The early spring morning was chilly and moist, with the dew hanging heavily on the branches of the trees and dripping occasionally from the edges of the red tiles of the roof of Aquila's house, sometimes striking coldly on his bald head. He would far rather be watching this messy business from the private vantage of his watch-tower, safely removed from the noisy bustle surrounding the two mule-carts drawn up before the house. And if he had to leave the comfort of his house, why then, a walk nearby would be the thing. The bluebells in the wood just past the wall of Calleva would be lovely on a morning like this, and the blackthorn was in flower. However, he had far too much devotion to his only nephew to allow the young man to start out on this momentous journey without a proper leave-taking. Thus, here he stood, stiff with cold and reserve, as Marcus and his new young wife Cottia supervised the loading of their small store of belongings. The only bit of him that was warm was the leg against which his elderly wolf-hound was leaning, for Procyon was equally ill at ease with this disruption to the routine of the household.
In truth, it was young Esca, Marcus' friend and freedman who was getting the most work done. As Marcipor and the two slow-footed slaves from Kaeso's household next door brought out baskets, bundles, and the occasional small chest, Esca was arranging them to make the most of the small space available. Now the sturdy and very beautiful carved olivewood coffer that Aquila had given the newlyweds was being handed up, and Aquila was pleased to see that as soon as Esca had it settled in a sheltered corner, Cottia hurried to cover it with a cowhide and some canvas to protect the precious books inside. Those two would never allow any harm to come to anything that Marcus valued.
The stream of baggage from Kaeso's had slowed to a trickle, and now Kaeso himself had come out, amiable and soft, with his feather-witted wife Valaria, to see their niece off with her new husband. Nissa, the old nursemaid, trailed behind them, her face already blotched with weeping. They were just in time to see Cottia, her pale green mantle slipping off one shoulder as she stood upright in the cart, catch a small basket that Esca had tossed up to her. Valaria looked horrified. "Camilla! How unladylike! You should leave that to slaves!"
Cottia settled the basket before she turned to face her aunt, rearranging the mantle casually. Not that it made much of a difference, thought Aquila: it was a poor flimsy excuse for a garment, nowhere near warm enough for the cold of the morning. "It's my own sewing basket, my aunt," said Cottia, calmly, but Aquila noted the flush along her cheekbones.
"How I wish you'd have taken that serving maid I offered you! Truly, I don't like the idea of you off on your own with nothing for company but menfolk in your household!"
"I have an excellent housekeeper awaiting me, Aunt Valaria." Cottia spoke calmly, but Aquila could see how stiff her spine had become, like that of a young solder on guard. Marcus stopped directing the loading of the second cart, patted the nearest mule, and strolled over to stand near his wife. What little Aquila could see of Esca on the other side of the cart looked suddenly still and watchful.
"Now, Valaria," said Kaeso. "Our Camilla's a grown woman with a household of her own to arrange. She may as well start as she means to go on."
Valaria clearly disapproved of this notion, but to everyone else's relief, she was distracted by the clop of hooves along the street. Brocchus, the wiry, nimble little former Auxiliary whom Marcus had hired to help with livestock, was approaching with the two mares that had been purchased for the journey. They were much the same sort of ex-cavalry mounts that Marcus and Esca had used for their journey north - compact, with their part-Arab lineage showing in their handsome heads - and Aquila found this similarity obscurely comforting.
"And just in time!" said Marcus cheerfully. "We must say our farewells now so that we may get this expedition underway and make the most of the daylight." He held out a hand that Cottia didn't actually need to climb down from the cart. She took it with good grace. They made a good match, thought Aquila: level-headed, determined, and already working well together.
"I should be fetching Cub, then" said Esca, and slipped off to the stables.
Cottia dutifully kissed and embraced her aunt and uncle, then braced herself as Nissa flung her arms about her former charge. Cottia held the older woman for a few moments, patiently bearing the weeping, and at last gently but firmly extricated herself. "Nissa, that's quite enough now. Be brave."
Sassticca, who had arrived carrying a large and heavy basket that smelled deliciously of fresh bread, shook her head grimly at such goings-on. Marcus relieved her of her burden and kissed her on her gaunt cheek. "Did you find room in there for any honey cakes?" he asked, hopefully.
"You know they won't travel, young master. But there's a pot of honey in there for the bread. Careful now - put one hand beneath it ... that's the way."
Cottia turned at last to Aquila and embraced him with real enthusiasm. He felt himself flush like a lad. "You're chilled through, my dear," he said, gruffly. "That's no mantle to wear on a journey. Didn't you like the one I gave you? Where is it?"
Marcus, grinning, extracted from under the cart's bench seat the warm, creamy white mantle with blue- and green-striped ends that had been Aquila's gift and draped it over her head and shoulders right atop the lighter wrap. "Now I shall be much too warm!" Cottia said crossly, but she tucked the ends in place anyway. "Thank you, Uncle Aquila," she added, with such warmth that he felt his eyes grow moist. He was saved from having to answer by the arrival of Esca with Cub, who barked with enthusiasm as he saw the crowd gathered around his master.
"Will the wolf be running all the way to the farm, Marcus?" asked Kaeso.
"Not all the way, no, although I daresay he'll insist on doing some of it. Esca and Cottia have been training him to ride in the cart with her. Look - " Marcus handed Cottia up into the cart again, and she settled herself on the bench seat. "Cub, up now!" she called, and the young wolf leapt up to sit beside her. Marcus turned and smiled at his uncle, but then his cheery expression faltered. "Well - this is it. Uncle Aquila, I don't have the words to thank you ... :"
"Then don't," said Aquila, firmly. "You know well that I was ever glad to do it. Luck to you, my nephew, and you'd best get on the road. Esca - "
Esca, who had taken the mares' reins from Brocchus so the other could climb up to the driver's seat of Cottia's cart, looked up in surprise. Aquila strode over to him and clapped him firmly on the shoulder. "Luck to you as well," he said, and then, quietly, "Look after them for me, now." Esca's lips parted, but for moment, he could not answer. Aquila smiled at him, and at last, Esca smiled gravely back: "That I will."
Marcus and Esca mounted their mares, Cottia put an arm around Cub, and Brocchus and the hired muleteer on the second cart gathered up their long reins. "To the Downs," shouted Marcus, with all the gravitas of a commander giving his cohort the order to march, and the procession moved off down the street, heading for the gates of Calleva, and the future that awaited them.
Kaeso, his wife, and the still-sniffling Nissa went back to their home almost at once, but Aquila stood watching until the tail of the hinder cart disappeared around the corner. Then he turned at last and went into the quiet of his own home. He sat down in his chair near the brazier, Procyon easing himself down stiffly onto the worn little rug nearby, and Stephanos hastened to build up the fire again. The clank of the poker seemed all too loud in the strange silence, and Aquila looked up to see all three of his slaves looking at him with equally worried expressions: Sassticca from the passage to the kitchen, Marcipor by the front door, and Stephanos right there beside him.
"Well, don't just stand there like a herd of cattle," said Aquila, crossly. "Marcipor, set Marcus' and Cottia's room in order. Sassticca, think of something we can stomach for dinner. And Stephanos, go ask Sentius Nepos when his bitch's pups will be ready to leave their mother. I have a mind to buy one of them. As an old friend, I am sure I can have my pick of the litter."
The silence now was charged with astonishment. At last, Stephanos managed to bleat "A pup?"
"Yes, of course! With that dratted Cub gone, Procyon will grow dull and lonely." He glared at them all until they went off to their duties. Then he sank back more comfortably in his chair, picked up the scroll he had been working on last night, and with one hand on Procyon's rough head, settled in to catch up on his reading.
On a brilliant day a month after midsummer, the first hay harvest began. There were only three small fields of hay, and they might need to look elsewhere for fodder for the beasts before winter was over. Still, Marcus found it hard to even think of winter as the sun baked the slopes of the valley, shining down on the corn poppies and daisies nodding in the light breeze among the tall grasses and on the ripening heads of grain in the cornfields. When he blinked the sweat from his eyes, he could see Esca, Brocchus, and barrel-chested Cunsus the plowman swinging their scythes, and Cottia, Senuna the cook-housekeeper, and Senuna's youngest lad Matto following them with the hay-rakes.
Cottia's hands, tender from years of living as a gentle Roman maiden, were bound with rags, but she insisted on working along with the others. Marcus wished he could be with her, but several weeks of bad weather right after the solstice had put the construction of the farmhouse behind. Culeo the master builder needed every hand that could be spared, so Marcus - who had been longing to watch the building work in any case - was toiling along with half a dozen other red-faced, sweating men. They were shifting stones from where the carts had dumped them weeks ago to the exact section of the wall that Culeo and his eldest son were building up at the moment.
It was back-breaking and mindless work. Most of the other men could carry a couple of stones at a time, but although the old injury to Marcus' right leg had scarcely troubled him at all on the journey to the downs or in the first weeks of work on the farm, he had reluctantly decided that it would be best not to press his luck. Time and again, he stooped to pick up a stone, slowly walked the few dozen yards to the work site, lifted the stone, and set it roughly in place for Culeo to settle. The walls only needed to be waist-high: the upper portions would be wattle-and-daub framed with timbers.
Marcus turned back for another stone. Truly, as long as you didn't look every few moments, quite a lot of progress was being made. As he hefted the next load and turned toward the building site, it was easy to see how the house would look by the time autumn was well in: a long, low building with a roof of red tiles (already promised for delivery from Regnum three weeks hence), with a rough colonnade along the front to allow them to go from room to room without getting wet in the rain. In years to come, wings could be built from the ends to surround a proper garden. Perhaps there could be a bath house there, in that level spot near the young orchard, below the place where he meant to have vineyard terraces ... .
Too late, Marcus felt a bit of ground, still soft from many days of rain, give suddenly beneath one foot. Unbalanced by the heavy building stone, he found himself falling. Instinctively, he tried to regain his balance, but the muscles of his bad leg, already strained with the endless trips back and forth with the stones, could not manage it.
He realized afterward that he was very lucky that the stone had fallen free onto the turf and not landed on him in any way. As it was, the breath was knocked from his lungs as he hit the ground, and he realized a moment later that something was very wrong with his left knee: it was a throbbing mass of pain and did not seem to bend properly. The workmen were shouting in dismay, and many feet pounded over the turf toward him. He propped himself up on his elbows and tried to look at his knee. He was sickened to see that the kneecap was no longer in its proper place.
Culeo, his hands smeared with mortar, bent over him. "Centurion, are you ... oh, Furies, I can see you are not!"
Esca suddenly pushed his way through the ring of staring stoneworkers to kneel by his friend's side, breathing hard with the run from the hayfield. "Ah, no, Marcus! That is -"
"Yes," Marcus answered through gritted teeth. "It is my good leg." He heard Cub whining, somewhere off behind the wall of bodies about him. And through the anxious, low muttering of the men, he could hear Cottia's voice clearly, sharp and angry. "Get away! Let me through!"
The little crowd parted, and Cottia darted forward, only to stop a spears-length away, clasping her rag-wrapped hands as though she was afraid to touch him. Senuna, wiry, iron-haired, and half a head shorter than her young mistress, followed close behind. Marcus was glad to see her: in addition to being a fine cook and a source of much common sense, the woman had come recommended as a skilled healer. Now she knelt on the soft turf beside Esca and felt gently along the sides of Marcus' injured knee.
"Well, now, it could be far worse, young master. The sinews are all where they ought to be. It's just the kneecap is out of place."
Cottia came over to his side and dropped down to put an arm around his shoulders. "Can you put it right?" she asked.
"With some help from you. Yes, and Esca. The rest of you, get back from him. Some of you need to put together a litter. He'll want carrying in a short time. And someone fetch me a couple of sturdy lathes, and some cloths."
The workmen scattered to her bidding. Cottia's arm tightened. "What must we do?"
"Young master, you must lie back down again - flat on your back. Esca, get you down at his feet. I will be needing you to pull steadily at his foot, on my word. Young mistress, you must rub the muscles of his thigh, there above the knee. No, harder, as with the bread dough. That's the way of it. Now, Esca, grasp his ankle - ah, now, don't dig in your fingers: no need to give him more bruises. Yes, just that way. Now: pull!"
Marcus felt Senuna's small, strong hands pushing firmly at the errant kneecap. His leg muscles were trying to twitch, but under Cottia's massage and Esca's firm pull, nothing of the sort happened. Suddenly, his knee seemed to snap back together, and everything hurt much less. "There!" said Senuna, and there was both triumph and relief in her voice.
"And his leg is mended - just like that?" asked Esca, astonished.
"No, lad, not just like that. It will be a while and a while - the better part of month before he should even try to walk on it."
Marcus pushed himself up on his elbows again. His knee looked well enough, now. "That long before I can even walk?"
Senuna frowned at him fiercely. "Indeed! Did you not take me into your household for just this reason, that I knew the ways of healing? If you listen to me, your good leg will be as good as ever by midwinter. And if you do not, I cannot speak to the result! Now, you should be in your own bed, not out here in the hot sun." She rose to her feet and shouted for the workmen.
In short order, Marcus was laid on his mattress in the cooler darkness of the wattle-and-daub hut that he and Cottia had called home for the past few months. Esca shifted a couple of the chests behind Marcus and padded them with blankets so that he could sit up, with his splinted leg stretched before him, and Cottia brought him cool water, bread and curds, and a small dish of wild strawberries. Marcus ate, and drank deep, and then looked at them sadly. "I am ten times a fool, to put myself in my bed for a month when there is so much to be done."
"It is worse than that," said Esca. "Marcus, Culeo could find another man to carry stones for only a few sesterces' pay. But not all the gold in Rome could hire another to take your place in deciding what is to be built and what cleared and who should be working it afterward."
"And what if we have not those sesterces to spare?"
"Then you can pledge Culeo my labor over the winter, when this job is done, and he will arrange for another workman's hire now."
"Esca! I will not hire you out like -"
"Oh, Marcus, don't be even more of a fool!" exclaimed Cottia. "If we were a family of the tribes, and Esca your younger brother, there would be no shame in his working in exchange for aid while you were laid up!"
Marcus rubbed his face. "I suppose it does sounds foolish, put that way ... I never had a brother, you know."
"Well," said Cottia crisply, "Now you have one."
Esca flushed and then patted Marcus' foot gingerly. "I must be back to the haying," he said, and rose to go.
"Esca," said Marcus, to his retreating back. "She has the right of it."
The other stopped in the doorway and smiled a little over his shoulder. "As you say, elder brother." And then he was gone.
Marcus sighed and slipped his arm around Cottia's waist. She nestled next to him and leaned her head on his shoulder. "You and your pride.
You oaf: there is not enough gold in all Rome to get me another such husband, either."
"I know, Cottia; I'm sorry." And he kissed her hair and shut his eyes.
The thin light of the morning was faint in their room with the shutters closed, but Cottia crooked her arm over her eyes anyway, waiting for her head to stop spinning. Marcus' careful movements as he got out of bed were still enough to stir her uneasy gut, and she clamped her lips shut tightly.
"Cottia, sweetheart -"
She breathed in through her nose until she could speak. "Marcus, it's nothing."
"You have been ill more mornings than you've been well. That cannot be nothing."
"Senuna says -"
"So she does. And yet you are still ill. I've a mind to fetch that doctor Uncle Aquila spoke of ... what was the name?"
Cottia was silent. She did not want to see a stranger, a Roman, and a man, about this.
"Cordus. Aulus Sergius Cordus. I could ride to Regnum in less than two hours."
"By that time, I will have been up and about for a while. And I will be fine."
He took her hand and stroked it, turned it over to kiss the palm. She knew her hands were no longer those of a respectable Roman lady, that they had calluses and scars - and that he cared nothing for that, only that it was her hand.
"Well, then ... I will leave the matter for now. There's the autumn sowing to do. But I don't like this. It isn't like you."
"Thank you, Marcus," she whispered. She listened to the familiar, comforting sounds of his dressing, and then the slightly hesitant sound of his footsteps as he left. His knee was much better, but he still had to be careful with it. There was a brief flash of brightness as the door opened, and then she was alone.
She turned gingerly on her side and fumbled under the corner of the new bedstead, finding the small basket she had placed there the night before. She took out a dry crust, broke off a tiny bit, and chewed it cautiously. As usual, her gut started to settle. While she was finishing the tiny meal, a gentle knock sounded on the door. "Mistress?"
"Come in, Senuna."
The housekeeper shut the door behind her again and came to stand at the bedside. Her face was grave.
"Marcus spoke to you?"
"That he did. He's all for fetching that old army doctor."
"I should just tell him. I'm getting tired of pretending there's naught amiss."
"Nor is there, my girl. There's no lie: you're healthy and strong. It's just that -"
"Sometimes the babe never takes root properly. I know: you said. But I'm three months on, now, aren't I? Isn't that long enough?"
"Let me look at you again." Senuna opened the shutters, letting the thin light of day and a breath of cool autumn air into the room. It smelled of dead leaves, rain, and the charcoal burning down by the oak wood. Cottia drew off her blanket, shivering. Senuna felt her over gently and nodded. "Aye, three months on. I'll fetch that brazier your man set by. You don't want to get chilled, even as strong as you are, but the fresh air will do you good."
"But I can tell him?"
"If you choose. Mind you, I have no notion of how a Roman thinks of a woman who is carrying a child."
"Nor do I. I ... I don't want to be treated as though I'm ill for the next half year. He's in enough of a fuss already."
"Perhaps once he learns the happy reason for it, he'll be less tetchy. He may still wish a doctor of his own people to see you."
"What do you think of that?"
"Surely soldiers' women give birth to babes. He may well have skill and knowledge of the matter. Even so, I'd rather you see our own midwife. Enica is her name: she brought forth all my children but the first."
"Then I will tell Marcus that if he has his doctor Cordus up to the farm, I will have your Enica also."
Senuna nodded. "So. Your stomach has calmed? The day is well along. I have hot porridge for you."
"I'm well - I'll be out in a moment."
The sun was as high as it would get that day when Cottia ventured outdoors, well-wrapped in Uncle Aquila's warm mantle. She let the wing-clipped hens out into their run and gathered their eggs for Senuna. Then she went to her vegetable garden. It was not a tidy place, but it was doing well. There was plenty of kale, and she had carrots, parsnips, and turnips. She pulled some leeks, too, and tidied away the remains of the summer beans. Most of the onions and all the garlic were already drying in the store-room behind the new little kitchen. The winter cabbages were coming along, and the parsley and other hardy herbs were still looking lively. She looked up, and saw Esca coming through the tiny orchard.
He was clearly expecting to find her, for he nodded. She held up her full basket. "Look: are not my vegetables as fine as any in Regnum market?"
"They are," said Esca, after a moment. "You are a clever gardener." He fell silent, and although his eyes were on the bright carrots, she did not think that he was really seeing them.
"What is it that you are not telling me?"
"Marcus' heart would be much more at ease if you would see this doctor his uncle commended to him."
She frowned a little at that, but there was no concern of Marcus' that was not also Esca's. She knew that quite well. "Well, so I might. But I should be much better by Solstice-tide."
Esca looked at her closely. Suddenly, he drew a sharp breath. "Cottia, is it that we shall have another soul in this household by spring?"
She raised her brows at that. "Aren't you clever, yourself? Why is it that you have eyes to see this, and my man does not?"
"He has no brother, no sister, no young cousins that I know of in that house where he grew to manhood, and he's lived among menfolk since then. How often would he have occasion to set eyes on a woman who was with child? It is an insult to do so to a stranger's woman, and Marcus is many things, but rude is not one of them."
"You know him so well," she said, a little wistfully, and wrapped her mantle more tightly about herself.
"Do you need to go in? It is a chilly day."
"No. Esca, I will tell him today. But it would be well if you could pretend that you did not realize it before he knew of it. Even though he loves you as he loves himself."
"And you, Cottia. He loves you more than his life."
She sighed. "But he has his pride. Esca, please do this, for his sake, if not for me."
"I will. Be at peace, Cottia."
Just then, they heard Senuna calling everyone to the mid-day meal. Esca took the vegetable basket from Cottia, and she picked up the smaller basket of eggs. They washed their hands in the corner of the kitchen and went into the raw, new atrium with its unplastered walls, where the rough table was set with hot boiled chickens, lentil porridge with chestnuts, and apples with honey. There were as yet no couches, but only two benches: like a military mess, as Marcus said. Marcus himself came in a moment later, Cub padding happily behind him. "Chickens! She serves us chickens, when I could eat a whole bull! But they smell heavenly."
As they were starting on Senuna's good food, Cottia gently touched his arm. "Marcus, I have news."
"News? But no one came up the track."
"It is not that sort of news. Marcus. Before next summer - gods willing - you will be a father."
She dared not take her gaze from his face, but from the corner of her eye, she could tell that Esca had straightened up abruptly. Perhaps all his acting was going to waste, because Marcus was staring at her as though in a trance. "Cottia!" he said, at last. "This ... this is true?"
"Oh Marcus! Why would I invent such a tale!"
He threw his arms around her, rocking the bench, and kissed her thoroughly. When he finally let her get her breath, he was grinning. He thumped a fist on the tabletop, making the platters and cups jump. "Ho, Esca! You will be an uncle! "
Esca chuckled. "It is just as well. I can see that this babe will need someone about to teach it what not to do, for you will clearly be the most indulgent of fathers."
"So that is why Cottia has been ill ... I say, maybe I ought to send for that doctor anyway, my sweet?"
"Senuna commends her own midwife to us. You know how strong her children are."
"So, then, you should send for this woman. Ah ... Cottia!" and he threw one arm about her again. Then he reached across the table to clasp Esca's hand where it rested by his plate. "Esca, I am the happiest man in Britain."
"So I see. Marcus, if you smile any more broadly, your face will split clean in two."
Esca's smile was almost shy, but Marcus laughed with such joy that Cottia felt certain that even the most jealous gods could not find fault with his happiness.
The farmhouse atrium was lit by two lamps now, for a tall bronze lamp had arrived by carrier's cart only the week before, sent by Uncle Aquila. The dining table, now properly sanded and rubbed to a soft finish, was laid with the costly, gleaming red Samian-ware dishes that had remained in their straw-packed baskets since their arrival at the farm that spring: Cottia's wedding gift from her aunt. Senuna and Cottia has been working since dawn to produce the feast presented on those precious dishes: hard-boiled eggs in nut sauce, savory patties made from fish that Brocchus had fetched that morning from the village a mile south on the coast, an entire sucking pig roasted in honey, and a pottage of Cottia's best greens with onions. All the folk of Marcus' farm were crowded around the table, not only on the benches but on stools and even on a sawn-off round of log, for it was the Saturnalia, when man and master were equal.
Esca, crowded between Brocchus on the one hand and gangly young Matto on the other, was feeling full and rather sleepy as Cottia rose to help Marcus remove the dishes and bring out the final course of dates and raisins, and Senuna's sweet dumplings with honey and chopped almonds. Marcus' olive face was slightly flushed with the excellent wine that Kaeso had sent along for the holiday. Cottia was moving just a trifle more slowly, and her cheeks were red from the heat of the crowded room. Now that everyone's hunger was sated, talk began: trivial conversation about the farm and its beasts, the flurries of snow that had fallen the previous day, the retired Legate who was looking to start a farm to the east, and the doings of the other families nearby.
"Esca, when do you think Lura's pups will be whelped?" asked Marcus.
Cub, the father of those pups, looked up from the bone Cottia had given him, almost as though he also wished to know the answer. In truth, thought Esca, it was more likely that he remembered the days when he was the one being called Pup. "Five more weeks yet, I think," he answered.
"Vodenos the smith was asking, yesternight. I think he would buy one of them. You might stop by, tomorrow, and let him know."
"He has a lovely daughter, does Vodenos," said Brocchus, with the air of one who considered himself an expert in these matters.
"Delana, she's named. She's also an excellent weaver," said Senuna. "She will be 16 summers old, come lambing time. I am certain Vodenos and Veldicca his wife would not mind if you spoke with her, Esca."
Esca flushed. "And I am certain that the daughter of Vodenos has better prospects than a landless fellow like myself."
Marcus, reaching for the wine-flask, stopped to look at his friend. "Esca, if you find this girl to your liking, I'm sure something could be arranged. All the neighbors know how hard you work, and Culeo was more than content with your fortnight's labor for him."
The entire household seemed to be looking at Esca now, and he thought his ears would burst into flame, they felt so hot. How had he got himself into such a scrape? He had no interest in the smith's daughter. And now that he came to think of it, this was not the first time that the name of a local lass had been trailed before him, like bait before a trout in the river. Did Marcus and Cottia wish to marry him off? Was Marcus thinking of somehow negotiating another little farmstead for him? It was a generous thought, but ... .
He looked along the table at Cottia, but her face was quiet and secret. "Esca must make his own mind up, husband."
Esca took up and drained his wine cup, then pushed back his stool and rose.
"Where are you off to?" asked Marcus, surprised.
"I must go out and clear my head," said Esca, terribly pleased that his voice did not shake, and now Cottia looked troubled.
"Wrap up well, Esca. You're in a sweat."
He nodded to her, and to Marcus, and slipped out the door and walked out along the rough colonnade to his own little room. There were but five rooms to the place, all told, counting the kitchen and the store-room. Cottia's babe would need a room, once it was weaned. He fetched out his warm cloak and wrapped it about him. His head was aching and his thoughts were slow and faltering as he went out into the night, past the wattle-and-daub huts where Senuna, Brocchus, and the rest had their beds. He should be living in one of them, not in a room of the little villa as though he were actually Marcus' own kin.
The snow-clouds of the previous night had blown away, and the cold sky was full of brilliant stars. The first sprouts of the winter wheat showed up clearly in the light of the quarter moon, and the mares, Citata and Rufa, blew their breath at him as he passed their paddock with its little stable. He stopped to scratch their warm necks, rough and familiar, and in the next pen, the plow-oxen, Leukon and Sticho, came over slowly, in case he might be handing out corn or bread crusts. All this raw, new little farm was so dear to him, already. How could anyone imagine that he was ready to leave it?
How could anyone imagine that he wanted to leave Marcus?
He left the beasts - the honest, uncomplicated beasts - and walked down toward the oak wood. Here was the section where they had begun felling trees for firewood and for charcoal. The back-breaking work of clearing the stumps to make it a cornfield would begin in the spring, when Marcus' knee was fully mended. He would need to make sure that Marcus did not do anything foolish to himself again, trying to be mightier than he was. And Cottia would be home, with a newborn babe ... perhaps that would rein in Marcus' wish to outdo everyone else at work.
What would they do without him? Did they want him to leave? Was that what Marcus had meant?
The trees, adorned only with the last of their dry, fluttering leaves, cut the cold wind only a bit. The last of the autumn's acorns rattled and rolled beneath his feet, and he had to pay closer attention to how he stepped. After some time, his thoughts stopped chasing themselves in the same tired circles, and he realized that he had come much farther than he had intended.
And gods, what nonsense he had been thinking - like an only child of eight worrying about his mother bearing another son to replace him. He should never have had that last cup of wine.
Esca came out into a little clearing where he could view the stars and the moon. He seemed to have made a wide half-circle about the farmlands, and he must be close to the land that the Legate Potitus was thinking of taking. If he went due east, he would have a shorter walk back. The oak wood was thicker here, and the moon was setting, so it was quite dark. He did not see the little ravine until he found himself falling into it.
When he could pay attention to anything once again, he had a sharp pain in his left wrist, and a duller, throbbing ache in his right ankle. His tunic, cloak, and sandals were splashed with icy water where he had broken through the ice of a tiny, shallow pool at the bottom of the gorge, the rim of which was hardly higher than his head. He struggled awkwardly to his feet, clinging to the hazel and oak saplings that clung to the side of the defile, but he could barely stand, let alone clamber out of his predicament.
Already his teeth were rattling with the cold. He drew breath and shouted as loudly as he could, but the wind and the steep slope were against him. He tried the climb again, and this time got perhaps an arm's length upward before stumbling and sliding back down again.
It looked like the winter's night was going to render moot the question of whether he was meant to leave the farm.
He tried to burrow in among the fallen leaves. At least the thick wool of the cloak still held some of his body's warmth, even though much of it was damp. He shouted again, although sense told him it was a waste of breath.
Then he heard, above his head, the sound of something large running about in the fallen leaves. It did not sound heavy enough for a boar, or a bear.
As if in answer to the thought, Esca heard a singing whine from the same direction, and dimly he saw the outline of a long head with ears pricked high. For a few seconds, his blood seemed to have left his head, but then he called "Cub!" And the creature gave a little yipping bark and slithered cautiously down the slope toward him. In a moment, Cub was on him, warm and real and very excited, licking every bit of skin he could find.
"Sa, Cub, softly, brother," he whispered, and buried his face in the rough fur of the young wolf's neck. Cub whined again, softly, and then curled up around him and half atop him. Esca sighed and wrapped his arms around the strong body. With Cub to shield him from the cold, he no longer feared to die before daylight. Then, surely, someone would find them.
He must have fallen asleep, but suddenly he awoke to find Cub wriggling out of his grasp. The wolf bounded up out of the gorge, leaving Esca gasping and dismayed, with the cold seeping back into his bones. Then Cub was barking, loudly, and even howling a bit. And Esca realized that he could hear voices, faintly: men, shouting. He recognized Cunsus' deep growl first, and then he heard Brocchus as well, and at last, Marcus.
"I am here!" Esca shouted. "Mind the drop!" The sound of feet tramping through the litter of the wood grew louder, and at last Esca could see them, standing at the edge, half lit by the torch that Marcus carried.
"Why's he still down there?" Cunsus muttered.
"Esca, are you hurt?" called Marcus.
"I fell. It is my ankle. I cannot walk on it, not for more than a step."
"Don't go down there, sir," advised Brocchus. "Cunsus and I will get him out, never fear."
"I suppose you're right," said Marcus, reluctantly, after a moment. The other two slithered down to where Esca sat. They pulled him to his feet and then each pulled one of Esca's arms over his shoulders. Esca gasped as Cunsus grabbed his injured wrist. "Ah now, the wrist as well?" said the ploughman, kindly. "You've certainly been to the wars. Senuna's going to give you such a tongue-lashing ... ." Slowly, the two brought him up the slope. Marcus looked at his face in the flickering torchlight, then clapped him gently on the shoulder. "You're wet and cold as a frog. Let's go home."
In the dark time before the dawn, Esca lay warm at last in his own bed, his wrist wrapped and splinted, his ankle merely wrapped. A sprain, said Senuna, and that was certainly not all she had to say to him, as Cunsus had predicted. She left him at last, to take what sleep she could before the day's work would begin. Then Marcus and Cottia came back to see him again, both of them so worn and tired-looking that Esca wanted to take a horse-whip to himself. Cub followed like a shadow on their heels.
"Esca," Marcus said, sitting on the bed beside him. "Whatever were you about, out there in the wood?"
Esca closed his eyes, unable to look at his friend's face. "I had too much to drink. It was foolishness."
"That I can believe," said Cottia. "But we'll have it out, Esca. We were out of our wits with worry, wondering whether we'd ever see you alive once again."
"At dinner ... ."
"Everyone seemed eager to marry me off. It came to me that perhaps, in the spring, with a child in the house - you might wish that I was not here."
"Oh, Esca!' groaned Marcus.
"I told you it was foolishness. I will never drink wine again."
"How could you think such a thing, even drunk? After all we have been through together, how could you think that something so ... ordinary as a new babe would come between us?"
"It is not so ordinary, to have your first child born."
"But what would I do without my right hand, at such a time? You are that to me, you know. This child has no uncles, nor any cousins. You will have to be all of that."
Esca cautiously opened his eyes. Marcus was smiling through his weariness, but Cottia was frowning as she met his gaze. "M-mistress?"
"Who is this mistress?" she asked, scornfully. "You know my name. Or perhaps, if Marcus is to be your brother and you the uncle of my child, you might call me sister. And that will be quite enough about us getting rid of you."
Esca gaped like a fish. Marcus chuckled. "I would not argue with her, Esca."
"That will be enough of that, as well," said Cottia, firmly. "A woman in my state needs her sleep. I shall go off to bed now. You will stay here and keep an eye on our wayward brother Esca."
She and Marcus exchanged a very speaking look, and then she turned on her heel and left the room. Marcus leaned over and blew out the little lamp by Esca's bed. "Move over," he said.
"What are you doing?"
"Getting into bed. I'm cold, and I'm tired, and I don't fancy sitting up all night. "
"Cottia ... ."
"She said to keep an eye on you. But you're not going anywhere, are you? And if you do, you'll have to climb over me. And I'll wake up. I think that works quite well, don't you?"
Esca moved over, and Marcus settled next to him under the rugs. There was a warm, sleepy silence, and then Esca yelped as a heavy weight settled on his legs. A moment later, a wet nose nuzzled him lovingly under the chin.
"Cub! Get off!" said Esca, but he had a hard time sounding as though he meant it.
"Is he hurting your ankle?"
"No. And he is very warm."
"What, warmer than I am?"
"I am afraid so. You have not his pelt."
"I guess he will have to stay, then. Good night, Esca."
"Good night, Marcus."
And he plunged almost at once into a deep, dreamless sleep, like a child safe in his own bed, in his own home.