The Tower of Refuge

September, 79 A.D.

Somehow, they’d managed to survive the annihilation of Pompeii, and yet Brendan’s life remained at risk. Throughout weeks of trudging mile after ash-covered mile, he’d fixated on a single motivation: time—more time to find out who he could be in a healthy body … more time with Anna.

As if escaping death by volcano had endowed him with powers of invincibility, his mind now rejected the reality of returning to his own time to suffer the ravages of debilitating illness. He wanted more.

The life he’d return to in 1961 seemed little more than an existence—a string of conditions and treatments he’d endured, his spirit held captive in a comatose body while his mind wandered elsewhere. He’d do anything to prolong his time here with Anna.

Now, more than ever, he understood the value of each moment. Each might be his last with Anna. He knew it was selfish of him to draw her deeper into his troubled life, and yet she’d chosen to stay by his side. She’d sacrificed so much to be with him. How could he do anything but love her for it?

Laughter erupted, drawing Brendan’s attention back to his other travel-mates. Although Marcus—the focus of their own mission in Pompeii—had now returned to his own time, he’d left behind a pair of friends they now continued to travel with.

Marcus had met Paetas and Vassus in Pompeii’s amphitheater as he’d faced playing the role of prey in one of Rome’s traveling beast hunts. After nearly a decade enslaved in the arenas, Paetas had found his freedom by escaping unscathed from Pompeii and had since reclaimed his birth name, Uzziel. The catastrophic event had even reunited him with his sister, Sarah. Despite their fugitive status, they’d both discovered joy in their unofficial deliverance from slavery.

Vassus had served alongside Uzziel, removing bodies from the arena. While their years in captivity were similar, he was an equal opposite to his companion in almost every way. The vinegar to Uzziel’s honey. Every group had one.

“Denarius for your thoughts,” Anna quipped, pulling him from his brooding with an impish grin.
Brendan chuckled at her corny attempt at humor. “We sure are an odd group.”

Anna cast him a sidelong glance. “Not that I disagree, but what made you say that?”

“Despite all our differences, we seem to share at least one common purpose. We’re each trying to recapture what we’ve lost, as if we can piece together fragments of our former lives—or what our lives could have been.”

“What would you like to reclaim?” Sunlight glinted off her brown curls. Since they’d left Pompeii, she’d taken to wearing her hair long and loose like Sarah, covering her head only when strangers crossed their path. With each passing day, he could see more of the girl he’d first met in Mutul. Her eyes held his, gentle and sincere.

Brendan lifted a shoulder. “I’ve noticed a growing hopefulness in each of you. As for myself, I’m almost afraid to hope. I don’t want to set myself up for disappointment by going after something that’s out of my reach.”

A humble farmer’s cart rumbled off the narrow stretch of road they’d traveled since leaving the last mountain village, deferring to luxurious carriage Julia had let them use. Following Sarah’s lead, Anna lifted her veil over her head. Dust from the farm cart’s wheels tumbled their way. Brendan raised a hand in greeting as the man passed. The farmer acknowledged his wave with a weary nod.

Anna pulled the veil over her nose and mouth, muffling her words. “Have you spoken with Ben about your hopes?”

He took a deep breath as the dust settled. Max poked his head out the back of the carriage, ears perked in their direction. Brendan gave Anna a covert wink and lowered his voice. “It appears you’re not the only one who wonders.”

He didn’t want to let those sad, soulful dog eyes ruin the moment, but they held way too many secrets for Brendan’s comfort. Once Marcus had returned home to his own time, Brendan had expected Max to disappear along with him. As Marcus’s guardian, he’d managed to protect his ward through one of history’s most notorious disasters, yet their new canine companion remained. Brendan hadn’t wanted to appear rude by broaching the subject, but he couldn’t help questioning Max’s presence. What purpose did the dog serve now that his charge had returned to his own time? Brendan couldn’t help wondering if they could give him the slip somehow. Max’s watchful eyes were beginning to grate on him.

“Ben did tell us we’d never be alone.” Anna offered him a wry smile.

“I’m tired of the eavesdropping. Snoopy might be a better name for him. And, no—I haven’t begged Ben for more time here, although I’m tempted. I’m not sure I’m ready to hear his answer.”

He wanted to stay, and so far Ben had allowed it. Why push it? Brendan twisted the iron signet ring on his forefinger as he glanced her way. “Have you?”

“I speak with Ben often—and yes, sometimes about you.” Anna looped her arm through his, but didn’t elaborate.

“Care to share your thoughts?” Brendan stopped to shake a pebble from his sandal.

A chariot rumbled up behind them as another carriage approached from the front. Traffic was getting heavier. The road widened, signaling another city ahead.

Anna stopped and waited beside him at the side of the road. Her brows puckered as she hesitated. “He hasn’t shared his plans for you, if that’s what you’re wondering. That’s between you and Ben, but regardless of what you decide, I will stay by your side.” She glanced at her feet, face flushed. “No matter where we end up.”

Brendan reached for her hand—so delicate against the rugged palms he possessed here. Yet her strength seemed to surpass his, even here. Her faith eclipsed anything he managed. “No clues as to what he has planned for us?”

Anna shook her head. “Talk to Ben, Brendan.”

When he didn’t reply, she tugged him back to a walk. “It’s not always about getting the answers you want, Brendan. He’ll help you find peace, no matter what happens.”

Brendan could still visualize Ben trampling the serpent in the jungles of Mutul, sacrificing himself when their evil adversary attacked. Their gentle and fearsome friend never failed to astonish him. Anna seemed capable of blind trust, tapping into Ben’s strength no matter where or when they found themselves. Brendan had fought to overcome one obstacle after another. Conceding control required more fortitude than he possessed at this point.

The trees surrounding the road gave way to open fields as they crested the next slope, revealing the sparkling waters of the Hadriaticum. The road they’d traveled—the Via Appia—ended in Brundisium, their gateway to the East. At least four times larger than Pompeii, this bustling port city meant business.

“Ben won’t lead you wrong.” Anna’s pleading eyes held such longing. The weight of her expectations hung on him, but he pushed the idea aside. For now, he just wanted to enjoy the journey.

Brendan gave a snort of contempt as Max bounded up to their travel companions, tail wagging. “Look at them. They still have no clue that he’s not your average dog, do they?”

“He’ll reveal himself if and when he choses to. I think it’s adorable how he plays with them.”

Anna’s lightheartedness was like a file to his rough edges. “Vassus, though ...”

Brendan’s gaze shifted back to their companions. Uzziel was scratching behind Max’s ears.

Vassus crossed his arms over his chest and took a step back as the dog’s tail thwacked his legs. “He’s still in survival mode. I’m not sure we can trust him.”

“Uzziel does.” Anna shook dust from her skirts.

He took a step back from the resulting ash cloud. “Uzziel is too kind.”

“I don’t think that’s possible,” she countered.

“I thought you believed all things were possible.” Brendan couldn’t resist the small jab.

Anna tilted her head, eyes searching his. “For one who believes.”

Brendan quirked a brow. “Then we’d better be careful what we believe.”

Sarah waved, heading their way. “Shall we have lunch here before we head down into town?”

Rolling sheep pastures surrounded their descent back into throngs of humanity. Brendan nodded. “Good idea. We can plan our next steps.”

Uzziel tipped his head back and sniffed the air. “The wind carries its tidings from the east. I can practically smell sweet calamus and cassia on the breeze.”

Vassus rolled his eyes at Uzziel’s enthusiasm. “We’ll need to sell the carriage and mules. As extravagant as they are, they’ll fetch a considerable price—enough to carry us all as far up the coast as we care to go with plenty to spare for supplies.”

“No—no.” Uzziel shook his head emphatically. “We must only take a ship as far as Dyrrhachium. From there we can walk the Via Egnatia and gather information as we travel. Surely there will be news in Thessalonica or Philippi, then we will know where to go next.”

Vassus clamped his mouth into a tight line and took a deep breath. While he didn’t appear pleased, he nodded.

Brendan cared little about their route or mode of travel. Since their escape from Pompeii, he’d focused on little more than survival. But now he was quite certain what he wanted to do next: he wanted to steal time.