Marcus’ hair is filthy. It curls over the nape of his neck in a dirty tangle, overlong and matted with the dust of the road. He leans to the side as they ride, a dead weight against Esca’s chest.
He stinks of misery and exhaustion; they both do. The biting cold of the coast gave way to calmer stretches of half-frozen heath two days ago and now they find themselves approaching an inland forest, ground littered with rocky debris between tufts of brittle, browning grass. It’s hell for their one remaining horse.
They’ve left the other behind them on the plains, flanks shuddering, useless legs skittering over rocks and sending up chunks of moss in its collapse. It will be found soon enough if the distant baying of hounds is any indication, even if it’s carried on the wind from more than a day’s ride away.
Ahead, the rocky moors turn to a scraggy tangle of winter-bare birches as Esca pushes on, testing their horse’s endurance in a mad flight for the cover of trees. He can still smell the sea behind them, salt clinging to his face, his tongue, like he’ll never be rid of it, never be clean.
He can almost feel the breath of pursuit, crowding and hot over his neck. He knows better than to allow himself to be reassured by the distance. Esca’s very skin crawls with foreboding, drawing up tight.
“Esca,” Marcus says, voice no more than a rough whisper. Esca notes the dull edge of it and decides he doesn’t want to hear whatever words will follow, doesn’t want to sense the end snapping at their heels. He says nothing, only winds his arm tighter to hold Marcus’ heavy body to his chest. His arm aches. All of him does, but he holds on to the reins. Their lives depend on it.
Marcus tries again. “Esca, I’m glad it’s you.”
Esca blinks the wind from his eyes. “What?” he says, leaning into Marcus’ neck, thinking he has missed something. “What did you—”
“—glad it’s you at the end,” Marcus repeats, then falls silent, letting it hang in the space between breaths.
Esca’s heart thwaps sickly against his ribs. In the short moments that follow, there is only the dull thump of hooves to be heard as they ride through sparse tufts of grass swaying like a landlocked sea.
Wedged up against his chest, Marcus fights to stay upright in the saddle. Esca lets go of the reins with one restless hand to follow Marcus’ sleeve down to his belt, touching the layers over his body without quite landing anywhere.
Finally he cleaves to Marcus’ cloak, twisting his fingers in it, clenching his fist tight under Marcus’ bristly chin. The scar there grows obvious with the turning of the seasons, more pronounced in the freezing cold weather, he knows. Sometimes, back in Calleva, when Marcus chased the deep sleep of herbs and drink for his pain, he’d lie with his head thrown back and mouth wide and soft, and Esca would sit alongside his bed and stare at him. At the scar.
He would look at it first with the eyes of a slave, and see his master’s vulnerable throat bared like that of an innocent.
He no longer finds comfort in seeing with those eyes.
These days he stares with the eyes of a man who has nothing at all. He stares until the scar disappears, until it’s just skin and nothing more. He imagines it would be dark like old blood now, right there where Esca’s knuckle skims the raised nub of it through the stubble and dirt and all.
He makes himself swallow down mouthfuls of the hateful, salty air, tightening his fingers. He knows it’s punishment, but can’t decide for which of his sins.
His eyes don’t rest; they flit over the horizon ahead as though of their own volition, and that is well, that is good, because otherwise he’d have to look to Marcus, he’d have to acknowledge things, but he cannot. He cannot spare the moments, the weeks, the lifetime. Esca’s head reels, Marcus’ words echoing there, making less and less sense, becoming sounds without meaning.
Setting his teeth together until his jaw hurts, he forces his eyes to the distant woodlands ahead and away from the spatter of mud on Marcus’ neck. Away from the curve of his unnaturally pallid cheek.
“Do not speak to me of the end,” he grunts, angry, suddenly filled with rage though he doesn’t quite know why, really, only that it’s thick in his chest like it’s suffocating him from the inside. He kicks the horse along, willing it to move faster and away from the moment that feels like something he had to survive.
The ride is more like a forced march now, winding through rocks and winter-stiff brush that’s thickening with the changing landscape and whipping against their legs. They must stop soon to bed down for the night else they both collapse in a heap. Instead they push on, the horse shuddering beneath them, exhausted. Esca nudges it mercilessly, digging his heels into its flank.
They ride hard for the cover of the woods with Marcus a solid weight jostling against him, until the horse takes an ill step over slippery ground at the edge of the woods, its pitiful scream ripping through the veil of their stupor. They set it free to live or die on the moors, having salvaged whatever they can carry on foot.
A few moments’ rest to collect themselves and they're off again, Esca hauling Marcus’ arm over his own neck as he drags them toward the weary green up ahead where the thick of the forest lies in twilight. Not far now.
The cold bites at Esca’s very bones until they finally reach the windbreak of trees. It loses teeth then and licks at the exposed places he can’t protect: his ears, the back of his neck. It’s still in the woods, so quiet, the only sound caused by their own tired feet, and what might be a stream further in. There might be fresh water. If they could light a fire they could tend to Marcus’ leg properly, they could—
But they cannot light a fire. No point in dwelling on it. Marcus is still trying so hard, still fighting. He needs rest. On his thigh, the wet shine of blood blooms slow and steady like a flower, encouraged by the exertion. Esca bites the inside of his cheek to bring back his focus.
For the hundredth time, he throws a furtive look over his shoulder. Through the trees only the vague roll of hills can be seen in each direction, grey upon brown upon accursed grey, nothing more. Not yet. Esca drives them further into the forest, in and in until he can’t see the plains at all, only the rough trunks of hazel and oak, the thick undergrowth softening their lumbering footfalls to a shuffle over a thick layer of dead leaves. He pushes in until it feels like they’ve passed the point of actual exhaustion and exist now in some sort of dreamlike fugue. Esca looks up over the slope of Marcus’ shoulders to find they’re well and truly in the forest, daylight muted by the canopy above.
They’re leaving tracks for the hunters to sniff out and follow like blood trails for hounds, Esca knows. It can’t be helped now.
They finally come upon the waterway they’ve been hearing for what feels like hours—a river flowing back to the seal people’s lands, back to the sea. The riverbed is deep and its edges craggy, and as they travel its bank, it becomes deeper. Esca keeps them close to the drop of it, thinking to obscure the noise they’re making by being so close to the breaking water.
Marcus has fallen silent, the chill of oncoming night visible in every laboured breath. Esca has seen him keep watch pillar-still through the night, then ride all the next day like he feels no pain. He’s seen Marcus shrug off injury and cold and wet, and he’s seen him near starved, but always he fights, head down like an ox, doing what needs to be done. Esca has never seen Marcus like this. Never so resigned. And yet he still tries, as though without Esca’s encouragement he’d make his one-man stand wherever he fell. It makes Esca inexplicably furious.
Raging inside, he plows on, rougher than he needs to be, pulling at Marcus’ arm like he’s a cart Esca’s been burdened with pulling uphill, trying to make something rise up inside, make him work to survive, make him want—
He’s so unreasonably enraged that he does not see the obvious slip of land for its mossy cover, and the wrong step sends them off balance and into a delirious mudslide down to the rocky riverbank. Breath is knocked out of him and when he shakes off the rough landing he hears Marcus beside him hissing in pain, trembling hands over his thigh. Shame rises to turn his face crimson.
He helps Marcus up to the edge of the bank, its steep side rising above them. Downriver the edges are shallow, but when Esca looks deeper into the forest, the riverbank turns to cliffs, the banks above to rocky outcrops. They were lucky to fall in where they did. Any further along would have meant their deaths.
“I’m sorry, I’m—gods, Marcus,” he mutters. He looks down at the bloodied fabric and eases Marcus down against the wall, hands hovering over his thigh. “Let me see it.”
Marcus makes no move to stop him as Esca unfastens his braccae, pulling them down. Instead, he leans right back into the rock wall like he’s boneless and laughs, laughs like it’s the end of the world and only laughter is left.
Esca can only stare.
When his laughter dies down, Marcus’ eyes are misty and free from the creases that mark his worries. He clasps a solid hand over Esca’s shoulder and the shiver he feels can’t be anything to do with the bracing cold because it heats him from inside.
“Bind it, Esca. Bind it tight and let us keep moving.”
Esca rests his fingers over Marcus’ ravaged thigh where the skin is torn in the same place again. Blood is slowly seeping where the old wound has re-opened and there is nothing he can do but wrap a river-rinsed rag around it. He watches the muscle jump as he tightens the tourniquet, Marcus’ skin filthy with blood and mud, the fine hair on his legs matted with it. Esca swallows dryly, his hands smoothing down the fabric lest the knot worry Marcus’ wound. He used to rub Marcus’ leg all the time back in Calleva to work out the knots that woke him in the night. It was a chore, then. Esca doesn’t know when that changed, but it has.
May all the gods help him, it has.
“Up,” he says, more harshly than he intends, eyes flicking over the terrain around them as Marcus struggles to his feet, leaning heavily on Esca’s shoulder.
And so they go, against the flow of the river and inland, following the rise of overgrown cliffs. It might be a trick of the light but when he catches Marcus’ profile in his periphery, there’s a new determination there. It makes Esca’s feet lighter.
It’s by new moon light that they finally happen upon a good place to rest- what looks like a depression set into the cliff face, about the height of a man’s waist. As they get closer it reveals itself to be the maw of a cave recessed deeply into the hillside. Old tree roots hang from the ceiling of it like rope, twisted and dense, almost like vine.
Esca edges closer to peer inside. It might be flooded or full of vermin and he takes care not to startle anything that might charge out at them, sneaking closer with his dagger clenched in one fist, and a rock in the other.
Behind him, Marcus draws breaths that are too loud, too laboured, and Esca’s not sure what scares him more: that the noise might draw attention to them or that Marcus might be—
He lets the sharp, cold rock bite into his thigh for a good long moment. Looking up to the darkened sky filtering through trees and sniffing deeply at the moist air, he casts his eye for anything out of the ordinary. It hits him then, the isolation of the place, the perfect sanctity of it, of all the elements around them. It makes him feel so much closer to home. The gorge they’ve wandered into warms him with some kind of wild-growing hope.
Edging his body between the swinging roots, Esca vaults up easily and enters the cave, hunter’s feet silent on the stony floor.
Inside it’s dank, the cave on a downslope towards the back. It must be above the waterline, though, because there’s no sign of flooding and for that Esca breathes a sigh of relief. It will do for the few hours’ rest they so desperately need. Far enough from the entrance to avoid direct draughts, he finds a good spot and sweeps it clean, making a comfortable nook for them both, nestled in amongst the rock and root debris littering the floor. It’s tall enough that Marcus should be able to stand upright, and deeper than a stone’s throw. They’ll need to watch for bats.
With nightfall upon them he hurries back out to fetch Marcus, giving his shoulder as they climb in together. Their ragged breaths crowd in off the close walls.
Esca’s mouth sets in a hard line as he eases Marcus, whose face is split by a pained grimace, to the ground and onto the hastily laid blanket they’d salvaged from Esca’s horse. He senses Marcus’ eyes on him, waiting, and refuses to look up.
“Rest now,” he says, focusing on Marcus’ rope-burned wrists instead of his earnest face. “I’ll fetch water. See if I can find anything edible.”
Leaving the cave behind, Esca finds a wall he can safely climb up to the forest floor and runs, the way lit by a bright moon, relishing the sting of low-lying branches and the release, the burn in his lungs when he stretches legs he thought were too exhausted to so much as crawl.
He manages to snare a small hare using a loop and notched wood the same as he did when he was a boy running the woodlands of home with his brothers, tucking its still-warm body between skin and clothes. He knows what they would think of him now, foraging to feed his Roman master, his domine. How shamed they would be that he has not yet slit Marcus’ throat with his own pugio and returned to hunt with the seal people until the end of his days. They could never have imagined a day when the seal people would slit his throat just as soon as Marcus’.
He is less and less surprised to find how little that matters now. He could never explain it to himself, let alone anyone else.
Retracing his steps to climb down the embankment, he fills both their skins. By the time he returns to the cave, Marcus is fast asleep, curled into himself like a child.
Time passes slowly as Esca cleans the hare and watches Marcus sleep, wondering how he can rest so deeply now when they’re being pursued. There’s no doubt he’s truly asleep, breaths even and long, eyelashes a sweeping shadow over his cheek.
Esca perches closely enough that even in this darkness he can see the movement of his chest. He counts the passage of time with it for a while, warm at being trusted to come back even after what Marcus must have thought to be his utter betrayal. At Marcus being able to sleep so truly, thinking- no, knowing Esca will return to him.
I thought I’d lost you.
How easy it would be to hurt him. How simple for the world to hurt him with any myriad of things, as tall and big as he is, as bravely as he fights for what he believes in. Esca’s throat constricts.
How easy it would be, perhaps should be, for Esca the slave to walk out of the cave as Esca Mac Cunoval, leaving a Roman to his fate. Nobody would know. Marcus would never be found here, his remains left to rot in the cave, dispersed by animals over time. There would be no trace of them, of either of them. The world could wash its hands of both of them and not a ripple would be felt anywhere, except perhaps in the heart of old Aquila, ever waiting for their return. It makes Esca sick to his stomach.
They have nobody else now, only each other.
He looks at the sturdy wide shoulders, the weight of the past absent for once, and wonders that Marcus’ ribcage is big enough to hold a heart the size his must be.
The moon's well past its zenith when Esca senses a change in the air, then eyes on him. He doesn't turn.
"Go back to sleep," he whispers, eyes trained across the relentless flow of the river. Marcus doesn't answer but the prickle of being watched does not abate. He waits, but the crisp air only thickens. Eventually, Esca sighs, dropping his focus. He turns to Marcus and marks the pinprick glitter of his eyes in the darkness.
Marcus’ voice is rough and thick with sleep. "I never wanted you to—"
Esca watches the dip of Marcus' throat and waits.
"I'm sorry, Esca. I didn't mean for you to be—"
It's more than he can take. Esca crawls over with a dizzying urgency in his blood.
"Shut up, just shut up," he says, face so close he can see the shocked rush of colour on Marcus’ skin even in the sparse light of the cave. He flicks between Marcus' eyes and his mouth, unable to stop himself now, so much closer than he'd ever thought to be, than he even realised he wanted to be. Marcus' mouth opens in shock.
"Don't you understand? Don't you know?" Esca’s voice sounds strangely thick to his own ears.
It’s a ridiculous thing to ask, he realises, for how would Marcus know something that Esca has only just acknowledged himself?
Outside of this gorge, things still make sense in the world; the stars will lead you north, fallow buck antlers are the best for carving and masters do not sleep like innocents when trapped in the wilderness with their slaves. Another truth is that said slaves do not simply take what they want, but Marcus looks softly at him from the darkness, and all of it falls away. He looks at Esca with something like desperation, mouth parting dryly in the darkness.
He has a mouth Esca could cherish.
Slowly, giving Marcus a chance to see his intent and stop him if he wants, Esca leans in and presses a soft, warm kiss to Marcus’ lips. He senses the moment Marcus’ eyes drift closed- it’s the instant his lips part, drawing a shaky breath.
The kiss is chaste and yielding, and it makes Esca want so very much. He trembles with it, and that, too, shocks him.
He pulls back only a little, then comes in again for more dry, warm kisses until he’s sure. And when Marcus, eyes tightly shut, breathes hard and fast like he’s been running, Esca opens his mouth around that lush bottom lip and softly lets Marcus feel the heat of it, the wet.
Marcus gasps, body shuddering. His big hands are viselike over Esca’s biceps and he has no idea when Marcus put them there. When he would lower his whole body over Marcus’, he finds himself held fast instead.
“What is this,” Marcus says quietly, panting. Esca hates how dark his eyes are. How they lack their usual warmth of colour in the dead of night. He dismisses the momentary reflex to respond with the obvious.
“We might be meat for hounds tomorrow,” he says instead, feeling the words scrape his throat raw and watching for understanding in Marcus’ eyes. They have no time to waste now. None at all.
Marcus’ tongue flicks over his lip and Esca tracks it, waiting. Marcus has wanted him, he is sure. There have been moments where the heat of eyes was unmistakable, but he has never caught Marcus at it, being, as he is, some rare breed of Roman who understands that something freely given is sweeter than that which one takes without asking.
His eyes are soft on Esca’s face but his hands do not release their steely hold. “And if we are not?”
“Still I will want you,” Esca whispers, realising, even as he says the words that they are true.
“Again and again I will want you, Marcus,” he says, climbing right in until he’s spread over Marcus as he lies on the floor of the cave, chest to chest, letting Marcus feel the weight of him as his arms lose their lock and he allows Esca to mold to his whole body. Marcus’ eyes roll back in his head when Esca begins a rhythm with a push of the hips, gently grinding his rump against where Marcus grows hard, pressing the ridge of him between his buttocks.
Marcus groans then, and instead of holding Esca back, he brings him in and clasps him to his big chest like something precious.
They rut with a slow circling of hips, Marcus never releasing Esca’s eyes, as though he must be sure he’s wanted. As though he doubts it could be possible and has to find the truth of it in Esca’s face. When Esca would kiss him again, needing his mouth, feeling hot and frenzied like he has not been for such a long time, Marcus opens to him, hot inside and hungry like he must have this to live, must have Esca to exist. He kisses Esca like he wants to crawl in under his skin, like he feels the same dizzying, hot want, suddenly free of the constraints of propriety in this dark and dirty place at the end of all things.
“I would fuck you like this,” Esca says, breathing hotly onto Marcus’ neck, licking over sweat and salt while he works his hips to grind them against each other. “I would grease myself and let you inside and ride you, Marcus, if you should let me.”
Marcus' grip on him is crushing as he thrusts up into the cradle of Esca’s hips, deliciously constricting. He splays his palm to Esca's back, pressing right against the dip of his spine to bring them closer, more tightly together. His hand feels huge there; Esca relishes flexing into it to really feel its weight and strength. With a long shudder Marcus spends, quiet save for the breath punched out of him. A hot spike of want spears Esca’s gut to hear him so restrained.
Marcus’ desperate breaths fan over his sweaty skin and shivers walk like fingers down his spine to curl around his balls until he follows, grunting with the strength of release, bucking into where Marcus’ cock is still hard and hot, even through their clothing. Long moments pass as Marcus quiets him with a gentle hand over his back.
In a few hours they will make their stand. Live or die, there is honesty between them now, Esca feels it in every pass of Marcus’ fingers against his nape, in every soft breath into his hair.
They doze, curled into each other like cubs, knowing that when time comes they will stand together.