The cold was sharp and came on quick, like a knife placed close to the belly. Quintus Dias' teeth chattered, a betrayal of the flesh. He felt as if he would never be warm again.
He tried to remember the rolling summer hills of Latium, grain growing fat in the dappled afternoon sun. The dog days of August, when the Roman air grew so heavy that the sweat rolled off the body in rivulets and the longest hours of the afternoon were spent indoors, in search of the cool relief of shade. The full blast of a camp bonfire, the flames warm on his face as wine was passed around the red-cheeked circle of soldiers. It was no good, he concluded, drawing up his knees into his chest, disregarding the stabbing pain coming from his thigh. He involuntarily pressed himself deeper into the mound of bedding he currently occupied, his mind loosening into the haze of sleep.
He awoke to a narrow stream of sunlight, bright and blinding, his vision a field of red as he squeezed his eyes shut in protest. He turned onto his side and groaned.
Firm hands pulled him back to where he had been laying.
"Don't move. You'll smear the poultice."
He took a moment to realize that the words had been in Pictish.
His eyes opened half-way to a riot of tangled curls, ineffectually held back by leather cords, a flash of narrowed grey-green eyes, and a pale, thin scar running crossways against the expanse of downy white cheek. Arianne.
His mind was a river, the memories flooding over it like an icy current breaching the banks. Brick and Bothos both dead, the first at the hands of the Picts, the second by his own countrymen. The simpering faces of the over-fed governor and his daughter as they toasted him and schemed over his death. The flight north, the days and nights blending together in his single-minded determination to find her, and to lose himself. Snow had fallen upon his shoulders, melting from the heat of his fevered flesh, but still he pressed on, his will hardening with every screaming pulse of pain from the wound. The edge of the world was a great emptiness, the wind howling through the barren scrub of mountain, the thin, blanched trees bearing silent witness to his passage.
Her hand went to his forehead. It felt warm and solid against his skin. She moved it back, tracing the top of his hairline with her fingertips, and then leaned towards him, her lips brushing against his brow like a genuflection.
"You gave me quite a scare, Roman," she whispered in his language, even as the haunting lilt of her voice made the familiar words seem like a foreign poetry.
He gave no answer, but brought a hand up to her face, his thumb softly tracing the outline of her cheek. It was a wonder, he thought, to feel flesh without the urge to injure it, a repudiation of his training as a soldier, of the savagery bred in him through years on the frontier. Touching her stirred something deep within him, and his grasp upon her tightened in response.
She turned her head, backing away from him, the small look of animal fear in her eyes being replaced by a mask of measured nonchalance. She moved to busy herself at her table, her pale hands grasping at a pile of dried herbs and breaking off the leaves with a studied concern.
"Why did you come back?" she asked. The words were thrown casually, but he could sense her guardedness.
"I am an outcast now, like you."
Her eyes flitted to him, moving like a small bird. Her hands were still.
"Where are your friends?"
Her mouth tightened.
"Who knows you have come here?"
"Nobody." He paused. "I have fled from my people. I have no one."
She turned her face from him, her loosened hair shielding her from his glance.
"Not no one," she said softly.
He tried to raise himself up off his elbows, his hips twisting in an effort to throw his good leg over his injured one. In the struggle, his fragile body collapsed, his chest heaving in gasping breaths.
"Stop, stop," she cried, rushing to his side, quelling his movements with the touch of her hands. "Don't. You're still weak."
Her left hand lingered on his chest, rising and falling with the rhythm of his labored breathing. He wrapped his hand around hers, holding it close to his heart.
"What do you want from me?" Her eyes were wide, brimming with barely-held tears.
What could he tell her that would encompass what he felt? How could he measure out the depths of his emotion with only the crude words of a soldier? He had defined his life by the twin pillars of honor and strength, only now to discover how little they truly counted for. He had had enough of fighting, and of killing, and of running; he wanted a world without the cold indifference of slaughter, without the treachery of weak men. But even as an outcast, she had offered him shelter, fed him, risked her own life for a man she hardly knew. How could he tell her that the memory of her eyes – clear and deep as a rippled brook – had haunted him all the days since he had left her, that he had seen her face in dreams, her voice calling to him from the half-shadowed recesses of his mind, that too many times in those dreams he had imagined tracing the lines of her skin, moving his lips over the soft singularity of her neck, her shoulders, and what lay beyond?
Quintus Dias took a shallow breath, ignoring the weakness of his own body.
"I want you."
He reached for her, and this time she did not pull away. Her lips met his in a collision of sweetness and fire, the space between them filled with all the world. He was enraptured and inflamed. He was undone. She must have some magic after all, he thought, to have done such a thing.
He pulled her down towards him, drawing her body next to his on the bed. She was so very warm.
Did his hands move of their own accord as they found the hollow between her collarbones, the smooth underside of her wrist, the delicate forgiveness in the small of her back? Like any good soldier, he advanced farther, his fingertips pushing away skirt and meeting bare skin in the shape of a calf, a knee, and ultimately a thigh, which he proceeded to pull over his waist.
He felt her stiffen, the muscles of her leg tightening in his grasp.
His eyes found hers, but she wouldn't meet his gaze. He brought his hand up to her cheek.
"I'm sorry…" she stammered. "I can't…"
"What is it?"
Her eyes flashed towards him, hard and brilliantine.
"I should tell you, Roman, that I come to you damaged."
"I told you, when we met. After a time, I learned how to keep the soldiers away, but before that…" Her voice trailed off, while her gaze shifted to a space far beyond him.
He could feel the hammering of his own pulse in his ears.
"Are you saying you were…" – Gods, he couldn't even say it aloud – "…ill-used by the men of the garrison?"
"'Ill-used,'" she sneered, "that's a good word for it."
Anger broke in his chest like a peal of thunder. He wanted very much to beat something, to rain down blow after blow until his rage was spent and her honor restored. But there was no one there to take such a punishment; all were long gone, or dead. He took her wrist lightly in his hand, encircling it within his grasp, incredulous as to how anyone could touch her so in violence. The skin was pale, unmarked. Virilus was right. Sometimes there are scars that cannot be seen.
He drew her towards him tightly, losing himself for a moment in the deep pools of her eyes.
"I give you my word. As long as I am alive, no man shall harm you."
He slid the silver ring off his thumb. His father's ring, given to him as the old man lay dying, wasting away until his body was only a fragile shell of its former self. In the final days, he could no longer speak, but the ring was offered with a grim smile and a tiny nod of the head. These things had been the sum total of his inheritance. He turned her wrist over and placed the ring in her palm, curling her fingers over it and placing his hand over hers.
"Please take it."
She looked at him quietly, the dark sharpness in her face falling away, replaced by a smoldering luminosity. What could she see, as her eyes met his, as they reflected back at him yearning, and fear, and hope? Did she peer fast into the depths of his heart, divine the future paths that he might choose? Would he be found wanting?
"I belong to no one." Her face moved closer to his, her lips brushing his ear. "But I choose you," she whispered.
He softly closed his eyes, taking in the scent of her, a mixture of earth and sweet herbs, faintly layered with heather honey. He could feel the drum beat of her heart next to his and listened as they began to fall into a shared rhythm. Did they sleep then, wrapped in the warmth of one another, the world reduced to a languid meeting of hands and lips?
Outside, the winter snow began to leap and wheel, the sky a blinding veil of white.