Ripples In Time by Lois Kay and cbar

Ripples In Time
By Lois Kay and cbar

Chapter one

The sky was grey and heavy with rain. A light drizzle coated everything with a shiny layer of moisture. Despite the wetness and chilly breeze, the birds sang their songs with vigor, while the steadily falling raindrops drummed a soft beat on the leaves of the bushes and trees.

In the distance a narrow plume of smoke could be seen, slowly billowing skywards, giving away the presence of a small village, occupied by mostly farmers and traders. The village was sheltered by the surrounding hills, overgrown with dense forests, while the huge, wooden fort on top of the hill stood watch, providing protection against robbers, thieves and warlords.

A tall, hooded figure slowly made way through the bushes, searching the shrubs and occasionally bending down to pick some green plants that were safely and securely stored away in a leather pouch around a trim waist.

The dark cloak almost perfectly blended in with the wet, dark tree trunks and dense bushes. From the narrow track, only used by a few people who knew the area well, the figure was almost invisible.

A soft crackling noise made the hooded figure stand still with its head cocked to listen for any noise that wasn’t familiar. The hood slid back a little and revealed a profile with straight nose and high cheekbones, while long, dark eyelashes hid the eyes from view.

A little shrug of the shoulders and the hood fell back in place. With catlike grace the figure silently continued the journey, hardly touching the branches covering the path. After a short walk a clearing was reached, where a huge, black stallion was leisurely munching away on the grass, that was covered with dandelions and daisies. Upon hearing a soft whistle, the horse raised its head and looked at the treeline. He softly whinnied and shook his magnificent head, immediately trotting towards the source of the sound. He didn’t slow down when he reached his owner. A tall, lean body effortlessly jumped on the horse’s back, not hindered by the long cloak that nearly covered the body completely. They rode away together, a picture of grace and beauty, apparently not aware of a pair of green eyes, the color of fresh spring leaves, that were peeking through the branches.

For long moments the owner of the eyes sat very still. Hardly breathing and afraid to move.

” Who in the Gods names was that? A Roman? Could it be? Romans usually don’t dress up all in black? A Gaul? But there was no sword, no weapons. A traveler maybe, looking for a trade of some sort. But there was no luggage. The only thing the horse carried was…that person.”

The green eyed observer slowly released some breath and carefully rose, stretching stiff muscles. Disappearing into the opposite direction of the dark stranger, not interested in a confrontation with the mysterious rider of the black stallion.

Isa softly muttered, struggling to keep the heavy wooden bucket from spilling the fresh spring water. It had taken her a lot of effort to pull the bucket up. The rough surface of the rope had been slippery from the rain and left marks on the palms of her hands, which would be sore after she had completed her task.

With a groan she put the bucket on the wall that surrounded the well, careful not to spill any of the water. She had been soaking wet from the rain three times already and now that the rain had stopped falling and the sun tried to peek through the heavy clouds, she had no intentions of getting wet again.

Isa pushed away the disheveled blond hair from her forehead and took a deep breath, wiping her hands on her dress, it was still a bit damp from the previous rainshower.

” I’d like to know what Baldric is doing,” she mumbled, referring to her younger brother. ” Probably having a great time with his friends. I will kick his sorry butt, when I see him. He was supposed to get the water this time. Wait till I get my hands on him!”

Isa looked around the little village. Actually, it wasn’t more than a group of farms and workplaces for the stonecutters, who skillfully shaped the mergle blocks from the caves into the forms and patterns the Romans ordered. They used it to decorate their temples and houses , since the soft stone was easy to manipulate.

Isa’s father, Axel, had been lucky lately. Originally he was a farmer and he still worked the land. But he needed the job as a stonecutter to pay the Roman taxes. A few times already he had found a fossil, embedded in the soft mergle, and managed to sneak it passed the always watching soldiers. He sold it to the travelling tradesmen and made a good profit out of it.

Isa, who understood the danger, had begged him to be careful. The Romans were arrogant and regarded themselves as being superior. The lives of the peasants were not worth much and when a Centurion lost his temper, it was usually a local head that rolled.

Isa lifted the heavy bucket from the wall and put it on the ground in front of her. She knelt down to take a sip of water and caught her reflection in the shiny surface. She stretched out her hand, to scoop up some water to take a sip, when she froze. The surface reflected her face, with the green eyes, surrounded by blond hair, held back from her face by a silver comb, embedded with emeralds, a gift from her father. But there was more. The outline of a dark figure, wearing a hood that hid the face from view, but with the bluest eyes Isa had ever seen. And they seemed to look straight into her soul.

****

It was a rainy spring day. Outside cars and busses noisily tried to find their way through the traffic. Inside the museum of Natural History it was quiet though. The people that were visiting, seemed to speak very softly, or even whisper, impressed as they were with the abundance of archeological artifacts. The whole atmosphere was almost reverent. The visitors were in awe of the priceless excavated pieces of Roman art and impressed by the craftsmanship of the early settlers of Limburg.

A blond and redhaired couple strolled hand in hand among an exhibition of jewelry, amazed by the intricate way some of the pieces were crafted.

” Look at this, Sam,” Jody whispered, pointing at some silver perfume flasks, necklaces and ornaments women used to wear in their hair. ” It looks so delicate.”

Sam followed her wife’s glance and looked through the glass plate, which protected the items from the outside world.

” Wow. Amazing how they made this,” Sam agreed. ” It’s beautiful. I don’t understand why they sometimes call us civilized and people from centuries ago barbarian,” she joked.

Jody nodded and bent closer to the glass to have a better look. Her eyes fell on a slightly dented silver comb that was embedded with emeralds. A few pieces of the precious stones were missing, but it was still pretty much intact. The glass reflected her image and that of her companion. But suddenly it changed. Jody’s heart almost stopped when the reflection of Sam was replaced by the outline of a dark, hooded figure. She was about to jump back, when all of a sudden a pair of familiar clear blue eyes appeared, looking straight into her soul. With a sharp intake of breath she closed her eyes. When she opened them again, the reflection had changed. It was just her and Sam again.

Sam shot Jody a worried glance and gently squeezed the hand, that a few seconds ago had held hers in an iron grip.

” Honey, are you okay?”

Jody looked up and managed a weak smile.

” Yes, I think so. I…I guess all this history is making my imagination run wild. Or maybe I just need to eat something soon.”

” I am quite hungry myself,” Sam smiled. ” Let’s go to that little restaurant and have some coffee with Limburg pie.”

****

The inn was dark. A few tables were scattered around the small room, but only one was surrounded by a group of people, leisurely lying on the padded benches. The oil lamps and candles cast long shadows and gave the place a sinister look, which was enhanced by a few slumped figures, passed out after drinking too much young wine. The remaining occupants of the inn were laughing loudly about something that just been said.

” Tell him, Titus,” one of the soldiers slurred, hitting a young man on the shoulder, making him wince from the impact. ” His daddy would be pleased with him.”

” Yeah,” a tall, sturdy man answered. ” Come on, Flavio. Be a man. Have another drink! We gotta make a man out of you!”

The boy tried to extract himself from the grip the other soldier had on his shoulder.

” You may be the Optio Titus and I respect your rank, but I don’t want to be drunk,” the young man seriously answered.

” Aw, Flavio,” Titus howled. ” But your daddy gave me free hand. He doesn’t want you to be a whimp, you know. I gotta make a man out of you. Isn’t that a fact, my friends?”

The other soldiers nodded and looked at their second in command. Titus was a strong man, who was known for his drunken outbursts and nobody wanted to be on his bad side.

” Come on, Flavio, ” Titus pleaded. ” Make my day. Have another drink. We’re just celebrating the fact that our cohort is gonna be increased. You should be happy about that. Soon there will be about a hundred soldiers more to look after and I might even consider giving you a break.” Titus threw his head back and laughed wholeheartedly, emptying his own cup. ” There will be a whole lot of rookies to harass.”

” I will go outside,” Flavio softly spoke, turning around. ” I need some fresh air.”

” You might be the governor’s son, but you are a coward Flavio Lexius Maximus,” Titus shouted, slamming his cup down on the table, making his other companions jump. ” One day soon I will break you, son. Mark my words!”

Titus face was red and his muddy green eyes shot fire. He had gotten his assignment from the governor himself, who wanted his son to be a strong, well trained Roman soldier. And it was Titus who had to see to it that the governor’s wish would be granted. He was promised that when he was successful in his task, Titus would not have to serve twenty-five years in the Roman army to be rewarded his own piece of land. He would receive his reward after the governor returned to Rome, after serving as the ruler of the Roman province for two years. And Titus had his heart set on his own land. He had been serving the Roman Empire as a soldier since he was just a boy. He had worked himself up in the ranks, until he became an Optio. But since he was no nobleman, he knew that would be the highest rank he could ever reach. His own piece of land would give him the respect from his friends and family. He would be able to buy a few slaves and his life, pretending to be of noble blood.

The problem though was Flavio. Although a gentle, meek soul, he could also be terribly stubborn and no matter what Titus did or said, Flavio obeyed him and paid his respect, but still did not show any sign of becoming the verocious warrior his father and Titus wanted him to be.

Titus shot a manacing glance to the door, through which his young nemesis had just left. He narrowed his eyes and pressed his lips into a thin line.

” You will drink that bottle, Flavio. Whether you like it or not,” he whispered, pushing himself up and walking to the door, nearly falling down when he stumbled over his own feet.

” By all the Gods!” Titus shouted, aggressively kicking the leg of the nearest table, making it fall over on its side with a loud, crashing sound.

” You will do what I tell you to, boy!”

Isa tentatively smiled at the Roman soldier who was standing outside the inn, watching her. She knew who he was. He was the only son of the governor that controlled the region with an iron fist. Flavio was nothing more than a boy, dragged away from home and made a soldier, to serve in his father’s legion. His dark brown eyes always had a dreamlike expression when he looked at Isa, but she knew he was harmless. Unlike some of the soldiers she ran into on a daily basis, Flavio was a gentle soul and behaved more like a poet than the fierce warrior his father wanted him to be.

He returned the gentle smile and pointed at the heavy bucket Isa was carrying.

” Do you need a hand with that?” he asked, a blush covering his face.

” No, thank you, Flavio,” Isa answered, her green eyes sparkling. ” Last time you did that, you got into trouble, remember? No mingling with the peasants.”

Flavio muttered under his breath and cast a quick glance inside the inn, where his so called friends were still drinking wine and telling each other bloody war stories.

” I’m sorry, Isa. Your brother should help you carry that.”

Isa put the bucket down for a few seconds and pushed back her unruly hair. A sunny smile covered her face.

” He should and once I will get my hands on him, he will be sorry he didn’t do his chores,” Isa grinned. ” You haven’t seen Baldric around, have you?”

Flavio shook his head, the motion reflecting the sun in his shiny helmet.

” No, I haven’t. But I will my eyes open for him, if you want.”

” Don’t worry, Flavio. I know my brother. Once he gets hungry, he will find his way home.”

‘ Whom are you talking with, boy?” a gruff, slurred voice suddenly sounded from inside the inn.

Flavio visibly stiffened and nervously looked at Isa.

” You’d better be on your way,” he whispered. ” They are pretty drunk.”

Isa knew a warning when she heard one and quickly picked up the bucket. A quick, grateful smile to the Roman soldier and she was on her way.

” STOP!!”

Isa froze in place and felt her heart pick up speed.

” TURN AROUND, WOMAN”

Isa did as she was told and looked in the puffy red face of another Roman soldier. His tiny eyes were squinted against the light, but she could still see he was studying her from head to toe. A smirk crossed his face when he saw her face lose all color.

” What a pretty, little girl. I bet you have a man waiting for you somewhere,” he chuckled, taking an unsteady step closer.

” Not that a thing like that would make any difference,” he added, reaching out to touch Isa’s hair.

Instinctively she flinched, biting her bottom lip to hide the quivering.

She knew what the Roman troops could do to girls, she had heard many a story, but until that moment, she had never been in a dangerous situation like that. Her mind was frantically working on a solution.

” Titus, ” she heard Flavio’s voice plead. ” Leave her alone. She means nothing to you.”

” You are right about that,” Titus responded. ” But that doesn’t mean I can’t have a good time.”

” Come back into the inn with me, girl. I will show you what a real man can do.”

He grabbed Isa’s arm and pulled her with him towards the entrance of the building. Isa’s eyes were wide with horror and she knew that if she would set one foot inside the inn, her innocence would be shattered in a most violent way.

When Titus took another alcohol induced, unsteady step, she suddenly slammed the bucket into his shins. His hand let go of her arm and Isa did the only thing she could do that moment. She ran.

Without looking back she bolted for the treeline, away from the Roman soldier, not caring about the effects her actions could have on herself and her family. All she wanted was to get away. Be safe.

Somewhere behind her, Isa could hear Titus curse loudly and the knowledge he would be deeply insulted and very angry, made her increase her speed even more. But she wasn’t fast enough. A warning shout from Flavio made her aware of something happening, but before she could even glance over her shoulder, she was knocked down by a heavy object that hit her in the shoulder, throwing her off balance.

A sharp jolt of pain shot through her left shoulder and upper arm, but Isa did not dare take the time to look at her injury. Slightly dizzy she pushed herself on her feet again and almost tripped over the long, Roman javelin that had hit her just a few seconds before.
Part 2
Isa pushed back a sob and tried not to think of the pain or the warm flow of blood that steadily seeped from the gap in her shoulder, staining the rough fabric of her dress. She knew she had to keep moving, or else she would surely die by the hands of a very pissed off Roman soldier.

Isa could hear the sound of approaching footsteps and focused on the relatively safety of the forrest, that seemed so close, but yet so far away.

She gritted her teeth and started to run again, ignoring Flavius’s concerned voice, not wanting to know what was happening behind her. She ran past the pottery shed where her brother was supposed to be an apprentice and rounded the corner, hoping she would be out of sight soon. Not looking back she kept running until she reached the treeline. She literally jumped through the bushes. They tore at her dress and scratched the skin of her arms and legs, but she didn’t care. She had already lost her sandals and the soles of her feet were assaulted by branches, pebbles and sharp stones.

The rain had started to fall again and Isa angrily wiped away the drops that were blurring her vision, mingling with the tears she didn’t know were falling. The forrest was so dense, she couldn’t run anymore, but she kept on walking, towards the hill where she knew there was a little shed, she and her brother had built years ago. Isa stumbled and hit her injured shoulder against the trunk of an old oak tree. She bit her lip to prevent herself from crying out loud and gasped for breath. She was wet, tired and the pain in her shoulder made her feel sick to her stomach.

” Just a little further,” she encouraged herself, her voice hoarse with pain and thirst. ” C’mon Isa, you can do it. Just a little further.”

Her hands were shaking when she cautiously grabbed a low branch to pull herself up on her feet . A wave of dizziness almost made her faint, but determined she shook her head.

” No, ” she whispered. ” Just..just.a..lit.tle..fur.ther!”

With unsteady steps Isa continued her walk, dreading the climb up the hill where she knew the shed was located. Again she lost her balance and she quickly grabbed hold of a tree to keep her from falling. She doubled over in pain, when one of it’s branches hit her left shoulder . With all the strength she had left and all the willpower she could muster, Isa tried to fight back the darkness that was threatening to overtake her. She took another deep breath, let go of the tree and took a few steps forward. She didn’t get far. Her knees buckled and she could feel herself falling to the ground again. With a soft moan she prepared herself for the impact,that never came. Suddenly she was scooped up in a pair of strong arms, like she was a small child. Cradling her firmly, but gently against a tall, lean body. After that, Isa’s world went dark, when unconsciousness finally claimed her.

The crackling fire cast long shadows on the rough surface of the walls, spreading a comfortable warmth and, strangely enough, some coziness in the mostly colorless surroundings. The ceiling was high, only visible due to the happily dancing flames of the few torches that were put up against the wall. The smoke that slowly rose up, disappeared through a small hole in the ceiling, the black traces of soot silent witnesses to all the previous fires that were lit within the walls of the room.

Isa slowly became aware of her surroundings, when she heard the soft sound of boots, shuffling over dry ground. Her body stiffened and immediately a painful jolt was sent through her left arm and shoulder. With a groan she tried to push herself upright, but she was stopped by a warm hand on her good shoulder.

” Lay down,” a low not unfriendly voice told her.

Isa felt the hand apply a little pressure and she let herself sink back in the soft bed of hides and woolen blankets. The owner of the voice was sitting with it’s back against the fire, so Isa couldn’t see a face under the hood, that was now pulled back a little.

” Who are you?” she asked, her voice hoarse with thirst.

” Here. Drink.'”

A hand slid behind her neck, lifting up her head and the stranger held a wooden cup against her lips, filled with deliciously cold water. Isa drank greedily. The cold fluid almost tasting sweet on her dry lips and throat. After she drained the cup, Isa took a deep breath, feeling a little better, though still hurt and tired.

” Rest now.”

Isa was lowered back on the bed, wondering why this faceless stranger, made her feel so safe.

” Was it a javelin?” the voice asked, almost casually.

” Yes,” Isa answered, shivering when she remembered the impact of the sharp steel with unprotected skin of her shoulder.

” A Roman javelin?”

The voice sounded a little more tense, almost angry.

” Yes,” was the simple answer.

Isa could hear a deep intake of breath, that, a few moments later was slowly released again.

” You should rest.”

” Who are you? ” Isa asked again, intrigued by the solemn stranger, that had been so kind to her. ” And where am I?”

” This is my cave, I live here,” the stranger answered.

” My name is Isa, I live in the village down the hill,” Isa introduced herself, her eyes trying hard to make out a face in the darkness underneath the hood. ” What is your name? You do have a name, don’t you?” she gently joked.

” Mor. My name is Mor.”

Isa suddenly sat up straight, but the unexpected movement made her feel dizzy and she would have toppled over if a strong arm hadn’t quickly grabbed her good shoulder to keep her steady.

The hood slid back and with wide eyes Isa took a first glance at the face of her rescuer. A strong face, with high cheekbones and a straight nose. Hair that was long and as dark as the night. And eyes, the color of a summer’s sky. So clear and blue, that Isa involuntarily held her breath.

” You! You are the black rider! I always thought you were a man,” Isa finally managed to whisper.

One dark eyebrow arched.

” The black rider?” Mor repeated. ” Don’t tell me the midwives tell tales about me.”

Isa cast down her eyes and felt a warm blush creep up her cheeks.

” Um..no.not the midwives,” she uncomfortably admitted. ” Um..I.I saw you before and..I call you that.”

” You’d better rest,” Mor advised. ” I will get us something to eat. Don’t try to leave this cave on your own. You’ll never find your way out.”

After those words she rose to her full length, flipped the hood back in place, took one of the torches from it’s stand and walked towards a dark hallway. The flames cast her long shadow against the walls and before Isa could utter another word, she was gone.

Except for the crackling sound of the fire, there was nothing left but silence.

Isa’s green eyes held a puzzled expression when she stared at the ceiling, reliving the few hours that had passed. She realized her action against the Roman soldier would be considered an attack and she somberly pondered over the possible consequences.

She had gotten herself into trouble, she didn’t need to be a genius to know that. Titus was known as an arrogant, violent soldier, who enjoyed putting down the inhabitants of the conquered provinces, always looking for ways to aggravate and provoke them. He was the reason a lot of the village’s young men had left their families to travel East and join one of the German tribes, across the river Rhine, that still had their independance. They had fought hard and long, using the outstretched, dense forrests to their advantage. Of course the legend of Ambiorix, the leader of the Eburones had already sparked the imagination of many young men. The story told that, long ago, it was Ambiorix who fought Ceasar with all he had, making it impossible for the Roman Emperor to defeat his tribe. But eventually, after years of bloody battles the Romans finally had their victory and Ceasar ordered his troops to execute Ambiorix’s whole tribe, including women and children. According to the legend, only a few managed to escape, seeking refuge in the East, with German tribes. One of them supposedly had been Ambiorix himself.

Isa had heard all the stories, but she knew that was just what they were; stories. Unlike her brother Baldric, she didn’t believe that there were descendants from the Eburones still planning to come back to fight the Romans and claim their homeland. Besides, life under Roman rule wasn’t all that bad. The villagers profited from the building of the roads and the trade that had followed. True, they had to pay heavy taxes and they weren’t free, but they had never gone hungry. And as long as the inhabitants of the area obeyed the laws, they were pretty much left alone.

Isa shifted into a more comfortable position and let out a deep sigh. She wondered if she could return to her family any time soon. Maybe she should keep a low profile for a while and things would blow over.

She softly snorted, knowing that wouldn’t be the case. Not with Titus. He was one the governors favorites and even Flavius, who was Claudius’ son, would have a hard time convincing his father of the fact that Isa had only been protecting herself. Titus probably would have made up a beautiful story, to justify throwing a javelin at her.

Isa felt her eyes go heavy and decided to give into the temptation to close them and rest for a while. Deciding what to do might be easier after a some much needed sleep. She carefully rolled onto her right side and wiggled her body deeper into the soft furs that held a faint trace of lavender. She inhaled deeply and felt her aching body relax. Within a few moments, she was asleep.

Mor had not wasted any time in finding some food for her young guest and herself. She knew exactly where she had put her traps and was happy to find a few rabbits trapped inside them. She made quick work of skinning and gutting them and wrapped the fresh meat in a thin cloth, that was layered with crushed Rosemary leaves. After that she put it away in a leather pouch, making sure to close it securely. She cleaned her dagger in the small creek she had used to rinse the blood off of the meat and cast a look at the sky.

The weather had cleared up and there were only a few gray clouds left. The sun was making it’s descent and Mor decided it would be best to return to the cave and see to her patient. A small smile involuntarily tugged at the corner of her mouth when she remembered the surprise on the girl’s face, when her hood had slipped off. She didn’t get that reaction much, since she usually stayed away from people. Occassionally she met with traders to conduct some business, but she always made sure to wear her cloak and hood, even inside the inns that were usually pretty dark inside. She lead a solitary life and was content with it, pleased with the fact that she could rely on herself and never needed anyone else.

But now there was someone who needed her , even if it would only temporarily. That was something new.

Mor frowned and her face held a pensive expression when she slowly followed a hardly visible track up the hill, towards the entrance of the cave, hidden behind some dense bushes.

Mor had been collecting some plants that afternoon, when her sensitive ears had picked up someone running through the forrest. That was very unusual, since the part of the forrest Mor usually dwelled in, was dense and most people avoided the old tracks, preferring to take the roads, built by the Romans. It was a quicker and safer way of travelling.

Mor had followed the sound, which wasn’t hard, because, whoever it was didn’t really try hard not to make any noise. When Mor picked up the distinctive scent of blood, she had quickened her pace, her trained instincts telling her somebody must have been hurt. It had not taken her long to find the injured girl. Mor had just arrived when Isa had been trying to get to her feet and the unsteady, slighty swaying form had alarmed her. So had the sight of steadily seeping blood, coming from a gash in her left shoulder. Mor had jumped forward, just in time to catch the girl in her arms. She had hesitated just for a moment, but then decided to take the girl back to her hide out. She clearly was in need of attention.

Mor had carried the unconscious Isa up the hill, to the entrance of the cave she lived in and had carefully lowered her on the bed. With experienced fingers she had examined the wound in her shoulder, relieved to find it was a deep flesh wound, no serious damage had been done. She had rinsed it out with clean, fresh water, quickly stitched it up and covered it with a mixture of different herbs. The rest was up to the girl herself and her body’s ability to heal.

It had taken a while for the girl to regain consciousness and when she did, Mor was sitting by her side. Glad the girl had not been able to see the expression on her face when a pair of emerald green eyes tried to search for the face underneath the hood.

Again a small smile tugged at the corner of Mor’s mouth. Isa had not even tried to hide her curiosity and Mor decided she had liked the open, inquisitive expression on the girl’s face. The girl appeared to be smart and suddenly Mor wondered if it had been a good idea to bring her into her home.

Her clear blue eyes narrowed and a frown creased her forehead.

” Now what? ” Mor whispered to herself. ” What will I have to do with you now, little one?”

Suddenly Mor stiffened. Her sensitive ears had picked up a sound that did not belong in her part of the forrest. She was familiar with the rustling of the leaves, the sound of the birds, small animals foraging on the forrest floor, but this was something different. The sound of feet, trying to avoid stepping on the small branches that were scattered around the forrest floor.

Mor slowly lowered her pouch with fresh meat on the ground and soundlessly turned around, her clear blue eyes scanning the bushes behind her. She crouched down behind a blueberry bush, carefully avoiding it’s tiny,sharp thorns and waited. She didn’t have to wait long. After a little while she saw a movement behind the trees. The shape of a body carefully making it’s way through the dense shrubs.

Mor decided not to wait any longer. In one fluid motion she raised herself to her full height. She flicked back her cloak and not making any sound, swiftly crossed the distance between herself and the intruder.

She jumped in front of the other person, kicked his legs away from underneath his body, making him fall to the ground. In an instant she was pinning him down, her knees pressing on his upper arms, her dagger dangerously close to the unprotected skin of his throat.

” Why are you following me?” she growled, from deep within her throat.

A pair of familiar emerald green eyes looked up at her in fear, throwing Mor off balance. Silently she kicked herself for being startled, but the young boy she had wrestled down to the ground had not noticed her momentarily lack of concentration.

” Who are you?” she asked, more gentle this time, already knowing the answer.

” I.” the boy swallowed, his eyes fixed on the sharp metal that was still dangerously close to his throat. ” I.I am looking for my sister,” he whispered. ” My name is Baldric. I wasn’t following you, honest. I didn’t even know you were here.”

Mor knew he told the truth, she could see it in his fear filled eyes, that were so much like his sister’s. She pulled away the dagger and jumped to her feet. Extending her hand to the boy she helped him up.

” Who is your sister? And why are you looking for her?” she asked.

” My sister’s name is Isa and she is hurt. A Roman soldier threw a javelin at her and I was told she was running for the woods. I.I.I can’t find her. Have you seen her?”

The young boy’s voice was filled with concern and the green eyes underneath the disheveled blond hair looked at her pleadingly.

” Are you alone?” Mor asked.

” Yes, I am. I was.when I came home, they told me what Titus had done and.I just ran off, looking for Isa.”

” What did he do to her?’ Mor asked, curious to find out the whole story and making sure to file the name of the Roman soldier in her memory, for future reference.

” He was.” the boy swallowed. ” He was drunk and he.he wanted to take her into the inn to.to.have some fun with her. But Isa smashed a bucket against his legs and made a run for it. That’s when he threw the javelin.”

” Spunky little thing,” Mor thought with appreciation.

” Come,” she said. ” Isa is at my place.”

Mor turned around and started on her way back to the cave, knowing the young boy would follow her obediently. He did. He stayed closely behind Mor’s tall form, who was leading the way, following a hardly visible track up the hill. He had to almost run to keep up with her long strides. Effortlessly she brushed passed trees and bushes, hardly touching them.

When they had almost reached the top of the hill, Mor gently pushed aside a heavy branch, revealing a small opening in the rocky surface of the hill. She gestured Isa’s brother to enter, which he quickly did. Mor followed him closely and let go of the branch, immediately it fell back in place, sealing off the entrance and making it impossible to see the cave.

The entrance was dark, the bushes in front of it filtered the light from outside, but Mor had no trouble finding her way around.

” Stay close behind me,” she ordered Isa’s brother, walking towards a narrow, slanted shaft, it’s opening hardly visible in the dim light.

” It’s so dark,” Baldric mumbled, the cool air making him shiver.

” Just stay close,” Mor answered.

As soon as they entered the shaft, all light was gone. It was pitch dark and steep. Insecurely Isa’s brother walked behind Mor, only hearing the soft sound of her boots on the uneven ground.

Isa’s brother stepped on a small stone and would have fallen over if Mor had not grabbed his arm.

” Careful,” she warned.

” How do you do that?” Baldric gasped, deeply impressed by Mor’s swift reaction that prevented him from a probably painful collision with the floor of the cave.

” If you can’t use your eyes, you should use your ears,” Mor cryptically answered. ” Come.”

She was still holding the young boy’s arm and he could feel they were turning a corner. Suddenly he saw the soft glow of a light, illuminating the end of the shaft. It was an eerie sight. An orange glow in a world of darkness and silence.

Isa’s brother shivered when he realized he had taken Mor’s word for granted. What if Isa wasn’t there? What if the tall women had hurt his sister? What if she was a witch? She did live in a cave, which was pretty odd. When they were little children, had his grandmother not warned Isa and himself of the dark side of witchcraft?

Mor voice startled him out of his dark thoughts.

” Try to be quiet,” she told him, letting go of his arm. ” Your sister might be asleep.”

” Is she okay?” Baldric whispered.

” I think she will be,” Mor answered. She looks pretty healthy to me.

They quietly rounded another corner and were suddenly standing inside a well lit room. Baldric’s eyes curiously took in his surroundings and immediately he noticed the small form of his sister, laying on a bed, close to the fire. He wanted to run towards her, but a hand on his arm stopped him.

” She is asleep,” Mor softly spoke. ” Let her rest.”

Baldric nodded and looked around the room. He had never been so deep inside the cave. Every villager knew how dangerous it was to enter the underground maze of shafts. Many people had entered them, to never return. Even the Romans stayed away from the caves, knowing full well the risk of getting lost in the dark. Of course all the local legends about haunted caves and roaming spirits only fueled the ever present superstition.

Mor had shrugged off her cloak and for the first time, Baldric was able to have a good look at the strange woman who lived in the cave.

Her long, dark hair cascaded down her back and was pushed back from her forehead with an impatient gesture. The light of the fire emphasised the strong planes of her face and the black eyelashes, surrounding eyes that almost looked silver in the light of the fire.

She was dressed in black pants that were tucked in her boots, revealing her long legs. Her roughly woven shirt was grey and fell down midthigh, obscuring a belt that held a couple of daggers.

Baldric didn’t realize he was staring, until Mor spoke to him.

” Maybe you could get some water and heat it up,” Mor suggested. ” I promised your sister something to eat.”

Baldric nodded and looked around with a puzzled expression. Water? Where would he be able to find that?

Mor looked at him and raised an eyebrow.

” There’s a little well around the corner,” she told him. ” We passed it when we came in.”

Baldric blushed, feeling emarassed for not having paid enough attention and quickly grabbed a small iron pot, that was placed next to the fire. He walked back towards where the well should be and quickly spotted the place. A tiny stream of water trickled down the cavewall, apparently coming out of nowhere, filling a shallow hole in the ground and disappearing again through a crack in the ground, leaving behind an always fresh supply of cold water.

Impressed by the well, Baldric quickly dipped in the small pot, filling it up with water, making sure not to spill any of it. Somehow he wanted to please the tall, dark stranger. Instinctively knowing it would be better to stay on her good side. Baldric was a healthy, strong boy, but Mor had wrestled him down to the ground, before he even knew what happened. He had never even heard her approach.

When he returned, Mor silently took over the iron pot and hung it over the fire. She had opened the pouch and cut up a few chunks of fresh meat, putting them in the water. She opened another pouch and Baldric saw her adding some dried herbs.

” There’s wine in that little alcove behind you,” Mor spoke, without looking up. ” Help yourself, if you want any.”

She grabbed a waterskin and walked towards the sleeping form of Isa, kneeling down next to her and tentavely feeling her forehead. It was cool to the touch and Mor nodded contendly.

Isa was still asleep, laying on her right side and looked completely relaxed. There were no signs of pain or discomfort. Mor carefully lifted the poultice and was happy to see the bleeding had stopped. The stitched up wound was ragged and surrounded by angry red welts, but to Mor’s experienced eyes, it looked better already. The herbs she had used were doing their job.

Isa suddenly stirred and mumbled something incoherent. Long, blond eyelashes fluttered and suddenly a pair of sleepy, green eyes stared at her from close distance.

” How are you feeling?” Mor casually asked, ignoring the strange, tingling sensation in her belly.

” Thirsty,” Isa croaked, trying to sit up, which send jolt of pain through her injured shoulder.

” Let me help you,” Mor offered, gently putting her arm around Isa’s shoulder and helping her to sit up.

She handed her the waterskin and Isa drank greedily, enjoying the feel of the cold water, sliding down her dry throat.

” You have a visitor,” Mor told her when she was finally satiated. ” I found your brother, he was looking for you.”
Part 3
When Baldric knelt at his sister’s side, his thick blond hair fell in his eyes, almost managing to hide his worry and grief.

” I am so sorry, Isa,” he whispered. ” I should have been there.”

” And then what, little brother?” Isa gently smiled. ” You think you could have stopped Titus? Baldric, he would have snapped you in half!”

A light blush covered the young boy’s cheeks and he bit his lip in frustration. Seeing his sister wounded and knowing she could have died if the dark stranger had not come to her rescue, fueled his hate against the Roman conqueror.

” Where were you anyway? It was your job to get the water,” Isa joked, trying to lighten her brother’s somber mood, even though her voice sounded strained and tired.

” I was with Karl and Jan. They are talking about going East and finding a rebel army to join.”

Isa’s green eyes widened and from the corner of her eye she saw that Mor had suddenly tilted her head, listening with interest.

Isa sighed deeply and struggled to sit up, wanting to at least be at eye level with her sibling, when she scolded him. She threw off the heavy blanket that was covering her body and rolled unto her uninjured side, to push herself up.

Suddenly there was a hand on her arm, gently helping her to sit up.

” Thanks, bro…”

Isa stopped in mid sentence, when she looked straight into a pair of clear blue eyes. Suddenly remembering the image that was reflected in the water, when she was carrying the bucket. Their faces were so close, that even in the dimmed light of the fire and candles, she could clearly see the darker parts around the irises. The dark eyelashes, starkly contrasting with the blue, the perfect arch of the eyebrows and the twinkle in the eyes. When Isa realized she had been staring she colored a bright red.

” Since you’re sitting up, you might as well have something to drink,” Mor said, ignoring Isa’s discomfort. ” I have made some tea that will help you with the pain and healing.”

” Oh…okay,” Isa stammered, mentally slapping herself for her silly behavior.

She turned back to her brother, who was sitting cross-legged on the cave floor, watching Mor with clear interest.

” I hope you are not planning on joining Karl and Jan,” Isa addressed him, her voice slightly trembling from the pain her throbbing shoulder was causing.

Baldric tore his eyes away from Mor and looked at his sister.

” I want to, but they said I am too young,” Baldric answered. ” They said they only take skilled warriors with them.”

That remark made Isa snort and she looked at her brother in disbelief.

” Don’t tell me you believe all those stories they tell. Do you? ”

” You tell stories,” Baldric answered, his voice slightly rising.

” That’s just for….fun, entertainment. Gods, brother, I hope you don’t think I believe every tale I have ever told you?”

” The story about Ambiorix is true,” Baldric stated, his jaw set in determination.

” Yes, it’s true,” Isa sighed. “They all got killed. Julius Caesar slaughtered the whole tribe, men, women and children. Legend says the earth saw red with their blood. Don’t you see, Baldric? That is the lesson. That’s what happened with every brave person who stood up against Rome. They all died!”

” So you think cowering to the Romans is what we should do? We should let them oppress us, we should pay all those heavy taxes, serve all their needs like we are slaves? Do everything they say? Look what happened to you today! Titus could have killed you! And for what? Because you fought back. He wanted to abuse you like they have done with so many of our girls and women. Like you are just a piece of meat! They don’t respect us, Isa. They don’t respect you! They just take what they want and when they are done with it, they just toss it aside, like some worthless piece of pottery. That’s not the way I want to live my life. I want to be free. And if that means going East and joining some rebel army, I will. Maybe not today, but one day I will go and fight the Romans.”

Baldric groaned and rubbed his heated face.

” What will you do now, Isa? ” he continued. ” You can’t go back home. As soon as Titus sees you, he will hurt you really bad.”

” Flavius was there,” Isa weakly objected, knowing he brother had a point. ” He could tell his father what happened.”

” As if the governor would care,” Baldric spat. ” We all know that Titus is his favorite. He has the governor eating out of his hand. You can’t come back, Isa. Not for a while anyway. It wouldn’t be safe.”

Isa stared into the fire, pondering over her brother’s words. She knew he was right. There was no way she could go back home any time soon.

Suddenly Mor knelt beside her, handing her a wooden cup with steaming, hot tea.

” Drink this. It will make you feel better,” Mor advised. ” It’s a mixture of different herbs,” she explained when she saw Isa’s questioning glance. ” I hope you like it sweet. I put some honey in it.”

Isa smiled at the dark woman and took the cup into her right hand.

” Thank you.”

Mor just nodded and rose to her full height, gesturing Baldric to follow her. He obediently did and they walked towards the fire where Mor had put the meat, some carrots and herbs into the pot with boiling water, making a fragrant soup that made his mouth water.

” After you have eaten you should go back home to tell your father your sister is safe and being taken care of. Don’t mention the cave. Don’t mention me. You have never seen me. Do you understand?”

Although her words utterly confused him, they were spoken with such authority that Baldric did not dare object. He just nodded his head.

” I meant what I said: you have never seen me. When we will meet on the road, or in the village, you don’t know me. I am a stranger to you.”

” I understand,” Baldric whispered.

” Good, because it’s very important. I trust you, Baldric. Do you trust me?”

Baldric looked up at the towering woman in front of him. Her raven black hair cascaded down her shoulders and the fire cast a warm glow on her tanned face. Her clear blue eyes that looked at him without blinking were like a pair of precious stones, illuminating the strong planes of her face. Most people looked at him as a boy, but Mor’s attitude towards him was totally different. For the first time in his life, he felt like he was treated as an adult.

Baldric swallowed and nodded.

” I trust you”

” Thank you,” Mor answered, extending her hand and clasping his arm. ” I swear I will look after your sister. No Roman will hurt her again. You have my word.”

” I trust you,” Baldric repeated and slowly let go of the muscular forearm.

Mor nodded and looked at Isa, who was sipping her tea, clearly enjoying the hot, sweet beverage. To Mor’s experienced eyes, Isa’s face had taken on an unnatural red color, especially her cheekbones. The light of the fire was reflected in a pair of green eyes, which sparkled brightly, without seeing much. Isa stared at the fire, her eyes half closed, apparently not aware of her surroundings.

Mor clenched her teeth when she realized she would be in for a long night.

Damn you, Titus!

” Keep an eye on that soup,” she ordered Baldric, without taking her eyes off Isa. ” I think I need to make a new poultice.”

****

A heavy, cast iron gate, with bars that were put so close together it was impossible to creep through, blocked the cave entrance. Even for a small child it would be impossible to enter. With a sound that would make most people’s teeth rattle, the elderly man unlocked the gate and gestured the small group of waiting people to follow. Hesitantly they did. Carefully placing their feet on the cold, uneven surface. Squinting their eyes to get used to the darkness inside, which was a huge contrast with the brightness outside.

The moment she entered the cave, Jody grabbed Sam’s hand, immediately feeling a reassuring squeeze.

” It’s so dark in here,” Jody whispered, thoroughly impressed. ” And cold.”

” It’s a cave, honey,” Sam answered with a hint of amusement in her voice. ” What did you expect?”

Jody nervously giggled and pressed closer to Sam’s tall body. Truth is she had never been inside a cave and although she found them intriguing, she was also a little afraid of the immense darkness she knew was waiting around the corner.

” Are you sure he has a spare flash light?” she asked, not sounding too confident.

” Don’t worry, he does,” Sam’s voice sounded close to her ear. ” And if he doesn’t….I do.”

She tapped on the inside pocket of her jacket and smirked infectiously, making Jody throw her head back and laugh out loud.

” You are incorrigible.”

” Nah, just had a smart idea,” Sam smiled, forcing herself not to pull Jody into her arms and kiss her senseless. ” Don’t tell the guide, we are not allowed to bring our own.”

” Our little secret,” Jody smiled back, her green eyes sparkling with amusement. ” Come on, Sam, let’s follow them, or they will leave us behind.”

The guide rounded up the cave tourists, while his young aide closed the gate behind them, locking them away from the outside world. Some people nervously looked around, which elicited a smirk from the elderly man.

” Listen up people,” he started, raising his voice. ” I’ll be your guide for the next hour or so. We will enter this cave system only for about a kilometer. That’s not much of a distance, but far enough to get lost and never find your way out again. Please stay behind me. I have a light,” he raised his hand to show the old-fashioned oil lamp he was holding. ” No fancy modern flashlights. I want to show you how people got around this cave in the old days. An oil lamp was all they had.”

” What if the oil runs out?” a skittish French tourist asked.

” Well, let’s hope it won’t,” the guide answered, his blue eyes twinkling with mischief. ” But if it does, we will get rescued, eventually. We will just have to make sure to stay warm and stay put.”

” He’s mucking around,” Jody whispered to Sam. ” I saw him put a flashlight in his pocket before we entered the cave.”

” Of course he is,” Sam whispered back. ” He just wants to make people a bit nervous. It adds to the experience.”

” Follow me, please.”

The guide turned around and walked inside a shaft that was only illuminated by the soft light of his lamp. Long shadows were cast on the walls of the cave, making the place look mysterious and desolate. The surface they walked on was uneven and slightly slanted. The tourists carefully put down their feet. The prospect of stumbling and hitting the cold, jagged wall of the cave was not exactly appealing. The group of tourists were quiet, almost subdued when they followed the man with the lamp. They talked in hushed tones, pointing at the different shafts they passed. Awed by the high ceiling that was cut out by the hands of many laborers.

“It’s amazing,” Sam remarked, looking at a deep alcove. ” They used to cut this stone out by hand. Must have been hard work.”

” And they were underground for days,” Jody replied. ” Gives me the shivers just to think about that, Sam. Imagine, during the winter they hardly saw daylight. They went inside when it was still dark and by the time they left the cave, it was dark again. Couldn’t have been healthy!”

” No tan for the working class,” Sam joked, playfully squeezing Jody’s nose.

Jody slapped the offending hand and backhanded her lover in the stomach.

” Behave,” she whispered.

They had reached a high ceiling room and the guide stopped walking. He patiently waited until everybody was gathered around him and then raised his lantern to illuminate a charcoal drawing on the wall. It was the face of a beautiful lady, with a gentle smile.

” Many artists have left their fingerprints in these caves,” he said. ” As we will go deeper into the cave system we will see more works of art. Most of them are craved after a overlay of charcoal. Because of the dry, cool climate inside this system, most paintings, or drawings if you like, are perfectly preserved. A lot of them are true masterpieces. Look at this drawing. What do you see?”

The guide looked around and nodded towards an elderly lady who was looking at the picture intently.

” I see the picture of a pretty girl,” she answered.

” That’s right,” the guide answered. ” But sometimes looks can be deceiving.”

He stepped closer to the wall and raised the lantern even higher, so everybody could have a good look.

” The story goes that this beautiful girl lived here a few hundred years ago. And indeed, she was very pretty. The girl had two suitors whom both wanted to marry her. But she couldn’t choose between them. She loved them both. Eventually she ran out of time and she did have to make a decision. But it would always be the wrong one, no matter what. The man she turned down was an artist. She broke his heart. The rest of his life he was torn between his love for her, but also hate, because she didn’t choose him. When I hold my lantern up high, we see her through his loving eyes; a beautiful girl.”

The guide paused and looked at the group of tourists who were hanging onto his every word. He smiled and turned back to the picture.

” But when I lower my lantern….” He brought his lamp closer to the ground, making sure the light that fell on the wall came from down below. ” …we see an ugly, old woman.”

Jody and Sam gasped when by the shifting of the light, the whole picture changed. The face of the pretty girl had turned into an old woman, with piercing eyes and a mouth that was set in a grim expression.

” Looks can be deceiving,” the guide repeated.

” Wow, that is amazing,” Jody sighed. ” And what a sad story.”

The guide,who had heard her words turned to her and smiled.

” This cave is full of sad stories,” he remarked. ” It’s been a dark world for many people.”

Jody involuntarily shivered and stepped closer to Sam, who immediately put an arm around her partner’s shoulders.

” You okay?” she asked, a little worried.

Jody nodded and looked up in her lover’s eyes, that were usually blue, but seemed almost colorless in the dim light.

” I am okay,” she answered, smiling reassuringly.

” Come on, people, follow me. I have many more things to show you and stories to tell,” the guide said cheerfully, heading towards another dark shaft.

Sam and Jody waited until the rest of the group were on their way and followed close behind. But suddenly Jody stepped into a little hole and stumbled. In a reflex she leaned against the wall of the cave, to keep herself upright. Sam’s hand on her upper arm kept her steady.

” That was clumsy,” she grinned, pushing against the wall.

All of a sudden she was hit by a strange feeling. She felt hot and cold at the same time and her body started trembling. The light of the guide’s lantern was too far away to help her see clearly, but Jody could have sworn she saw the dying embers of a fire. She could even smell the smoke, mixed with the fragrant scent of lavender and thyme. And for a moment there was a throbbing pain in her left shoulder.

” Are you okay, honey?” she heard Sam ask, from far away.

” Yes, I am fine,” she slowly answered, rubbing her left shoulder. ” I don’t know what just happened. Can you smell it too ?”

” Smell what? Baby, you didn’t hit your head, did you?” Sam asked, very worried this time.

” No,” Jody chuckled, feeling a little bit embarrassed. ” I…I don’t know. Must have had a deja vu or something. Or maybe this cave is giving me the creeps.”

She grabbed Sam’s hand and pulled her with her.

” Let’s go before the guide leaves us behind.”

****

After she had made sure he had a good meal, Mor had sent Baldric on his way. She had escorted him to the cave entrance, to make sure he wouldn’t get lost in the maze of hallways and as soon as he disappeared behind the trees, Mor had returned inside. Not needing a light to find her way back to her home.

When she sat down next to the fire, she noticed that Isa was asleep. The girl was lying on her uninjured side, facing the fire. The light softened the reddish highlights in her hair, turning it into the color of fresh honey. Long, blond eyelashes rested on reddened cheeks, contrasting starkly with the underlying skin.

Mor poured some hot water in a wooden cup and put it in front of her on the ground. She reached inside two different pouches and sprinkled some dried herbs into the steaming liquid.

” I am afraid you will need this soon, little one,” she whispered, mixing the lavender and thyme into a fragrant tea.

She put the cup aside to let it steep and her eyes were drawn back to the sleeping form on the floor. Her mind drifted back to the conversation between Isa and her younger brother. Mor had not interfered, but she had heard every word that was spoken. She couldn’t blame the boy for wanting to fight the Romans. They had brought their inventions with them, built roads, bridges, and villages. But the people in the conquered territories were never truly free.

Mor sighed and stared into the fire. Had she been right to trust a boy that young? What did she know about him? Absolutely nothing at all. She knew his sister was a courageous, spunky girl. What she did to Titus had been pretty heroic. But it had sealed her fate as well. At least for the time being. Baldric had been right when he had said Isa could not return to her family any time soon. Titus would not allow it. He would probably get a hold of her as soon as she would set foot in the village. And then what would happen? Working as a slave in one of their treasured bathhouses? Being sent to Rome, to be a slave in the home of a nobleman? Titus could even kill Isa, or worse….

Mor’s dark thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Isa mumbling in her sleep. She looked across the fire and even from the distance, she saw the perspiration on the girl’s skin, making her hair stick to her forehead.

Mor grabbed a cloth and dipped it in some cold water. After that she rose and walked towards Isa, kneeling down next to the girl and gently patting her face.

” Isa,” her low voice urged. ” Wake up. You are dreaming.”

Mor used the damp cloth to wipe Isa’s forehead and she could feel the heat radiate from the girl’s body.

” Isa. Come on, little one. Wake up.”

Mor hesitated only for a moment. But then she slid behind Isa, put her arms around her waist and pulled her in an upright position. Isa’s back was leaning against her chest. Gently Mor pushed the girls’ head against her shoulder. Her right arm was wrapped around Isa, holding her steady, while with her other hand she used the cold, damp cloth to wipe the girls face.

” S’ okay…I..wannetodo…’sokay,” Isa mumbled, trying to open her eyes.

” Shh, just open your eyes,” Mor replied. ” You need to drink something. You are burning up.”

” Thought that was the fire,” Isa slurred. ” I’m comfy though…”

Mor didn’t know whether to be annoyed or amused. Most of her life she had been alone, with no one to take care of but herself and her horse. Now there was this young woman who had unexpectedly crossed her path. Shaking up her life and disturbing all the plans she had carefully plotted, within just one day.

Mor’s blue eyes softened when she looked at the disarray of hair that was nestled against her shoulder and she bit back a smile.

” Isa,” she urged again. ” You really have to wake up. You need to drink something and I need to change that dressing.”

Isa groaned and tried to sit up by herself. Although her upper body lightly swayed, she managed not to topple over.

” It hurts,” her voice croaked.

” I know,” Mor answered with empathy, wondering why all of her sudden her body felt so cold. ” Just sit up for a little while. I will be done quickly.”

” Wanna drink first,” Isa replied. ” I’m so thirsty.”

Without answering, Mor jumped up and walked towards the waterskin that was hanging on a pointed part of the wall. She grabbed it and picked up the tea she had made earlier. She dropped down on one knee in front of Isa and handed her the cup.

” Drink this first.”

Isa raised her eyes to meet Mor’s and silently nodded. To Mor it was clear she was fighting not to fall asleep again.

” Do I have a fever?”

” Seems that way,” Mor answered, slowly and carefully peeling away the torn fabric that was covering Isa’s shoulder.

” Oh.”

Mor’s fingers made quick work of removing the poultice and she intently searched the wound and it’s surrounding tissue. The edges were slightly swollen and around it there were angry, red welts. From in between the stitches some drops of yellowish fluid slowly seeped.

Mor quickly grabbed a clean cloth and a cup of water and carefully cleaned out the affected area. When Isa made a sharp, hissing noise, her hands stilled.

” I’m sorry. I know it hurts,” Mor apologized. ” I need to clean it though.”

” Go ahead,” Isa answered, glad that Mor couldn’t see the tears in her eyes. ” My mother died of a fever. Am I gonna die?”

Mor’s fingers rested on the unaffected part of Isa’s left shoulder. The skin was feeling warm and smooth underneath her hand and suddenly she felt the urge to stroke it and leave her hand there for a while. Mor quickly jerked back her hand and clenched her jaw. Glad that Isa couldn’t see the confusion in her eyes.

” You’re not gonna die,” she answered gruffly.

” How do you know?”

” Drink your tea,” Mor answered, while she was liberally pouring some clean water over Isa’s wound, to rinse it out.

” Feels good,” Isa mumbled. ” I feel so hot.”

“Finished the tea?” Mor asked, a little more friendly this time, mentally slapping herself for her strange thoughts.

” Yes, thank you, Mor. It tasted…different. What was in it.”

” Lavender. It will help you relax.”

” How do you know all these things?” Isa asked, yawning and rubbing her eyes with her right hand.

” I just do,” Mor replied, not in the mood to answer a lot of questions.

” You have gentle hands,” Isa mumbled. ” Nice.”

Mor sprinkled some dried and powdered herbs over the wound and covered it with a fresh poultice. She inspected her work and nodded contently. Isa did have a fever, but it didn’t seem too serious. The wound was a little red and swollen, but Mor was sure it would look a lot better in the morning. All she had to do was keep an eye on Isa during the night, to make sure the fever would not get any worse.

Isa’s body suddenly started to sway and if Mor had not grabbed her around the waist, she would have fallen over. She looked down at the girl in her arms and shook her head in disbelief.

” I don’t believe this. Can you fall asleep on command? Or are you just overly sensitive to my herbs? If that’s the case, I will lower the dosage,” Mor mumbled, looking around to see how she could get out of the situation she was in.

Isa’s left sleeve had been torn off and a large part of the front of her dress had been ripped open. When Mor cast down her eyes to look at her sleeping patient, she couldn’t help noticing the smooth skin and the soft swell of one breast. Suddenly her mouth went dry and had she been impulsive, she would have jumped up, dropping Isa on the floor.

Instead she lowered the sleeping girl back on her bed, covered her up to keep her warm in the cold air of the cave and hastily went back to her side of the fire, where she sat down and grabbed the waterskin. She gulped down the cold, refreshing fluid, wondering why her heart was pounding in her chest and her hands were shaking.

Annoyed with herself and her unexpected guest, who was sound asleep, she got back to her feet and grabbed her long, black cloak. She adjusted the belt around her waist, making sure the three daggers she was carrying were in their right places. After one last look at Isa she turned around and walked towards the shaft that would bring her to the entrance of the cave system.

” It’s time I’d pay you a visit, Titus,” she softly growled.
Part 4
Even though it had been raining quite a lot the previous morning, the night sky was clear. Happily twinkling stars and a bright shining moon adorned the velvety black background that stretched out for eternity.

A soft breeze slowly moved the leaves on the trees, hardly making any noise. It was quiet. Only the rodents that searched for food in the safety of the night, were busy filling their little stomachs. They froze in place when a tall form cast a shadow over their hiding places, but quickly continued their activities when they noticed the intruder meant no harm and they were left alone.

The Roman army camp, or castra, was situated in the valley, simply because it was the only place a camp of that size could be build.

In the center of the square enclosure, that consisted of a pallisade wall alongside a ditch, were the headquarters of the legion, surrounded by a multitude of barracks and tents.

The light of the moon illuminated the surface of the two main roads leading to the heart of the camp, the via principalis and the via praetoria. It was one of the trademarks of Roman efficiency. No Roman soldier would ever get lost in an army camp, no matter where he was stationed, because every castra was the same, no matter where it was set up.

Mor’s eyes scanned the pallisade, looking for signs of Roman guards. She knew for certain that the four gates of the camp would be well guarded by a cohort. No one would be able to get pass them unseen. But the walls were an entirely different story. Mor knew there would be guards alongside the structure that was made out of wood and dirt, but somehow it seemed like the Romans felt really comfortable in their castre. According to Roman rules and regulations, the wall should have been guarded by a long line of soldiers. But Mor’s keen sight could discover only a couple of guards, strategically placed on the walls. She could clearly see the light of the moon reflecting on a helmet. It would only be a matter of time before she would discover the other guards, since the night was clear and there was an abundance of light.

” Arrogant bastards,” she hissed. ” They think they are untouchable.”

Mor slid down the hill towards a spot she had picked out before. Somehow the entire area around the camp had not been cleared of all bushes and shrubs. It would be a perfect hiding place, close to the pallisade.

Without making a sound Mor had reached within a few feet of the pallisade. The bushes provided a natural shield and her black cloak made her almost invisible. Slowly she pulled a rope from underneath her cloak. It had been coiled up and attached to her belt, alongside her daggers. Her long fingers industriously attached a little hook, that was wrapped in cloth, at the end of it and with a satisfied look she weighed the tool in her hand.

Again she scanned the wall. She was positioned between two soldiers, who did not seem to be very alert. From the close distance Mor could hear one of them yawn.

” Good. Keep dozing off,” she whispered to herself.

She got back on her feet and within a few steps she was near the pallisade, her back pressed against the wall. Holding her breath she waited for a sound. Any sound. But everything remained quiet. Slowly she let out her breath, mentally shaking her head at the slackness of the Roman conqueror.

Having gained a bit more confidence she suddenly threw the hook up in the air. With a soft clank it fell right in place, securing the rope to the wall. Again Mor waited for a sound. Her heart was hammering in her chest and the adrenaline was pumping through her system, making her muscles tense. She was ready for a fast escape.

Nothing happened.

” Idiots.”

Mor grabbed the rope and quickly climbed up the wall. Without hesitation she continued to move when she reached the top. She rolled over the wall, jumping down on the other side and landing in the soft dirt of the ditch. Still no sound. No one had noticed her presence.

Mor knew the rest of her journey inside the camp would be hazardous, but not as dangerous as climbing the wall. She made quick work of the hundred feet distance between the pallisade. She passed the stables and ended up at the first row of tents. But those were not her destiny. Mor’s plan was to infiltrate the heart of the camp, where she knew she would find the Optio, Titus.

The easiest way would have been to cross alongside the outer line of tents, but Mor knew it would be easier for anyone to see her then. So she went for the more difficult approach. She slid in between two tents, which were so close together, that the stakes had to overlap. They presented an obstacle, because it would have been easy to trip over them. But Mor knew her way around. She carefully avoided the stakes and effortlessly crossed the camp towards the center while making no sound at all.

Mor knew that Titus was the Optio, that meant there were only two men in the camp that outranked him. The centurion and the Primus Pilus, the leader among the centurions. They would all have their private tents. All she had to do was look for the tent that would be set up at a lookout, made from the dirt that came from digging the trenches. That tent she would pass. For now. That would be the Primus Pilus’ one. That would leave only two tents. She would have to take some risks, but Mor was willing to do just that.

After what had seemed like forever, she finally reached her goal. Without looking over her shoulder she quickly stepped inside, making sure not to make a sound.

At the far end of the tent she could see the outline of a sleeping form. The sounds of heavy breathing filled the air and involutarily Mor raised one eyebrow. Could this really be so easy?

Mor stepped closer to the bed, making sure to keep the soft light of the oil lamp at her back. Her cloak was covering almost her entire body and the hood was obscuring her face from view.

She looked down at the person in the bed and her instincts told her she probably had found the man she was looking for. He was tall and bulky, with well defined muscles and he looked like a person who would know how to handle a weapon or two.

Without thinking twice Mor balled her fist and hit him against the side of his head. With a soft grunt the Roman’s body went limp. Quickly Mor securely tied up his feet and hands. When she was finished she took a cloth and forced it inside his mouth. Her eyes scanned the tent and fell upon a waterskin. She grabbed it from it’s hook and poured the contents over the unconscious form in the bed. He immediately responded and started shaking his head. His eyes flew open and when he noticed he wasn’t able to move at all, Mor saw the panic rise in his eyes.

” Don’t move,” she growled in a low voice. ” Or I will slit your throat.”

The Roman had heard the words, because he immediately stopped pulling the ropes that held him pinned down and looked at Mor with fear in his eyes.

” You Titus?” she asked, her voice low and void of any trace of emotion.

The Roman nodded and Mor smiled, but the eyes under the hood were cold.

” I have a message for you. From now on you leave the villagers alone. And I mean, all of them. One more story about you hurting anyone and I will be back. I could kill you now, but that wouldn’t punish you, now would it?”

Very slowly Mor reached underneath her cloak, pulling out a small, pointed dagger. Titus eyes almost popped out of his sockets when he saw the soft light of the lamp being reflected on the steel. His experienced eyes could tell the weapon was razor sharp.

” I’ll give you a reminder,” Mor purred, leaning closer to the Optio, who was profusely sweating.

” From now on everyone will be able to see that you are marked!”

With her left hand Mor tilted Titus’ face to the side and pressed it into the bed. That left the right side of his face unprotected.

Using the sharp point of her dagger, Mor carved the skin of the Optio, who was breathing heavily and struggling not to lose consciousness. With a secure hand she continued her torture, not feeling any pity for the victim of her knife. Blood started to pour out of the cuts in Titus’ face, coloring the side of his face and neck. Staining the bedding underneath his head.

Concentrating Mor carved a triple spiral in Titus’ cheek. Making sure it would be deep enough to leave a scar.

” This is a sign that tells you to change,” she growled. ” Appropriate, don’t you think?”

Titus could only grunt in pain and tried to pull away from the dagger, but Mor’s vice like grip effortlessly held him in place. When she was finally done, she wiped the bloodstained dagger on Titus’ night shift and rose from the bed. Her face set in a grim mask.

” Next time you will die.”

She turned around and walked towards the entrance of the tent, when her eyes fell on an item that was placed on a small table. Mor stopped dead in her tracks and seemed to freeze. Slowly she turned around and walked to the item that had drawn her attention, carefully picking it up.

Her fingers trembled when she touched the beautifully carved leather pouch, that was attached to a leather strap. It was just slightly smaller than her thumb. The leather was worn, from years of wearing, but the carvings were still clearly visible.

****

” What do you keep in there, Jaali?”

” If I tell you it will lose it’s spell, Sauda. You do want me to be protected, don’t you?”

****

A low rumble rose up from deep inside Mor’s throat and with two strides she was back at the bed. The little pouch clenched in her fist. Her other hand grabbed Titus’ throat and she shook him violently.

” You,” she breathed. ” I should kill you! He would never have taken that off voluntarily. You are the one who killed him.”

Mor was visibly trembling and Titus, who could still not see her face, feared for his life. His nostrils were flaring from the effort to get a little more oxygen into his lungs. Perspiration rolled off his forehead, mingling with the blood that was still pouring out of his cuts. But all of a sudden Mor let go of his throat. She slapped him in the face and turned away from him.

” I will let you live, but only because I want you to live in shame. But one day I will find you and cut you up in pieces, so small, even the worms won’t have any problem digesting you. So make sure you are at peace with your Gods, because from this day on, you will never have a peaceful night again.”

After those words Mor disappeared through the entrance, leaving a panting and bleeding Titus behind, who realized to his shame, he had soiled himself.

****

It was almost morning when Mor finally returned to the cave. The sky was clear and the sun was about to rise. It looked like it would be a nice, warm day.

After her visit to Titus, Mor had spent the rest of the night wandering through the woods, until she finally had reached a rock, that was overlooking a creek. She had sat down and lost in memories she had relived some of her childhood years. The amulet still firmly clenched into her fist.

When she finally had returned to the cave, Isa was still asleep. One long look at the sleeping girl had taught Mor that the fever had broken and her young patient would probably recover just fine. Although she would have to live the rest of her life with the scar the javelin had caused, when the sharp steel had penetrated her skin.

Exhausted Mor had set down next to the dying fire, bringing it back to life with a few dry pieces of wood. She had boiled some water to make a cup of tea, slowly sipping the hot drink, while staring into the dancing flames of the fire. The warm beverage warmed the inside of her belly and brought relief to the coldness she had felt ever since she had sneaked into the Roman army camp. It was such a thin line between control and outrage. She had come so close to taking Titus’ life and looking back, she still didn’t know what had stopped her. Maybe it was the idea of the Roman Optio living the rest of his life in shame, with a sign carved into the skin of his face. That would always remind him of the way he had treated Isa. And hopefully it would prevent him from ever hurting the girl again.

Mor’s eyes traveled to the sleeping form on the ground and her eyes softened. Isa looked so innocent. So peaceful. Her youthful features relaxed in sleep. Her light colored hair was tousled and in her sleep, she slightly wrinkled her nose, which made her look even younger.

With a sigh Mor turned her gaze back to the fire. Her thoughts went back to a dark time, that seemed a lifetime ago. Her brows furrowed and her face was grim when she let the forbidden memories flow through her system. It had been a long time since she remembered. And after all the time that had passed, it still felt like there was poison flowing through her veins, making her cold inside and nauseous

Isa woke up to the sound of a crackling fire. She could feel the warmth spreading through her and when she carefully stretched her body, she was surprised to notice that most of the agonizing pain was gone. What was left was the throbbing in her shoulder and the pulling of the stitches when she tensed the muscles in her left arm.

Opening a pair of sleepy green eyes she was almost shocked to see Mor, sitting next to the fire. She had not even heard the other woman.

Isa blinked a few times to let her eyes become accustomed to the light and stared at the tall, dark woman who had saved her life.

Mor was sitting so still, Isa could hardly see she was breathing. Her blue eyes were half closed and she was staring into the fire with a faraway look in her eyes. It was like Mor’s body was there, but her soul had gone away.

Isa shivered and her forehead creased when she tried to figure out what to do next.

She pushed herself in an upright position, glad not to be overtaken by dizziness this time. Still Mor did not respond.

Isa pushed back the covers she had been sleeping under and struggled to her feet. Slowly she stepped closer to the fire, her eyes never leaving the dark, silent figure across from her. She carefully sat down and looked at the woman who had saved her life. She was wearing her cloak, but the hood was pulled back, giving her long, dark hair free reign. Her blue eyes were expressionless while they stared into the flames. Her left hand was clenched into a fist, while her right hand was holding an empty cup.

Isa bit her bottom lip. She was puzzled by the tall woman. Mor looked so strong, impressive and.dangerous. But deep inside her pounding heart, Isa somehow knew she had nothing to fear. If Mor would have wanted to hurt her, she would have already done that. Besides, Mor did take her to her cave and tended her wound. She helped her ease the pain and made sure she was warm and relaxed enough to sleep.

Suddenly Isa remembered how Mor had held her the previous evening, when she was changing the poultice on her wound. She remembered the strength of the taut muscles, but also the softness of the tall body she had been lying against. It had felt so comfortable and safe.

With those memories in the back of her mind, Isa decided to take a risk. She reached out her hand and slowly took the empty cup out of Mor’s fingers, setting it next to her on the ground. The only reaction was a quick blinking of a pair of eyes that were so blue, it reminded Isa of a clear summer sky, early in the morning.

Isa carefully took the pot that was still hanging over the fire and poured some of the tea that Mor had previously made into the cup.

” You look cold. Maybe you should drink some more”, she encouraged, her voice sounding strange to her own ears.

Finally Mor showed some kind of reaction. She slowly turned her head and looked at the young girl, who was sitting by her side. Looking up at her with gentle, green eyes, seemingly unimpressed by Mor’s dark mood.

Isa held out the cup in a silent invitation and slowly Mor’s eyes traveled from Isa’s face to her hand. Without saying a word she took the cup and brought it to her lips, sipping its contents. She visibly relaxed and Isa let out a shaky breath. She didn’t know what was wrong with Mor, but she was glad to see that the woman was gradually thawing. The tense muscles in her upper body relaxed, as did the ones in her face, changing her expression from grim, to stoic.

“I should tend to your shoulder,” Mor spoke, unexpectedly, nearly making Isa jump.

” Oh, just..just drink your tea,” Isa stammered. “I am fine. My arm already feels so much better than yesterday. And I don’t think I have a fever…I…thank you Mor.”

Mor simply nodded, staring in the dancing flames, again she seemed to be miles away.

Isa frantically searched her mind for things to say, but she found nothing. Only questions she knew would not be appreciated.

With another shy look at Mor she got to her feet and looked around in confusion. When Mor had brought her in the previous day Isa had not seen much of the cave. But now her eyes took in every little detail with growing amazement.

Lined against the wall were a few low tables with jars and viles of all sorts, shapes, and sizes. There were also little reed baskets, neatly stacked against the wall.

Isa’s eyes caught the glimmering steel of a weapon and curiously she stepped closer. Spread out on the little table, resting on a thick cloth, were a multitude of daggers. Some of them with no distinctive marks, but a few of them had beautifully carved hilts, with signs and symbols Isa had never seen before.

“Don’t touch them,” a low voice suddenly sounded right behind her.

Isa spun around to find Mor standing close behind her. She brought her hand to her throat and gasped for breath.

“Gods, I didn’t even hear you move,” she breathed.

Mor reached around Isa and picked up a small dagger that perfectly fitted in the palm of her hand. Its hilt was designed in the shape of big, leaping cat. It’s front legs fully stretched, while the hind legs were slightly bend, displaying strong muscles.

“It’s beautiful,” Isa whispered.”What is it?”

“It’s a cheetah,” Mor explained, while her index finger traced the outline of the feline. “They live very far away fom here, in a land called Africa.”

“Africa”, Isa slowly repeated, liking the sound of of the word.

“Is that where the knife comes from?” she inquired, feeling a little more relaxed now her heartbeat had settled down again.

“It’s a dagger,” Mor corrected her.”Yes, it’s from Africa.”

Isa looked up at Mor from close distance and could clearly see the strain in the other womans face. Suddenly she felt the urge to stretch out her hand and gently stroke those lines, that spoke of pain and fatigue.

Mentally kicking herself for even thinking something like that Isa turned around and stepped away from Mor. A bit of distance seemed like a good idea. The tall dark woman had a very strange effect on her and Isa did not know whether that was a good or a bad thing.

“Um.Mor,”she started hesitantly.” Where is.? I..uh.I need to go outside.I guess.”

Mor returned the dagger to its place on the little table and turned around to face Isa, one eyebrow arched.

“Why would you need to go outside?”

Isa didn’t immediately answer, but looked at her feet, feeling a blush creep up her cheeks. She shuffled her feet and when she finally did look up again, Mor could see the embarrassment in her eyes. Then it became clear to the tall woman and her eyes snapped open wide.

“Oh, yes, of course,” she answered, trying not to show her amusement.”Follow me.”

Mor quickly stepped towards a dark corner, grabbing a torch while she passed it and lead Isa into a narrow shaft, that lead towards an alcove, that was so small it would only fit three people at the same time.

Mor put the torch in a holder that was on the wall and pointed towards the corner. There Isa saw a small wooden stool that was placed in such a way, its opening was above the little stream that carved its way through the soft mergle stone.

“The Romans might be arrogant and highly annoying,” Mor said, with a trace of humor in her voice.”But they have come up with some great inventions. I copied one.”

She stepped back and gestured Isa to walk to the stool.

“I..uh..I will be in the main chamber. You think you can find your way back?”

Isa just nodded, her eyes still wide with amazement and Mor quickly disappeared into the dark, not bothered to take a torch with her. She knew the way.

****

All night Titus had fought the ropes that kept him bound to his bed, but to no avail. Even though he was a big, strong man, he could not undo the knots that Mor had used to tie him down with. A few times Titus thought he might choke, since the cloth that was stuffed inside his mouth didn’t allow the intake of oxygen. But after a while he discovered he could breath a whole lot better if he would lay still. So, he did. Occassionally wiggling his hands and feet to try and loosen the knots.

After what had seemed forever the darkness was slowly replaced by the light of the morning and Titus knew his torture would end soon. He had never felt worse or more humiliated in his whole life. Not only was he tied to his bed, like a pig ready to be roasted, but his face was painfully throbbing and to make matters even worse, if possible, he had soiled himself and he was bound to be found in that situation.

When the Optio had not showed up early that morning, one of the soldiers was sent to his tent, nearly running in panic when he saw the menacing glare Titus shot his way.

It was a smart soldier and he made quick work of slicing the ropes and removing the cloth out of his Optio’s mouth, trying not to wince when he smelled the stench of blood and urine. His eyes were drawn to the side of Titus’ face and his eyes grew wider when, through the crusts of dried blood, he could clearly see the symbol of a Celtic triple spiral.

The soldier swallowed and averted his gaze, waiting for Titus to speak.

“Tell the centurion I have been attacked and sound the alarm, Titus croaked,trying to sound at least a little dignified.

” No one enters or leaves this camp without me knowing it.”

“Yes, Optio,” the soldier crossed his right arm in front of his chest and made a hasty retreat, glad to be able to get out in the fresh air again.

****

” Have you ever been there?,” Isa tentively asked, sitting in front of the fire while Mor was inspecting her wound, carefully peeling away the poultice that stuck to the skin of Isa’s shoulder.

” To Africa, I mean.”

Mor’s fingers lingered on the soft skin underneath her hands and she sighed, almost inaudibly.

” No, I haven’t,” she answered in a low voice.

“Then…how do you know?” was Isa’s next question.

Mor, who was not used to interacting with people on a regular basis, let alone curious young girls, gritted her teeth, but tried very hard to be patient.

” I once knew a person who came from there.”

“Did…that person…give you that kni…dagger?”

” Yes,” was the short reply.

“Oh.”

Mor continued her work, glad that the questioning had stopped, while Isa stared into the fire with a pensive expression on her face. The silence did not last long.

” Are you a warrior?”

” What makes you think I am?” Mor slowly replied, inwardly sighing.

” You have all those weapons.”

” I like to be able to defend myself,” Mor explained.

” Do you have to do that a lot?”

” What?” Mor almost snapped, feeling more uncomfortable with each question.

” Defend yourself,” Isa whispered, hearing the impatience in the low voice.

” Sometimes,” Mor sighed, covering Isa’s wound with a fresh poultice. ” Do you always ask so many questions?”

Isa shrugged her shoulders and winced when she felt the stitches pull her still tender skin.

“Sometimes,” she replied, mimicking the answer Mor had just given her

Mor sighed again and turned Isa around so they were facing each other. Her blue eyes were hooded, hiding the irritation she felt when Isa was asking question after question.

“Listen, Isa, ” she started, warily. ” You don’t know me. I know fate made our paths cross yesterday and I am glad I was able to help you. But believe me, the less you know about me, the better it is. For everbody.”

There was no fear in the deep green orbs when they looked up to the tall, dark woman, just gentleness and a hint of curiosity.

” I am grateful, Mor, for you helping me. If you hadn’t I, well, I don’t think I would have survived. I will always be in your debt for that. ”

Isa cast down her eyes for a moment and Mor saw her bite her lip.

” I know I sometimes talk too much. I am sorry.”

” Don’t worry about it,” Mor heard herself answer, to her own astonishment. “My…grandmother always told me that if you don’t ask, you won’t know. I am just….not used to this. And there are a lot of things about me you don’t want to know. Believe me.”

Isa hesitated and looked at her feet fidgeting with the torn sleeve of her dress. She was dying to find out all there was to know about the beautiful woman, who was standing so close to her. But Mor’s words had made her cautious.

” I..um..I have one last question,” Isa stammered, not daring to look up. ” I mean, you have so many herbs and…this really big, black horse and things and I…I…Are you…are you…a witch?”

Those last words were nothing but a whisper and Isa felt her cheeks burn. She did not want to make Mor angry, but she simply had to know. Ever since she was a young girl she had heard stories about the magical powers of witches. Their dark sides and seclusive lifes. She wasn’t prepared for Mor’s reaction. For the first time since they had met, Mor laughed hardily.

With eyes full of wonder Isa looked up and saw the mesmerizing blue eyes twinkle with amusement. Mor’s face was split in a big grin and it made her look so much younger. And so beautiful it was almost breathtaking.

” You mean, do I kidnap virgins in the middle of the night, to offer them when the moon is full? Do I have little children for breakfast?” Mor laughed. ” No, Isa. I don’t. I am no witch.”

Isa let out a sigh of relief and visibly relaxed.

“I believe you,” she answered, a serious expression on her face.

” Good, ” Mor answered, still smiling. ” You don’t have to fear me Isa. Ever.”

” I didn’t,” was the soft reply.

” Good,” Mor replied again, much softer this time. ” I think it’s time for a bath, don’t you?”

Isa looked down at her body and wrinkled her nose in disgust. Her dress was torn and dirty, with big stains of blood, that kept reminding her of Titus’ brutal assault every time she looked at it.

” I don’t have anything clean to wear,” she hesitated, her voice a little shy and sad.

“I think I might have something that will fit you.”

” Don’t tell me you have a bathhouse as well,” Isa tentively joked, looking around to see if she could spot some more alcoves.

” Sorry,” Mor smiled. ” But it is a warm day and and I do know where to find a nice creek with a little waterfall.”

Mor had not been exaggerating. The creek was beautiful. It was fully enclosed by high trees and dense bushes and once they had passed those natural barriers, they arrived at a small pool, fed by a little waterfall that seemed to spring out of nothing.

The water was so clear that even from a distance, the pebbles and small rocks on the bottom of the creek were visible. The high trees were filtering the sunlight and cast an almost unearthly glow on the surface of the water, making it shine like crystal.

” It’s beautiful,” Isa whispered. ” I have never been here before. How did you know of this place?”

Mor looked up from unlacing her boots and shrugged her shoulders.

“I get around,” she casually explained and Isa could have sworn she saw a flicker of amusement in the clear blue eyes.

Isa tilted her head to the sky and closed her eyes, enjoying the warmth of the sun on her cool skin. The light cast reddish highlights on her hair and Mor couldn’t help staring at the picture Isa presented. The young girls’ face had an expression of utter contentment and a small smile decorated the soft features of her face. The filtered light of the sun seemed to embrace her and wrap her in a blanket of light and warmth.

Mor shook her head as if to scare away an annoying insect and made quick work of shrugging out of her clothes.

When Isa heard a loud splash she opened her eyes to see Mor coming up from beneath the surface of the water. When she rose millions of droplets were scattered about when she shook the water out of her hair.

Isa could only stare. She was not unfamiliar with the sight of a naked woman, since a few seasons ago when she was much younger she used to spend a lot of time swimming in the creeks with her friends. But the vision of Mor rendered her speechless.

The broad muscular shoulders, the tanned skin that looked like silk and seemed to be tightly wrapped around her muscles, that were moving smoothly underneath the skin. The firm backside and legs, so long and strong, as they cut the surface of the water without effort.

Isa caught herself staring and hid a blush by turning her face away from the sight in front of her. She used her right arm to try and pull her dress over her head, but got tangled up in the fabric when she was only halfway through.

Muttering Isa tried to free herself of the dress that suddenly started to live a life of it’s own, trapping her inside.

” Here, let me help you,” Mor’s voice suddenly sounded behind her, almost making Isa jump. She had never even heard the tall woman approach.

” How do you do that?” she nervously chuckled. “I never hear you coming and suddenly you are there.”

” I have many skills,” Mor’s voice rumbled, sounding slightly amused.

A pair of strong hands carefully pulled Isa’s dress over her head and immediately Isa felt the warmth of the sun caressing her skin. Behind her she felt the heat that Mor’s body was radiating and involuntarily she held her breath, while she was hit by a wave of different emotions. Somehow she couldn’t shake the image of Mor rising up from the water, with the body of a goddess and the strength of a warrior.

Isa’s heart raced and her mouth was dry. Desperatly she tried to make her body listen to her mind, who kept screaming at her to start moving and get into the water.

Mor looked at the smaller woman in front of her and mentally kicked herself for staring. But how could she not? The girl she had saved was so much more than a girl and suddenly Mor realized that Isa wasn’t the young girl she had assumed her to be. She was a girl allright, but with a very mature, beautiful body.

Isa was a lot smaller than Mor, but her body was well defined, not as muscular as her own, but strong, with soft curves in all the right places. The wound on her left shoulder stood out, a red and angry mark, discoloring the smoothness of the creamy skin. Remembering how the wound had been inflicted, Mor felt her anger rise again. Suddenly she was hit by an emotion that threw her completely off balance. She wanted to protect this woman. The thought of anyone hurting Isa was so unsettling, it almost took her breath away.

Mor felt her heart rate pick up and she realized she had been holding her breath. Confused blue eyes looked at the sky as if trying to find an answer to the turmoil within her soul.

What is happening to me?

Mor’s thoughts were interrupted by Isa’s soft voice, that sounded a little timid.

” Is it okay to get my shoulder wet?” she asked. ” I would like to wash my hair.”

Mor swallowed hard and told herself to get a grip. Fast. She cleared her throat and stepped away from Isa.

” The water won’t harm it,” she answered, her voice a little hoarse. ” As long as you don’t stay in the water too long. Come.”

Without saying another word Mor walked passed Isa and jumped back in the creek, thankful for the way the water cooled her heated body.

She didn’t have to look around to know Isa was carefully making her way into the creek as well. When she heard a soft splash, she finally turned around.

Isa came to the surface again, her long hair dripping wet and a broad smile on her face.

” This is wonderful,” she sputtered, wiping the water out of her eyes.

Mor couldn’t help smiling when she noticed the sparkling green eyes. She tried hard to concentrate on those eyes and not let her gaze wander down to a pair of firm breasts, that were only partly hidden in the water.

Mor softly groaned and ducked her head in the water, not knowing what to make of all the sensations that were running through her body. She decided to swim around for a while to help her body concentrate on other things. But when she looked at Isa again, her determination melted right away.

The girl was trying to lather her right hand with some of the soap Mor had taken with her. Obviously she wanted to wash her hair. Apparently it wasn’t easy to do that with just one hand. The bar of soap slipped from her hand and disappeared into the water. Isa muttered and sank down to pick up the slippery piece of soap.

” You need a hand with that?”
Part 5
” He did what?” the centurion shouted on the top of his lungs. ” How in the name of Mars did he get into the camp in the first place?”

Titus stared straight forward, trying not to blink when his centurion paced up and down in front of him. His cheek was burning, inspite of the ointment the camps healer had given him.

” I have no idea, centurion,” Titus answered, trying not to flinch when the raging man stopped in front of him and stared at him.

” Tell me again what happened.”

Titus took a deep breath and started to tell his story, again, for the third time.

” I woke up in the middle of the night and found myself tied down to the bed. I could see this tall, dark man hovering over me. Without any kind of warning he pulled a dagger and started to …carve my face. I couldn’t scream, because I was gagged. When he was done, he left.”

” Just like that?”

” Yes, centurion.”

” That’s the whole story?”

” Yes, centurion,” Titus lied.

” You didn’t do anything to piss off the locals? You haven’t recently made any enemies?”

” No, centurion,” Titus lied again, making a mental note to talk to Flavius soon and tell the boy in no uncertain terms he had to keep his mouth shut.

” Round up your best men,” the centurion sighed. ” We are going on a man hunt.”

****

The sun was shining brightly. It cast its warm beams down on the earth, heating up the surface and everything on it. Illuminating the little stream of water, that ran happily through the lush bushes, turning it into a dancing streak of silver.

On the embankment of the creek a couple of scarcely dressed bodies were reclining in the fragrant, soft grass. The sun was drying their skin and hair and making them sleepy, after spending some time in the water.

Isa cast a look aside and watched Mor resting beside her. She was laying on her back, her long legs stretched out and crossed at the ankles. Her left hand was resting on her belly, while her other arm was being used to support her head, that was slightly tilted.

Isa could see the long, dark eyelashes resting on a pair of soft looking, tanned cheeks and she wondered why Mor did not have the pale color of a person who spends a lot of time in the darkness.

Mor’s breathing was deep and regular and Isa wondered if the woman was asleep. She had to be exhausted, after being up all night.

Isa sighed and wiggled her toes, enjoying the feel of the grass against her naked skin. Bathing had been…interesting. Involuntarily she smiled when she remembered how Mor had helped her to wash her hair. It was a bit akward at first, for both of them. But it was amazing how fast Isa had felt comfortable, with the dark woman helping her to lather and rinse out her hair.

Isa breathed in deeply and enjoyed the smell of herbs and flowers, that clung to her skin and hair.

Mor’s hands had felt so strong and yet so gentle. Isa blushed when she admitted to herself she had thoroughly enjoyed the attention Mor had given to her hair, making sure all dirt and blood was rinsed out.

It was when Mor mumbled something about ‘ better make sure it’s clean, so I will wash it once more’ , when Isa decided that underneath that tough, almost sour exterior, a gentle soul was hidden. And she would make it her goal, to bring out that part of Mor’s personality.

Isa turned her head when she heard Mor’s breathing increase and when she looked at the woman next to her, she saw the rapid movements of her eyes. The muscles in the tall body tensed and Isa suddenly sat up straight, wondering whether she should wake her up.

” Jaali! Jaali!”

” Run, Sauda, run”

” Noooo!!! Jaali!!! Don’t let them take you. Fight! You are free now. Fight, Jaali!!!”

” Listen to me, Sauda. Run. Now! Go!”

Mor was breathing heavily now and Isa could see tears slipping through the closed eyelids. She bit her lip and stretched out her hand to gently shake Mor’s shoulder.

” Mor, wake up. You are having a bad dream,” she urged, feeling the warm skin underneath her fingers.

” Mor!”

Before Isa knew what was happening she was flying through the air, painfully landing on her injured shoulder. She winced in pain and tried to sit up, when she was pinned down to the ground by a fierce looking, growling Mor.

Her unfocused and confused blue eyes were almost hidden by the dark hair that fell into her face. She was still breathing hard and Isa could see the rapid beating of her heart in the pulse point underneath her throat.

Isa’s body was totally covered by Mor’s and even if she had wanted to, she would not have been able to move. Instead she stared into a face that slowly turned from rage and confusion, to understanding and embarrassment.

” You are hurting me,” Isa croaked, finding it hard to breath with Mor’s body pinning her to the forest floor.

Her voice was soft and urging, but without fear.

” I am sorry,” Mor spoke, her voice hoarse. ” Gods, Isa, I am so sorry.”

Mor quickly rolled off the smaller body underneath her and carefully helped Isa to sit up straight. She let out a deep sigh and avoided a pair of puzzled green eyes.

” Let me have a look at your shoulder,” Mor said, sounding more gruffly than she meant to.

Isa turned around and could feel Mor’s fingers carefully lift up the fabric of the light shift was wearing. Warm fingers gently probed the skin around the wound and involuntarily Isa shivered.

” Does it hurt?” Mor quickly asked.

” Not really,” Isa whispered. ” Is it bleeding?”

” No, ” Mor answered, the relief evident in her voice. ” It’s a little red. But the stitches are still in one piece. I…I’m sorry, Isa. I should have….”

When Isa turned back to Mor, she could feel the warm hand slowly slide off her shoulder, to fall limply along Mor’s side.

” Should have told me it’s dangerous to wake you up like that?” Isa asked, her green eyes searching for a pair of blue ones. But Mor looked away, staring into the distance, clearly still embarrassed with what had happened.

Mor didn’t answer Isa, but curtly nodded, her face grim and dark.

” Mor, you are a warrior! I am not a little kid, you know. I know that those reflexes don’t come overnight.”

Mor turned to face Isa, ready to respond, but the small woman raised her hand and looked so determined that Mor obediently shut her mouth.

” You don’t have to tell me, if you don’t want to. Besides, you hardly seem the type of person who could be persuaded to talk. But I want you to know that you can talk to me, Mor. I’d like to be your friend.”

Those last few words were spoken so softly, that Mor had to strain her ears to hear them. Now it was Isa’s turn to look away, her cheeks burning, wondering what had given her the impression that her tall, strong companion ever wanted a friend.

But then a most wonderful thing happened. Isa felt a pair of fingers gently lift up her chin, until she looked into Mor’s eyes, that were so close, Isa could see her own image reflected in them.

” It’s been a long time since I had any friends,” Mor softly explained, unaware of the pain that was showing in the blue depths of her eyes. ” I am a bit rusty, but….thank you, Isa. I…I would like to be your friend as well.”

Mor’s reward was a radiant smile, that turned Isa’s eyes into a pair of sparkling emeralds. She couldn’t help but smile in return, not aware of the fact she was still cupping Isa’s face with her hand.

For long moments blue and green stared at each other from so close and without knowing she was doing it, Mor’s thumb softly caressed Isa’s cheek. Isa leaned into the comforting touch and closed her eyes, wondering if Mor would be able to actually hear her heartbeat.

Mor ’s eyes traveled down from Isa’s closed eyes to her moist, full lips and suddenly her mouth went dry again. She had to fight the urge to bend her head and…Mor shook her head and Isa’s eyes shot open.

” We’d better get something to eat,” Mor explained, trying to sound casual. ” I think I heard your stomach growl before.”

Isa smiled and self consciously pulled away from Mor’s touch. She had the impression her new friend was not very comfortable with their physical closeness and she wanted to give Mor the space she obviously needed.

” Thanks for letting me wear this shift,” Isa said, while Mor jumped to her feet, extending her hand to help Isa up.

” You’re welcome,” Mor answered. ” It’s a bit too short for me anyway.”

Isa looked down her body, seeing the shift reach passed her knees and softly chuckled. She looked at Mor, raising an eyebrow and tried to look indignant.

” What’s that suppose to mean? I am short?”

Mor’s eyes shot wide open and she had already opened her mouth to assure Isa that was not what she meant, when she saw the twinkle in a pair of green eyes and she let out a relieved breath.

” You are too serious, Mor,” Isa smiled.

” Life is serious, Isa,” Mor replied, with a hint of sadness in her voice, while collecting the bar of soap and the large pieces of fabric they had used to dry themselves after their bath.

Isa watched the tall woman make quick work of stuffing her belongings into a pouch, that was slung over her shoulder. She followed her down the hardly visible track up the hill, when Mor suddenly stood stock still, her head cocked to one side. Isa almost ran into her and wanted to make a remark, but a pair of very alert, very serious blue eyes made her change her mind.

” What’s wrong?” Isa whispered.

Mor’s forehead was creased in a frown and her lips were pressed together, when she turned to Isa.

” Romans,” she whispered.

Isa looked back at her friend with a quizzical look. Romans? Of course there were Romans, they occupied their lands. There was nothing new about that. Mor must have seen her confusion, because she bent her face close to Isa’s and whispered in her ear.

“They’re in full armor and there are a lot of them. We’d better hide.”

” But we didn’t do anything wrong,” Isa whispered back.

Depends on your point of view.

” Follow me,” Mor whispered, stepping passed Isa and grabbing her hand to pull the still puzzled girl with her.

Isa didn’t have time to object. Mor pulled her down the same track they had been climbing a few minutes before. They were heading back to the creek and now Isa could hear the sounds Mor had heard earlier.

Coming close there was the muffled sound of footsteps, and the distinctive sound of clinging metal, along with soft talking. Men’s voices.

Mor didn’t stop when they had reached the creek, but hurried along the line of trees towards the little waterfall. All the time making sure that they were hidden from view by the surrounding bushes.

Isa looked up at the waterfall, wondering why Mor had brought them there. The rocks were slippery and steep and there was no way Isa would be able to climb all the way to the top, to disappear in the forest that was on the other side of the cliff.

Before Isa realized what was happening, Mor had made her way up the rocks, reaching out a hand to Isa to help her up. Dumbfounded Isa grabbed it and felt herself being pulled up in the air, to neatly land next to Mor.

” Stay close behind me,” Mor commanded. ” It’s not high, but the rocks are slippery.”

Isa could only nod, while Mor was already climbing higher, using the pointy parts of the rocks as support for her feet.

Isa slowly followed, while the sound of the waterfall blocked out any other sounds. The spray was drenching her shift and the fabric clung to her legs, making it harder to step on the rocks. She ignored the sudden throbbing in her shoulder and kept her eyes focused on the rocky surface that was just in front of her, taking one step at the time. She dared not look down. Isa knew it was not all that high, but somehow being away from the solid surface of the earth, always made her uneasy.

Suddenly bushes seemed to close in and Isa noticed there was not much space left between the waterfall on her left side and the forest on her right.

She looked up to see Mor’s hand being extended to her and gratefully she grabbed it. Mor pulled her beside her and protectively draped one arm over Isa’s shoulder.

” Are you okay?”

Isa nodded and carefully looked around.

” Is this where you want to hide?” she asked. ” They could easily…. ”

She stopped in mid sentence when she saw Mor shake her head.

” Take my hand and don’t let go, okay? If you think it’s scary, close your eyes, but whatever you do, don’t let go of my hand and stay close.”

Before Isa could respond, her hand was caught in a vice like grip and Mor pulled her towards the waterfall. Isa’s eyes went wide when she saw her companion disappear in the powerful stream of water and quickly she closed her eyes. She could feel Mor pulling her along while the sound of thundering water filled her ears. Isa held her breath, convinced that they would be washed down the waterfall, ending up in the creek, all their limbs broken.

” You can breath again,” Mor’s voice sounded close to her hear. ” We’re safe here.”

Isa slowly opened her eyes to look straight into a pair of blue eyes that held an unmistakable twinkle. Mor’s hair was wet and plastered to her face. Her shift was drenched and clung to her skin, but inspite of all that, she was smiling.

” Where are we?” Isa asked, looking around.

” A small cave behind the waterfall, ” Mor explained. ” I…um…I discovered it a while ago and thought it was a good place to hide from curious Roman eyes.”

” It’s beautiful,” Isa whispered, amazed by the fact that she could see the back of the waterfall. The sunlight was caught in the neverending stream of water, painting the damp floor of the cave with colorful dots and stripes.

Isa shivered and wrapped her arms around her body, realizing she was soaking wet and there was hardly any warmth from the sun entering the cave.

Suddenly she was wrapped in a warm, woolen blanket, that was pulled tightly around her body.

” Where did you get this?” she whispered, looking at Mor who never ceased to amaze her.

” I told you, I have been here before,” Mor explained. ” Last time I was here, I left it. Good thing I did.”

” Thank you,” Isa said, trying to control the uncontrolled shivering of her body. ” But what about you?”

Mor looked down her body, noticing her wet shift and shrugged her shoulders.

” I am blessed with a lot of body heat,” she smiled. ” I will be fine.”

” Care to share?” Isa asked, before thinking and immediately she felt a blush creeping up her cheeks.

” I…um…I didn’t mean…well,” she stammered, seeing the amusement in Mor’s eyes.

” Of course,” the tall woman answered, noticing Isa’s blush deepen. ” Come sit here.”

She pulled Isa towards the other side of the cave, where the floor was dry. Slowly she peeled Isa out of her blanket, wrapping the fabric around her own shoulders. After that she sat down, her back against the wall and shot Isa a challenging glance, her arms open in an welcoming gesture.

Suddenly feeling nervous Isa decided to take the invitation anyway and she carefully lowered herself to the ground, in between Mor’s legs, nestling her cold back against Mor’s chest. Immediately a pair of long, strong arms were wrapped around her, enveloping her in the woolen blanket, pulling her close. It still felt cold, but after only a little while, Isa could feel the heat radiating from Mor’s body and she slowly relaxed.

” Better?” Mor’s voice rumbled in her ear.

Isa could only nod and let out a deep sigh.

” Much better. Thank you.”

The arms around her body tightened and Isa snuggled closer, feeling very safe and warm and comfortable. It was a whole new sensation she didn’t want to think about yet. That would come later, in the safe darkness of the night. When she would have the chance to relive the day and ponder over all those remarkable emotions that seemed to take posession of her body and soul.

Mor boldly rested her cheek on a patch of light colored hair and stared into the distance, not seeing much at all. She knew she had to figure out why the Romans suddenly went on patrol in a part of the forest they usually never bothered to visit. She knew she had to come up with a plan to keep herself and the woman in her arms safe, but all she could think of was they way she felt, with Isa’s smaller form tucked against her own tall frame.

Closing her eyes, Mor sighed, feeling warm and content. It had been a very long time since she felt like there was somebody in her life that cared for her. No expectations. No false pretenses. A friend who accepted her the way she was. It was a good feeling. So good that it prevented her from planning ahead, which should have been something to be concerned about.

“Mor?” a sleepy voice suddenly sounded

” Mmm? ”

” Who is Jaali?”

Isa felt Mor stiffen and she expected to be pushed away, but to her surprise it didn’t happen. She could feel Mor’s muscles tense for a moment, but suprisingly they relaxed again and Isa found herself in the same comfortable spot she was in before she had asked her question.

” Did I talk in my sleep?” Mor simply asked.

” Yes, you did,” Isa answered, absently rubbing the skin of Mor’s arm with her thumb. “You sounded so…sad, so…hurt. I was just wondering if…”

” Jaali was the best friend I ever had,” Mor interrupted her, not feeling comfortable enough to talk about her past, but grateful for the warmth Isa’s presence provided.

” Jaali,” Isa repeated, tasting the name on her tongue. ” Was he the one from Africa?”

Mor held in her breath while her eyes shot open.

” How did you know?”

” I guessed, ” Isa smiled, feeling the arms around her tighten again.

For a long time Mor had lived a very private life. Not a single soul knew about her past and she always thought she wanted to keep it that way. And now, this small woman had come into her life, effortlessly breaking down barriers Mor had spend years carefully building up. And suddenly Mor found herself willing to share some of the dark thoughts that still haunted her in her sleep. Maybe this friendship wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

” Jaali, you should pronounce it as Jah-lee, once was a proud warrior, from the land of Africa.”

” Did his name mean anything,” Isa’s voice piped up.

” Jaali means powerful. And he was. He was the strongest man I had ever seen. His skin was dark as the night and he was tall, with arms and hands that could easily snap a man’s back in half. He was so strong.”

” How did you meet him?”

” He saved my life,” Mor answered, seeing the bloody scenes of a battlefield, almost forgetting everything else around her.

” How?” Isa inquired, feeling the anxiety of the other woman almost cascade down her body like the waterfall right in front of them.

****

The day had started out as a regular one. Mor had woken up at the usual time and even before her grandmother had stirred, she had done her chores of chopping wood, getting fresh water from the creek and looking after the five chickens and one pig that determined their worldly possesions.

She was ready to play with her friends and maybe, if she was lucky, she would be able to ride the black stallion that had been cooped up inside the corral for more than a moon.

Mor had met her friends just outside the village and they had sneaked out into the nearby forest, looking for berries and nuts. It had been chilly, since the winter season was already on it’s way, but the children didn’t feel the cold, They were preoccupied with playing and mock fighting.

Suddenly one of Mor’s friends had shouted out loud, pointing towards the village and to their horror and fear they had seen black smoke billowing towards the sky. As fast as their legs could carry them, Mor and their friends had run back home, afraid that tragedy had struck their family or friends.

As soon as they came closer, they could hear women cry and men shout. They heard the sound of steel clashing with steel and then the sickening truth settled in. They could see the unmistakable colors of a Roman legion. With their homocidal efficiency they were slicing through the village, striking down anyone that crossed their path.

Mor couldn’t bear it any longer.

” Grandmother!!!!”

With a shout that could be heard for leagues she sprinted towards the remains of the little house she had shared with her grandmother. Flames were already licking it’s outsides and it would only be a matter of time before the roof caved in, forever destroying what was underneath.

Without thinking twice Mor threw her adolescent body through the opening where once the door had been, to be stopped by a pair of strong hands.

Kicking and screaming she tried to free herself, all the time screaming her grandmother’s name.

” She is beyond help, child,” a dark voice sounded close to her ears and even in her distress, Mor could easily hear the pain that gave the voice an even richer sound.

” Let me go! Let me go!”

Mor placed a well aimed kick to the man’s kneecap and he grunted in pain. But instead of letting go of the squirming child, he even held her closer.

” Be quiet, child. And live.”

Finally Mor looked up, straight into the face of the strangest creature she had ever seen. It was a tall man, with muscular, broad shoulders and arms. His head was bald and his skin was the darkest she had ever seen. It was as dark as the night and shone like ebony. But the thing that spoke to her the most, were his eyes. They were big and round and so dark brown, they were almost black.

Clear blue and darkbrown stared at each other, as if measuring each other and looking for strong points and weaknesses.

” Who are you?” Mor finally asked,

” My name, young girl is Jaali. I don’t want to hurt you. If you listen to me I might even save your life.”

” Why would you do a thing like that?” Mor spat, her eyes filled with fury and rage.

” Because I hate the Romans as much as you do,” the dark man explained. ” And because destiny has brought us together. You can’t fight the fates, child.”

” My grandmother is in there, ” Mor shouted, trying to kick the tall man wherever she was able to touch him. He didn’t even flinch when she visciously kicked him in the side and for a moment Mor stilled. She looked at him with an expression that came close to awe.

” Get rid of her, ” a voice suddenly sounded behind her and they both looked up to see a Roman centurion hovering over them from the back of his horse. He looked bored and not at all affected by the bloodbath he and his man had caused.

” She is a spunky one, master,” the dark man softly spoke. ” I am sure, once broken, she will serve you fine.”

” I have no need for any more slaves in my household.”

” She will be a good fighter, one day,” the slave dared to object.

He had bend his head out of respect for his master, but he knew he would have sparked interest in the Roman centurion.

” You think so?”

” I do, master.”

” Mmmm.”

A pair of almost colorless grey eyes looked at the young girl appraisingly. In spite of her youth, he could appreciate the female attributes in combination with the well defined, lean muscles. Maybe the slave was right. When trained properly he might be able to sell her to one of Rome’s noblemen. She could serve well as a decoration, or maybe, she would earn her master great profit as a female gladiator. Word was that certain Roman citizens were willing to pay well for captured, female warriors.

” All right. You look after her. You may train her. She may be sold at a good price one day.”

After those words the centurion rode past them, not bothered to look back. If he had, he would have been shocked to see the look of pure hate on the face of the young girl.

” I am not a slave and I will never become one!” Mor hissed at the dark man, who was still holding her tightly.

” No one who has a heart that’s free, will ever be a slave,” the dark man spoke in his soft voice. ” Come with me, Sauda. I will teach you all I know and soon we will be free.”

Isa could hear the stress and pain in Mor’s voice and she slowly woke up from the spell the rich voice had put her under while telling the story. She had never heard Mor talk that much before and she was truly mesmerized. She had felt the low rumble in Mor’s chest and for some strange reason, Isa had felt very…at home while listening to it.

” He called you Sauda?” she asked, swallowing hard to push away the tears that threatened to spill. She could almost see the scene in front of her. The small village being burned to the ground, little Mor fighting to reach her grandmother, who had died in the flames. Her grief and despair.

Mor didn’t answer, but Isa could feel her nod. Wordlessly she continued to soothingly rub small circles on the arm around her waist.

” What does it mean?”

” Dark beauty,” Mor’s voice answered, so soft, Isa had to strain herself to hear the words. She smiled and gently squeezed Mor’s forearm.

” That suits you,” she said. ” Because you are.”

That made Mor smile and just when she wanted to reply, she cocked her head and her face showed an expression of pure concentration. Isa had felt the arms around her tense and she looked up at Mor’s face, seeing the blue eyes alert, having lost all signs of sleepiness.

” Wha…”

” Shh,” Mor quickly replied, briefly covering Isa’s mouth with her hand. ” There’s something happening down there.”

Before Isa could respond, Mor had wrestled her body from the blanket and walked towards the entrance of the cave. Isa scrambled to her feet and quickly followed, suddenly feeling nervous and tense.

She watched Mor peek around the corner and if she interpreted the body language right, there was something happening.

” What is it?” she whispered, standing close behing Mor, but not able to see anything, due to the broad shoulders that were blocking her view.

Mor turned around and stepped back into the cave. Her face was pale, making her eyes stand out like two blue chips of ice.

” Stay where you are,” she commanded, in a no nonsense voice.

Reflectively Isa stepped back, her eyes wide when she saw Mor stride towards the dark end of the cave. She disappeared into the darkness, leaving a puzzled Isa behind. Only a few minutes later she emarged again, wearing a dark cloak and hood and carrying a crossbow and a handful of arrows.

Isa could only look slack jawed and under other circumstances Mor would have probably been amused, but somehow she was too preoccupied with what was going on outside. She cast Isa a stern look and the small woman just nodded. She would not move.

” It’s your brother,” Mor finally explained, pulling the hood even further over her head. ” The Romans are catching up to him.”

” B..Baldric?” Isa stammered, her heart suddenly pounding in her chest. ” But…what…I don’t understand.”

” Me neither,” Mor replied, the muscles in her jaw clenched. ” But I will have to do something…fast.”

Without saying another word she stepped out of the cave, the crossbow in her hands. Over the sound of the waterfall Isa could hear her yell.

” Baldric!!!! Up here.”

Down near the creek Isa’s younger brother was being chased by a few Roman soldiers who apparently found sadistic pleasure in chasing the young boy around. He was almost cornered by them and from his vantage point, there was no way he could escape. They slowly started to surround them, knowing it would only be a matter of seconds before he would be their captive.

Mor cursed and quickly scanned the enviroment to see what her options were. There weren’t many. There was just one thing to do.

” Baldric. Up here!!” she shouted again, trying to get the boy’s attention.

He looked up and even from the distance Mor could see the fear in his eyes. She realized she must present a frighting sight. Her tall form, clad in a long, black, dripping wet cloak, high up the cliff near the waterfall.

Baldric seemed to consider his options and he didn’t need much time to make a descision. He jumped up on one of the rocks and started to quickly climb his way up.

” Good lad, ” Mor mumbled, keeping an eye on the reaction of the Romans down at the creek. She could see they were talking among themselves and pointing from Baldric to her and back again. They didn’t seem to be able to make a decision and Mor smirked.

” You are all idiots,” she growled, rasing the crossbow and aiming it at the soldier who was weighing a javelin in his hand, ready to throw it at the unprotected boy.

He was going to use it, Mor could tell it in the way his muscles tensed and the squinting of his eyes.

” No you won’t,” she softly spoke.

Her finger tightened around the trigger and the moment the Roman soldier brought back his arm to throw his javelin, Mor fired an arrow. It hit him in the shoulder and with a howl of pain, the soldier dropped his javelin and sank to the ground.

There was a lot of shouting and Mor smiled when she saw three soldiers starting to climb up the rocks as well, trying to catch up with the rapidly approaching Baldric.

” Make my day,” she smirked, reloading her crossbow.

A sudden presence made her cast a look aside and she frowned.

” I thought I had told you to stay where you were,” she stated calmly.

” I..I…where’s Baldric?” Isa almost cried. ” Is he…?”

” He’s on his way up. Don’t worry. I won’t let anything happen to him.”

Isa could not resist and peeked around Mor, to see three big Roman soldiers climbing up the rocks, trying to catch her brother.

” Mor,” she breathed, watching in horror as she saw them close in on her sibling. ” Can’t you do anything?”

” Oh, yeah,” Mor purred, aiming her bow and waiting patiently to get a good shot. ” Idiots.”

Mor waited until the soldier who was in the front, raised himself up to his full length to get a good look at the boy. As soon as he saw the raised crossbow, he realized his mistake. With a soft click the arrow was released and a split second later the sharp point had penetrated the unprotected skin between his breastplate and neck.

With a gurgling noise he brought his hand to his throat, but the blood was already squirting out and slowly the big, bulky man fell down. He tumbled down the cliff, knocking over his fellow soldiers, who could do nothing to keep their balance. In a heap of arms and legs and with a lot of cursing and shouting they bounced against the rocks on their way down again.

Mor reached out a hand to pull the heavily breathing Baldric inside the cave and she quickly stepped in after him.

Isa had wrapped her arms around her brother, who was trying to tell her he was still in one piece, which wasn’t an easy thing to do, since he was still trying to catch his breath.

” What happened? What are you doing here? Why were they chasing you?”

” We have no time for that now,” Mor interrupted Isa’s interrogation. ” We will have to go. Now.”

Isa looked at the tall woman with disbelief in her eyes, pushing back the long, wet hair that was plastered against her face.

” You want to go back out there? Climb down?”

” Anybody ever told you, you ask too many questions? We will go through the caves.”

Mor pointed to the dark side of the little cave they were standing in.

” There’s a pipeline that goes straight through this hill. It will bring us to the other side of the valley. We’d better go. I don’t think the Romans will follow us in there, but we’d better make sure we’ re not here when they climb up again. I don’t have many arrows left. Come.”

Isa shot Mor a bewildered look and the blood had drained from her face. She suddenly looked ill and Mor frowned, casting her a questioning look.

” What?”

” Have you got some torches?” Baldric asked, exchanging a knowing look with his sister.

” No, I don’t,” Mor admitted. ” But I know the way. I promise.”

Isa stumbled back towards the entrance of the cave, looking as though she had seen a ghost. Her eyes never left Mor’s as she tried to find her way out.

Mor only took two long strides to reach the small woman and pull her back inside again, blocking the entrance with her tall body.

” What do you think you are doing?” she hissed. ” You want to get killed?”

” It’s, it’s…I can’t, not in the dark,” Isa cried, not able to stop the tears that were streaming down her face. ” I…please, Mor. I can’t.”

” What in the name of Thor’s hammer are you talking about?”

The pain and fear in Isa’s eyes had thrown Mor completely off guard. She felt like she wanted to protect her new friend, but she also knew it wouldn’t be long before the Romans found a way up and there was no way Mor would be able to protect Isa and her brother from twelve trained, armored Roman soldiers.

” Isa?” she pleaded, her blue eyes never leaving the fearful pair of green ones.

” She is afraid,” Baldric spoke, his tousled hair sticking to his forehead. His green eyes looking at his sister with worry and compassion. ” A few seasons ago Isa got lost in the caves. She spent two days in the dark. Our dog found her.”

Mor’s eyes softened when she looked from Isa to Baldric and back again.

” What were you doing in the caves?” she gently prodded.

” Looking for my big brother,” Isa whispered. ” He was hiding from the Romans and lost his way.”

Mor swallowed hard and dreaded the answer to her next question.

” Did you find him?”

Isa looked up and the torture in those expressive green eyes almost made her give in to the urge to take the smaller woman in her arms and hold her tight.

” I did,” Isa softly answered. ” He was dead when I found him.”
Part 6
Mor took a few deep breaths to try and slow down her rapidly beating heart. Her instincts were telling her that the Romans would be on their way up soon. In fact, her excellent hearing had already picked up the sounds of boots carefully stepping on rocks. Now and then she could hear a pebble shift, or fall down into the creek.

Mor clenched her teeth and turned back to the frightened Isa. She knew there was not much time left. If they wanted a chance to survive, they would have to leave soon.

” Isa, listen,” she began, her voice unusually soft. Mor had put her hands on Isa’s shoulders and forced the smaller woman to look up to her. ” I know you are scared, you have every reason to be. But our only way of escape, is through the caves. I am sorry.” She softly squeezed Isa’s shoulder. ” I am so sorry, Isa.”

Mor felt a shiver go through Isa’s body and on an impulse she pulled the blond woman into her arms. Her long arms wrapped around the slim form, pulling her close to her own frame.

Mor rested her cheek on Isa’s hair and for a moment she closed her eyes, wishing there were no Romans on the way to kill them, a younger brother staring at them with big round eyes, or caves, that were cold and dark.

” Isa,” she softly whispered close to a shapely pink ear. ” Do you trust me?”

As an answer Mor could feel Isa snuggle even closer and a small smile tugged on the corner of her mouth.

” Do you?” her low voice rumbled, sending interesting chills down Isa’s spine.

” I do,” Isa finally answered.

” Look at me.”

Mor gently pushed Isa away and put a hand under her chin to lift the girls’ face up to hers. From very close they stared at each other. Mor willed her barriers away, trying to push them to the very back of her mind, allowing Isa to look inside her soul.

” Isa, I know my way around in that cave,” she softly explained. ” I have been in there before and found my way out. Will you please trust me? I can do it again. I won’t let anything happen to you”

Isa blinked and tried to concentrate on what Mor was saying to her. That was hard with those blue eyes looking almost straight through her. The effect they had on her was just like magic. She felt like her insides were churning, but in a very pleasant way, while her heart tried to hammer its way out of her chest. But through this haze of emotions that were mostly confusing, Isa could still feel the fear that had almost took her breath away a few moments before.

” You have no torches or lamps,” she whispered, putting her hands on Mor’s forearms that were still resting on her shoulders.

” I don’t need them,” Mor said seriously. ” Not in there. You will find out, but you will have to trust me Isa. We don’t have much time.”

” What if. . . .what if . . . I lose you in the dark, or Baldric?” Isa voice had risen a few notches and instinctively Mor started to rub the girls back in soothing circles.

” I will hold your hand and never let go,” she solemny promised.

” What about Baldric? You can’t hold both our hands.”

” You can hold his,” Mor smiled.

Isa looked from Mor to Baldric who was looking at his sister with worry in his eyes. His face was drawn and pale, but in spite of the trouble they were in, he smiled reassuringly. Trying not to show his anguish and fear.

” Mor is right, sis. You can hold my hand and lead me through there. Okay?”

Isa swallowed hard and took a deep breath.

” Okay, ” she answered in a shaky voice. ” Let’s go then.”

Not wanting to waste another second, Mor took Isa’s hand, it felt small and cold in her own and they quickly walked towards the end of the cave, where it was already as dark as night. When they came closer, Isa noticed there were two different passages. Mor took the left one and disappeared inside, tightening her grip on Isa’s hand.

Isa in turn had extended her hand to her brother and she tentatively smiled when she felt his reassuring squeeze.

” We’ ll be fine, Isa, ” he whispered. ” You’ ll see.”

The cool air of the cave immediately enveloped them and Isa shivered, this time from the cold. She was only wearing the thin shift. The blanket was thrown over her shoulder, she would not be able to keep it wrapped around herself, since she was holding the hands of Mor and Baldric.

Isa tried to breath slowly. The last thing she wanted to do was panic, but the memories suddenly invaded her thoughts. Unwanted and unbidden, but also unstoppable. The memory of the darkness, the silence, the cold that had seemed to seep through her bones, until she had been shaking so much it had hurt. Isa relived the moment she had felt her way through the cave, after she had lost her torch. She had felt so lost and alone. The hunger and thirst had almost driven her insane and when she had stumbled over a body and felt it’s cold limbs tangle with her own, she had screamed until her throat hurt so badly she could hardly swallow and passed out from sheer exhaustion.

Isa sniffed and felt the warm tears slide down her face. It was so dark she couldn’t see a single thing. It was a world of complete darkness and the only thing that felt real, was Mor’s presence in front of her and Baldric’s behind.

” How do you know where you are going, Mor?” Baldric suddenly asked, his young voice sounding strangely hollow in the empty darkness of the cave.

” I have been here before,” Mor answered, her voice soft and uncharacteristically gentle. ” I left marks. There’s one every ten paces, on the right wall, shoulder height.”

Baldric stretched out his hand, completely disorientated in the dark. Clumsily he felt around until his hand touched the wall.

” What kind of mark?” he asked, brushing the surface of the wall while he slowly followed Mor and his sister.

” A little iron rod,” Mor explained. ” The walls are so soft, you can cut into them with a knife. I pushed in the rods and as long as I can feel them, I know where I am.”

” Wow,” Baldric breathed, utterly impressed by the tall womans idea. ” That was smart.”

They slowly continued their walk, until Mor suddenly stopped. Without letting go of Isa’s hand she turned around and Isa could feel the warmth of Mor’s breath on her face.

” I need two hands now, Isa, but it’s only for a very short time. You can put your hands around my waist. All right? I need to feel around for a second rod, one armslength away.”

” What does that mean?” Baldric curiously inquired.

” That means we will have to take a right turn,” Mor answered.

While talking Mor had turned around and immediately she felt a pair of deceptively strong arms wrap around her waist. Isa had no intention of letting go and Mor smiled. While her right hand touched a rod in the wall of the cave, she stretched out her left arm and carefully searched the rough surface. It didn’t take her long to locate the second rod and she smirked. It was a simple, but very effective way of getting around in a cave in the dark. Secretely she was pleased with herself for having had the idea.

Mor unwrapped herself from Isa’s arms, immediately missing the warmth at her back.

” Are you okay?” she softly asked.

” I have felt better,” Isa honestly admitted. ” But at least I am not running around, screaming my head off like the village lunatic.”

Mor chuckled and stretched out a hand to touch a soft cheek.

” You are doing great,” she said. ” We’ re almost halfway now. It won’t be long.”

****

” Honey?”

” Mmm?” Sam mumbled, being half asleep already.

Sam felt Jody turn around in her arms to face her and she lazily opened her eyes to look at her lover’s face.

” You are so cute,” she smiled, tenderly kissing Jody’s nose.

The skin around Jody’s eyes wrinkled and she smiled back, her green eyes shining with love and affection for the tall blond woman, who was holding her tight.

” Sam, remember that old woman we met this morning, at that crafts and antique shop?”

” Mmm.”

” That story she told us, is that a real legend, or do you think she made it up herself? You know, to get the customers to stay longer and buy something.”

Sam softly chuckled and pulled her lover a little tighter.

” Well,” Sam drawled. ” Somehow I think it must have some truth in it, although I had never heard it before. The most interesting part was that she told it just to us. I talked to her granddaughter before we left and she said she had never heard the story before.”

” It was very. . . intriguing,” Jody mused, absent mindedly running her fingers along the naked skin of Sam’s back. ” Imagine, two women being so brave and outsmarting the Romans the way they did.”

” And the boy,” Sam added. ” Don’t forget the boy.”

” She was talking about the Light and the Dark,” Jody continued. ” You really believe they lived in those caves? My goodness, I wouldn’t be able to stay in there a full day. I’d run screaming.”

” Times were different then, honey. Those caves have provided protection for many people, all through history. Even during the second World War people were hiding in them. If those cave walls could talk, they could tell you some really interesting stories.”

” And sad ones, ” Jody added. ” I wonder what she meant when she said that their story wasn’t complete yet. She looked at me funny, Sam and when she told me to let the dreams come, I must have been looking at her with my mouth wide open.”

” Catching flies,” Sam grinned, nuzzling Jody’s neck.

” Do you think that. . . .nah, that is silly.”

” What is?”

” Nevermind,” Jody sighed. ” That would be just too weird.”

” Why don’t you tell me and let me be the judge of that,” Sam softly spoke.

” Well, you see. . . I told you about that. . . vision I had in the cave, when I could see a campfire and I even smelled lavendar. And at the museum, when I saw that reflection in the window.”

Jody let out a deep breath and lifted up her head to look at her partner’s face.

” That. . . woman I saw, Sam. Her hair was really long and dark, but her eyes. . . they were the same color as yours. It was a little scary but fascinating at the same time.”

Sam stared at the face of the woman in her arms and saw the love she felt for her reflected back in a pair of expressive green eyes. She smiled and kissed the tip of Jody’s nose.

” Maybe we should do what that old woman told us to do,” she suggested. ” Maybe we should visit the ruins of the castle. What do you think?”

Jody’s face lit up with a smile and she gratefully snuggled closer.

” I’d like that,” she confessed. ” Those visions and images surprised me, but somehow it’s not scary at all. I would like to find out what they mean.”

Sam smiled and wrapped a pair of strong arms around her lover’s smaller frame, pulling Jody almost on top of her.

” Well, sweetie, if there is a. . . .connection, so the speak. . . between you and one of the people in that legend, I know one thing for sure.”

Jody could hear the teasing in Sam’s voice and curiously she looked up, shooting her a questioning glance.

” What’s that?”

” You always have been a sucker for blue eyes!”

Jody chuckled and started to tickle Samís ribs. The taller woman tried to push away the insistent hands and squirmed away from her lover, who would have none of that and quickly pinned her to the mattress. Of course it would have been easy for Sam to push the smaller woman away. But why would she? She thoroughly enjoyed the feel of Jody’s naked body pressed against her own. Their breasts were touching and immediately Sam could feel a fire building in her belly.

” Kiss me, honey,” she whispered, looking into a pair of eyes that were darkened with desire.

” Oh, yeah, ” Jody breathed, her lips hovering over Sam’s mouth. ” Your wish is my command.”

****

Mor, Isa and Baldric continued their journey in silence, carefully placing their feet on the uneven, sometimes slanted floor of the cave. It was so dark and so quiet. The only thing they could hear was the sound of their feet, slowly shuffling forward and the sound of their breathing.

Mor’s grip on Isa’s hand was warm and the blond woman tried to focus on that connection. It took her mind off the bad memories that were still trying to invade her mind. When she had found Dirk, her older brother, it had been as dark as it was now. An eternal darkness, a world that had never seen a ray of light. Her memories were of that same darkness. No images of his lifeless body, but memories of desperation, the feel of his body, that was even colder than her own. The silence.

Unconsciously Isa had tightened her grip on Mor’s hand again. The tall woman was surprised to almost be able to feel Isa’s pain and fear. With her thumb she gently rubbed the tense mucles on the back of the small hand and almost immediately she could feel Isa relax.

Good girl.

” You are doing fine, Isa,” her voice rumbled. ” We are almost there. Can you hear that sound?”

Isa and Baldric strained their ears and after a few moments of silence they could identify the sound of running water.

” What is it?” Baldric asked, barely able to contain his excitement. They were going to make it. Wow. Wait until he could tell his friends this amazing story!

” Deep inside this cave there is a little lake. What you hear now is the creek that springs from there, it runs down the valley. It’s one of the creeks that feed the big river, south from here.”

” So, if I would follow that creek back all the way into the cave, I would reach that lake?” Baldric asked.

” Don’t get any funny ideas,” Mor mumbled, hearing the anticipation in the boys voice. ” It doesn’t start out like a creek, you know. It’s a little trickle, that finally turns into a stream as wide as my arm. It has to find it’s way through cracks and sometimes the water just seems to come through the wall. You will never find the lake by following the creek.”

” Is that light?” Isa suddenly breathed.

Some distance away the cave suddenly seemed to change color. From pitch black to dark grey. It was an odd sight, after having been in complete darkness for such a long time.

” You have good eyes,” Mor complimented her, being pleasantly surprised. ” We are almost on the other side of the hill. From now on it’s just straight ahead.”

It was a pathetic group of soldiers that slowly found their way through the forest. A few of them had cuts and bruises all over their body. They walked in silence, careful not to stumble over roots that were sticking up from the dark soil, or rocks that were embedded in the ground, providing uneven surfaces the injured men could stumble over and fall. The lucky few who didn’t fall down the rocks were carrying their gravely injured and dead comrades. Their faces were drawn and pale. Their eyes restlessly searching the dense bushes around them, they expected to be attacked anytime.

They knew their Optio and Centurion would not be pleased with their actions. Like amateurs they had let themselves be lured in a trap that they easily could have avoided. The climb up the waterfall, to the cave behind it, had been a waste of time and energy. They had found nothing. They did notice the entrance to a pipeline in the back of the little cave, but they did not have the courage to walk in there without any torches or oil lamps. They had climbed down again, feeling thoroughly frustrated. Their heads hung in shame and they silently prayed to any God who was willing to listen, that the Centurion’s wrath would not include them.

The only sound was the soft moaning of one of the soldiers who had fractured his leg when tumbling down. Sharp pieces of bone were sticking through his skin and every movement the carrier that they had put him on made, was sending flaming bolts of pain through his broken body.

Isa lifted her face towards the blue sky and let the sun warm her chilled and clammy skin. It felt so good to be outside again, to see daylight, feel the warmth, feel alive. As soon as they had left the darkness of the cave she sat down in the sweet smelling grass, her soul still in turmoil by the memories that had invaded her earlier, but grateful to be out of the eternal darkness that had surrounded her like a suffocating blanket.

Isa let out a deep sigh and looked around for her brother who was standing only a few paces away. It was clear he was avoiding the tall woman who was quickly scanning their surroundings, making sure they wouldn’t run into any more trouble.

Mor purposefully strolled back towards the siblings, shooting Isa a questioning look. The small woman smiled reassuringly and Mor turned her attention to Baldric, her piercing blue eyes never leaving his face. The young boy suddenly found the grass in front of his feet very fascinating, because he stared down at it, nervously shuffling his feet. At that moment he looked so much like his sister, that Mor had to try really hard not to smile.

” Why were those Romans after you, Baldric?” she asked in a no-nonsense voice.

Baldric bit his bottom lip and nervously swallowed. He shot a sideways glance at his sister, who was still sitting in the grass, her arms wrapped around her pulled up knees. His sister looked at him with compassionate but questioning eyes.

” I…um…I…I was just walking in the forest and suddenly they were chasing me,” he explained, not sounding too convincing.

Before Isa could open her mouth to ask her brother to please tell the truth, Mor had taken a few steps closer to the boy, who visibly flinched.

” Don’t lie to me,” she said, the anger in her voice barely contained. ” I killed a man to save your life. I deserve to hear the truth.”

Baldric swallowed again and for the first time he looked up, straight into a pair of eyes that seemed to look straight into him. Another quick glance at his sister showed her pleading look and Baldric suddenly squared his shoulders, knowing the tall woman had saved his life.

” I heard talk of a man hunt,” he explained, his youthful voice steady and clear. ” I wanted to know what was going on, so I followed one of those Roman patrols. When we got down to the creek they spotted me. The rest of the story you know.”

” Why the man hunt?” Mor asked, a lot friendlier this time.

” I donít know exactly, ” Baldric answered, shrugging his shoulders. ” I heard rumours of somebody sneaking into the Roman camp last night and attacking Titus.”

Baldric looked at Mor with a questioning gaze, as if to find an answer to a question that had not been asked yet.

Morís face didnít reveal anything though and disappointed, he bit his lip again. Inwardly Mor smirked, pleased to know that Isaís brother was an intelligent boy, with more guts than brains, but still…he showed a lot of spirit.

****

Mor was creating a path through the dense bushes, making sure to stay away from any used track to avoid running into unwanted company. By the sounds behind her she knew that Isa and Baldric were following close behind. It was a difficult track, because the the hill was steep and covered with holes and loose pebbles, left behind by the water that ran down the hill during rainstorms.

They were all quiet and Mor was grateful for it. There was so much she had to think about. She needed to find out what exactly the Romans were up to, when they started their man hunt. In order to get that information, Mor knew she would have to visit the village and have a good look around.

Another thing that worried her, was Baldric. She knew it would be impossible to send him back to the village. She would, somehow have to notify his father and come up with a plan for the boy. In fact, a solution was already forming in the back of her mind and she knew she would earn Baldric’s eternal gratitude, but Isa’s fury.

Mor sighed and a dour look settled on her chiseled features. Isa. That was a whole different problem. She confused her and that was something Mor did not like. She had plans. She had a mission. How come Isa’s presence made her completely forget about all that? What could she do about Isa? Send her with Baldric? Mor had to take a deep breath when that thought suddenly caused a painful pang in her belly.

Face it, Mor. You have come to like her. . . a lot.

Mor softly grunted and shook her head as if chasing away a fly. By Thor. What was happening with her? Like when they were behind the waterfall and Isa almost walked out of the small cave, right in harms way. Mor clearly remembered the feeling that came over her then. It had come close to panic. And the turmoil she felt when Isa’s tearfilled, green eyes had looked up at her from so close. Only the sound of approaching Romans had prevented her from wrapping the smaller woman in her arms and holding her tight. What was wrong with her?

Mor remembered the feel of Isa’s body against her own and immediately her heart missed a beat. It had felt so good. So warm and safe. And comfortable. Could it be true then? Had Mor been alone too long, without any friends or relatives? Is that why she responded so strongly?

Mor glanced over her shoulder to see Baldric walking behind her, apparently lost in thought. Isa was falling back. She was slowly climbing the treacherous hill, careful not to slip or stumble. The shift was much too big for her and she looked like a lost little girl, with her long hair cascading down her shoulders and the blanket still slung over her shoulder. Inspite of the heat.

Mor’s eyes softened and she felt a pang of regret when she realized she had been so self absorbed in her own thoughts, she had not even considered the fact that Isa’s shoulder was still healing, the young woman had been hungry since early that morning and the walk through the darkness had emotionally shaken her.

” Some friend you are,” Mor mumbled to herself.

” Keep walking,” she told Baldric, who had caught up with her. ” When you reach the top, jump off the big rock, but don’t scare my horse.”

Baldric’s eyes went round and he opened his mouth to ask a question, but Mor just looked at him, one eyebrow raised.

” Sure,” he quickly answered, continuing to walk. He knew he had angered Mor enough for one day and he didn’t want to risk doing anything else to annoy the tall woman he secretly admired.

Mor waited for Isa to catch up with her and when she finally did, Isa looked up and smiled a sunny smile at her tall friend, despite the fact that she looked exhausted. Mor’s heart skipped a beat and she could feel herself smiling back.

” Are you all right?” she gently asked. ” We are almost there. Just a little further, about two hundred paces.”

” You call that a little?” Isa chuckled. ” My poor, trembling legs won’t agree with you on that one, Mor.”

” I could carry you,” Mor hesitantly suggested, her blue eyes looking at something in the distance, afraid to meet Isa’s, because she didn’t want to see the rejection in those shining pools of green.

A small hand suddenly squeezed her much larger one and let go almost mmediately.

” That’s sweet of you, Mor, but I think I can manage,” Isa’s voice sounded, full of warmth. ” Besides, you must be tired as well.”

After those words Mor found the courage to look at her friend again and her reward was a gentle smile. The heaviness in her chest vaporized like a summer’s mist in the sun and suddenly she felt full of energy again.

The continued side by side, but in silence until after a little while Isa’s voice interrupted Mor’s thoughts.

” What about Baldric, Mor? He can’t go back to the village, can he?”

Mor glanced aside and inwardly sighed. She knew she would need to tell Isa about her plan,well, part of it anyway. And she was convinced that Isa would not approve and would probably be angry with her.

” I have been thinking about that,” she slowly answered, carefull to chose the right words. ” There might be a solution.”

Isa stood still and turned towards the taller woman, squinting her eyes against the bright light of the sun when she looked up at Mor.

” Why do I suddenly get the feeling I won’t like what you are going to tell me?”

Uncharacteristically Mor shuffled her feet and her long fingers nervously fidgeted with the hem of her sleeve. There was a hint of sadness in her eyes when she looked at Isa.

” Because you probably won’t,” she truthfully answered.

” Tell me,” Isa whispered, her eyes never leaving Mor’s.

Mor moistened her lips and swallowed hard. Isa’s eyes seemed to look straight through her.

” I want to send Baldric to the East, to join one of the rebel armies.”
Part 7
The sun was shining abundantly, casting a multitude of warm rays down to the surface of the earth, warming everything that came under it’s attention. It was hot. The sweet smell of grass filled the air, along with the smell of wild roses and lavender. It would have been a perfect day to lay in the grass, watch the occasional white, fluffy cloud pass overhead and just enjoy the comfortable warm blanket of smells and impressions.

The two women, who were facing each other, just under the top of the hill, had no eyes for the beauty that surrounded them. They were staring at each other. The tall, dark one looked uncomfortable under the scrutinizing look from the smaller blonde.

” What? Did I hear that right?” Isa asked, being astonished. ” You want to send my brother East to join some rebel army? Mor, I don’t think that’s”

Mor raised a hand, effectively silencing Isa. Her blue eyes were pleading and Isa swallowed hard, trying hard not to yell at her new friend.

” I have good reasons for that, Isa. But in order for you to understand I need to tell you something. But not here, not now. Okay? Why don’t we go back to the cave and have something to eat first? It’s a long story. Please, trust me.”

Isa sighed deeply and realized she had a hard time being angry with Mor when she looked at her with those blue eyes full of.full of what? Friendship? Gentleness? Compassion?

” I do trust you,” she softly replied. ” You probably do have a good reason and I could think of one myself. Those Romans, who were after Baldric, they won’t leave him alone, will they?”

” I am afraid not,” Mor answered. ” But we can talk about it, okay? Just let’s go back to the cave. I don’t want to run into another Roman patrol today.”

” Okay,” Isa softly answered, her shoulders slightly slumped.

Mor watched her with a gnawing feeling deep inside her heart and she quickly averted her eyes, when Isa shot her a sideways look. She couldn’t fight the urge to hesitantly wrap an arm around Isa’s shoulders, and the smaller woman immediately leaned into the touch.

They continued their walk in silence, until they reached the top of the hill. From that spot, there was only one way they could go, down into a small clearing that was surrounded by bushes and trees, protecting it from prying eyes.

Isa peeked down to see her brother looking up at her. He was smiling broadly, while standing next to a huge, black horse, scratching it behind the ears.

” This is a great horse, Mor, ” he beamed. ” What is his name?”

” Tyr, ” Mor answered. ” Guess you didn’t scare him while jumping down, huh?”

” No, way,” Baldric snorted. ” Tyr, the God of War from the Northern lands. It suits him. I love horses and this one is magnificent.”

” Well, he seems to like you,” Mor replied, trying to push away a tiny twinge of jealousy.

It was like Tyr could read her heart, because he turned his head towards his mistress and whinnied happily. Mor smiled and turned to Isa.

” We will have to jump down,” she explained. ” It’s just a little drop, maybe five paces, but I don’t want you to hurt your shoulder. I will go down first and catch you. All right?”

Isa nodded smiling, a warm feeling spreading through her body by Mor’s obvious concern. Would a woman like Mor send Baldric into lethal danger? Isa shivered and tried not to think about that. First she needed to hear Mor’s side of the story and somehow Isa knew it would be an impressive tale.

With an elegant jump Mor landed on both her feet, immediately turning around to look up at Isa. The sun was highlighting the blonde woman’s hair and Mor softly gasped at the vision she presented. The golden halo of her hair, the trusting look in those emerald green eyes, the shift that was too long for her small frame and the sun behind her to reveal the outline of her body perfectly.

Mor swallowed before stretching out her hands. Her blue eyes shone with confidence when she smiled at Isa.

” Come, little one,” she gently teased. ” Jump. I will catch you.” I will never let you fall.

Without hesitation Isa jumped down and before her feet even had a chance to touch the ground, she was caught in a pair of strong arms.

” Gotcha,” Mor whispered, close to her ear.

The unexpected sound of that deep, rich voice made Isa’s heartrate pick up and feeling a little shy, she looked into a pair of blue eyes, that held a gentle twinkle. Isa wasn’t aware of the expression in her own eyes. She just knew she felt confused and overwhelmed with a sensation she had no name for yet. Mor just managed to hold back a gasp when the green depths she was slowly drowning in, gradually darkened and revealed something she thought she would never see. Longing. But there was more. She could easily read the confusion on Isa’s face and she forced herself to smile and slowly released her grip on the blonde woman.

” Told you I would catch you,” she joked. ” Are you okay?”

Isa nodded and realized she was still clutching the hem of Mor’s shirt firmly in her hands. Quickly she let go, wiping her sweaty palms on the light fabric of her shift.

” Thanks,” she tentatively smiled. ” I am fine, just hungry,” she added with a grimace, rubbing her growling stomach with an embarrassed smile.

” Guess I’d better feed you, huh?” Mor chuckled.

” You’ d better,” Isa replied, first shooting a glance at the black stallion and then looking at Mor with one eyebrow lifted. ” I could eat a horse.”

It had not taken Mor long to lead Isa and her brother back to the cave to fix them all something to eat. Mor cooked the rest of the rabbit she had snared the day before and Baldric pulled a fresh loaf of bread out of the pouch he had been carrying, which earned him a questioning look from his sister.

” I planned on visiting, before I ran into that patrol,” he confessed with a sheepish smile. ” I brought you some of your clothes as well.”

” Now he tells me,” Isa cried, pulling the pouch out of his hand and scanning its contents.

” Hey, it’s not like we had time to have a pleasant conversation.” Baldric objected indignantly.

” I know,” Isa smiled. ” Thanks, brother. I really needed these,” she said, holding up a short sleeved dress and a tunic. ” Mor’s clothes are a little too big for me.”

They both looked at the tall woman, who was silently sharpening a dagger, a look of pure concentration on her face, that was illuminated by the light of the fire, bronzing her features. She didn’t notice the friendly banter that was going on between the two siblings, but seemed lost in thought, while a frown creased her forehead.

Baldric nervously licked his lips and wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers. He looked at his sister for support and when she smiled at him, he took a deep breath and turned to face the tall, dark woman.

” Mor, ” he began. ” I know I did something really stupid today and I owe you so much for saving my life. I but I was wondering if I could stay here? Just tonight, because I think that patrol”

” Sure,” Mor quietly answered, without taking her eyes off the dagger she was sharpening.

Inwardly Mor was happy with Baldric for starting up the conversation. She had been a little nervous about confronting Isa with part of her past and really didn’t know where to start, or how much to tell her. When Baldric started up the conversation, Mor decided to take it from there and see what would happen. She had never been much of a talker anyway, but this time it was different. She wanted Isa to understand. It was important to her that the young woman did know what Mor’s reasons were for wanting to send her brother away.

Mor finally lifted her eyes to the boy who was standing before her and who was meeting her stare without even flinching.

” How old are you, Baldric?”

” Sixteen summers,” The boy promptly answered.

Mor’s eyebrows rose and she cast a quick look at Isa, who she knew was older than her sibling. But she had thought Isa to be about Baldric’s age. She looked so young and innocent.

” Nineteen summers, ” Isa answered the unspoken question and smirked when Mor’s eyebrows hiked up even higher.

” Mmm well, you two could have fooled me,” she admitted with a faint smile. She looked at Baldric again, who was still standing in front of her, like a young soldier, waiting for a command.

” Baldric, sit down. We need to talk.” Mor sighed, slowly putting down the dagger and wetstone and wiping her hands on her cloak.

Isa’s brother almost immediately dropped down to the floor and looked at Mor expectantly. His green eyes were shining with pure admiration and Mor couldn’t help but smile. He looked so much like his sister.

” Listen, I,” Mor pushed back her dark hair and sighed deeply, trying hard to chose the right words.

” Baldric, those Romans we encountered this afternoon won’t be pleased. I killed at least one of their men and I did it to protect you. So, they will probably keep an eye out for you. My guess is they will try to find you in the village and going back there is not a good idea.”

” But I am not afraid of them, I.” Baldric interrupted, but he was silenced by an icy stare, from a pair of clear, blue eyes.

” Then you are a fool,” Mor answered coolly. ” You should be afraid. They won’t think twice about taking your life, Baldric. They will just do it. And if you are lucky, they will take your life quickly, but believe me, I have seen enough cruelty among the Romans to not take an easy death for granted. One of their favorite ways to kill enemies is to nail them to a cross and leave them there to die. Slowly. After breaking their legs.”

Mor’s voice sounded bitter and her eyes were cold and distant. Baldric swallowed hard to get rid of the nauseous feeling that had started in the pit of his stomach and slowly spread through his whole body.

Isa’s face had gone pale and she stared from Mor to her brother and back again, noticing the first one was lost in thought again, while the latter one seemed truly impressed and suddenly aware of what could have happened to him that afternoon.

” Mor,” she urged with a soft voice.

Barely able to control herself, she reached out a hand to touch the woman who was sitting so close, but yet seemed so far away.

Slowly Mor turned her head towards the sound and when she looked at Isa, the younger woman could see the blue eyes slowly softening. For a moment their eyes locked and again Isa felt like Mor allowed her to look into her soul, just for a moment. What she saw was pain, sadness and anger, but also something else, gentleness, tenderness and love?

Isa felt her cheeks burn and was grateful for the darkness in the cave that hid the reddening of her face, although she would not be surprised if Mor could feel the heat radiating from her body.

A small smile tugged on the corner of Mor’s mouth when she returned her attention to Baldric, who had been waiting patiently, while his keen eyes took in every detail of the silent encounter between his sister and the tall woman.

” I want you to go East,” she bluntly stated.

Baldric’s eyes went very round when he looked at the tall woman in front of him. Mor could see the start of a glimmer in his eyes and she cast him a stern look.

” It’s going to be a dangerous journey,” she warned him. ” It might seem like a big adventure to you and in a way it probably is, but you could run into trouble. I want you to realize that.”

” Why?” Isa asked and her voice sounded like a plea. ” Mor, what good is it to go East? Especially when it’s dangerous like you just said.”

” Guess I’d better explain, to make you understand.” Mor answered with a sigh.

She fidgeted with the dagger, flipping it around and catching it by its hilt, seemingly without any effort. Isa’s eyes grew wide when Mor started flipping the dagger even faster, while staring into the flames. Baldric watched in fascination, while Isa watched in horror. Expecting the sharp blade to penetrate the long slender fingers at any moment.

” Would you please stop that?” she asked, her voice husky and full of concern.

Immediately a strong hand grabbed the hilt and Mor looked at Isa’s worried features.

” Sorry,” she apologized, sliding the dagger back in its case, that was strapped around her leg.

Mor cleared her throat and glanced at Isa who looked at her expectantly. She seemed to sense the taller woman’s tension and a small, encouraging smile suddenly wrinkled the skin around her eyes.

” I came from the East,” Mor started, feeling more confident. ” My mother was a Celt, my father grew up in the East, but his ancestors were Gauls.”

Mor paused and looked up, only to see honest interest reflected from two different faces. That gave her the courage she needed to continue, knowing full well that the story she was about to tell wasn¹t a pleasant one.

” I never knew my mother, she died when I was very little, my grandmother raised me.”

” What happened to your mother?” Isa asked. “And where was your father?”

Mor swallowed hard and inspite of the dim light, Isa saw the blue eyes darken.

” When I was only a toddler, a Roman legion marched through our village. They killed most of the men, raped the women and set fire to the houses, destroying everything and everybody that was inside. Apparently my mother fought for what she was worth, even though she was carrying a child. The Romans…,” Mor swallowed again and took a deep breath. “…the Romans stabbed her in the belly with a sword and threw her in a burning stable. She was trampled by the panicked horses.”

Mor could hear Isa gasp for breath and when she looked at the younger woman, she saw tears sliding down her cheeks. Wordlessly Isa reached out her hand to grab Mor¹s and their fingers interlaced, holding each other with a firm grip.

” My father and the other men of the village were out hunting that day, to stock up supplies for the winter. When they came back, everything was gone. Almost everything, ” Mor corrected herself. ” My mother had pushed me in my grandmother’s arms when she had seen the Romans approach and told her to hide in the forest. She did, but I know my grandmother always regretted doing that. She once told me she should have insisted for my mother to take me. Anyway, when my father and the other men came back, there were just a few people left. We all packed our belongings and went to the East. My father and the other men joined an army that fought the Romans. He died in a battle and the only one I had left was my grandmother, who was a Celt, like my mother.”

Unknowingly Isa¹s thumb stroked the back of Mor¹s hand, trying to bring the tall woman some much needed comfort. She remembered what Mor had told her before and a shiver ran down her spine.

” And the Romans killed her as well,” Isa softly remarked.

Mor nodded and looked at their interlaced fingers.

” Yes, they did,” she whispered. ” And they took me as a slave. They trained me to fight, so one day I could serve as a woman gladiator in Rome.”

” What happened?” Baldric asked, his voice hoarse with emotion.

” I used the training I had received to my own advantage and I escaped,” Mor explained. And by the tone of her voice both Isa and Baldric knew that was as much as she was going to tell them about that.

Mor felt Isa¹s hand softly squeeze her own and she looked up into a pair of compassionate eyes. She smiled and took another deep breath.

” I vowed to avenge my family, so I joined a rebel army and killed as many Romans as I could. They wanted to take the Eastern lands as well, but so far the Romans have not been able to get past the big river Rhine. And they never will.”

Mor fell silent and studied the flames of the quietly burning fire in front of her, a pensive expression on her face. She was debating with herself how much she should tell Isa and Baldric next. She wanted to be honest, they needed to know the risks and dangers. But she did have a mission.

” The reason I am here, is to keep an eye on all Roman movements,” she suddenly said. ” My army and I want to take back the land that belonged to our ancestors.”

From the corner of her eye, Isa saw Baldric almost jump and with a heavy feeling in her chest she knew what was coming next.

” So, it¹s true then?” he enthusiastically spoke, his green eyes burning with an internal fire. ” The legend, it¹s true? The descendants of Ambiorix are going to fight to claim what Julius Caesar has stolen from them?”

” Not just the descendants of Ambiorix,” Mor smiled. ” My army consists of descendants from all different tribes, not just the Eburones, but also Nervians, Menapians and Atuatuci. See, the Romans like to believe they have annihilated all of them, but most women and children, along with the elderly, were hidden in the marshes and they survived. They moved to the East and were taken in by the Eastern tribes. Right now they are a mighty army. They formed their own tribe and they are the best warriors I know.”

Isa bit her lip and looked up with concern in her eyes. Realization suddenly dawned on her.

” You keep saying ‘ my army’ ,” she softly spoke, quickly casting down her eyes so Mor couldn’t see the turmoil within. ” Do do you lead them?”

Mor’s other hand covered the smaller one she was still holding and she gently squeezed. She realized the need to be honest, but she didn’t want to lose Isa’s friendship. Her heart hammered against her chest when she finally answered.

Yes,” she whispered.

When Mor saw Isa cringe, she felt a stab of pain in her heart and suddenly a wave of sadness washed through her entire body, leaving her tired and hurting. Quietly she started to remove her hands from Isa’s, but suddenly they were both held in a strong grip. Surprised Mor raised her eyes to see a pair of green ones looking at her with quiet determination.

” So, you’ re a general?” Isa remarked, a tiny sparkle in the depths of her eyes.

Mor shrugged her shoulders and smiled at the blonde woman.

” If you want to call me that, yes,” she answered. ” Everybody else just calls me Mor.”

” And what exactly do you want Baldric to do, Mor?” Isa asked, deadly serious this time.

Mor turned her attention to the young boy and studied him for a moment, taking in his lean form, blonde hair and the soft features of his face, which made him look so much like his sister. Although the tiny hairs on his face made it obvious he was changing into a man.

” If you stay here, your life will be in danger. I can’t protect both of you day and night. Besides, I need a courier to deliver messages to my army.”

” I have no horse,” Baldric objected, but his eyes were glimmering with enthusiasm, knowing full well that Mor would already have a solution for that.

” Who was talking about a horse?” Mor deadpanned.

Isa quickly looked from Baldric to Mor and raised her eyebrows in a silent question, then she saw the sparkle in those clear blue orbs. She bit back a smile and shot Baldric a reprimanding look.

” Yes, brother,” she joined Mor in the teasing. ” You are a good runner, aren’t you?”

Baldric’s eyes widened but to his credit he managed to not lose his composure.

” Um well, yes, I can run fast and for a long time,” he admitted. ” I guess.”

” Don’t worry, Baldric,” Mor smirked. ” We were just teasing you. I have a horse you can use.”

The boy’s face lit up and he sheepishly smiled, mumbling something that sounded like ‘ women’ .

” What exactly does he need to do, Mor?,” Isa asked all serious again. ” You said it could be dangerous. What could happen? And how will he know where to go?”

” I will give you a message, in writing, that you will need to deliver to my army camp. You will have to give it to Erhard. Only to Erhard. He is my second in command. You will carry a letter with my seal and he will recognize it.”

Baldric nodded and wiped his sweaty palms on his trousers, a habit when he was nervous. He looked at his sister and knew she was not happy about him going East. But it had been his dream for years and she knew that too. Ever since he had been a small boy he had heard the stories of the rebel armies in the East, who fought hard and successfully stopped every wave of Roman attacks. He had wanted to join them and now he had the chance. And what a chance that was, being a courier for their general!

Isa watched the expression on Baldric¹s face and knew that no matter what she would say or do, he would go anyway. There was no way she could stop him. Isa had to admit her younger brother wasn¹t a child anymore. He was sixteen summers and he would soon be considered a man. But inspite of all that, he would always be her little brother.

Isa sighed in resignation and decided not to fight Baldric anymore. She just hoped and prayed that he would stay out of harms way and come back in one piece. She had already lost one brother. He was the only sibling she had left.

“How do I know where to find your camp?”

” Because I will tell you,” Mor answered in a dry voice. ” You will have to remember. I cannot risk giving you a map, because if it would fall into the wrong hands, the Romans would know exactly where to find us. You understand that, don¹t you?”

“I do,” Baldric nodded, feeling a knot of tension settle in the pit of stomach.

Mor took a charred piece of wood that was lying near the fire and started to draw a few lines and crosses on the floor of the cave. With a cocked head she looked at the result and nodded.

“That should be clear. Look, Baldric,” she pointed at a cross on the very left side of the drawing. ” This is where we are. This line here, to the right, is the river Mosa. You will have to cross it here.” Mor tapped a slender finger on a second cross she had drawn. ” This is the bridge at Mosa Trajectum. Make sure you cross it at dawn, when the sun is just about to rise. It¹s very unlikely to run into any Romans at that time.”

” But what if he does anyway?” Isa quickly asked.

” Then he will have to tell them a good story,” Mor calmly replied. “Can you do that?”

” Of course, ” Baldric answered with confidence. ” My sister is not the only one who can make up stories. I can do it, Mor.”

” Good,” Mor smiled. ” After you cross the last river continue traveling East, until you reach the valley. Then travel North for half a day, that way you will avoid any Roman border patrol. Go East again until you reach the river Rhine. Follow it upstream until you come across an abandoned village. Go to the house that is next to the river and tie a blue cloth to the pole. Then wait.”

” What? What will happen?” Isa nervously asked, intrigued by Mor¹s explanations.

” My men will come and pick him up,” Mor answered.

She looked at Baldric and smiled.

“Unless you prefer to swim across.”

” No, thanks, “Baldric laughed, his green eyes sparkling. ” I can do this, Mor. You don¹t have to worry about it.”

” I do,” Isa mumbled, earning an annoyed look from her brother.

” Good,” Mor said, wiping out the drawing with her booted foot. “Then repeat what I just told you.”

Mor was pleased to find out that Baldric repeated everything exactly as she had told him. She nodded approvingly and a smile of contentment crossed her face.

” I guess you are ready to go then,” she stated.

” Already?” Isa asked in bewilderment.

” The Romans are looking for him…and for me,” Mor patiently explained. ” It¹s better for Baldric to be leagues away before they decide to send out more patrols and guard the crossroads.”

****

The centurion paced in front of the silent, battered group of soldiers, his fists clenched and his face drawn in frustration.

” Are you trying to tell me that this this failure was caused by one single person?” he hissed, his muddy brown eyes shooting fire. ” That a well trained Roman patrol was not able to defeat one single person?”

He shot a menacing glance at the row of men who were standing before him. Most of them had hung their heads, while the few who tried to remain dignified, averted their gaze and stared into the distance.

” I should strip you all of your ranks and send you to back to Rome!”

The centurion could see a few of his men flinch and he knew his last remark had hit them hard. It would be regarded as the ultimate humiliation to be send back home, without a rank, without pay and stripped of their pride. Not to mention that the soldiers, who were not Romans by birth, would lose everything they had been working for for years. No rights, no land, no citizenship, because they would not have served Rome the required twenty-five years.

The centurion stopped pacing and looked at the men in front of him. His eyes searched their faces and with contentment he saw the bruised ego’s.

” I will give you all one more chance,” he said, almost casually. ” One more! Find this, so called illusive warrior and bring him to me, so I can deal with him. Your reward will be not losing your ranks. You will still be part of the army of Rome! Go to your quarters, tend to your wounds, you will be leaving at dusk. Today.”

After those words the Centurion turned around and briskly walked away to his own quarters, determined to do anything to find the man who had dared to insult Rome, by sneaking into the camp at night and single-handedly defeating one of Rome’s patrols.

****

Isa and Mor slowly walked back to the cave, after having sent Baldric on his way. Mor had promised the young boy and his sister, she would send word to their father, so he would not have to worry about his children.

Baldric and Isa had both been surprised to find that Mor had been leading them to yet another clearing, on top of the hill, where she kept a sturdy looking, brown horse. She had made quick work of saddling it, while Isa hugged her brother close, telling him to be careful.

Mor had pointed out which track he had to follow to get down to the main road and had slapped Ragnarok on her butt to send the mare on her way.

Baldric had raised his hand in a silent greeting and had disappeared between the trees, leaving behind his sister, who was nervously wringing her hands.

” He will be fine,” Mor had said, trying to ease Isa’s mind. ” Your brother is a courageous, smart boy. I have faith in him.”

There had been a long silence between them, each lost in their own thoughts, while they followed the hardly visible track down the hill.

” Any more horses stashed away?” Isa suddenly asked, a hint of amusement in her voice.

Mor looked over her shoulder to see the sparkle in a pair of deep green eyes and she smiled back.

” Just one, besides Tyr,” she admitted, hearing Isa chuckle.

” You are an amazing woman, Mor,” Isa stated, the admiration in her voice clearly audible.

” You are not so bad yourself, Isa,” Mor immediately answered, startled by her own swift reaction.

Mor could hear Isa chuckle again and she was pleased to find her friend had visibly relaxed, after sending her brother off. She didn’t have to close her eyes, or turn around, to see the sparkle in her eyes, or the way the skin around her eyes wrinkled when she smiled. Or how the sun cast red highlights in her hair and softly kissed the silky skin.

Whoa, Mor! Where did that come from?

Mor sighed, trying to push back the alien emotions, that sometimes just seemed to sneak up on her. They were overwhelming and seemed to invade all her senses. Sometimes making her feel lightheaded and relaxed, too relaxed. That could be dangerous. When they had been hiding behind that waterfall and had snuggled up together underneath that warm blanket, Mor had almost missed the sounds from below. She had felt so comfortable and relaxed, with Isa lying against her chest, she had nearly dozed off. It was a miracle she had heard the shouts of the Roman patrol. Her negligence could have cost Isa’s brother his life.

Unconsciously Mor had quickened her pace and Isa, who was slightly panting, shook her out of her reveries.

” What’s the hurry?” the younger woman groaned, trying to free her shift that was entangled in a berry bush.

Mor turned around, a guilty expression on her face when she looked at Isa’s face, that was red and warm, the perspiration forming on her forehead.

” Sorry,” she mumbled. ” Kinda got lost in thought.”

” That’s okay, ” Isa sighed. ” You must have a lot on your mind.”

If only you knew.

” Yeah, well.” Mor shrugged her shoulders. ” But that’s no reason to run you ragged.”

” Well, you have an advantage there, my friend,” Isa smiled, raising an eyebrow and looking at Mor’s long legs. ” For every step you take, I have to take three.”

Mor smiled and wrapped her arm around Isa’s shoulders.

” I will try to adjust,” she promised.

” And this is how to do it?” Isa smiled, looking up at the taller woman with amusement in her eyes.

Mor looked back at her with a frown.

” What do you mean?”

” You try to adjust by holding me?”

Isa felt the muscles in Mor’s arm tense and she quickly grabbed her hand, to keep the long arm in place.

” I..I am sorry,” Mor said, trying to hide the confusion in her blue eyes by averting Isa’s stare.

” Don’t be,” Isa softly answered. ” Keep your arm where it is. I like it there.”

Isa could feel Mor slowly relax and her face creased into a warm smile. Mor might be a skillful fighter, oozing self-confidence and leading an army, but when it came to emotions, her body language gave away her insecurity.

Isa slid her arm around Mor’s waist and gently squeezed the tall woman, which earned her a surprised look.

” Is this all right?” she whispered, suddenly feeling very insecure herself.

Mor stopped walking and their eyes locked. They just stood there, staring at each other, wordlessly. Isa eyes reflected the endless trust and confidence she had in Mor. Something she could not explain, since she only had known the woman for a few days. But it was a strong voice, deep inside of her, that told her Mor was part of her destiny.

Mor’s blue eyes lost their hooded expression and slowly Isa could see the barriers go down, until there was nothing but a trusting pool of blue, she felt she could drown in. And she did. While her heart pounded so fast she wondered if Mor could actually hear it.

Mor raised a hand and gently cupped Isa’s cheek, who immediately leaned into the touch, there eyes never breaking contact. Mor’s thumb slowly caressed the soft skin, igniting something more, visible in the darkening green eyes that were so full of trust and gentleness and…

Mor felt her heart skip a beat when she recognized the look in Isa’s eyes as a reflection of her own feelings. It was wonderful and amazing and so tempting.

With their eyes still gazing at each other, Mor slipped her other arm around Isa’s shoulder, while the smaller woman encircled Mor’s waist with both arms now, pulling her closer until their bodies touched. The feeling was electrifying and they both gasped when they could feel the heat from each other’s bodies, radiating through the thin fabric of their clothes.

Their faces were drawn closer and closer, until their breath mingled and they were breathing in the same air. With infinite tenderness their lips brushed lightly, hardly touching each other, but the effects were profound. Mor inhaled sharply, while Isa softly whimpered. One of the smaller woman’s hands slid up to Mor’s neck, pulling her closer.

At that moment the past and the future seemed to melt away. There were no more Roman patrols, there was no army, no mission, no danger. It was just the two of them, surrounded by trees, bushes and wildflowers, underneath a clear blue sky, while the sun was showering them with warmth and light.

And for a moment time stood still.
Part 8
” I have waited for you all my life,” Isa softly whispered when Mor’s lips were almost touching hers.

Their lips met again, in a much more solid contact this time. First tentatively, a little hesitant, but with rapidly growing confidence and passion they explored each other’s lips. Mor softly groaned when she felt Isa gently nibble on her bottom lip and she pulled the smaller woman even closer, while her body was reacting in a most interesting way.

The tip of Mor’s tongue slowly explored Isa’s lips and while the fire in her body seemed to build up, she granted the tall, dark woman entrance, softly moaning while her hand was buried in the long, dark hair, trying to pull Mor even closer.

Long moments later they breathlessly had to come up for air. Staring at each other with a mixture of joy and wonder.

Isa smiled, not trying to hide the tenderness that had softened her eyes and had turned them into a deeper shade of emerald green. Her finger slowly traced the outline of Mor’s lips and she gasped when it was playfully caught between healthy white teeth.

Blinking away the moisture in her eyes that had suddenly appeared, she softly kissed a soft tanned cheek, seeing the clear blue eyes fill with tenderness.

Slowly they became aware of their surroundings again. A gentle breeze rustled the leaves on the trees, while the birds sang their songs and in the distance the sound of a small, rapidly flowing creek could be heard.

Mor and Isa were still standing close, their bodies melted together, their eyes locked. As soon as their lips met, Isa had felt like she had come home, to a warm, safe place. When she told Mor she had been waiting her whole life for her, she had meant it. The words had just tumbled out, but when she spoke them, she had realized, they came from the heart.

Isa saw the confusion in Mor’s eyes and she reached out a hand to push back a lose strand of dark hair.

” Did I scare you by saying that?” she softly asked, knowing the answer even before Mor spoke.

” A little,” Mor truthfully answered, her voice soft and husky.

In a nervous gesture Mor moistened her lips and looked at the smaller woman, who felt so right in her arms.

” I…I…there’s never been anyone who ever…this feels so right, Isa, but…I lead a dangerous life. Sometimes I wonder what God is looking out for me, because I have not died yet. I…I always…It would not be fair to…you…”

The words would have stung Isa, if she had not been looking in the clear blue depths of Mor’s eyes. She could see the anguish, pain and vulnerability and her heart went out to the taller woman. Never in her life had she felt such an urge to protect somebody else so much. Not in a physical way, because Mor was capable enough to look after herself, but in an emotional way. Isa wanted to soothe and heal the deep wounds that were inflicted to Mor’s heart and soul, and keep them safe. With a wisdom that exceeded her age, she realized they needed time, she was willing to wait. For as long as it would take.

” Ssh,” Isa silenced Mor by softly pressing her fingers against her lips. ” I realize the danger, but I am willing to take the risks, Mor. Just tell me one thing..”

Isa’s green eyes caught Mor’s blue ones in a gentle, questioning gaze.

” When you just kissed me…did that…mean…anything to you?”

A voice in the back of Mor’s mind started screaming at her, reminding her of all the reasons she should just shrug her shoulders and explain to Isa it had meant nothing. To tell her she was cute and attractive, but there could never be anything between them, because she, Mor, had responsibilities and a mission. The people of her adopted tribe were relying on her. She did not have the time, nor the luxury to get sidetracked by a pretty young girl, who looked at her like she was some sort of a hero.

Mor’s eyes intently searched Isa’s face and the smaller woman could clearly see the battle that was raging behind the startling blue eyes. To Mor’s credit she did not try to avert Isa’s gaze, but she stared right back in those soft, honest greens, desperately searching her heart for the right answer.

Yes, I do have responsibilities, she silently answered the warning voice inside. People do rely on me and yes, Isa is a huge distraction, but she is making me feel things I didn’t know existed. She makes me feel so…warm inside. She just has to look at me and I can feel it, deep within my body. It’s such a comfortable feeling, like I have known her for so long. What do I have to do? My mind tells me to turn away from this, but…I can’t. It would hurt her. It would hurt me…

” It did,” Mor finally whispered, closing her eyes for a brief moment, knowing there was no way back after she had spoken what was in her heart.

When she opened her eyes again she was rewarded with a brilliant smile and a pair of sparkling green eyes, that looked up at her with an expression of total trust.

” That’s all I need to know,” Isa replied, gently touching Mor’s cheek. ” Thank you.”

With a deep sigh Isa put her head against Mor’s chest and closed her eyes, immediately feeling the strong arms around her tighten, pulling her close. While Mor buried her face in a patch of reddish blond hair that was warmed by the sun and smelled like flowers and herbs.

” We hardly know each other,” Mor halfheartedly objected, with a touch of wonder in her voice.

” I know, ” Isa murmured, very content to be securely held by the tall, dark woman. ” It’s a little strange isn’t it? But it feels so good!”

A low chuckle rumbled inside Mor’s chest and Isa smiled in response. She lifted up her head and peeked at the tanned face above her.

” We have time,” she stated with confidence.

Mor gazed in those gentle, loving eyes and could feel her insecurities fade into the background, while a warm feeling rapidly spread through her body.

She smiled and surprised Isa when she tenderly pressed her lips against the forehead of the smaller woman.

” Yes, we have,” she answered.

****

Baldric cast a look at the sun, while resting Ragnarok and making sure the gentle horse munch on some grass and drink from the creek. He had made good time and was very pleased with himself. He felt like he stepped into the biggest adventure of his life. And it was a story even his sister could not have dreamed up.

In the distance Baldric could see the thin tendrils of fire raising up to the sky and he knew it was another Roman settlement. It was the one near the river Mosa, where the bridge was he needed to cross.

Baldric had been there before, with his friends. They had been secretly impressed by the way the Romans had their settlement organized. A neatly paved road ran from the north to the south, connecting the different camps, villages and settlements. Making traveling much more comfortable and less dangerous. One of his friends had told Baldric that if he would take the road to the south and follow it all the way, he would end up in Rome. Baldric had just laughed at his friend, but now, sitting near the creek, remembering the things he had seen in Mosa Trajectum before, made him wonder if his friend could have been right.

” I will have to ask Mor about that later,” he mumbled, twirling a blade of grass between his fingers and staring into the clear, shallow water. ” She will know.”

To the young boy the tall, dark woman had become a hero bigger than life itself. Not only had she saved the life of his sister and himself, but she was warrior, leading one of the rebel armies in the east.

A small smile tugged on the corner of Baldric’s mouth when he realized how lucky he had been to have met her. And how lucky his sister was. The small smile turned into a smirk when he remembered the stolen glances between the two women, the way they seemed to constantly need to touch each other. The physical closeness when they had been eating in silence.

Baldric sighed and lazily stretched his muscles, that felt a little stiff from riding Ragnarok.

” Who knows, maybe one day I can serve in her army,” he optimistically thought. ” I will just have to prove myself now. It’s probably going to be the only chance I will get.”

He sank backwards in the grass and crossed his arms behind his head. Patiently waiting for nightfall and the next morning, he would be crossing the bridge at the first light of dawn.

Just when he was about to doze off, Baldric woke up to the rhythmic sound of marching feet. He quickly rolled onto his stomach and pressed down into the grass, after casting a look at Ragnarok, who was still munching on some grass, hidden from view by a few tall trees.

” Stay put, girl,” he mumbled. ” Don’t want those Romans to take you away, huh?”

He directed his attention back to road and tried to figure out how big this approaching patrol would be. He couldn’t tell, but the different sounds did tell him there was at least one horse and a cart. Not a chariot, he could tell, because it was a heavy rattling noise.

After a little while Baldric could see the distinctive red tunics of Roman soldiers and he nodded his head, content with himself for his excellent hearing. It was a patrol and four men were marching in front. Behind them was the cart, driven by another Roman soldier. Baldric furrowed his brows when he saw what in the cart. Three men were half sitting, half lying in the cart and even from a distance it was obvious to him that they were bound with heavy shackles. Their faces were pale and withdrawn and Baldric wondered what their crime would have been, to be transported that way.

Suddenly he gasped when a fourth prisoner came into view. The man had obviously been lying down and was struggling to get to an upright position. He was a tall man, with broad shoulders. His clothes were dirty, torn and stained with dried blood, that formed distinctive rusty colored spots on the rough fabric. But that was not what had startled the boy. It was the color of the mans skin. It was covered with dust and dark like ebony.

Baldric had never seen anyone like him and his eyes were glued to the face of the dark man, that shone with pride. He could clearly see the look of contempt the man was giving to the Roman soldiers who were walking behind the cart, their hands on their swords and their faces grim.

When the little caravan passed his hiding place, Baldric could see the dark man slowly turn his head and for a moment their eyes met and locked. The boy froze in place, impressed by the power that was oozing from the darkest eyes he had ever seen. Then the man slowly winked at him and averted his gaze, staring into the distance with a bored expression on his face, leaving Baldric with his heart pounding heavily in his chest, while he slowly released the breath he had been holding.Wow! Gods, who is that? And why is he a prisoner? Maybe he’s a slave. Wait till I tell Isa about this. She’s gonna have a fit for missing out on it. I wonder where they will take him?

Baldric slowly got to his feet and climbed up the slope towards the road. Carefully he peeked through the bushes, staring at the group of Romans and their prisoners who were continuing their journey, unaware of the pair of green eyes that were eagerly following their every move. And certainly not aware of the courageous plan that was forming inside the mind of a boy, merely sixteen summers old.

****

” Will you take word to our father?” Isa asked when she and Mor slowly walked back towards the cave, their arms wrapped around each other.

Mor could feel Isa’s gaze and she glanced aside, smiling gently.

” Yes, ” she answered. ” I will go when it’s dark.”

Isa slowly nodded in approval and patted Mor’s side.

” Good, I will come with you.”

Immediately she could feel the body under her hand tense and mentally she braced herself for Mor’s stern look and determined voice.

” I will go alone,” Mor simply answered, looking in the distance, avoiding the expression in Isa’s eyes.

Gods! When did I get so soft? Mor the mushball, she mentally snorted.

” It is my father,” Isa objected, realizing after she spoke the words, she sounded like a little child. Before Mor could react she softly chuckled and looked up to see a pair of startled blue eyes.

” Sorry about that, ” Isa grinned. ” That sounded pathetic. Let me think of something else, okay?”

Mor frowned, not knowing whether she should be annoyed or amused and her confusion was so painfully visible to Isa, that the younger woman stopped dead in her tracks and turned to her tall companion.

The twinkle in those gentle green eyes made her relax a bit and Mor returned Isa’s stare with a raised eyebrow, which made the younger woman smile again.

” Have you got any idea how beautiful you are?” came the unexpected question, that seemed to hit Mor square in the face.

She felt a blush creep up, warming her sunkissed skin and she searched her brain to come up with something intelligent to say. With a sigh she gave up and changed tactics.

” Are you going to try and sweettalk me into taking you along?” she deadpanned, secretly enjoying the reddening of Isa’s cheeks.

” No. No, of course not,” the blond woman hastened to explain. ” I..I..you were…you know and I..just ..it sort of occurred to me…that…how beautiful you are. That’s all.”

Isa’s shoulders slumped and Mor saw her bite her lip in frustration. But then she felt gentle fingers lifting up her chin and her eyes met Mor’s.

” I was teasing you, Isa,” Mor confessed. ” I’m sorry. Thank you for the compliment. But I have to return it. Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?”

Mor could see the widening of Isa’s eyes and complimented herself for being able to bring out that soft look of wonder on the smaller womans’ face.

” I am?” Isa whispered.

” Yes, you are,” Mor answered, softly stroking Isa’s cheek with the back of her hand. ” No one ever told you that?”

Isa shook her head and closed her eyes to revel in the warmth that the stroking of Mor’s fingers brought her. It was a feeling that sent a tingling feeling down her spine and a warmth that was so intense, that even her fingertips were glowing.

Even with her eyes closed Isa noticed Mor’s face coming closer and without opening her eyes she lifted up her face to meet a soft pair of lips. It didn’t take long for them to lose themselves in the kiss. It had started tender and slow, but quickly developed into a deep, passionate kiss, that left them both gasping for air, while blood rushed through their veins and they could feel each others heartbeats.

Isa was grateful for the strong arms that held her close, because she felt her knees could give out at any time. She had buried her face against Mor’s chest and dreamily mused that it was a spot that was quickly becoming her favorite. The warmth of Mor’s lean, muscular body, the steady heartbeat under her ear, the strong arms that held her with such tenderness it almost brought tears to her eyes.

Mor kissed Isa’s temple, that was so close to her lips and smiled contentedly. It was so good to hold Isa, feel the softness of her body against her own, the sweet smell of sun dried linen and herbs. It was so comforting and relaxing she could feel all tension leave her body and secretly Mor smirked.

If I keep this up, I will end up a puddle!

” If you really don’t want me to come, I will stay at the cave,” Isa’s voice suddenly mumbled underneath Mor’s chin. ” But…you have to be careful, okay?”

” I am always careful,” Mor’s voice rumbled in Isa’s ear.

Are you? Are you really? The annoying voice in the back of her mind stirred again. You call this being careful? Kissing in the middle of the forest, forgetting to keep your eyes open. You could have died a couple of times already, Mor. You and Isa both. You really think it’s a good idea to let anyone close to you? You!? Somebody who is trained to fight and kill? Be sensible, warrior, let her go.

Mor felt her heart clench and she had to bite her lip not to scream out in frustration. The voice was right. It would probably be better for Isa if she would let her go. It would be safer and she would never have to see the raging violence of which Mor was capable. The blood. The gore. The danger.

Mor fought back the tears that were stinging in the back of her eyes and carefully took a steadying breath. Desperately trying to come up with the right words to tell Isa that she couldn’t go though with it. For the blond womans’ sake.

Mor felt like she had taken a fierce blow to her belly and could taste the bile that was rising up in the back of her throat. How could she look in those captivating green eyes and tell Isa their kissing was a mistake and that it would never work between them? That Isa’s safety was too important and they could not stay together.

” Noooo!” another voice suddenly sounded inside her mind. You can’t! You know you can’t. Don’t deny yourself some happiness, Mor. Don’t deny Isa some happiness. The Gods know you deserve to have somebody in your life. You have been alone for such a long time. She touched your heart the minute you scooped her up in the forest. You know it’s true! You fell and you fell hard, Mor! But it’s worth it. Give it a chance. You have the skills to keep her safe. Open your heart, warrior, let her in. Please!

Slowly the nauseous feeling seeped from Mor’s body and the pain that was in her chest seemed to disappear. She lifted her face towards the sky and could feel the sun warm her skin. She slowly blinked and her clear blue eyes spotted the hawk and followed its graceful movements. It was floating on the wind, making lazy circles above their heads. Its call pierced the warm summer air and brought a smile to Mor’s face.

” Is this how it feels to fall under the spell of Freya?” Mor mused. ” Is this what love feels like? This feeling of being torn in two? To know what is best and not do it. To throw concerns in the wind for the hawk to carry them away.”

Mor glanced down to the blond head that was still resting against her chest. Isa’s eyes were closed and Mor studied the peaceful features, the soft cheeks and the fair lashes that comfortably rested on them. A rush of warmth suddenly coarsed through her body, like a ray of sun, warming even the deepest places within her soul. An energy bubbled up inside, so powerful and overwhelming it almost made her dizzy. She breathed in deeply and tightened her hold on Isa, who stirred and glanced up. To see a pair of clear blue eyes look back at her, with such confidence and determination. With such depth and understanding that it took her breath away. Mor had let go of the reins that had been holding her emotions at bay and when she saw Isa look up at her, she wanted the smaller woman to see what was in her heart. She did.

Isa’s face split in a wide smile and her eyes were sparkling bright.

” What is that look for?” she asked, rubbing small circles on Mor’s linen clad back.

” For you,” Mor simply answered.

Unexpectedly she scooped Isa up in her arms and cradled the startled woman against her chest.

” Mor! What are you doing?” Isa laughed. ” Put me down, silly. I am way too heavy.”

” Nah, you’re not,” Mor answered with a smirk, tossing Isa up in the air and effortlessly catching her again. ” You are a light weight!”

Isa had put her arms around Mor’s neck and the taller woman quickly stole a kiss, lingering on the sweet lips that were so warm and willing.

” I think you should come with me this evening,” she said when they finally broke apart, noticing the surprise in Isa’s eyes. ” You can’t go back to your village any time soon and you might not see your father for a while. The least I can do is let you visit.”

” Thank you,” Isa spoke, hugging the tall woman close. “Thank you.”

Mor didn’t respond, but with a smile she held Isa even closer.

****

It was after dark. Baldric had been waiting patiently for the sun to set and to be replaced by the moon, that slowly rose against the darkening sky. Only when the stars were out, sprinkled against the dark canopy high above his head, did he left his hiding place.

He did not dare to ride Ragnarok, but led the horse, making sure to walk alongside the cobblestone road. The grass would absorb the sound of the horse’s hoofbeats and he would have a better chance of staying unnoticed.

In the distance Baldric could hear the rhythmic sloshing of the river’s water against the shore and he didn’t have to strain his eyes to see the different campfires at the settlement near the bridge. It was a clear night and from his vantage point on top of the hill, he could plan his approach.

Trajectum, which everyone called it because it was the only place you could cross the river, had a few holding cells. Baldric had discovered this from his previous visit to the Roman settlement. They were close to the temple of Jupiter and were situated near the bridge itself.

Baldric knew he had to be careful. It was impossible to take Ragnarok with him while he crossed the wooden bridge. She would make too much noise and the last thing he wanted was to attract any form of attention. So he led Ragnarok into the bushes until he found a little clearing and carefully tied the horse to a bush, making sure she could still move around a little and munch on the grass if she wanted. He stroked the soft, silky nose and kissed the horse’s forehead.

” I will be back soon, girl,” he whispered. ” Try not to make any noises, all right?”

He turned and walked back towards the bridge, carefully looking around. There was no one in sight and that boosted the boys’ confidence. He cautiously stepped on the bridge’s wooden surface, making sure to stay at the railing, so if need be, he would be able to hide behind one of the many pillars that supported the structure.

It didn’t take him long to cross the bridge without any problems, he then took a left turn towards the temple of Jupiter. In the distance he could hear laughter and music coming from one of the inns. There were a few inns at Trajectum. Lots of travelers and vendors used the road the Romans had constructed and they always ended up at the settlement. Business was booming.

Baldric however gave the inn a wide arch and continued to walk to the western side of the settlement, where he knew the holding cells for prisoners could be found. He only had to press his slender body against a dark wall once, to keep out of sight when two Roman soldiers crossed his path. They were obviously drunk and when they had passed him, Baldric let out a deep sigh. His heart rate had picked up and he tried not to think of the consequences if the Romans had discovered him sneaking around like that.

At last he reached his goal. A small building, constructed with mergle blocks from the caves. It was square with a slightly slanting roof and windows that were barred with thick, dark iron. Impossible to break free.

Baldric carefully looked around and when he was sure there was no one around, he stood on the tip of his toes and glanced inside. It was dark, but thanks to the light of the moon and the yellowish color of the mergle, he could see three people lying on the floor. He immediately knew the dark man was not one of them and when he stepped back and leaned against the wall, he wondered what the Romans had done with him.

Thinking what to do next Baldric suddenly heard a loud voice, screaming in outrage and although his heart was pounding in his chest, he decided to see what made the noise.

Making sure to stay in the shadows he carefully made his way towards what seemed like a campfire. There were about five Roman soldiers huddled by the fire. They were drinking wine and Baldric was convinced he recognized one of them from the patrol that had passed that afternoon.

One of the soldiers was standing away from the fire, near the trees, kicking at something Baldric could not identify, while his friends were laughing loudly. Only when the soldier stopped his yelling and unsteadily walked back to the fire, the young boy gasped. Rolled up onto his side he could see the form of the dark man he had seen that afternoon. He was lying on his side, facing away from the fire. His hands and feet were tied and he seemed to be wearing some sort of collar that was chained to a post.

Fascinated by the stranger and the situation he was in, Baldric decided to take a closer look. He slipped through the bushes, careful not to make a sound, even though the Romans were noisy and apparently drunk. It took him a while, but finally he reached the spot where the dark man was lying on the ground.

Baldric flattened himself against the forest floor, that was slightly damp and smelled like earth and moss. Slowly he crept forward, until his head was poking out of the bushes, unseen by the Romans, because the tall man was hiding him from curious eyes.

Baldric bit his lip and debated with himself what to do next. The man had his eyes closed and Baldric could not tell whether he was unconscious or just sleeping. Although the latter seemed quite impossible after the beating the man just had received from that Roman soldier.

Baldric opened his mouth to softly whisper, when suddenly a pair of big, brown eyes shot open wide, staring at him directly. He jerked in surprise and his first reaction was to crawl back into the bushes, but a sudden smile stopped him.

” You make so much noise you could disturb the eternal sleep of the dead,” a deep, warm voice whispered.

Baldric was stunned and lost for words. Here was a strange person he had never seen before and the man spoke in his tongue.

” So, you slithered all the way over here to see ‘ The Creature’ ?” the voice continued. ” Well, what do you think I am? Have you decided yet?”

” W..well, a man, I guess,” Baldric whispered. ” But you look different and you have really dark skin.”

” A man, huh?” the stranger chuckled. ” And where, my boy, did you find that wisdom?”

Baldric swallowed and cast a look at the group of Romans, who were still drinking wine and playing a game of dice.

” My…my sister, she used to tell stories about people from other worlds and…and they always look different…sort of…” he finished. ” Are you from another world? Which one?”

The dark man rolled his eyes, but smiled about the honest curiosity he could see in the face of the young boy.

” I come from a land many moons traveling away from here. Further than Rome. Across the sea and the big sand. All my people have dark skin.”

” Did they capture you as a slave?”

” Unfortunately they did. A very, very long time ago.”

Even the darkness could not hide the sadness in the dark man’s eyes and unconsciously Baldric reached out a hand to touch a broad, muscular shoulder.

” I am sorry,” he whispered with compassion. ” Did they force you to work in the caves?”

The dark man almost invisibly shook his head and a sad smile crossed his face.

” No, young one. I used to fight as a gladiator.”

” But you survived that, ” Baldric breathed, impressed by the man, who was still looking powerful and confident, even though he was bound by hand and feet and could not move on his own accord.

” Only because a rich Roman citizen wanted me to train his gladiators for him. He wanted champions and he needed the best to teach them.”

Baldric was silent for a moment, trying to comprehend what kind of life the stranger must have lead.

” So, why are you tied up like that now, then? What did you do?”

” It’s the irony of the Gods, my boy, ” the dark man sighed. ” I once fought my master to help out a friend and he decided dying was too good for me. He put me in shackles and I have been that way ever since. They say I am too dangerous not to be bound.”

” Since when?” Baldric whispered, his eyes wide with horror.

” Ten summers ago.”

A silence fell and the dark man sighed.

” Tell me, young one. What is it that brings you here?”

Baldric shrugged his shoulders and cast down his eyes.

” I am not sure,” he honestly answered. ” I saw you in that cart and…I..I thought that…maybe, one…day…I could..you know, help you out or something.”

” That is an honorable thought,” the dark man smiled. ” Why were you hiding in the bushes this afternoon?”

” I wanted to stay away from the Romans. I am supposed to cross the bridge at dawn and travel north. I have a message to deliver.”

” Must be an important message then,” the dark man drawled.

Baldric looked around him and brought his face closer to the stranger.

” It’s for the rebel army, in the east.”

The dark man’s eyes lit up and for a moment a bright smile suddenly crossed his features.

” You are a man with a mission. But you got sidetracked, young one. That is not how a good courier should behave,” he seriously said. ” Your general must be able to rely on you.”

Baldric nodded and bit down on his lip again.

” I know,” he admitted. ” But I have been really careful, honest. But I think you are right, if Mor finds out she will have my hide.”

From the corner of his eye, Baldric saw the dark man’s body jerk and when he looked up a pair of dark eyes stared at him intently. It was too dark to see the expression, but it was clear to the boy that the eyes were wide with wonder.

” Mor?” the dark man whispered. ” She lived.”

” You know her?” Baldric asked, barely able to contain his excitement.

” Know her?” the dark man breathed. ” Yes, young one, I know her!”

” Are…you a friend?” Baldric cautiously asked.

” Yes,” the man smiled. ” I am her friend. So, what is the name of the courier the Gods made sure to cross my path and my Sauda has all that confidence in?”

” Baldric,” the boy answered with a smile, feeling very comfortable in the presence of the tall dark stranger. ” What’s yours?”

” Jaali.”
Part 9
The darkness had settled over the forest like a warm, thick blanket. There were no stars visible that night, since big, fat clouds had been slowly but surely, obscuring the bright blue sky. There had been nothing left but grayness. The temperatures had been high and it was still warm and humid., even amidst the dense forest. A skylark was singing a bright, happy song, but other than that, it seemed like the forest was holding it’s breath, waiting for the storm that was brewing overhead.

Mor and Isa were slowly making their way back to the cave, knowing it wouldn’t take long for the rain to start falling, but aware of the fact that they had to carefully choose their way, if they didn’t want to stumble and fall over the thick tree roots, that were covering the tracks.

Mor cast a look at the sky above her and mumbled something about picking up the pace. She didn’t want to get rained on. The outside temperature might still be nice, but the prospect of drying in a cold cave somehow wasn’t very appealing.

She glanced back over her shoulder to see Isa follow her closely. She smiled. Isa had been wonderful when they had visited Axel, Isa’s father, to tell him about what had happened to Isa and inform him about where Baldric was and what his young son was doing.

At first he had been upset, a little angry even, but Isa had been amazing. She had been able to convince her worrying father of the fact that it was safer for her to stay with Mor. And that Baldric was doing something that he had always dreamed of doing. In short, his children were safe and content, doing what they wanted to do.

Slowly and reluctantly, Axel had agreed with his daughter and just before they had left, he even had grabbed Mor’s arm, thanking her for looking after his children. Which had surprised Mor, because even though Axel had been thrilled to see his daughter, he had regarded her companion with hostility and distrust.

Mor softly chuckled. She had witnessed a whole different side of Isa this evening: self confident and diplomatic. Mor was convinced her friend could talk so smoothly, she would be able to sell just about anything to anybody.

“What are you snickering about?” a clear voice suddenly sounded, with a hint of amusement.

Mor somehow managed to restrain herself.

“Just thinking, ” she casually answered. “We will have to walk a bit faster if we don’t want to be rained on.”

” Good idea, “Isa murmured, looking up to the darkening sky and almost tripping over a rock that was just in front of her.

Mor was just in time to avoid a violent collision with the ground, by grabbing Isa’s uninjured arm and jerking her back up again.

“Careful,” she warned. ” You don’t want to hurt yourself, now, do you?”

” Not really, ” Isa answered, feeling safe with Mor’s strong arm wrapped around her shoulder. “I…hey…”

With an indignant look Isa looked up when a big drop splattered on the bridge of her nose.

” Oh….not good,” she remarked, wiping her nose with the back of her hand.

Mor smiled and suddenly found herself bending forward and kissing the slightly moist area.

” All better now, ” she whispered, noticing the look of quite wonder on Isa’s face. ” Come on, we have to hurry.”

Within minutes the rain poured down and it didn’t take long for Mor and Isa to be drenched. Their clothes were sticking to their bodies and their hair was plastered to their faces.

Despite the rain it was still warm outside, a humid warmth that seemed to hold the world in a lazy, languid grip.

But as soon as the two women entered the cave, they could feel the cool air bring a chill to their wet skin.

” Let’s get a fire started,” Mor suggested, not needing a torch to find her way in the darkness. She had grabbed Isa’s hand and when she felt the cold skin, she suddenly remembered the fever the young woman recently had and hurried down the dark pipeline, almost dragging Isa with her.

As soon as they entered the room, Mor steered Isa towards the corner near the fire pit where a thick layer of furs and blankets were spread out.

” Take those wet clothes off and crawl in there,” Mor urged. ” I will get the fire going.”

Isa was too cold to object. With stiff, but trembling fingers, she started to peel off the wet layer of fabric that clung to her skin and made her feel even colder.

Mor had made quick work of the fire. She had thrown a few thin, dry twigs on it and when the flames were blazing, she added a big log that quickly caught fire, spreading a very welcome warmth. After that she turned her eyes to Isa, to see that the young woman was struggling to get out of the dress that was twisted around her shoulders, trapping her injured shoulder inside.

” Here, let me help you.”

Mor stood behind Isa and gently helped her to discard the wet dress. Her skin felt cold and clammy when Mor carefully lowered the smaller woman down to the furs. Her eyes drifted to the sight before her and she swallowed hard. Isa’s skin was pale and covered with goosebumps. But in Mor’s eyes she was beautiful. Isa shivered and Mor mentally slapped herself. Here she was, staring at the naked body of her friend, secretly enjoying the sight of the small, but firm breasts, the well toned muscles underneath a porcelain belly and the muscular legs covered with a silky soft skin. While Isa was involuntarily shaking due to the tremors that coursed through her body.

” Pull this over you,” Mor insisted, covering Isa’s body with a big, soft fur. ” I will make you some hot tea.”

Mor wanted to stand up, but a small hand on her thigh stopped her. She looked down, one eyebrow raised to see a pair of pleading green eyes.

” Crawl in here with me,” Isa softly asked in a shaking voice. She clenched her jaw to avoid her teeth from chattering. ” You are soaked yourself, Mor. The fire is doing fine. We’ll get tea later, just get warm first. Okay?”

Mor only debated with herself for a few seconds. The thought of warming her chilled body was very tempting. Especially since it meant crawling under a nice thick warm fur and snuggling up against Isa.

” I would…I…will have to take off those wet clothes. Let me get changed first, I…”

Mor slightly blushed when she saw the sparkle in Isa’s eyes and she bit her lip, feeling like a little child.

” Get those wet clothes off and get in here, please, Mor, ” Isa sighed, rolling her eyes. ” I need your body heat. I am freezing.”

Mor merely nodded and without a word she quickly peeled off the clothes that were still stuck to her skin and were already starting to chill her. Avoiding Isa’s eyes she stepped over her friend’s body, lifted up the furs and crawled in behind Isa, not really sure what to do next.

” Better?” she mumbled.

” Not yet, ” Isa sighed, turning around and facing the tall, dark woman. ” Relax, Mor. I won’t bite.”

Isa slid closer and without warning wrapped her arms around Mor’s taller body, pulling her closer. The effect was electrifying. Both women gasped, and it was not just because of the contact with chilled flesh. When Isa pressed even closer, burying her face into Mor’s neck, the taller woman could feel her heart rate pick up and felt her blood race through her veins.

Instinctively she wrapped her arms around Isa, holding her close, while her body was flooded with a tidal wave of emotions. It felt like she was being picked up and carried high into a place that was unknown to her. A place that emptied her head and filled it with only one image, one sensation: the gradually warming skin of Isa, who had started to softly kiss the exposed flesh of Mor’s neck, making the tall woman softly moan.

Involuntarily, Mor’s hands had begun to caress the smooth skin of Isa’s back. All the way from the muscled shoulders to the small of her back, where the skin became even softer, until Mor’s hands were slowly rubbing circles on the firm flesh of her buttocks. She could hear Isa’s breathing catch and slowly she started to knead the flesh underneath her palms. Immediately Isa’s body pressed closer and a pair of soft lips started to suck on Mor’s pulse point, which made her almost moan out loud.

Mor felt like her body was invaded by a warm, thick fluid that slowly spread through her. Starting in the pit of her stomach and gradually overtaking the rest, to finally end up in her legs, making them feel weak, but warm. Even the soles of her feet were glowing.

” Isa,” she finally managed to whisper between two breaths. ” Isa, are you….?”

” Yes,” came the determined answer. ” I am sure.”

After those words, Isa looked up, glanced into a pair of darkening blue eyes and bent her head to capture Mor’s lips in a searing kiss. Mor was completely taken by surprise, but in spite of that, she quickly responded by letting her hand slide to the back of Isa’s neck pulling her closer. It was a passionate kiss that held tenderness, but also spoke of a need and a desire that quickly grew too much , into something that could not be denied any longer.

Isa felt her skin slowly begin to burn when Mor’s hands slid up and down her sides, gently caressing the soft curves of her breasts. Isa’s breath stopped when an insisting thumb started to rub one of her nipples and the soft moan that escaped her throat was swallowed by Mor’s lips and tongue, caressing, nibbling, and tasting every part of Isa’s lips and mouth.

Isa’s hands caressed a pair of broad shoulders, feeling the muscles ripple under her hands and boldly traveled down towards a pair of firm breasts, the only islands of softness on a well toned body that had started to arch under her touch.

Two bodies had started a grinding motion that became more insistent and demanding with every touch and caress. No spoken word could have described the tenderness and desire that flowed freely between them. When the heat and friction became too much to bear, a set of soft whimpers filled the stillness of the cave, leaving Mor and Isa trembling in each others arms. Too overwhelmed by the intensity of their emotions, to move, or even speak.

Mor just pulled Isa close against her sweating body. Softly kissing a pair of liquid lips, while a blond head rested on her shoulder. Green eyes half closed, a contend smile on Isa’s face.

Unknown to the lovers, the rain had stopped. The blanket of clouds was slowly breaking open and a silvery ray of moonlight illuminated the tree that was hiding the cave’s entrance. Painting it in an unearthly color of silver. Like a blessing from the Goddess herself.

****

Baldric’s legs had started to cramp and carefully he stretched his muscles to ease the pain. He was stiff from laying in the same position for a long time and he could feel the telltale signs of his feet going numb. Uncomfortable he shifted around a little, careful not to make any noise.

In the distance he could hear the low rumble of a thunderstorm and a quick look to the sky told him it would start raining soon.

The group of Roman soldiers were still passing around wineskins and if the noise was any indication, they were heavily intoxicated.

Baldric’s green eyes shone with excitement when he looked at the still form of Jaali. The tall man had not moved for a while now. He was staring in the distance and with a stab of pain in his chest, Baldric saw the track of a single tear, that slowly rolled down Jaali’s cheek. At that moment Isa’s younger brother made a decision that would change the course of his life.

” You are coming with me,” he whispered, reaching for the dagger that was hidden in his right boot. “I’ll cut you loose, Jaali. We’ll wait till those soldiers pass out and then we’ll go.”

” That’s too dangerous, my young friend. If they capture you, you will surely die,” Jaali answered with sadness in his voice.

” I won’t leave a friend of Mor’s,” Baldric replied with determination. ” You are coming with me.”

Jaali realized Baldric would not change his mind and he slowly nodded. He looked at the grim face of his new friend and silently thanked the Gods for sending the boy his way. He admired his courage and iron will. The boy clearly had potential. Sauda had done good by recruiting him.

” Don’t cut those ropes yet, Elojo. Let’s wait until they are asleep. They still might come over and check on me. They like playing games, especially when they are drunk.”

” What did you just call me?” Baldric asked puzzled.

For the first time Baldric saw a full fledged smile on Jaali’s face. His perfectly white teeth stood out vividly against his ebony skin.

” Elojo,” Jaali answered. ” Because you are a blessing from the Gods. That is what it means.”

” Elojo,” Baldric softly repeated, liking the sound of the name.

He smiled back at Jaali, his green eyes sparkling.

” I like that name, ” he said. ” Thank you.”

“You are welcome, young one. Now, hide yourself, I hear somebody coming this way.”

Jaali had been right and Baldric mentally slapped himself for letting his concentration slip away from him. He quickly crawled back between the bushes and held his breath, while Jaali softly started to hum a tune.

” What in the name of Mars are you doing, slave?” one of the Roman soldiers slurred, swaying from all the alcohol he had consumed.

” Are you talking to yourself? Ha, you must be losing your mind. Finally!”

He brought back his right foot to kick Jaali in the side, but that movement brought him out of balance and it took him all the coordination he had left, not to fall. His comrades were laughing hard when they saw their friend’s antics.

The soldier mumbled something unintelligent and decided that kicking Jaali wasn’t a good idea at that moment. He might fall. So, he settled for spitting on Jaali’s unprotected form and when he was done, he turned around and unsteadily walked back to the fire, where two fellow soldiers already appeared to be fast asleep, judging from the sound of their snoring.

Slowly Baldric released his breath. His eyes followed the soldier and relieved he saw that the man was clumsily sitting down next to the fire. He lost his balance and toppled over onto his side. Passed out from too much wine.

Baldric waited a little longer and when it was clear that all five soldiers were sleeping, he crawled back from his hiding place, his dagger clenched into his fist.

Jaali looked up at him and slowly nodded.

With a few quick motions Baldric cut the ropes that were binding Jaali’s arms and feet. But when he reached the collar around the tall man’s neck, he was faced with a problem. The collar was made out of leather and was wrapped tightly around Jaali’s neck. It had a big, iron buckle, but apparently that had not been enough. A little lock was attached to the buckle, making it impossible to take the collar off.

” There’s a lock on it, ” he whispered, the disappointment obvious in his voice. ” Do you know which soldier has the key?”

” Don’t bother, Elojo, just cut the leather.”

” But it’s so close to your skin,” Baldric objected. ” My dagger is very sharp, Jaali. I don’t want to hurt you.”

” Water cannot be forced uphill, Elojo. It will only be a cut. A small price to pay for freedom. Cut the leather. I trust you, young one.”

Baldric swallowed hard and wiped his sweaty palm on the fabric of his shirt. This was not the time for his dagger to slip out of his hand. He took a deep breath and used the sharp point of his dagger to slowly carve into the leather that was wrapped so tightly around Jaali’s neck, that there was no room to even put the blade of his dagger behind it.

Very carefully he started to slit the thick leather, avoiding the area near the unprotected skin of Jaali’s neck. He ignored the perspiration that was forming on his forehead and the moisture that was slowly trickling down his back. His eyes were focused on the dagger and the collar only. He even managed to block out the fact that Jaali, in spite of his courageous words some time earlier, was anxiously holding his breath.

After what had seemed like an eternity, the thick leather collar finally parted. It slipped from around Jaali’s neck and fell soundlessly to the ground.

With wide eyes Jaali touched the raw skin of his neck and a wide smile creased his dark face.

“Thank you, Elojo. You are a good friend.”

Baldric wiped his forehead and let out a shaky breath.

” We’d better get out of here, Jaali. Get the horse, cross the river and travel north.”

” That is a good idea, young one. We must be well on our way when those soldiers awake. They will feel the pain of their indulgence and I can assure you, they won’t be happy!”

****

The morning sun steadily rose in the sky, chasing away the last of the rain clouds that had been lingering all night, occasionally showering the underlying earth with an abundance of water. The forest floor was wet and soft and smelled like earth and rotting leaves.

Mor breathed in the fresh air with appreciation, her clear blue eyes half lidded and a smile tugging on the corner of her mouth. It was a beautiful day. She had woken up to see the fire being reduced to glowing embers and wondered why she didn’t experience the chill she usually felt in the morning, when she woke up and needed to breath life into the fire.

Slowly realization had dawned when she had felt the soft, but firm pressure of a warm leg and arm that were wrapped around her naked body and recent memories had jerked her back into the present. She had closed her eyes again to thoroughly enjoy the sensations that were coursing through her body. Isa had still been asleep, spooned up against Mor’s broad back, pinning her down to the furs with her arm and leg. And Mor had sent a silent prayer to Freya, thanking the Goddess for the small blond that was wrapped around her.

After a little while Mor had carefully unwrapped herself from Isa’s body, pleased to know that her friend had not woken up yet and had quickly thrown another log on the fire. She had shivered when the cool air in the cave had surrounded her body and made quick work of slipping into her breeches and tunic. With tenderness she had knelt next to Isa and had smoothed back the hair from her forehead. A pair of sleepy green eyes had peeked up and Mor had not been able to resist. She had brought her face close to Isa’s and had softly kissed her on the lips.

” Go back to sleep,” she had whispered. ” I will be back soon. I need to get us some fresh water and something to eat. Okay?”

Isa had nodded and closed her eyes again, but when Mor had tried to get up a small hand had grabbed her own larger one.

” I love you, Mor, ” Isa had sleepily confessed and Mor had felt the tears sting in the back of her eyes.

” I love you too,” she had managed to answer, with a husky voice.

Mor smiled and felt herself filled with a joy she had not felt in a very long time, if ever. She had quickly filled a waterskin back at the well inside the cave and was now returning from a visit to some apple and cherry trees she had recently located on the other side of the hill top.

She would make some tea and the left over bread and fresh fruit would make an excellent breakfast.

Mor stretched her tall frame and felt a few pleasant aches. Her heart skipped a beat when her body remembered the way Isa had touched her the evening before and her body immediately responded with a humming desire.

Mor softly moaned when she realized the profound effect even the memory of her small companion had on her. With long strides she made her way back to the cave. Her mind already painting a picture of a well built, certain blond, with captivating green eyes.

****

The Roman camp was buzzing with activity. In the early morning light soldiers could be seen doing their drills, while others hurried in and out of the tents and barracks, doing their morning chores.

The two main roads leading through the camp were still wet from last night’s rain and reflected the rays of the early morning sun. A Roman patrol was marching through the north gate, on their way to Trajectum to relieve the guards of the prison.

Titus was squinting his eyes against the bright sunlight, while he followed the movements his soldiers made on the exercise square. They were new recruits from Rome and it would be his responsibility to make real warriors out of them.

Titus’ mind had drifted far away though. He could not help but wonder what had happened to the patrol that was sent off the day before, when the centurion had angrily sent them away to find the warrior that had sneaked into the camp and mutilated its Optio.

Titus touched his cheek and realized with a sickening sense of reality that he was scarred for life. Right now the skin was still red and swollen, but when the swelling would be down and the scabs fallen off, the scars would be clearly visible. He would have to spend the rest of his life, with a Celtic symbol carved into his face and that thought filled him with fury.

Frustrated he kicked away a pebble and his eyes focused on the group of young men in front of him.

” Start over again,” Titus snarled. ” You look like a group of girls! Get those legs moving. You are marching, not dancing!”

With a menacing glare he looked at the pale faces in front of him. There was not even one pair of eyes that was raised to challenge him and Titus regretted that. He would have liked to vent his frustration and what better way to do that then training recruits?

His thoughts traveled back to the day before, when he had talked to one of his friends, who was part of the scorned patrol. Servius was his cousin and had always been his best friend. Titus trusted him and he knew Servius would always do what Titus wanted.

Just before the stocky soldier had left camp the evening before, Titus had talked to him separately from the group and told him that when they did find that warrior, not to try and capture him, but kill him immediately. Even though that would go against the orders of the Centurion.

Servius had not questioned Titus, but had merely nodded and clasped his cousin’s arm.

” We will bring him back dead,” he had solemnly promised.

Titus rocked back on his heels and tried not to smirk. He didn’t care what the centurion’s plans were. The mysterious warrior would soon meet his Gods and when he did, he, Titus, would show the warrior’s friends that no one messed with Titus Oranius Silanus.

****

Softly whistling Mor had almost reached the entrance of the cave. Her eyes fell on some daisies that were growing alongside the track, their heads happily turned towards the rising sun. In an impulse she bent down to pick one and she smiled when she imagined the look on Isa’s face when she would give her the flower. Somehow Mor knew that her blond friend would appreciate little gifts like that. And to her own surprise Mor realized she looked forward to giving them.

Twirling the flower between her slender fingers, Mor continued her way, until she reached the tree line. A soft sound had made her stop dead in her tracks and she cocked her head, listening intently.

It was quiet again, but to Mor’s trained ears the silence was an unusual one. It was too quiet. Just the rustling of leaves and the sound of lapping water in the small creek that winded down the hill. No sign of birds singing. The lack of their songs made Mor cautiously step back behind a tree, waiting.

It took a long time and just when Mor started to wonder if Isa would be smart enough to stay inside the cave until she had returned, she heard the noise again. Closer this time.

Without making a sound Mor carefully lowered the pouch with the fruit and the waterskin to the ground. She reached underneath her tunic and pulled two daggers out of her belt. With her back pressed against the tree trunk and the daggers clenched tightly in her hands, she waited.

Now knowing where the noise had come from, Mor didn’t have any trouble locating it again. Her sensitive ears effortlessly followed what was approaching.

Mor briefly closed her eyes, concentrating and her nostrils flared when she picked up the scent of leather and an unwashed body.

Her face was set in a grim mask when she realized that it was possible that one of the Roman patrols was back. Really close to her home this time.

The sound of someone trying to control his breathing reached her ears and Mor knew that somehow, the one creeping up on her, knew she was there.

I have made a mistake. I must have been so occupied with thinking about Isa, I ignored the world around me. By the Gods, that was stupid. That could not just mean losing my own life, but Isa could get hurt as well.

Mor crouched down behind the tree, all her muscles tensed, ready for action. The sounds became more clear and louder and with satisfaction Mor realized that, whoever was following her, did not know she was only a few paces away.

Her pursuer was on the other side of the tree now and Mor froze, somehow managing to blend in with the tree and the bushes that surrounded her. When the sound of carefully placed footsteps continued, she carefully glanced around the tree to see who had been so stupid as to follow her.

It was what she had expected. A Roman soldier. Alone.

Mor suppressed a snort and shook her head, not believing the fact that anyone could be ignorant enough to go on a man hunt alone. Because she was convinced that the Roman was looking for her. She had expected them to send out more patrols, in order to try and find her. Especially after she had killed one of them, that day at the waterfall. But she had never expected this. One Roman soldier, sneaking around the forest, following her back to the cave.

That is the last and most expensive mistake you will ever make, soldier.

Mor stepped away from the tree, keeping her eyes on the soldier, who had not even noticed her presence yet. She sighed and regretted the, soon to be waste of another human life. He was so careless. For a moment Mor pondered over her feelings. It surprised her that she felt this way. It was something new to her. In the past she had never felt compassion for her victims. Even slicing up Titus had been done with no remorse.

Isa must be rubbing off on me already, she thought wryly, pushing away her thoughts to the background and focusing on the task ahead.

” Looking for someone?” she casually asked, her voice deep and almost purring.

The soldier stopped dead in his tracks and swirled around. His eyes went wide when he noticed the woman who was standing in the middle of the track. Her tall frame relaxed, feet a little apart and arms alongside her body. She was dressed in black and the tight breeches, neatly tucked in the black boots did nothing to hide the length of her legs. Her dark hair was cascading down her back, but the thing that struck him most, were the electrifying blue eyes, that looked at him calmly, without any trace of fear.

The Roman unsheathed his short thrusting sword and took a step closer, but immediately he saw her eyes grow cold and he stopped. Debating with himself what to do next.

” What’s your name?” Mor casually asked.

” Servius,” was the immediate response. ” What’s yours?”

” That’s of no interest to you,” she answered with a feral smile.

Servius mentally slapped himself for letting the strange woman take the lead in the conversation and he took another step closer.

” I could cut you into pieces, woman,” he growled, lifting up his sword.

Mor smiled and slowly shook her head.

“Tch, you Romans are all the same, aren’t you?” she mocked, knowing she would make Servius angry and loving every moment of it. ” Put away that gladius, soldier. Nobody cuts me into pieces.”

For a moment only, the Roman soldier hesitated, but then Mor saw the grip on his sword tighten and soundlessly she sighed.

Idiot!

” Did Titus send you?” she asked, knowing that would be a real possibility.

Servius did not answer, but the widening of his eyes told Mor everything she wanted to know.

” How is his face? Still sore?” she informed with a raised eyebrow.

” It was you!” Servius breathed, his face flushed from anger. ” Titus said it was a warrior. A man.”

” Looks can deceive, Roman,” Mor answered. ” You shouldn’t believe everything cowards tell you. They usually make up their own variation of the truth. Did Titus tell you he wet his pants, when he felt my dagger on his skin?”

Servius’ breathing became more labored and for the first time Mor could see a hint of fear in his eyes.

” Am I making you nervous? Well, that’s not nice of me, is it? What do you want to do about it………..Roman?”

That last word was said with so much contempt it made Servius’ blood boil. He took another step closer, but Mor didn’t even flinch. She just stood there, looking at him with an arrogance and self confidence he had never seen in an enemy before.

With a growl that came from deep within his chest, Servius raised his sword and leapt forward, only to stab into a void of air. Mor had read his eyes and when he had come straight at her, she had sidestepped his sword with an elegant ease and was now standing behind him.

” Try again,” she purred, her blue eyes sparkling with amusement.

This is so easy! It’s obvious they don’t train their soldiers like they do their gladiators.

Servius turned around and without thinking, came at her again. His right arm, that was holding the sword, was viscously hacking away, but to his frustration he didn’t hit anything, but air. Until suddenly his arm was grabbed in an iron grip and the sword was wrenched out of his hands.

” That’s enough,” a cold voice sounded near his ear. ” You might hit a tree. Waste of nature, don’t you think?”

But Servius wasn’t about to give up yet. Mor was standing on his right side and with all the power he could muster, he brought his head to the side, trying to hit her head with his steel pot helmet. But he had gravely underestimated Mor. When she saw his helmet coming closer, she had let go of his arm and had taken a step back. Servius was already out of balance and the momentum took him to the ground. His head hit a tree and with a groan he rolled unto his back. Only to see his own sword being pointed at his unprotected throat. He swallowed hard and desperately tried to come up with a plan to get out of the situation he was in.

” You fight like a girl,” Mor casually remarked. ” A little girl,” she added, to insult him even more.

Servius gritted his teeth and his eyes shone with pure hate. He had promised Titus to kill the warrior that had mutilated him. That’s why he had left the rest of the patrol behind to start his own search. When he had spotted a tall figure, dressed in black he had almost tasted the victory. But now he was laying on his back, his own sword pointed at his throat. Defeated by a woman!

” Titus will get you anyway,” he spat. ” And when you are dead, he will turn his attention to that village slut. It’s a pity he was drunk when he threw that javelin. Next time he will split her in two!”

Servius saw the amusement leave Mor’s face and the expression of indifference in her eyes quickly made way for a cold stare, that seemed to paralyze Servius’ body, making it hard to even breath. And deep down inside he knew he had just made a fatal mistake.

” Prepare yourself to meet Mercury,” Mor remarked coldly, letting go of the reins that had controlled her rage. ” Tell him I will send more of your kind his way. He will be busy soon.”

In a last, desperate attempt to save his life, Servius made an attempt to roll onto his side, but he was met by the sharp steel of his own sword. It violently penetrated the unprotected skin of his neck, and pinned him down to the forest floor. A large flow of blood streamed down on the ground and with a last gurgle Servius crossed over to the Underworld.

” Gods-be-damned-son-of-a-two-headed-virgin,” Mor cursed.

The rage was still coursing through her body and she needed all her willpower to keep herself from pulling the sword out of Servius’ still body and hacking him into little pieces.

With trembling hands Mor pushed back her hair and lifted her face to the sky, closing her eyes and feeling the sun warm her already heated skin. She breathed in deeply and after a few moments she could feel her heartbeat return to its normal rhythm. She cast a look at Servius’ body and realized she would have to dispose of it.

She grabbed the buckles of his steel plated body armor and pulled him through the bushes, into a ditch that would obscure him from the track. She knew she could not leave him there, but for the time being it would have to do. She would come back after dark and dump his body somewhere in a small, remote cave.

Mor efficiently covered the dark puddle of blood with some sand and leaves and wiped her hands on her tunic. Having done that she walked back to the tree where she had left the waterskin and fruit and slung the pouch over her shoulder.

Gently she picked up the daisy that she had picked some time earlier and when she looked at it she felt a stab of pain in her chest.

She had killed. Again. It was not like she had been given an option, but still. How would Isa react when she would tell her?

Mor bit her lip and felt a heaviness settle inside her heart. She realized that the night she had spent with Isa had been a turning point in her life. It had changed so many things. She had lost her heart completely to the small blond.

But after her violent encounter with Servius, would Isa still love her?
Part 10
It had taken Jaali a few moments to steady himself. His hands and feet had almost been numb from being tied up such a long time. But the tall man had an iron will and even though the feeling in his limbs was slowly being restored, he put his large hand on Baldric’s shoulder and nodded.

” Let’s be on our way, Elojo.”

With Jaali following him closely, Baldric had cautiously followed the road back to the bridge, careful to avoid the inns, where the loud talking and laughter announced the presence of people.

With a sigh of relief he had led them around the last corner. They were just passing the inn when all of a sudden Baldric tripped and before Jaali could reach out his hand and grab Baldric’s tunic, the young boy had already stumbled and hit a neatly stacked pile of crates. With a loud crash they hit the ground and Baldric froze.

” Move, young one, ” Jaali whispered urgently. ” We have to go.”

Inside the laughter had died and for a moment there was only silence.

” What in the name of Jupiter?” an intoxicated voice sounded out loud. ” Go have a look boy! This might be your chance to be a hero.’

The words were followed by loud hoots of laughter and the regular noises from the inn returned.

Baldric and Jaali listened intently, as they heard the door open and close then the sound of footsteps slowly approaching.

In a desperate attempt to remain unseen they pressed their backs against the wall behind another pile of crates and held their breath. The soft hissing sound of steel told them a sword had been unsheathed and Baldric swallowed hard, frantically searching his brain for a way out.

The footsteps halted at the crates that were shattered across the ground. From the corner of his eye Baldric could see the outline of a fully armed Romn soldier, with a short sword clenched tightly in his fist.

The figure slowly turned around, peering into the darkness, looking for something. After a little while he shook his head and turned to walk back to the door.

Baldric released the breath he had been holding and slightly relaxed when the soldier was starting to walk away from them. But he tensed, heart hammering in his chest when unexpectedly, the soldier turned and looked straight at him. The glow from the oil lamps and candles inside the inn cast a soft beam of light on the soldiers face and Baldric sighed.

” Flavius,” he whispered.

The soldier frowned and took a step closer, putting his sword back in its sheath.

” Baldric?” His voice was soft and full of surprise. ” What are you doing here? I…”

Flavius had come closer and when his eyes fell on the tall, dark man standing next to the boy, he halted. His eyes slowly traveled from Baldric to Jaali and back again.

” I have seen you,” he addressed Jaali. ” You are a prisoner.”

His eyes caught Baldric’s and inspite of the darkness, the young boy could clearly see the sadness in the Roman soldier’s eyes.

” Take your friend and be on your way, Baldric,” he urged. ” If I stay away too long, they will come outside to have a look.”

Baldric slowly nodded and in an impulse he reached out and clasped Flavius’ arm in a firm grip.

” Thank you,” he whispered.

Flavius smiled and shrugged his shoulders.

” I might be a Roman, but that doesn’t mean I like what we do,” he explained. ” Be on your way, Baldric and may the Gods travel with you.”

He cast a look at Jaali and nodded his head in a silent greeting.

” And with your friend. Now, go.”

****

As soon as Mor entered the cave and slowly put down the waterskin and pouch with fruit, Isa’s expression changed from shy joy, to worry.

” What’s wrong?” she whispered, quickly crossing the distance between them and putting a hand on Mor’s arm.

She looked up and down Mor’s body, to see if she had any injuries and sighed with relief when she did not notice any. But then her eyes fell on Mor’s hands and she frowned when she saw little dots of dried up blood.

Without speaking a word she grabbed one of Mor’s hands and slowly ran her finger over the warm skin.

” What happened?” she asked softly, trying to hold the gaze of the blue eyes, that seem to avoid her.

Isa could see Mor’s jaw clench and she could feel the muscles underneath her hand go rigid. She took a deep breath and tried to push down the feeling of nervousness that had started to settle in the pit of her stomach.

” Talk to me, Mor,” she gently urged.

Finally the blue eyes looked straight into her green ones and what Isa saw was a mixture of pain, grief, shame and rage.

” You won’t like what I have to tell you, ” Mor warned, her voice hoarse and tense.

You will probably get up and leave. And maybe that’s for the best.

” Try me,” Isa answered. ” But let’s make some tea first. Is that all right with you?”

Mor nodded and bend down to grab the waterskin, but a small, strong hand on her arm stopped her.

” I can do that. You go and wash that blood off your hands.”

As if I ever could.

Without speaking a word, Mor walked towards the well. Her movements slow and without the coiled energy that usually rolled off her tall, muscular frame.

Isa bit her lip and tried not to think of all the horrible things Mor could tell her. When her lover had left her that morning, she had looked happy and content. What could have happened to her in such a short period of time?

Maybe she has regrets. About us. Isa mused, immediately feeling her heart clench. No. I don’t believe that. She has blood on her hands. Something must have happened out there and it has nothing to do with us. Has it?

It didn’t take long for Mor to return. She dropped down onto the bed of furs and moodily looked at the way Isa was making them fresh tea. Silently the blond woman handed her a steaming mug and sat down next to her. They both stared into the fire.

When she had finished her hot drink, Isa could not stand the silence any longer. She glanced sideways, to see Mor look at her own hands, a deep frown creasing her forehead.

” Want to talk about it?”

Mor slowly nodded and turned her head to look at the woman who was sitting next to her. She could see the worry and the fear in those deep green eyes and mentally kicked herself for putting it there.

” I…I ran into this soldier,” Mor started, trying to compose her thoughts, so at least she would tell a coherent story.

” Just now?” Isa asked.

” Yes, when I went to get something to eat. I was walking back to the cave and suddenly I noticed somebody following me.”

” Really?” Isa responded, sitting up straight. ” You mean, here? The Romans know we are here?”

Her voice held a touch of panic and quickly Mor took one of Isa’s smaller hands in her own. It made her feel better immediately. Feeling the soft, warm skin against her own.

” No, they don’t,” Mor answered, an icy glint in her eyes. ” I stopped him.”

” You….stopped him,” Isa slowly repeated.

She swallowed and looked at their interlaced fingers, realizing the hand that so tenderly held her own, had killed somebody that morning. A shiver ran down her spine. Mor felt it and wanted to withdraw her hand, but Isa held on tight.

” You are repulsed,” Mor concluded matter-of-factly, but she wasn’t able to hide the sadness in her voice.

” Why did you kill him?” Isa asked, her thumb stroking the skin of Mor’s hand.

” Because he wanted to kill me. And he said that when he was done with that, he…” Mor swallowed hard and fought the tears that were stinging the back of her eyes. ” They would come after you.”

Isa smiled sadly and brought Mor’s hand to her face, rubbing her cheek against it and closing her eyes. She should have known Titus would not give up easily.

” Was it Titus?” she asked, so softly Mor had to strain her ears to hear it.

” No. Some soldier named Servius. I guess he’s a friend of Titus.”

Isa kissed the back of Mor’s hand and pressed it against her chest.

” You were right, I don’t like what you just told me, but it’s not your fault, Mor. You were defending yourself and me. It’s doesn’t sound like you had a choice.”

” There’s always a choice,” Mor responded through clenched teeth. ” I could have hid in the forest. I knew he was following me and I could have lead him astray, but I didn’t. I waited for him and challenged him. From the start I knew he wouldn’t stand a chance.”

” Why? He was a trained soldier, fully armed no doubt. And you had what? Your daggers?”

” I didn’t even need them,” Mor said. ” I killed him with his own sword.”

Mor could feel Isa’s eyes almost burn the side of her face and she slowly turned her head, to look at her. The smaller woman was staring at her with a mixture of wonder and unbelief. But the repulsion Mor had expected, was still not there.

” It wasn’t hard, Isa,” she sadly smiled. ” I was trained well.”

She reached out her free hand and gently stroked Isa’s cheek. Reveling in the softness of the skin. Immediately she was flooded with memories of the night before and a thick, comfortable warmth spread through her body. It gave her the courage she needed to tell Isa something she dreaded, but Mor felt like she had no choice. Her friend needed to know.

” Remember that I told you I was taken captive by the Romans when they raided and destroyed the village I lived in?”

” And murdered your grandmother,” Isa added. ” Yes, I remember.”

” Jaali saved my life. I was about to run back into the burning house, to look for my grandmother, but he got a hold of me and dragged me back out. He was the strangest creature I had ever seen. He stood tall as a young tree and his skin was so dark, almost black. And he was incredibly strong. I kicked him, a few times even, but he never flinched. Not once. He was a slave and when his owner wanted him to get rid of me he said he would like to train me.”

Mor glanced aside and smiled when she saw the intense look on Isa’s face.

” I became a gladiator,” Mor continued. ” Jaali trained me and he did it well. Every day he worked on me, building up my strength, my endurance, my fighting skills. What do you know about gladiators, Isa?”

Isa cleared her throat and sucked in her bottom lip, a frown creasing her forehead.

” I have heard stories, ” she finally answered. ” They fight in arena’s, until they die. Except when they lose and are shown mercy. I also heard they have to fight animals, like bears and lions. I guess it’s a popular form of entertainment in Rome.”

” Not only in Rome,” Mor sighed. ” The stories you heard are true. My first real fight was against a wolf. The poor animal. He had been wounded when they captured him and he had this bad limp. My owner wanted to see how much progress I had made and ordered Jaali to prepare me to fight the animal. It was the first time I held a real sword. I was only allowed wooden weapons in training. And I had never killed before.”

Mor fell silent for a moment, lost in memories, while Isa tried to wrap her mind around the things her friend was telling her.

” How old were you, Mor.”

” Thirteen summers.”

Isa briefly closed her eyes, swallowing hard to get rid of the lump in her throat. She could almost picture the young girl. Tall for her age, all arms and legs. Trained to fight. But scared, now she had to defend her life against an animal, just for the amusement of others.

Isa scooted closer and laid her head against Mor’s shoulder in a silent gesture of love and compassion. It surprised the tall woman. She had been so certain that the peace loving Isa would have turned away from her, once she had find out who and what her friend really was.

” What happened?”

” The wolf was scared and hurt. Jaali had told me they had not been feeding it for a few days and just before the fight had started, he had been given some raw meat. Just a little, so he could get the taste. When I was in the arena they let him out of his cage and we just stood there, looking at each other. He didn’t want to fight, just looked at me, like he knew.” Mor swallowed and remembered the sadness she had felt at that moment. ” He was a magnificent animal. Big, with thick gray fur. His eyes were almost yellow and seemed to look straight through me. Only when people started to throw stones at him did he move. One hit him against his wounded leg and that’s when he came at me. I still don’t think he wanted to hurt me, he just wanted his own misery to end. I only had to raise my sword. He ran straight into it. He was dead in an instant.” Mor swallowed. ” That was my first fight.”

” So, there were more?”

” Yes, ” Mor whispered. ” There were many. My owner was angry, because he had wanted some entertainment. He ordered another fighter into the ring. She was a gladiator by choice and traveled around. You know, Isa, the Romans pay a lot of money to see a good gladiator fight. She was well trained.”

” Did you fight her?” Isa breathlessly asked, already knowing the answer.

” Yes,” Mor whispered, closing her eyes.

She could still remember the look in the other fighter’s eyes. It was the look of a maniac. The woman had been at least twenty summers old, Mor’s senior by seven summers. She wasn’t tall, but her lack in height was compensated with her strength. And on her face Mor had seen the smug look of victory, even before the fight had started.

” She wanted to kill me. For pleasure. Her weapons of choice were the net and the trident. She wanted to give the crowd the entertainment they were begging for. No doubt my owner had promised her a good reward for that.”

There was bitterness in Mor’s voice.

” What weapons did you chose?”

” Jaali trained me well. I was skilled in all weapons. I knew she was more experienced than I was and stronger. But I was fast. I choose the man catcher, so I could at least try and keep some distance between us.”

” But you won,” Isa concluded, squeezing the large hand she was still holding against her chest.

” I did,” Mor smiled. ” She clearly underestimated me. Came at me like a maniac, but I was able to dodge her all the time. She was a fighter that used her strength more than anything else. I kept moving all the time and she tired. When she threw the net at me, she missed and I stepped on it, pulling it from her hand. I remember the panic in her eyes. She never expected to have any trouble fighting me. When she came at me with the trident I sidestepped and made her trip. She fell. I put my weapon on her throat and looked at my owner.”

Isa looked up at Mor’s face and saw her throat work convulsively, while a thin layer of perspiration had formed on her forehead.

” He smiled,” Mor’s voice rasped. ” And then said Iugala. I had to kill her. I just knew I couldn’t. I just…held that sharp point against her neck and waited, hoping my owner would change his mind, but he didn’t. Jaali was just standing there, looking at me and when I saw his eyes I knew I had to do it. For his sake as well as mine. So, I closed my eyes and pushed the pole down.”

Mor wiped the moisture off her forehead and Isa saw her hand slightly tremble.

” I threw up all night.” Mor sighed. ” But my owner was proud. He had his precious killer. After that very first fight, I realized the only way to survive was to win. Something inside me must have died, because there were times I even enjoyed the fight. I was proud when I defeated an opponent, especially when they were much more experienced and stronger than I was. I killed for entertainment, Isa.”

Isa rubbed her cheek against Mor’s chest and snuggled closer. She was shocked by the things Mor had told her. And she felt pain for that young girl, who didn’t have a choice but to fight and kill, in order to survive.

Mor’s hand cupped her cheek and Isa closed her eyes, enjoying the feel of her lover’s hand on her face and the warmth of the tall body she was pressed up against.

” How did you get out of it? Did he free you?”

” Not really,” Mor snorted. ” My owner was an evil man, who liked torturing people. He would often have his soldiers raid a village, just for the fun of it. He ordered the men killed and sent the women and children away in slavery. He often abused the girls first, before sending them away. They were just children. One day a girl stood up against him. He had ordered her into his bedchambers and had invited one of his friends as well.”

Mor could feel Isa’s body stiffen and she freed the hand that was still clasped inside Isa’s, so she could wrap her arm around the blond woman’s shoulders and pull her closer.

” She fought them and because she did put up such a fight, they got tired of her and had her thrown in the lock up. As a joke and to punish her, she had to fight me. That was against all gladiator rules. No matter what, the fighters should have equal chances of winning. I was used as an executioner and ordered to drag it out, for the entertainment. She was just a girl, Isa. Blonde, like you, with soft brown eyes and a gentle smile. ” Mor cleared her throat. ” She actually smiled at me when we met in the arena. That’s when I had enough of it. The fighting, the bloodshed. I was only fifteen summers old, but I had killed so many people already. I wanted it to stop.”

Mor rested her head on the soft, blonde hair against her shoulder and closed her eyes, enjoying the sensations that were coursing through her body. The love, the warmth and the comfort that Isa presented. It was all so much more than she ever deserved.

” Jaali was told to dress up like Mercury, to drag the dead body out of the arena. And I saw him standing there, waiting. He knew it would be over soon. He knew I was getting tired of the fighting and I just prayed to the Gods that he would understand what I was about to do. I walked up to the girl, who was given a sword. The poor thing didn’t even know how to hold it. When I saw her I felt like my heart was bleeding.”

” That could have easily been me,” Isa whispered, suddenly fully understanding what her fate might have been if Titus would have caught her.

” Yes,” Mor softly answered. ” And the first time I saw you, I remembered the girl in the arena and I just felt like I had to protect you.”

” Did…did you….?”

” No, I didn’t,” Mor answered the unspoken question. ” I couldn’t Isa. I kicked the sword out of her hand and wrestled her to the ground. I held my dagger against her throat, to make it look real, but I told her to be prepared and pretend to die. I told her I would have to hit her a few times, but I promised to be careful. My owner thought I was torturing her and he was just laughing, he and his friend. I acted like I strangled her and she played her part real well.” A small smile appeared on Mor’s face. ” When it was over she was laying in the dust, face down. I still don’t know how she managed to breath. Jaali threw her over his shoulder and carried her out. My owner didn’t even look, so the girl was saved.”

” What was her name?”

” Sigrun. She came from the North.”

” Do you know what happened to her?” Isa asked, hoping the answer would indicate a happy ending.

” She became the wife of Erhard, my second in command,” Isa smiled. ” She is the mother of two little girls and one little boy and she still is my friend.”

Isa let out a relieved breath and smiled broadly.

” I am glad,” she whispered.

“So am I,” Mor responded, kissing a blonde patch of hair, just underneath her chin.

” What happened next? Did you escape?”

” Yes, after my owner found out one day I had been neglecting his orders and instead of taking lives I was saving them. Jaali and I were instructing a girl where to run to, after I had ‘killed’ her that afternoon, when my owner walked into the stable. He had brought his soldiers with him, so somebody must have told him what we had been doing. It was an ugly fight. The girl was immediately killed. Jaali choose my side and together we fought, but there were too many of them. He managed to force them back and shouted to me that I should run. I didn’t want to leave him behind, but he kept yelling at me to run. I didn’t want him to give his life in vain, so I jumped on a horse and ran. When I looked back I saw him go down. He gave his life to save me.”

” He must have been a good friend.”

” The best, ” Mor managed to answer, although a big lump was forming in her throat.

She reached underneath her tunic and pulled out the small leather pouch she had been wearing since she had found it in Titus’ tent.

” This was Jaali’s. It was his amulet. He always wore it and when I sneaked into the Roman camp a few nights ago I found it in Titus’ tent. He must have been the one who killed Jaali. And now he is after you and me.”

Isa half turned, so she was facing Mor and looked up at her with trusting eyes.

” He won’t get us,” she spoke with confidence, pulling Mor’s head down for a quick kiss, that quickly turned out to be a long and thorough exploration of each other’s lips.

” You heard my story, Isa,” Mor mumbled when they finally broke apart. ” I am a killer. A murderer. Taking another persons life is what I am good at. It’s what I am trained for.”

Isa took Mor’s face between her hands and forced the taller woman to look at her. Her green eyes bore into a pair of blue ones and Mor could see the determination and stubbornness.

” Listen to me, Mor. When I look at you, I don’t see a murderer. I see a woman. A trained warrior, yes. But also a woman whose heart holds a lot of love and tenderness. This morning these hands killed a person that was trying to harm you…us. Last night those same hands held me like I was the most precious thing on earth. They were so gentle and loving. Don’t tell me you are a killer, Mor. Because you are not. My heart hurts because you have seen so much death and violence when you were only a child and I understand it’s not easy for you to believe you are capable of so much more than destruction. But Mor, I promise you I will make you see what I see in you, even if that will take me the rest of my life.”

This time Mor couldn’t stop the tears that were slowly rolling down her cheeks. Isa’s plea had been so passionate and full of love, it had struck a chord deep inside her soul. She didn’t try to hide the tears or wipe them away. She just sat there, Isa’s arms firmly wrapped around her, her head cradled against her chest and cried for the innocence she had lost when she was so young. For all the blood she had shed. For the friend she had lost. And for the chance she had been given to know love, through this small, blonde woman, who was holding her tight, whispering sweet words that were like a balm on her tattered soul.

****

Outside the cave, close to where Mor and Servius had been fighting, a dark clothed figure carefully tried to find his way through the dense bushes. Hardly making any noise and trying not to leave any tracks.

He stood still and sniffed the air, filling his lungs with the scents the warm air transported through the forest. He couldn’t smell anything out of the ordinary and slowly turned his head, breathing in deeply. Suddenly he stood still. He sniffed again and a small smirk crossed his face. He had detected the smell of blood. Fresh blood.

Quickly he followed the scent, until he reached a small track, that clearly showed the signs of a fight. Kicked up dirt, still dark and moist. Broken twigs and freshly bruised leaves.

His eyes searched the forest floor until they found what he was expecting: blood. His foot scraped away some of the dark colored sand and what he saw confirmed his suspicions. A lot of blood. There had been a fight and somebody had been injured, if not worse.

A frown creased his forehead when he realized who the injured party likely would have been. A small shrug of his shoulders and he continued his way, pleased to find that whoever had been walking the narrow track, had not taken the trouble to cover any traces.

Like a predator he made his way up the hill, until the hardly visible path ended in between a formation of some scattered rocks and a few bushes. Puzzled he looked around to see if he could find any clues. The stony surface of the ground almost made it impossible to find any footprints and there were no further indications that somebody had been passing the area.

” That’s impossible,” he whispered, getting frustrated now he was forced to change his plans.

He shifted the crossbow that was slung over his shoulder and looked around for a place to hide. His eyes fell the rough surface of a huge rock, that seemed to be thrown into the hillside by the hand of a God. It seemed to be fused with the surrounding rocks and stones, but a large part stuck out, the top being flat. An outstanding place to hide.

He grinned and quickly climbed up. Looking forward to the confrontation that would be inevitable.

****

They had made good time. Before the sun was high in the sky, Baldric and Jaali had reached the desolated, little village, where they would be met by Mor’s army. Only once during their journey they had met a Roman patrol. It was Jaali who had spotted them first and quickly they had left the main track they were traveling, to guide the horse down the slope, through the creek

Baldric was truly impressed, both with his new friend, but also with Ragnarok. The horse had carried them both and did not even look tired.

“Have to ask Mor where she found this beauty.”

Just before they reached the abandoned settlement Jaali halted Ragnarok and jumped off, motioning Baldric to do the same. He led the horse through the bushes and tied her to a tree. When he saw Baldric’s puzzled expression he smiled and rolled his eyes, making the boy chuckle.

” Would you have just ridden the horse in?” Jaali asked, his voice gentle.

” Well, yeah, I….,” Baldric stopped in mid sentence and Jaali saw his face go red.

” That would have been a stupid thing to do, huh?”

Jaali nodded and put his massive hand on Baldric’s shoulder.

” You have to be careful, Elojo. Snakes don’t only hide in their burrows.”

Baldric bit his lip and looked at his tall friend with an expression of hardly veiled hero worship.

” I am glad you came,” he simply stated.

” I m grateful you freed me,” Jaali answered with a smile. ” So, let’s walk the rest of the way and see if we can get into trouble, huh?”

” Mor didn’t think anyone would be here,” Baldric told his friend, while they were walking side by side. ” But she might be wrong.”

” Mor is a very smart person, young one. But even smart persons sometimes make mistakes.”

” She saved my sisters’ life, you know,” Baldric informed Jaali. ” And mine as well.”

” Did she now? Guess my Sauda has not changed much then. To me she has always been a hero.”

” She is very strong,” Baldric continued. ” And tall, almost as tall as you. Isa hardly reaches her shoulders. They are like opposites, Mor is tall and dark, my sister is small and light. But I think they are becoming good friends.”

” If your sister is like you, she will be a good friend. And I am glad Sauda has found a friend like that. She needs it.”

They had reached the settlement and Jaali motioned Baldric to be quiet and to follow him. They carefully walked around the perimeter, scanning the environment with their eyes and their ears strained to try and pick up any sound that would be out of the ordinary. There was none. After carefully checking out the few remaining buildings that were still standing, Jaali nodded and Baldric went inside the house Mor had described to him, to appear a few moments later with a big, light blue rag.

He tied it to a pole close to the riverbank and cast a look across the water. It was hard to see whether there was anyone else on the other side. The riverbank formed a steep slope, with bushes and trees lining the top, making it impossible to see what was behind it. But Baldric felt like they were being watched and he sat down in the grass, next to his friend, ready to patiently wait.

They didn’t have to wait long. After a little while the bushes across the river moved and five men appeared, carrying a small wooden boat, that was carefully lowered into the water. Two men stepped in and started to row into their direction.

Slowly Baldric and Jaali got to their feet, their eyes never leaving the men in the boat. The sound of the water splashing when the oars were pulled and pushed back in again, scattered the silence.

The river was wide, but it didn’t take the men long to reach the other side. They jumped out and pulled their boat onto the river bank. For the first time Baldric and Jaali had the opportunity to study the strangers who were now walking toward them.

They were rugged looking men, sturdy and muscular. They were both clad in light blue tunics and body armor that was made out of fine, chain mail. Jaali looked at it approvingly. Strapped around their waists was a belt that held some daggers and a scabbard for their short swords. When they came closer Baldric noticed there was also a scabbard on their backs that contained a long sword. On their feet they wore knee high boots, made out of thick, black leather.

They looked impressive and Baldric felt his mouth go dry. What if they didn’t believe him? Mor’s instructions to him had been clear, but what if they thought he was lying?

” Keep your wits together, Elojo,” Jaali’s low voice sounded near his ear, as if reading his mind. ” Don’t forget, you are the General’s courier. Stand proud, young one.”

After those words Baldric straightened his back and squared his shoulders, looking the approaching men straight in their eyes. His green eyes shone with excitement and pride.

” Who raised the blue flag?” a gruff, but not unfriendly voice sounded, when the eldest of the two spoke. His eyes were glued to Jaali’s tall form and his hand was clasped around the hilt of his sword.

” I did, Baldric, son of Axel from the Mosa valley. Mor sent me.”

Immediately two pair of eyes widened and the grip on the hilt seem to relax a little.

” Do you have prove of that?”

” I do,” Baldric answered.

” Show me.”

” I have strict orders to only talk to Erhard,” the young boy explained, his voice clear and unwavering.

” How do we know you are not sent by the Romans?” the second man asked, nervously glancing at Baldric’s companion.

Jaali and Baldric looked at each other and shared a smile.

” Think again,” Baldric snorted. ” Look at my friend here. Until last night he was a prisoner of Rome. You can still see the welts and the cuts around his neck from the collar they made him wear. Jaali is no friend of Rome. Neither am I.”

” Jaali?” the older man echoed, a hint of surprise in his voice.

The two soldiers looked at each other and nodded.

” Take down the flag and follow us,” they ordered, turning around and walking back to their boat.

Baldric cast Jaali a puzzled look and shrug his shoulders.

” Do you think they know you?” he asked, neatly folding the torn blue rag.

” I have no idea, Elojo,” Jaali answered with a smile. ” But sometimes the Gods like surprises.”

To Baldrics surprise they were met on the other side of the river by a large group of soldiers who were all dressed the same. It was an impressive sight and excited he looked around, noticing the curious looks Jaali received. His friend though remained calm, meeting the curious stares with a friendly smile while never leaving the side of his young friend.

Baldric was led toward a group of men that seemed to be the leaders. Their outfits were slightly different. Instead of light blue tunics, they were wearing dark blue ones.

” This boy says he has a message from Mor,” one of the soldiers that had accompanied them spoke out loud.

Immediately a silence fell over the camp and all eyes traveled to Baldric, who swallowed and tried to push down the feeling of nervousness that was settling in his stomach.

” It’s for Erhard only,” Baldric said, his eyes scanning the faces of the men in front of him.

” If that is so, you will know who Erhard is, ” a young man in a dark blue tunic replied. ” Walk up to him and give him your message.”

Baldric licked his dry lips, while his eyes searched the faces that were surrounding him. He noticed there was no hostility, just some tension, like they were all expecting to hear something important.

Baldric took his time, but he didn’t see the face he was looking for. Although a few of them almost confused him. His heart started pounding in his chest and he could feel the responsibility weigh heavy on his shoulders. Mor’s instructions echoed in his mind.

You will recognize Erhard. A lot of my men have the same features, tall, blond and strong. And don’t let it fool you. He also has three brothers who serve in my army and they all look alike, but I promise you Baldric, you will recognize him. We don’t call him ‘Balder ‘ for nothing.

Baldric frantically tried to remember all the stories Isa had been telling him since he was small. He always liked to hear the legends about the Gods and Isa seemed to know so many. Balder was the God of innocence and light and according to the stories he was extremely handsome with bright blue eyes and golden-red hair.

Baldrics green eyes flew over the group of men in front of him, but he didn’t see what he was looking for. Slowly he shook his head.

” He’s not here,” he softly spoke.

” Try again,” a strong voice behind him sounded.

Baldric spun around and saw the row of soldiers that surrounded Jaali and him slowly part, to make way for three men on horses.

Baldric’s eyes quickly studied them. It was clear they were brothers. All three of them were tall and blue eyed, but one seemed to be a little different.

” Go with your instincts, Elojo,” Jaali’s voice rumbled.

Isa’s brother nodded and stepped forward until he had reached the three men, who had descended their horses and were standing side by side, looking at him.

Without hesitation Baldric walked closer and stopped in front of the one who was on the left side. He was as tall as the others, his long hair was tied back and had a golden glow. But his eyes, even though they were are blue as his brothers’, shone with a light that seemed to come from deep within his soul. And Baldric understood this handsome man could be a friend for life, or an enemy to fear.

” I have a message from your general,” Baldric spoke with confidence. ” She said that as soon as she will see her, she will tell your wife it was you who ate all those pastries.”

The tall man’s face split into a broad grin and he reached out his arm to clasp Baldric’s.

” Mor did send you,” he grinned. ” Welcome, young courier. My name is Erhard.”

” I am Baldric,” Isa’s brother smiled, the relief evident on his face.

He turned to Jaali and looked at his dark friend.

” This is my friend,” he explained. ” His name is…”

” Jaali,” Erhard interrupted him, to Baldrics astonishment.

He let go of Baldric’s arm and stepped closer to the tall, dark man, who was looking at him wide eyed, reaching out his arm in an inviting gesture.

” My wife still talks about you,” Erhard explained.

Jaali’s face was a picture of confusion. He had never thought that Mor…

” Sigrun,” Erhard smiled. ” You both saved her life and Mor’s, on the day they escaped those Roman clutches. They always believed you had died.”

” I did not,” Jaali answered with a broad smile. ” I am pleased to hear the little girl lived. She is a courageous and gentle soul.”

” That she is,” Erhard answered. ” Follow me Baldric and you as well, Jaali. I am curious to hear Mor’s message.”

****

The sun was about to set when Mor and Isa decided to go outside and dispose of Servius’ body. First Mor had objected to Isa’s help, not eager to subject her friend to the brutal way the Roman soldier had met his final destiny. But Isa had insisted and when Mor had seen the defiant eyes and grim look on her face, she had smiled and had kissed her lightly on the lips.

” Thank you, ” she had simply said.

Mor had strapped on her belt with the daggers and had attached her scabbard and sword to her back, not wanting to run into any Roman, being practically unharmed.

In companionable silence they had walked towards the exit of the cave and Isa had patiently waited for Mor to go outside to see if it was safe.

Together they walked into the clearing in front of the cave’s entrance. Mor kept looking around, an uneasy feeling making her nervous. It was like they were being watched. Again Mor spun around, her eyes scanning the tree line and the rocks that were scattered around. Nothing.

When she turned back to follow Isa, who was walking a few paces in front of her, she could hear it. Hardly audible. A soft scraping sound like the cocking of a cross bow.

All of a sudden her nape hairs stood on end and she could feel her muscles tense. Her eyes flew towards the unprotected body of the woman who was walking in front of her.

Mor didn’t have to turn around to see the arrow being released. She could hear the whooshing sound of air being sliced by a fast traveling object. And she knew it was heading their way. But who was it aimed for? Her? Or Isa?

Mor didn’t have time to think, she acted in pure instinct. The muscles in her legs tensed and with a power that was born from desperation she coiled her body and jumped forward.

” Isa!”
Part 11
It was like a dream. Mor knew she was moving forward, but somehow her body seemed to freeze in the momentum. Her world had come to a full stop. She was very aware of the warm sun, kissing the skin of her arms and face. The colors of nature that were surrounding her. The soft breeze, that ruffled Isa’s long hair, touching the loose strands like a lovers’ caress.

The soft sound of the approaching arrow thundered in her ears, while she reached out to her unsuspecting friend. She stretched out her arm as far as she could and her fingertips almost grazed the light green fabric of her lovers’ tunic, but she knew she was going to be too late. Isa’s name died on her lips when Mor felt the impact of a sharp object penetrating the skin of her lower back. Immediately a hot pain surged through her body and Mor could hear her own sharp intake of breath.

The cry for Isa’s name became a groan when she felt her long legs give way. Not able to carry her body anymore as she collapsed on the forest floor.

The pain was terrible and Mor felt a steady stream of warm blood seep through her clothes.

Her eyes were still focused on Isa and when the small blond turned around, she could see the growing panic in her eyes. Mor wanted to reassure her friend, but her breathing was shallow and ragged. In spite of her injury she managed to smile, the relief evident in her clear blue eyes.

Thank the Gods you are okay!

” Isa. Run,” Mor’s voice croaked. ” Get out of here.”

But Isa did not respond. With horrified eyes she looked at the arrow that was sticking out of Mor’s back and the dark stain that was slowly spreading and coloring the fabric of Mor’s tunic an ugly color. Tears welled up like pools of deep green and with a sob Isa knelt next to Mor’s tall frame.

” I won’t leave you,” she whispered. ” Oh, Mor, I….”

Her eyes widened at the sight of a rapidly approaching figure and the pain and sorrow was replaced with a fiery anger.

” Titus!” she whispered, her voice hoarse with fear and rage.

Mor slowly turned her head to see the Roman Optio walking up to them. His crossbow slung over his shoulder and a smug look on his face.

” Go, Isa,” she urged. ” Run.”

But the young woman didn’t move. She just sat there. Frozen in place. Staring at the man who had just shot her lover.

Inwardly Mor cursed and her brain was already calculating her options. There had to be a way to keep Isa safe.

Unseen to Titus’ eyes her hand slowly traveled to her belt. When her fingers touched the warm hilt of a dagger, they firmly closed around it, carefully pulling it from it’s case.

” I finally got you, you bitch!” Titus spat, his mutilated face twisted into an ugly mask. ” You really thought you could outsmart me? I knew you were a woman the moment you walked into my tent. You were just lucky then. But I have news for you. Your luck has just ran out and I will make sure this is the last time you will see the light of day. You and that….slut.”

Mor’s face was a grim mask and she stared back at Titus with a look that held so much venom and contempt, the Roman soldier involuntarily took a step back.

” I should have expected you would shoot somebody else in the back,” she answered with a steady voice, not wanting to give him the satisfaction of knowing she was in pain. ” Don’t be too self confident, Titus, things aren’t always what they seem.”

Titus snorted and stepped closer. His whole attitude was one of arrogance. He made sure to stay away from Mor’s long legs though, because he didn’t trust the dark woman. From his previous experience he knew she was an opponent to respect. And never underestimate.

” I will kill you, warrior. Oh, yes. But not yet. First I will make you watch how I will squeeze the life out of this little girl first. What is she anyway? Your friend? Does she share your bedroll? Let me tell you something, she shared the bedroll of every soldier in the whole Roman castre.”

For a brief moment Mor’s eyes flashed, but she didn’t respond to Titus’ crude words. Instead she cast a look at Isa, who was sitting quietly at her side, tears streaming down her face. It seemed to Mor she had not heard the disgusting remarks Titus had made. But suddenly, without hardly moving, Mor could feel Isa’s hand on her leg, cautiously trailing down to her right boot, where she always carried a dagger. Isa’s face was still expressionless, but there were thin, tense lines around the corners of her mouth.

Mor’s heart clenched and she could almost feel the panic and desperation rise. Her first reaction was to pull away her leg, but she knew that would alarm Titus. So she laid still, her eyes traveling back to the Roman soldier and pinning him with an ice cold stare, while her heart pounded heavily in her chest and her stomach churned in anxiety.

No!!! Isa, no!!! Please!!! Don’t!! Let me try to handle this. Please!!!

” I will make you suffer, woman,” Titus hissed, stepping even closer. ” I will use my dagger and slice you up. I will have you scream and cry in agony. You visited the wrong Roman the evening you sneaked into my camp.”

Titus took another step closer and wanted to kick Mor’s body, as she lay helpless on the ground. The blood that was seeping out of her back formed a puddle under her.

But a pair of flashing blue eyes and a growl that seemed to come from deep within her chest, made him stop dead in his tracks. Nervously he licked his lips. Maybe he wanted too much. The warrior was a dangerous opponent and Titus realized he did not want to risk getting hurt again. Maybe he should get it done and over with, just use his crossbow and end their lives. Then he could go back to his friends, who he had told to wait down the hill, and get back to the camp to get drunk.

Titus narrowed his eyes and looked at Mor, as his hand went to his arrow quiver to take one out. Mor read his eyes and suddenly the pain, anger, and anxiety disappeared. She knew this. It was so familiar. She had been here before. In the arena during her gladiator days, reading the lust for murder in the eyes of her opponents. Inspite of her injury, Mor’s honed instincts took control of her body.

Long, slender fingers comfortably settled over the hilt of a dagger, the smooth wood giving her a reassuring warmth. Her long,dark hair had fallen over her face and Mor shook her head, to shake back the strands that were falling in her eyes and obscuring her vision. She managed not to grimace in pain when that movement caused the arrow to shift within her body.

Mor could feel the boot dagger sliding out of it’s hiding place, but she dared not turn around. Her eyes were on Titus, who was about to load his crossbow and, no doubt, would quickly end her life and that of Isa.

Mor clenched her teeth and fought the nausea that was threatening to overtake her when she thought about Isa getting hurt.

Not now. Not today. Not while I am alive!

Patiently Mor waited for Titus to make a mistake. She didn’t have to wait too long. Her eyes never left his face and when he held the arrow in his hand and slipped down the crossbow from his shoulder, she knew she had to strike.

Mor pulled her dagger out of it’s sheath and brought her hand back to throw it at the Roman soldier, when, to her shock, from the corner of her eyes she saw something flying passed her. Before her mind decided what the object could be, her boot dagger was firmly planted in Titus’ left eye. For a moment his grotesque, one eyed face stared at them with surprise. Then the sturdy body of the Roman soldier collapsed against the forrest floor to join his cousin in the Underworld.

Mor couldn’t move. She was frozen in place and stared at the lifeless body, while her mind tried to wrap itself around what had just happened.

She was shaken out of her stupor by a retching sound behind her. As quick as her wounded body allowed her to, Mor turned around, seeing Isa emptying the contents of her stomach in the nearby bushes.

” Isa, ” Mor’s voice croaked. ” Isa, are you okay?”

Isa wiped her mouth with the back of her hand and slowly turned to look at her lover. When she noticed the expression of pain on Mor’s face, she quickly stood up and knelt beside the tall woman.

” What can I do?” she asked, her face pale and covered with tiny drops of perspiration. ” We need to get you out of here, Mor, I…”

Mor winced every time she moved, but in spite of that she covered Isa’s hand with her larger one and squeezed gently.

” Are you okay?”

Isa’s eyes were dull and reflected the hopelessness the younger woman felt, but she nodded slowly.

” I…I think so, I” she whispered. ” You need to get out of here, Mor. Maybe there are more Romans around.”

Her eyes traveled down to the pool of blood Mor was laying in and she suppressed a sob.

” Mor!”

” I know, Isa. I know,” Mor groaned. ” I need to get out of here and look after that wound. The arrow will have to be pulled out. Isa…”

Isa had was turning even whiter than she already was and swallowed convulsively. But Mor’s eyes were not able to hide the urgency and worry, so Isa took a deep breath and wiped her sweaty palms on the fabric of her tunic.

” What should I do?”

” How long is the part of the shaft that is sticking out of my back?”

Isa’s eyes scanned Mor’s back and she nervously bit her lip.

” About two hand lengths,” she answered.

” Grab the shaft and carefully try to pull it,” Mor ordered. ” I need to know if it’s stuck in a bone or anywhere else.”

” Wouldn’t it be better to push it through? I…” Isa hesitated

” No, not in this case,” Mor answered. ” I’ve seen men bleed to death when they did that. Just pull.”

” But, Mor…”

” Do it, Isa, ” Mor snapped, immediately regretting the way she talked to Isa. But she was injured and she knew the arrow had to come out, sooner or later. Besides, they were like sitting ducks. Every Roman soldier who walked down the path would be able to see them and Mor was in no shape to defend herself and Isa. They needed to go.

Mor closed her eyes to prepare herself for the hot blast of pain she knew she would be feeling, the moment Isa would touch the arrow. She heard the smaller woman sniff and that little sound cut through her heart and brought tears to her eyes.

They did not have time to talk now. But later, when the arrow was removed and the entry wound cleaned and dressed, she would talk to Isa. And ask her who taught her how to throw a dagger!

Isa’s hands were shaking when they reached out to touch the arrow and she took a deep breath, bracing herself for what would be coming next.

Slowly her right hand closed around the smooth wooden shaft. Isa’s eyes were glued to Mor’s face, ready to stop as soon as Mor would even flinch. But the tall warrior turned her face the other way and, unseen to Isa’s eyes, squeezed her eyes shut and held her breath.

Trying to control the tremors in her hand, Isa very slowly gave the arrow a little pull. Mor’s body stiffened in reaction, but the tall woman did not utter one sound. Again Isa pulled and while the bile rose in her throat, she felt the arrow move a little.

” Does it come out?” Mor breathed, the pain evident in her voice.

” A little,” Isa answered with a shaky voice. “Do I…”

” Pull a little harder,” Mor advised, her strong fingers clenching the grass and dirt she was laying on. ” I will be all right, Isa. It needs to come out.”

Isa nodded slowly and took another deep breath. Again she pulled, but this time she kept the motion going and with wide eyes she saw the bloodied shaft appearing from the dark fabric. Mor, fighting the nausea and dizziness, softly groaned, but Isa kept going and suddenly with a soft squishing noise, the arrowhead was pulled out of Mor’s skin.

” I got it,” Isa sighed, blinking away the tears that threatened to spill. ” Mor?”

Isa voice slightly rose and she threw the arrow aside to quickly crawl over, so she could see her friend’s face.

” Mor?’

The tall woman had her cheek pressed against the ground and when Isa gently brushed away the long hair, she could see that the color of her skin was an unnatural white. But she was still conscious and slowly a pair of blue eyes blinked open, looking at Isa with a slightly dazed expression.

” Thank you,” Mor managed to whisper, reaching out her hand and putting it on Isa’s leg.

Isa covered the strong hand with her own and produced a shaky smile. She brought her head close to Mor’s and gently kissed her on her temple.

” What do I do now?”

” Help me up, so we can go back into the cave. I don’t want to run the risk of another soldier finding us. Not now.

” You think he wasn’t alone?” Isa nervously asked, anxiously looking around.

” I don’t want to take the chance,” Mor answered, her voice soft and tired.

She slowly rolled onto her side while supporting her body with her arm. She pushed herself up until she was sitting. Isa knelt beside her and wrapped her arm around Mor’s waist, gently helping her up. It was a slow and painful process and when Mor was finally standing she visibly swayed.

” Do you think you can walk?” Isa asked, her voice filled with concern.

” Yes,” Mor whispered, rubbing her face with one hand. ” Besides, it’s not like I have a choice. Unless you want to carry me,” she faintly choked.

” I would if I could,” Isa answered in a serious tone, looking up to see a pair of tired blue eyes looking down at her.

She glanced over her shoulder and Mor could feel the shiver running through her smaller body. She realized Isa had taken a life and was really upset about it. But it was impossible to help her friend deal with that right now. First they would have to take care of Mor’s injury. Maybe she could talk with her later, because she felt Isa desperately needed that.

” Let’s go,” Isa softly urged, trying not to groan when she felt a heavy weight on her still healing shoulder. ” That wound needs to be cleaned out and dressed.”

” Could you…cover….that puddle of…blood and ….make sure …we…don’t leave…any tracks?” Mor panted with difficulty, fighting the blackness that threatened to overwhelm her.

” I will,” Isa quietly answered. ” Are you okay standing there?”

Mor just nodded and when she felt Isa’s supportive grip loosen she could have cried out of frustration. But the only thing she did was bite her lip. Taking deep breaths and trying to ignore the pain.

It took them a long time to get back into the cave again. Isa had to cover each and every drop of blood with sand, leaves and rocks and when they finally hit the darkness of the cave, she sighed with relief. Without speaking she lead Mor back into the cave and helped the tall woman down onto the pallet. Mor grunted and clenched her teeth, trying not to cry out in agony.

” I will boil some water,’ Isa said, sounding anxious and frightened.

Mor could only nod. She laid down on her stomach and briefly closed her eyes. Disgusted with the fact that she saw the world spinning.

” Not good,” she whispered.

As fast as she could, Isa had filled the iron pot with fresh well water and hung it over the fire. Effectively pushing back the many ‘what ifs’ that floated through her mind. She knelt beside Mor’s tall body and hesitantly stretched out a hand.

” I need to see the wound,” she said, with more courage than she felt.

” Cut away the fabric,” Mor answered with a tired voice. ” Take a dagger from my belt.”

Isa quietly obeyed and with a soft tearing sound, Mor could hear the cuts being made in the fabric of her tunic. Through her pain and dizziness she briefly pondered over the fact that she trusted Isa so much, that she was laying face down, letting the smaller woman use a sharp dagger to reveal her wound. Something that would have been unthinkable not that long ago.

Many things have changed, Mor. YOU have changed.

Isa’s sharp intake of breath told Mor what she already suspected. It didn’t look good. A steady flow of blood slowly trickled from an entry wound that was as wide as the tip of Isa’s thumb. The skin around it was a little ragged and red.

” Rinse it out with water first, Isa,” Mor ordered, feeling the cold air of the cave contrast sharply with the heat of her skin.

” Okay,” Isa whispered, fighting the tears that were surfacing again.

She wiped her eyes and took a deep breath, before turning around and grabbing the pot filled with rapidly warming water. Using a little cup, she scooped out the lukewarm water and poured it in and over Mor’s wound. Immediately she saw the water turn red when it gushed over Mor’s back, to end up on the cave floor, where it slowly trickled away towards the fire.

Isa repeated the rinsing numerous times, until Mor’s voice told her to stop.

” That’s it, Isa. Thank you. I need you to take a clean cloth and …..apply some pressure, to drain… the rest of the water out.”

Obediently Isa grabbed a clean cloth and pressed it against Mor’s back. The tall woman slowly shifted on her side and even without seeing her face, Isa knew Mor was in pain.

” Just…have to…drain it,” Mor said, gritting her teeth.

Isa felt the cloth absorb the blood and water and again she was assaulted by a feeling of nausea that almost made her throw up. An image of Titus appeared in her mind and she needed all her willpower to push it to the background. Not now. Later!

” There’s a little…jar on the shelf….Next to…the daggers,” Mor continued. ” It has honey…in..it. Get it and put it…in the …wound and…around it. Then…cover it with a…dry, clean….cloth.”

Without saying a word, Isa stood up and retrieved the requested items. By the time she came back, Mor had rolled onto her stomach again. Her breathing was shallow and Isa briefly wondered how long it would take the strong warrior to lose consciousness.

Quickly she applied the dressing, securing it in place with a long strip of fabric she tied around Mor’s body. The tall woman didn’t even react when Isa reached underneath her to apply the bandage. But when she was done, she could hear Mor speak.

” Thank you, Isa,” she said with a soft voice. ” There’s just…one other thing…I need you..to do. There’s a pouch in the…basket next to….the shelf. It’s….willow bark. I need you…to ..let it steep in some…hot water. Then add….honey and…give it to me to…drink. It…will fight….fever.”

Again Isa got to her feet and silently did what Mor had asked. She took the pouch and poured the chipped bark into the boiling water. The smell made her wrinkle her nose and she decided adding honey didn’t seem like such a bad idea at all.

” Does it have to steep long, Mor?,” she quietly asked, sitting down on the ground next to the pallet, staring into the fire.

” The longer the better,” Mor’s tired voice answered. ” But I don’t have the time. Just pour what’s left in a jar and cover it. I can have it later.”

They were silent for a long time. Mor laying motionless on the pallet and Isa staring into the dancing flames, until her eyes started to water. Just when she thought her friend had gone to sleep, Isa could hear Mor move behind her. When she glanced back, she noticed that Mor had turned around and was looking at her with pain filled blue eyes.

For a moment their eyes locked and Isa tentatively smiled.

” Can I get you something? Are you in much pain?”

” It hurts, ” Mor admitted. ” But it’s not as bad as it was. I would like a little water though.”

Isa was pleased to hear that Mor wasn’t breathing that hard anymore. She could talk without panting and Isa thought that was an improvement already.

She uncorked a waterskin and brought the spout to Mor’s lips. Greedily she drank and her eyes closed in pleasure when the cold water hit her dry mouth and throat. Her breathing was a little more labored when she gave Isa a little nod, indicating she was ready, but the panting was not as bad as before and Isa smiled again.

” You want some of that foul smelling tea now?” she joked, pleased to see a spark of amusement in those blue eyes she loved so much.

” Just take the pot off the fire and let it steep,” Mor answered. ” I have to do something else first.”

” What is that?” Isa frowned, putting the iron pot close to the fire, so the tea would stay hot and continue steeping.

” Come here,” Mor invited, patting the fur she was resting on.

Isa scooted closer, a puzzled expression on her face. Her green eyes searched Mor’s face and softened when she saw the half smile on her lover’s face.

” Come lay with me, Isa,” Mor urged. ” It’s too cold on that floor.”

” But…you are hurt! I don’t…”

” You won’t,” Mor interrupted. ” Come here. Please?”

Isa couldn’t resist the begging eyes and with a small sigh she carefully placed her body alongside Mor’s taller one. She supported her head with her hand. They were so close they were almost breathing the same air and silently they stared into each other’s eyes.

” Thank you,” Mor finally spoke, reaching out a hand to put a loose strand of blond hair behind Isa’s ear. ” For saving my life, in more than one way.”

” I…it’s….you…,” Isa stammered. ” I love you, Mor! He was going to kill you!”

Mor saw the green eyes fill with horror and slowly a tear left a moist track on Isa’s cheek.

” I killed a man,” Isa suddenly sobbed, hiding her face in trembling hands.

” Come here.”

Mor didn’t let the injury stop her from pulling Isa into her arms and holding her close. The smaller woman buried her face against Mor’s shoulder and the warrior could feel her shake. Stroking the blond hair she whispered soft words in Isa’s ear.

” Ssh…it’s going to be all right, my love. I know it hurts, but he was going to kill us. You did what you had to do.”

Mor pressed her lips against a warm temple and held Isa close. She let her cry, hoping it would make her friend feel better. After a long time the sobbing eased and sniffing, Isa wiped the tears from her eyes that were now red and puffy from crying.

” I’m sorry,” she whispered.

” Don’t be,” Mor answered, gently kissing Isa’s forehead. ” You’ll have to tell me one thing though. Where did you learn to throw a dagger like that?”

****

It was a big tent, made out of deerskin. A large table was set in the middle. On it a map with a rough sketch of the Mose valley and it’s surrounding settlements.

” Mor made this map two seasons ago, ” Erhard told Baldric and Jaali, who were clearly interested in it. ” When we started planning our military actions against the Romans.”

” It’s true then,” Baldric responded with enthusiasm. His green eyes were shining. ” You will kick the Romans out of our lands!!”

Erhard smiled and put his hand on the young boys’ shoulder.

” One day we will, Baldric. But we need to have patience. That’s why I am so curious to find out what Mor has to tell me.”

” I have a letter from her, ” Baldric explained. ” It’s in my tunic.”

Without second thought, Baldric pulled his tunic over his head and turned it inside out. To their amazement and amusement, Erhard and Jaali saw a little pouch that was sewn on the inside of the fabric. Baldric used his dagger to cut the neatly stitched hem. When he had pried open one side, he stuck his hand in and pulled out a folded piece of paper.

” Didn’t know Mor was such a good seamstress,” Erhard joked, his blue eyes sparkling.

” Isa did it, ” Baldric mumbled, putting his tunic back on.

” Who is Isa?” Erhard asked with raised eyebrows.

” My sister,” Baldric answered. ” She’s Mor’s friend. Mor saved her life and she stayed with her.”

” You have to tell me about that later,” Mor’s second in command smiled, unfolding the piece of paper Baldric had handed to him. ” Sounds like an interesting story.”

“It is,” Baldric grinned, his green eyes shining.

Isa’s brother and Jaali studied Erhard’s face while he was reading Mor’s letter. Baldric was dying to find out what it said. Mor had not told him anything about the contents of the message he had to deliver to her army. He hoped it was a command to attack the Romans. Maybe they would finally get rid of them and take back the land that was theirs.

Erhard’s face had taken on a serious expression and Baldric saw him frown a few times. His eyes were pensive when he folded the message again and held it over the flame of a candle to burn it. When the flames almost reached his fingers, he threw the paper on the ground and let it burn to ashes.

For a long time it was quiet. Erhard was deep in thought, while Baldric stared at him with inquisitive eyes, trying not to show his curiosity. Jaali was standing motionless. His dark face hidden, only lit by the soft light of the candles in the tent. His face was expressionless, only his intelligent eyes moved, when they traveled from his young friend to Erhard and back again. He patiently waited.

But Baldric impatiently shuffled his feet. His hands playing with the dagger he was still holding.

” What?” he finally blurted out, not able to hide his curiosity any longer. ” What did she say?”

Erhard’s blue eyes slowly traveled to Baldric. He studied the young boy, which only added to his anxiety. Without speaking a word, he looked at Jaali. Their eyes locked and an unspoken message was exchanged.

” I need to answer Mor, ” Erhard finally spoke. ” I want you to get some rest, Baldric. You will need to leave tonight.”
Part 12
Erhard’s admiration for the tall, dark-skinned man had rapidly grown. His voice was soft, but carried far and even though Jaali did not talk much, when he did, people listened. He almost radiated power and wisdom and Erhard could not help wondering if he had been a man of importance in his home land.

Baldric had objected to being send way to rest. He had told Erhard he wasn’t tired at all, but Mor’s second in command was no fool. The boys’ face was pale and there were dark circles underneath his eyes.

He could relate to the boys’ excitement and enthusiasm, but Erhard had business to conduct and the less Baldric knew, the better it would be. When Erhard had suggested Baldric go to the food tent and get a decent meal, so he could rest without a growling stomach, the boy had almost pouted.

” Listen to me, Elojo,” Jaali had softly spoken, putting a hand on Baldric’s shoulder. ” Some things are better not known. You are Mor’s courier, she trusts you. Get some food and rest, young one. You will need your strength. Your mission is an important one.”

Baldric had slowly nodded and had shot an apologetic glance towards Erhard, who had smiled at him.

” If you are quick, there might be some fresh trout left. Our fishing party brought back two full baskets this morning.”

The mentioning of food had made Baldric’s stomach grumble and with a wave he disappeared out of the tent, following the enticing scent of freshly baked bread.

” Thank you,” Erhard spoke, after Baldric had left. ” Shall I send someone to get you something to eat as well?”

” I can wait a little longer,” Jaali answered with a pleasant smile.

” Just let me know if you need something. All right, see this Roman settlement, Jaali?” Erhard asked, pointing towards the middle of the map. ” It is surrounded by hills, providing a shelter for the camp. There are three watchtowers on those hills. One in the north… here…one in the south…here…and one in the east…here,” Erhard tapped on the pictures Mor had drawn of the different wooden structures that overlooked the valley.

” No tower in the west,” Jaali smiled. ” Why?”

” Roman arrogance,” Erhard answered. ” The western side is bordered by caves. The hillsides are steep and treacherous. It’s impossible to lead an army down that side.”

” Somehow I think Mor came up with a solution for that,” Jaali spoke with confidence.

Erhard smiled and nodded, his blue eyes sparkling.

” Mor has been in that area for over five moons now. She studied the Romans every move. Mapped out every building and landmark and prepared the caves for our army. Her message said that she is ready.”

Jaali looked at Erhard pensively and glanced back at the map.

” But the towers,” he spoke. ” Can we get to the right place unseen?”

Erhard had noticed the use of we and his smile grew wider. He looked up at the tall man, who towered over him. His eyes were dancing with such merriment, it was contagious. Jaali smiled back at him.

” Like I said,” Erhard continued. ” Mor has been in the area for more than five moons now and she did some preparations. I know for a fact she has visited each and every tower and…let us say: did some damage. It only needs a few strong men and some ropes to bring them down.”

Jaali threw back is head and laughed out loud, startling the guards who were outside the tent.

” Oh, by Thor! That is my little Sauda! ” Jaali laughed. ” Elusive as a shadow and smart as a fox. It will be an honor, once more, to fight alongside the bravest warrior I have ever met.”

” Then I am truly blessed, ” Erhard spoke. ” Because you were her mentor.”

” That I was,” Jaali answered with a nod. ” But some things were beyond my grasp. The Gods have truly smiled upon her, Erhard.”

****

Isa had lost track of time. The constant darkness in the cave did not give away what part of the day it was. She knew it had been morning whenshe and Mor had left the cave. But how long ago had Mor been shot? It had taken a long time to go back inside the cave and tend to the dark woman’s injury. Isa had seen a few big logs burn to ashes already. It could be evening already and maybe it would be safe enough to leave the cave for a little while to look for some food.

Isa’s stomach growled and she cast a quick look at the sleeping form of Mor, who was stretched out next to her. She was laying on her side, one arm casually draped over Isa’s stomach. Again Isa was surprised by her lovers’ youthful features. Whenever she was asleep, the tension seemed to leave Mor’s face, making her look so much younger. And vulnerable.

Mor had been asleep for a while now and Isa didn’t dare to wake her. Her friend needed the rest, to help her heal her body. Mor had comforted Isa and held her close. And when the blonde woman had finally run out of tears they had rested in each other’s arms. It had been peaceful and warm. Isa had placed little kisses on Mor’s face, making the tall woman smile and they had exchanged soft touches and caresses until Mor finally gave in to her body’s cravingfor sleep. Isa nodded off herself, but her sleep was interrupted by images of Titus’ body, lifeless, because of her actions.

Isa smiled when she remembered the surprise on Mor’s face when she had told her friend that it was her brother Dirk, who had taught her how to throw a dagger.

When very little, Dirk had fallen off a gate he had been climbing, breaking his leg. It had never healed properly and the boy’s right leg was considerably shorter than his left one, leaving him with a serious limp. It was impossible for him to participate in the games his friends were often playing and even climbing a tree had proved to be almost impossible for the young boy. But he had been inventive. While his friends rushed in and out the trees like squirrels, Dirk had found his own solution to picking apples and pears. His father had given him a dagger and he had taught himself a trick. A rope was tied to the end of the hilt and Dirk aimed for the big, juicy apples he could not reach. He would throw the dagger into the piece of fruit and when his aim was successful, he would pull the rope, bringing the dagger and the apple down.

Isa had always worshipped her brother and ever since she was a little girl, she had followed Dirk around like a puppy. The gentle boy never had the heart to send away his little sister, so they usually ended up in trouble together. And when Isa had begged him to teach her how to throw a dagger, he had quickly given in.

Fruit had not been their only aim. The more skillful they became, the more difficult their targets. Isa knew she could hit the center of a circle from a distance of fifteen paces. The lethal injury inflicted on Titus had not been a coincidence. It was what Dirk had once taught her.

” If somebody ever tries to attack you and you have the chance, go for the eyes, because the body is often protected. They won’t expect it. I hope you will never have to do it, Isa, but don’t forget. One day it might save your life.”

Isa felt a lonely tear slide from the corner of her eye and impatiently she wiped it away. Her brother’s lesson had saved her life. And Mor’s.

” Thank you, Dirk,” she whispered. ” You were right.”

Mor’s body stirred and when Isa cast a look aside, she saw a pair of sleepy blue eyes blinking against the light of the fire.

” How are you?” she asked, touching Mor’s forehead. ” Youdon’t feel too warm. I guess that’s good.”

Mor nodded and carefully stretched her body.

” I am squashing you,” she mumbled, removing her arm from Isa’s stomach.

” No, you are not,” Isa smiled. ” And even if you were, I wouldn’t mind. I couldn’t think of anything or anyone I’d rather be squashed by.”

Mor laughed and gently rubbed Isa’s belly.

” You are so sweet,” Mor sighed. ” What did I do to deserve you?”

” Save my life?” Isa responded. ” Save Baldric’s life. Save Sigrun’s life. How many lives did you save Mor?”

” I took more than I saved, Isa,” Mor softly answered. ” I can never atone for that, not in this lifetime.”

Isa grasped Mor’s hand and turned to her side, facing the tall woman. Quietly she looked into Mor’s eyes, while her fingers traced a well defined cheekbone, a straight nose and a pair of full lips.

” You were made a gladiator, Mor. It’s not like you had a choice.”

” There were times I enjoyed the killing, Isa. There can never be an excuse for that.”

” It’s all you knew,” Isa whispered. ” They made it your world, your life. They made sure you were good at it. You needed to survive, honey.”

Mor’s head jerked up when she heard the term of endearment. With eyes full of wonder she stared at Isa, who had cupped her cheek and looked at her with a puzzled expression.

” What?”

Mor swallowed and cast down her eyes, feeling like a little girl who was caught with her hand in the honey jar.

” What?” Isa repeated in a gentle tone.

” Nobody ever called me that before,” Mor reluctantly confessed.

If Mor had looked up she would have seen the radiant smile that crossed Isa’s face and the little lights in the depths of her eyes.

” Nobody ever called you ‘honey’ before?”

Mor shook her head and kept her head down, trying to hide her embarrassment. Who could have thought that she, Mor, would be thrown completely off guard by just one little word? But Mor realized it wasn’t just the word. It was the woman who had used it and the sound of her voice while doing it. It had felt so good! Like a warm caress it had touched her soul and wrapped itself around her heart.

” Look at me, Mor,” Isa gently urged, her eyes searching Mor’s, who was captured by the warmth in those green orbs, that looked at her so lovingly.

” It is all right to feel good about it. It is all right to be happy. You deserve it, believe me. And I will do my best to make you happy.”

Mor took a deep breath and Isa saw her visibly relax. A soft smile warmed her clear blue eyes and immediately Isa’s heart skipped a beat.

” Do you realize you have the gift of wisdom?” she asked Isa, who snorted and rolled her eyes. ” I will try not to question the fact that you are in my life, but I will thank the Gods for the blessing you are. Everyday, for the rest of my life.”

Mor closed the short distance between her and Isa. Slowly and gently she kissed the blondes’ lips, that were soft, warm and willing. Gradually the kiss intensified and Mor could feel Isa moan against her lips. A strong hand tangled in soft blonde hair, pulling Isa even closer. The younger woman, afraid of accidentally hurting Mor, put a warm hand on her lovers’ thigh, softly squeezing the firm skin underneath the fabric. Immediately a long leg wrapped itself around Isa’s, sensually applying pressure against the blondes’ center.

Isa gasped and with some difficulty she managed to tilt back her head, to free her lips.

” Honey, ” she breathed. ” We can’t. Your wound, you need…”

” I need you,” Mor mumbled, kissing the smooth skin of Isa’s neck and throat.

Mor’s hand slid down Isa’s body and skillfully found it’s way underneath her tunic. Impatiently pulling up the fabric to give herself better access.

Isa swallowed hard and tried to come up with a reason to pull away and give Mor the rest her body needed, but somehow the gentle touches that traveled up her naked skin made that task impossible. And when an insistent thumb lovingly traced her nipple, all Isa’s concerns were thrown overboard. She quickly shrugged out of her tunic and hungry lips met Mor’s. For the time being, all else was forgotten.

The slowly dying fire cast a soft orange glow on the two entangled forms, covered with a layer of soft furs. The rest of the cave was dark, since the torches that lined the walls had not been lit. The only light came from the dancing flames, an ocean of warmth in a cold, dark place.

A pair of green eyes sleepily blinked open, to be immediately caught in an intense gaze of clear blue. A smile found it’s way to those captivating orbs, slightly wrinkling the skin surrounding it.

” Hey, sleepyhead,” Mor softly teased, softly kissing Isa on the bridge of her nose.

” Mmmm,” Isa moaned, carefully stretching her body.

She nuzzled Mor’s neck and kissed the warm skin, feeling her lover’s arms tighten around her.

” How are you feeling, Mor? How is your back?”

Mor frowned and cautiously moved her body. Her back felt stiff and a little painful, but her legs weren’t tingling anymore and she felt no wetness on the bandage covering her wound, which was a good sign.

” It’s not bleeding anymore, ” she answered. ” And everything moves like it’s supposed to. I guess it’s just a flesh wound. I have been lucky, apparently that bolt didn’t do too much damage.”

” Do you want something to drink?”

” Some water and some of that willow bark tea, please.”

” I’ll get it for you,” Isa answered while looking around. ” As soon as I know where my tunic went to.”

Mor grinned and playfully traced a imaginary line across Isa’s exposed belly, seeing the goose bumps in it’s wake.

” If I remember correctly, you were the one who was in an awful hurry to take it off,” Mor teased, smiling when she saw the predictable blush creep up Isa’s cheeks.

“And you were the one who flung it to the gods know where,” Isa shot back, making Mor chuckle. ” Ah, it’s on the other side of the fire. Good things it didn’t land in the flames. We would have had a fire.”

” We did,” Mor purred, her blue eyes twinkling.

She enjoyed the light bantering with the smaller woman. Her life had been so harsh and lonely. Ever since Jaali had…disappeared, she had never had another friend. Until Isa.

The blonde woman had quickly put on her tunic and tried not to shiver when the warmth of the furs and Mor’s body slowly left her skinand the coolness of the cave surrounded her. She looked around for something to fuel the fire with and her eyes fell on the last remaining log. Nervously she cast a look at her tall lover.

” Is this the last one?” she tentatively asked, trying not to think of being trapped in the dark.

” I have some stacked up near the well,” Mor answered, carefully getting to her feet. ” I will get it.”

” No,” Isa objected. ” Stay where you are, Mor. I can get a few. You shouldn’t carry around things right now. I’ll get it.”

Mor mumbled something incoherent and slowly sank down again. She didn’t want to admit it, but she was glad she didn’t have to get up yet. Standing up had made her dizzy and she was tired. Probably because of the loss of blood. The movement had caused her wound to throb a little and she realized it would take some time for it to heal. At least she had not developed a fever. Not yet anyway and that was a good sign.

” Are you okay?” Isa’s worried voice sounded next to her.

” Yes,” Mor nodded. “A bit dizzy. Maybe I need something to eat soon.”

” I will take care of that as well,” Isa promised. ” You just lay down and rest, honey. I will look after things. I will go outside and get some fresh fruit.”

Mor shot the blonde woman a glance and slowly shook her head.

” No. Stay inside, Isa. I will be fine. There are some scraps we can eat. I will go out later and check my traps. We need some real food, some meat.”

Isa didn’t answer the tall warrior, but her face was set in a stubborn mask. Her friend needed something to eat and she, Isa, would go out and get it for her. Titus couldn’t hurt her anymore, he was dead. She would just avoid having to walk pass his body and walk the other way. There was no need for Mor to be concerned about her. She would be able to handle things.

” I’ll get the wood,” she softly spoke, when Mor was stretched out on the furs again.

She bend down and gently placed a fleeting kiss on the warrior’s lips.

” I will be right back, “she promised.

The pipeline was pitch dark and Isa clenched the torch in her slightly trembling hands. Carefully she walked the uneven surface. It was the first time she had entered any of the pipelines by herself. She missed the comforting presence of her tall lover. The warm hand that had held hers in a firm grasp, which had given Isa a sense of security and reassurance.

” I can do this,” she whispered to herself. ” I have been here before. Mor is real close, I only have to turn around and walk back to be with her again. It’s not hard. I can do this.”

The logs were right where Mor had told her they would be and Isa smiled. Carrying a few of them back into the cave would not be a problem. Her priority though was looking after her warrior and in spite of her trembling hands and almost painfully pounding heart, she continued her walk pass the well, in the direction of the cave entrance.

She remembered that on the previous occasions, she had seen the daylight pouring in, in the distance. But now it was all blackness. Nothing to focus on, but the small torch in her hand.

Isa let out a shuddering breath and pushed back the dark memories that were trying to invade her mind. When she had been looking for her brother, things had been different. She had gone inside the caves, not knowing the way. But now she knew how to get back to Mor. Just turn around and walk back. Straight ahead, until the first turn. That’s where here lover was. Injured and weakened. Isa needed to get her something to eat. She would just hurry to the orchard, get some apples and pears and hurry back. It was simple. It’s not like she was looking for somebody inside the cave. It was not likely that her torch would burn up. It was simple. Get out and get back in. She could prove to herself and to Mor that she had left the past behind her. That the memories of her stumbling over the lifeless body of Dirk, did not haunt her any longer. That the images of his cold skin did not wake her up anymore in the middle of the night.

Mor had gone through a lot. So much more than Isa could have ever imagined, but her lover had come out of that, a strong, courageous person. And Isa knew she could face the darkness of the caves, knowing her lover was waiting for her.

The blackness did not seem to end and suddenly Isa felt like her throat was squeezed shut, by a powerful, invisible hand. There was still no light. What if she had taken a wrong turn? What if she had missed the entrance and had kept walking?

Isa’s heart pounded in her chest and her breathing became fast and shallow. She turned her head to look back on the path she had been following, but the light of the torch only lit a few paces, the rest was darkness. Cold and black and Isa could feel the panic rise up in her body.

” No.” She whispered. “No, take a deep breath, Isa. You can do this. It’s probably dark outside, that’s why you don’t see any light. You are heading in the right direction. You know you are. Take a deep breath.”

Isa leaned against the wall and briefly closed her eyes. She focused on her breathing and managed to calm down a little. Her stomach had churned and she had felt the bile rise in her throat, but she had swallowed and had taken another deep breath.

When she pushed off the wall to continue her walk, she felt it. It was hardly perceptible, but there was a change in the cave’s atmosphere. Lifting up her chin she closed her eyes again and slowly breathed in. There it was. A faint wave of warm, humid air. Floating amidst the dry coolness of the cave’s constant temperature.

Isa sobbed in relief when she realized it was the night air that was cautiously touching her skin and carefully penetrated her nostrils.

” I did it, ” she whispered, feeling like she had conquered the demons that had been haunting her for so long now. ” I made it, Mor. Hang in there, honey. I will bring you back some fresh fruit.”

Before she went outside, Isa had stuck her torch inside a crack that lined the wall and made sure it would not be visible from the outside. Quickly she had pushed her slender body pass the bushes that grew in front of the cave and carefully walked down the moonlit path. It was a beautiful night and grateful for the fresh night air, she took in a few deep breaths. Glad to be outside.

She knew Mor would not approve of her little adventure, but Isa hoped that if she returned quickly, Mor would just be pleased with the apples she was planning on bringing along. The Gods knew her tall warrior needed some food to help her heal.

When Isa reached the area where Titus had met his destiny, she swallowed hard, making sure to look the other way. The idea of seeing the lifeless body, with the dagger sticking out of his eye, was enough to make her nauseous. Unconsciously she held her breath and only when she had left that gruesome sight far behind her, Isa dared to breath again.

A quick glance to the sky told her the night had just began. The moon hung low, amidst the countless stars, and cast a silver glow to the trees that seem to reach out to touch the soft light the Gods were sending down from heaven.

Isa smiled and felt the happiness bubble up deep within her chest. If only Mor could be with her now. They could lay down in the grass and stare up at the skies to make pictures out of all those bright dots that seem to wink at her in a friendly matter. Like she had done with Baldric, when he was much younger and liked the stories his big sister used to make up. About far away lands, Gods and princes, strange worlds with trolls and witches…

Isa sighed and shook her head. Those times were over. Her little brother was no longer a small boy, but a courier in Mor’s rebel army.

” If there’s any God listening, please keep him safe,” Isa whispered. ” He’s the only brother I have left.”

A sudden sound made Isa stop dead in her tracks. Instinctively she stepped behind a tree, pressing her back against the rough bark, holding her breath and trying to determine where the sound came from. Her heart hammered in her chest and Isa could feel a cold shiver run down her spine, when she realized Mor did not know where she was.

” Stupid,” she groaned. ” How stupid.”

The sound became more distinct and after a little while Isa recognizedit as a small group of men who were softly talking. The sound of their low voices carried far in the quiet night and carefully Isa looked around the tree to see how far away they were. As if bitten by a snake she pulled back. Too close. And even worse than that. The soft light of the moon had reflected off the shiny surface of a helmet. A roman helmet. And Isa realized she had almost walked straight into a patrol. But maybe she could find a way out. It was dark and they might not notice her. But she knew she couldn’t stay behind the tree. She needed to move away further, off the track, into the bushes.

Holding her breath once more, Isa stepped out of the relatively safety of the tree and crossed the few paces towards the bushes. She expected to hear a warning yell, alerting the patrol to her presence, but nothing happened. Relieved she released a sigh,moving a little more into the dense shrubs, to make absolutely sure she would not been seen.

Unexpectedly her foot hit something soft and uneven and she almostlost her balance. In a reflex she grabbed a nearby tree trunk and saved herself from falling, sending up a silent prayer of gratitude to the heavens.

Curiously she looked down to see what had almost made her fall and the sight that greeted her was one of her worst nightmares. Illuminated by the light of the quickly rising moon, there was the outline of a body. A man. His bulging, broken eyes were staring up and his face was a grotesque mask of death and destruction. His head seemed almost to be severed from his torso and his neck looked like it was snapped in half.

Isa’s heart stopped and she felt her blood run cold. The echo of a scream welled up within her chest and when she clamped her handover her mouth, she didn’t know whether she had been screaming herself, or if she had imagined it.

With wide eyes and shaking legs she stared at the direction she had just come from. Waiting.

Forgive me, Mor. I should have listened.

****

After Isa had left, Mor had sunk down back into the furs again, grateful for the fact that she could rest some more. Her mind wanted to keep going, but her body was betraying her. Her legs had still felt a little shaky and Mor hoped a night of rest would help her feel better in the morning.

She had slowly sipped her tea and stared into the dancing flames, pondering over how much her life had changed within a short period of time.

A small smile tugged on the corner of her lips, when her thoughts drifted to Isa. The blonde had captured her heart so easily. The first time she had looked into those emerald eyes, she had already felt it. She was falling…hard, but willingly.

Mor shook her head and looked in the direction Isa had disappeared in just a little while ago. The well where Mor had stacked her firewood was just around the corner and she frowned when she didn’t see the light Isa’s torch would cast against the marl inside the cave.

” Isa,” she called out, her low voice bouncing off the walls that were surrounding her.

Mor cocked her head, listening intently, but there was no answer.

” Isa?” she tried again.

The only answer was the echo of her voice.

” Isa!!”

Mor scrambled to her feet , fighting the dizziness with clenched teeth and unsteadily walked towards the shelf where she kept her daggers and sword. Without hesitation she threw the scabbard over her shoulder and clipped some sharp daggers onto her belt.

With long strides she hurried towards the well where her lover should be, but when Mor rounded the corner, she was greeted by only blackness.

It was like a cold fist grabbed her heart and slowly started squeezing. Mor gasped for air and closed her eyes, deliberately pushing down a feeling of fear, so intense, it almost made her double over in nausea and pain.

She walked back a few paces and pulled a burning torch out of a crack in the wall and quickly entered the dark tunnel in front of her. In her head, little voices were fighting for dominance. The most persistent one was telling her Isa must have gone outside to pick some fresh fruit, but a small voice in the back of her mind kept asking Mor why she felt so much fear. Could it be Isa was in trouble?

Mor almost sobbed when she tried not to think of all the things that could have happened to her lover. What if Titus had not been dead? The voice of reason comforted Mor with the fact that she had seen him go down. No one could survive an injury like that.

In the distance Mor could see the flicker of a torch and for a moment her heart lurched and she felt light headed with relief. Until her sharp eyes noticed that the torch was securely fastened in another crack in the cave wall and Isa was nowhere in sight.

Mor’s long strides and secure steps brought her outside the cave in much less time than it had taken Isa. As soon as she stepped outside she cocked her head, listening for any sound that could give her a clue about her lover’s whereabouts. But the only thing she heard was silence.

Gritting her teeth Mor realized Isa would have walked down to the abandoned orchard she had told her about.

Dousing her torch in a patch of sand, Mor forced her eyes to adjust to the moonlit sky. She grunted in satisfaction, when she realized the night was clear enough for her to have good vision.

” Whatwill I do with you, Isa?” she mumbled, carefully finding her way around some loose rocks. ” I told you I…”

A high pitched scream violently pierced the still night air and Mor froze in place. Above her head an owl flapped his wings disturbed by the unusual sound, startling the already shaken warrior.

” Isa,” Mor whispered, her lips hardly moving.

A heavy feeling had settled in the pit of her stomach and ignoring the pain in her back, Mor started running down the track, knowing Isa would be somewhere alongside it.

” Oh, Gods,” Mor thought, stiffly dodging an overhanging branch. ” Servius! Don’t tell me she ran into his body!!!?”

As fast as she could, Mor covered the distance between herself and the place she knew she had left the Roman soldier. With a sickening sense of foreboding she knew she would find Isa there.

With a fear, so deep she could almost taste it on her lips, Mor ignored the warm trickle that was slowly running down her back. She knew she must have pulled open the wound in her back, but she had no time to ponder over that. She pushed back the dizzinessthat running was causing and concentrated on her breathing instead.

A sudden sharp pain made her close her eyes in reaction and Mor’s foot slipped on a loose stone. She cursed, knowing she wouldn’t be able to break her own fall and like she was trained to do, she went with the motion. Until her head painfully collided with a tree trunk. Gasping for breath Mor stared at the twinkling stars above and softly cursed. Carefully she rolled on her stomach and just when she was about to push herself back to her feet, her eyes caught a movement in the distance.

Bathing in the light of the moon, she saw the reflection of five Roman helmets, bobbing up and down, while the owners crossed a clearing, walking down the hill. Two of them were holding on to a person who was clearly putting up a fight, trying to pull away from them. But the person was so much smaller than the soldiers and with a sharp pain in her chest, Mor realized it was Isa they were dragging along with them. She gritted her teeth and her fists were clenched so tightly, her knuckles were white.

” Bastards,” she hissed. ” You filthy bastards!!”

Forgetting the pain in her head and back, Mor jumped to her feet and cast a look at the moon.

” Enough light,” she whispered, already working on a plan. ” I need to get Tyr.”

Isa could not remember how she had fallen asleep, but somehow she must have, because she woke up to the sound of a skylark, singing in a tree, high above her head.

Confused and slightly disorientated she raised her head to look around. Only when she tried to push back the hair that was falling in her face, she realized she was tied up and the memories came back.

She moaned softly when a sharp pain shot through her wrists and ankles, where the rough rope had been cutting through her skin.

” Finally,” a gruff voice behind her sounded. ” Decided to join the living again?”

Isa didn’t answer, but looked up to see a Roman soldier hovering over her and she remembered that he was the one who had been hitting herlast night. He had been ruthlessand angry, when Isa had refused to answer his questions, she had received a blow to her head that had mercifully brought her unconsciousness.

” I remember you now, village girl,” the soldier continued. ” You were the one running away from Titus. It’s a pity he was drunk when he threw that javelin. When sober he aims much better.”

Isa closed her eyes to the bright light that seemed to split her skull in two and rested her cheek against the grass she was laying on. It was damp and cool and was a welcome relief for the pain in her head.

I am sorry, Mor. I am so, so sorry!

Isa swallowed. Determined not to give the soldier the satisfaction of breaking down in tears. Instead she filled her mind with images of her dark haired, blue eyed lover, which brought a much needed warmth to her soul.

” She won’t talk, Marcus,” another voice suddenly sounded. ” She didn’t last night.”

” Ah, but she will once I am finished with her. I know she had something to do with Servius’ death, Quintus. She will only have to tell us where that mysterious warrior is. That’s all.”

Marcus knelt down next to Isa and brushed away the hair from her swollen face. Big bruises covered her cheeks and her lips were cut, coated with dried up blood.

” Tell me, little girl,” he whispered. ” I promise you won’t die if you do. I will find a nice house for you, where you can spend the rest of your life as a slave. If you are lucky you might even see Rome! I am sure one of the noble men would be very interested in a pretty girl like you.”

Isa turned away her head, effectively ignoring him and Marcus viscously lashed out to hit her in her face.

” You WILL talk,” he spat. ” I have been nice to you, farmer’s girl. There are other ways to make you talk.”

Marcus got to his feet and angrily walked to the fire. Frustrated he kicked a pebble into the flames.

” Maybe we should just bring her back to the castre, Marcus,” another soldier suggested. ” I am sure we can use her as bait. We can tell the centurion she is a friend of that warrior. He will be pleased we won’t return empty handed.”

” We can’t return empty handed, Calvus. Or have you already forgotten what the centurion ordered us to do? We need to bring back that warrior. If not, he will send us back to Rome, stripped off our ranks. In shame. DO YOU WANT THAT?,” Marcus shouted, his face red with anger. ” I WILL make her talk.”

He grabbed an item out of their gear and hurried back to Isa. He roughly grabbed her neck and brought up her head so she had to look at him.

” See this?” he asked, holding up a branding iron and laying it in the fire. ” You will be a slave, a dead slave! But first I will brand you accordingly.”

Isa’s green eyes shot open wide and for the first time the Roman soldier saw a trace of fear. Her lips trembled and he could see the tears forming in her eyes. Still she refused to talk and knowing it would even anger him more, she closed her eyes. Retreating in her own safe, little world, that was filled with images of Mor.

I know you can’t hear me, honey. But still, I’d like to pretend you do. I should have listened to you, my love. I should have stayed in the cave. I am so sorry, Mor. I love you and I would never intentionally hurt you. I hope you know that. Our time together was so short, but I had never felt so loved before. I think I will die soon. And you know what? I am not scared. I won’t tell them anything. I can’t let them find you, honey. If that means I will have to lay down my life, then so be it. It’s my gift to you. Just a small sacrifice for the love I have for you. Please look after Baldric for me. I love you, Mor. I will see you again on the other side….

A small tear escaped from underneath Isa’s closed eyelids. It took all the strength she had left, not to cry out in agony. Not because of her battered body. Not because of the fact she would be branded like an animal. Not because she would probably die. But because she felt she would never look into those loving blue eyes again, telling her how much she was loved. Her heart ached for Mor, who was injured and did not know what had happened. Who had bared her soul to Isa and for the first time in a long time had felt how good it was to love another human being. Whose heart would be broken by Isa leaving her.

Isa sighed and tried to prepare her body and mind for the things that would be coming. She hoped she wouldn’t scream when the hot iron was pressed against her skin. And when she had to die, she hoped it would be with dignity. She wanted Mor to be proud of her.

The sound of heavy footsteps approaching made Isa’s stomach churn. She squeezed her eyes shut and tried not to think about what was going to happen. In her mind she reached out to Mor, wrapping her arms around her lover’s waist and resting her head against her chest. She could almost feel the strong arms returning her hug and the smooth, rich voice whispering sweet words in her ear. In spite of everything, a small smile found it’s way to Isa’s face and she suddenly knew that the love she had found in Mor, would be powerful enough to help her endure whatever the Gods had in mind for her.

” Wipe that smile off your face, bitch,” Marcus’ voice spat. ” I will make you talk NOW.”

The smell of heated metal penetrated Isa’s nose and involuntarily she took a deep breath, preparing herself for the excruciating pain that would soon begin.

Marcus’ face was set in a grim mask and he cast one last look at his fellow soldiers who were standing like statues, watching him. He knew especially Calvus didn’t agree with what he was doing, but Marcus was sure he would change his mind later. After they had made the girl talk and captured that warrior. The centurion would greet them like heroes and his retirement in Rome would be secured.

Marcus pursed his lips and brought the iron down, to press it against Isa’s arm. He detested the smell of scorched flesh, but it would be worth it.

Just when he was about to touch the glowing iron to the unprotected skin a piercing whistle shattered the silence. Marcus jerked up his head and froze in place.

With a eerie sound of snapping branches and leaves, the biggest, blackest horse he had ever seen, came crashing into their campsite, running down Quintus like the man was a featherweight. Throwing him to the forest floor, where he lay still. His muscular body broken by brutal force.

Marcus didn’t even see Calvus go down when the horse raised himself on his hind legs and used his raised front legs to crush the skull of the Roman soldier who just stood there, frozen by fear.

The moment Marcus turned around to make a dash for his spear, he felt a sharp pain in his chest and when his glazed eyes looked down, he saw the hilt of a dagger that was sticking out of his body. He tasted the blood in his mouth and while pink bubbles formed on his lips, he fell to the ground. The hot branding iron still in his hand.

Mor’s aim had been perfect, but the exhaustion and pain of her injury had slowed her down and with a curse she noticed the two remaining soldiers coming at her. Their swords were drawn and she knew she would be lucky if she was able to fight both of them at the same time.

With a silent prayer to the God of war she unsheathed her sword. Waiting for the inevitable.

The soldiers ran towards her, yelling in anger and Mor slowly raised her sword. Prepared to do anything that was in her power, to at least save the life of the small blonde, who was laying on the ground, looking at her with fear filled eyes.

But then another crashing sound caught the attention of the soldiers and when they looked around, they were met with a vision from their worst nightmares.

Standing tall as a young tree, there was a creature as black as the night. His dark skin was shining like ebony and a feral grin had split his face. Clasped in his hands the biggest sword they had ever seen. The man radiated power and strength and when he spoke, the blood froze in their veins.

” Meet the one who will send you to your Gods,” his voice rumbled.

Mor stood frozen in place. Her mind refused to accept what her eyes were telling her and when the tall man raised his sword in silent greeting, shefelt her knees give out. No longer able to carry her body.

” Jaali!” she whispered breathlessly.
Part 13
Mor’s eyes were glued to the tall, dark figure of the mentor she thought she had lost a long time ago. He was like a vision. His huge sword was twirled around in muscular hands like it didn’t weigh anything. The quickly rotating metal formed a blur and it was obvious the two remaining Roman soldiers were slowly backing up, ready to run. But Jaali didn’t give them a chance. With a swift motion he raised his sword in his right hand and stroked down, ending the life of one of the soldiers with a viscous swipe. Before the other soldier could even react, the sword was tossed into a strong left hand and in a smooth arch Jaali separated the head of the remaining soldier from his torso. It tumbled through the air until it reached the ground with a sickening thud.

Tyr was standing close to Mor, nudging her shoulder with his head, while softly nickering. With an automatic gesture, Mor raised her hand and rubbed the soft skin of her horse’s nose.

With unbelieving eyes she stared at the scene in front of her. But when she heard a soft whimper, she immediately jumped to her feet and ran towards the still bound Isa

With tears streaming down her face, Mor grabbed her dagger and quickly cut the thick ropes that were binding and cutting into the skin of Isa’s wrists and ankles.

‘ Isa,” she whispered, her hands trembling when she carefully brushed away the hair that stuck to the blonde’s forehead. ” Isa.”

The small woman slowly raised tear filled eyes to the tall warrior and swallowed with difficulty. Her face was covered with bruises and the green eyes radiated a pain that cut straight through Mor’s heart.

” Mor?” she whispered. ” Mor, is that really you? I’m so sorry that…”

” Shh…it’s all right,” Mor spoke, gently cradling Isa in her arms and slowly rocking her. ” I am here now. We are together, that’s all that counts.”

Mor gradually felt Isa’s body relax and with a soft sob, the blonde hid her face against the warriors chest to finally let out the tears she had been swallowing ever since she was captured by the Roman patrol.

It was hard not to squeeze the smaller body tight. Mor craved the solid contact, to reaffirm the fact that she was holding her lover close and that she was safe. Instead she softly stroked Isa’s hair and whispered words of comfort, letting her lover cry to get rid of the tension that had kept her body so rigid.

Mor looked up to see Baldric kneeling down next to his sister. His green eyes were worried and he looked at his general for an explanation.

” I’ll tell you later,” Mor answered the unspoken question with a tired voice, outwardly not surprised to see her young courier.
“I want us to be safe first.”

A warm presence on her other side made Mor slowly turn her head. Clear blue eyes were captured by smiling dark brown ones.

” It’s good to see you, Sauda,” Jaali’s voice softly rumbled. ” But I wish the circumstances would have been more pleasant.”

” Jaali,” Mor’s voice cracked and a tear slowly found it’s way down her cheek. ” How….?”

” It’s a long tale to tell, Sauda. The Gods must have smiled upon me. Let’s find a place where we can look after this little flower,” Jaali answered, gently touching Isa’s face. ” And look after that wound in your back.”

” How did you…?”

Jaali smiled and patted Mor’s knee.

” You could never hide anything from me, remember? Come. Elojo, get that big black beast, we should go soon.”

Without hesitation Jaali stretched out his big arms and effortlessly lifted up Isa, cradling her gently against his chest. When he looked down he saw a pair of green eyes peek up at him with friendly curiosity.

” My name is Isa,” she mumbled with difficulty, since the left side of her face was swollen. ” You are Mor’s friend.”

It was no question, but a statement and Jaali silently nodded.

” The Gods have send you today,” Isa whispered. ” Thank you!”

“It was your…brother who was leading the way, Isa. Thank him, not me,” Jaali smiled, casting a look at Mor who was slowly getting to her feet, trying not to wince when she stretched her tall body.

” Are you okay, Isa?”

Isa recognized her brother’s hand on her shoulder and with difficulty turned her head to look at him. She managed to smile, but the look on Baldric’s face made her realize she must look terrible. Suddenly feeling very self conscious, Isa brought her hand to her face and felt the warm, tender and bruised skin.

” Is it bad?” she whispered, searching her brother’s eyes for the truth.

Baldric swallowed and tried to avoid the begging look in his sister’s gaze. His green orbs were captured by a pair of dark brown ones, that looked at him with a gentle compassion.

” It…they hit you pretty badly, sis,” Baldric grunted, the anger evident in his voice. ” But the swelling will go down and….thank the Gods they didn’t damage your eyes. If they would have branded you with that….”

” They didn’t, Elojo,” Jaali’s voice softly chided. ” If is a word of no use. If you could step on your own shadow, you would be the fastest human on this earth.”

Two pairs of almost identical eyes looked at the dark man with such a puzzled expression, that he grinned mischievously.

” Two cubs out of the same nest, ” he chuckled.

” Ignore him,” Mor smiled, tenderly brushing away a strand of blond hair of Isa’s forehead. ” He likes to speak in riddles.”

” You cannot speak of your mentor like that, Sauda,” Jaali objected, but the twinkle in his eyes was evident.

Mor’s eyes smiled back and she briefly clasped a muscular, dark skinned shoulder.

” Let’s go, Jaali. We have some tales to tell.”

Mor had decided to go back to her own cave, not expecting another Roman patrol any time soon. But she knew it would be a short visit. It wouldn’t be wise to stay around for too long. Titus, Servius and the other Roman soldiers would be missed at the camp and it would only be a matter of time, before more search parties would be send on their way.

Mor was leading the way. Jaali followed close behind, with Isa still safely in his strong arms. She had closed her eyes and her head rested against the dark man’s muscular chest. The trials she had gone through had sapped every bit of energy out of her body and when the tension had finally left her tense muscles, she had felt bone tired. The steady pace that caused a rocking motion had almost lulled her to sleep and with a deep sigh she had closed her eyes and surrendered to her body’s craving.

Baldric silently brought up the rear. He was leading Tyr and Ragnarok by their bridles and the horses were remarkably subdued. Almost as if they could feel the tension in their mistress.

Knowing Jaali and Baldric would follow her, Mor didn’t waste any words, but kept on walking when they reached the entrance to the cave. The torches she and Isa had left behind when leaving the evening before, had no life left in them.

” Wait here,” she mumbled, disappearing behind the bushes that obscured the entrance from view.

Jaali curiously looked around and nodded in approval when he realized his pupil had found herself a perfect hiding place. He would have never guessed there would be a cave behind the dense, lush green of the bush.

He looked down at the battered face of the young woman in his arms, who seemed to be sound asleep. A small smile tugged on the corner of his mouth when he remembered Mor’s panic stricken face, when she had cut the ropes that had been tied around the blondes ankles and wrists. And the careful and tender way Mor had gathered the small woman in her arms and held her.

As if she felt his gaze, a pair of sleepy green eyes suddenly blinked back at him and Jaali smiled.

” Maybe you should put me down,” Isa suggested. ” You must be getting tired of carrying me around.”

” You weigh nothing, Farisa,” Jaali smiled. ” A strong wind could carry you away.”

Isa returned his smile and her green eyes looked at him with curiosity.

” What did you just call me?”

” Farisa,” Jaali answered.

” What does that mean?”

” It means ‘to make happy’,” Jaali explained. ” I see how my Sauda cares about you. It must be because you make her happy. And I am so glad you do. It makes my heart smile.”

” She makes me happy as well,” Isa whispered. ” There is nothing I wouldn’t do for her.”

” Then I have nothing more to wish for my young warrior,” Jaali answered, shooting a glance at Baldric who had tied the horses to a tree and came walking up to them, Ragnarok’s saddlebag slung over his shoulder.

” Are you all right, Isa?,” her brother asked. ” Can I do anything for you?”

Isa smiled at him and shook her head.

” You have done more than I could ever hope for, Baldric. You came back in time and you brought Jaali with you. I don’t know if Mor and I would have….”

” Uh uh, ” Baldric interrupted, with a twinkle in his eyes. ” It’s the ‘if’ word again.”

Isa sighed and rested her head against Jaali’s chest again.

” I’m still grateful,” she mumbled.

The sound of rustling leaves made them look up and from behind the bushes Mor appeared, carrying a burning torch.

” Let’s go inside,” she urged, holding back some branches so Jaali could more easily squeeze through the dense vegetation.

When entering the cave, the cool air immediately made Isa shiver and she was grateful for the warmth that the dark man’s body radiated.

It didn’t take them long to reach the chamber that had been Mor’s home for more than three moons and while Baldric silently filled a pot with water to hang over the fire, Jaali carefully lowered his precious charge on the thick, soft furs.

” Thank you, Jaali,” Isa softly spoke, feeling her body relax even more when she felt the familiar texture underneath her skin.

Mor had walked straight to the shelf she used as storage place and rummaged through some little boxes and pouches, until she found what she had been looking for. She shot Baldric a grateful look, when she discovered he had already started to heat some water and quickly knelt beside Isa. A pair of pain filled green eyes looked at her and Mor felt another surge of fury when she studied the bruises on her lover’s face.

” I need to take care of them,” she apologetically spoke. ” It might hurt a little, but I promise to be gentle.”

” I know,” Isa answered, grabbing one of Mor’s hand and rubbing her cheek against it. ” I trust you.”

” I will just wait until the water is warm,” Mor explained, using her free hand to carefully stroke the blonde’s hair. ” I will need to….” she swallowed. ” I will need to wash away the blood first and then I can treat the cuts and bruises.”

Isa merely nodded, reveling in the touch of Mor’s hand, that made her feel safe again.

” Mor, I just have to….I mean,” Isa stammered, until a gentle finger was carefully pressed against her lips.

” Don’t,” Mor said. ” What is done is in the past. All I care about is that you are here, safe.”

” Thank you.”

” Don’t thank me,” Mor smiled, looking up at the tall man who was curiously exploring the cave. ” Thank Jaali and Baldric for being there in time.”

Mor slowly rose to her feet and turned around to look at her old friend. Jaali must have sensed her eyes upon him, because he immediately turned and returned the stare with a hardly visible twinkle in his eyes.

It was still hard to comprehend that the man who had saved her life such a long time ago, was still alive and in her presence. Mor tried to swallow away the lump that had formed in her throat and even though she could feel the tears stinging the back of her eyes, she didn’t try to break the stare.

Suddenly Jaali’s face was split in a huge grin and he opened his arms in a welcoming gesture. Mor didn’t need much encouragement. A few long strides brought her closer and she disappeared in a bone crushing hug, for the time being successfully ignoring the throbbing pain in her back.

” I thought you were dead,” Mor sniffed, slightly pulling back and wiping her eyes with the back of her hand.

” In a way I was,” Jaali answered. ” Ten seasons long. They let me live, but it was in shackles, to break the spirit of this old warrior. Until the Gods send along a brave young boy, with hair the color of the savanna and eyes like the spring grass. He cut my bonds and I will be forever in his debt.”

While talking Jaali’s eyes had wandered to Baldric, who was sitting next to the fire. The dark man gracefully bowed his head and Baldric was glad the soft light of the fire didn’t illuminate his fierce blush.

He cast down his eyes, avoiding the piercing blue ones, that seemed to be able to look straight into his soul.

Mor had let go of Jaali and walked to Isa’s brother, kneeling down next to him. Wordlessly she extended her arm and he hesitantly grabbed it, still not able to look at her.

” You don’t know everything yet, general,” he nervously spoke. ” I..I could have endangered the mission and I..”

” But you didn’t,” Mor interrupted. ” You need to tell me the whole story, Baldric. But later. Usually I don’t accept disobedience, but in this case it brought me back my friend. I just like to think the Gods did send you on his way. Next time I expect you to follow my instructions to the letter.” She firmly squeezed his arm before letting go. ” But this time I will gladly let it go.”

Baldric let out a sigh of relief and his green eyes suddenly had back their usual sparkle.

” Thank you.”

Mor nodded and gestured towards the pot.

” Water warm yet?”

While Mor was carefully cleaning up Isa’s numerous cuts and bruises, Jaali was busy mixing the dried flower petals Mor had silently pressed into his hands. He knew exactly which medicine she needed and expertly crushed the dried mullein, every now and then adding some drops of oil. His eyes followed Mor and he frowned when he noticed the pale skin, the dark circles underneath her eyes and the careful way with which she seemed to move.

” When you are done looking after the girl, I will have a look at your back,” he stated, knowing Mor would not argue with him.

The dark woman didn’t disappoint him. She silently nodded, while concentrating on cleaning the cuts and rope burns on Isa’s wrists.

” And after I am done with that, you will sleep for a while,” Jaali continued in a no-nonsense voice.

” Elojo and I will hunt for some dinner then.”

He winked at the young boy, knowing full well that Ragnaroks saddle bag had been stuffed with fresh bread, dried meat and pastry. Mor’s army was being fed well. And before they had left, Erhard’s wife, Sigrun, had made sure to pack some pastries she new were Mor’s favorite. Baldric just grinned back.

” Elojo?” Isa’s voice sleepily repeated.

” Gift from God,” Mor explained absent mindedly, rinsing out the cloth she was using to clean the skin of her lover’s wrist.

” Oh,” Isa sighed, too tired to give her brother’s new name another thought.

Her eyes were transfixed on Mor’s face, almost like she still couldn’t believe she was back in the cave. Safe. With her lover fussing over all the scrapes and bruises that covered her body.

” Did they….kick you somewhere else as well?” Mor asked, not daring to look at Isa, afraid the blonde woman would see the rage in her eyes if she would confirm Mor’s suspicions.

” Yes,” Isa softly answered, seeing Mor’s body go tense.

” Where?” the tall woman asked hoarsely, without looking up.

” My side,” Isa answered. ” The right one.”

Mor nodded and dropped the cloth in the bowl with lukewarm water. She wiped her hands on her tunic and Isa saw her slender fingers tremble. Without hesitation Isa grabbed Mor’s hand and brought her to her face, carefully kissing the back of it.

” I am here now, ” she said. ” I am fine and they….are dead. Let it go, honey.”

” It’s hard,” Mor grudgingly confessed, so softly Isa had to strain her ears to hear her. ” I am so…angry…I could have killed them over and over again.”

Isa swallowed and in spite of Mor’s anger, a little smile found it’s way to her face, bringing a light to her eyes.

” What?” Mor almost growled, when she saw Isa’s facial expression.

” Once would have been enough, I think,” Isa gently joked, not letting go of Mor’s hand.

Mor’s blue eyes narrowed and looked at Isa with a mix of anger and surprise. Then changed into indignation, to finally end up twinkling. Shaking her head in disbelief she chuckled and gently squeezed Isa’s hand.

” Thank you, I needed that.”

” Do me a favor, Mor?”

The tall woman nodded and Isa smiled, pressing the large hand she was holding against her chest.

” Let Jaali take care of that wound in your back now. Please?”

Mor opened her mouth to object, but the pleading look in Isa’s eyes made her change her mind.

” All right, I will. But I am not done with you yet. I need to put an ointment on those bruises. So, don’t go anywhere,” Mor joked, slowly getting to her feet and brushing off her trousers.

” I won’t,” Isa promised, stifling a yawn. ” I think I will sleep for a while now. Sorry, honey….tired.”

With infinite tenderness Mor covered Isa’s small frame with a soft fur. She knelt down again and carefully pressed her lips against a cool forehead, not caring what Jaali and Baldric would think.

Behind her back though, Jaali smiled and winked at Baldric. He rolled his eyes and mouthed: ‘ The lioness is tamed,’ making the young boy chuckle.

Jaali was very thorough when he cleaned out the wound in Mor’s back. He had seen his shares of battle injuries and when he had taken away the bloodstained cloth, he was relieved to see it was not as bad as he had expected. It had stopped bleeding and to Jaali’s expert eyes he could already see the telltale signs of healing.

” You were fortunate, Sauda. It is only a flesh wound.”

” I know,” Mor answered, her eyes traveling to the peacefully sleeping form of Isa. ” I have been lucky a lot, lately.”

” What happened?” Jaali asked, aware of Baldric’s keen eyes.

With a soft voice Mor started to tell her friend about Titus, what he did to Isa and how she had visited the Roman camp at night. She didn’t leave anything out, but was precise and clear in how things had developed. When she reached the part about how she had find Jaali’s amulet in Titus’ tent, her voice faltered.

” I thought he was the one who had killed you.”

” Apparently not, my young warrior,” Jaali chuckled, his huge hands carefully cleaning the area around the wound in Mor’s back. ” You killed him?”

” I wanted to,” Mor confessed. ” Maybe I should have done it while I was in his tent.”

” The destiny you had in mind for him was much worse than death, Sauda. He would have lead his life in shame, never able to hide what he had done.”

” Well, his miserable life was ended anyway,” Mor continued, telling Jaali about the encounter with Servius and after that Titus. She didn’t realize how proud her voice sounded when she related how Isa had thrown the dagger and had saved both their lives.

” That little one?” Jaali’s asked, full of surprise and with a growing respect for Isa.

” Dirk taught her,” Baldric spoke, his voice full of pride. ” And Isa taught me.”

” Ah, Elojo! ” Jaali chuckled. ” You throw a mean dagger as well then, huh?”

” Well, ” Baldric drawled, fumbling with the hem of his tunic. ” Isa has a better aim, but I throw further.”

” A pair to respect,” Jaali concluded. ” You and your sister. Our general here might have some use for talents like that.”

” I am not putting Isa in any kind of danger,” Mor immediately answered, with so much determination Jaali was a little taken aback. He could feel the muscles in Mor’s back tense and he just knew her jaw was set in the stubborn way he knew so well. The subject was non negotiable. For now.

It was evening when Mor lead the small group through the forest towards their new destination. They had left the cave, taking all Mor’s personal belongings with them. The only thing left in the cave that could remind anyone of human occupation, was the fire pit and the shelve alongside the wall.

Mor’s collection of daggers were neatly wrapped up and stashed away in one of the saddlebags, together with her herbs and ointments. She had finished packing in less time than it took to heat up some water for tea.

Even though she had spent quite some time in her temporary home, Mor didn’t seem to be affected at all. When she had doused the fire and followed her friends outside, she had not looked back once.

Isa was trying to keep up with Mor, who had already slowed down considerably to accommodate her injured lover. She had sternly refused when Jaali had offered to carry her. And when Mor had suggested she could ride one of the horses, Isa had just shivered, shaking her head.

” I can walk. There is nothing wrong with my legs,” she had stated, pointing to the mentioned extremities. ” I will be fine, Mor. Really.”

In Isa’s mind that conversation had been a long time ago. Although she was convinced her stiff muscles could use the exercise, she quickly tired. The mullein ointment Mor had used to treat her bruises had helped somewhat, but the pain in her side was still very much present. Mor had carefully probed her ribs before and concluded nothing was broken. But Marcus’ abuse had left big, ugly bruises on her body, that almost covered her whole right side and made breathing an agonizing activity.

As if feeling her distress Mor halted and turned around to cast her friend a worried look. Her blue eyes took in the fine layer of perspiration on Isa’s forehead and the rapid, but shallow breathing. Mor grabbed the waterskin she was carrying and waited for Isa to reach her. A pair of green eyes looked up at her and even though she tried to smile, Mor could easily see the pain and distress in those deep green pools.

” Have a drink,” she suggested, handing Isa the waterskin.

Gratefully Isa grabbed it and carefully brought the spout to her lips. The swelling had gone down, but the cut in her bottom lip was still painful to the touch.

” How much further, Mor?” she softly asked, handing the waterskin back to the tall woman.

Isa hoped Mor would not have heard the desperation in her voice and she made sure to avoid the blue eyes that were looking at her inquisitively. But Mor apparently saw straight through her, because a gentle hand suddenly cupped Isa’s cheek and turned her head, so she had no choice but to look at her tall lover.

” We will rest for a little while now. Are the herbs I gave you before wearing off, Isa?” Mor gently asked, involuntarily stroking the soft skin underneath her fingertips. ” You want something for the pain?”

Isa debated with herself. She didn’t want to be a burden to her friends and she knew she was slowing them down considerably. Maybe if she could just rest for a little while, she could catch up with them later. She silently nodded to herself and opened her mouth to speak, but Mor raised her hand and cast her a stern look.

” Don’t even think about it,” she said. ” I am not leaving you behind. I will get you something for the pain.”

Mor brushed past Isa and silently walked towards Ragnarok, ignoring Jaali’s raised eyebrow and Baldric’s puzzled expression. With quick movements she opened the saddlebag and stuck her hand inside, careful not to cut herself on one of the sharp daggers she knew were in there. Her slender fingers felt around until they touched a small flask. Of course it had sunk all the way to the bottom and with a small sigh Mor carefully pulled it to the surface, aware of the shifting of the daggers. She opened the flask and carefully sniffed it, pleased with herself to find she had the one she needed. Hastily she strapped the saddlebag closed and turned around to walk back to the waiting Isa. Mor was not aware of the cream colored, intricately carved hilt, that was balancing on the side of the bag.

Without running in to any obstacles, the small group finally arrived at their place of destination. The sun had set a long time ago and night was rapidly falling. It had taken them a while to follow the valley to the south, away from the Roman camp, around the steep, rocky ridge into a different valley, to head north again. If Mor had been alone, she would have simply crossed the hazardous steep ridge, with its rocky surface and treacherous holes that sometimes lead straight into the darkness of the caves. But she was not alone anymore and she had decided to take the longer, safer route.

They were standing on a small, natural platform. On the right side a steep, tree covered slope formed a natural defensive barrier, since it would be impossible to climb. And there was only one, small, hardly visible track leading up to the top of the hill, which would be easy to defend.

On the left side the top of the hill towered over them, the yellowish marlstone looking rugged, with a few small bushes scattered around, seemingly clinging to the steep surface desperately. From where they were standing, they could see a few alcoves, but it was hard to tell if they were huge dents in the surface, or entrances to a cave.

” I am sorry, ” Mor broke the silence. ” But we will have to climb up now. It’s not a long climb, but it’s steep.”

She shot an apologetic look to Isa, who nodded and reassuringly smiled.

” It’s okay,” she said. ” As long as I can rest once we are up there.”

” You can,” Mor promised with a smile.

Baldric didn’t question his general, but after looking around for a moment he hesitantly glanced at Jaali, who smiled at him and shrugged his shoulders.

” Um…where do we put the horses, Mor?” he finally asked.

Mor looked at the young boy and raised an eyebrow.

” You mean, you don’t want to leave them here? On the platform?” she seriously asked, but Jaali who knew the tall woman very well, noticed the twinkle in her eyes.

” Um…I…well…if you say so, I….”

” Don’t worry, Baldric,” Mor suddenly laughed, which made her look so much younger. ” I prepared for the horses. Follow me.”

Curiously Baldric led Tyr and Ragnarok to a huge boulder that seemed to block the path. Mor disappeared behind it and Isa’s brother obediently followed. Through, what seemed like a natural gate, they entered another platform, one side was bordered by the hill itself, while the other side was bordered by a huge, natural wall. It was like the hand of a God had built a room in the corner of the hillside.

Baldric immediately noticed the water troughs and the stacks of dried grass and hay. With wide eyes he looked around, until his gaze was captured by an amused pair of blue eyes.

” Approve?” Mor asked.

” Wow,” was all Baldric could utter. ” This…this is amazing! How…? Did you…?”

” I had a long time to prepare all of this,” Mor explained. ” As you can see it has room for a lot of horses.”

Baldric silently nodded and suddenly a little part of the big plan became clear to him.

” Will we meet Erhard here?”

” Yes,” Mor smiled, pleased that the young boy was smart enough to have come to that conclusion himself. ” We will meet each other here soon. Come, grab that saddlebag and let’s climb up. There’s a lot more to discover.”

With a happy grin Baldric released Ragnarok from the saddlebag, that he slung over his left shoulder. He patted both the horses and quickly followed Mor, who had already disappeared around the narrow corner. In his haste the saddlebag slipped from his shoulder and with an impatient gesture, Baldric pulled it back up, not noticing the dagger sliding from it’s leather confines and lazily tumbling down the slope, until it skidded to a halt against a big rock.

****

” My goodness, Sam, do you think you can walk a little faster?” Jody’s slightly annoyed voice interrupted the silence.

They had been climbing the steep hill for more than twenty minutes now and Jody had tried to keep up with her lover, but that had proved to be impossible. Sam’s legs were so much longer than hers and her partner had no problem eating up the distance and the height.

Sam stopped and turned around, waiting for Jody to catch up with her and when she finally did, the smaller woman noticed the look of guilt on her tall companion’s face.

” Sorry, baby,” Sam remorsefully spoke, putting a hand on Jody’s shoulder and gently squeezing it. ” Do you want to walk in front and set the pace?”

Jody blew out a breath and pushed back her hair. Her green eyes twinkled when she looked up at her lover again.

” Is there an ulterior motive involved?” she innocently asked.

Sam frowned and shot Jody a puzzled look, genuinely confused.

” Ugh….no,” she answered.

” So, you don’t want me to walk in front of you, so you have an unobscured view of my behind?”

A pair of blue eyes started twinkling and Sam laughed, pulling her lover in for a hug.

” Is that what you have been doing?” she asked, kissing Jody’s nose.

” I wanted to,” Jody dramatically sighed. ” But I almost had to run to keep up with you, so, I didn’t have the time to enjoy the view.”

” Well, ” Sam started, looking up and through the trees noticing the outline of a building. ” We are almost there. This road goes in a big curve, but that lady in the antique shop said there was an ancient track we could follow. It’s supposed to be behind this huge river,” Sam explained, pointing at a little stream that crossed the road and happily flowed down the hill.

Jody snorted and playfully slapped Sam across in her stomach.

” I have to admit your memory is better than mine. You’d make a great girl scout, love,” she grinned.

” Save the praises for later,” Sam retorted. ” You want to go the long way, less steep. Or the quick way, steep?”

” Let’s do steep,” Jody sighed. ” It’s the fastest. Besides, it’s a good exercise for our calves. And I would like to climb an ancient track.”

” Okay, follow me.”

In companionable silence they continued their track and when they had crossed the little stream, they noticed a hardly visible opening between the bushes. Without hesitation Sam stepped in between the vegetation and noticed the track seemed to lead all the way up to the top of the hill. Knowing Jody was following her, she started the last part of their climb.

The lady in the shop had not been lying, it was steep. The narrow track was mostly overgrown with moss and branches and sometimes it was hard not to get entangled with some persistent species of the forest. The rain that had been falling the previous night had made parts of the track slippery and carefully Sam and Jody had to find their way up. Until they reached a part where the rain had washed away most of the soil and the only thing left were some big rocky stones and the roots of trees, that were sticking up through the dark soil. Sam made good use of her long legs to quickly pass it, but Jody had more problems. After almost slipping twice she shook her head and stepped off the track. It seemed that there would be more support for her feet off the regular path. It was a good choice. The ground underneath her feet was more solid and with a grin Jody walked around a big tree, that was standing in her way. The little detour brought her in front of yet another big rock and with an athletic move she jumped over it. Immediately regretting her move, when she felt her feet hitting uneven ground.

” Damn,” Jody cursed, losing her balance and inelegantly landing on her rear.

Luckily the soft forest floor had broken her fall and chuckling she shook her head. Of all stupid things to do!

” Honey! Are you okay?” Sam shouted from a distance.

” Yes,” Jody called back. ” I’m okay. It’s just my pride that got a blow.”

Still grinning Jody rolled on her side and put her right hand on the ground to push herself upright. Her fingers immediately dented the thick, lose layer of rich forest soil. Just when she was about to push herself back to her feet, Jody felt something touch her fingertips. Frowning her hand closed around it.

Curiously she pulled, feeling the object shift and with an amazing feeling of certainty, Jody knew what was in her hand, even before she had actually seen it. A shiver ran through her spine when she opened her hand and cast a look at the rusty blade of a dagger. Her fingers carefully brushed away most of the moist soil. In the palm of her hand she held the most beautiful hilt she had ever seen. Carved in ivory was the image of a leaping cheetah, like it was caught in mid motion by the hand of a long forgotten artist, who had painstakingly taken the time to create an image that was breathtakingly beautiful.

When Jody looked up to call Sam, the words got stuck in her throat. Behind her lover, who was quickly walking back to her, she could see the image of a tall, hooded figure, seated on a huge black horse.

Jody’s heart skipped a beat and her breath was caught in her chest. Sam was calling out to her. She knew, because she could see her lover’s mouth move, but there was no sound. The figure on the horse raised a hand, like a greeting. And when Jody finally dared to blink her eyes, the image was gone.
Part 14
Immediately after he had send Jaali and Baldric on their way, Erhard started to make preparations for the army to move. He had called his two brothers, Reinar and Brandur in his tent and given each of them command of a part of the army. When they were to leave their campsite, it would be split up in three parts. They would all travel different routes to eventually reach their mutual destination. Those plans had been made many moons ago, supervised by their general.

The three brothers took great care in thoroughly instructing their men and started to send them off in small groups of not more than eight, only two days after Baldric’s and Jaali’s visit.

Anyone who would have been paying close attention, would have noticed the roads were slightly busier with traffic. Regularly small groups of drifters or peasants would pass the few settlements along the river Meuse. They were traveling south and anybody curious enough to ask them questions, would change their mind as soon as they approached the small groups. Even from a distance the smell of unwashed bodies was enough to turn the most curious person away.

Sometimes the groups of drifters were rounded up by a patrol of Romans, who chased the men in front of them, sometimes slapping them with the back of a javelin or the flat of a sword to make them walk faster. The Roman Empire did not tolerate beggars and drifters within it’s boundaries. They would be sent to labor camps to serve the Empire.

Most onlookers gritted their teeth when they had to helplessly watch their oppressor treat the prisoners like cattle. Only a few of them sported a slight smile, having heard the softly whispered stories and noticing how tall, muscular and really fair haired a lot of the Roman soldiers were.

Erhard had waited until his brothers and their men had left the camp. There was nothing left from the huge campsite, only a few blackened fire pits, scattered around the small valley. Silent witnesses of great plans and endless soldiers tales.

Together with his wife, Sigrun, and the other women, he watched the last cart leave. Five of the men were walking behind it, accompanied by his brother Reinar, who was seated on a horse and dressed up like a Roman soldier, as were the four men that were following him closely.

Reinar had turned around and raised is hand in a silent greeting, bowing his head towards Sigrun with a wink.

” You look handsome, Reinar,” she had shouted. ” Don’t let the little ladies distract you!”

He had shot his sister-in-law a toothy grin, turned his horse, and followed his men, who were already on their way.

” You think this will work?” Sigrun softly asked Erhard while they slowly walked towards his horse and the small group of men who were waiting for him.

” Trying to deceive the Romans by pretending to be them?” Erhard asked. When his wife nodded he put a hand on her shoulder and slightly bend his head to look into her eyes.

“It was a great idea,” he smiled. ” But you know Mor, she comes up with the most genial plans. Trust her on this one as well, love. I have faith in her.”

Sigrun nodded her head and shot her husband a small smile.

” Be careful. Okay? I want you back in one piece.”

” I will be careful,” Erhard promised. ” As soon as it’s safe we will send for you and the others. And remember, stay out of sight. And if anything might go wrong, take all women and children and bring them east, until you meet the Chamavi tribe. They will take you in and give you shelter and I…”

” Ssshh.”

Sigrun interrupted her husband by putting her fingers against his mouth. Her blue eyes shone with unshed tears and almost looked violet in the light of the early morning.

” You will be back,” she whispered. ” I am sure of that. Just be careful. And tell Mor she is gravely missed here, so she’d better be back soon as well.”

Erhard brought his face close to his wife’s and softly kissed her.

” I will be back,” he promised. ” Make sure you’ll have a whole pile of those honey nut pastries when we come back. You know how many of those Mor can put away!”

Sigrun laughed and playfully swatted her husband in the stomach.

” You and Mor together,” she chuckled. ” May the Gods be with you, my love. And with all the other men and boys. And with our General.”

****

The first thing Mor became aware of, after opening her eyes, was the warm pressure against her right side and the tickling of hair against her face.

When she reluctantly opened her eyes, she noticed Isa’s head,firmly tucked underneath her chin. Her small body was practically plastered against her taller one and Mor smiled, letting a happy sigh escape her lips.

She carefully tightened her grip on her lover and tried not to chuckle when that action was met by an unintelligible mumble. In her sleep, Isa snuggled even closer and let out a little moan of pleasure when her body felt even more comfortable then before.

Mor stared at the ceiling of the cave and watched the flames of the fire cast light and shadows across the yellow stone. Her thoughts turned back on the last few days and she smiled. All had been going really well. Jaali, Baldric and Isa had been impressed by the preparations Mor had been making and they had walked around the caves in awe. There were rows and rows of barrels and boxes, containing all sorts of things. Huge piles of furs and blankets. An enormous amount of dried herbs. Bags of flour and grains. Wine and water. Tools, ropes and weapons.

Wide eyed Isa had stared at her lover and had let out a soft whistle.

” Are you expecting an army?” she had innocently asked.

” As a matter of fact, I am,” Mor had answered, nodding towards Baldric. ” I suspect Erhard gave you a message?”

The young boy had immediately pulled his tunic over his head to turn it inside out, which elicited a snort from his sister who had been watching him with teasing eyes.

” By the Gods, brother. Are those muscles?” she had teased.

Baldric had shot Isa a look full of pity and had just shrugged his shoulders.

” Jealous?” he had grinned, flexing his arms, knowing his sister was just teasing him.

” Yes,” Isa had sighed, enjoying the bantering. ” I always wanted to have the body of a God.”

Before Mor even had a chance to stop and think about it she had mumbled: ‘You do.”

Isa had shot her a surprised look. Baldric had just looked embarrassed, while Jaali had sported a smile, that became a full fledged grin when he noticed Mor’s blush.

To Mor’s sensitive ears the silence had been deafening, until Isa started chuckling and had walked up towards the tall woman, wrapping her arms around a slender waist and carefully hugged her.

” Thank you, honey,” she had lovingly said. ” I know I don’t have the body of a goddess, but I am glad you think so anyway.”

The corners of Mor’s eyes wrinkled when she smiled, remembering. She had not meant to make a remark like that, but somehow the words had just flown out of her mouth. And she didn’t regret it. In her eyes Isa had the most beautiful body she had ever seen. Her lover was small and compact, but to Mor’s loving eyes every part of her body was the right size and had the perfect proportion.

Mor gently kissed Isa’s forehead, careful not to wake her lover, but suddenly needing the contact.

Where did that come from, warrior?

Mentally Mor shrugged her shoulders. The Gods knew where it came from. All she knew was that she loved Isa with an intensity she had never felt before. In the short period of time they had know each other, Isa had become the most important part of Mor’s life.

I couldn’t live without you, Isa. Not anymore.

That unexpected thought almost took Mor’s breath away. Her heart had skipped a beat and suddenly she felt the palms of her hands go sweaty.

Her brain started to chew on that very same thought and slowly Mor could feel her body relax. She realized she had accepted the fact that she loved Isa more than life itself. And a life without the small blond woman was not something she was willing to face. She would go through hell and back to keep her lover safe.

” I would do anything,” she soundlessly whispered, still staring at the ceiling above being very aware of the warm body she was holding in the circle of her arms.

Isa choose that moment to open a pair of sleepy green eyes and she smiled contentedly when she realized she was still in Mor’s arms, where she had fallen asleep the evening before. And she was still very comfortable.

” Morning, general,” she mumbled, earning a smile from her dark friend.

” Morning, sleepyhead,” Mor answered, kissing a warm temple. ” Your face seems to look a lot better today.”

” It feels better too,”Isa confessed, touching her cheek with her fingertips. ” It’s not swollen anymore, is it?”

” No, the swelling is down,” Mor affirmed. ” It’s only the bruises and those little cuts, but they are healing really well. Does it still hurt?”

” A little,” Isa said, rubbing her cheek a little harder. She pulled a face and smiled. ” I think I can even laugh now without hurting myself. I haven’t been able to do that for a few days.”

” Oh, well, that’s good,” Mor chuckled. ” That is definitely an improvement.”

” I think so, ” Isa sighed, burying her face in Mor’s neck and breathing in the scent that was distinctively her lover’s.

” What were you mumbling, when I woke up?”

Mor’s body slightly stiffened, enough for Isa to notice, but she didn’t say anything about it.

” Just before I opened my eyes, you said something about you would do anything,” she softly explained, knowing she had to tread lightly if she wanted Mor to talk to her. ” What was that about, honey? Are you worried about the battle?”

Mor took the time to think about Isa’s question. She wanted to be honest, but she also wanted Isa to understand. And somehow Mor did not think Isa would be pleased with the ideas that were going through her head at that moment.

” I…I was thinking about the battle, yes,” she slowly answered, carefully choosing her words. ” It’s going to be a fierce one. There will be a lot of…bloodshed, because I don’t think those Romans will surrender to us. Desperate soldiers can do desperate things.”

” Are you afraid?” Isa asked.

” Not for myself,” Mor answered, casting a look in a pair of deep green eyes, that looked at her calmly.

” For your soldiers?” Isa asked, knowing full well that was not the case. In her heart she already knew what Mor was worried about, but she wanted her lover to be the one to bring the subject up.

” My soldiers are trained well, better than those Romans, I am sure,” Mor smiled. ” Most of them are personally trained by Erhard and his brothers or me. No, I have faith in them. I almost feel sorry for those Romans.”

Mor let out a deep sigh and gently scratched the back of Isa’s neck, knowing it was something that relaxed her lover.

” Isa….?”

” Mmmm?” Isa almost purred, thoroughly enjoying the feeling of those strong fingers against her skin.

” Isa, I…have been thinking that maybe….a lot of my soldiers have families. The Romans occupied their ancestor’s lands and chased them off. Some of them were slaves, prisoners or gladiators that managed to escape, anyway….their families are in the east and they will wait until…..”

” No, ” was the simple response from the small woman in her arms.

” But Isa, I….”

Isa lifted her head and a pair of suddenly blazing green eyes looked at Mor, with steel determination.

” No, ” she repeated.

” You don’t even know what…”

” I do know,” Isa interrupted. ” You want to send me east, out of harms way, at least that’s what you think. The answer is ‘no’ Mor, I am not leaving you.”

” But..”

” Mor,” Isa sighed. ” The Gods know I love you, but I could really hurt you right now. Why do you want to send me away?”

” Because it will be dangerous for you to stay here. This whole valley will be drenched in blood soon,” Mor answered, gritting her teeth. ” I don’t expect us to lose this battle, but if we do, I don’t want you to fall into Roman hands. Isa, please! I need you to be safe. I would do anything to keep you safe,” she ended with a desperate whisper.

Isa lifted up her head so Mor could see her face when she talked to her.

” Honey, if the impossible happens and your…our army loses. What would happen to you?”

” I will never let those bastards capture me alive,” Mor almost growled. ” I will stay out of their hands, or die trying.”

Isa swallowed and tried not to think about that option. Just the idea made her stomach churn with a feeling of nausea. And nervousness. Her fingers touched Mor’s cheek and lovingly caressed the soft, tanned skin.

” What would you do if I died?” she softly asked, immediately seeing the panic in her lover’s blue eyes.

” Isa,” Mor croaked. ” I…”

” What would you do?” Isa patiently repeated, determined to make her lover see her point of view.

” I can’t live without you,” Mor confessed, while a tear slid from the corner or her eye.

” And I can’t live without you,” Isa gently smiled. ” I can’t leave you Mor. If things were reversed, would you leave me?”

Mor’s arms around Isa’s body tightened and she was pulled into a bone crushing hug. Underneath her ear she could hear the rapid heartbeat and erratic breathing of the tall warrior, who desperately tried to control her tears.

” No,” the whispered answer finally came. ” I wouldn’t leave you. But I don’t want anything to happen to you, Isa.”

” You will make sure I am safe,” Isa spoke with confidence. ” All I need to do is stay close to you. Right?”

” Right,” the tall woman gave in with a shuddering breath.

****

It was a nice, sunny spring morning. With appreciation Jaali looked at the sky, that was slowly coloring a bright pink, heralding a new day.

Stretching his huge body he felt a vertebrae pop back into place and Jaali groaned with pleasure. Those last ten seasons he had mostly slept on the floor and he had gotten used to it. But the last few days his bed consisted of soft furs and blankets and he had noticed he needed to get used to that again. With a grin Jaali rolled his shoulders.

” I am not complaining though,” he mumbled to himself, while his eyes followed a hawk that was flying high over the forest, gliding on the wind and apparently looking for a tasty breakfast.

” Good hunting, my friend,” Jaali whispered, admiring the independent, sleek hunter.

He turned to walk back to the cave, when a soft sound reached his ears. Outwardly not responding Jaali jumped up and down a bit, to give the impression he was loosening his muscles. But his ears were perched.

After his little warm up Jaali started fighting an invisible opponent with a small stick he had picked up from the ground. His moves were swift and secure and with the rising sun kissing the dark skin, he was an awesome sight to see.

Casually strolling towards the tree line, where the hill rolled down in a steep drop, he softly whistled, apparently utterly enjoying his early morning activities. Now and then casting a look up to the sky, where the hawk was still circling to find a prey.

A small smile spread over Jaali’s dark face and in the language of his mother he whispered: ” I beat you to it, today, my friend.”

With a motion that was so quick that his movement was only a blur, he stepped towards the tree line, stretched out his arm and pulled a frightened and struggling young man out of the bushes. His face was whiter than a fluffy summer cloud and his hazel colored eyes were wide with fear. Jaali loosened the grip on the boys arm when he could feel him trembling.

” State your business,” he growled, while he made certain the boy had a good look at his flaring nostrils and fierce brown eyes.

” I…I……,” the boy stammered. ” My….here!”

Suddenly he thrust out his hand and showed Jaali an item that he had been clenching so tightly it had left an impression in his skin.

With a frown Jaali picked up a small, smooth pebble that was adorned with a tiny picture of a hawk. In pure reaction his eyes searched the sky again and he smiled when he heard the triumphant cry of the bird of prey. Immediately Jaali felt a cold shiver travel down his spine and he let go of the young boy’s arm.

By the Gods! Could this be an omen? Are the Gods really siding with my warrior friend?

” What is the name of the person you are looking for and who sent you, boy?” Jaali softly asked.

” I am looking for the gene…for Mor and Erhard sent me,” the boy answered, feeling a little less frightened, since the huge, dark man had let go of his arm. ” I am a scout to the General’s army.”

” What is your name, my friend?” Jaali gently asked, knowing he had probably scared the breeches off of the poor boy.

” Arvid!” a surprised voice suddenly sounded from the cave entrance about ten lengths above the ground.

The boy looked up and a huge smile spread across his youthful features.

” General Mor!” he greeted, raising his hand in greeting.

Mor waved back and disappeared down the small track that would bring her to the platform. In the meantime Jaali had crossed his arms and stared at the boy who was still standing in front of him.

” You need some lessons in slithering like a snake, my young friend,” he friendly stated. ” You and young Elojo wake up the dead sneaking through the forest.”

Mor appeared on the platform and a few long strides brought her alongside Jaali. She extended her hand and clasped the young boy’s forearm in greeting.

” It is good to see you, Arvid. You have grown taller since the last time I saw you.”

Arvid cast down his eyes and tried not to blush. His friends always teased him about his hero worship for their General, but Arvid did not care. When he was only eight seasons old, Mor was the one who had pulled him from a burning stable, risking her own life in the process, because the beams in the ceiling had started to snap in half one by one, covering them both with burning cinders. He was unharmed, but Mor’s hair had been singed and had needed to be cut real short. Every time Arvid saw her long, dark hair, that had slowly grown back, he was reminded of that day and thanked his Gods for sending her his way. He has lost his parents that day, but the families in Mor’s army had taken him and his brother in, with open arms and treated them like their own.

” Erhard sent me to scout, general,” Arvid said with obvious pride.

” He did good,” Mor acknowledged her commander’s choice and she could almost see the young boy grow.

” Thank you, general,” he whispered, nervously shuffling his feet.

” Are you hungry, my friend?” Mor asked, putting a hand on his shoulder. ” I am afraid I don’t have Sigrun’s honey nut pastries, but we do have some fresh bread and stew.”

” I am starving, General,” he shyly confessed, looking up at Mor. ” I had my last meal before sunset. I think I…”

He suddenly stopped in mid sentence, staring at a point over Mor’s shoulder and curious she turned around to see what had startled the boy.

A feeling of warmth spread through her body when she spotted the slender frame of Isa on the ledge in front of the cave. She was wearing a forest green tunic and her long, blond hair was cascading down her back and over her shoulders. The sunlight highlighted her hair and seemed to turn it into a shiny red gold.

Mor smiled at her lover and turned back to Arvid, who was still staring open mouthed at her lover.

” Arvid?” she gently prodded, her eyes twinkling with amusement.

Arvid swallowed and slowly broke away his gaze from the beautiful woman, who was looking down at them with a puzzled expression on her face.

” Goddess,” he whispered.

” No, Isa,” Mor smiled. ” But yes, I can understand the confusion.”

After hearing those words Jaali threw back his head and laughed out loud. Mor joined him and pulled in Arvid for a quick hug, making sure the boy knew they were not laughing at his expense.

” Sauda, you are still the little rebel I took under my wings all those seasons ago,” Jaali laughed, wiping away the tears in his eyes. ” I had not seen that part of you for a long, long time. I am grateful it still exists, my warrior.”

Mor shrugged her shoulders and smiled at her old friend. He was right, she knew that. Her feelings had been dead for such a long time. But all that had seemed to change. Isa had changed that. For the first time in seasons she was alive again.

” This big, laughing man is my friend, Jaali, ” she introduced Arvid to the still snickering dark man. ” And that beautiful woman up there is Isa. Come on, she makes the best stew you ever had.”

” She will be needing to make a lot of that,” Jaali mumbled. ” I am sure we can expect the first groups of men before this day is over.”

Mor cast a look over her shoulder and nodded. She knew Jaali was right and that knowledge filled her with a feeling of nervous anticipation. Her eyes traveled back to the ledge and she said a silent prayer to the Gods to keep her lover safe.

” We are ready, ” she answered Jaali. ” We have planned this for a long time.”

“Since they burned down your village and killed your grandmother,” Jaali softly said.

Mor stood still and turned around to look at him and for a second Jaali could see the same pain he had seen when he had grabbed the young Mor in his arms and she had kicked his shins, trying to get away.

” Yes,” she whispered. ” Ever since.”

” Then let it be so. For all the blood and innocence lost.”

****

Erhard’s brother, Brandur had been one of the first ones who had left their camp. He and his men had made good time. They had been rowed across the river by a few older men, who were in charge of making sure a considerable part of the army would be able to safely cross the river Meuse. The other part of the army would take a different route. They would travel alongside the river, down south and they would cross the river south of Trajectum Mosa. They would continue in a northwestern direction until they reached the caves.

Brandur’s journey had been rather uneventful. The only thing he and his men had encountered was a small group of deer, of which they had managed to kill two. Feeding an army was not an easy task and Brandur knew the meat would be appreciated.

Unlike his brother Reinar, Brandur was clad in the outfit of a peasant. Dark gray breeches and a same color tunic, covered by a long, hooded cloak. The only thing that would make him look suspicious, would be the horse he was riding. Any trained eye would notice it’s build and recognize it for what it was, a trained war horse. And that same trained eye would probably wonder what was hidden underneath the long cloak, that flowed elegantly over the horse’s back, but didn’t manage to hide the hilt of the sword that was clearly visible when the wind slightly lifted up the fabric.

Until now they had not encountered anything or anybody who could endanger their mission. With a content face Brandur cast a look over his shoulders, to see if his men were still following close behind and he missed the danger in front of him.

His horse followed the track they had been riding on for hours and just went around a bend, when a small Roman patrol suddenly blocked it’s way. It was a sinister twist of fate that they met each other on the only stretch of the road for leagues, that wasn’t straight and easy to oversee.

Brandur’s startled horse sensed his rider’s tension and responded in the way it was trained for. It raised itself on his hind legs and tried to trample the men that were blocking it’s way.

But the Roman soldier in the front had years of experience on the battle field and he had sidestepped the horse as soon as he saw it raise itself.

Before Brandur knew what was happening, he was looking at a crossbow that was aimed at his chest.

He turned his head and tried to signal the men that was following him closely, but only partially succeeded. Three men could not stop their horses in time, but the four men behind them had understood the hand signals and quickly jumped off their horses. Their weapons were drawn and ready.

” Can I help you?” Brandur politely asked, turning to the Roman soldier who seemed to be in charge.

” Off your horse,” The Roman commanded, gesturing with his crossbow.

For a moment Brandur debated with himself. The crossbow that was pointed at his chest made him vulnerable, but descending his horse would rob him from his best way of defense, which would be making a quick getaway.

” You will have to excuse me” he said, apologetically shrugging his shoulders. ” I have hurt my leg a few days ago and I can’t get down that fast. You will need to give me some time.”

And you will need to allow my soldiers the time to sneak up behind you, you Roman pigs!

Brandur patted his left leg and leaned forward, slowly putting his left leg over the horse’s back and sliding onto the ground, making sure his horse was between himself and the Roman. He did not forget to limp when his feet hit the track and with an exaggerated groan he carefully stretched his legs.

” Cursed pagan’s,” he muttered.

” What was that?” the Roman soldier quickly asked, not at all pleased with the fact he could not see what Brandur was doing.

” The pagan’s,” Brandur raised his voice. ” They shot an arrow in my leg and left me bleed to death. Nearly killed me.”

Curious about Brandur’s story, the Roman soldier had lowered his crossbow and stepped a little closer.

” What pagans?” he asked with interest, knowing his commander would probably love to hear a story about the heathens that roamed the forests in the east. Maybe he would send them out on patrol and they would be able to bring a few of those barbarians back alive.

” I think he’s referring to us,” a voice suddenly sounded behind him and before the Roman patrol realized what was happening, they were engaged in a fight with a few rebels.

Brandur drew his sword and attacked the Roman that was the leader. The man had his sword in his left hand and his cross bow in his right. As soon as he saw the tall frame of Brandur advance on him, he aimed the crossbow and fired it.

One of Brandur’s man had seen the danger, but his warning had come too late. The crossbow bolt hit Brandur in the middle of his chest and he went down immediately.

The Roman soldier had no time to ponder over his victim, as the long blade of a sword pierced the skin of his back and with a sickening crunch twisted to the side to sever his backbone. He crashed to the ground, while his intestines emptied themselves and his last conscious thought was focused on the question why his legs felt like they did not belong to him anymore. Then everything went black.

” Brandur, Brandur,” an urgent voice called out his name.

Brandur could hear the sound, but it was like it was coming from a great distance and he tried to shake the fog that had seemed to cloud his vision.

” Yeah, yeah, ” His voice rasped. ” I am getting up, I….”

His blue eyes snapped open and looked around with a bewildered expression.

” What in the name of Thor….?”

” You got hit by a crossbow bolt,” one of the men helpfully pointed out. ” Are you okay?”

” By the Gods, that hurt,” Brandur groaned, carefully rubbing his chest.

He could feel the telltale warm and slightly sticky fluid covering his tunic and he knew he had to be injured.

In spite of that he reached out his arm and let one of his men help him to his feet. He took a few deep breaths to try and shake the dizziness he was feeling and he tried to comprehend what had happened.

” Are they dead?” he calmly asked.

” Very,” one of his men answered.

” Okay, good. Let’s get rid of their bodies then. By the time they discover they are missing, it’s going to be too late.”

” We will toss them in the ditch, after stripping off their weapons of course,'” a soldier grinned. ” Just take it easy for now, Brandur. Try and catch your breath.”

Brandur nodded and peeled away the fabric of his tunic, to get a good look at his chest. What he saw made him chuckle.

” Gods, you are a genius, general,” he mumbled, taking in the damage the crossbow had done to his breastplate. The army’s smith and his assistants had painstakingly adorned the soft leather with tiny, iron rings. They were neatly hammered into the leather until they formed an invisible shield, that could almost entirely stop crossbow bolts. Almost. The very tip of the bolt had penetrated a small part of his breastplate and had pierced his skin and painfully bruised his breastbone. But Brandur knew he would have been dead, if he had not been wearing the device their general had personally designed.

” I will have to tell Mor she saved my life,” he grinned. ” Again.”

****

What Mor had expected did happen indeed. The young scout Arvid had been the first one of many soldiers who had found their way to the caves.

After feeding him a decent meal, Mor had send Arvid back into the forest to keep an eye out for trouble. Baldric had shot the General his best pleading look and with a smile she had send him along with Arvid.

Of course Jaali had to tease both of them about not trying to sneak up on anyone and grinning the two boys had left.

” If you run into any Roman patrol, don’t follow them,” Mor had stressed. ” Get out of their way, get back here so I can send out a patrol of our own.”

” How, Mor?” Baldric had curiously asked. ” There’s no one here yet, just Arvid.”

” By the time you two are back, this place will be filling up nicely,” Mor had smiled. ” Wait and see.”

Isa had silently watched her lover interact with the young boys. A small smile spread across her face when she realized how relaxed Mor seemed to be. Almost as if there was no army on it’s way to meet her, their general, who had been preparing a battle to fight the Roman occupier.

” What’s that smile for?” Mor’s voice suddenly caressed Isa’s ear.

” You,” the blond woman promptly answered, while grasping a strong hand between her own smaller ones and gently rubbing the skin.

” Really?” Mor smiled. ” Were they happy thoughts?”

” They are always happy when I think about you,” Isa replied, bringing Mor’s hand to her face and softly kissing the back of it.

The loving gesture rendered the tall woman speechless and she swallowed hard, moistening her suddenly dry lips. Isa always managed to throw her off balance, with only a few words, or a gesture.

Mor brought her free hand to the back of Isa’s neck and pulled her lover in for what was supposed to have been a quick kiss. But Isa immediately let go of Mor’s hand and slid her arms around the tall woman’s neck, while her warm, soft lips melted against Mor’s.

The tall warrior could feel her heart rate pick up and with a soft moan, she wrapped her arms around Isa and pulled her closer, deepening the kiss with a passion that took her lover by surprise.

When breathing became more important than the delicious contact their lips and tongues were experiencing, Isa tilted back her head and took a deep breath. Her face was warm and red and her sparkling green eyes were dark with desire.

” If…if we don’t…stop now…I…,” she breathed with difficulty, because her tall lover was kissing the skin behind her ear and Isa could feel her lips and tongue travel down her neck, to the hollow of her throat, where her pulse point was shamelessly giving away her excitement.

” Mor.”

It was a combination of a moan and a sigh and Isa could feel her lover chuckle.

” What is it, my queen?” Mor asked, without interrupting her activities.

” I…I don’t think I can…stand up….much longer. You really have to ….stop,” she whimpered, not very convincingly.

A strong, warm hand had slid underneath her tunic and caressed the soft skin of her back and blunt fingernails lovingly scratched her spine, slowly sliding down and up again.

” Maybe you will need to lay down then,” a heated voice whispered in her ear, which was almost Isa’s undoing.

Her knees buckled and it were Mor’s trained reflexes that made sure the smaller woman was safely caught in her arms and gently lowered to a pile of blankets.

Isa looked up in a pair of mesmerizing blue eyes, that shone with so much love and devotion, it almost brought tears into her eyes. Stretching out her hand she stroked Mor’s cheek and smiled at the look of pleasure that crossed her lover’s face.

” I love it when you touch me,” Mor whispered, her eyes never leaving Isa’s. ” It feels so good and it excites me, but….it also makes me feel so warm inside. So safe,” she confessed almost shyly.

” That’s because I love you,” Isa whispered back, letting her fingers slide through the dark, silky tresses that were cascading down the side of Mor’s face. ” You make me feel so special. When you look at me I…I just feel all warm and fuzzy inside and also safe. When those Romans had captured me and I thought I would never see you again, I….”

” Shhh.”

Mor softly kissed Isa’s lips and looked her in the eye.

” It didn’t happen. We are still together. And we will be….always.”

Isa nodded, almost drowning in those clear blue eyes, that slowly came closer.

” Always,” she breathed, just before Mor’s lips met hers and her speaking became impaired.

A tall, warm, body covered her smaller frame and when Isa felt the slow, grinding motion of their bodies and her lover’s hungry lips, all thought disappeared from her mind. There was no past, no future. There were only Mor and herself. Loving each other with an intensity that surpassed all borders and boundaries. While their bodies moved in unison, the only whispered words were of love. With only the ancient cave walls as witnesses, and a soft crackling fire in the background, their souls became one.

” Is this the cave the old lady told us about? Are you sure?” Jody whispered, following Sam into a small opening. ” I know she said we needed to climb that path first, but….”

****

” This is the only entrance, honey,” Sam patiently answered. ” Are you having second thoughts? Do you want to go back? Cause if you do, I….”

” No, ” Jody answered, stepping a bit closer and grabbing Sam’s arm. ” But it’s so dark in here. What if we get lost? I still remember the story that guide told us and it’s not a very appealing thought to spend the rest of my life, which would be very short, wandering around in circles. Looking for a way out, while my fingers will be nothing but bloody stumps, because I will have to feel my way around and….”

” Honey!” Sam’s voice sounded a little impatient this time. ” Please! Do you mind? I have a torch. It’s only five steps straight ahead. If that room is not there, we will turn around and go back. Deal?”

Jody silently nodded, trying to suppress a nervous giggle. She had told Sam about the vision of the hooded, dark rider on the black horse and they were both a little tense. Those visions kept puzzling Jody, but they didn’t scare her. Not really. She had been thinking a lot about them and every time she did, a feeling of familiarity invaded her senses. It was just a feeling, hard to explain in words. But it was there. And it was intriguing. She wanted to know more.

Sam had reached out and grabbed Jody’s hand. Slowly they walked down the little hallway down to where the old lady had told them was the old war room, as she had called it. That expression had puzzled Sam and she had asked the woman if she was certain about that, since none of the books she had read about the castle, had mentioned anything about a war room.

” It is not inside the castle,” the lady had patiently explained. ‘ The caste has been build years and years after. No, you will have to go down to the center, the core. The room where the battle was mapped out and planned. The war room. It’s in the caves, underneath the ruins.”

To their relief the old lady had been right. After a few paces, they stepped into a room that was huge. Sam’s torch illuminated just small pieces at the time, but in spite of the darkness, they could feel by the air that surrounded them, how big the room actually was.

Without letting go of Jody’s hand, Sam pulled her lover along with her towards the other side of the room, where she could see the outline of an alcove. It seemed like human hands had carved out a doorway, between the room they were in and the one next to it. Sam let the ray of light fall through the opening and with interest they peeked inside, to see a small room. In one of the corners the remnants of a wooden barrel stood and when they came closer, Sam and Jody could faintly smell something familiar.

” What the…Can you smell that, Sam? ” Jody asked, pulling her lover closer. ” That smells like….”

” Resin, yes,” Sam answered, hovering over the barrel and sniffing the air. ” Yup, definitely resin. I wonder why anyone would keep that stuff in here. Unless they were illegally making that Greek wine, retsina,” Sam joked.

Jody grinned and pulled her lover closer, to give her a quick kiss.

” Smarty pants,” she teased.

” Well, now,” Sam mockingly grumbled, trying to tickle Jody’s ribs.

Immediately the smaller woman stepped back, to stay out of reach, which was not a smart move, because she was suddenly cornered. She pressed her back against the wall and used her free hand to fend off her lover.

” Stop it, Sam,” she said, laughing. ” What if you drop that torch? You will have to be careful.”

” I guess you are right,” Sam mumbled. ” I wouldn’t want to be trapped in here. No light. No food. No water. But, on the other hand…” the tall woman paused and brought her face closer to Jody’s. ” You would be in here with me and you…my love…are the sweetest,” Sam lightly kissed Jody’s lips. ” Loveliest,” a kiss on her nose. ” Most precious thing in my life, so…I wouldn’t complain…”

” Sweet talker, you,” Jody smiled, leaning into Sam’s body to steal another kiss. ” I love you, my cute Dutchie.”

” And I love you, my spunky Aussie.”

Jody grinned and wanted to reply, when suddenly her attention was drawn to something she saw from the corner of her eye. Her breathing hitched and when Sam wanted to ask her what was going on, Jody pressed a finger against her lips, gesturing her lover to be quiet.

” Sam,” she whispered. ” I have told you about my visions, right? At least, I call them that. I still wonder if I am not just seeing things. But…can you please slowly turn around and tell me what you see.”

Sam cast her lover a look full of confusion and wanted to tell Jody she was holding the torch, shining it the other way, so how could Jody see anything behind Sam? But the look on Jody’s face made her change her mind. Her lover’s expression was one of silent wonder and after a last glance at Jody’s face, she slowly turned around.

Sam’s body stiffened and Jody managed to just catch the torch before it hit the ground, when it slipped from Sam’s hand.

Across the small room, illuminated by an unseen source of soft, almost diffuse light, two bodies rested on what seemed to be a pile of blankets. A small woman with long, honey colored hair, was spooned up against a tall, dark haired woman, who had her muscular arms possessively draped around her companion. The two women seemed to be fast asleep.

” What the….?” Sam gasped. ” Gods!! I’ll be damned…”

” I guess you see what I am seeing?” Jody whispered.

She squeezed Sam’s hand and could feel how warm and sweaty the palm of her hand had become.

” Honey, I…” Sam started, but stopped when suddenly the tall, dark woman stirred, stretching the muscles in her arms, before pulling the smaller woman even closer.

She turned to Jody to be able to see her lover’s face, when Jody’s sudden,sharp intake of breath alarmed her. Quickly turning back she felt a cold shiver run down her back. Frozen in place she could only stare as a pair of clear blue eyes looked straight at her.

” Sam, ” Jody whispered. ” Those eyes….. Do you… recognize….?”

Sam swallowed hard and wrapped her arm around Jody’s shoulders, pulling her close.

” Yes, I do,” Sam answered with a husky voice. ” Every time….when I look into a mirror…..”
Part 15
With an eerie feeling of being watched, Mor opened her eyes. Her blue eyes scanned the inside of the cave, but found nothing but darkness. Still her nape hairs stood on end. She had a very strong feeling that Isa and her were not alone.

Isa felt the muscles in Mor’s body stiffen and a pair of green eyes sleepily blinked when looking up at the tall woman.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

” I don’t know,” Mor truthfully answered. ” I felt like…..I was being watched.”

Unconsciously she tightened her grip on the slender body in her arms, which made Isa smile. She patted the cool skin on Mor’s forearm and stifled a yawn.

” There’s nobody here, warrior. Besides, maybe somebody peeked in to see if we were still asleep.”

” Maybe,” Mor answered, not sounding convinced yet and her eyes traveled to the barrel of resin that was stacked away in the corner. She didn’t want to worry her lover, but she was certain her sharp ears had picked up a sound coming from that corner. It had been like a whisper, rippling the silent, cool air of the cave. It had brought goose bumps to Mor’s skin and even though she had not felt threatened, she had not liked it.

Isa’s smaller body suddenly wrapped itself around her much taller frame and with a smile Mor looked down into a pair of twinkling eyes.

” I am cold,” Isa explained. ” And since you always feel like a campfire on a crisp winter evening, I..”

” I get the idea,” Mor chuckled, wrapping her arms tightly around her lover and pulling her impossibly close.

” Do you like this?” she asked, in a muffled voice.

” As long as I can breath,” Isa answered with a laugh.

They layed like that for a while. Not speaking, just enjoying each other’s nearness and warmth. Until suddenly Isa pulled back a little and looked up at the relaxed features of her tall lover.

” Mor, I was thinking. If…no, when we chase away the Romans from this area, that will be a great victory, wouldn’t it?”

” Mmmm,” Mor answered, nuzzling the soft skin of Isa’s neck.

” I would like to record that. Write it down, so years from now people will read our history and everybody will know what a great General you were.”

Mor lifted her head and looked at Isa in surprise.

” What?” Isa asked. ” You didn’t think I could write?”

” No,” Mor hastily explained. ” Nothing you do surprises me, my love. It’s just that…..it’s a great idea! Because knowing the Romans, they will probably give a totally different explanation of their defeat. I will get you the material you need.”

Mor tried to get up, but was pulled back by her blonde lover.

” Not so fast, warrior,” she smiled. ” I am glad you like the idea, but….what about my morning kiss?”

Mor smiled and let herself fall back on the blankets, covering Isa’s body with her own.

” A kiss?” she echoed. ” Well, it’s hardly morning, but I think an idea that great, deserves a little kiss.”

Isa’s eyes smiled into Mor’s and she tenderly tucked a loose strand of dark hair behind a shapely ear.

” You know, the first time we met, I would never have thought you would be able to tease anybody, Mor. You seemed so….serious and moody. But I am glad you can, tease that is, even though I am your victim most of the time.”

” You saved my soul, Isa,” Mor whispered. ” I was lost, until you came. I love you.”

Mor brought her head closer to Isa’s and kissed a pair of soft, moist lips. There was no hunger or passion this time, just a mutual sharing of love, warmth and tenderness, that filled the most hidden parts of Mor’s soul and illuminated her with a glow, that made her blue eyes shine with a light that had never been there before.

****

The cave was buzzing with activity. Mor had not exaggerated when she had told Jaali the soldiers of her army would be starting to pour in at the end of the day.

Little groups of men had started to arrive at the cave halfway through the day and just before sundown there were already hundreds of them. Each of them seemed to know his or her task and Isa watched in fascination as the cave was swiftly turned into an army camp.

At the very back of the great hall and in the surrounding alcoves and hallways, bedrolls were neatly spread out, efficiently using all the space there was to make sure everybody had a place to sleep.

Mor had set up a small, highly efficient hospital, just off one of the small pipelines that seperated the halls. Pallets were raised above the ground to prevent the cold creeping up and were covered with fur and blankets.

On the shelves that lined one of the walls, neatly stacked jars, boxes and baskets could be found. Each of them filled with either herbal oil, dried herbs or fresh ones. Every now and then, one of the newly arrived soldiers added to the collection.

Barrels of water were lined up against the other wall and as soon as injured soldiers would be brought in, a few men would be assigned to make sure there was always a sufficient supply of fresh water available.

A fire place decorated a corner that was furthest away from the row of pallets. A sturdy framework of cast iron made sure that even the heaviest pot could be heated over the fire, without crashing down. The location of the fireplace was a clever one. There was a hole in the wall, high above the corner, so the smoke created by the fire, would be transported into another room and not bother the sick and injured in any way.

While Mor had made a lot of preparations herself, her army had been busy as well. They had spent their time collecting and drying herbs. Sorted out and processed by the healers, into powder, ointment and salves.

Pine trees had been tapped for resin that was stored in barrels and would be brought in on carts. It had been a tedious assignment. And it had taken a long time to collect the sticky sap of the pine trees, but the efforts had been worth it. Three cart loads of barrels would be brought in and most of the soldiers were dying to find out why their general had made that unusual request.

Mor had made sure that there was a burning torch every few paces, so the soldiers would not lose their way in the system of corridors. The more soldiers arrived, the more torches were lit and by the time it was evening, the cave was completely illuminated.

Isa had been quietly sitting in a corner, her eyes wide, watching the transformation of the quiet cave into an army camp. She stared at the little groups of soldiers who slowly started to fill the cave and smiled when she saw the tired faces light up every time they spotted their general. Isa realized that Mor was probably highly respected among her men.

Bending her head Isa continued to neatly print the letters and words that would tell their story to the generations to come. Their story was not finished yet, but Isa knew with certainty that the victory would be theirs.

” What are you doing, cutie?” a strange voice suddenly broke her concentration and with a start Isa looked up.

A young soldier was standing in front of her, his clothes and face dusty from his travels. He did not look much older than Isa herself and she tentatively smiled at him.

” What does it look like I am doing?” she answered, not liking the lustful look in his hazel eyes.

” Writing,” the soldier chuckled. ” That’s not a woman’s job. You should be cooking us dinner, or better…” he lowered his voice. ” Warm my bedroll. I promise I will treat you kind and I don’t even mind those bruises in your face. Where did you get them? Your former bedmate hit you? Were you that bad? I can teach you girl, how to please a man.”

Before Isa could even answer, the soldier was lifted off his feet and she saw his eyes almost popping out of his head, when the collar of his tunic was tightened around his neck. There was no need for him to fear choking, because with almost inhuman strength he was lifted up and thrown against the nearest wall. With a heavy thud he landed on the cave floor. Gasping for air and shaking his head to get rid of the dizziness.

Before he could even move, Mor was towering over him. Grabbed his tunic and pulled the soldier to his feet. When he finally realized who had been effortlessly throwing him at least four paces through the cave, his face paled.

” G…general,” he stammered.

” That’s right,” Mor growled. ” What’s your name, soldier?”

” M…Marius, General.”

” Listen to me Marius and listen carefully, because I am only going to say this once. You hear me?”

Marius swallowed and nodded his short cropped blond head. He tried to avoid the icy blue stare, but Mor’s strong hand forced his chin up and he had no other choice then to look at her.

” One. Women are no less than men. Especially not in my army. Two. Don’t downgrade cooking. Have you any idea what it takes to feed an army? No? Well, until I say so, you are on cooking duty. And three,” here Mor’s voice lowered to a dangerous low pitch. ” That woman you just have been insulting is my partner. Of course she can write, she is smarter than you and I combined! And if I ever, ever hear you talk to Isa like that again, or to any other woman for that matter, I will cut out your tongue and make you eat it. You got that?!”

Big drops of perspiration had formed on Marius’ forehead and he had to clench his teeth to stop them from chattering. The cold stare in Mor´s eyes told him she was serious. From the stories he had heard, he knew their General was a fair and fearless leader, but whoever managed to get onto her bad side, could be in a lot of trouble.

” So, what do you do now?” Mor growled.

” Reporting to…to the head cook, General.”

” And right now?”

Mor had let go of Marius´ tunic and shoved him away from her, eyeing him with interest. Without thinking twice, the soldier walked up to where Isa was seated and bent down on one knee.

” I…I apologize, M´Lady,” Marius stammered. ” Will you please forgive me?”

Isa cast a look at Mor and seeing the anger and distress in her lover´s eyes, made her aware of the fact that this situation was much more important than it might seem to her.

It had not been the first time Isa had to withstand the, sometimes, rude invitations of a man. It had happened to her before and even though she didn´t like it, she had learned to deal with it. But the cold anger in Mor´s eyes made her realize this was an important issue. The majority of Mor´s army were men and they were away from their families and sometimes their….lust, got in the way of their reason. Mor wanted to make sure that everyone understood who Isa was and what she meant to their General.

” I forgive you,” Isa answered in a clear voice. ” But I hope you remember that women are worth so much more than you give them credit for, Marius. By the Gods, your general is a woman!”

Marius blushed and he thought that dying wouldn´t be such a bad thing. Until he met the compassionate gaze in a pair of green eyes.

” Go to the head cook, Marius, to report for duty,” Isa told him. ” And thank the Gods that Mor spared your life. And Marius? Next time try to think before you speak.”

Marius nodded and quickly got to his feet, very aware of the stares of all the soldiers that had been present in the cave. With his head bent he walked passed Mor, not daring to glance at his general. His priority was to find the head cook and report to duty.

Mor looked at Marius’ back, until the soldier disappeared around the corner. With a sigh she turned back to Isa, who was looking at her with a gentle gaze. The silence in the cave and the many stares she could almost feel made her aware of the fact that she needed to make a stand. A clear one that would not leave anyone wondering.

Isa was a beautiful woman and Mor knew she wouldn’t always be there to keep an eye on her lover. She didn’t want to be overprotective, because she knew Isa could look after herself. But she did want to make clear to whom the young blonde belonged.

Without breaking their gaze, Mor slowly walked towards Isa and put both hands on her shoulders. With a quick wink she brought her face closer and tenderly kissed the smaller woman on her lips.

Isa seemed to understand the need for Mor’s sudden demonstrative behavior and let her body melt against her tall lover’s. Her arms slipped around Mor’s neck and their kiss deepened, quickly becoming more passionate.

Mor felt herself tumble into a whirlpool of desire and love and it took all her willpower to slowly untangle herself from Isa’s firm grip. When she finally did, her breathing had increased and her face was slightly flushed. She leaned her forehead against Isa’s and gently smiled.

“Wow,” she whispered. ” Don’t lose that thought!”

Isa’s eyes twinkled.

” I won’t,” she promised, her index finger tracing Mor’s upper lip. ” Just make sure you share my bedroll tonight.”

Mor audibly swallowed, much to Isa’s amusement and slowly turned around, knowing she would be meeting a lot of curious stares.

She stretched out to her full length and raised a challenging eyebrow, while cool blue eyes swept the crowd of soldiers that was staring at her.

The cave was dead silent, like everybody present was holding his or her breath, to wait and see what their General’s next move would be.

Just when Mor opened her mouth to bark a few commands, a clear voice from the back of the crowd suddenly shouted out: ” Congratulations, General. I’m glad someone finally got you on your knees.”

The result of these words were an outburst of laughing and in spite of the fact that she felt slightly embarrassed, Mor joined her soldiers in their merriment and accepted all the winks, nods and clasps on her shoulders with an uncharacteristic patience.

Isa just watched the display in front of her with an indulgent smile and her green eyes sparkled with love and pride when she saw her tall lover accept all the good wishes from her men and women. It was clear to her Mor’s soldiers would go to hell and back for their General.

” All right, all right,” Mor suddenly laughed, raising her hands in mock defeat. ” Thank you all, I appreciate it, but please, let’s get back to work, we have a camp to get ready.”

****

” How are things coming along, Jaali?” Mor asked, a little later.

Her dark friend was standing outside watching the small groups of soldiers climb up the hill and seek entrance to the cave. Some of them cast him curious looks, but a lot of them recognized him from his visit to their camp and friendly clasped his arm while passing him. He had been accepted as one of them. Of course the fact that Sigrun had made sure to tell the story about how Jaali had rescued Mor had already made the dark man a hero. He accepted it with quiet dignity and an occasional twinkle in his eyes.

” There are many men and women already here, Mor,” Jaali told her. ” They climb this hill like goats. That will be an advantage in this area.”

” They are trained that way,” Mor explained, her eyes following the slender figures of two young men, rapidly climbing the steepest part of the hill. “Here are Baldric and Arvid.”

Jaali’s dark eyebrows rose and his eyes went comically round.

” Leaving their posts?” he wondered. ” You think something must have happened?”

Mor clapped her friend on his muscular back and smiled.

” I think they must have run into Erhard, or one of his brothers. They were the last ones to leave.”

Jaali cast his friend a sideways look and frowned, which Mor noticed from the corner of her eye. She saw the confusion on the dark man’s face and tried not to smirk.

” Then everyone will be here?” he slowly asked.

” Mmm,” was Mor’s only response, her eyes still fixed on the rapidly approaching scout and courier.

” But….”

Mor felt a strong hand on her arm and when she finally turned to face her friend, she could see the concern in Jaali’s liquid brown eyes.

” As soon as Erhard arrives, I know a third of the army is here,” she told him with a sparkle in her eyes. “Another third will be in the caves north of the Roman camp and another third will be south of it. We are east.”

Realization dawned and slowly a huge grin appeared on Jaali’s face, mirrored on his friend’s.

” Sauda! You monkey!” Jaali laughed. ” I was almost getting a little worried. You are as devious as a scavenger on the plains of my homeland!”

” You can relax, Jaali,” Mor answered him. ” This battle is well planned and victory will be ours! You can count on that!”

She playfully swatted the tall man in his stomach and quickly walked towards the track where her ears had picked up the distinctive sound of hoof beats. A few seconds later four horses appeared and with a jubilant shout Erhard jumped off his horse and enveloped Mor in a bear hug.

” General, it’s good to see you,” he laughed, lifting her off the ground and twirling her around.

” Put me down, you idiot,” Mor laughed, happy to see her second in command and good friends again after many moons.

” Yes, G’nral,” Erhard answered, obediently putting Mor back on her feet. His hands were resting on her shoulders and he looked at her carefully, a small smile tugging on the corner of his mouth.

” How are, my friend?” he asked with a lot of warmth in his voice.

” I am fine,” Mor answered. ” How are Sigrun and the children?”

” They send you their love. And they hope to see you again real soon.”

” They will,” Mor promised with a smile. ” After we defeat the Romans, we will send for them.”

Erhard’s blue eyes narrowed and he slightly cocked his head when he stared at the woman in front of him. He was quiet for a little while and seemed deep in thought.

” You are really convinced, aren’t you?” there was no doubt in his voice, just a hint of awe.

” I am,” Mor answered. ” Do you doubt me, Erhard?”

Mor’s eyes had taken on a coldness Erhard was not used to and her face was set in a grim mask.

” I don’t doubt you, Mor. I admire you,” Erhard explained. ” I have faith in you, my friend. If anyone can defeat those Roman bastards, it will be you.”

” Us,” Mor corrected him with a soft voice. ” We will defeat them. For once and for all.”

The rest of Mor’s day was spent talking with Erhard and Jaali. Their heads were bowed over maps and they quietly talked for a very long time. Going over every detail of the upcoming battle. Mor had thought everything through, but still she wanted to hear her friend’s opinion, not because she was insecure, but to make sure every little detail would be taken care of.

Jaali, who had known Mor for a long time and was partly responsible for creating the fierce warrior she had become, was astounded by her insight, strategy and creativity. His respect for his friend deepened and he knew now why all those men and women, rebels in the eyes of the Romans, would follow their leader any time, any place. She had a brilliant mind and listening to that soft, but strong voice, that calmly explained what was going to happen, instilled a trust and faith in him, that he had never felt before, prior to a battle.

****

The moon had already climbed high in the sky. The guards who were keeping an eye on the surrounding forest were moving in the shadows, very much awake. The rest of the army seemed to be asleep.

Mor, Erhard and Jaali had finally finished their meeting and content with all the things they had discussed Mor quickly wrote two little notes and sent two young couriers on their way to deliver them to the leaders of the other two camps. Mor knew Erhards brothers were eagerly awaiting her last instructions, ready to go into battle and decimate the Roman army. But Mor knew perfect timing would be crucial to their victory and she had urged Brandur and Reinar to be ready, but wait until she would give them a signal. Mor wanted to surprise the Romans and confuse them. Her plan was all worked out and Jaali and Erhard had been enthusiastic. The next day would be spent preparing and then…..Mor shivered with anticipation. Soon she would lead her army against the hated enemy and she was convinced they would be able to defeat them and send them back to Rome, like whipped dogs, with their tails between their legs. Stripped of their dignity and pride. Full of shame and a clear message for their Emperor Trajan: to stay out of the Mose Valley and leave the Ambiorix’ descendants be.

Mor yawned as she navigated through the cave, sidestepping some slumbering forms spread out across the floor.

Her eyes were fixed on the alcove in the corner, where she knew her lover would be. Probably fast asleep on their bedrolls.

Even though she had been extremely busy that day, Mor had kept an eye on Isa and was pleased to see that the young woman had been busy writing in her scrolls all day.

Now and then their eyes had met and at those moments time seemed to stand still and the activity inside the cave had faded out of view. Over the distance their eyes had locked and stayed that way for a long time, at least, that’s what it felt like to Mor. Even with leagues between them, Mor knew she could drown in her lover’s eyes. Easily. And willingly.

Mor smiled when she stepped inside their private little corner and her smile widened when she noticed Isa, curled up on the bedroll. The quill was balancing between her fingers and the scroll had rolled off the furs and was laying on the floor.

Mor knelt beside her lover and carefully took the quill out of her hand, putting it away with the scroll and the jar of ink. For a moment she was tempted to have a quick look at what her lover had written down already, but Mor decided against it. It was up to Isa to decide if there was anything in there she wanted to share with her.

Mor slid behind Isa and wrapped her arm around a slim waist. Isa immediately snuggled closer and Mor could feel the sigh of contentment when their bodies touched.

” Love you,” Isa mumbled, uncoordinatedly patting the hand that was resting on her stomach.

Mor enjoyed the warm feeling that flowed through her body and pulled Isa even closer. She closed her eyes and savored the moment.

” I love you too,” she finally whispered, kissing the top of a blond head. ” I think I always have.”

****

In spite of the cool air inside of the cave, Sam could feel the water run down her back and when she rubbed her forehead she could feel the perspiration.

Jody had slipped her arm around Sam’s waist and had rested her head against a broad shoulder. They were standing quietly. They had not talked yet, nor moved. Sam seemed to be rooted in place, trying to wrap her mind around the things she just had seen. And failing desperately.

” Did…I feel like I am dreaming, Jody,” she whispered. ” I can’t believe I saw…..that. What the hell was it anyway?”

” I am not sure, honey,” Jody softly answered, giving Sam’s waist a gentle squeeze. ” But I feel like I have seen them before. I certainly did see the blonde one and I think the one with your….eyes….is the one I saw on the horse. It’s the same eyes I saw at the museum, reflected in the glass It’s a bit scary, huh?”

” A bit?” Sam shivered. ” I think it’s….”

Sam stopped and bit her bottom lip, trying to decided what exactly she was feeling. From Jody’s first ‘vision’ she had been supportive of her partner, knowing she would never just make up a story like that. Even when Jody had told her about the tall figure on the black horse, she had taken it seriously, full well knowing that if Jody said she saw it, she most likely did. But now they had both seen the same….what was it? A vision? An appearance? It had been the strangest sensation to suddenly see the shapes of two women wrapped in each other’s arms. Fast asleep. Until the dark one had opened her eyes and Sam’s heart had stopped for a second.

” She has my eyes,” Sam thought. ” Or maybe I have hers.”

With clarity Sam realized she was not scared. She had been thrown off guard and was truly amazed, but she was also intrigued and curious. Who were those women and what did they want of them?

” It’s not scary,” Sam finally answered Jody, turning around so she could face her lover. ” Were you scared?”

Jody looked up at her tall partner and slowly shook her head.

” No, I wasn’t. I have found these visions fascinating from the beginning. And right now I am just so glad that we saw this one together. But I can’t help thinking they want something from us, Sam. I don’t know, I can’t explain it, but it’s…a feeling. Somehow I think we were meant to visit this place and I am sure that sweet little old lady in that shop knows more about it. What do you think?”

” I think I want to step outside and sit in the sun for a little while, if that is okay with you. I am getting cold.”

” Sure, honey, let’s go.”

Jody switched on the flashlight and provided the much needed light towards the cave entrance. Even though it was a short walk, it would still be possible to get lost. They were only about fifteen meters inside the cave, but it was pitch dark.

Outside the pair sat down on the nearest available rock that was showered with sunlight and Sam let out a happy breath. She was rubbing the chilled skin of her arms, trying to encourage her body to swiftly warm up.

Jody rummaged through the backpack Sam had been carrying and pulled out two bottles of sports drink. She handed one to Sam, before uncapping her own and taking a healthy swallow.

” Always makes me thirsty, ghost hunting,” she joked, peeking up at Sam to see the expected smile appear on her face. ” So, what do you think we should do next, honey?”

Sam emptied half the bottle before slowly screwing the lid back on and turning to face her lover. A pair of pensive, clear blue eyes stared into an equally pensive pair of green ones and for a long time they just sat like that. Looking at each other. Taking comfort from each others’ presence and basking in the warmth of the abundantly shining sun.

” Maybe we should go back to that first…vision you had,” Sam started. ” Write them all down. The times, places, what you saw. Maybe we will be able to find a pattern or something. Maybe it will give us a clue about what to do next.”

” Sounds like a plan,” Jody answered. ” And maybe we can go over to that little antique shop again and talk to that lady. She seemed to know more about the whole thing. Well, YOU can talk to her. I still haven’t mastered the Dutch language,” she finished with a chuckle.

” That is only because you are not practicing enough, sweetheart,” Sam teased, enjoying the light bantering after the strange experience inside the cave.

” I just can’t seem to wrap my tongue around it, you know.”

Jody took another sip from her drink and was surprised not to hear Sam object to her statement.When she cast a look aside, she noticed the twinkle in Sam’s eyes and when she opened her mouth to ask her lover what had been so funny, she suddenly realized.

With a groan she buried her face against Sam’s chest and she could feel her lover chuckle. Sam’s arm snaked around her body and pulled her closer. A pair of soft lips lovingly kissed her cheek and a low, purring voice sounded close to her ear.

” I am so glad there ARE things you can wrap your tongue around, honey,” Sam laughed. ” Forget about the Dutch language for a while. You just helped me to set my priorities straight.”

****

To her chagrin Isa noticed she woke up alone, the next morning. She had turned around onto her other side and her sleep dozed mind had expected to find her lover there, but the place was empty. And cold. Mumbling something about life not being fair, she rubbed the sleep out of her eyes and yawned.

The downside of living in a cave was that it was hard to determine which part of the day it was.

” A window would be nice,” Isa muttered to herself. ” I would love to see the sun come up. And it would be better if some tall, dark and presently absent woman would be able to join me for that.”

” Join you for what?” a low voice suddenly sounded close to her ear and with a yelp Isa almost jumped.

Mor laughed when she let her tall body fall next to Isa and leaned in to steal a quick kiss. Isa smiled at her lover. The cranky way she woke up already forgotten.

” I thought we had decided you can do better than that,” she deadpanned.

” Yes, we did,” Mor purred, wrapping her arm around Isa and practically pulling her into her lap. She tenderly brushed away the tousled blond hair from Isa’s face and slowly and deliberately kissed her lover on the lips.

” Is this better?” she finally asked.

” Much,” Isa sighed, snuggling closer. “I woke up to find you gone and I didn’t like it.”

” But I had a good reason,” Mor explained.

Isa peeked up into a pair of loving blue eyes and felt the fluttering in her stomach. A small hand caressed Mor’s cheek and the tall woman closed her eyes and leaned into the touch.

” What?”

” Mmm?” Mor asked, enjoying the feel of Isa’s touch on her face.

” What was the reason?”

” Oh, that,” Mor answered, opening her eyes and grinning wide. ” Well, how about freshly baked bread, hot, sweet tea, honestly stolen Roman cheese with thyme and….honey-nut pastries?”

Isa’s eyes had grown wide and she could feel the start of the familiar rumble her stomach.

” Honey-nut pastries?” she whispered.

Mor nodded and pressed her index finger against her lips.

” Sssh, it’s a secret. Erhard brought them. He said he only had one for me, but when I went through his saddlebags I found lots more. I am sure Sigrun wanted him to share.”

” You went through his saddlebags? Mor!” Isa chuckled.

Mor’s blue eyes radiated innocence and she feigned a hurt look when she glanced at the woman in her arms.

” Hey! I am the General. I can do things like that,” she objected and Isa could see the twinkle in her eyes.

” I’d better keep you then,” Isa smiled, leaning forward to kiss the tall woman again. ” But I would have anyway.”

” I love you too,” Mor smiled, kissing the tip of Isa’s nose. ” Well, better get up, my love. Before Erhard notices.”

Isa jumped to her feet and raked her fingers through her hair in order to look a little more presentable. She stretched her muscles and yawned again, not fully awake yet. That always took her some time. Somehow Isa was not a morning person.

Suddenly she stood still, tilted her head and carefully sniffed. She closed her eyes and enjoyed the fragrance that was filling her nose.

” Mmm….what is that smell, Mor? It smells nice, like pine forests.”

” It’s resin,” Mor explained, wrapping her arm around Isa’s shoulders and pulling her with her. ” It’s harvested from pine trees. Right now a few men are warming it up in big pots to make it soft again.”

Isa looked up at her tall lover and wrinkled her nose. Her green eyes looked puzzled.

” Why?”

” Because we will need it tomorrow,” Mor answered, knowing that Isa would probably be appalled when she would find out the real reason behind it. ” When it’s soft, bales of hay will be drenched in it, so they are coated.”

” Why?” Isa asked again, aware of the sudden tension in the tall body next to hers. She swallowed hard and nervously moistened dry lips.

” Resin burns well. We will use the hay balls against the Romans. Shoot them down the hill and set them on fire. The flames will turn the resin to liquid again and it will burn everything it comes into contact with. It’s very sticky, hard to wipe off.”

” Are….are..you…are we going to use them…on the Romans?” Isa asked, trying not to sound upset.

Mor suddenly stood still and put her hands on Isa’s shoulders, turning the smaller woman towards her.

” I am sorry, Isa,” she said, her voice hoarse with emotion. ” But there will be a big battle and I will do anything to make our army the victorious one. I know it will be ugly. There will be a lot of…hurt people, dead people. On both sides. But I will do anything I can to make sure our losses will be as small as they can be. My men have families as well. And I am responsible for all of them.”

Isa’s face was pale, but when she looked up at Mor she nodded in understanding. Even though Mor could clearly see the pain in those deep green eyes.

” Isa, listen. I…, Mor hesitated. ” I know we talked about this before, but…”

” No, ” Isa interrupted her. ” Where you go, I go. It’s as simple as that, Mor. I will be at your side.”

After those words Mor pulled Isa into a quick hug and the blond woman could hear the warrior let out a soft sigh of relief.

Silently they continued their way towards the cooking area, Isa’s hunger already forgotten. It had suddenly dawned on her: tomorrow there would be a war. There would be hurt and death and suffering. And she and Mor would be fighting side by side. Tomorrow would change their lives forever.

Please, Gods, keep us safe. Please Tyr, let us win this battle and please Freya, protect our hearts.
Part 16
The Roman centurion nervously paced up and down his tent. His hands were clasped behind his back and while walking he was slightly leaning forward, his shoulders hunched as if he was carrying a heavy load. In a way he was. The patrol he had sent out two days before had still not returned and that was something he had not anticipated. His soldiers were Roman soldiers. The best warriors in the known world. They should have been able to complete their assignment already. He had expected them back at the castre the previous day. With a prisoner.

But nothing had happened. The day had slowly crawled away and when darkness finally fell, Centurion Augustus Horatius Vedrix could almost feel the hot breath of the governor on his neck. He had not informed the local ruler about the mysterious warrior who had been secretly visiting the camp, wounding the Optio and disappearing again, unseen, like a ghost.

He had been relying on his soldiers to solve the problem and bring the intruder to justice. He had been so convinced of their success, he, Augustus who, as a young man had fought side by side with Tettius Iulianus defeating the Dacians. It had been a glorious battle and turned out to be a huge stepping stone for his career. He had swiftly climbed the ranks in the Roman army until he became Centurion.

For the first time in his career he had run into a situation he could not quickly control. And that knowledge aggravated him and made him extremely tense. His anxiety had only grown when he was informed about the disappearance of one of the Optio’s, Titus. He knew the man well and was aware of his pride and arrogance. He had never really liked Titus much, but he did his job well. He was famous for turning young, insecure recruits into fine Roman soldiers.

Augustus had a feeling Titus had silently left the camp, to go after the warrior himself. He had been deeply insulted and physically scarred by him and that was something that would eat Titus up inside. But Titus had been missing for more than a day now and the Centurion had a feeling that something had gone terribly wrong. That deep, gut feeling that had saved his life on numerous occasions before, fuelled his decision to sent out another patrol at first light, to search for Titus and the other men. And to report back to him as soon as possible, no matter what.

****

Mor’s army camp slowly came to life. Again Isa was impressed by the efficient way things were set up. It seemed like everybody knew exactly what his or her tasks were and they did them quickly and quietly. Isa could sense the tension. The air was so thick with it, that it was almost palpable. Little groups of soldiers were busy cleaning and sharpening their swords. Rearranging their long, sharp arrows in their quivers. Adjusting belts and shackles. Even though Mor had not yet talked to them, somehow they knew this would be the day they had been waiting for. The day they had trained for, sacrificed for. The day that would bring them the long awaited victory over the Roman conqueror, who had stolen their lands and had left them no choice but to flee, or become slaves.

Isa’s eyes travelled through the cave and rested on Baldric and Arvid. The two boys had become friends and seemed to be inseparable. They stood at the cave entrance and were softly talking. Their faces were tense and Isa could almost see the nervous anticipation rolling off of them.

With an almost physical pain she realized her brother would be at risk as well during the battle and suddenly she felt a wave of panic, that made breathing hard.

” It’s alright,” Mor’s soothing voice unexpectedly sounded near her ear.

A strong arm was wrapped around her shoulder and Isa welcomed the comforting warmth of the tall warrior’s body. She buried her face against a strong shoulder and breathed in the scent of herbs and resin, which seemed to calm her racing heart.

” I will keep him away from the worst of the battle,” Mor promised, softly stroking Isa’s hair. ” But I do need him to do some fast hand and foot work. Arvid is an excellent archer, he will be on top of the hill. I could tell your brother to help out his friend and the other archers. There will be more boys up there whose task it will be to keep the fires going and make sure there are enough arrows.”

Isa swallowed hard and pushed away the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. It was hard not to be the big, worried sister. But Baldric was almost seventeen summers old. It was time to let go.

” It will be his decision,” she softly said.

” I will make sure there will be someone looking out for him,” Mor promised.

It was just after midnight when Mor had sent off two couriers to deliver a message to the northern and southern caves, where the other parts of her army had their camps. Her face was set in a grim mask, when she saw the young boys disappear in the forest and she said a silent prayer to ask the Gods to keep them safe.

Casting a look at the sky, she was pleased to see that a thick blanket of clouds obscured the moon, diffusing the light and adding to the darkness of the night. It was a welcome surprise. Planning the battle, Mor had counted on a clear, moonlit night. The clouds were an added bonus. As long as it wouldn’t rain, everything she had planned would be without complications. Thus far.

” Looks like a good day for a battle,” Jaali’s voice sounded behind her.

Without turning around Mor nodded and pointed to the place where the moon was supposed to be.

” Even the heavens are on our side, my friend,” she smiled.

” As they should be,” Jaali answered, putting a strong hand on her shoulder, giving it an affectionate squeeze. ” I pray the Gods will guide us onto victory, Sauda. I prayed to my Gods and even yours.” The huge man softly chuckled. ” I know your strength, my warrior, but all help is welcome. May our victory be as sweet as the honeycombs of my people.”

” So, you are ready for it?” Mor asked, still not looking at her friend.

” As ready as you are, Sauda.” Jaali answered with confidence. ” I have waited many seasons to avenge myself and all the ones who have been killed in the name of Rome. I will be at your side. We will instill fear into those Roman hearts and we will color these hills with their blood. This day will be ours!”

Mor turned and cast a look at the dark man, who was almost invisible in the darkness, except for the white of his eyes.

” If something happens to me, I want you to…..”

” I will protect her and you with my life, my daughter. Nothing will happen to you, or to Farisa. I will make sure of that. When the sun sets again tonight, the three of us will share some wine, made sweet by the taste of our victory.”

Mor smiled and hugged the dark man close.

” May the Gods be with us,” she whispered, before letting go. ” Come inside Jaali. The change of our future will start now.”

” Are there any more questions?” the clipped tone of Mor’s voice echoed through the cave. Her blue eyes scanned the silent crowd in front of her and now and then she let her gaze linger on one of the soldiers. What she saw pleased her immensely. Faces that were tense, but shone with a courage and determination that made her believe in their victory.

Behind her back she could feel the presence of a warm body and she didn’t need to turn around to know it was Isa. Without looking she extended her hand and she felt the reassuring grip of Isa’s smaller one. She pulled the small woman beside her and wrapped her arm around the blonde’s shoulders.

” If there are no further questions, go. Take your positions and wait for the designated signal. May the Gods be with you all. Today we will avenge our forefathers and fight for the future. Our future and our childrens’. ”

In the meantime three small groups of Mor’s army, that had left the camp just after midnight and had split up at the bottom of the hill, had reached their destination. Silent, like slithering shadows they had approached the Roman watchtowers, until they were underneath the tall, wooden constructions. They were masters of disguise and even with the moon, peeking from behind a cloud, casting it’s silvery light down to earth, illuminating even the smallest pebbles and rocks, they were almost invisible.

Like predators they uncovered the ropes their general had secretly attached to the sturdy cross beams between the long, wooden legs of the towers and without making a sound, they climbed the rough ropes, while the blades of the knifes they had clenched between their teeth, occasionally reflected the moonlight.

Before any of the Roman soldiers could even raise his voice to sound an alarm, it was over. The sharp blades had slit their throats and ended their lives quickly. The lifeless bodies were dragged into a corner and were quickly stripped of their tunics and helmets.

Anyone who would have looked up at the towers, would have seen an alert Roman soldier, slowly pacing the tower, scanning the surroundings for anything that could be a threat.

The stillness of the night was interrupted by the ghostly call of an owl, which was being echoed twice. After that the silence returned and patiently the occupants of the towers waited for the first sign of dawn.

In complete silence, but in orderly fashion, the troops had left the cave, disappearing into the dark maze that was the forest. Shadows, blending in with the forest that surrounded them. That seemed to swallow them whole, obscuring them from view, providing a safe blanket of dark trees and bushes. Until daylight would break. Bringing a day full of courage and despair,pain and death, victory and defeat….

Mor, Isa and Jaali were the last ones to leave. Without speaking a word, Mor had helped her lover into one of the armoured tunics that would protect her upper body from arrows. Isa had expected it to be heavier and with surprise in her eyes she had looked up at Mor, who had just smiled at her.

” Wow,” Isa had breathed. ” This is not as bad as I thought it would be, Mor.”

” Good,” Mor had answered, brushing her knuckles against the soft skin of the blond woman’s cheek. ” Just stay close to me. And whatever I say, Isa, please…”

” I will follow your commands,” Isa had calmly stated. ” But I will stay at your side, Mor. Whatever will happen. We will stay together.”

Mor had merely nodded, knowing Isa meant every word of what she had said. She knew it could make things more complicated, but she would do anything in her power to keep the smaller woman safe.

” Let’s go,” her low voice rumbled, grabbing Isa’s hand and leading her towards the tree line.

” What about the horses?” Isa curiously asked, looking over her shoulder to the separate cave where about twenty horses were stabled.

” Too hilly to bring them,” Mor explained. ” We will pick them up later.”

Her voice was calm and so full of confidence that Isa smiled. Her stomach churned with nervousness, but Mor’s calm determination had a soothing effect on her. She dreaded all the violence and bloodshed she would witness soon, but deep down inside she felt that when the sun would set that evening, they would still be together. One way or the other.

The valley was quiet, except for the sounds of nature. Birds were singing and marking their territory by their distinct calls. The wind softly rustled the leaves on the trees and in the distance the sound of running water could be heard.

Down at the Roman castre a few campfires spread a soft, orange light, providing just enough light to see that everything inside the camp was quiet. Near the gates a few soldiers could be seen, slowly pacing up and down. Their bodies in a relaxed posture. If any intruders would be around, the ones on the towers would give a signal. But that had never happened before. There had never been an intruder, except once, when the mysterious warrior had sneaked into the army camp to mutilate Optio Titus’ face. The soldiers had been shaken up by that incident, mostly because their Centurion had cursed them all to the underworld. Personally most soldiers didn’t care about what had happened to Titus. He had been respected, but not liked. Some soldiers had snickered about Titus’ misfortune, secretly pleased that the gruff, violent man had finally met his match. But of course they would have never said a thing like that out loud, since that would come close to insubordination. And they all knew the punishment for that. If you were lucky it would mean a swift death. If not, a slow, painful death on a cross alongside the road.

Unseen to the Roman eyes messages passed between the soldiers in the towers and the commanders of the troops behind the top of the hill. With military precision the last preparation had been made. From their vantage point up in the towers, the soldiers could see that the hills that surrounded the Roman camp were lined with hundreds of soldiers. Piles of resin soaked hay balls were neatly stacked behind the rows. There were hundreds of them and as soon as they would be used against the Romans, their camp would be devastated by an inferno. And the Romans would be trapped. The one gate they would probably use to try and get away, would be the North one, that lead towards the road and was not blocked by a steep hill. But alongside that road, more than a hundred archers were lined up to stop any Roman soldier from escaping their destiny.

All preparations were made. Mor’s army was ready. The only thing left to do was to wait for the first light of dawn and a command of their General.

Isa’s eyes nervously followed the tall figure of her lover, when Mor walked passed the rows of soldiers to do a last inspection. Her body oozed strength and confidence and Isa could see the respect in the eyes of the soldiers when they looked up at their general. Now and then Mor stopped to softly speak with one of the men or women. Patting backs and clasping arms. Spreading around the confidence she felt, to inspire her soldiers to fight for all they were worth.

Mor had explained to Isa that the key factor of their attack, would be the element of surprise. Mor was no fool. She knew how well trained the Roman army was. But surprising them at the first light of dawn, would hopefully bring enough panic and confusion to immediately get the upper hand in battle. And if all went well, the battle would be over before the day had passed.

Mor had studied the camp for moons and knew exactly which barracks housed the soldiers. Blindfolded she would be able to find the officers quarters and she had made sure that each and every man and woman of her army, knew where to aim their flaming hay balls.

Isa uncapped her waterskin and swallowed a mouthful of water, glad to feel the cool water sooth her dry mouth. From the corner of her eyes, she saw the tall form of Mor approach and she quickly jumped up. Looking up at the tall woman she realized that only the tense lines around her eyes and mouth gave away the generals current state of mind. Isa realized her lover was full of nervous anticipation.

” Are you okay?” she softly asked, handing the waterskin to Mor, who gratefully took it.

” I should ask that question to you,” Mor smiled. ” Are you alright?”

Isa shrugged her shoulders and for a moment she felt the tension like a cold ball in the pit of her stomach. She took a deep breath and tried not to avoid the inquisitive look in Mor’s clear blue eyes.

” I am with you. I will be fine,” she answered.

” That is not what I asked you,” Mor gently chided, putting her hand on Isa’s shoulder and leaning closer.

Isa cast her eyes down and nervously played with the hem of her oversized blue tunic, that reached halfway to her thighs.

” I am scared,” she softly confessed. ” I am scared for you, for Baldric and Jaali, for all those people here, who are willing to die today. I…I am even a little scared for those Roman soldiers,” Isa swallowed and looked up to see a pair of understanding eyes looking back at her. ” I mean, I know they are the enemy, but….most of them are just boys Mor, like Baldric.”

In an impulsive gesture Mor reached out and pulled Isa into the warmth of her arms. Immediately the smaller woman snuggled closer, not letting the armoured vest she was wearing hinder her. Mor smiled while she rested her cheek on the blonde’s hair, soaking up the feel of Isa’s body against her own.

” I realize all that Isa and I swear, I hope they will surrender, but you have to be realistic here. Those are Roman soldiers, they are very well trained and if it comes down to them or us, I know what to do. Besides, I hate to bring this up, but, those soldiers who captured you…some of them were really young, but that didn’t stop them from trying to torture you.”

” I know,” Isa sighed. ” I…I just don’t like bloodshed, Mor.”

” I know that, Isa and that’s one of the reasons I love you so much. You are such a gentle soul.”

Mor brought her face closer and tenderly kissed a pair of soft lips.

” Wish me luck,” she whispered and for a moment, Isa could see a hint of fear in those blue eyes she loved so much.

” May the Gods be with us,” Isa replied, answering the soft kiss with one of her own.

” Stay close to me. Behind me,” Mor instructed. ” As soon as I will give a sign, fires will be lit and we will start our attack. Their archers are good marksmen, hopefully the fire and the smoke will block their view, but I don’t want a stray arrow to hit you.”

Isa merely nodded and Mor gave her a last, quick kiss, before turning around and looking at the rows of soldiers, who were all ready and waiting and Isa could see the power and self confidence rolling off the tall body in waves. Even for a stranger who would happen to stroll by, it would be obvious who the leader of this army was. The blue clad, tall figure stood out against the rest and everywhere she went, admiring looks, full of respect, were cast her way.

Mor climb on a rock, so she could oversee the valley and was pleased to notice that the Roman army camp was still quiet. She could see a few soldiers leaving their tents and busying themselves around the campfires. The guards at the gates looked tired, from being up all night and did not look very alert.

Mor felt a warm presence at her back and without turning around, she knew who it was. A soft smile made her look relaxed.

” They are fools, Jaali,” she spoke, the contempt evident in her voice. ” They completely rely on their precious watchtowers. If my army looked like that I would drill them until they couldn’t stand up anymore.”

” They are like well fed lions, Sauda,” Jaali’s voice rumbled. ” They had their meal and now they only want to rest and be left alone. It must be their greatest weakness, they are like a slumbering giant.”

” Well, soon they will wake up,” Mor stated, jumping off the rock and casting a look at the east, where the sky slowly colored a light orange. ” It’s time to defeat the lion, Jaali.”

” I am with you, Sauda. I will be by your side.”

Mor looked up at the dark man and saw the fire in his dark eyes. If anyone had a reason to hate the Romans more than Mor, it would be Jaali. His body was covered in scars from wounds the Romans had inflicted on him. They had taken the proud man away from his country and his people. First he had become their highly praised gladiator, but in the end they had turned him into less than a slave. But now, having regained his freedom, Jaali finally had the chance for revenge. A long time ago, the Romans had turned him into a fighting monster and every skill they had taught him, would be turned against them.

” I will look out for Farisa as well,” Jaali promised, seeing the unspoken question in Mor’s eyes.

” Thank you, my friend.”

Jaali merely nodded and gestured towards the rows of soldiers whose eyes were glued to Mor, waiting for her signal.

” Whenever you are ready, General.”

” I am now,” Mor answered, walking past her friend, while patting his back.

With her bow clasped in her hands she walked towards a young boy, who was sitting near an unlit campfire. His slender fingers held the flintstone he would use to quickly make a roaring fire. He could do it. He had practised so many times already and everyone knew he was the fastest and the best.

He bit his bottom lip, while his brown eyes never left Mor’s face. When finally her blue eyes made contact a shiver of anticipation ran through his body.

” Go ahead, Wolfgang,” Mor nodded.

Immediately the boy hit the stones together and a row of sparks rained down on the dry grass and twigs that were piled up. Small flames emerged and skilfully, Wolfgang added some bigger twigs, making the fire crackle. A group of young boys who were positioned behind the rows of soldiers soon had their little fires going as well and each and every one of them looked up to their general with pride.

Mor smiled at the boys approvingly and Wolfgang’s face shone.

Mor pulled an arrow out of the quiver on her back, while her eyes scanned the troops. It was dead silent. Only the sounds of happily calling birds was heard.

” Here we go,” Mor’s low voice rumbled.

She stuck the arrowhead, that was coated in resin, into the fire and immediately it caught fire. Skilfully she nocked the arrow and within seconds it was describing a perfect arch, high in the sky.

For a fleeting moment it was like the world was holding it’s breath and Isa, who had been close to Mor, briefly wondered what would happen next. She didn’t have to wait long. The roar of hundreds of voices filled the air, chilling the small woman to the bone and for a split second her thoughts were down at the Roman camp, pitying the men who would wake up to such a sound.

Before she could even blink her eyes, the rows of soldiers were lined up, side by side, on top of the hill. Shields were placed in front of them, to create a wall against any Roman missiles that would be fired at them.

The smell of fire, smoke and resin suddenly filled the air and when Isa peeked from behind Mor’s tall back, she could see the first burning projectiles being launched and hitting the wooden poles, tents and barracks of the Roman army camp. They came from three different sides and down at the camp she could see the confusion and panic they caused.

The resin soaked hay balls did their job with a vengeance. Because of their substance, they stuck to anything they hit, while the flames hungrily licked at the wood and the leather tents that housed the soldiers and officers. Making them escape their quarters as soon as they could, to get away from the heat and thick smoke. They ran around the camp, trying to find shelter and some weapons they could use to defend themselves.

Mor’s keen eyes took in the sight below her in the valley and she was pleased to see that everything was going according to plan. The camp was on fire and some of her soldiers had managed to even set the gates on fire, making it almost impossible for the Romans to escape their camp.

Mor did realize the confusion would not last long. The Romans were very skilled soldiers and it would take more than burning hay balls to defeat them.

Without taking her eyes away from the scene below, Mor took in a deep breath.

” Archers,” her voice bellowed. ” Take your marks!……Fire at will!”

That was all the encouragement Mor’s soldiers needed. Immediately a multitude of arrows left the bows, slicing the air and finding their marks with accuracy. In spite of the fires and smoke, an amazing amount of arrows managed to penetrate the skin of numerous Roman soldiers, killing them in an instant, or inflicting deep, painful wounds, that would immobilize them and prevent them from fighting.

Isa felt like she was frozen in place. She really did not want to see the horrific events taking place down at the army camp, but she seemed unable to tear her eyes away from the chaos down in the valley. Her eyes followed a man who was frantically swatting at the flames that were quickly devouring his clothing. Because of the distance and the noise, Isa could see his mouth move, like he was screaming, but she did not hear a sound. It made the whole scene so unreal, like she was dreaming. With difficulty Isa averted her eyes, her glance being caught by a pair of piercing blue eyes. Mor quickly looked at the scene that had upset her lover and immediately she understood Isa’s distress.

With a grim look on her face she nocked another arrow and took an aim. With a whooshing sound the arrow left the bow, finding it’s target and plunging itself in the burning man’s heart. He died instantly.

Swallowing hard, Isa tried to push down the bile that rose in her throat, but when she looked at Mor and saw the blue eyes staring back at her with a look of such compassion, she managed a little smile and silently mouthed : ‘Thank you.”

Mor nodded and directed her gaze back to the battlefield. With keen eyes she took in the sight before her. A group of Roman soldiers had picked up a large pole and were using it as a battering ram, desperately trying to break down the gate that lead to the road out of the valley and that was still on fire. Mor raised an eyebrow and silently wondered if the soldiers really had no idea about her army standing outside the gate, their spears, bows and arrows ready to intercept anyone who would try to escape. She realized the chaos must have been greater than she could have imagined, contributing the fire to the officers’ tent to the lack of guidance. Their initial attack must have taken out most of the commanders in charge.

With a calculated glance she saw that the palisade that surrounded the Roman camp as means of protection, ended up serving as a trap for those who built it. The camp was on fire and there was no chance to escape.

Down at the center, Mor’s eyes caught sight of a large group of Roman soldiers who were regrouping. They protected themselves against the ongoing stream of arrows, by kneeling down and raising their shields over their heads.

” Good idea, wrong moment,” Mor smirked.

She looked at the rapidly declining stack of hay balls, satisfied to see there were still quite a few left. She gestured towards a small group of women and pointed towards the shielded Romans.

” Get ’em,” she growled, knowing her soldiers on the other two hills would follow their example and bombard the group of Romans with their fire balls.

The women nodded and one of them, a tall, sturdy woman with muscular arms, adjusted the small catapult. It was a simple contraption that Erhard had designed. It was easy to carry around and though it could not launch heavy objects, it was perfect for the light, but damaging hay balls. Two long, sturdy but flexible branches of a poplar tree were separated from each other by two cross- beams of wood. The sides of the cross-beams were carved, so they snugly encircled the branches. Ropes were tied around it to make it a solid construction. Attached to the top cross-beam was a torsion spring, made out of horse hair. To avoid the weapon from shifting when pulling back the spring, the poplar branches were carved into sharp points, that were firmly planted into the ground. The poplar branches were supported by two poles that were also driven deep into the ground, making it possible to pull back the spring as far as needed.

While the muscular woman pulled back the spring, another one put one of the hay balls on the leather patch. They exchanged glances and when the muscular woman nodded, the other one quickly held a burning twig against a patch of hay, furthest away from her friend’s face. It only took a few seconds for the hay to start burning and when she was convinced the short flight would not put out the fire, the woman let go of the spring. With an elegant arch the burning ball of hay flew through the air, to land exactly in the middle of the group of Romans.

As Mor had expected, burning missiles, launched from the other two hills, also found the shielded soldiers and even though the Roman shields did provide protection, the assault of burning hay made them scatter around and take cover elsewhere.

As if they had been waiting for that, Mor’s archers took their aim, driving back the soldiers towards the middle of the camp, where they proved to be an excellent target.

Finally one of the Roman officers seemed to understand that they were being assaulted from three different sides, which meant there would only be one way out. As Mor had anticipated, little groups of soldiers started to make their way towards the north gate, that was still burning. The battering ram had knocked out some parts of the huge, wooden gate, but it was still impossible to pass it and leave the camp.

The officer, Atius Sabinus Siro, made an effort to shout his commands over the roaring noise of the fires and the panicked cries of the horses that were still at the stables. Using his bulky form to good use, he pushed himself through the unruly crowd of soldiers and recruits, shouting commands and using physical force to push his men where he needed them to go.

” You, help the ones that are trying to bring down that gate,” he pointed at a young man, who was only dressed in his tunic, having to have left his armour and weapons at his tent when the flames had started to devour it at a sickening speed.

” You and you, bring your men over here. Forma ñDuo finis. Front row, pila scutum, hold those shields up, back row get your bows ready.”

Atius rubbed his sooth streaked face and cast a look at the hill, where he could see the blue tunics of the soldiers that had taken them by surprise. His military mind respected the crafty way his camp had been attacked, but his desire to survive and his pride as a Roman had made him decide to fight his way out of the bad situation he was in. Or die trying.

Ducking behind his own shield, he barely avoided another burning hay ball and furiously he clenched his fist around the hilt of his sword. A quick glance towards his soldiers taught them they were ready and waiting for his command.

Atius pointed his sword towards the top of the nearest hill and sucked in a deep breath.

” Fire!” he shouted, pleased to see the arrows leave the bows and sailing towards their enemies on top of the hill.

Still dazed by all the noise and activity around her, Isa stayed close behind Mor, watching her lover’s every move. Her green eyes travelled towards the hillside on the other side of the narrow valley, knowing her brother would have the time of his life to see the Romans fight for their lives and dignity.

With a sigh Isa’s gaze shifted to the watchtower near the north gate. A group of five soldiers was following the Roman moves inside the gate with growing interest. One of Mor’s soldiers seemed to keep his comrades informed. They were lined up alongside the road and waiting for the gate to either be broken down by the battering ram, or completely destroyed by the fire.

Isa knew from what Mor had told her that leaving the camp through the north gate was no option for the Romans. Her army was ready and waiting. But Isa couldn’t blame the Romans for trying. They were trapped like animals and she expected most of them to rather die in battle, than live in shame, because of their impeding defeat. As soon as they would pass the gate, there would be a rain of arrows and burning hay balls descending on them. Isa didn’t think they would have much of a chance. She did not really know how to feel about that. Part of her felt pity for the Roman soldiers and to see many of them die from arrows and flames, made her a little sick to her stomach. On the other hand she was extremely proud of her lover, who had almost single handedly prepared the attack and who had proven to have a brilliant, tactical mind. The Romans had been caught by surprise and were still trying to regroup. No single person of Mor’s army had been in danger yet and Isa silently prayed that the odds would remain in their favour.

” Take cover!”

Her musings were disturbed by a sudden blur of movement, when Mor rushed down towards her and pulled her against her body. She knelt down, taking the stunned Isa with her and held a shield over their heads. Before Isa could open her mouth to ask what was going on, she could hear the impact of arrows on the layers of wood over their heads.

Mor peeked up from under her protective cover and grunted when she noticed a few of her soldiers had not been fast enough. One was lying on his back, his broken eyes staring at the sky, while the shaft of an arrow stuck out of his chest. Two others had taken a hit in their legs and a fourth soldier was cursing colorfully, when he tried to pull an arrow out of his shoulder.

“I need to see what is going on down there, ” Mor told Isa. ” Stay here. Don’t move.”

Mor started to get up, but was pulled down by a worried looking blonde. The expression in her green eyes was a mixture of fear and annoyance.

” Take the shield. I will head for the trees.”

Mor looked at Isa and pursed her lips in frustration. The thought of Isa crossing the narrow clearance towards the tree line, while any moment another cloud of arrows could rain down on them, made her nauseous with fear. She quickly debated with herself and when she looked to her right, she saw Jaali’s tall frame huddled close to her.

” Jaali! We need to share a shield.”

The tall man just grinned, showing a row of even, white teeth and dancing lights in his dark brown eyes.

” You are always welcome. My shield is your shield, Sauda,” he laughed.

Mor turned to Isa and gave her a quick kiss, softly stroking her cheek.

” Stay here. Keep that shield up, until I say you can remove it.”

Isa merely nodded and watched Mor jump towards Jaali, who immediately shifted the shield, so it protected both their heads. Mor tugged on the sleeve of Jaali’s tunic and both of them turned around to climb back up to the improvised lookout.

Mor was pleased to see that her army on the south hill and east hill were still keeping up a relentless attack with waves of arrows and burning missiles. They were pushing the Romans towards the north gate and that was exactly what Mor had wanted to happen.

She had also anticipated that eventually there would be more resistance, once the Romans would have recovered from their initial surprise, but she had expected it to be more fierce.

” They surprise me,” she mumbled, never taking her eyes off the movement in the camp.

” How so?” Jaali asked, impressed by Mor’s calm demeanor and powerful presence.

” They hardly fight back.”

The skin around Jaali’s eyes wrinkled when a big grin split his face and he playfully patted Mor on her back.

” It was a good time to attack, Sauda,” his low voice rumbled. ” There was talk about a lot of new recruits arriving. They may look like lions, but when they open their mouths they sound like the cubs they are.”

Mor eyes widened in surprise and she cast a quick look at Jaali’s face.

” When did that happen?”

” I heard the soldiers talk about it on the night young Elojo set me free. Maybe we can use this in our advantage, my friend.”

” We must, I….,” Mor cast a look over her shoulder to see Isa obediently huddled underneath the tall shield. The blonde looked so quiet and vulnerable. Her green eyes stared in the distance and she appeared to be deep in thought.

Mor slowly turned around and when she returned her gaze to Jaali, he could see the confusion and pain in her clear blue eyes.

” I hate them, Jaali,” she softly spoke, her voice hoarse with emotion. ” I want to give our people back what they took away from our ancestors. I want to avenge my family and I want to pay them back for what they did to Isa. But ….I am not sure I can kill all those young boys, who don’t even know how to fight yet.”

” There’s no way back, Sauda,” Jaali’s voice was filled with compassion. ” It is like jumping in a fast running river. Once you are in, you have to struggle to keep alive and pray that the Gods will lead you to some dry land.”

Mor slowly nodded and her face was grim when she looked at the group of Romans who were still clustered around the north gate.

” I want to get rid of them,” she pointed. ” We will defeat them, Jaali, and as for the young recruits, I might give them another chance.”

After those words, Mor looked at her soldiers and gestured towards the top of the hill.

” Get up here. We are going to stop those arrows from coming.”

Immediately the soldiers got to their feet and knelt down in an orderly row. The shields they had been holding over their heads were planted in front of them, as they readied their bows.

Keeping an eye on the group near the gate, Mor jumped to her feet and quickly hand signalled towards the tower near the north gate. When one of her soldiers signalled back, she dropped back towards the ground again, hearing the whistling sound of an arrow that had just missed her.

She heard Jaali curse in his own language and shrugged her shoulders in a silent apology.

” Watch this,” she smirked.

Jaali followed her gaze and he grinned when he saw the first burning hay balls fly over the north gate and landed amidst the group of Roman soldiers. The burning resin stuck to their shields and before they knew what was happening, their only means of protection had caught fire and they were forced to drop the burning shields to the ground.

” Take your aim and fire,” Mor’s voice rose, seeing the Roman soldiers were too busy getting away from the flames, to shoot another arrow towards them.

She had already taken an arrow and nocked it. When she pulled back the string, the powerful muscles in her arms tensed. Carefully taking her aim, Mor waited a heartbeat and then let her arrow fly. Her face showed no emotion when the sharp pointed missile embedded itself in the throat of a Roman soldier. His hands flew to his neck and even from the distance Mor could see the blood squirt out of his wound. Within seconds the man fell to the ground.

” Nice shot,” Jaali’s voice sounded, while the dark man had put his own bow to good use, sending another Roman soldier sprawling.

Mor just mumbled some answer, as she slowly moved her bow to follow a Roman who was trying to hide behind one of the few tents that were not on fire. She anticipated his next move and when the man side stepped a burning pile of hay, she let go of the arrow, hitting him right between his shoulder blades. She saw him grasp at his chest and instinctively knew the force of the arrow must have pushed it all the way through his body.

From the corner of his eye, Jaali noticed some movement around the palisade in the south western corner of the Roman army camp. He nudged Mor in the ribs and gestured with his head. Mor followed his gaze and slowly a feral grin spread across her face.

” Well, well, look at that,” she smiled, but there was no warmth in her eyes. ” I was wondering if I would be using my sword today.”

From inside the camp, ladders were used by a group of soldiers, to climb the palisade. With interest Mor saw that most of them were fully armed and she was wondering if there had been plans for them to go out on a patrol that day.

” Sauda, my friend,” Jaali’s voice rumbled. ” Want to go down there and show the Romans what monsters they created when they turned us into gladiators?”

Mor’s eyes narrowed as she watched an elderly man climb down the ladder and suddenly she saw Jaali’s body tense.

” Augustus Horatius Vedrix,” he whispered. ” Murderer of my father. Thank the Gods, we finally meet again!”

With a hissing sound the tall man unsheathed his sword and before Mor knew what was happening, Jaali had jumped over the rock they had been hiding against and disappeared behind some bushes.
Part 17
Jody watched the small raindrops pound on the fresh green leaves of the tree outside their hotel room. A few courageous birds were hopping on the branches, in search for small insects to feed on. She smiled when one of the little creatures chirped with indignation when its feathery cousin quickly snatched away a bug in front of him and flew away with it.

A familiar warm presence at her back made itself known and Jody sighed with contentment when a pair of strong arms wrapped her in a warm embrace.

“Checking out the local wildlife?” Sam’s voice sounded in her ear.

“They are cute,” Jody answered. “Industrious little creatures.”

She turned in Sam’s arms and hugged the taller woman close. She closed her eyes and let the love that flowed between them fill all her senses. In Sam’s arms she had found a home. A safe place, that provided protection, friendship and love. It was where she belonged, the only place that could provide her with what she wanted and needed.

” So, my little Aussie,” Sam gently teased, kissing the top of Jody’s head. ” What would you like to do today?”

With a smile Jody lifted her head from it’s comfortable ” Well, since you are asking, I would like to go back to that cave one more time. I feel there is something in there we overlooked. Especially after we talked to that old lady again yesterday. I…I…”

” You have a feeling about it?” Sam asked.

Jody nodded and lifted her hand to tenderly stroke Sam’s cheek. Feeling the silky texture underneath her fingers, was something she could never get enough of. Somehow, touching Sam always managed to center her, calm her down and help her to focus.

Jody’s green eyes traveled up and were caught by a pair of blue ones. It was Sam’s eyes that had captured her so many years ago, when they first had met as teenagers. They had not lost their magic. Unconsciously and without breaking contact, their faces were drawn together and their lips met. The feel of Sam’s soft lips always managed to make Jody feel like she was being worshiped by her lover. Sam always kissed her with a mixture of passion and tenderness, pouring all the love she felt for the smaller woman into a single kiss. It humbled Jody, to realize Sam loved her that much and time and time again she silently vowed never to hurt her Dutch lover.

When their mutual exploration of each other’s lips ended, Jody slowly opened her eyes. Sam’s eyes were darkened with emotion and Jody felt like she was allowed to look into the deepest part of her lover’s soul.

A feeling she had become familiar with suddenly rushed through her body and Sam felt the smaller woman’s hands clutch her cotton shirt. She had seen it before and while her eyes never left Jody’s, her arms tightened their grip, determined to keep her lover safe.

Jody’s eyes took a far away look and to Sam it was clear something was happening. Patiently she waited, a little worried when she noticed that Jody’s breathing had increased and became shallower. Sam’s heart started pounding and somehow, in a way she could not explain, she was able to feel the emotions that were rushing through her lover’s body.

Sam gasped when a feeling of intense fear clutched at her heart, turning her stomach into a tight, cold ball. But as soon as it started, it disappeared again, to be replaced with a sense of relief that was so profound, it brought tears to her eyes. Suddenly her body was filled with a warmth that made the fear she had felt previously seem like a bad memory. It was pure love, that was coursing through her body, calming her racing heart and making her soul soar. Sam could feel Jody slowly relax in the circle of her arms and she pulled her lover closer, glad to notice that the smaller woman’s breathing had returned to normal again. They stood like that for a long time, until Jody lifted her head and looked up to Sam’s face.

” That was intense,” she sighed, her voice soft and hoarse with emotion. ” You felt it too, didn’t you?”

” I felt you,” Sam answered. ” I can’t explain this, but it seems like I felt what you were feeling.”

“I know, ” Jody responded. ” I…it was like…we were sharing…..”

” The same soul,” Sam calmly added, seeing Jody nod. ” Did you have a vision again as well?”

” Not…really. Not like before,” Jody told her. ” It was more like…feelings…a few images maybe, but I can’t really remember them. Not yet anyway. But Sam, I really feel we should go back to that cave. There is something there we need to find. I am sure of it.”

****

After seeing Jaali disappear down the hill, Mor experienced a moment of indecision. There were no more arrows coming from the Roman camp, since the soldiers were assaulted with the burning hay and resin balls. The tight formation had broken up and the soldiers were scattered around the place, trying to stay away from the fire and the arrows that were still being fired at them from the hills.

Isa was still sitting where Mor had told her to stay, but she had lowered the shield as soon as she had noticed there was no more danger coming from the Roman camp. Her green eyes had widened when she saw Jaali run down the hill. Suddenly Mor reached a decision.

” Anna,” her voice barked, catching the attention of a sturdy, muscular woman. ” Take over for me. Keep the pressure up and continue with those arrows. Keep an eye on Isa.”

” No!”

Isa scrambled to her feet and ran towards Mor, grasping the taller woman’s arm in a painful grip ” Isa…,” she started impatiently.

” No,” Isa answered forcefully. ” Together.”

The grim expression on Mor’s face slightly softened when she remembered the conversation they had before going into battle. She pulled two daggers out of her belt and handed them to the blonde.

” I know you already have a few daggers, but I want you to take these as well. Stay behind me, stay close and don’t hesitate to use them.”

Isa swallowed hard when her fingers folded around the wooden hilts and she slowly nodded.

” I won’t hesitate,” she promised.

” Let’s go,” Mor almost growled, her mind already trying to come up with a plan to help Jaali, defeat the Romans and keep her lover safe.

Isa followed the tall woman down the hill, the daggers in her hands clutched so tightly, the knuckles of her hands were white. She stayed close to Mor, all the time keeping her eyes on the uneven surface beneath her feet. With the speed they were dashing down the steep hillside, it would be easy to stumble over a rock or dead tree branch and roll all the way down to the bottom, where Jaali had disappeared out of sight. Mor and Isa came crashing through the last bushes that formed a barrier between them and a view of their tall dark friend.

****

Jaali’s approach towards the Romans had not gone unnoticed. As soon as he came crashing threw the bushes, not even remotely trying to hide his presence, he had immediately been attacked by two Romans. One of them was on the left, the other one on the right side. The Roman soldier, who had been attacking Jaali’s left side, was thrilled when the tall man slightly turned to the right to deflect a blow from the other soldier. An expression of grim determination crossed his face, when he raised his sword to plunge it in Jaali’s side, to sever the unprotected skin underneath his arm. But the expression on his face quickly changed to surprise, when his movements halted and he looked at his chest, where an enormous force had just sliced his armor and created a huge gap that allowed warm blood to gush out with every beat of his heart.

His powerless hand suddenly dropped the sword that had started to feel so heavy and it hit the ground with a dull thud. The soldier’s knees buckled, not being strong enough to keep his body up any longer. With a hardly audible groan, the Roman collapsed.

From the corner of his eye, Jaali saw the person who had been responsible for the death of his father. Memories suddenly surfaced and for a brief moment, Jaali was thrown back in time. ” Kutisha, my father,” a much younger Jaali had whispered, feeling his heart break when he looked down at his mortally injured father.

” My son,” a soft, warm voice had answered. ” It is time for me to join our ancestors. My time has come to leave.”

” I will join you soon, father,” Jaali had promised, not able to hide the anger and hatred that was rising in his chest.

” No, my son,” Kutisha spoke with difficulty, feeling the blood slowly fill up his lungs. ” Our people need you to be strong. I need you to be strong. One day you will overcome the pain and revenge will be ours. But not today. Have patience, my son. Like the Chui (leopard) stalking it’s prey. In the end, he always succeeds.”

Kutisha coughed and a trickle of blood slowly ran from the corner of his mouth. His breathing was labored and Jaali felt the hot tears roll down his cheeks while he softly pressed his lips against his father’s forehead.

” I vow to you, my father, to my grieving mother, my sisters and our forefathers, that one day I will avenge your death. His blood will color the earth when he pays for your passing.”

” I pray for our ancestors to give you strength, my son. ” Kutisha coughed again. ” Jaali…..my…son…” , after those words, the tall, proud warrior let out his last breath and Jaali tenderly closed his father’s broken eyes.

Augustus Horatio Verdix, officer in the Roman army, stood a few paces behind his men. His was noticeably paler when the dark skinned man lifted his head and his eyes came to rest upon his face. He swallowed hard when he saw the hatred and quickly debated with himself what to do. He would rather die than admit the African warrior frightened him and deep down inside he knew he would feel better if he would give the order to take the young man’s life. But the officer knew good merchandise when he saw it and he was convinced that the Roman nobles would fight over the muscular, strong African. He would be able to get a good price for him, when one of his fellow Romans would take the savage off his hands and make him into a gladiator.

” Shackle him,” Augustus Verdix commanded, with as much authority and dignity he could muster. ” But don’t damage him….too much. He is worth a lot.”

When six of his man lead the African warrior away, a pair of dark brown eyes bore into his own and the Roman officer tensed, recognizing the hate exactly for what it was.

” Maybe I should have killed him,” he mused, before shrugging his shoulders and turning around. ” Once sold, I will never see him again.”

A much older Augustus Horatio Verdix was shocked to the core when, seemingly out of nowhere, a huge, muscular dark skinned man came crashing through the bushes, heading straight towards him and his men.

Immediately realization dawned and Augustus felt a cold ball settle in his stomach and frantically tried to swallow down the bile that had started to rise in his throat.

The African warrior! By the Gods. He lived.

As soon as Jaali stalked towards him with determined steps, Augustus looked around, he knew he and his men were trapped. There were enemy soldiers lined up on the hilltops surrounding his camp. There was a constant stream of fire and arrows, pelting down on the camp and everyone inside. He knew their battle would be a lost one. But Augustus Horatio Verdix had not lived to be a soldier for such a long time, without learning a few valuable lessons. One of the things he had learned as a young man was to retreat when defeat was near.

Without even considering the fate of his men, who were battling the dark giant, Augustus made his way around the yelling, fighting and bleeding group, hoping he would make it to the trees and bushes, without being noticed. He knew that would be his only chance to escape.

But before he could take another step, two more soldiers entered Jaali’s private battlefield. Augustus’ eyes went wide when he saw that the tall, dark-haired one, with the muscular form and broad shoulders, was a woman. Followed by a smaller blonde, who was half hidden by the imposing form of her companion.

Augustus mouth went dry, when he saw the way the woman twirled her long sword in an expert way. Immediately he recognized the trademark of a gladiator and the Roman softly whimpered.

” Jaali,” Mor called out her friends’ name, making sure he knew it was her who was walking up behind him. She had seen the result of his perfect reflexes and had no desire to meet one of the sharp daggers she knew her friend always had within reach.

” Sauda,” Jaali’s voice boomed, acknowledging her presence. ” Came to help an old man?”

” No, ” Mor answered, reaching Jaali’s side and intercepting a blow that was aimed at her head.

The muscles in her arms strained when she deflected the sword that had been thrust into her direction and she snarled when she saw the sudden fear in her opponent’s eyes. With a quick flick of her wrist, she sent his sword flying and before the Roman soldier could even reach for another weapon, his head was separated from his body. Blood and gore squirted around and Isa, who was still standing behind Mor, briefly closed her eyes and pushed back a feeling of nausea.

” I came to help an old fool,” Mor growled, shooting her friend an annoyed look. ” But I know what you promised Kutisha, so…he’s all yours, my friend.”

While the perspiration made his skin shine like ebony, Jaali sported a huge grin and knowing Mor would cover his back, he turned around and slowly walked towards the murderer of his father, who, in is haste to make his escape had tripped over his own feet. Frantically the chubby Roman tried to get back on to his feet.

” I come to send you to your Gods, Roman,” Jaali bellowed, making Augustus Horatio Verdix almost involuntarily lose the content of his bladder. ” Stand up and fight like a man.”

Stepping over the dead and dying bodies of two more soldiers, Jaali slowly but surely advanced. There was a hard glint in his eyes and he had a feral grin on his face, while he expertly twirled around his sword.

In the meantime Mor was engaged in a fight with two of the three remaining soldiers. She wanted to keep an eye on Jaali. And she wanted to make sure that Isa would be safe, which made the fighting more intense than she had ever experienced before. In the past she had enjoyed her encounters with the Roman enemy. She had always reveled in her successes and their defeats, but somehow, this time things were different. She felt an impatience she had never experienced before. She wanted the fight to be over. She wanted to be able to turn around and wrap her arms around her blonde companion and chase away the fear in those beautiful green eyes that had touched her soul so deeply.

There was no time for toying with her enemies. Not anymore. While two soldiers came at her at the same time, Mor’s movements became almost inhumanly fast. Slightly taken aback, their offense was not simultaneous. She parried the thrust of the soldier who was closest to her, immediately putting her long legs to good use by kicking him in the groin. The young man doubled over in pain and fell to the ground, gasping for breath.

Before the other soldier could take advantage of Mor’s lack of defense, she had already twirled around and feigned an attack. As soon as the soldier used his sword to defend himself, a well aimed hit severed his hand from his arm. Screaming in pain he fell to the ground, clutching the wounded extremity with his good arm.

Isa’s eyes had not left Mor’s tall figure and only when she saw the Romans fell, she knew her lover would be all right. Her eyes nervously darted towards Jaali who had reached his nemesis and towered over the man who was cowering in the dust and tried to crawl away from his impending death.

The only remaining soldier was out of reach of Mor’s sword and Isa could see his eyes traveling between Augustus and Mor. Trying to keep an eye on both of them. When Mor’s gaze was averted to look at the writhing body in front of her, the soldier saw his chance. He reached for the javelin that was lying in the grass, next to his feet and expertly weighed it in his hand.

Isa saw his eyes slightly narrowing and gasped when he brought back his arm to throw the weapon to his unknowing target. Suddenly the words her brother Dirk had once spoken to her echoed in her mind again.

” If somebody ever tries to attack you and you have the chance, go for the eyes, because the body is often protected. They won’t expect it. I hope you will never have to do it, Isa, but don’t forget. One day it might save your life.”

Isa tried to yell a warning, but her throat felt like it was constricted by fear.

” It might save a friend’s life as well, Dirk,” she whispered to herself, bringing her hand up with the dagger in it. ” Thank you, my brother.”

The Roman had brought back the javelin and was about to send it flying, when his movements suddenly halted. He brought his free hand to his neck and sunk to his knees, blood pouring out of his throat. The dagger that was embedded in his neck had ended his life, before he had a chance to plant his javelin in Jaali’s back.

Mor had heard the whooshing sound of something flying and before the sharp metal had even penetrated the Roman’s skin, she knew what Isa had done. Without looking over her shoulder, she reached out and felt Isa’s smaller, trembling hand in hers. She pulled the smaller woman close and protectively wrapped an arm around the slightly slumped shoulders.

” He was going to take Jaali’s life,” she whispered, pressing her lips against the blondes temple. ” You did good.”

” I…I couldn’t let him throw that javelin,” Isa answered, the pain clearly audible in her slightly quivering voice.

She pressed her face against Mor’s shoulder and the tall woman could feel her tremble. She pulled her lover closer, while her eyes took in her surroundings. Against the billowing smoke that rose from the Roman army camp, Mor could see Jaali stand over the Roman, the blade of his sword casually resting on a broad shoulder.

” Remember me?” Jaali’s voice rumbled, when he was hovering over the kneeling form of the once proud Roman officer.

” I remember you,” Jaali continued, ignoring the whimpering noises the Roman was making. ” I remember you stabbing my father, after he was already brought down by four of your men, while he was not even armed. Do you remember that?”

” Please, ” Augustus’ voice trembled. ” I will give you anything you want. Anything.”

” I want you,” Jaali growled, his voice filled with hate. “But before I send you to your forefathers I want you to repeat what I had to say many times before, after you sold me as a gladiator.”

Augustus Verdix knew what Jaali wanted him to say, but his fear was so great he could hardly breathe, let alone talk.

” Say it,” Jaali bellowed. “For once in your sorry life show you are a warrior, Roman!”

The Roman officer howled in frustration and fear and on his hands and knees he tried to crawl away from his executer. But he didn’t get far. Jaali’s long legs brought him close and with a well aimed kick he stopped Augustus’ movements.

” Say it!!!” he shouted.

” Th….those…..who….are about,” Augustus moistened his dry lips. ” to….d…..die, salute…you.”

” Meet your Gods,” Jaali coldly replied, while he raised his sword.

He twirled the steel around and clasped the hilt with both hands. Then, with a powerful move he brought down the steel and embedded in the Roman’s chest, piercing through his armor as if it was not even there.

Blood squirted out the huge gap Jaali’s sword had caused and the man’s body jerked a few times, before he blew out his last breath. Augustus Horatio Verdix was no more. Kutisha had finally been avenged.

The anger and hatred drained away from Jaali’s body and suddenly the tall man felt very tired. Looking down at the murderer of his father, he sighed deeply and pulled his sword free. He wiped the blade on the grass and slowly turned around to cast a look at his friends.

Seeing the wounded and dead Romans he raised an eyebrow and realized he had been so focused on killing Augustus, he had forgotten about the fight. That could have killed him and mentally Jaali slapped himself for having been so careless.

He strolled over to Mor and Isa and gestured towards the two wounded men who were still moaning in agony and fear. He used his foot to roll over the one who was still doubled over in pain, his hands covering his crotch, his breathing was ragged.

The soldier opened his eyes and shot a fearful look at the tall, dark man who had just killed his commander officer like he had been a fly on the wall.

” Looks like a recruit to me, Mor,” his deep voice rumbled. ” He is nothing more but a little cub.”

” I know,” Mor answered with a deep sigh, while kneeling down next to the soldier who had lost his hand.

” So is this one.”

She reached out and grabbed his arm to look at the damage. The young soldier whimpered in fear when she took a dagger and brought it close. He cringed when she used it to cut the fabric of his tunic and sliced it into a long strand. Without speaking she tied the fabric around his arm just underneath his elbow, immediately reducing the steady stream of blood to a slow trickle.

” How old are you?” she finally asked, seeing a glimmer of hope in his hazel eyes.

” Eigh…eighteen summers,” his voice rasped.

Mor sighed again and wiped her hands on the grass before standing up to her full height again.

” I will give you a chance to live,” she stated, her blue eyes traveling between the two young soldiers. ” For now you will just stay where you are. I will send someone for you later. Don’t forget you are surrounded, there is nowhere to go,” she warned. ” Your legion is defeated.”

Mor turned around to Jaali and clasped his outstretched arm. They exchanged a look of mutual respect and affection, before she turned to Isa, who was looking her with a smile in her emerald eyes.

” Thank you,” she whispered.

Mor did not answer. She just wrapped her arm around the smaller woman and pulled her close.

“Thank you,” she softly replied.

****

” Why is it that even the most gracious people stumble like an idiot once they are in the dark?” Jody muttered, barely able to keep herself from falling when her foot connected with some unseen object.

” Ummm…because it is dark?” Sam’s amused voice sounded behind her. ” If you would hold that flashlight a bit higher, you might get a better view, honey,” Sam patiently added.

Jody silently complied and when the bright light illuminated their surroundings she was able to see that the cave floor was very uneven, which had caused her to almost stumble. Carefully she walked through the middle of the fairly big room, her green eyes scanning the floor and the walls.

Sam followed quietly. She still had not figured out what exactly had happened to her lover, when Jody had experienced flash back-like visions that seemed to be windows to another time. But she had not questioned her. Sam believed what Jody told her. Besides, she herself had seen a vision as well, when they were in the same cave a few days before. Cold shivers still ran down her spine when she remembered the image of a pair of blue eyes, holding her gaze. And when Jody had woken up last night, after having a dream, the smaller woman had shyly asked her tall lover if they could go back to the cave once more, because there was something she had to find.

” It’s a pity that dream didn’t show you what you should be looking for,” Sam spoke, letting her eyes travel down a yellowish wall. ” That would make this quest a little easier.”

” Believe me, sweetie, I know, ” Jody answered, pushing her hair back from her forehead. ” I….” She looked back at Sam with an expression of gratitude and reached out her free hand to touch the tall woman’s hand.

” Thank you for not questioning me, Sam. That means a lot.”

Sam smiled and brought the small hand up to her lips, softly planting a kiss on the warm skin.

” I have seen something unusual as well, honey, why should I….”

Sam stopped in mid- sentence when Jody’s eyes suddenly widened and a look of surprise crossed her face. Immediately Sam was tugged toward one of the walls, while Jody used the beam of the flashlight to illuminate a certain part.

” I can’t reach it, Sam,” she whispered, looking up. ” Can you please?”

Sam frowned and was about to tell her lover that she didn’t see a thing, when her eye caught an uneven patch that was almost invisible. The soft stone showed the outline of a little hole that had been carefully closed.

Intrigued Sam stepped closer and reached out her hand to touch the wall. Her long fingers followed the lines and when they carefully brushed away some dust, she could see a part of the stone could be moved. Carefully she pushed against it and with a soft, scraping noise, the stone disappeared into the wall. That left a small square that was just big enough for her to put her hand in.

With a feeling that bordered on exhilaration Sam stuck her hand in deeper and carefully felt around. When her hand brushed against something, she gasped and her eyes widened when her fingers closed around a cylinder shaped object. Carefully she pulled it from its hiding place.

When Jody used the flashlight to see what she was holding, they both let out a shuddering breath. In her hand Sam held a leather case. It was dark brown, almost black and the leather was adorned with countless cracks, testifying to its old age. But it seemed to be in excellent condition. The sides were sealed with what seemed like wax.

With trembling fingers Jody reached out and carefully touched the worn surface.

” Do you know what it is?” she whispered in awe.

Sam swallowed hard when she started to realize that they might have found something of extreme value.

” It’s a scroll case,” she answered, her voice hoarse with emotion. ” It’s…I have seen it on pictures, at the museum. It…I think it’s very old.”

” So, what do we do now?” Jody asked, looking up at her lover with a puzzled expression.

” I think we should take it to my father’s friend, Jan de Boer, he runs the museum, remember him? I don’t think we should try to open it ourselves, I….I think it’s pretty valuable. I don’t want to risk damaging it.”

Jody slowly nodded and rested her head against Sam’s shoulder. She briefly closed her eyes and felt a peaceful warmth settle around her heart.

” You know what, Sam?” she softly asked. ” I think our mission is completed now. I think, for some reason, we were supposed to find this. And I can’t wait until we can show it to Jan and he can tell us what this means.”

Sam smiled and softly kissed Jody’s forehead.

****

” Let’s go then,” she said. ” I am dying of curiosity.”

Slowly Mor walked across the battlefield. There were dead and dying bodies scattered around and with mixed feelings she took in the devastating sight. Cool, blue eyes traveled over the dead Roman bodies. With a sigh she turned around to one of her captains.

” Take a few men and build a big pyre,” she ordered. ” We will burn all the Roman bodies here. Make litters for our dead friends, we will have a separate service for them later.”

The tired, soot covered man nodded and turned around, shouting a few commands to a small group of their soldiers, who immediately followed him through a blackened hole in the palisade, that once formed an impressive defense against anyone who tried to enter the Roman army camp unnoticed. Until Mor and her army had come along.

With long, confident strides, Mor walked through her troops, clasping arms and patting shoulders along the way. Most faces that turned towards her lit up with respect and pride, whenever their general stopped to speak a few words with them.

Isa, who was sitting on a tree stump, saw Mor slowly make her way towards her. She was tired and still feeling slightly nauseous from the death and carnage she had witnessed that day. The fact that she had taken another life weighed heavy on her shoulders, even though she felt she did the right thing by saving Jaali’s life.

The sound of running footsteps made her look up and her green eyes lit up when she noticed her brother running down the hillside, safe and sound. A big grin adorned his face and even from this distance, Isa could see his eyes shine with excitement.

” We did it, Isa,” he shouted as soon as he saw his sister. ” We defeated them. Wow, can you believe this? They didn’t put up much of a fight, did they?”

He fell down in the grass next to his sister and happily squeezed her knee.

” This was awesome,” he laughed. ” They were trapped like pigs in a burning barn.”

Pensively Isa stared at her laughing brother, wishing she could share some of his enthusiasm. She understood his joy, after all, Baldric had always wanted to travel east and join up with the rebels to fight the Romans. And this day he was finally given the chance. But the blond woman could not shake the images of burning and dying men, some not much older than her brother and she silently wondered what it was about wars, that seemed to make them glorious.

” What is it, Isa?” Baldric finally asked, seeing the withdrawn expression in his sister’s eyes. ” Aren’t you happy?”

Isa pushed back her hair from her forehead and let out a deep sigh.

” I am glad it’s all over,” she confessed. ” And I am glad we won and the Romans are defeated, but…there was so much suffering and death, Baldric. Some of those soldiers were about your age. They have families at home as well who will mourn their death.”

” I know, ” Baldric answered, his face suddenly serious and drawn. ” But they had a choice, Isa. They could have surrendered.”

” They were following orders, Baldric,” a low voice unexpectedly sounded behind him.

Baldric quickly turned his head to stare into a pair of compassionate, understanding blue eyes.

” Yes, we won. Yes, this victory will be celebrated and remembered for a long time to come. But a lot of the young men who died today did not have a choice. Their commanders would rather die than return home in shame and they took everyone else with them.”

” Is that why you are sparing the lives of those recruits?” Baldric asked.

” Among other things, yes,” Mor answered, setting herself next to Isa and wrapping an arm around the smaller woman’s shoulders. ” They are very young, Baldric, about your age. Most of them can hardly wield a sword.”

Isa rested her head against Mor’s shoulders and closed her eyes. She enjoyed the warmth of her lover’s body, the closeness and the strong fingers that absent mindedly rubbed her shoulder.

” What will you do with them?” Baldric asked, while his eyes traveled to a group of young men, who were huddled together underneath a tree. A few of Mor’s soldiers stood guard around them, making sure no one would try to escape.

” I will give them a choice,” Mor answered. ” Some of them might want to stay around, maybe join us,” she smiled impishly.

” What if they want to go back to Rome and join another army? They might come back to fight us again.”

” The ones who will go back won’t ever be in an army again,” Mor spoke, her voice soft, but determined.

” How?” Isa’s voice sounded from her shoulder.

Mor did not immediately answer. Her eyes took in the group of terrified young men and with a deep sigh she squeezed Isa’s shoulder.

” You can’t hold a sword if you are missing a thumb,” she finally stated.

Mor could feel Isa’s body stiffen and she briefly closed her eyes, convinced that Isa would be utterly repulsed by her remark. She expected her lover to jump up and walk away from her, to never return. But Mor knew that she could not risk any Roman going back home and return later to fight them again.

After a long silence, Isa let out a breath she didn’t know she had been holding and raised her head so she could look at Mor. Pained green met troubled blue and in Mor’s eyes, Isa could read the fear that had wrapped itself around the dark woman’s heart like a cold, strong fist. She reached out a slightly trembling hand and gently stroked a tanned cheek. She knew Mor only did what she needed to do, to protect her people. And she realized that, in spite of everything, Mor was sparing the young recruits lives. Giving them a chance to live and to return to their families.

” Thank you for giving them a choice, ” she finally whispered, seeing the anxiety leave Mor’s face and eyes.

” Thank you for understanding,” Mor softly answered, bending her head to capture Isa’s lips with her own.

She had meant to just briefly kiss Isa, but the response of the smaller woman elicited a kiss that started out tenderly, but soon became deep and passionate. It was not just a confirmation of love. It was also a celebration of life, the joy of surviving and a release from the tension of battle. An attempt to, just for a short period of time, forget the death and bloodshed and become one in light and love.

Only when she heard Isa softly moan and felt the smaller woman’s hands slip underneath her armor to caress the soft skin of her back, Mor realized they were not alone.

Using almost all of her will power, the tall woman slowly lessened her grip on Isa and slightly leaned back to look into a pair of green eyes, filled with passion and desire.

Smiling Mor pressed her forehead against Isa’s and let out a shuddering sigh.

” We are not alone, my love,” she whispered, ignoring the huge grin on Baldric’s face and the enthusiastic whistles around her.

” Can’t you make them go away?” Isa dreamily asked, hiding her blushing face against Mor’s chest.

Mor chuckled and raised an eyebrow at the still grinning Baldric. The boy just shrugged his shoulders, giving the impression he thoroughly enjoyed their display of affection.

” Mmm…since we are sitting among the remnants of a battlefield…no, I am afraid I can’t,” Mor softly spoke, kissing an ear that was tantalizingly close. ” But I can promise to make it up to you later. What about you, me and a nice hot bath…..?”

That proposition immediately filled Isa’s head with all sorts of pleasant images and a shiver of pleasure and anticipation ran through her body.

” I can’t say ‘ no’ to that,” Isa answered, raising her head from it’s comfortable place on her lover’s chest.

Mor laughed and pulled the blonde even closer, relishing in the feel of Isa’s body against her own.

” Tonight,” she promised. ” After I help my men with the clean up and…and…service for the fallen ones. Knowing my army, they will want to celebrate, so maybe we can sneak away early and have that bath together. What do you think?”

” I think you really need one,” Isa teased. ” But I guess I am in no better shape, so, yes, you have a deal.”

” Great,” Mor smiled, her head filled with images of Isa’s naked and wet skin rubbing against her body. ” Maybe you can use your time to start writing that scroll you promised.”

” I would like to,” Isa confessed. ” Do you think your soldiers would mind if I did that, instead of helping them?”

” I am their general,” Mor stated, matter-of-factly . ” They respect you, because you are my lover. They will not expect you to help them clean up. Besides, I would feel better if you would be doing something that you like to do, instead of dealing with the….aftermath… of this battle.”

” Thank you, Mor,” Isa smiled, tracing a line along Mor’s collarbone. Suddenly a thought came to her mind and her eyes widened when she looked up at the dark woman.

” Um…will everybody be staying in the cave again tonight?”

Mor frowned and when she saw the expression on Isa’s face she chuckled, tucking a strand of blond hair behind Isa’s ear.

” No,” she answered, seeing the immediate relief. ” They will camp out in the valley. We will have the cave to ourselves. No spectators.”

Mor kissed Isa’s forehead and reluctantly freed herself from the arms that were still tightly wrapped around her torso.

” I will have to go and help with the wounded. Stay around so I can see you, okay?”

Isa nodded and when Mor stood up she already missed her lover’s strong arms and soft touch.

” Mor?”

” Yes.”

” Did you really fear me leaving you?”

The question was unexpected and hit Mor full force. Isa could tell by the tightening of the strong muscles and the pain in those clear blue eyes. But she didn’t regret her question. She needed to know.

” Yes, I was,” Mor honestly answered. ” And I would not have blamed you. I would have understood.”

Isa didn’t answer. She stood up and took Mor’s hands in her own, while looking up at the taller woman.

” I know about your past. I know about the fighting and the bloodshed. I know there’s a lot of anger, pain and darkness in your soul. But I love you, Mor. I love you for the noble, honest person you are. I love you for your strength. I love you for the compassion I know you have. I love you for who you are.” Isa stood on her toes and kissed Mor lightly on the lips. ” I will never leave you.”

Mor did not answer. For a long time she stood there, looking down in a pair of eyes that had captured her heart the moment they had first locked gazes. Isa’s words had filled her with a warmth that had started deep inside her belly and quickly made its way up, until it reached her eyes. Her blue eyes shone with unshed tears, but she smiled. A brilliant smile that lit up her face and reflected back all the love that radiated from the blonde woman.

” Thank you,” she simply answered, but Isa’s eyes looked deep into her soul and could see the emotions that Mor was experiencing.

” Go see to the wounded,” Isa smiled. ” I will be right here when you need me.”

****

” I still can’t believe it,” Jody sighed. ” Did he really say that?”

Sam glanced at the woman who was slowly walking at her side, a soft smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. They had spent the whole day at the museum, while a small group of people had bent over the scroll they had found to try and discover what the ancient text was about. The atmosphere had been one of excitement and wonder and more than one admiring and grateful look had been cast in their direction.

After hours of quietly debating amongst themselves, Jan de Boer, the head of the museum’s history department, had walked up to them with outstretched hands.

” Sam. Jody. How can we ever thank you for this?” He had exclaimed . ” This is by far the most interesting, valuable piece of history we have ever seen. We are not entirely sure about the whole text yet, but the scroll seems authentic and the text, well, it just blew us away. We had no idea!!!”

” Yes, he really said that,” Sam smiled, remembering the profound happiness and excitement of the museum’s employees. ” As soon as it’s confirmed to be the real deal they will name it the ‘ McDonnell-Stevens’ scroll.”

” Wow,” Jody breathed. ” Wait until we tell Lucy and Fiona about this. They will go nuts. Although…..” Jody grinned and shrugged her shoulders. ” They might think I am the one who is nuts, with all those visions and stuff.”

” I never thought you were nuts,” Sam laughed, wrapping her arm around Jody’s shoulder and pulling her closer. ” It was…different, but very interesting.”

” Do you think those visions and dreams will stop now?”

” I don’t know, honey,” Sam honestly answered. ” I guess time will tell.”

” Somehow I think they will, ” Jody mused, sliding her arm around Sam’s waist. ” I can’t explain why I feel that…but I do. Somehow I feel that this scroll….wanted to be found.”

” I think you are right,” Sam admitted. ” There have been so many clues that point into that direction. I don’t think there’s any other way to explain it.”

The pair continued their walk to the hotel in companionable silence, both lost in thought, replaying all the things that had happened in their mind. And both coming to the same conclusion.

” Do you think that…” Sam started.

” Honey, I don’t think that…,” Jody spoke at the same time.

They looked at each other and started laughing. Sam bent down to give Jody a quick kiss.

” You first,” she encouraged.

” Okay,” Jody smiled. ” Well, when Jan mentioned that newspaper article and some reporter coming to interview us next week, I sort of…hesitated. I mean, I don’t mind sharing our find with the rest of the world, but I don’t think I feel comfortable with telling them about the visions. That’s too…too personal.”

They had reached the entrance of their hotel and Sam opened the door, letting Jody enter. They nodded to the friendly receptionist and took the elevator to the second floor.

As soon as the door to their room closed behind them, Sam reached out and pulled Jody into her arms, burying her face in the thick, soft hair, breathing in the scent that was distinctively her lover’s and that never failed to make her soul soar to the highest places.

” I think you are right,” Sam finally said. ” I was thinking the very same thing. And somehow I believe that everything that Mor and Isa wanted us to know, will be in that scroll.”

” Mor and Isa,” Jody repeated slowly, letting the names roll from her tongue, as if tasting them.

” You know that those names…….”

” Somehow sound familiar?” Sam added, to Jody’s surprise. ” Yes, I know, they do.”

Jody had raised her head and looked at Sam in pure astonishment.

” H…how did you…? I mean. That’s what it’s like for me. This is so strange, Sam, it really is. I don’t understand. I would almost start to believe that, somehow, there is a link. Some sort of connection between them and us. But how?”

” I have no idea, sweetie,” Sam answered. ” But I have to admit it’s all very unusual. And I wouldn’t be the least surprised when those two turn out to be lovers.”

Jody grinned and playfully slapped Sam across the stomach.

” That would be great! But don’t you think they would have been outcasts?”

” I don’t think so,” Sam seriously answered. ” Don’t forget, if this scroll is authentic, we are talking about a period of time that was not influenced by any kind of influential church yet. Besides, what do you think those wealthy Romans did with all those young boys in the bath houses?”

” Sam! You are bad! But yes, I see your point. Talking about baths…I think I could use one. What about you?”

Sam tightened her arms around her lover and pulled her even closer, feeling Jody’s soft and enticing curves pressed against her lean, tall frame. Her hands slid down towards a firm and shapely behind and a soft moan escaped her lips when Jody’s hips started a slow, grinding motion.

” If you share that bath with me, I will let you undress me,” Jody playfully whispered. ” And if you are really, really nice, you can play with the soap. I know how you love to use those suds to your imagination.”

” Oh, yeah,” Sam groaned, being all too familiar with the silky texture of her lover’s skin and the way her body felt when she used her hands to make sure that every inch of Jody was covered in soap.

Jody smiled and looked up, her green eyes darkening with desire when she saw the passion in Sam’s gaze.

” I think that…” She begun, but her words were cut short by a pair of soft lips that quickly descended and threatened to hungrily devour her. And when those same lips traced a burning path down her throat and a wet tongue slid into her cleavage all thoughts disappeared and the only thing Jody could do was listen to the desperate plea of her body. It begged for a thorough exploration, while the blood raced through her veins, making thinking impossible.

****

The day had been long and filled with tasks and people needing her attention. But when the sun started its descend, painting the sky in different shades of orange, Mor had finally given her soldiers permission to leave the battleground and join their friends and fellow rebels in the quickly erected camp in the valley.

The cooks had been busy for most of the afternoon, preparing food for the hungry warriors. A few pigs were roasting over fires and the smell of freshly baked bread filled the air.

Numerous fires were scattered around the camp and each and every one of them had something cooking or roasting above them. Huge kettles of soup, freshly caught fish and poultry that was brought in by a few grateful villagers was being prepared on the open fires.

A few of Mor’s soldiers had been given permission by their general to roam the destroyed Roman army camp and they brought back a cartload of full barrels of wine and oil, which was greeted with a loud cheer.

Isa, who had dutifully spend the day writing her scrolls, hummed in delight when she bit into a fresh piece of bread that was dipped in olive oil and herbs. A tasty piece of chicken already rested comfortably in her stomach and a mug of wine complemented her meal. The alcohol had thoroughly relaxed her.

Her green eyes lazily followed the tall figure of her lover, who made her way through the camp, stopping at every fire to spend a little time and share a few words. She knew Mor was aware of her gaze, because now and then the tall woman looked up and their eyes locked. A small, knowing smile adorned the beautiful features of the army’s general and Isa could not help but to return it every time Mor looked at her.

” Oh, to be young and in love,” a dark, amused voice sounded next to her.

Isa turned her head, to see a smiling Jaali ” What do you think will happen now, Jaali?” Isa asked.

” Ah, Farisa! You are not spending your time worrying now, I hope. This is a day of victory! We must celebrate.”

” I know,” Isa answered, ” but still. Will the Roman Empire come after us? And what about all those people here? Will they stay, to fight again if needed?”

” Farisa, if I had all the answers I would be wiser than the Gods. I cannot answer your questions. In the darkness of the night it is hard to see, but when the sun gets born in the morning, all things become clear. We will have to wait and see what the future will bring us. As for those people, I know they will follow their leaders, no matter where they go.”

” What about you? You are a free man now, Jaali. You could even go back to your people.”

Jaali let out a deep sigh and stared into the dancing flames, while his eyes held a pensive expression.

” There are no more shackles binding my hands and feet, that is true. But that does not make me a free man, my Farisa.”

Isa frowned and shifted so she was facing the dark man. His eyes had a soft expression and his smile made him look seasons younger.

” What do you mean, Jaali?” Isa asked with a puzzled expression.

” A free man has no ties. He can go wherever the wind brings him. My body is free of shackles, but my heart is bound by love for the family the Gods gave me. Mor, you and that courageous little cub, Elojo. You are my family now, Isa. When I was taken away from my people, the fire of hate burned through our villages, scattering the ones who survived, like ashes to the wind. I have nothing to go back to.”

The reality and depth of his words touched Isa deeply and her eyes filled with tears. There was such a contrast between the veracious warrior she had seen fighting that morning and the gentle man who was her friend and who simply accepted her as her family. He reminded her of Mor and to her that was enough.

Gently she stretched out her hand to cover his much larger one.

” It makes me humble to have you think of us as your family, Jaali. It makes me proud.”

” Like it does me,” he simply answered, covering her hand with his own.

Smiling at each other they both felt there had grown a connection between them that was deep and strong. And with a mutual, unspoken agreement, they both accepted it for what it was.

Suddenly a warm hand descended on her shoulder and without turning around, Isa knew who it was.

” Are you ready for that bath now?” Mor’s voice purred in her ear, sending goose bumps all over her body.

” A bath, Sauda?” Jaali exclaimed with amusement. “All the water that I have seen was really cold. Where would you get a nice, hot bath?”

” Ah! I have many skills,” Mor laughed. ” And I happened to have found a big, wooden tub, that is being filled with nice hot water as we speak.”

” Just gotta love her,” Isa mumbled, draining her mug and setting it on the ground, before jumping up and grabbing Mor’s hand.

Jaali grinned and cast an affectionate look at the pair.

” Make sure to wash her ears really well, Farisa,” he teased in between fits of laughter. ” And don’t forget to dry them.”

” Come on, Isa,” Mor grumbled good-naturedly, tugging Isa’s hand and slapping Jaali playfully on his back. “This old man is just jealous of my good fortune.”

Isa grinned and squeezed Mor’s hand. Without letting go, she bent towards Jaali and pointed in the direction of a group of women who were sharing a fire.

“I know, from a very reliable source, that those women were really impressed with a certain dark warrior. I even hear them say they really wanted to get to know him better.”

“They do, huh?” Jaali chuckled. “Well, well, I might go over in a little while and tell them a few of my stories.”

” Good luck with that, my friend,” Isa smiled, kissing Jaali’s cheek.

” Come on, Isa. Let the man drink his wine and maybe seduce some women The Gods know he deserved it, “ Mor teased her friend.

” Good night, Jaali,” Isa smiled.

” Good night, little one. May the Gods be with the two of you.”

They walked away from the fire and soon their silhouettes disappeared into the darkness, leaving a content Jaali staring in the fire, while he was sipping his wine.

Entering the cave, Mor and Isa met two young boys who looked at Mor with something that closely resembled hero worship.

” It’s ready, general,” one of them spoke proudly.

” Thank you boys. Now, go to the camp and see the head cook. I made sure he saved a nice meal for you. And a few honey-nut rolls.”

The boys looked at each other and before Mor or Isa could speak another word, they left at a run, making the women smile.

“Oh, Mor, this is wonderful,” Isa sighed upon entering the main part of the cave and seeing the huge wooden tub, filled with fragrant, steaming water. In addition to the torches, candles were placed around the tub, illuminating the cave with a soft, warm light. A small table was set up, packed with fresh fruit, bread, wine and slices of seasoned meat.

” It pays to be nice to the cook,” Mor smiled, putting her hands on Isa’s shoulder.

” I think he would have done it anyway, even if you wouldn’t have been nice to him,” Isa grinned. ” He adores you.”

” And you,” Mor answered. ” He specifically mentioned not to forget to give you those figs. But I don’t want to talk about the cook right now, no matter how much I appreciate him.”

” What do you want then?” Isa asked with a seductive low voice.

Ooooh, she wants to play!

Mor swallowed hard when she saw the expression in her lover’s eyes and even though they were standing close to each other, without touching, she could feel her body hum with desire.

” I want to share that bath with you. I want to feel your skin underneath my hands. I want to touch every part of your body and when the water starts to get tepid, I want to use that linen to dry you off. Then I want to carry you to the other side of the fire, lay you down in the furs and worship your body with mine. I want to fill you with passion and desire, until the world only exists of you and me.”

Now it was Isa’s turn to swallow and in spite of the cool air inside the cave, she could feel the heat rise in her body.

” And I will let you do all of that,” she whispered, her green eyes dark with desire.

And suddenly Mor’s arms were around her, pulling her close, while a pair of soft lips claimed her mouth in a passionate kiss. Mor’s strong hands roamed her back and only when Isa felt the cool air kiss her skin, she realized Mor had managed to remove her tunic. Isa felt like her body was on fire and when Mor finally slightly pulled away, she whimpered in protest.

” In the tub,” Mor breathed with difficulty, lifting Isa in her arms and gently lowering her into the warm water.

As soon as she helped her lover into the water, Mor shrugged off her clothes and stepped in the tub, sighing contentedly when the warm water caressed her skin. She didn’t have much time to consciously enjoy the luxury. As soon as she sat down, she found her arms filled with a naked, very aroused and willing blonde. Mor’s lips were claimed in a searing kiss and it didn’t take long for her to realize her world was spinning out of control. And she let it, surrendering to the feel of Isa’s hands, caressing her skin. The soft lips tracing heated paths along her body and the strong thigh that was pressed against her center and rhythmically ignited a fire, that threatened to take her breath away, until her world exploded in a universe of colors and the only word she could breathlessly utter was that of her lover.

” Isa!”

****

The sun painted the trees in a soft, golden hue, while a gentle breeze rustled the leaves, creating a soft, whispering sound. The small creek that, over the centuries, had carved the rocks into a small gorge, found its way downhill, while the water happily danced across the rocks. Small rays of sunlight were reflected on its surface, creating tiny rainbows between the bigger boulders, painting a live picture no artist could ever create. On the bank of the creek two women sat in the warm grass, soaking up the gentle, peaceful surrounding.

” This spot is wonderful, Sam. Thanks for bringing me here,” Jody spoke, lazily chewing on a blade of grass.

” It is,” Sam agreed. ” And I am so glad it is still like it was ten years ago. It’s a perfect ending of our vacation, isn’t it?”

” Mmmm, it is. I will be happy to see my family again, but this spot will always have a place in my heart. I love it here Sam. I had a wonderful vacation. Thank you so much for taking me here.”

” In spite of those last few, hectic days?”

” Yup, ” Jody answered. ” I had no idea there would be so many people interested in this story.”

” Well, it doesn’t happen every day that people find scrolls that change the look on history, honey,” Sam chuckled. ” Who knew that the Romans were kicked out of the southern part of Limburg by an army that was lead by a woman?”

” A woman who had a female lover!” Jody added with a leer. ” I am sure that pissed a lot of people off.”

Sam laughed and pulled Jody closer, lightly kissing the smaller woman on the lips.

” I don’t care about that,” she said. ” Love comes in all sorts of different forms and shapes. I like the idea that Mor and Isa found each other. Jan said that from the scroll they could tell how much those two meant to each other.”

” Do you think Isa left us more scrolls? That would be really something, wouldn’t it?”

” Who knows,” Sam answered. ” Maybe there will be more found. They haven’t finished translating all of it yet. Maybe Isa left us some clues.”

” I am glad the museum will keep us up to date. I can’t wait for them to translate the whole scroll, Sam. This whole adventure sure raised my interest in history!”

Sam chuckled and stood, stretching out her hand to pull Jody to her feet.

” I guess we’ d better go, honey. The airport taxi will pick us up in about two hours time.”

Jody nodded and gave Sam a quick hug. With a pensive look she took in their surroundings for one last time, knowing that Mor and Isa had roamed the same hills and maybe even sat at the bank of the same creek, some long time ago.

Suddenly Jody felt an urge to look into the water. The reflection of her and Sam looked back at her and she smiled at the contrast: dark and light. Frowning Jody took a closer look. Dark and light? It wasn’t their reflection in the water. It was the dark haired warrior and her blonde companion. Their heads were close together and they smiled.

A leaf came floating down from one of the tall trees and gently hit the water, the ripples it created erasing the reflections.

With a smile Jody followed Sam to the car.

 

The end

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