The Conqueror


Chapter 12

Daylight was returning, the days lengthening rapidly, but the cold lingered. The year ended with the last day of February, and Marcus decreed that Segontium would observe Kalends Martius, the new year, to the best of their ability in this distant land. He hoped the celebration would cheer the Romans—the new year observances paid much honor to Mars, and as warriors it was very affirming. And he hoped the Britons would begin to learn new traditions and celebrations to replace their old ones.

It didn’t go particularly well. The weather did not cooperate—not that it could have been anything like the warm Mediterranean spring—and the Britons observed with a sullen attitude, resigned and cooperative but not happy. Still, they seemed a little heartened by the feast. It was not a great feast, for they did not have the provisions to afford extravagance, but it was more than usual, and that was welcome.

Marcus hadn’t expected any miracles. It was the first year of their occupation. They would continue to celebrate Roman holidays, and allow the Britons to participate, after their fashion, and in a few years it would begin to take hold. Their old festivals were forbidden now, and people needed some occasion to celebrate.

March was tempestuous. The longer days seemed to invite the Romans to renew their construction efforts, but the weather could be disastrous. The farmers stubbornly insisted on beginning their work according to some very odd omens. Gwen again helped greatly—he promised that the farmers were not following druid magic, simply their own folk wisdom, and there was no need to mete out any punishments or to attempt to impose another schedule on their work. So Marcus let the farmers begin preparing their fields according to their custom, and by the time spring finally arrived, it seemed that this had been the best decision. He heard later, much later, that some other areas under Roman rule had tried to conform the Britons to a schedule more in keeping with Roman practice, and their farms were suffering for it.

In the meantime, winter was slow to end, spring arrived in fits and starts, and Gwen was often at his side. When Marcus was working, he mostly listened quietly, unless he had something helpful to contribute. When they were at home, he was much more talkative, though not always with Marcus. Their little household had grown almost rowdy. Tacita was the loudest little servant Marcus had ever encountered. Anwen had grown as bold as she was once fearful, and she still didn’t seem to think much of Marcus. She stuck to Gwen like a ferocious little guard dog, and Tacita followed both of them like a hungry pup begging for scraps of attention. Anwen glared at Marcus every time he spoke to Gwen, and Tacita interrupted Gwen constantly. At least she had the sense not to interrupt Marcus. Even so, he was glad his wife was not here to witness the state of his household, such as it was; there would have been blood.

Naturally, he was also glad his wife was not here to learn who warmed his bed at night—there would have been blood for that, too.

As green finally began to appear on the trees and fields, lifting the mood of all those in Segontium, one other thing changed. When they were alone, sometimes, Gwen would kiss him. Unexpectedly, and almost never with lust. Just simple little kisses, a hand on his shoulder drawing him close, and then it was over and Gwen went back to whatever he’d been doing.

He wanted to ask why Gwen did it, but the words stuck in his throat. He told himself it was the season, lifting everyone’s spirits and inspiring unusual affection. Still, Marcus couldn’t help but hope.

~•~

On a warm and beautiful spring night, when the breeze was scented with new-growing leaves and even some flowers, Gwen joined Marcus in his room just as he’d finished banking the fire. He didn’t look up right away—not until Gwen spoke.

“Marcus.”

Something in Gwen’s tone arrested his attention, and he looked up. The man looked calm, but serious. “Yes?”

“I need speak with you.”

“Of course.”

His stomach fluttered and his heart clenched. He had no idea if this would be good or bad, but it was something, clearly. He followed Gwen, who sat on the bed, and when Marcus sat beside him, his skin prickled as Gwen took his hand.

The man smiled at him, gently, and said, “Marcus. Two night hence is night of Galanhaf.”

Galanhaf. Marcus smiled tightly. “I have known you for a year, then.”

Gwen nodded, but clearly had another point to make—as Marcus had feared. “Galanhaf is ysbrydnos—night of spirits. Druids must complete fire ritual, or very bad danger come.”

He tensed. “But the druids are all dead.”

Gentle blue eyes… “I am druid. I am alive, two night hence, I must do ritual. If Marcus want to stop Gwen, must kill.”

He swallowed. Gwen’s hand held his in a strong grasp, but Marcus could have shaken him off. He didn’t want to. “Tell me, then,” he answered in a rough voice, “what is this ritual? What must you do?”

Still calm and serious, Gwen explained. “Ritual end with fire—easy, but will be light for town to see.”

“Not if we have a curfew and everyone is in their houses.”

Gwen nodded. “Yes. Can keep secret from people. But need two people to do ritual.”

Ah.

“Druid make magic in day,” he continued, “and in night, druid give magic out. Village choose two people, man and woman, go to sacred tree, or to sacred stones. Druid then give magic to man and woman. Man and woman sex together with magic, gods make blessing fertility upon land and people and animals. Druid light fire of celebration. People dance—but not need, to dance. Dance is for joy.” He pressed Marcus’ hand gently. “But two people need for sex in sacred place.”

He understood the problem. “Two people who would know you are a druid, after that.”

Again, Gwen nodded. “I know Marcus not trust Britons keep secret. Gwen can make more secret—druid can do ritual, with one other. I can do ritual. But must have sex with other.”

His skin went cold. “With a woman?”

Calm blue eyes regarded him. “Possible. Can have Anwen, secret is safe.”

Marcus recoiled, shocked, but Gwen still held his hand. “Anwen is a child!”

A gentle shake of his head. “Anwen is woman in body now. Is safe, will not tell.”

“That’s…” He paused. It was true that lately the girl had been…developing rapidly. Marcus had only recently noticed, and guessed that she must have been older than she seemed—small and malnourished as she was, she had clearly not grown well through her childhood. She was making up that deficit in leaps and bounds, now.

But the thought of Gwen having sex with her still sickened him, and more. He felt hideously, violently jealous at the very idea. Anwen adored Gwen—that had always been clear. What if she grew to love him more? What if Gwen was swayed by her young affections? What if Gwen came to realize that a young woman who could be his wife was more desirable than—

“Other possible.” Marcus looked up. Gwen smiled apologetically. “Can have Marcus.”

He frowned heavily. “You want me to participate in a druid ritual?” Then he suddenly went blank with shock. “You want me to have sex with Anwen?

Suddenly, Gwen snorted a laugh. His shoulders shook with it as he tried to speak. “No…I mean…can, if you want.” He calmed, slightly, and smiled at Marcus. “Or, can Marcus and Gwen do ritual.”

“Oh.” Well, that was certainly…well. It was safer. If there was going to be some heathen ritual, the secret couldn’t be safer than it was if only he and Gwen knew of it. And he preferred the idea far above Gwen having sex with anyone else. But… “Gwen…I am a Roman soldier. I cannot serve your gods.”

Whatever response he expected, it wasn’t for Gwen to lean forward and embrace him—but so he did. Softly, in his ear, Gwen answered, “I understand.” He draw back. “Marcus is Roman.” Then he stood, finally releasing Marcus’ hand. “Gwen and Anwen do ritual.”

He turned away, and in the next moment Marcus was on his feet, his arms wrapped around Gwen from behind. “I will do it,” he nearly growled the words, lips pressed to Gwen’s hair, above his ear. “Gwen and Marcus will do the ritual.”

“My thanks,” Gwen murmured, then turned his head—Marcus’ arms around him were too tight for him to turn fully—and their mouths collided warmly.

Marcus kissed Gwen passionately, aggressively, so perhaps he was not in the best position to judge…but it seemed to him that Gwen’s mouth was just as eager and hungry as his own. And when they coupled that night, he thought Gwen’s body burned for him more than it ever had before.

~•~

On the day of Galanhaf, Gwen did not accompany him—he remained alone in Marcus’ room, preparing. Marcus ordered the curfew, which was not entirely a surprise. The scholars were aware of most of the druid holidays and knew this was an important one. Occasional curfews were almost routine for such an event. Even Gwen’s absence was not considered worthy of remark.

When Marcus returned home, he was greeted by Anwen alone. Tacita had been sent to her closet early and commanded to remain there. Anwen glowered at Marcus and announced, “To prepare Master is upon me.”

Gwen had promised to tell her as little as possible, but apparently there were symbols to be painted on Marcus that he could not do himself, and Gwen could not help him. So Anwen sullenly set out little pots of colored powder, mixed them with grease, and referred to several charcoal sketches upon the floor. Marcus was snapped at to undress. Thankfully, he had trousers on and was allowed to keep them; Anwen’s markings were for his chest, arms, and back—all roughly applied, with more poking than was probably necessary. When she was done, she rubbed the floor clean and put away the pots and retired to her room with a short goodnight.

Marcus went to his own room, and there he found Gwen.

The druid was wrapped in a large cloak, and he pointed to another for Marcus to put on, after he made a quick study of Anwen’s work and nodded his approval. There was time to spare—they could not go too early, but had to wait for the dead of night. Marcus ate a bit of bread and cold meat, then he dozed a little while. Gwen remained focused and silent.

When the hour grew near, Gwen spoke. “Remember, Marcus no touch before I say.”

“I know.”

“I will show you. You will follow Gwen. Is not difficult.”

“All right.”

Blue eyes studied him. “Magic will be…very strong. Not common for druid do ritual. Magic strong with me. But you no fear. Marcus is safe.”

He hesitated. “Is Gwen safe?”

A small smile. “Marcus will not hurt.”

He nodded. He didn’t know what to expect but…

When we met, I lost control. Whatever it was, it didn’t make me take him away with me and keep him, but… Marcus had had a year to contemplate that first meeting, and he still wasn’t sure why he’d decided to rape Gwen. Or rather, he knew why—the overwhelming need lingered in his memory, he just wasn’t sure where it had come from. If it had been magic, as Gwen believed, and if he was about to encounter that same magic again, this time intentionally… At least I know he consents, this time. Marcus was clinging to that.

Gwen rose, nodded to Marcus, and went to the door, murmuring his spell.

Even though he had seen it before, the wall of gray fog still unnerved Marcus. Gwen turned to him and held out some sort of tree branch. “Marcus, hold. Hold strong. Not drop. Promise.”

He’d been warned a little of this, too, though the specifics seemed a bit beyond Gwen’s power to convey. But he remembered that Gwen had held his hand in the fog before, and he knew they couldn’t touch yet, so this was apparently Gwen’s way of leading him without direct contact. Marcus nodded, grasping the branch firmly, and followed Gwen into the cold fog.

It vanished, and all around them was a cool spring night in the forest, new leaves blotting out the stars. Gwen moved forward and Marcus followed, and they ascended the hill. Outside the stone circle, Gwen turned to him and let the branch fall. “Follow how I walk,” he instructed.

It was a strange procession, winding around the circle, between the stones. Through this gap, but passing that one, round this stone, to the left of another, to the right of the next, round again. Then Gwen paused. Marcus stood between a fallen stone and a large one that still stood. Gwen said only, “Stay.” Then he moved onward, around to the opposite side of the circle. Marcus watched, his heart racing nervously. Nothing supernatural had happened yet—no entranced animal sacrifices or things floating. Just Gwen.

And Gwen faced him, and beckoned, and began to walk toward Marcus across the circle. Marcus did likewise.

Halfway there, Gwen’s hands rose to cast off the hood of his robe…and then to untie it. The garment opened, then fell away—leaving Gwen nude. He, too, was marked with strange symbols. And Marcus somehow knew to do the same. They were both naked when they reached the stone in the center.

Gwen’s eyes were glassy, his lips moving through a chant. He raised his hand toward Marcus, who hesitated…but then Gwen met his gaze and nodded. So, obediently, he raised his hand too. Gwen reached forward and touched their fingers together.

In that moment, Marcus felt heat surge through his entire body. It was like falling into a roaring bonfire. His cock hardened so fast it was physically painful. His head emptied in an instant; all he saw was the body in front of him—naked. Waiting. His mate.

His.

Marcus leapt over the waist-high stone as if it wasn’t there, and grasped for Gwen. Skin slipped under his fingers as Gwen twisted away. Then he was running, running, and Marcus was in hot pursuit, chasing his prey among the stones, across the hilltop.

He didn’t know where they were, exactly, when he caught Gwen. He didn’t really even know it was Gwen, not anymore. He knew he had caught hold of the body he needed. He felt the heat of skin burn under his hands. He felt them both tumble into the grass, panting for air. He felt a growl in his throat, his chest, and the body of his mate shivered and trembled under him, gasping.

Legs parted eagerly for him. Marcus pulled his mate close and thrust into him, filling his body to the brim as broken cries of ecstasy filled his head.

He knew very little after that.

There were snatches, moments—nothing more. A moment of clarity as the relief of orgasm washed through him. A moment to breathe…and then his mate scrambling away from him, and raw need rising up again, to chase, to catch, to throw down and fuck again. Or when he’d relax, momentarily spent, and his mate wouldn’t run—he’d turn and throw Marcus down with a feral sound of aggression and need, and he’d ride Marcus’ cock that never seemed to go soft, and he’d writhe wildly and spill his seed as his claws…nails dug into Marcus’ skin.

He tasted blood; he felt the pain of being bitten in return. He thrust and thrust and came and came and all he knew was the need and the raw, animal feeling of power as he bred his mate.

The chase faded. His mate tried to drag himself away on shaking hands and knees, and Marcus threw him over a blissfully cold, smooth surface and mounted him again. Even in the exhaustion, he felt the body under him respond, push back, squeeze, suck him in. Orgasm had become a strange, unpredictable thing. It snapped without warning, now, and his mate moaned as his body took Marcus’ seed again, and he shivered, clutching the stone, dribbling seed from his prick and spit from his raw lips.

Then gasping—both of them. The need dimmed, and they struggled for air.

Sanity returned, and Marcus wished, in that moment, that it wouldn’t.

They were in the center of the circle, Gwen bent over the stone, only Marcus’ grip on his hips keeping him from sliding to the ground. He was drenched in sweat, as though he’d jumped in a lake—but a lake would have washed him clean, not left streaks of dirt and grass and blood and…!

With one shaking arm, Gwen slowly reached back. Marcus watched as if frozen. Gwen touched his hole—Marcus’ prick had slipped out, finally limp and spent—and he gathered the mess with his fingers. Then, the same hand went to his own prick. Gwen whimpered at his own touch, then raised the hand again. With a long swipe, he smeared their seed over the stone. The air…tightened, somehow. Then Gwen fell limp, and Marcus struggled to gather him in weak arms, to ease him down and not let him fall into the grass.

Gwen’s head fell onto his shoulder. Marcus gripped the stone to keep himself from falling too, and he knelt and held Gwen. Cruel sanity made him look around and take stock, and he shuddered at the sight. There, and there…and there and there and there…patches of torn-up grass, scraped earth…stones smeared with blood and…wet. Lichen freshly ripped away. He tried to count all the places and kept losing track. The air was humming, now, louder and louder.

Suddenly, fire burst from the ground between two stones and rose high, licking its way around the circle, from stone to stone, until Marcus and Gwen sat in the eye of an inferno. They were far enough from the flames, but the heat was stifling.

Marcus was terrified.

Gwen shifted in his arms. Murmured. “Must…go.”

“Yes,” he panted, and struggled to his feet, gathering Gwen’s limp body into his arms. His eyes scanned around them, but all was fire. Then, still shaking, Gwen’s arm lifted and pointed to the burning space between two of the stones. Marcus didn’t know what the significance was, or why those two—the fire was as strong there as everywhere else. But he followed Gwen’s direction and carried him toward the circle of flame.

He stopped when the heat became unbearable. The flames were unabated. But he could hear Gwen’s soft voice murmur against his neck. “Marcus…” He raised his arm again, and this time held his wrist close to Marcus’ face. “Bite.

Blinking, he looked down in shock. Weary blue eyes met his gaze, but they were firm and insistent. “Bite,” Gwen murmured again.

His stomach tightened. “Forgive me.” Then he bit, and Gwen pressed his arm close and didn’t pull away. He gasped, Marcus tasted blood…

Then Gwen’s arm fell. He held it downward, and blood ran down into his hand, cupped to gather it. A few moments later, Gwen raised his hand again, and threw the drops of blood at the wall of flame, shouting something in his strange tongue, his voice rough and hoarse.

The fire between those two stones vanished, and Marcus didn’t hesitate. He carried Gwen through and away from the burning hill.

He didn’t stop until they were in the cool forest, the scent of spring returning to cleanse the smoke from their lungs. The cloaks were gone—lost, incinerated probably—and Gwen was beginning to shiver as the chilly breeze touched his soaked skin.

For a moment, Marcus felt like a frightened animal—wounded, naked, lost in the forest, worried sick for the half-conscious man in his arms, with no idea how to protect him and get him home safely. But—he was a soldier. As he reached the edge of panic, perfect calm arrived instead and settled over him. He breathed deep. Straightened. Gathered Gwen more securely in his arms and looked around. The pain of his exhausted body faded, the shaking of his overused muscles stilled, adrenaline giving him the strength to continue past the point of collapse.

Half a league back to the city. He’d walk it, if he had to, and carry Gwen, and all his soldiers could be as shocked and horrified as they liked. He’d find water—there was a creek on the way. He’d wash the druidic signs off both of them and come up with some other explanation later. If he had to.

“Gwen.” His voice was strong and steady. Gwen’s head rolled on his shoulder; he moaned softly. “Gwen. Wake.” A slow, deep inhale. “Gwen. Can you make the way home? Back to the city?”

A hum—vacant and sleepy, but it sounded affirmative. Marcus shifted his hold, shaking Gwen slightly. He blinked blue eyes open and seemed to gather himself. “We need to get home, Gwen,” Marcus repeated, gentler, but still in a tone of command. Gwen slowly nodded.

Blue eyes flicked around, and he pointed. “See white? White tree.” Marcus looked up and followed Gwen’s direction. There was a birch tree, some ways off, white bark shining in the moonlight. “Walk to tree,” Gwen commanded, and Marcus did.

As he neared it, he heard Gwen’s low chanting, and the fog began to gather. The tree grew indistinct. Gwen paused. “Marcus, face tree.” He stopped and faced it directly. “Eyes close.” He glanced at Gwen—his gaze was steady. So Marcus closed his eyes. “Now…no open. Walk straight. No stop.”

He nodded, and walked. The damp chill brushed his skin, more and more, gathering thick about him as Gwen murmured in a voice that seemed so strange—ancient, in a way that went outside of Gwen, or any mortal man.

Then suddenly, he took another step and the cold was gone. Marcus opened his eyes in surprise, and he was in the common room of his house. He glanced down…and Gwen was unconscious.

Swiftly and silently, Marcus carried Gwen into his bedchamber and laid him down on the bed. Somehow, he looked even worse, now. So many abrasions all over his body, dark, mottled bruises beginning to show. Drying sweat and…other fluids, in startling amounts, all over him. Any other night, Marcus would have shuddered at the evidence before him.

But the calm of action persisted. He stirred the fire. He went to the rainwater barrel and drew buckets of water, brought the cauldron and filled it to heat as much water as he could. He scrubbed himself with the cold water, uncaring of the chill, only determined not to soil Gwen any worse with his touch. Then he carefully, slowly washed Gwen, tending to every cut and scrape gently. He washed his hair in the basin and brought herbs and salve and bandages. Marcus was no great talent with medicine, but he had seen which treatments Gwen kept and used on Anwen and Tacita. Most of the abrasions were shallow, but he covered them with salve anyway, and wrapped over it wherever the salve might accidentally be rubbed away.

Gwen drifted in and out of awareness throughout the process. Toward the end, Marcus felt exhaustion creeping upon him again. The gray light of coming dawn was touching the sky, the birds beginning to sing, sounds of the city stirring. They must have been on that hilltop for hours.

He covered himself in a tunic and went out to the common room. The cock had not yet crowed, but he called for Anwen. She appeared, shabby with sleep, and he ordered her to fetch a messenger. The young Roman arrived in a similar state—still half asleep. Marcus gave him the order—that the legate would not appear today and was not to be disturbed. He decreed Kalends Maius a day of rest, with the exception of the most necessary farm work, and commanded the business of the day to be reserved for the morrow.

The surprised Roman bowed and departed, and Marcus added, to Anwen, that no one was to enter his room. He asked her to prepare light food, gruel or broth, later on in the afternoon, but not to bring it unless he called her. Then, with everything settled, he sent her back to bed and returned to his own room and Gwen.

By now, he was walking in a daze, barely awake. He pulled the tunic off again and made certain Gwen was comfortably settled, wrapped in the best blanket. Then he collapsed beside him and fell instantly asleep, as though he’d been fighting on the battlefield from dawn to dusk and long after.

~•~

Marcus drifted toward consciousness, summoned by the warmth of late afternoon sun on his face and the sounds of the city going about its day. His body felt like lead, however, and he made no great effort to stir or wake fully. He remembered the orders he’d given and happily returned to drifting, half-awake, despite the oddity of being abed at such an hour.

He wasn’t aware of time passing; he didn’t know how long it had been when he felt Gwen shift beside him. He heard a soft moan that sounded uncomfortable, and he opened his eyes at that, worried.

“Are you well?”

Gwen glanced over at him and winced. “Is pain of body.” He smiled wryly and slowly inched himself onto his side, facing Marcus, sighing when he was comfortable. “Is Marcus pain?”

He grunted, trying to move as Gwen had, but with no success. Every muscle ached, stiff and unwilling to move. “Yes, much pain. I have not attended to my physical training as much as I should. Winter has made me fat and lazy.”

Gwen probably didn’t understand every word of that, but he caught some of it and smiled wide. “Marcus is fat?” He laughed, ending in a slight cough and a weak moan—though neither removed his smile. “Is Marcus fat, then Gwen is heavy with child.” He made a mock-serious face. “Will bear son for you before end of year, Marcus.”

He really didn’t know where Gwen was getting the comparison, but his tone and expression were so comical that Marcus laughed along with him.

When his laughter faded, he noticed Gwen watching him. Or perhaps that was not sufficient. Gwen eyes were fixed on his face, his expression almost wondering. When he saw Marcus noticing, he smiled a little. One hand lifted in front of himself, between them—the one with the carefully wrapped wrist. “Marcus do? Medicine?”

He nodded. “Yes. I hope I did it right.”

Something flickered in Gwen’s expression. He swallowed. “My thanks.” It was no more than a whisper.

Again, Marcus nodded, uncertain, suddenly, what to say. After a moment, Gwen reached for his hand and brought it up between them. Marcus watched, and shivered when Gwen’s lips touched his knuckles. “Marcus do good. Ritual good. Gods will be bless people.” Blue eyes gazed at him. “Marcus help all people. My thanks.”

“Mmm.” He didn’t want to accept such gratitude, as he hadn’t really done it for the people. It was for Gwen—it was always for Gwen. And apparently, he could do things for Gwen he would never have believed himself capable of.

Marcus recalled the night before—or as much of it as he could. He found great gaps in his memory, but the sudden onslaught of burning, irresistible need—that was clear. It hadn’t come from him, and it hadn’t been sated by any normal means. “So,” he ventured, then glanced at Gwen. “That was…magic.”

A slow nod. “Galanhaf magic.”

“Yes.” Marcus paused. The idea was just beginning to sink in; he wasn’t at all comfortable with it yet. “And that…magic. When we met, you were…preparing it?”

Gwen nodded, checking his memory. “Prepahring, yes. Magic not full in day. But prepahring, from dawn to night.”

“So if I…touched you…” He couldn’t even remember when. Had he made some contact with Gwen’s skin before he touched him with intent? It was a tiny hut, as he remembered; he could have, even accidentally.

But Gwen shook his head. “I was touch you.”

He frowned. “You did?”

“Yes. I touch Marcus—mistake. Forgot magic, think only of death.” His expression became sorrowful. “Gwen apologize. Take away mind of choosing. Marcus obey magic, not able stop. Marcus not rape Gwen. Blame is Gwen.”

Marcus was still. He barely breathed. At this time yesterday, and every day before that, if Gwen had said such a thing he would have entirely disbelieved it. But now…

As long as he lived, he could never forget the power that struck him last night, that consumed him and erased every thought. He should have felt ashamed for his lack of self-control—but he couldn’t. He’d been in the power of something he could not have hoped to sway, something beyond any mortal man. It was real. And it was probably the same thing that had touched him before. He had always wondered at himself and his actions that day. He was not in the habit of raping the conquered, as some soldiers did, and the urge had come upon him so suddenly, so inexplicably…

Perhaps.

Even so, the magic had not been as strong as it was last night. And no matter what blame Gwen gave himself after the fact, he had been violated.

And Marcus had apologized and been forgiven, but until now he’d still carried the regret. As long as Gwen insisted it was not Marcus’ fault, he carried it. But now…

“Blame is not Gwen.” He tightened his hand, holding Gwen’s. “It was a mistake. I understand now. Your magic is real. And we will not make a mistake like that again.”

Gwen’s expression relaxed as he sighed, smiling. He nodded, and pressed a firm kiss to the back of Marcus’ hand.