Marcus can’t run, and wouldn’t be allowed a spear anyway, but he is still put out when Esca announces that he and the Seal Prince will be hunting today. Marcus may not hunt, but he will be needed to butcher and carry whatever they kill.
He knew something of the art before Esca, but when they hunted together, Esca showed him where his skill was lacking, how a find iron blade could pluck out a tendon that could then be fashioned into a bow string, how to take the skin of a boar in one piece, the better for making a warm tunic from. Rome’s ways were wasteful, Esca told him.
“If you can keep up, you can have meat tonight,” Esca tells him, and then he and the prince are off at a ground-swallowing lope, lost in the woods before Marcus can muster a few steps. His leg doesn’t pain him anymore, except in the mornings, or on cold days. Or sometimes when a storm is rolling in. But doesn’t have the sure-footed stride of a man who grew up running these hills. His feet falter as often as not, and he is noisy where Esca and the prince leave only the rushing sound of wind in their passing.
They don’t travel a straight line, though, and Marcus can stay within ear shot of the bird calls Esca uses as signals, the whisht of branches as they pass.
The sun has reached its zenith, still low on the horizon this far north, smudged by icy clouds, when a deer hurtles by where Marcus is resting himself against a tree. It’s young, but followed by a stately, many-pointed buck, and then the two-footed runners behind, heads down and spears gripped hard.
Esca leaps, graceful and high, and his spear goes through the buck’s throat. The prince follows, a heartbeat behind, with a strike to the heart. Red blood flows over the spear and down his arm, and the deer crashes to the ground.
They stand over it and the prince says something of which Marcus can only understand one word: Roman.
Esca answers, and the prince chuckles. Marcus can well imagine the exchange. No, my slow-footed slave will never catch up. Now is when Marcus should show himself, and stop Esca’s laughter. He stays hidden though, motionless behind branches that, along with his dun-colored clothing, hide him. Perhaps Esca knows he is here—his keen eyes miss little—but he does not look up to meet Marcus’s eyes.
Instead he and the prince examine their kill. They pass more words, and Marcus can imagine these as well, since he and Esca hunted together.
“Mine was the first strike,” Esca will say.
“I hit the heart,” the prince will reply. “The kill is mine.”
When Marcus and Esca hunted together, Esca never yielded that honor if he believed he’d earned it. And he doesn’t now. He shoves a half-friendly shoulder into the prince, who stumbles back, then grabs Esca’s arms and tries to throw him down. He succeeds in pulling himself down, with Esca on top of him.
Marcus would almost enjoy this if—if he weren’t so unsure of Esca now. Marcus too has fallen to the smaller Esca before. He’s slight, but impossible to get a grip on.
They’re still grappling, but now the prince straddles Esca, wearing a triumphal grin. Esca wriggles out from under him, and then Esca’s on top of him, a little smirk playing over his lips.
Marcus doesn’t know when it changes to something else, but suddenly the sounds are not those of argument, the faces not those of good-natured wrestling. He sees hands fumbling with trousers, then Esca on his hands and knees, making sounds and faces that make Marcus want to blush, to turn away, to hit something, to unsee this.
Esca is his, and he never—not that he didn’t want to—but he never used Esca like this. It doesn’t matter that Esca seems to be enjoying it; the prince is too, and Esca is not his to enjoy.
Marcus rattles the bushes, kicks a few stones over the edge of his perch—maybe they’ll stop—but he can’t go down there now. Esca does look up then, but Marcus hides his face before their eyes can meet.
They finish quickly enough, with a shout from Esca, and when they’re dressed, Marcus joins them again. He eviscerates the deer with deep strokes of the little knife Esca allows him, caring little if he tears skin, and ties the legs so he can carry it.
He follows along behind Esca and the prince as they trot back to the village. Esca seems happier, lighter than when he went out, and Marcus doesn’t know who to hate more for it, him or the prince.
“Are you well?” Marcus asks, putting a hand on Esca’s shoulder, when they are alone for a moment.
“Perfectly,” Esca replies. His body is hard, unyielding under Marcus’s hand, all lightness flown.
“I’ll kill him for you,” says Marcus, but Esca hushes him with a gesture. Marcus quiets himself unwillingly. One of the Seal people may know some Latin. Even if they do not, Marcus’s tone cannot be mistaken.
They lay out the prince of the Seal People next to his fellows, and the twice-fallen Romans. They all wear the same gray pallor in death, Roman and Calendonian. The prince’s paint washed off in the stream, revealing him to be little more than a boy, younger than either Marcus or Esca. A bloodthirsty warrior, and a boy.
Those who still live disperse in all directions, saluting Marcus grimly before melting into the brush.
Marcus is drained from the battle, from bidding farewell to Guern, from too much death. He thanks Mithras for an astonishing victory, and stares dumbly at the bodies until Esca takes him by the shoulder, and steers him out of the ravine.
They do not walk far that night, and make camp in the shelter of an overhanging cliff. The night is dry and cool. By unspoken accord, they share the tasks of making camp. Esca is free now.
“The Seal people will likely not survive,” says Esca when they settle in to sleep that night. “Without their warriors, the rest will be prey to whatever nearby tribe happens on them first.”
Perhaps a week ago, Marcus would have been glad of that, but now he is stunned by too much death. “I would have settled just for killing him,” says Marcus.
They sleep close, as has been their wont, for warmth and comfort, so Marcus can feel it when Esca’s body stiffens next to him. He says, mildly enough, “He was not living when your father died.”
“You regret his death?” Marcus asks, looking over at Esca’s profile. “What was between you?”
Esca turns on his side so they’re facing, his knees just brushing Marcus’s thighs.
It’s not Marcus’s to ask. Does he really want to chart the path of Esca’s shifting loyalties? They rest with Marcus now; it’s all he needs know. “Only what you saw,” says Esca. His pupils are very dark in the low orange glow from the fire’s dying embers.
“What did I see?” Marcus asks quietly.
“A moment’s pleasure, nothing more.”
Yes, Marcus remembers. Esca’s face like Marcus had never seen it before, head thrown back. He grabs Esca’s wrist. “It pained me to see,” says Marcus.
“Because I was your slave,” says Esca flatly.
“No. Because you’re mine.” Now, then. But free now to leave and never come back.
Marcus holds his breath as Esca turns his hand within the circle of Marcus’s fingers, fingertips lightly brushing Marcus’s palm. He smiles an unguarded smile that he’s never before worn for Marcus. “Show me,” he says.