The spring season in Calleva warmed in fits and starts, its progress frequently set back by days of cold persistent rain. Esca measured the passing of time just as much by Marcus's moods as the weather: the way Marcus clipped his words, particularly when speaking to anyone who was not Esca or Cottia; the force with which he pushed away his wine goblet at meals; the increasing length of their hunts with Cub and his visits with Cottia in the garden. Whenever Marcus passed through the doorway to his uncle Aquila's villa, either coming or going, he would pause on the threshold and turn toward the road, eyes searching.
Finally, the warmth of spring seemed to catch hold and build on itself without stopping. After a stretch of three days in which all of Calleva basked under clear sky and bright sun, the long-awaited horse and rider came thundering down the road, bearing three official documents inked on thin wooden tablets, as well as a purse full of sesterces.
Marcus and Uncle Aquila were now huddled over two of the tablets. These had turned out to constitute Marcus's award from the Roman Senate for the return of the Eagle, including the grant of his land and the sesterces. Esca paid only half attention to them. He was focused on the third tablet, which Marcus had made a show of presenting to him at the outset. "This proves to all that you're a citizen of Rome," Marcus had said, smiling proudly. "You've always been the equal of any Roman. But now any Roman may know it."
Esca ran his hand down the face of the tablet. It was made of oak, and shaped much as the other two, longer vertically than across, thinner than a child's finger bone. The flat surface on one side was covered in ink script which was incomprehensible to him. He had only ever learned to read Latin capitals.
Still, Marcus had said it was so, and Uncle Aquila had nodded in agreement, quite solemn. And so, Esca thought, in a way I have received my wooden foil after all, retiring me from the life of a gladiator and slave. He wrapped the tablet carefully in cloth and leather, slipped it under his sleeping pallet, and went to join them again.
The Senate had granted Marcus a sizable plot of land in the Down Country, as he had requested. One of the tablets included a crude map which marked it as a two-day horse ride south-southeast of Calleva, near the coast. "We should leave as soon as possible," Marcus said, "to take advantage of the improving weather."
Even though Esca had been living as an equal in the villa since their return with the Eagle, he was still unused to sitting at the meal table. He tended to remain quiet during discussions, such as this one over the evening supper.
"I'll need a few days to hire you some proper skilled freedmen," Uncle Aquila said. "That meager pile of sesterces is barely enough to purchase two sheep." His tone didn't bother to mask his disapproval of Marcus's refusal to use slaves.
"Uncle, I've told you already -- I won't take your help in either coin or hired hands. Esca and I will go alone first, and do as much as we can on our own."
"And Cottia? She and her family have surely been expecting her to accompany you. And if I know Kaeso, the nuptials themselves will present even further delay. He'll want to show off with the full ceremony and celebration which befits the wedding of a magistrate's daughter, for all she's only a niece -- and a British one at that."
Marcus shrugged easily, ignoring the casual slight to Cottia's origins. "I'll explain it to her. It's likely to be very hard living for the first year. I would rather Esca and I work to make it a home first. And Cottia is young yet; she could stand some seasoning before leaving Calleva to become the wife of a simple farmer."
Uncle Aquila snorted in disbelief. "You've been living a soldier's life too long, nephew. You've much to learn about the other sex."
Esca wasn't party to Marcus's discussion with Cottia the next day, but he could hear the occasional raised voice -- hers -- from the direction of the garden. He was busy preparing the horses when she came hurrying around the swaying hedge, her red hair streaming behind her. She had been wearing it up in braids lately, half the time still seeming like a girl playacting at womanhood. It was startling now to see it so loose and free.
She drew up short when she saw him. "Marcus!" she barked, and waved her hands. The delicate golden bangles at her wrists clinked together. "The gods know what I feel for him, more even than I have ever let him know. But sometimes I-- Why must he be so--" Her teeth flashed, and the bangles clinked again.
Esca couldn't help but grin. "I suppose he was unsuccessful in persuading you of the genius in his plans."
"I don't believe cohort commanders ever learn to be persuasive -- they certainly don't feel the need when they can simply order their subordinates about." Cottia drew closer, allowing Esca's mare to sniff her fingers before stroking them through the thick mane. "I tried to tell him I could help on the farm. My family are horse breeders."
"That would be useful indeed, but we won't be doing any sort of breeding for a year or more at least. We must focus first on producing good harvests. That's backbreaking work, hard and dirty work."
Her eyes narrowed at him. "You're just like Marcus. You think I'm some delicate Roman maiden who requires sweet-smelling linens and a servant to pour my wine and brush my hair. I am Iceni. I make my own way, and can do so no matter what lies on my path."
It was perhaps more words than they had ever exchanged previously. They had never really had occasion to be alone together before; though they shared similar origins, she was a Roman citizen (for all her uncle had bought her the status) and he had been a slave. It was odd that he could suddenly speak to her as an equal without risking someone else's censure.
At his momentary silence, she made as if to turn away, but he had the measure of her youth and temper now, and moved to intercept. "I believe you," he said. "I know the history of your tribe and of the great Iceni queen Boudicca whose name still makes Romans tremble today. And in his heart Marcus believes it as well. But his heart is also the type which wishes no suffering or hardship on his beloved, even if she can bear it more than he."
"It's no suffering or hardship to work toward what will be my home as well."
Work toward a home. He could hear the echo of Marcus in her words, and knew she was repeating some of their argument in the garden to him now, just as Marcus must have repeated to her what he had said to Esca and Uncle Aquila at supper last night: two conversations which could have been easier had as one. But Cottia was not officially a part of the household yet; this new circle being created by Marcus had not yet drawn fully closed, and until that happened they must work separately, in parallel rather than together.
He felt a flash of warm sympathy for her, being left alone in Calleva. "We each have our role to play," he said. "You will be no less important for having to wait to fill yours. You are the heart of it all for Marcus. You won't be forgotten."
"And yet, I am not the only one in his heart." Cottia tilted her head, looking at him with those golden-colored eyes that gave the appearance of seeing much without saying much. It was a look he recognized in the faces of many Britons below the Wall, no matter the tribe. They all knew well how to keep certain things close, unrevealed, here where rebellion always simmered beneath a tense film of peace.
He focused on working one of the leather straps of his saddle, but didn't pretend to misunderstand Cottia's meaning. "We have been through as much together as any two men might without being brothers. More than some brothers, even."
"Then I say this as one who will someday be like kin to you as well." She touched his wrist, lightly but with enough pressure to make him pause. "Take care of him, please. He has said you will likely pass the winter there, if all goes well, and will not return until next spring. That is...a long time."
It was longer even than they had quested for the Eagle. It was on the tip of his tongue to say something like, Of course I'll take care of Marcus. I am honor-bound to do so. But that was merely habit. His oath had been fulfilled, and he now possessed a wooden tablet which declared him a free citizen of Rome. She was not reminding him of his duty as a son of the Brigantes or even as a slave, but asking him for a favor. So he said, simply, "Of course."
It didn't quell the fire in her eyes, but she nodded as if satisfied.
She helped him lead the horses out for their final feed and pasture before the journey. They would be taking three -- two to ride and one pack horse to carry the various supplies, seed bags and garden cuttings which Stephanos had spent the past day and night wrapping and packing with care. True to what she had professed, she had a good touch with the animals, and she didn't seem to mind what happened to her light tunic or her jewelry.
They stood watching the horses for a while, and then she said suddenly, "Would it be all right if, when we spoke -- just the two of us, I mean -- we didn't use Latin?"
Surprised, he nodded at her. In the language common to most of the tribes of Britain, he said, "I don't mind."
She switched as well, the strong accents of her Iceni heritage coloring her speech. He could still understand her clearly, though: "It's just that I hardly ever have a chance to practice with anyone. My nurse, Narcissa, is Greek. And Aunt Valaria refuses to speak British with me."
"And Marcus is very poor at it. It was a hindrance when we were north of the Wall."
"Marcus has told me of some of your adventures searching for the Eagle," she said. "And of how alone he felt, beyond the reach of the Empire, surrounded only by Britons."
Esca thought about that, remembering the wary distance between them in the days before they had met Guern, and the seething hatred and bitter disappointment after. Yes, he supposed Marcus had felt lonely.
Cottia continued, "But I, who have felt trapped by Rome ever since I was sent to live with my aunt and uncle, always longing to be among my own people again...I envied him."
Her words stirred in Esca the same restless longing he had felt passing through Brigantes country on the way to the Wall -- the miles of stone and industry with which Rome had divided his tribe from all the other northern tribes of Britain. They had not stopped to speak to any Brigantes then; there had been no need to speak to anyone but each other until they passed beyond the Wall. And after, on their return, there had been no time, because of Marcus's wounded leg and because of the precious prize they carried back to Rome.
"It must have felt wondrously free," Cottia said. "All of that wild land, unbounded by straight lines or brick walls."
Yes, it had felt free. He had felt free to let his years as a slave fly away like flakes of ash on the wind, free of leering men in the slave market, of the cramped dark tunnels in the lead mines which always threatened to collapse and bury him alive, of the gladiator prison he had been thrown into after he finally attempted to escape. Free of the indignity of serving a Roman whose father had died like a cowardly dog, even if Marcus himself possessed bravery and honor.
North of the Wall he had been free to speak the tongue of his family and the name of his own father. Sometimes, riding in that wild highland country, Marcus had let him take the lead, and he could look ahead to the horizon, the mountains which split the sky, the clouds falling down around them. He could pretend that the sound of hoof beats behind him were his brothers, his real brothers, riding along on the hunt. And he could forget that he traveled with the son of an enemy, and believe that he was again a free Brigantes warrior.
Yet in the end, his oath of honor to Marcus had bound him tighter than he realized. And he found himself standing on the wrong side of a Roman shield, killing people who had once fought alongside his family, alongside his father. The Seal Prince had called him a man who betrayed his own kind, and killed his own son for what Esca had done.
He had allowed silence to rise between himself and Cottia without answering her, and she was looking at him questioningly. "Yes," he said finally. "It was a wild and free land. But it was not, after all, my own land. Or my own people."
Out of the corner of his eye, he watched her think that over; she had never been a slave, and she would likely never venture beyond the Wall. Likely he never would again, either. But that form of freedom must look different to one who had never tasted it -- the way you yearned to rise up to the top of a mountain, without truly understanding the cold lonely wind at its peak. He didn't know if he could explain to her how reaching a place could change the way you wanted it.
But she surprised him. "On the farm," she said, as he began leading the horses back to the stables, "when it is you and Marcus and I, it will be ours. Then none of us will ever need to be lonely."
He let her take the reins of his mare. "I look forward to that time," he said.
There had been a moment, when he and Marcus were running from the Seal People. For days the fear had built, driving them forward, allowing them no rest. By the time Esca's horse fell they had been frantic with the fear, almost desperate. And there had been a moment.
Esca knew better than Marcus how the Seal People fit with the land, how quickly they could cross it, how the land would join sides with them to deceive their enemies. Knowing these things, he tried to set a pace they could sustain. But the fear was relentless, and would not listen to reason. He rode behind Marcus on the back of their one horse, thighs aching with the strain of keeping his seat, hands clutching Marcus's hips as if Marcus might fall away from him.
Marcus was feverish, his old leg injury roaring awake. They stopped to sleep -- or rather, they stopped to allow Marcus to sleep, while Esca stood watch. The illness made Marcus toss and turn, dreaming, crying out for his father and his god. He had sometimes done the same in the villa in Calleva, before the surgeon came to fix him.
The moon was high and clear in the sky, illuminating everything below, including the wretched agony on Marcus's face. Esca put his hands out and held Marcus's broad shoulders down, much as he had done when the surgeon cut his leg open. He remembered the flare of defiance in Marcus's green eyes then, just before he had passed out, his utter refusal to shame himself. That, too, had been a moment.
"Shhh," he murmured to Marcus. "You must rest."
"No, Father! Father!"
He leaned closer. The fever boiled off of Marcus like steam. "No, I am Esca. Rest, Marcus. Be still."
Marcus was ill, but strong. He reached up, hooked an arm around Esca's neck, and suddenly Esca was flat on his back, with Marcus wide awake and leaning over him. "Esca?"
"Yes. You were dreaming."
Marcus blinked and shook his head. "Mithras protect me, it was so vivid!"
He was still half-held by the dream, and didn't move from atop Esca right away. And when he did move, a hard and hot length dragged against Esca's thigh and Marcus groaned.
Esca froze. When he was first captured he had been too unruly to be sold as a household slave. In the lead mines he had heard from the other boys what Roman masters often required, demanding under their laws a physical connection which Esca had only ever made when he wished to. Marcus had never tried to take that from him. But he had also made no attempt to hide that he desired it, that his gaze sometimes flamed when he looked at Esca.
"What do you want of me?" Esca whispered.
Marcus groaned again. His hand cupped Esca's cheek, searing hot, before smoothing down his neck, his chest, his belly. And then it was stroking between Esca's legs, cupping him with a firm relentless wish for more, and Marcus dropped his head to breathe harshly against Esca's mouth.
His first instinct was to push Marcus off of him, free himself from the cage of Marcus's body. But at the same time he felt a shocking and dizzy rush of arousal. His thoughts went as blank as an empty tablet, and his own hand snaked down and pressed Marcus's harder against him.
"Mithras!" Marcus swore. He thrust himself against Esca, once, twice, before swearing again and rolling away.
Esca sat up, shaking. "You wished to use me," he said after a moment. "I would have let you use me." He was as much revealing the knowledge of it to himself as to Marcus.
"No, I wished to--" But Marcus stopped. His throat clicked audibly when he swallowed. "What I mean is, even though it was always my right--"
"We are not in Rome," Esca snapped.
"--somehow, I could never."
Esca stood and went to Marcus's horse. He could still taste Marcus's mouth against his own. "We should get moving. Our pace has slowed too much now."
Marcus looked at him, and the heat was still there, clear in the moonlight. But then he took a deep breath, shook it off, and got up as well.
It had been a single moment. After that, it seemed to Esca, Marcus was always careful to express only the regard of a friend, or sometimes, as Esca had told Cottia, a brother. And though occasionally Esca found himself thinking of what had almost happened, he would slice the memory ruthlessly away, and direct his thoughts to safer things. Certainly he and Marcus had never spoken of the moment again.
They set out for the farm the next morning at dawn, just as the darkness of night began to acquire the pale edge in the east which signaled the approach of the sun. Esca waited in the courtyard with Cub, shivering a little in the cold, while Marcus prayed to his god. They had made their formal goodbyes the previous night at a supper with Uncle Aquila, Cottia, and her aunt and uncle. The older three had all grumbled in between well-wishes and bites of food. The younger three were flushed with excitement, bright-eyed, tempered only by the sadness of the impending long separation.
Marcus came out to the courtyard now, accompanied by a sleepy Uncle Aquila and a fussy Stephanos. He checked the horses and satchels which Stephanos and then Esca had already checked, clasped arms with his uncle, and swung up into the saddle.
"Safe journey to you both," Uncle Aquila said. He nodded at Esca.
"Thank you," Esca said. "For...for..." He couldn't finish. Perhaps it had felt, beyond the Wall, as though he might forget that money had changed hands in order to bring his life and Marcus's together. But that had been then.
Uncle Aquila merely nodded again, and Esca shut his mouth. To Marcus, Uncle Aquila said, "I will expect word by mid-summer that you are either growing fat and thriving off the fruit of your labors, or else that you have come to your senses and decided to proceed like civilized men."
Marcus laughed. "We'll see you next spring, Uncle, when we return for Cottia. Esca, are you ready?"
Esca was. And then the faint light of Uncle Aquila's villa was disappearing behind them, and they were alone again, setting out on their next quest into the wilderness. This time they went south, the sun crossing an arc from their left to their right, and they rode not in search of the past, but of the future.
They took an easy pace the first day, keeping Cub and the pack horse between them, and settled down to camp early. Marcus tended the horses while Esca scouted the site and built a fire. The division of labor followed the same pattern they had fallen into beyond the Wall, but now there was warmth and ease in its familiarity. They shared a loaf of bread and a flask of wine, rubbing shoulders occasionally. Marcus radiated his usual level of heat, not the fever illness but the heat of a young man in the prime of his life, untouched by the chill of the spring night. Esca felt it through their cloaks, each time they touched.
"The soil will be chalky on the downs," Marcus said, as he had said multiple times since deciding on the area for his land grant. "We'll have to see what crops survive our first year. But ultimately, we'll make our living in cattle and sheep. The grass will make for prime grazing."
"And horse breeding," Esca said.
Marcus's lips spread in a delighted smile. The firelight flickered over his face. He had the look of a man rapt with dreams, and Esca found his own blood thrilling at the sight. "Uncle was right -- our coins won't purchase much more than two sheep. A ram and a ewe will do us fine, and in a few months, hopefully the ewe will lamb."
"We must take care with Cub," Esca said. "He'll never be a sheepherder, as it runs strong in his blood to be sheep's predator rather than their protector. We would do well to buy two or three proper sheepherding dogs, who might help dissuade him from following his natural instincts."
As if he understood what they were saying, Cub raised his head and gave them a solemn look from his yellow eyes, glowing in the reflected firelight. Marcus reached over and gave his shaggy grey neck a gentle pat. "Cub will learn. I have faith in it."
Flush with wine and the supreme confidence of young men, they laid back in the long, fragrant grass, heads close and bodies angled around the fire, Cub at Marcus's feet. Esca bent one arm behind his head and stared up at the sky. Most of the stars were obscured by thin clouds, but the moon was nearly full behind them, like a candle shining through a curtain.
"Esca," Marcus said. His voice had a drifting quality in the night air.
"Your people. When do they marry? At what age, I mean?"
Esca watched two stars disappear behind a cloud bank. His oldest brother Catus had been married; his wife was a tall flaxen-haired daughter of a neighboring shield clan. They had completed the ceremony in a grove of flowering trees, and at the feast that night Esca had gotten drunk on honey mead for the first time. He had seen only twelve or thirteen summers by then, and was still mostly a runt. He was the youngest of three sons of Cunoval, and there was a difference of five summers between himself and his next oldest brother Docca. In fact, Docca had appeared to suffer no trouble at all handling an enormous amount of mead in comparison; he had in fact been the one cheerfully keeping Esca's goblet filled.
They had been good brothers, Catus and Docca. Strong young men, bawdy humored, generous with what possessions they owned, full to the brim with life and energy and passion for the hunt. He hadn't thought of them since the Wall. He realized now how much Marcus -- with his impatience for the future, with his conviction that he needed only his strength of will to make a thing happen -- reminded him of them. That realization twisted a sudden knot in his heart.
"Men may marry," Esca said, "as soon as they become warriors of the tribe, although they will most often wait until a few summers have passed, after they have seen some battle. Brigantes women like a man who can boast a few well-earned scars." Esca hesitated. "My mother -- that was a saying of hers."
"And you told me once that Brigantes men become warriors after their sixteenth summer?"
"Yes. That was when I bore my first blue war-shield. And when I received these." He gestured to his tattoos, wincing a bit at the remembered pain. "Before that I was my father's armor-bearer, and after, he gave me the honor of being his charioteer."
The fire crackled for a few moments as Marcus remained quiet. Then, in a low voice, he said, "You always speak with pride of being your father's son, as is right. But you haven't spoken much of the character of Cunoval. What sort of man was he, this chief of the Brigantes?"
"He was a clan chieftain -- the Brigantes have many clans, all of whom make their own way, and will as easily fight one another or band together for a common cause, depending on what is at stake. He commanded five hundred spears, which was no small number. His name was known even far outside of Brigantes territory."
"Yes, I remember how the Seal People respected his name. But what was his manner when at his own hearth? Amongst his family?"
The fire was dying, and Esca got up to add a few branches to it. He remembered the great fire which always lit his family's roundhouse, the largest of their clan. Any were welcome to its warmth; his father's generosity had been the model for his sons'. But no one could have called Cunoval an outgoing man, or a soft man. He spoke rarely, saving his words for the judgment of disputes within the clan, or the rallying of his five hundred spears to battle. He had bright blue eyes above weathered cheeks, and the hard, callused hands of a man who was never at rest.
The fire of Cunoval's hatred for the Romans had never rested either. It burned deep within him, deep as bone marrow, and was extinguished only with his life. It had not even survived through his youngest son.
Esca settled down again next to Marcus. "He was the best of men. He taught my brothers and me everything we knew about fighting and hunting. He never beat us, the way I have seen other fathers do with their sons. I suppose he was a good husband to my mother as well; I felt that, anyway. When I was younger, and the spears went off to battle without me, she would always send him off and welcome him back with much affection."
"Was he a good leader?" Marcus's tone was wistful, and Esca remembered how young he must have been when his father last marched off with the Ninth.
"He was like an oak tree. Strong and tall, and able to shelter many. He wanted only what was best for his people. There was never any question of them obeying his command, even to the end."
It went unspoken between them, that the end had truly been the end. His clan's revolt had resulted in its destruction, and all that Cunoval commanded had shattered against the Romans like a shield suffering its final blow.
Marcus said, "I've heard the Britons believe this thing about death, that your souls find new bodies to inhabit when the old ones expire."
"Yes, that's true. I don't know if I believe it, but I've been told so by one of the Druid priests."
"Does it give you some comfort, to think that you might meet the souls of your family again one day?"
Of course Marcus would think it might. He had restored his family's honor. "Perhaps." Esca turned onto his side and flung a bit of grass into the fire. "If I truly believed it."
After a pause, Marcus said, "I've encountered one of the Druids myself, at Isca Dumnoniorum where I had my first command. That was how I came to injure my leg. The Druid led the revolt of the local tribe. A fearsome creature -- I see his face in my nightmares."
"They must all be like that, then," Esca said, remembering the thunder-voiced, fire-eyed priests who roamed the Brigantes territory.
Marcus chuckled in agreement. "A fierce priesthood for a fierce people."
They began to speak of less serious things, and Esca relaxed into the soft grass. Their voices drifted slower and slower across the space that separated their bodies, until finally one of them didn't answer the other. And then they were both asleep.
That night, as Esca slumbered between one home and the next, a Druid walked in his dreams.
He was a tall, forbidding figure in long pale robes and heavy golden collar. Esca knew this priest very well; he had lived in a hut on the edge of the clan's settlement when Esca was small, and had frightened all of the young children with his glares and sermons. But Esca had never known his name.
Above the Druid's head, the clouds had disappeared, leaving a brilliant swathe of stars which swooped and swirled across the sky, following his meandering path across the earth.
"Where lives the soul of the Brigantes now?" the Druid intoned. "Where is the oak tree, the ancient rock, the soil which has drunk rain from the sky?"
The Druid looked at Esca, and his eyes were not the fathomless dark he recalled from childhood, but the bright blue of Cunoval's. And it seemed to Esca that the stars flew together in an arc, the shape of a sword's downward swing, which spilled from the sky and pierced his own heart. And in that arc of stars were the souls of all his people -- not only the ones he had known and lost in death, but all the generations of his tribe, his father's father, and his father before him, and his father before him, onward and backward into their unknown beginning, lives no one now living could remember.
The light of the stars ran through him, and he tried to grasp it, to hold it all within himself. But too soon, Marcus's hand was shaking Esca awake, and when he opened his eyes the dawn was as dark and starless as the night before.
Marcus was pleased with the land. As Uncle Aquila had predicted, the Roman Senate had been generous with the acreage where they had skimped on the sesterces. The property marked out on the tablet map encompassed a large grassy down and a gentle valley; in the latter a stream wound its way across their allotment to feed a pool where -- to Marcus's delight -- a number of fish swam about. A wood nearby, comprising trees of oak and birch and cherry, promised hunting.
On the south-facing slope of the down, where the sun spent most of its time, they constructed a tiny square shelter of wattle and daub and thatch. Sweating and bone-tired by the time they finished, Esca realized it was the first time he had ever put his hands to the building of something. And if the hut leaked during rain showers or let in too much of the cold night wind, or if the chalky down threatened to slide on top of their heads in the night, then no matter -- they had created it themselves.
Standing on the slope to survey the valley below, Marcus nodded with approval. "We can build a proper villa at the head of the valley, a ways from where the woods open, and take the time to do it right. Cottia always says she is tired of Roman things, but I think she'll enjoy a light, airy home with an atrium at the center."
Esca was not so sure Cottia wouldn't prefer a wattle and daub hut, and a round one at that, but he let Marcus continue making his plans.
"And on this very slope," Marcus continued, eyes gleaming, "a terraced vineyard one day. We'll see what sort of wine the British climate produces!"
Marcus directed the sowing of seeds and the planting of cuttings. Esca, as the son of a clan chieftain, had had about as much reason to learn the agricultural arts as he had house-building. But Marcus seemed to come fully alive digging in the dirt and steering the plow behind their pack horse -- and Esca, swept up in his energy, began to understand the feel of the earth beneath his palms, the hope and danger presented by precipitation, the rhythm of the seasons surrounding planting and harvest.
From the very top of the down, they could look out and see all of the land and water that surrounded them. There were other farms an hour or more ride in each direction, all owned by former Legionaries or merchants who had made their fortunes elsewhere in the Empire. To the west, situated on the harbor, was a cluster of Roman-occupied houses struggling to become a town. To the south was the sea. On clear days, they could even see the faint landmass which the map called the Isle of Vectis.
They had been told by the other farmers that there were still Britons roaming the outskirts of the area, of a tribe called the Belgae who had once been from Gaul. But the Belgae no longer owned the land which the Romans were now bringing to heel, and neither Esca nor Marcus had seen any sign of them.
"Nor would you want to," one of the farmers had told Marcus in Esca's hearing, shaking his head. "Savages all. If they ever get roused sufficiently, we could be murdered in our beds."
After that, Esca refused to accompany Marcus on his occasional rides out to trade and socialize with their neighbors. "Someone needs to guard our meager possessions against the thieves of the world," he said once, for explanation, and Marcus raised an eyebrow and replied, "Given our respective skills with arms, surely that would mean you should go and I should stay?"
But beneath the humor Esca could sense Marcus's exasperation. Although Marcus stopped trying to persuade Esca to accompany him, it was clear he couldn't understand Esca's reluctance. Neither would Esca further explain it to him.
After a month, Marcus traded a sizable catch of fish for three golden sheepherding pups from one of their neighbors. The pups were already half-grown, and together were more than a match for Cub. Displaying his usual creative flair for naming, Marcus called them Primus, Secundus and Tertius. "Now we have the beginning of a fine sheepherding pack!" he declared.
"If only we could introduce them to some sheep," Esca replied with a grin. He ducked Marcus's good-natured swipe.
The ram and the ewe were eventually bought for an agreeable price from the farm nearest them. On the day Marcus rode over to make their offer, Esca sat on the top of the down with Cub and followed the progress of Marcus's journey. The figure of him on his horse grew smaller and smaller as they approached the long, low building which was the farm's homestead, and which Marcus had admired as a model for the villa he dreamed of for themselves.
It was a well-established farm, one of the oldest in the area, the fields marked off in clear straight lines with the large house at their center. And as Esca's eyes tracked Marcus's approach to the house, he wondered what the property had been like before it fell into Roman hands. He wondered if the Belgae also looked down upon the land from distant hills, planning their return.
He shut his eyes, cutting off the sight of Marcus and the other farm, and breathed in the clean, sunlit air until the thought of the Belgae floated away from him. When, sometime later, Cub nudged his side and he opened his eyes again, Marcus had disappeared inside the house.
Marcus was elated to discover that unbeknownst to their neighbor, the ewe was already breeding. They would have lambs by winter, and if all went well, another set by the following summer. "We can certainly begin shearing and selling wool by the first frost," Marcus said. "The Romans by the harbor will be our primary market."
Esca poked a finger through a hole which had frayed in Marcus's tunic. "Or perhaps you can learn to spin the wool into yarn, and so provide yourself with new winter clothes. It should take you that long, I imagine." This time, Marcus's heavy arm caught him around the neck and they wrestled down the slope, laughing, until a chilly plunge into the stream brought them up short.
Most days, however, they avoided their neighbors and worked alone on the farm, with only each other for company. They hunted, and fished, and tended their crops. The weather continued to be good to them, and as the days lengthened, the sun providing daylight well into the evening hours, Marcus decided it was time to begin building the villa.
At the heart of his plans was the atrium space, and around that heart the structure of the house grew steadily, starting as a skeleton of wood beams and gradually acquiring the flesh of clay bricks, the skin of whitewash, a head of tiles. There were four rooms, all opening onto the atrium, a luxurious amount of space compared to the tiny hut on the down, and already Marcus was envisioning future additions and extensions. Through the building of it, Esca felt he had an intimate knowledge of each part of the house, every spot and corner, each piece their hands had given to it.
But after the roof was complete, Marcus held back on actually occupying the house. "We have nothing with us to make the villa comfortable as yet," he said. "I think the hut is good enough for two grubby laborers, for now." And so, at his urging, they remained in their close quarters on the hill.
When the day's work was finished, before the sun had fully sunk into its western cradle, they would set down their tools and walk to the pool for a wash before supper. They had both grown brown-skinned and wiry since leaving Uncle Aquila's house; Marcus stood long and lean, his hair shaggy and thoroughly un-Roman, and Esca's hair had lightened to the color of sand. In the cool waters of the pool they would swim and play at splashing each other before sprawling naked on the bank, letting the last bit of sunlight dry their skin. Then they would dress again and walk up the slope together, light a cooking fire, and sit for a while enjoying the day's last meal.
Sometimes, if the night was dry enough, they would forego the hut entirely and fall asleep next to the fire, just as if they were on the road again. Other times, if it was raining or if one of them simply wished it, they would sleep in the shelter of the hut, side by side, shoulder to thigh. It was, Esca reflected, an improvement over the days when he had curled alone on a pallet while Marcus occupied a bed a foot above him. It meant that whenever he woke now, and looked over, he could see Marcus's face, on the same level as his own.
And so passed the summer and the beginning of fall.
The Druid walked in Esca's dreams several more times during those months. Unlike other dreams which crumbled and were forgotten upon waking, these stayed with Esca, and darkened his mood for a day or more. At those times he would take to the top of the down with Cub, and sometimes not descend for hours.
Marcus didn't hide his dislike for such escapes, or for the weighty silence which Esca brought back with him. "If something troubles you," he said one evening, "wouldn't it lessen the burden to share it?"
They had just climbed out of the pool and flung themselves onto the grassy bank. Esca was still panting from exertion; he took a few breaths to compose his reply. "It is no burden that troubles me."
"But it is something that causes you to hang your head and cast down your eyes. And as you never leave the farm, and there's no one here other than myself and the animals, and the animals' behavior has been exemplary from the start...should I conclude that I'm the reason behind your black moods?"
A droplet of water cascaded from the point of Marcus's right hipbone downward. Esca pressed his lips together and glanced away from it. "There are many things under the sky -- most things, in fact -- which have nothing to do with you, Marcus."
"This is one of those things?"
"Yes, of course. Why should I have any problem with you?"
"That's what I'm trying to find out." Marcus sat up, crooking one knee and leaning his elbow on it. "Is it something about the farm? Are you unhappy with what we've done here?"
"The farm is perfect." It was not a thought Esca had ever stopped to express, busy as they had been, but he felt it now, with the force of an impact to the chest. "It is perfect," he repeated.
On Marcus's face, he glimpsed a flash of that exasperation Marcus always pretended not to feel. "Then what, Esca, my friend? We've lived closer than brothers these past months -- it might even be said we've lived thus for as long as we've known each other. Such closeness means some things can't be hidden between us. And some things shouldn't be. Please speak to me."
Esca got to his feet, pulling on his tunic even though his skin was still mostly wet. "It's not something you can either resolve or relieve. But it is no serious matter -- I'm sorry if I've spoiled the air by making it seem so."
He had a spit of venison turning over the cooking fire by the time Marcus came trudging up the hill. Marcus crouched close to the flames; the days were shortening already and it was starting to get properly cool again. "You did not spoil anything. I am sorry if I have spoiled the air by intruding where I had no business." He directed his words at the fire.
"Well, we are two sorry men," Esca said. He clasped Marcus's shoulder until Marcus turned to look at him. "I'll try to show a sunnier disposition, and not worry you with a cloudy face."
He smiled, but Marcus didn't smile back. "You know that's not my concern. Wear whatever face you like. I spent my formative years as a soldier; I don't expect men who live practically in each other's tunics to remain civil at all times. My concern is that this runs deeper."
Esca sighed. "Perhaps we ought to put some distance between each other's tunics, if only for a short while. You haven't visited any of our neighbors in some time."
Marcus gave him a level look. "I am content with your company. But if you wish for some distance, then take Cub hunting tomorrow. Go further afield than our little wood. Sleep elsewhere if that is what you need. I'll assume your guard duty until you return."
A snappish reply almost flew from Esca's tongue, but he bit it back at the last moment. After all, he had professed having no problem with Marcus. "Fine," he said. "I will."
He took Cub exploring along the coast, and stayed away from the farm for three days. He avoided the Roman settlement along the harbor, instead keeping to the empty beaches.
The last time Esca had been alone in the wild, he was searching for Guern and the other survivors of the Ninth Legion, racing to save Marcus and the Eagle. Now there were no such demands; he could explore and hunt freely, wander down to the southern edge of Britain and compare it in-depth to the northern.
His first thought, upon reaching the water, was that it was not as wild or desolate as the home of the Seal People had been. In some ways it was the same: the water was icy and the air smelled of salt; his mare's hoofs crunched on rock and broken shells; and a freezing wind whipped and lashed without respite. But the green grassland behind Esca sloped gently upward, as if promising a comfortable place to rest once he was ready to turn away.
If he had thought that by escaping the farm he would escape his dreams of the Druid, he was wrong. But he found that here, confronted by endless water, with no one's voice but his own to break the sounds of nature, there was at least nothing to sour his mood, no kindling to catch fire. The dreams wrestled him in sleep, but in the morning they faded to a quiet, wistful ache.
He wondered how Marcus fared alone; to Esca's surprise, it was disconcerting not to have Marcus breathing at his side while they slept. He wished now that he had been able to speak to Marcus of his dreams. Alone, it suddenly felt possible to do so.
On the third day, he and Cub ran across a young buck sipping from a stream which ran toward the beach. The buck startled and leapt when Esca commanded Cub to stay. The sheer grace of its movement lanced a strange pain through his chest. Almost without conscious thought, his hands reached for his bow and arrow; if he could have stood outside of himself watching, he would have seen a kinship between his movements and the buck's. But inside his own body, he felt only what his father and brothers had taught him so many years ago: the bowstring drawn, the buck targeted, the arrow straight and true.
It was time then to return to the farm. As he led his mare through the neighboring wood, the carcass slung over her back, Cub darted ahead. He heard Marcus's happy shout, and felt his heartbeat quicken. Then, as he came out of the trees, Marcus straightened from where he'd been petting Cub, and walked up to take the reins from him. He looked at Esca with questioning eyes.
"I wasn't sure how long you would be," Marcus said. "In the dead of night, I half-believed you might not even return."
"That was never in question," Esca said, and Marcus seemed to absorb that full-body, a huff of air escaping his lips. "I tried not to be away too long -- what with all of the work on the farm, and--"
"No," Marcus interrupted. "Of course you shouldn't have worried about that."
"Hmm," Esca said. "As if you could have survived much longer without me." He expected Marcus to volley that back to him, but instead he looked pained, and the air thickened the longer he remained quiet. Finally, Esca gestured to the carcass on the back of his horse. "How do you feel about venison for dinner?"
They busied themselves with dressing the buck, working without speaking, and then found themselves at the pool again, rinsing off. Esca remembered times they had gone hunting when he was still a slave, when Marcus would leave him the messy work of cleaning their game, reclining like the spoiled nobleman Esca had initially thought him to be.
"I said my troubles were nothing to do with you," he said to Marcus, after they had donned their tunics again and were sitting side by side on the grassy down. "Mostly that was true. But lately I've been reminded of that thing which has always divided us, and that is that I am one of a conquered people. One of the last, in fact, of my own people."
Marcus regarded him calmly. "I have never forgotten it."
"I suppose I did forget it, when I fought beside you beyond the Wall." Esca shook his head. "I laid my father's dagger on that funeral pyre. I did it as if I were in some sort of dream, as if my hand moved without my control. Besides the blood that runs in my veins, that dagger was all I had left of him." He looked into Marcus's calm eyes. "You at least retrieved your Eagle and your father's ring, to replace the wooden totem you burned."
"If I could go back to that moment and stay your hand, I would. I'm sorry, Esca. I thought that, like me, you believed it was best to let go of the past."
Yes, that was what he thought he had done. But he had lied to Marcus and to himself. He was carrying a burden, and the burden was the life and the people he had been born into. He had lost them all in a single day of blood and horror, and had been too young to understand the import of that loss beyond his own lonely life, too young to understand how the gleaming arc of stars in his dreams had been chopped brutally short, and beyond his own place in it there was only emptiness and darkness.
"Some things, I think, it is right to let go of," Esca said slowly. "But I don't know yet how to do that without losing other, important things."
Marcus nodded. "Yes. I know that kind of tearing in two."
Esca supposed that was true. Marcus had been willing to die to restore the honor of his father and family, but he would never follow the Eagle again. He would never even see his home country again.
But still, it was different.
"Our clan had territory stretching as far as the eye could see -- no, further than that," Esca said. "You could stand at the doorway of our roundhouse and not find the edge of our lands in any direction. And after the Romans ruined us, they took all of that land for themselves. They burned our house, and all of our clan's houses. I know what happened to the warriors who fought against them. But I don't know what happened to those who were not warriors: the women, the children, the old ones. I would not credit the Romans with mercy."
Marcus was silent, but he didn't break Esca's gaze.
"I may never again see those lands. Or if I do, I may not even recognize them as Brigantes -- you and I know now how a place changes under new stewardship. I certainly will never live as a Brigantes again."
He willed Marcus to stay silent, because the similarity of their losses only extended so far, because Marcus might still believe that unreadable script on a tablet solved all of Esca's woes. And there was nothing either of them could say to bridge the gap. Perhaps Esca managed to communicate that wish through his own silence, because Marcus simply reached out his large hand and pressed his palm to the back of Esca's neck, rough and warm. Esca didn't realize he was shivering until the steady pressure of that hand soothed him still again.
He looked up at Marcus. And as they stared at each other, Esca saw that old heat flare to life again in Marcus's eyes, so long hidden, but now as fierce and startling as it had been when they were master and slave. More so, because Esca had believed it forgotten.
Marcus let out a soft, slow sigh. "You had a good hunt, taking that buck. We'll have meat and skins enough to lead us into winter. I can already taste tonight's feast." He got to his feet, giving Esca a hand up as well.
Perhaps it was because the rift within Esca had been laid bare now; perhaps it was simply that the winter season fell upon them like the toppling of a mountain, and drove them earlier and more often into the tiny hut on the hill. But Esca found that after the time he had spent alone by the sea, his awareness of Marcus's presence had changed somehow; there seemed, inexplicably, to be more of him, his towering muscled frame always nearer than Esca at first perceived, taking up more space than it should.
They spoke no more of Esca's troubles, though Marcus watched Esca with wary, worried eyes. And as the year drew on through its time of dying, the silence came to envelop them whole. A time passed when they hardly exchanged words at all, communicating mostly through gestures and half-finished thoughts. The weather had lowered their moods: damp and chilly for weeks, and then a sudden frost descended overnight and held them in its grip even longer. The pond was half-frozen, and snow dusted the down and the valley. What light the sun provided was always angled, tinged with gold, and its reign over the world was short.
Esca and Marcus had hung a deerskin in the doorway of the hut to block out the cold as best they could, and knocked an opening in the thatch roof so that they could keep a fire lit inside.
"I was right to keep Cottia away until spring," Marcus said one evening, bringing another load of wood through the deerskin. "This winter grows intolerable."
To Esca, the sound of Marcus's voice was almost too loud, it seemed so long since he had heard it. He blinked. "I think you underestimate Cottia's ability to thrive in a British winter -- she has lived here longer than you, after all. But you realize next year will be the same. What will you do for her then?"
"We'll be in the villa then. I think now that when we build the extensions, we should construct a hypocaust system under the floor. A hearth fire in the atrium should do to keep the original four rooms warm."
"We could be in the villa with such a fire now," Esca pointed out.
Marcus bit his lip. "The hut is...it is not so big and drafty, with the two of us in it."
Given how thin the wattle and daub walls were compared to the fired clay of the villa, Esca honestly wondered whether Marcus was feverish again. He appeared to be avoiding Esca's gaze, busily breaking up branches to add to the fire.
Still, Esca found that he liked hearing their voices aloud again; the last thing he wanted was for another awkward silence to descend. "Cottia will be pleased with the farm when she arrives," he ventured. "It has been a fortunate year."
Besides the successful completion of the villa, their crops had yielded adequately, beans and onion and celery, and the woods continued to provide small game. The sheep had increased as expected, and the three dogs had become competent herders. He thought about how Cottia would fit into this world he and Marcus had built. He recalled the conversation he'd had with her before leaving Calleva, her automatic conviction that the farm would be all theirs -- the three of them alone no more.
She would certainly be welcome now, Esca mused; cold and discomfort always seemed to lessen when shared between more people, and he truly did believe her to be the equal of any British winter. And he suspected she was incapable of allowing the sort of silence he and Marcus had found themselves in; she was always talking, and questioning, moving about with that quick, sharp energy. She would have plowed right through their recent awkwardness, and eventually they would have had no choice but to fall in line.
Marcus laid three branches on the fire, one by one. "Our good fortune was also a result of our hard work. As much your work as mine."
"It will be easier once we begin making enough coin to hire freedmen. Not that we will work any less, I suppose, but the burden will rest on more shoulders."
Yes, that was what he had just thought to himself about Cottia. But it felt alarmingly different thinking about anyone else on the farm with them. Such people would be strangers.
"And yet," Marcus said quietly, "I believe a part of me will miss this time, when it has only been you and I sharing the burden."
He looked up to find Marcus watching him across the fire, and his breath caught. Because there it was again, that smoldering flame in Marcus's gaze, that expression which wanted, only now it seemed to Esca that it promised to both give something as well as take. In response a hot snake uncoiled in Esca's belly, and his heartbeat began to thunder.
"I will miss it as well," he said, in a voice gone suddenly hoarse.
He had been reclining on the pile of furs which served as his bed, while Marcus tended the fire. Half-rising on his side, Esca watched as Marcus came to his feet and slowly approached. The old stiffness in his leg, brought to life again by the cold, made him sway a little, and with his height it gave the impression of a tree in a strong wind.
"I am sorry," Marcus said, "that I've been unable to lessen the troubles you spoke of. I know you believe, and Cottia as well, that I don't see the things which separate us. But I do. I wish we weren't so divided."
Esca's throat clicked as he swallowed. "I know."
He did know. Perhaps it had been easy for Marcus to trust Esca with his life and with his family's honor; after all, Esca had been his property under the laws of Rome. But from the beginning he had treated Esca as more than a slave, and in the end he had renounced a Roman life for the both of them. Esca realized these things all over again now, as Marcus knelt and reached out a slow hand toward him, as if taming a horse. That same hand had killed Britons, more of them than Esca would ever know. But once, in the gladiator ring in Calleva, Marcus had raised that hand to save Esca's life. He had been reaching out to Esca ever since.
Esca caught Marcus's wrist, holding him steady, and leaned his cheek against Marcus's outstretched palm. Marcus's fingers flexed, stroking Esca's jawline, then his hair, then down his neck to the bend of his shoulder.
"Is this really happening?" Marcus murmured.
It felt as though they had jumped headfirst off of one of the rock cliffs they'd seen north of the Wall; Esca was almost drunk with it. "If you wish," he said.
"I do. I've wished it so long."
The light in Marcus's eyes flared as Esca sighed. "It could have happened before. You said it that night when we were fleeing the Seal People. You always had the right."
Marcus shook his head. "I didn't want it as a matter of right. That was never the way I thought of this."
Then how? Esca wanted to ask. And also, what of Cottia? But he didn't. Instead he ran his own fingers through Marcus's hair, so dark and shaggy compared to the day they had first met, and guided his head down so their lips could meet.
He had expected Marcus to be greatly experienced in the ways of passion between men, given all he had heard of Romans with their slaves. But Marcus was as awkward and urgent as a young boy, his breaths harsh and shivery, his lips and tongue frantic for any taste of Esca's skin. He gasped and threw his head back when Esca licked the scar beneath his chin, the perfect ovals of his nipples, the flat field below his navel, as if no one had ever touched him in these places before. Still, his body was a man's: long muscled limbs which clasped and held Esca close, sculpted torso sloping down between the grooves of his hipbones toward his cock, which stood hard and proud for Esca's mouth.
Marcus's climax built quickly. He pushed Esca onto his back, draped Esca's thighs over the crooks of his arms, and eased into him, deep. He had slicked himself with oil, but Esca hissed from the friction nevertheless.
Marcus froze, but the muscles of his back, beneath Esca's hands, were trembling. "Are you in pain?"
Esca stroked his hands up and down, trying to get used to the sensation. He had only ever used his mouth with another man before. "It's all right," he managed, and shifted his hips.
"You're so tight. I can't--" Marcus moaned. "Esca, I can't wait."
"Take your pleasure," Esca grunted. He felt pain and pleasure both as Marcus rocked them, but the sound of Marcus's voice quickened his blood. "Yes, Marcus."
Marcus propped himself up on one hand and groped blindly down Esca's body with the other. He curled his big fist around Esca's cock, stroking him in time with his thrusts, but after a moment he lost the rhythm completely, crying out, and Esca felt the hot, liquid throbbing of his completion. He wrapped his own hand around Marcus's, their fingers overlapping on his cock, and brought himself the rest of the way. The final shuddering ecstasy of it seemed to ripple through his entire body, through both of their bodies.
Panting and sweaty, Marcus managed to roll them so that Esca lay on top. "Don't wish to crush you," he gasped.
"Am I a delicate flower?"
Marcus ran a thumb over Esca's bottom lip. "Hardly. But you do tend to complain about your position in life."
Esca pinched his nipple, earning a slap on the bottom.
He stretched out on the pile of skins beside Marcus, feeling sleepy and sated, the questions he'd left unasked fading from his mind. The fire crackled busily, although Esca knew it would die in the night and leave the hut cold; he supposed then he might pull one of the skins over both of them, where previously they had always wrapped up separately to sleep. That would be different indeed.
He was correct about the cold, but by then Marcus was lying completely on top of the skins, far too heavy to move without waking up first. And when he woke, he was roused in more ways than one, so it was some time before Esca could decide he rather liked the difference.
The winter passed with renewed speed after that.
"How did you ever manage to keep a rein on yourself before?" Esca smiled against Marcus's back, sniffing the smooth skin between his broad shoulders, running his tongue down Marcus's spine and dipping briefly into the cleft of his buttocks.
Marcus groaned sleepily. "A Roman soldier is a master of self-control and self-denial."
"I suppose I reap the benefits of your retirement from such a restrained lifestyle. You'd certainly be driven out of the Legionaries now for a depraved lack of control."
"Do you call me insatiable? I'm the one lying exhausted, and you're the one encouraging me for more."
"Yes, but you're the one who made yourself exhausted to begin with, today and for these many days prior. If you'd keep your hands to yourself for a time, we both might rest."
"Impossible." Marcus reared up, suddenly wide awake. He flipped Esca beneath him, and bent his head to taste where Esca's pulse beat in his throat, which made it beat faster in immediate response. His breath was moistly hot as he murmured, "After having waited for you so long, I find it impossible to keep my hands to myself now. Impossible to leave you alone."
"And how will we run the farm if you're always so occupied?"
"We won't. Cub can tend the crops. Primus, Secundus and Tertius can shear the sheep. All four will bring us game to eat. We'll never leave the hut."
They had recovered themselves, and were hard again. Marcus pulled Esca up on his hands and knees, and Esca heard him smoothing more oil onto himself -- these days, the small sound drove him mad with want. And then Marcus was thrusting inside, spreading him wider, and whatever Esca's reply might have been was lost in both of their moans.
The days began to blur together, the way a quick-moving stream will obscure the rocks beneath.
At one point, they finally dragged themselves outside to hunt. All of the snow had melted, but the cold still felt fresh and biting. Esca's bow and arrows were no use that day; he couldn't take his eyes from Marcus's face, flushed with joy, his voice high and ringing. When he speared a boar, he turned to Esca and his pleased laughter exploded across the distance between them. Something constricted in Esca's chest, as if the spear had landed in his heart instead, and he nearly curled in his saddle from the force of it.
The feeling persisted, hitting him at unexpected moments: watching Marcus sleep, sharing a meal beside the fire.
In his dreams the Druid was a frequent, accusing wanderer. But once Esca woke, the substance of him seemed to diminish in the face of Marcus's solid warmth, always the first sensation he was aware of. There, Esca thought at the fading memory. You have been an untethered soul. And now you cannot make your home with me.
He wished he could suspend the passing of time, and indulge in Marcus's lazy fantasies of never leaving the hut. And yet the cold finally did loosen its grip on the world, and spring began to assert its hold at last.
And finally a rider came from Calleva, bearing letters again.
"My uncle Aquila writes," Marcus said, perusing the incomprehensible script on the messenger's parchment. "Cottia's uncle grows impatient. They're right, of course. It grows more temperate each day. It's time we collected her."
We, Marcus said.
He said it with the same matter-of-fact conviction with which Cottia had called the farm ours. It made that tight place in Esca's chest flutter, but he cut it off as ruthlessly as he had the memory of Marcus's feverish night beyond the Wall. "Nothing keeps you here which I can't handle myself," Esca said. "You could leave in the morning."
Clearly taken aback, Marcus tried unsuccessfully to catch his eye. "You wish to stay here while I go?"
Esca shrugged. "I never do travel off the farm with you. And this will be a longer journey; all the more reason for me to remain."
"But -- you'll miss the wedding celebration." Marcus's words tumbled out of him. "It's sure to be a grand feast. Uncle Aquila writes that Kaeso wishes to invite as many important personages as he can persuade to witness his big display."
"A party full of important Romans," Esca said, before he could stop himself. "I think I'd prefer the company of our sheep and dogs." The look on Marcus's face, hurt edging past the surprise, made him add hastily, "Anyway, you'll wish to be alone with Cottia, won't you?"
"Yes, I suppose, but I'll also want--"
"And she'll wish to be alone with you."
"I know she'll wish to see you as well."
"And she will soon enough, once you've returned here with her."
"Esca," Marcus said, with the air of a speech begun anew, "if you think that I--"
"You should take wool to Calleva with you, and see what price you can get in a bigger market. The sheep need shearing now that winter is over anyway. Look at them; they're about to expire from the heat of a frosty spring morning. This will take all day." He was prattling on like one of the gossipy slaves in Uncle Aquila's house, but at least it seemed to have pressed Marcus into silence.
They wrestled the recalcitrant, braying sheep into divesting their thick coats, cursing and sweating. Their supper that night was consumed in motion, tersely, in the midst of packing Marcus's saddlebags for the two-day journey, and as soon as they were finished Esca reached for Marcus before he could say much more than, "Esca, you must know nothing will ch--", smashing their mouths together, sliding his hand downward.
He was unable to explain to himself exactly why he couldn't bear to hear what Marcus wished to say. He had a good idea what that would be, of the promises Marcus wanted to make -- as Marcus had said, some things couldn't be hidden between them. It wasn't that he disbelieved Marcus's intentions or ability to see them through. Marcus had believed they could find the Eagle, and they had. He had trusted that Esca would help him, and he had. He had believed they could build a farm together, and here they were.
But he felt, nevertheless, that allowing the words to actually fall from Marcus's lips would set something in motion, something huge and uncontrollable and unpredictable. And he saw himself small and helpless in its path.
As he brought Marcus to pleasure, he wondered if he would ever get the chance to touch him so intimately again. He pictured Cottia doing the same with a distant, disconnected curiosity. Would she know how hard she could press Marcus? How roughly? Her lips and cheeks would be softer, her hands smoother and more delicate. Was that inner fire of hers strong enough to provide what Marcus needed?
And would Marcus touch her differently? He would be able to twine locks of her bright hair around his fingers, look deep into her long-lashed eyes. Between her legs she would be soft, and wet, and--
Esca shivered and cut the thread of his thoughts.
The next morning, in the doorway of the hut, Marcus stood with his feet on either side of Esca's, holding him in place, and stroked up and down the sides of Esca's neck with gentle hands, collarbone to jawline and back. "If you don't wish to hear it," he said, "I won't say it. We will return within ten days. I will see then whether you have decided you are tired of being alone." Esca couldn't help bristling at that, in the way Cub did when irritated by one of the other dogs, but Marcus's eyes rounded with worry. "I will see you?"
"Of course," Esca said gruffly. "May your god Mithras guide you safely through your travels."
He watched Marcus swing up onto his horse, that tight spot in his chest like a hard, prickly knot. Then he raised his hand in a brief wave, whistled to Cub and set off for the pond, so that he wouldn't have to watch Marcus riding away.
Afterward, he could not recall any of the days of that solitary period with distinction: they were simply one long, uninterrupted span of uniform time. He supposed this was because he had spent so much of it with his mind carefully blank, not thinking about what was happening on the way to Calleva, in Calleva, on the way back.
He did know that Marcus was not gone for ten days after all, but instead returned on the seventh. He was not prepared for the wild leap of his heart when he saw the small pack of horses, riders, wagons and cattle emerging from the valley wood. He had thought he would have days yet to construct the proper cage for that sensation.
He went to greet them on numb legs. Cottia was immediately distinguishable by the flaming color of her hair. She urged her horse ahead of the group toward him. "Esca! Oh, it is good to see you!" Her voice pealed out like a songbird's, strange in its femininity. He realized it had also been the last female voice he'd heard before leaving Calleva.
He gave her a hand down from her horse, though she didn't need it. Unlike that day in Calleva when they had pastured the horses together, she had braided her hair again, as befitted a grown-up wife. She also seemed to have grown taller in the intervening year; her honey-colored eyes were almost level with his now. They were as intense as ever, though, looking at him searchingly.
He settled his features into a smile. "It is good to see you as well. My congratulations. But how does it feel to be shackled to this one for the rest of your days?"
Marcus, coming toward them on his horse, snorted. "I am a prize." His hair had been shorn, back to the length he had been accustomed to keeping as a centurion, and he wore a new tunic for riding, no holes in evidence.
Cub came running up, panting joyfully, and Cottia knelt to embrace him with equal enthusiasm. "I find marriage a lovely state of being," she said. "I suppose the reason for that must be the person to whom I am married."
"Only half the reason, surely, as he is only half the marriage." Esca grinned, but the affection on Marcus's face as he watched Cottia felt like a knife to the lung.
Finally -- finally -- Marcus turned fully toward him. "I see you haven't burned down the farm. My thanks for that."
The grin remained stretched on Esca's lips. "I couldn't leave Cottia homeless, of course."
"With the two of you here, I couldn't be," Cottia said firmly.
They had brought with them two freedmen, a burly brown barrel of a man named Galeo to work the farm, and a plump gray-haired one named Paulus to cook. The wool had apparently fetched a good price in the market, which accounted for the freedmen's wages, but, Marcus grumbled later, Uncle Aquila and Uncle Kaeso had also insisted on a wedding gift of two cows and a carved wooden box full of coins. "And," he added, "two wagons loaded down with household goods. If I could have borne staying longer, they would have forced twice the amount on us. There are furnishings for the villa, a bed and table, and ceramics and wall hangings or some other rubbish. So I suppose now we'll have to move there. Galeo and Paulus can take the hut."
"Surely the hut would be too cramped for them; there's plenty of room in the villa. I can remain in the hut, and they--"
"No," Marcus said shortly.
And so, that night, full of the first properly delicious meal he'd had since leaving Calleva, having been regaled with stories about the wedding celebration and the frustrations of holding forth against elderly well-meaning uncles, Esca found himself beneath the tile roof of the villa, trying to fall asleep on his new pallet. His room was at a diagonal across the atrium to Marcus and Cottia's. He could hear their voices drifting across, and loathed himself for analyzing every rise and fall in their tone, for remembering all of the times he and Marcus had spoken each other to sleep beside a dying campfire.
He did not allow himself to imagine what they were doing. But in the morning, he couldn't avoid seeing the aftermath of their first night in their new home: the sensual, silken arch of Cottia's body whenever Marcus drew near, and the answering gleam in Marcus's eyes -- a look with which Esca was all too familiar.
He caught Marcus's gaze as Cottia left the room after they had broken their fast, and immediately looked away. "I see you're finding the villa quite comfortable compared to the hut," Esca said, and could have cut out his own tongue for it.
"Esca--" Marcus began.
"I agree -- my room is quite airy and spacious. And all my own, as well." He was saved from whatever Marcus was going to say by Paulus coming in to clean the table.
The farm changed almost overnight. With Galeo's help, they plowed two new fields and set up a proper enclosure for the sheep and cattle. Cottia put away her thin embroidered gowns and gold arm bangles, and donned a rough woolen tunic which soon became permanently stained at the knees from kneeling amongst rows of crops. After a handful of days her face, neck and arms had turned as brown as Marcus and Esca's. She took her rests, such as they were, by decorating the bare walls of the villa with rows of tiles and painted patterns, and hanging bright curtains in the doorways, so that the house began to fill with pleasing things.
The biggest change to the farm was the sheer amount of busyness. Cottia and Galeo and Paulus were always somewhere in or around the house, talking, shuffling feet, clattering objects. Quiet reigned only late at night, when Esca was the last person lying awake, or at the top of the down, where he escaped whenever possible.
And he and Marcus were never alone.
It was not for lack of trying on Marcus's part, but the opportunities were scarcer, and Esca would always head off his approaches by going to where he knew someone else was, or coming down the hill before Marcus could finish climbing it.
"How long do you believe you can do this?" Marcus growled finally, after Esca refused his suggestion of a hunt.
"Until I no longer need to."
"And what does that mean?"
Esca turned away, whip-sharp. "Take Cub hunting with you. The exertion will do him good. Galeo and I must finish planting the new field."
"Esca--" Marcus tried again, but he was already striding off.
"Come walk with me and Cub," Cottia said. She spoke in her Iceni-accented British, as she had done in Calleva. "I feel as though I've been shut up in the villa all day. I've been trying to learn cooking from Paulus. My Aunt Valaria would never let me -- she said it was slave work."
Esca set down the wooden figure he'd been carving and looked around. "Where's Marcus?"
"He's gone to socialize with our Roman neighbors. I had no wish to come along -- having met them once and observed the social niceties, I'm happy to let the time until the next encounter stretch as long as politeness allows."
Esca nodded. "I count it a blessing I don't have to worry about keeping up appearances as you do."
She tilted her head, studying him. "On an only somewhat related topic, I've been meaning to ask: would you like a haircut? I gave Marcus one when he arrived in Calleva, and I brought the scissors with me. They're still relatively new, so they'll be sharp enough."
He must have had a look of alarm on his face, because she laughed and shook her head.
"I promise I won't cut it as short as the Romans like. But it's so long now that anything would surely be more comfortable for you once it starts getting warmer. We can combine the haircutting session with our walk."
She dipped back inside the villa to retrieve her scissors, then took his arm and steered him in the direction of the down. "I see you up here all the time, and I always want to join you. The view of all the open countryside must be magnificent."
He found his voice. "Yes. On a clear day like this, the sea will be visible as well."
"Oh! I haven't seen the sea since I left my tribe. The Iceni lands lie on the eastern coast, you know."
He allowed her to lead the climb, Cub running ahead of them. At the top she turned in a slow circle, gaze lingering on the water and the shadow of the Isle of Vectis, her expression rapturous. The sun lit fire into her hair. He moved a little away from her and rotated in one spot as well, looking at the landscape with renewed eyes. The summer season felt poised to break through, shining and glorious.
"Yes," she said. "I hoped it would be like this. Oh, I will always resent Marcus for not letting me come earlier. Was it really a very difficult year?"
He couldn't help smiling at her pique. "You would have been able to conquer it singlehandedly. But how did you pass the year in Calleva?"
"Impatiently. And with some fear, I can admit now. It was as though, knowing that freedom awaited me, I was worried it could suddenly be snatched away. I seemed to feel cage bars close about me, all the time."
He was getting used to the complete openness with which she spoke about herself. The Brigantes too favored blunt, straightforward speech, but Cottia also retained some of the heedlessness of youth.
"And all year," she continued, "they were building the city wall around Calleva, and I imagined that if they finished it before I could escape, I never would! I resolved that if Marcus didn't come in time I would try to run away and rejoin my mother, even though I wasn't welcome in her second husband's home."
Esca sat on the grass, stroking Cub. There was a patch of purple wildflowers scrabbling to survive in the thin chalky soil of the down next to them. Cottia picked a couple and tucked them into her bright red braids before turning to him with her scissors.
"Shall we try the haircut now?"
He nodded. Her fingers combed through his hair for a moment, measuring its length, lightly brushing his scalp and neck. Occasionally, the wind blew a bit of her long tunic against him.
Esca cleared his throat. "How long has it been since you saw your mother? Did she not come to your wedding?"
He heard the metallic snick of her scissors and felt the soft featherweight of hair drop to the ground. Some of the strands flew away on the wind, looking a surprisingly light golden color.
"No, she couldn't make the journey. I count -- hmm, it must be five summers now since I've seen her. I have a brother as well -- he was welcomed by her husband, simply because he was a boy. He must be full-grown by now."
He felt a sudden glimmer of understanding about where her fear of being useless originated. He knew some tribes placed a lesser value on girls, for being unable to contribute as much as a boy to the life of a tribe. A boy could hunt, and take up a spear to fight; they were always needed, and there were never enough of them.
The Brigantes had never been that way. His mother had openly spoken of her hopes for a daughter; remembering this, he found it unutterably sad that she had died without having the chance.
He did not speak these thoughts aloud, but said, "I thought the Iceni would know how to appreciate a female. Do you remember when I spoke to you of Boudicca?"
"She was the queen," Cottia said simply. She was leaning over him now, cutting at an angle, and the soft swell of her bosom drifted dangerously near his face. He could feel the wind on his neck again, cool and delightful. "It was different for her. Although it also went badly for her in the end."
As had so many rebellions against Rome. He thought of the Druid in his dreams, remembered the ones who had raised their sermon voices in protest and exhortation at the last gathering of the blue war-shields, how they and Cunoval had hefted the ceremonial spears above their heads as five hundred warriors' chanting threatened to shake the earth itself.
"And yet," Esca said, "what else could she have done? That is how my people saw the matter."
"Yes." Cottia's scissors paused. "I feel the same."
He sensed that in Cottia thrummed the same fearless purpose that had driven the women of his clan, including his mother. It had been that purpose which demanded the dignity of sending their souls onward in the manner they chose, instead of leaving them in the hands of Rome.
"Perhaps Marcus will take you to see your mother one day," he said.
"He has actually offered to do so, when the farm becomes more self-sufficient. We talked about it before the wedding. I was honestly surprised -- I had been preparing all of my most persuasive arguments, in case he disliked the idea."
"He realizes how much it would mean to you, seeing your family again."
"Yes. Although since he never spoke of it before, I suspect he didn't come to the realization all by himself."
Esca met her eyes, and glanced away.
After some minutes, Cottia stepped back, looked critically at his hair, made another few small snips, and finally nodded. "I can see more of your face and neck. It is a definite improvement."
"I wish I could cut my hair as short as you and Marcus -- it is so heavy and troublesome to braid. But I think he would be upset if I lost it."
Staring at the shining braids coiled around her head, Esca said, "I would be, too." And immediately wished he'd remained silent.
She seemed pleased at that, though. After a couple more snips, she passed her hand through his hair again, shaking off stray bits. "Well, I believe I'm done here. And you were not nearly as fussy as Marcus tells me the sheep are." Shading her eyes against the sun with one hand, she turned to peer at the water line in the distance. "I feel as though simply being able to look at the sea, whenever I want, makes those old cage bars fade away like mist."
"If you like, there should be time for Marcus to take you to the southern coast now while the weather is good. It's less than half a day's leisurely ride from here, and would not keep you from the farm for long."
"Yes, Marcus said you visited it for a few days."
Her manner, the way in which she said only those words and no more, convinced Esca that she knew something of his troubles. And that could only be due to Marcus. "I did," he said. "Although I would not have called it a visit."
He paused. The word she had used, in their common tongue, implied something more purposeful than the trip he was suggesting she and Marcus take, but also more purposeful than what he had done. Before he had taken up a warrior's spear, his brothers Catus and Docca had twice brought him along to scout for good hunting further from their clan's usual spots; he would have used her word to describe those journeys, but not the three solitary days he had spent by the sea.
"I am not sure if there is a better word in Latin," he said finally. "Probably there is, but I never learned it."
"Then I am not sure I would know it either. But tell me what it was like?"
"Cold," he said automatically. He shot her a rueful grin. "And lonely, although Cub went with me. But I think I almost needed it to be so. There is something about being alone in the wild, about not being forced to speak to any other person for a while. It can create a change in you. And I...I suppose I didn't know what change I was seeking before I went, or even that I sought a change at all, but I did feel it was for the better once I came back."
He stopped, wary of saying more, not knowing what Marcus had told her. It could not have been anything approaching the truth, of course, but he would not be the one to begin leading her there.
She was nodding. "Ah, yes. I would not have had the words for that in Latin."
He decided to change the subject entirely. "Surely you received a more thorough education than I did? A slave has less need and opportunity to acquire a wide vocabulary than the niece of a magistrate."
She shrugged. "My aunt and uncle did not consider that so important. I learned to read and write, sum up a column of numbers, paint tiles, drape cloths decoratively over myself and my home, give orders to slaves. And cut hair." Her eyes twinkled at that. "Skills enough to run a Roman household as the wife of a citizen, which was the best station in life they thought I could aspire to."
"I possess hardly any of those skills."
"You have better ones. Fighting, and hunting. And now farming, which I am only just learning as well."
Skills his father and brothers had taught him. And Marcus. "I like the way you describe it," he said.
"Of course you do," she teased, airily superior.
He smiled at her. "I suppose, by marrying Marcus, you have achieved all of your aunt and uncle's ambitions for you."
"I suppose I did. Fortunately for me, Marcus is like no other Roman I know." She smiled back at him, her expression suffused with the same warm affection which, on Marcus's face, Esca could never bear to look at for long. "And fortunately for you as well. Yes?"
"Yes," he said. He forced himself not to turn away from her now. "We are both very fortunate."
That night, Marcus and Cottia's voices drifted across the atrium again. Esca stared at the dim outline of the small window cut into the wall of his room, dry-eyed, restless, until he couldn't take it anymore. He hauled himself up from his sleeping pallet and slipped silently into the night.
He hadn't slept outside since before the winter. It was a particularly clear night, with only a sliver of moon, and the wind was cool. He chose a flat grassy spot next to the pond, which was better sheltered than the slope of the down. Stretched out with his hands behind his head, he listened to the nearby babble of the stream and let the stars fill his vision. The huge cloudy band that the Druids called the sling for Lugh's spear shone brilliantly along its length.
After a while it seemed to him that the stars in the spear sling came unhooked from their fixed positions. They tightened, grew brighter, and finally coalesced into the arc of his ancestors, cascading from the sky toward him. And all the while the Druid with his father's blue eyes paced in a circle.
Abruptly, the Druid shifted form, becoming Marcus looming over him. Esca's eyes snapped open, throwing him into momentary bewilderment -- when had his eyes shut?
His senses registered that it was still night, but with the faint glimmering in the east of inevitable dawn. And Marcus sat beside him.
"How--" Esca swallowed. "How did you know I was here?"
"I couldn't sleep."
"Are you ill?"
"No, it's not the old fever. But it happens sometimes, ever since the night attack at my first command. Occasionally I will simply come awake, without provocation, and I can't fall asleep again."
"You weren't in your room."
Slowly, Esca asked, "Were you trying to wake me as well?"
"No, I--" Marcus sighed. "I did not plan that you should ever know this. But -- it used to be that -- sometimes, when I had a night like that, I would look over at you. And I would watch you sleep. And then..." He trailed off.
"Then it was...better."
A thousand questions whirled in Esca's mind. But the first thing that came to his lips was not a question, not really: "Cottia."
"Yes, of course," Marcus said, with a touch of exasperation. "She helps. But I can't simply--"
He cut off again, and Esca lost the last haze of sleep that had been blanketing his reactions. "Would you just say what you mean?"
"What do you think I've been trying to do, for weeks now?" Marcus snapped. "But then, I promised not to say anything to you, when I left for Calleva. Because I knew it was nothing you wanted to hear."
"I'll hear it now," Esca said, resigned. "So let's have an end to it."
"An end?" Marcus's tone was incredulous. He leaned closer, so that Esca could see his face finally beneath the bright starlight and the encroaching morning. "Is that truly what you want?"
"I want you to realize that it doesn't matter what either of us want. This cannot happen."
"Why, because of Cottia? Don't you know she has only ever dreamed of a future with all of us in it? When we first came to the understanding that we would marry, in the garden in Calleva, she knew that I would take you and Cub with me wherever I went. She stated it first, and only asked that she could come with us, too."
"What she spoke of is not what you're speaking of."
"How do you know?" Marcus demanded. "You haven't let anyone speak to you of anything. You haven't listened. You've only heard your own thoughts, things neither Cottia nor I would ever say."
Esca felt like a recalcitrant horse, one which refused to respond to reins or commands. "I can't even envision your thoughts. Do you imagine that we'll share you? That sometimes you'll reach for me in the night, and sometimes for Cottia? That you'll take your pleasure of us equally, whenever you want?"
He thought that by speaking so crudely, he could shock or shame Marcus into giving up this foolhardy idea. But Marcus said simply, bluntly: "Yes. Although of course, it will also depend on whenever you or she want. And you might consider taking your pleasure of both of us. I know she will certainly be thinking of you and I that way. She says things to me sometimes, about the insatiable appetites of Iceni women. She claims it comes from her mother, who has had two husbands."
For a moment, the pictures in Esca's head stole his breath. "I think you've lost your mind," he said finally.
"Have I? Or am I pointing out what you continue to deny -- that you are the only obstacle in your path?" Marcus's breath brushed Esca's face. "Your objections are physical, and I've dispensed with them. Perhaps you have others -- what about how you feel? What are your objections there?"
"Must I really list them for you? You are married--"
"Yes, and you knew I would be. Every time we lay together, you knew it. Through this long year, building the farm together, you knew it. And yet, for a time, that didn't seem to matter to you."
"Of course it mattered. It always mattered. But I--" Esca drew a breath through what felt like a shredded mess of lungs. "So this is my fault, then. You're right, I should never have allowed us to--"
"Esca." Marcus sounded like he was explaining something to a dimwitted child. "There is no question of fault here. There is no hurt for which to assign blame. Or at least, there doesn't have to be. It's as I told you before: Cottia and I always knew the shape of our lives. When she agreed to marry me, she knew it. Through this long year, building our home together, I knew it as well. What happened between you and I didn't change any of the things we already knew, or what is in our hearts. Has anything truly changed in yours? Please, tell me the truth."
Reluctantly, Esca shook his head.
"Then I believe the only question is this: can you accept what we all may be together? Can you accept that three can make a better home for each other than two and one? Or are the divisions between us still too great for you to cross?"
"You say these things," Esca said desperately, "as if it is only up to me. But how will this ever truly work?"
"How will you know if you never give it a chance?" Marcus countered, his tone eminently reasonable.
Esca had no answer to that, because how did one argue coherently with madness?
"I waited for you," Marcus said. "Don't you know that? I told you I waited for you -- for such a long time -- for you to finally grow tired of being alone. And I will not let you waste all of that by being so stupidly stubborn again, not when you're so close to all the things you've been seeking. When all we want to do is give them to you."
And when Marcus reached through the darkness to grasp Esca's arm with one hand, and cup his cheek with the other, Esca stopped looking for the right thing to say. He had been starved of Marcus's touch for too long.
"Could you try it?" Marcus whispered in his ear, between kisses. "We'll speak to Cottia when the sun rises, in the light of day, so that you can see we haven't lost our minds."
"Fine, yes, I'll try it," Esca whispered back. He didn't know why they whispered, alone as they were under the stars; but he supposed it was too fragile of a thing to do otherwise as yet. "And when she comes after you with a horse whip, I'll only say I told you so."
"She doesn't believe in whipping horses or people for that matter, so no, she won't do anything like that at all." Marcus eased them backward so they were surrounded by the lush, fragrant grass. "You'll see. You'll see."
On that fateful day north of the Wall, he had run for miles through Selgovae country, completely alone, drawing further and further away from the place where he had left Marcus wounded and trickling blood into a freezing river. All the while, he tried to bury the memory of what had flared between them in Marcus's fever and Esca's weakness, the memory of a single moment which he swore would never be repeated, not if he had any sense of self-preservation.
He said to Guern, when he finally found him: "You lost your honor when you abandoned your Legion. They were your countrymen, and you betrayed them. All of Britain knows it was that shame which broke your cohort commander at the end. And now Marcus may lose his life trying to restore the honor you lost. Redeem yourself now by standing with him."
He knew the speech had worked when Guern's eyes flashed, like a flint sparking a flame. But then Guern said, "I never thought I would hear a Brigantes pleading for a Roman's life."
He had answered only, "It is a matter of honor for me as well."
But by then, of course, it had not just been a matter of honor. It had been much, much more.
In the morning, Esca followed Marcus back to the villa. Cottia was in the atrium, writing on a piece of parchment with Cub sprawled on the floor beside her, tail flopping. The sun had risen high enough to wash them in a splash of light. The sight made Esca stop still in the doorway.
She looked up. "Oh, you found him!"
"Yes, I found him, skulking outside in the night like a stray." Marcus pushed Esca forward. "You, talk. I am in search of breakfast. I expect you to have come to some proper conclusions by the time I return." And with that, he left them alone.
Cottia shook her head, setting down her parchment and rising to her feet. "I suppose he showed his usual persuasive genius?" She spoke in their customary British.
Esca let out a long, trembling breath. "He is a Roman, after all."
"Yes, well, eventually he will need to learn that we outnumber him."
She moved toward him as she spoke, until she stood close enough that he could see the ring of darker brown around the golden irises of her eyes, and smell the purple wildflowers in her braids. The flowers were fresh, not the same as she had picked yesterday. "Did you climb the down already this morning?" he asked.
"Yes. The sea shone so gloriously."
"But...then you must have also seen us by the pond." He felt a bit dizzy.
"Well, I had to see if you were all right. I get impatient about these things, you know."
"Then you truly don't care -- you don't--?" He couldn't find the words.
"Of course I care." She pressed her palm to his cheek, the same as Marcus had done by the pond. "Esca Mac Cunoval, last bearer of the blue war-shields of the Brigantes. What have you been thinking?"
He gathered himself. "How could you want me, as well as Marcus?"
"For all the reasons Marcus wants you, and for reasons of my own. How could I not? All those years when I missed the sea, when I yearned to live free of walls once more, I never dreamed I might find someone like you, someone who wished for all the same things, like a mirror to my heart." Her smile was gentler than he had ever seen her. "I would have been furious at Marcus if he'd lost you."
"So--" and for a moment he simply gulped air, and the morning sun slanting into his face was so bright his eyes began to smart with moisture, "--we will be three."
"Yes." Her smile widened. "I told you in Calleva that we would be kin. However you wish that to be true, I will accept. And Marcus as well, for all he thinks he can still act like the cohort commander. But perhaps--"
"Perhaps you might let me try to persuade you in my own way."
Again, he lost his answer. Because she was kissing him now, sweet and soft, and his body had responded by wrapping his arms around her and pressing all of her lovely curves closer, closer, closer.
"Oh, I do think I will like this," she said, panting into his mouth. Her hand had moved from his cheek to caress the back of his neck, all of that sensitive skin she had bared the day before when she cut his hair at the top of the down. "You're much closer to my height than Marcus, for one thing. And you taste different. It's fascinating."
It amazed him how her thoughts echoed his own. He was busily kissing her giggles into submission when Marcus shouted into the atrium.
"Have you seen reason yet? Is all well?"
Another giggle escaped Cottia.
"Yes," Esca called back at last. "I do believe all is well."