Esca might never have said anything if he had not been bone-weary and nearly drunk with the relief of being alive and safe, with cooked food in his belly and fire-warmth soaking into him. He might never have said anything if he had not already decided to stay with the Selgovae, who spoke near-enough to his birth-tongue and welcomed him as Cunoval’s son.
“You are the queerest woman I’ve ever met,” said Marcus, half-smiling at Esca in the firelight, the shy, warm smile that always made Esca’s stomach flip and his heart clench at what could not be.
And Esca said, without thinking about it, “I am not a woman.”
Marcus’s smile faltered, and his gaze dropped for a moment to Esca’s bound chest, flat under the over-large tunic borrowed from Murna’s brother.
Esca flushed, not entirely sure whether he was angry at Marcus, who of course did not understand, or his own body. “My body is...what it is,” he said, twisting his hands together in his lap. “In my heart, I am a man. I have always been a man.”
Marcus was silent for a long moment, long enough that Esca started to feel itchy in his own skin with the urge to simply leave, go outside into the crisp autumn night and let the cold air clear his head, away from Marcus and his Roman incomprehension.
“I do not understand,” Marcus finally said quietly, “but man or woman, I owe you my life and more.”
That was not really what Esca wished to hear; he had no desire for any more debts between them, but for something given without obligation, for Marcus to see and love him, Cunoval’s son, and not the slave woman Rome thought him. But it was, he supposed, not the worst reaction.
“I am staying with the Selgovae,” he said, staring into the fire’s heart, where little blue flames flickered around the edges of the wood. He could not bear to keep looking at Marcus. “Guern’s wife and children need the help, and I cannot live in Roman lands any longer.”
When Esca looked up again, Marcus’s face was blank, his soldier-face, the one he wore that first winter on days when his leg pained him the most. “I must return the Eagle, and let my uncle know I live.”
Esca had known since the Epidii village that a day would come when their paths parted, whether in death when Esca went beyond the sunset and Marcus to his Roman gods, or in life, but it still hurt more than he had expected, a sharper pain than the dull ache of his injuries. “So you must.”
It was good, settling into the rhythm of life with the Selgovae, hunting with the men and tending Murna’s herds. The boys soon treated him as a beloved uncle, and the baby girl who had never really known her father quieted when Esca held her, nestling against his chest with perfect trust. Esca had not thought much of fatherhood before, but found the idea sweet now, the more for the painful edge of knowledge that it was hardly likely.
The people in the village thought Esca to be Murna's man now, but Esca knew that she was still mourning Guern, and would for some time--and he could not say his own heart was free. But they were something of a family, him and Murna and the children, and as the winter months passed he felt something in him begin to heal over, a wound long kept raw.
In spring Murna’s brother inked Esca’s left arm, a band to match his first, but Selgovae patterns, subtly different in their loops and spirals from those Esca had seen on his kinsmen his entire life. The dark circles under Murna’s eyes began to fade and she smiled more often at her children’s play and the tussling of hound puppies in the rushes. The snow melted and the moors awoke with all the sounds of bird and beast.
If Esca sometimes thought of Marcus’s smile, or his hands, or the way he had looked that day in the rain when he freed Esca from his debt, well, that belonged to another life. Esca would have to forget that and be content with this one, this good life with people who respected and loved him, and who saw only Cunoval’s son when they looked on him.
The heather was blooming purple on the moors, the air filled with its honey-scent and the buzz of bees, when the traveler rode up the dirt road to the village. He slid from his horse with some awkwardness, and limped a little when he walked, but Marcus had lost the sallow, strained look he’d carried as long as Esca had known him, and his brow was unwrinkled by the shadow of pain. He wore British clothing, travel-stained braccae and long-sleeved tunic, his cloak clasped with a brooch of Atrebates make, and his smile was hesitant but sweet, as if he was unsure of his welcome.
Esca knew he looked the fool, standing there in the clearing at the center of the village with his mouth half-open in shock, but he did not care, for Marcus was smiling at him. “The sun and moon be on your path,” Marcus said in British, his accent terrible and yet the sweetest thing Esca had heard in months, his hand warm on Esca’s arm. “Well met, Esca son of Cunoval.”
And Esca’s joy was like the rising sun as Marcus’s arms came around him. “Well met,” Esca whispered.