DescriptionIn a land torn apart by an invading Roman Empire, Sabrina is a willful young orphan come of age. Wild, impetuous, and the cause of much despair in her village, she clings to a heritage only half remembered and rejects all suitors, desiring nothing more than the luxury of spending her days barefoot amongst the shrinking woods of the Britons.
But when the Roman threat grows ever greater and the protection of the Briton kings wanes, enemies become friends and Sabrina finds herself thrust under the command of strict Roman Centurion Decius Verres, a man who requires utter obedience and tolerates no dissent.
Can Sabrina ever learn to submit to her Centurion's command? Or will she defy all attempts to tame her and become yet another casualty of war?
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Excerpt:One with the forest. One with the dewy air, the rich earth. One with all there was. Breathing deep, I inhaled the soft breeze, the breeze that had sustained my people throughout our great line. This same breath that now flowed through me had flowed through my mother, my father and beyond. We existed in a never ending circle of birth and re-birth, coming from the earth and returning to it again.
By my side, my faithful hound Bran still quivered with the joy of the hunt. In her jaws she held a small woodland creature that had recently been felled by her flashing jaws. In the moments after the kill, I took a moment to give thanks to the spirit of the rabbit.
With my head bowed in a quiet moment of prayer, I felt the world become still around me, I felt...
I was startled out of my reverential trance by an ugly man wearing a metal suit. He shouted at me from about thirty paces away through the branches and leaves of the forest and I noted that he brandished a long spear in his brawny arm. This was not a good thing.
“Ho there! Halt!”
I had been quite definitely halted when he had come upon me, however now that the shouting had begun, my halting ceased rather quickly and much like a beast of prey, I took to my heels immediately. Roman soldiers were not to be trusted, they were born to a life of blood and they knew nothing but the bringing of death and pain.
At the time these events took place, Roman armies had been steadily encroaching on our lands in slow centipedes with their shields and spears and wicked gods for many, many years, grinding free men and women under the heel of their tyranny. Maidens who fell into their clutches could hope for a life of slavery at best and unspeakable horrors, like marriage, at worst. There were many tales of pretty young women being snatched up from villages and sent to Rome to perform as slaves and wives for the decadent men who ruled with iron fists. Even I feared the Romans, though I would never have admitted as much to any living soul.
As I fled I glanced around me to make sure that Bran was still by my side. Faithful mutt that she was, she could have outpaced me in a few strides and escaped to safety, but she kept pace beside me, her stringy, shaggy fur flowing in the wind.
Behind us, I heard the clattering of heavily armed soldiers doing their very best to give chase. In the course of our hunt we had obviously strayed too close to a Roman encampment. It was foolish, but so were many of the things I did those days. There was a scent of change in the air that I did not like at all, I could feel that all I cared about would soon be wiped away and there was little I could do about it.
Even the village I was now rushing towards at top speed had been moved several times due to the movements of the armies. We had once lived in a rather nice, well established little town, but we now lived in hastily constructed houses made of mud and straw and sticks, hoping that the armies would be held at bay long enough for us to plant some crops. Judging by the location of this patrol so close to the village, it seemed that we would soon be moving again.
With my long blonde hair whipping about my shoulders, I quickly turned off the small path that wound through the forest and took to dashing between the trees. The sounds of clattering armor quickly changed to shouted curses when the soldiers got caught up in creeping vines that snagged in their mail, and roots that tripped up their heavy boots. Romans were fine on their paved roads, but in a decent forest, they were entirely helpless.
Even as I smirked with triumph I didn't stop running, stopping would get you dead. I could not forget that they had scouts, scouts that could track for miles. It was unlikely that they would send one after me, but I didn't much feel like finding out I'd been wrong after the fact. I had to get back to the safety of the village, they would not bother me there, behind the safety of the sharpened posts that fortified our little encampment.
Glancing down at Bran, I saw to my great pleasure that she still gripped our prize between her teeth, a very large, very dead rabbit almost as long as my arm. We would eat well tonight.
Finally I saw the fires of the village through the trees, and although my rasping breaths were making my throat hoarse and exhaustion was beginning to set in, I whooped with glee as I drew closer to the safety of the thatched mud houses.
“Greetings savages!” I cried as I came tearing into camp at full speed and skidded to a halt, kicking up mud as I did so. Several of the villagers turned towards me with disdain written across their features, but others laughed at my high spirits. I was something of an exception to the norms of the village and rather a controversial figure. Most women my age were bearing babes and chivvying husbands about the place, but I had chosen a different path, the path of the spirit. Being an apprentice druid had many perks, I was free to roam the forests as much as I pleased, as long as I offered counsel to those that wanted it and brewed herbs for those who needed them.
Gawain, my protector, and chief of our village allowed himself to express a ghost of a smile as Bran trotted up to him and dropped the rabbit at his feet.
“Have you been hunting, Sabrina?”
“I have, m'lord,” I draped myself over into an exaggerated bow.
His kind eyes crinkled down at me and I smiled up at him, ignoring the glares from the others. Though Gawain was an old man, and his long white hair now no longer needed to be dyed pale, I thought him the most handsome man I'd ever seen - in a platonic sort of way. If it wasn't for him, I'd have been cast out long ago, I was sure of that.
“We shall eat well tonight, m'lord,” I pointed out obviously.
“We shall. How kind of you my dear,” Gawain said indulgently, drawing his robes about himself and pointing towards the camp fire. “All the more fortunate as we have a guest this eve, who will now feast on something besides nuts and berries.”
I turned and looked in the direction Gawain indicated. Through the leaping flames of the central fire I laid eyes on the Roman for the first time. My impressions of him were that he was the strangest and most dangerous looking man I'd ever seen. He was a mature man at the peak of his masculinity, his head had been shaved bare, and a ragged scar wound its way from the side of his skull down to his craggy jaw line. His shoulders were as broad as an Ox and even through his red tunic it was clear that he was the possessor of an impressive musculature, no doubt wrought from battle and a life harder than I could begin to imagine. Most unsettling of all though was not his physicality, but the keen look in his deep, dark eyes. He was looking at me through the leaping flames of the camp fire with a thoughtful expression that made my toes curl.
“A Roman?” I turned to Gawain with a puzzled expression. We were certainly no friends to the Romans, whose armies continued to cut swathes across our lands and murder those who did not submit to their tyranny.
“Indeed he is.”
“What is he here for? Sacrifice?”
Gawain chuckled dryly. “You shall not have your blood today Sabrina, he is an honored guest. He is Centurion Decius Cassius Verres. Treat him with respect.”
“Decius Cassius Verres? Is he afraid of perhaps running out of names, and so seeks to hoard them?” I quipped sneeringly as I watched the Roman turn his attention away from me and towards one of the simpering attending maids who were doing their best to ply him with berries and mead.
I understood why they gathered about the man so closely, they would soon be of marriageable age, and a husband such as he would guarantee security for the rest of their lives. Not all felt so vehemently against Rome as I did, indeed Rome was said by many to be the future. A Roman husband could provide many luxuries our own men never could. Many of the younger women had romantic dreams of trading their hard lives in the woods and fields for villas in the Roman Empire.
Personally, I'd long ago given up all hope of finding a husband. I had embraced my destiny, to hunt and to act as the spirit guide Gawain assured me I could be. I was happy in my life as it was and it was difficult not to be scornful of the young, fresh faced wenches that still believed salvation lay in the arms of a man.
“That is not respectful,” Gawain chided me gently.
“Right,” I agreed, shooting a dire look at the intruder in our midst. “I will see you in the morning.”
“Where are you going?”
“Into the woods.”
“We need you here tonight. It is a special occasion.”
“A special occasion?”
He was being mysterious. I hated it when Gawain was mysterious. He knew that all too well. He rested his hand on my shoulder and leaned down to speak in my ear. “Be patient, Sabrina.”
For his sake, I was patient. I hung about the camp awkwardly, waiting for the evening to come and the ceremony Gawain had planned to begin. When the hours drew on too drearily I laid down behind one of the round houses with Bran and caught a nap.
The drums woke me up. The fast thudding beat roused me from sleep and drew me towards the camp fire. I loved the drums, had done since I was a small child. Magic was possible when those drums were played, when the dark night gave way to bright fire and chanting.
To my joy, the food was almost ready as well. The rabbit had been skinned and gutted and now turned slowly above the flames. Potatoes and other root vegetables rested in the coals of the fire and the scent of good food and the low hum of chatter drew me to the flames. As always, Bran was by my side. We were never separate, not even for a moment. We slept together, hunted together, and fed together.
After the food was divided, I retired to the edge of the circle, where I might be hidden in half darkness and ate as Gawain addressed Decius Verres and the tribe.
“Decius Verres comes to us as an envoy of peace,” Gawain finally announced the reason for the vile Roman's presence. “These wars have been fought for hundreds of years and many have fallen to the spear. Decius hopes to spare further Britons from this fate.”
“Rome is a whore for war, she will never close her legs,” I interjected loudly from the back.
Though heads turned, I was outside the circle of light cast by the flames, and their glares fell on nothing but dark space. A few of the others agreed with me however, their chuckles said that much. We were surrendering at last it seemed, it was galling, but even I had to admit that it was better than death for every man, woman and child. Ours was not a tribe of war, and we could not hope to match the might of the Roman army.
Gawain looked thoroughly displeased, but he should have known better than to demand I stay for such an occasion. He knew very well how vehemently I hated Rome and everything to do with it. As for Decius, his expression remained still like stone, he seemed not to have heard my words at all.
“We welcome you as a brother,” Gawain continued after my interruption.
“Thank you,” Decius replied, in our own tongue.
I instantly became all the more suspicious. A Roman who not only understood our tongue, but spoke it with a smooth fluency? A Roman who claimed to come in peace? I doubted the story. Romans never came in peace. They always came in war.
I was right to be suspicious of these events, for it soon turned out that they were planning to catch me in their tendrils and make a puppet of me. Though I did not yet know it, my days of running free through the woods were coming to a close.
After the ceremonies were done, I was summoned to Gawain's roundhouse where the old druid stalked back and forth in front of me in clear agitation. He was not pleased with me at all.
“This is important, Sabrina, for all of us. For the survival of our people. You jeopardize too much.” He stopped and shot me a dark look. “If I were younger, I would whip you,” he said irritably.
It was rare for Gawain to be seriously angry with me, and I was a little taken aback to see him so disturbed. In the past he had always encouraged my outspoken nature, indeed, he had indulged me far past the point other elders considered acceptable.
Before I could answer the man who had raised me as his own, I was interrupted.
“Perhaps I could oblige you in that.”
The lightly accented tongue grated in my ears. I turned to see that Decius, the Roman infiltrator was at the threshold of Gawain's roundhouse, hovering like a large fly.
“You would not survive the attempt,” I promised the intruder. If this was to be our first introduction, I was determined that it would be one that left the Roman totally clear where he stood with me.
As I turned to stare him down, he loomed above me, looking all the larger for his proximity. Still, size was not everything, and the sharp dagger sheathed at my waist could make quick work of any man, small, large, or giant. There was a twist of patronizing humor to the set of his mouth as he looked me over with those deep dark eyes that drank me in and found me wanting. I already disliked him sincerely and seeing his aquiline features smirking down at me did not appease my mood.
“Your daughter is fierce,” Decius spoke over my head.
“Sabrina has been spoiled, I apologize for her,” Gawain said with a hard look towards me. I noticed he did not refute the Roman's assumption that I was his daughter, though we bore no relation to one another at all. I was a foundling, an orphan of the wars, as were so many others. Were it not for Gawain and others like him, an entire generation would have been lost to the Romans.
“A spoiled woman is easily corrected,” Decius continued to speak as if I were not there.
“And a fool and his blood are soon parted,” I riposted through clenched teeth. The arrogance of the man was astounding. He did not know me, yet he was casually suggesting that he be allowed to whip me.
“Sabrina!” Gawain glowered at me, and I desisted, lowering my eyes.
“I am sorry, Gawain,” I apologized. I did not wish to make him angry, he did not deserve to be unhappy. The meddlesome Roman was the one who deserved to suffer.
“I will leave you with your guest, my lord,” I said bitterly through clenched teeth. This was the Roman's fault. I had asked to be allowed to leave, but Gawain had insisted I stay, though he knew my hatred for the Romans.
“No, you will stay.”
I fell silent as I became thoroughly uneasy. By my side, Bran shifted nervously. Something was afoot. There was a plan in the works, a plan I was not aware of.
“I wish for you to act as an aide to Decius in his work among our people. He will be traveling from village to village, he will need a guide.”
I opened my mouth to protest, but Decius got in before me. “I appreciate the sentiment, but I will not be needing a girl on my journey. I will need to focus on the matters at hand.”
He thought Gawain was offering me to him as a whore! My blood boiled as Gawain lifted up a hand to stay me.
“Sabrina is no mere girl; she is an accomplished woodsman and known to many. She bears my seal and she carries with her the authority of our clan.”
It was Decius' turn to look thoroughly incredulous. Though he was far too diplomatic to say what he was quite obviously thinking, the way his lip curled when he looked at me said it all.
“I do not think the Roman approves of my lack of penis,” I said with a wry grin.
“You are not a man,” Decius said, as if that alone were a black mark against me.
“Correct. Did your tutor teach you that?” I mocked him.
“It is not appropriate for a woman to deal in these matters,” he said stiffly.
“Amongst our people, a woman is the equal of a man,” Gawain chided him gently, subtly reminding him of the nature of his alleged mission of peace.
Decius bowed to him. “I apologize. I hope I have not caused undue offense.”
“Oh you've caused plenty of offense,” I said, crossing my arms over my chest.
His jaw tightened as he looked at me. “Then I shall offer my apologies to you too, Lady Sabrina.”
“But you will not bow to me?” I was beginning to enjoy myself now at the Roman's expense. It was clear that it caused him distress to address me as an equal.
“Sabrina, do not antagonize him,” Gawain said, commanding my attention. “In this mission I put my trust in you. This is important. Do not fail me.”
“I will not fail you,” I promised Gawain. I meant it, too. In all my rebellion, in all the pain of the years, Gawain had been my rock, steady and unfailing. Now as he approached his twilight, he wished peace for our people. If I could give him that, I would.
“Good.” He smiled at me and I felt my heart lighten. I had failed in many things in my life, but I would not fail Gawain whilst there was still breath in me.
The details of the mission were vague at best. I was to escort Decius to the major villages and facilitate negotiations with each of the chieftains for a truce with Rome. Though the kings had allied against Rome, it was clear that Rome would crush us before they allowed the resistance to continue. Better a peaceful surrender to Rome than death under our own King.
A weight settled on me as I heard the details of the plan. It was undoubtedly a betrayal of sorts, we owed allegiance to the King and had sworn to battle the Romans with him. But had he protected us when the Romans had first come? He had not. Gawain had determined that it was better to be ruled by Rome than sacrificed by a king we barely knew, and though I had reservations about the matter, I trusted Gawain completely. I would have walked through fire had he so commanded it.
So our mission was laid out. We would not travel with heavily armed men, for such a contingent would connote aggression. We were to rely on the custom of hospitality, my connection with Gawain and Decius' authority with Rome alone. It would be dangerous, but probably no more so than taunting Roman patrols in the forests every day.
“We will leave in the morning. Be ready,” Decius was curt as we left Gawain's roundhouse. His displeasure at being stuck with me as a traveling partner was obvious, but it did not concern me. I was not doing this for him.
I watched with a sneering curl on my lips as he made his way back towards the small hut near the fire that had been set up for him and then I went in the opposite direction entirely. I did not sleep in the roundhouses, or by the fire. It was my custom to create a nest from my cloak in the woods and sleep there with Bran. I needed to be outside, close to the elements.
As I bedded down with my faithful hound and gazed up at the stars that twinkled through the gaps of the forest canopy, I tried to reassure myself that we would be okay. I had never been sent away from Gawain's protection before. This mission represented a milestone in my life. I was no longer a child of the village, I was a representative of the Chief himself and that meant heavy responsibility in a time of war.
What if the Roman betrayed us? The thought wrenched at my gut, and I swore then and there that I would never trust the Roman. I would always be on the look out for treachery. My people were depending on me.
When morning broke, Decius was in a foul mood. Perhaps it was not wise to wake him with a pitcher of icy river water, but he had made his wish to move early quite clear, and we could not go anywhere with him snoring by the embers of the fire like a big pale bear.
“By Mars!” he swore as he came to consciousness swiftly under the deluge. I laughed down at him as he wiped the water out of his eyes.
“Come along, it is morning, we must leave,” I reminded him.
“You are a foul wretch,” he muttered as he got to his feet. I could see in his eyes that he wanted nothing more than to lay hands on me, but out of respect for Gawain I hoped he would not. It was not the done thing to shed the blood of a guest in the village, but I would if I had to.
“Is that any way to speak to your esteemed guide?” I smirked, enjoying the authority I had been given by Gawain.
“Do not make the mistake of thinking you are above repercussions,” he warned me darkly as he began to prepare his pack.
“Do not make the mistake of thinking you are in any place to determine repercussions.”
He was crouching down on the ground below me, and when he looked up at me, it was with such sudden fierceness that I recoiled.
“Do not continue to test me, girl” he growled.
We were off to a grand start, I thought to myself. I was to escort an angry Roman into the very heart of our territory, resisting the urge to slit his throat whilst he threatened me with vague, but dire threats.
“My name is Sabrina. Use it,” I said coldly. I did not find his habit of calling me 'girl' a pleasing one.
He did not reply and we remained in frosty silence until Gawain arrived to see us off. Most of the village was still in their slumber, so it was a lonely send off.
“Be well,” he said, drawing me into his embrace. He felt frail now when I hugged him. I remembered a time when he seemed to be the biggest, strongest fellow in the world. I used to think nothing could touch him, and nothing could touch me when I was with him. Now I saw all too clearly how vulnerable he was as he approached the final years of his life.
“I will,” I promised, holding back the threat of tears. My journey with Decius would be a long one. I hoped Gawain would survive to see me return.
“May the gods watch over you,” Gawain blessed Decius, diplomatically avoiding the mention of any specific gods that would offend either the Roman tradition or ours.
In a few moments it was all over. I kissed Gawain's cheek one final time and began leading Decius towards the trail that lead out of our village and into the depths of Briton territory. Our trails were not nearly as fine or as wide as the Roman roads, which were built to accommodate legions marching along them, indeed, at some points one would not have known one was on a trail at all unless one knew what to look for. My role as a guide was essential, I hoped that fact would curb any of Decius' unfortunate Roman tendencies to treat a woman as nothing more than a piece of property.
I did not speak to him as we set out, but I could hear him stomping along after me and that was enough. Bran went slightly ahead of me, her keen nose to the ground, picking up scents of animals and men, if there were any to scent. More than once my life had been saved by Bran's nose and I trusted her senses implicitly.
“How far is it to Ker Deblen?” Decius asked the question as we gained the depths of the forest, where the dawn light was beginning to filter through the canopy and the fine mist of morning dew began to evaporate, making everything smell fresh, and earthy and alive.
“Three or four days,” I replied over my shoulder.
“Three or four days at this pace?” His tone was strained.
“Yes.” I came to a halt. “Is there a problem?”
“If we go faster, we get there faster.”
I rolled my eyes, he was a typical impatient male, determined to go all out towards destiny without any kind of caution at all. He rather reminded me of a young boy who, first learning to hunt, goes crashing madly through the trees, frightening his prey away with his urgency. “If we go faster, we get tired faster.”
“Can the lady not keep a quicker pace? I could carry you if you like.” As insulting as his words were, they were delivered entirely deadpan, making me think that perhaps Decius considered this a viable option.
“I don't need to be carried,” I said severely. “I simply do not intend to run full speed through the forest, drawing attention from every roaming patrol and wild animal. We go at my pace.”
Decius folded his hairy arms across his chest and regarded me with a look of disapproval. “Are you intending to be so contrary throughout the entire journey?”
His inference that I was being somehow juvenile irked me. He was the one pushing to rush headlong into unknown territory. “Are you intending on being so patronizing? Are you really so desperate to prove yourself?” I asked derisively, looking him up and down.
“You have a wicked tongue,” Decius noted. “It may yet cause you grief.”
“Enough with the threats,” I declared, taking a step towards him, a move which I intended to be threatening, but which failed miserably when I realized it only served to make me crane my head up at him.
The corners of his wide eyes crinkled as he looked down at me over the bridge of his nose. “They are not threats, they are promises. You are a mouthy, spoiled girl, Sabrina.”
“I am a mouthy spoiled girl who holds your life in her hands, keep that in mind, Roman.”
“Are you threatening me?” His voice was dangerously soft.
“No, I am promising you,” I rejoined with equal intensity.
“Promising me what?”
“That you will regret patronizing me, and moreover, that you will regret not listening to me. Ker Deblen is in the hills. It is not an easy journey, and moreover it is entirely possible we will meet with unfriendly tribes along the way. If you wish to meet your fate breathless and ill prepared, it is that way.” I pointed in the direction of Ker Deblen and glared at the large Roman whose lips were now quirking with amusement.
“What is so funny?” I demanded. I did not like being laughed at.
“You remind me of an old Optio commander , though you are perhaps a quarter of the size,” Decius confessed.
I was pleased to learn that he was finally according me some measure of authority. That was a point I could capitalize on.
“Are you ready to listen to me, Centurion Decius Cassius Verres?” I used his full title purposely, hoping it carried some weight.
Decius did not answer me for a moment. In his eyes I saw sparks of humor still dancing as I glowered at him. “I am, Lady Sabrina, lead on,” he said finally.
I nodded, momentarily mollified, and returned to the task of guiding the arrogant Roman to whatever destiny awaited him. At that moment, I would not have been surprised if his blood had spilled before the day was out.