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FINGERS CRAMPING AND shoulders aching from having wielded the pitchfork all day, Rhyddes ferch Rudd tossed another load of hay onto the wagon. Sweat trickled down her back, making the lash marks sting. Marks inflicted by her father, Rudd, the day before because eighteen summers of anguish finally had goaded her into speaking her mind.
Mere physical pain couldn't compare with the ache wringing her heart.
Her father despised her.
She slid a glance toward the author of her mood. He stood a few paces away, leaning upon his pitchfork's handle in the loaded wagon's shade to escape the July heat as he conversed with her oldest brother, Eoghan. She couldn't discern their words, but their easy camaraderie spoke volumes her envy didn't want to hear.
Her father's gaze met hers, and he lowered his eyebrows. "Back to work, Rhyddes!" On Rudd's lips, her name sounded like an insult.
In a sense, it was.
Her name in the Celtic tongue meant "freedom," but the horse hitched to the hay wagon enjoyed more freedom than she did. Her tribe, the Votadins, had been conquered by the thieving Romans, who demanded provisions for their troops, fodder for their mounts, women for their beds and coin to fill the purses of every Roman who wasn't a soldier.
And if those conditions weren't bad enough, for all the kindness her father had demonstrated during her first two decades, Rhyddes may as well have been born a slave.
She scooped up more hay. Resentment-fired anger sent wisps flying everywhere, much of it sailing over the wagon rather than landing upon it.
"Hey, mind what you're doing!"
Owen, her closest brother in age and in spirit, emerged from the wagon's far side, hay prickling his hair andtunic like a porcupine. Rhyddes couldn't suppress her laugh. "Tis an improvement. Just wait till the village lasses see you."
"Village lasses, hah!" Sporting a wicked grin, Owen snatched up a golden fistful, flung it at her and dived for her legs.
They landed in the fragrant hay and began vying mightily for the upper hand, cackling like a pair of witless hens. When Owen thought he'd prevailed, Rhyddes twisted and rolled from underneath him. Her fresh welts stung, but she resolved not to let that deter her. He lost his balance and fell backward. She pounced, planting a knee on his chest and pinning his wrists to the ground over his head.
Victory's sweetness lasted but a moment. Fingers dug into her shoulders, and she felt herself hauled to her feet and spun around. Owen's face contorted to chagrin as he scrambled up.
"Didn't get enough of the lash yestermorn, eh, girl?" Rudd, his broad hands clamped around her upper arms, gave her a teeth-rattling shake.
When she didn't respond, he turned his attention upon Owen. "And as for you"
"Da, please, no!" Rhyddes stopped herself. Well she knew the futility of pleading with Rudd. Still, for Owen's sake, she had to try. Her father's scowl dared her to continue. She swallowed the lump that had formed in her throat. "Twas not Owen's fault. I" Sweat freshened the sting on her back, and she winced. "The fault is naught but mine."
Rudd eyed her for an interminable moment. "Aye, that I can well believe." He grasped each sibling by an arm and strode across the hayfield toward the family's lodge. "Owen can watch you take his lashes as well as yours. We'll see if that won't mend his ways." The thin linen of her ankle-length tunic failed to shield her from his fingers, which had to be leaving bruises. Rhyddes gritted her teeth. Rudd seemed disappointed. "I doubt anything in this world or the next will make you mend yours."
"You don't want me to change. You'd lose your excuse to beat me." Sheer impertinence, she knew, but she no longer cared.
"I need no excuses, girl."
The back of his hand collided with her cheek. Pain splintered into a thousand needles across her face. She reeled and dropped to her hands and knees, her hair obscuring her vision in a copper cascade. Hay pricked her palms. Owen would have helped her rise, but their father restrained him. He blistered the ground with his glare, obviously not daring to turn it upon Rudd for fear of earning the same punishment.
Not that Rhyddes could blame him.
Rudd yanked her up, cocked a fist...and froze. "Raiders!" Rhyddes turned. And wished she hadn't. Picts were charging from the north to converge upon their farm, their battle cries growing louder under the merciless afternoon sun. One of the storage buildings had already been set ablaze, its roof thatch marring the sky with thick black smoke.
Rudd shed his shock and sprinted for the living compound, calling his children by name to help him defend their home: Eoghan, Ian, Bloeddwyn, Arden, Dinas, Gwydion, Owen.
Every child except Rhyddes.
Determined not to let that stop her, she ran to the wagon, unhitched the horse, found her pitchfork, scrambled onto the animal's back and kicked him into a jolting canter. The stench of smoke strengthened with each stride. Her mount pinned back his ears and wrestled her for control of the bit, but she bent the frightened horse to her will. She understood how he felt.
As they loped past the cow byre, a Pict leaped at them, knocking Rhyddes from the horse's back. The ground jarred the pitchfork from her grasp. The horse galloped toward the pastures. Frantically, Rhyddes fumbled for her dagger. Although her brothers had taught her how to wield it in a fight, until now she'd used it only to ease dying animals from this world.
But the accursed dagger wouldn't come out of the hilt. Sword aloft, the Pict closed in.
Time distorted, assaulting Rhyddes with her attacker's every detail: the lime-spiked hair, the weird blue symbols smothering face and arms, the wickedly sharp sword, the ebony leather boots and leggings, the breastplate tooled to fit female curves.
The warrior-woman's sword began its deadly descent. From the corner of her eye Rhyddes saw her pitchfork. Grunting, she rolled toward it, praying desperately to avoid her attacker's blow.
Her left arm stung where the sword grazed it, but she managed to reach her pitchfork and scrambled to her feet, thankful for the shaft's familiar solidity. Unexpected eagerness flooded her veins.
As the Pict freed her weapon from where it had embedded in the ground, Rhyddes aimed the pitchfork and lunged. The tines hooked the warrior-woman's sword, and Rhyddes twisted with all her strength. The Pict yelped as the sword ripped from her hand to go flying over the sty's fence. Squealing urgently, the sow lumbered for cover, trying to wedge her bulk under the trough.
With a savage scream, the warrior-woman whipped out a dagger and charged. Rhyddes reversed the pitchfork and jammed its butt into the Pict's gut, under the breastplate's bottom edge, robbing her of breath. Quickly she reversed it again and caught her under the chin with the pitchfork's tines. As the woman staggered backward, flailing her arms and flashing the red punctures that marred her white neck, Rhyddes struck hard and knocked her down.
The warrior-woman looked heavier by at least two stones, but Rhyddes pinned her chest with her knee, hoping it would suffice. She dropped the pitchfork and grasped her dagger, thankful that it slid free this time. Grabbing a fistful of limed hair, she jerked the woman's head to one side to expose her neck.
The Pict bucked and twisted mightily, trying to break Rhyddes's grip. "Twas not much different than wrestling a fever-mad calf.
Rhyddes's deft slice ended the threat.
Blood spurted from the woman's neck in sickening pulses. Rhyddes stood, panting, her stomach churning with the magnitude of what she'd done. "Twas no suffering animal she'd killedand it just as easily could have been her lying there, pumping her lifeblood into the mud.
Bile seared her throat, making her gag. Pain lanced her stomach. Bent double, she retched out the remains of her morning meal, spattering the corpse.
After spitting out the last bitter mouthful and wiping her lips with the back of her hand, she drew a deep breath and straightened. As she slowly turned in a full circle, her senses taking in the sights and sounds and stench of the devastation surrounding her, she wished she had not prevailed.
The news only grew worse as she sprinted toward the lodge. Of her seven brothers, the Picts had left Ian and Gwydion dead, her father and Owen wounded, the lodge and three outbuildings torched. She ran a fingertip over the crusted blood of her wound. It was scarcely more than a scratch, and she couldn't suppress a surge of guilt.
Mayhap, she thought through the blinding tears as she ran to help what was left of her family, it would have been better had she died in the Pict's stead.
The surviving raiders were galloping toward the tree line with half the cattle. The remaining stock lay stiffening in the fields, already attracting carrion birds.
Three days later, the disaster attracted scavengers of a wholly different sort.
MARCUS CALPURNIUS AQUILA sprawled on his belly across the linen-draped marble massage table, head pillowed on his crossed arms, shins and feet jutting over the table's edge. As the male slave worked eucalyptus-scented unguent into the aching muscles of Marcus's shoulders, Marcus could feel the tensions of combat seep away.
Too bad the man couldn't work out the knots in Marcus's relationship with his father, Sextus Calpurnius Agricola, governor of Britannia province.
Citing "official business" yet again, Agricola had declined to witness Marcus's gladiatorial bout in Londinium's amphitheater this afternoon. Marcus's opponent had fought well, causing Marcus in his scanty armor to work up a sweat that surely had all the women swooning with delight.
Never mind that Marcus, who fought under his cognomen, Aquila, the "Eagle," remained a perennial favorite with the crowd. Agricola never missed an opportunity to point out that Marcus's public exhibitionsand the resulting private liaisons with adoring female spectatorsflirted with the precipice of social acceptability and could damage Marcus's political aspirations.
While exceptions were made for aristocrats, everyone else who plied their violent trade in the arena was considered infamia: "infamous ones," a step above condemned criminals and grouped in the same class with undertakers, prostitutes and actors. Infamiae could never become citizens, and mere association with them had destroyed many an otherwise stellar reputation.
As the slave's strigil scraped gently across Marcus's back, removing dead skin and excess salve, Marcus snorted. He had no political ambitions. In fact, he proudly considered himself free of all ambitions whatsoever, save convincing his father to accept him for who he was, not for how he could enhance Agricola's career.
An uphill battle, to be sure.
A knock sounded on the chamber's door. At Marcus's bidding, the slave opened it and exchanged a few murmured words with another man. The blast of cool air and the sound of two sets of footsteps told Marcus the slave had admitted the visitor.
Marcus sat up, thrust out a hand to request a towel from the slave, and draped it across his loins. Tribune Darius Caepio, Agricola's chief of staff, who had officiated today's bouts, entered the sudatorium. He looked even more dour than usual, as if he wished he could fan himself but his military decorum forbade it.
"Let me guess." Marcus raised an open hand. "I am late for my father's dinner party." He asked the slave to towel his back.
"In your father's view, sir, that is the least of your transgressions today." Darius stepped a pace closer to Marcus.
"Someone of importance saw you fighting in the arena."
"Fagh." Standing, Marcus made a dismissive gesture, wrapped the towel more securely about him and strode past Darius into the comfortably cooler outer chamber where a freshly laundered loincloth, tunic and toga awaited. "I care not if Jupiter himself watches me." He dropped the towel, girded on the loincloth, and tugged the tunic over his head and arms, yanking it into place with savage pulls.
Only one being's opinion did Marcus crave, and he had yet to grace any of Marcus's bouts with his presence.
Darius almost smiled. "Jupiter is not dining with you at the praetorium this evening."
Caught in the midst of draping the blue-trimmed white woolen cloth about his six-foot frame, Marcus froze. "Not Senator Falco?"
"The same." This time Darius indulged himself in a rare smile. "And his daughter, the lovely Lady Messiena."
Darius, already three years past customary retirement, probably viewed every young woman in such kind terms. Marcus's recollection of Messiena, when their families had been neighbors in Rome before Emperor Marcus Aurelius had appointed Agricola as governor of Britannia, was anything but "lovely."
The senator's presence had been expected for several weeks. The emperor had dispatched him from Rome to investigate citizens' complaints of the Pictish coastal raids.
That Senator Falco had brought his daughter, however, was an unexpected development that boded ill for Governor Agricola's unmarried son.