Authors: Eva Scott
Klara swallowed hard, her eyes wide with fright. “Then what are we waiting for?” she whispered.
Sneaking out of the tavern was harder than Klara imagined it would be. The stables were shrouded in darkness and they didn’t dare risk a lantern for fear of attracting attention. The last thing either of them wanted was the bounty hunters noticing their departure.
“Which one is yours?” Lucius whispered.
“This one over here.” Klara’s horse snorted in recognition.
“The ugly one?”
Klara elbowed Lucius in the ribs. “He’ll be on his feet long after yours has collapsed with exhaustion, Roman. I can guarantee it.”
“No offence, Princess. Just wanted to be clear which horse we were talking about. Mind the packs while I get the beasts ready.” Klara did as she was bid, not because she was the sort of woman to take orders but because her heart was pounding in her chest from fear. If Irnik should get his hands on her, life as she knew it was as good as over.
“Hurry up,” she hissed, growing impatient with every passing moment. “The stable slaves will wake up any minute.”
“They certainly will if you keep nattering. Keep that tongue still in your head and load up your pack. While you’re at it, pass me mine.”
Klara threw Lucius’ pack at him hoping he’d miss it in the darkness. Her wish was granted, he grunted as the pack hit him in the stomach.
“Steady on, Princess. You’ll need all your strength for the ride.”
Klara poked her tongue out, confident he wouldn’t see the gesture in the dark. Taking a handful of her horse’s mane she swung herself up onto its back and sighed with satisfaction as she turned the horse towards the stable door. Now she was on horseback the situation seemed much more manageable. They’d be away shortly and no one would have seen them.
Next to her Lucius mounted his much larger horse. “Ready?” he asked.
Klara felt his eyes on her. The heat of his gaze cut through the night and scorched her skin. “Yes.”
As they moved into the courtyard of the inn a shadow detached itself from the building and strode into the moonlight.
“Who goes there?” The man swung a lantern from behind him and a dull light lit his countenance from below. The tell-tale slave collar ringed his neck. “Who are you?” he demanded, voice quavering.
Lucius reined his horse to a stop. “We are patrons of your good master’s humble inn simply leaving early to get a start on a long ride north.” His voice was laced with warmth and charm. For a moment Klara almost believed him herself. “Now my good man, please stand aside and allow us to go about our business.”
The slave hesitated. An older man, he bore the scars of a hard life and his eyes darted from side to side with indecision. “I should really call for my master.”
“I don’t think that will be necessary. He will only be annoyed when it is discovered we are legitimate and you have disturbed his sleep for no good reason.”
“Still…” The slave had a look on his face Klara did not care for. Perhaps it was only the weak light from the lantern throwing a shifty cast to the man’s face. His next words confirmed it was no trick of the light. “Maybe you could
to me you are who you say you are.”
Lucius let a long moment of silence pass and Klara wondered if he intended answering at all. “And how might we do that?” he said finally.
“I’m only a poor slave. I’m sure you are far cleverer than I about such things, my Lord.” The mock servility dripped from the man’s voice.
Lucius sighed and took a pouch from his pocket. Klara could hear coins clinking together as his fingers nimbly undid the strings. “Here, perhaps this will help convince you of our authenticity.” Two coins landed at the slave’s feet, shining brightly as they caught the moonlight.
The slave hurriedly scooped the coins from the muddy ground and pocketed them. “I can see you are a man of good standing. I wish you a pleasant and safe journey.”
Lucius grunted in reply as he urged his horse forward, nearly trampling the man in the process. Klara kicked her horse into a trot as she followed Lucius out on to the road.
“Why did you give him money?” She brought her horse level with his. “Why not simply insist he let us go? He was only a stable slave after all.”
Lucius shot her a look she could not read. “Two people sneaking out in the middle of the night can only mean trouble. Our
took a gamble we would not want our leaving to become public knowledge. In the morning you can be sure he will keep an ear out for anyone looking for us and extract payment to tell them which way we went.”
“But he’s a slave! Why would he want money for himself? What could he possibly do with it?”
“Perhaps he wants to buy his freedom, or the freedom of someone he loves. It’s funny what we’ll do for the people we care about.” He kicked his horse, which leapt in response, and Klara found herself left in a cloud of road dust.
There was no mistaking Lucius’ meaning. She had put him in a dangerous position; by helping her he was making that position worse. Did that mean he cared for her? The thought was both thrilling and frightening all at once. To escape its implications Klara set her heels to her horse and gave chase.
They rode without speaking until the sun crested the horizon. Lucius wanted to put as much distance between them and Aquicum as possible. Having had a good head start they might just avoid Irnik’s bounty hunters. As they rode he gave much thought as to their course of action. All he could come up with was to make west for the coast, somewhere like the port city of Salona. They could take a ship to Italia and then on to Rome. Of course the idea had to be discussed with Klara. In the absence of any better plan he felt sure she would agree to accompany him. What else could she do?
“Where are we going?” Klara trotted her ugly little horse close to his and spoke as if she could read his mind.
“The best thing would be to strike for Salona. Once there we can get a ship to Italia.”
“A ship? You want me to get on a ship! I’ve never even seen the ocean let alone a ship.” Her voice rose higher with each word.
Lucius looked at her in the dawn light and saw a woman pale with exhaustion. Maybe this wasn’t the best time to be having this conversation. “I know how daunting the prospect must sound but you have to agree the prospect of either of us ending up as Irnik’s playthings is far more horrific.”
“What about my father? My family? I can’t just leave without a word. What happens when we get to Italia?”
“We can send word to your father once we’ve reached Salona and secured safe passage. Rugila will rest easy knowing you’re far from Irnik’s reach. Once we arrive in Italia we’ll head for Rome of course.”
“Of course.” Klara muttered the words in a tone Lucius didn’t like. She might be too tired to fight about it now but there was no doubt in his mind once she’d got some rest this topic would be revisited.
“You know I’m right,” he said in an effort to win the argument early.
“Seriously Klara, I’ve given it a lot of thought and there is no better way for me to keep you safe.”
“Do you hear me arguing with you?” She looked up at him, her dark eyes inscrutable in the gentle morning light. Somewhere deep in the woods a bird offered up its song to the rising sun.
“I’m sure you will later.” Even when tired and travel-stained, her beauty had the power to move him.
“Of course.” Klara smiled and he knew he might win the argument but his heart was lost.
In the quiet moments of the new day the only sounds Klara could hear were the clip-clop of the horses’ hooves on the road and the birds’ dawn chorus. She had ceased to pay attention to anything not right under her nose. Her eyelids drooped heavily as she wrestled fatigue.
“How much further?” she asked.
“Not far. The wood thickens up ahead and we can take refuge for a little while, catch some sleep.”
“So no bed?” Sleeping on the hard ground had not been in her plans.
“Sorry, Princess. We can’t risk being seen together. A Roman travelling with a Hun, let’s just say it’s an unusual combination.”
“I don’t see why.” Klara became grumpy when she was overtired and found the need to take her mood out on Lucius irresistible. “What’s wrong with a Hun and a Roman being seen together? Your trade partners were Hun and no one thought anything of it.”
“In case you’ve forgotten, you’re a woman and I am a man. We’re not married to each other. We don’t have a chaperone. And you might find many people in these parts object to
of those facts. Would you like me to continue?” Lucius ticked off the points on his fingers in the most irritating manner.
“I haven’t forgotten,” she hissed. “I do wish you’d stop treating me like I’m some silly-headed girl.”
“I do beg your pardon, Princess,” Lucius sketched a mock bow. “I meant no offence.” Klara doubted that. She shot a sideways glance at the Roman, sitting above her in his saddle as if he were the Emperor himself and not simply a trader. How did he manage to look so fresh while she felt as stale as yesterday’s bread? It wasn’t fair.
Klara opened her mouth to voice a fresh complaint when her words were knocked from her along with her breath. She hit the ground, gasping with shock as the air flew out of her lungs. Shaking her head, she stood, trying to make sense of what was happening around her. Somewhere nearby Lucius could be heard shouting, then the sound of iron weapons clashing. Scrambling to her feet, Klara instinctively grabbed for her own short sword which hung from her belt, failing to pull it free before a hand yanked her long plait. Her head snapped back as the unseen hand pulled her off her feet.
In that instant she took a gamble and rolled beneath her horse, putting it between them. Pulling her short sword from its scabbard, she faced her attacker for the first time: a Hun! Fury engulfed her and with a shout she spun to the right, beating him back with a shower of blows. He deflected them, but only just. Using his greater strength the Hun trapped her sword and pushed back throwing Klara off balance yet again. His sword snaked out, nicking her forearm. Pain burned though her. The Hun laughed—a guttural, chilling sound. Angered, she fought with renewed vigour, pushing him backward. Her sword cut his shoulder and he cried out. Smiling, Klara took a breath and feinted. How she wished for a bow, the preferred weapon of the plains.
She had never seen this man before. Why would he want to attack her? She was the daughter of Rugila, one of the most respected tribal chiefs in the Hun kingdom.
How dare he!
Klara was determined to make this traitor pay for his arrogance. Suddenly pain seared across her ribs as she evaded a blow which was intended to impale her. Grimacing through the pain Klara returned a thrust of her own. She felt weary and her arms and legs were turning to lead. She needed to finish this fast.
Noting what looked like a nettle bush by the side of the road she drove her opponent backwards until he tumbled into the ditch and straight into the bush. He leapt up, screaming, confirming her assumption it was a
nettle bush. The man forgot all about her in his effort to get rid of the stinging fronds. Satisfied she’d managed to incapacitate him, Klara turned to find Lucius.
Lucius had been enjoying his argument with Klara in a perverse sort of way. She sat slumped half-awake in the saddle, weary from the long night’s travel. She looked almost gentle and vulnerable, a state he knew to be an illusion. He smiled at the thought of her naked and sleep-tousled in his bed. The image stirred his body giving him another good reason to return to Rome as quickly as possible where he could take his time getting to know his wildcat Princess in safety. Scanning the horizon he caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of his eye too late as a flying figure knocked Klara from her horse.
“Klara!” He bellowed before fire seared across his left shoulder and the ground came up to meet him, hard. Rising in one fluid motion, fully awake now with his sword in hand, Lucius afforded a quick glance at Klara. She had managed to rise to her feet, shaking her head.
His horse reared, and he saw between its front legs the shape of two attackers advancing. A third was making his way towards Klara. Switching weapons Lucius threw his knife which he kept tucked in his belt for just such a purpose. It arced through the air, cutting short the bowstring draw of one assailant as it buried into his throat. Pivoting, Lucius brought his sword around in time to deflect a thrust from the second attacker. In the background Klara yelled what he took to be Hun obscenities. Focusing on his own fight, Lucius feinted intending to expose his enemy to a second and fatal blow. Instead he was met with a sharp riposte causing him to defend wildly. His attacker delivered a series of blows, hammering him backwards. Barely parrying them, Lucius desperately sought an opening. His opponent slipped and Lucius kicked him squarely in the chest, following with a sword swing, missing as the man rolled away.
Lucius advanced as his opponent scrambled to his feet, cursing himself for missing his chance to end the fight quickly. He was well aware all they needed from him was his head, which he nearly lost in an unguarded moment when the Hun’s sword nicked his ear. That had been a wakeup call! With an unseemly amount of blood trickling down his neck, Lucius increased the intensity of his attack. Only one man would walk away today and he was determined it was going to be him.
With a final yell—his own version of a battle cry—Lucius lunged in close using all his strength to drive the man back. Without thinking he launched into a combination of swings, forcing the attacker to defend at every turn. Inevitably, the dance ceased as abruptly as it had begun with his opponent’s scream. Lucius’ sword cleaved the man from shoulder to hip and the Hun was dead before he hit the ground. Turning to assist Klara, he watched as she drove her attacker into a stinging nettle bush. It took a moment before the man realised what had happened and ran off down the road clawing at his burning skin.
Sheathing his sword, he looked up at Klara’s yelp. “What is it? Are you hurt?” he cried as he hurried to her side. Blood ran down her arm, soaking her clothes. His heart dropped to his stomach as he reached for her.