The Druids of Avalon | Beyond the Books Short Stories
REFUGE | AWAKENING | CARE | GROWN | REJECTION
These five short stories take place in the years before the Druids of Avalon series begins.
They were an odd pair, sprawled as they were in the dirt near the fountain. A large, dark-haired lad and a very young, very chubby lass with hair like dancing flame. The two hardly looked like siblings, despite the father they shared.
Rhys paused outside the entry to the Roman farm estate, watching. The iron gates stood open, as was usual from dawn to dusk. The Aquila farm was hardly more than a stone's throw from the Roman fortress town of Isca Silurum. Only the most brazen brigand would venture in broad daylight onto the lands of a Roman citizen so close to the Second Legion's home. Rhys could hardly believe the sprawling villa inside the gates was home to a single family. The structure could easily house an entire Celt village.
The Roman boy sitting in the garden was Rhys's own age--fourteen winters. Intent on scratching a picture in the dirt with a sharp stick, he did not lift his dark head. He was not as tall as Rhys, who was taller even than most grown men. But the Roman boy was heavier, with a man's solid musculature already showing on his young frame. Rhys, in contrast, was thin and gangly as a sapling.
The lad had his features from his Roman father, a retired Legionary commander. He possessed thick, curly hair the color of rich soil, dark eyes to match, and a proud, prominent nose. Rhys had no trouble at all imagining him a few years older, wearing armor and a crested helmet, and a sharp, lethal gladius sheathed at his belt. The thought brought a shudder of dread and revulsion, even though Rhys knew young Marcus Aquila no desire to follow in his father's footsteps and seek a military career.
In truth, Rhys had no reason to be wary. Marcus had been nothing but open and friendly during Rhys's last visit. And yet, Rhys could not quite bring himself to trust the lad. He was Roman. And Rhys did not like Romans.
But the little lass...she was half Roman, was she not? She did not look it at all. Her shock of wild red hair, and her sky-blue eyes, proclaimed her northlands heritage. Her skin was fair, almost as fair as Rhys's, but far more freckled. She was a round, happy child of three or four winters.
She clapped her hands, giggling at her brother's impromptu drawings. A wave of sorrow, almost choking in its intensity, swept through Rhys's chest. How long would the little lass's innocent joy continue? Already, her aura had changed from the rainbow hues of infancy to a steady white glow. The lass was a Druid Seer, like Rhys's grandfather, Cyric.
It was a burden Rhys would not wish on anyone.
The little lass...Breena...was the reason Rhys was presently hovering outside the gates of the Aquila farmstead. Cyric had banished Rhys with a mostly vague assignment to find those with latent Druid magic. But in one instruction, Rhys's grandfather had been very specific. Seer magic was rare. Cyric had Seen the white aura of this small red-haired lass in one of his own visions. He'd charged Rhys with the task of bringing her to Avalon to foster.
Rhys did not see how such a feat was to be accomplished. Druidry was illegal under Roman law. Breena's father, Lucius Aquila, had once fought a mad Druid! The retired commander remained hostile to magic; Rhys did not dare to declare his identity as a Druid to the man's face.
What was more, the Aquila family was an uncommonly close one. Breena was the only child of Lucius and his Celtic wife, Rhiannon. Rhys could not imagine how the pair might be induced to part with their beloved daughter under any circumstances. How could any man--or boy--dare suggest Breena leave her home to foster with an illegal Druid community situated on an island in the middle of a wilderness swamp? He would likely meet the razor-sharp edge of Lucius Aquila's Legionary sword.
It was certain Rhys would not be bringing the little lass home with him. Nay, he amended on a hot rush of anger--not home. Avalon was no longer his home. If he kept thinking of it as such, sheer panic--and suffocating loneliness--would soon drive him mad.
If the weather did not kill him first. Harvest time was almost done. Winter was coming. The thought filled him with true despair. Rhys had yet to find his first initiate for Avalon. He was tired, and ragged, and losing hope. Once the weather turned, things could only get worse.
Rhys was not sure how he would survive the dark of the year. It would serve Cyric right if Rhys died, slowly and painfully, his body falling unburied in some frozen ditch. Perhaps hungry wolves would maul his sorry carcass. And if that happened, he thought savagely, he hoped his grandfather was forced to witness every agonizing moment in one of his cursed visions.
"Look, Marcus!" The little lass's voice pulled Rhys from his miserable musings. "It's that funny Celtic boy again. The one who came at planting time with his harp."
Marcus Aquila's head came up. "The minstrel, you mean?" He peered toward the gate. Rhys gripped the strap on his pack and stood perfectly still. "Yes, Bug, I believe you're right."
They spoke in Latin, a tongue in which Rhys, by hard necessity, had become quite fluent. But he could not bring himself to like its harsh, flat vowels, nor its unyielding precision. The language was far too like to the people who spoke it.
But Marcus Aquila's greeting was not harsh, nor precise. In fact, as the boy jumped to his feet, he put Rhys in mind of a big, friendly dog.
"Salve!" he called in Latin, waving energetically. Then, in barely accented Celtic, "Well come and well met! Rhys, isn't it? Come in! Are you here to give us another song or two? I do hope so. Mother will be very pleased."
"I have." Rhys ventured a step or two through the gates as Marcus approached.
His sister, suddenly shy--but burning with curiosity all the same--had taken refuge behind her brother's legs. As Marcus halted in front of Rhys, she peeked around Marcus's thigh, blue eyes wide.
"Well met, minstrel boy."
He smiled down at her. "And to you as well, lass."
Emboldened, she sidled further into view, one arm anchored firmly on her brother's leg. Marcus laughed and placed his hand on her head. "Nothing to fear, Bug."
She eyed Rhys's pack. "Is your harp in there?"
He crouched down to her level. "Indeed it is."
"Can I see it?"
"Breena," her brother chided. "That is rude. Rhys is our guest."
Her lower lip jutted out. "May I see it, then?"
Rhys laughed. He looked up, and quite by accident exchanged a rueful glance with Marcus. A glance, he realized with some surprise, that felt almost like one between good friends.
"I should not like to unwrap my harp here in the yard," he told Breena. "The dust will sour the strings, and they will not sing so sweetly. But later, inside, I will show it to you. And," he added, reaching out to tweak one of her red curls, "if you are very good, I will even let you pluck a note or two for yourself."
Her round little face lit with joy, and her aura shone like the moon. "Will you?" she exclaimed. "Truly?"
"I will," said Rhys, and the vow felt like the most solemn of promises.
Breena let go of her brother's leg and clapped her hands. Then, without warning, she pitched forward into Rhys's arms and planted a sloppy kiss on his cheek.
The ice that Rhys had packed so carefully around his heart during the long, lonely summer months began to thaw.
"Look, Rhys! Look what I found!"
Rhys had been lying in the tall grass at the edge of the orchard, listening to the hum of bees. The summer sun washed him in contentment. He opened one eye to see Breena above him, bouncing from foot to foot. She grinned down at him, showing the wide gap where her two front teeth should have been. She looked more like a Celtic street urchin than a Roman patrician's daughter. Her clothes and face were dirty. Her wild blaze of red hair had fled its braid, to curl and tumble in happy freedom about her shoulders.
She was an appealing child, with a sunny disposition born of the love and security that surrounded her. Whenever Rhys visited the Aquila farm, he could not help but be drawn into her exuberance. He felt it now. Breena was near to bursting with excitement. Her white aura danced.
"Look!" She thrust something toward him.
He sat up and looked. It was a tarnished silver figurine. An animal, he thought, but it was difficult to say what kind. The toy had to be one of Marcus's earliest attempts at silversmithing.
"A dog?" he guessed.
"Not any dog," she said, dropping down on the grass beside him. "This is Hercules."
"Ah. I did not realize the great hero was canine."
She giggled. "Not that Hercules, silly. This one was a dog. Marcus found him when he first came to Britain. Marcus told me that Hercules helped mother and father fall in love."
"The he was a noble hero indeed," Rhys said. "For without him, you would not have come to be."
Her brows shot up. "Why, that's true, isn't it? I'm doubly glad, then, that I found him at last."
"Was he lost?"
"For months! Since last autumn. I looked everywhere for him. I'd given up hope of finding him."
"And then you remembered where you had lost him, after all this time?"
"No." A frown creased her young brow. "I did not remember. Not exactly. I...I saw."
A chill descended on the summer morning. "Saw?" Rhys asked intently. "Saw, how?"
All Breena's laughter had fled. "I'm...not sure. I was thinking about Hercules, and where he might be. I closed my eyes and wished very hard. And he appeared! I saw him lying by the old well, half covered by brown leaves and dead grass. It looked like he was right in front of me! But I was nowhere near the well. And then I blinked, and he was gone. And my head ached something terrible."
"I imagine it did," Rhys said quietly.
"But I don't care! Because when I ran to the well, there was Hercules, just as I'd seen in my head." She held up the figurine, and her smile returned. "Isn't that wonderful?"
"Aye," he murmured. "Wonderful."
And more frightening than Breena knew.
a version of this scene appears in Silver Silence
Rhys avoided the Aquila bathhouse, choosing instead to wash in the forest stream just beyond the farm's barley fields. He had not relished the prospect of submerging his mangled back in a steaming hot bath. The thought of answering Marcus's questions appealed even less.
He should not have come to the Aquila farm. He should have taken refuge on Avalon after his escape from the Roman army prison. But he had not. He told himself he'd dragged his battered body to Lucius Aquila's gate because it was closer than Avalon. That was a lie. He'd come because he'd begun to think of the Roman farm as home, and the Aquilas as his family.
Still, he had not shown them his back. Only slaves and criminals endured the flagellum. He was not a slave, and he had no wish to explain the crime that had led to his arrest. He had said only that he had been ill. That was true enough.
The morning air was brisk. He stripped off his shirt, but left his breeches on. The scabs on his back itched terribly; he wished he could apply a salve, but the wounds were too difficult to reach on his own.
Cold water would help. The first shock on his healing skin brought a gasp. A moment later, all he felt was blessed relief. He waded to the deepest part of the stream. Crouching, he let the water run over his scabs.
It was too cold to stay there for long. Reluctantly, he dunked his head, scrubbing his hair with clean grit scooped from the streambed. Standing, he shook like a dog. And froze when he heard the small, feminine cry behind him.
He turned slowly. She stood on the shore, her herb basked anchored to one hip. Her free hand covered her mouth; above it, her blue eyes were wide with shock. Thanks be to all the gods in Annwyn he had not shed his breeches.
"Breena," he said unsteadily. "I did not know you were here."
The color had leeched from her face, making her freckles stand out like dark pebbles on white sand. Her dress was old, her feet bare. She looked more like a Celt wood sprite than a half-Roman girl of ten winters.
"Rhys," she whispered. "Your...your back. What happened?"
He absolutely did not want to answer. He also knew there was no escape from Breena's curiosity. With a sigh, he waded to the shore. He bent to retrieve his shirt while he considered how much of the truth he could safely tell her.
He decided to start with the obvious. "I was flogged."
"With a flagellum. You were...arrested?" She swallowed. "Condemned to die?"
She was far too intelligent for someone so young, Rhys thought wryly. He shrugged into his shirt, trying not to wince as the fabric slid over his scabs. "Aye."
"That is why you lost your harp," she said. She had been most distressed when he'd arrived without it. He'd told the Aquilas only that it had been stolen. Again, true enough.
"I'll make another one," he said. And quickly, too, for without a harp to play, he did not eat.
"Why...why did they arrest you? Was it a mistake?"
Aye, it was a mistake, but not in the way she meant. He'd been beyond careless in casting magic too close to the Roman fortress at Londinium. A soldier had seen Rhys emerge from an illusion and had immediately sent up a cry. Scant moments later, Rhys had found himself arrested and charged with Druidry. Three brawny soldiers dragged him before their centurion, who had pronounced Rhys's sentence with little ceremony. Forty lashes less one, and burning at the stake at dawn.
The flagellum was in itself an instrument of death. Multiple strips of leather, the ends tied with bits of metal and broken glass, flayed skin from muscle with ruthless efficiency. Rhys had borne only the first few blows in silence. After that, his screams had attracted a crowd.
But he could not tell Breena any of that.
"Aye," he said. "A mistake."
"And when they discovered their error, they let you go?"
A muscle in his jaw twitched. He'd gotten out of the mess the same way he'd gotten into it--with illusion. When the soldiers had opened his cage at dawn, he'd been simply--not there. Hidden by magic, he'd crawled away during the confusion of their search. But, again, he could not tell Breena. Not without admitting he was Druid. The Aquila family did not know of his magic.
"Roman Legionary soldiers do not admit their mistakes," he said. His tone was harsher than he intended. "I managed to escape before they could kill me."
"Oh!" Her voice cracked. She looked down, and toed at the muddy stream bank. "I...I am sorry...that the...Legionaries treated you so cruelly."
He cursed himself as a heartless brute. "I mean no disrespect to your father," he said quietly. "He is a Legionary I am proud to count as a friend."
She raised her head. "It must have hurt," she said. "So badly." Her blue eyes filled with tears. For him.
The back of his throat hurt. In the days following his escape, he'd lain in the forest, burning with fever, wondering if he would survive. He'd craved a word of sympathy; there had been none. He'd told himself it did not matter.
He had lied.
"It did hurt," he admitted.
"Does it still?"
"Nay. It...itches. Fiercely."
"Oh!" She bent her head, sifting through her basket. "I have plantain. And I saw more, just upstream. I'll make a cold poultice. That should help." She pointed to a flat rock. "Sit down over there, and take off your shirt. I'll be back in a trice."
She smiled through her tears and scampered away. Rhys watched her go, a smile touching his lips. The little lass was as practical as she was good-hearted and impulsive. Slowly, he sat on the rock and pulled his shirt over his head.
She returned with a great handful of broad green leaves, which she wet in the stream and crushed between two flat rocks. He hunched forward; she knelt behind him. With great care, she spread the leaves over his back. As she'd predicted, the itching soon subsided.
His heart healed as well.
A full year had passed since Rhys had last visited the Aquila farm. A year in which he'd put more miles behind him than he cared to count. He had never stayed away this long before.
The garden was awash in spring blooms, but the red of the roses was not half so beautiful as the color of Breena's hair. Gazing upon her, cutting roses in the garden, he was aware of a leaden weight lifting from his shoulders.
A shaggy black dog bounded toward Rhys, tail wagging. The stable lad grinned when as Rhys passed. The stable master nodded.
"Hello, Bug!" he called.
She jumped up so quickly, her basket of blooms upset. Her smile shone like the sun; her Seer's aura glowed brightly. He dropped his pack and opened his arms.
She ran into them. "Rhys! Is it really you at last? It's been so long!"
"Aye, too long." He picked her up and spun her about, as he'd done a thousand times before. But this time, it felt different. Breena was a bit heavier than he remembered. And rounded in places a young girl had no right to be.
Abruptly, he released her.
She did not take offense. "Where have you been?" she demanded. "Why did you stay away so long? I was so worried. But Marcus only laughed at me and told me you were fine."
"I meant to return sooner," Rhys said unsteadily. "But winter caught me north of Hadrian's great Wall."
Her blue eyes went round. "North of the Wall! In Caledonia? What an adventure. I cannot wait to hear all of it."
In her excitement, she sounded just like the little lass he'd known for years. Cheerful, exuberant, quick with wit and childish awe. Aye, his ears could discern no change in her. But his hands, and his eyes...
His gaze dropped, and his breathing hitched. Last spring, she'd had but two tiny bumps on her chest. Now she possessed a woman's breasts, round and full, straining against the fabric of a blouse that should have long since been handed down to a younger female servant. His eyes devoured the glimpse of deep cleavage showing at the garment's neckline.
Dear gods in Annwyn. How could she have grown up so quickly? She'd barely passed her thirteenth winter.
His head jerked up, his face flooding with heat. "Aye, lass?"
"I said, did you encounter any blue-skinned Picts in Caledonia?"
"Oh, aye," he said, distracted. "But the blue is only woad paint, you know. And they only cover their faces with it when they are headed to battle."
She gasped. "You saw a battle?"
Somehow, his eyes had dropped to her chest again. He became aware of an uncomfortable feeling weighting his loins. When her soft fingers gripped the bare skin of his forearm, he went hard as a log.
Shame rushed in crimson heat to his face. Dear gods! He could not react this way to Breena. She was just a child. He jerked his arm away.
Startled eyes, bluer than the sky, met his. "Rhys, is something wrong? Are you feeling ill?"
He forced a grin, and--because he could not keep himself from touching her--tweaked her nose. "Not at all, Bug. I am just a bit weary from the road, is all."
"Oh! And you must be hungry as well. Where are my manners? Mother will have my head for being so rude. You must come inside, at once."
"A fine idea." He grabbed his pack from the ground. "Where is Marcus?"
"Oh, in the smithy, most likely." She took his arm.
His jaw clenched. "Your flowers," he said through gritted teeth. "They will die if you leave them scattered in the dirt."
"Oh!" She dropped his arm and went to gather the fallen blooms.
Rhys exhaled slowly, and did not move to help her. When she returned, he forced himself to keep three paces between them. He tried desperately not to notice the innocent sway of Breena's too-womanly hips as he followed her into the house.
a version of this scene appears in Deep Magic
"Lie down," Breena breathed.
"That is not a good idea," Rhys replied shakily.
"You're wrong." Her voice dipped low. "And I think it's time I showed just you how wrong you are." Her lips touched his neck, just below his ear.
Pure lust spiraled through his body. Her teeth, when they caught his earlobe and nibbled, sent a rush of fire to his groin. And when her tongue swirled into the shell of his ear...
His mind reeled with shock as she licked a wet path along his jaw. She shifted onto his lap and entwined her arms around his neck. Rhys was stunned. Paralyzed. If the entire Second Legion had chosen that instant to pound down the door, demanding his head on a spear, he could not have moved.
She brought a heady breathlessness to his name. His body hardened. He wanted her, he could not deny it. But--by all the gods in Annwyn! He could not take her. She was only a girl.
Wrenching his mouth from hers, he gripped her shoulders and pushed her back. Blue eyes, filled with adulation he absolutely did not deserve, blinked up at him.
"Breena." He could hardly breathe, his throat was too tight. "What is this?"
"I love you, Rhys! There. I've said it."
Gods. "You do not mean that."
"Oh, but I do! I have always loved you!"
"Aye, Bree, but not like this. You love me as a sister loves a brother. Like you love Marcus."
"No." She shook her head for emphasis. "Never like that. Not even when I was small. I always knew you were different. That you would marry me someday."
"You cannot be serious." A note of desperation crept into his voice. "It cannot be like that between us. I am fond of you, 'tis true--"
"Fond? Is that what you call it? Odd, it felt more like--"
He launched himself off the bed and fled to the other side of the room. Several beats of his heart passed, during which he fought to arrange his features into what he hoped was an expression of amused condescension.
When he thought he could trust himself, he pivoted. "What could you be thinking, Breena, to shame yourself so?"
"I...I thought you'd be pleased--"
"Pleased that you would throw yourself at me?"
"You were pleased! At first. You wanted me."
"Breena, any man would respond so, to any woman. It means nothing. When you are grown, you will understand."
Her chin came up. "I am grown. I am nearly fifteen. Many girls my age are already married!"
"You know as well as I do that your father will not allow you to marry for several years yet."
"He would not object to you, Rhys. I've loved you forever, and I would make you a good wife."
He felt a tugging sensation in the vicinity of his heart. He ignored it. "Put that fantasy out of your head. I am not for you. I am too old."
"You are only five-and-twenty!"
"And you are fourteen, and like a little sister to me."
She scowled. "You wouldn't kiss a sister the way you just kissed me."
He forced a chuckle, because he knew she hated to be laughed at. "Do you really imagine I want a child in my bed?"
"I am not a child!"
"You are. You dream of marrying me because I'm familiar. Not because you love me."
"That is not true! I do love you!"
"Well, I do not love you. Not in that way."
He held up a hand. "Stop, lass. Before you shame yourself even more."
Her beautiful eyes filled with tears. "You...truly do not want me?"
"As a wife? Nay, I do not. And I never will."
© Copyright 2017 by Joy Nash. All Rights Reserved.