Dare Celtic slave Flavia trust her Roman master Marcus?
In the Roman city of Aquae Sulis (modern Bath), Celtic slave Flavia longs to be free. Her mistress’ death brings a threat to Flavia’s dream: Valeria’s heir Marcus, a handsome, dangerous Roman officer. Flavia is drawn to Marcus but she has a deadly secret to hide and many enemies.
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To whet your appetite, here's Chapter One....
Britannia, 206 A.D.
Flavia was sweeping leaves when he came out of the villa. Carrying a brazier, he strolled down the steps and passed the frosted lavender bushes with that loose-limbed stride of his, looking as if he owned the place. Which he did, she conceded. Marcus Brucetus now owned the villa and everyone inside it.
She clutched the broom close and darted behind one of the columns fringing the square courtyard and its central open space, whispering, ‘Please.’
Please do not see me, she meant. She wanted him to leave, to be an absentee landlord of this small estate in provincial Britannia. It would be safer for everyone if he left. He had been watching her at the funeral, scrutinizing her with thoughtful dark eyes. She hoped he had forgotten her since then.
She risked peeping round the column. He had set the brazier in the middle of the courtyard, beside the ivy-clad statue of the god Pan, and was coaxing the fire into leaping tongues of flame. In the red glow of dawn and the orange glare of the brazier, she could see him plainly: tall and long legged, his simple dark red tunic showing off muscular shoulders. Above tanned, lean features his short, dark brown hair looked as tough and straight as a boar’s pelt. He was a tribune, off-duty and no longer in armor, but still a soldier and a Roman, one of the conquerors of her country.
‘Come here, Flavia,’ he said quietly, without raising his head.
Disconcerted at being discovered and more so by his remembering her name, Flavia stepped out of the shadows of the peristyle and approached, her rag-shod feet soundless on the icy gravel path.
‘Gaius said that I would find you out here.’
Another shock, she thought. He spoke her language perfectly. Satisfied with the fire, he looked her up and down, studying her flyaway hair and wiry figure, her baggy, patched dress of undyed wool, one of the cook’s cast offs. She gasped as he took the broom from her.
‘I ask you again—is sweeping not Sulinus’ job? He is the gardener.’
‘He's chopping wood,’ Flavia stammered, ashamed and alarmed at having missed Marcus Brucetus’ first question. She was conscious of his height and strength, both in stark contrast to the frail, elderly bodies of the male household slaves.
‘Sweeping is one of your tasks?’
Flavia nodded. ‘When Lady Valeria was alive, she wanted the courtyard kept tidy. We are a small household, sir. My mistress preferred to live quietly, with a few close attendants.’
‘Four ageing slaves and you,’ Brucetus corrected, ‘My adopted mother’s female scribe.’ He shook his head, tossing the broom casually from hand to hand. ‘Valeria never liked a man to tell her anything, and she always did pick the unusual over the conventional.’
Ignoring his amusement at her expense, Flavia fought down panic. Surely this Roman would not be so cruel as to sell the older servants? Surely he would not separate Gaius from his Agrippina, or Sulinus from Livia? She swallowed the rising knot in her throat. ‘We are all loyal, sir, and we know what the house needs to run smoothly.’
‘Indeed.’ Looking into Flavia’s bright gray eyes, he smiled and gave the broom back to her. ‘Be at peace. I don’t throw servants out into the streets to starve: loyalty cuts both ways. When you know me, you will see this.’
‘Sir?’ Flavia felt confused by this unexpected candor. She knew that she, more than any of the household, should be wary of this Marcus Brucetus, but she could also still feel the warmth of his hand on the broom handle. Over the crackle of the brazier fire, she could hear his steady breathing. ‘Thank you,’ she murmured, and turned to go.
‘Wait,’ he commanded. ‘I have some questions. Now that the official mourning period is over, it is time.’
Flavia’s heart began to race, but she did not think she had betrayed herself until Marcus said firmly, ‘Don't stand there shivering. Warm yourself by the brazier. That is why it is out here, so we can talk in private.’
Flavia took a sideways step towards the glowing charcoal. She was trembling, but not from the cold. She was afraid of what he might ask.
‘How old are you?’
‘Almost eighteen, sir.’
His black eyebrows came together in a frown, swiftly replaced by a grin. ‘Don't try to fool me, Flavia. You are young enough to be playing with dolls, a spry little thing like yourself.’
Flavia said nothing. If he underrated her, so much the better. Above all, let him not ask too many questions about the death of her beloved mistress. She tightened her grip on the broom and wished herself far away.
‘No indignant denial? Maybe you are almost eighteen.’ Marcus stretched a hand towards her, giving a grunt of amusement as Flavia stiffened. ‘You are almost as skittish as my horse. You have a leaf in your hair—see?’ He plucked a copper beech leaf from one of her blonde plaits, his thumb pushing her soft fringe away from her forehead. ‘Such smooth skin,’ he murmured. ‘You could make a fortune in the great bath-house in this city, selling your secrets for that skin.’ He flicked the leaf onto the brazier. ‘How long have you lived in Aquae Sulis?’
‘All my life.’
‘With the Lady Valeria?’
‘No, sir. She was the second person—this is the second household in which I have served.’
‘Were your parents free?’
‘No,’ Flavia whispered. ‘They were not.’
She tried to lower her head but, quick as she was, Marcus was too fast, catching her chin in his hand. She stared into his dark blue eyes, hating herself for the tide of color that she could feel sweeping up her face.
He watched her a moment. ‘Truly, you Celts are a proud people and you, little Flavia, you are so stubborn you will not even admit your condition. I can acknowledge the vagaries of fate that make us as we are when our situations might easily be reversed, but mark this—’ He lightly shook her head and then released her. ‘You are mine now.’
‘Do you think I don't know?’ Horrified at her own free way of speaking, Flavia clamped her jaws so sharply together that her head seemed to ring. It was instead the sounds of the metal-workers’ shops beginning another day’s work, she realized. Around her, hidden by the walls of the town villa, Aquae Sulis was stirring into life.
‘I shall let that go, but be careful.’ Marcus hooked his thumbs into his tunic belt and leaned back against the marble statue of Pan. ‘Do you remember them, your father and mother?’
‘A little.’ Flavia was unsure what to make of this man. One second he was looming over her, threatening, the next patient, rippling the fingers of one hand to invite her to talk. She was reluctant to share her memories with a Roman, but knew she must say something. ‘My mother had a beautiful singing voice. My father was very quick.’
Again, he had surprised her. In the silence that fell between them, Flavia heard a young street trader in one of the alleyways begin his piping cry, ‘Sweet chestnuts, freshly roasted!’ She could hear the rumble of hand-carts and smell the aroma of freshly baked bread. All were signs of her city waking up. A day her mistress, the formidable yet generous Lady Valeria, would not see.
Trying not to think of the old lady, Flavia looked up as Sulinus wandered past, dressed in his swathe of ragged cloaks—as many as the gardener could find in this frosty weather. A dark head blocked her view, a face in profile, gleaming in the red winter morning light like a cast of bronze, although no statue had such watchful eyes.
‘Have you people no proper clothes?’ Marcus muttered, a question Flavia knew she did not have to answer. She found herself watching his mouth: there was a small ragged scar close to his lower lip. His forearms carried several scars, the results of sword cuts in many skirmishes. A warrior, her senses warned, but even so, she was unprepared for his next question.
‘And where is your sweetheart in this city? An apprentice cobbler, perhaps? Or do you prefer someone with softer hands, another scribe like yourself? A desk man!
‘Follow me!’ he barked, and strode along the gravel path, his sandaled feet stamping through ice puddles.
Flavia scrambled to keep pace with him. Whatever happened, she did not want him taking his ill temper out on Gaius or Agrippina or any of the others. These were all the family she had and she was determined no harm would come to them. No harm, especially, from what she had done.
‘No.’ Marcus ducked under the peristyle and then stopped, slapping one hand against the nearest column. He turned back to face her, his face rigid with distaste. Memories of Germania do no good here, he thought. He stepped out into the courtyard again and smiled at her, with his eyes more than his mouth. ‘We were speaking of your past, not mine.’ He took her free hand in his, running his fingertips over her palm. ‘These hands have held more than a pen. What else do you do here?’ And before Flavia could answer, ‘Let us walk in the air. The house is still hers to me—Lady Valeria’s. I am not surprised that you miss her.’
‘Every day,’ Flavia admitted. ‘She was a good lady.’
‘An honorable woman and a shrewd judge of character. I enjoyed our correspondence.’ He gave her a searching look. ‘Did you write her letters?’
‘Not all,’ Flavia said quickly. Her mistress had been writing or dictating letters to Marcus for the last four years, ever since the Lady Valeria had met the tribune on her single trip to Rome. Flavia had no idea why her mistress had made him her heir, but they regularly corresponded, especially in the last year after Marcus’ military career brought him to Britannia, to the northern city of Eboracum.
Flavia had never seen the tribune until he rode down from the north in response to her own letter to him, informing him of the Lady Valeria’s sudden death. Now that she had met him, Flavia only knew that he made her uneasy in all kinds of ways.
They had returned to the brazier and the statue. Flavia leaned her broom against the statue and began to tease away a strand of ivy from the squat marble figure. Marcus had not yet released her other hand. She was wary of that and of having to look at him.
‘The letters I received from your lady—yours was the rounder hand?’
‘Yes, sir,’ Flavia agreed, wishing that she did not blush so easily. They were coming to dangerous ground again, and she said nothing more.
‘Could either of your parents write?’
‘So you didn't learn it from them.’ Marcus lowered his head towards hers. ‘From your first master, perhaps?’
Flavia shook her head. ‘I was very young, then.’
Marcus’ fingers tightened around hers, almost a comforting gesture, and then he let her go. ‘How old were you when you were separated from your mother and father?’
Flavia stole a glance at him, but his face was unreadable. ‘We were not separated. I lost them—when I was eight.’ Her voice faltered.
Marcus crouched beside the statue so that he was looking up at her. ‘Go on,’ he said quietly.
‘There was a fire in the slave quarters. My father got out, but he went back for my mother and the roof fell in on them both. I was told this. I was not there. I was with the daughter of the first mistress, walking with her by the river. I had been ordered to play with her.’
Marcus saw the change come over the small blonde slave. When he had first seen her, standing so grave and quiet beside the cremation pyre at the funeral of the Lady Valeria, she had reminded him, piercingly, of little Aurelia, his own daughter. Flavia had the same delicate appearance, the same golden tumble of hair, even down to the way it tended to curl by her ears. In these things she might have been a mirror of Aurelia, who was now dead. Little Aurelia and her mother both dead of fever in the wilderness of Germania, five years ago.
The memory had almost overwhelmed him a moment ago, but he should not take out his grief on Flavia. He had thought her a soft house slave, as insubstantial as a water spirit, but her hands were toughened with years of work and she had endured loss. He could hear it in her voice.
‘They sold me soon after the fire. Perhaps they were afraid I would sicken and die. Everything was an effort to me. I could hardly run, much less play.’
She would run well, Marcus thought. Her body—the little he could see under that patched gray shift—looked straight. Skinny, one part of his mind said, but then he had surprised himself by asking about her sweetheart. A crass inquiry. Marcus scowled and listened to the rest of her story.
‘I was sold when I was eight years old and the Lady Valeria bought me. She gave me a home, a new family. She taught me to read and write. I owe everything to her,’ Flavia said simply.
He could hear her honesty, and something more. The girl was hiding something. Then he shrugged. Although his father owned slaves, this was the first time he had done so for himself and only because of Valeria’s inheritance. He felt uncomfortable with the whole business of slave ownership, especially a girl as young and pretty as this. What poor wretch of a slave did not have secrets? ‘Tell me your duties,’ he ordered.
‘I was my lady’s scribe and personal maid,’ Flavia answered crisply.
‘In place of the foolish woman who used to style her hair? Yes, I remember Valeria scribbling something to that effect on one of her letters.’ Marcus Brucetus smiled at Flavia’s stare. ‘So you will do the same for me?’
Flavia ripped another strand of ivy from the statue. ‘If that is your wish.’ She whirled about and dropped the ivy onto the brazier so that her back was to Marcus Brucetus.
‘Even your neck goes red when you blush,’ was his smug response, a remark that made Flavia long to use her broom on him. Surprised at her vehemence, she tended the fire, glad to be doing something. He chuckled, rising to his feet. ‘You are not used to dealing with men, are you?’
‘I talk to Gaius and Sulinus every day,’ Flavia shot back, a reply that made him laugh out loud.
‘Indeed! But I see that Valeria was right. How did she describe you?’
Behind her, Flavia could hear Marcus Brucetus tapping his face with his fingers. She clenched her teeth, part of her angry that her mistress had mentioned her, part of her alarmed. If the Lady Valeria had regularly added more than her signature to her letters before sealing them, what else had she told Marcus Brucetus?
Please do not let harm come to the others, Flavia prayed. If she had done wrong, only she should pay.
Marcus Brucetus cleared his throat. ‘A mettlesome little thing. May need watching. Valeria was a shrewd old bird, would you not say?’ Flavia remembered the Lady Valeria walking in this courtyard only a few weeks earlier, in a sunny day in late summer, when the roses were in bloom. Her mistress, who had once been as straight as a spear, had been forced to lean on Flavia’s arm and use a stick. She had complained vigorously.
‘Look at me, shriveled like an old fig!’ Lady Valeria had pinched one of her arms and then continued, ‘I used to stride around this garden and now I shuffle. Don't you dare help me on these steps, girl! I want to do it myself.’
She had been an independent woman, the widow of a Roman knight. Her mother had been a British princess and Lady Valeria, tall and handsome in her youth, had become a learned and decisive woman. With her iron gray hair in its severe, old-fashioned bun, her plain green gowns, her penetrating brown eyes and her restless curiosity, Lady Valeria had displayed another kind of Celtic pride. She had fought the infirmities of age.
‘I've buried a husband and a daughter. I've endured the worst,’ she often told Flavia. ‘Let it all come! These aching limbs and failing eyes. When I become too bored I shall end it. Now that I have adopted Marcus Brucetus, he can perform the funeral rites.’
Flavia never liked to hear her mistress speak in this way, but in the end Lady Valeria, proud Romano-British matron, had chosen a Roman death. Leaving her papers all in order and dressing in her richest gown and in her best jewels, Valeria had told her attendants to leave her alone in her study for the evening. There she had taken a draught of poison in a glass of her favorite wine and died, sitting in her wicker chair, her head supported comfortably by cushions. Flavia had found her the next morning.
Remembering, Flavia shuddered. She had not cried since Lady Valeria died and she did not weep now, but every night since then she had come awake in the middle of darkness with the question, Why? on her lips.
‘It is a pity,’ Marcus Brucetus remarked.
Restored to the present by his voice, Flavia blinked and turned to face him. Strangely, his presence tempered her grief, if only because she had to be wary of him. ‘What is, sir?’ she asked.
‘Your lady. My adoptive mother.’ Marcus Brucetus pointed a long bronzed arm towards the great bath house and shrine of Aquae Sulis, the heart of the city. ‘I wrote often to her of the virtues of the hot springs of this city, but no doubt she continued to bathe no more than her usual twice a week.’
‘She did,’ Flavia agreed faintly. Lady Valeria had considered more than two baths a week to be wallowing in luxury, a sign of moral weakness.
‘But the winters were always hard for her,’ Marcus Brucetus said. ‘She never complained, but I could tell.’
‘Often in the darkest months she would speak of making her final journey to join her husband Petronius,’ Flavia found herself admitting.
‘Now she has done so—and we are the losers.’ Frowning, Marcus Brucetus watched a raven floating over the thatched and tiled roofs of the villas and shops. With a curse, he turned and strode over to the nearest of the four strips of garden that bordered the courtyard’s central marble statue. He snatched up a handful of earth, returned to the brazier and threw the frozen soil over the fire, instantly extinguishing the flames.
‘Don't worry, I will carry this back into the house myself, later,’ he said wryly, catching Flavia’s anxious glance at the large, heavy bronze brazier. ‘We have said enough here and I have something to show you.’
He moved off, beckoning her to accompany him.
* * * *
Flavia’s spirits sank further when Marcus Brucetus led them straight through the villa to the small cozy room Lady Valeria had chosen to be her study. Closing the door, drawing the door curtain across, Marcus sat at her desk on the simple stool that Flavia had used in this room. Someone, possibly Marcus himself, had moved the wicker chair in which her mistress had died to the darkest corner of the room, a small mercy for which she was deeply grateful.
There were no windows, but Marcus Brucetus lit an oil lamp, placing it on one end of the desk. He picked a stylus from the desk, then put it aside.
‘You found her here,’ he said, reaching for a jug and a cup, both of red Samian ware, both new to this house.
‘I did.’ As he poured a cupful of wine, Flavia wondered if she should have offered to serve him.
Across the desk, he stared back at her, his dark blue eyes bright with amusement. ‘I can do many things for myself. Often I prefer to. Now are you going to sit down so we can talk comfortably?’
Flavia looked hastily about the room. Aside from the wicker chair, which she would not use, there was only the blue and gold couch set against one of the plain plastered walls and the wolf skin rug in front of the desk. Lady Valeria had never permitted any of her servants, even Gaius who had been with her for twenty years, to sit on the couch.
She began to make an excuse. ‘Cook will be expecting me to go with her to market for the shopping.’
‘Cook can take someone else with her today, but never mind. If you want to stand, you can.’ Marcus took a drink of wine and resumed. ‘You also found Lady Valeria’s final letter?’
Flavia felt as if her throat was closing up, but she managed to say clearly enough, ‘Yes.’
Marcus studied his cup a moment. ‘I know this is difficult for you, Flavia, but I am trying to be clear in my own mind that my adoptive mother passed away peacefully.’
‘Oh, she did, sir,’ Flavia said. ‘Her face, it was so calm.’ She stopped as Marcus held up a hand.
‘There were no signs of disturbance in this room, no signs of a struggle?’
Flavia shook her head. ‘What are you saying?’ she whispered.
‘Nothing.’ Marcus drained his cup and rose to his feet. ‘I suppose I cannot quite believe that she has gone. Wait here a moment.’ He walked past her and out of the room.
Once she was alone, Flavia put her face in her hands and tried to take a deep breath. She knew that in the end, Lady Valeria had chosen her own path, a path which she would never take because her secret Christian faith forbade it. Although her mistress had never questioned her about her beliefs, Flavia guessed that the Lady Valeria had known that her young female scribe had been distressed each time she spoke of choosing death and so, in a final kindness, Lady Valeria had acted without telling her.
That was what Flavia believed, which was why she had done what she had. Finding her mistress sitting peacefully at her desk, looking as if she had fallen asleep, Flavia had written a final message as if from Lady Valeria, faithfully copying the hand of her mistress. She had done this because only two days earlier Gaius had rushed in from the market, deeply distressed by a rumor going around Aquae Sulis that a nobleman had died in Rome in suspicious circumstances and that his entire household of slaves had been put to death.
‘They were all crucified!’ Gaius had shouted in the kitchen, his usually carefully combed-over hair falling into his staring eyes and his wrinkled, homely face bleached with distress. ‘Even the children!’ When she had embraced him to comfort him, Flavia had felt the old slave trembling.
That remembered horror had remained with her, a goad and a warning that she must continue to be careful. Marcus Brucetus was a soldier, used to dealing in death. If he decided that he did not trust Lady Valeria’s servants, might he not be tempted to make a clean sweep of them?
He was coming back; she could hear his quick firm tread on the floor tiles outside the study. Flavia let her hands drop by her sides and checked her appearance in the faintly distorting reflection of the metal tray which held the Samian wine jug. A pair of wide bright eyes, flushed forehead, cheekbones, and chin and trembling full mouth flashed into view before she stepped back onto the rug and straightened, ready to face him.
‘Read this.’ He thrust a piece of papyrus at her.
She knew what it would be, but even braced for the shock, Flavia felt herself begin to sway. She blinked and her own writing swam back into view, her hand faking the Lady Valeria’s spare, spindly scrawl. A hasty letter, written in panic and in fear of the possible consequences should any kind of suspicion fall on the household.
‘Read it aloud,’ Marcus commanded, standing in front of her.
‘To my adopted son and heir, Marcus Brucetus, greetings—’
‘Get on with it,’ he growled.
Flavia skipped the rest of the opening. The papyrus shook slightly in her hand as she read on. ‘I am sorry if what I've done here causes you any grief, but you should know that it is no hardship for me to leave this painful life. I have chosen my own end willingly, secure in the knowledge that I will be reunited in the hereafter with my beloved husband Petronius.’
‘Stop.’ Marcus cupped her chin in his hand and raised her face. ‘Why did she not free Gaius or Agrippina?’ His voice was soft, but the planes of his face were unyielding. ‘Would that not have been a final generous act?’
‘I don't know why!’ Flavia tried to tear herself free, but even as his grip fell from her chin, Marcus clamped his arms around her middle.
‘No, you don't.’ He gave her a shake and, as Flavia’s hands automatically came up to fend off possible blows, he dragged her against himself, trapping her arms against his chest.
‘Is that what you believe, Flavia? That your mistress was not thinking when she acted?’
His arms were tight around her and, just for a moment in his arms, Flavia experienced a sense of peace that she had never known before. In that second she spoke her heart. ‘It was unlike her to forget loyal service, but then in the end she may not have had much time.’
Flavia closed her eyes, seeing Lady Valeria in the wicker chair, her eyes closed, one hand lying flat on her desk as if stretching for her stylus. That was what must have happened. That was why her mistress had left no note.
‘How did she come by the poison?’
At the sound of Marcus’ voice, Flavia started, suddenly becoming aware of him again, making her even more conscious of the gulf between them, free and not. He could do virtually what he liked to her, to any of the others, and nothing would stop him, least of all Roman law or morality.
‘I don't know,’ she stammered, looking up into his eyes. She wanted to plead for the others, but in the end it was the grave intensity of his face that made her add purely for his peace of mind, ‘The day before she died, Lady Valeria went out alone to the baths. There was a healer there, an apothecary she knew well.’
‘You think she bought the hemlock from him?’
Flavia nodded, afraid to speak in case she broke down. For the hundredth time, she wished Lady Valeria had not done it.
‘If only she had spoken,’ she murmured. ‘I used to massage her with oils—she told me that they helped, that they eased the pain.’ She could not go on.
‘I will talk to this apothecary.’ Marcus was staring at her again, his eyes as brilliant as a falcon’s above his aquiline nose. ‘You have eased my mind, Flavia.’
‘Indeed. In some ways, at least.’ His mouth quivered with suppressed amusement, but even as Flavia sagged slightly against him relieved that he was not angry, Marcus lowered his head.
For an instant, she was actually convinced that he was going to kiss her, but instead he gave her hair a quick tug. ‘Are you listening?’
What else would I be doing? Flavia thought, but she stopped herself from saying it. She was still locked into his arms. ‘May I sit down?’ she asked, despising herself for asking, but wanting to be away from this disturbing man who remained a danger to her and to the rest of the household.
Marcus lowered his arms. ‘There is your usual seat.’
Flavia walked stiffly round the desk and sat on the stool, her head high as she stared at him.
‘Comfortable?’ he asked, in mock solicitude.
‘Perfectly, thank you,’ Flavia answered, determined to show nothing, although her hands tingled with the desire to strike back.
‘Good! I like my people to be comfortable.’ Marcus began to pace across the wolf-skin rug, crossing the room from side to side.
‘You are listening?’ he asked a second time.
‘Yes, sir.’ Flavia found herself becoming apprehensive again. Her new master’s next words did nothing to dispel her sense of foreboding.
‘Then, I admit it, Flavia: I am puzzled. I find it curious that in the last letter I received from her, Valeria told me that she was looking forward to meeting me during the mid-winter holiday of the Saturnalia! Why should she say that, and then do what she did?’
Marcus stopped pacing, giving her a long, considering look, his black lashes and brows sooty in the flickering light of the oil lamp. ‘You didn't know this? You didn't write that letter?’
‘No!’ Flavia was too shocked to be polite. ‘You know I did not!’
‘Yes, the differences in the hand-writing; I had forgotten those for the moment.’ A glib answer that convinced Flavia he had done no such thing. As she stared back at him, Marcus began to explain.
‘Lady Valeria was looking forward to meeting me in Aquae Sulis. She seemed keen to discuss a recent imperial appointment with me; that of Lucius Maximus as a decurion, with a duty to collect taxes. For some reason, my adoptive mother disliked Lucius Maximus. She called him— what was it? “A traitor to the living and the dead, a grave robber, an unholy fellow. Not the sort of man anyone should make responsible for taxes in a city like this.” Yet Lucius Maximus is related to her through marriage: he is a Roman, one of the lady’s own class. So I do not understand.’
Marcus raised and spread his hands. ‘Do you understand it?’
‘I have never heard of Lucius Maximus,’ Flavia answered at once. ‘Is he a friend of yours?’
The instant she spoke, she regretted the easy jibe, while at the same time being astonished at the words coming out of her mouth. She had never spoken this way to Lady Valeria, never so...freely? Risking a glance at Marcus, she saw him become dangerously still, the dark stubble on his chin defining his clenched jaw. Flavia’s hands bunched into fists on her lap, then realizing what she was doing, she jumped to her feet, the stool scraping on the floor tiles.
‘Don't think that because the desk is between us, I cannot reach you,’ he growled. He leaned over the papers and writing tablets and pinched out the lamp. ‘For your information, I do not know Lucius Maximus, but I have arranged to meet him at the baths this afternoon. You will be there as my scribe.’
His darkly handsome face took on a wicked look. ‘Perhaps you can massage me? Use some of the soothing oils you used on the Lady Valeria.’
Grinning, he turned and strolled from the room.
Thursday, 17 January 2019
Wednesday, 16 January 2019
Clouds rolled towards Wolfstones and Fearn opened his eyes. 'Move back to the distance of a spear-cast. The Sky God approaches. When he is here, stand in the light of the God, true as a pillar of stone. Release your hands.'
Fearn dragged on Sarmatia's fingers before he freed her so that she stood closer to him than the others. Sarmatia put her arms down by her sides. She was vaguely aware of Fearn and Laerimmer. Her mouth was dry, but she was not afraid.
The sky grew darker, a midsummer evening changed into midnight. A spot of water splashed down her cheek and then another. Fearn lifted the axe and smashed the stone head into the earth at his feet. He invoked the Sky God as a storm bringer and thunder cracked. Wind flayed through Sarmatia's hair. The wolf pack howled as the axe fell again. A spill of lightning ran over Wolfstones, bathing the hill in a bluish glare. Fearn was singing, the song lost in the storm. His red hair streamed back, the muscles of his upper arms tightened as he raised the axe right over his head...
Krete, c.1562 BC. Summer.
A dusty path rambled from the palace at Phaistos down to the sea, where ships heavy with oil and wine cut the sparkling water between Krete and the rich lands of Pharaoh's Egypt. Down the path ran a youth in a messenger's tunic, sweating in the heat. When he reached a parched field where a bronze-skinned girl with dark tousled hair leaned on a gate watching a piebald bull, he stopped and called out. 'Sarmatia! Hey, Sarmatia?'
The shout broke the fragile alliance. This time, thought Sarmatia, she could make no spirit bond with the beast that would take part in the ceremony. Perhaps the Goddess was angry. Whatever, it would be skill, not trust, that would keep her youngsters alive. If only the herald had not come then…. Knowing her face would show nothing of her mood, she turned.
'Kutatos!' Delight shattered unease: she and Kutatos had been fellow-initiates. 'How are you? Your family? Your wife?'
Kutatos stammered replies, painfully conscious, it seemed, of the gulf between them. Trainer of the Rite of Passage, she would risk her life through not one initiation but many. Only when he came to the message did his voice deepen into the ringing tones of the herald.
'Lord Luktos sends greeting to you and your family...'
'My gratitude is boundless.' Sarmatia gave the expected response, wishing Luktos' messages were not so long-winded.
At last Kutatos came to the point. 'Where may strangers watch the Bull Rite in safety?'
The answer was 'Nowhere', but she felt too kindly towards Kutatos to give it. Thinking over the Bull Rite, she wondered who Luktos' guests were. Kretans were not eager to witness the Rite of Passage. The courtyard where the bull-riding took place was fenced in by wicker hurdles, yet at any time the bull might charge into the crowd. In the past onlookers had been gored. The death-threat was common to all, binding the people together. Other races had heard of the rite, but few foreigners knew much of the ceremony.
'Who are these strangers, Kutatos?'
'An Egyptian nobleman, Ramose, with his wife and son, and Fearn, the northerner. Ramose and Fearn are tending Minos. I understand that it was Fearn who asked—Luktos sweats to refuse him nothing.'
'I know.' Minos, ruler of Krete, had been ill for over a year and the Kretan healers had despaired of him. They had sent word to the court of Pharaoh in Egypt and to Fearn, the foremost healer of the northern Isle of Stones, begging for help.
Despite her disquiet over Fearn's unusual request, Sarmatia was intrigued. Finally she might meet this man from the edge of the world, who had refused Minos' gold and argued, when the herald first found him, that his own people needed him—he could not leave the many for the sake of one. So matters might have stood had not Minos' herald let slip that the palace healers had begun to desert for fear of contracting the disease. Hearing this, Fearn had decided to set out at once for Krete.
Sarmatia remembered, but hid her curiosity. 'So today,' she remarked dryly, 'I must tell my initiates to perform for Fearn?'
'No, there'll be no impiety,' replied Kutatos, glancing from Sarmatia to the meadow as the bull lifted its head and bellowed. 'Fearn and Ramose know what's fitting.'
'Do they know the risk?'
'They do. My lord Luktos explained it at great length.'
Sarmatia laughed. For Kutatos' sake and their shared initiation, when Kutatos had seen that she kept her feet after tumbling over the bull's horns, she gave her answer.
'Tell Luktos to take his guests to the back of the court, by the pillars. No harm will come to them, I promise.'
Kutatos made his farewells, disappearing behind the long barn of the palace dairy. Sarmatia tried to put the matter from her mind and, wrapping herself in her hooded cloak, she walked back along the side of the meadow to the southern gate of the palace and slipped into the main courtyard.
The heat was so intense it stopped her breath and burned the soles of her bare feet. The sun had been beating down all morning on the stone flags of the court and now the decorated floor—painted with scenes of past bull rites—shimmered, the brightly rendered figures rippling as though alive. Inside the wicker fencing the area was deserted, silent but for the steady pulse of the cicadas.
Here in a few hours' time would be life: the growing of child into adult in those moments that it took to face a charging bull and grasp its horns. The instant the initiate was tossed into the air by the bull he began the Rite of Passage, tumbling through space as through life, without knowledge of the future or his fate. When he landed on earth, it would be away into adult life. Only one such tumble was needed and then the initiate could leave the sacred court. Many, though, elected to stay and help those who were left, sometimes performing the ritual again and 'riding the bull over', as the saying went. Sarmatia had ridden the bull many times but, after six years and rising towards eighteen, she felt herself stiffer than she used to be. Now she was content simply to remain with the initiates and keep an eye on them. Each time the ceremony was performed the bull was a different one.
Sarmatia sighed, thinking again of the piebald bull. He was big and his horns were strong, which was good, yet he was very quick at turning and his mind was closed. She had tried and failed to discover it. Standing in the stuffy bull court, the girl was tempted to join the crowds about the altar and make sacrifice to the gods, but she would almost certainly be recognized. And if word came out that the trainer was worried, how would her youngsters feel? No, the risk of their lives in the rite was sacrifice enough.
She felt suffocated by the cloak and flung it off to carry under her arm. Touching her brow in salutation to the court, Sarmatia turned briskly and went back amongst the people. There were whispers immediately as she was seen for, as was her custom on the day of an initiation, she wore the costume of the Bull Rider. Eyes picked at her linen loincloth, the bronze waist-belt and silver earrings, her naked breasts and scarred sides. All that was missing were the gold ankle bells and the face paint which proclaimed her kin-group. Only a few more steps and the show would be finished. The girl heard a farmer mutter, 'The Passage-Mistress herself, that's a good omen,' and was content.
* * * *
When she next entered the courtyard, Sarmatia was with the initiates and flute players, coming in to music and the greetings of the crowd. Glancing amongst her own family, she noted with relief that her brother Tazaros had kept his promise and stayed away. She always feared that if the bull threatened her, Tazaros would forget he was ten years past the rite and come into the courtyard himself. Breathing more easily, despite the blood heat of the afternoon, she started the seven initiates on their warm-up of somersaults and tumbles, doing a few herself to keep in practice and to ease the slowness out of her spine.
As she tumbled the length of the court, quickening with the music of the flutes, Sarmatia came right side up by the rear of the courtyard. She looked between the pillars and there was the Egyptian, with his wife and son. A child: was it wise to have children here? Sarmatia wondered, though no one else questioned the custom. The boy had his nose pressed against the wicker hurdles, but his father rose above them, straight, like a poplar.
Kutatos had not told her that Ramose was Nubian, dark as a rare pearl. And the man beside him, fully as tall, white as Ramose was black— her breath hissed in her throat when she looked on Fearn for the first time. The healer had red hair, a red-gold beard. He glittered in that fierce Kretan sunlight. A bright stare mirrored hers then Fearn bowed his head.
Sarmatia spun away and was gone, somersaulting over her hands and landing with a soft clash of gold ankle bells. Their meeting of eyes had lasted no more than a breath, yet it kept returning to haunt her as the music shrilled to a climax and the piebald bull was let into the court. Even as the flute players left and the Bull Rite began, her gaze was drawn to the back of the courtyard.
Three of the seven had completed their Passage and two were gone: the fourth initiate should have been ready. As the bull came to a jolting stop at one end of the court, pawed restively and licked the painted flags, Sarmatia motioned to a creamy-skinned, gray-eyed girl. The youngster backed up a step. The bull raised its head, its horn scraping against a pillar. The girl blanched and looked wildly about, ready to run. In three strides Sarmatia made up the space between them and gripped her arm. Unseen by the families, she pressed the flat of her dagger into the initiate's side. Cruel to be kind, she threatened.
'This or the bull if you show your back, Pero!' she whispered, turning the blade for the girl to feel its edge. 'The only way out is through the horns.' Whatever Sarmatia's private disgust and unease, custom and the crowd demanded it. They would not forgive Pero if she failed.
'I can't!' Pero was shaking and near tears. A low murmur ran around the watching crowd like a wind through barley: the mob and the bull would not wait much longer. Pierced by pity, Sarmatia squeezed the girl's thin shoulder. 'Do you want to be a child all your life?' she asked gently.
'Sarmatia, I can't! Those horns, they're like knives, and the bull— Oh, Mother!' Pero's voice cracked. 'It's looking for me!' The bull had trotted out of the shadows at the back of the courtyard.
Sarmatia stepped in front of Pero, shielding the girl. 'Look, it's nothing.' She ran forward, clapping her hands.
The bull halted and its head slewed round towards them, a brown forelock covering one eye. 'To me!' she shouted.
The beast dropped its great horns. She heard the people applaud. With an explosion of dust the bull charged. She felt its hot, closed mind surrounding her. For an instant skill deserted her. She remembered she was too old for the Bull Rite. A blaze of gold spilled from the bull's horns, instinct returned and with it sureness. She caught the horns and let herself rise. Time and the horizon fell back, she could see the blue vault of heaven, the red-mouthed 'O' of the crowd, a flash of red-gold hair as Fearn turned his head, following her descent. Her feet touched the bony rump of the bull, she tucked in her arms and somersaulted off, running forward as she landed.
Behind her the beast gave a sulky grunt, swept this way and that with its horns and lashed its tail. Pero worked her way into its sight, swaying her hips to keep quick and supple. The piebald ambled off in the opposite direction then suddenly spun about and bore down on the girl in another burst of speed. Sarmatia moved to cover Pero's tumble and signalled to the remaining initiates to do the same. She heard the girl seize the bull's horns, with a great smack on each palm, and saw her tossed, arching like a dolphin in mid-air and rising clear of the deadly gilded horns. The time of peril would be when the girl landed. If Pero caught an ankle or winded herself, Sarmatia knew she would have to be in quickly to distract the beast.
There was a shower of dark hair and Pero touched earth to a roar from her family. Sarmatia grabbed her arm and pulled her clear, but was not fast enough: already the bull had skidded round. Too late, Sarmatia realized what the beast had seen. A child had kicked a hole in the fencing and was running out into the turbid afternoon light. No time to draw the bull off— all she could hope for was to reach the boy first.
Sprinting, her insides turning to water, Sarmatia rushed for the child. As her hands closed round his tiny—so tiny!—body and her cheek grazed the stones she thought, with terrible clarity: I promised they would be safe. I've failed.
For a second, a dark breathing shadow hung over her. Then came pain, the slow tearing punch of the horn.
* * * *
She came awake suddenly, crying out. Firm hands kept her flat against the stones.
'Peace, Kretan,' said the man crouched beside her, pressing a cloth onto the spurting wound in her side. 'There's nothing to fear.' In the sun his hair framed his broad-featured face like a nimbus, yet there was darkness behind him. The bull was still free in the courtyard.
Sarmatia wet her lips with her tongue. 'The child?'
Fearn jerked his head to one side. 'Ramose has taken his son. He's safe.' The initiates were also gone, the crowd hanging back, uncertain what to do.
They were alone in the court, except for the bull. Fearn pressed on her side again then withdrew the cloth. A dark spiral of blood pooled under Sarmatia's ribs; blood no longer pumped from the wound. She scarcely felt it as he bound the gash with a bandage made from his tunic. 'You must leave, Sir, the bull—'
She broke off, eyes widening, and Fearn whipped round. Ready to gore, the bull was lowering its huge head, its face so close that its breath stirred the bristles of Fearn's beard. Fearn threw up an arm to fend off the horns and drove a fist into the face of the beast. 'Get back!' He hit the creature a second time. 'Learn your lesson!'
The bull snorted and the healer shifted, covering Sarmatia completely with his body. He stamped the stones and shouted at the beast. ‘Go on! Go on!’
As Fearn's boot hammered the flags, there came the rumble of a distant storm, like the muffled roar of a lion. The beast started back and with a bellow turned tail and ran.
The man's shoulders shook. 'It always works on the cows at home. If you charge them first -' Fearn started to laugh. He had entered the court, driven the bull off its victim, kept it at bay. In her relief, Sarmatia blacked out.
* * * *
Water trickled in a basin, a cool cloth mopped her face.
'Easy there. You're at home. Your brother's just left your bedside to rest.' Fearn grinned at her. Sarmatia smiled back.
'Good,' said Fearn approvingly. He rose from the edge of her bed and stood, his head touching the rafters of her attic chamber. 'Are you in pain?'
Sarmatia shook her head. There was a nagging ache from her ribs to her hips but she could bear that: it was nothing to trouble the healer with. Fearn gazed at her speculatively through thick-lashed eyes—thinking eyes that she'd seen burn like a warrior's—but accepted her response. Sarmatia wondered how long he had sat by her bed, how long she had been lying there. She watched him walk the length of her room, ducking under the beams, turn and come back. Neither spoke.
Fearn repeated his circuit, stopping by her bed. 'Do you know who I am?'
'You're Fearn. You're here to cure Minos.' With her customary brevity of speech, Sarmatia neglected to tell him her name. She guessed he would know it by now.
Fearn smiled at her again. He was quite young, Sarmatia realized, no more than twenty. 'Ah, yes, Minos. Have you ever seen him?' he asked.
'Have you, like me, ever been inside Phaistos palace?'
'No.' Trying to be comfortable, Sarmatia squirmed in her bed. She was hungry, but too shy to mention it. For an instant, although full of questions for this man from the edge of the world, she almost wished her brother Tazaros was with her instead of this tall, bulky stranger, dressed in the long tunic and leggings of a barbarian.
Yet Fearn was comely. His face, with its sturdy features and thick red eyebrows, was pleasing without being handsome and he was taller than most Kretans. There was a big-jointed look about his long limbs, as though he still had some growing out to do. Now he stared at the roof, fingering his beard and chin. Was it possible that he, too, was shy? Gently she touched his arm. 'Will you tell me about the palace?'
Krete, 1562BC. Summer.
Two weeks later, when she was walking but had not yet resumed her part in the Bull Rite, Sarmatia was summoned by the Snake Priestess in the pillar crypt of the temple.
'Go to the Old West Gate,' the priestess said. 'Fearn is waiting there for you. Guide him to the Grey Mountains, help him to gather the herbs he needs. Take care, for Fearn has Minos' cure in mind. There are two days' rations you'll need to collect. The laundress will provide you with clothes.'
Sarmatia prostrated herself before the Priestess then rose. Before she had climbed the stair leading out of the crypt, the Priestess called her back.
'You must find this a strange order.' It was not usual for men skilled in the art of healing to ask for help.
'Yes, Mistress.' Sarmatia was very still, her eyes tracing the faded pools of blood upon the stone floor. She did not look once at the plump, motherly figure of the Priestess. Pergia could have a sharp tongue when she chose and Sarmatia wanted no probing questions about Fearn. She wanted merely to see him again, to talk to him, to have him talk to her.
Black eyes flicked over her. 'Go in joy, girl. Fearn is a good man. Go.'
Dismissed, Sarmatia darted to the palace stores in a whirlwind of happiness. Snatching two unleavened loaves and a supply of olives and figs, she hurriedly filled a battered sheepskin with water and then rushed to the laundry to collect a made-up parcel of clothing. Despite her aching side and newly-healed wounds, she ran all the way to the Old West Gate, never stopping until she saw the redheaded healer. 'Master Fearn!'
Fearn came through the gateway to meet her. He was dressed for the Kretan summer now, with a short tunic and wide-brimmed hat, though his limbs were still pale as a woman's. 'I always thought Kretans lay in their soft beds till long after dawn,' he teased. 'Are you a rarity then?'
'And I chose you, thinking you were! Shall we go, before the sun catches us?' He pointed north, where already the summits of the Snow Mountains gleamed in the approaching sun. In a few hours that sun would have ripened to an eye-aching fullness and another summer's day, dusty and still, but the dawn felt pleasant, cool and fragrant with juniper and honeysuckle. Sarmatia paused before starting out, watching the light flow over the countryside and a hawk rising in the clear skies.
The bird stooped, dropping into tall grasses, and she flinched, the spell broken. She turned, but Fearn had already moved off, carrying both bundles of food and clothing. Catching up, she began to walk with him down the street that led away from the palace of Phaistos. They passed workmen laden with tools, pounding up the long slope to the house of Minos, and a handsome farmer with an easy smile, driving his cattle to the palace dairy. Then they left the paved road for the country tracks and twisting grass paths, where they met no other creature for the rest of the day.
* * * *
As they wove their way round the edge of the cornfields, brushing past emmer wheat and blue iris, Fearn told Sarmatia of his own lands on the Isle of Stones. He told her of summers there, when the rowan flamed in the dark woods and the soft hills burned with color. He told of the bleak winters, when no birds flew and men huddled round fires. He sang her a spring song, a careless tune telling of flowers, bees and the new born wild things.
Sarmatia listened, full of delight. Silent, her brother Tazaros called her at home—sulky, said her sister-in-law—but neither would have recognized their Sarmatia as the nimble girl who chattered and laughed with Fearn. When they stopped by a shallow, slow-running river to drink and rest under the cypress trees, Fearn knew that, as with him, Sarmatia's parents were dead: she lived with her elder brother and his wife. For her part, Sarmatia had learned that the healer had no sisters or brothers but that he did have a dog, a half-crossed terrier. 'Called Puddle—you needn't wonder why. Often as a boy I'd slip off to the woods, go roaring through the undergrowth with Puddle always ahead, tail whisking like a flag. When I set out for Krete I'd to leave him behind—he's gray-muzzled, poor fellow.'
'He'll wait for you,' Sarmatia answered at once, aware that Fearn was taking more pains washing his face in the river than he needed. She was rewarded with a quick smile and, seizing the moment, asked about things which had intrigued her ever since she had heard of the Isle of Stones, questions she had shared with no one until now. 'Who made the Great Stone Circle? Was it giants? Why did they make it? Who was it for?'
Fearn wiped the last drops of water from his downy beard and sat back from the river, watching the blue winged butterflies and bullfinches, brilliant against the cypress. A lark began to sing somewhere in the cloudless skies and Sarmatia, waiting, listened to its pulsing music.
Finally he spoke. 'Why do you ask me this, Sarmatia?'
Sarmatia flushed. 'I'm sorry. I didn't mean offence.'
Fearn leaned towards her. This close, Sarmatia saw that his eyes were green, not brown, nor even the rare blue. 'None taken. But you see, I'm curious.'
The healer picked up a handful of pebbles and began tossing them into the water. 'People do question me,' he went on, 'but always on other things. Which crops grow well in my lands, how long are the northern summers, how powerful our kings.' Fearn looked directly at Sarmatia again. 'But somehow you have sensed—'
He stopped, glanced upstream, his mind fired not by stone circles but Sarmatia herself: this little Kretan, who made his heart bang and his thoughts fly the more time they spent together. An active listener, constantly challenging his assumptions, Sarmatia had the quality of sunlight, fertile and hot, illuminating in her pithy questions and thought. And that furry chuckle of hers—he was often tempted to tickle her, simply to hear it, to delight in her laughter. Her skin was taut and sweet-smelling as freshly-baked bread—the same rich color, too: good enough to eat. For the rest, long legs, supple waist, pert breasts, swirling brown hair, charmingly sober mouth, brilliant amber eyes—
'Is it sacred?' persisted Sarmatia, compelled by some spirit to pry, where normally she would have said nothing. 'As the deep cave in the Snow Mountain is to my people?'
Returned to the safely impersonal, Fearn laughed, reminding himself she was still barely eighteen. 'I was right to choose you! Can you keep a secret?'
Trying not to think about the ache in his stiffened groin, Fearn took up another pebble and began to draw in the sand between them. 'Many years ago there was a drought in my lands. All the tribes came together to build the Great Circle, high on a treeless heath where the Sky God would see it, the blue and gray stones painted with the marks for rain.'
The pebble drew the spirals in the sand and Fearn went on, his face quite still. 'The men dug the ditches and the women danced, always in the circle, never breaking step. They set the tallest stones together, working in harness under the dusty sky, like oxen.'
'Did rain fall?'
'It did indeed. When the first stone was raised, the rain began to fall. It poured then till every spring and stream flowed over.'
Sarmatia smiled, though one matter still puzzled her. 'Why must this be secret?'
'Because these things were revealed to me through a vision.' Fearn placed a hand upon his forehead to show that this was sacred. 'Few men, even the shamans, now know the truth of the Circle. To speak of it lightly would be dangerous.' His mouth set hard and his face went grim as he clearly fought his own temper. 'Men have made their own truths now. The place is called the Seat of the Plains-Kings—'
Fearn broke off and Sarmatia dare ask no more. Suddenly she wished she was back at home.
Seeing her disquiet, Fearn strove for the ordinary. 'Look at these, Sarmatia.' He pointed to a clump of tall milky flowers growing near the river's edge. 'What are they called here?'
'Yes.' Fearn noted the formal 'Sir' while he bent and examined the blossoms, 'Yes, the white face and faint blush, and its uses...' He snapped a flower off the body of the plant and turned back to Sarmatia. 'I know this one well! It grows freely in my homelands, thrives at every stream's edge in summer. My people call it cleanse-all. I use it for a skin salve, and in love potions.'
Fearn grinned and walked over to Sarmatia. He tucked the bloom stem behind her ear with a steady hand, touching her hair briefly. Picking up their provisions, he started striding over the rough ground, leaving Sarmatia to trail after him as best she could.
They travelled till long after twilight, coming to the foothills of the Grey Mountains. There, just after moonrise, Sarmatia spied out a cave in a tangle of undergrowth, a place where they might rest. When a fire was burning brightly, she hoped that Fearn would speak more of his homelands, and other countries he had visited. She enjoyed traveller’s tales.
Nor was she disappointed. For part of his training as healer, Fearn had journeyed for several seasons to learn other peoples' ways of dealing with disease. The memories of those earlier, more carefree days were sweet and he was glad to share them. All that evening, as they ate and drank and tended the fire, Fearn drew a web of enchantment about them, filling the night with strange stories.
'Which place do you care for best?' she asked, as Fearn paused to break up a dry log.
Fearn grimaced. 'There you have me!' He rubbed his beard and face— a gesture Sarmatia recognized as shyness, a further bond between them. Even so she almost missed his quiet answer.
'My homelands have my life, my power. But my heart? It might be here, in Krete.' Fearn rose and clambered swiftly to the entrance of the cave. 'The kindling runs low. I must fetch more.' He turned and was lost to the dark, his footfalls softening with distance.
Sarmatia yawned and settled closer to the fire, oblivious to the smarting wood smoke. She pondered on all she had learned, Fearn's voice running on in her mind. 'Custom in my country makes women the heirs, as well as men.' 'They say a tree grows through earth and heaven.' 'My heart? It might be here, in Krete.' Then she slept, a smile on her lips.
* * * *
She woke, still happy. They had reached the Grey Mountains, survived a night in the wilderness, and her bull-riding wounds had given no trouble. Smiling, Sarmatia rolled onto her stomach, feeling the dry cave floor rasp comfortingly against her flesh. She glanced at Fearn who slept, spread-eagled in the center of their small cave, his cloak flung to one side. She watched the bristles of his sparse beard move with every long snoring breath, saw how his nose was scarlet with the sun. Yet these things did not matter.
Absently, Sarmatia plucked the flower Fearn had given her from her hair. Despite a day in the sun its petals were still fresh and its scent sweet. She placed it in their water skin to keep its life a little longer. Then, moving carefully so as not to wake her companion, the girl rolled up her cloak. She padded soundlessly from their resting place up the steep embankment, out of the cave.
Glancing round in the pale sunlight, Sarmatia soon spotted what she was looking for—a wild pear tree, close to a field of cultivated vine, its branches already laden with fruit. Walking along the ancient boundary ridge, Sarmatia made for the tree. After a day of olives and figs, pears would be a welcome change.
'What have you got there, creature-caller?'
Startled, Sarmatia almost dropped the fruit. She glared at Fearn, who had come partway along the ridge to meet her. 'Who told you?'
'No one but you, Sarmatia. Don't look at me like that!'
Sarmatia began to tremble. Her fingers shook as Fearn took a pear from her hands and, crouching down on the path, sank his teeth into the ripe fruit. Finally she could keep silent no longer. 'How do you know?'
'Sit, eat, and I'll tell you.' Fearn spat out a mouthful of seeds. He did not speak again until Sarmatia had done as he'd asked. 'When birds fly over, you see their lives, their feelings, don't you?'
'I see pictures. Empty sky. Strange lands.' Sarmatia knew she was trying to explain a mystery. There were no words for it, this strange state of being, where the lives of animals were one with hers. This kinship had always been with her and was growing, but she wondered how Fearn had recognized it. 'But how—?'
'How do I know? I know because animals are drawn to you. They watch you even now.' Fearn leaned across and caught hold of Sarmatia, pointing over the fields with his free hand. 'Can you not sense them, Sarmatia? Feel their life out there, beyond sight? As a healer I get glimpses of their presence, but you'll know them.'
Alarmed by his knowledge, Sarmatia squirmed from Fearn's grasp. 'We should go, Sir. The sun grows hot.'
Haste betrayed her. She moved too quickly on the ridge and overbalanced, falling heavily on the shaly surface. Before she could rise, arms had wound round her and scooped her up. A long red strand of hair tickled her face as Fearn bent his head.
'Bull-Head! These things aren't to be feared. They're part of you. As you grow, you'll understand, but for now, you'd best pray to your Mother. If you turned your ankle there I'll not be pleased. You're my plant gatherer today.'
Sarmatia giggled at his deliberately contorted face, her fright forgotten. She rested her head in the crook of his arm, secure in the knowledge that this day, like the one before, would be happy.
* * * *
At the end of another month, when Minos was acknowledged as cured and Sarmatia had begun to train again for the Bull Rite, she and Fearn were betrothed.
Hear me! There was once a royal family who did not love their king. Hear their names. Laerimmer, the Kingmaker, and his sister Kere. Fearn the healer, the strange one. Goar and Gygest, the silver-haired royal twins. Briht the shaman. Anoi and Tanek, sister and half-brother. Chalda, proud and haughty despite miscarrying a bastard. And Waroch, King Waroch, a man like a blown apple, sour and sweet by turns and a smile gone mildewed on his face. Waroch had the blunt, bald head of a newt, the newt's rough, warty skin. Because of him, the royal household was in constant uproar. Harsh words were said and blows exchanged. Some took to living elsewhere. I chose another way—a fire.
It was my right to let Waroch burn: he had failed our people. I shall be a ruler of the Atterians and they will praise my name. One day I will recount to them, as I do to you now, how I set flint against copper, spark against thatch and burned the royal house while Waroch slept.
I started the fire in the roof of the house and watched the pouring gray smoke change to leaping prongs of flame. I saw the insides of the house lit by pools of fire, glowing like the blue flares of marsh gas as sparks kindled the packed-down refuse on the floor. I smelt the pungent, woody scent of burning heather thatch, the sweet scent of oak beams charring. It was so splendid, that fire, so swift-growing, like a living creature.
I'd given Waroch drugged wine that night, to make him sleep the heavier, but soon the rest of the family stirred and raised an outcry. Fat Kere and slim Tanek rushed for the fresh air and were stuck together in the doorway in their haste to escape. The royal twins were yelling and Anoi sobbing. Tanek had even run back inside. Everyone was in panic, assuming that the Long-Haired People were raiding again, while Waroch slept.
Fire singed my hair and clothes, ash blackened my arms and face, but I stayed to the end. I know my duty. Waroch must die and no one must help him. Will you be sorry when I tell you no one tried? Between the heat, the choking smoke, and Briht half-crazed with fear, needing to be dragged out by two strong men, there was no time to save the King. Waroch died as he had lived, in sweetness and harshness, a smile upon his lips as a burning stave fell from the ceiling and pierced his heart.
Tanek, Anoi and Goar were among the last out of the house that night, all royal, all fair, all obsessed. I was the final one to leave that cracking, rolling furnace, and when I turned to watch the whole roof of the house cave in with a crash, fat Kere ran to me and spoiled my quiet celebration. Clutching my arm, her brown eyes starting in her round, sooty face, she cried out to me, 'Where is Fearn? Where is he?'
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Can a creature-caller and a storm-bringer ever be together?
She is Sarmatia, a bull-leaper and creature-caller, renowned for her uncanny skills with all animals. He is Fearn, a red-haired healer and storm-bringer from the northern Isle of Stones. They meet on the dusty flagstones of a Kretan palace courtyard, where both save a life, and they fall in love. Will fate allow them to be together or will the unknown enemy who hates Sarmatia prevail?