The sun beat down on Rufus’s back as he waited outside the mud brick house. Inside, and out of earshot, his friend consulted the venerable seer. Rufus didn’t believe in fate. He lived haphazardly and grabbed whatever opportunities came his way: food, fighting, or women. Any of those three were good enough.
He paced between the shadows of two fig trees. It was taking longer than he thought. At last, when the sun reached the highest point in the azure sky and the baking ground heated the soles of his sandals, the curtain, which was draped across the doorway, parted to reveal his friend. Felix, his lips pressed into a frown, looked troubled by the consultation.
“So?” Rufus asked cautiously.
“The omens are not good.”
“Oh.” His friend’s disappointment was evident in the slump of his shoulders. “Why?”
They wandered down the hillside.
“The land is poor. The seer believes my unfortunate past has drained it of virility.”
“I see.” He didn’t. Priests, soothsayers, oracles: all of them spoke in riddles. “There is nothing you can do to appease the gods?”
The dust kicked up in front of them and floated down the hill in a golden cloud. In the wide valleys ahead of them lay the great city of Rome.
“According to the wise man, I must sow my seeds.”
Obviously, if he intended to become a farmer. Rufus rested his hand on his friend’s broad back. “That is true, Felix.”
They’d come to a crossroads. Felix chuckled. “He did not mean grains of wheat.”
Rufus halted and spun Felix about to face him. Now, he appeared amused, almost relieved by Rufus’s lack of understanding. “Your seed?”
Felix nodded. “Mine. Before the goddesses of fertility.”
“You plan to take a free woman with you? Julia? Clementine? They would not take kindly to the climate of the northern isles.” Julia was a divine creature, but spoilt, while her younger sister was a talker. Both of them lived a life of social frivolity and plenty of sex.
Felix shook his head this time. “I’ve already said my farewells to them. No, the sage was particular about the girl. A native one. Comely with hard nipples. Bountiful of hair and shaped like the neck of a fine vase around the waist.”
Rufus thought the old man in the hut had too much imagination and little practical experience.
“And you must claim her to ensure your lands are made as bountiful as her hair?” Rufus was struggling not to grin. However, Felix appeared sombre once more. “You’re not convinced you’ll find such a woman?” Rufus asked. “My friend, the walls are covered with your name. You’ve never been short of offers.”
Felix sighed. “But those are Roman women and civilised by the rule of great men. The women of my homeland are fiery, independent, and inclined to disobedience.”
“You’ve never shied away from using discipline.” Rufus had watched Felix flog criminals who failed to listen to his commands during lengthy training sessions. As for women, they generally accepted his firm hand because they enjoyed what came with it. Rufus had little understanding of what to expect from Felix’s defiant kin.
“It’s not just her willingness. The land is very poor and according to the holy man,” he gestured up the hill, “I must avail myself of her many times and not hold back from my demands. I must lust for her daily. She must feel my cock rise up in her belly, in her neediest place, and scream for the agony of its bliss.”
Rufus licked his lips at the description. Why couldn’t he be gifted with land that needed such a sacrifice? “And this shall bring renewal to your land?”
“If balanced. If the portents remain bad, then shall the earth need retribution. This lovely creature, so blessed with fortune, shall also need great courage. I’m not hopeful to find such a woman.” Felix gave a small shrug, as if to dismiss his concerns.
Rufus was not happy to see him so despondent. “Then, we shall find such a woman on our travels north, and when we do, I shall help you acquire her.”
Felix smiled and resumed the path with a spring in his step. “I should never have doubted you. Of course you may also find her pleasing, and if you do, the goddesses will be doubly satisfied.”
Rufus bounded down the hill after his friend. The long journey didn’t seem quite so challenging now that they had a second, more appealing mission to accomplish.
Just two soft apples and a chunk of stale bread; nothing else. Any more would be missed by the beady-eyed cook. She smuggled them out of the kitchen in a bag slung under her arm, then down the hillside to the southernmost gate of the fort and past the guards, who smiled at her. They always smiled at her and she made sure she swung her skirts in reply.
The little boys, perhaps no more than five or six years old, were hidden behind a barn. They held out their dirty hands ready for the food. Glancing over her shoulder, she checked they weren’t being watched. If discovered, stealing from the kitchen would cost her a flogging at the post. The howling wind weakened and a horse brayed, signalling the arrival of visitors from the valley below.
The riders approached at an ambling pace and, like many stood by the roadside, she couldn’t stop staring at them grow in stature as they drew closer. They were huge men on equally large beasts. The horses needed to be strong to carry their magnificent burdens.
Bethan’s mouth hung lower. The man on the first horse was dark haired and bronze in tone. On his head was a plumed helmet, like a Roman soldier, but he wasn’t a soldier of any legion she’d seen before. Across his broad shoulders he wore a robe of fur, which cascaded down his long back and over the horse’s rump. Leather guards protected his forearms and shins, while a plate of armour covered his breast. The shadows of his helmet hid his face and only the lengthy bristles on his chin stuck out.
She stepped forward a little to see the second man, who rode a few paces behind. He too had skin coloured by the warmth of a distant sun. Unlike the first man, his thick locks of hair were tinged with yellow and reds. The dimming sun shone down on his nose and cheekbones, accentuating their shape. The thin lips of his mouth were surrounded by a thick beard, which was tied into a small tail beneath his chin. A young man, she thought. It was hard to tell given his unusual appearance. Mud caked the horses’ hooves and legs, and even though she did not consider it cold, he had wrapped a cloak tight under his chin, hiding his clothing. All she could see were his feet sticking out below. He gave his steed a small kick with his heels, cajoling him up the steep embankment.
While the boys gnawed on the bread, she continued to stare at the men as they drew to a halt before the gate. The legionnaire on guard dashed forward, brandishing his spear. The lead rider swiped the tip of it away with his booted foot.
“I am here to deliver a message for your commander. A message from the emperor himself.” His voice carried easily over the head of the legionnaire to the other soldiers forming behind him. A deep voice and one that sent a shiver down Bethan’s spine. He spoke in Latin, which she understood, but he did so without trace of a dialect. An articulate soldier? Was that possible? No, he couldn’t be a soldier, even though he carried weapons.
“Dismount and disarm. Weapons are not allowed past this point,” declared the legionnaire.
There was a lengthy pause before the men complied. The horses neighed when their riders dismounted.
Next to Bethan, one of the boys tugged on her sleeve. “Are they Celts, like us?”
The boy didn’t speak Latin, which wasn’t surprising. He lived in the settlement below the fort and wasn’t allowed inside, unlike Bethan. She was a slave and served in the kitchens. Captured during a raid on her village by another clan, she’d been sold to the Romans. As far as the Romans were concerned, all Celts were from the same tribe and they paid little attention to the fighting between the various clans. It had been months since she had been taken from her kin.
“No. They aren’t, at least not like us. I think they’re gladiators.” She could only guess. She’d not met one before, but she’d heard all about them from those that had seen them fight in the amphitheatres of Eboracum. It was miles and miles away and she’d never been that far south.
“Gladiators!” the boy shrilled.
“Hush,” she said, pushing him away from the road.
The smaller of the two boys ignored her and hurried up the incline to where the horses stood chomping, their hooves kicking the sodden turf.
“Keep back, boy,” warned the younger man.
He didn’t understand and continued to rush forward close to the frisky hooves. Bethan picked up her skirts and hurried after him. As she scooped him up out of harm’s way, the apples tumbled out of her bag right by the feet of the cook.
She cursed under her breath and put the child down. Cook glared at her. He was back from the market with the kitchen boy, who was dragging the dray laden with fresh produce.
“Stealing,” growled the cook. “You’ve been warned, slave, not to steal.”
She straightened her back. “It’s just—”
“It’s just food, I know.” He grabbed her arm. “Food that’s for Romans, not these cursed imbeciles.”
The two visitors had crossed the threshold of the gate, leaving her with the cook and a trio of legionnaires. One of them smirked.
“You’ll pay for this, Bethan.” The soldier dragged her between the other two. “In irons, now.”
“No!” she wailed.
The boys, thankfully, had scarpered. Their little legs carried them quickly and they disappeared amongst the huts.
As the gate slammed shut, trapping her inside the fort, she caught sight of the gladiators, if that was what they were. The young one, his cloak swept back over his shoulder, turned to face her. He stared as she wriggled between the guards.
Now she could see his fine leather breastplate, the moulding around his stomach and the fronds of his battle skirt. He wore breeches to protect him from the cold wind and fur-lined boots.
Bethan flinched as he held her in his steely gaze. A remarkable man with a head of gold and amber, quite like nothing she’d seen before. He held his helmet tucked under his arm, while his other hand rested on his empty scabbard. He pressed his lips together and nodded. A strange combination, as if he wanted to speak, but knew it was not appropriate. Instead, he acknowledged her presence with a small bow of his head.
Gods, he was stunning. A flush of warm blood descended across her breasts and into her belly. From there it moved lower and to the apex of her inner thighs. She might be anxious about her impending punishment yet she still managed to find this warmth within her. And, she felt it for a stranger.
A sturdy hand clamped down on the man’s shoulder and his companion shook him as if to waken him from a slumber; he lost his focus on her.
“Rufus, we’re to dine with him,” the other man said. He’d removed his helmet to reveal a head laden with dark hair bleached at the ends by the sun. He, too, was dressed in the finery of a warrior. From his neck to his calves, he was packed with muscles and they bulged beneath his shirt and cladding. However, although impressive and affecting, she couldn’t keep her eyes off the younger one.
Rufus. A Roman name. She liked it especially as he possessed streaks of red in his hair.
The legionnaire snatched her neck with his callused hand and thrust her head downward. “Behave,” he reprimanded. “You’ll not be smiling like that for much longer.”
Smiling? She’d not been aware of it. But, thinking about it, she had smiled at him. In fact, she’d beamed from ear to ear.
As they forced her to move, she lost sight of the other group of soldiers escorting the visitors. They were heading up to the commander’s house. She was going to the cells where they would shackle her with iron chains. Such was the life of a slave. She’d never get used to it.
Commander Atticus took the tablet out of Felix’s hand and examined the emperor’s seal. Satisfied with its authenticity, he placed it on a table. Felix didn’t ask what was written in the letter. It wasn’t any of his business.
“How long has it taken you?” the commander asked. Atticus was in command of all the forts along the Roman Wall and ruled the legions of northern Britannia with ruthless efficiency.
“Two months,” replied Felix. They’d left in March after the snows had melted and before the oppressive heat arrived. Britannia wasn’t a hot country like southern Europe. Fucking cold, Rufus had complained on numerous occasions since they’d crossed the sea. After two months of campfires and riding horses, Felix was looking forward to settling down in his new home.
“I was assured that speed was not essential, only that the message was safely delivered,” Felix said.
Atticus pursed his lips. “I suppose the emperor had his reasons for choosing you.” The commander meant ex-gladiators. Felix wondered if it was because they could fend for themselves for the lengthy journey. Or perhaps it was because the emperor didn’t trust his citizens with the task. A gladiator’s loyalty was to prize money and survival, and little else.
“He required me to honour my freedom with one last service. We were chosen as emissaries.” Felix nodded at Rufus, who stood to one side. His junior and one-time protégé, Rufus was a few years younger than he was. Unlike Felix, who originally hailed from Britannia, Rufus was a swarthy Gaul with hazel eyes and thick hair. He’d grown a beard since they’d left the sweltering stench of Rome. Felix scratched the bristles on his chin. He was in need of a shave.
“Your name, Felix Gaius Hercules, is known throughout the Roman Empire. We are honoured by your visitation. Please sit, both of you.” Atticus waved them to the relative comfort of his private chamber and the long couches. A servant laid out food on a table.
Of course, his name was known. Felix had survived many fights in the arena, earning him a reputation across the empire as undefeatable. He’d trained others to fight, too, including Rufus, who’d volunteered. When Felix had been freed, he’d asked that Rufus should join him. The emperor had agreed, but on the condition he delivered the letter.
“Not many gladiators survive the coliseum,” Atticus remarked. “I only had the pleasure of being there once in my life.” The commander originated from Spain.
Felix dipped a piece of bread in his wine. “I have fought three times in the coliseum. I began my training in a provincial arena. My friend, Rufus, also survived the coliseum on two occasions.”
“Indeed.” Atticus applauded them both. “Remarkable.”
“If you can provide us a night’s accommodation, we will leave early in the morning. The emperor has granted me a villa to the south of Luguvalium.” A small farm with potential, he’d been told by the tax collector in Eboracum when the two men had passed through the town. The potential depended on the goddesses and the seer’s suggestion for pleasing them.
“Briganti land.” Atticus wrinkled his nose. “They can make trouble. We pay little attention to their skirmishes and pillaging. However, if they step foot near the wall, they pay the price without mercy.”
Felix said nothing. He was a Briganti. Born in a village somewhere. He’d been taken as a child, sold into slavery and a life as a gladiator. He didn’t fear his own people. The sun had bleached his hair and turned his skin darker, but beneath it, he was a Briton. A Celtic warrior. What he desired was to be a Roman citizen. It would take many years of tax paying and loyalty to earn that right.
The major domo cleared his throat. “Sir,” he addressed Atticus, “there is the matter of the slave.”
“Ah, the girl,” Atticus groaned. “Bloody slaves. I’ve had to have a few flogged in the last week for insolence. This is the latest needing my justice. Bring her in.”
The girl was in chains and shackled about the ankles and wrists. She had long black hair and darkly pitted eyes. However, her skin was pale. She had little opportunity to enjoy sunlight. Perhaps no more than twenty years, she would not reach Felix’s shoulders if she stood next to him. Rufus was bold. He stared at her with obvious longing. So quickly did his companion find women pleasing to the eye. Felix had promised the gods he would wait, and so he must.
“For what is she being punished?” he asked Atticus.
“Theft. Food from the kitchen. She handed it out to the beggars who plague the south gate. She was told not to do it.” Atticus continued to recline on his couch and picked at the bunch of grapes. Those grapes, Felix guessed, had taken a long journey to reach the fort. Lucky man.
“So, she stole.” Felix had met many thieves in the arena. He had little sympathy for those men condemned to die. Unlike them, he had been enslaved through war. He’d not chosen the life of a gladiator, but neither had he seen it as an excuse to complain. He’d rather fight than serve at the feet of another man.
“She stole.” Atticus snorted. “Even if it was waste for the pigs.”
Rufus stirred. “Scraps?”
Atticus nodded and spat out a pip. “The leftovers. The pigs need to be fed.”
“It was for the children,” she shrilled. “You feed your hounds better.”
Atticus’s eyes popped open and he leapt to his feet, crossed the floor, and slapped her face. “See,” he raged, turning to Felix, “the insolence I have to put up with.”
The girl’s head recoiled with the force of the blow. However, she brought it back with a look of brazen defiance. She risked much for a few scraps of food, thought Felix.
Across the room, Rufus’s hands had formed fists. The young man had a hard exterior and a soft heart. Felix shot him a warning glance. They couldn’t afford to upset Atticus.
Atticus returned to his seat. “She should be flogged…” the commander smirked, “although, perhaps we need a little entertainment.”
Rufus raised his eyebrows. “Entertainment?”
“Punished by a gladiator seems a fitting consequence for a slave.”
“I’m a Rudiarius, a freed gladiator,” said Felix beneath his breath. In his baggage was his Rudius—a wooden sword given to him during the ceremony.
“Would not a firm, hard hand on her ass teach her not to steal?” Atticus persisted. “My gift to you, great Hercules.”
Rufus glanced at Felix, then at the girl. Her eyes were widening into moons, the whites visible from where he sat.
“I decide how much she bears,” Felix stated clearly.
Atticus frowned. The commander liked power. How cruel was he? An old man by the standards of a soldier, probably in his forties and likely to be retired soon. If he had a wife, he’d not mentioned her. A spectator, then. Felix knew how to handle an audience; however, he couldn’t afford to displease his host.
“I would ensure she is well spanked. She is not my first,” Felix said. The wealthy elite of Rome liked to have him brought to their private rooms. The wives of patrons were especially submissive when a gladiator was sent to pleasure them. They submitted to his dominance, including spankings and other acts, as long as when he finished, he had left them satisfied. The practice had earned him extra money and a loyal following of women to support him in the arena. They wrote graffiti on the walls and petitioned for his release.
“Remove her clothing,” Atticus ordered the major domo.
The manservant tore the woollen tunic apart and off her shoulders. She wriggled, clinging on to the last hope for dignity but to no avail.
Rufus gasped, as if he’d never seen a naked woman before, which was hardly the truth. However, perhaps he’d not seen one of her kind. She had marble skin, milky white in tone, and at the apex of her thighs a dark little bush. She tried to hide it with the chains around her wrists. Her breasts were bountiful and tipped by peachy stones. When the major domo pushed her forward, she blushed about the bosom.
Felix’s cock stiffened. He expected Rufus was experiencing the same reaction since the young man had dropped his hands into his lap in response to the suddenness of his erection. Felix admired Rufus. He had all the vitality of youth still on his side, but the maturity of an older man. He might appear to be agog and ready to devour the poor girl, but he wouldn’t. Rufus possessed a gentleness to his strength and passion for lovemaking, and a level of self-control that was at odds with his fiery temper. He might conquer a woman with his body, but he never took her without consent. For the two months of their journey, while Felix abstained from fucking, Rufus only did so when he met a willing woman.
Her eyes were wet with unshed tears. A proud Briton. Felix already liked her. If he could, he would pity her and not treat her harshly, but he dare not offend the offer granted by Atticus.
“What is your name?” he asked her in her own tongue, which he struggled to recall, but it came when he needed it to.
“Bethan,” she said quietly. “Bethan of the Carvetii.” Her cheeks flushed pink.
A neighbouring tribe and one that his people had likely fought and traded with over the years he’d been absent. “Bethan, don’t be afraid. I am a powerful man, yes, with strong muscles, but I know how to use them wisely. Come closer.”
She shuffled toward him and lowered her hands to her side, taking the chains with her. The links stretched across her belly and the ones about her ankles clinked as she walked.
Atticus chortled. “She likes what you say, I can see it. Keep it up, she’ll be eating out of your hand while you smart her backside. These Britons have no wits.”
Felix guessed Atticus had no clue as to what he’d said. “Closer, Bethan.” He’d no desire to drag her screaming across the room.
The dark eyes stayed on him as if she was blotting out everybody else. Behind her Rufus shifted to the edge of his seat. Reaching up to her long hair, Felix coiled it between his fingers. “Down,” he said firmly.
Apparently, he’d hypnotised her. She slid onto her knees, taking the weight of the chains between her wrists. He lifted them while keeping his hand bundled in her hair and slowly, he drew her over his lap. Her bare bottom rose up and the creamy ass cheeks parted slightly.
Gods, be patient! He would enjoy spanking her, but no more. In the temples of Rome, he’d sworn on the altar of Ceres, goddess of the harvest and fertility, that he would only spill his seed once he reached his new lands. He’d waited two months to reach Britannia; he could wait a few more days before he fucked a woman. He raised his hand and brought it down with a crack.
Bethan screamed and jerked across his lap.
Atticus roared with laughter.
Rufus’s nostrils flared, but he said nothing.
Felix rested his hand on her ass, feeling the heat rise to the surface. “Be brave, Bethan,” he said quietly. “The gods will reward you.”