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Faithful (Light in the Empire)

By Carol Ashby

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Chapter 1: Heading Out

Land of the Hermunduri, two days north of Germania Superior, AD 122

Adela felt the daggers as she hung her horse’s bridle on the gatepost and swatted its rump to send it into the corral. When she turned to face the cottage, her father’s new wife spun and stomped inside.
She rolled her eyes. It was going to be another one of those days.
It had only been four months since Mother died. Why had Father been in such a hurry to remarry? He had a son, and Adela would marry soon to give him a son-in-law. She’d told him he should take his time. A chieftain of the Hermunduri could have his pick of the maidens whenever he decided to wed.
But had he listened? Maybe if her brother had spoken, Father might have. All she got was a frown and a flick of a hand to shoo her away.
They weren’t at war, so why marry the sister of another chieftain to seal an alliance? It made no sense. Especially when Hildegard was meaner than a weasel. She would not call that woman Mother, no matter what Father said.
She cringed at the thought of another day in the company of Hildegard’s mousy daughter, Gunda. No Hermunduri girl should jump at her own shadow.
Adela’s gaze flipped over her shoulder when she felt the hand.
Gunda was holding two baskets. “The wild strawberries are ripe. Olga had some this morning, and Mother wants us to go gather some, too.”
“I didn’t see any when I was riding.”
Her stepsister hugged herself as her eyes flicked toward the cottage, then returned to Adela. “But Mother said they were ripe where the stream forks.”
“That far? We won’t be back in time for supper if we go there.”
Gunda rubbed her nose and glanced at the cottage again. “I know, but when Mother says go, I’m not going to argue. Neither should you.”
She held out a basket and gave it a small shake. “Your father already told you to do what Mother says. Do you want her to tell him you wouldn’t go?”
Adela snatched the basket, jerking Gunda toward her when she didn’t let go fast enough. “The sooner we go, the sooner we get back.”
She set a fast pace as they entered the woods. Gunda had to scurry to keep up, but it wasn’t Adela's fault that her stepsister was a scrawny little thing, even though she was thirteen. Hildegard spoiled her precious daughter, and spoiling made a person weak.
Adela squared her shoulders. No one would ever dare call her weak. Father might not value her opinion about remarrying, but she’d heard him brag on her skill with weapons and horses. A daughter fit for a chieftain’s son. That’s what he’d said, and her heart warmed at the thought.
She was nineteen. Within the year, she would marry, and she knew exactly what kind of man she wanted. Tall, handsome, proud, afraid of nothing and no one―a warrior like Father.
Already Father was talking with the other chieftains with sons ready to take a wife. Adela’s lips curved into a satisfied smile. Her marriage couldn’t be soon enough to get her out from under Hildegard’s aggravating control. After she was wed, she could tell that woman what she thought of her. That thought broadened her smile.
“Slow down, Adela.”
Gunda’s whining heightened the anticipation. One more thing she’d leave behind when she married her warrior.
When they reached the glade where the stream forked, Adela’s brow furrowed. Lush, green...but no sign of red.
“I don’t see any ripe strawberries.” She spun on Gunda. “Did Olga pick everything already?” Her lips tightened. “Just like your mother to waste my time like this.”
Gunda turned in a circle as she scanned the surrounding trees. “But Mother said they were here.” Her eyes caught Adela’s, then flitted away. “Maybe we need to look among the deep grass and ferns.” She pointed across the stream. “You look over there. I’ll look on this side.”
Adela jumped the stream and shuffled through the grass, pushing it aside with her foot before each step. No strawberries, not even green ones. Her back was to the stream when she heard hoofbeats behind her.
Then Gunda gasped. Adela spun. A man on a bay horse stood between her and Gunda, but she could see Gunda’s legs under the horse’s belly. She was backing up as the man leaned toward her. He nudged the horse closer and grabbed Gunda’s arm.
Adela trotted to the stream bank and leaped across. “Leave her alone!”
The man turned to face her, and his lips twisted into a sneer as Adela moved closer.
Gunda strained to pull free and started to cry. “No. Don’t do it.”
Adela sprinted toward the horseman as Gunda’s tears turned to sobs. A feral laugh escaped his throat as he shoved Gunda away and focused on her.
Her eyes narrowed as she neared his horse’s head. The man was brawny, and she had no weapon. But she knew horses. She grasped the loose fabric panel that draped the front of her dress and flicked it into his horse’s face.
With a panicky neigh, the horse reared, launching the man into the air. When the flailing hooves returned to earth, Adela was ready. She scooped up the reins, grabbed a handful of mane, and sprang onto its back.
Gunda stood like a statue, eyes enormous and hands over her mouth. Adela held out her hand. “Get up behind me.”
Her stepsister started to move...backward.
The man moaned behind her.
“Gunda, now!”
Hoofbeats...two horses...coming up fast from behind. “Gunda!”
Gunda spun and ran into the trees and up the hill. Adela whirled the horse. Two men were coming straight for her.
“Keep running!” Adela bent low on the horse, drove her heels into its flanks, and hurtled forward...toward their attackers.
She shot between them before they could react. If only they would follow her...Gunda was running toward their home. Perhaps she’d get away.
The pounding hooves behind her promised a chance for her stepsister. Adela urged the horse forward. She reached the edge of the clearing and was forced to slow down as she wove between the trees.
The head of a horse moved up on her right side. Too close, but also close enough. Low branches lay straight ahead. As she pulled her reins to the right, she lay flush with her horse’s neck. She barely cleared, but the tall man beside her didn’t. His yell as the branches swept him from his horse was music to her ears. The trees thickened; the hill grew steeper. Her horse lurched as she pounded her heels into its sides to keep it lunging up the slope.
Hoofbeats behind her...closer...closer...
The front neckline of her dress cut into her throat as a hand grasped the back. The horse leaped forward as her thighs lost their grip. Blue breaks in the green canopy flashed overhead as she was dragged across the horse’s rump.
Then all went black.

A hill-country farm in Germania Superior

As Galen tied his bedroll to the saddle, Astrelo turned his head to watch.
“Ready for an adventure, boy?”
Astrelo’s bridle jingled as he shook his elegant black head.
Galen slapped the stallion’s neck twice. “I’ll take that as a yes.” A quick rub of the star-shaped blaze drew a contented nicker. “Let’s go do some trading.”
As he stepped away from his horse, two small boys dropped the sticks they were poking into the mud puddle and ran to him. He scooped up four-year old Gaius and plunked him on his shoulders. Six-year-old Publius bounced at his side.
“I wish I could go with you, Uncle.”
Galen tousled the boy’s wavy brown hair. “When your mother and father say it’s time.”
He glanced at his sister, Val, as she walked toward him, a sack containing food and a change of clothes slung across her right shoulder and a giggling baby girl on her left hip. “Better if we ask Dec. He’s more likely to say yes sooner.” He put his finger across his lips. “Don’t tell your mother.”
Val reached his side, a smile tugging at the corner of her mouth. “Don’t tell me what?”
Galen swung Gaius to the ground and slapped his bottom. “Run, before she gets an answer out of you.”
The two boys sprinted away, giggling.
Galen took the sack from her. “Should be a good trip. We’ll stop in Borbetomagus first. I already know someone who wants the mare there. Then we’ll head south to Argentorate. Roman officers always have more money than they can spend out here, and the colts should bring top money at the legion fortress.” He bounced his eyebrows. “I might even get a couple of the tribunes into a bidding war, like last time.”
Val pushed a stray lock of hair back from his forehead. He fought the grin. She was always going to see him as her little brother who needed tending.
“My father would be impressed by how good you are at this.”
Galen chuckled. “I learned from masters, watching you and Baldric.”
“I know you’ll only be gone for a week and a half but be careful. I’ll be praying for you.”
“Don’t worry, Val. I’ll have Otto along to advise me.”
Her eye-roll pulled another chuckle from him.
She planted her fist on the hip without a baby. “You know Baldric and I are relying on you to keep Otto out of trouble, not the other way around.”
A grin split Galen’s face. “You can tell Baldric I’ll get a good price for his horses. I’ll also make sure his young stallion comes home in one piece.”
He whistled, and Astrelo trotted over. The sack joined the bedroll at the back of his saddle. As Galen mounted, Val untied the lead rope of the first horse in the string from the corral railing. After he settled into the saddle, she handed it to him.
“May God bless and keep you on the journey.”
Galen nodded once. “He always does. We’ll head down to the river road as soon as Otto brings Baldric’s horses to the village. See you in about ten days.”
He nudged Astrelo into a trot and tossed his sister a backhanded wave as he entered the tree-lined wagon track that led to the village. The sunlight made dancing patterns of light and shade as it filtered through the leafy branches. There could be no better way to start a journey of ten days with his best friend.
Valeria shook her head as she smiled. Her brother was always joking, but he had a good head on his shoulders and a heart that wanted to please God. She’d be praying for his safe return, but he and Otto should be fine.

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