Cottia creeps out of bed that morning before Nissa is even stirring, carrying her sandals so that she will make no noise to give herself away as she tiptoes out of the house and down to the bottom of old Aquila's garden. It will be a long time before Esca comes to tell her that it is over, but she could not risk Nissa keeping her back, and somehow it feels right that she should be awake, shivering and damp in the grey dawn, while Marcus is lying under the healer's knife. She would not like it, if she were to rest warm and comfortable in her own bed while he suffered.
The sun has begun to burn off the mist and Cottia worries that Nissa will wake and find her missing before Esca comes to tell her that all is well. But he does come, and she runs a few steps through the garden to meet him.
"It is done, and the surgeon says he will mend fully in a few months."
"That is good," Cottia says, and she feels the knots that have been tying themselves in her belly since yesterday untwist at last. "But must I wait that long to come and visit again?"
She does not think that Esca likes her very much, but he is almost smiling at her now. Perhaps it is for Marcus' sake.
"I do not think so," Esca says. "When the surgeon goes away in his mule carriage again, then you may come."
Cottia nods. "I will, as soon as he leaves. Tell Marcus--tell him that I hope he mends quickly." Ah, that is a stupid thing to say, the sort of empty platitude that anyone might offer without a thought, but it is too late now to take it back and say something better.
"I will tell him," Esca says, and he turns to go before Cottia can decide if she had imagined the way his mouth had seemed to tilt just a little bit closer to a real smile.
In the days that follow, Cottia spends as much time as she can spare peering out the storeroom window, watching for the surgeon's mule carriage. When she can bear that vigil no longer, she escapes out to the garden and pushes through the gap in the hedge to the place where she and Marcus and Esca had been used to sit all that summer. She ought not go uninvited, but she does not think old Aquila will mind, and it is nicer than her uncle's proper Roman garden with its straight lines and strictly trimmed hedges.
She watches the last of the season's blackberries ripen on the canes and wishes for company. Perhaps Esca will come down to pick some of the berries to take back to share with Marcus. Even if he does not like her, perhaps he would have Cub with him, and might linger a little while. Perhaps he might talk with her for a few minutes, even if only to tell her how Marcus fares. Cottia likes the northern lilt of Esca's speech. It is nice speaking her language with Marcus, but his accent is harsh, undeniably alien, and he sometimes uses the wrong words by mistake. Esca does not sound like home, but at least he sounds familiar.
But he does not come. She supposes he is too busy, and hopes that it is not because Marcus is not healing the way he should. The other slave, the one that Cub had bitten, does come, and Cottia darts back through the hedge so that he will not see her. She does not want anyone to know she has been sitting and doing nothing, like some silly Roman girl pining.
Finally, finally the healer with the knife goes rattling up the road again in his mule carriage, and as soon as Nissa is looking the other way, Cottia slips through the gap in the hedge and going through the garden, slipping quietly into the courtyard. The old slave who looks like a goat does not try to stop her this time, and Marcus grins when she pokes her head through the curtain in his doorway.
"Cottia! How good it is to see you. Come and tell me what you have been about while I have been lying in this accursed bed."
Her aunt would have a fit, to see her sitting cross-legged on the bed beside him, but Esca is there, leaning comfortably against the wall, and so it is only a little improper. And in any case, it is only Marcus, and he has seen her knees before and does not care.
The things she has been about mostly do not make very good telling, but Marcus listens with interest all the same, and she supposes it must be better than the way he has spent the last of the summer. She tells him about the interminable lessons that her aunt forces upon her, trying to turn her into a proper Roman maiden, and about the kitten she had found in the street and secreted away, feeding it up on scraps until it was strong enough to hang about the kitchen and earn its keep as a mouser.
"It came to visit me and left a mouse on Nissa's bed," Cottia says. "How she shrieked!"
"Yes," Esca says. "I think we did hear that. Marcipor thought someone was being murdered and would not go outside for two days."
Cottia and Marcus laugh, and Cub thumps his tail joyfully. Cottia wants to stay longer, but Marcus' laughter trails off into a jaw-cracking yawn and she does not want to overtire him.
"I should go back or my aunt will worry that I'm imposing on you," she says, climbing off the bed. "I will come back tomorrow!"
Marcus gives her a sleepy little wave, and after a moment's pause, Esca comes to walk with her back down to the bottom of the garden.
She goes back the next day, as she had promised, and finds Marcus sitting by the window, with a scroll lying open on his lap, his face tilted up to the afternoon sunshine.
"Don't go," Marcus says, when she pauses in the doorway, wondering if she should leave him in peace. "My uncle has been giving me some of his books to read, but I confess, for the most part I find them deadly boring."
Cottia can understand that well enough. She has little use for reading; the things the Romans write down are not nearly so good as the songs and stories of the tribes. Marcus smiles a little wryly when she says as much, but it is not as though she said anything worse than he had just done, really.
The wry smile broadens into a proper one, and Cottia turns to see that Esca has come into the room behind her, cat-quiet across the tessellated floor. He inclines his head in greeting.
"I am not going to make it any further with this," Marcus says, making a dismissive gesture with the scroll. "Let's go out into the garden. I will go mad if I spend another day inside!"
Esca goes immediately to help him to his feet. Even with Esca's support, it hurts Marcus to stand--Cottia hears his breath hiss between his teeth, and his face is very white--but he insists on going all the way down into the garden anyway. Esca gives him an exasperated look, which Marcus ignores. Cottia bites her lip to keep from giggling at them.
It is a good day to be outside, the sort of hot late summer day that seems to stand in defiance of the coming autumn. The colour comes back into Marcus' face, and he seems to sit a little straighter. For a while, they talk of inconsequential things--the books Marcus has been reading, a matched chariot team Esca saw in the town--and then, somehow, Cottia is telling them about her father's chariot team, and the two year old colt of the leader's line that would have been hers, if her father had not died and her mother had not sent her to Calleva.
She has not ever told anyone about it before, and the old ache at the loss of everything she had hoped for in those days comes rushing back, much more sharply than she thought it would. To her horror, there are tears starting in her eyes, and she cannot bear that they should see her cry.
"I am going to pick the last of the blackberries," she says, tossing her head and daring Marcus to ask her if she is all right. He does not, though she can feel his eyes on her back as she walks away. The juice stains the folds of her mantle when she gathers it to carry her harvest, and she will get a scolding from Nissa when she goes home, but she does not care.
"Better that you put them in a bowl," Esca says at her elbow, and passes her a chipped serving dish. Probably Marcus had sent him to fetch it. "The colour of those marks goes ill with your gown." Cottia looks up at him in surprise, and realises that he is teasing her, the way an older brother might do. She wonders if maybe he had teased anyone else that way, in the days before his ear was clipped.
Inexplicably, all of this makes her feel even worse, and she dumps the berries into the bowl, scrubbing angrily at the tears that slide down her cheeks before she can stop them. To her relief, Esca does not say anything and only turns his attention to a section of the brambles that she cannot reach and lets her get herself back under control.
He is still not looking at her when he begins humming, half under his breath, but Cottia knows he must mean for her to hear. It is an old, old song, a lamenting song, but of the kind with a note of hope hiding in the back of it. She does not remember all of the words, but the ones she does, she begins to sing, very softly, her voice still hoarse from choking back tears.
"They sing it a little differently, among my people," Esca says. "But--it is still good to share the singing of it."
"It is," Cottia agrees, and the winding, half-forgotten tune passes back and forth quietly between them until the bramble bushes are bare.
When they go back to Marcus, they find him stretched out full length on the bench, asleep. Cottia plucks a long blade of grass and tickles the back of his hand with it, until he swats it away, still half-asleep.
"Wake up, you lazy thing," she says, mostly so that he will know who is there and not startle and hurt his leg when he comes awake. "Or we will not share the last of the blackberries with you."
"Ah, you are a tyrant," Marcus grumbles, pushing himself gingerly upright. But he watches her carefully from the corner of his eye, as though he thinks that way he can keep her from seeing his concern. Cottia grins at him to show him that she is all right now, and crams a handful of berries into her mouth.
Esca does not look at her any differently, still stern and unsmiling. But Cottia is beginning to think perhaps that does not mean he dislikes her. He would answer, she thinks, if she asked him about other old songs and stories that their people might share, the sort of things that Marcus cannot ever really understand, though he would try. This delicate new thing between her and Esca is not quite friendship--she does not know what it is--but she is glad to have it all the same.
Marcus offers Cub a handful of blackberries, only to be given a disdainful look, and everyone laughs, their mouths stained by the dark sweet juice. Soon afterwards, Cottia must go back to her uncle's house, and when she takes her leave, Esca smiles at her, the slow, grave smile that she has seen him give to Marcus a handful of times. She grins back, pleased, and waves goodbye to Marcus.
All the rest of that day, the faint melody of the song circles in the back of her mind, and when she is alone, she sings the words softly to herself, the ones she remembers from home and the ones that Esca taught her, and smiles.