by Leigh Court
Ebook ISBN: B01EVH7RSU
[ Historical Romance, MF ]
In 52 BC, Leonidas Vorenus, commander of Rome’s Sixth legion, is seriously wounded during an ambush in newly-conquered Gaul. Solange of Gaul is dedicated to saving every life, even a hated Roman one. But when these two enemies look beyond their hatred, they discover an emotion just as strong…love.
Gaul 52 B.C.
The wound was deep.
Leonidas stared in momentary disbelief at the enemy spear lodged in his shoulder. The weapon had hit him with such force it had thrown him clear off his horse and buried itself deeply into his flesh.
And much too close to his heart.
Even now blood was pouring from the wound and seeping into the hard ground where he’d landed flat on his back with a bone-jarring crash. Gritting his teeth against the pain, he struggled to roll away from his frightened steed’s dangerous hooves and out of reach of the pounding feet of the men engaged in battle all around him.
He twisted to the left, but the long wooden shaft of the spear prevented him from rolling over far enough to be able to elbow himself up. He tried turning to the right but the battle raged mere inches away and he risked deeper injury if one of the men – either friend or foe – were to blindly trip over the spear’s shaft. Exhausted from just that small effort, he collapsed onto his back, put his right hand on the rough wood and tried desperately to pull the spear free. But he didn’t have enough strength – or leverage – and the resulting flood of pain made his vision swim and darken.
By all the gods, these Gauls were fierce fighters! Leonidas’ soldiers were well trained, more than able to hold a battle line, but they’d been ambushed while marching on the road to Gallia Lugdunensis. At the first sign of the enemy, his men had quickly closed ranks but these Gallic banshees fought ferociously, heedless of their own lives. They had overwhelmed Leonidas’ men with their wild strength. Now all around him was chaos.
Vercingetorix, the king of the Gauls, had surrendered to Julius Caesar a month ago, but still his defiant countrymen fought on. It was for that reason Leonidas was being sent to rout these final pockets of resistance and to hold and administer Gallia Lugdunensis for Caesar.
Instead, here he lay on the ground. Helpless. Defenseless. What an ignominious legacy to leave to the world. Leonidas Danae Vorenus, commander of Rome’s prestigious Legio VI Ferrata, most likely to be trampled to death.
No. I will not die like this.
Using his right hand, Leonidas yanked off his hammered metal helmet and scanned the battle scene. Despite the sweat that ran into his eyes, he could clearly see that the legion’s standard, the powerful bull on its proud red flag, was still flying.
So. The battle was not yet lost.
And – the gods be praised – his sword lay not more than a foot away on the ground.
He tried to reach for it, to inch his fingers along the hard earth, but realized he had lost all feeling in his left arm. Neither his fingers nor his hand would respond to his mental command. The sword was mere inches away, but the distance might as well have been a mile.
His wound was even graver than he’d thought.
Leonidas twisted his head to follow the sound of that familiar voice. It belonged to Marcus Arturus Valerian, his tribunus, his second-in-command. There was no other man Leonidas would rather have at his back during a battle, or at his side right now.
Valerian came at a run, parrying enemy swords along the way, followed closely by one of his centurions. He fell to his knees next to Leonidas and stared at the spear lodged in his shoulder.
“Jupiter help us,” the tribunus swore.
“Not Jupiter,” Leonidas said, knowing that death comes to every man. “It’s Mars, the god of war, we need today. Get me to my feet.”
The two soldiers hoisted Leonidas up as gently as they could, but the searing pain in his shoulder nearly buckled Leonidas’ legs. Only sheer willpower kept him on his feet. That, and the powerful will of Rome.
Today would not be the end of Caesar’s ironclad Sixth legion.
He threw back his head, roared his determination, and men literally stopped fighting to turn and look. Enemy mouths fell open in disbelief, and Leonidas could read their thoughts: Here stood a Roman commander, spit like a pig and yet somehow still standing, a man the gods surely must favor, presiding over a battle the gods must obviously support. He was a living, breathing omen.
The tide of battle turned in that moment and Leonidas was glad to see his men knew enough to take advantage of it. In the instant the Gauls hesitated, they were run through with Roman steel, scourged with Roman mace, spiked with Roman battle axes.
And if this is the last thing I see, I can die with honor.
* * * * *
Aleris came at a run, sliding to a halt at the door of the hut. Solange hated to be interrupted while grinding her precious herbs – especially when the work needed to be done precisely at the peak of their bloom, before they lost their medicinal potency – but Aleris obviously brought some important news. She stopped her mixing and looked up at him.
“Solange,” he panted, clearly out of breath. “The Romans are here.”
She nearly dropped her bowl. “Romans?”
The day they’d all dreaded had finally arrived.
Aleris nodded. “One of them…their commander…is badly injured. They’re demanding you come.”
Solange gasped. “Me? Have they no healer of their own?”
“Dead. In the battle. They were attacked on the road here.” Aleris glanced nervously over his shoulder. “Come, before they come themselves for you. Best to show our cooperation.”
Solange scrambled to her feet, thinking quickly of what she might need. Yarrow for a bleeding injury taken in battle. Hyssop to cleanse the wound. Echium to fight inflammation. Mint to cut the pain. She quickly threw things into her cloth sack and followed Aleris out the door.
They hurried through the village, dodging women who frantically shouted for wayward children, men who rushed to their huts to protect wives and property, elders who peered with anxious eyes from behind nearly closed doors.
The smell of fear was everywhere.
Solange had no time to give in to her own fear. At the edge of the village, she was brought up short by the sight that met her eyes. The Roman army had set up a massive camp – hundreds upon hundreds of tents. Rough-looking soldiers milled outside them, sharpening swords, cleaning leather breastplates and metal helmets. They easily outnumbered the people in her village. Gauls had no chance against this fearsome invader. They were well and truly conquered.
One tent stood out above the rest by its sheer size. A blood-red pennant with the image of a black bull flew at its entrance.
Solange gave Aleris an uncertain look. He nodded and they headed in that direction.
Roman soldiers eyed her with interest as she passed. Aleris put his hand under her elbow, clearly signaling his intention to protect her, as futile as that effort would be against these hardened men. Still, Solange appreciated the show of bravery. As the son of the village chieftain, Aleris believed bravery was expected of him.
They stopped at the entrance of the massive tent, which was guarded by a giant of a man.
“This is Solange, our healer,” Aleris said in a firm voice.
The soldier looked them over silently, then pulled open a flap door and signaled them to enter.
Solange stepped inside, gaping at the rich interior. The tent itself was larger than her entire hut, and the furnishings more lavish than anything she’d ever seen. Two gilt chairs sat next to an intricately carved rectangular table. Candles burned at both ends, throwing light on rolled-up parchments strewn haphazardly across it. A pitcher and two goblets were in the center and the smell of wine filled the air.
Solange thought the tent was empty, until her eyes settled on yet another door flap toward the back. A separate room, probably a sleeping chamber. Undoubtedly where her patient lay.
As she stared at the rich gold curtain, a man stepped through it. His eyebrows shot up in question. “The healer?”
Aleris nodded. “This is Solange. I am Aleris, son of Enceladus, the village chieftain.”
“Primus Pilus Valerian, senior centurion of Caesar’s Sixth legion.” With that simple introduction, he pulled back the gold flap and motioned them to step inside. “The commander is here.”
Solange sent up a silent prayer to the god Toutatis that she had the skill to deal with this Roman’s injury. She entered the darkened interior room cautiously, followed by Aleris. A single candle burned, throwing eerie shadows onto a figure lying on a pallet on the hard ground. As she neared her patient, the soldier Valerian jerked back the thick woolen cloak that covered him.
Solange gasped. The man was naked except for a small loincloth, but that’s not what shocked her. It was the gaping hole in his left shoulder, which had been crudely stuffed with cloth. And by the red, raw sear marks at its edges, it looked like the wound had been cauterized with his soldiers’ own sword blades to stop the bleeding.
She fell to her knees beside him. The wound seemed even worse up close.
What pain this man must have endured! Both from the wound and from his men’s rough ministrations. She glanced at Valerian with disbelieving eyes.
He grimaced. “With our own medicus dead, it was the best we could do.”
“What was the weapon?”
“Is that his only wound?”
“Yes. We were ambushed on the road about a mile distant.”
“A mile! And you carried him like this? It’s a miracle he isn’t dead already.”
“No, lady. He must not die.”
She made a small sound. “Then you should have taken off his arm before moving him such a distance. I’ll do what I can, but—”
“I don’t think you heard me, lady. He must not die. You will not let him die.”
Solange sent Aleris an uneasy glance.
Valerian straightened. “I assume you have what medicines you need. Sylvanus will be on guard if you require anything else.” He turned to Aleris. “I’m taking my men to assess the village. You will bring me to your father to answer any questions I may have.”
Valerian moved toward the door flap as Solange scrambled to her feet.
“Wait! His arm—”
“He keeps the arm, lady. He is Leonidas Danae Vorenus. Commander of the Legio VI Ferrata. Leo the lion, they call him. Vorenus the voracious. Loved by Caesar. Fearless in battle. He is your master now. I swear by Jupiter and all the gods, if he dies, you die.”