The forest was quiet. Too quiet. Her horse shifted in clear unease and Morwyn glanced at her three companions.
“What do you see?” Einion’s voice was hushed.
What did she see? Did they think her a seer, a tool of their cursed goddess, the Morrigan?
She half expected an unearthly fire to consume her for her treacherous thoughts, but none did. She loosened her grip on the reins and took a deep breath.
Her companions believed in her powers. It was the reason they’d left the Isle of Mon and ventured with her back into the occupied territories of their beloved Cymru.
If she were successful in her quest to discover the heart of the rebellion, they would return to the Druid sanctuary and tell the others. She wasn’t the only one who longed to fight for freedom rather than hide in sacred groves dedicated to cowardly gods. And then a great army of Druids would join the displaced Briton king Caratacus, who was causing such disruption to the despised Roman Legions.
“Caratacus is close.” She knew that, and it had nothing to do with visions from the gods. She no longer had visions. No matter what her fellow Druids might think. Her knowledge was based on information gleaned from those who had arrived on Mon over the last few moons, and her resolve to join the insurgents had strengthened when Gawain left the isle to stand by the Catuvellauni king.
A sharp pain speared through her breast, raw and savage, jagged with guilt, as she recalled Gawain. The man who had loved her. The man she had tried so hard to love in return, but never had.
Because her heart had belonged to another.
Her grip tightened on the reins. She would avenge Gawain’s death with the last breath in her lungs and the last drop of blood in her veins. He had loved her, and he deserved nothing less from her.
She would never succumb as a slave of Rome. She’d rather a glorious death in the midst of battle, securing the freedom of her people.
“How close?” Drustan, another young Druid and, like both Einion and Morcant, not yet fully trained, glanced around the edge of the glade as if expecting the Briton to miraculously appear before them.
They expected her to proclaim a sign. She was the most senior Druid here, and yet even she hadn’t finished her training before the bloodied invasion had devastated their existence. But no older Druid from Mon had wanted to take the chance of returning to Cymru without solid, irrefutable proof of where, precisely, the Briton king commanded his rebels.
No light summer breeze rustled the leaves on the looming trees. The air hung heavy and still as if waiting for the wheel of life to turn, to irretrievably alter her course forever.
An eerie shiver inched along her spine and chills scuttled over her arms, raising the fine hairs. Instinctively she curled her fingers around the jewel-encrusted dagger secured at her waist. She no longer believed in her gods and no longer received their signs, and the only thing that was about to change was that Rome would discover her mistake in enslaving Cymru.
Wind rushed, barely a handbreadth from her face, and Einion lurched from his
horse, an arrow embedded in his throat. For one agonizing moment Morwyn froze as she watched him slide to the tangled undergrowth, shock glazing his dying eyes, before her warrior training and self-preservation kicked hard in her gut.
She swung her horse around, rejecting her dagger in favor of her spear, as a handful of riders emerged from the concealing trees. This isn’t the way Romans fight. But she had no time to curse their tactics nor berate her lack of foresight as the forest erupted with Druid war cries, barbarian yells and the frenzied snorts and thundering of attacking horses.
Sweat and blood and the stench of fear from animal and man drenched the air. They were outnumbered. But not outmatched. Morwyn drove her spear upward at an angle, pierced through the shapeless mail shirt worn by the enemy, and scarlet pumped over his scale armor, staining man and beast and trampled forest floor.
Savage satisfaction pounded through her veins as he opened his mouth in a silent scream. They would teach these Romans to ambush them, to take them by surprise, to—
Her breath punched from her lungs as something slammed into her back, pushing her forward, dangerously close to impaling her breast on the blunt end of her spear. And then she was falling, with the loathsome weight on top of her, and she hit the ground with bone-splintering force.
“Fucking barbarian bitch.” He hissed in Latin, his mouth by her ear as she tried not to suffocate on the churned and bloodied earth that pressed against her cheek and nose and mouth. “Teach you to respect your masters.”
Muscles tensed as he ripped her gown from her neck, exposing her back to the elements and the accompanying jeers of the remainder of the enemy. Where were Drustan and Morcant? Had they perished? Was she the only one left?
Nausea rolled through her stomach and clogged her throat. She was willing to die for her people, but she’d envisaged a great and glorious battle, not an insignificant skirmish. Not degradation and rape. Panic gripped her, paralyzing her reflexes. Don’t let them sense my weakness. She was a warrior and she wouldn’t dishonor her people by begging for mercy. She blocked out the obscenities being thrown her way and stealthily reached for her dagger.
Brennus rode through the forest, taking unseen paths and hidden tracks so there was no possibility of the Legion’s auxiliary exploratores discovering an unwary passage to the stronghold of the mighty Caratacus.
If the Legion discovered who Bren truly was, even crucifixion would be considered too easy a death. But he had no intention of letting the Roman bastards discover his true identity, not until it was too late for them to do anything about it.
Not until their Roman blood drenched the earth and the conquered lands were free once again.
Within moments of leaving the hidden enclave he heard the unmistakable sounds of battle ahead and pulled up short. He couldn’t be seen. By now, he should already be across the border on his way to the Roman headquarters at Camulodunon—Camulodunum—in Britain, one hundred and sixty miles to the east, to deliver a military dispatch. The dispatch he’d just smuggled to his king.
Something drew him closer. Trees thinned, and he caught sight of the very exploratores he served with. The battle—such as it had been—was over. From the coarse comments it was clear a woman had been taken captive and they weren’t wasting any time before enjoying their spoils.
His gut tightened with distaste. To preserve his deception he had, in the past, fought in the line of duty to Rome, even slaughtered compatriots. Sacrifice a few to ensure the freedom of many. War was a bitch and casualties a fact of life. Warriors knew the odds—defeat or victory.
Today, that small band of Celtic warriors had paid the ultimate price.
He jerked his horse around and prepared to head deeper into the forest. But fetid memories clawed through his soul and phantom screams of agony pierced his brain and shredded his heart. Mercy begged for and denied. Compassion trampled underfoot and the sour stench of spilled blood scorched his throat.
Futile rage seared his veins and momentarily blinded his vision as the foul recollections scalded his reason. Within a moment he regained control, regained his senses, and against every logical, tactical instinct he urged his mount toward the others.
The woman might be a warrior trained for battle, but he still couldn’t stomach the thought of her being brutalized before butchered.
So engrossed in humiliating their victim, not one of the scouts turned at his approach. A cursory glance disproved his earlier supposition, and a fresh wave of disgust roiled through his blood.
These Celts were no warriors. They were traders.
Bren dismounted and shoved the nearest man from his path.
“Dunmacos,” the man said, using the hated name Bren had appropriated three torturous years ago. “Just in time for a turn with the Cambrian whore.”
“After me,” Trogus grunted, as he hunched over the partially naked woman. “Turn over, bitch, or I’ll fuck your arse instead.”
She wasn’t crying in fear, or begging for mercy. She was so silent for a moment Bren thought her already dead. Until he saw her fingers curl around the handle of her dagger.
He thrust Trogus aside, dropped to his knees and gripped her wrist in a bone-crushing vise. If she used her weapon on the other man there would be no saving her. Instantly her face lifted from the dirt, and infuriated, dark eyes flashed at him.
Something hard punched through his chest, as if he’d just ridden full pelt into a stone turret. Even covered in filth and blood the woman’s strong Celtic beauty glowed through, condemning him for daring to touch her. For denying her the satisfaction of using her dagger.
“Get out the fucking way, Dunmacos.” Trogus gave the woman’s thigh a brutal kick, and she winced but still didn’t make a sound. Her eyes never left Bren’s. “You can go next, if I leave anything worth having.”
He didn’t loosen his grip on her wrist. She didn’t loosen her hold on her dagger.
“No.” He didn’t bother looking up at Trogus. “I claim this one. And in return I won’t advise the praefectus you attacked and murdered a group of traders.” Only then did he glance up and catch the furious gleam in Trogus’ lust-glazed eyes. “I never came across you.”
Trogus hissed between clenched teeth, but there was nothing to discuss. Bren outranked him. Outranked all of the exploratores here. And that wasn’t all. The praefectus of their auxiliary unit trusted him implicitly.
As much as any Roman would trust a foreigner.
“Take her, then.” Trogus spat on the ground and looked as if he’d like to kick her again. Instead he flung Bren a smoldering glare as if something had just occurred to him. “What are you doing here?”
“Dispatches. I’ll take the woman to warm my bed at nights.”
“She’ll butcher you in your sleep.” The sneer Trogus arrowed his way suggested he’d very much like to witness such an occurrence. “We’ll take the goods as compensation. Unless you have any objection, Dunmacos?” It was a covert threat. Any other time Bren would have risen to the challenge but right now another challenge glared at him from the ground.
Not that he’d let Trogus get away with such insolence entirely. “Take all but the woman’s personal items. I don’t want to have to purchase another gown for her.”
As the scouting party rifled through the traders’ packs, Bren leaned toward the woman and spoke in the local dialect.
“Drop your dagger.”
Beneath his fingers he felt her grip tighten, although he knew the pressure he exerted around her wrist was close to shattering bones. But she made no other movement, as if realizing that, for the moment, her best chance of unmolested survival was by lying low and remaining still.
Within moments, the exploratores had claimed their spoils and were leading the riderless horses away, back to the garrison. With little effort he rolled the woman onto her back, holding her wrists above her head. It would be easy to break a bone, give her no choice but to abandon her dagger. How much more satisfying, though, should she decide to discard it of her own free will . . .
“Drop your weapon, and I give you my word you’ll remain unharmed.”
Her lips parted. Full, luscious. Inviting. Without warning, his cock pulsed, a sharp reminder of how long it had been since he’d taken a woman, how long it had been since he’d even enjoyed solitary relief.
“Roman coward.” Her voice was breathless, her Latin accented but clearly educated. Enticing tendrils of luxuriant black hair escaped her braid and framed her dirt- and blood-smeared face. “Your word means nothing to me.”
“I’m no Roman.” He answered her in the same language and kneed her thighs apart, bracing his weight on forearms and knees, trying yet failing to smother his unwelcome arousal. Gods, he wanted her. The contemptible need pounded through his arteries, vibrated against his temples. “I’m from Gaul.”
Her lips curled back, exposing white, unbroken teeth. “Then you’re worse. A spineless mercenary for their gutless Emperor.”
For a moment Morwyn thought she’d pushed him too far. His eyes, an extraordinary shade that reminded her of new leaves unfurling, glinted with danger and his fingers tightened around her tender wrists.
But she wanted to push him too far. Wanted him to lose control, just for an instant, so she could plunge her dagger into his heart and escape this ignoble fate.
Instead, his odious erection brushed against her and she tensed, waiting for the inevitable attack, waiting for a scalding surge of revulsion to flood her captured flesh. But he made no further move to mortify her, his gaze roaming over her face as if he were memorizing every tiny detail.
Her terror ebbed and it made no sense. Like the others who had attacked her he was her sworn enemy. A man intent on rape and humiliation. Yet he held her only to prevent her from inflicting a deadly injury.
“Be wary.” His breath singed her lips but it wasn’t foul, wasn’t repulsive. “Such careless words can be mistaken for treason.”
His green eyes scorched her. His muscular body pinned her helplessly against the undergrowth of the forest floor. A desperate, despicable part of her longed to feel the hardness of male strength thrust deep inside as he took her violently, mindlessly, so she could forget, for a few fleeting moments, everything but exquisite physical pleasure.
But she had sworn never to take another man again. Never again worship the goddess who had manipulated her loyalty, betrayed her trust and scorned her love.
The Morrigan could suffer her abstinence. Morwyn would honor her vow of celibacy, the vow she’d made the night her entire world had shattered.
“I would never betray my people. Your Emperor doesn’t have my loyalty.”
He closed the small distance between them, broad chest flattening her sensitive breasts and aching nipples, his chain mail serving only to accentuate every ragged breath he took.
“Who are you, Celt?” There was command in the question and a spark of warning pierced through the heavy thud of arousal.
She would succumb to no man. Would never bow before the invaders of her land. But if this Gallic bastard, a mercenary for Rome, didn’t mean to kill her outright, there was chance for escape.
A chance that would vanish instantly should he discover her true origins.
The Emperor hated Druids, afraid of the spiritual power they held over their people. Since that night, a full turn of the wheel ago, when the great goddess, the Morrigan, and Arawn, the lord of the Otherworld—when all their gods— had deserted them and they had fled to the Isle of Mon, his hatred had grown. Fractured reports had reached them of the merciless slayings. That was why when she and the others left Mon they hid their Druidry and disguised themselves as traders.
Such subterfuge hadn’t saved the lives of Einion, Drustan or Morcant. But it might possibly extend hers.
“You know what I am.”
Silence, as if he contemplated her words. “Traders.” He paused and raked his eyes over her face. She held her breath, willing her pulses to slow, but if anything, they hammered more rapidly than before. Then he glanced above her head, at the exquisitely crafted gold bracelets that adorned her wrists. She hoped he had no idea of their true value. No trader could afford to wear such riches. Why did I insist on wearing them? “From where?”
She flexed numb fingers around her dagger, then gripped it more securely when she felt his hold upon her wrist momentarily lighten. Her limbs were deadening but if he gave her the slenderest of opportunities, she wouldn’t hesitate to slash open his throat.
“Why? So you can send your band of Gallic mercenaries to slaughter more innocents?”
“No. So I can verify your words.”
If she directed him to a nearby village, would he truly spend time discovering if she spoke the truth or not? She doubted it. He was delivering dispatches for the military. He’d told the filthy dogs who’d ambushed her he intended to use her to warm his bed during the journey.
And he was alone. No, he wouldn’t waste time verifying her word when her word was of no account, when all he saw when he looked at her was a woman he could use for sexual satisfaction.
“Two days’ ride west. I’ll tell you no more than that.”
His eyes narrowed as if he didn’t believe her. “And where were you heading?”
Her gaze didn’t waver. “To the new Roman fortification. The civilian settlement is always hungry for our goods.”
From somewhere deeper in the forest a wood warbler’s shivering song shattered the taut silence. Before she realized his intention his forearm pinned hers securely to the ground, bringing the length of his body against hers. Heavy, masculine. How long had it been since she’d been crushed beneath a man, since she’d been held, touched, wanted?
The grip around her wrist increased beyond endurance but still she held on, despite the stabbing pains, despite the way her vision flickered. He’d have to kill her before she relinquished the only weapon she possessed.
With his free hand he prized her deadened fingers from the hilt of her dagger and she could do nothing to stop him. His body enslaved her from ankles to thighs, hips to breasts, and now that he gripped her dagger, he released her throbbing wrist.
She panted into his dark, foreign face. A face that wasn’t Roman, but beneath his helmet he had the hated Roman military hair. Short, stark. Nothing to grip in lust or fury.
“What are you waiting for?” She flung the words at him in her own language. “Take me and have done with it.”
Rape was abhorrent to her people. To their gods. And especially to the Morrigan. She’d endure his assault because there was nothing else she could do, but it would mean nothing. It wouldn’t touch her. Wouldn’t break her.
And by the sacred blood of all her ancestors, she’d find a way to slaughter him afterward.
For a long moment their eyes clashed. His cock seared her, despite the barrier of his tunic and her ruined gown before he raised himself onto his hands, his groin still melded with hers.
Curse her despised gods, but how she would relish plunging her dagger into him, castrating him before ending his miserable, misbegotten existence.
He rolled off her, kneeled beside her and contemplated her as if she were his own personal property. She refused to smooth down her crumpled gown or wipe her hair and filth from her face. Let him look long and hard at how his compatriots had mistreated her.
“I’ve no intention of taking you in the open forest, Celt, where anyone could stumble upon us.” He raked his glance over her and she gritted her teeth. “I’ll wait until you beg me.”