“Would you like to hear about one of our lives together?”
One of their lives together. A question she never would have predicted hearing a week ago. Her lips curled into a smile. “Gives a whole new meaning to ancient history, doesn’t it.”
“If you can’t believe it, then I’ll stick to fairy tales. You don’t belittle those.”
“As if the concept doesn’t take a little getting used to. Okay, tell me about the first time we met.”
He twirled the whiskey in his glass, inhaled then drank. “That’s a gruesome story.”
“Gruesome? It wasn’t all love and roses between us?”
“Not at the first. Why don’t I tell of the time we gave our love oath to each other? It wasn’t near as hostile.”
She shook her head. “I want to hear about the first time.”
“You don’t have a weak stomach?”
“Not at all.”
“Very good. But remember, you asked for it.” He rubbed his light beard. It made a purely male rasping sound. “First of all, let me clarify. Our earliest meeting was closer to two thousand years ago.”
“And I thought we’d only lived a mere thousand years together.”
Apparently he didn’t find this funny. “So sorry.” She tugged the glass from his hand and took a sip.
“Shall I get you a glass?”
“No. I’ll just take a sip from yours.”
He gave her a look—he didn’t think that was fun either.
“Okay then, two thousand years ago,” she said. “Now you have to admit that’s far-fetched, time wise, that is. Sorry. Carry on then.”
The fire danced beside them. His direct gaze held her eyes as if he searched for someone else. “’Twas south of Scotland, although we called it Caledonia then. I was a Roman soldier and it was war against Druidism. We’d come up the eastern coast with Agricola, the governor of Brittania. His campaign was fairly new then.”
“I’ll bet I was your superior officer, and you needed to be whipped into shape.”
“No.” He looked into the fire then, a line creased his forehead.
“You were a young lass of the Picts. We came upon your settlement in the morning. It wasn’t much, a dozen huts or so surrounded by a palisade. The sentry was taken out, and as I said, it was early on. The village was taken by surprise.”
He talked to the flames, his eyes shining with emotion she could only imagine. “Agricola would not show the Picts quarter, and some of us were ordered to the woods to thrash out those who’d escaped. I’d not yet killed a man, though I’d Pictish blood on my apron. That was soon to change.”
As he turned to face her, his expression turned grim. “That’s when I first saw you.” He paused. “It’s not nice, lass.”
“Don’t worry, Calum, I forgive you,” she said trying to lighten the mood.
“Did you kill me?”
“Oh, good—excellent news. That would be a rough beginning.”
The corner of his mouth twitched, but his eyes held something she couldn’t determine.
“I didn’t kill you, but at first glance, I thought you dead,” he continued. “You lay at the edge of a stream. Your dark hair flowed like kelp in the water. A beautiful lass to be sure, but that wasn’t what struck me at the first. I could sense your courage hanging in the air—three grown men against a young lass and you’d fought them well. One had a bloodied nose, one had scratches raked across his face. The man nearest you was a centurion. I knew him—the nephew of Agricola. They greeted me with voices pitched on the foul current of disregard, oblivious that the scene made me wish to vomit.”
A piece of wood cracked and she flinched.
His eyes flared. “Do you want to hear the rest?”
She leaned forward and touched his knee. “Yes, Calum.”
“I can almost smell it, you know, still, a stench like no other—the stink of blood and fear and sin. The purpose of war was not for stealing the innocence of a young lass. How can you be human after that? I was crazed with the wrongness of it.”
Beth felt her breath catch as his expression conveyed his conviction.
“With my hand on the hilt of my sword, I told them to move off you. They thought I’d not the patience to wait my turn. I was in a rare state, Beth. My head buzzing with the energy of killing not nearly spent, till I exploded in a rage I could no more prevent than halt the flow of my blood. They didn’t expect it, so killing the two men was no great feat. The third ran. And do you know what I felt?”
She let her breath out and slowly shook her head.
“Fair dealing. Killing those men was the first act of battle that felt just.”
He took back the whiskey and swallowed. Two thousand years later, he carried the horror of that scene. She felt the tight current running between them, like ground crumbling and reached out to take his hand. The lines of tension eased in his face, and it surprised her when he smiled.
“It was then that you rose from the dead in a fury no less than my own had been. Bent on murder yourself, my wee hellion, you can imagine the time I had convincing you I meant no harm. You’ve mellowed some since then, thank the Lord.”
He didn’t laugh. “Not so. Come and sit closer beside me.” She tossed a few throw pillows in a pile behind their backs. They leaned against them, knees touching as he took back her hand.
“Finally, you took notice of the two dead Romans.”
“You weren’t kidding when you said it was gruesome.”
“Ah, no. I removed my tunic to cover you. The centurion’s prints were like red stains on your neck.” He glanced at her neck then as if remnants might lie there. “Our escape was immediate as we’d be executed if they found us. From the very start, m’eudail, I was driven to be your protector. You gave no protest. I think shock had rendered you speechless.”
“Don’t you dare say you liked me better like that.”
One fair brow rose in contemplation before she slapped his leg.
“I’ve no wish to ever see you like that again. We ran the rest of the day, till your legs gave out, then I carried you to an abandoned croft where I lay you to sleep, unmoved till the next day. We were blessed in the season, for the upstream ran full of fish fighting to lay their spawn. I merely plucked one out and cooked it over a wee fire. When finally you woke, you came out of the croft and looked at me then for the first time.”
“Well if I didn’t express gratitude I was surely thinking it.”
“Perhaps. You were a robust lass, well fed—possibly fifteen. Your chin picked up, and I saw you’d regained some strength though tenuous still. Behind your eyes lay the fragility of a robin’s egg. You would have hidden it better from others, and I realized a while later there was something between us that allowed me to see it.”
He brought her hand to his lips and kissed it. For a warrior, he had a tender touch.
“Your knuckles turned white as you clutched the tunic. I heated water, thinking you would need to wash the smell of them from your bones and that warm water might bring some comfort as you past over each cut, each bruise, the memory of their infliction coming back raw and brutal. I watched that realization come to you as you picked at your finger caked in blood, abhorrent of your own self, afraid of your reflection. Do you know what you did then?”
“I asked you to wash me,” she answered without thinking.
“Yes, though we had no common language. It was the beginning of the trust between us.”
She then recognized what she must have seen in his eyes so long ago and knew she had never stopped trusting him. Her doubt had been caused by a lack of faith in her own intuition.
“I picked the brambles from your hair,” he continued. “My fingers felt too thick for the gentleness I desired. I tore a strip from my clothes and wet it to wash the dirt from your face. I didn’t know it till later, but you’d been knocked unconscious early on and didn’t remember the assault. You’d have suffered a worse beating if it’d not been the case.”
Calum nudged her knee with his. “You were not nearly so abashed as you are now.”
“What exactly are you expecting?”
“Nevermind. Let me tell you the rest—it’s the tender part.” His face held the glint of a smile. “A streak of blood slashed your throat, but I wasn’t about to touch you under that tunic, contrary to what you may think of me now.”
For as much as the man exuded sexual predator, she had no problem believing in his decency.
“As I said, you were not so bashful. You unlaced the tunic and turned your head away. Why the beast would damage your breasts with his teeth I couldn’t fathom. I was young myself, fairly innocent and horrified as I scrubbed you clean. The need in me was fierce to erase it all. You stood still as a stone, but your eyes watched me. The sound of your teeth gritting increased my inclination to heal. Your trust in me was unquestioned, Beth. I would have died right then to protect you.”
She was moved by his account. In his eyes, she saw what had risen from the sordid, what had begun then, the reason why he was here. I would have died right then to protect you. Did he have her trust now? He raised his arm, and she slid over to be so enclosed by him, warm and safe.
“We ate the fish, then we ran again. It was easy to hide in the hills.”
He stretched out his long legs and she lengthened out beside him, her hand in his, resting against solid thigh muscle. Calum was no office worker. If he wasn’t training, where did he get those muscles from? Lying with him there, hearing him talk of the past, she began to believe he had truly risen from another century where hardened bodies were the product of everyday living.
“Did we live happily ever after, Calum?”
He turned to face her, let go of her hand and softly glanced her cheek with his knuckles. “No, m’eudail, we didn’t. ’Twas the first time I died for you, though.” He leaned over and kissed her gently on the lips.
“I’d like to stay long with you, Beth, but if it comes to it, I’ll gladly die once more.”