Transalpine Gaul: Spring, 78 AD
The two men rode slowly down the road towards the settlement on the lake shore, followed at a discreet distance by several soldiers and aides. The mountains around them were still covered with the winter’s snow, rising into the sky like the arms of the gods. Lucius looked over the settlement with a calculating eye, laying out military strategies in his mind even as the man riding next to him babbled trivialities. Things looked calm enough now, but he knew better -- tensions were once again rising in this ever-fractious edge of Roman-held territory, and he had been sent to take preemptive action if necessary.
"Have you been in Gaul before, General?" asked Flavius Aelius, governor of this particular corner of the Roman Empire.
"Once before, Governor. Nine years ago during the Gaulish uprising," he replied.
"Ah, you're *that* Terentius," Flavius said, nodding his head in recognition. "You were instrumental in crushing the rebellion. If I remember correctly it brought you to the attention of the new Emperor, and you were promoted to general."
"That is correct, Governor," Lucius said coolly.
"And now you're back. Would you tell me why specifically, General? I know there has been some tension with the native population over the Eponina situation. However, it's been relatively stable here for almost ten years. I'm not sure I understand why the Emperor Vespasian is so concerned at this particular juncture?"
Lucius mentally marveled at the Governor's naiveté. So the reports were true on this one: gullible and perhaps, so some said, even sympathizing with the local population. He would definitely bear watching. Indeed, the Eponina *situation* was why he was here. It was time it was settled -- that woman had caused more than enough trouble as it was. "I'm here to finish the matter, Governor. Eponina and her husband Julius Sabinus have made fools of the Empire. It is the Emperor's express wish that it end," he said firmly.
"As you say, General, as the Emperor wishes."
The two men road in silence. Lucius deep in thought, pondering the reasons he had been sent here. He knew he had quite a ruthless reputation, and it was a well-deserved one. He was taking the events that had brought him here personally, as it was the uprising of nine years ago that had started this present problem. Julius Sabinus had been one of the leaders of the rebellion. After the rebels had been crushed -- in no small part due to himself -- Sabinus had faked his suicide to escape. It was not until several years later that the Romans realized that he was not dead, but hiding out, with his wife Eponina succoring him in his lair all that time. So far efforts to discover his hiding place had failed miserably. Now Eponina was in Rome attempting to win her husband's pardon from the Emperor, while at the same time the Vespasian had sent Lucius to root out the rebel Gaul. The desired result was to bring Julius Sabinus in chains to Rome as an example to all who would dare defy the might of the Empire. He would not escape this time -- of that, Lucius was determined.
As the two men neared the edge of the village, Lucius could hear the noise and bustle ahead. This settlement was on the outermost edge of Roman-held territory in Transalpine Gaul, and far from the more populated areas of Roman-controlled Cisalpine Gaul. Few Roman colonists had ventured this far; the only Romans currently here were those he and Flavius had left behind in the Roman fort -- really a town in itself, when one considered the soldiers, governor’s staff, bureaucrats, support staff, and slaves that lived there -- on the hill adjacent to the village. The Roman party rode through the village gates, with those inhabitants nearby looking curiously at them as they passed, speaking to their neighbors in low voices. No doubt wondering what the arrival of a new Roman general meant.
They were nearing the center of village now, and the long hall where the chieftain of this area and his nobles were expecting them. The general stopped his horse, and Flavius noticing, stopped next to him. He followed Lucius' intense gaze to a young woman talking animatedly to her male companion a short distance from them. The expression on the general's face was all too obvious.
"General, that one is not to be trifled with," Flavius said worriedly. "She is the daughter of Cathbad the Chieftain, and as these Gauls do things, his heir."
"And does she have a name, this chieftain’s daughter?" asked Lucius as he continued to watch the woman. Small and slender, her gold hair was in three tresses: two intricately woven on the top of her head and the third hanging free down the middle of her back, falling past her knees. She was clad simply in a dove-gray shift, covered with a lavender hooded tunic, and a silver belt about her small waist. She was very fair, her cheeks colored the palest rose. As her voice floated back to him he noted with pleasure that it had an almost musical lilt.
"Her name is Brigh. I hear she is also what they call a bandruaid," replied Flavius, badly mangling the word. "One of their religious sect, so I'm informed."
"**Bandree**," corrected Lucius absently. He felt a stab of anger at the man Brigh was speaking with as she threw her head back, laughing delightedly at something he had said. She spoke again to her companion briefly, before turning to leave. Drawing nearer to the two men, she suddenly seemed aware of his regard and looked straight at him, her gaze meeting his directly. He was entranced by the eyes meeting his, deep blue, framed by long dark lashes. They were like looking into the depths of the ocean, mysterious and compelling. She nodded at him ever so slightly, then turning, she entered the hall.
"You speak the language, General?" questioned Flavius, breaking the spell.
Lucius started slightly at the voice. "My mother was a Gaul, Governor. She taught me a bit of her language when I was a child."
He nodded. "I see. Well, General, as I was saying, Brigh is not the sort of woman to be *forced*, especially with tensions running high," he said, shifting uncomfortably in his saddle. "You'll find some of the local women not unwilling to keep our company," he finished hopefully.
Lucius laughed. "Governor, I've never had to force a woman into my bed, and I won't be starting with the lovely daughter of Cathbad." He saw Flavius' shoulders sag in relief. "However, I always get what I want, and mark my words, I shall have her." With that he spurred his horse forward towards the hall and the waiting nobles.
The meeting had gone well, as least as well as could be expected, thought Lucius. The Gauls in this area felt the grip of Rome much less than their other countrymen, as they were in so remote an area. But they also knew that that could change swiftly should the Empire feel threatened at its northern border. So they trod an uneasy path between obeying their unwanted Roman masters and keeping as much of their cultural identity intact as possible. A dangerous path to be sure, but one that so far both parties had been able to live with.
General Terentius and Governor Aelius were escorted into the dining hall for the ceremonial welcome feast. Appetizing odors from the hearths greeted them as they entered, the hall resplendent in brightly colored wall hangings. The Romans were seated at the center of a large semi-circular table on either side of Cathbad. The chieftain welcomed his guests formally to his table in flawless Latin and then in his own language, signaling to the servers to begin the feast. Lucius looked around the room hoping to catch site of Brigh, but she was nowhere to be found. He spent the meal engaging in diplomatic small talk with the Gaulish noble seated next to him.
There was a pause in the activity as a small group entered the hall; as they drew closer, Lucius realized it was Brigh with two companions. She had changed into pearl-white robes, the long sleeves almost touching the ground. Around her waist was an interlinked belt of gold leaves from which hung a small gold knife. Her hair was now all atop her head, held in place with gold pins, and around her neck was a torque of intertwined swans. In her hands she carried a large gold cup, which she handed to one of the two women flanking her. From the second woman she took a glass flagon, from which she poured into the cup a large measure of mead. Taking the cup again she spoke the ritual blessing of welcome and hospitality over it.
With great dignity, Brigh brought the cup to where the Romans and her father were sitting, and after taking a sip from the cup, she handed it to Governor Aelius to drink. He took the cup from Brigh gingerly and drank briefly, handing it back with barely concealed relief. She then brought the cup to Lucius, her eyes meeting his as she again drank. She spoke the words of welcome as she handed him the cup, her gaze never leaving his. He drank a large draught before handing the cup back to her. As he did so her fingers brushed his slightly, sending a thrill through his body. He thanked her in her own language, and was rewarded with a slight start of surprise in those deep eyes. She continued with the ceremony down the line of nobles, finishing with her father.
The ceremony over, a signal was given for the entertainment to begin and music filled the hall as the musicians entered. As the seated guests began to rise and mingle, Flavius made his way over to Lucius, who was standing off to one side observing the gathering.
"Not a bad evening altogether, General," said Flavius. "Although I still find the boldness of the women discomfiting. No respect for the natural order of things," he finished disapprovingly.
"Is that why your wife stays in Rome then, Governor?" he inquired. "To protect her from such unnatural behavior?"
"My wife enjoys all the perquisites that Rome, and my position as an Imperial governor provide. She would never consent to living here in the wilds," Flavius said, not realizing how ridiculous he sounded to the general.
Lucius laughed inwardly at the utter irony of the governor's last statement. The silly little man thought the native women unnaturally bold, and yet saw no contradiction that his wife refused to come with him and chose to remain in Rome. Where no doubt she had her pick of lovers, with her husband conveniently absent. His thoughts were interrupted by the sudden silence in the hall.
Flavius leaned towards him and whispered, "It's the tale-telling portion of the evening -- make yourself comfortable, because these Gauls love nothing more than reciting history," he said, resigned.
Lucius nodded and worked his way toward the front of the hall, so as to have an unobstructed view of the bard. He was not really surprised to find Brigh sitting on a stool in the center of the room holding a harp. She began to chant her tale, her voice capturing him as if in some sort of spell. The rest of the room disappeared as his whole being centered upon her. She sang of love, of betrayal, of the gods and goddesses; familiar from his childhood. As she finished her last piece she looked straight at him, a defiant look on her face, and he wondered what she intended. She began a new tale, one he knew very well, and he marveled at her nerve to tell such a tale here to him.
Her song was about Brennos, a great leader of the Cisalpine Gauls. Almost five hundred years before, in a great battle, he had defeated the Roman army, sacking Rome and capturing all but Capitoline Hill. Instead of taking the hill, the Gauls accepted tribute and withdrew, allowing the Romans to rebuild their city and hence their empire. The end of the song lamented the fact that their ancestors had let such a thing come to pass when they could have prevented their civilization from being swallowed by their once-defeated enemy.
Brigh finished, the room utterly silent. She looked again at Lucius with a glint in her eye, as if daring him to take action against her for her temerity. He merely nodded at her, giving her this one small victory. This conquest would take careful consideration. He wanted her, and this evening’s performance had only intensified his desire for her. Yes, he decided, he would allow her minor rebellion to go unpunished this time. It might even prove useful leverage should it ever be needed. What he had told the governor was true: he had never had to force a woman to his bed -- but a little blackmail was never amiss if necessary. He anticipated the coming battle with relish; it had been a long time since the thought of a seduction had given him such a thrill. And he had no doubt whatsoever of the outcome....
LaCroix finished off the bottle on the table next to him. Rising, he went to the small inlaid wood trunk against the far wall. Opening it, he removed the top shelf, revealing a bottom with various boxes and cubbyholes built into its frame. Opening one in the far left corner, he removed a velvet-wrapped object. Undoing the wrapping exposed a twisted gold bracelet of Celtic design, with two wolf heads at either end set with sapphire eyes. If anyone had been there to see his face they would have seen a look no longer angry, but unutterably sad, and very, very old.
Nick pulled the Caddie up to the police line, quickly walking over to the scene of the latest murder, where he saw Natalie was already working. She looked up as he walked up beside her, looking past him quizzically.
"No Tracy?" she asked.
"She called in sick," he replied. "What do we have?" he asked, getting straight to business.
"Preliminary? Like the others, torn to bits to be technical about it," she answered dryly. "But this one isn't quite as torn up as the other victims; the killer may have been interrupted. I'll know more later, but maybe we just got a break."
"Thanks, Nat." Nick squeezed her shoulder. "I'll check with you later."
He walked over to the nearest officer. "Williams," he acknowledged, before moving to the matter at hand. "Who found the body?"
"It was called in, Detective. I was the first on the scene," Officer Williams replied a little weakly. "It was pretty bad."
"Yeah, I know, Williams, it was," he answered sympathetically. Nick listened as the officer read the rest of his report. Nothing really new; he only hoped Natalie was able to come up with something. If they didn't get a break soon there would be a murder number five, he was sure of it. He realized it was getting near dawn, time to get home. He wondered how Gwen was doing, and hoped she was sleeping -- maybe he could convince her to take a short vacation. Not likely, he told himself. He would check on her tomorrow and he would have that meeting with LaCroix. He headed back to the Caddie and for home before the coming dawn.
The object of Nick's concern was home, but nowhere near sleep. Gwen had submitted to Father Wilton's fussing with good grace, even letting him fix her a scrambled egg and toast. Which she had made herself eat. Finally convincing him to leave with the promise she would rest, she had gone to bed; but sleep eluded her. The face of the man with Nicholas kept imposing itself in her mind’s eye. Gwen knew the face from her dreams, the dreams she had had since childhood. Dreams her parents put down to too much reading and not enough fresh air. She had learned early on not to share them with anyone, keeping them to herself. Especially when, as a teenager, the dreams had taken on a more erotic nature. It had been several years since she had dreamt about him, so long in fact she had managed to push the memory away into a secret corner of her mind. Until tonight, when the man from her dreams faced her in the flesh. All the memories had come rushing back in one huge wave, all muddled and distorted. She kept trying to grasp the edges of her memories for a better look, but they slipped away like mist.
Tired of tossing and turning, she got up and went into the living room. Going to the buffet, she poured herself a small measure of brandy. She took it to the couch and sat down, sipping her drink and staring at the dying embers of the fire. Placing the now empty glass on the table next to her, she wrapped the mohair blanket she kept on the back of the couch around her. Curling up, she watched the tiny flames dancing in the shadows. Slowly she felt her eyes grow heavy, and gave into the urge to sleep. Gwen slept... and began to dream……
Gwen knew it was the dream, except this time it felt different -- more real somehow. It was her and yet... it wasn't. She was the woman in her dream and it frightened her. But she wasn't able to pull away; she was drawn deeper into another reality and Gwen was gone....
Brigh walked up the hill to the Roman fort. It was a glorious spring day and she delighted in the sounds and smells surrounding her. The centurion at the gate, recognizing her, waved her through. She smiled at him in passing; she had treated him for a fever in the winter, as she had several of the men. The Roman surgeon was thoroughly incompetent and her reputation as a healer had quickly spread amongst them. She made a point now of visiting the fort once a week if possible to see if any of them required her services. Brigh quickly found the object of this week’s visit at the stables tending his superior's horse. No mere stable hand was good enough to care for the general's horse; a centurion was permanently assigned to care for the prized animal.
"Marcus, are you well?"
"Lady Brigh," he straightened, bowing. "Much better, truly." He smiled lopsidedly.
"Let me take a look."
Marcus sat on a hay bale so she could look at his wound. She pulled his tunic off his shoulder and gently removed the dressing. "Yes, it's much better," she said, smiling. "In fact, I think I'll leave the dressing off now."
"The infection is gone?"
"All gone. Now make sure you rub this salve on it every morning and evening until it's gone. That will insure it heals cleanly," she said as she applied some of the herbal mixture onto his shoulder.
"What is going on here?" a stern voice rapped out. "Explain this, centurion."
Brigh turned quickly to see General Terentius framed in the stable door, the sun pouring in behind him. Her heart did a little skip at the sight of him, much to her annoyance. Marcus, in his haste to stand, knocked over her case, spilling its contents all across the stable floor.
Brigh never gave Marcus a chance to answer. She rounded on Lucius, furious at him for his tone, for ruining her supplies and, most of all, for disconcerting her. "Look what you've done!" she exclaimed angrily. "What do you think is going on? I'm treating one of your men for an infected wound, something your incompetent surgeon is incapable of! This man almost died before one of his comrades asked me to come." She stopped abruptly, realizing her temper had gotten the better of her. "Here is your salve, Marcus," she said in a calmer voice, handing the jar to the frightened young man.
She took several deep breaths to calm herself, trying to ignore the Roman general watching her with an amused expression on his face. She felt herself growing angry all over again. Why did she care what he thought? Why did she allow him to invade her thoughts so? Since first seeing him she had thought of little else. He was a Roman, she kept reminding herself, not to be trusted. But, the little voice in her head said, you desire him.
"You may go, centurion," Lucius said in a level voice, "and make sure you follow the Healer's instructions."
Relief washed over Marcus' face at the reprieve. "Yes, sir. I will, sir. Thank you, my lady," he said as he rushed out the door.
Lucius shut the stable door behind the departing centurion and leaned against it, watching her. Suddenly nervous, she dropped to her knees and began to collect her spilt medicinal supplies, trying to ignore the man gazing at her so intently. The silence stretched. Brigh's stomach knotted tensely, unsure of what he intended. Suddenly he was on his knees next to her, picking up jars and packets.
"You speak Latin very well."
"I speak Greek as well," she replied in that language.
"Then I must watch what I say around you, mustn't I?"
Their hands, both reaching for the same jar, met. Brigh's heart dropped at the touch, and as his hand tightened around hers she felt her breath catch. She looked up at him, instantly becoming ensnared in his ice-blue eyes. She knew she should pull away, that this situation was getting out of hand. But she seemed to have lost all will to do so. His other hand moved behind her head, drawing her closer to him. He slowly leaned towards her, as her arms, seemingly of their own volition, encircled his neck. Ever so gently he kissed her forehead, her cheek, and finally her lips, his other arm encircling her waist in a strong grip. Lucius began to kiss her more forcefully, and she responded in kind. Brigh felt desire overcoming her common sense as his hands began to explore her body. He laid her back onto the hay, kissing her throat, moving down to the hollow between her breasts. He ran his hands up her body to her face, where they stopped, cupping her face. Opening her eyes, full of uncertainty, she looked at him.
"This is not the place to make love to you, Brigh. As much as I desire you, I want to be sure we aren't interrupted," he said softly.
She gathered her wits about her, nodding. "Later," was the only word she managed, breathless.
He helped her straighten her clothes and pulled the straw from her hair, placing feathery kisses over her face and throat as he did so. They walked to the door where suddenly he crushed her to him, kissing her one more time. "Till later," he whispered. He opened the door and was gone.
On to Part Three