They had built the farm from wild meadows and forest, and the house from sticks and mud. Although the soil was fertile it took a good deal of work to turn it into crops and grazing-land, and to turn sticks and mud into walls and a hearth, with a roof of thatch; that was their first year. To save their coin, they hired only a few men from Regnum, and did most of the work themselves. Esca did not mind the work, and it surprised him how much Marcus seemed to relish the hard physical labour, getting his hands deep into the rich soil, grunting as he cleared rocks from the fields or urged the plough-ox to a straight line. Nor did Cottia complain of the mud on her sandals or the calluses forming on her white hands, and by winter she was baking bread as good as any they had eaten in Calleva.
It was a hard year, but the hardships were divided and shared. The companionship they had built all three together in Uncle Aquila's garden grew along with the farmstead, and in the following year their labours began to bear fruit. Grapevines grew strong on the terraces they had cut into the south-facing slope. The cattle had calves by their sides. The sheep bore fine wool that Cottia spun into yarn and wove into cloth; the crab-apples had blossomed, and in the fields the grain-tips were thick with seed, promising a bountiful late summer harvest. Cottia had blossomed as well, though her fruit would not arrive until near winter.
Esca was pleased with the farm, how it flourished. It was somehow easier to work hard when one saw immediate results: a ploughed field was still just a field of dirt, but small plants grew into bigger plants, and the placidly grazing cows would yield milk and calves. The life-giving rains of spring gave way to fine summer weather. The birds called to one another cheerfully, and chamomile and bird-cherry blossoms scented the air with their fragrances.
Everything was in harmony; everything, Esca thought, except for Marcus. In the past month Marcus had fallen quiet. He said little to Cottia and less to Esca, and it seemed he became more silent and sullen with every passing day.
Esca could not remember how it had begun, this silence. One day they were side-by-side, planting hawthorn for the hedgerows or tending the cattle in companionable accord, and the next, Marcus was making excuses to be anywhere other than where Esca worked. Marcus would not even look at him, not for long. His gaze would land on Esca's collarbone, or his ear, and then slide off toward the ground, and he would turn away, muttering excuses and inventing chores that took him elsewhere.
Cottia had apparently noticed it as well, for one morning after Marcus rose abruptly from the table and headed out to the fields she touched Esca on the arm before he could follow. "What is it that you and Marcus are quarrelling over?"
He shrugged. "He has not yet told me."
"I wish you two would make amends, whatever it is. When you are cross with each other I cannot bear it." She rose, gestured for him to do likewise. "Come, help me put things to rights and clean the dishes."
He stood and followed her, carrying the empty dishes. "Should we find a girl to help you in the house?"
"Do not be silly. My time is many months away, and I have no trouble doing my work." She smoothed a hand across her belly, which to Esca seemed to be no bigger than it had been before, and smiled. It was a proud and self-satisfied smile. Esca felt a tiny and familiar pang of jealousy, one that he immediately suppressed lest it show on his face. Cottia was Marcus's wife. That was the way of men, to marry women who bore them children. He could not begrudge Cottia this.
"Besides," she continued teasingly, "I will have a girl to help me in the house. Although it will be some years before she is much help."
He relaxed; this was their old joke together, a refrain they had repeated many times over the past few months. "No, you will have a boy, and he will help Marcus in the fields, and I will go to Hibernia and become a fisherman."
But Cottia did not laugh as she usually did when he said this. Instead she frowned. A strand of red hair had escaped her braid, and she pushed it back from her face, behind her ear. "Would you really go to Hibernia?"
"Of course not. My place is here."
She took the dishes from his hands and placed them into the washing-trough just outside the door, then poured water over them. "With Marcus."
"And with you."
"Dear Esca," she said warmly. "You are my favourite brother, even if you are not truly my brother."
"That is good to know." He smiled at her, but her face remained grave. Perhaps she was thinking of her true brother, who had remained with her mother and her new husband when Cottia had been sent to her aunt and uncle in Calleva; as lost to her as Esca's own brother was lost to him. But he had long thought of her as sister, and she had often called him brother. It was not just shared blood that built a family.
"Come and sit with me," she said, putting her hand in his, and they walked out into grass that was still wet with dew, among the campion and buttercups that dotted the hillside that sloped gently to their grazing-fields. She sat on a felled log that they used as a bench, heedless of the damp, and drew him beside her. She took a deep breath. "I do not think Marcus knows that you do not intend to go to Hibernia."
"It is just a joke," Esca protested.
"I envied you at first," Cottia continued quietly, as though he had not spoken. "Sometimes I still do, a little. You and Marcus went together north of the wall, and I?" She gave a short, sharp laugh. "I went to Aquae Sulis and bathed in pleasant waters while you fought shoulder to shoulder for each other's life."
There was nothing he could say to that. She was Marcus's wife. What more was there?
Her voice softened. "I am happy that we are together here. But I also feel sad for you, for what you do not have. For what you want in your heart."
Esca's mouth went dry. Cottia was not looking at him. She was looking across toward the cows that were eating the lush grass that grew thickly in the meadow. Marcus was not there; perhaps he was in the barn, or by the woods.
"How do you know," said Esca carefully, "what it is that I want." Even this much was not easy to say. What he wanted he kept buried deeply; deeply enough, he had thought – he had hoped – that Marcus and Cottia would never know. Deeply enough that he could go about his life without thinking of it, for once these thoughts were brought to the surface they would not so easily be pushed back into hiding.
And now with her frank and easy manner, Cottia had pulled his desires from his heart and laid them on the ground.
Did she truly know, or did she only guess? At that moment there were many things he wanted, and all warred in his breast like a tangle of vines. He wanted to grab Cottia by the shoulders, shake her hard enough that her hair would come loose from its braid. He wanted to bury his face in her neck, on her breast, and let her soothe him like a babe. He wanted to run, to flee the farm and Cottia and Marcus. He studied the ground at their feet. Perhaps he would be asked go to Hibernia after all.
"Dear Esca," she said again. Her voice was still soft, but there was a raw note in it, as though she might be on the edge of tears. "I know. My eyes have seen how you look at him. My heart knows that look."
And that was it; she knew. The bread he had eaten turned to stones in his gut. He suspected, suddenly, that she had always known. Even as the three of them had sat together in the garden in Calleva, even before he and Marcus had gone north of the wall, she had known; hadn't she known, before it had happened, that Marcus would receive the land and sesterces? One could hide nothing from a red-haired woman of the Iceni. Not even the secrets kept deep in one's heart.
"You will not tell him," he said slowly.
"I will not. But you must."
His breath caught in his throat. She could not mean it. "He will not hear it. He will not…" He will not want me. Those were not words he could say out loud.
"He will," she said fiercely, and her hand caught Esca's. Surprised, he looked up. She was still staring straight ahead, at the cows, or perhaps not at the cows. Her lips were a tight, thin line and her eyes glistened, but he knew she would not allow tears to fall. "I know his heart, even if he has not let himself believe what it tells him. You are everything to him."
"Oh, Cottia." He squeezed her hand gently. His heart constricted in his chest. Truly she was a sister to him, and he would not bring her grief. "He has chosen you. I – I am content."
She exhaled, and turned to him, and the tight line of her lips softened. The glistening in her eyes was not that of tears, he saw; or if they were tears, they were not of sadness but of some other undefinable emotion. "You are not content, and neither am I. And neither is Marcus, which is why he has been so cross of late." Then she looked back toward the cows, toward the distant barn. "I believe there is sufficient love in his heart for both of us."
"Cottia," Esca began, but she pulled him to his feet, gave him a gentle shove in the direction of the barn.
"Go now and claim your share, Esca," she said; and Esca went.
He followed his ears and found Marcus on the far side of the barn. He was splitting wood, stripped to the waist, so intent on his work that he did not see Esca at first. Marcus's finely-muscled shoulders gleamed with a light sheen of sweat. The summer sun had deepened the shade of his skin, as though it remembered his birthplace in the south. The muscles in his arms flexed as he raised the axe high, paused, then slashed it down through the air and into the wood with a swift, precise movement. The wood splintered into pieces, two small and one large; he set the large one upright again, and again the axe came down.
It was a good task for venting one's anger, Esca knew. Although Marcus did not look angry. His mouth was set in a grim line, but it was often thus when he concentrated on a task. In any event he was not a man who would thrash about with an axe. The axe went up, the axe came down, smooth and controlled.
Esca waited until Marcus had stacked the cut pieces onto the neat pile beside him before he spoke. "I think you have killed that one dead."
Marcus looked up then, and the edge of his lip quirked a little but he did not smile. Last month he would have smiled, thought Esca.
"What is it?"
"I have it in my mind to speak with you."
Marcus leaned on the axe. "So. Speak." He had a wary look, as though he were not entirely certain he wished to hear what Esca had to say. For his own part, Esca wondered briefly if perhaps he should speak with Marcus some other time. Maybe when he did not have an axe in his hands.
But they were both here now, and Cottia was right that something had to be said. So. "I wanted to tell you that I have made a decision. For when the child comes. I have decided not to go to Hibernia."
Marcus was already turning back to the woodpile to select another log. "I thought as much. You may take – wait," he said, turning back to Esca, frowning. "Did you say you were not going to Hibernia?"
"That is what I said."
Marcus held himself very still. His face went carefully neutral, his expression erased like smoothed-out words on a wax tablet. "Ah," he said. "So where have you decided to go, then?"
Esca shook his head, exasperated. At least in this Cottia had been right. He should have known. "I am not going anywhere. I am staying here."
The blank tablet that was Marcus's face shifted, then shifted again, as though the scribe could not decide which emotion to set upon it. Finally he leaned back against the barn wall and reversed the axe in his hands so that he might examine the axe-head. "You are a citizen of Rome," he said, not looking at Esca. "You are no longer bound to me."
"I have been a citizen for two years, and still I am here. I am not staying because I am bound." He frowned. "Is it your wish that I go?"
"No, of course not. It is only that – well, you could work your own land."
"The work goes faster with three pairs of hands. And soon we shall take on more. I would not start again alone."
"Not alone, perhaps," said Marcus. He was still looking at the axe-head, turning it in his hands. He tested its sharpness with a finger. "You might marry," he said softly. "Do you not wish for your own family?"
And there it was, thought Esca. It felt to him as though his heart missed a beat. He remembered the joy that had lit Marcus's face when Cottia had told them she was carrying his child. Esca himself had been delighted as it meant that the farm would live on after them, tended by Marcus's children and their children and theirs, into the unknowable years ahead. The work he had done, that all of them had done, would live on. It had bound them all more closely, at least for a time.
He knew he would love Marcus's children just as Marcus's Uncle Aquila so clearly loved his nephew. He did not need sons of his body. He would have sons of his heart.
"It is not in my mind to marry," said Esca. "You are my family. Cottia is as a sister to me, and I will be uncle to the babe."
"And I?" Marcus said. Finally he looked up from the axe. His words sounded light, as though he did not care much what the answer might be, but his eyes met Esca's with an intensity so deep and clear that Esca thought he might drown in them. "What am I to you?"
Cottia's words came back to him then, and he took two steps, crossing the narrow distance that separated them so that they stood toe to toe, inches apart. Marcus did not move away and did not break his gaze. Heat rose from his bare chest. Esca inhaled his scent, the clean sweat of hard physical labour.
"You are everything to me," said Esca simply.
The axe trembled in Marcus's hands. He turned away from Esca and carefully placed it so that it leaned against the barn wall. "I can not ask you for anything," he whispered to the whitewashed wattle and daub.
"Then I will ask you."
"I can not give you anything." He sounded miserable.
"Cottia said –" started Esca, and he did not get the chance to finish, for Marcus whirled around to pierce him with a stare.
"Cottia, yes, and I will keep my promises to her," he ground out. "And you will not ask me to break them."
"You promised her you would be a good husband," Esca said. "I know, for I was there when you said it. I would not have you do otherwise." He took another step. Marcus's back was to the wall of the barn, and he was breathing hard, like a wild, cornered animal. Esca gentled his voice, as though he were coaxing a skittish horse. "Nor would she. And I am certain she would know if you did."
He was rewarded with a scrap of smile that flitted briefly across Marcus's lips. "She would, yes."
"There is much she knows that nobody has told her."
"That I believe as well."
"She knows me," Esca said. He hesitated. It was hard to say the words. "She knows the secrets of my heart."
Marcus went perfectly still. Even his chest stopped rising and falling, although Esca imagined he could hear his heart beating in the silence. Is he thinking of my secrets, he wondered, or of his own?
Finally Marcus exhaled. "What did she say?"
That she loves you, thought Esca. That I love you. There is sufficient love in his heart for both of us, she had said, but what she had meant, he realised with a sudden rush of gratitude for a boon undeserved, was that there was enough love in her own.
"She told me to find you here," Esca said. He was looking intently at Marcus, holding his gaze, willing him to understand; and so he saw the exact moment that the look in his eyes changed from wariness to hope to belief.
"You have found me," said Marcus softly. He reached out and clasped Esca on the upper arm and pulled him into an embrace. It was a brotherly embrace, at first; and perhaps that was all that Marcus had intended. But Esca had come too far and said too much, had seen the look in Marcus's eyes and heard the catch in his voice when he had said he could not give Esca anything.
If Marcus could not give, Esca would take.
The first thing he took was the space between them, moving forward to erase the final inches of air that separated their bodies. Then he slid a hand behind Marcus's neck, tilted his head, and took his mouth in a kiss. It was only a gentle press of lips, that first kiss, but he felt the beat of Marcus's heart against his own chest and the tentative slide of Marcus's hands along his arms to his shoulders and then down his back, and he knew his own heart was thrumming faster, his blood rushing through his veins.
He had dreamed of this moment forever; for centuries, it seemed, for millennia. He did not remember if it had begun when their eyes met in the arena that very first time – his heart pounding in mortal fear, the Fisher looming above him – but if it had not, it had certainly begun when he was told he had been purchased as a body-slave. He had remembered the young Centurion who had first signalled for his life, wondered if it had been that man who had bought him. He had hoped it was that man. It would not be so bad being used by such a one, he had thought.
But of course Marcus, being Marcus, did not use him; instead they became friends. An unhoped-for miracle, to have become friends with one's master; and yet it put certain things out of reach, for though Esca might have approached a friend among his own people, Romans saw things in a different light. It did not stop him from looking at Marcus, however, and sometimes it seemed to him that Marcus looked back.
He had wanted it, and he had dreamed of it, but he had not allowed himself any expectations; he had not lied to Cottia: he was content. Or rather, he had been content, for now that Marcus was in his arms it was not a thing he would give up willingly.
The second kiss was deeper. Esca was hard and wanting, after nothing but his dreams and his own hand for so long, and he did not care if Marcus – no, he wanted Marcus to know, and so he pressed his body against Marcus's, holding him to the wall.
Marcus gasped into his mouth, then pushed forward, kissing him frantically, as though he were dying of thirst and Esca was a cool spring. His hands tightened on Esca's hips and they swayed together against the wall; he swung Esca around to reverse their positions, and Esca's arm knocked against the axe, sending it crashing to the ground, and it must have startled Marcus, for he jumped away as though a bee had stung him.
"Esca," he panted. His eyes were wide and his mouth reddened from their kiss. "We can not –"
"Do not tell me we can not," pleaded Esca, reaching out once more, and to his surprise, Marcus laughed.
"I only mean we can – no, we should not do this out here in the open."
"It is a fine day, and there is nobody about," said Esca, but nonetheless he took Marcus by the hand and drew him into the barn. "In any event it will be more comfortable here." He settled himself on a bed of clean straw and tugged on Marcus's hand.
"It will itch," Marcus observed, but he let Esca pull him down.
Esca grinned at him. "I do not think you will notice."
It was his intention that Marcus not notice anything but him. To that end he began by laying small kisses across his bare torso, light, quick kisses, like the landing of butterflies. He was rewarded with sighs, and with hands plucking at his clothes and at his hair, and with an obvious bulge under Marcus's braccae.
The drawstring did not stop him for long. His hands slipped beneath the cloth, pushing it away so that his mouth might follow, down the fine hairs below Marcus's navel, down across the plane of his sharp hip-bone, down…
"Esca!" Marcus sounded both aroused and scandalized in equal measure. His hand fluttered over Esca's shoulder as though he was not sure whether he wanted to draw him back, or press him further.
"You do not like this?" Esca murmured, his lips deliberately close against the sharp-scented patch of dark hair, and Marcus shivered beneath him.
"It is not that I do not like it," started Marcus, and Esca finished for him:
"It is that it is not a Roman thing to do. And you are so very Roman. Why, you would never do as the barbarians and wear only braccae and no proper tunic to labour in the fields."
"That is different! It is practical."
"And this is practical, as well. It will give you ease, and give me joy." He lifted his head to look at Marcus, who was propped up on his elbows in the straw, apprehension still showing on his features.
"I would not ask you to do such a thing," Marcus said uncertainly.
Understanding dawned. "I do not ask for this from you. But freely I give it, so will you allow me?" With Marcus's eyes still on him, he dipped his head and drew a slow stripe with his tongue from root to tip.
Marcus shuddered and slumped back into the straw. "You will kill me."
"It will be a pleasant death," Esca promised gravely. He bent again to take Marcus in his mouth. It was a thing he had imagined many times in secret. His hands stroked along Marcus's thighs, and Marcus reached down and grasped one of his hands, holding his fingers tightly as Esca brought him to his release.
Afterward Esca lay in the straw, his braccae unlaced and his tunic rucked up, his back nestled into the curve of Marcus's solid, warm body. Marcus rested his chin against Esca's shoulder as his hand played lazily across Esca's skin.
"Touch me," Esca begged; he wriggled hopefully, trying to bring more of his flesh in contact with Marcus's palm.
"I am touching you," Marcus reproved him. A finger skated lower, then retreated. "You brought this upon yourself, you know."
Esca did not quite agree; to his mind it was all the fault of Marcus, whose ecstasy had been so arousing that he had not been able to stay his own climax past the first touch of Marcus's fingers on his skin. But he was not foolish enough to voice these thoughts; not while Marcus, who had seen his obvious dismay, was kissing his neck, stroking him gently, and whispering soft things into his ear. It had not taken long before he was hard again, pushing with desperation into Marcus's hand.
Now Marcus was taking what to Esca's mind was unseemly delight in teasing him, in moving away just as he pushed forward, in granting only the lightest of touches where he would as soon be grasped with a firm hand. His breath gusted warm against Esca's neck, sending prickles down his spine. His tongue darted out to lick an earlobe.
"Marcus, ah, take pity on me!"
"Shall I stop, then?" said Marcus, his voice low and amused, but as he spoke he wrapped his warm hand around Esca's prick, and Esca gasped. "I do not think you want me to stop."
He did not stop, for which Esca was fervently grateful.
"Come, my lazy friend. There is work to be done."
The words were murmured sweetly into his ear and accompanied by a slight shake from the hand on his shoulder. With reluctance, Esca opened his eyes and rose to his feet, brushing the straw from his hair and setting his clothing to rights. Beside him he could feel Marcus doing the same.
They loaded the wood into the hand-cart and took it up to the house. They did not speak, but they had fallen into their old comfortable way of working together, and that was good. They would have to work together, anyway, as their coin was sufficient only to hire workers to help at the most important times, for harvest and for planting. If they had a good year, and there was every sign it would be a good year, after the harvest and the fallow winter they could hire workers to plant and tend yet more fields and stock. Eventually they would need to build another house for the freemen they took on; at any rate, soon they must add to their own house, for Cottia's babe and the girl they would hire to help when her time came.
"Perhaps when we extend the house into a proper Roman house we should make a hypocaust, as Uncle Aquila has in his villa," said Marcus as they began stacking the new-cut wood on the woodpile.
Esca nodded; their thoughts had been moving together along the same track. "Shall we build from stone, do you think?"
"Yes, with a roof of red tile."
They fell to discussing the possibilities as they worked, and did not notice that they were no longer alone until Cottia's amused voice broke in: "I see you have patched your quarrel."
Startled, their words trailed off into silence as they turned to her. She was carrying a bucket, evidently on her way to the nearby spring that was the reason they had sited the house in that particular spot, and she was smiling warmly at them; Esca felt a pang of guilt despite the words she had said earlier. For his part Marcus had schooled his features into the blank wax tablet. A sudden despair gripped Esca. Already he regrets what we have done together, he thought, and despite the warm day he felt a sudden chill.
She frowned. "You have patched your quarrel, have you not?" It was Esca she looked at.
"He knows I shall not take myself off to Hibernia," he replied, trying to make the words sound light as air. He knows my heart and my body, he did not say.
"I hope that is not all he knows," she said softly.
He could not keep anything from her. She was a red-haired woman of the Iceni.
"And you, Cottia? What is it that you know?" Marcus rasped. His face still had no expression, but his eyes burned like fire.
She placed the bucket on the ground, then reached out and took hold of Marcus's hand. "I know that you are mine," she said, and Esca felt his heart plummet to the earth. But then she turned to him and held out her other hand. "And I know too that you are also Esca's. But as he is my brother, so he is mine as well."
Esca placed his hand in hers, feeling as though he stood in a dream, despite the bright sun shining down on them and the birds singing from the trees. They stood there the three of them, hands interlocked. Marcus's face was no longer the blank tablet, his gaze no longer aflame; his lips were curved in a smile, and a quiet and deep happiness shone from his eyes.
"So together we shall work and together live. And the gods grant that we be content," Cottia said.
"I am indeed content," said Marcus, "for I have the best woman in Britain to wife." He raised his hand to brush her cheek gently with his fingers, and she smiled.
I am content for the same reason, thought Esca. She had given them a gift beyond measure. But he only said, "I am content that I do not have to go to Hibernia. I am not very skilled at fishing."
"And I will be content," Cottia said, dropping their hands and bending to take up the bucket once more, "if the men on my farm see to their work, for the cows will not do it for them."
"We shall obey, Domina," said Marcus.
Esca grinned. "We always do."
"Then we shall always be in perfect accord," said Cottia with a smile, and she nodded to them and went off toward the spring, leaving them with the woodpile.
When they had finished stacking the wood, Marcus took hold of the empty hand-cart and started back down to the fields. Silently Esca cast his thoughts in the direction of the gods. Grant that we all be content, he whispered to the air; then he followed Marcus toward the fields, to finish the morning's work.