Authors: Eva Scott
“That’s just the thing, I didn’t know you.” Klara spread her hands in helpless gesture. “All I knew is what I saw.”
“My coat.” He folded his arms across his chest.
“You’ve got to admit the coat is a damning piece of evidence.”
“I don’t have to admit anything, Princess. I did nothing more than lose my coat in a game of chance. You, on the other hand, claimed to have witnessed me murdering someone I’d never even met!” He took a step towards her, finger raised in admonishment. Klara winced again. “I’m not going to hit you,” he said wearily running his hand through his hair.
“I never thought you would. I just don’t like being yelled at.
yelled at,” she added as his eyebrows shot up. “I deserve to be yelled at.”
“How could you misjudge me so?” He looked more disappointed than angry.
“I didn’t know you.”
“We’d met that afternoon. I had time to draw an impression of you,” he said as if their kiss was all the character reference needed.
“Lucius, one kiss doesn’t tell me if you’re a man of integrity. In fact, it could be argued that stealing kisses from an unsuspecting maiden lacks certain integrity. My wedding night was horrible and I drew the only logical conclusion I could.”
“You should have trusted me,” he said stubbornly, his jaw set tight with anger.
Klara sighed. “You were a stranger and you are…”
“I am what?” Lucius’ eyes narrowed suspiciously.
“You are Roman. There, I’ve said it.” She threw up her hands. “What self-respecting Hun woman trusts a Roman man at first sight?”
“I can’t believe you said that. I trusted you.”
“Yes but you’re a man. You’re in a perfect position to trust any woman. Things are a little more complicated on my side of things. I’ve found most men regardless of race to be entirely untrustworthy.”
He snatched his belt from the end of the bed and strapped it on. “I’m going out.”
“Where are you going?” Panic began to rise in Klara’s throat. What if he left and never came back?
“Out. I need to think.” Lucius opened the door and strode through, slamming it behind him.
Klara slumped on the bed, defeated. Not only had she managed to hurt him with her betrayal, she had gone on to wound him with her words. There was no denying since he’d met her she’d managed to get him into more trouble than any man deserved. She was no good for him. If he stayed with her there was a very good chance he’d end up dead and it would be her fault. That was something she was not prepared to live with. The thought of Lucius suffering because of her caused her throat to constrict and tears spring unbidden to her eyes. Was this what love felt like? This need to keep someone safe from harm?
Drawing her knees up to her chin, Klara sat on the bed and did some serious thinking. Her next course of action had to be chosen carefully. If they stayed together they were two plump pigeons ripe for the taking. If they separated there would be a chance they’d both survive. This fight was her fight, not his. Lucius had done nothing to deserve the mess he was in, except kiss her. It was up to her to fix the problem.
Sliding off the bed she began to put her things into her pack. She had to go home and tell her father the truth about that night, put things right. Rugila had to know what Irnik was plotting and his involvement in Bleda’s murder. Together they could face Irnik and end this nonsense. Without her around Lucius would be safe. Perhaps after it was all finished she could travel to Rome and find him?
Tying her roll up Klara slung it over one shoulder. Taking a good look around the room, her eyes lingered on the rumpled bed. How different things might have been. If only she had met Lucius earlier. Sighing, she pushed open the door and stepped outside.
By the time Lucius circled around back to where he started a sort of calm had replaced his turmoil. He had no idea how long he’d walked for, his limbs stiff with anger. How could she make such a mistake about him? True, there were extenuating circumstances which might easily lead someone to think it was him. He’d concede that point. Yet it hurt to think Klara had misjudged him so, no matter how irrational the thought. Pounding through the woods behind the motley village gave vent to his emotions.
Klara knew the truth now and would vouch for his character. Of that he was sure. What they had to do was keep ahead of Irnik’s bounty hunters. If they could get to the coast Lucius knew a courier he could trust to get a message to Rugila. The Hun chieftain could sort out his issue with Irnik while Lucius took Klara to the safety of Rome. It was the only way. They were in this together now and together they’d work it out.
Satisfied with his plan, he made his way back to the hut. After they made up their argument, had some breakfast, they could get back on the road. There was no time to lose. Pushing open the door he stepped inside. Klara wasn’t there. He looked around the room. This time it was different—there was no trace of her. She was gone.
Klara dug her heels into her horse’s ribs in an effort to increase its speed but her horse was having none of it and continued to trot along at its own pace.
“Stubborn, ridiculous creature! Don’t think I’m above trading you in for a proper horse the minute we get to Aquicum.” The animal snorted and proceeded to ignore her entreaties. Giving up, Klara turned her attention to formulating her plan.
Ultimately, she needed to get home to her father and tell him what she knew. There was no reason why she shouldn’t stop in Aquicum and see if there was any trace of the third attacker, last seen running down the road with a bad case of nettle itch. She needed to convince her father she wasn’t imagining things. A confession from her attacker confirming Irnik was behind events would do the trick. She expected Rugila might be reluctant to listen to her story after she’d made such a spectacular mistake accusing Lucius of murder. And she wouldn’t blame him.
The early morning sunshine had given over to clouds in ominous shades of grey, packed tightly together and heavily laden with rain. They matched her mood. Leaving before Lucius had returned left a sour taste in her mouth. Had she waited she knew there was little chance she would have left him at all. How easy it would have been to stay, to climb back into the bed and never leave! Unless she sorted out the mess she’d made Klara knew neither of them would ever be safe. Hardening her resolve against the uncertainty of her heart she slapped her ugly little horse on the rump, startling it into increasing its pace.
Big fat drops of rain fell in measured rhythm, sending up little clouds of dust where they fell. Before long the tempo increased and Klara struggled to see for the water dripping into her eyes. Reluctantly she slowed her pace being unable to afford an injury to her horse in the slick conditions. While the main roads leading to the great city of Rome were paved the one Lucius had chosen for them to travel was not. There was always the possibility of taking shelter under the trees by the roadside but being dry seemed less important than getting to Aquicum. Besides, a little rain never hurt anyone.
Trudging along, the water began to trickle annoyingly down her back and Klara caught the sound of a cart coming towards her. Cautiously, she guided her horse off the road and concealed them both behind a large bush. The foliage was scrubby and anyone paying attention would spot her easily. She was counting on the rain being a diverting factor. It wasn’t long before the cart came into view. Holding her breath she watched as it trundled towards her.
The cart was a large closed in box with small high windows cut into its side. She’d never seen anything like it and wondered what the two men driving it could be transporting. As it drew nearer she could hear the men speaking.
“Shut up in there! Don’t make me come back there and shut you up.” The larger of the two banged his fist on the side of the cart. “Why won’t some slaves just accept their lot?” he asked his companion, a wiry creature with a large hairy wart on one cheek.
“It’s the natural order of thing,” Warty said. “Some are made to rule and other to serve. Everyone knows that.”
“Never a truer word spoken.” Fat Man wiped his face on his sleeve. “Give ‘em a few days and they’ll get used to it. It’s always rough for the new ones.”
“Give ‘em a few beatings more like.” Warty chuckled at his own joke. “Tell you what, there’s one or two I’d give more than a beating if you get my meaning.” The skinny man nudged his companion in the ribs and the two of them set off into peals of laughter.
“We can’t touch the young ones, mind. Too valuable as virgins. But there’s no reason why we can’t sample the older wares.” Fat Man flicked the reins on the back of the tired looking horse which made no indication it had noticed.
“Now you’re talking.” Warty rubbed his hands together in delight. “Get out of this rain, a good feed, some wine and a bit of
. Sounds good to me.”
As Klara listened her blood began to boil. There were women inside the cart that much was perfectly clear. Perhaps even young girls. While slavery might be a fact of life, especially in war where the losing side often ended up enslaved, Klara hated the idea of being owned. What made these women any different to her? The thought of either of these stinking, shabby men raping the unseen women propelled her hand to the hilt of her sword.
As far as she could make out neither man carried a weapon and there were only two of them.
. She could finish them off, free the women and be on her way before the shower of rain stopped. With supreme confidence she tied her horse to the bush and stepped out into the road.
Fat Man pulled the horse up with a jerk, causing his cargo to protest loudly. “For the love of Jove, shut up!” he yelled over his shoulder before turning his attention to Klara. “What do we have here?”
“Looks like you’re a long way from home, missy. Lost or something?” Warty leered down from his perch on the cart.
Klara stood, legs apart, arms akimbo, quietly studying the two men. Rain trickled down her face and she ignored it. Let these two idiots think she was a lost lamb. The mistake would suit her purposes well.
“Maybe she can’t understand you,” said Fat Man.
“Maybe. She’d obviously not from around here. What do you reckon? Runaway slave?”
Fat Man shrugged. “Does it matter? Let’s bundle her into the back and be on our way. One more won’t hurt and who’s going to miss her?”
“Brilliant idea,” said Warty, climbing down from the cart.
understand them. Her father had made sure she was educated in Latin as the Roman Empire encroached ever closer. The vulgar Latin that Warty and Fat Man spoke wasn’t hard to decipher. She drew her sword as Warty approached.
“Whoa!” Warty threw his hands up. “Looks like we’ve got a live one here.” He stepped back towards the relevant comfort of the cart. “What shall we do with her?”
Fat Man sighed. “Only one thing to do. Arcius! Get around here and sort this out would you?”
Warty snorted. “You’re in for it now, missy.”
Klara held her ground. They didn’t frighten her in the least.
“Arcius! I bet the brute has fallen asleep again.” Fat Man hefted himself down from the cart with much grunting. “Arcius!” he bellowed.
Klara took that moment to strike. Raising her sword high she rushed towards Warty who let out a high pitched scream, turned tail and ran. She followed him as he headed towards the back of the cart. As she rounded the corner she came face to face with the biggest man she had ever seen.
The village headman had wasted a valuable chunk of time with his inane chatter. Lucius had longed to give the man a piece of his mind and ride off. Only the need to maintain the illusion he was a simple man looking for work stopped him. Irnik’s men would be looking for a trader or a merchant. By the time he managed to free himself of the village rain was falling thickly. He hoped it slowed Klara down and gave him enough time to catch up to her. Figuring she’d make for Aquicum first in the hope of tracking down their attackers he set out in that direction. She couldn’t be far ahead.
If only she’d waited for him! Lucius slammed his fist into his thigh with frustration. Of course Klara wouldn’t wait. She’d get some idea into her head and off she’d go. Isn’t that how they ended up in this mess in the first place? A smile broke across his face. Isn’t that how they ended up together?
The muddy road sucked at his horse’s hooves, the only sound in the damp stillness. He swept his eyes from side to side hoping to catch a glimpse of her waiting out the rain under a tree. The intensity of the rain increased. The horse shook its ears in annoyance and Lucius pulled his coat tighter to him. His hair was plastered to his head and water dripped in his eyes. In that moment he wished for a cloak, the kind his countrymen wore rather than the thick coat he favoured.
As he rounded a bend he saw a cart lurching towards him. One glance was enough to tell him they were slavers. Variations of the cart appeared all over the Empire. Lucius gripped the reins and moved over to let them pass. His mother was a once a slave and the thought of what she’d lived through galled him. She’d been lucky, having been freed by his father and ensconced in a well-provisioned home. He often doubted she was truly free.
He nodded at the miserable looking pair perched on the cart. The fat one nodded back while the skinny one shot him a suspicious look before disappearing under the brim of his hat. Lucius pulled his horse up and watched the cart go by. It rocked alarmingly from side to side on the uneven road. He wondered how many poor wretches were packed inside. As the cart trundled past he saw an enormous bear of a man sitting idly against the well secured doors. Lucius knew then they carted women. Fine looking women who would fetch a pretty price at market. Circassians were always popular for their refined looks and luscious hair. He should know, his mother was Circassian.
Encouraging his horse forward on to the road once more, Lucius turned his back on the slaver cart and continued towards Aquicum. Perhaps he should have asked the slavers if they’d seen Klara. Slavers were often unwilling to chat to strangers in his experience and he doubted Klara would let herself be seen. There was too much at stake. Wiping the rain from his face he kicked his horse into a trot, determined to get to Aquicum before dark.