The wall was less imposing to look at than it was to think about; it was only a pile of rocks, after all, shorter than several of the trees standing near it. But that pile of rocks stretched the full length of the horizon, and if one could only fly as high as a bird, one would see that it never stopped as long as there was land for it to cleave in two.
Esca tried to keep his eyes away from it. There were more important things to consider than a wall. There was Marcus and the tight expression on his face that meant his leg was hurting him; and there was the Eagle--all its gold and glitter wrapped away in layers of cloth--a heavy weight in the bottom of Esca's sack; and there was what Esca was about to do next, which...had far more to do with the wall than he'd like. Because the entire length of Caledonia was at their backs, except for two short miles, and he had very little time left to make his decision.
"Almost there," Marcus said, smiling despite the lines of pain around his eyes, and for a moment Esca half-thought he might scream at him. They were almost to the border of Britannia, and why couldn't Marcus see how terrible a choice Esca was facing?
But of course Marcus never would. To his mind, he and Esca had won their prize and were returning to Britannia covered in glory. Even if he did consider the fact that Esca might not care as much about Rome's symbols as he himself did, well, Esca had earned his freedom, and the two of them had pledged their love and loyalty to each other, and that must be sufficient.
Never mind that Esca still hadn't decided if it was sufficient for him. He could take the freedom that Marcus had given him and return to Britannia with it, where he could use it to pay taxes to Rome and speak Latin with her citizens and forget who he'd once been. Or he could take his own freedom and remain in Caledonia and never think about Rome again.
Except that Marcus was Roman, and Esca wouldn't ever stop thinking of him.
The wall was a mile away now, and Esca took a breath so deep that it hurt of Caledonian air, closed his eyes briefly to better feel the wind and the faint warmth of the sun shining through a gap in the bank of clouds. Unless a sudden madness took hold of him before they reached the wall, he'd made his decision. In truth, he'd made it long ago but only just admitted it to himself.
"Is this the same place we entered Caledonia?" Marcus asked, and Esca snorted with laughter despite himself. Marcus was a decent hunter, but his haplessness at finding his way without a clearly marked trail--either human or animal--was ridiculous.
"I don't know where we are, but I'm quite certain we're not there," he said.
Marcus laughed goodnaturedly along with Esca, though the joke was at his expense, and the knot in Esca's belly settled somewhat. Rome loomed in front of him, nearer with each step, but at least he was returning there with a friend like Marcus at his side.
That feeling lasted until past Cataractonium. Marcus was easier in his manner than Esca had ever seen him, quicker to smile and joke and tell stories...and even to sing, in a rough but pleasant voice, though he seemed shy of attention and only sang when Esca appeared not to be listening. Marcus's happiness could have felt like a dagger in Esca's side if he'd let it, but it was simple enough to instead say to himself, "This is my choice. If I'd chosen otherwise, Marcus might not be so happy, and I'd miss the sight of it in any case."
Even simpler to curl back-to-back under their blankets at night--the Eagle clasped to Marcus's chest like a lover--and enjoy the warmth of Marcus's broad body against his, and to spin pleasant fantasies of what might happen when the Eagle was returned and Marcus's arms were free at night again.
The storm that hit them after Cataractonium drove that measure of peace away. "There'll be a mansio not too far from here," Marcus said, leaning close to be heard over the wind and stinging rain. "We can afford to stop and get a room for the night."
It was a sensible suggestion; they'd stayed occasionally in one of the Roman inns on their way north, when they were still determining how well Marcus's leg would bear up under the journey. But Esca could dimly see the shape of Roman walls--straight and implacable--forming around him, and it sent a shiver of foreboding down his spine. "If your leg is paining you..." he began, only to see Marcus's face set sternly.
"No more than usual," he said. "A tree is shelter enough for me if you don't mind it."
"I don't," Esca said.
"Good," Marcus said, his tone only a little shorter than usual. "We'll be able to travel farther today, then."
And it was good: their cloaks were thick wool that held warmth despite the weather and they layered them and curled more tightly together underneath them, and Esca warmed his fingers in his mouth and slipped them into Marcus's braccae to massage the hard-strung muscles of his hip, where Marcus usually carried his pain these days. He didn't know how that gesture would affect the two of them until he did it. He'd often massaged Marcus's leg and hip through his clothes, and often while Marcus was naked and readying himself for bed or fresh from the baths, but never when Esca's hands were warm and wet with his own spit, and never with such a strong sense of touching a part of Marcus that was secret and hidden. Marcus gasped and trembled but didn't move Esca's hand, and neither of them spoke of what they both knew he wanted. But Esca thought he might speak of it soon.
The next day was gray but rainless. There was no reason for Marcus to say, as evening drew near, "No need for a mansio tonight, I think," his cheeks tinged pink.
"A tree is shelter enough," Esca said, consciously echoing his words from the previous night, and watched with pleasure as Marcus's flush deepened.
Despite that exchange, Marcus lingered over the packs after first spreading his cloak on the ground, as though he expected Esca to...what? change his mind about loving Marcus after all this time? If he'd meant to do that, he'd have done it when they were living with the Seal People and saved himself a lot of trouble.
Esca laid his own cloak over Marcus's before sliding underneath the double layer. Not long afterwards, Marcus joined him, though he left a hand's width between their bodies. Esca rolled closer and put a hand on Marcus's hip and felt him shudder. "I do want you," he said lowly, and suddenly Marcus was in his arms and Marcus's big hands were fumbling with Esca's braccae and slipping inside to touch and stroke him and Marcus's mouth was on his and Esca lasted far shorter a time than he might have wished.
"Good?" Marcus asked when Esca's breathing had slowed, still pressing kisses to his cheeks and eyelids and mouth.
"Better when I can return the favor," Esca said, just before he got his hands around Marcus's lovely thick cock for the first time.
"Now I'm good," he said a little later, when Marcus was a heavy, satiated weight on Esca's chest and their nest of blankets felt as warm and cozy as a summer afternoon.
"We don't have to stay in Calleva, you know," Marcus said. "We could find somewhere else to live."
A part of Esca thrilled to hear that casual affirmation that Marcus and he would continue living together, but he couldn't help saying skeptically, "Somewhere else where? Corinium Dobunnorum, you mean? Or Londinium, or perhaps even Etruria?"
"Or Eboracum," Marcus said. "That's near where you lived as a boy, isn't it? Or Gaul. Or Caledonia. Or wherever you please."
Esca choked a little over a sudden lump in his throat.
"I've noticed that you do not love Roman walls," Marcus said gently, which was fair. Esca didn't suppose he'd been very subtle.
"You'd live in Caledonia?" he asked.
"Guern managed it for twenty years, didn't he?"
"You'd have to learn British."
"You could teach me."
It was a sweet thought, but Esca put it away with only a little regret. The need for discretion in Calleva would be an annoyance, but Esca--who knew too well the value of family--didn't wish to part uncle and nephew so soon after they'd found each other. "Not Caledonia," he said. "Or at least not yet." He considered the possibilities. "But perhaps not Calleva either. We might live nearby there, though."
Marcus shrugged unconcernedly. "It's your choice," he said, and Esca reflected that in some ways, freedom in Britannia wasn't that different from freedom in Caledonia.
"Our choice," he said. "And since it's the two of us deciding together, I'm sure it will be a good one."