sewn to the walls as they flashed in the candlelight. Against the dark blue felt the tiny plaques looked almost like stars. She and Bleda were supposed to spend the next few days alone, far from the rest of the tribe, celebrating their wedding. It would probably take that long for Bleda to get over his indulgences.
Her mind wandered back over the day’s events. There had been more feasting and dancing, of course more drinking. What was a Hun wedding without drinking? Lucius had been conspicuous by his absence. She’d looked for him surreptitiously throughout the day. How she longed to ask after him but refrained in case someone questioned her interest. Closing her eyes she imagined Lucius lay next to her instead of Bleda. Immediately her body warmed and began to throb in secret places. She imagined how Lucius’ skin would feel like beneath her finger tips, a sensation she would never know. Bleda was her husband and Lucius just a fantasy. Reaching across, she touched Bleda tentatively. His skin was surprisingly soft beneath his tunic. She’s always thought a man’s skin would be rough and ready like the men themselves.