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The Conqueror by Salem Fitzgerald (1)


Chapter 1

Marcus buried his short sword in the chest of the barbarian trying to protect the little mud-and-thatch hut. His men were already rounding up the villagers for counting. Some would be taken for service, the rest logged for taxation, and all would be taught, as soon as possible, to adapt to life as Roman subjects. The pagan rituals would cease immediately, Roman gods would be introduced, and the people would receive a thorough indoctrination in proper worship of Caesar. After all, for this Marcus had been sent. His commanding officer, the senior centurion, had led the attack on the nearby city, and Marcus had been sent with his own century to subjugate three of the surrounding villages. The last had just fallen.

Only one task remained. While the soldiers brought the defeated Britons together, Marcus must see to the druid personally. As the barbarian crumpled, he braced his boot against the man’s chest and pulled his sword free, then turned and slashed at the heavy skin hanging over the entrance to the hut.

He stomped inside, bloody sword drawn, instantly fixing his gaze on the only occupant—a robe-clad figure standing in the middle of the room. Probably in a trance, as they usually were, if they were not begging for their lives or attempting to bribe him with their worthless treasures. Marcus advanced, sword drawing back to strike. He preferred the ones in trances. Less trouble to kill, the heathen.

Blue eyes.

Steps faltering, Marcus’ sword arm wavered. Not in a trance. The druid simply stood, waiting for death. His hood was drawn back, and in single moment of pause, Marcus took in details with the rapid skill of a hardened Roman soldier.

A young man. Fair. Long, dark golden hair, short beard. Slender, almost lost in his robes. Pale eyes a striking blue, like the sea of Genoa, his boyhood home. The beautiful sea and sky, so blue, so unlike this Britannia and all the grey here.

Marcus shook his head and advanced, his sword raised high. The druids must die. Their heathen evil must end. For the Empire.

The young druid did not cower, did not even flinch. In the space of a breath, Marcus had crossed the gap—the hut was one tiny room, his helm brushed the ceiling, and the scent of wood smoke and herbs surrounded him. Three paces brought him within striking distance.

Blue eyes.

Never cowering, showing no fear, though fear there was in plenty. The barbarian knew his end had come, and his eyes struggled between peace and pained terror. Faint, almost imperceptible tremors shook him, but he stood his ground.

Marcus had never slain such a druid. They cowered, wept, threw witchcraft at him, or scraped in their hovels for something they thought could buy his mercy. This druid simply faced him. No bargaining in his garbled, foreign tongue. No tears.

His fist tightened on the sword, but he had never slain such a man. Druid. A demon-friend, a male witch, a vessel of evil. A soul…within blue eyes, a soul so brave and strong. He knew strength. He was Roman. He could see it, even in this barbarian. Even in this muddy village in Britannia, even with wood smoke clouding the tiny hut around them.

“Name!”

He heard the demand leave his lips, though there was no reason for it. When had he ever demanded a name, sword raised?

The druid blinked, once, but his eyes did not understand. Marcus raised his sword, laying the blade against the druid’s throat. There was no meaning in this. Just kill the sorcerer and be done.

“Name!” He demanded it again. Then, without knowing quite why, he pointed to himself with his free hand. “Marcus.”

Why should he tell the witch his name? Why should he want the barbarian to know it?

Blue eyes flickered with something, and then a soft, deep voice answered with only one word—“Gwynllyw.

Marcus frowned. The barbarian’s language was mangled flesh to him—no meaning. In the pause, the druid spoke again—“Gwynllyw.

“Gw…wen…” He frowned heavily.

Gwynllyw.” Now the low tones had become gentle, almost like a father instructing his child. Marcus glared, his eyes darkening as his blade slid along the druid’s pale throat.

“You are hereby executed in the name of Caesar for practice of heathen evils and worshiping false gods…”

But there his words died, for the druid’s blue eyes met his, and never had Marcus seen such a gentle depth. One word—one deep word, spoken softly. “Mahr-khus.”

The barbarian’s soft voice felt like silk brushing over his skin. Something deep in Marcus’ gut trembled. Tenderness, and fearless blue—he felt trapped. He could kill this druid with a flick of his arm, he meant to, he had come to do simply that, he was going to do it…yet what a strange tone to hear from a man about to die. It reminded him of his wife’s voice, but she was a continent away; he had not seen her in two years. He could barely remember her face anymore, but this sweetness, this gentle voice…it made his chest ache.

The druid spoke again—a stream of nonsense sounds that soothed Marcus like the peaceful flow of a cool, clear brook. The druid raised a hand, and there were markings on it. Painted runes and symbols over the back of a callused, rough hand that came up between them, fingertips resting against the blade…fingertips pressing gently, and meeting no resistance at all. The sharp edge did not break the skin as the barbarian pushed it slowly away. It dropped to Marcus’ side as his eyes flickered over the druid. More symbols—he noticed them now, on both hands and both feet. Some evil invocation, perhaps. Some pagan ritual that must be quelled…

Marcus’ sword was bloody, and a little blood remained on those fingertips. The druid paused, noting it, and Marcus half expected him to do something vile; these druids all drank blood and ate children, didn’t they? But instead, the barbarian simply wiped it away with a corner of his robe, as neatly as a mother wiping her son’s face.

Who is this man?

It didn’t matter. Marcus’ grip around his sword tightened again, but he did not get as far as raising the weapon. The druid’s eyes returned to his, blue, blue as the summer sea, too striking for this heathen land of brown and grey.

Words again, meaningless sounds, not the civilized beauty of Latin, but the voice…more beautiful than any that he had ever heard speaking his own tongue. Marcus frowned heavily. He should not let this druid speak. For all he knew, the words were some evil spell. He had heard tales of these enchanters. The Roman soldiers knew better than to give them time to do anything at all, even speak. The druids were handled with swords alone, quick and without questions. This man should already be dead.

Had he cowered and hissed like a wild animal—as other druids did—he would be.

Instead, he stopped speaking rather suddenly. His voice lifted in a question, his eyes asking something, but Marcus could only frown. The barbarian sighed a little, shaking his head. If Marcus were to guess, it seemed that the druid was realizing that this Roman before him was not one of the ones who had learned a little of his language. His blue eyes observed Marcus in disappointed silence, a sad smile on his lips.

“Do you not speak any Latin?” Where had the question come from?

A blink, a look of curiosity, but no understanding.

“La-tin?” Marcus said it again, very slowly.

A brief frown. The druid raised a rune-marked hand again, and Marcus tensed, gripping his sword—but the man only pointed at him and repeated with a frown, “Mahrkhus Lahtin?”

“No,” he grunted, shaking his head sharply. “Marcus.” He placed his hand over his breastplate, emphasizing that only Marcus was his name. Then, feeling very foolish, he gestured with his hand, as though drawing something invisible out of his mouth, “Laaa-tinnn.” His hand repeated the waving motion, the gesture to imitate the utterances of speech, of language. “Latin.”

This time, a light appeared in those blue eyes. The man repeated Marcus’ gesture, then lifted a hand to his own ear. “Latin?”

Marcus did not realize until too late that his face had cracked into a slight smile. He nodded. “Latin!” Then, the pointed at the druid, raising his eyebrows and asking, “Gw…Gwen…Latin?”

A gentle smile. “Gwynllyw.” But still the sadness. “Gwynllyw…” A gesture of denial with both hands, in addition to a shaking head, “…Latin.”

Well. That was meaningless.

Marcus huffed. Why was he even trying to speak with this druid? The scholars would be explaining—brokenly—to the conquered village that they were now under Roman rule and were not to worship their heathen gods from this day forward. But Rome did not explain this to the druids; they could not be trusted. If left alive, the people would continue to cling to their authority, to their old ways. The druid must die.

Why then did his sword feel so heavy? Why was it so difficult, now, to raise it against this barbarian?

It could be witchcraft. Perhaps Marcus had allowed the pagan to work his vile craft as he hesitated. He certainly did feel a kind of…strangeness. His heart was pounding in his chest—like it had been when he was fighting, but some time had passed now. He should not feel this breathless…or dizzy. The hut seemed even smaller, suddenly—close and concealing. Like a little, dark haven, lit only by the hearth fire, hazy with the smoke from it.

The scent of smoke filled his lungs, smoke and earth and herbs—the whole ceiling was hung with them, and with the evil tools of heathen magic and primitive daily life. This whole hut would be burned to the ground…as soon as the druid was dead. Often the druid would be barricaded inside and burnt alive with his pagan relics—but Marcus was not a cruel centurion. A blade to the heart—quick and clean, and then fire could purge the rest. He did not come to torture these poor, ignorant creatures, not even the druids.

Druids… He stared at the one called Gwen-something, and forced himself to remember. They sacrifice people to demons. He’d seen it once. And this man, this Gwen—How often has he raised the bloody knife over a bound and helpless victim? How often has he drunk human blood in some dark ritual?

And what demon was he possessed with that he could commit such evil, and yet meet Marcus’ gaze with clear, innocent blue?

“What right have you to be so calm?” Marcus said it without thinking, and though speaking was meaningless, once he’d begun he could not seem to stop. “Why do you stand there so fearlessly before me? Do you not realize that I am your executioner? I have come to end your life!” He waved his sword in a gesture of frustration. Gwen watched him without a flinch. Marcus sighed heavily. “Why do you not scream and flee, like the others? Or attack me like a vicious animal? I have seen gladiators face their deaths with less peace and acceptance! What claim does a barbarian have on such nobility?”

Doubtless, his agitation could not have been more plain. Blue eyes searched his face with obvious concern. The low, beautiful voice spoke again, so softly, with the slight lift of a question. Turning his face away from the sight of pained blue, he growled, “Do not worry for me, you fool. Worry for your own fate.”

A warm, gentle touch brushed his hand—the one wrapped around the hilt of his sword.

Marcus jerked his hand back and dropped into a defensive stance without thinking. Breath catching, eyes wide, he stared at the equally startled-looking druid. Gwen blinked, holding his hands out in a peaceful gesture. He spoke again, in conciliatory tones.

It did nothing to ease the racing of Marcus’ heart.

The gentle brush of callused hands should never feel so warm. Even worse, his hand was still tingling with the shadow of that sensation. Suddenly, it was as if all of his skin was yearning to feel what only his hand had felt—aching for Gwen’s hands. Sorcery, he told himself, He’s a sorcerer, he’s trying to enchant his enemy… But the thought lacked conviction in the face of Gwen’s dismayed surprise.

His hand, grasping the sword’s hilt, trembled. The druid turned his eyes downward, hands open in a gesture of surrender. For that moment, without captivating blue drawing all his attention, Marcus could see the rest of his face more closely. It was a youthful face, and fair, yet wearing a man’s beard—perhaps the druid was close to his own age, within his third decade? And there were runes here too—on his brow, and marking his temples. Strange symbols for some strange spell…

They smudged.

Marcus froze, realizing too late that he’d reached out with his free hand to touch the reddish markings. He’d thought they were surely drawn in blood, but they didn’t smear wetly—the red powder smudged under his fingertips, and startled blue eyes looked up at him.

They both stood frozen, eyes wide. Marcus’ heart was pounding in his chest, his fingers lingered upon the druid’s face, and neither of them drew back. After a moment, a dull thump reached Marcus as if from far away—his sword hitting the earth.

Now free, his sword hand reached forward. Marcus felt the lean body under loose, coarse cloth…and he pulled. The druid didn’t resist. As easily as a sigh, he was in Marcus’ arms.

What am I doing?

“Mahrkhus?”

His arms tightened around the thin barbarian, fists grasping—one hand full of coarse robe, the other buried in surprisingly smooth hair. A flicker of uncertainty, perhaps even the beginnings of fear…and then Marcus pressed his mouth onto the other man’s. The druid was stiff and unmoving for a long moment, then suddenly, his head snapped back. Eyes wide, he tried to push away.

Marcus tightened his grip and forced his mouth upon the druid’s again. Hands pushed against his breastplate, but he didn’t feel them. He felt the heat of the barbarian’s mouth, and he felt the tremors in his body. He pressed deeper, roughly demanding admittance. And, strangely, he felt some of the resistance fade. He tasted the strange seasonings these Britons used in their food as he pushed his tongue in deep.

Those blue eyes were tormented now, caught between surprise and fear and something…very different. When Marcus finally released his mouth for a moment to catch his breath, the man stared at him, mouth reddened from the force Marcus had used. The sight stoked the fire beginning to rise in his body, and he leaned down again.

“Mahrkhus!” The druid tried to pull away in alarm. Marcus growled.

With swift, practiced moves, he contained the man’s limbs and lifted him, shifted, and tossed him down onto a neat little pile of hay covered with animal skins and furs—the barbarian’s primitive bed. A moment later, he was bridged over the sprawling man. With a quick yank, Marcus lifted the robe to the man’s chest, baring his body, and his other hand grasped the loincloth wrapped around his hips.

“Mahrkhus! Mahrkhus!” A stream of words that sounded rather like someone choking. He didn’t listen, didn’t care. Even before the loincloth came loose, he could see enough. And once the sad piece of material was gone, the druid went suddenly quiet, eyes crushed shut as his manhood was exposed.

Swollen, hard, and standing tall. Marcus grinned sharply. “Pretending to dislike it? This says otherwise.”

The blue eyes opened again at his tone. They were misty as they looked up at him from the furs—the torment still there. Fear and denial and something so very different, something wanting

Marcus grasped the druid’s member.

Gwen gasped and jerked, but did not fight him. Pained blue gazed up at him. “M-Mahrkhus…” It was a pleading whisper. Please stop.

Instead, Marcus flipped up the skirt of his tunic, freeing his own eager manhood, hot and pulsing with desire. Then he grasped slim, firm thighs and pushed them apart and up.

True panic flashed in blue, and mangled sounds came spilling out, a begging tone, desperate gestures. Marcus frowned, looking where Gwen pointed. A rough-hewn bench, scattered with pots and herbs and other paraphernalia. He looked back at Gwen, still frowning and shaking his head, not understanding. Gwen pointed more insistently, his beautiful eyes so desperate that Marcus couldn’t help himself. With a grunt, he stood, shooting the druid a warning look before he reached for the bench.

He saw one crude pot with something greasy in it, like animal fat. Picking it up, he looked to the druid, who nodded eagerly. Ah. Marcus relented and was about to return when he noticed a cold, damp breeze stirring the warm, smoky air around him.

The skin over the door to the little mud hut was hanging half torn down. Though most of the Romans would be busy with most of the Britons near the center of the village, it was still possible that some might pass by and easily see inside.

Quickly crossing to the entrance, Marcus removed his helmet and set it outside. A signal—no one would dare disturb the centurion. They would think he had taken a village wench. They would wait until their commander was no longer occupied. Then he yanked the skin across the opening, shoving it into a crack to hold it in place, at least partly obscuring them from the outside world.

He returned to the mound of furs Gwen called a bed. The druid lay where Marcus had left him—he had not dared to replace his robe, but he was covering himself as best he could with his hands, a nervous look in his eyes. Marcus hitched his own clothes up again and secured the material by tucking it into a strap of his armor, but apart from that he did not undress. He pushed Gwen’s legs apart and knelt between them, shoving the druid’s hands aside to expose his manhood again. Then he fetched himself some of the grease from the pot and briskly shoved two fingers into Gwen’s resisting hole.

It was tight. Gwen choked and grunted in discomfort, but Marcus did not relent. He shoved grease in as deep as he could, closing his eyes to the fear and pain in those lovely blues. He could not slow down, could not give himself time to think about what he was doing, because this was foolish. He had to kill the druid. Raping him first only wasted time, and Marcus could take any of the Britons back to camp if he wished to sate his needs.

Yet even as he told himself these sensible things, he took a fistful of grease and quickly slicked his erection and positioned himself. Gwen was shaking, and he turned his head away, eyes closing as if to escape the sight and thus the truth of what was about to happen to him.

When Marcus thrust in with relentless power, Gwen threw his head back and cried out in pain, but his eyes remained closed.

He was so, so tight. Marcus grit his teeth, bearing the painful squeeze that still kept him too erect to even dream of withdrawing. He felt a powerful shudder run through the barbarian’s lean frame and into him through the places they touched, the places they were connected.

With his clean hand, Marcus touched Gwen’s face…grasped a handful of hair again…pulled, but gently. Tugged insistently, sinking down on top of the man. As before, Gwen did not fight the rough kiss. He cried out again into Marcus’ mouth with the first thrust. Then again. And again. He was squeezing his eyes shut, clamping back tears, but his lovely voice was filled with pain, over and over. It stung something in Marcus’ chest each time he drove in.

Yet he didn’t stop.

Once inside this man, all his self-control as a soldier simply unraveled. The druid, Gwen, was unlike any companion he had ever bedded. The rough coupling in this crude, dirty place should have diminished the pleasure, but with every thrust, Marcus only felt more overwhelming desire. He could not tear his eyes from the man’s sweet face, contorted with agony…and shades of bliss haunting the edges of his sea-blue eyes. He could not bear the sounds Gwen made, the cries wrenched from him, the thin sounds between…and the occasional moan that made his throat tight and his heart race in his chest.

Marcus watched, and at times he kissed a gasping mouth, but he never stopped thrusting. Sweat soaked his tunic—and Gwen was the same. The powder-writing on his skin grew wet and smeared until the runes could barely be distinguished. His long, golden hair darkened with sweat and clung to skin, plastered to red streaks. And tears—just a few—slipped free and made tracks over his face, pooling in his ears. Heart thumping in time to the pounding down below, Marcus leaned even closer. Touched his lips to the tracks. Slipped his tongue into Gwen’s ear and tasted his salt tears.

Mine…Gwen…” It was a breathless moan, almost a whisper. It was aching, blissful, rough.

Blue eyes looked up at him, so close. Marcus thought he would drown in them. The man looked…tired. Exhausted. And through the weakness, there was pleading again. How long have we been coupling? Marcus…didn’t know. His body was in control, relentlessly claiming the man beneath him, insatiable for the pleasure of being inside him. It wasn’t tight anymore, and the cries of pain had faded to occasional grunts of discomfort. Gwen was beginning to writhe a little—he could barely move, pinned as he was by Marcus’ larger body, but Marcus could feel the squirming, the hitching breath, the tremors.

He claimed Gwen’s mouth again, deep and passionate—the druid’s coarse beard tickled his smooth face—and he took hold of Gwen’s dripping manhood and jerked him quickly.

Cries again, immediately—muffled by their joined mouths, but still loud. Not so pained anymore. Cries of pleasure…and then strained sounds of climax as Gwen’s manhood spurted his seed into Marcus’ hand.

Marcus must have been closer than he realized. Gwen finished, collapsing—utterly spent. But Marcus picked up speed for a final minute, instinct driving him toward the goal. The slapping sounds of skin released something wild and primal within him until he thought only of staking his claim on this man. He wrapped his arms around Gwen’s limp, soaked body and rutted him like an animal…and then he spilled, groaning in ecstasy as he felt his seed entering Gwen’s body. He thought perhaps there was a light touch on the side of his face. A whisper of his name, heavily accented. But he wasn’t sure. His face was buried against sweaty skin, and the bliss, the heat, and the scent of Gwen’s body filled him.

Arms shaking and barely holding him up, Marcus withdrew. Beneath him, the druid lay still, breathing hard—as Marcus was. Gwen was a mess—yet Marcus could not take his eyes from the sight of him. He felt…a strange joy in the sight. Not like any wench he had ever bedded, nor even his wife. They had provoked feelings of pride, of satisfaction—sometimes renewed lust. For this man, he felt…simple joy. He is…quite lovely.

Weakly, Gwen raised a red-streaked hand, touched Marcus’ hand near his head on the furs, and tugged, bringing it close. Marcus shivered as lips brushed the inside of his wrist, and when Gwen’s eyes looked up at him, tired and tender, he felt the joy rise into a powerful need—a feeling that shamed the most desperate lust he had ever known.

Leaning down, he claimed Gwen’s mouth again—this time with a soft sweetness he had never used. Yet the need burned under the softness, giving the kiss an urgency that felt unfamiliar after coupling—yet wonderful.

“Centurion!”

They both froze at the voice from outside the hut. Marcus hunched over his druid, looking back over his shoulder at the door, teeth barred in a silent snarl. He saw no one beyond the opening, but the voice had been close. “What!” he snapped.

“Sir, we have a problem with the villagers that…”

“Wait. I’m coming,” he sharply interrupted.

His body felt like lead, but Marcus peeled himself off of Gwen. Yanking down his skirt, he walked out, stopping just beyond the doorway. As he thought, a solder was standing by the wall.

“Your pardon, sir, it sounded as though you were finished, and the scholar says there is some difficulty…” The solder indicated one of the scholars, who stepped forward, thinly concealed annoyance on his face. Marcus ignored the look.

“What is it?” he grunted.

The scholar’s expression twitched a little, and he began to surreptitiously breathe through his mouth. “The villagers will not hear instruction, centurion. The soldiers have already killed a few as examples, but the village will not take warning. They keep blathering about some sacred fire ritual and the druids…”

“Well, tell them there will be no ritual. Tell them their druid is dead. I’ll have this hut burning in a moment. Tell them if they wish, they can all be burned in their huts, just like their druid. That should make a good fire ritual for these pagans.”

“Yes sir,” the soldier agreed, moving to escort the scholar back to the others.

“A moment.” They stopped, and Marcus cursed himself for his impulse before plunging ahead. Speaking to the scholar, he asked, “How would you tell one of these barbarians to bring his valuables with him? In his tongue?” The scholar frowned, but provided a string of awkward sounds. Marcus grimaced. “Is there a simpler way to say it?”

“I suppose…” Then the scholar offered what must have been only two words. Marcus repeated them, fumbling the sounds. “Do you wish me to tell the villagers to gather their valuables, centurion? They do not seem to have any…”

“No,” he interrupted. “No. Carry on. Dismissed.”

The solder saluted, but the scholar gave him a skeptical look before departing. Marcus turned and reentered the hut.

Gwen had covered himself with his robe and was trying, weakly, to reach his feet. With two brisk paces, Marcus reached him, grasped his arms, and helped him up as gently as he could. Surprised blue eyes blinked up at him, but the man didn’t cower or flinch.

Marcus’ chest tightened, and he frowned. There was no time for more of this. Hesitating over the syllables, he repeated what the scholar had told him. Gwen gave him a baffled look.

Frustrated, Marcus pointed to the fire pit. “Fire.” Then he pointed all around at the hut. “Fire burn down.” He pointed at Gwen. “Gwen…” and he repeated the words he hoped meant bring valuables. Then he took the man’s hand and pulled him close. “Gwen…come with me.” He pointed away from the village, back toward the Roman camp. “Gwen…with Marcus. Come. Bring valuables.

Frowning, Gwen repeated the words of his language, much more fluidly, with his voice rising in a question. Marcus nodded sharply. Then, “Gwynllyw…Mahrkhus…” A hand against his breastplate, a hand against the druid’s chest—lifted, and brought together between them. Clasped. Then pointing away, both hands together. Raised eyebrows.

Marcus nodded again. “Yes. We’re leaving together. I’m taking you with me.” Then he pulled Gwen close and kissed him.

When he pulled back, he could see understanding in those beautiful eyes—and acceptance. Not joy—not the sharp, giddy joy Marcus was feeling, the boyish elation that made him do something so utterly foolish as take a druid back to camp with him. No…he wished Gwen would feel the same, but he would take acceptance for now. Later. Later, he would make Gwen happy that he had agreed to this.

With a nod, the druid moved away. He looked around the hut, a long, lingering gaze, as if lost. He took a few short steps away from Marcus—limping heavily, back bent and legs unsteady. Finally, he picked up a round stone amulet on a long leather thong. It was engraved with more of those pagan runes—and it was an extremely bad idea to let the druid keep such a thing. But Marcus did not interfere as Gwen hung the amulet around his neck, hiding it under the robe. Then Gwen took up a few short sticks, cut with markings, and slipped them into a fold of his robe, followed by a little sachet. With that, he turned and faced Marcus. “Gwynllyw, Mahrkhus,” and he pointed away.

Nodding, Marcus led the druid out of his home. Gwen struggled to match the pace, face twisted in pain with each step.

He picked up his helmet and put it back on, then turned to Gwen and, with a muttered apology, took his wrists and bound them, pulling the hood of his robe up over his head. Gwen did not resist, simply stood there as Marcus returned to the hut, grabbing a branch from the fire and holding it up to the thatch roof. He made sure the hut was blazing, then returned to his quiet captive.

Tears had left their tracks down Gwen’s face, but even as Marcus looked at him, the grief suddenly vanished. A light of realization cleared the sorrow from his face, and that melted into a peaceful expression. Marcus studied the druid with a frown as Gwen watched his home burn, eyes a little sorrowful, but peace and acceptance overruling the rest.

When those blue eyes turned to him again, there was a new curiosity in them—perhaps even a cautious…trust?

Marcus ached to kiss him, but they were in sight of others, now. Distant, but the gesture would be seen. He could not be tender, now. It was fine for the centurion to take a barbarian captive for his personal use, but tenderness and kisses would be unthinkable. Instead, Marcus winced in regret, mumbled an apology, and pulled Gwen’s hood so low that it hid his face. Then he grabbed his bound hands and dragged him over to his horse and tied him to the saddle by a lead rope. Gwen would have to follow on foot, like hobbled livestock.

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