One day, with no warning at all, Esca goes. He leaves quietly, slips away well before dawn.
Marcus, sleeping next to Cottia, feels the cold of Cub’s nose on his face, and wakes. Cottia shifts in her sleep and sighs, her arms, milk-white, stretching to where Marcus no longer is. He is careful not to wake her, limping a little (his injury is the worst in the mornings, when he has lain still for too long) with Cub dogging his steps. He ruffles the wolf’s fur, and Cub whines low, a sound that could put a chill into anyone else’s heart.
When Marcus finds Esca’s cell to be empty, he is not surprised, though he sits on the cot rather heavily, and does not bat Cub away when the wolf noses anxiously at Esca’s pillow and nudges Marcus’ leg, asking a question Marcus cannot answer.
Days pass, summer ripens into the fullness of autumn, not yet touched by frost. Mist creeps into the little valley in the downlands where the Senate has seen fit to give Marcus a farm. Cottia, bright hair tied back, walks to the well, swinging her bucket in one hand. She sees Marcus at the window, taking a moment away from the accounts. She raises a hand in greeting, and he does the same. Smiling, she turns away, her hand resting, briefly, on her belly.
Cub streaks off past her, in hot pursuit of a thing that moves too quickly to be seen. Soon, Marcus can hear a triumphant howl of Cub, certain of his prey, and a shout from Cottia, and then he tumbles down the stairs in pursuit of the latter.
The first few years at the farm, harvests are poor enough, and there is barely anything left for them, once they have paid their debts and their workers. (Working with freedmen only is a fine and noble thing, no doubt, but it leaves their bellies emptier than they would otherwise be.) Nonetheless, Marcus will not write to his uncle, begging for any sort of help. Instead, he is careful to eat less, and to give Cottia and Flavian more.
Flavian Augustus Aquila is an imp, his eyes as dark as Marcus’, but his hair curls on his forehead, like Cottia’s does. He is Cub’s lord and master now, and there have been times that Marcus suspects that the boy can ride the wolf like a horse, though he does not share this thought with Cottia, who would laugh, perhaps, but also worry, certainly.
One night, the heavy grey clouds that have hugged the sun all the week break into storms over their little house in the downland valley, the wind rattles at the shutters and the thunder and lightning taking turns to shaking them and stirring them. Rain pounds against the tiles of the roof, and it is a miracle that nothing has yet sprang a leak.
Cottia, spinning wool (a little inexpertly, it has never been a task she enjoys), says, “Pity those who are caught in this deluge.”
Marcus hums in agreement, and watches Flavian watch Cub. The baby pulls experimentally at the wolf’s fur, but Cub only sighs, and pulls his head lower to the ground. Flavian’s explorations are interrupted by a knock at the door.
Cottia looks at Marcus, and Marcus looks at Cottia.
Marcus gets up and goes to the door. After second of hesitation, he opens the door. Outside, in the driving rain, stands a tribesman, thin and ragged, leaning heavily against his spear.
“Esca! Where have you been?” Marcus says, as if he had only been called away hours ago. He takes him by the hand, and pulls him in into the warmth and light of room. Cub abandons his place near the fireplace, and leaps at them both. Flavian topples over and begins to cry. Cottia puts down her spinning and scoops him up, and comes to the door.
The wet wind rushes in through the door, and by the time Marcus pushes it close, there is a smell of rain in the room that had not been there before.
Esca blinks and looks around him, to Marcus, who holds his hand still. To Cottia, and the scowling little stranger in her arms. To Cub, who is weaving around his legs like he is still a tiny pup.
“Hello,” he says, and they close around him.
It is almost like being drowned, love.