Actions

Work Header

Fledglings

Work Text:

Marcus was not the only one for whom the winter was hard.

His leg held him close to the fire during the short days. He tried to heed his uncle’s advice and keep his thoughts from the future, his hands busy and his mind calm. Esca hunted, as he had said he would, and Marcus listened to his tales of the chase as attentively as he could, hoping his interest and praise would hide his envy of Esca’s freedom, although he suspected Esca saw it, just the same.

But when the winter rains came, he realized that their brutal journey had taken its toll on Esca too.

At first, although Marcus would never have said so aloud, it was somewhat comical, to see Esca sneeze, drag at his nose with his hand, and look around scowling, as if daring anyone to remark on his loss of dignity. He continued to go out in all weather—looking a little worn and red-eyed, true, but as light and tireless on his feet as ever.

But soon he was coughing in the night.

Esca still laid himself down on a pallet on the floor of Marcus’s sleeping cell. It bothered Marcus—he had explained that as a freedman in his uncle’s household, Esca was entitled to a room of his own. But Esca had shaken his head and said that as Marcus’s armor-bearer, it was his rightful place. He’d looked worried when he said it, too, as if he thought Marcus was trying to send him away, or was implying that he wasn’t fit for the job. There was a queer kind of formality between them during those months, as they tried to adjust themselves to the aftermath of their adventure. And so Marcus had let the matter rest, had let Esca continue to sleep across the door.

Now, though, listening to him suffer through bout after bout of racking coughs, he said, “Come up where it’s warmer—you’ll catch a chill lying there.”

“No.” Marcus could hear Esca scuffling about, gathering up his blankets. “I’d just keep you awake. I’ll find a place in the kitchens.”

“Esca,” Marcus called after him, but he was already making his way through the dark villa, his usually soundless steps heavy, almost stumbling.

Marcus let out a confused sigh as he lay back down. They had shared a blanket often enough on their travels. This strange distance had only fallen between them here in the south, making things more difficult just when they should have gotten easier.

And whatever favor Esca meant to do him by leaving was in vain. Marcus’s rest was poor and broken. His leg ached, and he realized he had come to rely on the even sounds of Esca’s breath to anchor him as he rode out the waves of it. It had been a long time since he had tried to sleep alone

+++

The next day was so dark there was hardly a difference between dawn and mid-day. Marcus huddled as close as he could to the brazier in the central room, both for its warmth and for the extra light he needed to mend his uncle’s embossed harness leathers. Outside, the sky glowered, threatening rain. Finally, just as the short day turned decisively to dusk, the weather broke. Marcus paused, listening to clatter of rain sweeping across the tile roof.

Gradually, he became aware of an angry voice in the corridor. Sassticca, it sounded like, working herself into a genuine tirade. Marcus felt a twinge of sympathy for whoever had burned the bread or let the chickens loose this time. The voice grew nearer, and suddenly Sassticca was pushing a dripping Esca in front of her into the room.

“You,” she said, glaring at Esca. “Stay here while I fetch some dry clothes and hot wine.”

Esca started to protest, but broke off as a fit of coughing overtook him. Sassticca started to give him an annoyed cuff on the side of the head, but the gesture turned into a steadying caress halfway through. Marcus looked questioningly between them.

“Him.” Sassticca still sounded furious, but her hand was gentle as she pushed Esca down onto the other camp chair in the room. “Riding about in this mess, sick as a dog. Almost fell off his horse, he did. Cyr had to haul him back here by force. Stupid, I don’t mind saying so. Stupid.”

Marcus had to agree. Esca looked in no shape to hunt. He had his arms crossed tightly over his chest, but he was still shivering hard enough to shake drops of rainwater from his hair. His face was bone pale except for the telltale streaks of fever across his cheekbones, and his eyes were shadowed.

With a last harrumph, Sasticca went off in search of clothes and food. Marcus started to say something, but Esca glared at him through watering eyes, and Marcus turned his attention to the brazier instead, trying to pull more heat out the coals with the poker.

They were silent, then, except for Esca’s muffled coughs, until Sasticca returned. Marcus kept his eyes on the harness leathers as she chivvied Esca into a dry tunic, draped a wool blanket around his shoulders, and coaxed him into taking a few sips of spiced, heated wine.

“Hopeless,” she said finally. “You should be in bed. But if not, at least it’s warm in here. Keep an eye on him.” She looked sternly at Marcus, then added as an afterthought, “domine.”

“Of course,” Marcus answered, although he was unsure exactly what such a duty would consist of. Sassticca seemed satisfied, however.

“Are you warm enough?” Marcus asked tentatively once she’d left, and got something very close to a growl in response.

He worked silently for a bit after that, trying to ignore Esca’s almost inaudible grunts as he tried to find a comfortable position for what must have been aching limbs.

Finally, keeping his manner neutral, Marcus said, “What did you do, among your people, when the weather was too bad to hunt?”

That earned him a curious stare, but the question seemed to have slipped past Esca’s defenses, because he said, voice scraped raw, “Told stories, mostly. Great hunts, great battles. Always greater in the telling than in truth.”

Marcus smiled. “It was the same in the legions. There was no tale did not improve by being retold.”

Quiet rose between them again. Marcus doubted Esca would want to hear about Roman victories, and he suspected his hunting stories would pale next to those of the Brigante.

After a while, though, hands busy with a particularly stubborn piece of leather, he said, “Perhaps you’ve heard this one? It comes to us from the Greeks.”

Esca didn’t say much as Marcus explained how Odysseus had outwitted the Sirens, and Marcus thought he might have might chosen wrongly. It was a story of the sea, after all, and the Brigante were an inland folk. Out of the corner of his eye, Marcus could see Esca pull the blanket tighter around his shoulders. The wine seemed to have calmed the coughing, but he was shivering slightly even now, and there was a deep furrow between his brows.

The story of the Cyclops went better, though. Esca let out a surprised chortle when the monster was forced to bellow, “Nobody, nobody is hurting me.” And when the Ithacans escaped by clinging to the undersides of the giant sheep he made an approving noise, and said, “Clever, that.”

He grew quiet again as Marcus began the complicated story of the hero’s homecoming. But when Marcus risked a glance he discovered it was only because Esca had fallen asleep, head lolling at an uncomfortable angle against his chest.

It was probably for the best, Marcus thought, levering himself stiffly to his feet, and went to find Sassticca, so that they could figure out the best way to shift Esca to a more comfortable location.

+++

The next day was as bleak as its predecessor and Esca kept to his bed. When Marcus limped into the kitchens see how he fared, he discovered that Sassticca had gone so far as to summon the healer-woman from Calleva. Marcus recognized her by sight, although he did not know her name. Indeed, he had never heard anybody use it—it seemed to be some kind of complicated bad luck to address her directly.

He paused at the doorway of the tiny sleeping cell off the kitchen where Sassticca had installed Esca, leaning heavily on his stick, for the damp had worked its own damage on his leg. The healer was an angular woman, with a single, heavy plait of iron-gray hair down her back and a face scored through with a hundred lines. She crouched by Esca’s pallet, smearing some kind of paste over his bare chest. The paste gave off a strong, astringent smell, and the healer murmured something as she worked, some charm, Marcus thought, unsettled by the keening drone.

Esca lay uncharacteristically passive under her ministrations, his flushed face turned away and his eyes closed. When had he gotten so thin? Marcus wondered, troubled by how Esca’s ribs pushed against his skin. He had seen men lying ill before, of course: it was a given in any army camp, and a Cohort Centurion was expected to keep track of the sick and the well. He’d even picked up some rough doctoring skills, in one situation or another.

But it was different, somehow, to see Esca lying there; it felt as if a thick hand were closing around his own lungs. Esca’s lips were open, his chin tilted up. The sharp slash of his cheekbones, the jut of his nose, made him look like nothing so much as baby bird, fighting for air the way a fledgling fights for food.

“Sa, sa,” said Sassticca, startling Marcus. “Come away now and let him rest. Her herbs are powerful—he’ll mend soon, you’ll see.” She touched his shoulder, urging him back towards the kitchen, as if she thought Marcus were the one who needed comforting.

+++

Marcipor the house slave had stoked the brazier in Marcus’s room as high as he dared against the winter chill. Ordinarily Marcus would have welcomed the warmth, but that night the air felt overly close, too thick to breathe. He could manage nothing better than a fitful doze, and when he did slip under he fell into memories of their desperate flight from the Seal People, the terror of being pursued coursing through him once again.

And so, when someone shook his shoulder and murmured “domine” he came awake abruptly, heart beating fast. It was Sassticca, and because of the dreams, his first thought was that the villa had been attacked.

“What’s happened?” he gasped.

Domine,” she repeated. “Esca…”

At that, a cold fear flooded Marcus, worse than anything in the dreams. “What’s happened?” he repeated more softly. “Is he—?”

“No, no.” Sassticca seemed to read his thoughts. “Not that. It’s just—perhaps you could come. He trusts you, I think.”

She seemed reluctant to explain further, and, in truth, Marcus needed no more than that to be out of bed, and pulling on yesterday’s clothes, almost tripping as his leg protested against the sudden movement.

He trailed after Sassticca toward the kitchen, struggling to keep up with the pace she set. But when they arrived in the low-ceilinged, whitewashed room, Marcus at first saw nothing amiss: only Stephanos, grim-faced and barefoot, standing near the long wooden table that stood along one wall.

The old slave looked up when he heard them enter, and his expression lightened somewhat.

“Stephanos?” Marcus asked, but the other man just tilted his head, directing Marcus’s attention downwards.

And now that Marcus listened, he could hear sounds, low, indistinct, urgent, coming from under the table. Cautiously, he lowered himself into a crouch, ignoring the strain on his thigh.

And there was Esca.

He had pressed his compact body into the space between the wall and the table, and was facing outward, eyes glittering with fever even in the lantern-light of the room, the lines of his tattoo standing out like a brand against his livid skin. A litany of some sort poured through his parted lips, and Marcus, for all his knowledge of Esca’s tongue, could not understand a word. And in his hand, glinting with reflected light, was the kitchen’s largest knife.

“Esca?” Marcus tried, striving to keep his growing alarm out of his voice. “Are you dreaming? There’s nothing to be afraid of here. You can put that down.”

But Esca just gripped the knife more firmly, his mouth working soundlessly now. The lack of recognition on his face caught in Marcus’s chest like an arrow barb.

When it became apparent that his words would have no effect, Marcus raised himself to his full height again, to find Stephanos and Sassticca watching at him expectantly.

“How long has he been there?” Marcus asked. He sounded abrupt, he knew, but most of his thoughts were caught up in the problem of how to get Esca out of there.

“I don’t know, domine,” Stephanos replied. “Sassticca found him by chance when she came to check supplies for the morning.”

“I hope we did no wrong to wake you,” Sasticca added.

“No, no. Of course not.” Had they considered not waking him? When Esca was his—well, not his slave anymore, not for a long time—but surely something to him that he ought to be awakened. Marcus cut off that train of thought. “Have you sent for Ulpius?” he said instead.

“He’ll be hard to rouse,” said Stephanos. The fat physician would be drunk, Marcus translated.

“I’ve sent for the healer from Calleva,” Sasticca put in.

Marcus nodded. That was probably best. He started to bend so he could see under the table, but then straightened once more.

“Do you know what he’s saying? I can’t make it out.”

Stephanos shook his head, but Sassticca murmured, looking at her shoes rather than meeting Marcus’s eyes, “Names, I think. The names of his tribe.”

A hard fist of pain clenching in his belly, Marcus crouched again. And indeed, now that he knew what to listen for, he could pick out words he knew in the tumble of sound: uncle, cousin. Mother.

“Esca,” he said in a rush, almost a plea. “Stop it. You can’t help them now. Come out from there. You’re going to make yourself worse.”

But Esca just faced him down, wild-eyed, the knife shaking slightly in his hands. “Get back, Roman,” he snarled, voice thin and vicious.

The phrase steeled something in Marcus. He pushed himself past whatever tentativeness had come between him and Esca these last few weeks--forced himself to think of what he would have done if it had been one of his stalwart Gauls from Isca Dumnoniorum, driven mad by drink, or ready to die for some girl.

He pulled back a little, got his hands in front of him, made sure his balance was as good as it could be with his bad leg, and said as coldly as he could, “Come here where I can make you regret those words. Or are you too much of a coward, Brigante whelp?”

Above and behind him, he heard someone draw a sharp breath, but Marcus’s ploy worked. With a sharp sound of pure rage, Esca lunged. Ordinarily, he was fast as a whip, but illness slowed him, and Marcus was able to get a grip on the wrist of Esca’s knife hand it came down. Even so, Esca fought with a fury born of desperation, and the blade swung back and forth between them for a long moment as they struggled for control. But just as Marcus felt it whisper against his face he found the fault in Esca’s balance he’d been looking for. He pulled Esca down with the force of his own momentum, rolled them over once, and pinned Esca under him on the cold flagstone floor.

Yet even trapped by Marcus’s weight, Esca wouldn’t yield, squirming and twisting under him. His skin was so hot that holding his arm was like holding a firebrand, and his ribs felt so sharp and brittle as he strained for breath that Marcus was reminded once again of a fledgling bird. He almost rolled off Esca immediately for fear of suffocating him. But he forced himself to concentrate on the knife instead, driving Esca’s wrist into the floor until he heard sharp clatter of the blade falling to the flagstones. Out of the corner of his eye, Marcus saw the swoosh of Sassticca’s skirts as she bent to pick it up.

Relieved, Marcus pushed himself off. And almost doubled over in pain, biting off a groan. Something in the tussle had wrenched his thigh. He had to take a few long breaths through his nose before he could lift his head.

When he did, Esca was still an untidy heap of knees and elbows beside him. Marcus could hear the air crackling harshly through his lungs as he struggled to breathe. Stephanos crouched beside him, a weathered hand on Esca’s back.

“Come now, son,” he said. “Let’s get you back to bed.”

Silent and compliant now, perhaps only half-conscious, Esca made no protest as Stephanos tugged him to his feet. Marcus started to rise, too, to help, but pulled up short, hissing in frustration, when his leg refused to bear his weight. Giving Marcus a look halfway between gratitude and pity, Stephanos drew one of Esca’s arms over his shoulder, and bore most of his weight as they made their way out of the room.

Marcus watched them go. Esca looked small with Stephanos’s arms around him. In all the time they’d spent together, Marcus had never thought of Esca as small. He remembered, remembered so sharply he could almost feel it, how Esca had more or less carried him the last few leagues to the guard post on the wall. He’d only been conscious of Esca’s strength then—a strength both of body and of spirit. Marcus inwardly cursed his old injury. It hurt more than he could have imagined not to be able to return that aid, that strength.

Domine,” said Sassticca, handing him his stick, “your face.”

Marcus followed her gaze with his hand, and felt a long, shallow graze along his cheek. The knife must have come closer than he’d thought. He had not felt it before, but now it burned. Savagely swiping away the blood, he levered himself off the floor with the stick and followed the others to the tiny sleeping cell Esca had been using.

+++

The healer arrived just as they were settling Esca, shivering hard and now and coughing almost continuously, onto his thin pallet. She took one look at him, waved away Sassticca’s explanations, and sent her off for hot water and extra blankets instead.

This time, Marcus planted himself stubbornly inside the room, and watched closely as the healer pulled various herbs and poultices out of an ancient basket. She bent so close to Esca’s chest that her ear grazed his skin, closing her eyes as she listened to his breathing. Then she pressed her lips together and started to shift him into more of a sitting position. When Marcus moved to help her, she looked at him measuringly for a moment, but let him hold Esca as she positioned a bolster and a stack of folded blankets behind him.

When Sassticca returned, the healer mixed various tisanes and salves, and said, “He’s young and strong, a bad night won’t set him back much. Keep him warm and quiet, and he should be well in a week or so. But he needs fattening up. Feed him marrow-bone soup—if your master can spare such rich food for his servants.” She smiled at Marcus, the ingratiating leer at odds with her stern face, seemingly confident that he could not understand her.

“The master can spare whatever Esca needs,” he said, in her own language.

The false smile dropped away instantly as she turned and stepped closer to him. She was a tall woman, and she only had to reach up slightly to touch his face. Too surprised to move, Marcus felt something slide wet under her fingers, and worried for a moment that he had been crying unawares. But when she drew her hand away from his cheek it was stained red instead.

“You should let me clean that,” she said, her Latin perfect, if heavily accented. “Or it will fester.”

Dumb in the face of her surety, Marcus nodded, and let her spread her herbs over his skin too.

+++

Domine,” said Sassticca, “thank you. I’m sure the boy will sleep now.”

“I’ll stay.” Marcus was a little surprised at his own vehemence, but he held his ground.

“There is no need, domine--“

“Fetch a stool, please, Sassticca. I’ll stay.”

She ducked her head, looking at him a little strangely from under her lashes, and hurried off.

+++

Marcus set the stool she brought against the wall opposite Esca’s bed, folded himself onto it, and stretched his aching leg in front of him. With one hand he tried to knead the cramp out of his thigh, and with the other he brought the wine Sassticca had given him to his mouth, taking slow, grateful sips.

Whatever herbs the healer had used seemed to have put Esca truly under. His face was lax with sleep now, a fine film of sweat overlaying his brow. Marcus wondered if he himself had looked so still, so vulnerable, when Esca watched over him during those long days after his surgery. If he had, Esca had never spoken of it.

Marcus let the wine lull him, felt the current of exhaustion take him. But just as he was about to slip into a doze, a harsh flurry of coughs erupted from the bed. Marcus’s eyes flew open, and he saw Esca jackknife forward, bending almost double, the blankets and pillows behind him scattering across the floor.

Marcus was up and across the room before he had time to think. Esca seemed about to slide off the pallet entirely, so violent was the paroxysm. But Marcus hooked an arm around his shoulders and drew Esca close against his own body, holding him steady through the wracking coughs. It went on for a long time—so long Marcus thought he might have to call for help. But gradually Esca quieted again, and was able to draw air into his battered lungs. Marcus retrieved the cooled tisane the healer had left, helped Esca gulp some of it down. He sagged in Marcus’s arms—the attack had barely woken him.

Marcus looked around, unsure of what to do. He was reluctant to lay Esca down again without the pile of bedding behind him—he wasn’t sure Esca would be able to breathe at all lying flat. Marcus inched himself awkwardly toward the wall at the head of the pallet, drawing Esca after him and settling him clumsily between his legs and against his chest. Barely conscious, Esca followed him easily enough. He even burrowed against Marcus as if for warmth, seeming smaller than ever as he pushed his head into the crook of Marcus’s shoulder, his breathing slowing almost immediately into sleep.

Should he move now, Marcus wondered, and go back to his post on the other side of the room? But he hated the idea of disturbing Esca’s fragile rest, now that he had found it again. His fever had cooled somewhat, Marcus thought, but there was still too much heat coming off him—Marcus could feel it even through the fabric of his tunic. The healer was right: Esca needed to stay warm and quiet. So Marcus shifted carefully, trying to find a better angle for his leg and hip, and guarded his friend’s sleep as best he could.

+++

Marcus woke with a start and the feeling someone was watching him. He opened his eyes, and found himself looking into Esca’s troubled face.

“Marcus,” Esca said, voice hoarse and rough, “are you ill?” He was perched on the side of the pallet, legs tucked under him, confused. His eyes were still blurred with fever, but, thanks to all the gods, they seemed to know Marcus again.

“No.” Marcus shook his head. “I’m not ill. You are.”

“Hmm.” Esca rubbed a hand across his chest, as though he were prepared to admit the truth of that statement. “But—?” He raised a hand as if to touch Marcus’s face, but then skimmed across his own cheek instead.

“It’s nothing.” Marcus touched the cut. He could barely feel it now. “You don’t remember?”

“I—. Did I—?“ Esca paused, seeming to search for something. When he found it his eyes grew wide. “I marked you?”

“You marked me.” Marcus agreed, shivering a little to think of all the ways that phrase was true. “Don’t worry. You didn’t know what you were doing.”

Esca tilted his head. And now he did put his hot fingers to Marcus’s face, as if the dimensions of the wound would give his memories back to him. Delicately, he traced its outlines, its length and depth, while Marcus held his breath, not knowing what Esca was looking for, but willing to give it to him, whatever it might be. Finally, satisfied by whatever he had discerned, Esca nodded.

“Lie down,” Marcus said. “You’re ill.”

He gathered himself on the edge of the pallet, ready for Esca to tell him to make room, to go back to his own bed. But Esca merely nodded again and curled himself on his side next to Marcus, pressing his back into Marcus’s hip, as naturally as he had done during all the months of their journey north. He was almost instantly asleep again—if indeed he had ever truly been awake.

Marcus watched him for a moment, thinking that perhaps Esca’s breathing sounded easier already. Then he drew the blanket over them both.

end