On the farthest reaches of the Danube frontier, the Roman legions found themselves filled with a despair, which for the first time in twelve centuries came from within. They had been cold before, faced overwhelming odds, gone farther from home, met defeat, but for the first time they huddled in the desolate marshes into which their pursuit of the Macromanni had led them, feeing cut off from hope, depressed and dispirited because whisper had it Commodus Emperor was ending support of the north campaign.
No man liked to enter such a swamp of desolation, but disciplined fighters went where the battle was. Never before had they faced the probability of abandonment by Rome.
There was no warmth in this chilled land. The marsh was wild, infested with death and unseen terrors, all of it blanketed with low-lying fog.
Behind the soldiers in a picketed prison pit, the captive barbarian women and children huddled together against the cold.
Livius moved past the prisoners, gazing at his soldiers but not speaking to them. He went through the dank encampment, sharing the loneliness of his legions, but haunted by something he had lost that most of them had never known.
A light glimmered from a tent ahead of him in the fog. He walked toward it without any sense of anticipation.
Through the slit of the tent-flap, Livius saw Timonides and the barbarian princess Xenia. Timonides was reading by the inadequate flickering of a swinging oil lamp. Before the Greek teacher, Xenia sat rigidly. Her eyes glittered with sullen hatred. Holding a wax tablet and a stylus clumsily, she watched Timonides intently, trying to gather some gleam of sense from all he was teaching her.
When Livius entered the tent, Xenia’s eyes darkened. The look of hatred in them became even more intense. Livius saw that glitter impaling him, but ignored it.
When Timonides saw it was Livius, he put away the document from which he was reading. Sighing with relief, Xenia instantly dropped stylus and tablet.
Timonides stood up, a warm smile lighting his dark face. “I am teaching the princess how to read and write.”
Livius nodded, glancing at Xenia with a look of curiosity. She averted her gaze.
“I am teaching her Greek,” Timonides said with a smile. “That is my way of trying to make a Roman out of her.”
Livius exhaled in weariness. “A Roman out of her?” He paced morosely, both of them watching him. “This is a war without end–no matter what they say in Rome. You think you have Ballomar beaten, he disappears only to come back stronger than ever.” He heeled around, face gray with rage, his dark eyes fixed on the savage princess. “What sort of people are you, Xenia? You have no homes, no families. You live on horses.”
Xenia straightened on the ground. Her voice was tinged with contempt. “We are warriors–”
“Warriors?” Suddenly Livius stride over to her, grabbed her. He pulled her to her feet before she could struggle at all. “Don’t you ever yearn for a man?” He held her savagely against him, his face gray and taut, and no sign of pleasure in his eyes, his mouth a rash of rage. “To be held like this? To be loved?”
For a moment, breathless, Xenia pressed against him, her heart hammering, her untamed emotions violently and quickly roused.
Her fingers dug into his arms, she clung to him. But this lasted less than the space of a harried breath. In that time she was flooded with raging memories. She remembered the way she had gone on her knees to him, waiting for him to act the victor claiming his rights over a female prisoner. This was the treatment she understood, and even when she fought him–if she opposed him that night in that tent at Vindobona–she would not have hated him because there was no man even among her father’s people to match this splendid man. Her opposition would have been half-hearted, but her passions would have been of a violence he would never know in the effete cities of the South. She had offered herself, even if he were her hated enemy. Nothing could ever erase the memory of the strange treatment he’d shown her, acting as if she were not only unlovely, but not a woman at all.
Defiantly, she writhed free, hurtling her words and her hatred at him. “No! No.”
Livius stepped toward her. He saw Timonides watching them, but Timonides would not attempt to deter him, no one could stop him if he meant to take her. A man needed a woman, worse than ever in this desolate place, even a barbarian like this one.
Suddenly he spoke somewhat more gently. “Then what do you live for? Even warriors must yearn for peace?”
Xenia crouched defiantly, voice shrill. “Peace is for pigs. We live for victory.”
Livius pushed her away from him roughly. The sudden fire that had flared to instant life was even more abruptly quenched. He didn’t want her. He didn’t want any woman. It was a hellish truth he had learned, when you feel rage toward the only woman you could love, you hated all women with that same fierce intensity.
He needed something, but it wasn’t this half-wild creature. He drew the back of his hand across his forehead, for that instant almost overcome with dizzying weariness. His clothing was intolerable, the weight of his flat, short sword unbearable. With a tired movement, he removed the sword, place it on the table without even glancing at it.