“Flavus, I’m going to give you to the count of ten to explain this meeting before I order my men to attack.”
The brothers faced each other on horseback. Flickering torchlight reflected shadows across the mirrored granite planes and lines of their faces. So similar, so different. For the thousandth time, Arminius permitted himself a single, wistful moment to imagine a past where they fought as brothers, not enemies.
“Thusnelda,” Flavus said.
Arminius’ hands tightened on his reins and the animal shifted restlessly beneath him. “What. About. Thusnelda.”
“Segestes and Wout have turned on you, brother.”
Arminius’ troops outnumbered Flavus’ three-to-one. If Flavus didn’t make himself plain at once, the most elite of the rebel army would melt from the shadows and cut Flavus’ men down where they stood. So many years facing guerrilla warfare and Roman generals still refused to learn.
“10...9...8...” Arminius started counting, grinding each number out from between his teeth.
Flavus snarled and cursed under his breath. “Listen to me, you belligerent fool-”
“They mean to hostage her to Rome in exchange for your surrender!” Flavus shouted. The woods fell silent.
A lump formed in Arminius’ throat. The darkness around them seemed to expand and shrink all at onces until he saw spots. His horse pawed and danced at the ground.
“You and I both know Germanicus and Tiberius better than-”
Whatever Flavus might have said was lost to the din of Arminius’ savage roar. Arminius dismounted and yanked his brother from his saddle before Flavus could react.
Arminius saw nothing, felt nothing, but white-hot rage. He pummeled Flavus’ face and body, a blow for each enemy and failure. In Flavus, he excised his rage against Rome, against his father’s surrender, against his own hostage, against Segestes and that treacherous family.
Flavus’ lips moved, but Arminius could no more hear the words than a battle horn blown next to his ear. The shape, however, was clear.
I’m sorry. Brother.
As abruptly as it started, the storm stopped. He released Flavus and rocked back to his feet. Some silent, familial instinct had prevented Arminius from turning Flavus’ face into ground meat. They were brothers, after all.
He should have felt the pain in his fists. He’d been pummeling away at armor and chainmail, a few strikes peppered in to Flavus’ solid jaw. He felt nothing except a driving need to get to Thusnelda. His wife. His unborn child. His future. His life.
“Why are you telling me this?” His hands shook with the need to take action. But where to start? He knew where he left Thusnelda, where she should be, but that was several day’s ride away and Segestes and Wout could be far from there already.
Flavus pushed himself up, but didn’t groan or express any hint of his obvious pain. “We have our differences, but as I was about to say, you and I both know Rome better than her shitheel of a father. We are never going to agree about the future of Germania, but c’mon. You know me better than anyone. I don’t care if it would get you to surrender to me right now, I won’t be party to the enslavement of that woman. They’ll never let her go, whether you live or die.”
So, Arminius thought, he still has a soul.
Flavus took Arminius’ extended hand and returned to his feet. They grasped each other’s forearms, looking at one another as brothers for the first time in years.
“Tell me where,” Arminius said.
“I’ll give you a map.”
Arminius’ eyes flicked to the small troop of Roman soldiers. They shifted on their feet in discomfort, not unlike the spooked horses. “You know none of them can leave this place alive.”
“Why do you think I brought so few?” Flavus leaned in close. “Signal your men.”
“You had best pray to every god you hold dear that my husband gets here before I get loose.”
Threats made no difference. No one would acknowledge she spoke, but it felt important to Thusnelda to warn them. She would skin them all alive, starting with her father.
Her wrists and shoulders ached. Rope chafed at her skin, but the worst part, indeed the worst of all, was her swollen belly. It prevented every escape plan she’d thus far concocted. She was too big, too slow, as cumbersome as a pregnant pig in her current state. Not even Wout could have stopped her had she not been carrying Arminius’ child.
This is not to say she cursed their child, merely the timing. She wanted the child more than anything, however that didn’t mean it wasn’t horrifically inconvenient. She could do little more than waddle about these days, let alone fight. Let alone run. Her pregnancy made her the perfect victim.
If something happened to her child because of this treachery, by all the gods above and below she would burn them all. She would lay waste to every man, woman, and child who counted themselves allies to Rome. They would pray for death before she was through with them. She would—
The rickety wooden cart jostled hard through the muddy tracks on their slow journey south, eliciting a string of invectives. Was her indignity not enough that she must also suffer from a bruised backside? At least her current state prevented them from a rapid flight into Italia. Arminius might still catch them, if he only knew…
No, she couldn’t surrender to the probability that he wouldn’t know until it was too late. Flavus had declined to travel with their well-armed party, preferring instead to stay and press Arminius into another battle, anything to keep him preoccupied. Even if word reached Arminius, he wouldn’t—and she’d never forgive him if he did—abandon their troops.
Inside her, the babe kicked. Even the child rejected this treatment. She shot a scowl at Segestes driving the cart. She should have let Arminius kill him long ago. She knew, damn it all, she knew the man was Rome’s dog. She knew he’d place his loyalty to them over his own family.
She knew he’d never forgive her for marrying Arminius.
He was a cancer. He would rot the rebellion from its innards. Apparently he decided to start with his own daughter.
No one responded to her, no matter what she said. Sometimes Segestes spoke to her, but he never wanted her answer. He seemed more intent on convincing himself of the rightness of his decision.
You’ll be treated as a queen. As soon as Arminius surrenders, you can live out your lives in peace under house arrest, or you can stay with me. The finest doctors in the world will help the birth. Your child will be the healthiest child ever born. They assured me they would take excellent care of you.
Lies. All lies. Any person with half a brain and common sense would know this, but Segestes wasn’t just any person. He was a dog, a slave. She hated him.
If it came down to it, she would kill herself and the child before allowing them to use her against Arminius. He may never forgive her, but Arminius would be free from this low attempt. She couldn’t make him choose between his family and their nation, but she could make the choice for him.
The sun began its slow descent and they would be stopping soon for the night. Staying off the Roman roads slowed them down considerably, but the men insisted they would be harder to track this way. Something about there being countless wagon roads, but so few paved roads.
Thusnelda saw the dense forests her people mastered. She saw the camouflage that could conceal thousands before it was too late. The soldiers saw it, too. They jumped at the slightest sound, hands going for weapons at any provocation. For all their skittishness, none dared speak against Segestes and their centurion.
She knew better than most the lengths men would go to rather than admit they were wrong. Not all men possessed Arminius’ sheer force of will to bend reality to his own ends. No, most barreled on before the consequences stopped them.
Segestes saw to it she ate better than any in their party, though on nights like this, Thusnelda was as likely to throw the food in his face as eat it. One week on the road and her nerves were already frayed beyond recognition. It had been a long time since she’d last felt helpless and did not care for it.
Dusk gave way to a moonless night and half the soldiers turned to sleep, the others taking up sentry positions. Segestes bedded down a safe distance from Thusnelda, possibly the smartest decision he ever made. Rome wanted her , after all, should Segestes find himself with his throat slit on the way.
Sleep didn’t come without a battle these days. Between her physical discomfort and her stress, she often didn’t drift off until the sun began its ascent in the morning.
Minutes passed into hours. The sentry soldiers woke the sleeping soldiers to trade and the minutes journeyed on. After about an hour, all the resting soldiers were deep asleep and their replacements struggled to stay afoot against the late hour.
She wanted to sleep, desperately. Even her hair felt tired, ratty as it was in old braids. Instead of sleeping, her eyes remained willfully open. At least the stars and the wald stayed the same so far. She hadn’t traveled this road before, but the trees and brush and low ferns and dozing flowers were as familiar as her own home. The stars overhead were the same ones she’d watched with Arminius on countless quiet nights.
Her skin prickled and danced with the memories of how they’d always started and ended those evenings outside. In two years of marriage, their passion for each other had yet to cool. She believed that had he not sent her back to their Cherusci village for the rest of her pregnancy, he would desire her no matter how rotund the baby made her. She hoped, at least.
The pleasant memories passed, but still her skin prickled. This was a different kind of arousal: something lurked in the woods.
Good, she thought, any enemy of Rome is a friend of mine.
Perhaps she could get a horse and escape in the melee. She sat up and stretched as best she could in her restrained state. Her feet were free and her hands bound over her belly. It was simply a matter of loosening the ropes, freeing one of the cart horses, and…
A wolf howled. No, not a wolf. She knew her dogs’ individual voices as well as she knew her own. This was Sunna.
Arminius! Her heart exploded with joy. He was here! Even if he came alone, she didn’t doubt he’d slaughter them all. He was probably furious beyond reason and none were his equal when he reached such a state.
She shrank against one of the cart’s wheels. He would have already seen her. All she needed to do was stay out of the way. It rankled that she couldn’t help, but did that even matter? No, she decided. She could let him fight this battle for her.
Blood sang in her veins. Retribution was coming. It took all her willpower to sit quietly and not alert the soldiers when all she wanted was to run—waddle—in the direction of Sunna’s mournful cry. There lay her husband, her family, her place in the world.
Sweat broke out on her brow. Her fingers flexed and she tugged anew at her bonds. Her aches and pains faded into memory. All that mattered was the coming fight.
Time stretched around her. Minutes could have passed, or hours. She knew the precise number of troops on guard, which were the sleepiest, where the others bedded down, and how many weapons were stacked. She gauged the road for strengths and weaknesses. All this was useless, given that she knew Arminius had already made account of the same details and more. What mattered was keeping her mind busy.
In one moment, the only sounds were a light breeze rustling through the trees and the flickering of torches.
In the next, the wald exploded. Screams of pain and battle cries created a familiar din.
Thick arrows preceded the roaring of black-painted warriors pouring out of the darkness like avenging shadows. Men fell before the Romans and Segestes even understood they were under attack. The centurion had only to sit up from his bedroll before an arrow struck his chest.
After that, it was a rout. The meager troop sent to “escort” Thusnelda descended into chaos. Segestes grabbed for her, but a screaming warrior sent him running the other direction.
Sunna found her mistress with the unerring loyalty of a true companion, yipping and dancing on nimble feet. But where was Arminius? Thusnelda had yet to recognize him among the throng.
She lunged for the sword of a fallen Legionnaire and freed her wrists. The cool night air did wonders for her raw skin. She kept the sword, but neither her people nor her captors paid her much mind.
Then she heard him. Arminius unleashed a bellow of rage unlike any she’d heard yet. He crouched over a man—Segestes—shaking him by the front of his expensive tunic, beyond any words except, “My wife! My wife!”
She ran as best she could to his side, jostling their unhappy babe on the way, knowing that he would instinctively sense her presence. They were too closely bound to one another. Sunna mimicked her master’s anger, snarling and snapping at Segestes’ face.
Segestes couldn’t speak. His eyes rounded to their whites like a spooked horse, focusing on nothing but his own fear, and his mouth opened and flexed soundlessly.
Pity. All her anger fizzled into nothing but pity for this sad, desperate man.
She laid a hand on Arminius’ forearm and he quieted.
“I’m all right,” she said. “We’re all right.”
He blinked once, then again, before turning his attention to her. His great shoulders sagged and he tugged her into his arms and breathed her in. A shudder rolled through him and seared into her flesh. They were together and all would be well.
“Let him go,” she said.
His head shook against her breast, so she repeated herself.
Finally, he pulled back without releasing her. “I cannot let this go unanswered.”
“Look around us,” she gestured to the carnage, “it is answered. He has nowhere to go but to our enemies. We will make it known he is now among them. Let him live out his days as an exile.”
Beneath the black paint striping his face and smattering of blood across his cheeks, his expression went to war with itself.
“I should have listened to you and ended this before it began. If I let him live now-”
“He can’t hurt us anymore.”
Arminius swallowed that as best he could. The death rattles of soldiers came in low intervals around the campsite. For all the bloodthirsty prayers Thusnelda had sent up since being taken, she found herself quite finished. She wanted to go home. The coppery stench made her stomach turn.
With a gentle tug, Thusnelda pulled Arminius to his feet. Together they stood over Segestes, the man she once called her father. The man whose intractability cost him a son, a daughter, and now a grandchild.
He hadn’t been a father to her in a long time. At her feet lay a blubbering stranger with sunken eyes and stringy gray hair.
So very pitiful.
The muscle in Arminius’ jaw twitched. “I’ll let him go, but I need a guarantee he can’t hurt anyone else.”
He sheathed his sword and produced a razor sharp knife. Beneath his trim beard, his face turned to stone. He knelt over Segestes and paused only long enough to tell her she should not watch.
Thusnelda didn’t flinch as Arminius carved letters into Segestes’ forehead. She knew Segestes screamed, but she shut out the sound. She ignored his flailing limbs and froze her heart. Given what Segestes would have done to her had he gotten away in time, this was just.
Finally Arminius stood. Beneath the pooling blood, Thusnelda recognized the letters “F-U-G.”
“Any Roman he encounters will believe he’s a fugitivus, and more than once. No one will believe him. Let the consequences be what they may.”
They rode hard for the nearest friendly village, despite Arminius’ growled insistence that her delicate condition should be coddled. Coddling could come later in the form of good food, a soft bed, and privacy. She was pregnant, not crippled. Dammit. She only needed a little help to mount and dismount her horse.
In three days, they exchanged nothing more than the most necessary communication by silent agreement that their true reunion would wait until behind closed doors. They didn’t speak of his decision to send her back to their home village upon discovery of her pregnancy so many months ago. It lurked as a shadow in his eyes every time he looked at her.
After three days and a glorious meal, Thusnelda plopped onto the bed of a minor chieftain while Arminius shut the door. A brazier in the corner kept the chill at bay and bathed the room in a flickering orange glow. It smelled much the same here as it did in any longhouse—old pine, fragrant rushes beneath the thick rugs, the lingering scent of dinner from the hall, and leather.
Her babe kicked in the womb, eliciting a little noise of surprise at the sensation of bubbles fluttering through her belly. Arminius abruptly turned from the door and rushed to her side.
“What is it? What’s wrong?”
She couldn’t help but snicker at the panic on his face. If she didn’t stop him, he might draw his sword to hunt out whatever had surprised her.
“It’s nothing. The baby is kicking.”
His expression changed from concerned to flummoxed, then his brows knitted in pain.
“I haven’t felt him kick.”
Because he sent her away as soon as the midwife confirmed her condition.
“Here,” she reached for his hand and he followed to his knees before her, letting her guide his thick warrior’s paw over the taut skin of her belly. “Just wait, he’ll do it again.”
Adopting Arminius’ assumption that the babe was a boy came naturally, though it still surprised her. In the past four months, she’d diligently referred to it as “it,” unwilling to concede it might not be a girl. That was Arminius’ power: he had only to speak to make something true.
After a moment, it kicked again. His expression took flight. For the first time since before he sent her away, no darkness lurked behind those blue eyes and his lips split into a marvelous grin. He breathed a laugh then grinned wider as the babe kicked again.
“He knows you’re finally here,” she said.
Arminius sobered. He absently rubbed that great hand over her belly and looked down at the floor.
“Can you ever forgive me?”
She reached for him, but in her current state she could only just brush her fingers along his temple. It got him to look up.
“You couldn’t have known Segestes would go so far.”
His full mouth pursed. “You told me.”
“I did and now I know you won’t ever do such a thing again. My place is at your side.”
He nodded once. Then shook his head. “When Flavus told me-”
“Flavus?” She didn’t bother to disguise her shock.
“Flavus. Apparently there are some lines even he finds distasteful to cross.”
So many questions and possibilities presented themselves at once, Thusnelda stumbled over which to voice. “What does this mean?”
“Don’t get too excited. He still stands a Roman, against us in this. But...he is also still my brother.”
Thusnelda brushed a hand along his jaw. He turned his face into it and closed his eyes. He sighed with his whole body.
“You missed him,” she said.
“I did. I missed you.”
“Good. Now, my back hurts and if you don’t get these boots off my feet right now, I’m going to scream.”
She could get used to this contrite husband who got to work removing her boots without question. What she couldn’t get used to was the way he frowned at the results.
“What the fuck happened to your feet?”
Thusnelda groaned and dropped to her back. “They’re swollen. They’ve been swollen for months. I can barely put on my boots.”
Arminius snickered. The bastard kneeled before her, caressing her feet, bright red with restrained guffaws.
She pushed up to her elbows. “Stop laughing at me!”
“But,” he sniffed, “they’re so cute. They’re all fat. Do they hurt?”
“All day, you horse’s ass!”
He only laughed harder. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said with great effort, bending to place a kiss on top of each foot before standing to shuck his old tunic.
Old scars mingled with new scars, though none so new she didn’t recognize them. She breathed a sigh of relief and stoutly ignored his mockery so she could properly appreciate the sight of her shirtless husband. She had yet to tire of his broad shoulders, ropey, thick walls of muscle encasing his arms and torso.
The babe did nothing to quell her ardor, if anything she’d been in a state ever since his seed took hold. Disappointment curled around her excitement. If he was so amused by her fat little feet, what must he think of her now?
“Help me up.” She held out her hands. He took them and helped her to sit, but didn’t help her to her feet, which was her goal.
“What do you need?” Immediately serious, he looked ready to ride all the way to Italia for grapes if she asked.
“I just,” she gestured vaguely at her long-sleeved tunic and breeches, “I need to put on a nightdress.”
He recoiled. “Why?”
In the past, when they weren’t under any immediate threat, they didn’t bother with sleeping clothes, preferring to stay nude, skin to skin. He thought of dressing for bed just to undress again as a waste and she agreed. Now, though?
What would he think when he saw her distended flesh? The angry red lines where her skin had stretched to its limits? The softness of her hips and rear? He’d said goodbye to his wolf queen, a hardened warrior with the muscles to prove it.
Something of her thoughts must have been written across her face. The bed sank under his weight as he sat next to her.
“As embarrassed as I am to admit this, it occurs to me that you distracted me when I closed the door. I had intended on greeting you properly.”
Before she could voice the question, he sank a hand into her hair and brought their lips together in a searing kiss. They’d shared a few chaste kisses on the road, but nothing like this. Their mouths opened for each other, devouring each moment of their separation. Their tongues delved and danced in a carnal imitation of the act they’d never denied themselves.
Could he finish her just like this? Gods, she hoped so. When his hand found her breast, she couldn’t suppress her yelp.
He yanked his hand back as though scalded. “What’s wrong?”
“Tender.” She rubbed the appendage absently. “Besides, you’re liable to get more than you bargained for if you give these too much attention.”
First came the confusion, then, his rich, masculine chuckling.
“A lot has changed in just a few months,” he said.
“And much, much more to come.”
He offered a little smile, all the hopes they shared for their future written on his lips, and he began loosening the ties of her baggy tunic.
Without thinking she batted his hands away. “I’m fine, I can sleep like this.”
Arminius cocked his head and raised an eyebrow. He raised a hand and began counting on his fingers. “First of all, your clothes smell like horse. Second, we both know you don’t want to sleep in that thing another night. Third, what I have in mind doesn’t involve clothing.”
Her personal litany of complaints about her physical state rattled themselves off again in her mind.
“You cannot possibly want to see me like this.”
Always a man of action, he muttered a curse then dragged her fully onto the bed, stretching his considerable length alongside her and planting a hard, demanding kiss on her lips. His tongue swept into her mouth, probing and retreating and claiming everything that belonged to him. Someone moaned, though in that moment they were one, making it both impossible and irrelevant who was making the little pleasure noises.
When he finally broke the kiss, he left his forehead pressed against hers, breathing her in.
“I think you’re so beautiful just like this, I plan on keeping you pregnant as long as possible.”
Thusnelda’s sleepy, pleasured daze snapped away. She opened her eyes to fix Arminius with a narrowed glare and said, “I will kill you in your sleep.”
He laughed against her mouth and cuddled her closer. “There’s my Eldaberry. Now, will you let me undress you?”
Hours later, as the candles melted and the brazier cooled, Arminius rubbed steady, intoxicating ministrations into Thusnelda’s bared lower back.
He watched her breathing slow and sent yet another prayer of thanks to the heavens that the ordeal was over. Never again. He would never again be parted from her, this he swore to the gods, Germanian and Roman alike. Any who might witness his vow.
Beneath his wandering hands, their child grew. A lusty, healthful boy, no doubt. They way he kicked and moved and stretched her body with months still to grow left no doubt in Arminius’ esteemed opinion a little prince would be born.
A prince. An heir to the kingdom they built. Their future. The family he would never sell.
And it came so close to crashing down around him. Fuck the war. Fuck the Cherusci. He’d walk away from all of it this very night, take Thusnelda to the far north and live as a farmer or a fisherman, anything but what he was now, if it was the only way to assure their safety. The only thing that mattered now was in his arms.
He would give them a kingdom, but if that didn’t work? He would guarantee them a life.
Thusnelda mumbled and scooted her luscious little bottom closer to him. He leaned down and placed a kiss on her temple.
“I love you, too.”