When the Fisher turned, sand pluming up under his heel, he was close enough below Charles that he felt the air sigh as the net flared out. The swordsman, tall and lean and wolf-eyed, lifted his head to meet the net as he lunged at the Fisher, all pride and fury, and then it was tangling around him, bringing him down to roll across the sand, knotted in its mesh.
If Charles could have stood, he would have been on his feet, roaring with the crowd. Instead, he gripped the barrier rail and looked straight down into the man's eyes as the Fisher approached and raised his trident to the crowd, asking for their verdict.
Charles didn't move his hand, so caught in the cold determination of the swordsman's mind that he was barely aware of the thunder of his own heart. Death before defeat, death before dishonour, that bright, swift mind was blazing, and all around him Charles could hear the crowd howling for death.
That made him move and he flung his own hand out, thumb turned up, and shouted against them.
The swordsman's eyes narrowed in sudden fury and the metal trident began to quiver in the Fisher's hand, as if it would fly into the swordsman's heart of its own accord.
It's you, Charles thought, breath catching. You're doing that! Then he was leaning forward, throwing his thoughts straight into the swordsman's mind, Live, you must live. Oh, I've never met anyone else like you, so live, please. You're not alone, and at the same time he was forcing it into the minds around him, Let him live. Let him live!
Around him, thumbs were turning up and the crowd's roar was shifting in tone, but Charles couldn't hear them, though he still threw his demands into their minds. All that mattered was the man lying below him and the shaking trident that would kill him regardless of the crowd. The bright certainty of the man's thoughts was fraying now, confusion and wonder and a dark, thin edge of fear, and Charles knew when he had won, even before the man closed his eyes and turned his head and the trident went heavy in the Fisher's hand.
Charles looked away then – he did not want to see this man's shame. Two seats away, on the far side of his uncle, her guardian, Raven was staring at him, her eyes wide and accusing.
He's like us, Charles said to her, sinking back into his seat as the crowd settled. I had to do it.
“You always have an excuse,” she said, just loud enough for him to hear, but her eyes were bright with more than anger.
They had to wait for the crowds to clear before the bearers could come to carry him out to the litter, and Charles had plenty of time to think as he waited. He had never been a frequent visitor to the arena, and had little idea of how the places worked.
“What will happen to him now?” he asked.
“The gladiator?” his uncle asked, surprised. “He'll be sold on. Nobody will want to see him fight now.”
“Their loss,” Charles murmured, thinking of the lithe, graceful power with which the man had fought. “How much would he go for, I wonder?”
“Charles,” Raven protested. “If you need a slave, we can find someone more-”
“I'd like him,” Charles said mildly, and then the bearers were there and, as always, Raven went quiet when she saw him wince as they lifted him, jostling the aches in his back which never went away.
It was the the next evening before his new slave arrived, and Charles spent the day restlessly, failing to concentrate on Caesar’s Gallic Wars. He could feel the new presence in the house, and the wariness of the other slaves, and was almost shaking with eagerness behind his desk by the time Sean showed the man in.
With the lamplight enhancing the hollows beneath his cheekbones and putting shadows in his eyes, he did not look like a slave. He met Charles' gaze full on and for a long moment they stared at each other in silence.
“It is you, then,” the slave said at last, his Latin almost as perfect as Charles' own, with only a faint rough accent.
Charles couldn't help but smile, a sudden flustered warmth in his chest. “Yes, of course. I mean, yes, you're right.” Eheu, what a fool he sounded.
“I didn't want your mercy.”
“I know. You deserved it, though – not pity, I mean, but you deserved more than that death.”
“Do you always babble like this?”
Charles was beginning to feel like he was the one being interviewed by a new master, so he pulled himself together and said, “From time to time. You understand why I have brought you here?”
“You have need of a body-slave,” the man said with a curl of his lip. “To bring you meals and polish your sandals. A boy's work.”
“A boy would not be strong enough,” Charles said, picking up his cup of wine and taking a generous drink to fortify himself. He had struck the man's curiosity now – he could feel it. “Six months ago, I was a Cohort Commander at Isca Dumnoniorum.”
“You don't look like a Roman soldier.”
“I am not a soldier now,” Charles said and looked down at his reflection in the wine. “I went down below a war chariot before I had been there three months.”
“You are lucky to be alive.”
“Alive, yes, but without any use of my legs. So, no longer a soldier.”
There was silence, and Charles turned his cup to make the wine swirl darkly. Then the man said, “It was not pity, then.”
Charles looked up, startled, and saw only a thoughtful, measuring stare. Shaking himself, he put the cup down and said, “But that was not what I meant. You have an uncommon talent, I believe.”
“I don't know what you mean,” and here was wariness again, rolling across the room like the wind off the hills.
Charles lifted his fingers to his forehead, and thought, You do know. I can see into your mind; hear every thought.
That brought a tumble of images: fire, screaming women, the red shields of the legions, and then just as suddenly, nothing but pictures of fog steaming over the moors, dense and lonely.
But I will not look, if you prefer. I do know that you were the one who moved the trident. How? Please, tell me how.
“You could just order me to speak. Are you not my master now?”
“I would rather you tell me,” Charles said. “I am not – I try not to – I would very much prefer-”
“Metal,” the man said, the line of his mouth softening with something that could have been amusement. “If it's metal, I can move it.”
“Glorious,” Charles breathed, delight washing through him. “That is to say, you are a wonder. You will have to show me everything.” Then he recalled his manners and said, sheepishly, “I do not even know your name.”
“I have heard yours. They call you Charles.”
“A childhood coinage of my foster sister's. I am Carolus Franciscus Xavier.”
“Not entirely a Roman name.”
“My people are from Spain; those who do not follow the Eagle.”
“And what legion do Spanish soldiers join, now the Ninth has vanished into the mist?” The tone was mocking.
Charles snapped his head up, suddenly reminded of all the vows he could no longer keep. “What do you know of the Ninth Legion?”
“Only that they proved that Rome can be defeated.”
Charles had been starting to like him. Now that was swallowed up by a rush of bitterness. “Your name, slave.”
“Just that? Were you born to some tribe?”
“Yes,” Erik said, his sudden grin showing too many teeth. “I was.” And he said nothing more.
In the months that followed, Charles couldn't quite escape the feeling that Erik was humouring him every time he followed an order. It annoyed him, but less than the syrupy pity he got from the other slaves. Erik regarded him with a faint sardonic amusement that made Charles wish he hadn't promised not to read his thoughts. When he carried Charles out into the garden, or to his bed, though, he somehow made it feel a little more dignified. He never fussed, but could clear over-solicitious visitors from a room with a single thunderous stare.
His hands were gentle, too, and his shoulders and arms remarkably strong and warm, but Charles tried not to think about that. It was entirely inappropriate.
“Oh, really,” Raven said, one warm afternoon when Erik had carried him out to the garden, where starlings flittered among the crumbled bank of the old city wall. “You pant after him like a puppy, Charles.” She was blue this afternoon, despite Charles' protests, and she warped her face into a copy of his and lisped, “Oh, Erik, would you be so kind as to help me to the table? Oh, Erik how wide your chest is. Oh, Erik, won't you put me down on my desk and bugger me like a Spartan, pretty, pretty please?”
“I have certainly never said that,” Charles protested. “Really, what have you been reading?”
“Anything I can find,” she said, with a huffy sigh. “This place is so dull, Charles.”
“I could arrange for you to return to Spain, if you like. I thought you wanted to come to Britain.”
She snorted and gestured at the overgrown garden, with its weathered benches and statues. “This isn't Britain, you idiot. It's trying too hard to be Rome. I want to see something real. I want to find my people.”
Charles thought of the spin of blades set into a chariot's wheels, the scream of horses, and said, “You don't. Not really.”
“I do,” she insisted. “You don't understand.”
“I understand better than you think,” he snapped and then softened his tone. She was little more than a child, after all. “Play latrunculi with me again. I'll spot you a piece.”
She surged up with a wordless noise of frustration and whirled away, fading back into her normal mask of prettiness as she stormed back to the house. Charles sighed and picked the game pieces up, hoping she wouldn't wait too long to tell someone he was out here. He wanted to walk again so badly it made his heart clench and his eyes burn.
The worst heat of the afternoon had started to fade by the time Erik appeared behind him, and Charles had given up feeling neglected to watch the starlings squabble. He had been considering reaching out to Erik's mind to ask him to bring out Pliny the Elder's Natural History so he could see what book had to say about the birds.
“You and your sister fight a great deal,” Erik said, sitting down beside him and lifting his face to the sun.
“She's not precisely my sister,” Charles said, turning to look at him. He never stopped enjoying the stark lines of Erik's face. “Our fathers served together, but her mother was British, and died when she was very young. Our fathers thought it best to give her into my mother’s care, which was lucky for her, or she would have been left with no one.”
“If her mother had kin, they would have had a place for her. Her father is dead, then?”
“Yes, quite certainly.”
“You don't seem entirely sure.”
Charles shrugged, and watched a starling hop cannily over another's back. “No one knows, not really.”
Erik sat up a little. “Ah. Spanish soldiers and lost beyond the reach of Rome – your father marched with the Ninth.”
“He had charge of the Eagle,” Charles said, “and so I know he is dead.”
“Because the Eagle is lost.”
“Yes.” Erik was quiet, so Charles added, “I don't expect you to understand.”
“You'd be surprised,” Erik said, and then shifted slightly to reach for the board. “A game?”
Charles turned to stare at him. It was a Roman game, borrowed, if he remembered correctly from the Greeks. “You play?”
“I have done, in years gone by.”
“Where did you learn?” He wasn't quite expecting an answer, but he could never help asking.
Erik surprised him. “Rome.”
“You were in Rome?”
“Once or twice.” He gave Charles that sharp, sardonic smile. “I have not always been a slave, Charles. I would have thought you had stolen that from my mind as well.”
“I haven't trespassed,” Charles said indignantly, as Erik set up the board, long fingers curling around the pieces. “Not since the day we met.”
Erik looked a little pleased at that and, to Charles' surprise, did not lose the faint smile even when Charles wiped his pieces out with barely a loss.
“So you do have some military talents,” he remarked and then, as Charles spluttered indignation, “We should play again.”
It became part of their routine: a game to end the evening, with Charles already lounging on his bed and Erik hunched onto his stool, both of them focussed on the board, fingers brushing as they shifted the pieces. Sometimes they talked, about hunting, politics, the books Charles was reading and offered up to Erik when he was done with them; other times they played in silence, pieces clicking across the board, the warmth of the night clinging closely around them.
Those were the nights when Charles watched Erik's hands and thought of pushing back his blankets and pulling Erik across the table, game pieces tumbling aside as he dragged Erik down and pressed their mouths together. He would order Erik to undress and, for once, Erik would not meet an order with sarcastic smiles but pull his clothes off to bare those strong arms. Charles would lift himself up on his elbow and suck on Erik's cock until Erik was gasping and writhing above him. Then, he thought, watching Erik slide his dux forward a square, he would order Erik to fuck him and it would be like riding to the hunt again or turning a chariot into a tight bend or running a marathon just to show he could.
“There's a hunt tomorrow,” Erik said, startling him from his fantasy. “Rogue wolf.”
“Come into the town?” Charles asked, concerned.
“Some of the villages.” Erik gave him another of those looks and added, “There's a good chance your sister will turn herself into a soldier for the day.”
Charles groaned. “And in this state, I can't even go after her. Damn, but a hunt would be good.”
“I could watch over her, if you could spare me for the day,” Erik said, oddly tentative. When Charles frowned at him, he added defensively, “I miss the hunt too.”
Charles knew he should say yes; that there was nothing unreasonable in the request, but his voice had frozen in his throat. He had no idea why Erik stayed, when it was increasingly obvious that it would be easy for him to walk away. If he gave him permission, even for a day, would Erik come back at all?
“Yes,” Charles forced out. “Of course. One of us should, if you can, of course.”
He wasn't expecting Erik's hand on his jaw, or the way the touch shivered through him. “Is something wrong?”
“No,” Charles said firmly, and closed his eyes, trying to keep his breath steady. “I'm a little tired. You should get some sleep, if you're to be up early.”
Erik took his hand away, and Charles felt suddenly cold, despite the warm night. “Goodnight, then.”
“Goodnight,” Charles echoed and turned his face into his pillow. He listened as Erik snuffed the lamp and walked away, footsteps as soft as always, before he slid his hand down his chest to his cock, which was so stiff that his head was spinning.
One touch, he thought as he wrapped his hand around his cock tightly and began to jerk it up, quick, rough strokes. One little touch, oh, what would you do to me, Erik? Oh, I want it, I want you, want your touch, want to hear you moan my name, want you inside me and around me, want, want, want-
And, then, too soon, he was spilling into his hand with a rough sob, and he had no idea what to do about it all, no idea at all.
He spent the next day miserable, missing both Erik and Raven, wondering where they were, how the hunt was going, whether they were safe (whether Erik was coming home).
By early evening, he was quite ready to turn to drink, convinced that Erik was gone into the mists and Raven had been discovered and pursued out of town by a mob (no matter that he'd have heard such a commotion – it could be a mob shocked into silence), and he would be alone and crippled and unhappy for the rest of his life.
Then he heard their return, Raven's chatter and quick footsteps in the corridor, all excitement, Erik's calmer tones and a squeaky yap he didn't recognise.
Raven burst in. “Charles! Charles! We brought you a present!”
“We?” Erik said mildly from the door.
“Well, Erik caught it and thought of you, but I was there!”
Charles smiled at them from where he was reclining, feeling very old and careworn in the face of Raven’s excitement. Then he looked at Erik properly and sat up fast enough to spill his wine and send his Seneca skittering across the floor. “Erik! Is that a wolf!”
“Cub,” Erik said, grinning at him, gleeful and self-satisfied. “Take them this young and they’ll run with the hounds.” He deposited his whimpering, scraggly burden into Charles’ lap, where it immediately stood up and whuffed mournfully and pungently into his face.
“Gracious,” he said, wondering what they had been thinking of.
“I think we should call it Polyphemus!” Raven said, clapping her hands together.
“Still got both eyes,” Erik said. “Mutt.”
Charles opened his mouth to protest and tell them to get the creature out of here; that this was no place for a wild creature. Then he looked into its pale eyes, as baffled and bewildered as he felt, and reached out to rub its ears instead. The wolf made a rumbling noise and them its legs slid out from under it and it collapsed into Charles’ lap with an indignant huff.
“Cerberus?” Raven suggested. “Argos? Unless it’s a girl - we could call it Medusa if it is.”
“Hound,” Erik said. “Cur.”
“Poor cub,” Charles said. “I won’t let Raven name you, don’t worry. Has he been fed, Erik?”
“Stuffed himself full on scraps,” Erik said and then grinned again. “Still has his fleas, though.”
“Charming,” Charles said but couldn’t help smiling back just as happily, especially when Erik went wide-eyed and a little pinker in the cheeks.
He was glad of Cub in the following months. As the summer faded and the nights began to close in towards autumn, his back began to trouble him again. He had heard old soldiers blame the mists for all their aches and pains and never listened much, but now he sympathised. He hurt all the time, and more than ever on the mornings when the mist clung slickly to the pillars of the portico or the days when the rain drizzled down, slow and grey and lowering.
Training Cub was a distraction, and Erik kept him company much of the time, although he was prone to vanishing without notice. Charles had a feeling that he was not supposed to allow a slave such leeway, but Erik had never been a typical slave.
One grey afternoon, when Erik was nowhere to be found, Charles had to resort to getting young Sean, from the kitchen, to lug him into the atrium so he could at least watch the comings and goings of the house. Sean managed to walk him into the doorframe twice and was so woebegone that Charles couldn’t bring himself to snap at the boy. Instead, he exorted a promise that Sean would spend an hour breaking glasses with his voice with him later (Charles liked to consider this a form of education, but was well aware that Sean saw it as a welcome afternoon off scrubbing pots).
Tucked into a corner of the atrium, he could see into the street, though few passersby wandered down this side road. The odd Romano-British matron stomped past, though, swaddled in thick layers of tweed and pebbled with rain drops. Cub came to join him, tail swishing over the polished mosaic as he dipped his nose down to sniff the water of the impluvium suspiciously. The rain sighed softly against the water, and Charles relaxed into his reading.
He was interrupted by the sound of Raven’s voice, speaking hesitantly in a language he did not know.
Then Erik replied, a steady, kind patience in his tone that Charles had never heard before and suddenly, desperately, wanted addressed to him.
Raven answered, sounding frustrated, and Charles guiltily reached out to her mind, but all her thoughts were so focussed on this new language that he couldn’t understand them. She showed what language it was, though, and he would have recognised it if he hadn’t been away from his command so long.
Erik was teaching Raven to speak British.
Cub jumped up as they crossed the atrium, and went swooping across to meet them. Raven broke off from her conversation to laugh and crouch down to meet him. Erik looked over her head, scanning the room until he found Charles.
He left Raven to coo over Cub and came across to Charles. “I wasn’t expecting you out here.”
“I had to ask Sean to carry me,” Charles informed him, aware he was pouting.
Erik sat down beside him, a line of warmth at Charles’ side. “And you both survived the effort.”
“He’s improving,” Charles said and Erik shrugged and reached out to brush his knuckles against Charles’ cheek, making him flush.
“I suppose I should go back to my room,” Charles said, eyeing the door to the street wistfully.
“Stay here,” Erik said and walked away.
Raven finished fussing over Cub and dropped down on the bench beside Charles, her smile brighter than it had been since he was carried up the legion’s road. “Did you miss us?”
“I got a remarkable amount of reading done without distractions,” Charles told her, and then tweaked her nose, just because he could and hadn’t for years.
She shrieked and batted his hand away, like she had when they were children scrambling through the orange orchards where the very air tasted sweet. He missed the sun sometimes; missed being a child who could run through the sunlit orchards and laugh without hesitation.
“What was he saying to you?” he asked Raven.
She shrugged, looking down to fuss with a loose thread in her stola. “You wouldn’t understand.”
“Explain it to me, then.”
She hesitated, and then said, voice low and oddly fierce, “He told me that I am Iceni, and should not be ashamed to speak my own language.”
“Well, obviously,” Charles said, and patted her knee. “But don’t forget your Latin or no one will be able to understand what you’re saying.”
She stood up, fists curling up. “I told you so. You don’t understand.”
And she stormed away. Cub whined after her and then turned reproachful eyes on Charles.
“How should I know what she’s thinking?” Charles asked him. “She won’t let me look.”
And then he realised he was talking to a wolf and sulked until Erik returned with his warm old military cloak and the latrunculi board.
That evening, in the bath house, he relaxed against the side of the pool, letting his legs float. Erik was beside him, head tilted back and shoulders loose, the candlelight glowing on every hollow of his face, like it had on the day they met, though Charles hadn’t wanted to press his lips to every line and curve then.
“So,” he said, trying to be casual. “You’re Iceni, then?”
Erik shot him an amused glance and said, “No.”
“But you speak the language?”
He wasn’t really hoping for a reply, but something, perhaps just the warm water, had relaxed Erik, who said, “I was among the Brigantes when they met the legions last.”
“But you’re not British.”
“No.” Then, after a long quiet moment where Charles, against his better judgement, drifted a little closer, “I was looking for someone. I didn’t find him.”
Charles felt a quick spasm of jealousy, sharper than the pain in his back, but then felt the bitterness spilling out of Erik’s mind and forced himself to be calm.
“I know nothing about you,” he said lightly, trying to keep it social. “Not where you come from, or what gods you follow, or how many languages you speak.”
“Several,” Erik said and relaxed again, his shoulder brushing warmly against Charles’.
Erik was naked beside him, Charles thought, and couldn’t unthink it. He had seen Erik naked plenty of times in the bath, but now he was thinking about how easy it would be to just keep drifting closer and closer until they were pressed together in the water, their hands slick on each others’ bodies.
“I am a Mithraist,” he babbled instead, to stop himself. “Which I am sure you know, from the scar and the military background and-”
“I am a Jew,” Erik said, which was so surprising that Charles stopped talking.
Then, because curiosity was making his lips itch, he blurted out, “But you cannot be from Judea!”
“No,” Erik said and all that quiet amusement was back. “My clan lived, oh, just north of the Danube, until the Romans came.”
“Ah,” said Charles.
“I was very young,” Erik said, eyes distant. “My brothers, my father, my mother - they all died. I was sold on, as far as Alexandria in the end. My master there was a Judean doctor. He taught me my letters. I learnt fast, he told me later, and he had no son to inherit his trade, so he set me free and taught me and in the end, adopted me. I lived ten years with him, before he was- before he died. He was a good man.”
“I’m glad,” Charles said, aware that he had been given more than he’d dared ask for. “You must hate us.”
“No,” Erik said slowly. “No, clans war against clans - this is the way of the world. The clan that is Rome is simply larger than any other clan. I don’t hate Rome.”
“But you hate someone,” Charles said, because he could almost taste it in the air. It was so hard not to go plunging into Erik’s mind to dig out the truth, rather than rely on these hints and seeping echoes of deeper bitterness.
Erik was silent for a long time, and Charles waited, careful not to let his own thoughts leak, watching the light dance against the walls as one of the candles started to gutter.
“We were betrayed,” Erik said at last. “There was a man who came to the clan, three months before the Romans did - a smith. He led them to us - Klaus, he called himself then. He knew, you see, knew what I could do, and thought he could steal me away while my clan were busy with the Romans.”
“But he failed?”
“My mother stopped him. And he killed her, but by then the Romans were on us. So, no, Charles, it is not the Romans I hate.”
Charles’ eyes were hot, and he had to reach out, just to curl his hand around Erik’s arm. Erik tensed and then grabbed Charles in turn, dragging him forward through the water to rest his forehead against Charles, his hands locked around Charles’ forearms and his breathing harsh.
My friend, Charles sent to him. My friend, Erik, you deserve so much better, Erik, Erik, Erik. And he clung on until Erik’s breathing slowed and he could blink his own tears away.
Then, softly, because everything felt as delicate as spiderwebs, he said, “I feel I owe you an apology. All these months, I have treated you like a-”
“Unlettered barbarian,” Erik finished and that soft look of amusement was back in his eyes and Charles suddenly recognised it as fondness.
“I wouldn’t quite say - I mean - well, yes, I suppose.”
“Oh, I’m that too,” Erik said and pulled him in.
Erik’s mouth was like a brand against his, hot and hungry and demanding, and Charles wrapped his arms around Erik’s neck and dragged himself closer, gave the kiss back with the same desperation, plundering Erik’s mouth, tongues clashing, breath catching, autumn-chapped lips rough as they pressed and slid against each other.
One of Charles’ legs drifted forward, pressed against Erik’s thigh, and for one brief moment their cocks brushed against each other and Charles sobbed a little into Erik’s mouth, digging his fingers into the nape of his neck, his back arching in a desperate attempt to move his legs and wrap himself around Erik.
Erik groaned and grabbed Charles’ thigh with one hand, dragging him through the water.
The other hand landed in the small of Charles’ back, right on top of the worst of his scars. White-hot pain blazed up his spine, blinding him as his stomach lurched and his fingers clenched.
When he could think past the pain again, he was out of the water, face down on the sagging old chaise that sat beside the pool. His face was pressed against Erik’s thigh and Erik’s hand was between his shoulder blades, trembling slightly as Erik said, “Charles, Charles.”
“I’m still here,” Charles managed and Erik’s next breath came out ragged.
Then he demanded, fingers digging a little harder into Charles’ neck, “Was the medic who patched you up drunk?”
“Quite possibly,” Charles said, nuzzling in against Erik’s thigh in the hope that it would push the pain away a little further. “But I am alive, and he was a very nice man.”
Erik let out a little guttural sound of annoyance and then there was a soft, warm towel pressing the water off his back and legs.Charles sighed a little and reached out blindly for Erik.
“No,” Erik said, catching his hand. “I’m taking you to bed.”
“Where I will be putting salve on those wounds so you can at least sleep, Charles.”
“I don’t want to sleep,” Charles protested, but he was feeling limp and drained enough to let Erik dry him and bundle him into his tunic and then carry him back to the main house, hands slow and gentle.
His mind didn’t really clear until Erik settled him among his pillows and stalked away, steps ghost-quiet against the tiles.
He needed to set Erik free; had to, because he could not - would not be a man who bought a slave for sex. He had to let Erik go, and Erik would go, and Charles never wanted him to leave.
He felt the bed sag as Eric sat down beside him and was still struggling for words when Erik’s hand curved gently around his hip, long fingers spreading warmly against his skin. “You should have told me you were in pain, Charles.”
“I daresay it will happen every winter,” Charles said and Erik’s fingers tightened a little. Charles didn’t mind, though. Already it seemed that the ache in his hip was fading, just slightly, under the warmth in Erik’s palm.
Erik growled something Charles didn’t understand, and then said, “You’re twisted as tight as a rope. Lie still.” Charles heard the twist of a cap and then smelt something sharp and green and pungent.
“Is that pitch?” he protested, trying to sit up. Erik’s hand pressed him back down so firmly that heat suddenly coiled in his belly.
“Balm, for the muscle ache,” he said. “I got it from an Iceni horse trader in the market when you started wincing.”
Charles flushed at that. Erik must have been watching him so closely to- wait. “You’re using horse liniment on my back?!”
“Relax, Charles. All these months here and you still haven’t realised that the British show more tenderness to their animals than their children.”
Then his hands were on Charles’ shoulders, their warmth glowing through the cold slickness of the balm.
“I’m not hurt there,” Charles pointed out, but then his shoulders went lax in a way they hadn’t in months, as if he had suddenly dropped his pack after a long day’s march. “Oh.”
Erik chuckled and his hands slide down, circling Charles’ shoulder-blades as his thumbs pressed into his spine and then brushed up to tease his nape. Involuntarily, Charles groaned again as knotted muscles turned limp and quivering, every inch of his back suddenly feeling lit up from within, kissed by the very touch of the air.
“Look at you,” Erik murmured. “What will you be like when I touch your cock?”
“I’ll probably be begging you to fuck me by then,” Charles gasped as one hand slid down to the middle of his back and the other lifted up and then came down onto his twisted thigh with a new layer of balm. “Don’t stop.”
“And the master begs the slave.”
“Now I beg you,” managed Charles as Erik left his thigh to press both hands to the aching small of his back. “You have - oh - the most talented hands, my friend.”
But those hands had suddenly stilled again, over the worst of his scars, and Erik’s mood had shifted to something focussed and furious.
Despite the way his cock was pressing between his belly and the blankets, Charles summoned enough self-control to ask, “Is something wrong?”
“Your surgeon was a drunk,” Erik snarled. “An incompetent, clumsy, half-blind drunk.”
“That’s a little unfair. I survived, after all.”
“With twenty shards of metal in your back,” Erik snarled.
The world went a little blank at that, and then, for a long awful moment, all Charles could see was the broken chariot crashing down on him.
Then he came back to the moment, and Erik’s hands and the desperate breathing of Erik’s rage.
“He didn’t clean the wound out properly,” Erik said, bending forwards to breathe the words into the back of his neck. “I can feel it all in there. That’s why you’re hurting.”
Charles considered that for a cold minute and then heard himself say, very clear and distinct, “I would like it if you fucked me now.”
Erik breathed out his name in a little shocked rush, the edge of his lip catching at the lobe of Charles’ ear.
Then he was pushing up again and his hands were back on Charles’ back, his touch still gentle but swifter as he spread his hands across Charles’ arse.
“No, fuck me,” Charles insisted, not caring that it would hurt his back.
Erik’s hand slipped sideways, long slick fingers tracing down the crack of Charles’ arse to brush against his hole, and Charles moaned into his pillow and spread his legs in welcome. But Erik didn’t press any further, just circled round and round that sensitive flesh, teasing until Charles began to shiver beneath that steady touch and the shuddering heat that rose through him.
“More,” he begged, pressing up against Erik’s hand, and Erik shifted on the bed and sighed. “Sssh,” against his neck, tongue darting out to touch the place where the pulse beat heavy in his throat.
Still Erik traced those maddening circles, pressing a little deeper now, but never quite in, and Charles rutted against the sheets, whimpering.
“You’d scream for me, wouldn’t you?” Erik said into his ear, tongue curling out very softly.Then he was turning Charles onto his side, bringing his hand forward to grasp Charles’ cock and continue his slow, slow teasing as his mouth pressed against Charles, soft and lingering as Charles shivered and clutched at his shoulders and wailed with each new rush of heat that came rising through him.
When he came, lingering on the edge of the slow hot rush for countless seconds, the moan stuttered in his throat as he tipped his head back and Erik kissed it out of him, bearing him back to the pillows with a groan of his own.
Charles melted back against the pillows and stared through blurry eyes, watching Erik bend over his own cock and pull his own pleasure out in rough sobs.
When he woke, it was light, one of those bright autumn days where the sun turns the mist golden and the fragile leaves cling dancing to the trees, and Erik was gone.
Charles found himself floating in a strange, cold sort of calm that let him call for breakfast and send for a lawyer. It was a simple thing to draw up the manumission papers, and sign them, and put them in a drawer until he could find the perfect moment to set Erik free.
Then, just before noon, Erik returned, ushering a very nervous surgeon.
“Anrai Mac Coi,” Erik introduced him, folding his arms and leaning back in the doorway.
The tall, gawky surgeon shot him a look that was half terror and half irritation. “Henricus, here.”
“Hank,” Charles said, plucking the name out of the surface of his mind, along with the constant sense of panic about what was hidden in his shoes, the secret which had driven him away from his island home to study medicine. “I’m afraid I don’t quite understand.”
“From what Erik says,” Hank told him, long fingers entwining anxiously, “you’ll have no peace until the wound has been searched and the last debris removed.”
“It must be reopened?” Charles asked, his throat closing a little in horror.
“The sooner the better, I’m afraid,” Hank said and then added, as if it didn’t matter. “Of course, if it is done aright this time, it is entirely possible that you could walk again.”
Charles lifted his head to look at Erik, still looming in the door, and didn’t know whether to be grateful or afraid. Instead, he forced a calm smile onto his face and said to Hank, “When can this be done?”
“Tomorrow, if it is convenient,” Hank said.
Charles tried for a casual shrug. “I have no other pressing business.”
Once Hank was gone, though, he poured himself a drink and decided he could not set Erik free today. He couldn’t manage two such pains in one day.
The surgery was worse than he could have imagined, even with Erik holding him down, his jaw set and his eyes bright as Hank sliced into Charles’ back. Luckily, the pain of that sent him spiralling into darkness and he did not wake again until it was done.
It hurt so much when he came back to daylight, but Erik was there to support his shoulders and tip poppy juice into his lax mouth, and Charles decided again that he could not free Erik today, not when he needed him so very much.
Erik was there when he stood for the first time in months, legs shaking beneath him before he dropped back to his chair. It was Erik, three days later, who slid his hands up Charles’ thighs and growled, “How long can you stand?”
“I don’t know,” Charles snapped, tired and sore and self-pitying.
“Then we should find out,” Erik said and dropped to his knees, pushing his head up below the hem of Charles’ tunic. His mouth closed warmly around Charles’ limp cock and Charles gasped and grabbed at him for balance as all his blood went flooding down to pool between his legs, his cock swelling to jut into Erik’s cheek and press his tight lips apart.
It was Erik who steadied his elbow the first time he walked into the garden of his own accord; Erik who then kissed him below the overgrown mulberry bushes, hidden from curious eyes as their hands roamed slowly under warm winter clothes. When Charles walked to the forum for the first time, it was Erik who steered him out of the road when he was overwhelmed by the merry, glorious babble of a hundred new minds. It was Erik who sat across the dinner table from him that night, thumbing through the Aeneid while Charles spilled out every secret he had learned, all the little kindnesses and conspiracies and lies.
“You like to talk, don’t you?” Erik observed and poured himself another glass of wine.
“We can’t all be stoic and mysterious,” Charles retorted. “Even you must find some people interesting.”
“One or two,” Erik said and lowered the scroll to smile at him, sending a sudden wine-dark flush of heat through Charles. “Not those you’re discussing, though.”
Charles pouted at him. “And why do the unlucky folk of Calleva deserve your scorn?”
“They have forgotten who they are,” Erik said, and suddenly his mouth was hard. “They were conquered and cast down and now they wear their conquerors’ clothes and ape their manners.”
“I really don’t think civilisation is that damaging,” Charles protested. “Rather the opposite.”
“That would be because it’s your civilisation, Charles.”
And Charles, a little offended, left the papers in the drawer again, and again, that night, Erik made him come, sobbing and writhing, but did not fuck him.
Three nights later, it was Erik who came to Charles’ bed when he could not sleep, troubled by the itching of his new scars and the last lingering ache of the old. He soothed salve into Charles’ back again, pressing kisses to his shoulders, and lay back to let Charles suck his cock, his fingers curling eagerly in Charles’ hair. Then he stayed, pressing along Charles’ back and locking an arm around his waist, instead of returning to his own pallet by the door.
“Comfortable?” Charles asked, snuggling back shamelessly.
“Your bed is better,” Erik muttered and bit his ear lightly. “Go to sleep.”
“I don’t think I can,” Charles said, still fizzing with the aftershocks of orgasm.”I think I might buy a farm.”
Charles ignored that to prop himself up on one elbow and look down at Erik, at the marvellous angle where his neck met his jaw. “I am quite obscenely rich, you know.”
Erik muttered something and tugged him back down hard, throwing a long leg over his hip and muttering balefully into the back of his neck.
“I was thinking of opening a training school.”
That woke Erik up. “You want to train gladiators?”
“Not for gladiators. For people like us.” Charles wriggled round to face him. “There’s so many of us, Erik. I - I go looking sometimes when I can’t sleep.” They were like lamps shining through a great mist, all those wondrous minds. “So many of them, and they all think they’re alone and I’ve tried a little to seek them out-”
“Sean,” Erik said and his voice was taut, his shoulders still and stiff.
“And Raven and Hank, of course, and there are others - a whore in Londinium, a Greek solider in prison in Chester, a Carthaginian sailor who sometimes brings his boat into Dubris-”
“You’re not the first to have the idea,” Erik said, pulling away.
“I told you,” Erik said, voice low and angry, “about the man who killed my mother. The man who tried to collect me.”
“You weren’t the only one,” Charles realised. “Lord of Light have mercy, is he still out there? Yes, yes, that was who you were looking for among the Brigantes?”
“He has many names. In Greece and Cappadocia, they call him Sebastianos, in Egypt, Sethos, among the Celts and the Picts, his name is Shaw. He can drink of the lightning and be made stronger, take the power of a storm or earthquake and transform it into his own unnatural strength, and he turns every one of us he can find into a weapon for the sheer joy of victory.” Then, after a pause which made Charles want to cling to him and never let go, he added, “He came back for me, in Egypt, and next time we meet, I will kill him.”
Charles did reach for him, then, holding on so tight that he couldn’t even tell if Erik was shaking too, not until Erik’s hands slowly crept up his back, fingers spreading.
“I want to build a refuge,” Charles snarled into Erik’s throat. “A place where we can be safe. I have been a soldier and the son of a soldier, and I have wielded weapons, and I want nothing more of death and destruction.”
Erik made a low, almost animal sound and clung harder and Charles remembered the signed papers still hidden in his desk and thought, not sure if he was in his own mind or Erik’s, I am never going to let you go.
At breakfast the next morning, Erik said casually, “And what will I do, in this school of yours?”
It was obviously his way of telling Charles that he knew about the papers, that he had searched Charles’ desk and let them lie. This, Charles assumed, was how Erik was telling him that he could take his own freedom back any time he wanted, but that he chose to stay.
“You seem to be teaching Raven well enough,” Charles said and enjoyed Erik’s surprise. “I think you have a gift for it.”
“You see more in people than they have to give,” Erik complained, but he looked as if he was considering it.
And then, suddenly, the wind turned to showers and spring was tugging them forward, and Charles’ uncle had a guest, an old comrade who was bringing his sharp-minded half-British daughter down from the Wall to visit Londinium.
It was this Moira who said, as the conversation slowed towards night, “They saw the Eagle has been seen north of the Wall.”
“Where?” Raven demanded, before Charles could. “Where is it?”
“A long way north, from the rumours,” Moira said. “The Painted People hold it. They say there is a new war-leader in the north, a man who carries the Eagle as a threat to Rome.”
“Something should be done,” Charles said, aware of Erik listening from the doorway. Something shivered up his spine, a premonition or a thought half-read, and he turned to Moira, urgent, and asked, “This war-leader, does he have a name?”
She frowned at him, eyes alive with curiosity. “Nothing that can be confirmed - not this far south.”
“Anything - even a rumour.”
She shrugged. “Shaw. They say his name is Shaw.”
As soon as he was alone with Erik, Charles went for his desk, gasping, “I had promises to keep, when I came here. There are things I’ve left undone-”
“You want to find the Eagle.”
“Yes,” Charles said, swinging round, papers crumpling in his fist. “Two men can go where a legion cannot. I just - I can’t-” He thrust the papers into Erik’s hands and said, not caring that he was begging, “Don’t go north without me.”
Erik looked down and then threw the papers aside and lunged for Charles.
Charles didn’t know if he was being thanked or attacked until his back slammed into the wall and Erik kissed him, hard and fast and desperate, his fists locked in the folds of Charles’ best white toga, trapping Charles’ hands between their chests. Charles tried to free them, but Erik snarled into his mouth and pressed him harder into the wall, tongue plundering Charles’ mouth, forcing his head back until Charles’ surrendered to the pressure, dipping under the weight of Erik’s mouth, letting Erik’s weight hold him, sucking desperately on Erik’s tongue.
Erik groaned then, the sound heaving out of his gut so hard Charles could feel it shake up his own body. Then Erik’s mouth was pulling off his, leaving him gasping.
Teeth against his throat, biting down in quick, sharp nips, each one shaking a cry out of Charles. The twist of Erik’s hands in the precisely arranged falls of his toga until the cloth went shuddering down to pool around Charles’ feet, wave on wave of bleached linen trapping him in place. The snap of the iron fibulae holding his tunic closed, and more falling cloth, and then Erik’s mouth closing over his nipple, teeth worrying the tender flesh, fire under his skin making him sway and sob.
Then Erik was sliding to his knees, sinking into the discarded toga as he scraped his teeth down Charles’ chest, bit his hip, his belly, the crease of his thigh.
The shock of his mouth closing wetly around Charles’ cock broke another cry from him and it stretched into a long low keen as Erik slid down and down, swallowing Charles into wet heat and darkness as Charles flung his hand over his eyes, unable to watch the gleam in Erik’s eyes as his lips stretched lewdly around thick, blood-dark flesh.
Erik pulled his mouth up, slid down again and again and again as Charles moaned and shuddered above him, fingers curling in the cold air.
Then, as heat began to gather, tight and shimmering, at the base of his spine, Erik pulled away, lips parting with an obscene pop.
“Look at me, Charles.”
Charles took a few shaking breaths and let his arm fall, knuckles brushing Erik’s shoulder, where sweat made the thin tunic cling to the muscle underneath. Then he looked down.
Erik grinned at him slowly, and then brought two fingers to his lips. His tongue slid out, pink and pointed as he lapped at his fingertips and then slid them into his mouth, eyes fluttering closed. Then, as the breath caught in Charles’ throat, he pulled them out and reached between Charles’ legs.
The first thrust of his fingers wasn’t gentle, spit not quite enough, but it was Erik, finally, finally, finally, and Charles mewled and rocked his hips down, and Erik’s finger was turning inside him, deeper and deeper, and suddenly a rush made Charles’ vision black out and a second finger, twisting and scissoring, his voice breaking with each flare of sensation.
And then the fingers slipped out and Erik’s arm was catching under his shaking knees, and he had never wanted Erik to carry him again, but he wanted it now, nudged his face blindly into Erik’s shoulder.
Then he was on the bed, and he opened his eyes to see Erik strip off his tunic with clumsy hands, his cock springing free, flushed red, long and hard enough that Charles parted his legs and rolled his own hips up in wild invitation.
Then Erik was on him, kneeing his thighs further apart, holding his shoulders down, and pushing into Charles. The blunt steady nudge of his cock split Charles open, made him kick at the mattress and claw his hands through Erik’s hair and then Erik was pushing right in, hips jerking forward, as he gasped, “You can look, Charles. You can look at me,” and his hand was batting at Charles’ forehead in clear invitation.
And as Erik pounded into him, breaking him apart and remaking him with every hot thrust, Charles plunged into Erik’s mind, swallowed at once into bright scarlet swirls of Charles, Charles, Charles and images sliding and merging together: the two of them riding together on a misty road (north, north); a broken eagle in Charles’ hands and a dead man at Erik’s feet, their mouths locked together in triumph; Charles, in the garden, idly pushing a book he did not care for across the table for Erik’s opinion; and through it all, like lace and lightning, look at me, Charles, see me, and a world without masters and slaves, where a man was judged over by the strength of his character and the talents he bore, where a freedman could kiss a general’s son and a slave could laugh at a consul.
And then something in Charles finally broke apart and he thought, in the swirl of love and ecstasy, I saw you, I see you, I always will, but don’t leave me. Don’t go.
And then he fell away to the sound of Erik choking his name, body clutched still and rigid above him.
Three days later, in a cool dawn that held the distant promise of summer in its thin, honey-bright light, the two of them set out through the north gate, riding shaggy hill ponies and disguised, to Charles’ delight, as eye-doctors.
“I’ve used it before,” Erik had said, and smiled again, that new easy smile that kept stumbling across his face. “It works.”
Three miles along the road, they were joined by another traveller, a young British rider with red hair clubbed behind his neck and blue tattoos showing through the pale skin on his bare arms.
“No,” Charles protested immediately, woken from the happy daze he had been riding in, his thoughts playing with the open edges of Erik’s mind. “Go home.”
“She speaks the language better than you do,” Erik observed and Raven let out a giggle than didn’t suit her current face.
Charles looked between them and then gave up. “Fine, as long as you can keep up. Anyone else you want to bring along?”
“Hank has to look after Cub,” Raven said cheerfully. “I promised him we’d all come home, so you’d better learn to keep up with me.”
And they rode on, further and further north, as the first crocuses unfurled beside the road, golden and purple like emperors, and Erik and Raven talked in British whilst Charles protested and blushed when they smirked at him, and after a while one of them, it could have been any of them, began to whistle, as free and easy as the curlews calling over the heath.