Authors: Eva Scott
“I’m fine,” she said. “Look at you! How badly did he cut you?”
“It looks worse than it is. Are you in pain?” Lucius inspected her arm. While the cut wasn’t particularly deep it would need attention. They needed to get to a village where he could find somewhere for them to rest.
“I told you, I’m fine. I’ve had worse injuries.” Lucius raised his eyebrow at her bravado. “I’m not a regular woman, Roman. I’m a Hun.”
“Oh, I’m well aware you’re no ordinary woman, Princess. But even your wounds will get infected if left unattended.” He looked around at the dead littering the road. “We can’t stay here. Sooner or later someone will come along and I don’t feel like answering any questions, do you?”
Klara shook her head. “Where will we go? We can’t travel looking like this.”
“If my memory serves there’s a village not far from here. We’ll tell them we were ambushed by thieves. The road to Rome is littered with criminals so no one will question our story. We’ll be out of there long before the next lot of bounty hunters can catch up with us.”
“Are you sure there will be more?”
“As sure as I am of the sun rising tomorrow. Come, let’s get going. I’ll feel a lot better once we get your wound cleaned and bound.”
Lucius was right. The village lay four leagues down the road, or at least that’s what he told her. Klara wouldn’t have known a league from a rock. The excitement of the ambush had burnt off, leaving her even more tired than before. Her arm had begun to throb and she cradled it gently against her body. The last thing she wanted was Lucius making a fuss. He swore his own wound was minor, yet she did not like the look of all that blood soaking from his neck to his waist. Irnik’s threat to remove the Roman’s head from his shoulders was clearly no joke.
Klara slid off her horse, feet hitting the ground with a slap. If they didn’t find a bed soon she intended to curl up on the ground in the sunshine and sleep. Bounty hunters be damned! Lucius took the reins of her horse and she followed behind, dragging her feet. Later she would be unable to recall much of what occurred next. Lucius spoke with a villager who took them to someone else who led them to a room they could sleep in. Coins changed hands and the horses were taken away to be fed and watered.
The bed was hard and the linen dubious but she didn’t care. Flopping down across the bed Klara stared up at the ceiling, counting every ache in her body.
“Sit up,” Lucius ordered. “I want to get those filthy clothes off you and get that arm cleaned.” He had water and a rag. Where he’d got them from she had no idea. There was also a loaf of coarse bread and some cheese. Her stomach rumbled in anticipation.
“I had no idea how hungry I was,” she said, complying with his request. Lucius squatted in front of her and Klara let him tug her tunic over her head, offering no resistance and very little help. The water was warm which surprised her. What surprised her even more was how gently he cleaned away the blood before firmly tying a strip of linen around her arm. She helped herself to a chunk of bread, chewing thoughtfully as she watched him work.
“Do I get to do you now?” she asked.
Lucius sat back on his haunches, blinking in surprise.
Klara swallowed the bread. “Your ear.” She pointed to her own ear to emphasise her point.
“Of course, my ear.”
He coloured under her gaze and it dawned on her what the Roman been thinking. She thumped him on his arm. “You men only ever think about sex.”
“That’s not true.” His tone sounded wounded. “Sometimes we think about fighting, drinking and eating. Not necessarily in that order.”
“Get up on the bed and let me take a look at you.” Klara felt revived by the bread and broke off a piece of cheese. “This cheese is surprisingly good.”
“Made from goat’s milk.” Lucius sat next to her. Out on the plain all their milk, yoghurt and cheese was made with mare’s milk. She inspected the cheese more closely before finishing it off with one bite.
“Take off your tunic,” she said. “We need fresh clothing. I have something to wear. Do you?”
Lucius nodded as he slipped his tunic over his head leaving the broad expanse of his chest enticingly exposed. Klara swallowed hard and averted her eyes. Now she was the one thinking about sex! Annoyed, she grabbed the bowl of water and wrung out the linen. Streaks of blood stained his skin and she worked quickly to remove them. Every time she touched him the warmth between her thighs increased. The texture of his skin where the sun had burnished it reminded her of honey, the thought causing her to lick her lips. Flicking her eyes to Lucius’ face she noted he was watching her mouth with an intensity which made her squirm. Her heart began to beat faster in response.
Returning her focus to the task at hand Klara quickly dabbed away the last of the crusted blood to reveal a decent cut across Lucius’ ear and along his neck. While the cut wasn’t deep, its location explained the large amount of blood. She inspected the cut and decided it didn’t need stitching.
“You’ll heal,” she proclaimed, gasping as Lucius took her chin in his strong fingers and kissed her with a searching passion.
“Thank you,” he said, releasing her. “I’d thank you properly but I don’t think either of us are in a fit state.”
Klara blushed as his words conjured more images of the night before when he had stood naked before her. “I believe I’m too tired anyway.”
“Then we must sleep.” Lucius moved over to the far side of the bed and patted the space next to him. “Come and lie with me.”
She hesitated. Nothing could come of them yet the need to be close to him, to feel his body against hers pulled at her like a tide.
“I could have lost you today,” he said gently. “I think we’d both sleep better if we have each other’s backs.”
Smiling, Klara swung her legs onto the bed and slid closer to him. Nestling into the crook of his arm, feeling the warmth of him against her back gave her the peculiar sensation of having come home. They were in a terrible mess and danger still lurked but right now lying in Lucius’ arms seemed like the safest place on earth. She yawned and closed her eyes. Later they would make a plan, when she could string two thoughts together. Listening to the gentle rhythm of Lucius’ breath, Klara slipped into sleep.
Lucius felt her fall asleep, her body relaxing against him. He sighed. The fight on the road had been a close thing, closer than he’d like. They’d been tired and unprepared; that couldn’t happen again. One mistake, one misjudgement in a fight, and there’d be no second chances. Cradling Klara he marvelled at her courage in facing down her opponent. She could fight, no doubt about it, although he had no intention of letting her fight again. The Hun who attacked her had been a lousy fighter – they might not be so lucky next time.
Sleep stalked him but Lucius fought back. He needed a plan before he could relax; something definite he could put to Klara when they awoke. The only course of action to ensure her safety was to hide her somewhere safe. Perhaps he could find a way to convince Irnik that Klara was dead? Not a bad idea. But where could he hide her? There was no question of them continuing to travel together; that would provide bounty hunters with too tempting a prize.
Lucius tightened his arm around Klara, drawing her closer. If today’s fight had taught him anything the lesson was how much he cared for his prickly Princess. He didn’t believe she ever had it in her to kill him, as tough as she might seem. Whoever had won his coat in the game had turned it to his advantage. Lucius smelled a rat. He was not going to let Irnik get his hands on her if it was the last thing he did. All he had to do was convince her to hide while he found a way to throw Irnik off their scent. Then maybe they could set off for Italia and make a life for themselves, somehow. Of course Lucius’ father, the Senator, would be enraged at his choice of a Hun woman for a wife. Lucius chuckled deep in his throat at the thought of his father’s face when he told him the news he’d been caught up in Hun politics before drifting off to sleep, a smile upon his face.
Lucius stirred and stretched, a shaft of sunlight pierced the hut and pooled on the floor. Dust motes danced in the beam and somewhere outside a bird called. Rolling over he reached for Klara only to find her gone. Startled, he sat bolt upright and looked wildly about the room. There was no sign of a struggle, not that he expected one. He doubted anyone would be able to sneak into the hut, grab Klara, get out and not wake him. If someone
snatched Klara surely they would have availed themselves of his head also. Still his heart pounded in his chest in response to his initial alarm.
Relaxing a little he took an inventory of his aches and pains. It had been a long time since he wielded a sword in any sort of fight. As a result, his arms felt tender and the muscles across his back were tight. A nice soak in a hot bath followed by a massage would do the trick. There were no public baths for legions, with the exception of Aquicum but there was no going back. The fact made him almost nostalgic for Rome.
Swinging his legs over the edge of the bed Lucius prepared to get out of bed when the door swung open and Klara entered.
“I’ve brought breakfast,” she chirped.
Lucius pulled on a shirt and stood up. “You sound cheerful this morning. Where have you been? I was worried about you.”
Klara waved away his concerns with one hand, the other holding a basket. “Don’t worry about me. I can take care of myself.” She raised the basket. “I was hungry and thought you might be too. Turns out there is a market in this village. Not a very big one but full of the essentials.” Dropping the basket on the bed, she bounced down next to it.
“Fresh bread.” She pulled out a loaf still warm from the oven. “Some more of that cheese, fruit and some dried meat. I got enough for a couple of days.”
Her smile told him she was mighty pleased with herself. “Thank you. It looks delicious.” He sat down opposite her. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for you to go off by yourself. Anything could happen.”
Taking a bite of an apple, she considered him thoughtfully. “I told you, I can—”
“Take care of yourself. Under normal circumstances I would agree however this situation is not normal.”
“What are you saying? That I
Lucius sighed. “You know you do. There is too much at stake to take any risks.”
“How many battles have you fought, Roman?” Klara was on her feet, her apple forgotten.
He shrugged. “Enough.”
“I’ll wager I’ve fought in more than you. I can defend myself just fine, thank you. I don’t need a wet nurse watching my every move.”
“I wasn’t suggesting you did.” He was on his feet now. “There could be more than one attacker. Look what happened yesterday. How many attacked the night of your wedding? I bet there was more than one man. What makes you think there will only be one next time?”
“That’s unfair!” She stood with her hands balled into fists held stiffly at her side. “I wasn’t even there when the trouble started. I’d taken a walk while Bleda slept. By the time I realized there was trouble it was too late. Otherwise I would have…”
“What? Waded in, sword swinging? Or perhaps you would have taken them out with your bow and arrow?” Suddenly Lucius was possessed with an anger that caused him to tremble with its ferocity. He had to make her understand that these people meant her harm. “Neither you nor Bleda stood a chance. Don’t you see? They waited until they figured you were both at your most vulnerable then they struck. What makes you think they won’t use the same tactic again?”
“You’re assuming Irnik was behind the attack.” Klara raised her chin defiantly. “How do we know it wasn’t some bandits?”
Lucius’ eyebrows shot skyward. “You are kidding me, aren’t you?” He took two steps towards her and grabbed her none too gently by the shoulders. “Princess, yesterday’s attack proved Irnik
behind Bleda’s murder. If he marries you to his son he gets ultimate control of your tribe. Don’t fool yourself into a false sense of security. Bounty hunters found us once, they’ll find us again.”
She stared up at him, a mutinous look upon her face, yet she did not argue with him.
He loosened his grip and rubbed her shoulders softly, drawing circles with his thumbs. “Trust me. You weren’t meant to survive your wedding night,” his voice gentle. Drawing her to him, he wrapped his arms around her protectively. “It’s my job to make sure you survive now.”
Klara rested for a moment against the hard muscles of his chest, letting his closeness, his warmth soothe her anger. On some level he was right, she conceded, Irnik was behind these events and there was no doubt of his ruthlessness. She sighed and rubbed her cheek against his shirt, the gesture the closest she’d come to an apology. Being right about one thing didn’t make him right about
. She still didn’t think she needed his protection. If anything it was the other way around.
Pulling away, she looked up at him. “What about you? You’re in as much danger as I am. Who is going to protect you?”
He smiled. “I can take care—”
“Of yourself. I know.” Stepping back, she put some distance between them. “I’m sorry you’re in the middle of this mess.”
Lucius shrugged. “It’s not your fault, Princess.”
The need to tell him the truth about her wedding night burst over her unexpectedly. Guilt weighed heavily upon her and the next words out of her mouth surprised her as much as him. “Yes it is. I was the one who accused you.”
For a long moment nothing moved in the room except the dust motes which continued their dance oblivious to the storm brewing inside the room.
“You did what?” His voice was low, dangerously low, almost a growl. “Say that again.”
Klara bit her bottom lip and winced, steeling herself for the full force of his anger. “I was the one who accused you of murdering Bleda,” she whispered. “I’m sorry.”
She shut her eyes and waited for him to start yelling or throwing things. Nothing but cavernous silence filled the shabby little hut. Opening one eye she peeked at Lucius. He stood with his back to her, his fists clenched. She reached out to touch his taunt shoulders, and assure him of how sorry she was. At the last moment she pulled away. Instinctively she knew it would be a colossal mistake. The last thing he needed now was her affection. Such a gesture would be a sure way of igniting his fury. So she waited. Lucius spun slowly to face her, his face an icy mask of control. “How could you accuse me of murder? Surely you know me better than that.”