Fierce, beautiful, determined--Helena despised all that Rome stood for. In sheltering Tullio, she had to subdue her awareness of him--or she might confess all! The soldier's strength and nobility tempted her to lean on him, but she knew that to succumb would be to betray her people....
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About the Author
When she is not writing, reading or doing research, Michelle tends her rather overgrown garden or does needlework, in particular counted cross-stitch. Michelle has her own web site, michellestyles.co.uk, and blog, michellestyles.blogspot.com.
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75 BC—An island in the Mediterranean, a few miles north of Crete
'The sibyl of Kybele wants to see you.'
The harsh voice of a pirate cut across Tullio's troubled dreams and jerked him awake.
Marcus Livius Tullio, junior tribune Legion II Fourth Cohort, winced as he stood up in the overcrowded hold where he was confined with what remained of his men. Every part of his body from his neck to his knees ached. The leg wound he had received in the pirate attack throbbed.
How many days since pirates had overrun the trireme transporting him and his men back to Rome? Four? Five? In that short time, seven of his men had died in this stinking rat-infested place.
Some might say they were the lucky ones.
In the dim light of the hold, Tullio could make out the dispirited faces of the twenty who remained alive. Already they moved like prisoners, shuffling towards the entrance with heads bowed.
'Helmets on, boys.' Tullio forced his voice to sound as firm and calm as it would on the parade ground outside Ostia. 'Let's show this priestess of theirs that we are Roman legionaries, not slaves or pirates who skulk in corners and attack in the dead of night.'
At his words, the men stood straighter.
Tullio jammed his helmet on and flicked his red cloak back from his shoulders. He ran a hand over the stubble on his chin. He needed a bath and shave, something to make him feel human again. But he refused to allow the scum who had captured him or their so-called priestess to see any weakness.
Their retribution day would come.
Bright sunlight blinded him as he stepped from the hold on to the gangplank, then on to the shore with its collection of whitewashed Greek-style buildings clustered around the harbour and the rock-strewn mountain rising behind.
He inhaled, savouring the way his lungs filled with fresh air. The faint scent of jasmine and other spring wild flowers tickled his nose, reminding him there was more to life than salt air and the stench of unwashed bodies.
A young legionary knelt down and kissed the earth. Tullio motioned to the one remaining centurion. Quintus moved swiftly and raised the lad up, shaking his head as he did so. Tullio cast a practised eye over his men—ragged, bearing injuries, but alive. Twenty men out of the original two cohorts on the ship. Jupiter willing, he intended all of them remaining would return to Rome.
The guard shoved them forward towards a small group standing on the quay. Tullio ignored the pirate captain who had captured them, concentrating instead on the slender figure dressed in flowing white robes who was surveying the scene from a golden chariot pulled by a pair of lions. The sibyl.
Although a gold mask obscured the majority of her face, sea-green eyes were clearly visible. She should be ancient, but held herself erect like a young woman. He glanced at her hands. Save for the shortened little finger on her right hand, they appeared to be as unmarked as those of his late wife.
What sort of woman hid behind that mask? Interested in her people's welfare? A leader? Or merely an apologist for the pirates?
Tullio grimaced as he shifted his weight from his bad leg. This woman gave religious sanction to piracy, acts of barbaric terrorism against Rome.
'The prisoners, my lady,' the pirate captain said.
'Guests, honoured guests, Captain Androceles,' the low melodious voice from behind the mask said. Younger than Tullio had anticipated but it held a definite note of command.
'Just so, my lady.' The pirate captain gave an ironic bow towards Tullio and his men. 'My men risked their lives to rescue these poor wayfarers. We expect payment for our services.'
Rescue? This was the first time Tullio had heard such a word used for an unprovoked night attack. He choked back his anger.
'I had assumed you would unload the amphorae of oil first,' the sibyl said, her hands tightening on the lions' reins. As you have always done, keeping your guests on board until the tribute is paid.'
Tullio concentrated on staring straight ahead. How dare she talk as if he and his men were objects! Chattels worth less than wine or olive oil. They were soldiers, Roman soldiers.
'What is a fair rate of passage for unwillingly rescued guests?' Tullio bit out through clenched teeth, tired of the charade.
The sibyl started and Tullio gave a grim smile of satisfaction.
Human after all?
He narrowed his eyes and stared harder at the woman standing with her shoulders back, sword in one hand, reins clasped in the other. A living statue. Her eyes had changed to a deeper green, but that was all. He looked again at the priestess in the golden chariot, her shoulders held stiffly as if she was unaccustomed to the weight of the mask she wore. He searched his memory for what he knew of sibyls and their cult that worshipped Kybele, the Mother Goddess.
A scrap of a ritual from his childhood. Nothing more.
'You must know, Sibyl,' Tullio persisted, hating her even more than the pirates. At least the pirates were honest about their terror and did not take refuge behind masks.
'The captain will tell you,' she said in a low voice. 'The ne-gotiatii set their prices, not the sibyl. They bore the burden of your rescue.'
The pirate captain broke the silence, naming a sum about the annual wage of a legionary. He paused, fingering his gold brooch. His voice became oilier. 'But for you, I had thought perhaps three hundred. You are used to…shall we say…the finer things?'
Tullio heard a small smothered gasp from the sibyl. He offered a prayer of thanksgiving the amount requested was less than that he had agreed with his agent before he left Ostia for his posting in Cyrene, North Africa.
'You ask too little for me, Captain. I would have thought I was worth at least five hundred gold pieces,' Tullio drawled, using his most affected patrician accent, and brushed a speck of dirt from his cloak.
The pirate's eyes shone with greed and his pink tongue flicked over his lips. Mission accomplished. Tullio had suddenly become a valuable property, one who would have to be handled with care and not left to rot in a hold.
The sibyl's knuckles shone white against her sword. What was it about this business that she did not like? The haggling over money? Or that he and his men were on shore? Tullio doubted that it was the traffic in humans. Kidnap, ransom or selling on those who could not pay as slaves—it was all in a day's work for a pirate.
'Five hundred gold pieces it is, then,' she said, 'but the other soldiers are to be charged at the usual rate. We're not greedy merchantmen seeking profit out of misery, but rescuers seeking to save lives.'
Tullio drew his lips together, biting back sarcastic words asking for her definition of 'saved'.
The pirate's smile increased. 'Kybele will receive her usual proportion in thanksgiving for her protection.'
'See that the grain is fresh this time. Your son's last offering was mouldy.' The sibyl gave a flick of her wrist and the chariot started forward.
The pirates started to prod the Romans towards the trireme with painted eyes on the prow, a device pirates believed made it easier to spot their prey. The black hole of the pupil stood out from the yellow decking, ready to swallow them. He and his men were to be returned to rot in that ship, to wait for the day when the tribute arrived. This brief scent of fresh air, the feel of solid ground beneath their feet, had been part of some cruel game.
How many of his men would give up the will to live and cross the River Styx?
Three men had breathed their last early this morning as the trireme docked. Rufus's life hung by a slender thread as it was.
His men gave him desperate looks. Twenty unarmed and injured men against the whole island. Suicide. He needed to remember the ritual that would invoke Kybele's protection. Now. The words hung tantalisingly just beyond the edge of his tongue. He willed them to come, but nothing. He could not take the risk of getting them wrong. With a heavy heart, he motioned that his men should go.
'Have a care. When we are free,' Mustius Quintus said in a low voice as a guard prodded him with a spear, causing the large man to stagger, 'we will hunt down each one of you pirates and crucify you as a warning to those who would harm Roman soldiers.'
'Brave words, but foolish, Quintus. Who gave you leave to say such things?' Tullio muttered. He offered a prayer to Mercury that the remark would go unchallenged.
Quintus shrugged and looked unrepentant. The line of legionaries continued shuffling towards the ship. Rufus half stumbled as a pirate stuck his foot out. A seagull screamed overhead.
No response from the pirate captain. Tullio exhaled a breath. Mercury was with him. This time.
'Halt!' the sibyl cried. 'Who threatens this island?'
'Stand firm, comrades,' Tullio said in a low voice. 'We are Romans, not slaves. We face this together.'
Helena's robes quivered with indignation as she fought to keep the gold mask of Kybele from slipping down her face. She glared at the group of men standing before her, their helmets and breastplates shining in the afternoon sun, their leader's firm chin tilted towards the sky and a defiant look flashing in his dark eyes.
How dare the Romans issue threats against her people! What else could go wrong?
Because of the Roman, she had haggled over the tribute money like a fishwife. Aunt Flavia would never have done that. She would have remained aloof—the perfect sibyl, living symbol of Kybele, protectoress of this island. Not Helena, the sibyl's assistant who had trouble keeping the mask straight and the lions under control.
Helena pressed her lips together. If she wasn't careful, everything would be revealed.
This masquerade had failed to go as she had planned back in her aunt's apartments. She blamed the tall Roman tribune for unsettling her. There was something about his eyes and the way he held his shoulders. Captain Androceles's wilful misunderstanding of her request to see the cargo had not helped. She had wanted to inspect the grain, wine and olive oil, to make sure he did not cheat them. Roman soldiers were kept in the hold. It was understood. It was tradition.
What did Androceles hope to gain?
The cold prickle of sweat ran down the back of her neck. She had to react to the Roman's threat, but how?
'Your ears are sharper than mine, Sibyl. I missed the Roman's threat.' Captain Androceles's words pierced through the pounding in her head. 'Shall I have him killed?'
One of the seafarers lifted his sword as another grabbed the soldier who had uttered the threat.
Her breath stopped in her throat. Another mistake. Blood would flow. Kybele would never sanction murder.
The masquerade would be over. The true state of the sibyl's health would be discovered. This was an unqualified disaster.
What would her aunt do? Allow the Romans to march back to their hold?
Helena tried to think, but her mind was a blank. She offered up a prayer. Come to my aid, now at the hour of my need, Kybele.
Time stood still. She had to say something. But she had no guidance from Kybele. Sunlight glinted off the sword that hung poised over the man's neck, blinding her for a heartbeat.
'No!' the tribune roared. 'Stay your hand.'
'Let the Roman speak.' Helena risked a breath. 'The sibyl is not without mercy.'
'If you will punish someone, punish me.' The tribune stared directly at her, shoulders back, head held high. 'He is under my command. He spoke without thinking. He means your island no harm. Our only quarrel is with those who would abuse us.'
The seafarer hesitated, looking from the tribune to his captain and back again.
'Very well, Tribune, if you are so eager to go to Hades…' Captain Androceles tapped his vine cane against his thigh. 'One Roman is very like another.'
The tribune calmly removed his helmet, his red cloak and coat of mail until he was clad in only his short tunic. His shoulders were wider than she thought possible, and his legs sculpted muscles save for an angry red wound. His black curly hair ruffled in the breeze.
She had to stop this bloodshed before it began—but how?
'I am ready for whatever the Fates decree,' the tribune said. No fear or tremor in his voice, and his eyes blazed defiantly. 'But I warn you, Sibyl, no one will pay for a dead body.'
'Perhaps I am prepared to take a chance on that,' Captain Androceles sneered.
The seafarer lifted his sword higher.
'No, wait,' Helena called out. Everyone turned to look at her. She felt her face grow hot and was grateful for the mask. 'The tribune speaks wisely. If you kill him, you will not be able to claim his ransom. Five hundred pieces of gold is too great a sum to throw away on an idle boast. Rome holds no sway over this island. Since when have they been able to attack here?'
'You have a subtle mind, Sibyl,' Captain Androceles said with a bow as he signalled to the seafarer, who lowered his sword. 'In my anger at the insult to you and this holy place, I had forgotten about the money.'
'I trust you won't again.'
Helena clutched the edge of the chariot as her knees threatened to give way. No blood would be shed today. The rugged tribune would live. The sibyl's position would remain untouched. She had recovered from the mistake. Helena closed her eyes and offered a small prayer of thanksgiving.
'Kybele welcomes the tribute you and your fellow adventurers bring, but she will not sanction bloodshed.'
She risked a glance at the tribune. He should be down on his knees. She had saved his life. She gave him a nod, indicating he could begin thanking her. But he stood there, feet wide apart, glaring at her.
'The centurion told the truth. Rome will hunt out pirates and all who support them.' His black eyes bore into hers as if he could see the woman behind the mask and was aware of who she was. 'Rome has no quarrel with this island. Allow us to go free without tribute.'
'Rome has not been able to trouble us so far,' Helena said, but her hands trembled. 'Mind making promises you cannot keep.'
'I never make promises lightly…even to pirates or their priestesses,' he said defiantly with his shoulders back. He slammed one fist into the other.
'This Roman will be punished, my lady, tribute or no,' Captain Androceles said. 'I refuse to allow any man to talk to you like that.'