Chapter 4 - Close encounters

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Cornelis

The next time Cornelis opened his eyes, his first thought was that the Roman inside Raghnall's hut had to die. Cornelis had killed three of his fellow soldiers to defend Masha. If he didn't kill the Optio, the Optio would kill him, or make sure he was killed. And everyone who had helped Cornelis survive would meet the same fate.

As soon as he rose to his feet, he created a shadow in the fire-lit room that would have caught anyone's attention. Marcus gave him only a fleeting glance. For some insane reason, the Roman was stirring a stew. Steam rose from the kettle and created fine droplets on his forehead. He wiped them away with his right arm before he resumed his cooking, completely unfazed by the task that brought him here.

"Good morning," he said.

Only when his greeting failed to meet response, Marcus took a step back and abandoned his task. He still clutched the ladle in his left hand. His right hand hovered over the hilt of his sword, but he didn't draw it. And he wouldn't get the chance.

Cornelis jumped forward and slammed Marcus, who was a good deal lighter than himself and completely startled, against the rough wall. Marcus's teeth clattered from the impact and Cornelis pressed both his hands around the Roman's neck next, trying to squeeze the life out of him. He had killed people by snapping their head aside more than once, but the muscles in his left arm protested and he couldn't make the movement forceful enough so he kept his grip firm, trying to strangle instead of breaking bone.

Marcus made two choking sounds before he rammed his fist right into Cornelis's bound shoulder. His muscles cramped and the pain was so intense Cornelis stumbled back. A fierce kick against his left foot almost put him to his knees. He managed to grab the table in front of him, which prevented him from slamming headfirst into the leek and the chopped pork that hadn't yet been added to the stew. He took hold of one of the table legs and whirled around. Marcus had his sword out but he barely avoided the table that was aimed at his head with deadly force. It splintered against the wall behind him.

After that, Cornelis knew he had to focus to avoid the sword that would come at him, but his vision blurred. He had underestimated the youthful soldier. And that could cost him his life. The table leg was all he had left to defend himself with.

"What on earth are both of you DOING?"

Cornelis had hoped Marcus would look behind him as Phyllis's voice sounded from the door. But he had no such luck. The Roman's face was pale and he kept his eyes dead-centre on Cornelis, ready to strike at the slightest movement he made.

"Marcus."

Bonny never yelled. But she strode up and in between them, which put her directly in harm's way.

"Put down the sword."

It was the first order that Cornelis had ever heard her speak, outside the friendly commands she reserved for patients. Bonny turned her back on Marcus, and Cornelis instinctively stepped forward to correct that. Bonny frowned at him before she touched his injured shoulder. The palm of her hand was red and shiny when she drew back.

"Get back here,"

Marcus answered her command with one of his own. Of course. He didn't sheath his sword. He did take one long step sideward and Cornelis knew it was to create an angle between them not blocked by Bonny. Phyllis rushed to Marcus's side, her hand flat against his upper arm as she reached him. He stepped in front of her immediately, shielding her from Cornelis's view.

"I have to redo the bandages. You should have introduced yourself, Marcus."

Marcus's jaw slackened for a moment, before his eyebrows dropped into an angry frown.

"I didn't exactly get the chance," he spoke through tight lips.

Bonny wasn't fazed, but Cornelis imagined she sounded faintly irritated when she spoke again.

"You shouldn't have been here in the first place. Cornelis is Phyllis's patient. Phyllis, why did you..."

Marcus cut her off: "I sent her! To check on you. You were gone for half a day."

"Checking on me is your task. Healing Cornelis is Phyllis's task."

Marcus straightened his back, and Cornelis fought the urge to pounce on him again for all he was worth. Healer. No violence. He repeated the words in his head, but they wouldn't hold forever.

"Yes. Unfortunately that is dangerous. I'm not leaving her alone with him. You shouldn't be alone with him either."

Marcus's words sounded slow, as though pronounced at a child. He too was struggling to keep his calm. For the first time, the Optio's eyes drifted from Cornelis to Bonny, who kept her hand against Cornelis's shoulder, the air between the two of them bright with pale light. Cornelis could feel Bonny's powers influence both the pain and his mind. Unlike a potion, the pale light cleared his head rather than that it numbed his thoughts, lifting the fury induced red daze that kept pulsing through his head in tune with his heart.

"Neither should you, apparently," Phyllis muttered, her hand lifted to reveal Marcus's bruised neck.

Bonny turned to look at the seething soldier. She met his dark eyes without concern, and for a moment, hovered her hands at him to study his injuries. Marcus still didn't put his sword away, but he did lower it.

"Marcus came with us from Mesmer," Bonny explained. There is a patrol from their Centuria with us whenever we go on a healing mission. To protect us on the road."

Bonny paused. She looked at Marcus, but her words were clearly directed at Cornelis himself.

"And sometimes, during the mission as well. I should have told him that wasn't necessary here. My apologies."

Cornelis agreed with that. He could have done with no soldiers around his bed, anytime. Whether Bonny's advice would have accomplished that was another matter. He finally allowed himself to study the young man.

Marcus wasn't heavily built, but his muscles were well-defined and he was slender rather than skinny. His upper arms betrayed he wasn't an administrator, though he certainly sounded like one.

And he was handsome. It irritated Cornelis to notice, but in truth, he had before. He had just banished the notion from his mind, which was useful when you intended to kill someone. It irritated him even more that he noticed when Marcus couldn't possibly be mistaken for anything but what he was: a Roman soldier.

They came in all shapes and sizes, but Marcus had the typical warmer skin tone, a touch of an olive tan still lingering even after the long winter. His black curls would grow wild if they were allowed to get an inch longer, already starting their rebellion on the top of his head, where they were longer and inched towards his forehead. They framed a symmetrical face with high cheekbones and a sharp jaw. His eyes were brown, so dark his pupils had been hard to distinguish in the dimly-lit hut, even up close. Cornelis knew that now.

Marcus had had the time to push a sword between his ribs. He knew that too.

Which meant that at the moment, he took their 'healing mission' rather seriously.

He hadn't tried to kill Cornelis. For now.

Marcus obviously believed Bonny was in danger. Maybe her presence worked on him too, because after several drawn out moments, he finally sheathed his sword.

"If you say so. But Phyllis comes with me."

Marcus turned, and he placed one hand against Phyllis's back, urging her forward. While he steered her outside Cornelis heard her speak:

"I can't leave you alone for a minute, can I?"

"Believe me, it could have been worse."

That was true. It should have been worse. Then Cornelis heard Marcus give another order.

"Stay at the door. And stay out, unless miss Bonny asks you not to. Florius and Decius will stand guard next."

Cornelis felt his insides boil up again.

"Exactly how large is that patrol you were talking about?"



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