He is fortunate, Marcus will think to himself later, that he remembers very little of what happened at Isca Dumnoniorum after the chariot fell on him. There is a great crash, a splintering of wood, the neighing of frightened, dying horses. The bright pain runs through him, red and hot and white and red again. He clings to the feeling while Cradoc, thrown in front of him, breathes out his own life but a few feet away. They will die as enemies together, Marcus thinks. Then there is nothing.
But then there is something, and it is not the underworld of the dead, for that would surely hurt less. Someone is holding him down by the shoulders, someone else by the legs, and he struggles up against them as another hand pushes something heavy and solid against his mouth.
"Bite down, sir," a voice is telling him, in tones of urgency. The fort surgeon's voice. "We have to search the wound."
He cannot even bear to open his eyes, but he opens his mouth and lets the man press the stick between his lips. Marcus clenches his teeth, and it is all fire—
The next thing that is worth remembering is a ceiling. It is not that the ceiling itself is worth remembering; it is only ordinary plaster. But it is the first thing Marcus sees, when he opens his eyes and realizes it is a fine autumn day. The sky through the window is clear; the breeze is cool, but not cold. And most importantly, he is not in quite so much pain. His leg still hurts—there is no denying that. But now he can think again.
Marcus lifts his head and looks around the room. It is a bedroom, an ordinary enough one. The furnishings and wall-paintings are made with care, but not opulently so. He is lying, fully dressed, in a bed. His tunic is soaked through with sweat.
He wonders where he is.
A man enters, pushing the room's curtain aside. He is an older man in an equestrian's narrow-striped tunic, bearded, his hair gone white, with a face Marcus feels he ought to know. Certainly the man recognizes Marcus, for he smiles broadly when he sees Marcus looking at him. It is a warm, friendly smile, though a little uncertain.
"Excuse me." Marcus' voice rasps out of him, dry as the Egyptian desert. "Would you mind telling me where I am?"
The man's smile flickers for an instant with something like disappointment. "I had hoped you might remember. Well, you were not very awake yesterday when I told you the first time. Marcus, I'm Lucius, your father's brother."
The smile is kindly, and Marcus does remember the man now, though he was very small when they had first met, a long time ago. He relaxes. He will be safe here. Wherever here is.
"Of course." Marcus tries to nod as if he did remember all along. "And where are we?"
"My home." The man spreads his arms wide, indicating a building. "In Calleva Atrebatum."
Marcus gapes. "Calleva? But when— how—?"
He had not thought he had traveled so far—and if he was to be sent anywhere, why not to the colonia at Glevum? It would not have been too much farther, and surely with their army surgeons the care would be better than with the astrologers and itinerant medicine-sellers that a town like Calleva might have. There is something strange there, but already he is too tired to ponder it more.
"You have been ill a long while," his uncle says, very gently. "Don't concern yourself with these things, Marcus. Only rest."
He wants to protest, though his eyes are drifting shut already, and it is the easiest thing in the world to fall again into sleep.
The next time he awakens for a little longer, and an old Greek slave presses a drinking-cup into his shaking hands. Then longer, and longer still, until his world widens to encompass the whole of his uncle's house. It is a small household: there is his uncle, and the Greek slave is Stephanos. In the kitchen is Sassticca, and also about the house is another slave, Marcipor. He supposes his uncle has not felt the need for more, not even a hound to keep him company while he works on his writing.
Then, too, there is a world outside the house, as he discovers on the morning he is finally well enough to try leaving it for the first time. His uncle's house abuts the town's earthen walls, a long way from the public baths. Marcus sweats, pale-faced, with every step of the journey. He walks with a staff clutched in one hand and his other arm over Stephanos, and still he stumbles.
The strangers in the streets are not so rude as to stare; their eyes flick quickly past him, as if he were lame in the right leg and not the left. It is an honorable wound, he wants to say, honorably won in battle. By killing his only friend in Isca. He does not feel honored. Besides, with so many Britons here, it is likely they would take offense at how he won it.
Stephanos is sweating as well by the time they finally reach the baths, and they bypass the palaestra in favor of getting Marcus into the warm water—he is in no condition for games.
"Domine," Stephanos wheezes, as Marcus slides into the pool, "may I help you further?"
Marcus looks at him in blank incomprehension for long moments, and he finally realizes the man is exhausted. "You may join me, if you like; you are certainly tired yourself."
It is not as though Marcus is a small man, nor Stephanos a young one, after all, and he has already half-carried him across Calleva. As Stephanos sinks under the water next to him, Marcus wonders if his uncle will let him buy his own body-slave. He had never ranked high enough in the army to merit one, but now, perhaps, it is necessary. At least it would be someone to talk to.
That afternoon, Lutorius himself arrives, and Marcus finally understands why he was sent to his uncle's home in Calleva and not to any army detachment: they did not want him back.
He clutches the armlet and slides it around his wrist, up past the soldier's-mark on his hand, and through the tears he loses sight of it altogether. It is a bitter reward.
The days pass in a haze of gray despair. Sassticca urges food on him that he will not eat; he even sets aside her fine sweet honey-cakes after the first bite is ashes in his mouth. Stephanos, clearly having confused his pastimes with his uncle's, comes by with a latrunculi board, and Marcus winces and waves him away.
"Come now, Marcus," his uncle says, on the third or fourth day of Marcus hardly doing more than dragging himself out of his bedroom. "You cannot behave so."
Marcus wants to snap back at him with harsh words, but the man's tone is kind. His uncle cannot understand what it is like, he wants to say, now that he can never win back his name.
But then he remembers it is his uncle's name as well, and surely the man has had to live under the shadow of his brother's disgrace just as Marcus has done.
Marcus forces a smile. His uncle is the only family he has now, and let no one say that Marcus can bear any less than his uncle already has.
The next morning he gets up and limps to the forum, Stephanos again at his side. This is his life now. He will live this. He was honorably wounded in battle, he tells himself firmly. His scars are not shameful. He should be proud to bear them for Rome.
"A shave, please," he tells the barber, settling back as the man strops the blade.
"New here?" the man calls back over the sound of the scraping. "You are— no, wait, let me guess. With you bringing old Lucius Aquila's slave here, you must be one of his relatives. You have the look of him, too."
Marcus nods. "His nephew. Marcus Flavius." It is a little strange not to say he is centurion of the Fourth Cohort of Gauls, but it no longer sounds quite as ill to call himself a mere civilian as it had only a few days ago.
And the man turns, smiling, extending the hand that doesn't have a blade in it for a quick clasp of fingers. "And I am Quintus Durus, friend," the man says, as if he honestly means this kindness in his voice. "Be welcome to Calleva."
Marcus tilts his head back and smiles for what feels like the first time in months.
Truly, it is not so bad. It is not akin to being a soldier, of course, but in some ways it is like life in a garrison. Calleva is small, and as autumn passes into winter he comes to know the people who live in and make their way through the town. There are Tullia and Callidia who weave, Aper the fuller, and cheerful Gaius Canius the tanner. Enemnus, a man of the local Atrebates tribe, is a smith, and his brother Eppilus always challenges Marcus to ball-games in the baths. Marcus always declines, as his leg is in such a state still that he cannot bear even a short game.
When the days turn dark and short, a chill sets into Marcus' bones. It is far colder here than in Etruria, and the winter damp makes his wound twist in agony no matter now many blankets and furs he covers himself with in the night. Mist settles over the land, seeps through the trees, and watching it Marcus can begin to believe all the tales he has heard of this land. Lutorius' optio had told him once that unburied shades and all manner of unspeakable things walk the land here. The wind howls outside, and he shivers suddenly.
Oh, he is being silly, he tells himself. Britannia is a land like any other, and he has prayed, he has sacrificed, and if he has not met any strange creatures yet, may the gods grant that he never will.
Saturnalia seems to come upon them quickly that year, and it is a rare bright day when they make their way to the arena for the games.
"Don't get your hopes up," his uncle tells him, as Marcus is slowly eased down by Marcipor onto the seats.
It has been months since Isca, and he still needs almost-constant help. He clutches his seat-cushion until the pain subsides.
When Marcus manages to turn his head, he asks, "Why?"
His uncle shrugs. "It's never very exciting here. No fights to the death."
"Wouldn't want to waste the gladiators," Marcus agrees.
"Hardly any beasts, either," his uncle says, and as Marcus cranes his neck to look, he sees that, indeed, there are no cages full of bears or wolves for the usual fights. Now, that is strange.
"Is it always like that?"
His uncle squints in the sunlight and seems to think about it. "The last time I remember a beast-fight for Saturnalia was, oh, at least five years ago. Maybe longer."
One would think they'd be able to find wolves; surely there must be hunts here as there are everywhere else. It seems very odd, very curious indeed, Marcus thinks, but as the fights start he forgets all about it.
He concentrates on trying to see over the heads of the latecomers, a family moving in the row in front of him. The daughter, a red-headed girl of perhaps twelve or thirteen, seems unimpressed with the entire spectacle. They are Britons trying to be more Roman than Romans, or at least the parents are. He has seen them around the town, he thinks.
"Ah, Kaeso and Valaria," his uncle says, gesturing at the new arrivals, as down below them a net-fighter tangles his weapons with a swordsman. "I wasn't certain they'd come. They live next door, you know."
Marcus makes a polite noise, all his attention focused on the fight. The combatants are skilled; it is nothing like those mockeries when an untrained slave is sent against a gladiator. They fight smoothly, efficiently, almost as soldiers do. Marcus knows he will never hold a sword in battle again, and watching it fills him with a sad, strange longing.
The fights are captivating enough—though nothing like the extravagance of the games he saw once at Rome—but all they do is remind him of what he lacks, and even the feasting does not lift his mood.
Marcus' leg is not healing. Every day it aches worse, and eventually he can no longer ignore the truth: it was cleaned poorly, and he needs to have it opened again, that it might heal anew.
He is not nearly drunk enough when the surgeon Galarius straps him to the table.
He wishes they had a strong young slave for this, but they do not, and so Stephanos and his uncle together have to hold him down. His uncle does not care for blood, and his frightened, pale face is the last thing Marcus sees before consciousness escapes him and he falls once again into the pain.
It gets better after that. Oh, it hurts, of course it does, but this time Marcus is healing rightly, and he feels more and more capable every day. Not enough for the army, of course, but he is beginning to be able to walk without needing to be half-carried, and that is more than he has managed for months.
When it gets warmer, he likes to sit in the garden behind the house, feeling the feeble rays of sunshine against his face, and there he stretches with his leg out.
He almost doesn't notice the girl peering over the wall until the cloak falls back from her head. She is pale-skinned, and her hair a shock of red—clearly a Briton through and through.
"Hail," he says, warily, and then he remembers her: the girl from the arena at the Saturnalia games.
"It's a nice day, isn't it?" the girl replies, cheerfully, as if they know each other well. Children. It has been a while since he has talked to children. Are they all like this? "I'm Cottia. Who are you?"
"Marcus," he says. "Marcus Aquila."
She frowns, and from the motion of her eyes Marcus can tell she is staring at his leg, set awkwardly in front of him. "What happened to your leg? Did the gods curse you? What did you do?"
Marcus tries not to wince. Adults are usually too polite to ask, but there is something refreshing about the honesty. Refreshing, and also painful.
"I was a soldier." He does not even try her second question. "A chariot fell on my leg in battle, and now I live here, with my uncle."
Cottia's green eyes go wide, rounding in surprise. "A soldier! Where were you serving? Did you kill many men?" She sounds almost bloodthirsty, and Marcus half-smiles to see it. She is commanding already, this one, like one of the British warrior-women.
"I have killed some people, yes," Marcus admits, "and served here in Britannia and in Judaea."
"Here?" As quickly as she was astonished, so quickly too do her eyes narrow in suspicion.
"Yes, at Isca Dumnoniorum."
"Oh, that is all right, then," Cottia tells him, as though she needed to approve of his answer, "if you only killed Dumnonii and not Iceni. I am of the Iceni." Her voice is full of pride, so much for such a young girl: she practically puffs her chest out as she speaks.
"Are you? Iceni, not Atrebates?"
And to his astonishment, she is off, chattering about her parentage and the tribes and how she lives with her aunt and uncle here who are raising her as a Roman, and how she hates all of it, and when she is older she will surely go back to the Iceni.
"How long have you lived here?" Marcus asks.
"Oh, a very long time," she says, importantly. "Years." It is all a long time to her, at her age, he supposes, and he tries not to grin at her manner. "I know everyone in town now."
She opens her mouth to speak again, and just as Marcus thinks she is about to name everyone she knows, someone on her side of the wall calls indistinctly.
"I have to go," she says. "But I will come back tomorrow, and you can tell me about all of the exciting places you have been. You have hardly told me about any of them!" she accuses, seemingly unaware that she has done all the talking.
And just like that, she drops behind the wall and is gone.
There is another sound, then, this one in his own garden, and he turns to see his uncle making his way through the plants.
"I see you've met Cottia," his uncle says, smiling.
Marcus stares back, at a momentary loss for words. "Is she always like that?"
"I'm amazed she let you talk at all." His uncle chuckles. "Come, dinner is ready."
He offers Marcus a hand up, and with that and his staff Marcus pulls himself upright. They walk together through the garden, and already Marcus is feeling a little better. It is like having a friend again.
Cottia comes back the next day, and he tells her of his home in Etruria, the rolling hills and olive groves of his family's farm. The next day he describes the cities of Judaea, and the sea voyage he took to get there. He tells her about Rome; though he has not been there very many times, he hopes it sounds impressive in the telling.
Although it is not quite proper, she comes to visit when her relations can spare her, for it seems they are happy to have her out of the way—"Sassticca can watch over me!" she says, indignantly, mouth full of honey-cake. "I do not understand you Romans and your rules!"
It is not that Marcus has an interest in courting her, though he supposes she would not be too young for some men. She is merely a friend, as odd as it sounds.
Besides, he thinks, on one restless, sleepless night, the sort of night where all his cares trouble him anew, he is an invalided soldier—what would he have to offer a wife? And, he admits very quietly, in the privacy of his own thoughts, it is never women that he has liked best in his bed. And even that would be all right if the men he liked were slaves, but they never have been. Nor are his proclivities proper, and he does not need word spreading about what he might like to do with men, or rather, what he sometimes likes them to do to him. In a town as small as Calleva, he cannot very well even visit a brothel without half the populace knowing about it. If this were Rome, or Athens, or even Londinium, he might have a chance of blending into the crowd, of meeting a companion on the other side of the city, someone who would not know his name to tell it to everyone. But this is Calleva, and Marcus cannot disappear here. He knows everyone, and there is no one here for him.
At least he has a friend.
He teaches Cottia to play latrunculi, and it seems his uncle is happy to have someone else to play with, because Marcus has made his distaste for the game quite clear. He even teaches her the words to a few of the least obscene marching-songs, and then wishes he hadn't, for she sings them with great gusto every time she passes Marcus in the street with her family.
It is a strange life, Marcus thinks, but it is his now.
Even though one would ordinarily bring a slave to the markets and forum, Marcus is so pleased that he can finally walk unaided—well, with the aid of only a staff—that he eschews any assistance from Marcipor and Stephanos, and heads alone into the heart of the town. It was raining overnight, and this early in the morning the stones of the street are still puddled with water, slippery underfoot. He picks his way carefully down the road.
It promises to be a good day, Marcus thinks, satisfied. He will have a shave, and go to the baths. It is men's hours now and perhaps he will finally take up Eppilus' perennial offer of handball—
And he is face down on the stones, suddenly, sprawled in the water and mud. His staff flies out of his hand; he has fallen. An attack, part of him thinks, but then sense floods his mind. No, he was only run into. That man there, picking himself up, was running and did not see him.
Marcus fumbles for his staff and pulls himself slowly, painfully to his feet, while the other man picks up a scattered bundle of heavy furs, sodden now.
He waits for an apology, for of course it was the man's fault. The man was not paying attention; perhaps he was moving too quickly with his burden.
The man turns and glares. He is British; that much is clear from his pale face and eyes, his bright hair. He has sharp, pointed features, and though he is small for a Briton, he draws himself up with pride as though he is one of their clan-chieftains. He is a man who gives an order and expects it obeyed, a man who is secure in his place. He is no traveler passing through town, Marcus knows, and yet he has never seen him before.
And the man is still scowling. His gaze drifts over Marcus, and his eyes narrow as he sees the old soldier's-mark on Marcus' hand.
"Watch where you're going, soldier," he snaps, in good, though accented, Latin.
Marcus clings to his staff and stares, struck dumb by the sheer audacity of the Briton. Something about him reminds Marcus of Cradoc, although he cannot say exactly what it might be.
"I am a soldier no longer," he manages, finally, thoughts of apologies driven out of his mind. Can the man not see his wound? "Or do you think I can serve with a leg like this?"
The man gives an exaggerated shrug, gathering all his furs in his arms. "I care not what you are now, as long as you stay out of my way." His eyes are cold, gray like clouded ice, but there is a kind of grief in them too, one that perplexes Marcus.
And with that he is gone, stalking down the street, before Marcus can even formulate some sort of reply.
He wants to know more: how is it that the man acted so to him? Why was he cruel? And why the strange sadness?
It is no matter, he tells himself. Even with the arrogance, the man was most likely a visitor, someone who will leave again tomorrow. He means nothing.
And yet, when he is seated in Durus' chair, it is the first question from his lips. It is only natural that he should explain, of course. He did walk in covered in mud and dirt.
"Not a good morning, is it?" Durus asks, eyeing his clothing, as Marcus settles down.
Marcus thinks about it. "A strange morning. I was knocked down by a man in the street. A stranger to me, but he acted as though he lived here—"
Durus hmphs. "Briton or Roman?"
"Briton," Marcus says. "A short man, about my age, light-eyed, light-haired. Thin. Wiry." He frowns. "Angry. Was carrying a bundle of furs."
And Durus starts to laugh. "So you've met Esca, eh?"
Then he does live here. "He seemed very... peculiar." He does not mean for his tone to sound that inquisitive, but somehow it must, for Durus gives him an odd look.
"A piece of advice." Durus claps him on the shoulder, then leans forward and begins shaving him. "Esca isn't anyone's friend. There's no use in getting to know him. They say— well, never mind what they say."
From somewhere behind him, waiting his turn, Enemnus snorts derision. "Don't be silly, Durus! The boy's not a threat!" Enemnus hmphs. "You Romans."
A threat? Why would he be a threat? But Durus is scraping the blade across his chin, and so Marcus cannot very well ask now. Durus seems to ignore Enemnus' remark, at any rate.
"Stay away from him," Durus admonishes Marcus, "and he'll stay away from you. It's better that way." He aims a glare over Marcus' head at Enemnus as he says it.
Marcus doesn't know why hearing that should make him sad.
For the rest of the day, Esca lingers in his mind. There was something odd about him, something very odd indeed, in the way he acted, in the way the barber would not talk about him. Despite the warnings, Marcus wants to know more. He needs to find someone who will tell him, frankly, whatever it is that is plagues this man Esca, without any nicety or artifice in the relation of the news.
In the afternoon, it occurs to him that he knows exactly who to ask.
"A piece of cheese-cake," Marcus promises, hoping he can suggest to his uncle that savillum would be an excellent dessert this evening, "if you will answer a question."
Cottia boosts herself up a little higher on her side of the wall, and Marcus watches as her eyes narrow, shrewdly, as she figures out this is something he very much wants to know. Perhaps she is considering asking for two.
"Of course, with honey and poppy-seeds." He can be extravagant. He wonders if they have seeds in the house.
She frowns. "I don't like poppy-seeds."
"A piece without, then," he replies, "in exchange for an answer."
Cottia's nod is a firm, decisive jerk of her chin. "All right."
Marcus smiles, hoping he looks persuasive. "Tell me about Esca."
"Esca?" She blinks a few times in incomprehension before her face brightens. "Oh! You mean the hunter!"
A hunter? That would explain the bundle of furs. "Yes," Marcus says, "I suppose I mean him, though I did not know he was a hunter. Is he of your tribe?"
Cottia makes an appalled face. "Certainly not! And," she adds, "he is not Atrebates either."
Curious. Very curious, indeed. "What tribe is he?"
She shrugs. "One of the northern ones; can you not tell from his accent? Brigantes, I think. I do not know much about him."
"What do you know?"
"The same things everyone else knows," she says, giving another shrug. "He has lived here several years, but I was too little to remember when he came. He lives alone outside town, and comes every so often to bring furs and game he has caught, and trade with the merchants. He keeps to himself, so I do not know much more."
"That's it?" He cannot help but feel disappointed, though, if that is all she knows, there is nothing to be done. Perhaps he will see if he can buy her a piece of cake at the market tomorrow. After all, she did know a few things.
"Well." Cottia draws out the word, looking pleased with herself. "There are the rumors, of course, but they are only rumors, and you are Roman, so I do not know if you want me to tell you—"
Rumors? Marcus jumps on the idea. Finally, an explanation! "Yes, please," he says, fervently, and he does not care that she looks a little askance at his enthusiasm. "I want to know everything. What do they say about him?"
"Oh, they say he is a skin-changer," Cottia says, in that careful way that suggests she means it to sound off-handed, but secretly relishes the tale. "But that cannot possibly be true."
Of course it cannot. It would be... unlikely. Though there are, naturally, stories of the gods changing men into animals, cursing them for their hubris. And everyone knows someone who swears that his companion, on a darkened road, became some ravenous creature, and later that night a wolf savaged the village, but in the morning there was only a man with the same wounds as the animal—
But those are stories, of course. They are meant to entertain guests at dinner-parties. That is not to say they are not true, but he has never seen such a thing with his own eyes.
"Because he is too mean to be a skin-changer," Cottia continues. "Esca is not kind to children, or to lost or wounded men, like in the tales. He is not friendly to anyone at all. He is angry and sad and keeps to himself. So I do not think the rumors are true."
Marcus stares in astonishment. "Are you sure you have the right word? A man who turns himself into a beast, like a wolf?"
"A wolf, exactly!" Cottia beams at him. "You understand quickly, for a Roman."
"But skin-changers are wild beasts." He struggles to explain this to the girl. No doubt she is confused. "They are cursed by the gods, vicious, and violent—"
Cottia is shaking her head. "Perhaps they act so in Rome, but those are not our skin-changers." She smiles. "You will see, if you happen to meet one."
"Like Esca?" Marcus asks, weakly.
"Not Esca." She is still shaking her head. "Have you not met him? He cannot be one. He is not nice at all."
Marcus gives up trying to understand, and only nods in reply. "I— thank you for telling me," he says, feeling as though someone else is saying it. A skin-changer?
Cottia leans over the wall and pats his arm, awkwardly. It is strange that a thirteen-year-old girl is comforting him, but somehow he needs the comfort. "You will get used to it," she assures him. "It is easier here. I can tell you more tomorrow when you bring cake!" she concludes, jumping down off the wall and running back inside.
Marcus sits in the garden a long time, considering the impossibility of it all. Britannia is a very strange land.
It is the purest coincidence, several days later, when he spies Esca in the markets at the forum. Esca is no longer carrying his bundle of furs, but if he is shopping he does not seem to have started yet. It is a cold day, and he pulls a worn cloak tightly around himself. He is hardly dressed like the best of Britons, for he is wearing dull dark braccae and a sleeved tunic that has seen better days. He is a man like any other. He cannot be a skin-changer. The very idea is ridiculous.
"Esca!" Marcus calls out, when he is near to him. After the name has left his lips, he wonders why he has said it at all.
In the midst of the crowd, Esca freezes, and his eyes flick back and forth as he looks for the source of the sound. Then he sees Marcus.
And here Marcus had thought Esca might not remember him; they are only strangers, after all.
"Hail," Marcus says, as politely as possible.
Esca stalks closer, seething. "I see you learned my name. What do you want from me?"
Marcus wishes he knew. He only... wants to see him again. But he cannot very well say that. "I wanted to apologize for my behavior the other day," he tries. "I realize I was rude to you, and no doubt sullied your wares. I would repay you, or perhaps buy you a drink—"
But Esca cuts him off. "I want nothing to do with you, soldier."
"Because I was a soldier?" Marcus presses him.
Esca just glares, his mouth a hard line. "Does it matter? I do not desire your money, and I shall not be your friend. I need no help. I am sure if you have learned my name others have told you that much about me. Leave me alone."
"Please—" Marcus starts.
But Esca is gone.
Sleepless that night, Marcus thinks about Esca. It is not the usual sort of fantasy he has at these times—though he does find Esca strangely compelling, he feels a distaste at the idea of pleasuring himself to thoughts of a man who would hate him still more if he knew about it.
Mostly he wonders why. Why Esca hates him. Why Esca hates everyone. Why Marcus even cares. He shouldn't worry so; he should not even concern himself. He has no reason to, for Esca is a stranger, and already victim to unfortunate rumors—he does not need nor want Marcus' unwelcome presence. And yet he cannot keep his mind away from the man.
It is strange, all of it. Are the Fates saying that his life is writ so, that it should include this man? If they are, why does Esca want nothing to do with him? Perhaps, if they share a destiny, the other is fighting it. But why? It will make sense later, Marcus tells himself. It must. He will pray, he will sacrifice, he will hope for some sort of sign.
The next day, the haruspex stares at the sheep's liver for a very long time and then thanks him for his generous donation to Juno Moneta.
"You cannot tell me of my future? What more I should do to please the gods? Whether things will be well for me?" Marcus asks, anxious, for the man has said nothing.
The haruspex looks up at him and makes a face. "I— you said you were not a farmer?"
"Not a farmer," Marcus repeats. "Not yet, at least." It is one of the careers he has considered, if his leg heals well enough. Perhaps farming would be suitable.
"Usually I would tell a farming man that the wolves were after his sheep," the man says, frowning in concentration, "and if he might give more to the goddess she would aid him—"
The wolves? "What about wolves?"
"I am not certain what to make of it," the man replies, his face tense with frustration. "It is as it might be for an ill-favored farmer, and usually in such cases it is wolves he should beware, but the entire haruspicy is a positive thing. Not to be feared. You might wish to inquire of a priest of Mars or Apollo, of course."
Wolves, wolves everywhere. What is it to him if they are Mars' animals? He was a soldier, true, but he swore more to Mithras than Mars, and neither god protected him in his need. Will he be called on as a soldier again? He does not know, and the priests clearly cannot help him either.
He is beginning to wish he had not asked Cottia anything. It would be easier if he had never learned anything of the local wolf-tales.
He prays. He offers. He prays. And none of it drives Esca out of his head, for all that he has only seen the man twice. Whatever the Fates have in store for him, none will say.
As the weather turns warmer, the days lengthen into summer, and the invitations start to arrive at the Aquila household. Calleva's elite, such as they are, have villas outside the city, and it seems that Marcus' uncle is frequently invited.
"Oh, I usually decline them," he says, waving away the tablet Stephanos is holding. "My treatise on siege warfare won't write itself, my boy. Though I'll see my old army friends when they pass through, I have no interest in politics."
Instead of leaving, Stephanos turns to Marcus. "Domine, the invitation is for you as well. Will you accept?"
Marcus can only stare, momentarily bereft of a reply. He has spent so long thinking of himself as forever ruined by his father's dishonor that it has never occurred to him that anyone might be willing to look beyond it. Even if they only need a ninth guest. Even if they really wanted his uncle to visit and only invited him for politeness' sake. It is flattering. Is this a sign such as he has prayed for? Perhaps the gods favor him after all.
"I—" he stops and frowns. "Who is it from, then?"
Stephanos looks down at the invitation for a moment, reading the words to himself. "The Atrii. They live to the south, and the dinner-party is to be held tomorrow evening."
His uncle looks up at the name. "If you want to go, Marcus, I will go as well."
By the look on Stephanos' face, Marcus surmises this is an unusual offer.
"Domini," Stephanos repeats, to both of them. "Their messenger is still waiting at the door, if you wish to send word."
Marcus swallows. It is his decision, then. "Yes," he says, surprising himself. "I think I would like to go."
"Very well," his uncle says. "Tell them we will attend."
And as Stephanos disappears, his uncle grins at him across the atrium.
"Good to get out in the country, eh, my boy?" he says, and Marcus realizes his uncle is putting himself through hated social events for his benefit. The smile is obviously forced. "You might impress old Atrius."
It is good of him to think of Marcus' future, for certainly dinner-parties are the best chance he has to meet someone who might take him on as a client. Being some man's secretary is not a profession he would ever have wanted, but he can no longer soldier. He cannot even walk far, yet, without his staff to support himself. So he must do this. There is little else left.
Marcus makes himself smile in return.
The villa of the Atrii is near enough to town that even Marcus could walk there, but his uncle insists on harnessing the horses. Marcus does not protest. Though it sits ill with him to be treated as though he could not walk, he tells himself his uncle is only being kind. The ride is the best thing about the entire affair, for the evening, from then on, is worse.
The dinner-party itself is... intolerable. Oh, the food is fine enough, beginning with the customary eggs and moving onto perfectly-cooked slices of boar. They have even brought a flute-player for the occasion. She is a pretty girl, the sort whom Marcus thinks might be available afterwards in the usual way of things, and she smiles at him more than at the rest of the other guests. Well, he is the youngest of them all, and in that respect probably the the most appealing to her if she must end up bedded by the end of the evening.
And he has not had anyone, man or woman, since the injury. He sees already how people eye his leg in the bath, or, worse, how they avert their eyes and pretend they are not looking. Who would have him as a lover? He would have to lie there, let them do everything, while they stared and stared—
Pointedly, he looks away from the flute-girl.
His oblivious uncle nods over at Marcus as he reaches out for another piece of meat.
"Having fun, Marcus? Sextus Olennius here has some interesting opinions on warfare; why, we shall have to invite him over."
And he continues on without any chance for Marcus to speak. Marcus may know the people of Calleva, but those are the townsfolk who live in the city proper, not these people. Marcus simply doesn't fit.
The Atrii, playing the gracious hosts, call out to Marcus from their couch and ask a few questions about how he came to be in Britannia. The elder Atrius might even have come to like him, had not the fat merchant behind Marcus on the couch opened his mouth before Marcus could reply.
"So you are the son of that Aquila, centurion of the Ninth, eh?"
It is a question Marcus has heard many times in his life, and so he has a fair amount of experience in knowing whether the asker means ill by it. The word the asker chooses for that is usually a good indication, if the tone alone does not suffice, and this man has chosen the most insulting of the words.
Marcus nods and forces back everything he would rather say. He is a guest here; it will not do to insult another guest, even if the other man started it.
"Sir, I am."
"And you—" Marcus can tell without looking at him that the man is staring at his scar, or where it is under the toga— "you were a soldier as well?" The tone is oily, reprehensible.
Marcus schools his voice into blandness. "I had that honor."
"But you are not now?"
"No," he replies, as calmly as he can, and takes a sip of wine. "I was injured in battle."
"Ah, so you were," the man says, as if he had not noticed until now, had not seen Marcus limp his way across the threshold. "A shame that your family is cursed so. But I suppose it is fortunate that you are not as disgraced as your father; I am sure you fought as well as you could manage."
He cannot stay and bear this. He cannot. He fought with bravery, with honor, and he will not let anyone call him a coward, and to insult his father too? It is inexcusable.
"Forgive me," Marcus grits out. "My leg is paining me. I apologize." It is not even a good excuse—the haze of wine makes further creativity difficult—but at least the man already thinks him a worthless cripple. His opinion can hardly be lowered. And so Marcus slides off the couch and asks for his sandals.
The host's face shifts in surprise. "Leaving so soon? We have hardly had apples!"
"It was kind of you to invite me," Marcus says, knowing that now he is surely the rudest guest ever and the man will never have him back, "but I fear I must leave. I need to walk, else my leg will cramp." Anything, anything, as long as he can get out of here, away from these people who understand nothing about him.
His uncle looks over and sees the lie, Marcus knows; walking only makes it worse, and of course his uncle has observed that. "Don't walk home, Marcus," he says, startled, his eyes beginning to cloud with something that could be sadness or anger. Right now, Marcus doesn't care which. "Take the horses. Take Stephanos with you."
He wants to be alone. "No, I will be fine," he assures him, and turns toward freedom and solitude before anyone can say anything else about his father or his wound or anything, absolutely anything else.
Marcus begs a torch from one of the slaves—the sun has long since set, and the moon is nowhere near full—and he is halfway to town by the time he begins to sober up a little and regret his rash words. He should not have said that. He should not have left, either. Now here he is, torch in one hand, staff in the other, clinging desperately to both and trying not to tangle himself in his toga and fall. He is in no condition to walk. He hopes he will make it home.
Then he sees the soldiers. There are five or so of them, no doubt on their way back to the local garrison. Torchlight glints off the metal of uniforms, swords, spear-points. The men laugh to each other, and he can tell already that they have all taken a little too much wine. They are gathered in a circle at the side of the road, and there is a dark shape on the ground, in the center of the group. A man? An animal?
The shape whimpers and whines, the sound of a dog in pain, and a man laughs and pokes it with the butt of his spear. Are they torturing the poor thing? The dog yelps again, and the sound goes right through Marcus as he aches in empathy. He cannot stand by and let them do this.
"Soldiers," he yells, with the voice that would have made his own century come instantly to attention on the parade-ground. He stands as tall as he can, leaning on his staff as much as he dares. "What are you doing?"
And they listen to him.
The closest man turns around to regard him, breaking the circle. The man next to him lowers the length of his spear-shaft across the dog to prevent it escaping, and that is when Marcus gets his first look at the beast.
It is huge. Not a dog at all. A wolf, and a large one at that. His back comes up higher than the dangling straps of the soldiers' belts. Pale eyes shine in the reflected firelight, and his fur, perhaps once grayish-brown, is dark and matted with something that Marcus thinks is surely the wolf's own blood. His ears are pressed back against his head in fear or pain, but the wolf is not snapping, not attacking. His head only hangs low, exhausted, his tongue hanging from his mouth, tail drooping between his legs, and he is shaking as though he can barely stand any longer.
"Sir," the soldier says, giving Marcus a courteous, respectful nod. "We came upon the creature and—"
"You thought you'd kill him," Marcus finishes.
The soldier just stares. "He's a wolf."
"He's not trying to harm you," Marcus points out.
"Then he is strange indeed," another man says, his voice slurred by drink. "Have you not heard the rumor that one of the local barbarians is a skin-changer?"
And this soldier thinks the wolf is a man? Ridiculous. Marcus snorts. "I have heard the tales. Would not a skin-changer have torn out your throat?"
The man shrugs and nudges the wolf, now with his spear-point, not enough even to cut flesh. "And if he is one, all the better. Run them until they can't walk, and they're cured, eh? Too tired to change back. Or kill them if you can."
Marcus stares in disbelief. They cannot be planning to torture the poor creature all night? This is not honorable. If they were his men, he would be appalled. He is appalled.
"You would like me to tell your centurion of your noble expedition? No doubt this is some farmer's tame wolf-dog. I am sure your commander will be pleased to hear of your behavior."
"Sir." The soldier backs off, stammering. "Sir, we'll let the beast go."
"Very good," Marcus says, curtly, as the spearman lifts his spear.
The wolf only stares at Marcus, eyes wide and pained, as if considering. As if he is thinking about it. As if he is a creature who could think like a man thinks. Now Marcus is being ridiculous.
He rests his staff on his shoulder and extends a hand to the wolf. "Come here," he says, voice pitched as if he is calling a dog.
The wolf tilts his great head to one side and his ears prick forward, the first sign of interest Marcus has seen. And surely he must be some trained cross-breed, because he obeys the command, lifting his head and trotting forward.
"There, you see?" Marcus says. "Only a dog. My dog now, I suppose. And we will be on our way."
With that he turns, and clicks his tongue for the wolf to follow. Just like a dog, he does, and they limp down the road together, away from the soldiers. They limp, for they are both injured. Marcus' limp is more pronounced with every step, and the wolf weaves and bobs his way beside him. The soldiers must have run him down a fair distance, for him to already be at the limits of his endurance.
"So," Marcus starts, feeling a need to fill the silence of the long road with words. "It's just you and me, eh, wolf?"
He glances down. The wolf half-smiles in the way that they do, revealing long shining teeth, and gives a tiny bob of his tail. Clearly part-dog. Perhaps he is one of those crosses that take the look of the wolf and the temperament of the dog. Marcus hopes his uncle will not mind; he does not even own a dog now. It will be nice to have a dog, he thinks. It will give him something to tend to, a way to take his mind off his cares. Certainly having one creature in the world who likes him is a good thing, even if the wolf seems still skeptical about him.
"We're going home," he tells the wolf. "My uncle's home, in town. There I can find you some food and water, then I'll do something about those cuts of yours." He feels a little awkward talking, since it is not as if the wolf understands him. Probably he has learned the word food from his old master. "If your master comes I will give you back, of course," he adds, already regretting the thought. "But I would like if you could stay with me. I have food," he adds again, to make sure the wolf has heard the word.
The wolf perks up a little at the word, looking up at him almost hopefully.
"Do you have a name, I wonder?" he muses. The talking, Marcus discovers, makes him stop thinking of the pain in his leg. He ponders, briefly, the names of Actaeon's hounds, or at least the ones he can remember, and then discards those. Considering Actaeon's fate, it seems ill-omened. A different name, then. "Perhaps I shall call you Saevus. That's a good name, isn't it?"
The wolf suddenly summons great effort to trot in front of him, blocking his path, and stares at him with what in a human Marcus would swear was an unamused glare. It is only coincidence, of course, but it makes Marcus laugh to see it.
"All right, all right!" he concedes, still laughing. "You are not savage, are you? Don't like that idea? I will just call you wolf, then. Do you approve of that?"
Seemingly satisfied, the wolf moves out of the way, and continues his walk alongside Marcus. The wolf's steps come slower now and his sides heave, labored, with every breath. And it is then that white-hot pain, searing like a smith's forge, shoots up Marcus' leg and he staggers.
Fast as lightning, as if he is heedless of his own discomfort, the wolf is at Marcus' weak side, pressing against him, almost as if he is trying to hold him up. Marcus grasps wildly, twisting his fingers in the soft fur of the wolf's ruff, and stays there, finding his balance. They stand there together a long while, and something about it is strangely comfortable. Drying blood is matted in the fur around his hands. It must be hurting the creature for Marcus to press on him here, and yet the wolf does not move away.
Finally, after several ragged breaths, Marcus pulls himself fully to his feet, still with the wolf clinging to his side as if he fears for Marcus' safety.
It is silly, and Marcus is still a little drunk, but he feels an outpouring of affection for the beast, who must have been well-trained indeed, to do such a thing for his master. "I like you," he informs the wolf.
The wolf noses him in the knee, a reassuring nudge that he can just about sense through the folds of his toga, and Marcus feels oddly content. They are almost to Calleva now.
Then he remembers the gate-guard, who will most definitely not be pleased with his new acquisition. And indeed, as they approach the gate, he thinks he can see the man's eyes narrow as he catches sight of Marcus and his wolf.
"Hail, Marcus Flavius," the man calls out, and it is Ennecus; Marcus can tell them all by their voices.
"Hail, Ennecus," Marcus returns, drawing closer.
Ennecus frowns; that much is plainly visible even in the wavering torchlight, and Marcus watches as the guard's uncertain eyes dart down to the wolf and back up.
"Is that a wolf?"
"Dog," Marcus says, confidently, as sweat trickles down the back of his neck. "Bit of wolf in him, though, I think."
The wolf sits at Marcus' feet, then, just as a dog would, and he wags broadly, hitting Marcus in the shin with his tail. Marcus thanks all the gods that the wolf chose that moment to act so.
"Lot of wolf in him." Ennecus raises an eyebrow. Marcus cannot tell if he is convinced. "You didn't have a dog when you left town," he adds, sounding dubious.
Marcus scrambles quickly for a lie. "Oh, he is new. I only just bought him—er, won him, at dicing—and he ran away earlier. And here I am, bringing him back."
That cannot possibly sound believable to anyone, the way he has piled stories one atop the other, but Ennecus smiles; he has passed. "Put a leash on him, hmm, Aquila?" he says, grinning, and motions for the gate to be opened.
Marcus steps inside the city walls, the wolf walking at his heels.
"We made it," he says, jubilant, as the wolf pads quietly beside him, making hardly any noise on the stones of the street. It is not far to his uncle's house now.
When they reach the house the wolf seems to disappear, standing far back, as if he does not want to enter—or, no, Marcus thinks, it is as if he doesn't want the door-keeper to see him. How clever. But it is a trick of some sort, surely, only another coincidence; even the smartest wolf is not that intelligent. What if the soldiers were right?
Of course they weren't, he tells himself. If it were a skin-changer, surely he would be dead now. He swallows and knocks on the door for Marcipor.
"Domine!" Marcipor says. "You're home early, and—" he looks around— "alone."
Down the street, a very convincing, very large stray dog is nosing about for scraps.
"My uncle will follow," Marcus assures him. "My leg was paining me, and I wished to take to my bed." He waves a hand. "I do not need assistance, though; you need not attend me."
Marcipor nods, taking the torch that Marcus extends, and he disappears into the house.
Marcus waits several long breaths before clicking his tongue.
The wolf puts his head up, pointing both ears at Marcus, alert, intent.
"Come here, wolf," Marcus whispers. "It's all right. I won't hurt you."
The wolf seems to consider this for long moments, then follows him inside. It is then that Marcus remembers the haruspicy from months ago. A wolf. Perhaps the gods willed this for him, after all.
"Stay here." Marcus gestures past the curtain to his room. "Be quiet."
By now he expects the wolf to obey him without question, as the wolf seems to have understood everything else he has said, but the wolf sits down obstinately in the middle of the atrium and glares, as if to say where do you think you're going.
"I'm getting you food," Marcus whispers. "I can stay on my feet for a little longer. And you should have better water. You can drink from the impluvium if you want, but I don't think you want to."
Did he really just explain himself to a wolf? He feels unspeakably foolish, but the wolf turns and stalks into Marcus' bedroom. Marcus watches as the wolf leaps gracefully onto his bed, the wood creaking under the sudden weight, and then curls up on the pillow, tail almost to his nose.
"Good," Marcus says, and limps off to the (if he is fortunate) deserted kitchen.
Luckily, there is no one else there, and even more luckily, a pot of stew is bubbling over a fire; it is probably the slaves' late meal, and they are keeping a portion or two warm for Stephanos when he returns. Marcus takes a breath, smells it. Fish. He thinks wolves like fish. They are probably happy to eat anything. There don't seem to be any meat scraps around, so stew it is. He leaves enough that he hopes his theft will not be noticed.
The tricky part is trying to carry everything back with one free hand, but he eventually balances a small bowl of stew in the crook of his elbow and clutches a cup of water in his fingers.
Marcus smiles as the wolf is overjoyed to see him, at first putting his nose high in the air to sniff for the fish.
"Careful, now," Marcus says, perching himself on the edge of his bed with the bowls, and finally, finally taking his weight off his leg, groaning in relief as he does so. "Don't eat too fast."
He expects the wolf to eat, well, like a wolf, messy and ravenous, but instead the creature merely laps daintily at the soup as if savoring it, with long swipes of his tongue. When the bowl is licked clean, Marcus pours some water into it, and the wolf drinks that down too, just as fastidiously.
"Well, aren't you the neat one," Marcus says quietly, amused, and the wolf licks at his hand a little in what Marcus thinks must be gratitude.
Now for the hard part. Even in the poor lamp-light, Marcus can tell the wolf is still injured, and he moves slowly toward the worst mats of blood and fur, not daring to touch him yet. It is a good way to be bitten, and he has no desire for that.
"Can I see your wounds?" he asks, very quietly, in his best reassuring voice. The words do not matter so much as the tone, he thinks, but he uses them anyway. "See, I am no threat," he says, as the wolf sniffs him. "I only want to clean them, shh, shh, that's good."
To his amazement, the wolf does not protest, and with a dampened cloth he gets the worst of the blood out. Truly the wounds are not so bad. There is only one to be concerned about, a long jagged rip from the wolf's shoulder down to his foreleg that makes the wolf squirm and yelp when Marcus brushes against it. As Marcus runs his hand through the thick fur, the topcoat and the soft undercoat that is already shedding a little between his fingers, he notices a strange bluish hue to the wolf's skin, under the fur of his leg. It is difficult to tell in this light, but it is as if he has a tattoo there, his skin painted like that of the Britons. Perhaps some owner has marked his property thus, he thinks, but it is an odd thing to do. Marcus cannot imagine any beast holding still for the needle for so long, not even a good-tempered dog.
Taking care of the wolf takes longer than he thought, and by the time he is done he is also exhausted, and his uncle is not even home yet. With difficulty, he strips off his toga, tunic, and sandals. Unclothed fully now and ready for his bed, he stares at the wolf, who stares inscrutably back, even after Marcus extinguishes the lamp.
He does not think he can fit both of them easily in his bed, and he had intended to get the wolf to sleep on the floor, but now that the moment is here he cannot find it in his heart to make the poor creature move. The wolf's eyes on him are suddenly a terrifying combination of piteous and territorially possessive.
"Oh, fine," Marcus says, giving in. "Keep the pillow. Just leave me room."
The wolf still stares, and then he flops his head heavily on the pillow. His pillow now.
The bed creaks even more alarmingly as Marcus settles down next to him, fitting himself with difficulty in the remaining space. Then, impulsively, he flings his arm over the wolf. The wolf's fur is soft and warm. It is a silly, sentimental thing for Marcus to do in his loneliness, but after all it is only a wolf-dog. It is not as if the creature will ever be able to tell anyone.
With the horrors of the evening behind him, already receding in his mind, Marcus is more relaxed than he has been in ages, almost happy, and he drifts off easily to sleep.
The sunlight streaming in through the high tiny window is bright through his eyelids and warm on his face. He is warm everywhere, lying on his back, with an unfamiliar weight pressing on his leg and his outstretched arm. Without even opening his eyes Marcus knows he has overslept. He curses yesterday's drunkenness, opens his eyes, and—
There is a man in his bed.
At this angle, with the stranger face down, head turned toward the wall, Marcus can only see messy light hair where the man's face is shoved into his pillow. The rest of him is one long line of pale skin, for the man is completely, entirely nude. He is thin, built slender, and Marcus can practically count every bump in his spine. He is pressed close, lying on Marcus' arm, and the sharp jut of his hipbone is painful against Marcus' leg. But he is clearly a strong man for his size; he is clutching Marcus' fingers in his hand as he sleeps. A series of painted blue bands wrap around the man's arm, high near his shoulder, where a new wound lies, beginning to scab over.
He was not that drunk last night. He would remember this, he thinks frantically. Why is there a man in his bed?
It is not that the man is not attractive, of course, but if Marcus did do anything with him it is a shame that he was too drunk then to remember it now. He does not think he did, though. Where would he have found the man?
Then he remembers the wolf.
He cannot look away from the wound, an angry line from the man's shoulder to his arm. The man has the same wounds, the very same marks as the wolf who was lying on his bed last night. This cannot be happening. This cannot be happening to him.
O Mars Pater, Marcus thinks, desperate. I have been a good soldier in your name. I have given you arms and spoils of war and many fine sheep. Why this? Was the wolf one of yours? Why do you seek to drive me mad with your tricks?
In that moment, the man next to him awakens, releasing Marcus' arm, yawning, and turning over to face him, stretching in a slow, luxuriant manner.
It is Esca.
Esca blinks at him a few times, not quite seeing him, and gives him a huge, lazy grin, the sort of look one bestows upon a bed-partner one is happy to wake up next to. The smile is heartbreakingly beautiful, and desire wars with the sheer terror that is already welling up in Marcus.
It is true. All of it, everything they said about him, it is all true. He is a skin-changer. Marcus is surely dead now.
Then Esca seems to notice the cast of horror on Marcus' face. He looks down at himself, confused, and then all the happiness is wiped away from his gaze.
"You were the wolf," Marcus says, stupidly, his tongue thick with fear, stuck in his mouth. The words are slow to form. He can't think of anything else to say. "That was you."
Esca, too, is at a loss for words as he pushes himself up onto his hands, staring down at his body again as if he did not quite expect to be here. "I— that wasn't supposed to happen. You weren't supposed to see me like this. You weren't supposed to know about this," he says, and his voice is low and tight with tension.
"Will you kill me, then?"
He asks the question because he knows that is what skin-changers do, all the while trying not to look at Esca, trying not to think about how closely Esca is pressed up against him, how they are both naked, how last night the wolf was staring and staring at his body.
"Kill you?" Esca pales, as though the very thought appalls him. "Of course not. Why would I want to harm you?"
Very nearby, footsteps sound. Someone is walking through the atrium, and Marcus realizes abruptly what this situation will surely look like to any observer. He does not want to be found like this.
"Marcus?" his uncle calls out. "Marcus, did you not want breakfast?"
Fear knots in Marcus' stomach. If it were one of the slaves, he could handle it, perhaps, but his uncle—
"Quiet!" he whispers, and Esca glares back, but shuts his mouth. "Here, hide under the blankets! Something! Anything, please!"
They had been sleeping atop the blankets last night; what need did a wolf have for coverings, after all? Marcus moves enough to free one of the blankets, then hisses in pain as Esca kicks him in the leg in his haste. He puts a hand on Esca's shoulder and leans close to push him back down, with his other hand reaching for a tunic to cover himself—
Behind him, the curtain is drawn open with an audible rustle of fabric. Marcus turns and sees his uncle staring in surprise, silent and wide-eyed, holding a piece of bread halfway to his mouth.
"It's not what it looks like," Marcus offers, the first words that come to mind.
Next to him, Esca has at least pulled the blankets up around his hips, and he attempts a weak smile. "Hail."
The silence of the next several moments is worse than any torture.
"I'll see you when you're... done," his uncle says, finally, his voice cold. He draws the curtain shut and leaves.
Marcus stares at Esca. Esca only stares back. He looks nothing like a wolf, for the wolf was at least friendly.
"What is wrong with you, Marcus?"
He, having hastily put on a tunic, is in his uncle's office, and his uncle is staring at him across the desk with frustration and confusion in his eyes.
Marcus opens his mouth to speak, then closes it again. It is not as if telling his uncle Esca is a skin-changer will make anything better.
"You have never acted like this before!" His uncle throws his hands in the air. "I take you to a dinner-party—a party that, might I add, was your opportunity to befriend an honorable senatorial family—and you insult their hospitality and leave before the meal is over!"
"I—" Marcus starts, but his uncle continues on with his speech, louder now. Marcus does not care if the slaves hear, but he thinks Esca is still in his room and he does not need Esca to hear this.
"Do you know how many apologies I had to make for you? And now I find that, while I was busy explaining how you were not yourself, how you were ordinarily so respectful, so pious, that you've been fucking your way through the town? And you've brought this man home? To my home, Marcus?" He glares. "I do not know how you did things in the army, but my house is not a barracks for you to fill with camp-followers! I do not care if you buy yourself whores, but at least keep them at the brothel."
Something within Marcus, some noble impulse, compels him to defend Esca's honor. "He isn't a whore, Uncle! It isn't like that at all! He is a friend, only a friend!" Not that Esca considers him a friend, but it is more believable than the truth. "I will call the gods to witness."
It is so wretchedly unfair that he will be treated as if he did, as if they did, and he will have all the shame and none of the pleasure of actually having been with Esca. And it is worse because he would have, if he could, even if Esca is truly a beast, a cursed skin-changer. He remembers the wolf, and everything tangles into confusion.
His uncle raises an eyebrow, distinctly unimpressed. "You expect me to believe that you retire to your room, unclothed, to share your couch with your friends, Marcus? What kind of idiot do you take me for?"
It was worth a try, at least. But now Marcus is out of ideas, with no way to explain himself.
"Excuse me." Esca's voice calls out, ringing and proud, from the other side of the office curtain. "I think there has been a misunderstanding here, and I would hate to see your nephew reprimanded for the hospitality he has shown me."
Marcus' uncle rises from his chair and flings the curtain open. "Oh?"
Esca is wearing one of Marcus' old tunics and a pair of Marcus' ancient worn-out house-sandals, and all of it too big for him. They were probably the only things Marcus had in his room. At least he is dressed.
"My name is Esca. I met your nephew on the road to town," Esca says, smoothly, politely. "I fear that your god Bacchus had visited with me a little too long earlier in the evening, if you take my meaning." He grins a small grin—the way the wolf grinned, Marcus remembers—in a style that is meant to be disarming, miming a drinking-cup and then wobbling a bit. "On my journey I was waylaid by a group of men with, shall I say, unkind intentions. It was thanks to your nephew here that they were convinced to leave me alone."
Marcus continues the story at Esca's nod—he can see the shape of the tale now—and he hopes Ennecus the gate-guard will not think to ask his uncle about his new dog. "Esca did not seem to be in a state where he could reach his home safely, and I was not about to leave him to wander Calleva alone. So after Marcipor opened the door for me I invited Esca in."
"He offered me his very own bed," Esca says, and then his face takes on a perfectly convincing abashed look. "I am afraid I am not certain how I ended up out of my clothing—"
"I thought it might be easier for you to sleep without your messy tunic," Marcus invents, in a burst of inspiration. "So I gave you the blanket."
"Oh, thank you," Esca replies. "My memory is a little hazy, you understand."
"After that my leg gave out entirely, and it was easier for me to stay with him, in my room. And I was only changing out of my old tunic into a new one this morning when you walked in, Uncle," Marcus concludes. "So, you see, nothing improper happened."
There, and it is even a true story, mostly, leaving out how Esca was a wolf when Marcus brought him home.
"I am very grateful for his kindness," Esca adds, and this he says as though he truly means it.
His uncle looks suspiciously between the two of them for long moments, as if he thinks there is a lie here but cannot quite figure out where it would be. Marcus does not blame him; he does not think his uncle could ever guess, either. He would never have guessed it, himself.
"I apologize for my rash assumptions," his uncle says, finally.
Esca nods his head, and the gesture is almost solemn in nature. "I thank you for the hospitality of your house. If I may, I will be on my way now."
His uncle nods back, and then Esca turns and, very quickly, is gone. Marcus hears the outer door slam shut.
This was probably the last time Esca will speak to him, he thinks in despair, for why in the world would he want to come back after what Marcus put him through? Marcus thought he was a wolf—tried to give him a name!—and even cuddled up to him. He was so stupid as to take off his clothes for the night. He remembers the wolf's eyes on his leg. That was Esca, staring at his nakedness, staring at his infirmity, no doubt horrified by the pitiful cripple trying to make him into a pet. Esca certainly looked horrified to wake up next to him, once he knew it was him. Marcus squeezes his eyes closed in humiliation.
And why does he care about that? A small terrified part of him wonders this. Esca is a wolf! He is a skin-changer! How can Marcus even be thinking this? The less time spent with him, the better. He should kill him. If he could think straight at all, he should be thinking about killing him. His stomach twists. Kill Esca? He can't. But Esca is a vicious beast, and Marcus doesn't know what to do—
"Marcus?" his uncle asks, gently, and Marcus opens his eyes.
"Did you mean to give him your tunic?"
So his uncle noticed what Esca was wearing. No wonder he didn't believe him.
Marcus shrugs. "He can keep it. I don't think I'll be seeing him again."
The mood of the house is tense for the rest of the day, but over dinner Marcus stammers out broken apologies about how the merchant at the party had insulted him, had insulted his father, and his uncle's face softens a little in understanding.
"Oh, Marcus," his uncle says, sighing, "sometimes I forget how young you are."
He is in his thirty-first year, hardly young at all, and Marcus, frustrated, feels his mouth twist. "I could not just let that man say those things about our family—"
His uncle sighs again. "They will all say them whether you protest or no. And they will think them whether they say them or no." Suddenly he seems much older than he usually does, the years weighing heavily on him. "Come, Marcus, have some more wine."
He gestures to have Marcus' wine-cup refilled, and Marcus drinks deep, deep enough to almost forget his dreams of glory. At least his uncle is no longer cross with him.
Two days later is a market-day. His uncle is ensconced in his office, dictating letters to Stephanos. Sassticca has gone to the market, and Marcus is perched on a couch in the atrium, whittling wood. It is not a hobby he has indulged in for years. Perhaps his uncle might like pieces for latrunculi, or Cottia a clever carved animal. It is something to do with his hands, at least, and Marcus is beginning to feel pleased with himself as the wood already takes shape under his fingers.
Marcipor coughs quietly, signaling his presence. "Domine, there is a visitor for you."
Marcus looks up, interested. For him? He was not expecting anyone. It is not as though he routinely throws grand parties or has a great many admirers or anything of the sort. He has, in fact, none, so who can this be?
"Let him in, then."
The slave nods once and withdraws.
And Esca steps into the atrium. Esca is holding Marcus' old tunic over his arm, clutching the sandals in one hand, and smiling a faint, tentative half-smile, as if he is not quite sure how Marcus will feel about his presence.
Marcus isn't sure how he feels, either. His heart soars high in delight, at first, and then fear grips him as he remembers what Esca truly is.
"Esca." Marcus reaches for the staff, balanced against the couch, and having gripped it, struggles to his feet. He finds that, despite the fear, he is smiling.
Esca shifts nervously from foot to foot and then thrusts out the bundle of clothing in front of him as if it is some sort of shield, or perhaps weapon. "I thought you might want your tunic back."
"That is kind of you," Marcus responds, by rote, holding out his free hand and taking the clothes.
He waits to see if Esca will leave, but Esca only stands there, looking more and more nervous with every passing breath.
"Do you remember," Esca asks, hesitantly, almost too quiet to hear even in the silence of the room, "how you asked me once, if you could buy me a drink?"
Yes, part of Marcus wants to say, in an instant, yes yes yes please, and he would jump in the air if he could. He lets himself nod a little. "I would still, if you are willing." It is strange to be eager and terrified both at the same time, and he wonders how he can even want this.
And Esca grins at that, and then looks away, suddenly shy. It is strange to see the man so modest; Marcus does not think Esca is afraid of him in return, but he is not certain what drives him to act thus. "You saved my life," he murmurs. "It is I who owe you the drink, at the very least."
"If you would like, we can go now. I am not busy."
"That is well, then," Esca says, finally looking at him, and smiling a tiny hopeful smile. He does not seem like a man who is thinking about killing him; Marcus has seen enough soldiers in battle that he feels himself well-acquainted with bloodlust. No, Esca looks... excited.
So Marcus limps to his room to change his shoes and pick up his money-pouch. If Esca notices that Marcus has returned with a dagger as well, he does not say.
Marcus nods. "Shall we?"
Together they walk into the street.
It almost goes wrong from the first instant, as Marcus trips over one of the stones in the street. Esca holds his hands out at once, to offer him aid, and Marcus nearly relaxes into his grip before he remembers and jerks back.
"You let me help you the other day," Esca says, too low for anyone else to overhear, and there is pain in his voice.
It kindles a sort of slow anger in Marcus, quiet and inexplicable, as he remembers leaning on the wolf in the middle of the road. He feels ashamed, like a man cheated of something. Cheated of the truth. He didn't know, then. He didn't know anything.
"That was different." Saying more would be giving into the madness, admitting that it had all truly happened. "I don't need your help."
Esca stares at him, his fixed gaze wary and nearly aggressive, and in the frozen silence Marcus is minded—horrible thought!—of a wolf and its hackles.
Then Esca gives a sudden sigh, the tension defused. "Very well," he says, with a slight sharpness still in his tone. "I only thought to be kind, as you were to me." It is perhaps the most biting compliment Marcus has ever been paid.
They pass the rest of the journey in silence, Marcus leaning more and more heavily on his staff as Esca takes him to an area of Calleva he hardly visits. The faces of the people they pass are all British, the buildings more and more poorly maintained. He is the only Roman in sight. Marcus' stomach tightens with nerves; here they are, no doubt among this man Esca's friends or kin. Perhaps they would not object if harm befell Marcus.
Esca reaches out for his hand, and before Marcus can think to move away, Esca is leading him into a tavern. The place is dark, but not dark enough that Marcus cannot see that its walls are scrawled with all manner of lewd suggestions and drawings. Oh, it is not that he is an innocent; he has been in the army, after all. But these sorts of places are beneath a good equestrian.
He is not sure he is a good equestrian.
Whatever he is, he stands out, for everyone else in the room is British, down to the tavern-keeper himself. And, one and all, they are staring at him.
Esca, still in front of Marcus, drops his hand. Looking around the room, he holds out an arm across Marcus, in an oddly protective gesture, warding the accusing stares away. He meets the eyes of the onlookers, one by one, and then murmurs a few low words in British.
The others turn away, and conversation resumes.
"You're my guest," Esca says, in answer to the question Marcus didn't ask.
Marcus lets himself breathe again, but he cannot quite relax. "And if I weren't your guest?"
Esca shrugs. "Then they'd stare more." His mouth quirks. "Do you truly think someone would hurt you? Do you think I would hurt you?"
You're a skin-changer, Marcus wants to say, but he only opens his mouth and closes it again.
The sadness in Esca's eyes from the first day is there again. "Of course you do, soldier, with your fine dagger at your side," he says, low-voiced, as if he is speaking only to himself. "You are only acting according to your nature, as are we all."
So he did see that Marcus took a weapon. Well, he is not stupid. Something about the way he says it makes Marcus want to apologize for having done so, even as another part of him cries that he should stab Esca now, as Esca turns away—
Marcus follows Esca to a table in the farthest corner, sliding into the seat opposite him. He scans the walls for some kind of hint as to the tavern's offerings and prices. Surely he cannot expect Falernian, but...
"Is there no wine?"
He asks and hopes that the question is not too arrogant, but he knows already that it is jarring, after Esca's words.
But Esca grins at him, suddenly, as though that awkward moment had not happened. "Ah, at this place, you do not want to drink the wine. Trust me."
He is gone, then, and returns in a short while with two clay cups, one of which he pushes across the table. Marcus sniffs it suspiciously; it has the smell of the bitter beer that the Britons enjoy drinking, without even any honey in it to sweeten the taste.
"Do you not like beer?" Esca asks, frowning.
Gamely, Marcus takes a sip of the foul stuff and tries to smile. "Oh, it is fine," he assures him, and plans to drink as little as possible. He does not want to be drunk for this conversation, at any rate.
He waits for Esca to say something, but Esca only watches, silent, with the air of a man who is accustomed to such observation. Esca holds very still, and only his eyes move as he looks from Marcus to the cups and then back again.
"Why did you bring me here?" Marcus asks, finally. He hopes Esca will know he does not mean only this tavern, but all of it, the entire excursion.
"I told you," Esca says. "You saved my life." His voice at least is firm on this point, but the look in his eyes is tinged with bewilderment, as if he does not quite understand his own actions.
Marcus shrugs a little and looks away, embarrassed by Esca's vehemence. "Anyone would have done what I did." It is not quite true—one does not just go around rescuing hurt wolves, after all—but it is better than thinking about it again.
This earns him an incredulous stare. "That is kind of you to say, but we both know you're lying." Esca sips his drink. "And once you'd saved me, the best I was hoping for was being chained up in your garden and thrown old rotting scraps." He says this as if it is perfectly reasonable that these things happen, as if he sees nothing wrong with speaking about being a— being a—
Marcus looks quickly around the room, but no one seems to have taken any notice. "Do you—" his voice halts, rasps in surprise— "do you really want to talk about this? Here?"
"Why not?" Esca tilts his head. "Most of these men don't know Latin, and those who do don't care enough about me to listen. You can ask me, you know. I've been waiting for you to ask about it."
Asking would be another step closer to acknowledging this entire mad vision truly happened. He still cannot believe this is real. "I don't know," Marcus manages, finally. "I don't know anything about this."
Now Esca looks away, and his face cracks a little in a rueful grin. "You weren't supposed to, if I'd— if I'd woken up as I intended to. You'd have had a wolf around for an hour or two, and then I'd have slipped out through the slave-quarters and you'd never have seen me again."
Something obviously went very wrong. Marcus gamely takes a drink from his cup, finding that it tastes a little better this time.
"And yet here you are." And, as awful as it is, some part of Marcus is glad for this. Some part of him likes Esca, even though Esca is... not human. He shouldn't be here. They shouldn't be together. Nothing about this is proper. Everyone, anyone, would disapprove.
Esca tilts his head to the side, a kind of acknowledgment, and then says, "They're wrong, you know."
Marcus jumps, startled, but then realizes that even if Esca is a skin-changer, he cannot know Marcus' thoughts. He must mean something else.
"What do you mean?"
"The stories you tell about my people." Esca shrugs. "What those soldiers believed, for example, that if they tired me out I would be trapped forever as a wolf. Wrong. Exactly backwards, actually."
He shouldn't ask. But damn him, he is curious. He takes another drink. "Oh?"
"Maybe it's different for Roman skin-changers," Esca says, "but for me it is hard to keep my shape if I am exhausted. The change... is not a thing that takes much effort."
"So that night," Marcus asks, before he can stop himself, "you were so tired that you couldn't control yourself?"
The corners of Esca's mouth twitch. "I was worried I would give myself away the whole time. I thought I'd done so well, still the same shape when you went to sleep..."
Marcus takes another drink to try to dull the shame rising up. "You meant to trick me."
"Not a trick." Esca looks almost offended. "I only thought it would be easier if you didn't know."
"A deception," Marcus insists. The beer doesn't even taste that bad any longer.
Esca only gives him a long, even stare. "You see how well you like the honest truth, centurion."
His face is hot, and he can't tell if it's from anger or the drink. He ought to be happy to be called by his rank, but from Esca's lips it sounds like the worst of insults.
"Don't," he says, wretched. "Don't call me that."
A small smile, as if Esca has won some point in a game. "What should I call you?"
My name, he thinks, instantly, and then wants to recoil from his own thoughts. He settles for staring at his drink, and shrugs. It's all he can manage, and then he looks up at Esca and suddenly everything is worse and better all at once.
The world tilts, and Esca is still smiling at him, and Esca is unbelievably, incredibly attractive. It's not fair. Even if he were... human, he is nothing, nothing like anyone Marcus ought to give a second look to on the street. He is no perfumed, sleek-limbed, pleasant-voiced pretty boy. He is built of all angles and points, his ears stick out far too much, he is clearly not meek or pliant in the slightest and... Marcus wants him.
He wishes he could blame this on the beer. He looks away again.
"Is everything well?" Esca's voice is full of something like real concern, and Marcus wonders why Esca should care.
He can't even put any of this into words. He can still scarcely believe this is happening. "I'm not dead yet," he manages. "You're a skin-changer and you haven't attacked me."
When he looks up, Esca is staring at him as if there is some obvious fact Marcus has missed.
Esca's pale eyes are flat, empty of feeling. Another trick?
Is he meant to see if he still has his weapon? Perhaps Esca stole it from him like a sneak-thief, when Marcus stumbled against him in the street. Marcus reaches with trembling fingers for the dagger, under the table. His hand closes around the hilt. No, it is here.
This makes no sense.
"Stab me," Esca repeats. "You have your dagger there. You and I both know it. If you think I am a monster, a threat, someone who will surely tear your throat out, then stab me. It's what you ought to do, isn't it?" He shrugs and glances around the tavern. "A place like this, no one will care if I take a knife between the ribs. Or we could do it outside if you like. No one will notice anything in the alley, not in this part of town."
Marcus can't stop staring. "I don't understand—"
"Either I am a savage beast," Esca says, and his voice is dangerously low, "or I am a man you are having a drink with. Pick one."
Marcus takes a deep breath, closes his hand around the hilt— and puts the dagger on the table between them. It's a lovely weapon, well-made, well-cared-for. It was the first thing he bought after enlisting, the day before he gave his formal oath. He'd wanted to have something of home to bring to the provinces. It has lasted him twelve years.
He doesn't need it anymore.
"Yours," Marcus says, quietly. "If you'd like it."
Esca raises an eyebrow. "My teeth are sharper. Sometimes." And he grins.
"Not right now, though." Marcus knows that Esca has to be testing him again now, to see his reaction. "Or so I gather." He tries to sound unimpressed.
"Right now, I am as much of a man as you are." Esca spreads his arms in a little shrug. The dagger stays on the table between them.
Marcus breathes out; he is not sure if he is relieved. He cannot truly have expected Esca to take the dagger, can he?
"How did it come upon you, then?" Perhaps this is safe to ask. "What god did you offend?"
But Esca is smiling and shaking his head. "It is not a curse, Aquila." Marcus wonders when Esca learned his name. "And if I welcomed your gods to my home as guests and they offered me a boon, or however it goes in your stories, I would never, ever give it up. Why would I want to be stuck forever in a body in which I cannot run fast, nor smell or taste anything properly? In which I can only hear the animals in the woods when they are close enough practically to screech at me? In which I would be forever cold in the winter?"
Esca has leaned forward, carried closer by the obvious passion of his opinions. He is almost close enough now that Marcus could touch him, could just brush against him. He could pretend it was an accident. It would be an accident, of course. Nothing can happen.
"Is there anything at all you like about being a man?" Marcus asks, puzzled.
For some reason this makes Esca laugh. "Talking, sometimes. Being taller," Esca says, sounding thoughtful. "Oh, and hands. Fingers are very useful."
Now that Esca's said it, of course, he can't help but look down at Esca's hands, spread across the table, and though Esca certainly meant nothing obscene by it, he imagines Esca's hands on him, against his skin—
No. Marcus shakes his head, confused. That is not what Esca meant, and besides, even if he did, he can't— they can't— it would be the most improper thing Marcus has ever done, and his dignity is so paltry now that he cannot afford this.
"They are, aren't they?"
He watches Esca's fingers close around the dagger.
"Fine weapon," Esca says, neutrally, and still something in Marcus' heart twists and lifts. "It's worth more than the drink, Aquila."
"And so is your life," Marcus replies.
Esca gives a small, small smile at that. "Still, surely a fine dagger like this is of value to a soldier."
"I'm not one." It still hurts to say. Perhaps it hurts just a little less. Perhaps that is the drink talking. "I think a hunter would get far more use of it, and it deserves to be used."
Esca smiles and takes the dagger.
It is not long after that that the drinks are finished and they rise to leave.
In the street Esca stands bare inches away from him. "Do you want me to walk back with you?"
Marcus shakes his head. He wants to say yes. It is a kindness Esca is offering him, and he knows it. A shoulder to lean on. But people will see them, people will talk, and he can't, he can't— not with a skin-changer—
"I'll be fine."
"Well, then." Esca smiles politely and Marcus knows he sees the lie. "Thank you for the fine afternoon, Aquila, and for the dagger."
"It's Marcus," Marcus says, before he can stop himself.
Esca tilts his head like he didn't quite hear. No, like a dog, listening when it has heard a word it knows. A wolf.
"My name," Marcus repeats, even though Esca surely heard it from his uncle, and even though this is a very, very bad idea. "It's Marcus. Since I have your name."
"Ah." Esca smiles. "Thank you, Marcus. And I am Esca."
"I did have your name already," Marcus says, a little uncertainly.
Esca's smile fills Marcus with a strange warmth. "Now you have it from me, eh?"
Before Marcus can say anything else, Esca is gone into the crowd.
His uncle doesn't mention Esca's visit, later; Marcus doesn't know if this means the slaves never told him or if he simply has nothing to say. Perhaps his uncle is still angry.
Marcus, for his part, can't stop thinking about Esca. When he shakes his returned tunic out, he finds fur on it. When he falls asleep that night with the tunic balled up on his pillow, he tells himself it was an accident.
He doesn't expect to see Esca again. Of course he doesn't. He tells himself this every day, when the next day Esca does not return. He tells himself that the debt between them has been more than paid. When he bestirs himself to walk to the forum the morning after that—and, oh, his uncle is so happy, to see him up and about!—he does not see Esca. He tells himself he wasn't looking.
"I talked to Galarius today," his uncle tells him over dinner.
Marcus helps himself to an egg. "Oh?"
"If you want some advice," his uncle says, and pauses, no doubt waiting to see if Marcus will object, "he suggested riding would be a fine way to strengthen your leg."
He hasn't gone riding in... he can't even think how long. Perhaps it was the day he came to Isca Dumnoniorum. It certainly wasn't the day he left it. Marcus thinks of vaulting into one of those high-cantled cavalry saddles and winces.
"You haven't even been to any of the stables yet," his uncle says, and he has clearly mistaken the wince for something else, "or you would have seen the rest of the beasts I keep. Vipsania's a gentle one. She'll give you no trouble. You might enjoy it."
Marcus opens his mouth, about to say no, and—
"Why not?" he says. "We are equestrians, after all."
His uncle smiles.
Vipsania placidly swishes her tail. Marcus stares, frustrated and sweating from exertion, and he hasn't even left the stables yet. No, he told the stable-master, he could do it. He didn't need a leg up from one of the slaves.
Now that his pride has already committed him to this, Marcus is beginning to regret it. And then he stares at the fence at the far side of the paddock and has an idea.
A short while later, he finally clambers onto the mare's back, and his leg is already sore from climbing all over the fence. He has no idea how he will get down—he is tensing merely at the thought of hitting the ground—but already he likes being up here. He feels strangely powerful. His leg doesn't matter, not like this; the horse is trained enough, and his leg strong enough, that he can give the proper cues.
And then he is in the wilds. Oh, he could have ridden down the road, gone somewhere settled, but there are no people he needs to see. Besides, he would have to dismount. The forest it is. It is a nice enough day, though it is on the chilly side. There are a few game-trails, and the horse knows the way home, he is sure. It is perfect. He lets them wander.
Then Vipsania stops, snorting. Her nostrils flare. She is not going anywhere.
"Oh, come on, girl," Marcus says, exasperated. "There's nothing here." Nothing but animals, anyway, and those are no threat. The only thing big enough to menace them would be boar, and he has seen no sign. And if there were bandits, the horse would not be frightened so. Not of people.
And if there are bandits, well, he has a sword on him, even if he did give away his best dagger—
Marcus sees a flash of movement through the trees. Not a man, not at that height, and duller colors than anyone who wasn't an army scout would like to wear. Brownish. Fur, then.
The movement stops between two trees, and Marcus breathes in, hard and sharp, as he sees the creature.
A wolf sits there, tilting its head to one side. Its pale eyes are fixed on Marcus'. Not his horse, as tasty as Vipsania must be. Not just at him. The wolf is staring at his face. And in the light of day, it looks very much like the shadowy creature who followed him home. But what if it isn't Esca?
He has his sword, but he thinks the wolf could bring them down faster. Or, more likely, Vipsania will bolt and he will fall and crack his head open. He can already feel the horse trembling under his thighs.
If he is wrong, he is going to feel very stupid.
No, he realizes. If he is wrong, he is going to be very, very dead.
"Esca," Marcus says, very quietly, into the silence of the forest, "it's very nice to see you again, but you're frightening my horse."
The wolf drops his jaw; it looks rather like a grin. His very pink tongue lolls out of his mouth.
"Hold on," he says. They can't stay like this. "You want me to come down there, give me a little bit of time first."
The wolf wags his tail once—Marcus hopes that is a yes—and trots further back.
Marcus looks down at the ground, grits his teeth, and levers his leg over the saddle. It is only a short distance to slide down Vipsania's side. He takes most of his weight on his right leg, thankfully, but when his left foot hits the ground he gasps and his vision goes white with the pain of it.
Behind him he hears a high lupine whine. Esca is worried.
"No," Marcus forces out, through the pain, and he twists his fingers into Vipsania's mane for support, one hand on her withers. "I'm fine. Don't come closer or the horse will run. I'm fine."
The whine this time sounds almost reproachful.
"All right," Marcus admits after a few breaths, "I may have felt better in the past."
When he has enough strength to turn, he sees Esca sitting patiently, several feet away. No. The wolf, he tells himself. Better to think of the wolf, for that is what he sees now.
"What are you doing here, anyway?" he asks, finally. "Hunting?"
The wolf wags again.
Marcus wonders if Esca perhaps has a pack he is hunting for. Cottia said he lived alone, but she might have been wrong—she is only a child, after all—and anyway, if Esca has a den somewhere of course the people of the town would not know. He would hide it. He should have a pack, shouldn't he? The thought makes Marcus... uncomfortable. But certainly he is only uncomfortable with Esca being a skin-changer. He is certainly not jealous.
Marcus clears his throat. "Successfully?"
The wolf gives him a stare very like the one Esca gave him the other day in the tavern, the kind of look one has when the answer is obvious. Of course. If Esca—if the wolf had made a kill, he would be eating it, he would be full, he would have gorged and gone home. He would not be stalking about, looking so lean and hungry. He is so thin as a man, though, so of course he is so as a wolf, and— why is he even contemplating this like any of it should be sensible?
"Oh." He feels a little foolish. About everything. "Of course."
Then Marcus has a thought. "You're not hungry right now, are you? I've got—" he has to think about it— "well, it isn't the most wonderful of foods, but I have some bucellatum in my saddlebags if you'd like it."
The wolf's ravenous stare seems to say I'm not picky.
Marcus finds himself smiling.
It is tricky going—with one hand on Vipsania's reins to keep her from trying to run, it takes him a while to go through his bags one-handed, but eventually he finds the biscuits. They aren't tasty at the best of times, but they are palatable.
He extends his hand, and the wolf delicately plucks the bucellatum from his fingers. The piece is gone in a few bites. He offers another and another, and then his hands are empty. He knows that was nowhere near enough food.
"Sorry," he says, feebly. "That's all I've got."
His hand is still outstretched, and as he watches, frozen, the wolf steps forward and... nuzzles him, and then licks his hand. It is a kind of thanks, he thinks, stunned; it is the sort of behavior he'd expect from a beloved hound, but he knows now this is Esca, and it all tangles and twists in his head and comes out wrong. He can't stop himself from picturing Esca as he saw him last time, Esca smiling, as a man, here on the ground before him, Esca's mouth—
Marcus jerks his hand away.
"I should go," he says, hastily, and by Hercules, what if Esca can smell it on him somehow? What if he knows? "Let you get back to your hunting."
He turns with Vipsania, who is only too happy to turn away, back the direction they came, ignoring the protestations of his wounded leg. He is limping. He knows it.
The wolf gives a questioning sort of yelp.
"I'll be fine," Marcus says. "I'm well, really, I am. Good hunting to you."
Another whine. Marcus doesn't turn back this time.
The sun is down a long way in the sky before he finds an old tree stump he can climb upon to mount up from, and it is even longer before he makes it back to town.
Maybe he could have used the help.
"What did you do to her, eh?" the stable-master wonders in dismay, eyeing Vipsania's lathered flanks.
It is on the tip of Marcus' tongue to say that they fled a wolf. It is, after all, true.
But then they would come for Esca.
He shrugs. "I suppose I rode too hard." The lie makes him sound uncaring, but, well, with the truth the way it is, there is nothing else he can say to keep Esca safe. The least he can do is that.
One market-day passes, and then another. Marcus is in the forum on the third market-day, running his hand across Canius the tanner's wares while the man smiles cheerfully enough and mutters something about how he will not take a sestertius less. It is more than Marcus had hoped to spend on the leather; he has spent more than he intended on an offering for Jupiter, and his purse is lighter than usual. He nearly offered to Venus, this morning, but decided on the temple steps that he was not entirely certain he wanted her aid.
Still, it is a good day. His leg has been paining him less and less, and hardly at all today. And if he can only get some leather to fix the broken strap of his favorite pair of house-sandals, it will be even better.
Marcus has come alone to the forum and so he jumps in surprise at the low whisper in his ear. He's reaching for a dagger that isn't there before recognition floods his mind.
"He's a cheat," a familiar voice says, sounding almost fond even with the insult. "Come with me and I'll show you better."
He turns, and—
Esca is grinning. "Marcus," he says, in reply, and then frowns as he keeps looking at him. "Are you well?" For surely he can see the tension in him; like any soldier, Marcus is still half-waiting for a fight.
"Only surprised to see you," Marcus says, relieved, exhaling, and that much is the truth.
He takes a moment to look over Esca, the way—he hopes!—that Esca has been looking at him. The day is warm enough that he lacks his threadbare cloak, but his tunic and braccae are still sad and worn. Slung over his shoulder is a pack, no doubt full of everything Esca has brought to market to sell—and he has brought rather a lot.
Esca tracks the movement of his eyes. "Furs," he says, hefting the pack a little.
"Heavy thing to walk to town with," Marcus says, though after he has said it he realizes he doesn't know where Esca lives. It might not have been far at all.
Esca grins crookedly, a smile of success. "Oh, I started with much more than this. And traded some of it to a farmer for a cart-ride."
The man's smile is still very, very attractive, and Marcus feels himself flush with warmth, just watching. He looks away.
"So tell me about this better tanner."
Canius coughs. "You can't think to take his word," he says, in tones of disbelief. "This man is— well, surely you've heard the rumors." Canius has always been kind to Marcus, friendly enough, but it seems he does not like Esca.
Marcus has no idea what to say, and so says nothing. Esca is watching him, and his face is very, very still. He is meant to choose now.
It is easier this time, but he cannot say the look in Canius' eyes does not wound him.
Esca turns and picks his way through the market. Marcus follows, and back in a shadowed corner is a man he has never met. The man is clearly of the tribes—swirling designs are inked up and down both his arms—and he regards Marcus with suspicion even as he smiles at Esca. But his goods are, Marcus has to admit, better than Canius'. He can see that much from here.
"It's all right," Esca says, quietly, looking at Marcus with something that might be trust. "He's a good man; I sell to him, most days. But he doesn't know Latin, so if you tell me what you want I can do the bargaining."
"Deerskin if he has it," Marcus says. "I have a sandal I want to mend."
"Your slaves don't do that for you? Or a cobbler?"
It is an honest question, and Marcus suspects that in many houses it would be as Esca says. He shrugs. "I can do it myself." He had to take care of all his gear, once. And he likes having something to do with his hands. He likes being useful.
He watches as Esca steps forward and says a few quick words in British. Esca tilts his head in Marcus' direction once, and Marcus wonders if he is calling him a friend. He wonders what the tanner makes of it. Certainly the tanner does not seem repulsed by Esca, as Canius was. He remembers, suddenly, how all the Romans who have heard of or suspected Esca's... condition have warned him away, when the Britons have not. He remembers Cottia's strange words, her insistence that Esca was not nice enough.
Esca is certainly nice to him. He has no idea what any of it means.
"Sorry," Esca says, apologetically, and somehow without thinking about it Marcus is following him still, now into a little alleyway off the forum, out of the crowd.
"He's out of deerskin, then?" Marcus leans against a wall, across the slogan of some candidate for the next election.
Esca nods, and he looks somehow embarrassed. "The only deerskin he had today, was, well, here—" and now he is sliding his pack off his shoulder. At the top of it is a neatly-rolled piece of leather. "I'm afraid I bought it from him first. I suspect I even sold him the hide."
Marcus laughs. "I was too slow, eh?"
But now Esca is holding the leather out at him. "Here, go on."
"You'll sell it to me?"
That seems reasonable enough. Marcus moves forward and reaches for his money-pouch, only to be interrupted by Esca stepping closer, Esca's hand closing around his wrist. Warm fingers. He liked having fingers, he said. Marcus can feel his pulse beat dizzily in his head and he hopes Esca won't let go. If he just stepped closer— if they— and they are here where no one would see—
Esca smiles, very close now. "A gift, Marcus."
He can't possibly take it. He is rich, an equestrian, with more money than someone like Esca should dream of seeing in his life; no doubt Esca has hunted for every scrap of what he has.
"You should—" he stops, swallows— "I can't just take it. You should keep it. You bought it. You needed it."
The smile is faint, but still there. Marcus wonders what it would be like to kiss Esca. "And you needed the food in your saddlebags," Esca murmurs.
Until Esca said it, Marcus could have convinced himself the incident in the woods had been freakish, a tame dog, a calm beast. It has been only too easy to forget it, with Esca gone, but it was him, it was him all along. And then the strange feelings come surging back, for they were close like this then too, but Esca wasn't Esca—
"I didn't, though," Marcus finds himself saying. "I was fine."
Esca's eyes are wide. It is not quite the stare of the wolf. "You keep saying that. Just, please." His face tightens in frustration, as if this is hard for him to say. "I want you to have it."
Marcus breathes. "All right."
Esca presses the leather into his hand and then, very suddenly, steps back. They are no longer touching. Marcus tries to tell himself he is not disappointed by this.
"Besides," Esca begins, and the look on his face now is a smirk that should really, truly not make Marcus want to kiss him even more, "you haven't seen the rest."
Esca has darted to the mouth of the alleyway. His eyes are sparkling, and he is still grinning. "Ah, that would be telling, wouldn't it?"
And then Esca is again gone into the crowd, the way the wolf had disappeared among the trees.
Alone now, Marcus drops back against the wall again. He is shaking, some part of him observes, distantly. He splays one hand against the wall for support; the other clenches the gift Esca gave him.
Esca was here, and Marcus still wants him. It does not seem to be going away. And the worst of it is, if Esca were anyone else, Marcus would have asked by now. It is not as if Esca is some fellow citizen of rank whose honor he might sully, and Marcus has been quite good at doing what he wants without getting caught. But he cannot chance it now, not with someone who isn't even... human.
But his body doesn't care what his mind thinks, and it is a long while of standing there trying to compose himself before the heat that rages through his bones cools enough that he can breathe again, that he can walk back into the world.
By the time Marcus makes his way back to his uncle's home with only the piece of leather to show for an entire morning in the forum markets, he has almost forgotten Esca's parting words in the alley.
As soon as Marcipor lets him in, he can smell the evening's dinner already cooking at the back of the house. He sniffs, experimentally. Roast boar? They've been short on game for a month or more now, and Marcus has grown tired of gruel, gruel, and more gruel, with the occasional fish. It is almost worse than army fare. But there has been none better to be had, Sassticca has told them every market-day, her eyes growing sadder and sadder. Not for any money could they have boar or even venison, and Marcus is in no condition to go hunt it himself. Not yet.
But it seems that someone in Calleva has been hunting, and Sassticca has been lucky this day. Oh, he is glad now that he gave so much to Jupiter, if this is his reward. Marcus passes hurriedly through the atrium to the kitchen where Sassticca is standing over a spit. Yes, that is boar indeed! Not the entire massive beast, of course, but they will eat well tonight.
"Sassticca!" he says, gratefully. He could kiss her, he really could. "I see you found proper meat at last." He smiles. "I only hope you did not sell everything we had for it."
He was not sure to make of her at first, but he has grown to like the woman these past months, and he has found her to be an honest and trustworthy slave. And it is the familiarity that keeps him from thinking she has merely run off with the money when she frowns and says, "Domine, it was free."
Marcus blinks. "Free?"
"It was the oddest thing. I went first thing to the meat-sellers as you told me to," she says, acknowledging the order, "and they said there was still nothing fancier than fish. And I suppose I mentioned your name, domine, while I was talking, because all at once a young man interrupted me."
Oh. You haven't seen the rest. Esca had meant this. Another gift. Marcus hardly knows what to think now. What does any of it mean?
"And he gave you the boar?"
"Just like that," she confirms. "He said it was to repay your hospitality." She looks confused; Marcus can't blame her. "But I haven't fed him here, domine. I'd remember serving him; he wasn't even Roman."
"British, then?" Marcus asks, and waits for Sassticca's nod before continuing. "A small man?" Sassticca pauses, and Marcus corrects himself. "Small for a Briton, I mean."
"And I suppose," Marcus says, "that he was pale and thin and a little odd-looking. With a great knapsack on his back when you saw him. And that maybe he was cold, or curt."
She nods. "I have seen him around town, but I do not know him." At least there is one person Esca's secret is safe from. And then she grins, unexpectedly. "But whatever you have done for your friend, domine, you should do it again, as the boar is like to turn out well."
He knows that is a sign to leave her with her cooking, but stops suddenly in the archway, a question in his mind.
"How do you know he is my friend?"
Sassticca looks up from her pots, and her reply is quick, matter-of-fact, and, for all that, revelatory.
"Domine, he only smiled when he said your name."
One fine morning, his uncle has actually come down from his tower to work; his scrolls are spread across every flat surface in the atrium.
"Good morning," his uncle says, without looking up. His mouth keeps moving after he is done speaking, but he is only reading.
Marcus stares at the mess and an idea slowly coalesces in his mind. He ought to have done this long ago.
"Today—" Marcus tests out the word— "I am going to go apologize to the Atrii for my behavior."
His uncle does look up then, and Marcus can see the thoughts passing across his face, the disbelief of I didn't think you ever would shifting into pleasure.
"I do not think they will take me as a client now," he admits. Not that he would want to be a secretary or anything of the sort. He does not want to sit all day in idleness, even as he knows his accursed leg is not quite well enough yet for him to manage anything that is much more strenuous. Walking to their villa will be enough of a test. "But perhaps there is still some good will left between us, eh?"
His uncle smiles.
"Marcus," his uncle says, looking as though nothing could make him prouder, "I think that would be an excellent idea."
Marcus is pleased to find that he can walk to the villa of the Atrii without any more than a dull pain in his leg. And while the elder Atrius does not look particularly pleased to see him—he looks, in fact, mostly surprised that Marcus has come without even a slave—he seems much more kindly disposed after Marcus offers all the apologies he can think of as well as an invitation to his own home.
"I had wondered about you," Atrius says, thoughtfully, "if you don't mind me saying so." Marcus minds, of course, but what with Atrius being a senator, he cannot exactly afford to.
"I understand." Marcus looks down. "I fear that I had forgotten about the customs of civilian life." It is a lie, of course, another one, but the best he has.
Atrius gives a tight smile. "Your uncle assured me repeatedly that you were well-mannered, and I remember myself what it was like to be in the army; there were times when I sent men to walk off their own injuries, as you did. I think I can forgive a lapse like this."
"Thank you," Marcus says. He does not feel particularly grateful, although he knows he ought to. He does not, he realizes, care particularly about the Atrii. But his uncle will care that he does this. Marcus does not want to think about who else he cares about.
He stays for a while longer, making enough light conversation to show that he is not a complete boor.
"I suppose this is the part of the conversation where I offer you work," Atrius says, abruptly.
Marcus has to admire the man's candor, if nothing else. "Is it?"
Atrius leans back a little on his couch. "If you were another man, Aquila, I would say I had some copying to do and that I would be pleased if you could help. But you do not strike me as the sort of man who would enjoy it, hmm? You'd rather be out running or riding if you could, and if you had to sit and do a task you'd rather it be one you could do well out of doors."
Is he fidgeting that much? "That... might be true."
Atrius smiles. "I thought as much. But I'll think about what I might have for you. There are a few men I can talk to."
"That is kind." This time he is truly grateful. Perhaps society is not all intolerable.
Marcus whistles to himself all the way down the track to the road home, lost in thought. That did not go so badly.
Then he sees the creature watching him from a thicket, and stops in amazement and with a rising sense of hope.
The wolf stands there—not like a dog with his head high, Marcus sees, but the way wolves do, with his head on a level with his back. But it is Esca. He is sure of it this time. It is even almost where he met Esca on the road that first night.
"Hail," Marcus calls out, and he is making his way off the track before he even knows what has possessed him. "I don't have a horse this time, Esca, so come as close as you like."
The wolf points his ears forward and lifts his head, giving him a panting half-smiling look. Marcus thinks has seen that look on Esca's face before.
"I don't have any food this time," Marcus admits, as he slides the cumbersome toga off his arm and drops it on the ground. He can pick it up later. "Thank you for the boar, by the way."
Esca pads closer. Marcus tests out the name in his head. It does not seem quite so strange calling him by his name now.
"How did you do that?" he wonders. It is hard to imagine a single wolf closing on a boar; he has seen the size those beasts grow to here, bigger than the Italian ones. The fight would be a chancy matter, and he knows Esca is not stupid. "Did you have help? It seems hard without weapons."
Esca's stare is suddenly baleful, and Marcus can picture the scene. "Oh," he says, finally. "You had a weapon." He might have been a wolf first, and lured him in somehow, and then gone for the spears.
"Well, it was good boar." Ah, he is babbling now, Esca will surely think him an idiot—
Soft fur brushes his fingertips, and he looks down to see Esca's head, nudging his hand. As a man, Esca has hardly touched him, always staying away, more reserved than a Roman would be. Marcus remembers the way he felt in the alley, with Esca's hand at his wrist. With all these touches rationed out so, even the smallest one undoes him, even now that Esca is a wolf, for he knows that Esca is also a man—
And then Esca drops, sliding his front paws forward and bending down, and Marcus has seen dogs do that bow enough that he knows the meaning of it: a friendly gesture. Esca wants to play. Esca likes him.
How do you play with a wolf? He does not think Esca wants to fetch things. He knows wolves wrestle with each other, yes, but he does not think he knows enough to do that without risking hurting one of them—Esca is big, after all, with claws and teeth—and at the same time Esca is still a man and Marcus is not quite certain his mind can deal with that—
Esca must have some idea of what is possible.
"What would you like to do?"
He watches as Esca nips delicately at a fold of his tunic and then dances backward. He hopes this is not Esca asking him to remove it. That would be awkward indeed. No, surely, if Esca liked him in quite that manner he would ask while he was a man. And of course, Esca has not.
Then Esca comes forward and does it again, this time snagging the side of his tunic, and retreating even farther. He peeks out from behind a tree, wags once, and Marcus finally sees the plan.
"How is it even fair that you want me to chase you?" he says, laughing, and he's already following, of course. "You're so much faster this way."
Esca twitches his tail. I'll give you a chance, he says, or seems to be saying, and then he darts between two trees.
Esca might be faster, Marcus thinks with exhilaration as he slips down a hillside and discovers that his leg is still holding up quite well, but he is noisy as the North Wind and is taking great bounding strides. And, for some reason, he thinks he is hard to see, which might be true against trees but is not true against some of the grass. Which is where he is when Marcus runs up to him.
"Got you," Marcus says.
Esca only wolf-grins and nudges him again, a little impatiently, and Marcus groans when he figures out what that means.
"It can't be my turn," he says, and he knows he's grinning as he says it. "You'll catch me before I can even blink. There's no way to make that fair."
Esca stares at him, then sighs a great sigh and... lies down? He curls up, tail to nose. His tail even covers his eyes. No, now he's moving his tail and staring. Then he covers his eyes again.
"Oh." He is amazed, really, at how much Esca can say even without words. "You want me to go hide and you'll find me." Like the children's game. He thinks about this. "You'll still track me."
Another lupine grin, this one seeming to say depends how good you are.
He dares not pet Esca, but instead stands. "All right. I'll hide."
It was never part of his army training, but nonetheless Marcus feels proud of himself when he backtracks down a little stream and comes out the other side. When he judges he's gone far enough, he sits, sliding down the closest tree, leaning his back on it, and trying not to breathe too loudly. But at least he has done something. He is getting better. A month ago he wouldn't have been able to exert himself anywhere near this much.
Of course, it hardly takes Esca any time at all to find him.
"How long did you wait?" Marcus asks, looking up when a cold, wet nose bumps into his hand.
Esca pants and only looks proud of himself, his head and tail held high. Marcus suspects he wouldn't like the answer even if Esca could tell him right now.
Marcus' stomach growls, and he realizes it has been a long while since he has eaten.
"I should go," he tells Esca, feeling reluctant as he does so. "I've got to eat something, and I'm not in the mood for raw anything. But I'll see you around sometime, eh?"
Esca moves close, as if he is going to lick Marcus' hand or—may all the gods help him—his face. Perfectly normal behavior. From a dog. Or perhaps a wolf. But Esca isn't a dumb beast, and he can't possibly— they can't—
Marcus flinches hard.
Esca stops, suddenly, his ears gone flat to his head, and he whimpers and runs into the forest.
Marcus spends several long breaths cursing himself before he picks himself up and makes his way back to the road. What was he supposed to do?
When he gets home, his uncle stares at him, and only then does Marcus realize he is covered in dirt and his tunic is ripped up the side with something that looks like teeth-marks. Made by very, very sharp teeth. He remembers now that he left his toga in the woods.
His uncle's eyes widen. "Marcus, are you all right? You've been gone so long, and you—" he can only gesture the end of his sentence. "I was worried you had come to some harm."
"I—" Marcus casts around for an answer— "fell down. In the woods, I mean. Yes."
He knows he is a poor liar, and his uncle raises an eyebrow. "For two hours."
Marcus coughs. "Yes."
And then his uncle smiles. "Whoever she is, Marcus, just bring her home already. I'm sure you'll be much more comfortable indoors."
Marcus feels his face grow hot. He's a man, Uncle, he imagines himself saying. Sometimes. And sometimes he's a wolf. You don't want him here. And I don't know what to do.
"There's no one," he lies, and he ducks into his room as fast as he can.
Sitting in the garden, his head in his hands, Marcus doesn't even notice Cottia until she levers herself up over the wall and lands on his side, and that much only because she makes noise among the flowers.
"Hail, Cottia," he says, without looking up, and because he might as well attempt to be polite to someone today, he adds, "I fear I am not in much of a mood for latrunculi now."
"Are you wishing you were dead?"
He looks up to see Cottia staring annoyedly at him.
"My aunt and uncle, they are making me learn some verses of your Aeneid," she says, and her voice sounds sour indeed. "And that Aeneas there, he starts out the poem wishing he had died, and they keep telling me how he is the best Roman of all, so of course it must be honorable to—"
Marcus starts laughing. "I think perhaps you have misinterpreted it."
"Then what?" She tucks her hair behind her ears and steps closer; apparently they are going to talk whether he likes it or not.
"Nothing," Marcus says. "It's not important." He can't tell her about Esca, he can't. She is a child. She will not understand.
"Is it true Esca is a skin-changer?"
Marcus looks up sharply. "Why— why are you asking me about him?"
He knows his face must tell the answer.
Cottia's expression is only one of curiosity. "Are you not friends with him now? Canius the tanner said you were."
"It is—" he cannot manage the sentence, and he finds he is picturing the disapproval on Canius' face as he left with Esca— "if Esca is, it is not for me to say."
"Romans." Cottia's face twists. "I do not understand Romans. It is not as though it is a bad thing. One of our bards was a skin-changer. I do not see why here it has to be a secret."
Marcus blinks a few times. He isn't sure he's heard Cottia correctly. "You mean there are skin-changers among the Iceni?"
Cottia frowns. "Why, of course there are. How do you think I knew to tell you what they were like? Did you think I was only telling stories?"
He had thought exactly that, of course, so he keeps his mouth shut as Cottia keeps talking.
"Lucorix was a very kind man, him and his family," Cottia continues. "They are all kind, skin-changers. I told you. They help those who need help. The lost. The wounded. And if Esca has finally decided to be kind to someone, to you—"
Marcus holds up a hand. "Cottia, I did not say he was one."
She gives him the sort of withering stare that can only be perfected by a thirteen-year-old girl who is confident she knows everything in all the world.
"Then tell me he isn't. Go on."
"He isn't," Marcus lies, as quickly as he can.
"It is all right if you know," she says, quietly enough that no one else in the house can hear. "We only try not to tell Romans about people like skin-changers, because they all make faces." She pauses. "Faces like the one you're making now, actually. They will not harm you."
"I know they won't," Marcus says, before it occurs to him that he was pretending not to know anything about this. "It's not— it isn't that."
For he has come to believe that Esca will not harm him. No, the problem is not that, not any longer. The problem is, in fact, that he likes Esca far too much; if Esca were only a man, it would be easy, but he isn't. What does it mean, that a skin-changer should like him? It is true, what Cottia says, that Esca seems to like him. And he is clearly not kind to everyone. Perhaps he means nothing special by it; perhaps for him it is just a sort of interest that his sort can take in anyone, and in him it is not this same slow-burning desire that has been kindled in Marcus.
He puts his head in his hands again. "I can't talk about it. I'm sorry."
"Well," says Cottia gamely, unfazed, "if I see him I will greet him for you."
And she is up over the wall again before Marcus can tell her not to.
Everyone knows that sometimes the gods send true dreams. Even the most unbelieving philosophers will hardly quibble on that point. In dreams the dead speak, the gods appear, and one would be foolish not to heed them.
When Marcus shuts his eyes that night he is in Rome. It is a long time since he has been to Rome. He was there when he was eighteen, to enlist, but he is not eighteen any longer. It is a hot, bright day, and he walks through the crowded forum, not minding the press of men and women, slaves bearing litters, toga-clad senators gesturing elegantly to each other.
He has somewhere to be, he is sure of it; it is the way it is in dreams, with the awful creeping feeling that he has forgotten something important. Maybe he isn't supposed to be in the forum at all.
Marcus turns, as quickly as anyone can—for in a dream he is not bound by the constraints of his body—and begins heading out and up the slope of the Capitoline. It is slow, if only because the goatherd in front of him will not get out of the way.
What is a man like this one doing surrounded by these fine people? The man is clearly a farmer of some sort, dressed in an old short tunic. He has a goat at one side; under his other arm is tucked some sort of bundle of food, fruit spilling out one end. Perhaps it is an offering to the gods. Well, if he is here to make an offering, he is going the wrong way, and he is slow about it. He's even carrying a goatskin; he must be poor indeed, not to have finer material.
"Out of the way, old man," someone behind Marcus yells, shoving himself forward, hitting Marcus in his rush. Marcus trips, falling against the old farmer.
When he slams into the man it is a shocking, nearly painful feeling, a bolt of lightning, and Marcus picks himself up hurriedly, then leans over to help him with the fruit.
"Sorry about that," Marcus says, holding out as much of the food as will fit in his hands.
"That is not why you need to apologize, Marcus," a voice says.
And then he looks up. The bearded old man smiles, and Marcus sees now—the man is tall, so tall, and something about his skin shines so strangely, not like a man at all. Then Marcus knows.
"Father Quirinus," Marcus manages, stammering, keeping his head cast down as he hands back to the founder of Rome the food from his cornucopia. "How— what have I done to offend you?"
The god says nothing for a long while, and Marcus only looks up when he feels the press of a hand on his shoulder.
"Stand up, Marcus." The god smiles. "Or shall I call you quiris?"
It cannot be that bad if Romulus is willing to say that Marcus is one of his; it makes Marcus feel a strange kind of pride in the thing, even though he would not have liked such a word for civilians when he was a soldier.
"It isn't me you have offended, quiris," Romulus says, with a ghost of a smile, once they have walked a little further. In dreams, the hill is hardly a hill at all.
He knows where the wolf-statue should be. It should be right here; he has seen it. As they walk closer, it is nowhere to be found, and where it should be stands a living figure, a slight young man, bare to the waist. He breathes; though he is still apart from that, he is hardly a bronzed statue. The light hits the painted swirls all across his arm, and then the crowd pushes past Marcus and briefly obscures the view.
Marcus takes a surprised, sharp breath. The unexpected sight is almost worse than seeing the god. He does not have to come any closer to know who that is. He watches Esca's chest heave and he dares not move forward.
"Is he one of yours?" Marcus says, as low as he can, but in any case no one seems to notice the two of them. Are the skin-changers kin, somehow? Sacred to the god?
Romulus' eyes dart to the side; nothing else in his face moves. "What do you think, eh?"
He makes himself breathe again, in and out and in. The sound is ragged and quick, terrifying even himself; it is as if he is in battle. "Father, I don't know."
"What do you fear, Marcus?" The god's voice rumbles low in his ear. "Tell me, is it worth it?"
Across the crowd, Esca's eyes meet his. He sees Esca's mouth move, shape his name, but the words come from too far away to hear.
Someone closer grumbles about a savage barbarian; that, he can hear all too well, and he watches Esca struggle not to react to the insult, his face as still as stone. Before him, Esca learned to feel nothing, somehow.
He remembers Esca smiling at him.
It is in that precise instant that Marcus realizes how wrong he has been. It doesn't matter. Esca matters. He can work it out somehow. By Hercules, Esca is someone he can talk to, even—
Esca, he wants to say, to cry out, but there are too many people between them.
He wakes, sweating, trembling, the blankets twisted around him, and the unsettling dream still slides through his mind. He must do something.
When Marcus leaves the house that morning, he hardly has time to worry about how he will manage to find Esca when he does not even know where Esca lives. Perhaps the gods look out for him still, since Esca finds him when he is barely outside his own front door.
"I'm sorry—" Marcus begins, his heart leaping to his throat, even as he sees Esca opening his mouth, hastily, to say much the same thing.
Esca speaks over him. "I apologize if I've been unwelcome—"
And then, as often happens, they both stop at the same time and can only stare at each other until Esca gives a little laugh.
Seeing it, Marcus smiles. Perhaps this will be well after all. "You had something to say?" Marcus asks.
Esca's smile in response is an awkward, nearly embarrassed look. "There was a girl in the forum who said you wanted to talk to me." But the way he says it is so hopeful, as though, if Marcus can just figure out the right words, he could have Esca in his arms.
At the moment, he's having trouble coming up with any words at all.
"A girl?" he wonders, because he can't think of anything else to say, and then remembers. "Oh. Cottia."
The hope in Esca's eyes is tempered with uncertainty. "That wasn't true? You didn't want to to talk to me?"
"No! Yes!" Marcus is clearly the greatest idiot in the world. "Yes, I wanted to talk to you." Deep breath. Deep breath. Smile. "Can we try this again?"
Esca blinks. "All right."
"Do you want to come to the baths with me?"
And Esca smiles. "Of course I would."
He pays for their entrance, he pays for an attendant to watch their things, and by the time he looks up he sees Esca staring around the palaestra, at the men wrestling or playing hand-ball, with an unreadable expression on his face.
"Do you disapprove of our fine Roman culture?" Marcus asks, and then wonders if he has presumed too much.
"The bath-houses?" Esca laughs. "Certainly not, not with how cold it gets in the winters. You're all welcome to leave them behind if you ever decide to give up conquering this place."
Marcus finds himself chuckling. "Happy you approve."
"No, that wasn't it." He's looking nervous again, his eyes darting around the space as if he hates to be out in the open. "I was only wondering— perhaps I should not even ask, but—"
Esca does turn to him then, a tense, quick movement. "Would you wrestle?"
The question seems to hang between them even after Esca has said it. Marcus remembers the way the wolf looked in the forest. Play with me. This is his second chance.
"Only if it will not injure you," Esca adds, hastily. "And I... understand if you don't want to."
Of course he understands. Even Marcus cannot miss the flash of hurt, poorly-hidden, that passes across Esca's face. He expects Marcus to say no. He expects any Roman to say no.
"I want to," Marcus says, and Esca's smile is bright as the sun.
Marcus' courage begins to fail him, though, when it comes time to actually do the thing and they are in the apodyterium removing their clothing. Esca promptly pulls his tunic off over his head, leaving his braccae on, and Marcus... well, Marcus had not had the foresight to wear braccae, and does not want to chance tearing his tunic. Oh, he has a loincloth; they need not wrestle in the Greek style, but there is the matter of his leg.
He has not dared the wrestling rings, not since his injury. He knows it would be good for him, to exercise the muscles, but he does not think he could stand another's pity. Another's stare. And Esca would be watching him. He would have to watch him, and it would not be like the wolf staring at him in the dimness. Not now that Marcus knows.
"Marcus?" Esca has stopped, and clenches his tunic, balled up, in his hands. He is thinner than Marcus remembered, Marcus thinks, and then desire swirls in with all the shame and everything is once again, confused. "Are you well?"
"I—" Marcus mumbles the word, stops, and starts again. "I need to take my tunic off."
Esca will see. Everyone will see. Oh, in the baths themselves, people try not to look, but here, if he fights, he will be displaying himself. Esca can already see the scar, he knows; the very bottom is visible just at the hem of his tunic, which he keeps as long as possible to avoid this exact situation. The whole scar will show if he takes off the tunic.
Esca tilts his head. "That's usually how it works in the baths, yes." His voice is a gently humorous tease.
He can't look at Esca. He can't. "They'll stare. You'll stare," he says, quietly.
And then, to prove to himself that he can, he undoes his belt and pulls the tunic off before Esca can say anything else. When he looks up, the corners of Esca's mouth twitch and there is a strange gleam in his eyes.
"Why shouldn't they look at you?" Esca asks, his voice gone low, and there is surely some other meaning there. "Why shouldn't I?"
Esca is— not even looking at his leg, Marcus realizes. Esca is looking him up and down and smiling, still smiling, like he thinks Marcus is worth looking at. As though Marcus' body is pleasing to him.
He knows his face is flushed red in the dim, dim room, red like the apodyterium walls, and he has no idea what to say. If Esca is implying what he hopes— but what could they do? They are in the middle of the public baths, and even if Esca said yes, or if Marcus did, then what? He cannot very well bring him back to his uncle's, and he wants more than a meaningless fuck in a deserted alleyway.
Right. Marcus swallows. "Wrestling?"
When they have taken their places in the ring, Marcus wonders if perhaps Esca is humoring him.
"You needn't go easy on me!" he calls out. He would hate to be thought less capable.
Esca's grin manages to be both dangerous and playful. "I wasn't planning to."
How should he manage this? He ponders tactics as Esca circles, looking very much like a wolf poised to strike his prey, an idea that, Marcus is surprised to find, hardly disconcerts him at all. Esca is smaller, lighter, and faster than he is. Marcus has a weight advantage, certainly, but he is slow, slower than he ever was before, though once he gets Esca to the ground—
Somehow he is on his back and Esca is above him, laughing, and all the air has gone out of Marcus' lungs.
"Thought you'd be a harder catch, Marcus," Esca murmurs.
Oh, this is not over yet. Marcus is hardly pinned, and he can flip Esca easily enough, but— Esca will not hold, sliding out from under his grasp. And he is still laughing, laughing as though he is having the time of his life, and Marcus finds himself laughing too.
"How about that, eh?" he tells Esca, holding both of his wrists together.
"Either way," Esca retorts, grinning, "if you know what I mean."
And they are rolling again, and now Marcus is on his back, Esca holding him down, Esca's face in his shoulder, and he takes notice, suddenly, of the warm breath at his neck. It is like when pups play-wrestle; he has seen dogs do this before, of course.
He thinks, suddenly, that he would bare his throat to Esca, if Esca asked him. But they are here in the middle of the palaestra. This is hardly the place for it, and what if he is wrong about it all?
"You win," Marcus breathes, and he wonders if Esca knows how much he has won.
The warm water is particularly invigorating after the exercise, and Marcus sinks down into the pool with a grateful sigh. He is aware of Esca, next to him, doing much the same thing.
When Marcus dares to look over, Esca has his head tipped back, his eyes closed in pleasure, and he is still smiling. He feels a little guilty furtively admiring Esca, Esca who should not be so handsome to him but yet somehow is. If Marcus described him, all of the words would sound strange, nothing like beauty, but these days he cannot think of anyone but Esca. Perhaps it is that damned smile.
"Yes?" Esca has opened his eyes.
Marcus quickly looks away. "Nothing."
There is another silence between them, and then Esca shrugs. "I am glad you like me as a man, even if you care not for me the rest of the time. I don't blame you." But even as he says it, his face is sad. It is a lie.
"I'm sorry about that," Marcus says quietly. "It won't happen again."
"Won't it?" The way Esca says it, it isn't really a question.
"I have been foolish," Marcus tells him. "However you are, in whatever form, I am happy to see you."
Esca smiles a little. "Happy, really?"
Marcus nods and cannot find words. He cannot tell Esca about the dream. He cannot tell Esca that he is practically the only person in Calleva who does not look at him like he is cursed, who makes him feel as though he is worth something.
"Ah," Esca says, and then nothing else.
Marcus wonders if now, now he might ask more of Esca's past, of how skin-changers work.
"Is this permitted?"
Esca looks honestly confused. "What do you mean, permitted?"
It is patently obvious to Marcus. Just as the Romans would not approve of friendly relations with skin-changers, should not the skin-changers also have some custom? Should Esca not have some authority to listen to? He is young, after all.
"You don't... live in packs?" Marcus tries. "Surely you are not old enough to be the head of your pack or whatever it is. And you are here with me, by yourself, with no one to tell you how you should behave?"
"Oh," says Esca, and his voice is full of a dawning enlightenment and amusement mixed together. "I see. You think we're like Romans." He laughs. "It makes sense, I suppose, that you would think so."
"What do you mean?" He only suggested a perfectly sensible way to behave, and he has seen dogs fight for dominance; why should wolves of any kind not be the same?
Esca is laughing again. "You think we have consuls and emperors and elections? Patrons and clients and a system of who should bow to whom? You think I should turn up at someone's den every day on account of my honor?"
"I... I don't know." It makes perfect sense for people. Of course, when Esca says it like that it sounds so silly.
"I lived with my family," Esca says, and he is suddenly quiet. "We had no need for any of these customs. We were a family."
"Brigantes, are you?"
Esca looks a little surprised—perhaps at the fact that Marcus has learned that—but then recovers quickly. "As much as any of the human clans will claim me, I suppose."
He knows they rebelled, in the north. There are always skirmishes, broken promises, slaughter. And then he sees, quickly enough, why Esca must have hated soldiers so.
"There was fighting up that way a few years back, wasn't there?" Marcus ventures. "I know the Sixth Legion was sent against some of the Brigantes. Your family—"
Esca is shaking his head. "Killed by soldiers, oh yes. But not the way you're thinking."
"Then what?" Marcus has to ask now, even though his stomach is twisting into wretched little knots and he wishes he had never said anything.
Esca does not meet his eyes, and he stares sadly into the water.
"Wolf hunt," he says, finally.
"Oh." He doesn't know why that should feel so much worse than if Esca's family had merely been some clan, rising in revolt against Rome. Then all at once, he does know. "You— they were innocent, weren't they?"
"You mean, did we kill men?" Esca's laugh is bitter. "Of course we didn't. I won't say we didn't eat a few Roman sheep. But we intended no harm to men. We never did. We don't hurt people. But that never matters, does it? I'm sure you know what they do to wolves."
"You're still here."
"I ran." Esca turns his face away. "I ran as fast and as far as I could, until my paws bled, until I could hardly hold my head up, and I kept running. I was a coward, and there's not a day when I don't wish I'd stayed and fought them."
"You'd have died too," Marcus says, softly, remembering as he says it every time he went on wolf-patrol, watching the spearmen descend into the dens—
"Maybe." They can both tell Esca chokes off the rest of the sentence. Maybe I should have.
"I'm glad you're still here," Marcus says. It hardly seems enough, but it is the truth that he has to offer. "I'm glad I met you."
"I as well."
Marcus raises an eyebrow. "You do know I was a soldier?"
Esca mirrors the gesture. "You do know I am a savage, unnatural monster?"
They hold the stare for a few breaths, until Marcus starts smiling.
"You know," Marcus says, figuring he might as well tell him, "Cottia told me she thought you were too mean to be a skin-changer. But you're nice to me."
Esca shrugs. "I used to think it would be easier if I never let anyone close to me."
"It gets lonely that way." Marcus has known loneliness himself, years of night watches and long corridors and whispers about that one, Aquila's cursed son.
"Mmm," Esca says, a quiet noise of agreement. "It does. Better with a pack."
There's nothing to say to that, really, no way for Marcus to let himself say anything ill-advised like are you only here because I am a cripple? or why me? or, perhaps worst, I want to kiss you.
He hopes, as they leave the bath, that Esca will believe he only wants to be his friend. And then he hopes Esca knows. He has no idea what he wants, except that somehow it involves Esca. They could be a pack, if Esca would let him. If he would let himself.
"How are things, Marcus?" his uncle asks him over dinner.
He takes a bite of fish and wipes his hands before replying. "Things are well," he says, a true enough answer, and picks up his wine-cup.
"And how about that friend of yours, Esca?"
Marcus sloshes and nearly drops his wine, in his surprise. "What about him?"
He imagines the possible questions that follow: What are you, a good equestrian, doing in the company of some peregrinus in all your free time? Do you know he is a skin-changer? And then, perhaps: If you want a boy, there are better ones at the brothel. Yes, he can imagine his uncle saying that.
"I was only wondering," his uncle says, voice honest and curious, "why you haven't invited him for dinner."
This time he does spill the wine.
"Three times a gallows-bird," Marcus hisses, under his breath, at his own clumsiness, and his uncle gives him a reproachful look for his language.
"Marcus, really, do you think this is a barracks?"
"No, Uncle," he says, quickly, as Marcipor takes the cup out of his shaking hands. "I am sorry; I was surprised that you should want to see him again."
His uncle blinks. "Why should I not? If the talk of the town is anything to go by, you have been associating with him for months, and you have not mentioned him once to me."
Marcus' mind is blank, and he desperately tries to come up with a suitable response, one that does not involve mentioning Esca's nature. "I— he is only a peregrinus, Uncle. I didn't think you would want to see him, especially after how you met him—"
"Have you confused me with our neighbors?" His uncle looks puzzled. "Do I seem to you to be a man who cares overmuch for protocol? You know I never accept any of those fine invitations. Why should I care if your friend is a Briton? When I marched with the Eagles in the north, Marcus, do you think my friends were only Romans?"
He can't think, he really can't. "I suppose I never thought about it," he says.
"Well," his uncle replies. "You'll invite this Esca of yours over, then? So I can meet him properly? I am sorry about my earlier... misconception."
"Certainly," Marcus says, and he wonders if he is still dreaming.
"Is there anything in particular he likes to eat?"
Anything he can catch, Marcus wants to say. "I'm sure anything will be fine." And he has to ask. "It truly doesn't bother you, that I speak to him?" He is sure his uncle has heard the rumors; even shut in his tower writing all the time, no one can be that oblivious.
"Marcus," his uncle says, smiling, "I want you to be happy. You should have friends here."
A few days later, Marcus gets a message. It is one of the stranger messages he has ever gotten: a little wax tablet, with no indication of the sender, only his own name, and the message pressed in with a messy hand. Visne mecum venari?
There is no way to reply, of course, but he knows perfectly well who has sent it. Marcus nods to himself and goes to find a weapon. This time he will certainly need one, and not out of any kind of fear.
When Marcus steps outside the next morning, he sees, as he thought he might, Esca, clutching two hunting-spears. Marcus cannot help noticing the dagger he gave Esca, tucked into Esca's belt, and he grins to see it.
"You got the message, then," Esca says, a satisfied smile on his face.
"I did," Marcus says. "Though I see you are better prepared."
"I was planning to loan you a spear anyway," Esca says. "I did not think you had one."
"I don't." He had been wondering if Esca wished to hunt as man or wolf, but the fact that he is carrying two spears neatly answers that question. "What are we after?"
A grin. "Deer. I thought we could start small."
"This is your way of saying you want to impress me on a boar-hunt, isn't it?"
Esca laughs and says nothing until they reach the gate. The guard—Ennecus again, Marcus notes—does not look particularly happy to see Esca, but he waves them both through.
"I live out this way." Esca swings his spear in a lazy arc down the road. "If we're lucky we can chase the deer home."
They are not lucky. It has been a long while since Marcus hunted, but there are hardly any creatures to be seen. And he grows tired of standing so still for so long in the forest. Esca, of course, is a natural; he practically blends into the trees, holding steady in absolute silence. And Esca is patient, too, even when they have been at this for an hour or more.
"How long are we going to wait?" Marcus squints through the leaves. "All day?"
"I was hoping not to," Esca says, and there is a bit of frustration in his tone.
The awful thought occurs to Marcus that perhaps they are here because Esca needs to hunt. Perhaps Esca will starve if he does not catch anything today. Should Marcus offer him food? Money? Would Esca take it?
He ventures the question anyway. "You have other food, yes?"
Esca looks confused at first, then he nods. "There's no need to worry about me. I have food; I just appreciate when I can have more of it." He frowns. "Which does not appear to be today. And there's plenty to eat right here if I'm hungry enough. Always a few insects around. Some berries, if I'm lucky."
"Insects?" He is trying not to look disgusted. "And berries?" Now Marcus is the confused one, for surely a wolf would want more than fruit.
Esca chuckles. "Did you think wolves ate a sheep a day each? Not even your Red Crests march with meat in their bellies every day." But his voice is kind, and his eyes are bright and happy. He is enjoying this; he does not think ill of Marcus for asking, it seems.
They are alone now, Marcus finds himself thinking. Esca is not too far away, a few steps. He could say something. He could.
Then it starts to rain.
Marcus looks up at the sky and laughs.
"Enough of that," Esca says annoyedly, to the heavens, tilting his face into the rain. "Here, it will at least be dry at my home. Do you want to come?"
"Of course," Marcus says, for how could he want anything else?
And so he follows Esca up out of the forest.
Esca is smiling, he thinks. "One might wonder," comes Esca's amused voice, "at a Roman so eager to walk into a wolf's den. Are you very sure about this?" The tone is pleasant, joking, but Marcus knows the question is serious.
"I had been hoping you would invite me." Let him take that how he likes.
And Esca knows, it seems, exactly how he means it, because the smile he gives Marcus makes his blood run hot even in this chill. But he says nothing, and so they walk in silence.
Naturally, it stops raining as soon as they get to Esca's home, and neither of them are that damp by the time they get there. On the one hand, Marcus is thankful; on the other, he is a little sad to be deprived of such an... opportunity to see more of Esca.
Quiet, he tells his lecherous mind.
Marcus looks around the little roundhouse. It is small, but sturdily-built, and it looks like rather a nice place to live, as bizarre a thing that is for any Roman to think. The rushes on the floor are clean, the hearth swept, and a mix of furs and colorful weavings line the walls. Esca has a little table near the door, a chair, the usual tools and pots all in good repair. Across the house, with a panel half-obscuring the view, is a low bed piled with furs. He is not staring at the bed. Esca did not bring him here for that.
At any rate, he is impressed with the place. "You built this?"
Esca shakes his head. "The man who lived here before me." His mouth quirks. "I don't know if you'd call him a man," he adds, and then he continues on before Marcus can tell him he would. "Used to be a hunter, like most of my people, but when he was too old to hunt he needed help, and I needed a place to stay that... had no bad memories. So we were a little pack for a bit. A very little one. He willed the place to me after he died."
There are others here like Esca. The thought surprises Marcus. For all that Esca has told him of his family, it was easy to think of them as isolated, of Esca as the only one—but to think that other ordinary people, people he might see on the street in town, could be skin-changers as well? He realizes that he doesn't know. Calleva could be full of them. The army could have been full of them. Maybe Lutorius' optio, who when he was taking the watch once had heard the enemy long before the rest of them did—maybe he could be one too.
"How many of you are there here?" He hopes he does not sound that astonished.
Esca laughs, a gentle sound. "Not as many as you might think. I'm the only one in Calleva. Mostly we don't live in the south, not any longer. And there aren't many of us to begin with."
Esca's explanation sounds almost like one he has memorized, waiting for someone to ask him this. Waiting for Marcus, perhaps. "We breed true, you might call it, only with each other. My parents were both skin-changers, yes, but if I had a child with a human woman she might or might not bear a skin-changer. It is a funny thing. A trick of the gods, I suppose." He shrugs, and there is a strange look in his eyes. He pauses, long enough that it must mean something. "It's not likely to come up, anyway."
Marcus has the queerest feeling, the feeling that Esca wants him to ask. Esca is looking at him, still looking, and as he watches Esca is biting his lip a little.
He thinks he might be licking his own lips in response. "Why is that?"
"Oh, you know how it is," Esca drawls, and his voice sounds casual, but his body, tight and closed-in, is anything but. "The sort of people I most like to spend time with... aren't the sort who can end up with child afterwards."
Marcus feels himself go just as tense as Esca looks to be. Esca can't mean him. Esca doesn't know about him; he has been careful, he has not had anything but his own hands since he came to Calleva. How can Esca know what he'd like him to do? How can Esca know what he feels for him? He cannot. A coincidence, nothing more. Marcus is not arrogant enough to think that knowing Esca finds men attractive should mean Esca likes him. And perhaps Esca does not even like grown men, only youths, as a proper, civilized man would.
He clears his throat and makes himself meet Esca's gaze. "What sort of people would those be?"
As he watches, the corners of Esca's mouth turn up a little, and there is an even longer pause before Esca speaks.
It is a very strange answer, after what he has said about the death of his family, after the men from the garrison here wounded him—but Marcus of all people knows that desire is hardly bound by sense, and men frequently lust after people whom by any rational standard they ought never to consider. Venus so often plays these games. After all, here he is, thinking a skin-changer the most attractive man he has known.
And he can hardly fault Esca for liking soldiers. When he was in the legions, he met a great many civilians, men and women both, who had a certain fondness for the uniform, and he knew an even greater number of soldiers who took advantage of it. The thing itself is not unusual. So it is only strange, really, in that it is Esca who gives this answer.
"Oh," says Marcus, finally, trying to sound as though the reply makes sense to him. He forces a smile. "The armor, is it? I used to know a fair number of people who liked the look of a man in armor."
But Esca smiles and shakes his head. "Not the armor," he says, and his voice is soft, almost too soft to be heard, and he steps a little closer and looks up, wide-eyed. "I misspoke just now. I was thinking of one man in particular. Retired soldier, actually."
Marcus draws a long, shaking breath. Not a coincidence, then.
"Maybe you know him," Esca says, still quiet, and as Marcus watches he is trembling. "I've been... well, I've been courting him, honestly, you might say the word is. Trying to impress him. Spending time with him. Hunting for him. I'm not certain he's noticed."
Marcus tries to swallow past his suddenly-dry throat, his mind blank of all useful responses. "He's— he's noticed."
"Ah," Esca breathes, and the sound is barely more than air. "I wasn't sure he would consider... someone like me. If he likes me at all. I thought he did, I thought he could, but— I might be mistaken."
Esca wants this. Esca wants him. Esca would never hurt him; he knows that now. The stories are wrong, the stories are lies, the stories would keep him from this.
Marcus takes a step closer. The words he needs to say echo in his head until he finally opens his mouth.
"I think he likes you very much," he says, and he holds out his hands, holds out his heart, and bares his throat to the wolf.
And then Esca is smiling, he is laughing with the joy of it, and he steps forward into Marcus' arms.
He had always imagined Esca would be rough, when he dared to imagine this. A man who was half a wolf—why, of course such a man would be confident, quick, strong, moving on instinct. Like an animal. But Esca is, it seems, never as Marcus has expected him to be, and as Esca leads him to bed he is still trembling lightly, shaking with nerves, and his hands move slow and tentative across Marcus' shoulders, his back, his hips.
When Esca's hands slide a little further, down Marcus' thighs, he can feel it on one leg but not the other, never again, and despite himself he freezes. Oh, Esca has seen his body before, he knows, but not like this. And what if Esca looks on him with pity? Or horror? He is not sure which would be worse, but he is terrified of the thought of either.
The movement of Esca's fingers slows and stills, and he pulls back his head from where it had been tucked against Marcus' shoulder, kissing Marcus' neck. There is only honest curiosity in his eyes. "Marcus? Did I do something wrong? I can stop—"
"No," he says, quickly. He does not want Esca to stop, but the rest is harder to say. "It is only that I have not been with anyone since— since my leg— and I don't want you to think—" Frustration overwhelms him. "And I cannot be as a whole man, Esca, and there are things a man ought to be able to do in bed that I can't, not the way I used to, or maybe not for very long—"
He wishes he could, because if he could just flip Esca over and take him—not that it is the thing he has ever liked best, and not that he thinks he can do it without pain, now—but it would be better, because then Esca would not have to see him, not be able to look at him—
"Marcus," Esca says, softly, and Esca's palm is against his face now, and despite himself Marcus finds he is looking into Esca's eyes. Esca's features are shadowed with a hint of sadness—for him?—but he does not look at all pitying. Or horrified. In fact, he looks... as if he desires Marcus very much. "If your Roman pride will bear it, I was hoping to keep you on your back until I had—" he smiles, his eyes gone suddenly dark— "had my fill."
"Oh." He swallows. Esca wants him. Esca truly wants him. That is lust, that is, and not concern. "I— I think I can manage that. On my back."
"Or perhaps on your stomach. Hands and knees?" Esca says, carefully, as if measuring his reaction, and Marcus does not hide the sharp spike of surprise and need running through him.
"Yes," he breathes. "Please."
Esca smiles. "Now, that, I did not expect from a good Roman like you." The tone is fond, only fond, with no censure in it. He has picked up Marcus' arm, is kissing the inside of the wrist.
Marcus tries to think about something other than Esca's mouth for just a little longer. "I—mmm—might not be considered such a good Roman."
"Oh, I'm certain you are," Esca whispers. "I hear that the very best and most honorable of Romans loved a she-wolf. Puts you in excellent company." He grins, and suddenly Marcus remembers the dream. It will be all right. "I'm afraid I've forgotten their names, though."
And Marcus cannot stop smiling as Esca, laughing at his own cleverness, presses him to the bed.
Afterwards, they lie together in pleasant satiety, and Marcus is surprised to find that he likes that as much as the act itself. Esca's head is on his chest, Esca's arm is curled almost possessively across him, and Marcus savors every touch. It feels like no one has simply touched him, not in months, and it is good just to be here, surrounded by Esca's warmth.
"Well," Esca murmurs drowsily, "that was nice, wasn't it?"
"Better than nice," Marcus says, and he realizes he is stroking Esca's arm, over the band of ink. "Though I think perhaps that this was not quite the relationship with the she-wolf that the twins had."
Esca chuckles. "You thought it was a good line."
"Is this how you get all the Romans in your bed?"
He means it to be a joke, but the way the words leave his mouth is with an unexpected bite, a kind of jealousy. It is a ridiculous thing, because it is not as though Esca owes him fidelity. There have been no promises made. Esca does not owe him anything more than what they have just done.
Esca pushes himself up and twists until he is facing Marcus. "You're the only one I've ever brought home," he says, simply, and the raw honesty in his eyes makes Marcus want to give voice to foolish feelings that should be too new to be said.
"And you're the only one I've... told," Esca says, quietly, and then he smiles, lifting the mood. "I do like you."
Marcus smiles back. Esca wants this, too. He likes the idea of that. "Maybe you'd like me to come back sometime, then?"
Esca slides forward and kisses him, lightly. "I most certainly would."
"You can come to my home, too," Marcus offers. "My uncle has asked after you, did I tell you? And I realize you may not have seen the place at its best." He remembers the night he brought Esca home.
"Oh, I think I did." Esca sounds very pleased with himself.
If there is a joke, Marcus has missed it. "Hmm?"
A laugh. "I already slept with you in your bed, didn't I? I even got everyone naked for the occasion."
He remembers the way the wolf watched him, that night. He would be lying if he said the thought of it did not make him feel a little strange, still, but he knows now it was Esca. "I don't think that counts." Marcus finds he is laughing in return, but he cannot quite tell if he is pleased by this memory. "You were a wolf then."
"I'm always a wolf." Esca frowns a bit as he says it. "You— I hope you are not expecting me to be other than I am for you. I will always be a skin-changer."
Marcus' fingers tighten on Esca's arm. "I know that. I am not expecting you to be any different. I would not want you to be always one form unless it would please you."
He takes a breath. It is a ridiculous thing to ask, since he knows that Esca is a skin-changer, since he has met him as both man and wolf. But there is knowing of something, and then there is truly knowing it. And he has to know.
"I want— could you show me?"
Esca raises his eyebrows, incredulous. Whatever he expected Marcus to say, it surely was not that. "Show you?"
Marcus nods. "I want to watch you. Change. If you would let me."
Pushing himself upright, Esca stares at him. The look Esca gives him is one of sheer astonishment, as if Marcus has asked for something of unspeakable intimacy. Given what they have just been doing to each other, it is hard for Marcus to imagine how this might have overstepped any bounds. It is only watching.
The change is clearly a thing Esca can do at any time, so that cannot be the reason. Marcus frowns as a thought occurs to him. "It isn't— it isn't painful, is it? I don't want to ask you to do it if it hurts you."
"It doesn't hurt." Esca's reply comes quickly, a reassurance. "It feels wonderful, like... nothing I could ever describe properly. Like a good stretch when you are sore from lying still too long, or finally scratching an itch, or drinking cool water on a hot day." Esca smiles, though there is still reticence in his eyes. "I just— I've never shown anyone. Not like that."
He is caught helplessly in Esca's clear gaze, and at the slight stress of the word he understands what he has asked for, and feels his face flush hot as he remembers the way the men in town stared at his leg in the baths, stared at him limping down the street. He does not want to gawk at Esca that way. It is Esca's privacy, and nothing he is entitled to know.
"Never mind," Marcus mumbles, looking away. "Forget I said anything."
"No!" says Esca, instantly. "I want to." He takes a few long breaths. "I just don't want you to—"
He doesn't finish the sentence, but Marcus knows all the words that go there: Hate me. Fear me. Run away. Be horrified. He has thought the very same thought about himself, after all.
"I'm not leaving."
And Esca does smile properly at that. "All right."
With that, he levers himself out of bed and Marcus sits upright, perching on the edge of the bed to see what Esca is doing. So far it seems Esca is only standing there, watching him, shifting his weight nervously.
"Good thing you're already naked, eh?" Marcus offers, and Esca laughs.
Then he locks his gaze with Marcus. His face slackens a little, but there is a kind of intensity in it, as if he is concentrating on relaxing. Marcus does not take his eyes away, not wanting to miss an instant of it, but when the moment comes he cannot say for certain what he sees.
He had thought he might see horrific things, Esca wrenching and twisting himself, howling, contorting like the worshippers of strange gods, with fur sprouting all over. It is not thus.
It is like a man pulling a cloak tighter around himself in the cold, Marcus thinks, except there is no cloak. Tighter and tighter, and although he is watching he cannot see all of it, and he knows somehow he was not meant to. And there is a rightness to it, a perfect rightness: this is a blessing of the gods, not a curse or some working of evil magic. This is how Esca was meant to be.
Then the wolf is standing before him, just the same as he has looked before, trim and lean, fur just the color of Esca's hair as a man, he sees now. Esca is tilting his head to one side. It is a question for Marcus, he knows, and he can answer it.
Marcus smiles. "Come back here, then."
Esca pads forward until he is close enough to lean a high, muscled shoulder against one of Marcus' legs, and Marcus' fingers lock in Esca's soft, soft fur, like he has not quite dared to do since the day he discovered Esca was the wolf. It would have been... inappropriate. But now, now it is finally permitted, and he luxuriates in the feel of it.
"I think I see why you like having the fur," Marcus says, quietly, and Esca gives an amused-sounding huff. "It's very pleasant to the touch. I gather you like being petted?"
Esca's only concession to dignity is a tiny twitch of his tail for yes, as a dog might. Marcus does not think wolves communicate that way among themselves, but he is grateful that Esca has made it easier for him. Esca's eyes are bright with enthusiasm, his ears pricked forward.
"Plenty of room on the bed," Marcus says, and he pats the blankets next to him with his free hand.
The bed creaks a little as Esca takes a nimble leap, landing first with his front paws, then somehow fitting his back legs. There is not really enough room, and Esca is more or less crowding into Marcus' face now.
Esca licks his cheek, and Marcus can't help laughing. It tickles.
"Here," he says, and lets himself fall back on the bed. "Come here, come here, we'll fit somehow."
Esca ends up half-sprawled across him, his great wedge-shaped head resting on Marcus' shoulder, one of his paws on Marcus' chest. Marcus can make out the ink under his fur much better than he could that first night. Definitely still Esca.
Marcus brings his hand up and runs his fingers through the long fur all down Esca's back. Esca is even warmer this way, and surprisingly comfortable.
Esca wags sleepily, his tail hitting Marcus somewhere in the shin, and as Marcus watches, his eyes begin to fall shut. He is clearly struggling to stay awake.
"Go to sleep," Marcus says softly, fondly. "I'll help you build a bigger bed sometime, if you like. More room."
Esca squints, dropping his ears flat to his head, and Marcus wishes that Esca could still speak like this. It is distaste for... something.
"You don't want a bigger bed?"
Esca nudges his head into Marcus, gently, and Marcus understands the message. Stay here.
"Fine," Marcus says, and Esca somehow cuddles closer, all warmth and softness and nothing to fear at all. "I'm staying, I'm staying."
As they drift off to sleep, Marcus knows he will like waking up with Esca this time, no matter what he looks like.
The dinner-party is perhaps the strangest Marcus has ever been to, but that does not make it any less convivial. In fact, he thinks, that might make it more so. His uncle has invited Kaeso and Valaria, of course, and given Kaeso the honored guest's place; Cottia has pulled up a little chair next to their couch and has mostly ignored them the entire meal to focus on Marcus and Esca. Marcus, personally, is quite fine with this; he has no idea what his uncle is saying to the magistrate, but his own half of the dining room is surely more interesting. Cottia, of course, takes to Esca instantly.
Marcus had offered Esca the place next to him, on his own couch, and Esca has taken it, naturally, sprawled out to occupy the entire remaining two-thirds, alternating between sitting and reclining. He does not quite know how he ought to behave, it seems. Why should he? He is not Roman, and Marcus would not demand it of him. Let Esca sit upright if he likes. Kaeso has given him occasional disappointing glances, as if he expected more of a equestrian's comrade. Esca has pointedly ignored every single look.
Kaeso is glaring at him again. Marcus raises his head and smiles politely in Kaeso's direction, and then wraps a companionable arm around Esca. The meaning, he hopes, is clear.
Cottia's face twists. "I am sorry my uncle is cross with you," she tells Esca. "I am sure if he knew you were a skin-changer he would be more polite. Then he might be afraid you would bite him, like the Romans would think."
And Esca laughs aloud, a glorious sound, as he turns to Marcus and raises his eyebrows. "Marcus, I did not think you told her." He does not sound angry, only a little surprised.
"I didn't," Marcus says.
Cottia snorts disdainfully. "It was I who told him. Our old bard was a skin-changer."
"Then you should know I won't bite your uncle," Esca says, and he laughs again and snaps his teeth in the air, before sitting up once more and reaching out for the wine. "Or, for that matter, your uncle, Marcus."
Marcus is suddenly, acutely aware of the exact spot on his hip that Esca had nipped at the day before. Esca bites him, but that is entirely different, and from the sudden quirk of Esca's lips, Marcus knows Esca is remembering exactly the same thing.
"I am not certain either of them know that," Cottia says. "You are better off with Marcus."
Esca is still smiling. "I think so as well."
Marcus hears snatches of conversation from his uncle's couch, and he thinks, perhaps, that they are talking about him.
"—and he has not become a secretary of some sort yet?" Kaeso is asking, with a glance back at Marcus. The faint stress on the occupation indicates that this would be one of the few acceptable jobs the magistrate can imagine.
Marcus can see his uncle shrug. "He has talked to old Atrius about him taking him on, but I have not heard—"
Cottia has been listening to them too, and she turns back to Marcus. "Are you going to join the army again now that your leg is better?" She sounds curious, but a little afraid, and Marcus can feel Esca, too, tense up, ready to flee from what Marcus might say.
Marcus shakes his head for no. "I could not, even if I wanted to," he says, and as Esca relaxes Marcus drops his free hand next to Esca's, wrapping his hand around his fingers ever so briefly. "My leg is good, but it will never be good enough for soldiering again. And it is in my heart to stay in Calleva. I like it here." And both of them smile when he says that.
"So what will you do?"
He opens his mouth to say that he has not chosen, that he supposes he will be some man's scribe, when Esca coughs.
"If you have not decided," Esca begins, and his voice is very soft, hesitant, "I know someone who could use an extra pair of hands. Hunting, cleaning the kills. That sort of thing. Could take bigger game with two. And he has—" Esca halts again— "an excellent dagger a friend of his gave him, if you need one." More silence. "I know it's not the usual thing for a man like yourself to do, a fine Roman working with a poor British hunter, so I will understand if you do not want—"
Marcus interrupts him. "This man," he asks, gently, "is his name Esca?"
Esca drops his gaze. "It might be."
"Then yes." Marcus smiles. "I will like that very much."
Esca's mouth parts. His eyes are alight with pleasure, and, oh, if they were alone Marcus would kiss him and kiss him.
Cottia looks between the two of them. "If you are hunting for furs, I will buy some from you, to line my winter cloak."
"You?" Esca looks almost affronted. "I would not dream of charging you," he adds with a smile.
They are friends so quickly, Marcus thinks, and then: it is as a family. Esca has a pack again.
"You will have the best cloak in Calleva," adds Marcus, and Esca grins and nods his agreement. "We will hunt well for you."
This was not the life Marcus ever imagined for himself, the day he picked up his sword and shield for the first time, the day he took ship to Britannia, the day he hefted a spear in his hand outside the walls at Isca Dumnoniorum. He is better than that man, the Marcus Aquila who only knew honor won by the blade, whose life was measured out in the footsteps of a soldier's march. He is grateful for every step of it, since it has led him here.
Esca reaches out for his hand, and Marcus looks around the room at his friends, his family, and he knows that now he has found his true life, his true self, fine and strange and wonderful, and he is happy.