In Calleva Esca is far from the only British slave, the gladiator who had been so close to taking his life had been one of the Belgae, but out at the Aquila villa it’s easy to forget. The other slaves all either work in the fields and only rarely come into the house, or are foreigners themselves having been brought to Britannia when Aquila moved his household nearly twenty years ago. The only other slave who will talk to him is Stephanos, and as a Greek he’s just as far away from home as the Roman invaders, although Esca has only a vague idea about how far away that might be. He’s learned enough to know that the Greeks are different from the Romans, but he’s watched Stephanos worshipping the same gods and he’s yet to be able to figure out what that difference might be.
“The Aquilas are good men,” Stephanos tells him one day as Esca is chopping vegetables for a plain-looking stew Stephanos is preparing for their dinner.
“They’re Roman,” Esca replies curtly stabbing viciously at a carrot and refusing to look up.
“Yes,” Stephanos continues evenly, taking Esca’s vegetables and dumping them in the stew pot. “I’m a Greek; I know that better than most. But I am fortunate to be a slave of the Aquilas rather than of my own countrymen. Can you say the same?”
Esca remains silent while Stephanos works. Esca was born long after the Ninth Legion first came to his homeland and built the city of Eboracum, but his grandmother could remember the days before that and used to tell stories about the glory of the Brigantes, free from the yoke of Roman rule.
“Don’t listen to her,” his oldest brother used to warn him with a cuff about the head for good measure. “She’s gone daft in her old age. The Romans have been here for far longer than even she’s been alive.”
“But Draegol, even father said…” Esca would start only to be interrupted by a scoff.
“The Brigantes were free then because the Romans let us be free. Never forget that, little brother,” Draegol’s eyes were heavy with a weight beyond his years. “Father and Grandmother forget our own history. The Brigantes were once allies of Rome. We were independent then because we did what they asked, and we did what they asked because they helped us fight the northern tribes.”
“You think we should bow to Rome!” Esca accused.
“No brother,” his brother responded with a firm smack. “Rome is a bitch and should be fought. This is our land and she has no right to it. But Rome is a tribe like all the others; they all want our sheep and our women. And we want theirs. Remember that. The Romans are just more powerful than we thought.”
Draegol always was a philosophical drunk. He died in the battles following the disappearance of the Ninth when Esca was still a boy and the Brigantes were caught between the Romans and the northern tribes. Not all Britons had as short memories as Esca’s grandmother and even the battle at the place of heroes could not erase years of the Brigantes working alongside their enemy. Esca still doesn’t know if Draegol died at the hand of a Roman or not. He hates the Romans for their deception and their foolish, purposeless invasion. He hates the northern tribes for not being able to forget the past. He hates his grandmother’s poor memory and his oldest brother’s clear vision. He hates that Stephanos might be right.
Esca is the third son of a chieftain of the Brigantes. Slavery was never supposed to be his lot. Yet here he is, entering his seventh year of servitude to the invaders, Marcus Aquila only the latest in a long line of Roman masters. He would like to feel nothing but anger and the hate which has clogged his chest since the death of his family and the majority of his tribe, but he is so tired.
Stephanos is looking at him with knowing eyes. “Go fetch some of the garum,” he says pointing vaguely toward the amphorae stacked in the corner of the kitchen. “And don’t make that face,” Stephanos admonishes Esca as he scowls into the garum amphora. He will never understand the Roman’s love of fish sauce. “Dominus Aquila loves the stuff. It’d be best if you acquired a taste for it.”
Esca watches Marcus during his convalescence at the villa. As his body slave it is part of his job to keep an eye on his master, but he knows that this is not the full reason why he does so. Marcus is strong, that is clear in the way he fights both himself and Esca’s hold while the medicus cuts into his leg. And he is honest with Esca even though there is no reason why he should be. Marcus is a soldier; he has fought the enemies of Rome and Esca’s people for longer than Esca has been enslaved. He is uncomfortable in his uncle’s villa, even though it is far from the most lavish even among those in the lands around Calleva, his shoulders only relaxing when they’ve left civilization behind to hunt in the forests. It strikes Esca as odd that Marcus likely grew up with less wealth than Esca. Sometimes on hunts Marcus will talk about his days fighting in Gaul, quickly working his way up to optio before his promotion to centurion and request to be posted in Britain. He speaks in hushed tones as if there could be nothing more honourable and good than fighting for the glory of Rome.
He is nothing like the other Romans Esca has met and served over the years. They are all spoiled rich men cursing Fortuna for getting them posted to the end of the world, middling merchants who are trying to gain a foothold before moving into the central Empire, or practical soldiers more or less content to do as they’re told so long as they have clean dry socks. Even Marcus’ uncle Aquila is equipped with a large portion of stoic pragmatism, but Marcus himself seems gifted with an overabundance of imagination and loyalty. It is a dangerous combination and Esca knows that it is both foolish and wrong, but it is also refreshing, after living so long under the heels of Romans, to see such hope and faith even on the face of the enemy.
When the legate comes to the villa and bring along his young tribune Esca listens with barely controlled rage as the tribune insults his hosts with blithe impunity and then reveals what Esca had long suspected, dreaded. Marcus Flavius Aquila, Marcus’ father, was a centurion in the Ninth. He was at the place of heroes with Esca’s father and his brothers. He had torn a swath across Esca’s land before drawing the wrath of Rome upon the northern tribes with his death. And he had lost the eagle, which the Romans worshipped almost as devoutly as their gods.
Esca could barely hear the rest of the conversation for the rushing in his ears.
Almost before he knows what Marcus is planning Esca has packed their provisions into saddlebags and got the horses ready for a journey to the north. Esca hasn’t been home in years but he still remembers the chill which could leech into your bones on cool nights even in the middle of summer. He packs extra cloaks for both of them.
The trip north, through Roman lands is uneventful and Esca lets his rage simmer as he watches Marcus. Marcus is wholly focused on his task and the further north they venture the more he treats Esca as a scout rather than a slave. His orders change from the awkwardness of a master to the confidence of a commanding officer and Esca begins to unconsciously relax in his company.
They stop only once in former Brigantes territory. They steer clear of the villages and farming communities and build a fire in a sheltered region of forest far enough away from the road to be clear of brigands. Marcus makes a fire and pitches the tent while Esca collects wood and fresh water. They finish dinner as the sun sets and the fire flickers, warming Esca despite the slight chill of the evening.
“I used to come here to hunt when I was a boy,” Esca says before he can think about what he’s doing. Marcus is his master, his owner, and he doesn’t care about his property’s childhood, but the stars are starting to poke through the darkening blue of the sky and Marcus’ shoulders are more relaxed than he’s ever seen them back at the villa.
“Really?” Marcus sounds interested a smile touching the corners of his mouth. “What did you hunt?”
“Mostly rabbits,” Esca admitted thinking fondly of the traps he’d made before waiting impatiently for his prey to come to him. “But sometimes my older brother would take me after larger game. Pheasants, or boar. Once, when I could still barely fire a bow straight we took down a stag. My shot only winged him, but the way Draegol used to tell the story it was as if I felled it with a single shot and he had nothing to do with the kill.”
Marcus laughed at that, his eyes crinkling around the corners. “You must be very close with your brother.”
Esca’s smile falls from his face. “I was,” he says through the sudden lump in his throat.
Their passage to the other side of the wall is easier than Esca expects. He’d thought the soldiers would prevent this foolish mission, but Marcus’ orders are followed without any more than a few doubtful looks being exchanged and suspicious glances pointed at Esca before they open the gates. Esca waits for the soldiers to call them back the entire time the wall is within view, his shoulders itch with their judgements.
When they pass the hanged men Esca thinks of Stephanos and his question. Would it be better to be a slave of the northern tribes? He watches Marcus over the flames of their fire that evening and draws up the courage to ask what he’s been wondering about since the night the legate and tribune came to visit the older Aquila. Why the Eagle? Marcus answers him his eyes filling with that same hope and fierce loyalty that Marcus always has when he’s talking about Rome. And all Esca can think about is his grandmother and her faulty memory cursing the Romans, his brothers and his father battling Romans and north men alike, and how much more simple everything would be if the Romans had never invaded his lands. He doesn’t want to believe in the Rome which Marcus is describing, and he doesn’t want Marcus to believe in it either. So he tells him about the Rome that he knows; the soldiers who would have raped his mother and the people who invaded his lands. He watches the light slowly go out of Marcus’ eyes and the momentary flash of satisfaction is almost worth the disappointment which settles in his belly.
The next day they come across some tribesmen and Esca starts talking. He hears old men’s tales and grandmother’s stories and half remembered rumours from twenty winters ago when the people he meets were barely older than children. Everything points to the north. Esca thinks that some of Marcus’ hope might be rubbing off on him because he really hopes that the Seal People don’t have the eagle.
Almost a week later it’s raining again and Marcus and Esca huddle under a hastily constructed lean-to warming their hands with a small fire. Marcus is staring at Esca’s right arm even though it’s covered by his shirt and Esca has no idea what he might see.
Esca raises an eyebrow, “What?”
Marcus quickly averts his gaze back to the fire. “It’s nothing,” he says. “I apologise, it’s been a long day’s ride.”
Esca rolls his eyes “Is my arm about to fall off?” he asks and pushes at Marcus’ shoulder. Marcus’ mouth curves slightly at the corner in a smile and Esca is abruptly aware of how long it’s been since there was someone, whether slave or free, with whom he could push things like this.
“I was just thinking about something,” Marcus admits ruefully his eyes darting between the fire and Esca.
“And?” Esca presses on before he can stop himself.
Marcus looks sidelong at him before continuing. “The man today at the village,” he says evenly. “He had a tattoo on his forearm, but it was different from yours. What does it mean? Are they for your gods?”
Marcus’ eyes are open and focused on Esca again and Esca has to look away. He stars instead into a fire as he answers.
“It’s not for them,” he says slowly, but he knows it not something that the Romans understand. “It’s for me. I had it done when I became a warrior. My brother helped with the design. Not every warrior gets one. But it’s not uncommon. What about yours?” he asks before Marcus can request more details. He doesn’t want to discuss it; the way his brother fed him beer to numb the pain and then less than a week later, while his arm was still painful with the new ink, had refused to let Esca go with him on the latest raid. “Is it for your gods?”
Marcus grins at that. It’s the same grin that he gets when he’s talking about the eagle or his time as a soldier. “It is for Rome. The letters stand for the senate and people. It marks me as a soldier.” He continues to stare fondly into the fire.
“Tell me about Rome,” Esca asks, and he finds that he actually wants to know so he adds: “What is it about this city that makes you want to leave it so much?”
“I’ve never actually been to Rome,” Marcus admits with a huff of laughter and Esca’s brow furrows in confusion. “I was born in Massilia in Southern Gaul. It is not nearly as far from Rome as we are now, but it is not an easy journey either.”
“But I thought you were a Roman?” Esca asks.
“I am,” Marcus replies with pride. “Rome is more than just a city. It is how she began, but we Romans now stretch across the known world. Not everyone has welcomed us,” he admits wryly with a look in Esca’s direction, “but we have brought the ends of the earth together. As a citizen of Rome I have spoken to north men such as yourself and Numidians from the south where the sun is so hot it has burnt their skin black. And despite what you might say about everything else that is indeed a glorious thing.”
Esca says nothing. He hates a little that he agrees.
“One day,” Marcus says after a time. “I would like to go to Rome. After we find the eagle we can take it there together, and you can see for yourself some of the glory I have fought for.”
Esca thinks meanly that Rome is probably like some of the busier dingier parts of Londinium, crowded with more people and animals than should fit in the space. Still, he’s shocked to find that he’d like to travel there with Marcus; maybe he could see a black Numidian.
The warmth of their cooking fires falls abruptly into memory after they find Guern and he takes them to the killing ground. Esca listens to him describe the place of heroes, he knows this story but he’s never heard the other side of it before. He cares not for the fates of the Romans, they got what they were looking for when they came to this place, but he thinks about the rumours of the Seal People, rumours he’s been hearing for weeks, and shudders at the evidence of their work.
Esca’s father had fought here. He used to tell stories about the glory of the northern tribes, working together for once against a common enemy. But on long winter nights drinking with the warriors around the campfire, Cunoval would lean over to his youngest son and tell him in hushed, too sober tones: “Esca, be careful of the Seal People. They’re fearsome warriors, but they enjoy giving death too much.”
And then Guern is pointing at him and Marcus is yelling and Esca is yelling back.
Abruptly he realises that Marcus knows nothing of the northern tribes. If the Brigantes were here, then in his mind they are no better than the Seal People who cut out men’s hearts with joy in their hearts. Esca’s anger flares and he yells even louder.
How could he trust a deserter, a man with no honour, above Esca, whose honour as a Brigantes warrior has prevented him from slitting Marcus’ throat numerous times in his sleep? Has prevented him from leaving this far-too honourable Roman to die at the hands of any number of northern men?
Esca hurls himself at the larger man and suddenly they’re fighting with their fists instead of their voices. Marcus is larger, but that has never stopped Esca in a fight before, and he’s just gaining the upper hand when he realises that they’re not alone.
His anger drains quickly as he recognizes the distinct clothing and painted features of the Seal People. He thinks of his father’s face when he would talk about the Seal warriors and their ruthless love of destruction. He thinks of Marcus and their ridiculous search for the eagle of the Ninth Legion. He thinks of Stephanos, safe back at the Aquila villa, reminding him that the Aquilas are good men.
Esca is the son of a chieftain of the Brigantes. He has been a slave for nearly eight years, but sometimes on this quest it has been easy to forget both of these things. All the stories of the eagle point to the Seal People. And all Esca’s father’s stories of the Seal People end in death. They would never be able to take the eagle from the Seal People if they weren’t invited into their settlement. The remnants of his anger start forming into a plan.
He’s still angry with Marcus, with everything, but he knows without a doubt that Stephanos was right and he would rather be Marcus Aquila’s slave than at the mercy of the Seal People.
He watches Marcus’ face as he’s tied to the back of their horses, a newly claimed slave, and he wonders if Marcus would feel the same.