Valentia is cold. It is a damp cold, a bitter, biting cold, and it seeps into Marcus's bones, into the healing muscle of his leg. When the weather is fine, it bothers him little, but the weather is rarely fine this far north. And so he dismounts heavily, and while they eat he sits with his aching leg as close to their meagre fire as he dares, and when he sinks into his bedroll he surreptitiously kneads his thigh with one hand.
"Let me give you relief," Esca says. He says this every night.
"I do not require this of you." And that is his response each night; it is as though they dance together, there in the mist-sodden forests of the North, on the carpet of wet leaves, under the soughing trees.
"Yet I would do it, else you will be too lame to ride tomorrow," says Esca, and Marcus, as always, gives in to him. Esca is right, of course; and he knows how to push his thumbs into the stone-hard knots of muscle, when to smooth a finger along the edge of a scar and when to bear down with all his weight; and Marcus knows that he will feel better for it.
His leg will feel better, at any rate. The rest of him is not so lucky. He cannot turn off his thoughts, and they chatter and squawk like a flock of birds in his head. Esca's hands are strong and warm on his leg; he imagines them on the tight muscles of his back, on his shoulders, sliding down to his hips. He imagines Esca's fingers trailing gently across his groin. He imagines Esca's broad palm cupping his cock. Esca's fingers, Esca's palm, Esca's hot mouth. Marcus closes his eyes and groans.
Marcus could ask him to do any of this. Esca is his body-slave. But Esca is more than a slave, and Marcus will not be that sort of a master. There is something growing between them, a tentative and fragile respect that perhaps even contains the seeds of friendship. The rains of Valentia are cold and harsh, but as they nurture the wild alder and aspen-trees, so they nurture this thing between them, and Marcus would not cut it down before it has the opportunity to flower.
And so Marcus closes his eyes and groans, but he does not say anything. He does not say I would have your hand on my cock as well. He does not say I would have you kiss me. He does not do the thing that he most wishes to do, which is to roll over with Esca against his body, into the furs and blankets of his sleeping-place, and kiss him, and touch him, and hold his heated body close against the cold. Perhaps Esca wishes this too, but Marcus cannot tell. Sometimes he thinks he sees desire in Esca's eyes, when Esca's hands are on him; but perhaps Esca is thinking of someone else, someone from his past. Someone who is not a Roman.
In any case, Marcus cannot do it yet, not while Esca is his body-slave and they ride toward the Eagle in the grey mizzle of Valentia, north and north and north. But they will find the Eagle, or else they will not, and if they survive, Marcus will give Esca his freedom.
"There," says Esca. He gives one last gentle squeeze to Marcus's thigh, an apology for the rough treatment that it has endured on the horse and under his hands. "That will be better."
"Yes," said Marcus. "Thank you."
They will continue to ride north; and every night, Esca will offer to relieve the ache in Marcus's leg. The ache in Marcus's heart will have to wait.