"I owe no allegiance except to him whom I choose."
He reached out to gently stroke his fingertips across her scar, his gold centurion ring against the shadowed gilt of her hair a stinging reminder of his own allegiance.
"I am not my own man. My mission is to get those two men to the garrison tomorrow and provide news of the Ninth Legion to our main force."
She smiled up at him trustingly. "I can wait. In four years of living on my own you are the only one who has treated me as a person."
He wanted to weep in sympathy. His family had never wanted for food or shelter due to his father's success as a gladiator, but he had been the son of slaves nonetheless and target to the barbs of others. It was only since this tour had taken him out of Rome to Britannica that he found a place for himself, eventually rising to second in command of his garrison in the north.
He tried to fend off her regard by teasing, "Witch. I could not decide if you were angel or devil, so I went with what I knew."
Arianne laughed softly at him and reached up to tangle her fingers in his and press his palm to her cheek. "Soldier, your manners are not like others'."
He wished he could have protected her from the cruelty of others, both Roman soldiers and Picts. He wished he could protect her in the future, but for now it was doubtful he would even make it to the garrison she spoke of. Etain and her crew had whittled them down to bare bones. Even a fully healed Bothos was going to be hard-pressed to make it and there were only three of them on foot against at least half a dozen mounted.
And what could he do to protect her here. She had done more to protect him these last two days than any of the men on this blighted march. And he could not repay nor protect her in turn by risking a child and absentee father.
Quintus Dias dropped the bundled furs on the forest thatch at his feet. Winter down in this river valley was temperate compared to the northern valley he had been living in for the last few years.
Sliding his hand around to cup her skull through her soft, downy hair, he turned, tugging her head down onto his shoulder. With his left he pulled her hips closer to rest her body against his. Once they were pressed together, he leaned his shoulders against the tree behind him, resuming his watch over her head, easily taking her slight weight.
She wiggled her hips against his despite the warning press of his hand against her backside.
"Just let me hold you," he begged her.
"But I want more of you."
"I don't want to be more trouble."
She scoffed at that. "Eh, I am a witch. You will not cause trouble." She giggled softly. "Well, not more than you already have, Soldier."
No prevention method is infallible, so he tried one last time. "Comfort is all I have to give."
"False. You could give me more of yourself than the rest of the stupid soldiers try to take as their due. You could…"
He cut off her rising rant with a harsh, "Please," not knowing if he was more desperate to halt her words or acquiesce to her demand.
Arianne sighed and slid her slender arms about his waist, tilting her head into the shelter of his neck. Quintus Dias wrapped his own arms tightly about her waist and shoulders and pulled her deeper into the embrace. Her flyaway hair tickled his nose, so he smoothed it under his chin, keeping a watchful eye on the forest around the clearing.
She was so tiny against him. In her cottage, her easy command of the space loomed large, but standing out here he realized just how small and slender her person was compared to his own. Her survival depended on others' fear instead of direct combat.
In a blinding epiphany, he knew that even if he or any of the others made it safely to the garrison, it would not matter. The Roman Empire was not resourcing Britannia with anywhere near enough men to truly defend against the northern might of the Picts. If the Empire could not supply arms, then they had to create fear. News of the Ninth Legion's destruction would have to be suppressed at all costs.
Those costs were puny to the Empire – three worn out soldiers no one in the south knew. It would be easy enough to provide them wine to dull their senses and then slit their throats without anyone the wiser. Soldier or free man, it did not matter. He had pledged his life to the Empire and made a promise to a dead man.
He sighed and even though he knew it was cruel to her, he said it anyway for himself. "Arianne. Once I get the men to the garrison, I'll come back."
Quintus Dias could feel death looming large in his future and the witch in his arms was no necromancer to stay the inevitable. They would try for the garrison in the morning, he had promised the general after all, but they were going to have to push hard. But he was still tired after almost two whole days of rest and adequate food, and he was the most prepared for this running of the three of them.
He could feel Arianne smile against his throat. "All right," she said, "I can wait."