Marcus could not for the life of him understand what was so terribly wrong with his new slave. Esca was quiet and dutiful and never complained about having to serve his master in a hundred humbling little ways, even though the Roman knew how Brigantes felt about having to do “women's work.” He could clean and sweep as well as any house-bred slave, he never spoke out of turn, and he never referred to Marcus as anything other than domine. He behaved as if he were content and by all rights he should have been, since he was owned by good masters. The Aquilas rarely shouted, didn't even own a whip, and fed their dependents so well that the neighbors laughed and said that they could tell slave from free by looking at who had extra notches in their belts. (Indeed, in the month since Uncle Aquila had purchased him, the Briton had put on enough weight to make it abundantly clear how starved he had been at the arena.) Esca acted content, and he had every reason to be content, so it bothered Marcus to no end how his slave would weep at night when he thought his domine was asleep.
Every day was the same at Uncle Aquila's house, mostly because every day was the same for Marcus: wake, stretch the bad leg, limp outside and say good morning to Ferox, play and exercise with Ferox (while Esca assisted as necessary), then work on projects around the house, poke at the fields and barns, mend tools or knives or weapons and finish with a ride through the country before dinner. The routine kept him sane after losing the structure the army had provided for his life, and it kept his wolf happy too. That meant as much to Marcus as keeping his slave cheerful. He had spoken with Ferox about it so many times after ruining his leg in battle, and their conversation was always the same.
You do not have to stay with me, Wolf. There is no honor here. Go and be with braver warriors.
There are many ways to be brave, Cub. I am yours. I will not leave.
Secretly Marcus was glad; it was hard enough, losing the strength and agility he had always relied on. Losing his wolf as well might have been the end of him, completing the descent from a once-powerful Centurion to a shell of a man.
The routine that was so helpful to the master seemed hard on the slave, however. Esca would wake in the morning, assist Marcus out of bed, and watch as the Roman and the wolf played and wrestled on the sand. These times, he seemed happiest; Marcus actually caught him smiling on occasion. But as the day wore on, Esca's cheer inevitably faded, and by the time evening shadows had given way to darker night and Ferox had settled into her den for the night, the slave could scarcely lift his eyes off the floor.
Always, Marcus wanted to ask what so troubled the young Brigante. But he never dared. It was not his place.
Finally, in desperation, he told Esca to go into town, making him run some minor errand that was really the sort of thing Marcipor should have been responsible for. One of the things Marcus loved so much about Esca was how he never complained, even when he could have—a body slave was his master's right hand, a position of some authority and importance, and shouldn't have been sent off to buy leather scraps for working into a new pair of reins for the light chariot. But Esca bowed and set off without a word.
As soon as the slave had left, Marcus went to find Ferox—she enjoyed wandering through the copse out back, in hopes of catching wild guinea hens and eating them—and settled down onto the ground, his signal that he needed to talk. Presently she loped over (the feathers on her snout indicated that hunting had been successful that day) and curled up next to him, laying her head in his lap so he could scratch behind her ears.
What is bothering you, Cub?
My mind is so troubled, Wolf. My slave weeps every night and I do not know why. I do not know how to deal with him, or what to say. I do not know if there is anything to say. And I am sad.
Yes, I can feel that. Your heart aches for him.
If I knew what ailed him, I might try and mend it, but it is not my place to ask, and not his place to tell me.
The corners of Ferox' mouth curled up slightly, and for a moment she looked terribly dangerous. She was terribly dangerous, of course, being a Roman wolf and an Alpha wolf who had fought her way to the top of her pack and trained with the fiercest soldiers in the Empire, and she had chosen Marcus because he, of all the new Centurions, had most closely matched her in temperament and spirit. They were both fearsome warriors, but no observer would ever know it to see how lazily they lounged about off-duty, and how calm and gentle they appeared when not in battle. After she smiled, Ferox gave Marcus a gentle nip on the hand and he shivered. Those same teeth could break a man's leg.
If you do not know, then I shall tell you. He misses his mate.
“His mate?” Marcus was so startled he spoke aloud; this earned him a second nip. Wolves did not, on the whole, enjoy spoken discussions.
Yes, Cub, his mate. Esca has lost pack and mate, and although you might be his Alpha now, you are a pale comparison. No offense.
But how can he have a mate? He is so young.
From the time their voice deepens and they have killed their first enemy, a Brigante is a warrior.
Gods, poor Esca. What if she is captured? Or dead? No wonder he is so sad.
Indeed, but do not mourn for him yet. We do not know that she is gone forever.
Is there a way to find out?
I shall try, tonight. You are a good Cub, and I will do this for you.
That night, after Marcus and Esca had gone off to bed and finished their secret nighttime rituals (wherein Esca wept himself to sleep and Marcus listened to him with an aching heart), Ferox set out into the woods. Marcus could feel her go, and it gave him such anxiety that he had to remind himself that she would return.
Then the hairs on his arms stood up, as far off in the distance he could hear her begin to howl.
In the morning Esca looked terrible, as if he had not enjoyed a single hour's sleep. Marcus made him take a nap after lunch. Ferox refused to speak a word of what, if anything, she had learned.
The following day, Esca and Marcus were both so clumsy and on edge that Marcus actually dropped a plate. It shattered on the floor and Esca swept it up hastily, apologizing for his carelessness until Marcus ordered him to be silent, pointing out that the slave had very little to be sorry about since it was the master who committed the crime.
The next night, three nights after Ferox had spoken to the local packs, while Marcus lay in bed with an aching leg and struggled not to summon his body slave to have him knead away the cramps, they heard howling far off in the distance. Marcus forgot his pain in an instant as his whole body roused itself into alertness. The howling was unfamiliar to him. Esca startled awake in the hall, breathing quickly and shifting so restlessly that his master worried the entire household would be awoken.
“Esca, come in here!” he hissed. Esca came, but for the very first time Marcus could see reluctance and unwillingness to obey, and and it made him as glad as anything had in many months. “Help me up.”
“Where do you wish to go at this time of night, domine? If you want something from downstairs, I will get it for you.” The slave spoke as if the words were being torn from him.
“No, I do not want wine or food or anything like that. I want to go outside. Help me.”
So Esca helped Marcus hobble down the stairs, and in their mutual eagerness they very nearly stumbled. They clung together in the dark, steadying one another and trying to be quiet, and Marcus could not understand the strange eager mood that had come over both of them. All he could think was hurry, hurry, hurry.
The full moon in the courtyard illuminated the peristylum and gardens in sharp silver light and sharper shadows. Ferox paced back and forth, twitching her tail—she looked like she was on full alert and ready for a fight, teeth bared in a snarl, but her ears lay back against her head. They could hear the howling slowly grow closer and when Ferox joined in, almost as a greeting, Marcus worried that Uncle Aquila would come down and complain to both of them about ruining an old man's sleep.
Then Esca dropped to his knees with a sob just as the most beautiful cream-colored wolf Marcus had ever seen leaped over the low stone wall. It was on the Briton in a flash, a frantic tumble in the dust, and for a moment the Roman feared he had just lost an excellent body slave. Then he realized that Esca was laughing, not crying, and the wolf was not tearing out his throat but merely licking and nipping at him, so happy that her whole body was wagging along with her tail.
Ferox gave Marcus a wry look. I can't believe you worried, Cub. Did you think I would let harm so much as come near you?
Of course not! But it's been a long time since I was so close to another wolf.
It's been a long time since any number of things for you. Are you ready for that to change?
Marcus started to reply but paused, mid-thought, as Esca's wolf abruptly turned in his direction. She padded over the dust silently until she was a body's length away from Ferox, then stopped and twitched her tail side to side in a gesture the Roman knew well. Time to establish dominance.
The wolves circled snout to snout, mouthing at each other and making the occasional low growl. Esca's wolf did not seem particularly inclined to simply roll over on her back and let Ferox have a shot at her belly, and Marcus knew with absolute confidence that Ferox would never allow that either. So perhaps it would come down to a fight after all. He sincerely hoped not, praying instead that the cream-colored wolf would be reasonable and see the natural order of things. But if she had not yet realized that the Brigante was a slave, and she felt it necessary to defend his honor, the moonlit greeting could quickly turn tragic.
In a flash Ferox lunged at the cream wolf and they tumbled over, snarling and squabbling for position. While the two struggled in the dirt Marcus and Esca glanced at each other across the bodies of their respective mates. Marcus was shocked to see something like hope on his slave's face—surely Esca didn't think his wolf would win the fight, did he?—and then it was over. Ferox and the cream wolf were back on their feet, circling each other and rubbing noses.
Marcus' jaw sagged. The wolves had declared a draw.
The cream wolf trotted over to Marcus while the Roman stood patiently and allowed himself to be sniffed. When she had familiarize herself with his scent, Esca introduced his mate to his master. He looked less like a slave and more like a warrior than Marcus had ever seen before.
“This is Bródúil, which means proud in our language. She's been with me for six years now, although I haven't seen her for nearly two. Sorry about the fight ... she can be a bit, ah, protective of me at times, and very alpha.”
“I can't say I'm surprised,” Marcus grinned weakly. He could already feel things begin to shift. “And Ferox is friendly, at least for the moment, but I'm not sure just how awkward this will make things between us.”
His voice trailed off as he caught Ferox looking at him, her head cocked to one side. Then he glanced back to Esca standing so proudly in the moonlight. There would be no more weeping in the hallway after this. Nor, Marcus suspected, would there be much more of the “yes domine, no domine” he had come to rely so deeply on. But the thought of losing Esca altogether made his heart ache yet again; maybe a better option still lay open to them. He squared his shoulders.
“Still, I'm ready for a change if you are. It's been a long time since I've been anything other than alpha, but let it never be said that a Roman can't learn from his mate.”
Esca smiled, the friendliest the Brigante had ever been towards his master. “It's been a long time since I've been anything other than bottom of the pack. If you like, we could start with being friends and see how that fits.”
“I think it will fit just fine.”