tagChain StoriesTalisman Ch. 1: Tallus Hostilus Ursus

Talisman Ch. 1: Tallus Hostilus Ursus


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He slid a palm over a smooth stone shaped like a woman’s rear. His fingers slipped into the crack and tested the drying mortar. He tensed, shoving into the rock, but felt no give to it. Stepping away, he judged the angle of the wall to be true. He couldn’t keep himself from laying his hands on the stone again. He traced his fingers over the newly created part and stared down the rolling length of wall. It was real, tactile. It was solid and strong. Nothing could breech it. The sense of urgency to complete this wall was briefly replaced with the relief that it existed.

“A good day’s work. Dismiss the men, salarius.”

He ignored the salarius, a salaried non-commissioned officer, dismissing the men in favor of their completed efforts. Their mad rush to an evening's libation at the fort didn't distract him.

Some called it folly. There were whisperings that Hadrian had lost his nerve against the Celtic barbarians. Tallus knew, however, that they were wrong. There was nothing so important as this wall.

“Praefectus Ursus.”

Glaring, he turned on the man who dared interrupt him. His clerk, an immune, scurried up the hill toward him. Paullus was innured to his moods, the immune had been with him since he'd left Rome.

“Praefectus, there is a messenger waiting in your quarters. He has come directly from Rome.”

“From Rome? What does Rome want with us?”

“I don’t know, but he says that he has come from Caesar.”

Caesar? Here?“ Tallus pivoted, his red cloak snapping behind him. Another thought, this one more disturbing, struck him. “Where is Brigid?”

“Ah, she hasn’t returned from the Brigantes camp yet. Do you wish me to send the guard for her?”

“No.” He strode toward his quarters, his mind racing. What would Caesar want with the Sixth Victrix?

“Sir. There is something you should know.”

“What is it, Paullus?”

“The messenger, sir. It’s Gaius.”

Tallus froze for a moment, shock icing his nerves. No. It couldn’t be that.

The braziers in his rooms had already been attended to. His evening meal was laid among the papers of his desk, enough for two men, and none of the servants were in sight. He cast an eye toward his bedroom, expecting to hear a fiery demand from Brigid, but she was mercifully absent. She was nagging enough without being privy to this. Gaius was leaning against the hearth, brooding into the fire.

Tallus paused a moment, then ignored the younger man and crossed to his desk. He poured himself a hefty measure of wine and gnawed on his bread.

“Tallus Hostilus Ursus.” The voice was soft and full of hostility. “Legendary Praefectus of the Legio Sextae Victrix. Conqueror of the Germanics and builder of the great wall.”

He took a sip of wine and narrowed his eyes.

“No where in your pedigree does it mention father.”

“No, it doesn’t.”

Gaius glanced over his shoulder for a moment, his dark eyes shining with hatred in the firelight. “You are quite the warrior, Ursus.”

“You didn’t come here to compliment me on my fighting skill.”

“Of course not. I came to see what a coward looks like.”

Tallus surged to his feet, his hand clamping in the hilt of his sword. The cords on his neck stood out as he forced himself to remain where he was. “I am no coward, boy.”

“My father was fat and slow. Yet you refused to fight him.”

“I was exiled to the Victrix and well you know it.”

“You refused to stay and fight. You let a fat Bacchanalian defeat you without even a whimper.”

Tallus hissed a curse under his breath. He should have expected this. “If that is what you wish to believe, then so be it.”

Gaius stormed away from the hearth. “What else am I to believe? The man never let me forget that I wasn’t his, that I wasn’t ever his son.”

“What else did he tell you?”

“Nothing. He would tell me nothing. His secretary told me last winter. I had to find out that my real father was alive and well. That he was a great warrior. That he had left before I was born and never looked back.”

Tallus sat down and sighed. “What did your mother tell you?”

“She finally told me the truth, old man. She finally told me that you left Rome when she told you that she was pregnant and that you never returned.”

“That bitch!“ Tallus wanted to put his fist through the desk. It had been more than twenty years and still the betrayal felt as new as if it had just happened.

The blow took him by surprise and his head rocked to the side under the force of it. His body reacted with battle hardened instinct and years of muscle honed by fighting. He sent Gaius flying across the room. His hand went again to the hilt of his sword again, but only the sheer force of will kept him from using it.

Gaius picked himself off the floor slowly. He shook his head and rubbed his jaw, new respect dawning in his eyes.

“If you have nothing further to say, boy, get out.”

“Hadrian is dead.”

“I knew that.”

“Antonius Caesar has decided that Hadrian’s Wall is not necessary. The Sixth is to move to the river these savages call Clyde.”


Gaius bared his teeth in a mocking grin. “Oh yes. Maybe you’ll have the decency to get yourself killed in glorious battle for the empire. Father.

“Is that all?” Tallus rubbed his temples and felt every one of his years beating on him. Was there never any respite?

The boy’s smirk faded, replaced with a momentary fragile confusion, and then his expression hardened again. “The orders are on your desk, Praefectus.”

Gaius swept through the door and the long-cherished fantasy of a joyful reunion of father and son finally died a short and painful death. Tallus had thought the betrayal of his long ago lover was the worst thing he would ever endure. This was much worse. He put his palms to his stinging eyes and tried to gather his thoughts.

“I did not know you had a son, Beithir.”

He jerked, surprised for the second time that night. Brigid leaned against the threshold to his sleeping area. He turned his attention to the paper on his desk. Carefully, he broke the seal and unrolled it. The standard greetings gave way to the specifics. The Sixth were to leave behind a small contingent to guard their bastion at Eboracum and move north to the river Clyde to entrench. There work on a new wall would commence. Hadrian’s Wall was to be abandoned.

He ignored the burning knot in his chest and opened a piece of fresh parchment.


He dipped his stylus into the inkpot.

“I will not be ignored, Roman.”

He wanted to shred the missive from Rome. Perhaps destroy his desk. He felt as if he could single-handedly take all of Britannia. The white of her linen gown nudged into his peripheral vision. His guts roiled with mingled rage and something he couldn’t identify. His stylus skittered across the parchment.


He refused to remove his attention from his work.

She twined her fingers in his hair and jerked his head back. Her furious eyes clashed with his, making it all that more difficult to keep from hurting her. “I asked you a question, Roman. I expect an answer.”

“I owe you nothing. Begone, I have work to do.”

“Nothing! I am entitled to--”

“You’re my whore, Brigid. You’re entitled to my cock and nothing else. Leave.”


Unlike his son, Brigid hit like a seasoned warrior. Her fist, unexpected as it was, nearly knocked him out of his chair.

“I am no man’s whore!” Her bellow echoed through the compound.

He caught the trailing edge of her fiery red hair and twisted his fist into it. He kicked the chair back and dragged her into the other room. She grabbed his arm, kicking at his legs. He threw her bodily onto his bed and ripped off his cloak. She bounced up, fists swinging. He ducked one, caught the other on his upper arm, and tore her gown. Legs flying, she fell onto her back with an angry grunt. He planted a hand on her chest and jerked at the stays to his armor. Screaming incoherently, she kicked at him, glancing a few blows off his thighs and one to his belly. By the gods, he’d forgotten how strong she was. She bared her teeth and went for his arm in an echo of their first meeting. This time he didn’t slap her as he had then.

Instead, he pinned her down with his body and crushed her mouth with his. She bit at him, beating at his back and shoulders with her fists. He ignored them and forced her legs apart. He shredded the cloth that stood in his way and pressed his cock to her. She curved her fingers into claws and went for his eyes. Grabbing her wrists, he shoved them above her head and thrust himself heavily into her. She trashed under him, bucking like a wild horse.

He penetrated her fully, uncaring of his leather armor and her deceptively delicate skin. The throbbing of his heart was as furious as the heat in her tight sex. She jerked an arm free and slammed her fist into his ear. The pain rang through his head and he reared up, roaring. She glared at him, her eyes as enraged as he felt. If he put himself close enough she would sink her teeth into him. He pounded into her, his cock ready to explode. If he could do nothing else, he would master her. Break her.

Every muscle in his body tensed under the pressure of forcing his will on her. She quit fighting him then. Her body relaxed, accepting him on top of her. Her eyes, cold as the lights in the far northern sky, finally closed. He shuddered, feeling the power coursing through him to his sac, and emptied his seed into her.

The aftermath of orgasm brought with it merciless conscience.

Brigid turned her head away from him, denying him as much as was possible considering that they were joined. His cock shriveled and he slowly disengaged from her. He righted his armor and tried to think of what to say, but nothing came to mind. Usually Brigid spoke enough for the both of them while they lay curled together until Somnus took them. This time she didn’t move.

Gently, he arranged the ruined linen around her legs. A pent up breath exploded from her and she sucked in a new one, her body shuddering under the force of restraint. He tugged on her chin until he could see her unnaturally pale face. Her reddish lashes were dusted with diamond clear tears while her jaw clenched under his fingers. He let her go to see her jerk her face away from him. She quivered, swallowing another long, shuddery breath. It was like a fist to his gut.

“Brigid . . .”

She twisted onto her side, giving him her back, and curled into a ball. A whimper escaped her tightly sealed lips. The odd thought struck him. She never cried like the women he knew. They never seemed to mind if he witnessed it; they seemed to relish his guilt. Brigid never wanted him there. He opened his mouth to say something, but nothing came to mind. He snapped his cloak in place and left her instead.

He went to his wall. The wall had never betrayed him, had never been betrayed by him, had never been exposed to emotion enough to choke a man. The wall simply stood, a bastion against the insane forces of an enemy that never fought with honor. Headhunters and assassins, they hid in the trees and attacked the unsuspecting counting any death as an honorable one. This wall kept them at bay, secured his men from sneak attacks, and preserved a measure of peace. He touched the cool stone and waited for the solace it always brought.

There was none. Nothing but abandonment and betrayal. His, hers, the wall’s.

With a curse, he stormed toward the fort. He skirted the barracks and stomped past the armory. The men had erected a temple to Mars, one to Jupiter, and one to Venus. He stopped at that one. Venus? He hadn’t been informed of this temple. It wasn’t much, just a statue of Venus set into a niche in the outer wall of the fort. There was an awning for cover and a fire next to her feet. His mind flashed to a brief picture of Brigid curled up in his bed, weeping. Rather than move on, he stepped into the tiny temple.

Years ago he had walked into the majestic temple of Venus in Rome. It had been full of clean columns, fountains, and people. The central statue had been carved of the purest marble and featured a larger than life Goddess. This one had a crude wooden statue, one candle, and woven grass mat for the supplicant. Then he had prayed for a burning love to last forever. Now, he didn’t quite know what he was doing. He thought again of Brigid.

“Do you wish a charm to find a lady’s favor, centurion?” The interloper stepped into the ring of candlelight and placed a small bowl of oil next to the Goddess’s feet. He could see nothing but dark robes and black hair.

“Who are you?”

“I tend this temple to the Goddess. There is a need for love even here at the ends of the earth.”

“You are a Roman?”

“I am sworn to the Goddess. Perhaps you have chosen her and would like a token to get your lady love’s regard?”

“There is nothing that will return her regard.”

“The Goddess may grant you a reprieve. All you must do is ask.”

“This is nonsense.” He shook his head to clear it. He was a warrior, not some lovestruck swain. “The only God there is for me is Mars. Under him I find my destiny.”

“Destiny is it, Ursus? You have spent too much time attempting to create your own destiny. Fate comes from the Gods, not from machinations of man.”

“Machinations. You know nothing of machinations. A man’s destiny is found in his sword arm and in his orders.”

The woman dug around in her robes a moment then pressed something warm into his hand. “Take this, then, warrior. Where ever your orders lead you, may the Goddess protect you as she can.”

He caught her hand. “I don’t need this.”

“Perhaps not, but there are those of us who rely on your strength to keep us safe. If not for yourself, then take it for the ones who need you.” She backed a step, into the shadows. “You don’t come round often enough, centurion. The Goddess is always pleased to see you.”

He squeezed the thing in his hand and stared at the darkness the priestess had vanished into. He grunted and looked at the wooden Goddess of Love before inspecting her token.

A warm ivory medallion covered a small part of his palm. It was a clear piece of ivory, vaguely colored with age. A female form that he didn’t recognize winked at him. An incarnation of Venus, perhaps, but not like any he’d ever seen. Her eyes were alien and so was her dress. The gold chain spilled along his fingers. He’d never seen the like; it had no links, only woven gold like fine linen. He lifted the necklace to set it onto the shelf by the statue’s feet, but didn’t. Perhaps he could give it to Brigid.


He twisted the pendant in his palm. There was only one thing she wanted from him. It wasn’t a bauble from a street priestess. He looked off in the direction of his wall. He had sworn to her that he’d never give it to her, what she craved. He slipped the chain over his neck in resignation. Now he would.

She was still in his bed when he returned. Her torn gown had been replaced with a fresh one, the one he’d ruined still smoldered in the brazier. Asleep she looked like one of Vesta’s virgins. Pure and innocent. There had been times when he’d done nothing but watch her sleep and found it peaceful. Awake she was anything but. The fire that burnished her hair golden red burned through everything she did.

Guilt sliced through him and he couldn’t put it off.


He poured himself a measure of wine.

“Brigid, wake up.”

“Go away, Roman. I have suffered you enough for one night.” She rolled over and snuggled into the blankets.

“Get up, woman. I have a gift for you.”

“I don’t want your gifts, Roman.”

“You will want this one.” He sat on the corner of his bed and stared at floor. He felt her shifting.

“I don’t want your apologies or trinkets either.”

“I am giving you your freedom. I will have Paullus see that you get home at first light or as soon as you are ready.”

Her laughter, harsh and humorless, wasn’t what he expected. “Too late, Roman.”

“I am not asking your forgiveness, woman. I am granting you what you’ve asked for.”

“That isn’t what I mean, clod. It is too late. I can‘t go home There is none for me to go back to.”

“What? This attack on your people will be--” He surged to his feet and faced her, prepared for battle.

“They weren’t attacked, Roman.”

“Then what is wrong?”

“I am exiled.” Her eyes slanted to meet his. “Like you.”

He fought off the urge to wrap himself around her and make tendersweet love to her until she smiled at him. “I will not tolerate this.”

“You have no choice.”

“I am the law here, Brigid. I will help you.”

“I am pregnant, Roman.” She laughed again, this time bitterly. “My father demanded revenge. I would not let him kill you. For this, I was exiled. The jest is on me, isn’t it?”

“A child?” He felt as if he’d been through a skirmish. His heart was racing and he couldn’t breathe. “I am to be a father?”

“No, you‘re not. My daughter will have a father who loves her or none at all.”

“I will be a good father.”

“Like you are to your son? I saw how you behaved toward him.”

He ground his teeth in frustration. The truth was that he had never been a good father. “I don’t see how you have a choice, Brigid. You have no place else.”

“You’re leaving for the north country soon. I am not going with you.”

“Of course not, it’s too dangerous. You will come when it is safe for you to be there. I won’t have you or our son hurt.” Protective instincts that he never knew existed rose up inside of him. He could almost see her with their little boy, her stomach expanding with another one.

“I’m nothing but your whore, Roman. I will remain here. Perhaps ply my trade.”

“No!” His roar took them both by surprise. Clenching his hand on the ivory medallion, he lowered his voice. “No. You aren’t my whore, you’re my woman and mine only. What I said earlier, I should not have. I am sorry.”

He shoved both hands through his hair. That wasn’t what he had intended to say. He wanted to snatch the words back, but it was too late. He wasn’t a man who apologized, such things were women’s weakness. He sought the words that would lessen the others, to blunt their sharpness, but nothing came to mind.

“Sorry, aye, you’re a sorry man, Beithir.” She sighed an echo of bone weariness.

“We will discuss this tomorrow,” he said stonily.

She cast her eyes at him obliquely, touching the medallion then measuring him in some witchy Celtic way no doubt. “It is late. Come to bed.”

He opened his mouth to tell her exactly who gave the orders, but she pressed her fingers to his lips and he let her silence him. Her fingers worked the stays to his armor, sometimes clashing with his as he helped her. She kissed his naked shoulder in muted acceptance and a tight knot inside of him unwound itself. A little fear, so foreign after twenty years, let itself go.

To say anything would be to shame himself, something he had vowed to never do again. Instead, he took her into his arms and held her fiercely. Her heart pounded against his. Between them the ivory medallion burned like Vulcan’s forge. She reached up and touched his face with her long fingers, her eyes full of some female emotion that he refused to identify. He took a deep breath and thought of the wall. His chest hardened comfortably once again, making it a simpler task to close his eyes. The faint, unexpected guilt was easy to ignore.

He pressed his lips to hers, to see if she would bite him or relent. She opened her mouth and let him inside. His tongue swept across her teeth to mate with hers. The heat was like nothing he’d ever felt before. It both burned and beguiled him. He sucked at her tongue, drawing it into his mouth, and tasted her inner fire. She arched into him, rubbing her body against his and spreading the blaze through the rest of his body.

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