Esca knows what it means when Romans look at him like that. They only ever want one thing. His masters all looked at him like that, before the arena. He had fought off the first one, a few times, when he had been too young to understand that this was what slavery meant, that your master owned all of your body and could use it as he pleased.
Had the circumstances been different, he might have given himself freely. It is not as if they were all hairy old goats, because some were, or would have been, quite pleasing to the eye. But they only ever wanted him for his mouth, or his ass—or, at one particularly memorable and hellish dinner-party, both at the same time—as if he were only just a body and not even a man. And it is not that he has never done, or liked doing, these things among his own people, but with Romans it is all a kind of conquering, with them always the conquerors. And that, Esca hates.
In the arena they look at him, yes, but they look at him like he is one of the fighting beasts, less than human. But not like... that. He is never sure whether he should feel neglected or grateful. A retiarius who had fought in Rome told Esca once that rich women, senators' wives, liked to come to the gladiators and pick out the most handsome ones for the evening. But the man was a liar about many things, and anyway, Calleva is not Rome. He feels a strange kind of comfort, knowing that he will give himself his death without any more of their filthy bodies on him. In him. He had a plan.
Esca lies on his back in the sand, blood and sweat and sun in his eyes, and he can barely make out the face of the man who has begged for his life, who has swayed the whole crowd. Esca has been planning his own death for months now, the only thing truly left to him, and now Rome will have that from him too?
His vision clears briefly enough to see the man—a stocky man of about his own age, in a toga and narrow-striped tunic—whose eyes are fixed on his. The man's gaze, shockingly enough, is familiar, the one he had hoped never to see again, though it is mixed with an odd kind of surprised determination. The look is as though the man wants him indeed, and wants him alive, but had never intended to plead for it so. It is all strange and infuriating. Maybe the old retiarius had been telling the truth after all, and he can expect a visitor later.
I know what you want, Esca thinks at him, defiantly, as he sinks down into the sand. Damn you, Roman, you will not take everything from me.
No one comes for Esca that night, but he is not surprised, the next day, when someone shows up to buy him. He is, however, surprised that it is not the young equestrian. It is an older man, still an equestrian by his dress, white-haired and bearded in the fashion of the emperors, with an oddly familiar face. Esca has seen him before, but he cannot remember where. A slave with the look of the Greek in his features is at his side, holding a heavy money-purse for the transaction.
The old man eyes Esca up and down, shrewdly, and then addresses Beppo. "Twelve hundred sesterces."
He has not even asked what Esca can do, whether he can read or write or speak Greek or dance or sing or do whatever manner of task he might want performed. Perhaps he has guessed that Esca has none of those fine skills. Perhaps he does not care.
"Sixteen hundred," Beppo counters, instantly. "He is a trained gladiator, after all."
Esca would scoff at that if speaking would not earn him a cuff to the head. Trained? As a warrior of the Brigantes, yes, but not for these sham battles. They do not dare put a weapon in his hand until he steps onto the sands. Not after the last time.
The old man laughs, then; possibly he has seen Esca's face at this remark. "I saw him yesterday. You think you'll ever get another fight out of him again?" Oh, this one is perceptive, and that is dangerous. "Fifteen."
This is the best price Beppo will ever be offered, and he knows it.
The Greek slave hands over a purse that Esca suspects always contained fifteen hundred sesterces from the the beginning.
In the sun his new master squints at him and smiles, companionably enough. "The name's Aquila. You are?"
Esca waits for the man to tell him his new name is Happiness or Pleasure or some other stupid word, but when none is forthcoming, he realizes he will have to give his. "I am Esca, domine."
Aquila raises his eyebrows, as many Romans do when they hear the name. "Good enough," he says, shortly, but his voice does not sound unkind. "You'll attend my nephew. He's recovering from an injury. He needs help around the house, care in the bath, that sort of thing. Stephanos here—" he motions toward the Greek— "can't handle both of us, you see."
"But, domine," Esca points out, bewildered, "I am a fighter. I know very little of house-slavery." He had been a house-slave to only his first few masters, and a horrid one at that; he was quickly moved to the fields and then sold to the arena.
A brief chuckle from Aquila. "I didn't think you did."
"Then why buy me?"
"Because," Aquila says, sounding about as confused as Esca himself feels, "my nephew wants you."
It is then that Esca remembers that this man was sitting next to the young equestrian in the stands yesterday, and he curses his fate.
He hears his new master's voice—Marcus, Aquila had called him—raised through the house walls in complaint. About him. It seems that the purchase was a surprise to Marcus as well.
"I should have been consulted!" The voice is hardly deferential as one might expect to one's uncle, but rather, it is shot through with anger and pain. It is the same voice that cried out for his life yesterday.
He can see Aquila's back as the man gives a shrug. "Yeah? Well, you weren't." He calls out louder now, for Esca. "Slave!"
Summoned, Esca steps into the room and gets his first good look at his new master. The man who owns his life, now, though Esca had never intended to give him it. Marcus does not wear a toga as he did yesterday, but he is unmistakably the same man; an equestrian's gold ring sparkles on one finger. No, today he is wearing a plain tunic. Like a slave might wear, or a soldier might wear. Or a man who still wanted to be a soldier, Esca decides. He can make out a soldier's mark on the man's hand. Bandages wrap around his thigh, and even sitting, he leans heavily on a staff. This must be the injury that Aquila spoke of.
Marcus' eyes widen in recognition, and then still more surprise mixed with a strange kind of relief dawns on his face, as he leans on his staff to pull himself to his feet. This man is glad for Esca's life, Esca realizes, but he has no idea why that should be, why this man should care anything for him. And then the old, familiar lust sparks a little in his eyes, and Esca knows. Oh, he knows. And he hates him for it.
The elder Aquila gives a brief introduction and exits. And then they are alone.
This man may be his master, but Esca will show him he is no quiet plaything to submit meekly to his wishes. If Marcus wants Esca on his knees, on his belly, he will have to force him there. It will get him beaten already, to speak his mind thus, he knows, but it will be worth the pain. Besides, he is no stranger to pain.
He spits out brave words about honor, telling the man how he wished to die, but his new master only stares and... apologizes? This is a strange man indeed. Esca draws his father's dagger, but Marcus does not flinch. He makes the vow, the promise of servitude he owes him now, with his words as fierce as possible, to show how passive he is not and will never be. Even more strangely, this only makes the man's eyes burn hotter with need.
And he does not beat Esca for these words of hatred, though any other man would have had the stick on him for much less. Esca waits, and he waits, but the beating does not come. Perhaps the man is too much of an invalid now to beat him properly.
It is certainly a possibility, he considers, as he watches Marcus bend to the floor, slowly, groaning and leaning on his staff all the while, to pick up the flung dagger. He moves like a man twice his age. Esca could kill him right now in the span of one breath.
"You're not going to beat me?" Esca asks, finally.
There must be a fair amount of disbelief in his voice because Marcus laughs to hear it, and he smiles at him like he is a friend and not property.
"I think you were beaten solidly enough yesterday," he says, sounding awkward. It is an obvious excuse. The man does not want to beat him at all. This is unbelievable.
Esca says nothing. For this man to use him, as his master, would be brutal, yes, but there would be a kind of honesty in it. But Esca will not pretend to be a friend to someone who will no doubt be fucking him in an hour—or less, the way desire is kindling on his new master's face—and no one can make him feel anything other than hatred. Let there be nothing else between them.
"Well," Marcus continues, clearly tired of the long silence. "My leg pains me, and it is near enough to nightfall that I would like to go to bed, and if you are indeed to serve me I would appreciate your assistance."
It will be this soon, then. Esca walks slowly at Marcus' side as he lumbers through the atrium to a small bedroom, and he pulls the curtain shut behind them, unasked. Esca at least would like privacy for this.
His master sits down heavily at the edge of the bed, face graven in helpless frustration, as if the indignity of having to ask for anything pains him far more than his leg. "Help me unlace my sandals," he says, holding up his foot. "I cannot."
"Very well, domine," Esca says, dropping to one knee already and hating himself for doing it and hating this man for not just coming out with it. Can the man not just order him to his knees and stop this pretense?
Marcus shakes his head, and Esca feels tentative fingertips brush his shoulders, shaking as if even this stretch is beyond him. "Please. My name is Marcus."
"Very well, Marcus," Esca replies, and if Marcus notices that Esca says it in the same tone he says "master," he does not say. His master may order him to use his name, but that does not make them friends. He undoes the man's sandals briskly, efficiently, and feels Marcus trembling at his touch. It is not a cold night.
Having finished, he stands up, and even with the amount of light the tiny, high window lets in he can see that Marcus' eyes are wide and dark with desire, drowning out most of the pain he saw earlier.
Marcus reddens. "Now my tunic, if you please."
It is peculiar—usually they like Esca to undress immediately—but perhaps Marcus is so wounded that he needs all this help first. Marcus, fumbling, removes his own belt. Esca grabs the lower hem of the tunic and lifts, and Marcus slides a little, hissing in pain at every movement. There is a moment where the tunic twists and pins Marcus' upraised arms in which he blushes even more, but soon they have it off him.
Esca busies himself in folding and putting the tunic on a shelf to delay the inevitable, and when he turns back, Marcus, naked now, is still sitting on the edge of the bed, still watching him. If the man were not his master he would be quite compelling; he has not lost all of his soldiering muscle yet to the wound plaguing his still-bandaged leg. Marcus stares at him, face unreadable now, and though Esca is not looking directly there he can certainly tell that Marcus is aroused.
He waits for the command. On your knees, slave, he pictures Marcus saying. Or perhaps take off your tunic and bend over.
He's going to make him ask for it, isn't he? Isn't he? Oh, Esca despises this man. "Domine," he says, entirely ignoring Marcus' previous request to call him by his name, "what may I do for you now?" He knows his face must be twisted in anger, but he does not care. Let the man think what he likes; he will be forcing him whether or not Esca pretends to enjoy the idea.
Marcus looks at him for a long while, his face once again open and full of obvious desire, and— he lies back on the bed, pulling the blankets over himself.
"That is all," Marcus says, and his voice sounds hoarse, full of the lust he seems not to want to act on. "You may go."
Esca stares at him in complete and utter disbelief, and then he brushes quickly past the curtain and out to the slave-quarters at the back of the house before his reprieve disappears. Curled up on his new pallet, he ponders the situation. The only conclusion he can come to is that Marcus is too hurt still to fuck him, but even that does not explain why he did not demand, say, Esca's mouth. It makes no sense.
But this strange man owns Esca's life now, and Esca will have to learn to understand him. He has time. Marcus will want his body tomorrow, of course. It will have to be tomorrow. At least Marcus is so feeble that he cannot be that rough with him.
He is up before dawn in the morning—he has to be awake before the master, after all—and eats yesterday's bread, going stale already, in the kitchen. The cook smiles at him, a friendly smile, and tells him more of Marcus. He has been out of the army for less than a month, it seems, honored and then discharged on account of his injury. To hear Sassticca tell it, it had been Marcus alone against all the Dumnonii at Isca, and despite himself, Esca is impressed. He would not like to meet the Dumnonii in battle.
"He is kind," Sassticca says, and then with a more significant glance at his body, she adds, "I do not think he will do you harm."
Ah, but no one gets good food if they force the cook. Even the stupidest masters know this. Esca makes himself smile. "Perhaps not."
She smiles back and hands him a piece of today's bread, fresh and warm, and Esca eats it gratefully.
When dawn finally comes and he has sopped up the last of the oil with his bread, Esca rises and heads to Marcus' bedroom, with a clean tunic and toga making a heavy woolen bundle in his arms. He holds his head high as though he is perfectly confident in his duties, when in fact he hasn't the faintest idea how to put a toga on anyone.
Thankfully, when he arrives at Marcus' room, Marcus accepts the tunic, pulling it over himself with pained motions, but waves off the toga. Esca cannot decide whether he is glad that Marcus has dressed already; it means he will not have Esca now, but it is further delaying the inevitable.
"No," he says. "I will not need the toga, thank you. I do not wish to wear it today. But I would appreciate your help with my belt and sandals."
So Esca steps close, kneels, and laces Marcus into his house-sandals, all the while with Marcus glaring at him, clearly resenting that he cannot do this task himself. It is only when Esca moves closer with the belt that Marcus' eyes go wide and dark, and he shudders when Esca puts his hands on him and pulls the belt tight. He is a strange, strange man, this new master.
But Marcus says nothing, does nothing. He only looks at him. He does not touch him.
Esca understands none of this, but he is grateful.
"Marcus—" and as he says it he wonders what has caused him to use the man's name— "Come here. Let me help you up. You will want breakfast."
"I will," Marcus agrees. He puts his arm around Esca's still-bruised shoulders and together they stand, Marcus leaning heavily on him as they limp out of the bedroom to face the day.
Perhaps, Esca dares to hope, perhaps this will not be bad.
It is easy to tell that Marcus' leg is in such a state that walking to Calleva proper would be difficult; his trip to the arena must have been a rare excursion. The town's public baths, then, are certainly too far. It is fortunate that the villa is grand enough to possess its own bath, albeit a small one.
Marcus looks both annoyed and humiliated to see that Esca has accompanied him past the threshold and into the room.
"Go on," he snaps, face reddening. "I can take care of myself."
Esca raises an unimpressed eyebrow. "You can take all of your clothing off and get in the water? By yourself? Last night you couldn't so much as remove your sandals."
Beat me, he thinks, desperately, even as he is saying these things. Do something that makes sense, Roman. Why are you letting me act like this to you?
But Marcus gives him a rueful half-smile, run through with pain, and caves. "You may have a point."
Inside the room it is warm, but Marcus is shivering when Esca reaches for him to undo his belt, to unwrap the dressings on his leg, to remove his tunic for him. Marcus' face is flushed red and he does not meet Esca's eyes, and Esca wonders why. Oh, it is not the reaction he wonders at—Marcus wants him. That is plain enough for any to see. But why does he not say so? Why does he not order Esca, as any other man would? At least it would be over with, Esca thinks grimly as he folds Marcus' tunic and puts it on a shelf. At least then he would not have to wonder when the first time would be. He does not want this false kindness, this play at being solicitous. Romans are liars all, and they will be brutal in the end.
A better slave would have helped his master into the bath instantly, but Esca never wants to be a better slave. And so it is that Marcus, naked, is standing at the edge of the warm pool, shaking and barely holding himself upright.
Even with the limp, even with the twisted wound that does not heal, Marcus is still attractive, Esca finds himself noting, to his growing horror. In the clear light of daytime, Marcus is powerfully built, tall, well-muscled, pleasing in all his proportions. But he is Roman and Esca cannot, cannot think this.
He swallows. "Domine." That is right. Marcus is his master. His master. The one who owns his body, who must not own his mind.
"Help me to the benches." Marcus' voice is curt, still pained, and Esca waits for a rebuke that does not come. What is wrong with him?
So Marcus limps to one of the long benches and stretches out on his stomach, wincing, while Esca pointedly does not linger at the sight of him. Instead he turns to retrieve the oil-pot and the strigil as if he himself were a slave of the baths, as if he had done this every day instead of the few times his masters ordered him to before he had come to the arena.
It is strangely intimate, he thinks as he spreads the oil across Marcus' back, and it is an intimacy he wants no part of. Marcus is warm under him, his skin smooth—oh, the model soldier, no beatings for him!—and his muscles are tense, knotted in pain. Let him hurt. Esca pushes his fingertips deep, kneading, and Marcus hisses once. Then he groans a little, pleased. He is enjoying this. Something within Esca wakens at the sound, for he is taking this man's pain away, this man who has been through so much. He can help him—
No. Esca shakes his head violently and reaches for the strigil. He is only doing as he is bid.
Obstinately, he presses the curve of the strigil into Marcus' flesh harder than strictly necessary, scraping the blunted edge of it all down Marcus' back heavily, as he might wield a knife. There, let him feel that.
Marcus gasps, a loud sound in the quiet of the room, and then lets out a breath, a shaking, half-voiced moan. He likes this? This? He was not supposed to like it. His face is buried in his arms, anyway, and Esca cannot see him, but he knows he was right.
Esca scrapes the rest of Marcus' back hurriedly, lighter this time.
When he is done Marcus rolls over, and his face is flushed, his eyes dark. Esca nods briskly and pretends he does not notice as he scrapes the rest of him, rubbing oil down Marcus' torso and very deliberately avoiding Marcus' growing arousal. He is not rough again, fearing the result. What did he do? He had been trying to discomfit him, to cause perhaps a bit of pain. This was supposed to make the man hate him. And from the noisy, ragged breathing Marcus is making, it is clear Esca has had the opposite effect.
Marcus says nothing, and Esca is pathetically grateful. He could order Esca to kneel now. It is an order Esca has received before in these circumstances, and, well, there is no hiding that his master enjoyed the massage.
It will be now. Of course it will be now. It has to.
Marcus lifts his head and speaks through gritted teeth. "I need help into the bath."
This makes no sense.
And then Marcus smiles at him a little and nothing makes any sense, because the look makes Esca's heart lighten. It should not. He should not feel anything for this man just because he has not forced him yet. That should mean nothing.
This is his master, he tells himself, as Marcus leans on him, easing himself awkwardly into the bath. He is Roman. A crippled Roman, and Esca should rejoice at that if nothing else.
As Marcus steps down into the bath, supported now by the water, Esca breaths out, sharply, and the strange longing of earlier leaves him entirely. Good. He cannot afford to have feelings.
Marcus settles himself under the water, and he looks almost happy; the lines on his face that Esca had taken for age before were all pain, and he can only imagine how Marcus is bearing it. There, that is only sympathy for a fellow creature. Perhaps it is all right to feel that.
"Thank you, Esca," Marcus says, and smiles again.
Esca does not smile in return. The more comfortable his master is, the less safe he is. He does not need his master's thanks, not for anything.
To his relief, Marcus looks away suddenly and shuts his eyes. Perhaps he is relaxing. Esca does not care. At least he is not needed. At least he is not used.
He cannot say how long Marcus sits in the bath, quietly; he only stares at the surface of the water and watches the steam rise from it. He is in need of a bath himself—the most he could do this morning was gingerly splash water at some of the healing cuts on his face—but he would rather not disrobe unless Marcus orders it of him. He wants his own body to himself for as long as possible; besides, with Romans it is practically an invitation, one Esca would rather not give.
So they remain there, together, in silence.
Afterwards, he helps Marcus back into his clothing as if it had been a perfectly normal bath. As if none of this had ever happened.
He wishes he knew what was going on.
Three days later, the surgeon comes.
Esca holds Marcus down for the knife, leaning on him with all his weight, and in the instant before pain clouds Marcus' features he sees something strange and contented come to life in Marcus' eyes.
Afterwards, when Marcus asks if he has shamed himself, Esca says no. He is not sure whether he is telling the truth.
Marcus must spend a long time in bed; he is too weak to do anything but drink the surgeon's vile concoctions and piss them out. His leg must heal anew, and Esca knows recovery will be slow; the surgeon tells him this much. Not directly to him, of course; he is merely in the room with Marcus' uncle when the surgeon makes his reassurances. Slaves are not viewed as people, after all. And so he knows, thanks to the surgeon, that Marcus may never be strong again.
And Esca is glad to hear of this.
Oh, he is not so cruel as to wish the man dead, certainly. But Marcus cannot beat him, cannot hurt him, cannot use him, not while he is so injured himself. He will surely not want to until he is recovered.
"Drink this," he says, holding out another cup of broth.
Marcus reaches out and puts his hands around Esca's, over the cup, clinging to Esca's fingers. His eyes are wide and desperate, pain-fogged, as he drinks.
After the cup is empty, Esca finds that Marcus is still holding his hand, almost gently, carefully, and the thought floats through his mind that perhaps Marcus would not hurt him. Perhaps he is kind in all ways.
That night Esca makes his pallet at Marcus' doorway and falls asleep to the sounds of his master's breathing.
He likes this, he finds himself thinking once, as he lowers Marcus' head back onto the pillow. After a brief jolt of panic, he takes a breath. His master is weak, is lowered; should he not like this? Of course. That is what it is. That is all it is.
Marcus' recovery is dangerous. Oh, it is not dangerous for Marcus. Every day he is healing well, says Galarius, when he comes to Marcus' bedside to examine him. Esca must concur. His own knowledge of healing is the rough sort that a man comes by in battle, eyeing a wound and gauging whether it will be fatal or mean the loss of a limb, and Esca can tell that this is not that grave. Marcus' leg mends properly now. He will recover.
No, it is dangerous for Esca. For when he sees Marcus like this, still wounded, and he knows Marcus is weaker than he himself is now... there is only the man's mind to contend with, not his body. And he thinks he might come to like Marcus' mind.
He had not thought Marcus would have much need of him at first, beyond bringing him broth and attending to his more basic bodily needs. But one bright afternoon, when Marcus is beginning to stay awake for longer, Marcus reaches out as Esca is preparing to take the empty cup back to Sassticca.
Marcus does not quite reach him, but he tries, holding his hand out, stretching as far as he can. "Esca?"
Esca turns back and makes himself give a respectful nod. "Yes?"
"I was wondering," Marcus starts, "if you are not occupied now, if it is convenient—"
Why must the man be so damned polite? He is here at Marcus' convenience, not his own. Ensuring Marcus' well-being is, in fact, his sole duty. He bites his lip. "Certainly," he says, and he hopes it does not sound too hollow.
"I wish—" Marcus grins a little, but his tone is reluctant, as if this is something he would rather not admit, for whatever reason— "I wish you would stay with me for a while, keep me company. It is awfully boring to lie here by myself for hours with no one to talk to."
His master wants someone to talk to, does he? What kind of Roman is so pathetic that he must pretend to have a slave for a friend? He realizes as he thinks it that Marcus seems not to have friends. None have inquired about him during his recovery. No one has sent letters. No one has come calling upon him.
He must be terribly lonely, Esca thinks, and then: no. There is no reason for him to feel any kindness toward Marcus.
As the familiar anger blunts everything else, he pulls up a chair next to Marcus' bed. There. He will sit and stay, like a dog. Like a slave. He has his orders.
"What would you like to talk about, domine?" He may sit here, but no, he will not be this man's friend.
Marcus blinks, confused. Either he was not expecting Esca's manner of response or he has not thought this far ahead, and a small part of Esca takes joy in making him uncomfortable. "I— well— anything you like, I suppose." He pauses. "You could tell me of your people. I was never posted in the north, and so I know little of the Brigantes."
Oh, he will not. He will not. Esca's teeth clench as he pictures it: his last treasured memories, scraps of images, the very thoughts worn bare and tattered after seven years. His parents, smiling across the evening's fire. His brothers, laughing, carrying their newly-won spears, beckoning him out to hunt. These things are his. They are all he has left of his family, since now Marcus has even his father's dagger. And they are not thoughts to be sullied by Romans, by the men who have already murdered his people.
"No," he says, flatly. Let Marcus have him beaten for this. Anyone else would. Anyone else would have had him beaten long ago.
But Marcus only shrugs a little, and Esca has to wonder if all of Galarius' concoctions have scrambled Marcus' mind.
"Forgive me," says Marcus, an instant, ashamed response, and so sincere is the regret in his eyes that Esca begins to think Marcus, in his pain, might not remember Esca is his slave. One is never truly sorry about the feelings of one's property. "I did not mean to stir up bad memories."
"You did not."
The lie comes quickly to his lips, and only after he has said it does it occur to him to wonder why. It is not as if he cares for his master's feelings, either.
"Well, then." Marcus sighs, an exhalation more of pain than thought. "Tell me about... hunting?"
Esca stares at him, surprised. "What about hunting?"
Marcus relaxes a little, no doubt because Esca did not immediately deny any information. "Oh, anything," he says, and the smile barely touching the corner of his mouth is almost charming. Not that Esca cares for such things. "I have not hunted since I came to Britannia. What sort of game is hunted here?"
"For food or sport?" Esca replies, before he can stop himself. He had not meant to be drawn into conversation.
"Either." Marcus' grin is a little wider now. "Boar hunts? Wolf hunts?"
"Wolves only when they are a menace," Esca finds himself saying. "Is that not the case everywhere? Roe deer are good hunting and good eating. Boar if you—" he cuts himself off. If you are daring and stupid, he wants to say, but even he has limits to what he will tell his master.
This, of course, piques Marcus' interest. "If you what?"
"I had a cousin," Esca begins. "Lost a leg to one."
Marcus glances down at himself and his face stills for an instant before twisting. "Well, I can give the boar this one, can't I? Don't need it for anything." His voice is mocking, as if he intends it to be a joke, but is truly hurting himself.
Something in the tone touches Esca. He does not want Marcus to hurt. He does not want him to say these things, think these things. So he leans forward and closes a hand around Marcus' wrist, reassuring, like he might have done to a wounded kinsman.
"You'll heal," he says, in a kindly manner, and then he stares down at his own hand on Marcus' arm. What is he doing?
Marcus, too, looks at Esca's hand, and for long moments he says nothing.
"Enough for boar hunting?" he asks, finally, and somehow Esca thinks that that was not the first question Marcus had.
Esca nods. "Enough."
"Would you hunt with me, then?" There is a strange glimmer of hope in Marcus' eyes. "When I am well."
Esca raises a dubious eyebrow. "You would give me spears?"
"I would." Marcus nods a little and his eyes begin to fall shut. "I would give you many things."
He is tiring, already. He has so much healing to do. Perhaps the medicines are making him say things he does not intend. Surely he cannot mean this. Surely neither of them can mean this. They cannot be as friends are.
After Marcus' breathing evens into sleep, Esca stands and lets himself out, quietly. He cannot converse with this man; he must remember always that Marcus is his master, else what will Marcus trick him into agreeing to? Anything would be worse, so much worse, if Esca were made to believe it was he himself who wanted it.
He will not fall for that again. The next morning Esca begs a set of knucklebones off Marcipor; if he can dice with Marcus, something to keep the man's hands and mind occupied, it will provide them with a topic of conversation as well. There will be no danger of anyone saying anything untoward.
But the gods have thwarted him, in this as in so many other things, for when Esca slips past the curtain, the bones in his fists, he marks Marcus' disappointed expression as the other man pushes himself up to his elbows. It seems he has found the one soldier in the whole vast army of Rome who does not care for the game.
"You brought dice," Marcus says, dully. "It is not Saturnalia."
It also seems he has found the one man who would care whether the thing is legal. Esca represses a sigh. This will not do.
He makes himself smile, a little, and he watches as Marcus' mouth twitches in response. "I was not planning on gambling for coin. I only thought we could pass the time together." It comes out sounding more like a willing invitation than he had planned, but there is little he can do about that.
Marcus' grin grows a little wider, and he murmurs something Esca cannot quite hear.
"Anerriphthô kybos," he says, and then he shakes his head at Esca's uncomprehending stare. "Didn't learn Greek, eh? Never mind. Your throw, then."
They dice for some time, and all the while Marcus looks... bored. At least he is silent, but his gaze keeps wandering. Esca has the uncomfortable feeling that Marcus is staring at him every time he looks down at the dice, but he never catches him at it. Not that he should say anything if he did. His master may stare at whatever he likes.
But Esca has never been wise about silence, and so he tilts his head at the dice when Marcus has not taken his turn. "You don't like dice, do you?"
Marcus draws a noisy breath through his teeth, and his expression—for now he looks Esca full in the face—is tinged with guilt, as though he had been planning to lie about the thing but found he could not. "No. Not really."
"Is there something you would rather do?" Esca asks, and he is so stricken by relief, by the realization that for right now he is safe from his master, that he does not think until after he has said it. He has no idea what this man will say.
Marcus gives the tiniest of shrugs, and his face creases as though even that movement has cost him greatly. "We could... play latrunculi?"
Latrunculi? Esca frowns. "Is that not the game your uncle always plays with Stephanos?" He wants to ask why Marcus does not request a game of them, but Marcus answers without even being given the question.
"My uncle is busy." Marcus' eyes dart away, shame and helplessness together. "And Stephanos is scribing for him. I can hardly inconvenience him."
"I don't—" Esca pauses, and now it is his turn to look down, foolishly. "I don't know how to play."
Marcus' lips part in a kind smile, and Esca fights back everything in himself that threatens to take pleasure at the look. "Oh," Marcus says, his voice low and easy, not castigating him in the slightest, "it is simple."
He is still smiling, like he is Esca's friend, and for a brief dangerous moment Esca thinks that maybe, maybe Marcus would be good to him. That he would be as a friend.
When Esca leaves to retrieve the board and stones, he stands in the atrium taking long, shaking breaths to regain his composure, to find anything, any scrap of anger to hide behind. It does not help. He clenches the smooth stones in his fists and tries to picture the soldiers in their bright helms, marching in formation over the hills from Isurium, calling death down, but all he can see is Marcus' face, smiling.
"So," Marcus says, as he places the stones on the board in a pattern he clearly knows well, "you see, you set the game up like so. And this piece—" he holds up one that is larger than the others— "this is your eagle. Mine is here. The point is to move the stones to capture your opponent's eagle."
Esca nods, though he is only half-listening to the intricacies of the rules that Marcus is explaining with increasing enthusiasm. Indeed, he likes this more than dicing. Marcus almost looks... happy now, Esca thinks. He has not seen the man look happy, not like this.
He blinks. "Eh?"
"Do you understand?" Marcus repeats, and then, horrified, Esca realizes he has been staring at Marcus all this time.
"Yes." Esca fumbles out his reply, hastily, and drags his gaze to the board. That is safe. What is he doing?
The game begins. It seems, thankfully, that it is a sort of game that demands one's full attention, and he is in the middle of silently thanking every god he can name for that when Marcus starts to talk. Again.
"I played this in the army, you know?" he says, and grins.
And something about the look on Marcus' face, open and bright and unguarded, makes Esca want— makes him want— he cannot think about what he would want. But he finds himself responding to it anyway, just to see Marcus' expression, to hear more of the story.
Esca pushes a stone forward and raises his eyebrows. "Oh?"
Marcus nods, still grinning. "In Egypt, when I was an optio. The legion's officers, we all played it, more than dicing. The locals play a similar game, that they called senet, and sometimes we took turns with this and the other."
"And you wagered on that, did you?"
He watches as Marcus' face reddens. "I cannot deny that some months I was richer than others," Marcus says, half-mumbling the words in the direction of the floor.
Esca can't help himself, and he finds himself laughing, but only a little. "So you were not the perfect soldier, were you?" he ventures. "You would have done an improper thing? You?" And he grins as he says it, to show it is a joke. It must be safe to say this. He has said far worse to this man and not been beaten for it.
And Marcus looks at him... and smiles, wider than anything, like Esca has given him a present in the words, by talking to him—and then he looks away, sharp and sudden.
"You might say that," he says, almost too quiet for Esca to hear.
He is quiet for the rest of the game, beating Esca with ease—of course that was to be expected, since he knows the game—and leaving Esca to wonder in the silence just what it was he said.
By the next game, Esca has the sense of the thing. There is a clever strategy to it, like fighting a battle. In a few moves he has overwhelmed Marcus' pieces and trapped the larger one—the eagle, Esca thinks he called it—in the corner.
Marcus looks down at the board in surprise, and, Esca is pleased to see, a smile. A sign of life, at least. "Well done," he says, and there is a sort of pride in his voice. "On your second game!"
Esca allows himself a grin, feeling like a hunter who has caught the prey. "I have trapped your eagle, then, have I?"
For some strange reason, Marcus flushes red... but this time he does not look away. "You have," he says, and he says it as though there is something hidden in the words, but Esca does not know what. "You are good at that, I am certain."
Another grin. "My old centurion would have hated you over the game-board about as much as he hated me, I think." Now a laugh, a real one, and even though it clearly pains him to move so, he does not seem to care. "Maybe more."
"Thank you," Esca says, cautiously, and this only makes Marcus laugh again, provoking Esca to smile in return, without even thinking about it.
Damn him, but he could come to like this man.
He does not know what he will do about that.
Marcus heals. Every day his face relaxes, his smile unshadowed by pain. Every day his leg mends itself, better and better. And Esca smiles back. He hardly knows he is smiling until after he has done it, when Marcus catches his eye, but it is always Esca who looks away first. But Marcus never pushes him, never leers at him, never eyes him as though he is only a thing. If the look in his eyes that day at the arena is still in his mind, he does not let it show. Perhaps he no longer desires Esca.
Esca would thank him for that, but a dog does not thank his master when he is allowed another foot of chain. He knows his place.
Still, a part of him is happy the day that Marcus wraps a sweat-soaked arm around him and together they stand, Marcus balanced halfway between his walking-staff and Esca's shoulders. He walks slowly, hissing in pain with every step, his fingers digging into Esca's arm, but he is walking again, and even Esca can tell from the disbelieving smile on Marcus' face that he had feared he would never be able to do this much.
"Good to be out of bed?" Esca asks, to distract him from his discomfort.
Marcus nods. His teeth are clenched together, his face tight in concentration. "I was beginning to forget what the world looked like from this high up." He smiles a little and seems to forget the worst of the pain as Esca holds the curtain back for the two of them.
Esca crumples the fabric in his hand. "And is the view better?" he asks, lightly, a bantering question, and he does not even know why he is doing this. The gods must have driven him mad.
"Immensely," Marcus breathes, looking down at him like— like— it is a look no one has ever given Esca, not that he remembers, and he does not know what to make of it.
Marcus' lips part in a queer, awkward smile—at him!—and it should hurt Esca, it should make him feel used, like the stare of any Roman. But Marcus takes nothing from him, and it only makes Esca feel strangely warm.
Esca looks away and says nothing, and they shuffle forward.
The elder Aquila looks up in surprise as they limp into the atrium. They make an ungainly pair, Esca is certain, but the man only has eyes for his nephew. "Marcus!"
Marcus lifts his head, and Esca knows by the quivering in his neck, the pale cast of his skin, that Marcus is already exhausted almost beyond endurance.
"Uncle!" Marcus says, valiantly, and he smiles.
His uncle rises from the couch and crosses the room to them—or rather, to Marcus, for he is ignoring Esca—holding his arms out and smiling. Esca tries to hold still as Marcus shifts more weight onto him, to free a hand to greet his uncle with.
"I had not thought to see you walking so soon!" The old man's eyes glint bright in happiness.
Marcus' smile has a kind of modesty in it. "I owe it to Esca, as you see," he says, and both of them are looking at Esca now—Marcus still with that strange pleasure, and his uncle mostly in confusion.
He is only a slave. He is only their slave.
"Domini," Esca says, "I have done as I was bid."
It should not make him sad when Marcus sighs and turns his face away.
When he dreams, that night, it is the same dream as it often is, the one he wakes from screaming. The ground is soaked black with blood, and he can hardly make out the bodies—here is his brother, he thinks. There lies his mother, and his father's corpse is only recognizable by the knife in his hand. The Romans left nothing else of Cunoval's clan.
Esca runs through the dark.
The next body is a soldier, face down in the dirt, and when Esca rolls the man to his back, the weight and shape of him are horribly familiar under his hands. With shaking fingers against the soldier's strong jaw, Esca undoes the man's helmet, revealing freckled skin, brown hair, green eyes gone glassy and sightless.
No, he thinks, frantically, you weren't supposed to be here—
When he wakes, there are tears on his face.
The morning Marcus is well enough to go to the public baths, Esca is nearly proud of him—nearly, he tells himself, because he dare not feel pride in this. But Marcus is smiling, joyously, as he takes careful steps down the gravel of the street without even a steadying hand from Esca, and he turns to grin at him as if he does not quite believe it himself.
Esca wonders if this was how Marcus looked before, if he had always smiled so pleasantly to his friends, to the soldiers at his fort. He can imagine a man like Marcus being well-liked; he is still not certain why no one here seems to like him. If he were Marcus' friend—
He jerks his head away, angry, but the thought cannot be unthought. He is fond of Marcus.
And what if I am? wonders a defiant part of his mind. Esca has not forgotten his past, nor his family, and he is not in any danger of forgetting them. Many slaves have cordial acquaintances with their owners. If anything, it is a skill Esca should have learned to master; it would have saved him some of the beatings. So he can do this. It does not have to mean he truly likes the man; it is only absence of ill-will.
He bites his lip and says nothing until they get to the baths and then into the courtyard with its palaestra, where men laugh and talk and sport. And then he has to say something, because Marcus is eyeing two wrestlers at the far side of the courtyard with a kind of longing.
"Marcus?" Esca wonders, and after the name leaves his lips he realizes it is the first time he has called the man by it, as he asked. An accident, surely.
Marcus glances over at him, and now that Esca is looking, he can see that the man's eyes are filled with hope. "Esca," Marcus says, uncertainly, as though he is asking him his opinion, as though they are friends, "do you think I am well enough— do you think you might do me the honor of—?"
Esca laughs. He does not mean to, but in his incredulous disbelief the noise comes out of him nonetheless. "Do you think I cared for you in your sickness only to ruin you with one fall?"
The words hang between them. For long moments Marcus says nothing and Esca fears he has presumed too much. Surely now, now Marcus will take offense, for any good slave ought to have agreed with his master. They could have wrestled and of course he ought to have thrown the match so that Marcus would never have been in any danger at all. That was what he should have said.
Marcus stares at him... and then smiles, an intent, focused look. "And who is to say," he returns, "that I would be losing?" He has the air of a man who seriously intends to compete. He is trying too much, too soon, Esca thinks; he would hate to see Marcus fail at this.
"Forgive me," says Esca, and he really must say something now, "but your uncle entrusted me with your care—"
Marcus waves a hand. "I can take responsibility for myself."
Esca waits for Marcus to order him. The order never comes, and Marcus is still looking at him like a man waiting for an answer.
Esca blinks. "Well, what?"
"If you don't want to," Marcus says, shrugging as if he does not care either way, "I'll ask one of the men over there, but—"
Esca waits, and he tries to tell himself that the idea doesn't irk him. If anyone will do this, it will be him.
"I'd prefer you," Marcus finishes.
Fine. They will do this. Marcus asked for him, after all; it is only a small thing to agree to. He will only have to be careful.
Marcus knocks his feet out from under him.
Oh, Marcus had said he would try, but Esca did not quite expect this, he thinks, as he goes to the ground, suddenly breathless. He never expected Marcus to be... still a soldier.
It is clear, as Marcus closes with him, that he has been trained and trained well; he moves efficiently, economically. He can imagine a long-ago centurion haranguing the man that he must put his weight just so, hold his arms thus. Marcus' face is intent, empty of all but a fierce determination.
Lightning-fast, Marcus is atop him, pressing his wrists to the earth. Esca hisses, and then Marcus' face fills with life again, a kind of regret.
"I'm not hurting you, am I?" Marcus asks, and, oh, they cannot have trained him to be kind in the army. It leaves him open to many things, such as what Esca is about to do.
Esca bares his teeth and shoves, and Marcus' eyes go wide and surprised as Esca sends him flying backwards. He is considerate enough to make sure Marcus will take the worst of the fall on his good side, but that is all his master will get. He knows little of Roman wrestling; he suspects they would call scratching or biting or gouging unsporting, but he can certainly lean on him. So he is up again, planting a knee against Marcus' hip—his good hip—to stop him struggling up, and he reaches for one of Marcus' hands, twisting his wrist out and around until Marcus exhales heavily.
He can see the pain in Marcus' eyes now, but Marcus will not tap out. He is still trying to fight him. Damn him, why is he still trying to fight? He can feel Marcus's leg twist under him, his hand shaking with exertion.
"Call it," Esca snarls, more cruelly than he intends to. Marcus may have never forced him, never taken a club or whip to him, but if he brings Marcus home limping worse and covered in bruises, his uncle may well take the initiative. "I have you," he says. "Call it, call it," he repeats, wondering as he says it why he himself does not move.
Marcus stares up at him. His eyes are dark, only the barest sliver of green visible, and his lips are parted. His breath against Esca's face is all harsh panting. Then all at once he slumps back, the tension gone out of his legs, his head tilted back to bare his throat, helmet-scarred and vulnerable. And he is smiling. He is smiling like he did when Esca held him down for the knife, bright-eyed. Happy. There is something else in his gaze too, hot, burning, desirous.
It is not the way his other masters ever looked at him. They looked through him, past him; they saw only that he was a warm body, a vessel with which to slake their needs, interchangeable with a thousand others. Marcus is looking at him and seeing him. Wanting him. But there is nothing about this he could want. What is going on?
He realizes he is still holding Marcus' hand.
It is Esca who drops his hand away, who scrambles back and up as quickly as his trembling legs will take him.
Marcus turns his head to watch, his eyes clouded with concern. "Esca, are you well?"
"Fine, fine, domine," he manages, and he is proud that his voice is not shaking. What is wrong with him? What is wrong with them?
Marcus sighs and shuts his eyes. "I thought you might say that."
Esca is well-fed. He is well-treated. His master does not lay hands on him, neither in anger nor in desire. Marcus does not, in fact, touch him at all. But with every look, every glance in Esca's direction, Marcus' eyes burn hot with that strange new need. Eventually Esca stops noticing. It is merely a fact about Marcus, one that fades into the background, a minor detail of appearance, like his height or his limp.
Or so he tells himself. If he is honest with himself, he thinks about that look more than he should. But no good will come of it.
For it is a surprise to Esca that, after this time, his own needs struggle back to the surface. He had not considered that he might himself have desires again, or want to take pleasure with anyone. He has not, not in years, and it is a shock to find that when he goes to town, he is eyeing the curve of a woman's hip or the line of a man's jaw with lust in his heart.
The Aquilae are generous with tips—more so than his other masters had been, certainly—and he has enough money now for one of the nicer whores in town if he wants one. Part of him does; part does not.
On a free half-day, Esca stands in front of the brothel, considering. He thinks about sinking into wet, welcoming heat, and oh, that is an appealing thought, but then he thinks about how there is nothing in it, not even liking. And while he does not have to love someone forever to fuck them, he does not think he would truly enjoy a mere business transaction. He may as well save the money. Perhaps one day Marcus will let him buy his freedom.
That night, his hand on himself for the first time in so long, he thinks about fucking. He thinks about a strong, proud, beautiful man kneeling for him in joyous submission, the way a Roman never would. He imagines opening him slowly with his fingers until he begs, then plunging into him, hard and rough and glorious, again and again. The man smiles, cries out in pleasure, and it is Marcus' face, Marcus' voice, and Esca is coming—
He shoves his other hand against his mouth so he does not have to hear himself calling out Marcus' name.
Esca's thoughts are frantic, jumbled things, set to the beat of his terrified heart. He would rather return to having no desires at all than want this. It cannot happen. And if anything like it ever does, Esca is very certain it will not be as his imaginings are. He knows Romans. They know only force.
When Esca arrives at Marcus' room at dawn, Marcus smiles at him, and Esca has the oddest feeling that Marcus knows his secret thoughts. And more, that he likes them.
It is impossible, of course. It cannot be true.
The rest of the day proceeds as days often do: in the morning Marcus reads, plays latrunculi with his uncle, and so on. Esca accompanies him to the public baths of Calleva, and they spar in the courtyard there, a friendly match. Marcus is getting his strength back. He will always have the limp, but his leg does not seem to pain him as much as in the past, and he is able to pin Esca in the wrestling ring a fair number of times. Esca realizes he is glad for this, to see the man improving; it seems that somewhere along the way he has begun honestly hoping for Marcus' recovery. Marcus even tells him a few tales of his army days, and it seems that he is in a good mood. The day goes well.
The night is another story.
"Is there anything else you require of me?" Esca asks, and he has become so complacent. So trusting. He asks because it is what he asks every night, and the possibility that Marcus might answer in the affirmative has, as unbelievable as it seemed to him months ago, ceased to be a worry for him.
He is, therefore, unpleasantly surprised when Marcus reaches out, wrapping a strong hand around his wrist and holding him fast. The heat of Marcus' fingers on his skin is like a brand. He cannot abide this. But Marcus is his master, and therefore he must.
Oh. He ought to have realized. How could he ever have let himself think that he would be spared? He has been a fool.
He can feel himself start to tense. Rage mixes with dull resignation, but it does not temper the pain. This will destroy everything that has been growing between them, this bond Esca would nearly have dared call friendship. Marcus must know this. But Marcus is his master, and his master will have what he wishes. So be it. He had thought Marcus would be different somehow, special. But it seems that Marcus is as the rest of them, only wanting a warm mouth or a tight ass, something to take and conquer and claim.
Esca will kneel. He must. But he will not until Marcus orders him. If Marcus wants this, he will have to wrest it from him. Esca has that much of his honor left.
"Wait," Marcus says, the word unnecessary given that he is holding Esca's arm, and his voice is hoarse and shaking with something that might be fear, though there is nothing for him to be afraid of. "I— I have a request to make of you, tonight."
He stares at Marcus and feels nothing but a hollow emptiness in his chest. "I am yours to command. Domine."
And Marcus recoils at the title, his head snapping up, face twisting and flushing, and he lets Esca's arm go and sits back. "Esca, no!" He sounds appalled. "It is not— I would not have you obey me as a slave. I want you to do as you would like, not as you think I would like."
"I am your slave," Esca replies, and he watches Marcus' face fall at the perfectly true words. "And I must obey."
Marcus pauses, and an idea seems to occur to him, for his eyes brighten. "Pretend you are not."
"Pretend you are not," Marcus repeats. "For tonight, you are only my friend. We are friends, you and I. And I would ask something of you. You are free to say no. Nothing will happen if you say no. We will go on as we were, and we will never discuss it again."
Now Marcus is confused. "What do you mean, tomorrow?"
"Tomorrow I will be your slave again." Marcus may think he is being kind, giving Esca the illusion of freedom, but he is not. "Will you beat me tomorrow, if I do not agree with you now?"
Marcus looks horrified at the thought. "Of course not. Esca, I have never beaten you, and I would not—"
"Then I say no." Esca cuts him off. Marcus may very well beat him anyway, but he is offering him refusal first, and Esca will take it.
"I have not asked yet," Marcus says, and Esca can see, in the dim lamp-light, Marcus' face beginning to crumble, to sink. Esca tells himself he does not care.
"You need not. I know what you want," Esca says. The same thing they all wanted, the thing Marcus has wanted for months. And it is awful, some cruel divine joke, that the things Esca could have wanted are so close to this, the stuff of his nightmares. "But if you like, you may say it before I leave. Being as we are such excellent friends." He does not bother trying to keep the pain out of his voice.
Marcus swallows hard and licks his lips.
"I want you to fuck me."
The world disappears, and if Marcus says anything else Esca can't hear it over the dizzying rush of blood pounding through his ears, down through his body. He staggers, unbalanced.
Perhaps he misheard. Marcus could not have said that. Volo te me pedicare, he thought he heard, but it is only one word's difference between that and the other, one small word he could have thought Marcus added. That other would make sense. This does not.
"What?" He hardly recognizes his own voice, full of disbelief.
Marcus takes his astonishment for confusion. "Fucking. Your cock. My ass. Is there a problem with that? Do you not understand?" He says this proudly, almost defiantly, as though the situation is completely normal.
Esca glares at him. "I know what fucking is."
As Esca watches, he can see all of Marcus' earlier fear transmute into a strange kind of pride, as he draws himself up. Marcus has to know how unusual this is.
"It is only that—" Esca fumbles for words— "none of my other masters have ever asked for it. I thought Romans did not."
This statement seems to quiet Marcus, for he gives a little laugh and looks away. "Well, then, I suppose I am not as they are, am I?" And then he meets Esca's gaze again, clear-eyed and determined. "I have known what sort of man I am all my life. And I am asking for this."
He cannot give in. He cannot. Even if it is true that Marcus does not want to take him, this is still on his terms. Esca would still be giving himself up, giving himself over to a Roman, at his very request, worse because he would grant it willingly.
"I am not sure what to say," he replies, finally, opting for the honest truth.
Marcus only looks confused, as if he cannot imagine why Esca might refuse him. "Is this not a thing Britons do?"
Oh, Marcus. If only that were the reason. "No," he tells him, "Britons do this."
"Then is it not a thing you yourself do? Do you not like it?"
"It is—" Esca swallows hard— "it is a thing I have done, and I have enjoyed it very much."
"Then is it me?" Marcus' face is a study in disappointment, as he hits on the reason. Or, at least, part of the reason. "Am I— do you not find me attractive?"
It is Marcus, indeed, but the problem is not as he thinks it is. Esca cannot help but laugh a little, though nothing is funny. "No, Marcus," he says, and makes himself smile, sadly, hating the words as he says them. "You are very attractive. Which is precisely why I cannot do this."
Marcus' head drops, and pained confusion is writ large across his face. He does not comprehend this, Esca knows. But it is better this way. If Marcus wants to get fucked, he can buy an Atrebates whore, and Esca can cling to what remains of his honor.
"I don't understand why," Marcus says, quietly, "but you have said no, and I understand that well enough. I won't ask again. Good night."
"Good night," Esca echoes, and his shaking legs carry him to his pallet.
Marcus will beat him in the morning. One cannot refuse one's master. Esca will probably have to accompany him to the brothels afterward. He made the right decision, he tells himself, and he tries to ignore the sinking feeling in his heart. Romans cannot be trusted.
Esca barely sleeps that night, of course. He tosses and turns over and over on his thin straw mattress, his thoughts turning in on themselves and chasing circles around his mind. What has he said? What has he done? He did the right thing, the honorable thing, in refusing, but all he can think of is the desolate, lonely look in Marcus' eyes.
He shoves his face into the pillow and curses.
It is not as though it would have been any good with Marcus, of course. With his master, Esca corrects himself. Romans are all the same, and he would be a fool to think this one any different, even if what he asked for was strange. They only care about their own pleasure; he would be used for his body nonetheless, and the only novelty would be which part of it. Perhaps even it was a trick, a trap, meant to lure him into agreeing, for Romans find treachery to be sweet as their honeyed wine. Any Briton knows that. A Roman would enjoy taking a man to his bed by deceit and then holding him down.
But Marcus is different— he starts to think, and then he clenches his fist and bites his lip as if the action will stop him having thought it.
It will hurt when Marcus strikes him in the morning, he knows, and it will hurt more than his body.
He could have said yes. He could have. It would have been easy, so very easy.
If Marcus ever asks again, he is not sure he will be strong enough to resist.
He gives up on trying to sleep and crawls out of his pallet when the sky is only barely brightening. He cannot eat more than a few bites of Sassticca's bread, and when he picks up a clean tunic, toga and sandals for his master, it is with numb hands.
When he pushes past the curtain of Marcus' bedroom, Marcus is already sitting upright. Waiting for him.
Marcus' mouth lifts in a smile, but it is all fake, an obvious lie. His face is tense and shadowed with pain, worse than when the surgeon set his knives to him. Esca does not think the cause is his wound this time.
Esca opens his mouth, and may all the gods help him, he doesn't know whether he intends to say "Marcus" or "master." It is then that he realizes his hands, still clutching the clean clothing for Marcus, are trembling like a winter storm passing through the forests. He shuts his mouth and the room around him begins to wobble, all the more frightening given his absolute sobriety.
He feels the cloth slide out of his fingers, and it seems the most natural thing to fall to the floor, to fall to his knees. He bows his head to the floor as a suppliant does before the gods, that he might not see Marcus' face now.
"Domine," he whispers, helplessly, still shaking, and he closes his eyes. He has no idea what else to say.
Seven years a slave, and Esca has been whipped, beaten, stabbed, used, starved, sold. But he never gave his mind over to his masters, and he would have gone to his death clear-eyed and free of regrets if Marcus had not held out his hand. None of his masters have made him forget himself. None of his masters have broken him, for all that they tried with their cruelty.
What it took, he thinks wretchedly, was kindness, only kindness. Damn him, damn everyone, but he cannot do this. He cannot feel this for the man. He has come to care for Marcus, even to betray himself and want what Marcus offered, and Marcus will likely still have the skin off his back for refusing.
Somewhere nearby there is a quiet indrawn breath.
"Esca," Marcus' voice is saying, low and hoarse, dry and cracked. "Don't. Esca, please. Please stand up."
He does not trust himself to stand yet, but he lifts his head, sits back on his heels, and opens his eyes. Before him, Marcus' face is wrecked, twisted in dismay, and Marcus' mouth lies half-open, as if he can't decide what to say that might make this better. Or worse.
"I would ask if you want to sit up here with me." Marcus' hand rests on the bed, atop the rumpled blankets. "But I have the impression that you... might mislike. That." He coughs. "Being closer to me. Or my bed. I am sure either is— ill-advised."
Esca focuses his eyes forward and takes a few deep breaths. "I will do what you ask of me."
"Then sit here," Marcus says, and desperation runs through his voice. "But you will not have to sit with me."
The meaning of this statement becomes clear very shortly, as Marcus lurches to his feet, only a little unsteady, and leaves the bed empty.
Esca bites his lip. "I cannot—"
"Of course you can. Please," Marcus says again, and everything is wrong, for his master ought not beg anything of him.
As Esca rises, Marcus is pulling the tunic off the floor and sliding it over his head. By the time Esca has settled at the edge of the mattress, Marcus is pouring water from the ewer at the other side of the room into a clay cup, and Esca wants to laugh or perhaps weep. Those are his duties.
"Here," Marcus says, holding out the water. "Drink something."
He takes the cup and stares into the unquiet surface of the water as his throat tightens. "Thank you." He can barely force out the words.
He drinks the water. Marcus says nothing.
The cup is empty.
"I am sorry," Marcus breathes, and the pain and regret in his voice is awful, wrong, and improper. Nothing a master should ever feel for his slave. "Esca, I am sorry. I presumed too much. Last night. I shouldn't have asked anything of you. What I said—I won't ask again. I meant it. You are safe from me. You deserve that much."
"You still want me," Esca says, not even thinking about the words. "You always wanted me."
His master winces. "That... doesn't matter."
"I refused you."
"I—" Marcus hisses, a dismayed sound, and holds his hands out helplessly, almost touching Esca. "Clearly it is impossible for you to believe this, but I only want willing bed-partners. And you were unwilling. It was right of you to refuse."
The morning light strikes Marcus' jaw, and Esca traces the line of it, down his shoulder, over the tunic. He can imagine the feel of Marcus' skin under his hands, and he wonders if Marcus knows how close he was to saying yes.
"You're not going to beat me," he says, finally, realizing.
Marcus tilts his head in agreement.
"You are the strangest Roman I have ever met," Esca says, and he thinks he sounds more querulous than he intends. He just... cannot figure the man out.
This makes Marcus raise an eyebrow and chuckle. "Men usually save that observation for when they find out I am a filthy cinaedus." He says the obscenity with absolutely no sting of shame in it, as the rest of the Romans like to say words like civis or miles. "Though you took that one rather well."
"I was only surprised to hear it from a Roman. It has been my experience—" Esca chooses the word carefully— "that Romans do not think a man can find the act enjoyable, and so reserve it for those whose enjoyment is of no consequence."
Another wince, then. "I— it never occurred to me that you—" Why does the man care so much about him?
"So," Esca says, interrupting him, "when would you like to go to the brothel? Today?"
Marcus blinks. "What?"
Is he that dense? It is perfectly clear. "I have refused you and, as that matters to you, you have said you will not press me. You have certain... desires. I am sure that, perhaps with an additional fee to ensure their discretion, they have a man or two more than capable of—" oh, he will not picture this, no, he is not imagining Marcus spread out and wanton— "satisfying you."
But Marcus is shaking his head. "You think I would pay for that?"
"Yes?" he offers, but it is clearly the wrong answer.
Marcus scoffs. "The gods gave us hands for a reason," he says, and Esca is definitely not picturing that. At least, he ought not. "I would rather that than a brothel. It is not what I want."
It is on the tip of Esca's tongue to ask what Marcus does want, but he knows, the terror coiling deep in his belly, that he cannot bear it if Marcus says it again.
"Actually," Marcus says, grinning, "I was thinking about hunting, today."
"You said, once, that I would be well enough for it." Marcus' gaze is challenging now. "There are boar-spears out by the stables, and I would very much appreciate your company."
They are not speaking of last night. They will never speak of it again.
Esca forces a smile. "It would be an honor."
Then everything changes.
They come back from the hunt, and there are soldiers at the door and senators inside. And Esca discovers exactly what in this life Marcus values most: a metal bird.
"I'll take Esca," Marcus tells his uncle, tells the senators. He has not noticed Esca in the doorway. None of them do.
Something in Esca's heart that he did not know was still alive until this moment twists and tears in agony. Oh, Marcus thinks he has been kind. He thinks he has treated Esca well. The man probably prides himself on it. But he is still a Roman, and of course he will command unthinkingly, he will order and expect it obeyed. He may not use Esca's body for his lusts, but he will use him every other way he can, and he will never see anything wrong with this.
If he had asked, Esca would have told him no. The Wall has split the land in two for near twenty years, he has never lived north of it, and it is autumn now, soon to be winter. He knows nothing of the lands there, save winds and mist and glens a man could lose his way in, and then his life. It is a madman's quest, especially now, and especially for Marcus, on account of both his still-present injury and his heritage. Being Cunoval's eldest son may afford Esca guest-right among the Selgovae or the Novantae, but even Marcus' height and coloring—just close enough to pass—will only protect him until he opens his mouth. Marcus speaks only a few words of British, and his accent is appallingly, clearly that of a Roman. There is no way to hide him.
But of course, Marcus has not asked; he has told. So they will do this, for all that it may kill them both. He cannot leave Marcus to face the north alone; they are bound, he has sworn it on his honor, and so Esca must lead him.
When Marcus stalks away from his uncle, nostrils still flaring in his anger, he finally seems to catch sight of Esca. Esca watches as his mouth works.
I did not ask first, he imagines Marcus saying, apologetically. I would have you come as a friend, Esca. Or even: Here, I will free you, and then ask you to journey with me, that we might travel as equals through your homeland.
But Marcus only stares at him for a long while, and then runs his fingers through his hair and looks away.
"Esca," he says, not even raising his eyes. "I will need your help in the north." And, oh, it is an order. "You haven't heard which tribe might have the Eagle, have you? Placidus said they were painted, but that could mean anything..."
His voice trails off.
Esca remembers, suddenly, the tale his father had told him, years ago, a pure, perfect memory trapped in amber:
He is nine or ten, demanding the story anew of how the Romans were defeated five years before, listening to his father with awe, sitting next to him by the fires. The story is almost ended now.
"I myself saw one man—Dergdian, his name was, a chieftain's son among the Epidii—and he was the most valiant warrior that day, among the Epidii and Selgovae and Caledonii and Novantae and even the Brigantes. I saw it all happen. I was with him as he slew the Roman commander," says Cunoval. "The Roman fought well, but in the end Dergdian slit his throat. And that is how the fight ended."
He has left the story unfinished, Esca knows. "But, Father," he asks, insistent, "what about the spoils?"
His father makes an exaggerated, surprised face and pretends he does not know what Esca means. "The spoils, you say?"
"The spoils, the prizes of war!" Esca says. "You have not told me about the spoils. You have not told me how Dergdian was given the man's ring—"
Cunoval laughs and holds up his hand. "At this rate, Esca, you are like to become a bard! Why don't you remind me of the ending, then?"
"Dergdian took the man's emerald ring, as proof he slew him," Esca recites, annoyed, for he likes the story far better when his father tells it, "and it was agreed that since he was the one who killed the most important of the Romans, the Epidii should have a gilt eagle that the Romans prized above all other things. And you had the second pick, and you took some armor and weapons." He thinks this seems a vastly more sensible choice than a little golden bird.
His father pretends as though he has only just remembered this. "Ah, of course," he says, rubbing his hand across his moustaches. "It was exactly thus."
Esca smiles up at his father. "It is still the very best story," he tells him. "Someday I will see the place of heroes where you fought them, when I am a warrior."
It is a sweet memory, a thing he thought he had forgotten.
Marcus is looking across the room at him, waiting impatiently for his reply. Imperiously. Like a Roman. Like his master.
"No," Esca says. "I have no idea where to find your Eagle."
Somehow Marcus returns to dinner. After the earlier outrage, Esca is surprised. Even worse, it seems the tribune has not given up attempting to offend his hosts.
"Your slave," Placidus begins, coarsely. "Do you fuck him?"
Wineskin in his hands, Esca freezes. He has heard this question asked before at dinner-parties. It has never ended well for him.
"I think," Marcus says, very carefully, each word over-enunciated, "that it is none of your business."
Placidus, far too drunk for any sort of propriety, laughs and takes another sip of wine. Next to him, the legate looks away and sighs.
"Ah, so you don't," he says, and he smirks as he says it. "Not that way around, at least. I heard you served in the east, Aquila. Did you perhaps acquire any of those strange eastern perversions during your campaigns?"
Marcus puts his cup down and smiles; it is a dangerous, dangerous look. "Oh, all of them," he says, sweetly. "Every last one. I am a weak, soft, pathic man. I love to oil my hair as the easterners do. When I die they will wrap my body in linen and bury me in hot sand like the kings of Egypt. Which did you want to talk about?"
One of those, Esca knows, is true. In a way. He does not think Placidus would believe the truth.
Placidus' mouth opens, then shuts, then opens again. He does not reply.
"Marcus!" his uncle says. It is meant to be a rebuke, but it is a little too mild for that.
Marcus rises unsteadily to his feet. "I think I have had enough to drink." The rest of the table does not appear sorry to see him go.
On Marcus' way out of the dining-room, he brushes against Esca. Their eyes meet.
Thank you, Esca wants to say, but then he remembers what Marcus will have him do. He was spared this, but there will be no reprieve from the standard-hunt.
They leave as soon as they can, a few days later, galloping north from Calleva. Esca knows, even if his master does not, that they are racing the weather. Perhaps once they have crossed the Wall Marcus will see this quest for the hopeless thing it is, and they can be south again before winter, with no one ever setting foot in Epidii lands.
If not, well, Esca had rather die in the north. It is more like home.
It is easy to lie to Marcus.
He had thought it might not be, at first, but once he has begun, it is the simplest thing to continue. He only owes Marcus his life, and the obligation to keep him alive. He does not owe him the truth. And Marcus believes him.
When they sit by the fire that Marcus insists on building, and Marcus tells him how he wishes his father were alive, Esca does not tell him that he knows the man is dead. That is not a lie; it is only omission.
That night he offers to take the first watch, and all he can do is stare as Marcus, ever trusting, slips into sleep, his face illuminated by the dying embers of the fire. Marcus' chest rises and falls, even and regular. If Esca were an oathbreaker, it would be so very simple now to make sure he never woke again.
Esca sits with his sword unsheathed across his lap in the stillness of the night, and he only breathes when Marcus does.
Atop the ridge, Marcus picks a direction. It is the right direction, and Esca says nothing. He does not know what they will do when they meet the Epidii. If they meet the Epidii. He had thought, perhaps, he could lead Marcus astray. Perhaps they could find shelter with the Selgovae or the Votadini, either of whom would be more than willing to feign confusion at any request from a Roman, to pretend they had never heard of the battle. Perhaps they could even pass the worst of the winter thus, staying with the northern tribes, if Esca can only invent some reason that he should be traveling with a Roman.
But they head unerringly north. The Roman gods still hear Marcus' prayers, receive his offerings, and they guide him ever further. And now it is Esca who follows.
"North," says Marcus, and Esca makes himself nod in response. North it is.
He sees three men move in the trees behind Marcus. Rogue warriors, he tells Marcus. Novantae, he thinks to himself. There is no reason Marcus should know or care to know what tribe they are. They are all British to the Romans, after all.
Certainly these men do not care who they are, beyond what is plainly obvious. Esca does not blame them, for here he is with Marcus, and they are two men riding sleek Roman horses, carrying fine new gear, wielding Roman short-swords, and speaking too loudly in Latin, only Latin. They are the invaders. For the span of a breath, Esca considers warning them off in British, but he is not sure it would do any good. They are set to this course. So be it.
He nods to Marcus, and as one they arm themselves, Marcus reaching for his sword as Esca fits an arrow to his bow.
After that everything happens very quickly.
He had been worried that Marcus would be a poor fighter, only able to defend himself as the legions do, taking refuge in their formations, with their shields to protect them. But as Esca kills two of the six with two quick arrows, he sees Marcus fighting well, killing one man and then a second, weaving past their defenses as if they weren't even there. He takes a graze to the arm, but hardly slows.
Another man rises up, axe in hand, ready to hurl it at Marcus, and without thinking about it Esca nocks another arrow, draws, and saves his master's life.
I could have let him die, he thinks. I would have been free—
And then the last warrior slams into Esca from above, tackling him, but for some reason he cannot hold Esca properly. They roll, and Esca pins... a boy?
The boy is young, barely of an age to have earned the ink on his skin. His eyes are wide and terrified. His first true battle, likely, and he will die for it.
No. Esca pushes up, off him. Let the child go tell the Novantae there are Romans here, he thinks. It hardly matters. Given how absolutely obvious Marcus is, the news has likely already made it across the countryside.
The boy runs... and Marcus' dagger pierces him in the shoulder, a perfect throw. Esca watches as Marcus stalks forward, rips the dagger out of the boy's back, and then slits his throat in one quick motion. Marcus' face does not change.
He has forgotten so quickly that Marcus is a soldier.
Marcus looks up at him. "Next time, don't hesitate." His voice is grave. He must mean this for a warning.
Esca wants to laugh; does he think this is betrayal? He has hardly seen betrayal. If Esca had betrayed him, he would have been dead now. He knows nothing, nothing of how this land works. With a few words from Esca, the men would have drawn their swords only on Marcus. It is only the life-debt that keeps him safe.
In silence he fumbles for a cloth, holds it out to Marcus' grazed arm. He pulls it tight, deliberately, and Marcus winces. Good.
Then Marcus notices the warriors' loose horses, beginning to wander down into the clearing. He lifts his head to stare. "We should—" Marcus starts.
"We'll take their best two horses. The rest we'll turn out. Their animals will be more used to this ground." Esca snaps out the words as an order.
With that, he ties off the bandage. You already put your life in my hands when you bade me come, he thinks. You should have realized you'd have to trust me with it.
Marcus says nothing.
It is easier still to lie to Marcus once they meet others, for all the people they meet do Esca the courtesy of lying to him. Of course they do. He knows what they see: two men, one of them silent, heading north and dressed poorly for the cold, riding native horses now but still horribly conspicuous. And the questions Esca asks them—why, only a Roman would care about such a thing. They might as well have their origins branded on their faces.
"No," the man says, his eyes darting nervously up to where Marcus stands on the hillside, "I have not heard tell of this Eagle."
Esca turns back to Marcus and does not even have to lie when he says that no one here knows.
They will be safe. This will work. After all, who would dare tell a Roman anything? Not any man of the tribes, that is for certain.
Unfortunately, they meet a Roman.
Metellus ruins everything.
"He knows," Metellus tells Marcus. "He's Brigantes. They fought here."
It is Lucius Metellus who says these things on account of his tattered Roman honor, Esca knows, with a sudden furious clarity, his anger held in check like a frozen river. It is no matter that this man calls himself Guern now, that he calls himself Selgovae. The Selgovae had been their friends, and a true one would not have betrayed them. He is Metellus, and he will always be Roman.
The silence in the glen is profound.
Esca turns away and walks to check the tack on his mount. He can hardly avoid leading Marcus to the Epidii now. He has never met them, he wants to say. He does not know what to tell them, for the Horse People—or perhaps in these parts they are the Seal People—will kill both of them the instant Marcus clumsily shows himself to be a Roman, as he has to everyone they have met so far.
Esca keeps his head down and his mouth shut.
Metellus starts to laugh, a dry, mocking sound. "Were you going to lie to your master forever, Brigantes?" he asks in British. "How did you think that was going to work?"
He turns back, jaw tightening. "Better than your plan, coward, for now you are a traitor twice over, and I would that all the gods cursed you for it."
Metellus has nothing to say to that, and Marcus just stares at them both in hurt incomprehension, brow furrowed, eyes downcast. Esca looks at both of them for a breath longer and then vaults into his saddle and nudges the horse with his heel, leaving the Romans behind among the bones of the Ninth Legion Hispana. Let them stay there.
When they are on the trail again, it does not take long for Marcus to begin to speak.
"You always knew," says Marcus, and his voice is run through with anger, the wounds of a man betrayed. As if he had thought they could trust each other. "All this time you could have told me."
Does he not understand who Esca is? They are not friends. Why would he ever have led him here?
"Your tribe was there," Marcus continues. "They butchered my father's men like dogs."
His father. His damned father, again and again. It is as though Marcus thinks all the peoples of Britannia have striven to shame him personally. His father was Roman. This was not their land. That was more than enough. The Brigantes were in the right. And they fought well and honorably; Esca knows the tales. His own father would not have lied to him!
Esca reins his own horse around, finding that his own anger runs hot in him now. How can Marcus understand nothing, nothing at all? "Your father came to kill! He came to punish us because we would not bow to the name of Rome! Yes, I'd heard of this place!" He remembers, again, his father telling of their great victory. How can Marcus desecrate this? How can he question their honor? "To me and to all my people it is the place of heroes!"
Marcus' face is white and tense as he, too, brings his horse to a halt. "How dare you," Marcus says, as if he is the one who ought to be outraged here. "You're still my slave!"
His slave? Does Marcus truly think Roman law means anything, north of the Wall? Does he think that is what keeps Esca from running away in the night? Does he think Esca should be meek and silent and agreeable? It is Marcus who should be grateful; he would have died ten times over if Esca hadn't been here.
"You'd be dead in a ditch without me!"
Marcus is inches away now, shaking with fury. "I saved your miserable life!"
He cannot mean that. He cannot think Esca should be pleased to have his rightful death taken from him, and then to be honor-bound against his will— trapping him— forcing him to stay—
Esca is up out of the saddle, throwing himself at Marcus, and then they are unhorsed and falling, falling, falling. The two of them land hard and tumble down the hill, and he has a fist in Marcus' face, a hand at Marcus' throat, and finally, now Marcus will understand what it is like to be a slave, now that violence is turned on him—
There is movement around them, and Esca looks up.
The Epidii have found them.
They are hunters all, smeared with mud to blend into the land, garbed in sealskin. The leader—as Esca hazards a guess—wears not a shining torc as he would expect of the nobility, but rather a necklace of teeth. They are a strange people.
The man tilts his head. His eyes narrow shrewdly. "Who are you?"
Esca pulls himself to his feet. "I am Esca, son of Cunoval, slain chief of the Brigantes."
He knows he does not look as a chieftain's son does, dressed as he is in tattered dull Roman clothing and not gleaming finery with gold at his throat. But this, at least, is the truth. The man will have to believe him.
"Who is it you talk to in the Roman tongue?"
He must have heard everything; it is a lucky thing that he did not understand them. Esca swallows hard and gives the only answer that will keep them both alive. "My slave."
He wanted Marcus to understand what it was to be him. But he didn't mean it, O gods, he didn't mean it to happen like this.
The man turns to regard Marcus, and then he forces his chin up to see the helmet-scar on Marcus' jaw. It is true, the men murmur to each other. A Roman.
The leader turns back to Esca. "My father would like to see such a slave."
It is an invitation. He has passed.
He tries to ignore the sound of Marcus, pained and alone, crying his name as the warriors tie him behind his own horse.
Marcus is alive. That is all he promised.
"It is only a few days' travel to our home," the man says, once they have turned down the path, with the men leading the horses, hounds and Marcus behind them. "The journey should not be too hard, even for a southerner," he adds, with a grin. "I am Liathan, the eldest son of our chief, Dergdian."
"Dergdian?" Esca remembers the name, suddenly. "My father said he fought beside him, long ago when you won the Romans' Eagle."
Liathan laughs, delighted. "Then you will be doubly welcome. It is good fortune that you will be here for the feast for our new warriors!" He pauses. "How is that you came to our lands?"
Esca's heart lurches and pounds in his chest. "Perhaps you have heard," he says, letting the words fall with as much ease as he can give them, "that it went ill for my clan, against the Romans."
"I had heard." Liathan's nod is but the slightest tilt of his head.
"I did not have the honor to die in battle." For once he is glad of the sudden tightness in his throat as he talks; it will make him more believable. And this part, at least, is the truth. "The slavers found me and sold me to the Romans."
Liathan raises an eyebrow. "And you escaped?"
Esca makes himself smile, but only a little, to suggest this is the easiest of feats. "My last master trusted me more than he should have. Perhaps he was blinded by his... affection." He spits on the ground after the last word.
The other man's gaze is knowing. They have a common enemy. "Is it not so with the Romans? It is not enough for them to eye our women immodestly; must they also pollute our warriors with their filthy lusts?"
"It is intolerable," Esca agrees, and he does not have to fake the shudder in his voice.
Marcus has never touched him like that. The thought drifts through his mind with sharp-edged clarity. Marcus is different. He would only have done what Esca wanted. He has never done anything against Esca's will. Not like that.
"Well," Liathan says, only a bit awkwardly, "you are not among them now. And you are a chieftain's son, a proper, respected man."
Esca smiles. "I knew the clans of the north would welcome me."
There. It is an answer that ought to satisfy the man—though it is not really an answer—and it does not require him to invent too much. He is surprised to realize that the smile on his face is real. He is happy. Well, of course he is happy. Liathan addressed him as a fellow warrior, and his men have shown all the courtesy he would expect. Perhaps if they have meat, they might even give him the best of it. It is a strange, strange feeling. No one has treated him like this in years. They look at him not just as a man, but a chieftain's son. And, ah, it is sweet indeed.
He could stay among these people and be content. They are not his kin, of course, but it would be the best life he could have, surely.
Behind him there is a ragged, pained noise and a heavy thud. Liathan gives a disdainful glance over his shoulder. "Is your slave usually this incompetent? He seemed so disobedient earlier as well."
Esca turns, but he already knows what he will see as they all come to a halt.
Marcus is sprawled in the dirt, on his knees, struggling to push himself up with his bound hands. From the awkward way his leg is twisted under him, Esca knows it has given out once again, and he is most likely in agony; his face is pale and drawn under the bruises and drying blood. He stares up at Esca in anger and disbelief.
"Esca," Marcus rasps. He does not beg. He is Roman. He has too much pride for that, Esca knows.
He cannot do this to Marcus.
Seven years ago he would have killed a Roman, any Roman, without a second thought. A year ago he would happily have killed any of his masters. And now, now, Esca looks down on Marcus and knows the truth: he cares for this man. He cares for him more than he cares for his home, more than any place any clan could give to him. He cannot abandon Marcus to this. Marcus can hardly walk. What if he cannot walk again?
O, what have I done to you?
He has been fighting his own heart so long now, terrified of losing himself. But this is his heart, and there is room in it for Marcus, even though he never wanted to believe this could happen. He still has himself.
He will find the Eagle. If he is lucky, if he can do this, he can keep Marcus. And they must find the standard, because Marcus wants it. And he wants— he wants Marcus to be happy, to have his own honor as well.
Esca gives a jerky shrug and stills his face as much as he can. "He has an old injury, and no, he is hardly the most obedient. But—" he tries a lazy smile— "I find it amusing to keep a Roman, nonetheless. Especially one I tricked past the Wall."
One of the other warriors laughs. "You should sell him, eh? Get some good wine!"
"Romans don't give wine for other Romans, idiot," another man says. "Just Britons."
"True enough," says Esca. "I'd have to find his kin if I were going to get anything for him. They might pay a ransom."
As he says it, he remembers Marcus' uncle, warning Marcus that Esca will slit his throat.
I'll bring him back, he promises. Him and his Eagle.
He bites his lip and hopes his face gives nothing away, as Marcus drags himself slowly to his feet. He does not look back again as they walk onward.
Then, of course, they arrive. After the chieftain speaks, Esca is brought face to face with Marcus, and he can no longer avoid answering his questions.
Marcus' eyes are still bewildered, but he has to have figured out now what is happening, at the most basic level. He has to. It does not appear that he has.
"What's happening?" Marcus asks, reaching forth as though Esca can rescue him, can help him, can make any of it stop. It is too late for that.
"You're my slave," he bites out. "Do as I did for you, and you'll live."
There is no chance to explain the truth of it, no time to tell Marcus the plan as they are brought forth before the chief of the Epidii. Hearing Dergdian, the old chieftain, speak, Esca knows he can say nothing to Marcus. When he tells Dergdian Marcus' name, the chief repeats it back in a voice that sounds not unaccustomed to Latin. Someone here would understand them if they spoke it to each other. Besides, Marcus is a man whose emotions are painted broadly across his face, like the crude scrawlings on a tavern-wall; he is a poor liar. If Esca were to explain himself, Marcus would look, perhaps, relieved, and they cannot have that. It would mean their deaths.
No, in order for the Epidii to believe that Marcus is his slave, Marcus will have to believe it. Truly, in his heart, he must believe that Esca has betrayed him. That Esca could want this.
Luckily, Marcus seems to have no problem believing that.
"Show him where to go," he tells one of the warriors, and he does not stay to watch them lead Marcus away.
The sky grows dark soon after the meal, and Esca is given a space to sleep in the chieftain's hut, as befits an honored guest. He cannot quite say it is like a proper roundhouse, for it is not built up in stone, but there are enough people and enough of a fire in the center that he will hardly freeze in the night.
He pulls the seal-furs up to his neck and, half-conscious, lets his thoughts drift where they may. The soft sounds of the people around him turning and moving in their sleep are reassuring, the noises of his childhood; it makes him feel safe, even though he ought to feel anything but.
He is brought to full wakefulness by an argument just outside the tent, voices pitched low but still disruptive. The fur covering the entrance is drawn back and a man with a torch in one hand steps across the threshold.
"—don't care whose son he is!" says the voice outside, louder now. "This Esca could be the son of Epona herself, but he's not bringing his Roman in here!"
Marcus? Esca pushes himself upright. Why would they not have set out a different place for Marcus to sleep? Of course he would not bring his slave to the chieftain's home. He shakes his head, trying to clear it.
"Esca?" The man at the doorway squints and peers into the dimness, his voice pitched low. "You're wanted—" his eyes dart back to the unseen person he was talking with— "outside."
Esca nods and stands, leaving the warmth of the blankets behind him.
When he steps outside, he is not surprised to see Marcus silhouetted against the night, standing a little ways away.
"He seemed to think he was coming inside," says the other man, the one who has been speaking so indignantly. Esca remembers him from the meal; he was one of the spear-bearers in the far circle. "And he isn't, not if you didn't send for him." The man's glare, visible by torchlight, neatly communicates that he would disapprove of this as well.
Esca holds up a hand. "I'll talk to him, thank you."
Marcus is still upright, but he is unsteady, and he holds himself as if a gust of wind would send him to the ground. His head is down, and he does not look up as Esca approaches.
Come here, he wants to say, softly, and to hold out his arms. We will survive this, he wants to say. Instead he draws himself up, holds his head high, and tries to remember the revolting, commanding expressions of each one of his masters, the better to plaster an unfriendly grimace across his face.
"Yes?" he asks, irritation in his voice, as a man might say to any bothersome slave. "Was there a reason you needed to disturb my sleep?"
Marcus still does not meet his eyes. "I— some of the warriors—" he starts, mumbling at the ground. "They said— well, they did not say, or perhaps they did, but I did not know the words. They said your name and gave signs. Certain signs. They indicated that— that—"
He does not have to feign the annoyance this time. "What, Marcus?"
Marcus' head comes up, finally, and in his eyes there is... fear? "They gave me the suggestion that I should... serve you." The words are quiet, level, almost emotionless. "For the night."
The statement strikes him, quick and hard, an unexpected blow up and under his guard. Esca breathes out, heavily, forcing air past the sudden burning weight in his chest. He ought to have foreseen this. At least, a small part of his mind thinks dizzily, at least Marcus did not call him "master."
The very worst thing about it is the look on Marcus' face. He does not seem angry, or disbelieving, or anything of the sort. No, he is staring dully forward, resigned to it, as if he thinks that Esca might truly want to do this to him, that Esca would take Marcus' honor and dignity and body from him, unwilling.
"No," Esca manages, hoarsely, when his throat loosens enough to let him speak. "That won't— I have no need of that from you. Not tonight."
The expression on Marcus' face only grows more wretched. "You don't... you don't want that?"
Not like this. Not like this. Please.
He would be a liar if he said he did not still desire the man. There is no use in lying to himself. He can, however, lie to Marcus.
Esca shakes his head curtly. "It would not please me." And then, while he can still speak, he twists the knife. "Your Roman arrogance knows no bounds even now. Why would you assume I needed anything from you? Do you think I've been dying to fuck you? Even you can't be that good."
If he tells him this, if he is this cruel, may the gods help him, Marcus will not offer himself up again. Let Marcus believe himself unwanted. Esca can barely handle this pretense as it is.
He had expected Marcus would look at least grateful to be spared, but if there is any relief in him it is not there to be seen. Now the look in his eyes is all pain. He is trembling a little, and Esca hopes it is only because Marcus is cold. Esca cannot very well bring him inside, under the warm hides, unless he is willing to use Marcus while he is there. And he is not. He is not that man.
He could be. He could do it. Think of all the Romans who have forced him, after all. It wasn't as though they cared about him. He could be kinder than they were. For Marcus' sake, he could make it not hurt. And Marcus would let him. Marcus has offered. He knows Marcus desired him, once. It would be easy to close his eyes and take him.
He wants to be sick.
"I told you you should do as I did for you," he continues, raggedly, and he is no longer sure for whose benefit he is saying this. "I never did this. I suggest you keep that in mind. Slave. Remember that you are alive by my mercy, mine alone, and in future stay away from me unless I summon you. Is that clear?"
The less they see of each other, the more likely it will be Esca can keep this mask on.
Marcus draws a breath and Esca waits for him to tense, for anger to flash in his eyes, but nothing happens. He is still as a statue.
"Will that be all?" Marcus asks, finally.
Esca nods and does not trust himself to speak again. If he talks he will surely weep.
He watches Marcus turn and limp slowly away between the huts, dragging his leg behind him and groaning with every step.
The Feast of New Spears is in a few days. The Epidii will have the Eagle displayed then, with any luck, and he can wrest it away from them. If the two of them have to stay any longer, it will destroy them both.
Luckily, he manages to avoid Marcus. The Epidii are gracious hosts, and he welcomes the chance to hunt with their warriors, spear in hand, to be as he has not been in years, surrounded by people who could almost be kin. Obeying his orders, Marcus stays away. Esca sees him a few times, during meals, and once currying the horses. He does not come for him at night again.
But Marcus' welfare is still foremost in his thoughts, a constant cold terror worrying at him. He wonders at first if the gods have cursed him to know Marcus' mind, even though he knows it cannot be true. These thoughts are all his own. Always there is misery that he has done this to Marcus. It will be over soon. It has to be over soon.
They are returning from the hunt when it happens.
Liathan's gaze focuses somewhere behind Esca's shoulder, and his face tightens in rage. "Esca, what is your Roman doing?" His voice is all astonished disbelief, dark with anger.
Esca turns as fast as he can. Marcus had been gutting fish when he left. It was a demeaning enough task, certainly, but it was safe. All he had to do was work the knife and stay out of the way of everyone. There had been no risk, Esca thought, of Marcus doing something the Epidii would think ill of. But it seems Marcus has managed even that.
He does not understand the scene before him, not at first. Marcus is on the hillside, knife still in his hands. All should be well. There are a few people further down the slope, out where the rocks run into the sea, but there is nothing strange about that—
They are girls. Laughing, giggling, young women. And they are smiling at Marcus. And Marcus, the idiot, is smiling back at them.
Esca's stomach twists. This is not good, not good at all.
"That's my sister," Liathan grits out. "Your Roman filth is eyeing my sister!"
Before Esca can say anything, Liathan is striding across the ground, almost too fast to follow.
"You!" he yells at Marcus. "Take your eyes off her, slave!"
Marcus, of course, understands none of this, as Liathan has said it only in British. He is turning toward Liathan, wary and confused, still holding the knife—
Liathan punches Marcus in the face. It is a heavy blow, with all of his strength behind it, and Marcus, unprepared, is sent sprawling backwards into the dirt, the knife still in his fist. He does not move to strike back.
"What is this?" Esca calls out, when he has come close enough, as Marcus is picking himself up. He knows what it is, of course, but if they can talk about it, perhaps he can persuade Liathan that it was unforgivable, yes, but it is his right as Marcus' owner to punish him. That could save Marcus. He is not sure anything else can.
"He was looking at my sister!" Liathan snarls, still furious. "All Romans are savages. I have seen what they do to their prisoners. Such people are not to be trusted."
The words make Esca want to weep. He has suffered more at the hands of Romans than Liathan knows, than anyone knows, but Marcus is not like that. He has given Marcus his life, his honor, and Marcus has earned his trust. In another, kinder world, they might never have been born as enemies. He is Roman, true, and he will always be so, but at the same time he has always tried to treat Esca as a man, as a friend, as someone who meant something, as someone who was more than a warm body or an alien barbarian. Liathan would never believe any Roman could behave thus. Esca would not have either, before Marcus.
Esca turns to regard Marcus. They stare at each other, and Marcus is clearly still confused, his eyes wide. He has no idea what he has done.
Then he sees Marcus still holds the knife in his hand. It is a small knife, the blade a scant few inches, but Esca knows Roman soldiers train for years to stab and stab and stab. Two inches in the right place, as the saying goes. Marcus could have killed Liathan. Or him. Esca is surprised Marcus, with his soldier's instincts, didn't take a swing. In fact, Marcus holds the knife awkwardly, as if he is hardly aware it is a weapon.
What is wrong with him?
"Kneel," Esca snaps.
Marcus stares at him, mute, and does not move. Esca realizes he has spoken only in British. The Latin words are already slow to come to mind, but he has them eventually.
Cade ad genua. Fall to your knees. Even Marcus will understand that. "Kneel!"
Marcus' eyes have met his, but other than that he is still. Esca wonders if he understands that his life is at stake. Marcus must do this. Romans are proud, but he must kneel or die.
Esca wishes he could say it is difficult to hit Marcus. Marcus never struck him when he was his master, not like this. Esca watches his own fist flash out as if it belongs to someone else. His knuckles slam against Marcus' cheekbone. Marcus' head rocks back with the blow, and he staggers but does not fall again.
And yet he does not raise the knife. He does not try to shield himself from the blow. He was a soldier, he is a fighter, and he is doing nothing. All Esca is conscious of is the knife in Marcus' fist, and he is tense now, waiting to feel it bite into his skin. There is nothing but the cold wind from the sea.
Esca repeats himself in Latin once more. "Get on your knees! Do it!" He can hear his own hoarse voice echoing in his ears.
If Marcus will not kneel, he will have to make him, though now, now, Marcus will surely fight him for trying. As he steps forward and reaches out for Marcus' shoulder to push him down, he can feel Marcus under his hands already slackening and falling of his own accord, unresisting, like so much dead weight. Even with the injury, Marcus is bigger and stronger than he is. He cannot do this against Marcus' will. Marcus is letting him.
He pushes, and Marcus crumples.
He knots his fingers in Marcus' hair, hard enough to hurt, and pulls his head back roughly, exposing his throat. There. His life, offered to Liathan. It is a bluff, a stratagem only, but Marcus, who thinks him a traitor, cannot know that.
"If it please you, kill him."
And Marcus' body against him is still lax. He has not understood the words, though surely he knows the intent. But Marcus is not poised to rise up, to attack, and the knife is still in his hand. He is motionless. There can be only one reason for that. In this moment, Marcus is his, but in a way he never wanted.
I've broken him. The thought blossoms to fill all of Esca's mind for an instant, a horrible, sick vertigo runs through him, and his hand on Marcus' head shakes. I made him a slave and I broke him. He has seen it happen to other men, so many times, men who had screamed and fought the slavers' chains one day and the next had sat complacent and ready for their masters, all the fire gone from their eyes forever.
But Marcus had been strong, had been proud, had been better than those men. Esca had not thought it could have happened so fast. He ought to have known. Often the proudest ones were the first to fall.
Liathan steps forward and stares, examining them both closely, as if he can divine justice from their faces. Esca glances down and sees Marcus' eyes track the motion. He wonders if Liathan's face will be the last thing Marcus sees. He wonders how it will feel when Marcus' body, throat cut, falls against his. Marcus will die as his father did, believing himself alone and betrayed by everyone he trusted.
If Esca is fast enough, he can come between them and take the killing blow. His own life for Marcus'. He has sworn it.
He waits for Liathan to raise his hand.
"No," Liathan says, slowly. "You are my guest and he is your property. As long as you trust him, he lives." He slices the air with his knife to underscore the last point. He does not need to say it was a very near thing.
Marcus is not dead, then. Esca waits for relief to lighten his chest, but he finds it does not come. Marcus is as good as dead, if his spirit is lost.
Liathan spits on the ground in front of them and leaves.
Of course, Esca cannot stop playing the cruel master. Not while they are here. He releases Marcus and shoves him hard in the head as he steps away. At least this way Marcus cannot see his face. I didn't mean to, he wants to say. Forgive me. But it is too late for that.
"When I get the chance," Marcus begins, and despite himself Esca turns back. He had not expected Marcus to have words left in him, and he has to know. He has to see him.
Marcus is pale under the bruises, under the blood, and his jaw clenches in anger as he rises, slowly, to his feet.
"I will kill you."
The words are brave, but empty—for after all that, Marcus is still cradling the knife in his hand, useless. The words are lies. He may even think he means them, but his body has already spoken a deeper truth.
No, Esca thinks, bleakly. You won't. That was your chance.
On the evening of the feast all the warriors—the men of the tribe, and the new warriors both—daub themselves again with the same mud they wear for hunting, the same way they had dressed when they had come upon Esca and Marcus not so long ago.
Esca stands at the top of the ridge watching the torchlit line of young men wend their way from the sea. They have had the secret parts of the ritual, he guesses, out on the island, and now, after, likely there will be feasting.
Liathan is perched next to him, and holds forth a little drinking-bowl, full of mead, to judge by the scent of it. Esca automatically takes it into his hands. It has been years since he has drunk fine mead at a feast, and already his mouth waters.
"I am minded of my own ceremony," Liathan says, grinning.
All at once the words make Esca remember when he was made a man—the long time biding in the darkness, the sacred things of which he is forbidden to speak, then again into the sunlight with his father and mother smiling at him, then proudly bearing the tap-tap-tap of the inked bone-needle against his arm. It is another one of those things he thought he had forgotten, almost as if Esca the Roman slave and Esca the chieftain's son are two men, each with their own memories.
Esca nods. "I as well."
Liathan glances over at the bowl, still balanced between Esca's palms. "Were you not going to drink the mead?"
He raises it to his lips, and as he does he smells that there is more in it than only honey. A sacred brew. Who knows what it does to the drinkers? It does not matter. If ever there were a night to give himself over to the gods, tonight is surely such a night. He takes a sip and passes it back. "Ah, that is good."
"So it is," Liathan says, taking another drink.
On the shore there is drumming, and by torchlight the new warriors begin a dance. Perhaps Esca was wrong about the Eagle. Perhaps the Epidii no longer have it, or it is in the cave with the sacred things. He thinks about fetching it for Marcus. It will be strange, if he manages this—what will the Romans think, he wonders, of a tribesman who had sworn to hate Rome forever, crossing the Wall with the Eagle in his arms? But Marcus would want this. Would have wanted this. He is not sure Marcus remembers any of this, any longer. Come to think of it, he does not even know where Marcus is now.
It hardly matters. Marcus is gone from him, and all he has now is a Roman slave. He will need to accept that. It was his fault, all his fault. If he had told Marcus the truth, Marcus could have trusted him, could have had something to hope for. He has torn all that away.
Liathan is staring strangely at him. "Are you well, Esca?"
Esca gives a quick—and natural, he hopes—smile. "Of course. Why should I be otherwise?"
"It is only that you looked sad, just now."
He scrambles for an explanation, and then finds one that is even true. "Ah, it is that I am put in mind of my clan on this night, and they are no more."
Liathan nods. "The Romans, eh?" His face brightens. "Well, have another drink, and perhaps what the dancers have now will hearten you."
Esca does not see how this could be so, but he takes another sip of mead—something in it is fragrant and dizzying—and passes the bowl back. "And what is that?"
And he looks on in amazement as a masked man far below them steps forth, holding out something shining. An eagle. The Eagle. Marcus' Eagle. Esca's stomach twists and clenches, in fear and excitement. They have it, they have it here!
"Behold the golden eagle!" the man cries from the shore, and the cry is taken up by the dancers.
Esca's mouth is dry. "An eagle?" Perhaps it is better to pretend he does not know of the thing.
"The golden eagle is a Roman god," says Liathan, smiling down at the sight of it. "And now that we have it—why, we shall not fall to the Red Crests, not if their own god has favored us."
He wonders if this is true. The thought that passes instantly through his mind, jealous and unworthy, is that if Cunoval had claimed the Eagle from the spoils, perhaps he would live now. It is more than a piece of metal, Marcus had said. It is so many things. It is—or was—Marcus' honor, all bound up in such a tiny thing.
"That is clever of you." He makes himself smile again.
Then Liathan squints down at the shoreline. "Esca," he says, and his voice has gone tight. "Is that your Roman again?"
Marcus? Esca goes cold all over, colder than the wind, stepping to the cliff's edge until he sees a figure crouched, half in shadow, watching the Eagle intently. It is Marcus. What in the world is he doing?
"I'll get him," he says, moving off to start down the slope. "I had promised he would behave."
Liathan waves a hand. "It is no matter," he says, lazily, his grin easy and free. "One of the new warriors will take care of him soon, likely enough."
And as Esca watches, astonished, Marcus gathers his feet under him and surges up, running for the Eagle, arms outstretched, heedless of the men surrounding him, the warriors with their spears. It is a mad thing to do, but the fact that Marcus has done it at all—ah, that means something. Marcus remembers this. Marcus remembers that he wants this.
Hope flares to life in Esca's chest. Maybe he had been wrong. Maybe Marcus is not broken. Maybe they can do this.
Then he winces as a warrior swings his spear out. Marcus' body arcs backwards, an awkward angle, and he slumps to the ground, unconscious.
But he remembers, Esca thinks. He knows who he is.
Liathan chuckles a little. "That was stupid of him."
Esca smiles, and it is a real smile now, though not for the reasons that Liathan thinks. "It is as you say; the Eagle-god does not protect the Romans in these lands."
"They will learn that soon enough," Liathan agrees, and he passes the mead back.
This time Esca makes a show of drinking, but he takes only a tiny swallow. He wants to stay as sober as he can. The rest of the tribe will surely drink and feast the whole night long, but if he can wake early—and if he can wake Marcus—they can be gone.
Let no one call him an oathbreaker, for he swore nothing to the Epidii. The only man alive to whom he owes anything lies now on the shore below him. He does this for Marcus.
Marcus' limp body is warm under his hands, and Esca prays that he will awaken.
"Marcus," he repeats, shaking him. "It's time. We have to do this now. It's our only chance, while they're asleep." It is the longest sentence he has spoken in Latin in days now. He whispers as loudly as he dares, painfully aware that if anyone understands them, they will be killed for it. Iam nobis aquilam rapiendum'st.
What if the blow to his head was too hard, and Marcus does not wake? What if he does not understand? What if he thinks himself still a slave in truth? What if he thinks this another trick, another betrayal? Esca would not blame him. There is no reason Marcus should trust him ever again about anything, and this most of all.
Marcus wakes with a start, tensing as if to ward off an attack. His eyes focus first on Esca's face, in a moment of confused incomprehension, then down to Esca's arms where he carries their swords, one in each hand. There is blood on his mouth, and, though the day has not yet dawned, Esca can tell there will be more bruises on his face.
He waits for Marcus to cower, or worse, to bare his throat in resignation. They have been here before, in reverse. Perhaps Marcus too would seek his own death.
But there is a smile, ever so faint, on Marcus' lips.
"I thought I'd lost you," he says, and all Esca can feel is an onrushing flood of relief, so great that he is lightheaded, he is dizzy with it. It is Marcus, it is his Marcus after all.
He wants to say it back. It is truer than Marcus can know; for if either of them should have been lost it would not have been Esca. But there is no time, and they must leave now. There will be all the time later for them, when they have Marcus' Eagle.
"Quickly," he says, and he holds out his hand and lets Marcus lean on him, not as slave and master but as a man relies on his shield-bearer's shoulder. They rise together.
After that, much of their flight south passes in a cold haze, barely remembered. They fetch the Eagle, and they fight their way out of the cave, and they run—on horseback when they can, and then leading the beasts when the ground grows too rough. Esca hopes, when there is space to hope at all, that they are faster than they had been on the way to the village. There is no time to think about anything but the sliding of uneven ground and jolting gait, the bitter cold, and always the baying of the hounds behind them. The Epidii will not be so quick to abandon their Eagle, not when Marcus has killed Dergdian for it.
They pause once, because Esca forces Marcus to stop and let him bandage his leg. They have not come this far to let Marcus bleed to death, after all. With the wound reopened, Marcus is limping again, more than ever, and his face is taut with tension. He would try to walk were his leg broken, Esca knows; he is that determined. It is a thing Esca has come to admire about him, even as he worries it will lead Marcus to the end of his life.
When night falls they huddle together by something that is half a pile of dirt, half an outcropping of rocks, and Esca offers the only thing he has caught: a rat. And they cannot afford a fire.
He takes a bite and offers the rest of the rat in both hands to Marcus, whose skin is hideously light, bleached white under the scrapes; he needs to eat, and eat now, if he wants to live.
Marcus' nose wrinkles. "I'm not eating that. I'm not a savage."
Does he still not understand? This is not about his pride. This is about his life.
"Then die a Roman," Esca snaps back. As he says it, he realizes this will hardly convince Marcus, and tries to gentle his tone. "You've lost a lot of blood. You need to keep your strength up. Eat."
Their fingers brush when Marcus takes the rat. His hands are bruised, battered, as cold as ice, and Esca wonders that he can hold the thing at all. Valiantly Marcus tries a bite, then retches, then tries another.
"Try not to think about it," Esca says, and watches as Marcus chokes down a mouthful.
Marcus groans, hissing dismay through his teeth. "I'm going to be sick," he mutters, but he manages another bite, and this one, to Esca's eye, goes down easier.
After a few more bites, some color has returned to Marcus' cheeks. Esca finds himself smiling. "I think you will live, Roman."
Marcus smiles weakly back at him, and Esca finally feels something that is not the chill of the night, warm within him.
"There is no need to thank me," Esca says, because that is true enough. "But now you need sleep as well as food. I will take the watch."
He expects Marcus to protest, to insist, but it is perhaps a sign of all that Marcus has suffered that Marcus only nods once, gravely, and pulls his cloak tighter about himself, leaning away into the rock and shutting his eyes. He supposes that it is Marcus' attempt to shield himself from the cold, but it is a poor attempt—after barely the span of a few breaths, it is apparent that Marcus is shaking with the cold, all his meager warmth leaching away into the dirt.
"Oh, don't be a fool," Esca says, and opens his arms, before he can think about what he's doing. "Come here."
Marcus turns back and stares, confused. "I— you— what?"
"I'm warmer than that by far. And I have a cloak." And that is all this is about, he tells himself.
Marcus opens his mouth as if to object, but then nods. "All right."
It takes them a bit of time to accomplish it, but eventually Esca has his back against the makeshift wall, keeping the chill away from Marcus, who is curled up, leaning into his side, with both of their cloaks over him. There is still enough room for Esca's sword-arm to be free. It is both efficient and strangely, perilously intimate; he is aware of every slow breath Marcus takes against him, and he is gladdened by this. Every breath means that Marcus lives still. They may die tomorrow when the Epidii find them, but for now they have this. They are together, and Esca is... content. He is proud to have known Marcus. If he will die beside him, at least they will have had this much.
Esca brushes his fingertips across Marcus' face, feeling the pulse at his jaw. Life, he thinks, life, as Marcus asked once for his.
He smiles and tilts his head back to the stars. The Romans say their gods look down from the heavens, Marcus had told him once. Let them see this and wonder at it.
When dawn finally comes he shifts Marcus off him and prepares the horses as quietly as he can. Marcus needs every bit of rest he can have. Then, when they can delay no longer, he wakes him, and he is pleased that Marcus arises with sword in hand. He will need those instincts.
"It's time to go," he tells Marcus.
Today it will end, one way or another. The Epidii are close enough now.
They head for the river. It is the best of bad choices, Esca thinks; the water will hide their tracks from the men, their scent from the hounds, and if they can trace it south they might be fast enough to the Wall. But as he holds Marcus' head above the surface with cold-numbed fingers, his rain-slick hands slipping on the wet wool of Marcus' tunic, he wonders if none of the choices are good enough to save them.
Together they half-float, half-stumble through the water. Marcus sags against him and Esca knows neither of them can hold him up. Marcus' eyes are unfocused, his skin pale; Esca has seen dead men who looked more alive. He has seen this look on the faces of men who knew they were to die, who had already left the world behind them.
"You need to rest," Esca says, desperately. He can hardly feel his own mouth forming words. He says it like a prayer to the gods; if Marcus can only have an instant's more reprieve, he will be healed. But if the gods hear him, they do nothing.
Looking down, he sees bright blood on Marcus' leg. The wound has opened again, and Marcus is bleeding out into the water.
After the next fall he hauls Marcus, unresisting, onto the bank. Marcus lies on his back, gasping, struggling for breath. It is a wonder he does not choke on the pouring rain.
Will it be like this? Esca wonders. Will it be now? But Marcus pushes himself upright, leaning against the smooth rocks that line the river. From the look of him, it has taken the last of his strength.
"I can't go on," Marcus says. His face is twisted, pain-wracked.
"You can." If he says it, maybe it will become true. "You just need to rest."
Marcus shakes his head and holds forth the cloth-wrapped Eagle. Such a small thing to die for, Esca thinks, now that he sees it in Marcus' hands.
"Here, take the Eagle. If you find horses, come back." Horses? The only free horses for miles around are the ones they have run to their deaths. They are near enough to where they fought the Novantae that perhaps their mounts could be recovered, but horses are valuable enough that someone better-armed than the two of them has surely claimed them by now. "If not, just keep south. Make sure this gets back to Rome."
He pictures himself crossing the Wall alone, pictures the faces of the soldiers who had laughed at them, who had told Marcus he would never make it. Esca does not want them to have been right.
He shakes his head. "I'm not leaving you here."
A flash of stubborn anger lights up Marcus' eyes. Perhaps there is life in him still. "Do not dishonor me. Take it."
Marcus' honor is not the only thing that matters.
Esca locks eyes with him. "I came this far with you. I won't leave you now."
Marcus returns his stare, fiercely, and his tone is as harsh as any of Esca's masters have ever been. "Esca, I order you. Take it," he repeats.
He remembers the day he came to the Aquila household, a lifetime ago, the way the knife felt as it fell from his hand, the way it felt to give his life to a man who did not even know what it meant then. "I swore an oath of honor never to abandon you." He tries one last argument. "If you want me to leave, set me free. Give me my freedom."
Marcus cannot say yes. How could he? Marcus dragged him here in yoke, and so Esca knows he will never let him go. Esca will die a slave, then, when the Epidii find them.
But he watches, astonished, as Marcus settles the Eagle at his side and holds forth... his father's knife. Hilt-first, in friendship. He understands. He understands, after all, how they have been bound.
"You're free," Marcus rasps. Esca is stretching forth his hand, and their fingers meet over the dagger. "You're free, my friend," Marcus repeats. His friend. Esca knows there are other ways for slaves to be free, more formal things, but those do not matter. The laws and magistrates are for later. He is free in Marcus' heart. None of the past bonds hold them, not slavery, not Esca's life-debt.
But there is nothing now to stop him from binding himself to this man by choice.
"Take it," Marcus says, a third time, holding out the Eagle, and Esca pushes it back into Marcus' arms.
He is free now. This is his decision. This is the first thing he has decided in seven years. They may be too far from the Wall, but they are not too far from aid, not if he is quick. And persuasive. Yes, he can do this.
Marcus looks at him, or rather, past him, his eyes still not quite focusing. Does he think that Esca is leaving him to die with the Eagle?
Esca kneels, reaching out for Marcus, splaying his hand across the back of Marcus' head, and he watches as Marcus' eyes finally track him. "I will return."
He sees understanding flare across Marcus' face. The thought, half-formed, drifts across Esca's mind: he could kiss him. Then Marcus would know, would know everything he felt, a promise of a different sort than his loyalty.
There is no time for that now.
Later, Esca thinks, and he turns and runs down the stream, heading south.
He finds the hunter where he thought he might, in a glade near where they met; Esca had been hoping, frantically, that the man had not been too far out of his usual hunting-grounds when they saw him. He has taken so long already in this run, and all he can think of with every footstep, with every pounding of his pulse through his veins, is that Marcus is curled in the rain with his Eagle, another moment closer to dying.
"Metellus!" he cries out, with what feels like his last breath. The air is like fire, and pain runs all through his sides.
The hunter goes very still at the sound of his name, as a deer when the wolf catches sight of him.
"Is that you, Brigantes?" the man says, softly, warily, in British.
Esca nods and trips down the rest of the slope to where the man can see him better, coming to rest against a tree. "It is Esca," he pants, holding out his hands to show he has not drawn iron.
Metellus has his hand on his knife-hilt, watching him. He says nothing.
There is no time to be nice. "I have a favor to ask of you, Metellus."
The man's eyes narrow. "That is not my name."
"I am not asking Guern of the Selgovae," Esca says, and he puts his next words in Latin, quick but deliberate. He has had a long run to think of what to say. "This is for the man whose name was once Lucius Metellus, of the first cohort of the Ninth Legion."
This perhaps is the wrong tack, because the man's face closes off and darkens with anger. "And what exactly do you think Lucius Metellus owes you, slave?" But he replies in Latin, and that is something. That has to mean something.
"Not me," Esca says, quickly, quickly, and the words are tripping out of him now in his haste. "We took the Eagle from the Seal People. Marcus has it, but he is hurt, not far from here. Badly hurt. The warriors are coming, a half-day behind us, and we two cannot stand against them."
There is a long silence. Metellus' expression does not change, and Esca begins to think the man has not heard him at all, or worse, will dismiss him without a word.
"Please," he breathes. He would never beg for his own life. He will beg for Marcus.
He does not know what shows on his own face, but Metellus sighs at the sight of him. When he speaks, his words are stiff, formal. A rejection. "I have no loyalty toward Rome. I am an accursed traitor, as you have so nicely said."
"The Eagle is not my concern," Metellus finishes. "Not any longer."
"Why, because you are not Roman? Marcus is not doing this for Rome," Esca says. Marcus has never told him this, but somehow he knows it is true. "He does this for his father. You served his father once. I ask you to serve him once again."
Metellus' face twists into a sneer. "And who do you do this for, Brigantes? Rome?"
This, he can answer. "For Marcus."
"Your master?" The hunter raises an eyebrow, his disbelief plain to see.
"He has freed me, if it matters to you," Esca says, and the words are less angry than he thought they might be. "I care not by what name Romans call the thing between us. I am bound to him by my honor, by my own will. If you are of the tribes now, surely you understand these matters."
Metellus' mouth twitches a little, half a smile, and Esca knows he has him. He remembers loyalty.
"What favor is it you wanted?"
"If you have any to spare, horses—" Esca starts, but Metellus is shaking his head.
"No horses," Metellus interrupts. "I am not that rich. Some men of my village own them, but I think you would find it difficult asking them to part with them."
Horses were the easy question. This one is much more daring, for if they cannot run from the Epidii, they will have to stand against them. Esca swallows. "Armor, then. Weapons. Your shoulder in a battle-line."
Metellus only stares evenly at him. "What makes you think I have armor? Armor is only for rich men, here in these lands. Perhaps you have forgotten this with all your time among the Romans." His tone is dry, impossible to read.
Esca tilts his head. "In the glen there were many bodies. And not a great deal of metal. I would be very surprised," he adds, "if men for miles around did not have Roman weapons. And I would be even more surprised if you had not kept your armor."
After a long time, Metellus nods in return, slowly, slowly. "I can offer you more than that, shield-bearer. I am not the only survivor of the Ninth. And I think the rest of us might take up arms for the Eagle, one last time."
"One last time," Esca agrees.
Marcus, he thinks. Hold on. We're coming.
Marcus stands in the riverbed where Esca left him, the Eagle on a post behind him. No longer a soldier, he will fight as standard-bearer for a legion that was never his. From the way he stands, he must think them the enemy—no wonder, because Esca had not promised him an army.
Esca finds he is smiling for what feels like the first time in years.
Something in him exults when Marcus meets his eyes before calling for the battle-line. If they die, they will die as equals, shoulder to shoulder.
Then, of course, the Epidii come, and Esca watches Liathan slit his own son's throat. Esca's own mother had knelt for the knife, but that was a willing death, to protect herself; one of Esca's own cousins had given himself to death the night before the soldiers came to them, a bargain with the gods that even the Romans understand. But this— this was nothing the boy wanted. Esca can tell that much from the terror in the boy's eyes. This is to hurt Esca.
I thought I understood you, he thinks, horrified, as the other lays the body down in the stream before them. I thought you were like my people. He glances over to where Marcus stands, impassive, his face revealing nothing. I had rather be with Romans. This one has more honor than you.
"Out swords!" calls Marcus, and they draw.
The world is a terrifying blur of blood and iron. The line fails quickly. Esca's feet slip out from under him and he is on his back in the mud, disarmed. Liathan stands above him, and Esca knows the man will show him no mercy.
Liathan swings the blade down.
This is his death. At least he will go beyond the sunset a free man. O Marcus, do not weep for me—
Metal clashes and slides on metal, and he sees a figure forcing Liathan backwards, blocking the strike.
Marcus. It is Marcus who has saved him. This time it was far more welcome than the last, and he is gladdened by it. It is another tie between them, a willing one.
Esca laughs and pushes himself back to his feet, reaching for his sword. They are not dead yet.
Liathan breathes his life out into the water, and very shortly thereafter the rest of the Epidii are gone with him.
Esca watches Marcus stand and take stock of the situation. Marcus' face is gray with pain and he staggers upright, but he is alive. They two are alive.
The same cannot be said for most of the Ninth.
"Guern," Marcus says, despairing, when he sees the old soldier's body.
He was a warrior. He knew when Esca asked that this could be his death, and he fought anyway. For Rome. For Marcus.
"Metellus," Esca corrects, and Marcus looks up at him sharply. "He died a Roman, with honor."
After a moment, Marcus nods. "So he did."
It takes them a long time to gather enough dry wood for the pyre, long enough for Esca to think about what he will do. But as Marcus places a coin in the man's mouth and makes a speech for him, it takes Esca a very short time to do it.
Esca lays his father's dagger upon the pyre. As Metellus goes to the gods, so too should Esca's father, so should all the old enmities. It is time to lay so many things to rest. He has carried his anger with him for so long; he has no need of it now.
Marcus glances over at him, surprised, but says nothing. They stand together until the last of the body burns away. When the embers die, the remaining soldiers fade away into the mists, as if they themselves had only been ghosts of the Ninth.
When they are alone, Esca watches as Marcus relaxes from his former soldier's stance, leaning against him. They are together.
Their new life begins now, in the ashes of the old.
"You can't be a freedman, you know," Marcus says, laughing as he speaks, drunk on his own happiness, as they wend their way toward the Wall. They ride the most swaybacked nags a local village had to offer, and it took almost everything they had for Esca to get them to trade even those. It is better than walking. Marcus, after all, can hardly walk. Perhaps the pain has driven him to say these things.
Though it does not make his unaware horse halt, Esca freezes. Would Marcus take away what he has offered, so soon? "Why not?"
The Romans bind themselves to each other, but only so that one is greater than the other—a master and a slave, a patron and a client, a commander and a soldier. He is not sure that Marcus understands the bond between them, a tie of equals, a life-debt not dismissed, but only strengthened as it passes back and forth between them. But he knows Marcus now, trusts him, and he does not think Marcus would rather keep him a slave. He is therefore at a loss as to what Marcus means.
Marcus looks over at him and smiles, clear and innocent. "Esca, you saved the Eagle. The governor himself will want to declare you a proper citizen. Maybe even the emperor will."
A citizen. Like Marcus. Not a slave, not a freedman. He does not want Rome's mark on him; he would rather they take it all away and say he was only ever a Briton, nothing of Rome's. But the thoughts do not match his feelings—an instant fierce joy, a soaring triumph.
"I will like that," he says, and he is surprised to find that it is the truth. If he is to be Roman, he would rather not be a second-class one. And if this is what it takes for Esca to be Marcus' equal in the eyes of a Roman, in Marcus' eyes, ah, he will have that gladly.
Dusty and worn, they stumble several days later toward a Wall fort, and Marcus nearly falls out of his saddle on the last of the dismounts.
"Where are we?" Marcus mumbles, sagging between Esca's outstretched arms and the steadying hold of one of the sentries on watch.
Esca had thought to ask the very same thing, but privately he thinks it is better that Marcus with his good Italian-accented Latin does the talking—they are neither of them convincingly Roman by appearance, not in their mud-caked braccae and shaggy hair. Marcus is already beginning to grow a beard that would rival the best of the British chieftains.
The sentry stares. "Vercovicium," he says, in a tone that suggests he is not entirely sure whether Marcus is joking.
"Not Cilurnum?" Marcus' eyes are half-shut. "Damn. We came north that way."
"You're a little too far west for that," the sentry says, still confused. "And you'll need to go back there for the main road, at any rate. Can't get much farther south from here."
The door to the main fort is thrown open, and a man in a centurion's helm looks down at the scene. Esca braces for him to say get out, barbarians—
But the man smiles, and then laughs, delighted. "Aquila?"
It comes out, in the babble of conversation, that Marcus knows this man Lutorius from Isca Dumnoniorum, and he is happy enough to give them horses, coin, anything—especially after Marcus shows him the Eagle.
"Are you going to take it all the way back to Rome?" Lutorius asks.
The question settles heavy and cold into Esca's stomach. Rome. He does not want to go to Rome, but he knows even so that he would go if Marcus asked it of him. No doubt Marcus wants to be thanked by the emperor, to receive the welcome of one of their triumphing heroes.
Marcus opens his mouth, and then his eyes turn to Esca. "No," he says, quietly, and Esca has the oddest feeling that is not what he had thought to say, before he looked at him. "I will give it to the legate in Eburacum, and it will be out of my hands. He was there when I said I would retrieve it. That will be well, and anyway, it is the army's standard. The Sixth is close enough."
Lutorius squints. "Are you certain?"
Marcus nods. "I am not a vain man. I only wish to do as I promised. It will be enough for me."
And indeed, it seems Marcus has spoken the truth, for, after forts and roads and more forts, Corstopitum and Vindomora and Vinovium, tracing their way through familiar Brigantes lands, through Isurium that Esca has long since stopped seeing in his dreams, they reach the legion's headquarters in Eburacum. They are dressed like Britons, still, and Esca does not think Marcus cares that the entire room is staring, although perhaps he once would have. His honor is not about looking Roman or even being Roman. Not any longer.
"For my father," Marcus says, letting the Eagle go at last, and Esca knows he was right about this man.
Marcus smiles. "You decide."
He is free now. He could do anything, a world of possibilities, but all Esca can think to ask of involves Marcus' last words, inside the building. "Do you truly think more of my honor than that tribune?"
Marcus stops, suddenly, and the expression on his face in the sunshine is one of annoyed fondness. "Esca, I don't give a tuft of wool for that damned Placidus," he exclaims, and the words are at once vehement and yet far more mannered than anything else Esca has heard a soldier—or a former soldier—say. It is one of the things he likes about Marcus, and even so he wonders what it would take to have Marcus speak a little more... earthily. But this is not a fantasy he should indulge in.
There is a dry cough from behind them. "Many people seem to share that opinion of my tribune, Aquila," says a voice. "I shan't have you lie next to him at dinner, then."
Esca turns and sees that the legate has followed them out.
Marcus colors. "Sir—" he begins. "I— I apologize—"
But Marcellus only chuckles. "It is no matter. Will you be my guests for dinner? It is the least I can do."
Esca waits patiently for Marcus to speak, but Marcus only looks back at him, raising his eyebrows, prompting him for an answer. His decision. Marcus meant that.
Esca smiles. "Of course we shall."
The dinner-party is a strange, strange thing. The legate is there, and the tribune, and many other men of rank whose names Esca does not know, Romans all. Esca has not seen a dinner as fancy as this in years, and when he had, it was always him holding the serving-platters. Slaves never recline. He hesitates at the couches, with the mad idea that this is a trick, a joke, a thing to be taken away. But Marcus is on his left, sliding onto the couch next to him, and he holds out his hand.
"Come, Esca." Marcus smiles. "It is well."
So he lies in front of Marcus. He almost thinks he imagines the movement of Marcus' hand, lightly, softly, barely touching him, running from shoulder to hip, as a man might gentle a startled animal. Esca relaxes. Marcus is with him, protecting him, as he was in battle.
If any of the other guests notice, they do not say. Let them all think him strange, or even a freedman Marcus might make use of, to be so familiar with his body. He does not care.
"There," Marcus breathes, behind him, in his ear. "See? You are free. Now we eat."
It is awkward to eat lying-down, and Esca is not sure he likes it. He is not sure he likes the meal, either—elaborate, rich dishes, one after the other, all cleverly carved to look like something they are not. Romans love deceit even in their food. After months of mostly gruel, his stomach can hardly abide the heaviness of it.
But it is a proper Roman meal, and beside him he can tell Marcus is behaving as a proper guest, laughing and chatting and complimenting Marcellus on each increasingly-clever course, on the skill of the hired musicians. This, all of this—it makes Marcus happy. Of course it does. He is Roman. This is his world, not Esca's. Except, of course, it is Esca's world now; he has left the tribes for this. He had better learn to like it.
He does not have to fake a smile when the last course comes, because it is simple enough—stewed pears. Perhaps he can appreciate Roman cuisine after all.
But after that it only gets worse again, as one of the other guests, a rich merchant, offers them the hospitality of his home, and of course Marcus accepts—though he does look at Esca first. Esca nods and smiles. He wishes for an inn. He wishes for the muddy side of a trail. Anything else. But of course they will stay at this man's villa. A fine equestrian like Marcus should hardly stay anywhere else.
It might be better, he thinks, if he had time to talk to Marcus alone, so that it was not all so new all at once. But the merchant—Iucundus, Esca thinks he might be called—and his slaves are still with them. Iucundus is engaging Marcus in continual talk, for of course he wants to know about the Eagle.
Marcus, Esca notes, does not exactly mention the details of their time with the Epidii. Perhaps it is better that way.
Then finally they are shown to the man's villa, padding in borrowed house-sandals across mosaics that glint bright in the lamp-light, across the warm floor with its hypocaust. Ah, Esca is grateful for that invention of the Romans', if nothing else. They are given an entire wing of the place to themselves, and shown to small bedrooms next to each other, separated from each other.
And yet they are still not alone, though Esca thinks any Roman would reckon them so, each in their own rooms. There are slaves. There are always slaves.
"May I do anything else for you?"
The young woman attending him is pretty, he supposes, bright-haired, and when she speaks it is with the lilt of a southern tribe. The Dumnonii, perhaps. She is pale enough for it. She bows her head as she sets down the last of Esca's gear in the room—after the water, the wine, and the endless blankets, she has brought him more than enough. He will be warmer this night than he has been in months, and he looks forward to it. No, she need not do anything else. What more could he need?
Then she lifts her head and looks at him, smiling in a way that is meant to be seductive, and it is then that Esca realizes what she has asked, and what that question truly means.
I was like you, he thinks helplessly, angrily. I am like you. Six months ago I could have been standing in your place, and here you are serving me.
"Your master," he says, and the words are dry and bitter in his mouth, "does he have you make this offer to all his guests?"
The girl blinks once, surprised, and then Esca watches a mask of equanimity settle over her face, the rest of her true reactions gone. She is a slave. She has practiced this. Questions should not startle her. Perhaps she thinks Esca is a man who likes to hear lewd stories of all the men she has bedded. Esca has had to entertain a few of those sorts of men himself.
"Many of them," she says, blank-faced, hollow-eyed, with a smile that is all false. "They are glad of my company for the evening."
He does not think she can answer him honestly—he knows he could not have, if anyone had put the question to him, but he has to ask it: "And are they kind to you? Do they ill-treat you?"
She shakes her head, but the look of incredulity is so well-practiced that Esca knows that at least someone must have forced her. "I am happy with my lot."
"But you are saving your tips?" he presses. "Saving, to buy your freedom, if your master will let you?"
That is real surprise on her face, and she bites her lip. "I— yes, of course— why?"
Esca reaches into his saddlebags and finds a whole denarius in his money-pouch. He flips it to her. "Here."
She smiles down at the silver in her hands, then back up at him, a real smile. He doubts any of the other guests have seen that look on her face. He doubts her master has.
"Why?" she asks, and then her face turns hesitant, frightened, as she stammers out her fears. "What— what would you have me do—"
O gods. He doesn't want to know what she thinks he wants for it. He doesn't want to think about what he would have done for it, not so long ago.
"Nothing," Esca says, hastily. "Nothing, truly. I mean it." And he smiles. He hopes that is convincing. "A gift. Toward your freedom."
"It is my first true night as a free man among Romans," Esca says, and he wonders if this time when he says the words they will sound real. They still do not, not quite. "So I am doing... what I wish someone had done for me. And not what I wish they had never done."
"Oh." The girl blinks, and then seems to see him, truly. He watches as she looks him up and down, her gaze passing over the ink on his arm. "Is it good to be home, Brigantes?"
There is a strange pang of sadness in his chest. "I do not think this is my home any longer, but yes. And it's Esca," he adds, in British.
"Esca." She smiles again. "I am Cleis."
Now Esca is the surprised one, for that is a Greek name if it is anything. "I did not think they named women Cleis among the Dumnonii."
Cleis shakes her head. "They do not, but it is all the name I will let these people have of me, until I am free." She speaks quietly; these are dangerous things. Even so, Esca understands, as a man who had sworn the opposite—he had held his name out, that it might not be lost, that it might not be forgotten, because it was all he had.
"Well, then, Cleis." He smiles. "I will let you have an early night."
"Thank you," Cleis says, the gratitude unfeigned, and with that she pushes past the curtain and is gone.
Esca drops onto his back on the fine soft mattress, staring up at the ceiling, too many thoughts jumbling together in his head. He is not a slave. He is to live among Romans now, the way Romans live. This will be his life. There is nothing for it; he will just have to grow accustomed to it.
He cannot sleep. It is not that the bed is not comfortable, for it is, and it is not that Esca is not warm enough, for he has more than enough blankets and furs to keep the chill away, even were he not still wearing tunic and braccae. And it is not the unquiet thoughts in his mind, the thoughts that say he drifts between two peoples now and will never belong to either, for exhaustion can dull even a man's greatest worries.
No, there is something missing.
It is a long time into the sleepless night when Esca realizes: it is Marcus. Marcus is missing.
They have slept at each other's sides for months now, scarcely apart except for those days among the Epidii. Esca has come to expect the man's presence, sitting watch above him as he drifts off to sleep, and him doing the same for Marcus. The tiny bedroom is silent, and though Esca knows Marcus is only one wall away, he cannot hear him. It is disorienting, and, though it should not be, a little frightening. How is he to know if Marcus is well? There is no reason Marcus should be ill, of course, but that is different than knowing it. And— he wants the man's company.
Esca is out of bed and on his feet before he has even considered what he is doing, and out of his room before he wonders how he is going to explain this to Marcus. I was too lonely to sleep by myself? I don't know how to live now? At any rate, Marcus is likely asleep, and he will not want to wake to Esca sleeping on his floor—
But he sees light at the edges of the curtain of Marcus' doorway. It seems neither of them can sleep.
"Marcus?" he ventures. Through the tiny gap between the curtain and the wall, he thinks there is movement.
"Come in." Marcus sounds... almost as if he has been expecting him. Or, perhaps, hoping for him.
When Esca pushes his way past the heavy curtain, he sees Marcus has had even less success at sleeping than he has: he is perched, fully-clothed, at the edge of his bed, staring off into the distance with all the lamps lit, and he hardly looks at Esca.
"Is it not a good night?" It should be. Marcus has returned the Eagle, fulfilled his vow, cleansed his family's name. Should it not be the best night?
This causes Marcus to look at him, finally. He sighs, and after a very long while he speaks. "Have you ever— have you ever wanted something so much that you could think of nothing else? And then when you got it, you realized you didn't know what else was left in life after it, or who you were without that... desire?" He shakes his head, when Esca does not speak right away, and he slumps, curling back into himself. "Never mind—"
Marcus' head snaps up, and he smiles weakly. "Mithras, Esca," he says, and he starts to laugh, a sad sound. "Have I done the same thing to both of us? I have, haven't I?"
All at once Esca is across the room, at Marcus' side. He is close enough to touch him, though some last wisp of sense in him keeps him from doing so.
"Don't you dare apologize for any of it." Esca finds his own voice comes out of him as a growl, and Marcus' eyes widen. "Unless you are truly sorry you found the Eagle. Or that you freed me."
Marcus' mouth works. "Of course not—"
He reaches out for Marcus, the wool of his tunic rough under his fingers, and drags him forward and halfway up. Before he can consider what he is doing, Esca leans forward and kisses Marcus. Marcus' mouth is dry and cracked, not quite healed, and under Esca's hands his body is trembling. He does not return the kiss. Too late, then, too late and Esca was wrong. He should not have expected that Marcus would still feel anything for him, not after what he has done to him.
When Esca lifts his head and loosens his grip, Marcus settles back onto the edge of the bed; Esca finds himself sitting next to him. Marcus' eyes are wide and his breathing is quick and shallow, like a man in battle.
"You said... you said you didn't want me," Marcus whispers, and though the words are all twisted confusion there is a kind of hope in his voice.
Esca smiles. "I lied."
And then it is Marcus who is holding forth his arms, who wraps a hand around the back of Esca's head and slowly, slowly pulls him closer. Their faces are inches apart, close enough now that he cannot quite focus his eyes on Marcus'; he can feel Marcus' breath hot against his cheek.
"This?" Marcus breathes, a question full of wonder.
Esca can only nod, and Marcus closes the space between them.
He has been thinking for months about this moment—how it might come about, how it might be, how it would feel. He finds now that he could never have dreamed this. All his memories—the newest ones, at any rate, and so the clearest—are of roughness. If not actual force, there was always power there. And so he imagined that Marcus, so much the proper Roman, would strive to claim and plunder, to mark him.
Marcus' mouth on his is so gentle that at first Esca thinks he is imagining it. Marcus' fingers stroke lightly through his hair, and he does not even try to taste him until Esca, impatient, opens his mouth against Marcus'. And even then, Marcus is tentative. He is taking his time, Esca realizes, suddenly; this is all the most careful deliberation. Marcus is savoring this. Marcus has been thinking about this as well. And somehow the thought that Marcus wants him, that Marcus has planned this, burns all through him, gathering heat.
All too soon, Marcus pulls away. "Like that?" he asks, so soft, so kind, and his eyes dart nervously about Esca's face looking for a reaction.
Esca feels himself start to shake, something like laughter gathering in his chest. "I will hardly break, Marcus. I have come this far already." Though even as he says it, he is glad that Marcus cares so for him.
The words do not faze Marcus. Instead, he gives a little smile. "But what if that was something I wanted, eh?"
"Then we compromise," Esca says, and leans in, wrapping his arms around Marcus and kissing him as hard as he can.
And Marcus... melts. His mouth opens, easy as anything, and he makes a small pleased noise that Esca half-hears, half-feels. Marcus' body is relaxed against his hands, completely and utterly trusting. The weight of him reminds Esca, suddenly, of Marcus kneeling for him among the Epidii. I didn't break you, he thinks, nearly delirious. You trusted me.
When Esca draws back, Marcus is smiling at him.
"Anything you want," Marcus murmurs. "Whatever you want. All of it."
"Then—" Esca draws out the word, hoping the rest of the sentence will follow all the more easily. "There was an offer you made me, some time ago. As a friend." It had not been right before, but now, perhaps, now when neither of them is a slave...
Marcus takes a sharp breath. "We do not have to do that only because it was what I offered—"
"I had been thinking about it before you offered."
"Oh," says Marcus, very quietly, and then, with a sly smile Esca did not think the man possessed: "Thinking about it, were you?"
Esca snorts. "You know perfectly well what I mean."
"Maybe I do," Marcus says, grinning. "It might have been the same way I have been thinking about it."
"I sincerely hope so," says Esca, and he spares Marcus having to say anything else when he slides his hand down to Marcus' lap. Marcus' inarticulate moan is gratifying indeed.
After that it is a scramble to see which of them can get out of their clothing faster. It is strange, Esca thinks, that he has spent so long looking at Marcus' body as a slave and trying not to be desirous, but still learning every inch of him as he served him. And then, later, he was watching Marcus weaken among the Epidii, seeing him beaten and shamed; then his body was a thing Esca guarded, a fragile vessel for his life. Even now there are still marks upon him—long healing scratches, the heavy bruises of battle, his leg bandaged again. But now Esca permits himself to look upon Marcus and want him, and everything he has seen before is there, but changed. Ah, but Marcus is beautiful, broad and long-limbed, golden in the lamplight. Esca pauses, tunic off, with his fingers at the ties of his braccae, just to appreciate the view.
"What are you staring at?" Marcus asks, with a laugh, clearly rendered a little awkward by Esca's gaze. "I am positive you've seen all of me before."
"Not like this," Esca says, with more honesty in his voice than he had intended to let slip.
Marcus reddens a little more and keeps smiling. "If it would please you, then look." His gaze darts away. "I have seen you looking at me."
Perhaps it is the exhaustion that makes them so free with each other now, or perhaps it is a thing they will always be to each other, now that they have been through everything. Esca hopes for the second.
"You liked that?" It is strange, for Romans never like to be gazed upon, to be admired; to them a stare is as much a weapon as a spear. Being beautiful is for women and slaves... and, it seems, Marcus.
Marcus' lips part when he grins. "Very much."
"Good." Esca undoes the ties of his own braccae, and he shamelessly enjoys the enthralled look on Marcus' face as he sheds his clothing. No one ever accused him of being Roman. And it has been a long, long time since anyone has ever looked at him quite like this.
Marcus holds out a hand and pulls him down to the bed, kissing him over and over. There is not quite enough room for the two of them, on the tiny mattress, but Esca pushes Marcus down anyway. They will fit. Marcus laughs, falling to his back easily, as Esca has been wanting for months and months, and Esca goes over with him. This time, he follows willingly.
Marcus is sprawled beneath him, head tilted back, smiling and smiling, and Esca kisses his throat, then his chest, sliding down—and Marcus groans and arches up, splaying his legs for an instant before closing his thighs tight around Esca's cock.
Esca gasps, half at the sensation and half at the novelty of it. "Marcus— what—?"
"Never done this?" Marcus asks, still grinning, and Esca feels Marcus' hands drift down his back, then lower, rising and falling in rhythm. "We usually blame the Greeks for this one."
"Blame?" Esca says, only half-following, and oh, a few more thrusts and he isn't going to be good for anything else tonight. "You should praise them— ah— I think you'd better— if you want me to be able to fuck you—"
Marcus obligingly—and frustratingly—loosens his hold, and Esca pushes himself upright, trying to think enough to be able to plan this.
"Oil?" Marcus suggests.
Esca bares his teeth. "Get it yourself."
And Marcus starts trying to stand up right away, before Esca plants a hand on his chest to stop him.
"Wait. I'll get it," he says. "I just had to see if—" If you thought me a slave still, he wants to say.
Marcus bites his lip. "I know you're not my slave. I can do it."
"Lie back down," Esca says, already halfway across the room and rummaging through Marcus' belongings for the oil pot. "You need to stay off that leg."
When he turns back with the oil in hand, he sees Marcus stretched out on his side, all the pillows and blankets wedged just so in front of him, so that if he rolls he can brace his injured leg on something soft. A clever solution; Marcus clearly has more sense left tonight than he does.
"Will this do?"
Esca admires the long, sleek line of Marcus, back to buttock to thigh. "Perfect."
He moves close and strokes Marcus lightly, feeling the warmth of the skin against his palm, everything and nothing like attending him in the bath. He traces his fingertips lightly across a few freckles—and who knew Marcus was ticklish?—and then more solidly along the curve of Marcus' ass. Marcus moans, low in his throat, a quiet sound, and pushes his hips back and up, into the touch.
"Do you want me to beg?" Marcus's voice is dark with need.
Esca chuckles. "I don't know. Do you like begging?"
Marcus is still grinning, he can see, with his face half-pressed into the bed. "I'll do whatever will get me fucked."
"I thought you wanted it slow," Esca says, as he pours oil—too much, he is tired and clumsy—out on his fingertips. It ends up on his forearm, Marcus' back, and the blankets. He finds he does not care. "Why don't you tell me about what you like," he adds, and dips two fingers inside Marcus. So tight. He has forgotten how this feels. He reaches his other hand around to Marcus' cock, heavy and hard, pleasantly thick in his fist.
Marcus groans and clenches hard around Esca's fingers. "You— you think I can hold a conversation?"
"Try." Esca tilts his fingers in and down and— somewhere here, yes—
Marcus gasps and reaches out, his fingers knotting white-knuckled in the bedding, flailing for purchase. "Please, I—" Marcus takes a few breaths and valiantly tries to finish a sentence. "I just want it. You. Hard."
Considering their current physical conditions, Esca is not sure how much either of them can handle. But he will certainly try.
Marcus nods, and gently Esca slides his fingers out, reaches for the oil again—ah, now it is everywhere—and fits himself on the bed behind Marcus, a hand on his shoulder, a hand down at his hip. They line up easily enough, and he pushes—
And, oh, it is hot, it is tight, he had forgotten how good this was, maybe it was never as good as this, and it is even better that it is Marcus, Marcus who is moaning out his pleasure in whispered half-words, and, oh, he does not dare move, for if he moves he will finish, so soon. His own pleasure is building low and tight in his belly, and his heart beats fast and ragged as he sinks all the way in and stays still.
"Oh, that's good," Marcus breathes. "Just like that." Esca feels the weight of Marcus' own hand, atop where Esca has his hand on Marcus' hip, carefully placed around the worst of the bruises. "You can move any time now. Please."
Esca huffs out a laugh on the back of Marcus' neck. "If I move I think you will not get much more out of me. It's been years since I've done this, and I find you, mmm, very appealing."
"You flatter me." Marcus chuckles, and, oh, Esca can feel that, and he has to bite his lip to keep himself from going over the edge. "If you will be that quick, your hand then? I at least would like to finish with you inside me."
After that no words are needed. He slides his palm over Marcus' hip, taking his cock in hand, to find that Marcus' hand is there wrapping around his, showing him the very motion that he likes. Marcus moans and rocks up into his hand, then back down onto his cock, the little motions pushing Esca closer and closer.
But Marcus is close too. A few more strokes, quick and tight, and Marcus groans again and spills hot over Esca's fist. While Marcus still trembles, Esca shifts his hand back to Marcus' hip to brace himself, and thrusts, once, twice, and then the world goes away, the pleasure burning through him and blotting out everything else.
When he comes back to his senses, he finds he is biting Marcus' shoulder, and he thinks he may have left Marcus with a few more bruises. Marcus is in a boneless, contented slump and does not seem to mind; he only turns his head and smiles when Esca pulls out and staggers across the room for water and cloths.
Once they have cleaned themselves up, Marcus, still smiling, pats the empty bed next to him. "Do you want to stay?"
"Do you want me to?"
"Of course I want you to."
Maybe Marcus doesn't know how it works, what will be said about them if they are found here. "The slaves will gossip, come morning."
"It doesn't matter to me," Marcus says, as if it is that simple. Maybe it is. Maybe it can be.
Esca crawls into bed and finds that Marcus makes a very comfortable pillow.
"I decided," Esca mumbles, into Marcus' chest. "Your turn now."
Marcus' ribs rise and fall. He can hear Marcus' heartbeat. He can feel him tense at the question. "You don't have to stay with me, you know," Marcus says, finally, as if he thinks this had never occurred to Esca. "You are free, and if you are a proper citizen you owe nothing to me. It is not like being my freedman, or my slave."
He has to know how Esca feels. He must, surely. Perhaps this is only fear talking.
"Stop that," Esca says, and he pokes Marcus in the side. "I will stay with you, of course. But I cannot be Roman for you." Not if every night is fine dinner-parties and slaves paraded before him. He is not one of those men drawn in by Roman gold and Roman splendor who will forget where he came from, who will shed his own name.
"I just want you to be Esca." Perhaps Marcus understands him after all.
Esca smiles against Marcus' chest. "That, I already am."
There is silence, and then a flickering plunge into darkness, as the lamp finally burns through the last of its oil.
"They will probably want to give me land. As a reward," Marcus clarifies.
Cold fear wraps itself around him. "In Italia?"
Soldiers always want to retire in their homelands, and why should Marcus be any different? He has spoken of his family's farm in Clusium, now sold upon his father's death. Surely Marcus would want to buy it back, to live there, now that he can. Esca does not belong in such a place, alien from everything he has ever known, full of men who would never understand him, who would stare and gawk at him. It is a land where the only inked men are fugitive slaves and soldiers, and even they could never look like he does.
"Probably, but I won't take it," Marcus says, in a matter-of-fact manner that suggests he has considered all the possibilities and settled upon this one. "Britannia, yes. Here, you would not have to be anything other than yourself. And I like it here. If you are willing."
Esca thinks his face will break from the smiling. Marcus has thought of this. Marcus wants him to stay. "What will we do?" he muses. "I suppose we could farm."
"A farm," Marcus says, sleep filling his voice, the words coming slower now. "There is land on the Downs that is good for farming, I have heard. I think if I ask for Britannia I can have any land I want. They would probably give me half of Londinium if I wanted it."
Esca pictures the Downs. Good country. "That will be pleasant. What kind of farm shall we have?"
"Any kind you want," Marcus murmurs, even more sleepily, enfolding Esca in an embrace. Marcus' hand settles against Esca's head, petting his hair in lazy, distracted strokes.
"I will think about it," he says, and then pauses. "But promise me one thing, Marcus."
Marcus has not even asked what it was. He has already agreed. Esca loves him for it.
"We shall keep no slaves."
Marcus tightens his arms about him. "None at all. I swear it."