His life had been saved.
For what? To die in the ring tomorrow? Or so that he may live like a dog, cursed and spat upon and owned by these Romans?
Esca was dragged from the ring by a guard, cuffed across the ear for his insolence, and thrown back in his cell. He gasped for air, wincing at the pull of surely-broken ribs under his chest, licking blood from his mouth. Everything hurt. He did not want this. He did not want this life. Why did the gods test him so? Why did he survive, when the rest of his family had met their deaths in battle?
Little motes of dust drifted golden in the light slanting through the small window at the top of his cell. Belanos, he prayed, though the god's light couldn't reach him on the floor. Please, was all he could think, though he didn't know what he was asking for. Please.
He wished that the gladiator he would fight next would take him. He wished he had never seen that Roman, the man who saved his life. He wished for escape. He wished, desperately, for his mother.
He wished he knew how to rise and face this slave's life like a man, like a warrior.
Eventually, sleep and pain overtook him, and the golden light faded to black once again.
The morning brought a crust of bread and a cup of filthy water. "Get up," the guard said. "You've been bought."
Esca felt something inside him turn, like the world suddenly revolved, just a little, and there was a clearing, a break in the forest where there had only been dense branches before. Here was a chance for escape, perhaps, or death in battle. Or he might be finally getting a message from the gods signaling his fate. There was no hope, not while he was still a slave, but the winds of change were blowing for the first time since he was taken.
He entered the slave-master's rooms and stiffened in surprise. It was the old man, the one with the Roman who saved his life. Escape was not an option, then. Esca tamped down the quick, fierce flash of rage in his heart.
The old man looked at him, snorting in disgust. Esca tensed. "Clean him," the old man said to Antoninus, the slave-master. "And tend to his wounds. Is that how you treat your property?"
"The boy is young and strong," Antoninus said, pinching Esca's arm. "He can handle a little rough play."
"Poor product," the old man said, sipping his wine and making a face. It was foul brew, Esca had heard. "And poor husbandry. I'm taking ten sesterces off my offer, and if you're lucky, I won't spread the word about the quality of your slaves."
"You drive a hard bargain, Aquila," Anoninus said, smiling.
"You're robbing me and you know it," the old man -- Aquila -- said. "I'm buying him because this slave is the only thing my nephew has taken interest in since he arrived in Calleva." He turned to Esca. "Slave, do you speak Latin?"
"Yes," Esca's voice came out dry like the dust in the air. "Yes, domine," he said more firmly.
"Good," Aquila said. "Brigantes, eh?" he asked, pointing to Esca's tattoo. "So you can ride, then." He rose, straightening his toga. "Clean him up, have someone see him for that broken rib, and get him some clean clothes. He is to be ready in one hour."
On the ride back to Aquila's villa, he asked Esca a few short questions about whether he spoke Greek (no), if he knew how to help when a mare was foaling (yes) and if he'd had any training as a healer (only in battle).
Esca tried to stay focused, to keep his head down and act a proper slave, when his mind was seething and rolling at the hand he'd been dealt. He held no ill will toward the old man. He couldn't find it in his heart to be grateful, to be grateful for being owned, but he could recognize that there were better and worse situations for a man in his position, and this Aquila seemed unlikely to beat him or misuse him.
He takes care of his property, Esca thought bitterly.
"My nephew," Aquila said, not pausing to glance back at Esca, "will be your new master. I have bought you to be his body-slave." Now he did look, piercing Esca with pale eyes that seemed to hunt down Esca's rebellious thoughts and chase them out of his head. "He saved your life," he said.
"I am indebted to him," Esca said, ducking his head, but unable to stop the anger from seeping through his voice.
"Hm," Aquila said, spitting thoughtfully on the ground. "He owns you. Your indebtedness is irrelevant." He took a deep breath, looking forward again. "Marcus, your master, has been injured. Badly. He will need extra care. You are relieved of any other duties until he is well."
Esca wondered what kind of injury, if perhaps his new master had an injury to the head, the kind that made you simple. Perhaps that would explain his actions in the arena.
But no. He'd met this man's eyes in the arena. They were strained and dark, but clear. Intense. Not confused or muddled. He'd led the crowd to cheer for Esca's life like he was leading an army. Only on looking back, with the clarity that hindsight sometimes brought, could he see the tight lines of pain around his eyes and the even deeper pain etched in his face.
It mattered not. Esca didn't care one thing about any Roman's pain.
Esca's new master was a fool.
Perhaps not simple, but he couldn’t see what he had done. He tried to dismiss Esca, dismiss his life, and the saving of it, as inconsequential. He was a fool, and an arrogant fool at that. Romans, just blundering through the world, never caring what they destroyed on the way.
Esca’s new master did not understand that they were now tied together by fate, for as long as they would live. He did not understand that he now owned Esca in a way that he could never have bought with gold.
It gnawed at Esca’s belly to be so deeply tied to this man, but the fact that he stayed for his honor, that he could escape and nobody would stop him; this made it sit easier with him, somehow.
His duties at the villa were not difficult; he helped to bathe his master, and brought him watered wine and food when he was hungry, which was not often. Esca also assisted Stephanos with the care of Marcus’s wound, dressing it and cleaning it twice a day. It was a bad wound, hot and swollen on the edges surrounding twisted and open skin. Esca had never seen such an injury on a living man.
When his master was awake, he often asked Esca to help him to a chair outside so he could sit in the weak afternoon sun. He spoke rarely, so different from the man who screamed at an entire arena to preserve Esca’s life. Esca could see him sinking deeper and deeper into himself, shrunken by pain, focused on his own suffering. He often sent Esca away to help in the kitchens or with the animals. The bond between them was so strange, forged in hate, twisted into service, that Escea never minded being sent.
Thus your actions have consequences, Roman, Esca thought. You would not let me die in the arena, so I will not let you rot to death of this wound.
Esca didn’t feel the need to offer comfort, but his honor and his vow would not let him see his master die. So he pressed food on him as often as he could, bathed his brow when the fever took him, and tore linen bandages late into the night.
He took an odd pleasure in it, taking Marcus’s death from him as had robbed Esca of his.
It is a strange bond indeed, master.
Several days after Esca began his service, word spread of a surgeon passing through Calleva from Rome. Master Aquila sent for the surgeon as soon as he heard the news, hurrying him to Marcus’s bedside.
The surgeon told them what they already knew; the wound was bad and needed to be reopened. Esca knew that his master would need to recover all over again, dependent on him like a child while they still circled each other like wary dogs.
Esca’s master never looked him in the eyes. It wasn’t because Esca was a slave; he’d seen him meet Sassticca’s eyes when she gave him extra sweets and he seemed to treat Stephanos with the same casual affection that his uncle did. No, his master looked at Esca and saw his own weakness.
His attempted dismissal of Esca from the surgery wasn’t a surprise. The surgeon’s insistence that he stay certainly was. Esca couldn’t fault his new master for being afraid, though he tried to cover it up. Esca was the first to mock the Roman war-leaders for hiding behind their men and making war on women and children, but fearing this butchery wasn’t cowardice. There was no dishonor in it. He wished he could tell his master that, but what Roman would consider a slave’s ideas about honor?
Trying to make his master more comfortable on the surgeon’s table, Esca kept his eyes averted and his touch remote, but when the surgeon yelled at him -- like he was a boy, not a man -- he bore down, meeting his master’s eyes, letting his anger show through.
A soldier needed a battle to rid him of his fears, and his master met the challenge, locking eyes with Esca, jaw tight, rising up against him, seeing him as a man, an enemy, an equal, for the first time. Yes, Marcus Aquila,, Esca thought, you are a worthy enemy. He held on, struggling against Esca and the surgeon’s knife for several long moments, long enough that Esca was worried that his own strength would fail him, but he gave in at last, eyes rolling to the back of his head, going limp in Esca’s arms.
“Stay on him,” the surgeon said. Esca didn’t turn to look at him; he didn’t need to see what was happening to Marcus’ leg. “He’s a big one; we don’t need him thrashing around.”
Esca leaned on Marcus a bit more, but Marcus’ muscles were completely soft under him. It was good. He wouldn’t remember the pain of the surgery if his mind let him sleep during it. He took this moment to study Marcus’ face, free of the sullen anger that had haunted him, though still wracked with pain. He was young, younger than Esca had thought, perhaps only a few years older than Esca himself. He didn’t look like the Roman demon of his childhood nightmares, but just another wounded warrior trying to face his enemy with honor.
And he owned Esca, body and breath.
Esca would do well to remember that fact.
The first morning Marcus was allowed to rise after the surgery, Esca found him staring out into the mist-strewn garden. Esca stood silent behind him, watching Marcus as he took a deep breath, straightening his shoulders. He would send Esca away, Esca was sure of it. Off to do some errand or another, rather than help Marcus when he needed Esca’s strength the most.
Marcus stirred again and said, "Esca, come here. Hold out your arm." Esca stepped forward, more in surprise than obedience, and held his arm out to Marcus, knowing that any additional offers of assistance would be scorned. Not looking at Esca, Marcus rose slowly, bearing his weight down on Esca’s arm, then shifting his hand to Esca’s shoulder as he reached his full height. They took just a few steps out into the garden, Marcus hobbling still, but stronger in his leg than before the surgery. Esca let Marcus lean against a column as they both rested, panting in the soft light of a new day.
“It is so cold here,” Marcus said. “Even in spring.” He wrapped one arm around himself. “At home, the sun would already be strong and stirring the blood.”
He will be strong enough to leave someday, Esca realized. And Esca would have to follow him, into the hot southern lands, a victim of his master’s whims. He’d taken note of the way the oaks and the rowan looked through the passing days, in the bright sunshine and the damp fog, engraving Britain on his heart in anticipation of their eventual parting. Marcus complained bitterly about the cold, even though it was barely autumn, and he often spoke lovingly of the olive groves of his home, describing the trees and food of his youth, so strange and foreign to Esca.
But Marcus stayed; Britain had some strange hold on him, some haunting that Esca only heard of in rumors and whispers. Esca was glad of it. He had no desire to see olives and figs growing on trees; his life had been scattered on the wind. Without the soil of Britain to anchor him, sometimes Esca feared that he would dissolve, his body blown away like his soul, sown all over Rome.
He knew Marcus had no wife or children, no mother or father. His father had died when Marcus was a boy, his mother when he was a youth. The death of Marcus’s father was some great scandal, barely spoken of around the house, but it had to do with Roman politics of some kind, so Esca paid it little mind. The politics of Rome ate many lives; Esca had no sympathy for the death of one Roman in the face of five thousand Brigantes.
But even with no other family, Esca could not imagine a young man such as Marcus, who commanded Esca as if he were a soldier and not a slave, who was prideful and stubborn and strong, staying content at an elderly uncle’s villa, with a slave his only companion.
And companions, of a sort, they had become, all starting with the first day they sparred together. Marcus had been walking unassisted for weeks and had gained much of his strength back. “I’m growing fat,” he said to Esca, who had noted this as well, without comment. “I look like a shopkeeper, not a soldier.” He stood and stretched his arms. “Short swords to start,” he said. “Have my weapons ready, pick out arms for yourself, and meet me in the clearing by the barn.”
They met, stripped to the waist and hefting their weapons. Marcus looked so very alive and vital in the sun, weak as it was, with the pale light glinting off his olive skin, the muscles of his shoulders still obvious above the thickness of his waist. “We shall start with basic drills,” he said. “I know you’ve had no training in Roman modes of fighting, but--”
Esca spat on the ground. “You won’t be fighting with other Romans anymore,” he said.
“I won’t be fighting with anyone anymore,” Marcus said, going stiff and straight, his hand clenched around his sword. “It is an exercise only.”
“What about bandits? Thieves?” Esca twirled his sword in his hand, enjoying the feel of it. He preferred a spear, or a bow, but the sword would do. “You’re a Roman in Britain,” Esca said, showing his teeth. “Trust me, you have enemies.”
“And those enemies won’t have been trained in Roman military drills,” Marcus said wryly. “I take your meaning.” He looked Esca up and down, appraising him. “You could have given that gladiator a fight,” he said.
“I would have lost,” Esca said. “And provided the crowd with their day’s entertainment.” He shook his head slowly. “That was not a thing I could have chosen.”
Marcus nodded, his eyes shifting away from Esca. “A single soldier is weak,” he said. “The strength of the army is in its numbers, its coordination, its organization.”
Esca’s father had told him this when he was a boy. You took the Romans like you took a wolf or a deer; herd the weak ones away from the pack, he would say. They are weak and confused without their leaders.
“If I saw you traveling,” Esca said, bouncing on the balls of his feet, “I would see you and take you quietly, but quickly. Like this.” He slashed out suddenly, aiming his sword at Marcus’s bad leg and stopping just short, enjoying the look of surprise on Marcus’s face.
“You must anticipate that nobody will show you mercy for your injuries,” Esca said.
“Then you must show me none,” Marcus said. “Make your move.”
They sparred as often as Marcus’ injury would let them; every few days at first, then gradually more and more until it became part of their daily routine. Marcus grew less angry and stronger, the softness falling away from his face and body until he became a hardened warrior again. Esca had not known him when he was whole, and was somewhat surprised at the change.
Esca had begun to think of Marcus as a “safe” Roman, helpless under his care as Esca was helpless under his ownership. This was a dangerous thought.
But as Marcus fought his way back to health, he seemed to forget, at times, that Esca was a slave. Particularly when they sparred, when he took instruction from Esca on a certain fighting technique, or they passed the wineskin between them like equals.
Even more strange, Esca had begun to notice Marcus staring at him, outside the ring. The other slaves noticed, because who looks at a slave? You looked at a slave you were buying or a slave you were fucking. And, given the gossip-ridden nature of the small villa, everyone knew Marcus wasn’t fucking Esca. So the slaves talked and talked, teasing Esca that the young master couldn’t wait to get his hands on him, and oh, he would get out of stable duty, ha-ha!
And yet, Marcus stared at him. Watched him as he worked, cleaning Marcus’ room. Watched him as he helped in the stables, when he thought Esca couldn’t see him. And in the afternoons, when they were muscle-sore and sweaty after a bout of sparring, Marcus watched him like there was nothing else he’d rather look at, like Esca was the answer to a riddle, or the riddle itself, or the sun after a storm.
No, Marcus, Esca thought. I am not who you think I am. Let it go.
But Esca couldn’t help feeling warmed by that gaze, in a way. He thought of fond masters and dogs wagging their tails and he was sickened, for a moment. But then he thought of Marcus, a warrior Esca’s father would have been proud of, had he been born into his tribe, who treated Esca with honor and saved his life, and he realized that there was no shame in receiving some admiration from this man.
But it could go no further. Esca prayed to his gods every night that this thing between them would pass, that Esca could hold on tighter to his anger, that he could fulfill his debt of honor without losing his own self.
Esca remembered his prayers in the cell, just before Master Aquila came to buy him. The gods laugh at my words, he thought. I can only imagine what they think of me now.
Master Aquila was having guests, an old friend passing through Britain and his two daughters. Esca wondered if the daughters are of marriageable age, and if one of them might finally lure Marcus away from Britain. Marcus didn’t seem eager for the company, instead spending the day sparring and hunting with Esca. He withdrew more and more as the day wore on, looking on edge and irritable. Esca couldn’t understand why. He knew that Marcus rarely went into the town unless he needed something. He knew that Marcus didn’t seek out the companionship of any other Romans, not that there were many young people in this area of Britain. He hadn't attended the arena since the day he saved Esca, for which Esca was profoundly grateful. Esca was not eager to spend his evening serving Romans who were not Marcus -- though he must, given the limited size of Master Aquila's household -- but he did admit to some curiosity in seeing what they made of Marcus, and what Marcus would make of them.
What Esca did not want was for Marcus to get married, or to leave Britain. The latter feeling was easily understood; the former, he didn’t examine too closely.
In the evening, Esca prepared Marcus in the baths, scraping dirt off his body, preparing jars of scented oils -- Romans, always smelling like flowers and fruit, sickly sweet -- and taking extra care to make sure Marcus' hair lay flat and straight, as the Romans preferred. He had been instructed on this repeatedly by Stephanos, that the young master wanted to make a good impression. Esca didn't see any evidence that this was the case, nor did he want to present Marcus as some shiny prize to be won by the two giggling girls, but he bristled at the idea that he might shirk his duties.
Marcus stayed silent throughout his bath, brooding. He barely glanced at the polished bronze Esca set before him.
Esca brought Marcus his toga, wrapping it as Stephanos showed him, and he could see Marcus' mood grow blacker as he did, scowling at his own reflection in the bronze. Esca didn't understand why Master Aquila wore his toga so often and Marcus preferred a simple tunic. He was given to understand that the toga was important to Romans. He suppressed a smile, remembering his father telling him, See them? Stumbling through the woods like children wrapped in blankets? We can take their blankets like this --ha!-- and leave them naked and crying for their mothers.
"Leave it," Marcus snapped, batting Esca's hand away from the pin at his shoulder. He turned, his eyes meeting Esca's in a way they rarely did in the villa; this was the Marcus of the sparring ring, or of their long hunts. His friend. "Look at me," he said, his voice low and rough, driven by a depth of pain that surprised Esca. "Look at this," he grabbed at the edges of the toga. "I never thought I'd wear this again, not until I was old. And to be paraded-- a sign of my shame--" he swore softly, in Latin, something Esca couldn't quite make out.
Esca frowned. "Stephanos said this was important to Romans, that only citizens--"
"Civilians," Marcus spat out.
Esca frowned. He wasn't familiar with the word. "Civil- citizens?" he asked, his mouth stumbling over the word.
"Civilians," Marcus said. He sounded tired. "Men who are not in the military. The toga is for peace."
Ah, that was clearer, then. It was hard to imagine a society where so few men were warriors that they had their own manner of dress. And that this thing was honored! But Esca knew that Marcus found no honor in his discharge and that it was still a constant source of distress, even though his leg had healed so well.
Esca hadn’t understood why Marcus couldn’t rejoin the army, when he could fight so well. He’d asked Stephanos about it once, and Stephanos had said, “He can fight, but can he march? No, the young master won’t command again, poor boy.” Esca had almost laughed, as if it were funny. Of course. The Romans didn’t need to simply fight to defend their lands and their children. They had to march, to conquer, to spread to other lands not their own, like a creeping vine, strangling the people as they went.
Esca was glad Marcus could not march.
The dinner party was a disaster.
Master Aquila was pleased, of course, as he sat with his old friend, drinking more and more wine, sharing stories from some wars long past. They feasted on more food than Esca had ever seen at Master Aquila’s table: roasted goat, fish, some pickled fruit that Esca couldn’t identify.
But it couldn’t have gone worse for Marcus.
The young women, both named Octavia, and both dark-haired, with the same olive skin as Marcus, seemed pleasant at first. They complimented Master Aquila on his villa and the beauty of the land. They were beautiful themselves, in the hard and forbidding manner of many Roman women, not the giggling girls that he'd thought they'd be. Esca couldn't imagine bedding such a woman, not when you had to wipe her paints and perfume and stiff Roman morals away to even get your hand on her thigh.
Throughout the dinner, they were polite to the point of being cold, particularly to Marcus. Marcus seemed to expect this, ignoring the women in favor of the wine, gesturing for Esca to fill his glass again and again. The elder Octavia asked Marcus if he could write with a clear hand, because possibly he could be a scribe? "Or a poet," the younger Octavia chimed in. "Not much need for your legs in poetry."
"I'm no poet," Marcus said, draining his cup. “I’m just looking for the quiet life now.” That was a lie. Esca spotted it immediately. He just didn’t know what the truth actually was.
“Or a wife,” called Master Aquila, raising his cup and smiling, swaying slightly in his chair. “Boy’s going to need a wife someday.” He winked and laughed, not noticing how his friend Octavian had gone stiff beside him.
The effect on the girls was immediate. They twisted on each other like vines, whispering angrily.
Marcus just smiled into his wine and drained yet another glass. “I’m going to bed,” he announced. “Esca, stay to clear the table, then attend me in my room with some more wine.”
Esca nodded his assent, moving quickly and quietly to clear the dishes. He didn’t understand Romans. There was some insult given and received -- to the women? To Marcus?
The situation became clear when Esca returned to the dining room from the kitchen after clearing the first round of dishes. Master Aquila and Octavian were gone, leaving only the two women. They spoke freely in front of Esca, because what slave has ears?
“It’s disgusting, to even imply--” the younger sister was saying, her voice pitched low.
“The old man was drunk,” Octavia the elder said. “He had to know that neither of us would marry a cripple--”
Esca froze, hand suspended over an empty goblet as the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. He recovered himself quickly and cast his eyes down, removing the rest of the platters and goblets.
“He thinks his nephew’s fine looks make up for the fact that he is half a man -- from a cursed family! -- with no future and no means. He will be lucky if he finds a prostitute to bed him.” The younger Octavia threw her empty goblet as Esca, who managed to catch it as he balanced the rest of the dishes on one arm.
“No need to be crude, Octavia,” her sister said. “And don’t fret yourself. We’ll be leaving this gods-forsaken land soon enough. Father is bored of the weather already.”
Thankfully, the work was done, because Esca would have done something very stupid indeed, like throwing dishes at these idiotic girls, or running or yelling or -- well, any of those things would result in a beating, or death, which wouldn’t help Esca or Marcus any.
Esca left for the kitchen, where he was immediately shooed out by Sassticca. “The young master is waiting for his wine,” she said, handing him a jug. “Looks like he’s going to need it, poor boy.”
It all came clear now. Marcus couldn’t leave Britain because he had nowhere to go. Esca knew Marcus had no parents, and that Master Aquila was his only local relation, but he had never considered the idea that Marcus might not have anything at all. Marcus would never drag Esca to some strange Southern land in search of a wife, because no woman would have him.
The rage Esca kept in his heart for Rome, banked to embers as he had grown comfortable at the villa, roared to life. Was it not enough? What was enough, for Rome? She had chewed up Marcus and spit him out, denied him his future, denied him his honor, and for what? For serving her until he broke?
And Marcus couldn’t see it, couldn’t see that Rome was an unworthy mistress for his service, that she had taken everything from him and given him nothing.
When Esca entered Marcus' chambers, Marcus was standing in front of his altar, swaying slightly from side to side, one hand outstretched to catch the curling smoke.
Esca moved to set the wine down on the table near the bed, but Marcus took it from him before he had the chance. "I see from your face that you overheard something."
That surprised Esca. He was trying to be impassive, a good slave. He felt like he owed Marcus that somehow.
“I can only imagine,” Marcus said, taking a swig from the jug. He turned back to the altar.
“I pray,” Marcus said quietly. I pray and I pray every day, and yet I get no answer.” Esca understood; Marcus’ bull-god seemed no more inclined toward answers or aid than Esca’s own silent, dead gods.
Marcus clenched his fist in the air and released it. “I have no answers, no honor no future.” He drank again. “You serve a dead man,” he said quietly. “And for that I am sorry.”
Esca did not know if he should speak; he was neither friend nor slave, but something suspended in between. He chose silence, waiting quietly against the wall.
But Marcus turned to him and pinned him with his eyes, seeing him, looking at him, so desperately broken and sad. Esca couldn’t help but answer that pain, the pain of stolen futures and silent gods, of shame and dishonor. “Esca,” Marcus said, the words scraping through his throat like his last prayer.
And Esca couldn’t stay still any longer. He crossed the room and clasped Marcus’ shoulder, the first time it felt like they touched as equals. “I am here,” he said.
Marcus stumbled back against the wall and slid down it, clutching to Esca’s arm for balance. Esca followed him, sitting on the cold floor, knees against his chest like a child.
“I couldn’t let you die,” Marcus whispered, and this was so unexpected that Esca forgot his place for a moment.
“What?” he asked, turning toward Marcus.
“I couldn’t let you die.” Marcus reached out and clasped Esca’s neck, bringing their heads together. The slow burn of anger lit again in Esca’s stomach, anger fueled into desperate want and he couldn’t, in that moment, tell what it is that he wanted. Yes, I will warring with no, I can’t, made all the more impossible because refusal was a luxury seldom afforded to slaves.
But I want, he thought. And I can’t.
“You were so-- so alive,” Marcus said, his breath puffing against Esca’s lips, their foreheads, slick with sweat, still pressed together. “You were so alive and so terrible and angry and beautiful, the way battle can be beautiful. And I couldn’t -- so much had been lost.” Marcus went silent and Esca could hear their rough breathing echoing in the room. “So much had been lost,” Marcus said again, quieter.
Esca didn’t answer, but he gripped the back of Marcus’ neck and shut his eyes against the wave of sadness and loss rising up through him. I know, he thought. So much has been lost, indeed.
“Esca,” Marcus said again, his lips mere inches from Esca’s, and Esca did not know if he would move, if he would take or ask or...the possibility, the want, the need stretched out between them, taut like a bowstring, until Marcus released him and fell back against the wall. “I’m drunk,” he mumbled.
“You’d best get to bed,” Esca said, rising to his feet and offering Marcus a hand up.
Marcus staggered to his feet, and stood, more clear-eyed than Esca expected, looking not drunk, but terribly sad. “You should go,” he said. “I don’t--”
Trust myself, Esca heard, unspoken.
“As you wish,” Esca said, turning to leave.
He couldn’t look back.
The next morning, Esca arrived in Marcus’ chambers to begin his day. He was unsurprised to see Marcus still asleep, face buried into his furs. He would have a headache this morning, Esca knew. And a foul one at that, as Marcus rarely indulged in excessive drink.
Esca noticed that Marcus’ altar was in disarray, the censer knocked to one side and several small statuettes tumbled over onto the floor, as if someone had swept their arm across the length of the whole thing. Esca hesitated to touch it, not knowing if touching these things would give some offense to Marcus or his gods, but then, they weren’t being honored by lying on the floor, were they? He wiped the surface of the altar, clearing the soft, fragrant, gray ash from the polished wood. After he was done with that, Esca carefully replaced the tiny statuettes, murmuring an apology to the bull-god for any offense. Satisfied with his work, Esca rocked back on his knees and studied the altar.
He rose and turned to find Marcus staring at him from the bed, a soft smile playing across his lips.
“You never know when the gods will begin to listen,” Esca said, unaccountably embarrassed.
“Or how they will respond,” Marcus said, pushing himself up on one elbow. “Thank you.”
There was no need to thank a slave for doing his job, but it seemed unkind to point that out. Esca busied himself by bringing Marcus a large cup of cool water, pressing it into his hand. Marcus drank deeply and sighed in pleasure when he was done. He handed the cup back to Esca.
“Esca,” Marcus said, hesitantly. Esca flashed back to last night, Marcus saying his name, broken and rough. Marcus bit his lip and Esca tensed, waiting on his next words. “There is a fence,” Marcus said, finally.
This was so unexpected that Esca couldn’t make sense of the words. “A fence,” he repeated, feeling somewhat slow.
“It’s in the far pasture. Some animals have gotten to it, or it’s fallen victim to this damned British weather.” Marcus rose, stretching, the early morning sun slanting across the planes of his shoulders. “My uncle has been wanting someone to repair it, but he’s too cheap to hire someone and Stephanos is too old for heavy labor.”
“I understand,” Esca said, his body slowly unwinding in relief. They would put off this -- whatever this was, it would not be discussed today. The confessions between them were too raw, the awareness of loss and grief and shared sadness too new. It would be good for Esca to spend a day in the sun, working on some mindless task, willing himself back into a slave-shape, banking the fires of his heart once again.
“You’re dismissed,” Marcus said, clutching his tunic to his chest. Only the whiteness of his knuckles gave away whatever tension he was feeling. “I’ve lived nearly thirty summers without a keeper; I’m sure I can manage for one day.”
Esca didn’t wait to discuss it further. He picked up some tools from Stephanos, then headed out to the pasture. It was warm for this time of year, the sun feebly beaming in a clear blue sky dotted with crisp white clouds. A good day for work. Esca put Marcus from his mind, set out his tools along the rocky soil, and lost himself in digging post-holes and hammering posts until he could think of nothing but the pleasant soreness of his muscles and the heat of the sun on his neck.
He finished the fence just as the sun began to dip toward the horizon, taking its warmth along with it. Sweat dried along Esca’s brow and caked mud covered his tunic. When he returned to the villa, he stopped to douse himself with a bucket from the stables, sloughing off the worst of the dirt.
One of the stable-boys came in just as he was finished. “Young master’s in the baths,” he said. “Stephanos says you’re to attend him as soon as you get back.”
Upon entering the baths, Esca could see Marcus, alone in the tepidarium, his head lolling back against the marble. It was the dinner hour, not a time that most Romans preferred to bathe (though they did bathe with shocking frequency), which was why Marcus liked it. Esca realized now that he was shielding himself from stares and questions about his scar, his family.
Marcus startled when Esca walked in, his head jerking out of the water. “I was almost asleep,” he said, rubbing his eyes. Trails of water ran down his temple and over the harsh angle of his jaw. Esca looked away.
He moved to get wine, in case Marcus was thirsty from the heat.
“No,” Marcus said. “Please.” He indicated the water. “You must be sore from work.”
This was dangerous territory. Esca removed his clothes slowly, conscious of Marcus’ gaze, heavy upon his body like a thousand hands. He stepped into the water, feeling the flush spread up his chest from the heat. He sank slightly into the water, enjoying its warmth. Perhaps he was becoming soft, like a Roman, to enjoy such things.
He looked up to find Marcus standing in front of him. Esca looked up at him. A challenge, a dare, a moment, unspoken, passing between them. And of course, as usual, Marcus had to shape it into unnecessary words.
“I don’t want you to serve me tonight,” Marcus said. “Not as a slave.”
“I am a slave,” Esca replied. “It is not something you can wish away and bring back in the morning.”
Marcus reached out slowly, taking Esca by the hand and pulling him closer. Esca could feel the heat of him, the warm-slick press of their skin, thighs touching, chests touching, unbearably too much and not enough at the same time. Marcus raised his hand to trace the line of Esca’s shoulder, his jaw, his mouth, catching his thumb on Esca’s bottom lip.
Esca caught Marcus’ wrist in one hand and put his other hand on Marcus’ chest. “Marcus,” he said, using his name for the first time. Marcus shivered, his eyes going dark with want. Esca didn’t give an inch. He reached down inside himself, gathering his courage. “Am I allowed to refuse?”
Marcus stilled. “What?”
“Am I,” Esca said, slowly and carefully, “allowed to refuse?”
Marcus tried to pull back, but Esca held tight. He could see the confusion in Marcus' eyes.
"Of course," Marcus said. Esca could see that he was closing himself off,already thinking he knew Esca's mind. "Always. I didn't mean to suggest- I'm sorry. My apologies."
Esca shook his head. He didn’t want Marcus to run, but he needed him to understand. Esca was so afraid in this moment, more afraid than he had been in the ring. Defying Rome, defying death; these were things he was born to. He fought the urge to slap Marcus as a reflex, a release for the feelings inside him.
He pulled Marcus closer, gripping his wrist a touch too tight. "I am not a free man, to choose my bedmates as I wished. And had we met any differently, I would have killed you at first sight. But now," he released Marcus' wrist and raised his hand to cup Marcus' jaw. "Were I a free man, I would choose this." Marcus hissed, a quick exhalation, and Esca could see he was pleased. “I may wish you were not a Roman,” Esca said, letting the shade of a smile fall on his lips. “But I suppose I must make do.”
Marcus smiled, that large, easy smile that Esca saw so often when they were hunting or sparring. He grasped Esca's hand and kissed his palm, drawing him closer. They touched mouths, in the Roman fashion, something Esca had always thought was unusual. But when Marcus pushed his tongue into Esca's mouth and started making small, needy noises in the back of his throat, Esca decided he liked this thing and kissed him back, unpracticed but enthusiastic. He bit Marcus' lower lip, to remind him that he didn't couple with a soft, willing woman or a defeated slave. Marcus groaned and wrapped his arms around Esca, pushing them both against the sharp edge of the baths.
Disentangling himself with a smile, Esca grabbed the edge of the marble and pulled himself up, sitting on the edge. Marcus took another moment to stare at Esca hungrily, his eyes lingering on Esca's hard cock jutting up from between his thighs. Esca thought about how clever Marcus' mouth had been when he was sucking on Esca's tongue and imagined him doing such things...Esca closed his eyes against the power of that thought and dropped his head back, bracing himself on his elbow, and took his cock in his hand. He heard splashing, then there was a warm, solid body next to him and a heavy, wet hand on his thigh.
Esca opened his eyes to see Marcus next to him, flashing him a quick grin before he dipped his head to taste the water beaded on Esca’s chest. “Let me,” he said, and replaced Esca’s hand with his own. Esca surged in his hand, sliding backwards on the slippery marble. It had been so long since anyone touched him, so long since he’d allowed himself this kind of pleasure. Esca felt himself losing control; he could just rut into Marcus’ hand a few more times and it would be all over, but that was not what he wanted.
He leaned over to press his mouth to Marcus’ throat, kissing him gently at fist, then biting, earning him a gasp from Marcus. “Lie down,” Esca said, moving his lips against Marcus’ skin, feeling it prickle against the rush of his breath. Marcus complied, arranging himself along the marble wall of the bath. There was a small alcove there, filled with soft cloths, scented oils, and perfumes. Such luxuries, casually left in the open. Esca never stopped marveling at Roman indulgence.
Like so many times when they had sparred in the ring, Esca pinned Marcus, thighs around his hips, holding his hands to the floor. Esca smiled fiercely, reveling in this victory. Marcus groaned under him, bucking his hips up. “Esca,” he said, the sharp movements of his hips, frantic and stuttered, giving lie to his words, “Roman men do not...we do not submit, like this.”
“I know your rules,” Esca said, shaking his head. “You deny yourself, but it will be my gain.” He reached over and took one of the vials of oil, spreading it on his palm, then over Marcus’ cock.
Marcus arched under him, barely able to choke out the words, “It is a dishonor. I wouldn’t ask you to do this.”
Esca tightened his grip on Marcus’ wrists and bent down in his face. “And I am not a child who needs to be taught what honor is. Your people have foolish mores.” He let go, raised himself up, and eased himself back down on Marcus’ cock, slowly, inching down as his body would let him. He could hear Marcus as if he was far away, gasping and cursing in Latin, but all Esca could feel was the ache, the stretch, the fullness, unbearable until he breathed, harsh and loud, through his nose. Then the fullness eased to a quiet, throbbing burn and he said, “We shall see who submits,” and began to move.
They fucked like they fought, Marcus trying to overwhelm him with his strength, leaving bruises on Esca’s hips, pushing to set his own rhythm. Esca wore him down, relentless, mixing gentle touches with harsh words unstopping, pounding, until Marcus began to lose control. He began pleading softly, “Esca, Esca, Esca,” in the same way Esca prayed to his gods that did not answer, in the same way that he prayed to the broken altar of his bull-god.
As Marcus grew impossibly bigger inside Esca, Esca bore down one more time, fixing his hips to the floor, as Marcus spent inside him, shouting. Pleasure exploded through Esca, ripping its way up from the soles of his feet to his chest, as he fumbled to put a hand on his cock, spending before he he even had a chance to touch himself.
After, they cleaned up and Esca lay down next to Marcus, his muscles sore from the days’ work and his recent exertion.
Marcus looked at him, soft around the eyes. “I submit,” he said.
They left the baths before anyone else could come in and find them. “Nobody would think anything of it,” Esca said, giving voice to his own fears as they walked back to the villa. “You are a master using his slave. It is your right.”
“I would not have people think such things,” Marcus said, seeming shocked. “I have no need to make a circus show of our feelings for all of Calleva.”
“Perhaps you should be a poet,” Esca said, unable to keep the fond smile off his face, despite the shock he was feeling at what they’d done. What he’d done. “Romantic fool.”
“Does it bother you?” Marcus asked. “I have no prospects, and you are quite dependent on me.”
“I am a slave,” Esca said simply. “I have less of a future than you.” He could feel this truth settling on him, heavier and heavier as they drew closer to the villa. The moments they shared in the baths were stolen time, an illusion. I am Brigantes, Esca said to himself. I am a chieftain’s son. I am bound to this Roman by my debt of honor, not his gold. But those truths were becoming less clear by the day, and Esca felt more tangled up than ever, bound and bound and bound again.
They did not speak until they reached the villa. Esca waited outside the entrance, his hands clasped and his eyes cast down. He couldn’t bear to see whatever was in Marcus’ eyes.
Marcus reached out and touched his cheek. Esca glanced up briefly, taking in the poorly-hidden confusion in Marcus’ eyes. “Will you stay with me?” he asked. “You can say no.”
Esca shook his head slowly. “I need some time to rest.” He paused, considering the full moon lumbering fat and round over the tops of the trees. “And to speak with my gods.” He didn’t know what he would say to them, or if they would answer back, but he needed to feel his people near him, even if it was just in the shape of their prayers.
Marcus nodded. “Tomorrow we hunt,” he said. “There are boar in the forest, or so I’ve heard. Fat ones.”
Esca loved to hunt boar. He loved the chase, the speed of the horses, the flight of the spears. His spirits lifted, buoyed by the idea of hunting with Marcus all day. He would figure out his place in all this, readjust to this new thing, bonds and more bonds, to see where he -- Esca MacCunoval, the man, not the slave - -fit in. Even if the space for him was smaller and smaller all the time.
“Esca,” Marcus said, looking deep into him, as if he was reading his thoughts. “We will find our way in this world together.”
“It is our fate,” Esca said, pressing his fingers to Marcus’ lips briefly and startling a small noise from him, air puffing past Esca’s fingertips, just before he turned and left.
Betrayed, betrayed, betrayed. Esca’s heart beat that word through his body, though he could not say who had betrayed whom.
The hunt was as he’d hoped; fine weather, a fine boar, Marcus laughing, loose and free on the back of his horse. Esca had been able to put aside some of his melancholy and enjoy the morning, considering, perhaps, meeting Marcus in his chambers that night. The gate was opened after all, and it was too late for regrets.
Until those two odious Romans came, and with them, the stink of betrayal.
The Ninth Legion. The golden eagle. The great battle. Esca knew it, knew this battle, these Romans who came to kill and rape and enslave. He held his position by the door, calling upon the strength of his mothers not to vomit on the floor. His stomach heaved in disgust. You serve them, serve the son of the rapists and murderers, serve him his food and in his bed...
He hadn’t wanted to see it, wanted to make peace with his new life, to set down the burden of hate that had bent his back for too long. But his people -- his father, tall and proud, his brothers, barely blooded, heading into battle, his mother, kneeling, unafraid -- would not let him forget. He would never forget again.
And now Marcus was yelling at his uncle, about honor and death and family, his face twisted in pain as it hadn’t been since he was injured. Esca couldn’t find it in himself to care, even though Marcus would have been barely a child then. It didn’t matter. This was in his blood, and Esca had given himself over to him, first his soul, then his body, and nothing of the Brigantes remained.
Esca heard his name and looked up. No, no, no, he thought. Marcus, you cannot. He would tease Esca with his freedom, test his honor, without even knowing he did so. Because he was so infatuated, so flush with love for Esca that he thought Esca would roll over like a dog, follow him like a faithful hound, betray his people, and never look back. A knife’s-edge of affection lanced through Esca’s heart before he steeled it, shutting down what he may have felt for Marcus last night and these months before.
I will not betray my people, he swore. I will not break my vow; I will not lead Marcus to danger, but I will not betray myself. This I promise.
When Master Aquila left, Marcus turned to him, his eyes brimming with fire. “Esca,” he said, crossing the room in two quick strides and clasping him close. Esca stiffened against his chest, unwilling to take any comfort from the gesture.
Marcus released him slowly. “You will not kill me,” he said, and it wasn’t a command or a question. He brushed his hand along Esca’s temple. “Will you run? No,” he said, answering his own question. Esca closed his eyes against the truth of it. He would not run. “But will you hate me?” Marcus said, even softer.
Esca opened his eyes. “When your uncle bought me,” he said, no emotion in his voice, “he told me that my feelings on the matter were irrelevant.”
“Not to me,” Marcus said. “But you will not share your feelings, this much I know.” He dropped his hand. “We have much to prepare. I will send you to Calleva tomorrow with gold, so that you may buy the right clothes and whatever supplies we need. It is at your discretion.” He stepped back, fire lighting his eyes once more. “Either way, after this, after we go north of the wall--”
“It ends,” Esca said. This half-life, torn between Britain and Rome, only half a slave, the lover of the master but not his equal, the boy willing to die in an arena and the man willing to fight beside his dearest friend. It will be decided, perhaps with his death, perhaps with Marcus’.
“It ends,” Marcus agreed.
Their journey to the wall was uneventful. Esca hadn’t traveled far from his own lands before; his home had been a bit further north than Calleva, but not by much. He didn’t remember that first ride south. Overcome by pain and fever from his wounds, delirious with grief, it was simply a cloudy memory that didn’t bear exploring further.
But Marcus was, of course, a trained Roman Centurion. He had walked across towns and forests and entire countries, one tiny part of Rome’s grasping, clutching arm. He set up and unpacked their camp quickly and efficiently, no movement spared. There was always food and water, not quite enough, but not so little that they’d starve, with plenty in reserve. They moved more quickly than Esca could have imagined, giving him some small insight into how the Roman army could move so far, so fast, with so many men. It made him afraid for the world, vulnerable in the face of this inhuman efficiency.
And yet, for all his efficiency, Marcus seemed not to notice what he was doing. He sunk further into himself as they approached the wall, snappish and strange. The first night they set out, he reached for Esca as they lay down by the fire, for either release or reassurance, Esca wasn’t sure which, but Esca stopped him with a hand on his wrist. “It’s not safe,” he said, because it wasn’t, not with bandits on the roads and wolves in the forest. They had to be alert. If it served Esca to keep his distance, well, that was an added benefit. He wanted nothing more than to share blankets with Marcus, to keep the wind and the wild out, just the two of them, a little while longer. But keeping Marcus that close, while leading him on a false trail up in the northern lands...
Esca did not like what he was going to have to do. It did not sit right with him. He couldn’t betray his people. He couldn’t lead Marcus to his death. The best he could hope to be was ineffective, wasting time, leading Marcus in circles. It wasn’t the right path, he knew this in his soul. But he couldn’t bring himself to choose otherwise.
They reached the wall, stepped through to the other side, and Esca took his first breaths as a free man. It tasted like cool, damp, northern air, with a touch of a storm brewing behind it. Marcus was looking at him curiously, and Esca realized that Marcus didn’t understand that Esca was free, that Rome had no hold here. He didn’t know what he had given up, going through the wall. Marcus thought that the daily respect and honors he was given were his due, simply a fact of life for a man such as himself. He didn’t know that they were paid out by Rome, as much as the armor he wore or the coins in his pouch.
He would learn, in this wild north land.
The first time Esca stepped up to the doorway of someone’s home and was greeted with a clasped arm, a smile, and a forthright meeting of the eyes, he stumbled a bit, fumbling over the greeting, his own language strange on his tongue. He had been a slave too long; the ordinary interaction between two equals seemed like a gift. The full measure of what he had lost grew deeper as the years wore on, and here in Caledonia it seemed as endless as the sea.
Marcus caught his arm when Esca returned to the horses. “There is word?” he asked, far too eager.
Esca shook his head. “No, nothing.” He had to choose his lies carefully. He would let Marcus assume what he wished from Esca’s silences.
“Oh, I thought--” Marcus sought his eyes, suspicious. Cold. This land made them strangers, Marcus felt it as well. “You seemed startled,” he said, holding himself stiffly, a ghost of his old injuries.
“It is strange being among Britons again,” Esca said, the full truth. “Speaking my language --” words failed him. “It is strange,” he repeated.
“Oh,” Marcus said. He reached out his hand, tentatively, and placed it on Esca’s shoulder. Esca leaned into his touch, unable to stop himself from seeking comfort, even if he’d left the friend and lover behind in Calleva. He’d brought the Roman, Marcus Flavius Aquila, to Caledonia.
“We’d best be moving on,” Marcus said, smoothing his hand over the back of Esca’s neck before turning to his horse. “We have a lot of ground to cover.”
They spent their days wandering slowly north, stopping to talk to whomever they encountered. Esca enjoyed speaking to these people, people like and unlike his own. They had a slightly different tongue, but one he could understand. He saw his mother in the way a woman wore her hair pinned, his father in the smell of a wool tunic after the rain. But they were not Brigantes; they were suspicious of him and of Marcus, so obviously foreign. Nobody knew of the Eagle, no, no, it was just a legend. Lost after the battle, when the great warriors of the Brigantes slaughtered those Roman dogs.
Esca didn’t share any of this with Marcus. He didn’t want to take him to that sacred place, where his father slew so many of Esca’s people. He hoped Marcus would tire of this, even though he knew Marcus too well for the hope to hold.
And then one day, they met a strange man in the forest. Marcus couldn’t recognize Guern as a foreigner in Caledonia, because Guern looked like everyone Marcus knew. His dark hair, dark eyes, and olive skin marked him as a Roman before Esca ever saw his scar. He knew, when he saw this odd twin of himself, a man between two worlds, that the time for half-truths was over.
As they walked to the old battleground, when Marcus pushed ahead through the trees like an overeager bear cub, Esca fell into step beside Guern. “What made you betray your people?” he asked, harsher than he intended.
Guern looked at him in surprise. “Has Rome collapsed, then? It seems she has not.” he shook his head. “I am one man; I am Guern. Not Rome. She doesn’t mourn the loss of one man. The eagle was lost when I left. Everyone was dead.” He looked at Esca, then at Marcus, leading his horse carefully through the brush. “I found a home,” he said. “And that’s more important than a country.”
He pushed past Esca, then turned to stare him straight in the eyes. Esca shivered. “And do not talk to me of betrayal, boy. The Brigantes have sung of this place for a generation.” He moved on, not waiting for Esca’s response, and Esca felt the stir of shame and anger inside him, like embers rising from a campfire.
So after they came to the battlegrounds, when Guern turned, pointed at Esca, and said, “He knows,” it was no surprise. The moment clanged in his heart, like the drop of the iron gate in the arena, like the clash of swords, like the clatter of chains.
He wasn’t angry with Guern. Why should he be? The history of his people was told and retold proudly. There was no shame that he’d been trying to hide. He ignored the voice that said, Then why were you hiding? that sounded too much like his mother. It was time Marcus recognized Esca for the man he was, a son of the Brigantes, the son of chieftains, a proud warrior. Esca was not a slave in this land.
Marcus turned pale, then flushed, his hands fisted at his side. Esca raised his chin, ready for Marcus to hit him, to yell, to break the bonds between them and let Esca go free. But Marcus just mounted his horse, leaving Esca to scramble up his and follow after him as he galloped away.
Esca gathered up his pride and galloped after him. He pushed down the feelings in his heart, the echoing loneliness and the too-familiar sensation of loss. He had lost much already. The loss of one Roman mattered not at all.
When they fought, it was not like sparring at the villa.
It was not like fighting at the arena.
It was like watching the people he loved being torn away from him, one by one.
It was a fight with no winning.
For this, Esca was glad, just for a moment, when the Seal People arrived, before his heart froze in fear. This was no game. They needed to survive, and Esca had enough anger in him to make the ruse perfect. “My slave,” he said, meaning it, happy to bring Marcus down, to make him kneel for the crimes of Rome, for the hole in Esca’s heart, ripped and healed and ripped again.
Then he looked at Marcus, at the battle in his eyes, and he saw himself, saw shadows of laughing Romans around an arena over the blue faces of the laughing Seal warriors. This is your arena he realized. Oh, Marcus, you fool.
The anger in his heart cracked, leaving only fear.
If Esca thought that the respect he’d had from the people they’d met so far was thrilling, it was nothing compared to his welcome from the Seal People. They offered him drink, their finest meat (boiled seal, something he was unaccustomed to eating) and even one of the tribe’s women. Esca knew to turn down the woman; to take her without an offer of marriage would have been an insult, and that was certainly a complication they didn’t need right now.
They. Were they still a team, he and Marcus? Marcus would kill Esca right now, given the chance. Esca wanted to reach out, to reassure him, but it was too dangerous. And what would he say? He didn’t even know his own heart, other than that his desire to see Marcus safely home was genuine. His death was something Esca would not bear easily.
Esca closed his eyes and leaned back against the rocks. He was sitting in the crook of an inlet, away from the smoke and noise of the Seal People’s camps. The vast, grey sea spread out far beyond his vision. Esca remembered tales of sea-monsters that the traveling healers used to tell him when he was a boy. He’d thought them just legends, but here, looking out into the cold mist, he could believe it.
He shivered and drew his foot further away from the lapping waters. This was not his place. He was built for the forest, not the ocean. The Seal People, as welcoming as they’d been, were cold and often cruel, not surprising, given their cold and cruel lands.
But he could leave. He could leave with Marcus, somehow. They could escape and he could set Marcus free. They could share whatever supplies they had, bid each other farewell, with Marcus safely on his way back to Calleva, and Esca...he could build himself a home. Work the land. Hunt. Perhaps he’d find a woman, like Guern.
The sound of soft feet on rocks startled him out of his dreams. Liathan stood above him, grinning. “Yes, my friend,” he laughed. “You’d better rest now. For tonight, we celebrate our boys becoming men.”
Esca smiled in return. Such celebrations were known in all the tribes. There would be singing and dancing, good food to make the blood run hot, and lots and lots of drinking. Strong drink, sometimes mixed with powerful herbs. He remembered his own such man-making. It was likely very different from that of the Seal People, as they did not ink themselves, but the spirit was the same.
“Your Roman slave will find it quite interesting,” Liathan said, too carefully, watching Esca closely for his reactions. Esca gave him none. Liathan hefted his spear in his hand, spinning it slightly. “We have one of their gods,” he said, eyes glinting with satisfaction. “The golden bird serves the Seal People now; Romans cannot touch us.” He spat on the ground as he turned to leave. “You will spread the word of our might to the southern lands, when you are no longer our guest.”
Esca could barely nod back as Liathan left. He wasn’t sure if he was hearing the surf pounding against the rocks or his heart in his chest. The Eagle...it was here?
Esca’s mind whirled. It was a sign. The gods had heard him, truly. A peace descended upon him, emptying his mind and filling his chest with a lightness at odd with the grey misery around him.
It was clear now. He could feel the hand of the gods, the guidance of his ancestors, in a way that he hadn’t since he first stepped into the arena. This was the sign he had been looking for. It was no wonder that all his paths seemed clouded and strange. There was no honor there; no honor in leaving the man he had sworn his life to, no honor in leaving the man he called a friend. He was a free man up here, thinking like a slave, only of escape. He would find his way to freedom. Esca knew that, deep down to his bones, but he wouldn’t slither out of his bonds like a snake through a noose.
Marcus would have his Eagle. They would run tonight, back to the Wall, together. They would meet their fortunes side by side, as they had since Marcus had foolishly, thoughtlessly saved Esca’s life all that time ago. It was the only way.
Esca’s chest tightened in fear and joy, warring for space inside him. He wanted to rush to Marcus, to declare himself and give him hope. But that would end in both their deaths. One false step and they would be dead in minutes. Stealth was their only weapon. That, and the strong drink the Seal People favored. Esca had had a taste around the Chieftain’s fire; he had no doubt they would be drinking enough to send them into the deepest sleep tonight.
Soon, Marcus, Esca promised. I will get you home, I swear it.
Later, when Esca remembered their escape from the Seal People’s camp, he could only remember the cold.
Cold; endless cold, damp rain soaking into his clothes and his bones, fear freezing his body from the inside. Every branch cracking turned him into ice; every baying wolf chilled his soul.
Marcus was hurt. His leg was bad, bad enough that Esca feared that he would lose it this time, should they survive the journey. Unlike Esca’s treatment at the hands of Master Aquila, Marcus had been fed little by the Seal People. Esca didn’t realize how little, or how weak Marcus was when they left.
Then the Seal People came, and Esca had never felt so much like an animal, not even in the arena. They were reduced to motion; legs pumping, stumbling, falling, but always, always forward. They didn’t eat, they didn’t stop. They just moved. Esca’s world was reduced to the blur of trees in front of him, the weight of Marcus on his shoulder, the distant throb of pain radiating from every part of his body, and always, always, the unbearable cold.
When they got to the river, even colder and wetter still, Esca had no mind left. Forward, forward, forward, his brain chanted, until Marcus fell again and put a stop to it.
“Take it,” he begged, as if Esca could ever do such a thing. He tried to put the Eagle in Esca’s hands, everything he was, everything he’d worked for; the Eagle is Rome, Esca heard, echoing from what seemed like a hundred years ago. Rome, in his hands, to do with as he would. Rome in the hands of a Briton. A slave.
Esca’s mind stirred with an idea. A terrible idea. A reckless idea. He looked down at Marcus, so pale, shivering against the rock. He could not leave him like this, to his death. But to stay would mean death as well.
There was only one way they could survive this, and it was as two men, side by side. “I cannot leave you,” Esca said. “I swore an oath of honor.” And then, the words he thought he would never say, but seemed inevitable here in this cursed, terrible land. “Give me my freedom.”
Marcus looked hurt -- no, devastated, with all hope lost -- for a moment, then resigned. “You are free, my friend,” he said, sliding Esca’s dagger into his hand. He thought he was going to die here, Esca realized. Alone and cold, with only the knowledge of Esca’s freedom to console him.
Not if there was anything Esca could do about it. He drew Marcus closer, gripping the back of his head. He tried to will all his heart, his affection and loyalty, his love, into his voice. “I will return,” he said, running without a backward glance to try and save them both.
He could only hope that wouldn’t return to a corpse. Gods, help me keep my promise, he prayed, and ran faster.
After the battle and its aftermath, miraculously alive, Esca collapsed, shivering, next to a small copse of trees. One of Guern’s men offered him a cloak and Esca took it gratefully, waving off his other attentions. The smoke was still rising from Guern’s pyre, and the boy...
Esca closed his eyes against the sight, seeing it again and again. It would haunt his dreams for a long time to come.
A shadow passed in front of him and Esca opened his eyes. It was Marcus, leaning on his staff. “We have cared for the boy, as you asked.” Esca nodded. He should have been the one to do it, but he was at his limit. After carrying Marcus so far, running and running again, fighting a battle...Esca wasn’t sure that he could stand unassisted.
Marcus lowered himself painfully to the ground, settling down next to Esca. “There are no words,” he began, as solemn as Esca had ever heard him, “for what you have done for me.” He reached over and lay his hand on top of Esca’s. “If there is anything in my power to give you, from this day until the day I die and beyond, it will be yours.”
Esca turned his palm upward and loosely threaded his fingers between Marcus’ fingers, squeezing gently. “Let us not talk of obligation, my friend,” he said. “Let’s just go home.”
Marcus smiled, curling up closer to Esca, not quite letting his head rest on Esca’s shoulder, but close. “Home,” he said. “To Calleva.”
“It is as good a home as any,” Esca agreed.
It wasn’t that simple, of course. They both came down with terrible fevers and needed to stay under the care of a local healer-woman for half a moon. They made their way to the wall slowly after that, mindful of Marcus’ leg and their mutual weakness from the fever.
At the wall, Marcus refused to reveal the Eagle, even as the guards whispered about his madness behind their backs. “I must return it myself,” he said to Esca. “I won’t have it stolen by some young legionary bucking for a promotion.”
They stayed only one night at the wall, enough to get provisions and some rest. They had no money for fresh horses, but the ones they’d bartered for in Caledonia still had quite a bit of life in them, especially after a good night’s sleep in the stables.
They finally came to rest at an villa several days south of the wall. The villa’s owner was some distant friend of Master Aquila, and they had been given his name before they left. Their fevers had were gone, and Marcus could sit a horse for nearly an hour without pain. Esca had never met a man who’d escaped death quite so many times, save for perhaps himself.
Marcus rode alongside him up the long, winding road to the villa. He kept glancing at Esca, smiling through the taut lines of pain around his mouth, then looking around, more silent than usual, but not seeming discontent.
Esca was reminded suddenly of the ride in the oxcart from the arena to Master Aquila’s villa, so long ago. The world now was not the world then; it had tilted and shifted and shifted yet again. Here he was, back in Roman-occupied lands, but as a free man, bound only by friendship and his regard for Marcus. Death, it seemed, had no use for either of them; Rome would not welcome them as warmly as Marcus thought she might, and Caledonia...well, Caledonia was a dark shadow behind them.
We shall just have to find use for each other, Esca thought, and the idea pleased him so much that he laughed quietly to himself.
Marcus smiled at him. “You are so much happier, now.” A shadow crossed his face. “I do not wonder at it. Freedom is...”
“Beyond price,” Esca said, as he dismounted his horse. “Let’s not talk of that. It is a new day, and a new world.”
“A new world,” Marcus mused. “Indeed it is.”
They were welcomed warmly by their host, Aurelius Messalla, who had heard word of Aquila’s long-lost nephew and was “most pleased, most heartily pleased,” to see that he wasn’t dead. He didn’t seem to know what to do with Esca, initally ignoring him, then, when Marcus pointedly introduced him again, saying that he should be accorded “every courtesy of the house,” Aurelius gave Esca a pleasant but puzzled smile and summoned a slave to lead him to one of the rooms.
As the slave led him down the long hall, her head bowed, Esca felt the urge to say, I was one of you, or even run, I won’t follow you, but he kept quiet, too unsure of his place here, the memory of his cruel ownership of Marcus too fresh in his mind. He simply thanked her politely and set about getting settled, the full banquet of Roman luxury open to him for the first time. He was not so strong a man that the idea of a hot bath and a soft bed did not appeal to him after such a long and difficult journey.
After he’d bathed and changed into a fresh tunic provided by his host, Esca was just wondering if he should go and find Marcus when he appeared in his doorway. “Romans won’t know what to do with you,” he said, looking at Esca, his arms crossed loosely across his chest, his expression openly fond. “You will have to fight for their respect, but I have no doubt you will earn it.”
“I don’t care for their respect,” Esca said, gesturing for Marcus to enter. “I am not a different man, now that I’m free. I never curried the favor of Rome or Romans when I was a slave, and I do not curry it now.” He stepped forward and clasped Marcus on the shoulder, thrilled at that simple gesture of friendship, previously disallowed between them. “I care for your respect, as a friend, and that of your uncle, as someone who was kind to me. That is all.”
“As a friend,” Marcus said, tilting his head to one side. He looked unsure for a moment, out of his depth. Marcus was a man who, before this journey, had been utterly sure of his place in the world, for good or for ill, and he was never comfortable with uncertainty.
Esca was suddenly aware of the way Marcus’ muscles pulled the tunic across his chest, the power in his stance, and the memory of that body under his hands, not in pain or sickness, but in pleasure, blazed up in his mind.
He hadn’t meant to think about that, what had been between them. He had been focused on his own choices, tied up in knots of misery and indecision, then he’d been focused on their survival, and then...
Esca remembered his own words, that night so long ago back in Calleva. He walked slowly, purposefully toward Marcus. He held out his hand and smiled when, completely without hesitation, Marcus reached out and clasped it in his own. Always so trusting, even after everything they’d been through.
“I once said, that if I were a free man, I would choose this,” Esca said quietly, pulling just hard enough on Marcus’ arm to create tension, not quite drawing him toward Esca.
Marcus was completely still, and gave away nothing with his eyes. He did not allow himself to be pulled forward, nor did he step away. “And now you are free,” he said. “I release you of any obligation.” Ah. Not so trusting and naive after all.
“If you think I have not chosen you -- chosen this -- a thousand times over,” Esca said, dropping Marcus’ hand in frustration.
But as his hand dropped, Marcus stepped forward into his space, sliding his hand under Esca’s jaw. Esca shivered.
“I want everything to be equal between us,” Marcus said, his eyes dark and intent, the soft pad of his thumb scraping along Esca’s half-grown beard. “I never want anyone to think that you are less than what you are.”
“Let them think what they like,” Esca said. The embers that had burned within him since Marcus walked into the room burst into flames. Desire burned through his skin, making him dumb with lust and want. He grabbed the back of Marcus’ neck and pulled him down into a deep kiss. Marcus groaned into his mouth, sliding his hands down Esca’s back, grabbing his ass, then pulling away.
“I don’t know,” Marcus panted. “I don’t know what -- what men do.” He was blushing, the tips of his ears growing pink. “When one of them is not a slave, I mean. It wouldn’t be proper, for us to--” He pinked again, clutching Esca closer. “You will teach me?” he whispered into Esca’s ear, fanning the flames even higher.
“What we will do,” Esca said, pulling his tunic over his head. “I will touch you,” he said, removing Marcus’ tunic as well, as he walked him backwards toward the bed. Marcus began kissing him desperately; on the neck, on his cheek, on his chest, everywhere but his mouth. Esca took that as a sign to keep talking, so he did.
“I will touch you all over,” he said, putting word to deed as he pressed his hand against Marcus’ cock, relishing the smooth heat of him in his palm. Marcus groaned and bit down on Esca’s shoulder. He thrust shallowly in Esca’s hand, babbling, “please, please, please,” over and and over again.
“I will put my mouth on you,” Esca said, earning a choked-off cry from Marcus as he grew heavy and hot in his hand, “I will please you with my tongue and my lips, and even my teeth, if you so desire.” He raked his teeth down Marcus’ neck, making him whimper. Marcus’ hands grew frantic on him, grabbing his ass, rubbing against his cock, raking down his thighs. It was enough to drive Esca mad, but not enough to satisfy him. He growled and thrust into Marcus’ hip.
“And you,” he gasped, losing his train of thought in the slick, sweaty press of their bodies. “You will do the same for me.”
Marcus gasped, stiffened, let out a low, long moan, and came, striping Esca’s body. Esca laughed; he knew what Marcus liked, even if Marcus himself did not.
“I can’t,” Marcus said, his hand moving down to grasp Esca more firmly, assured in this, at least. He began to stroke Esca, building the fire, setting him alight. He mouthed at Esca’s shoulder, running his teeth and tongue along the skin, tentatively enough to imagine him, blushing and shy, running his tongue,up the underside of Esca’s cock. “I can’t,” Marcus murmured into his skin, as he worked his way up Esca’s neck. “Not yet,” he whispered, the words barely brushing Esca’s ear.
Esca cried out, the combination of feelings and images overtaking him, his thigh muscles clenching and shaking as he fell apart under Marcus’ hands. Even as he came back to himself, he cursed the body’s need for rest. He wanted to keep touching, to taste, to make Marcus act on his whispered words.
But they were merely men, not godlings, and injured men at that, so Marcus merely pulled warm coverings over them as Esca lay back in the bed, slowing his breathing. “Can I stay?” Marcus asked. His eyes were already closing. He was still so weak from his illness and injuries.
“I would not have you anywhere else,” Esca said, dropping a small kiss on Marcus’ temple. “Now sleep.”
Sleep overtook them both quickly, stealing in from one breath to the next.
Esca woke with a start, wet, cold, so cold, ice and fear and--- he looked around wildly. He wasn’t cold, he realized. In fact, Marcus lay half on top of him, heavy, solid and warm, his southern blood running hot as always. A dream, he realized. He wondered how long it would take him to feel safe, even in sleep.
Carefully, he freed himself from under Marcus and walked to the small, square window set into the wall. He could see a glimpse of the moon and the bright, shining swirl of the stars.
“Can’t sleep?” Marcus said, startling Esca. He hadn’t heard him get up. Marcus drew up behind him and wrapped his arm loosely across Esca’s chest.
“Will things be different for you now? WIll Rome give you your honor back?” Esca asked, surprising himself. He didn’t know how such things worked in Rome. It was all strange to him.
Marcus laughed a little, surprised as well. “The Senate can’t hand out honor like some award. I have satisfied myself and my own honor, and that is all I care about.” He tightened his arm around Esca briefly. “To answer your question, probably not. I will probably be thought of as Flavius Aquila’s mad son, rather than his disgraced son. But the family name will be restored.”
“I thought you were mad,” Esca said, smiling at the memory. “When you saved me in the arena. Your uncle said you’d been injured. I thought you’d suffered a blow to the head.”
Marcus did laugh at that, throwing his head back. “I think my uncle did too.” He crowded closer to Esca, pulling him tight against him. “It was the Fates whispering in my ear,” he said softly. “Showing me my future.”
Esca snorted. “I am not some woman who needs your poetry,” he said, unable to keep the smile from his face as he turned to face Marcus. “Go to bed.”
Marcus held out his hand. “Come with me.”
A home, not a country, Esca thought, and followed.