Cymru, AD 51
“I’ll find your daughter.” Nimue unsheathed her dagger and glanced over to Caratacus, where he stood glaring at his warriors. It was obvious the Briton king wanted to stay and fight the barbarous Romans, yet equally clear if he did he would be captured. “Where are you heading?”
“The land of the Brigantes,” one of the warriors said. Nimue gave a brief nod, turned and ran further into the mountain, to where she had last seen Caratacus’s queen and daughter.
She knew of the land of the Brigantes, even if she had never been there. It was in the north, one of the few places left in Britain that had not succumbed to Roman rule.
Would her beloved Cymru succumb, now that the rebellion had failed?
She wouldn’t think of it. Couldn’t think of it. The notion of Romans swarming over her land chilled her blood, sickened her stomach. She tightened her grip on her dagger, crouched low behind concealing rocks and sent desperate prayers to her Goddess, Arianrhod.
Let her find the Briton queen before the enemy does.
Battle-cries split the blood-drenched air, the clash of sword and shield echoed through the mountain passes and the earth vibrated with the relentless march of the Legions. She pushed back her sweaty hair and glanced over her shoulder. For the moment, she was alone. She leaped to her feet, sprinted across the trampled grass to the small stand of trees where, beyond, she hoped the queen still remained along with other non-fighting women in the secluded hollow.
“…choice is yours.” The coarse Latin accent punched through her senses and she froze. She was too late. The Romans had discovered the hiding place. “You or your daughter.”
Heart thudding high in her breast, she edged toward the source of the voice. If there were only one or two legionaries, she might stand a chance. The queen was no warrior and the princess scarcely more than a child, but Nimue’s aim with the arrow was unerring. Stealthily she sheathed her dagger and primed her bow. The trees thinned, and relief scudded through her blood.
Only one filthy legionary loomed over the queen, who shielded her terrified daughter with her body. As the legionary shoved the queen to the ground and prepared to mount her, Nimue let fly with her arrow and bared her teeth in satisfaction as the poisoned tip ripped into the heathen’s vulnerable neck.
His strangled scream ended with a gurgle before she even reached the queen’s side. There was no sign of the other women. Clearly they had fled as the battle approached.
“Where is the king?” The queen pushed herself to her feet and wound her arm around the princess. “We were about to follow the others further up the mountain when that dog accosted us.”
Thank the Goddess they hadn’t left this hollow. Nimue would never have found them otherwise.
“I’m to take you to your king.” She slung her bow over her shoulder and glanced around to ensure they were still alone. But they would not be alone for much longer. “If we make haste we might catch up with them before they leave the mountain.”
“Is the battle over?” The princess, barely twelve summers old, looked at the fallen legionary and shivered.
Nimue reined in her raging impatience to leave this cursed mountain and turned to the girl to offer what comfort she could.
“No. The battle will never be over. Always remember that.”
“The Druid speaks the truth.” The queen smoothed her daughter’s tangled hair back from her face. “Be brave for a little longer. When we rest, she can tend your wound.”
Her wound? Only then did Nimue see the bloodied cloth tied around the girl’s calf and another wave of impatience rolled through her. If only she possessed a sturdier frame, instead of the slender build she had inherited from her mother. While she was fast and agile on her feet and trained brutally to strengthen her muscles, she knew the princess was too big for her to carry any distance. She hoped the injury wouldn’t slow them down.
“We don’t have time to rest.” Her voice was harsh, in an effort to convey how grave the situation was. “Come quickly, before the barbarians smother this mountain.”
Without waiting for a response, or to see if her blunt words caused offense—they were not, after all, her queen or princess—she turned and led the way back through the trees. To her right, further down the mountain, she saw the Romans continued advance. No longer did they hold their shields over them in an impenetrable shell. There was no need. No Celt archers remained behind to rain death on their heads.
There was no time for sorrow, but still the acidic pain clenched deep inside. As she gestured for the queen and princess to crouch low and follow her, she recalled how certain she had been of her people’s victory.
This battle should have been decisive. It should have crushed the enemy underfoot. Caratacus had persuaded them with his vision of triumph to leave the safety of their magical enclave and follow him to this quagmire of devastation.
They should never have left the enclave. They should have stayed, continued with the isolated attacks on the Legions. And she could have continued to unravel the mystery of the Source of Annwyn. The power the great High Druid, Aeron, had harnessed from the cradle of the gods themselves with the help of Gwydion, the greatest of the Magician Gods. The magic Aeron had used, through the sacred bluestones, to conceal his clan of Druids from the invaders.
She ignored the labored breathing of the princess, the hushed encouragement of the queen to continue onward. Of course they had to continue onward. Just as she would continue onward with her quest.
Her fingers instinctively curled around the small leather pouch attached to her belt. After Aeron’s heroic death the immense bluestones that had protected his clan had shattered, catapulting precious shards across Cymru. From those shards a second enclave had been created, a safe haven for the rebels in the midst of their enemy. And just before they had left their retreat, she’d stolen one of the shards and hidden it in her pouch.
This defeat would not deter her. The shards of bluestone had protected and hidden the rebels from the Romans sight, but they were a faint echo of the original magic. Not even the wisest of the Druids had been able to comprehend how it worked. Only that it did. But she would discover how Aeron had manipulated the Source to his will. When she completed her mission she would return to the enclave and pursue the sacred knowledge. Gwydion would not assist her, a lowly acolyte. But, as mighty as he was, he was not the greatest of the gods. Her beloved Arianrhod, the powerful Moon Goddess, surpassed him in wisdom and knowledge. And Arianrhod would assist Nimue so she could follow Aeron’s lead, and eliminate all Romans from the land of her foremothers.
She heard a stumble from behind her, a pained gasp, and then the queen gripped her shoulder and forced her to turn around.
“Druid, we must rest. My daughter is unable to travel any further.”
One glance at the princess confirmed the queen’s words. The girl was pale, sweaty and biting her lip in an effort not to make any sound of discomfort.
Nimue again silently cursed the fact that she didn’t possess the brute warrior strength she craved. They would go no further this day until she had treated the princess’s wound.
“Quickly.” She gestured toward a rocky outcrop. The shallow crevasse it overhung could be easily concealed with the strategic repositioning of a couple of small bushes. As the queen helped her daughter inside, Nimue dragged over a couple of rocks and wedged greenery between them. The camouflage would withstand a cursory glance. She hoped.
She crawled inside the makeshift shelter and made a quick examination of the gash on the princess’s leg. It looked clean enough but still it bled. And the girl certainly needed something for the pain.
What she really needed was to rest the leg, but since that was impossible Nimue pulled her medicine bag over her head, dumped it on the ground and opened it. She could make a dressing for the wound to ensure it remained free of poison, and she could prepare a soothing tea with the last of her water to ease the pain.
She took a calming breath. There was no use railing against fate. They would not catch up with Caratacus now, so she might as well accept the fact she would be taking the queen and her daughter to the land of the Brigantes herself.
“We will stay here until nightfall,” she told them. “The moon will guide our way.” She hadn’t anticipated an overnight journey but the wise Arianrhod, Goddess of the Moon and weaver of the fates, would ensure their safety.
Swiftly, she prepared the pain-relieving tea. How short-sighted of her not to have filled her water skin before the battle began today.
“I need to find a stream.”
“You’re not leaving us?” The queen sounded incredulous.
“I’ll be back directly.” Nimue glanced at the princess, to ensure she had finished the potion. At least now the girl’s discomfort would be dulled. She returned her attention to the queen. “Remain here. The Legions are advancing along another path.” At least that had been her impression when she’d seen them in the distance. Besides, Arianrhod would not have led them to this resting place if danger waited.
Without waiting for further argument she unsheathed her dagger and cautiously left the shelter. Arianrhod was watching over her, but it was always wise to take precautions.
Eventually, Nimue found a stream and as she filled the water skin, her dagger lying across her knees, she looked into the distance, where majestic mountains dominated the far horizon. No sound of battle reached her. No stink of blood or churned earth to give a hint of the devastation that she’d witnessed earlier.
She breathed in great lungfuls of the fresh mountain air, as if it might somehow cleanse the horror of her people’s defeat from her soul. They would rise again. They would rid the enemy from their land. And they would—
An eerie chill trickled along her spine, causing the hair to rise on the back of her neck and arms. Without thinking she leaped to her feet, dagger once again in her hand. But it wasn’t a lone legionary who had caught her so unawares. It was a mounted Roman officer, in a flowing scarlet cloak, with his shield in one hand and sword in the other.
For a moment all she could feel was the erratic thud of her heart in her ears, the uneven gasp of her breath in her throat. The sun dazzled her, glinting off the polished metal of his armor as he stared down at her, and obscurely she noted his impressive biceps, his muscles flexing as he urged his horse forward.
Flee. The command whispered in her mind, faint and insubstantial. But the treacherous rocks on her right, the fast flowing stream at her back and the steep bank on the far side did not offer her a speedy escape. But somehow she had to lead him further away from the queen and princess. Except he had effectively trapped her by the edge of the stream.
Yet even as the weight of her responsibility tormented her conscience, she couldn’t drag her fascinated gaze from the Roman. His face was hard, autocratic, unsmiling. The face of countless Romans, and yet like none she had ever seen before. His eyes were narrowed, his strong jaw shadowed. And the tip of his sword was a mere arm’s length from her face.
“Surrender to the might of the Eagle,” he said in the ancient Celtic language of her people. His voice was deep, sensuous, and dark embers stirred between her thighs, heat licking into her sensitive channel. Shocked, she clenched the muscles of her wet cleft, forcing the sensations aside but still they persisted. Still they penetrated. As if she faced a brave warrior of Cymru instead of a cowardly barbarian of Rome. “And you shall remain unharmed.”
Her palm was sweaty around her dagger and she tightened her grip before it slipped from her grasp. She might not have a chance against this Roman but she would never surrender to him. And she would never willingly give up her weapons, either.
“I would sooner die fighting you,” she said in Latin, just to show him she was no ignorant native of a fractured land. Her mother had taught her the language well. “Than surrender my freedom to your filthy Emperor.”
She had no freedom under Rome. As soon as they discovered she was a Druid, her life would be forfeit. Crucifixion was terrifying enough, but it was the torture she would doubtless endure beforehand that shriveled her soul.
His black stallion whickered, pawed the ground, but the Roman did not break eye contact nor did his sword waver.
“Brave words, little Celt.” Still he spoke in her language, and disbelief unfurled through her breast at the tone of his voice. Did he find her challenge amusing? “But I don’t fight women.”
She ignored the threat of his sword and stepped forward, her dagger on clear display. He had no right to enter her land and then mock her prowess as a warrior. Just because she did not possess the brute strength of a full-grown male didn’t mean she lacked dexterity or speed. She glared up at him, wishing, obscurely, she could see the color of his eyes.
“Why? Are you afraid I may unman you?” Why was she trying to raise his ire? Wouldn’t it make more sense to beg for freedom? Pretend to be a mere peasant, caught up in this revolt? Perhaps, then, he would allow her to escape without persecution?
Even as the thought teased her mind she knew the silver bracelets on her wrists, the torque at her throat and jewels in her ears plainly branded her as anything but a peasant.
For one brief moment the corner of his lips quirked, as if he found her not only amusing but highly entertaining.
“I believe,” his voice was a seductive caress along the naked flesh of her arms, the exposed swell of her breasts. “I am more than man enough for you, Celt.”
What little breath she retained in her lungs evaporated, scorched by the heat his words ignited in her blood. The danger of his sword, the reality of her dagger, faded, insubstantial as a distant dream. All she could see was this Roman, as he looked down his aristocratic nose at her, as though she were a delectable slave he wanted to purchase.
She failed to summon righteous fury at such a thought. She didn’t have the strength. Because she needed all her wits to fight the overpowering urge to drag him from his horse and discover for herself whether he was man enough for her.
Goddess, what was she thinking? She tightened her grip on her dagger and stood her ground by sheer force of her Druidic will. He was a Roman. She would rather die here, impaled on his sword, than give in to such despicable desire.
For one sizzling moment she imagined him impaling her, but it was not with his sword and it was not through her heart. Savage need stabbed low in her womb, splintered through her sheath and trickled with exquisite promise over her clit.
The ugly truth shamed the depths of her being, but it was the truth nevertheless. She wanted him.
She would cut out her tongue before she ever admitted such to another living soul.
“I believe,” her voice was husky, seductive. The tightening of his jaw told her that, despite her resolve, she had failed to hide her illicit interest. “I would need to be dead before you ever had the chance to find out.”
He didn’t lean toward her. He was too proud, too sure of his own superiority and yet he filled her vision. As if nothing else on this mountain existed, and everything beyond was nothing but a bloodied nightmare.
“There would be little fun to be had if you were dead.”
Her mouth dried, pulses hammered. It was inconceivable, unbelievable, but this Roman barbarian was flirting with her. He behaved as though they had met by chance in a marketplace, and not on the edges of a devastating battlefield.
A vague thought fluttered through the outer reaches of her mind. Why did he not attempt to disarm her? One thrust of his sword would end this confrontation. Yet still she couldn’t back away from the danger. Still she couldn’t drag her mesmerized gaze from his compelling face.
She fought the primitive need spiraling through her treacherous body.
“I did not think Romans were so fastidious.” Why did she continue this conversation? Was she truly so desperate to hear his voice once again?
“This Roman,” his voice dropped lower, and liquid heat bathed her core. “Prefers his women to possess a heartbeat. At the very least.” Unbearable. She struggled against the need to press her thighs together. To cup her sex. To rub her aching breasts against this cursed invader’s naked chest.
“And I prefer my men to possess a heart, at the very least.” The words were out before she could stop them. As though she conversed with an equal, one worthy of her time. One worthy of her desire.
She scarcely managed to prevent squirming with shame. Except it wasn’t shame that quivered through her breast or thundered against her skull. It was pure, unbridled lust.
“I possess a heart,” he said. “As you will very soon discover when you lay naked in my arms.” There was no mistake this time. He was mocking her. Yet still she remained rooted to the ground, held by an invisible enchantment. And then he angled his body toward her. A slight movement, but a movement nevertheless. “All you have to do is surrender into my custody.”
She could throw her dagger at his throat. Except she knew she would never have time to aim the deadly thrust before he killed her with his sword. And what would become of the queen and princess then?
“Beware, Roman.” Far from sounding like a threat, she sounded as if she wished her words to caress. “Give me the slightest opportunity and I will carve your corrupt heart from your chest.”
“That sounds,” he paused, considering the matter. “Stimulating.”
Her own heart thudded against her ribs, as if it wished to make its own unorthodox escape from her chest. Her breath tangled in her throat and again the image of him impaling her with his foreign cock flooded her scalding senses.
She almost lost her tenuous grip on her dagger.
“I would never willingly share your bed.” But who was she trying to convince? This Roman? Or herself?
This time his lips curved into a smile of pure decadence. “I will greatly enjoy changing your mind, Celt.”
She tried to drag her gaze from his lips, but failed. How would they taste? How would they feel? When it came to pleasuring the flesh, how talented with his mouth was this arrogant invader?
“Then you are destined for grave disappointment.” But the response was hollow, because it was she who was destined for disappointment. The knowledge disgusted her as much as it confused her. How could she want a Roman? She had despised their race her entire life. She always would. This heat in her blood was nothing more than the aftereffects from the battle. It had nothing to do with the man who still looked at her as if he’d like to strip her naked and intimately examine every flushed particle of flesh she possessed.
“I don’t intend to be disappointed in this matter.” He leaned a little further over his horse, and yet still his sword did not waver. One false move and he could cut her down in an instant. “You will share my bed, and you will enjoy every mindless, ecstatic orgasm I claim from your writhing body.”
Her chest contracted, as if he had reached inside her and squeezed the air from her lungs. His words conjured up a vision so intense, so vivid, she could feel his hands on her body. Could feel the tension screaming through her blood. Could see, on the edges of her sanity, dark fulfillment that would curse her soul forevermore.
Without conscious thought she raised her arm, her dagger a poor defense against his Roman weapon. She did not know what she intended. But in that instant as he looked at her, she saw the color of his eyes. A strange shade of blue, violet, unusual… entrancing. Before she could fully comprehend why she was moving toward him, a blinding pain wrenched through her shoulder, catapulting her backwards to the ground. In that fleeting moment, as incomprehension weaved through her stunned senses, she saw the arrow embedded in her shoulder before her head cracked against something hard and the world turned black.