In first century Spain, a young noblewoman is fleeing a corrupt Druidic priesthood. Aided by a Briton, a deserter from Rome, she must cross the northern provinces if she hopes to survive.
Hispania Tarraconensis, October, AD82.
Marella struggled against her bonds. If they meant to send her to the underworld, she would at least do her best to send his name ahead of her. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” she screamed again, fighting to keep her legs from folding. “Leucetius has to answer for this.”
Even through her desperation his name dragged up bile. It burned against the tight choke of plaited ropes where useless screams had scraped her throat raw. Terror froze her naked flesh, numbing her to all but the desperate need to breathe.
Staggering, slithering down over pebbles and shale, she fought to keep her feet. Holding herself upright against all probability, she managed to turn, managed to fix her fierce hatred onto his shadowed form. Another shove and she would not have the strength to get back up. One more punch and she might surrender to the darkness. “Vile dog,” she hissed. She couldn’t spit. Her mouth was as dry as a crypt.
Beside her, a novice drew a hard fist and slammed it into her stomach.
She crumbled to her knees, her mouth open over air that would not move in or out, and he kicked her into water. In the silent world of asphyxia, she almost smiled.
Her vision was a sepia cloud where the gritty sludge of the riverbank washed into her eyes and mouth, waiting.
Her body heaved and jerked over its effort to drag air into the vacuum left by his blow. When it came, her breath would pull death and water deep into her lungs and her struggle would be forfeit. The harder her body fought for life, the sooner it would end.
If only she had caught Leucetius’ robe, she might have dragged him to meet death with her. But nothing mattered so much now.
Blessed was the child who would never see the sun in any world where he drew breath.
Blessed was the child.
Innocent and blessed.
Drawing the fine strands of hair as he would have drawn fleece, Marcus rolled them through wax between his palms to form a fine cord. Even under the amber influence of the bees, the strand of her hair shone golden, catching the light and holding sunshine in its depths.
Below him on the slopes of the River Iberus, a dozen sheep grazed in peaceful oblivion, hardly needing his attention. The milk cow moved with slow precision, her jaw clacking back against the hollow brass at her neck to mark her progress. Beside her was her calf, and Marc’s single store bullock stood, staring back to meet his gaze.
“You’ll be meat soon enough, my friend,” he said, almost to himself.
There was little enough cause to speak since his wife’s death, and the animals asked him no difficult questions. Above him, the long spine of the mountain marched away from the weakening sun, shining gold through its usual coat of silver dust and sparse grey foliage. Behind him, Max, the great mountain dog, lay beside his son, drooling while it watched the child eat corn cake.
As he rolled the precious lock of her hair into a fine twisted thread, Marc smiled at the idiot expression on the dog’s face. Its rough cream coat ruffled in the late autumn breezes, trembling as if the wind itself encouraged the pursuit of a biscuit.
Marc gave a short whistle that brought the dog from its trance to his knee. From the riverside, the bitch, too, came at a steady lope to sit at her master’s foot. The child looked up from his snack, gathered up his carved wooden horse, and ran after the dog to his father’s side.
The sky was colouring toward evening. It was time to take the stock back to the pens and the boy in for a meal.
Life went on.