What Conor wants, Conor gets–and what he wants is Max Quentin
After his part of the festivities ended, Conor, still astride the white stallion, left the parade ground followed by the other rough riders on the remaining horses. The parade ground lay outside the fort, one mile from the stables inside Cilurnum. On the journey out, the short trip enabled the riders and horses to settle down before the training exercises began; on this particular trip back, Conor had time to reflect on the success of his exhibition. He was pleased with it: his tricks would show the cursed Romans a thing or two about what really good riding was like. The Romans knew nothing about horseflesh anyway.
Since going to work in the stables under the magister campi Conor had been appalled at the harshness of Roman training methods, especially the cruel bitting methods they used. One variation was the snaffle, which pressed heavily on the horse’s lower jaw when the animal, in attempt to avoid pressure on his tongue, opened his mouth. No Brigantian would ever use a horse so harshly. Conor spoke to the horses not only in his own language but even, occasionally, in their language. Although he couldn’t be sure of the meaning the horses attributed to the sounds he made, the animals showed by their response that they trusted him. At minimum, the horses did what he asked, leaving Conor’s Roman counterparts slack-jawed with amazement.
In the stables he removed the tackle from Alba, the white horse, led him into his stall, and began to rub him down. Around him he could smell the fresh horse manure the slaves were sweeping out of the stables, and hear the horses whinnying and stamping softly as the stable boys rubbed them down with damp sponges. He had just finishing rubbing down Alba’s left side when Quentin erupted into the stables and yanked open the stall door.
Conor had rarely seen Quentin so angry. He opened his mouth to defend himself but never got a chance, because Quentin grabbed him by the shoulders and stared into his eyes.
After the brief exchange of conversation in which the centurion all but admitted that Conor was the light of his life, Quentin bit his lip, then abruptly turned and left.
Still holding the damp sponge in his hand, Conor stared at Quentin’s retreating back, so stunned he could hardly think. After a few moments his thoughts began to arrange themselves coherently.
So. So Gaius Maximius Quentin did care about him! Elation fought with caution in Conor’s heart as he realized that although Quentin might care a great deal for his armor-bearer, he did so reluctantly.
And that must be the reason that Quentin had been avoiding him lately. He was afraid that his feelings might show…was that it? It also explained the jealousy Conor had noticed in Quentin’s eyes when he’d caught Conor and Fronto in the cold room of the bath house.
He’s mine! Conor thought exultantly, but caution warned him: Not yet.
Very well, then, how to claim Quentin for his own? How could he overcome the barrier between conqueror and hostage, Roman and Brigantian, centurion and armor-bearer?
For now that Quentin’s defenses had revealed an opening, the time was right to make his move. Tonight, preferably.
To wait was to lose the opportunity. In a day or two, Conor knew that Quentin would bury the incident so deeply in his mind that it would be as if it had never happened. This chance would fade away and their relationship would resume its normal footing of master and servant.
Tonight, then. He would wait for the right time and seize the moment.
It would help, though, if there was no one present to witness a scene that Conor hoped would culminate in the seduction of Centurion Quentin. That meant that Quentipor must somehow be kept away from the quarters tonight, but how?
Oddly, it was Quentipor himself who unwittingly provided an excuse not to return to the quarters. When Conor found him, crouched miserably on a pallet in the kitchen slaves’ room, the boy could barely open his eyes.
“Well, Quentipor, I see you’ve indulged a little too much in the beer that was circulating so freely at the banquet.” Conor was not unsympathetic. Before he’d learned to pace his own drinking, he’d suffered the same way Quentipor was suffering now.
“Conor…” Quentipor moaned. “I am so sick…so sick…”
“You’ll have to sleep it off, I’m afraid,” Conor said. “In the meantime, I’ll get something to make you feel better.”
The staff always gave Conor a warm welcome when he went to the kitchens and Tullius, one of the assistant cooks, offered Conor a clean cloth and a bucket of cold water from the well.
Returning to Quentipor’s sickroom, Conor wrung out the cloth in the bucket of water and placed it on the boy’s forehead.
Quentipor’s face was covered in sweat. As he clutched his stomach and sat up suddenly, Conor dodged out of range. Looking around, he saw an earthenware bowl nearby that evidently had been placed near Quentipor for emergencies. He shoved it toward Quentipor, who grabbed it, lowered his head, and vomited into it.
At last, exhausted, the lad sank back onto the straw pallet. Conor wetted the cloth again, wrung it out, and mopped Quentipor’s face with it.
“You’ll have to stay where you are until morning,” he said. “I’ll tell the centurion you’re staying the night with friends. All right?”
Quentipor’s eyes fluttered open; he nodded weakly and closed his eyes again. Conor eased out of the room. Although he wouldn’t have wished such an event on anyone, there was no denying that the slave-boy’s overindulgence could not have happened at a more opportune time.
If his plans came to fruition tonight, he would sacrifice to Brigantia, Goddess of his tribe.
Later, fresh from the slaves’ bath house and dressed in a clean tunic, Conor went to the quarters and began working on the armor that Quentin had left lying around in the front room. After wiping the helmet, cuirass, greaves, sword, and dagger with a damp cloth, he rubbed oil over every piece. This was followed by an application of fine sand and more rubbing. At last the armor, oiled against rust and shining once more, was ready to hang up on the wall.
The light outside the windows was fading by the time Conor finished his chore. Where was Quentin?
Conor went into the sleeping chamber, lit the small oil lamp that sat in a niche in the wall, and stripped off his tunic. He took the army-issued blanket from the sleeping couch, wrapped it around his waist, sat down on the couch, and began to think of all the things he would like to do to Quentin if he got the chance.
This, however, did not take long and the time dragged. Conor let himself slip into the trance state in which he participated in the rites of his tribe. Gazing into space at nothing in particular he waited for images to come into his head. In his mind’s eye he could see the dun where his father and mother lived and the countryside around it—the hills he had climbed, the rivers he’d fished, and the pools he’d bathed in before he was captured. Memories of bale-fires lit on the four great sabbats—Imbolc, the time of ewe’s milk; Beltane, the beginning of summer; Lughnasa, the grain-harvest; and Samhain, the night when the veil between earth and the Otherworld opened—came to him. On all those holy days his tribe gathered round the great fires, drinking in the words of the druids as they chanted spells or supplications. Homesickness swept through him in a sudden wave of longing: would he ever see his father, the king, his mother, his sisters and brothers again? Were they even still alive?
He heard the sound of the door opening in the outer chamber and came back to the present. A moment later Quentin came into the room and looked taken aback to see Conor sitting on the sleeping couch.
“Conor! I’ve been looking for you all afternoon. Where have you been?”
Conor shrugged. “Here and there.”
“What are you doing in here? Where’s Quentipor?”
“Quentipor is staying with some friends tonight. He overdid it with the beer today. As to what I’m doing here…” Conor felt his heart begin to beat faster. “…I’ve been waiting for you.”
He saw Quentin stiffen. “Yes?”
Conor got up from the couch and walked toward Quentin until he was standing only half an arm’s length away. As he and Quentin were about the same height, he could look directly into his eyes. “Earlier today, Centurion, you took something from me—and now I want it back.”
Quentin lifted an eyebrow. “And what was it exactly that I took from you, Conor?”
“My heart,” Conor said bluntly.
Something flickered in Quentin’s eyes. “What if I don’t want to give it back?”
Conor quelled the exultation that filled him. Careful, he warned himself. Don’t look too eager.
“Then you must give me yours. It would be only fair.”
In the flickering light of the oil lamp it was hard to tell whether the centurion was blushing but his expression was certainly wary.
Conor looked into Quentin’s eyes and spoke with deliberation. “Are you afraid of me?”
Quentin reacted instantly. “Of course not! I am not afraid of anyone. I’m a Roman officer.”
The curl of Quentin’s lip as he uttered these words did not deter Conor from asking another question. “Well, then, are you afraid of yourself?”
The words seemed to hang in the air. Quentin bit his lip and began to turn away but Conor grabbed his arm. “Don’t be afraid! Don’t be afraid to love and be loved.”
Quentin stared. “Do you love me?”
Conor smiled inwardly. The urgency in Quentin’s voice told him all he needed to know. “Do you want to see how I feel about you? I’m no good with words. Let me show you.”
Quentin took a step back. “No. No, I can’t let you do that.”
For the first time Conor experienced the chill of doubt. This was not going as he’d hoped. Why was the Roman so reluctant? Could it be…? Oh, no. But he had to ask, even if the answer was going to break his heart.
“Is it because you don’t want me? Because, as you once put it, I’m ‘Fronto’s leavings’?”
Quentin shook his head impatiently. “No, it’s not that.”
“What is it, then? Lugh’s lance, I believe you are afraid! You’re afraid of love! I bet you’ve never had a lover, have you?”
“Damn it, will you shut up?” Quentin shouted.
“Try and make me!”
Taut with fury, Conor glared at Quentin, who glared back and then it happened. Like a hairline crack in a wall, a tiny crease appeared at the corner of Quentin’s lips. As Conor watched, the crease widened into a dimple, and then, like an unexpected sunrise after a night of rain, there it was. The smile he’d been waiting for, the eyes full of warmth as they surveyed him, the expression of tenderness on a face that was usually as devoid of it as a standing stone.
Conor could never remember later who first moved toward the other but in an instant they were in each other’s arms. How he’d longed for this moment! How wonderful it was to feel this man’s body pressed against his own, to feel the hard muscles of Quentin’s back through the rough texture of his tunic. To have the other’s consent to lovemaking was a gift from the Goddess and fervently, while his lips and hands were busy, he sent up a silent prayer of thanks to Brigantia.
“I want you, oh, how I want you,” Conor murmured into Quentin’s warm neck as his hands continued to roam over the other because he could not get enough of this new freedom to touch, to explore, to worship.
But Quentin’s hands were busy too, and although he did not speak, his lips were everywhere.
“Can’t we get this off?” Conor said at last, tugging at Quentin’s tunic.
The lamp in the wall niche flickered as the flame consumed the last of the oil and went out. Now only the short summer darkness filled the room as Conor drew Quentin toward the sleeping couch. He dragged the blanket from around his waist and dropped it on the floor, then opened his arms to Quentin, who moved toward him until they were lying in each other’s arms, chest to chest. Conor heard Quentin’s ragged breathing, felt the rise and fall of his chest. It seemed to him that his own heart was beating strongly because it was voiceless—his heart wanted to sing, and it couldn’t.
Quentin’s skin was warm and tasted a little of salt; the silky feel of it beneath the slight furriness of his chest was probably the result of the oil treatment at the bath house. Oh, the delight of using his tongue to explore the delicious little area where Quentin’s ear met his jaw: it was soft as a baby’s face, just there. With a fingertip Conor traced the line of the other’s jaw from ear to mouth and then brushed it across Quentin’s lips.
“Ah…Conor…” It was a groan.
Conor chuckled. “What would you, Gaius Maximius? Is there something I can do for you?”
“Don’t…” Quentin shifted position and as he did so Conor felt the hardness of the shaft against his stomach. Conor let his hand move down and close around it.
Big, he thought in exultation. Big, hot, waiting for me…
He felt Quentin’s hands on each side of his face, felt Quentin’s tongue slide inside his mouth, making him feel harder than ever; if he got much more excited he was going to come here and now, and it was too soon, much too soon.
He shifted so that he was lying on top of Quentin, who moaned louder.
Conor laughed softly. “You could make me feel lighter, you know.”
“How?” It was a whisper, soft as a breeze in the darkness.
Connor showed him.
“Well, centurion, we’ve made a right mess of ourselves.”
“I’ll get some water and a cloth.”
When Conor came back with a basin of water and a cloth, it struck him that this was the second time in a day that he had brought these particular items to another person, although for very different reasons. It struck him so funny that he laughed.
“What’s so funny? Can I have that wet cloth? Thanks for getting it, I don’t think I can move.”
“Oh, nothing.” It would take too long to explain the joke to his new lover, and anyway, it might reveal more than he wanted to tell.
After both had cleaned themselves, Conor made as if to get off the sleeping couch, but Quentin laid a hand on his arm. “Where are you going?”
“To the other room. I don’t want to wear out my welcome, you know.”
“Don’t be ridiculous. I’d like you to spend what’s left of the night right here beside me. Will you?”
Conor settled down on the sleeping couch again as Quentin obligingly shifted to make room. He yawned suddenly, as exhaustion overtook him; it had, after all, been a very exciting day, in more ways than one.
And now he was lying beside the man he’d lusted after for weeks, the haughty, stone-faced Roman who had destroyed his honor by allowing him to live rather than killing him on the battlefield months ago. A hostage he might be, deprived of freedom, but in one matter at least, his captor was the hostage and he, Conor, a free man.
“Oh, Mithras, unconquerable sun! Oh, shit!”
“What?” Jarred from sleep, Conor sat up. Quentin had already swung his long legs off the sleeping couch and was sitting on the edge of it, his back to Conor.
“Mithras, what have I done?”
It was barely daybreak. The light outside the windows was turning gray and the room felt chilly.
“Are you ill, Gaius Maximius?”
“No. No, it’s just—”
Quentin sank his head in his hands. “I’ve broken my vow of chastity.”
Conor almost said, “And how,” but restrained himself in time. Aloud he said, “Are you sorry?”
Quentin was still for a moment, then twisted around to face him.
“It was the most wonderful night of my life. If I weren’t sworn to Mithras, I wouldn’t be sorry at all, I’d be ecstatic. But…there it is, I’ve broken my vow.”
He sighed heavily, then got to his feet. “I’ll have to tell the Pater.”
“Why? What kind of god is this, that he doesn’t want you to love? And why do you have to tell the Pater anything?”
“That’s just the way it is. He’ll punish me, but I accept that. At least, while I’m being punished, I’ll have the memory of our night together.”
Conor put out a hand to restrain Quentin, but the other was already on his way out of the room.
Sighing in his turn, Conor got off the sleeping couch. Time to retrieve his tunic from the floor where he’d tossed it last night, time to buckle on his sandals, wash his face and hands with the water in the stone basin in the front room. Yawning, he waited while Quentin washed his face first, then dried it with the towel.
“I’ll be back later,” Quentin said. He took his cloak off the hook on the wall, waved a hand at Conor, and went out the door.
Conor washed his face and considered his next move. Although today was a market day, and there would be few formal duties, the horses still had to be looked after. He’d have to go to the stables. And there was the important matter of the sacrifice he owed Brigantia, for granting his wish.
The problem was, he had nothing to offer Her. He owned nothing in the world but his tunic, cloak, and sandals, and even those were gifts from the hospital spares. His torque was in the strongroom and he was unlikely to get it back any time soon. His sword had been left behind on the battlefield, on the day he’d been brought here to Cilurnum on muleback. And even if he’d had torque or sword, there were no sacred springs in Cilurnum into which he could drop them. Outside the fort walls there was the river, of course, but he wasn’t allowed outside without an escort.
There wasn’t even the possibility of a blood sacrifice. He couldn’t go hunting outside the fort for a rabbit or a bird, and inside the fort he had neither status nor money, so he had no means of procuring anything that could be burned on an altar. Come to that, there was nothing with which to construct an altar, either.
More and more vexed, Conor left the rooms and proceeded through the early morning grayness. If he were lucky he might be able to get some oat porridge or bread from the kitchen staff for breakfast before he started work.
He was more than lucky. Passing the bakehouse, he spied Rufus, the cheerful, red-haired Gaulish-born assistant to Cursus, hauling a tray of freshly baked rolls from the oven to an airing rack.
“Greetings, Rufus,” Conor said, stopping to talk. “Those smell good.”
Rufus winked. “Have one. They’re just out of the oven.” He picked one of the largest and placed it in Conor’s hand.
Conor was touched. “How kind of you, Rufus! But…this is bread for the officers! I can’t have this, you know, even though I appreciate it, I really do.”
He made as if to hand it back, but Rufus shook his head. “Who’s to know? And anyway, you’re not a slave, I’ve heard tell you’re a prince in your own tribe. You can eat officers’ bread. Go on, it’s good! Made it myself.”
“Brigantia’s blessing on you, friend,” Conor said. “It looks and smells so good I’m afraid to start on it!”
“Get along with you, Conor,” Rufus said with another wink, then turned his attention to the peel, a long-handled implement with a flat iron plate on the end. He opened the oven door and shoved in the peel to remove more freshly baked rolls.
With a smile and a wave, Conor walked away. The new roll in his hand, with its crisp golden crust and appetizing smell, caused his stomach to give an anticipatory rumble. He was just going to break off a bit to chew when a thought struck him. This was it! This could be his sacrifice to Brigantia for the favor She had shown him.
One should offer the gods only something one valued very much oneself. This would have been the first time he had eaten the same bread that officers were privileged to enjoy. To refrain from eating it would be a worthy sacrifice.
But what should he do with it? He didn’t want to bury it in the earth—what a waste that would be. He could give it to a horse, but it wouldn’t be good for a horse. Yeast bread could give a horse flatulence, and anyway, their insides weren’t designed to digest the kind of food humans ate.
His path toward the stables was taking him past the hut where the luckless Quentipor had spent the night. Struck by another idea, Conor walked up to the hut and knocked on the door. A voice bade him enter.
Inside, Quentipor was sitting up on his pallet, looking considerably better than he had yesterday.
“Good morning, Conor.”
“Here, Quentipor, I’ve brought you some breakfast. Do you feel like eating?”
Quentipor brightened. “Thanks! Yes, I do feel quite hungry. I never thought I would again, but I do. By Fortuna, where did you get this, Conor? Have you brought me Centurion Quentin’s breakfast? Is he asking for me?”
“He had to go out on business early this morning. I told him you were spending the night away and he didn’t mind at all. A friend of mine gave me this for you, it’s all quite in order.”
“Thank you, Conor. You’re so good to me.”
Quentipor bit into the roll and, watching him enjoy it, Conor smiled. It was almost as good as eating the bread himself to watch the slave boy relishing it.
“I’ve got to go, Quentipor. After you finish that, why don’t you go back to the quarters. The centurion will need you.”
Quentipor, his mouth full, nodded.
Conor went out again, whistling as he walked the rest of the way to the stables. He was at peace: he had made his sacrifice to the goddess, if not in the manner to which She was accustomed, at least in a manner that was the best he could manage in the circumstances. He had fulfilled his vow. Honor was satisfied.
Even at this early hour the stables bustled with noise and activity. Harnesses jingled as the exploratores saddled up for a day of riding the territory around Cilurnum; horses whinnied and stamped in their stalls, waiting to be let out to enjoy some fresh air and exercise; the magister campi shouted one order after another to the slaves who tended the animals, and the soft whuffling sound of horses crunching their morning feed of barley made a backdrop to the other sounds.
As he approached the stables, however, Conor was startled by a horse heading toward him at full gallop. Hastily, he stepped aside, only to be startled again by the yells and shouts of several men pursuing the horse. He had just time to notice that the horse was being ridden by young Lucius Jovius, aged ten, the elder of the prefect’s two sons, when the pursuers stopped running and began yelling at Conor.
“He’s taken Gallicus!”
Conor stared at the magister campi. “Not Gallicus!”
Gallicus, the gray that had trotted so meekly alongside him yesterday as he rode Alba into the exhibition ring, was known for his temperamental behavior. Ridden by anyone other than Conor he tended to buck or gallop away in a frenzy.
Hardly pausing to think, Conor seized the horse another strator was leading up to him and vaulted onto its back. “Come, Luna!”
Urging the horse forward, he galloped after Gallicus. The gray was now heading out the gate; the guards at the West Gate watchtower, evidently recognizing that the gray horse was in a frenzy, and the danger this posed to Lucius, wisely opened the gates without issuing a challenge. Conor uttered another prayer to Brigantia that he could overtake the runaway horse. He did not doubt that if he failed to rescue Lucius his own life would be forfeit. And for once, the thought of death was not a matter of indifference—not now, not now when life was so sweet! Not now, when the man of his waking and sleeping dreams was his!
Gallicus turned and began streaking toward the moor outside the fort. Conor could see that Lucius was clinging to the gray’s mane for all he was worth. He had to overtake them soon or it would be only a matter of time before Gallicus grew tired of having a human on his back and began to buck. And if he threw the child off—
Vaguely aware from the shouts behind him that other riders were joining in the pursuit, Conor concentrated on lessening the distance between himself and Gallicus. Good, he was gaining on the runaway. He let out a whinny very like Gallicus’ own and saw the gray’s ears flicker. Encouraged, Conor continued to neigh and whinny until to his relief, he saw Gallicus’ pace slacken.
“Stay still, Lucius, I’m coming—just hang on and let go when I tell you, there’s a good lad,” Conor shouted. He hoped Lucius could hear him.
At last he was side by side with the gray. Leaning over, he grabbed Lucius around the waist and pulled him off Gallicus, then neighed again. Gallicus came to a stop and stood still.
Lucius, too terrified to speak, trembling in every limb, hid his face against Conor’s chest.
“It’s all right, lad, it’s all right, I’ve got you,” Conor said, patting the boy on the back. “We’ll get you back to the fort in no time. You’re a brave boy to hang on so well.”
He whinnied softly to Gallicus, who was now snorting and tossing his head. The horse was almost black with sweat, for the morning was hot.
“Got him? Good man,” the magister campi said, pulling up his own horse beside Conor. “Here, Cassius, throw a leading rein around the beast and take him back to the stables. Conor, you keep young Lucius with you and we’ll ride back together. The Prefect is waiting.”
Conor nodded. Brigantia be thanked, the boy was safe and Gallicus, if he were lucky, would escape the prefect’s wrath and live to carry a cavalryman into battle one day. After all, it had not been the horse’s idea to go for a morning jaunt. Conor hoped that Lucius’ father would take that into consideration and discipline his son, within reason, for causing so much trouble. “Right, let’s head back.”
The party rode back at a pace so sedate that a Roman matron would not have broken a sweat were she riding with them. Conor gazed at the moorland around them, feeling the wind in his hair, smelling the sweet, wild scents of summer, and heaved a sigh. How long would it be before he rode these moors again?