Marcus turned at the sound of the familiar voice. His eyes darted over and around the sea of town folks flowing this way and that. He finally spotted John, grinned and worked his way through the throng of people.
"Hey." Marcus and John clasped arms. "Are you ready?"
John grinned and nodded. He was barely an inch shorter than Marcus with wiry red hair and freckled skin. He was built like an ox and ugly as sin, but Marcus was consistently amazed by his ability for attracting the young women. Amazed - but not really shocked. John was a good man with an irresistible sense of humor. And his fighting skills easily matched those of Marcus, and even surpassed him.
"I haven't seen that before." John nodded toward the sword strapped to Marcus' side.
Marcus unsheathed the weapon. "It was my father's." Marcus swung it skillfully in an arc. His voice thickened as he added, "He died with this sword in his hand...fighting in the arena."
John's grin faltered. "I'm sorry."
Clearing his throat, Marcus stuffed the sword back in its sheath. "Thanks. But it was a long time ago."
"What does Eve think about you using it?" John looked at him with one eyebrow raised, a half cocked grin on his face. John knew Eve well.
Marcus laughed and shook his head. "She don't think much of it, that's for sure." He shrugged. "We got into a bit of a fight about it."
"Eve is fiery." John grinned. "But she'll calm down. You know she can't stay mad at you."
Marcus nodded, grinned and started to respond when he noticed two gladiators coming down the street on horseback. Rhonan was in the lead, riding ahead of the other gladiator.
"What is it?" John followed his stare. His face darkened. "Rhonan. What a waste."
Marcus frowned and shot his friend a hard look. "What?"
"You didn't hear?"
"Hear what?" Marcus asked slowly.
John shook his head. "He sold his sword to Nero. Took his seal. Nero owns him now."
A hard frown gouged Marcus' brow. "What the hell are you talking about? Rhonan has never allowed others to dictate his fighting. That doesn't make sense."
John shrugged. "I know. But look who he's riding with."
Marcus glanced at the other gladiator. "Who?"
"That's Nathan. One of Nero's champion fighters." John scowls. "A total prick. He fights dirty. Has no respect for other fighters."
Marcus' frown deepened, cutting grooves across his forehead. He stared at the gladiators. Rhonan owned by Nero? That couldn't be. It couldn't. If this were true...wouldn't Eve have known? She would've surely told him. Wouldn't she?
John and Marcus stepped back as the two gladiators rode by, their horses' hooves clacking hollowly on the stone street. Rhonan shot Marcus a hard look. His eyes jumped quickly to the sword at Marcus' side then back to the younger man's face as he slowed his mount. "Go home." Rhonan spoke low, but his deep, strong voice carried easily to Marcus' ears.
"What?" Marcus frowned.
Rhonan shot a fierce look back at the approaching gladiator, then drilled Marcus with stony eyes. "Do not join in the games today." His hard stare snapped back and forth between Marcus and John. "Both of you...stay out of them."
"Do not discourage the young swordsmen." Nathan chided as he approached behind Rhonan and halted his horse.
Marcus' attention was drawn instantly to the large, discolored knot on the gladiator's left temple. Something or someone had hit him extremely hard in the side of the head quite recently.
"Move on." Rhonan drilled the other gladiator with hard, hateful eyes.
A quick flash of fear swept through Nathan's eyes but vanished as suddenly. He was intimidated by Rhonan, but was clearly too arrogant to back down.
"Give us a show." Nathan directed the request at Marcus and John. "Display your swordsmanship."
"No." Rhonan pulled his mount around so it stood between Nathan and the two younger men. From this angle, Marcus got a clear view of the seal burned into Rhonan's arm.
An unexpected dread settled heavily in his stomach. He wasn't sure why, but it was there, making him feel sick. Why in hell would Rhonan do such a thing? Apparently even he had his price, and Nero had found it. A seed of anger sprouted inside him. He didn't understand why Rhonan's decision to sell out to Nero bothered him so much, but suddenly he was filled with indignation towards the man.
Marcus stepped around Rhonan's large steed defiantly, his face hard and determined as he met Nathan's stare. "We'll give you a show."
He could feel both John's and Rhonan's eyes burning into him. Rhonan swung down from his mount and shoved Marcus back. "What the fuck are you doing?" He growled.
Marcus trembled under the gladiator's sudden fury, but he refused to stand down. "I came here today to join the games and that is what I am going to do."
Rhonan suddenly had a fistful of Marcus's shirt and shoved him hard against the wall. "Go home." Rhonan hissed harshly, his stony face close to Marcus'.
"What are you doing?" Eve's high voice suddenly cut through the afternoon like a piercing dagger thrust through the air.
"Get your hands off him!"
Rhonan's head snapped around and found himself seared by Eve's fiery eyes. Before he could react, she rushed forward and ripped his hand loose from Marcus' shirt. Rhonan stepped back slowly, feeling stunned in her presence. The last time he'd been this close to her, they had been...
His pulse raced as a sudden, unbidden heat coursed through him. Through the haze that was closing in around him - he heard Nathan laugh.
"How lovely." Nathan roared, loud enough to draw attention from bystanders. "The mighty Rhonan commanded by a woman."
Rhonan glanced fiercely at the other gladiator. Clearly he hadn't learned a damn thing from the elbow to the head.
"Don't ever touch my brother again." Eve hissed, standing between him and Marcus.
Marcus' face twisted in anger. "I don't need you to defend me." He spit at his sister, surely embarrassed to have a woman come to his aid. He stormed away.
Eve shot a frustrated look after him then turned her burning eyes on Rhonan again. "Just stay away from me and my brother."
"Eve..." Rhonan started but Eve shook her head and whirled away.
"Just leave us alone." She threw back at him.
Rhonan's pulse throbbed violently in his head. His chest rose and fell rapidly as he watched her moving away from him. His face ached as he clenched his jaw forcefully.
"I'm beginning to understand why you sold your freedom for her." Nathan smirked."Too bad you didn't receive anything in return. You'd think there'd be some gratitude. At least one good fuck."
Rhonan's hands gripped the sword strapped to his side until his wrist and forearm began to throb with pain. "You'd be wise to shut your mouth." Rhonan ground out between clenched teeth. "Before I cut out your tongue."
Mounting up, he nudged the large horse forward. The crowds flowing through the street parted, allowing the massive steed passage down the center. Rhonan sat rigid in the saddle and stared straight ahead as the horse cantered smoothly down the stone street.
Eve had lost sight of Marcus as she fought her way through the throng of townsfolk. Her chest hurt from the ache gripping her so fiercely. She fought the tears burning her eyes, blurring her vision and causing the crowd to swim before her. She hadn't intended on coming to town. But she'd wanted to find Marcus and apologize. But somehow she'd made things worse. Why did Rhonan have to be there? She felt as if she couldn't get away from him. Everywhere she turned - there he was.
As if the thought had materialized into a physical force, the echoing clack of heavy horse hooves against stone filled her head. Her eyes were pulled to the street. Across the top of the festival crowd, she saw Rhonan moving swiftly through the sea of people on the back of the large white steed. His face was tight and hard, his stony eyes looking ahead. He sat atop the big horse with a stiff posture.
An unbidden image flashed through her mind of the first time she'd seen him riding down that same street. His strong body had moved in perfect sync with the horse, his face relaxed, an arrogant smile playing on his lips. She remembered feeling annoyed by the man, and disgusted with the way the girls swooned over him. But watching him now, it was as if all the life and pride had drained out of him. And she was startled to find herself longing to see that arrogant smile on his lips again, his entire persona resonating that irritating self-assurance he'd displayed when he'd first come to her home after she had declined his invitation.
The tears were sliding down her face before she realized they had escaped her eyes. "What happened to you?" She whispered. Her eyes closed, unable to look any longer at the rigid shell of a man he'd become seemingly overnight.
"The answer." A deep, strong masculine voice spoke behind her. "May be more than you're prepared to hear."
Eve spun around, startled, nearly colliding with the thick, muscular chest of the gladiator she'd seen Rhonan talking and laughing with at the celebration. The events of that night swept through her mind on fast forward.
"You're..." Eve breathed out. She didn't know his name.
A strong hand grabbed Marcus' shoulder and he whipped around. John stepped back. "Hold up, brother, it's just me."
"Sorry." Marcus mumbled.
"Are we going to join the games?"
Marcus stared off through the crowd blankly. "Why would Rhonan tell us not to?" He asked quietly. He looked at John. "Why should he take interest in something so trivial?"
John shrugged. "Who knows." He grinned and tapped his head. "As far as I'm concerned, all those gladiators got to have bats in their belfries to go into the arena in the first place."
Marcus shook his head and laughed despite the troubling sensation in his gut.
Drawing his sword, John held the weapon up and cocked his head at Marcus. "To battle?"
Marcus nodded slowly, drew his sword and touched it to John's blade. "To battle." Both men laughed and sheathed their swords and began to weave their way through the crowd.
A woman sidestepped to avoid a couple young boys rushing through the crowd, battling with wooden swords, and collided with Marcus. Marcus caught her quickly as she started to fall and set her on her feet. He could barely see her face from beneath the hooded cloak as she ducked her head in respect.
"Forgive me, sire." She whispered softly.
Marcus touched her chin and lifted her face. As her head slowly raised, a pair of deep green eyes gazed up at him from beneath dark lashes. Fiery red tendrils framed her lovely face. Marcus took an unsteady step back as if she had reached and physically pushed him. His pulse quickened so suddenly he lost his breath.
"No harm done." He breathed.
A gust of wind rushed by and swept the hood off her head, revealing her flowing red hair which caught in the breeze and lifted and floated on the air, exposing her slender neck and an odd X like scar just below her ear. Their eyes held, locked. Marcus' heart beat at the inside of his chest wall. He tried to speak but his throat had closed and his brain was beginning to fog as an unexpected ache coiled in his groin.
"Come on, Marcus." John was suddenly clutching his arm, jerking on him. "You don't want any of that."
The woman immediately dropped her eyes and ducked her head, tugging the hood back up. She turned quickly and fled.
Marcus found his voice and called after her, "Wait!"
John yanked on his arm. "Let her go, Marcus."
Marcus spun on him. "What the hell?" He snapped. "Did you see her?" Marcus turned and looked back in the direction she had hurried away. His voice lowered to a near whisper, "She was so..."
"Marked." John spoke low.
"What?" Marcus faced him again, frowning.
"You didn't see it?" John tapped his neck below his ear. "She was marked." Sympathy flicked through his eyes as he stared at his friend. "Nero brands his warriors...and he marks his whores."
Marcus turned slowly and stared off through the crowd but the woman had been swallowed up. His heart was still pounding against his ribcage. No woman had ever had such an immediate effect on him. Or a lingering one. A tightness gripped his lower abdomen then spread up into his chest, squeezing hard.
He realized he and Eve now had something in common; they both desired what belonged to Nero.