I am standing with Stephanos in the forum at Calleva while he haggles for a good price on some dried fruits, and my gaze wanders over all the people – mostly Britons and Romans – who are gathered there about me. I notice a pretty, dark-haired girl of perhaps fifteen – a Roman by her clothes and complexion – who is flirting with a young Briton. She switches between coy looks and bright smiles while he encourages her attentions, and I’m struck by the fact that despite our peoples having been conquered and now living under oppression, life goes on.
As I watch her, she leans in, tilts her head up and touches her mouth to his, and the look of shock on the young man’s face is so comical, it makes me smile. In all likelihood, no-one’s ever done that to him before. The girl is grinning and now so is the boy, and when she tilts her head up again, he leans down eagerly to meet her.
Of course we Britons kiss and have a word for it – cusen – but it’s usually used for affection where the mouth is pressed against the head or cheek, usually of a child, but sometimes other family members and occasionally close friends. This touching of mouths together is something new the Romans have introduced, but it’s not a widespread practice even among them – at least in public.
Stephanos is finished and handing me a jar to carry for him, I think no more of kissing until a few days later.
It is mid-afternoon when old Aquila accompanies Marcus and me to Calleva to make my manumission official. I gather from the discussions with the magistratus – right in front of me as though I can’t hear – that it’s highly irregular for a slave of my age and length of service to be released for no reason other than gratitude; but when Marcus stiffly reminds the official that the recovery of the lost Eagle was largely thanks to my actions and that I deserve the reward of freedom for that, he stops arguing.
It is also agreed that although Aquila bought me, I was a gift to Marcus and he has been responsible for me ever since. So it is Marcus who stands behind me while a rod is placed upon my head and I am declared to be a free man under his patronage.
“Hunc hominem liberum volo,” Marcus says quietly and turning me once, releases me. The magistratus declares me free, signs a scroll and I am given a new name. After Marcus pays a tax of one dinarius, we are apparently done as we are waved out.
Outside the basilica, the sun is shining and I blink in its glare, taking a moment to realise Aquila has turned to me with a smile. “You’re fortunate they didn’t shave your head as is custom in these things, Esca Flavius Aquila.”
It will take me a while to get used to having an official name that is so…Roman. As for my hair – Marcus had told me to expect it and I’m glad that it was, for whatever reason, overlooked.
When Marcus suggests we celebrate at the taberna, Aquila cries off and leaves us to it. As we approach the building, Marcus stops and turns to me, taking out his money pouch.
“Take this,” he says, offering me two dinarii. “From now on, you’ll be able to buy your own drinks.” The valuable silver coins, I know, are from the reward he was given by the Senate, along with some farmland not too far from his uncle’s villa.
“But I’ve only just been freed,” I point out. “I haven’t earnt it yet.” As my patron, Marcus will employ me, for which I will be paid fairly, but my pride won’t accept money as though I had begged for it.
“I gave you your freedom in Caledonia; this is payment for all your work since then – you have earnt this and more,” he says and grabbing my hand, drops the coins onto my palm.
I know better than to argue and I have a plan to give the coins to old Aquila for my continued food and lodging. I nod once and close my hand around them, and we walk on along the busy street, ignoring the calls from vendors in their shops to browse their wares until we come to a baker and the smell of fresh bread makes my mouth water. As if reading my thoughts, Marcus steps over to take a close look at the selection.
“If we are to drink, then we would do well to eat first,” Marcus points out, as we both eye the loaves laid out invitingly. “Which one do you want?” I pick a small one – something we can eat now and not have any left over to carry home.
When I go to pay, Marcus is there first. “You won’t be thanked for taking all his change,” he points out and I subside in mute acceptance.
We break it in half and the smell of warm bread makes my mouth water before I have even taken a bite. We continue to walk and I realise I must have been looking at Marcus’ mouth when I see his tongue slide across his bottom lip, trying to catch the loose crumbs left there. The action is far more erotic than it has any right to be and I find myself entranced. It’s when I catch his quizzical look that I shake myself, reminding myself not to stare, waiting and hoping it will happen again. Instead, I keep my eyes steadfastly forward, my mouth a thin line.
There are a number of tabernas in Calleva, but for some reason, Marcus favours only one. Unlike the others which are also hostelries, this one is the front of a house owned by a family of Romanised Britons who live behind and above it. It’s a wonder they can stand the noise of drunken revellers night after night.
As a slave, I stood outside that establishment many times, waiting for Marcus to be done so I could help him home. I could have gone inside with him – and he always asked – but I had no stomach to listen to Marcus and other Romans discussing politics, Rome’s latest conquests or other news from their homeland.
Inside, the room has a long counter in which sit large amphorae of wine, ales and other drinks. Marcus knows I will not drink wine. I don’t like its bitter flavour or the way it seems to coat my mouth and tongue with something I can still taste hours later.
“Will you have mead?” he asks as he waits to be served.
After my initiation as a warrior I had gotten drunk and then very sick on mead and now cannot stomach it – even the smell makes me want to heave. I wrinkle my face in disgust. “No, I will have cider.”
“You don’t like wine and you don’t like mead – it’s fortunate you’re not so fussy with your food,” Marcus says, smiling and I wonder if he’s remembering the time we had to eat a raw rat.
He buys himself a wine and my cider, but when I offer him one of the dinarii, he waves it away. “Save your money,” he says clapping me on my back. “We’re celebrating your manumission.”
“You gave it to me to buy my own drink,” I point out and he grins at me and shrugs.
The room is crowded with men and several dogs sitting and standing, and the stone floor is covered in loosely-scattered straw. As Marcus orders our drinks, a small round table against one wall becomes free and I quickly sit on one of the stools to stake our claim.
Marcus joins me looking grateful: I know his leg bothers him but he rarely lets it show. When I take my first sip of the sweet drink, I have an unexpected reaction. The taste brings back memories of the days of my youth in my father’s tribe; of sitting around a fire and listening to tales; or dancing into the early hours of the morning, celebrating a religious day or a victory over our enemies.
“Esca?” Marcus says worriedly. I used to be careful about hiding how I was feeling around him, but lately I haven’t bothered so much.
“It’s nothing,” I say automatically, but at Marcus’ concerned look I huff out a breath. I used to guard my privacy jealously, but lately, I have been more willing to share a little of who I am with him, against my natural inclination. He, too, will occasionally talk of his lonely childhood and how it was to live with a mother who for years didn’t know for sure if her husband was alive or dead, but either way had brought disgrace to the family name.
“It’s been a long time since I drank any cider,” I explain. “The flavour brought back some memories.”
He looks down at his wine and doesn’t say anything. It’s one of the things I appreciate about him – even when I can see he’s curious, he doesn’t ever push me for more information. If only he knew how disarming it is, how potent a weapon it is in breaking down my self-imposed walls, to learn all about the real Esca.
“In two days it will be Beltane. When I was growing up, it was celebrated with the lighting of great fires and small sacrifices to the gods for a good harvest to come. It marked the coming of summer and the whole tribe would feast and I would get drunk enough on cider to dance!”
As I say the words, my mind is transported back to those times when my family was still alive and happy together. I feel Marcus’ fingers clutch mine and my gaze is drawn to the point of contact, noticing how my hand looks like a child’s next to his.
Not for the first time, I imagine what it would feel like to have that large, hot hand wrapped around my cock. Such thoughts are wasted as Marcus has shown no interest in me in that way. While I was his body slave, he had the perfect reason and opportunity to take me to his bed: to pleasure him was, after all, one of my duties. But not all men are so inclined, even when there is no suitable alternative.
I look up into his expressive eyes. “Just as the seasons change, so do our lives,” I say, and smile at him. Perhaps because I don’t do it often, he smiles back and nods in understanding.
“From soldier to farmer,” he says ruefully. “Can I try it?” he asks, pointing at my cup.
His hand moves from its resting place on mine, which suddenly feels bereft, and takes the cup I have pushed towards him. I watch as he puts it to his lips, noting from the position of the handle that it’s exactly the same place I had drunk from.
He pulls a face. “Too sweet,” he declares and putting my cup down, takes a sip of his wine.
The next time I take a sip from my cup, I carefully ensure it’s from the same place he drank from and looking up, I see him silently watching me, no doubt concerned at my sudden moroseness. I am certain he has no idea what I’m actually doing and draining my cup, wave it at him. “Another?” I ask.
In the end we have three cups each. Between the second and third, I make use of the latrine but it is only as we prepare to leave that Marcus goes. I head outside to prepare the horses, leading them to a trough to drink. Over the rooftops of Calleva, the sky is turning from red to purple, and even though the sun has gone, it’s unusually warm for the time of year.
A short distance away I see a whore approach a Roman and say something to him. He stops to look at her and she leans up and presses her mouth to his. But unlike the young people a few days earlier, she opens her mouth as though she’s going to take a bite of his face and sticks her tongue in his mouth. He must have enjoyed the exchange of spittle because he follows her to the nearby brothel without a murmur.
I wonder what it would be like to do that to Marcus – to put my mouth over his and to feel his tongue against mine. Before I can think more of it, Marcus is at my side, and I help him onto his horse before getting onto mine. It used to bother him that he needed my help but he finally seems to have accepted it.
We are on the road that leads to the villa when Marcus speaks again. “So, you are now Esca Flavius Aquila, freedman of the Roman Empire.” I can never be a full citizen, though any children I have will be, whether they want it or not. And they will have Marcus’ name, not my father’s.
I scowl at him at the unwanted reminder of my new legal status. “Call me what you want, I am still Esca Mac Cunoval,” I say defiantly.
It is not too dark for me to see something flash across his face. “You don’t like my name?” he asks quietly.
I know he has been drinking, and his moods and the things he says are affected by that. Even so, the question takes me by surprise. “If I am to have a Roman name, I wouldn’t want any but yours,” I tell him and it’s the truth – Marcus has more honour in his little finger than any dozen other Romans I’ve met and to be bound to him legally by name is no great shame. After all, it’s only a document scribed on papyrus, not the blood in my veins. “I’m all that’s left of my family,” I explain quietly. “I don’t want to forget who and what I am.”
Marcus goes silent and I’m unsure if I’ve offended him. It’s several minutes before he speaks again.
“You’re right, Esca Mac Cunoval. There’s nothing more important than your family’s name.”
I know he understands – after all, he went on a five hundred league quest to restore his father’s honour.
When we arrive at the villa, I can tell the stable boy’s been asleep as he appears from the building looking bleary-eyed with straw sticking out of his hair. It’s odd not to be getting off and helping him with the stabling. Even so I hesitate a moment – after all, my duties as a paid servant haven’t yet been defined.
“Come Esca,” Marcus calls, so I follow him.
We walk through the villa, into his bedroom and then back outside where he sits on a low stone bench covered in cushions that faces the lake. When he looks up at me, I silently join him.
It’s a while before he turns to me. “I want you to call me Marcus,” he says after several minutes of silence, “since we’re equals now.” He laughs. “Well, I’ve known that for a long time, but now we are equals in the eyes of Rome.”
I still don’t understand Roman ways with their laws and their scrolls, and I’m sure pure-bred Romans wouldn’t regard me as an equal – I’m not even a citizen, after all. “Isn’t what we hold in our hearts and our minds more important than the words on a legal document?” I ask.
“Yes. It is,” he agrees and I want to do a dance of triumph. Ever since our journey, he’s started to change some of his beliefs about the sanctity of Rome, no longer accepting it with blind faith, and it warms me. “But we can’t escape from the fact that we’re governed by Rome and must abide by its laws, whatever we might feel inside.”
I press him. “What do you feel inside, Marcus?”
He looks at his hands folded in his lap. “Conflicted,” he admits. “Some things I once held as true, I’m no longer certain of.”
“Such as?” I hold my breath, waiting for his answer.
“I used to believe we were civilising the world. Now I’m not so sure.” He stares out across the water, the sky now dark blue. “Our ways aren’t necessarily better, just different. And I think we’ve destroyed more than we’ve built.”
He understands. My heart’s hammering away in my chest and there are several things I want to do in that moment, but none of them are appropriate, so I sit on my hands and remain silent.
“What were you staring at, before?” he asks and when I look at him, puzzled, he adds, “In Calleva. When I came out of the taberna you were staring down the road with an odd look on your face.”
I feel myself flush and thank the gods it’s too dark for him to notice. “I was watching two people kissing.”
Marcus smiles. “Have you ever done that?”
He knows it’s not something we Britons do. I shake my head. “No. Have you?”
He laughs. “Of course!”
For the first time in a long time, the silence between us feels awkward, though that may be my own imagination as I know what’s going through my mind. I blame the three cups of cider because my mouth decides to act completely independently of me. “What’s it like?” and the moment the words are said, I’m appalled at myself for asking such a personal question.
I can’t look at him, but out of the corner of my eye, I can see Marcus is staring at me, incredulously. “Never mind,” I mutter and go to stand. He grabs my hand and pulls me back down to the bench. He doesn’t let go.
“I’m a soldier – I don’t have poetic words for it. But…I can show you…” His words are hesitant and it’s said like a question.
I feel my body begin to tingle and just the thought has my cock hardening. I don’t answer, but turn towards him and realise our height difference means I’ll be stretching up and he’ll be bent over. So I stand, his hand still clutched in mine and straddle his thighs. Now he has to look up at me, but not by much.
He lets loose a laugh and I feel his breath puff on my face, smelling of wine.
“Just how potent is that cider?” he asks and I wonder the same thing as I silently question my sanity.
He leans forward and our noses bump, so he tilts his head and then I feel his lips gently press to mine. They’re softer than I imagined and I feel a thrill of excitement travel down my spine, but before I get any more impression, he pulls back and looks at me. Was that it? I wonder. I don’t want to stop there. I want him, all of him with a desperation that takes my breath away.
The thought makes me feel emboldened. “That wasn’t the kind of kiss I saw. They were touching tongues.”
He smiles and leans forward again, and I have to force my eyes to stay open so I can see. This time when he presses his mouth to mine, I feel his lips part and caress mine gently and rhythmically. Unwilling to be still, I reciprocate and I hear a quiet groan at the back of his throat. I’m rock hard and have to shift to make room in my breeches and, as I do, I realize he’s hard too. The thought sends another thrill down my spine and my heart is beating hard in my chest.
In the meshing of our mouths, I don’t feel it at first, but interspersed with caresses of his lips, his tongue makes gentle licks at my mouth and once I realise, I do the same, allowing my tongue to touch his. The feeling is indescribable and with a gasp, I open my mouth wider wanting more. His tongue ventures in and slides against my own, hot and slick and tasting of wine, and I realise with horror that I’m close to climaxing, just from this.
Without conscious volition, my free hand – Marcus still has a grip on the other – has strayed up to the back of his head, my fingers in his hair, holding his head in place as I revel in this one Roman import that I completely approve of.
I push my tongue into his mouth and begin to explore, learning the sensitive places that make him catch his breath and the kiss becomes more urgent.
When Marcus suddenly pulls away from me, he’s gasping. “Esca,” he says and I’ve never heard that tone from him before. He lets go of my hand, fumbles between us, his knuckles sliding against my cock as he looks for the fastening to my breeches. He pauses and rests his hand over me and with a moan, I push up into him, wanting more pressure.
A moment later, I’m pushing up his tunic and he’s opening my breeches and with some more work, we finally, finally get our hands on each other’s cocks. It takes every ounce of self-control and gritting of teeth not to embarrass myself by climaxing then and there. It’s not just his touch, his big hand seeming to engulf me, but the feeling of his cock lying in the palm of my hand, his excitement visible in how wet he already is, leaking big fat droplets that I want nothing more than to lick away.
“Is this alright?” he asks, squeezing me and with my free hand I grip his fist, barely fitting my hand over his and give him a rhythm. I’m sure my eyes cross at the pleasure of it.
Something makes me ask, “Have you done this before?”
“I…no, not with another man,” he admits, looking down at my cock in rapt fascination, apparently unable to meet my gaze.
“Then this is a first for us both, me kissing, and you with a man.” I smile and lean forward to take his luscious lips, wanting to drink him in. How is it our people have never discovered the pleasure of kissing?
His mouth opens readily and our tongues dance and as so often happens with us, it becomes a battle for supremacy. I work his cock, gripping harder, moving faster, wanting him to come first, and I get a sense he’s trying to do the same to me.
With a feeling of exhilaration, the sensations build up and it feels like a serpent uncurling, as the heat and pleasure build and I thrust into his tight first. My struggle for domination temporarily forgotten, I focus on the giving and taking of pleasure with this one person I have come to trust and love above all others.
I open my eyes, wanting to see his face, even from this close, just to remind myself that this really is Marcus. The kiss has descended into little more than pants and moans into each other’s open mouths and with one final push I come harder than I have ever in my life as I call out his name.
As the world begins to right itself, I realise Marcus is spilling over my fist and looking down to watch the pulses of white liquid erupt from him, I milk him, wanting to pull out every drop he has to give until he shudders with over-sensation.
In that moment, I have never been happier, my past and my future temporarily forgotten, the only thing that is tangible is Marcus. By some strange quirk of the fates I found myself in his life, bound to him by honour and then by friendship, caught up in his quest until I made it my own. Against all the odds, we returned safely, no longer the people we once were, our prejudices left behind in the mists of Caledonia.
“Marcus,” I smile.
In answer, he puts the hand not still holding my cock around the back of my neck and pulling me in, begins kissing me again. The kiss is different to before, his tongue rolling languidly with mine – a kiss of affection, rather than passion.
I could stay here all night, but I feel him shiver and he pulls away.
“Why now?” I ask him quietly, running my fingers through his hair.
He shakes his head ruefully. “And risk you slitting my throat while I slept? I had to know it was freely given.”
His sense of honour is so different to mine. All I can think of is the time we wasted. Which means he will have to make it up to me. I want to fuck him but I think with his peculiar Roman values, it’s going to be a fight.
“So, how do you like kissing?” he asks with a smile.
I pretend to consider the question, trying not to be distracted by his debauched appearance. “I think I may need some more tutorials. Perhaps a reclining position next time.”
Before I can get up, he stands and hanging on, I wrap my legs around his waist.
“There’s no time like the present.” With those words he carries me, laughing, into his chamber, drops me onto the bed and follows me down.