It was a dark, murky day some weeks after the Solstice, and the plan was to hunt the oak wood north of Calleva. Despite the cough that had plagued him the last few days, Esca had been up and about since well before dawn — if dawn it could be called, for there was no true sunlight, just flying rags of red-edged clouds to the east. He bid farewell to Marcus, who was dozing yet, and went to fetch his tough little mare, Nella, from the livery stables by the West Gate. His head ached the while, and he was bemused to realize that he had been unable to smell the smoke of the cooking fires from the small farms along the road away from the town. As he rode, his tired eyes kept straying to the flowing tendrils of mist that remained even when he knew that the sun was as high as it would get, somewhere beyond the thick clouds.
At noon, he was unable to swallow much of the bread and goat's milk cheese that he had brought along, although he drank some of the beer from the skin that went round from hand to hand of the hunting party. When he swayed and nearly fell on the way to mount up again, Brocchus, who always had a cheery word, laughed and bolstered him upright again. "That's enough beer for you, my lad!"
Esca laughed a little at that, though it hurt his throat. He was glad of Nella's warmth, for the damp of the fog seemed to be going right through his good woolen cloak. He and his companions ran down a boar at last, and at the moment the great brute was brought to bay, with the hounds yelling about him, Esca was able to find a moment of stillness in which to plant and hold his spear. He was glad that Cyr Duvus of the mighty arm was beside him, then, when the black bristling boar slammed into the wicked points of their spears and fell, to bleed out its warm red life onto the cold, damp earth. But when the time came to gut the carcass and skin it, Esca's hand was shaking like an old man's so that he made a mess of things by puncturing the beast's guts.
"Hoy, Esca, what are you about?" barked Cyr. Vespillo, who had been an surgeon's orderly with the Legions in his younger days, looked up from cutting collops of meat and frowned, then wiped his hands as clean as he could and came over to clasp Esca's forearm.
"You're hot as a bread oven, my friend," he said. "Sit you down over there, under that tree. Here, have my cloak as well."
Cyr whistled, and his two hounds, who were waiting slavering for their reward of offal, looked up. "Ember, Grip, keep!" he bade them, waving at Esca, and the two went over and lay against him. Ember, the bitch, licked his arm and whined softly under her breath. Lulled by their warmth, Esca fell into an uneasy doze.
He was wakened by cold rain pattering all about and atop him. Vespillo and Cyr got him onto Nella, and the little party hurried back as fast as they dared. At one point they pulled up as a small herd of deer ran past. To Esca's surprise, the dogs were called off.
"We're losing them," he protested. The words seemed to tear their way from his throat, and he doubled over Nella's mane, coughing.
"Hell and Furies, man!" said Vespillo. "D'you think you're in any shape for another chase? The lord of your house will hardly thank us for bringing him your corpse this evening!"
Esca meant to protest, but Nella seemed to be shifting under him with a most curious motion. "Watch out!" barked Brocchus. "He's falling!"
The world was spinning, and when Esca could notice anything once again, he found himself in Vespillo's arms. "What should we do?" said the Roman, steadying Esca as he swayed on his feet.
"We could leave some of the meat and make a litter for the pack ponies to carry," suggested Brocchus reluctantly.
"I'll have the lad up on Big Red," said Cyr. "He can carry two of us; we're near enough to town."
Brocchus and Vespillo hauled him up behind Cyr like a sack of meal, and Esca remembered little of the rest of the journey back. They must have ridden right up to Aquila's house, because the next thing he knew, he was being half-carried through the kitchen yard with one arm across Cyr's shoulder, past Sassticca's herb garden, and into the kitchen itself. When Cyr released him, he meant to go to the little servant's cell he'd been using for the past few days, so that his cough wouldn't disturb Marcus' sleep, but he stopped in the corridor, uncertain all at once of which way he should step. The floor seemed to shift under his feet, where a small puddle was gathering as he dripped.
Sassticcca, who must have been seeing the hunters out and putting the boar meat away, appeared in the door from the kitchen. "What … look at you! You are as wet as a fish, man! They told me what happened out there. Whatever were you thinking, to go a-hunting with the fever on you?"
Her hard hands, as strong as any man's, were on him, both holding him up and pushing him along. "Get you there, by the brazier—have you lost your wits?"
Esca was alarmed to realize that he was in great room at the center of the house, where Marcus and his uncle took their meals and spent time in each other's company. "You," Sassticca growled, "stay here whilst I fetch some dry clothes and hot wine."
Marcus was sitting on one of the wooden camp chairs used when meals weren't being served, his hands full with armor harness that he must have been mending for Aquila. Esca meant to protest, but he was seized with a great wracking cough. Sassticca cuffed him on the side of his aching head, but before her hand drew away, she stroked her fingers gently through his sodden hair, as his mother had done. Marcus stared at them, bewildered.
"Him!" said Sassticca, her voice full of fury yet, but her strong hands were gentle as she pushed him onto the other chair. "Riding about in this mess, sick as a dog. Almost fell off his horse, he did. Cyr had to haul him back here by force. Stupid, I don't mind saying so. Stupid!"
Esca could not make himself look Marcus in the face. He huddled in the chair, his arms wrapped about himself, and watched the rain drops fall from the wavering locks of his hair and land on the tesserae. "Humph!" said Sassticca, and he heard her feet tramping away down the corridor. He looked up to see Marcus watching him; his friend's lips were shaping themselves to say something, but Esca glared at him as hard as he could. If Marcus fussed over him or scolded him, he would fall to pieces.
Marcus closed his mouth and went to torment the coals of the brazier instead, stirring them with the poker until Esca thought they would all be dashed to ashes. The whirling sparks bewildered his eyes, and he stared at them, entranced, until Sassticca returned with a dry tunic, some cloths, and a blanket.
To his embarrassment, she had him strip to the skin right there, toweling him off and bullying him into the dry garment. She wiped the chair dry and settled him back into it, draping the blanket about him, then carried the wet things away and returned with a cup of hot, spiced wine. "Drink," she said, and he did his best, but his hands were shaking so that he hardly trusted himself with the cup.
"Hopeless, she said at last. "You should be in bed. But if not, at least it's warm in here. Keep an eye on him," she said sternly, to Marcus. Esca winced, and Marcus looked bemused. "Domine," she added.
"Of course," said Marcus, doubtfully, and Sassticca left them. "Are you warm enough?" Marcus asked.
Esca tried to say something, though he was not sure what words came out. Truly, he only wished to be left alone. The chair was as hard as stones to his aching joints. He wrapped the blanket more closely and tried to watch Marcus as he slowly began to return to his leather working. Finally, Marcus said, "What did you do, among your people, when the weather was too bad to hunt?"
It seemed a long while since Esca had let himself think of those days, but now his mind was glad to slip back to his boyhood. "Told stories, mostly," he said. The words scraped his throat. "Great hunts, great battles. Always greater in the telling than in the truth."
That made Marcus smile, to Esca's relief. "It was the same in the legions," he said. "There was no tale that did not improve by being re-told." His fingers busied themselves with the leather work. To Esca's dazed eyes, it seemed the harness was an unfathomable tangle of straps, and he marveled that Marcus could determine which to pull and which to drop. After some time, Marcus said: "Perhaps you've heard this tale? It comes to us from the Greeks.”
The first words of the tale were lost as Esca tried to recall the Greeks. At last he remembered that they were among the peoples that the legions had conquered and that the Romans very much admired the ways of the Greeks with poetry and handiworks. Marcus was speaking of a man named Odysseus, who for some reason wanted to hear the songs of some she-monsters whose voice lured men to their doom. It was this that made Esca realize that Marcus was telling a wonder tale of a hero of olden times instead of some actual history of a man of the Greeks. Esca drew the blanket up to his ears and focused on finishing the wine, which seemed to soothe his raw throat a bit. Now that he was truly listening, he decided that the Odysseus fellow was a fool to risk himself and his men to hear a song.
Then Marcus told another tale of the same man, in which he and his warriors were captured and imprisoned in a cave by a giant who delighted in feasting upon men. This time, Odysseus was more canny, telling the giant that his name was Nobody. Thus when the captives drove a stake into the drunken giant's eye and the monster called out to his comrades for aid, they understood him to say that Nobody was hurting him. Esca laughed, surprised at Odysseus' wit.
Marcus looked up from his work and grinned. "Then, in the morning, when the giant went to let his sheep out to pasture, he did not discover Odysseus and his men, who had tied themselves to the bellies of the giant's huge sheep. The giant felt the heads and backs of his rams as they went by, but he did not discover the men hidden in the fleece of the sheeps' bellies!"
Esca grunted approvingly. "Clever, that."
Marcus nodded and continued. "After they were well away from the cave, Odysseus' men cut themselves free of the sheep and drove many of them down to their ship, and put out again … ."
Odysseus and his men set course for home, but Esca never heard whether they arrived there. He had some confused recollection of being helped to bed by Sassticca and Marcipor, and then there was nothing until he woke the next day.
He could barely get himself up from his cot to attend to his body's needs. Sassticca found him leaning on the garden wall, unable to walk back from the privy, and dragged him back to bed. She set an invalid's pot beneath the cot and forbade him to set foot to floor without calling herself or Marcipor. By afternoon, he was shuddering with cold, despite the brazier set in the corner and the two new blankets piled atop him, and Sassticca sent for a healer woman, who smeared him with a chilly paste of herbs. At last he fell into a deep darkness broken by flashes of grey light and peopled with faces that seemed familiar but that drew away and fled just when he thought he knew their names.
He woke. There was a tramp of feet. The Romans were coming; his father had said it. He had to find his spears. He had three: one of his father's, mended, and two he had made himself. They were not by the sleeping place. He crept away to find them, the footsteps of the Romans pounding in his head. It was dark, only lighted by coals in the fireplace, and the spears were not there. But he found a knife. It had but one edge, but it was of good size. The footsteps drew nearer. He found a close place to defend and awaited the enemy's coming, the blade in his hands.
They had killed his friends, his kinsmen. His father had killed his mother, and then they had killed him as well. Only Esca was left. He would avenge them.
There was light, from a doorway. A Roman was looking down at him and speaking. The Roman knew his name, filthy creature that he was.
“Get back, Roman,” he snarled, and his own voice was strange in his ears: thin and hoarse and hard.
The Roman drew back. He was lame in one leg. Why was that important?
Then the enemy came close again and snarled at him: “Come here where I can make you regret those words. Or are you too much of a coward, Brigante whelp?”
A fire was lit behind Esca's eyes somewhere. He burned with hatred and leapt from his hiding-place. But his arms and legs were sluggish, as though he were half-stunned, even though the scene before his eyes was as clear and sharp as a winter morning after snow. The Roman fell on him, trying to disarm him. They rolled on the ground, which was hard and cold as stone. The Roman got the wrist of his knife hand and pounded it against the rock. The blade clattered free, out of reach.
A woman picked it up. The Roman got off Esca and then doubled over himself with a groan of pain, clutching at his bad leg. Esca sat up slowly, his eyes dry-rimmed and sore, his head pounding, and he realized that this throb was what he had thought was the tramp of feet. Something stirred in his chest, and he began to cough and could not stop.
It was Marcus who groaned with pain beside him, and Sassticca who put the knife on the table. Old Stephanos, the servant of the lord of the household, was bent over Esca. “Come now, son,” he said, kindly. “Let’s get you back to bed.”
The darkness came again. It was hard to breathe. Esca had supposed that his cot was soft enough, and warm, but now it might have been a bed of stones and ice. Someone peeled down the blankets again, and he opened his eyes to see the wise woman bending over him once more. She pulled him into a sitting position, and he set his teeth against the pain in his joints.
Now Marcus was holding him, and Esca felt deeply ashamed that his friend was seeing him like this. He felt the woman pushing something behind his back, so he could lean against it. She went out of the cell for a bit, and Esca closed his eyes and let himself go limp against what was behind him: blankets, he thought, and bolsters. The greyness behind his eyelids was shot with red and black.
She came back again, with a steaming cup of herb brew for him to drink, and more salve for his chest. “He’s young and strong; a bad night won’t set him back much," she said. She seemed to be speaking to Sassticca. "Keep him warm and quiet, and he should be well in a week or so. But he needs fattening up. Feed him marrow-bone soup—if your master can spare such rich food for his servants.”
Marcis spoke then, and Esca could hear the temper in his voice. “The master can spare whatever Esca needs,” he said, in her own language.
It was good to hear Marcus say that, and of course it was true. This was not a house that starved even its slaves. The voices kept speaking, the healer and Marcus and Sassticca, perhaps. The grayness slid and slithered and went to black again.
He woke again, and knew he was awake, in the little room off the kitchen. He could smell fish, and bread, and herbs, but he knew supper had been long ago. He was almost warm, and his bladder was full. He remembered that Sassticca had given him a pot to use and forbidden him to got out again, so he did that and sat down on the edge of the cot afterward.
And Marcus was in his bed. Esca could see him in the dim light from the brazier.
It did not make sense, but all his recent memories were equally nonsensical. Marcus needed a shave: he had returned to his Roman habit after their journey, but now there was stubble on his chin and the edge of his jaw. There was a long cut on his cheek, barely scabbed over, and shadows under his eyes, too. The bed was oddly heaped with blankets and a large bolster that Esca did not remember having in here.
Marcus' eyelids fluttered, and then he was awake. He looked as confused as Esca felt.
"Marcus,” Esca said, and his throat was still sore and hoarse. “Are you ill?”
“No.” Marcus shook his head. “I’m not ill. You are.”
Esca felt the tickle in his chest and pressed his hand there. "Hmm," he said, remembering. That did not account for Marcus' cut face, and he then he recalled something about that, too. “But—?” He raised a hand to stroke the cut but decided that was a poor notion and skimmed his fingers across his own cheek instead, showing Marcus what he meant.
“It’s nothing.” Marcus touched the cut himself and did not flinch at all. “You don’t remember?”
Esca remembered a knife, and an attack by Romans, and then waking on the stone floor of the kitchen. “I—. Did I—?“ It was like a kick to the gut. “I marked you?”
“You marked me.” Marcus agreed, shivering a little. “Don’t worry. You didn’t know what you were doing.”
Esca could not remember the moment, just his fiery, formless anger and the feel of the knife in his hands. Knowing it for foolishness, he reached out to Marcus’ face, carefully tracing the length of the cut. Marcus let him.
Finally, a faint shadow of memory came to him, of wildly sweeping the knife toward his opponent. The blade must have barely touched Marcus, but Sassticca insisted on keeping all her knives well-honed. Esca nodded, ashamed of what he had done but relieved that it had not been worse.
“Lie down,” Marcus said. “You’re ill.”
Esca lay down next to him, as naturally as he had done during all the months of their journey north. The blankets were warm with Marcus' heat and smelled of them both: a little more strongly of Esca, and he thought perhaps he would try to persuade Sassticca to let him wash when he woke again. The darkness was reaching for him again, but this time it was soothing, soft and deep and peaceful, and he felt as snug and safe as a bird in its nest. As he gave himself up again, he felt Marcus drawing a blanket over them.