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Taken by the Barbarian Princes

Skatha Chronicles, Book 1

By Lily Reynard



Smashwords Edition

Published by Philtata Press

Text copyright 2015 by Lily Reynard. All rights reserved.
Excerpt from Elegy V by Ovid translated by Henry T. Riley

Cover art by Resplendent Media

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be resold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you're reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to your favorite ebook retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Excerpt

"Do you want to go with this man who claims to be your husband?" Prince Ateas asked me quietly in his accented Latin.

"No," I whispered, too low for my mother or bridegroom to overhear. I looked up and met his eyes. "Please, help me."

He stared down at me, his expression grave.

I stared back, my heart pounding and my knees shaky with what I was about to propose. But I could think of no other way, and this man was very attractive despite the dark tattoos covering his arms and neck.

And he seemed to be kind as well.

Kinder than Gaius Petronius Turpilianus, at any rate.

"How?" Prince Ateas asked, finally.

Prince Palakus leaned in to hear his answer.

I swallowed hard. My heart was beating so loudly that I could barely hear myself speak above the drumbeat pounding in my ears.

"Turpilianus will only take a chaste maiden to wife," I whispered, scarcely believing the words coming from my mouth. "If—if I were despoiled, he wouldn't want me any longer."

Prince Ateas and Prince Palakus both smiled wolfishly at me.

"I believe we can aid you in this matter, Lady Marcella," Prince Ateas murmured, his voice a rumbling caress.

Prince Palakus grinned. "And if we're both seen taking you, then there's no chance that that old fool will want you!" he said, loudly, in delighted tones.

Both of them? What had I gotten myself into?

Table of Contents

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Other books by Lily Reynard

Historical Notes and References

Chapter One

Cremona, Italy
AD 69

When I was kissed for the first time, it was on my wedding day, and the man who kissed me was a stranger and not my bridegroom.

And then the stranger's brother kissed me, too, and the both of them took me away to tear at my wedding finery and bare my innocent body to their hungry gazes.

All this happened on the day that my home, the prosperous Roman city of Cremona, fell to the legions of General Vespasian.

Unknown to all of us, at the moment my wedding commenced, rapacious soldiers were on the verge of forcing their way inside the city, ready to sack it and burn it.

But I am getting ahead of my story.

My name is Aelia Marcella, and I am the eldest daughter of Marcus Marcellus Primus. I come from a very old, very respectable lineage of equestrian rank.

Even now, after all these years, I'm told that the upper classes of Cremona—those who survived the fall of the city, that is—remember the events of my wedding day and shudder in horror at the scandal.

I did not want to get married. In particular, I did not want to marry Gaius Petronius Turpilianus.

But he was slated to become a senator if Emperor Vitellius prevailed in the civil war that had been raging for months. So my father's younger brother, Gaius Marcellus Secundus, who had recently become our paterfamilias, had arranged the marriage to keep us safe.

My father, before his untimely—and unexpected—death, had been a known supporter of General Vespasian, the wily legionary commander who led the opposition to Emperor Vitellius. Their struggle was just the latest in the civil war that had started shortly after Emperor Nero committed suicide.

In the space of less than a year, there had already been three emperors and much bloodshed. Everyone was worried about what might happen next. Wherever I went—the forum, the baths, the chariot races—I overheard people discussing and debating the merits of General Vespasian over Emperor Vitellius.

Being allied to a staunch supporter of the emperor might keep our family safe from political persecution if General Vespasian was defeated. Being married to me might keep Turpilianus safe if Emperor Vitellius lost and General Vespasian was elevated to emperor.

Thus did my uncle, always a politically canny man, hedge his bets from his posting in the distant border province of Noricum on the Danube. There, he served as a quaestor, senior magistrate to Sextilius Felix, the imperial procurator who governed the province.

It all sounds like a very good arrangement, does it not? To become the wife of a rich man of the senatorial class, who might be a senator himself someday?

But Turpilianus terrified me. And the thought of marrying him and having to share his bed filled me with such loathing that I actually considered running away before the wedding.

Why did I hate my betrothed? Let me tell you what happened during my betrothal feast.

After months of negotiation over my dowry via courier between Turpilianus and Uncle Secundus, who was currently stationed in the fortified legionary camp at Carnuntum, the signed copies of my betrothal contract finally arrived in late summer. Astrologers were promptly consulted for the best date to hold the engagement feast.

It was a lavish affair, hosted in our family home by my mother.

She hired professional cooks to create a banquet of dozens of courses to rival anything served in Rome itself. The rooms and courtyards of our large house were decorated with garlands of fragrant herbs and flowers and blazed with the light of hundreds of oil lamps, kept refilled by two slaves dedicated to the task.

Thus far, I had only seen Turpilianus from a distance. Up close, I found him distasteful in manner if not appearance.

When I spotted him among the other guests, he was drinking heavily, downing goblet after goblet of straight wine, waving away the slave who attempted to add water to make it a civilized beverage.

As was common for upper-class marriages, my betrothed was considerably older than I, in his late forties or early fifties, with a skin reddened by heavy drinking.

He might have once been a fine figure of a man, with wide shoulders and powerfully muscled arms, but he was also balding, with a belly that swelled and strained the seams of his tunic.

All this was to be expected from an older husband, I told myself, but I disliked his brusque, sour manner with my younger sisters, our guests, and our slaves.

Only to my mother and to me did he behave respectfully, but even that had the flavor of the stage, of something done out of obligation rather than natural courtesy.

As we gathered in front of our household shrine to sacrifice a dove and ask for the gods' blessings upon our union, I saw him studying me with an intent, greedy expression that made my skin crawl.

His gaze lingered on the front of my gown, where even a tight binding of my breastband failed to entirely flatten my generous bosom to more fashionable proportions, and I saw his tongue dart out to lick his narrow lips.

I shuddered and looked away.

He slid the traditional iron engagement ring onto my finger. It felt as cold and heavy as a manacle. Then he asked for the blessing of the gods in the practiced tones of a professional orator.

The assembled guests clapped and cheered as I prayed silently for some escape from this marriage.

I had agreed to it out of a sense of duty to my family, but the thought of sharing this man's bed and bearing his children repulsed me now that I had actually met him.

Just before the banquet began, Turpilianus asked Mother for permission to speak to me privately. His speech was a little slurred and his cheeks flushed, but he seemed in control of himself.

She gave him an anxious glance—I do not think she liked him any better than I did, though she never betrayed any overt sign of her dislike—and gave her consent with a flutter of her pretty plump hands.

Accompanied by my longtime companion and maid, Lucia, I followed my betrothed into my late father's study, one of the private rooms that opened into the garden courtyard.

I had always liked this room, the walls frescoed with a fantasy landscape of mountains and gardens dotted with delicate pavilions. The walls were lined with cubbyholes that held the stacked scrolls of my father's library.

I came in here sometimes to read or simply because I missed Father and his soft-spoken, gentle ways. The library, more than any other room in our house, still retained a sense of his presence.

Alone at last, Turpilianus dropped what semblance of good cheer he had been able to muster for our guests. He stood in the middle of the study and scowled down at me, his face unpleasantly flushed from drink.

"You, girl," he said, rudely, jabbing a thick finger at me. I noticed that his voice was a little slurred. "Are you really still a virgin?"

"What?" I gaped at him in shock. "Of course I am!"

And how dare he think otherwise!

His mouth twisted in a sneer. "You’d better be. I'll not risk raising another man's child. Despite your age, you still look like a tasty morsel, but I wonder if you're already overripe—"

I drew in a breath, my initial shock igniting into outrage, and opened my mouth to issue a sharp retort.

Then I felt Lucia's gentle touch on my arm, reminding me that a well-bred lady did not show temper…as difficult as it might be to restrain.

Yes, I was still unmarried, five years past the age when most well-born Roman maidens were wed, but that wasn’t my fault!

People told me that I took after my mother, who was a famous beauty with her golden hair and generous, curvy body. Though I had been raised as a sheltered upper-class maiden, I was not unaware of the flirtatious looks sent my way when I accompanied my mother shopping in the forum.

Yet Father had refused every marriage offer made for me, claiming that he wanted to wait until a very special match came along. Looking back, I think he simply couldn't bear the thought of his favorite daughter leaving home.

Then disaster struck when a minor injury on his leg became infected. Father died in fevered delirium, leaving us numb with shock and grief.

Uncle Secundus had become the head of the Marcellus family, and it hadn't taken him long to arrange this match for me. Bitterly, I wondered if he had ever met Gaius Petronius Turpilianus in person.

"—and I need to make sure you haven't been sampling the slaves." Turpilianus was still talking, a sewer of offensive speculation flowing from his mouth. "Got a handsome Greek tutor? How about that muscular young gardener of yours…Dionysus? Or are you one of those women who likes it when the bath slaves massage your oiled body and put their hands all over you? Do you ever let one of them slide his fingers between those plump thighs and bring you to climax? Did you let them climb on top of you and take—?"

"Stop it!' I said furiously, interrupting the flow of vile speculation.

I noticed his face was flushed now, his breath coming faster. Turpilianus licked his lips again, and I felt sick.

"I haven't been alone with any man, except you, here and now," I said, struggling to keep my voice calm, and even. How dare he?

But he wasn't done with his offensive questions.

"So you're telling me that you don't know what to expect from the marriage bed? At your age?" He sneered.

I did know enough. And I quailed at the thought of standing naked and vulnerable before this distasteful man and surrendering myself to him.

"I know the basics," I said, fighting to keep my voice calm when what I wanted to do was scream and hurl a flaming lamp at his vile, smirking face, "but I am sure that you will provide me further instruction, my lord."

He leered at me. Then he looked past me, to Lucia.

"I'll do better than that," he slurred. "I'll show you what I plan for our wedding night."

Before I could react, he lunged forward and seized Lucia's arm with brutal strength. He pulled her stumbling past me and flung her down onto the couch that Father had used for reading.

He grabbed at the neck of her new gown, plain but made especially for the occasion. The sturdy linen tore with a sound like a wail, exposing her small, pink-tipped breasts.

Turpilianus swept aside the draping folds of his toga with a clumsy gesture and yanked up the hem of his long tunic to his waist, revealing thick, hairy legs and equally hairy buttocks.

Before I could react, he threw himself on top of my maidservant, clawing at the front of her gown.

"Her tits aren't as nice as yours, but they'll do for now," he growled, as I stood frozen in disbelieving horror.

Lucia screamed as she tried to push him off her.

I shrieked for help and grabbed his upper arm, trying to pull him away from Lucia. But he was a big man, and solidly built, and I couldn't budge him.

With an oath, he shoved me away violently.

I fell, the tiny tesserae of the mosaic floor digging into my palms and knees.

Slaves—ours and his—came running at the sound of the commotion, as did some of the guests who overheard.

But no one helped us.

The slaves hung back because they did not dare to rebuke a patrician guest, nor did they wish to lay hands on a free man and a citizen.

The guests crowded into the doorway of the study but only watched us with avid interest, as if we were gladiators in the arena.

Then, thankfully, they moved aside, and Mother appeared. Her cheeks were flushed and her beautiful eyes were wide and anxious.

"What is the meaning of this?" she asked, her voice cracking as she caught sight of the struggle on the couch.

Chapter Two

Turpilianus froze at the sound of Mother's voice. Then he slowly looked up and around, as if aware for the first time that he had an audience.

His face, already flushed with wine, darkened further.

"Pulcheria." He addressed my mother with careful dignity.

Under her wide-eyed disbelief, he levered himself unsteadily off Lucia and pushed himself upright.

He stood, swaying and flushed, as his tunic dropped back into place. Fumbling, he tried to put his toga back in order.

Behind him, on the couch, Lucia held together the halves of her ripped gown, her face bleached to a sickly olive shade. She sobbed uncontrollably.

Mother spared me a single nervous glance as I rose to my feet, feeling bruised and shaken to the core.

My legs felt weak with the rage and terror coursing through me, but I gave her a cautious shake of my head, assuring her silently that I had not been harmed.

Mother returned her attention to Turpilianus.

"I am sorry, dearest Pulcheria. I will buy Marcella a new maid, of course, if this one's ruined," Turpilianus said, forming his words with ponderous care. He turned his gaze to me and ruined his apology with a leer. "I can't wait to instruct you properly in your marital duties, Marcella."

My mother drew in a sharp breath and pressed a hand to her bosom, as if her chest hurt.

I held my own breath as I eyed her nervously. Would she faint? Burst into tears?

Both were favorite tactics of hers when confronted with angry or upset men.

But I knew the one thing she would not dare do was rebuke Turpilianus, as she was clearly itching to do. She might be mistress of this house, but she was also a widow without a male protector to hand.

What she could she possibly say to him?

My uncle was stationed hundreds of miles away along the Danube frontier, and Turpilianus was a rich and powerful man.

After a long moment, Mother said with a strained smile and a flutter of her pretty hands, "Come, Gaius Petronius. The banquet cannot begin without our guest of honor."

A sigh—possibly of relief, but more likely disappointment at the anticlimax to the confrontation—passed through the small crowd gathered around the entrance to the study.

As Turpilianus lumbered past me, he caught my hand in his hot, unpleasantly damp grip. He towed me in his wake as he followed Mother through the courtyard to the triclinium, our formal dining room.

Lucia remained where she was. As I was pulled out of the study by my loathsome betrothed, I looked back over my shoulder at her.

She sat on the couch, holding her torn clothing together, her cheeks wet and eyes reddened, and watched me go with an expression of deep despair.

Our guests parted to let us through, but I could feel their curious gazes resting on me like hot sparks from a brazier as they followed us to the other side of the courtyard.

We entered the triclinium, which was crowded with furniture hauled out of storage for the occasion: long, cushioned dining couches arranged around the perimeter of the room, with low tables placed at intervals to hold plates and goblets.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I realized I would not be forced to recline at Turpilianus's side.

All the gods be thanked, Mother had arranged that he and a couple of city council members occupy the large center couch designated as the place of honor. Meanwhile, Mother, my sisters, and I took our places on a neighboring couch reserved for the party's hosts. Everyone else found places reclining side-by-side at the other couches ringing the dining room.

I'll never know how we managed the rest of the celebration, pretending that nothing was wrong.

As our slaves served course after course of delicacies, Turpilianus continued to guzzle unwatered wine despite the disapproving looks from his dining companions.

I caught snatches of whispered conversation among the twenty or so guests arranged on the other couches. Mostly they were snide comments on Turpilianus's drinking, but I caught the occasional phrase that indicated that the tale of Lucia's near-rape in the library was being retold with embellishments.

We usually ate very plain, simple fare. Ever since Mother hired the cooks for the betrothal banquet, I had been eagerly looking forward to sampling this gourmet meal.

And what a meal it was!

We began with a fragrant salad of leeks, parsley, and various herbs, served with salted cheese and chopped nuts. It was accompanied by a dish of poached quails' eggs in a savory sauce of pine nuts, honey, pepper, and garum.

There followed platters heaped with slices of wild boar roasted with honey, pepper, and cumin; and a dish of beef medallions cooked with wine, chopped dates, and fresh mint.

These courses were followed in turn by a soup of lentils and herbs studded with tiny spiced pork sausages; filets of fresh tuna with shallots and herbed vinaigrette; a baked custard flavored with various kinds of imported spiced nuts and honey; and many other fine dishes.

But as dish after dish was placed before us, I found that my stomach was too uneasy with apprehension and suppressed anger to allow me to truly enjoy anything I ate.

And it was all the fault of my betrothed, I thought.

I looked resentfully over to where he reclined on the next couch, eating and drinking like a glutton until his eyes drooped closed and he collapsed and lay snoring.

Even the musicians and tumblers hired to entertain our guests once the dinner tables were cleared away failed to rouse Turpilianus from his drunken slumber.

When the ordeal of my engagement celebration finally ended, his bodyguard and slaves had to lift my betrothed and carry him out to where his litter waited in the street.

When the last guest finally left, our normally serene household descended into an uproar.

My two younger sisters, Aelia Secundia and Aelia Tertia, demanded to know what had happened in the library, the slaves stopped their clean-up efforts to listen, and Lucia began sobbing afresh.

Amidst it all, my mother sat in a cushioned, high-backed woven-wicker chair, rubbing her left arm as if it ached.

Now that the feast was over, she looked exhausted, her beautiful features pale and drawn under her cosmetics.

"I can't marry him!" I said to my mother, when I'd finished telling Secundia and Tertia about what Gaius Petronius Turpilianus had tried to do Lucia. "I'd rather die than share a marriage bed with that man!"

Mother sighed, looking troubled.

"Perhaps it was just all that wine…," she suggested in her usual girlish, slightly breathless voice.

Men liked that voice, just as they adored her curvaceous figure. It always amused me to see how easily she manipulated male shopkeepers into giving her the best prices when she went shopping in the forum and how Father's friends clustered around her like bees to a beautiful flower.

So far, though, she had not expressed any interest in remarrying despite numerous offers. Instead, she had thrown her considerable energies into arranging my wedding.

"Father always said that wine revealed a person's true character and soul," I pointed out.

Mother sighed. Her hands fluttered upwards to not-quite-touch the mass of curling blonde hair precariously held in place with jeweled hairpins, then descended to her gold-and-pearl necklace, making a minute and unnecessary adjustment to how it lay against her smooth white throat.

"You've already given your consent, and all of the marriage contracts are signed," she pointed out. "And you know how badly your uncle wants this match. He thinks our family's future lies in allying ourselves with an old senatorial family like the Petronii…"

She's not really going to force me to marry him, is she? I wondered in despair. Not after Turpilianus's crude assault on Lucia!

I drew breath to protest, and she reached out to place a gentle hand on my arm.

"Peace, daughter. In the morning, I will send a courier to your uncle, asking him to reconsider this match in light of your betrothed's actions here tonight." She frowned.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

I did not know my uncle well. He had begun his civil service career as a junior tribune with the Fourteenth Gemina legion in Britannia and had been subsequently transferred to a number of different postings in distant provinces. His current assignment was a prestigious appointment on the staff of the Imperial Procurator who governed Noricum with the help of the Fifteenth Apollinaris legion.

During all of these years, he had only occasionally come home to Cremona on leave.

I remembered him as fair-haired and as charming as Father, but boisterous and athletic where Father had been quiet and scholarly.

And I sincerely hoped Uncle Secundus would not force me to marry a man who had tried to rape a slave belonging to his hosts in the midst of his own betrothal feast!

Chapter Three

The morning after my betrothal feast, Gaius Petronius Turpilianus sent an exquisitely courteous letter of apology to my mother. The letter was accompanied by an amphora of expensive Caecuban wine. In his letter, Turpilianus explained the wine was the very last vintage before the late Emperor Nero had torn up those famous vineyards in search of buried treasure.

To me, he sent a love poem from the scandalous poet Ovidius Naso, the parchment wrapped around a necklace of beautifully wrought gold vine leaves interspersed with tiny clusters of ripe grapes made from polished garnet and amethyst.

My eye fell upon the lines of verse painstakingly copied out onto the sheet:

When, her clothing laid aside, she stood before my eyes,
throughout her whole body nowhere was there a blemish.
What shoulders, what arms I both saw and touched!
The contour of her breast, how formed was it to be pressed!
How smooth her stomach beneath her faultless bosom!
How full and how beauteous her sides!
How plump with youthfulness the thigh!
But why enlarge on every point?
Nothing did I behold not worthy of praise; and I pressed her person even to my own.

I shuddered and felt ill.

From any other suitor, these lines might have been romantic and complimentary.

But as I read them, I could only relive the moment when Turpilianus had flung himself on my maid like a great, hairy beast and attempted to violently rut upon her.

* * *

The sweltering weeks of summer slowly passed into milder autumn as Mother and I anxiously awaited my uncle's reply to our letter.

The civil war drew closer to our city once again, engendering great anxiety among the leading families of Cremona.

Back in April, a battle between the forces of the previous emperor Otho and the current emperor Vitellius had been fought uncomfortably close to our city walls.

Now, as September drew to a close, it seemed that the legions supporting General Vespasian and those supporting Emperor Vitellius might once again fight a battle on our doorstep.

The merchants were up in arms, since a large trade fair was currently in progress, drawing visitors from all over the empire. They feared that at any moment their wagonloads of goods might be seized and confiscated by one side or the other.

And Gaius Petronius Turpilianus began to pressure Mother to set a firm date for the wedding. It seemed that General Vespasian's forces were gaining the upper hand over Emperor Vitellius's troops, and Turpilianus wanted ensure that he was firmly allied with our family in case Vespasian became the next emperor.

Mother fended him off for a few days with the excuse that we were awaiting word from the head of our family.

It had been two months since we had sent the courier to Carnuntum, and still no reply from my uncle. It was a clear sign of Turpilianus's anxiety about the latest news that his messengers soon began to arrive daily at our house, then hourly, to inquire whether we had received any news yet.

Then, finally, a week before the Ides of October, a dusty courier arrived at our house, bearing a reply sealed with my uncle's sigil.

As our porter Vigilax admitted the courier into our house, he reported that one of Turpilianus's slaves, set to watch our door, sped off in the direction of Turpilianus's house on the other side of the city.

Mother accepted the sealed letter, gave the courier a generous gratuity for his services, then sent the weary man off with our majordomo Stephanus to be fed, bathed, and given a place to sleep.

Mother and I went to my father's library, where we sat on the couch and opened the waterproof oiled leather letter tube.

I held my breath, my stomach cramping in anxious anticipation, as Mother withdrew a single sheet of papyrus from the tube.

The letter was brief, and written in my uncle's own neat hand.

From Gaius Marcellus Secundus to his sister-in-law Aelia Pulcheria Lepidina, greetings:

I was surprised and dismayed by your letter questioning the matter of Marcella's betrothal. Have not my wishes in this matter been made clear? Have not all the contracts already been signed, and my niece's consent given?

Tell Marcella that I forbid her to withdraw her consent from the marriage and thus create a scandal over this trifling matter of a slave girl.

I need not remind you that it is the right of the master of the house to use slaves for whatever purpose he sees fit. Gaius Petronius Turpilianus has written me as well, and assured me that he intends to treat his future wife with the respect that our rank and family connections demand. I therefore see no legitimate obstacle to this marriage.

Do not fail me in this matter, dear Pulcheria.

I pray this letter finds you all in good health, and wish you continuing good fortune.

Written at the winter quarters of Legio XV Apollinaris in Carnuntum.

I stared at my mother in disbelief as she finished reading the letter out loud.

"He cannot mean it!" I said, feeling sick with disappointment and dread. "Why does he want to force this match on me? This city is filled with supporters of Emperor Vitellius! Couldn't he marry me to someone else?"

Mother sighed. "Your uncle was always an ambitious man. When he retires, he will be elevated to senatorial rank in recognition of his service," she explained, putting her soft, plump hand over mine. "At that point, he will wish to marry and perhaps enter politics. Being allied to a family as old and distinguished as the Petronii is part of his strategy for the future."

"And so he's willing to sacrifice me to that awful man?" I demanded, already knowing the answer.

Gaius Secundus wasn't my father, and he scarcely knew me. To him, I was simply a female relative of marriageable age, a serviceable game piece to be moved on the board as suited his plans.

"It is our duty, as Roman women, to serve the needs of our families," my mother said quietly. "Perhaps you will find joy in the children you bear your husband."

I felt even sicker at the thought. Having children meant first sharing the bed of that cruel, vulgar, hairy man.

I rose without another word and fled to my room, where I could weep in private.

Lucia found me there sometime later.

"I heard the news," she said, sitting on the edge of my bed, where I was curled into a miserable ball.

Her brown hair fell in soft waves around her face, and her long-fingered hands were gentle as she patted my hot, stinging face dry with a soft linen cloth.

"What am I going to do?" I wailed. "I don’t want to marry him. I don't want to have anything to do with him ever again!"

Instead of offering me comfort, Lucia looked at me with distress that matched my own.

"Did you know that he's here right now, with his astrologer?" she asked. "They're closeted with your mother, setting the date for your wedding."

I sat up, panic gripping me.

"Domina," Lucia said, sliding off the bed and onto the floor. She knelt and bowed her head with unaccustomed servility. "I beg you: please don't make me go with you to Gaius Petronius Turpilianus's household when you marry."

"What?" I asked, startled, out of my own fear-filled thoughts.

"Please," she said, her voice raw with panic. "Please, domina, if you have any affection for me, don't make me do this! Let me stay here and serve your mother or one of your sisters."

"No," I whispered, remembering the cold words my uncle had written in his letter…it is the right of the master of the house to use slaves for whatever purpose he sees fit. "Lucia, you're my friend, aren't you? Please don’t ask me to go there alone!"

Instead of replying, she rose to her feet and fled my room.

A slave should not leave without being dismissed, but I didn't have the heart to reprimand her. I knew exactly how she felt.

I stared dully out into our garden. A warm breeze wafted the scent of crushed herbs into my room, reminding me of the dishes served at my betrothal feast, and I wanted to vomit.

In a while, when I had the strength to leave my room, I would talk to her and tell her that of course she need not come with me.

But for me, there was no escape.

* * *

Evening shadows lay like a veil of night over the courtyard and house, and I could see Stephanus moving in and out of the rooms, carrying a taper and a jug of oil as he filled and lit the lamps. One by one, the open doorways began to glow with a soft, golden light.

I felt hollow, emptied of all emotion save dull despair.

My mother had come to my room a short time ago to inform me that my wedding date was set for nine days past the Ides of October, a fortnight from now.

She sighed, gave me a pitying look, and left again when I made no acknowledgement of the news.

Over and over again during the long hours of the afternoon, I had considered my options. I wanted to run away. I knew it was my only chance to escape my fate.

Only the knowledge that a worse fate awaited an unprotected, unchaperoned woman in the streets of Cremona gave me pause.

Without the protection of my name and my family, I might be abducted and enslaved to a brothel-keeper. I was free-born and the daughter of a Roman citizen, but once imprisoned in the brothel, I would never have the chance to exercise those few rights granted me under Roman law.

No, my fate was decided. If I wanted to remain part of the Marcellus family, I was going to have to marry Turpilianus and submit to my marital duty. Or I could kill myself. I had no other acceptable options.

A commotion rose at the back of the house, where the kitchen was located.

Absorbed in my own misery, I ignored it until Charis, who was maid to my sister Secundia, came running breathlessly into my room.

"Domina!" she cried, when she saw me on my bed. "Domina, it's Lucia! She's tried to kill herself!"

That spurred me out of my self-pity at last. I sprang up and followed Charis to the kitchen.

There was a small pool of blood on the long stone table used to prepare food, more spattered on the mosaic tiles of the floor, and yet more in great dark patches on Lucia's gown.

Our other slaves were gathered around Lucia's body. She lay on the floor, with our majordomo Stephanus kneeling beside her and bandaging her wrists.

Stephanus was a middle-aged Greek man with hair going silver at his temples and an air of patient kindness.

"Forgive us, domina," he said hoarsely, looking up as I entered the kitchen. "We did not take heed when Lucia came into the kitchen. We thought she was preparing a snack for you, since you missed supper."

"I've sent Dionysus for the physician," my mother said, from behind me.

Stephanus shook his head.

"I fear he may be too late, domina," he said. "Lucia's wounds are deep, and her injuries grievous." He paused. "We caught her eating some of the poisoned bread we put out to kill rats. When we tried to stop her, she snatched up one of the knives and…" He let his words trail off, a distressed expression on his face.

I fell to my knees next to Stephanus and gently lifted Lucia's hand. Her skin was cold and smeared with sticky brownish stains. The bandages around her wrists and forearms were already soaked with fresh blood.

Despite her cold skin, she was sweating profusely and trembling.

"Lucia!" I said, desperately. "I'm sorry. I wouldn't have done it. I wouldn't have made you go with me!"

Slowly, she turned her face toward me, blinking repeatedly as if her vision had gone blurry.

She tried to say something, but the words were so slurred I couldn’t understand them.

Then she shuddered, let out a long breath, and went limp.

Lucia was dead.

She had been my constant companion from the age of eight, when she had come into our household as a gift from one of Father's friends. She had been my slave, but also my closest confidant, and (I thought) my friend.

Yet in the end, she had not trusted me to keep her safe from Turpilianus. And perhaps she'd been right. How could I have protected her when I couldn't even protect myself?

I raised my head slowly to meet my mother's sorrowful glance.

When I went to my husband's house, I would be completely alone and without a friend or ally.

Chapter Four

My wedding day came all too soon.

Lucia's body was hastily cremated and interred in our family tomb, which stood alongside the Via Postumia, just a short walk from the city gates.

In the whirl of preparations for my marriage, I scarcely had a chance to mourn her properly, though I missed her cheerful presence at my side and in my room at night.

Lucia's cot remained in my room, as did the little wooden cabinet for her belongings, awaiting Secundia's maid when my sister moved into my bedchamber once I had departed for my husband's home.

Meanwhile, the forces of General Vespasian continued to advance, his legions drawing ever closer to Cremona.

Three days before my wedding, Vespasian's army arrived and began burning the fields and farms surrounding Cremona. The smoke clouded the sky, and spread fear through the city.

There would be no reprieve for me now from the marriage I dreaded. The civil war had returned to our doorstep, and both my mother and Gaius Petronius Turpilianus were determined to see me wed as quickly as possible and our families' alliance thus secured.

No one in the city slept on the night before my wedding, for a great battle was fought in the countryside surrounding Cremona over the course of a day and a night and well into the following day. Even at a distance, we could hear the screams of wounded and dying men, the clash of weapons upon armor, and the deep whomp-whomp-whomp sound of catapults.

But few citizens felt that our city was in immediate danger. Cremona had always been a wealthy trading city, and it was surrounded by sturdy walls built of stone rather than timber. We also had a fortified legionary camp of troops loyal to Emperor Vitellius located only a few hundred yards outside our gates.

If Vespasian's legions tried to lay siege, we were sure we could outlast them, especially with a cold and wet winter coming soon.

As it turned out, we were tragically mistaken.

I later heard that while I was being bathed and dressed and having my hair done for my wedding, the garrison that guarded our city surrendered to the commander of the pro-Vespasian forces. They marched out of the city, leaving the Postumian Gate open on the south side.

The victorious legionaries and their rapacious camp followers poured into the now-defenseless city and begin plundering and burning.

Situated as we were in the northern quarter of the city, we knew nothing of what was happening as the wedding preparations continued.

My mother's hairdresser curled my long blonde hair with hot irons. Parting it with the traditional spear-shaped wedding comb, she pinned it up in an elaborate coiffure built over pads of wool, holding the curling locks in place with dozens of hairpins and a generous application of egg whites.

The effect was to frame my face with a high beehive of curls, with the rest of my hair braided, coiled, and pinned to the back of my head.

When my hair was done, I was dressed in my white silk wedding gown, belted with the traditional woolen belt fastened with a Knot of Hercules that would be undone by my husband when he took me to bed.

Finally, my mother lowered a cobweb-thin red silk veil carefully over my head and face, taking care not to ruin the hairdresser's work, and the hated iron betrothal ring was slipped back on my finger.

Twelve-year-old Secundia, bursting with self-importance, lit the ceremonial marriage torch from our hearth and handed it to me.

All the members of our household were waiting for me. They assembled in the atrium, ready to escort me to the house of my husband in a traditional wedding procession.

Gaius Petronius Turpilianus, crowned with a wreath of flowers, clad in a purple-bordered toga, and reeking powerfully of attar of roses, awaited me in the street just outside my home.

He was surrounded by members of his own household, including his elder sister, Petronia, a pinch-faced widow who surveyed me silently for a long moment before stepping forward to welcome me.

"Fortune smile upon you on this happiest of days, sister-in-law," Petronia said with false cheer. "I look forward to instructing you in how to run my brother's household as he prefers it."

The mention of instruction stirred a darker memory, and I glanced involuntarily at my bridegroom.

I couldn’t see his expression through the veil. But I could tell that he was staring at my breasts where they swelled under the clinging folds of my expensive wedding gown. I felt a cold chill run down my back.

I had been trying very hard not to think about what would happen once I reached the house of the Petronii and Turpilianus carried me across the threshold to make me his wife.

By tradition, the wedding guests would feast as he immediately took me to the nuptial chamber and consummated the wedding.

Better not to think about that part, I told myself as I clutched the torch like a weapon.

Was it blasphemy against our household gods that I wanted nothing more than to smash the torch over his head and run away, as fast and as far as I could?

Then we heard the unexpected sound of horses' hooves on stone pavement.

Someone gasped, and I tore my gaze away from Turpilianus.

Peering through the red haze of my veil, I saw the dim shapes of a squad of mounted soldiers coming down the street towards us.

Unarmed and unprepared as we were, all of us froze at the sight.

The city was garrisoned, of course, and we were accustomed to seeing soldiers in the forum, cook shops, and taverns, but these men seemed…different. Dangerous.

Behind them came a large, open wagon drawn by a team of mules, heaped with booty plundered elsewhere in the city—coin-chests, statues, small items of furniture, and unidentifiable items wrapped in sacks, togas, and shawls.

They were led by two large mounted men wearing officers' red cloaks and crested helmets. Their horses' harnesses jingled with numerous silver medallions that were military awards for bravery.

The twenty or so cavalrymen whooped and cheered when they caught sight of us standing in the street.

"Well, now," called one of the officers in accented Latin.

He reined his horse to a halt. I saw his helmeted head tilt as he looked down at us with a wicked grin, taking in our rich clothing, our jewelry, and our lack of armed guards. "Here's a rich prize, indeed!"

"What is the meaning of this?" blustered Turpilianus.

Both men ignored him, turning their attention to my mother, who was clearly a patrician noblewoman with her fine gown and gold jewelry.

She flinched under their regard, and Stephanus put a steadying hand under her elbow

"Madam," said the officer, with a polite nod. "We regret the interruption of this wedding, but the city has surrendered, and Commander Marcus Antonius Primus of the Seventh Galbiana has given the troops free rein to sack the city."

His men cheered again, and I saw them studying us with avaricious interest.

"You!" barked Turpilianus, his face flushed with anger. He pointed at the officer nearest him. "Identify yourself!"

The man slid out of his saddle with a fluid movement.

Even though the veil, I could see he was tall, a good head taller than my bridegroom, and broad-shouldered.

"I am Ateas, prince of the Skatha and co-commander of this auxiliary unit," officer said in accented Latin. "And this is my brother, Palakus, who also commands and serves as our medicus, as well. Until sundown, we are attached to the Third Gallica legion."

The second officer gave a sharp nod and dismounted as well. He came to stand next to his brother, and I saw that the two men were of an identical height and build.

"The Third...Gallica?" Turpilianus said in disbelief. I could sense his arrogance dissipating as he realized the danger. He stared at the shields slung from the saddles of the cavalrymen, painted with legion's insignia of three bulls and Capricorn. "General Vespasian's men?"

Prince Ateas nodded slowly. "Indeed."

Turpilianus flung a heavy, possessive arm around my shoulder. "Behold my in-laws, the Marcellii, who have been the general's staunch supporters these many months."

"And a lovely group of supporters they are," Prince Ateas said, bowing in our direction.

Secundia giggled. Through the veil, I couldn't tell if she was blushing, but I guessed that she was.

Despite my apprehension, I found I liked this Prince Ateas and his deep, calm voice. But maybe that was only because he seemed to cow Turpilianus.

"Well, then, that's our good fortune!" Prince Palakus said cheerfully. "I believe that the traditional booty from a captured city includes women as well as gold!"

Mother gasped somewhere behind me. I didn't dare turn to look at her.

"Palakus," his brother said sternly.

Then, to my shock, Prince Ateas reached out and gently lifted the silk veil, revealing my features. And I saw him clearly for the first time.

He was startlingly handsome, with deeply tanned skin and close-cropped dark hair. He also looked weary after a night and day of battle, his cheeks and chin covered with dark stubble.

His clear gray eyes widened as our gazes met. Then Prince Ateas gave me a slow smile that made something in the pit of my stomach feel fluttery. His eyes warmed with good humor…and hunger.

I felt my face grow hot under his regard and dropped my gaze.

Then his brother came up next to him and doffed his helmet as well.

Glancing back up, I saw that Prince Palakus bore a startling resemblance to his brother. But where Ateas' handsome features were gravely dignified, Palakus's were mercurial, animated with mischief and good humor.

"You are beautiful," Prince Ateas said softly. "And it appears that you are not quite wed. Are you?"

I shook my head wordlessly.

But Turpilianus clutched me to him even more tightly. "She is my wife! Mine! The contracts are signed, and she wears my ring! All that's left is mere formality!"

Prince Ateas ignored him.

To me, he said, "At sundown, we will become rich, honorably discharged veterans and Roman citizens. As such, I will be free to marry, and I've been thinking that a voluptuous, sweet-smelling Roman maiden such as you would make the perfect wife. What say you?"

I gasped with the sheer surprise of it.

Prince Palakus seemed equally startled. He threw his brother a questioning glance before looking back at me and studying me with disconcerting interest.

"Marcella," Turpilianus ordered. "Do not speak to these barbarians."

His arm around my shoulder felt unbearably heavy. In his mind, I clearly already belonged to him, and every part of my body and my spirit cried out in protest.

"Marcella," murmured Prince Ateas, as if memorizing my name.

"Before you answer my brother, consider my offer," Palakus said, with an easy smile ignoring my bridegroom. "I, too, am a prince of the Skatha. And I'm much more amusing than this grim soldier here. Marry me, beautiful maiden, and you won't regret it!"

Prince Ateas shot his brother a dark look, and his brother grinned back with unrepentant good humor.

Were they mocking me? Or just flirting?

In any case, they were dangerous—big, armed barbarians leading a troop of mounted soldiers. I should be frightened out of my wits.

And I was scared, make no mistake.

As we stood, unarmed and vulnerable in the street, surrounded by armed men intent on pillage, if not rape, my heart was pounding and my hands were shaking.

But part of me was also relieved at this interruption to the wedding I wanted to avoid at all costs.

"As supporters of your General Vespasian," Turpilianus blustered, "I order you to cease frightening my wife. I can feel her trembling in fear."

As if Turpilianus cared a whit about what I felt! No, he was angry because he considered me his and wanted to prove his ownership to these men.

Prince Ateas studied me thoughtfully. I lifted my chin and stared back at him before switching my gaze to his brother.

Both men had gray eyes fringed with dark lashes, and their gazes were hot and hungry as they rested on me.

When Turpilianus looked at me that way, I felt unclean.

But these men…my heart was pounding, but not with fear.

Prince Ateas indicated the torch I still clutched in my right hand. "Lady Marcella, you have not yet brought fire from your hearth to his? Nor received the blessing of fire and water from his household? He hasn't bedded you?"

I shook my head, and Turpilianus's fingers dug cruelly into my shoulder.

"Don't you dare!" he whispered.

Somewhere deep inside me, a tiny ember of hope was flaring into bright, hot flame.

"Good," Prince Palakus said, grinning broadly.

I noticed that he had an entwining pattern tattooed with dark ink on his muscular neck, rising up from the sweat-stained scarf that protected his throat from the chafe of his armor.

"Then I ask you, beautiful maiden," Palakus continued, "will you come with us and let my brother and me court you?"

The soldiers whooped and beat their daggers against the shields hanging from their saddles.

Without the veil to obscure my vision, I was able to see that they were all big men, mounted on sturdy horses.

Like their commanders, the cavalrymen looked weary, unshaven, and dusty after a day and night of battle. Several of them had bloodstained bandages wrapped around injured arms and legs. They wore breeches and boots and were armored in chain mail over red legionary tunics, with helmets and cheek-pieces. Each man was armed with a short sword, a dagger, and a long spear.

Despite their Roman armor and weapons, no one would have mistaken them for regular legionaries—a plethora of bold tattoos on necks and forearms saw to that.

These must be some of the legions' famous barbarian auxiliaries…perhaps from the German tribes or, more likely, Sarmatians or Scythians from the lands beyond Rome's eastern frontier.

I saw that that most of them wore the gold torcs and silver amulae that were awarded for valor in battle. Their horses' harnesses were decorated with many silver medallion combat awards.

"Marcella!" growled Turpilianus, interrupting my fascinated study of the newcomers. "Get away from those men, right now! Or I'll make you sorry!""

He withdrew his arm from around my shoulders. An instant later, I felt his hand close hard around my upper arm, preparing to drag me away.

I flinched, trying to pull away.

Prince Ateas' expression darkened, dark brows drawing together in an impressive frown.

The big barbarian moved so fast that I didn't understand what he had done until Turpilianus was sprawled on the pavement with Prince Ateas's sword at his throat.

My future sister-in-law Petronia cried out, and I heard a chorus of soft gasps from others.

"Where I come from," Prince Ateas said with soft menace, "we ask women politely. We don't threaten them or order them around."

"And are we gonna ask these pretty women to come with us, Commander?" called one of the cavalrymen, still in the saddle.

His comrades whooped and laughed as they eyed my sisters, my mother, and our female slaves.

I saw my youngest sister Tertia clutching the hand of her nanny Nefer, a slim, handsome Egyptian woman with long black tightly-braided hair.

Nefer looked terrified as she gazed up at the soldiers.

Secundia and her Greek maid Charis were calmer but had withdrawn behind Stephanus and the youth Dionysus.

Our other slaves were clustered together, the men standing protectively in front of the women, all of them staring apprehensively at the armed men who blocked the street.

My mother was clearly fighting for her composure. Her face was bleached under her cosmetics, making the kohl eyeliner and rouge stand out starkly on her fine skin. But she held her ground, though her eyes were wide and panicked.

Petronia cowered behind one of her brother's bodyguards. Who seemed frozen by the appearance of the soldiers and had not moved to protect his master.

I looked back at the two barbarian princes who stood before me. Ateas still held my bridegroom at sword point. And Turpilianus still lay on the ground, his grand toga dusty and dirty now.

"I—if I come with you," I said quietly, my voice shaking. "Will you promise not to harm my mother, my sisters, or anyone in our household?"

Chapter Five

"Marcella, don't you dare!" Turpilianus blustered.

He glared up at Prince Ateas, his face flushed and ugly with rage. "Do you know who I am? The Petronii are a senatorial family! General Vespasian will have you flogged for treating me like this!"

"He will not," Prince Ateas said coolly. "Little man, don't make empty threats."

He looked beyond me to where my mother stood, her plump, trembling form supported by Stephanus.

Our majordomo's face looked terrified, but he stood his ground courageously.

"Are you Marcella's mother?" asked Prince Ateas, inclining his head respectfully to her.

She nodded, her blue eyes wide, her gold earrings swinging. "I am Aelia Pulcheria Lepidina, mistress of this household and widow of Marcus Marcellus Primus. My brother-in-law serves as quaestor to the governor of Noricum."

"And he's in Noricum right now?" Prince Ateas looked around. "So you have no one to protect you?"

"They have me!" blustered Turpilianus. "I will protect them!"

Prince Ateas' firm mouth curled into a contemptuous smile.

"Lady, if your daughter agrees to come with us, and if you offer the contents of your house as her dowry, then my men and I will escort your household to where your brother-in-law resides in Noricum."

He paused, listening, and we all heard it, too—the sounds of distant shouting, interspersed with screaming. I looked up and saw smoke rising from the other side of the city.

"You can't stay here," Prince Palakus said urgently. "Do you know what happens when a city is sacked, my lady?"

My mother shook her head.

"The legionary commanders set their troops loose on the city. They steal everything they can carry away and burn the rest. All Cremona will be in flames by nightfall. Normally, the citizens would be rounded up and sold into slavery, but this is a Roman city, with Roman citizens, so the legionaries won't be able to sell their prisoners to the merchants who follow the army."

"So we'll be safe, then?" asked my mother, hopefully.

Prince Ateas shook his head. "I fear the soldiers plan to kill all the grown men immediately and then rape all the women, girls, and boys before killing them, too."

"Please listen to my brother," Prince Palakus added earnestly. "And come with us. We'll keep you safe and escort you to where your kinsman resides in Noricum. We're headed that way, anyway—our men are supposed to be receiving their veterans' land grants along the Danube frontier, near our tribe's homeland."

"The men of the Seventh Galbiana and Third Gallica entered the city on foot, so we were able to cross the city ahead of them," added Prince Ateas. "But it's only a matter of time before they reach this neighborhood."

"Don't be a fool, Aelia Pulcheria!" hissed Petronia. "They'll rape your daughters and slave women as soon as they can, and slit your throats!"

Mother looked at her with silent anxiety, then returned her gaze to Turpilianus. From her expression, I knew she remembered his part in poor Lucia's fate as vividly as I did.

Her hands fluttered to touch her hair and her throat as she thought.

"I think," she told him in a shaking voice, "if they intended us harm, they would have simply taken what they wanted. But these two princes seem to be men of honor."

"Fine," spat Turpilianus. "I can't stop you from acting the fool. If you and your slaves want to go with these men, then I can't stop you, but Marcella is mine, and she stays with me."

He turned his head to where I stood. "Marcella, come here right now!" he barked.

Mother looked fearfully between Turpilianus and the barbarian officers.

"Please, Gaius Petronius, come with us," she pleaded. "You heard these men. It's not safe here."

Mother wanted him to come with us? My brief blossom of hope withered and died.

It seemed that I would not escape this marriage after all.

Turpilianus rose to his feet, glaring at Prince Ateas as he tried to pat the dust of the street from his expensive toga.

"Oh, no, Aelia Pulcheria," he said to my mother. "If you think I'm letting my wife go anywhere with these soldiers, then you're a bigger fool than I imagined. I can't stop you if you want to traipse around the countryside with a troop of dirty barbarians, but Marcella is coming to my house and staying with me."

He grabbed for my hand, and I stepped back to avoid him.

Then Prince Ateas slid between us, his movements smooth and swift despite the encumbering armor

"Do you want to go with this man who claims to be your husband?" he asked me quietly in his accented Latin.

"No," I whispered, too low for my mother or bridegroom to overhear. I looked up and met his eyes. "Please, help me."

He stared down at me, his expression grave.

I stared back, my heart pounding and my knees shaking with what I was about to propose. But I could think of no other way, and this man was very attractive despite the dark tattoos covering his arms and neck.

And he seemed to be kind as well.

Kinder than Turpilianus, at any rate.

"How?" he asked, finally.

Prince Palakus leaned in to hear his answer.

I swallowed hard. My heart was beating so loudly that I could barely hear myself speak above the drumbeat pounding in my ears.

"Turpilianus will only take a chaste maiden to wife," I whispered, scarcely believing the words coming from my mouth. "If—if I were despoiled, he wouldn't want me any longer."

Prince Ateas and Prince Palakus both smiled wolfishly at me.


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