When Marcus was a boy, Gaius Rufus—who was his friend in the way that small boys who live near each other and whose mothers frequently visit each other are friends, but not in the virtuous way described by Cicero—had had much to say about Marcus’s father and his men. Gaius had often declared, loudly and confidently, that the standard-bearer of the Ninth must be either dead or a traitor, because no loyal Roman would let his standard out of his sight if there was breath in his body. Marcus had demurred, fearing that he would say something stupid or angry that would reflect poorly on his family, but in his heart of hearts he had thought that Gaius was probably right.
If Gaius Rufus were here now, thought Marcus, he would wring his scrawny neck. Or at the very least, set him to work searching the deepest and darkest places in the creek for the Eagle.
He would have liked to say that he had kept the Eagle in his sights the whole time, as a true Roman would have, but the truth was that in the heat of the battle, his blood high and his leg throbbing and the vision of his own men, shaggy and bearded and clad like a barbarian’s vision of Romans, fighting the blue-painted Seal People, too strange for words—indeed, Marcus had lost sight of the Eagle and his honor and anything but the sword in his hand and the chaos around him. And when it had looked like the prince of the Seal People was but a hair’s breadth away from killing Esca, well. Then there had not been room for anything else in Marcus’s mind, not even his father’s Eagle.
It was a big, heavily bearded man called Comnios (Marcus did not know his Roman name) who had first, when the Seal People had fled and the dead been retrieved from where they had fallen, turned to Marcus and said, “But where is the Eagle?”
Marcus did not know what he looked like then, but Esca had gone white as chalk under the mud and blood he was spattered with, turned to Marcus and gripped his arm hard, and said, “We will find it.”
They splashed up and down the stretch of creek where they had fought. It was a deceptively peaceful place, shallow for the most part but with places that dropped down into pools deeper than a man was tall, or where the water flowed swiftly enough to knock a man off his feet if he was caught off guard. Marcus and his men searched each pool, each muddy spot on the shore, each corpse. Esca searched harder than anyone, drawn tenser than a bowstring and with a face like a hunting hawk. It seemed impossible that, under the force of so many desperate eyes, in such a limited span of ground, anything could remain lost for long, much less the golden eagle that Marcus had spent those tense hours burnishing with the edge of his tunic so it would shine like the sun.
And yet. And yet, when Marcus’s leg felt like it was on fire, and some of the men who had been wounded were forced to halt their searching, and even Esca seemed to be fading fast, all that they had to show for their efforts was wet and muddy clothing.
Marcus sank heavily to the ground, absently kneading the muscles of his bad thigh. Esca sat down beside him, shooting him worried looks, but Marcus didn’t know what to say to reassure him. Everything felt very distant. A lean, mustachioed man who had earlier introduced himself as Sextus Aurelius Cornix, now called Lugotorix, hummed thoughtfully and leaned on his spear. “It could be that one of the Seal People took it with them when they ran, although I’d like to think we would have noticed that.”
Comnios raised his eyebrows and said, “I don’t know about you, but I was paying less attention to what the Picts were carrying than to making sure they didn’t come back.” To Marcus, he said, “More likely that it fell and was washed downstream. We can look if you like, but chances are it was washed into the river, and if it was....” He shrugged eloquently.
“Of course we will look,” said Esca harshly. “We did not come all this way to let this eagle of yours float down a river.”
Eagle lost, honor lost, thought Marcus half-hysterically. Honor lost, all lost. He said to Esca, “It’s only a piece of metal, isn’t it?”
He regretted saying it as soon as he saw Esca’s face, which looked genuinely offended and a bit hurt. “Isn’t it Rome?” Esca shot back. “You think I cannot understand how a thing can mean more than what it’s made of?”
“Of course you can,” said Marcus contritely, thinking of Cunoval’s knife. “I didn’t mean that.” The immediate apology seemed to take the wind out of Esca’s sails, and he looked solemnly at Marcus before pushing to his feet and trudging downstream to look for the Eagle, tired but purposeful.
Marcus wanted to join him, but there were other duties to be fulfilled. Guern had had no real reason to fight alongside Marcus, and nor had his men—nothing but an honor they had not forgotten, no matter how many years they spent among the Britons. They had served Marcus loyally and bravely, and those who had fallen deserved better than to lie moldering on the banks of a creek.
Comnios laid a heavy hand on Marcus’s shoulder as he watched Guern and the others who had fallen burn on their makeshift pyre. “It couldn’t have been helped, son,” he said, his voice rough but kind. “Men die in battle. That’s just how it is. But they chose to fight, and they were proud to do it.”
“And for what?” asked Marcus hoarsely. “I’ve lost the Eagle again.”
“Better that the river should have it than the Seal People,” said Comnios. “And I can’t speak for the rest of them, but I don’t think we fought for nothing.” He shook his head, removing his hand from Marcus’s shoulder. “I don’t think that at all,” Marcus heard him say in a low voice as he walked away.
Esca returned just as night was falling and Lugotorix—or Sextus Aurelius, Marcus wasn’t sure what to call him—was suggesting that they return to the village of the Selgovae to tend to their wounds and rest. Esca appeared as a shadow out of the trees, and without thinking about it, Marcus rose to his feet to greet him. His leg protested, but he ignored it, searching Esca’s weary, dirt-streaked face for a sign.
Tight-lipped and with downcast eyes, Esca shook his head, and Marcus felt a dizzying sense of something being loosened and lost, as if he had been teetering on the brink of a cliff all day and had finally fallen. He began to sink down, unable to control his limbs, but in the flash of an eye Esca was beside him, holding him up on one side.
Comnios was soon there to support Marcus’s other side, and between them, they managed to get him to one of a cluster of sturdy-legged little ponies tethered on the opposite side of the creek from the pyre. Marcus did not remember seeing them there before; when he asked, Lugotorix explained that, hours ago, the surviving Romans-turned-Britons had sent one of their number, Eppillus, back for ponies to carry the wounded and any supplies they could scavenge from the numbers of the Seal People dead. The idea of robbing a corpse, even that of a blue-painted savage, sat ill with Marcus, but he was hardly in a position to criticize. Instead he tried to settle himself on the pony in a way that didn’t hurt too much and gripped the carved eagle his father had given him. It seemed it was the only one he would be bringing back.
The trip back to the village of the Selgovae was not a long one, but Marcus felt every step of the pony as a jolt to his leg, and Esca’s grim, silent presence beside him did not make the time pass more quickly. The only one who did talk, in fact, was Lugotorix, who kept up a continual commentary on the features of the land, the quality of the game, what edible plants grew in the region. Marcus wondered absently if the man had swallowed a copy of Pliny, and then whether any of the survivors of the Ninth had read a book in the time they had been lost. Probably not.
The village had all of the crowded appearance of the Seal People’s settlement, but none of the clean, wind-swept air that came of being on the shore of the sea. Instead, it was surrounded by rudimentary fortifications that would not have kept a Roman century out, much less a legion. As the party rode into the village, they were greeted by a crowd of women and children. Their faces were open with hope and desperation; sometimes this changed to joy and relief as they saw a man, a husband or father who was theirs; sometimes this changed to grief and anger, as their searching eyes failed to find the longed-for man. Marcus thought of the women of the Seal People, who would find many of their own husbands and brothers and sons absent tonight. He wanted to vomit.
Some of the women turned to Marcus with raised, angry voices. Esca cut them off harshly, his head held high, but before he could get out much more than a sentence or two, Comnios stepped in, saying something conciliatory-sounding. An older woman with a calm face and regal bearing stepped close to him, and he bent over to touch his forehead to hers. His wife, Marcus guessed, and he nodded respectfully toward her.
Her lips curved in a small smile and she said something. Marcus smiled at her, unsure what the proper response would be.
“Her name is Chiomara. She says she is pleased to meet the man whose father brought her her husband,” Esca said, and Marcus blinked. He had heard many disparaging things of his father over the years, but to hear him reduced to a pander in the love story of a British woman was so absurd as to pass beyond the realm of the offensive and come around almost to charming. He swallowed and smiled at her again, suspecting that he looked foolish but unable to think of a better reply.
Comnios and Esca helped Marcus down from the horse and over to one of the little round houses with their cone-shaped roofs. It was dark inside and stale-smelling; two little girls looked curiously up from the tufts of wool they were sorting and spinning, and a slightly older girl bounded up from the loom in the corner to greet Comnios. She stopped nervously a foot or so away from them, giving Marcus a nervous look.
Chiomara said something to her in a chiding voice, and she returned to her loom. Comnios said to Marcus, “My oldest, Claudia. Those other two are Camilla and little Chiomara.”
“They’re lovely,” said Marcus, who knew he sounded exhausted but hoped he also sounded sincere. Comnios smiled at him and settled him on a rug by the fire in the middle of the house. He went to say something in a low voice to Chiomara the Elder while Esca sat down, near to Marcus but not on the rug.
“I searched the stream all the way to where it meets with the river,” said Esca, though Marcus had not asked. “For quite a ways inland on both banks as well. I think Comnios is right that it must have washed into the river. The Seal People did not take it, that I swear to you.”
It took a moment for Marcus to understand what Esca was saying to him, and then he realized: the Eagle was lost forever. It could be stolen back from the Seal People, perhaps, though it would take more men and more time. It could not be stolen back from the river; either it would sink to the bottom or make its way to distant parts, and probably from there to the sea. Their quest was over.
If I had not had to save you, thought Marcus, staring at Esca, the Eagle would not have been lost, but there was no heat behind the thought, no anger. Esca had dragged him and the Eagle from the Seal People’s settlement, forced food into him, tended his bad leg, run without stopping until he had found the village of the Selgovae. What had he said to convince Guern to assemble his men and come? Marcus didn’t know. He knew that Esca was a truer friend than Marcus had ever had any right to expect.
Esca still would not meet Marcus’s eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I did not think I would let it be lost again, not after all the trouble you went to for it.” He dug around in his belt pouch and from it he pulled his father’s knife. He offered it to Marcus, blade-first; this time, Marcus knew better than to think it a threat. “And you’ve saved my life again,” said Esca. “If you’d like my bond again, it’s yours.”
“Esca.” Marcus was lost for words.
“And I have not apologized for what I said and did among the Seal People,” said Esca. His eyes now were looking into the dark of the roundhouse, away from Comnios and his wife and daughters. His mouth was drawn uneasily to one side.
“You have nothing to apologize for.” Marcus gently pushed the hand holding the knife away from him. “As many times as you saved my life on this journey, I wish I had something more than your freedom to offer you, but since I don’t, I give you that with all my heart.”
“Hmm,” said Esca. “I would have liked to do it without sacrificing two good horses and so many good men.” But his bearing seemed lighter, and he drew in closer to Marcus, so that they were both sitting on the rug.
Marcus could not help but compare Comnios’s home to the hut where the prince of the Seal People had sent him. The women there had been kind to him, offering him food and drink without ever a harsh word. Marcus thought that they were probably slaves themselves, though he had not been able to understand enough of what they said to be sure, and though almost everyone in the tribe was dressed more roughly than his Uncle Aquila would ever have let Stephanos be. Comnios’s home was no bigger than that hut, no less dark and crowded with things like the loom and woven baskets and a smooth stone that might have been useful for smoothing papyrus but was probably for something else, washing clothes or grinding grain or pounding fish or the like. Was Comnios poor? Did the Selgovae scorn him for being Roman, or was this only the way that all of the people here lived?
Marcus was a stranger here, as he had been all along on this trip, but at least this time Esca was here to translate. When Chiomara offered him a bowl of something steaming and gamy-smelling, Esca was there to tell him, “She says you need to eat warm food, after so long being wet and cold. This is a recipe her grandmother taught her, and it’s good for you.” When the two youngest girls edged closer to the fire, still looking curiously at Marcus and shyly saying things that sounded like questions, Esca was there to say, “They want to know where you are from, and did you know their father before they were born.” Esca was there to translate Marcus’s hesitant answers, and to convey his compliments on the soup. Marcus ought to have learned British far before this, he thought as he looked at the giggling girls. It would have helped along the trip, and brought the truth between Esca and Marcus sooner, and perhaps he might have explained things to the boy Esca had taken a shine to in such a way that he would not have been killed by his own father.
The evening meal was oats cooked with onion and some sort of meat—Marcus thought probably sheep. Afterward, Chiomara briefly vanished, reappearing with an old woman Comnios introduced as Adobogiona, a healer for the tribe. She squinted in the dim firelight at Marcus’s leg, rubbed it with a foul-smelling salve, and left with some tart words at Comnios. “She says that men are always foolish about straining themselves in the cold,” Esca translated. “She says you should rest and stay by the fire until the—the muscles?” Marcus wasn’t sure exactly what Esca was translating, but he nodded encouragingly anyway, and Esca continued, “until the muscles loosen. At least three days.”
“Oh,” said Marcus, “I don’t want to impose—”
But Comnios cut him off before he could finish. “Don’t be an idiot. The Selgovae pride themselves on their hospitality. You can stay as long as you like.”
Marcus’s mind caught on the ‘themselves,’ wondered to what extent Comnios still considered himself to be a Roman, and then decided that it would be rude to ask, particularly since the man was hosting him. “Well, then,” he said awkwardly. “Thank you.”
“It’s nothing,” Comnios dismissed, and he settled down next to Marcus and Esca. “Now, tell me the news from Rome. Is Hadrian still emperor?”
To go through the current events of the last twenty years, from the broad outlines of political developments (Marcus, who hated politics, could not go more into detail than that) to military actions and then to literature (Marcus, who preferred history and natural science to poetry, could give only vague updates there as well) took the better part of the evening, and it was deep into the night when Comnios finally let Marcus and Esca go to bed. Chiomara and the girls were already asleep, and their soft, deep breathing was soon joined by Comnios’s rumbling snores.
Marcus and Esca had been given a pair of sheepskins to lie upon, with heavy woolen blankets to cover themselves with. Combined with the fire, which was still burning low in the coals at the center of the house, the room was warm enough to have chased even the last traces off the cold from Marcus’s bones. He felt himself drifting off to sleep when he heard Esca saying, low, “Marcus?”
“When—when your leg is better, what do you want to do?”
Marcus had not thought about it. He had left without the Eagle, and he would return without it, as well. He dreaded hearing “I told you so” from his acquaintances in Calleva, especially when he had so hoped to shove their doubt and pity in their faces, to return with triumph in his step and the Eagle held high. And what life would there be for him in Calleva? Nights playing latrunculi with his uncle, nights eating dinner with his uncle’s friends. He had no head for politics, no talent for writing, and his military ambitions had been cut off at the knees. There was nothing left for him but a lifetime being the poor relation.
And yet, didn’t Uncle Aquila deserve to know what had happened to his brother? Didn’t he deserve better than a nephew vanished into that same wilderness? And what were Marcus’s other options, to stay in this hut for the rest of his life, growing a beard like a Celt and grinding Chiomara’s oats for her?
“I have to return to my uncle and tell him what happened,” said Marcus. “Otherwise, he’ll think you killed me.” He tried to make it a joke, though something about the silence that followed told him that Esca was not amused. Clearing his throat, he added, “And we have legal matters to attend to. Freeing you, for instance.”
Esca was silent again for a long moment, in which Marcus could hear him shifting under the blankets but could not see him, before saying, “I thought I was already free.”
There was a note of challenge in Esca’s voice, and Marcus swallowed—of course Esca would not understand the legal distinction between an informal and a formal manumission. “I only mean that if it’s done by a magistrate, formally, you would have rights as a citizen. Of course you’re already free as far as I’m concerned.”
Esca sighed. “Well. I don’t know what exactly I’d do with a Roman’s rights, but if it makes things official, then thank you. After all that is done, will we stay with your uncle?”
“What does it matter what I do? I didn’t think you would stay with me at all.” He had meant nothing bad by it—he had only meant that Esca, who was fierce and proud and independent, could easily seek his fortune elsewhere, without being held back by the crippled scion of a dishonored house. But he could tell that Esca had not taken it this way. “I don’t mean that I wouldn’t be happy to be your patron, if you need one,” he hastened to say.
“What is it that you think I would be doing without you?” asked Esca, sounding frustrated. “My family is dead. My father’s warriors are dead or captured as I was. My only trade, such as it was, was fighting Romans. I could go back to being a gladiator, I suppose.”
“No!” Marcus said, more loudly than he had meant to, and Esca hushed him furiously. “I know that the Brigantes still live, on both sides of the Wall,” continued Marcus more quietly. “You could join them, and they would be lucky to have you.”
“Lucky, unless the Seal People tell them about this. I doubt they’ll feel lucky to welcome a traitor in their midst.”
Marcus had nothing to say to that, and before long, he drifted off into a deep sleep. If he dreamed, he did not remember afterwards.
They stayed among the Selgovae for almost a week. Marcus met with the families of the men who had died fighting the Seal People. Some of them were calm and solemn about it, accepting his apologies and his compliments to their men’s honor with quiet dignity. Some of them were angry, cursing him for a dog of a Roman who had dragged their husbands and fathers to their deaths for no reason. Comnios and Esca had to extricate him from those houses, and it was terrible, the grief and guilt and anger, but Marcus could not say he had not deserved it. The fallen men of the Ninth had chosen their death, but they would never have come to it had Marcus not come north to dig up graves.
He spent much time with Comnios and his family, and with Lugotorix and his wife and brother-in-law. Lugotorix and the brother-in-law, Segovax, were eager to teach Marcus whatever words of the British language he wanted to learn, and by the end of the week, he at least knew how to greet people and to ask for directions, even if Esca still had to translate the answers to his questions.
When they left, taking with them horses from Comnios and woven blankets from Chiomara and dried fish and meat from Segovax and Lugotorix and bread baked by Comnios’s daughters, Marcus was shocked to find that he was actually sorry to leave. The Selgovae lived like savages, sleeping on dirt floors and bathing in creeks and taking no thought for reading or writing or strengthening their fortifications, but they were also generous and open, and, when Marcus understood enough to have a remark or joke explained to him, they seemed very clever as well. And there was something about the land that spoke to Marcus—it was harsh, it would not coddle anyone, but there was space there, and freedom to be something other than you had been born. He could see why the men of the Ninth had stayed there.
The trip south was less exciting but more directed than the trip north had been. It was also, in a strange way, happier, despite the loss of the Eagle. Marcus had had no idea what he was heading into or what he would find when he had set out from Calleva; and he had been confident in Esca’s help and support, but in the way a man expects a dog or a horse to serve him, not the way a man relies on a friend. Whatever else had happened north of the Wall, Marcus had found the Eagle; he had found out what happened to his father, and, to his own mind at least, reclaimed his father’s memory and honor; and he had found the depths both of Esca’s anger and of his loyalty. He was embarrassed now to think that he had taken Esca’s vow to serve and protect him at its face without realizing what it meant about who Esca was and what Marcus owed him in return. Things were different between them now. Esca smiled more, and more honestly when he did. He talked more about his family, and with less bitterness. He continued to give Marcus lessons in British, including a few very beautiful songs. Marcus was glad, as he traveled back out of the highlands and to the places where Roman roads began and past the Wall, that he had left with a slave and returned with a friend.
In the vegetable gardens at the front of Uncle Aquila’s estate, Stephanos was weeding. Even from a distance, Marcus could see his frustrated motions as he pulled out the green tendrils and tossed them into a pile; Uncle Aquila had told him once that the vegetable garden was Stephanos’s pride and joy and that he took every weed and insect and withering frost as a personal attack. As absorbed as he was in his weeding, though, he stood with a start when he saw Marcus and Esca making their way down the road toward the house.
“I wonder if he and your uncle thought we had died,” said Esca.
“Probably,” said Marcus. He shot a grin at Esca, who returned it. “Won’t we have a story for them!”
Uncle Aquila put on a good face, acting aloof and mildly irritated, as if Marcus had only been late for lunch. But when he embraced Marcus, he clung tightly to him and held on for longer than Marcus had expected. When he pulled away, his smile was too big and his eyes too bright. “Come,” he said, “we’ve still got some fantastic bread and chickpea sauce and real Italian olives my friend Lucius Cornelius Lentulus sent me. You’ve got to be starving!”
Marcus had eaten well among the Selgovae, and even their travel fare had been better than he had expected, but it was still a comfort to eat familiar foods in so civilized a place as Uncle Aquila’s over-large villa. Stephanos hovered during the meal, ostensibly to fetch more food as they required it but really to listen to the story of their journey, and neither Uncle Aquila nor Stephanos commented on the fact that Esca sat at the table, eating as steadily as Marcus and occasionally supplementing Marcus’s version of the story with a correction or additional information.
In the telling, it became easier to see what Marcus had not seen at the time, and to appreciate Esca’s audacity and cleverness among the Seal People, and to describe the final fate of the Eagle without the despair or sense of waste and loss that had been hanging over him at the thought of it. Uncle Aquila listened with fascination. He showed no disapproval when Marcus told him of the soldiers of the Ninth’s lives among the Selgovae, clapped Esca on the back with enthusiasm when he heard of how Esca had rallied them to rescue Marcus and the Eagle. At the end of the story, Uncle Aquila sighed and said, “My boy, that is an adventure worthy of Homer or Virgil.”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t bring the Eagle back,” Marcus began, but Uncle Aquila dismissed this with a sweep of his hand.
“I never thought to see the Eagle in this life. As far as I’m concerned, it could have been in a river for the past twenty years. Thanks to you, though, I know what happened to my brother, and that’s worth more to me than every Eagle in the army. What’s more—” He reached out to grip Marcus’s shoulder. “You brought yourself back to me, and that is a blessing I didn’t dare hope for.”
“I didn’t do that alone,” Marcus pointed out, and Uncle Aquila huffed out a breath that could have been a sigh or a laugh.
“You certainly didn’t,” he said, and he turned to Esca. “Esca, I’m in your debt. Thank you for looking out for him.”
Esca blinked, looking surprised, and then looked down at the table. “It was my honor to do it,” he said in a low voice.
“Do you know how to get ahold of a magistrate, Uncle?” Marcus broke in. “I need to manumit him officially.”
Uncle Aquila looked as if he were about to say something, and then thought better of it and ate an olive. When he was finished chewing, he said, “Leave it to me. Sylvius is an old...acquaintance, shall we say. I’ll talk to him tomorrow and make an appointment.”
The magistrate Gaius Fabius Sylvius, it turned out, was a cheerfully lazy man of about Uncle Aquila’s age who made a lot of off-color jokes and kept interrupting the process of filling out the paperwork by commenting to Uncle Aquila that Marcus reminded him of so-and-so, and wasn’t this just like the time that such-and-such did this, that, and the other thing. Esca was visibly gritting his teeth throughout the whole process, but he managed to hold his tongue until Sylvius got to the part about his name as a citizen.
“So, what will it be, then, ‘Marcus Flavius Esca’?”
Esca shot Marcus a harsh glare. “What.” It wasn't really a question—more like an accusation.
“It’s...common practice for a freedman to take his patron’s first and second names,” Marcus hastened to explain. “You wouldn’t need to use either of them unless you were signing a contract or something.”
“I have a name,” said Esca fiercely. “What do I need yours for?”
Sylvius laughed. “Well, you can hardly just sign ‘Esca’ like a barbarian.” He winked at Uncle Aquila and said, “Even it does sound good enough to eat,” laughing again at his own joke.
Marcus winced. Esca’s eyes narrowed, and he said, “I am not ashamed of my name. And I don’t know what contracts you think it is I’ll be signing, since I cannot read or write Latin and I have no intention of making deals with Romans.”
“Oof,” said Sylvius good-naturedly. “What’d you say this one was, Iceni? He could be Boudica’s son, couldn’t he?”
Marcus felt himself tense, but Uncle Aquila put a hand on his shoulder and said, “Grandson, maybe. We’ll go with Marcus Flavius Esca for now.” To Esca, he said, “If you don’t like it, you don’t have to use it, as Marcus told you. But if you ever change your mind about making deals with Romans, you’ll need a name for the records.” Esca looked as if he wanted to argue with this, but Uncle Aquila raised an eyebrow, and Esca subsided. Marcus hurriedly signed the contract, and, though Esca couldn’t read, showed it to him, as it seemed wrong to exclude him from this.
“Hmm,” said Esca, looking to where Marcus had signed his name. “That’s your name there, then?”
“Yes,” said Marcus, and he watched as Esca drew his finger up from Marcus’s signature to where his own new official name had been written. “Marcus Flavius Esca,” he mouthed, and then shook his head. “I don’t like it. But if it is necessary, I can live with it.” He handed the contract back to Marcus, chin high, and Marcus felt a deep fondness warm his chest. Esca would never be anything other than who and what he was, no matter the name he was known by, and for Marcus, whose sense of himself had undergone radical changes over the last few months, there was something admirable and reassuring about that.
Marcus and Esca went fishing afterwards, and celebrated that night with salmon prepared in the British way, roasted with honey and nuts. Stephanos was quite proud of it, and Marcus was pleased to see that Esca and Uncle Aquila both approved of it, a rare but pleasant agreement.
The next day was not so pleasant. Uncle informed Marcus at breakfast that Claudius Marcellus and his useless rat of a tribune would be coming to dinner. Apparently, he had run into Claudius after the manumission the previous day, after Marcus and Esca had left to go fishing, and somehow he’d ended up inviting him and “a guest or two” (probably that damned Placidus and nobody else, because no one would willingly eat with Placidus) over for dinner.
“Why?” asked Marcus. “Why did you have to invite them? And why didn’t you tell me earlier?”
Uncle Aquila shrugged. “I didn’t want to spoil the celebrations,” he said. “And I thought inviting him for dinner was the best option. You know since you’ve been back in town, Rumor’s been 'singing fact and fiction alike’ all over Calleva. Half the people are sure you discovered your father’s cowardice and treachery and are hiding out to avoid facing the dishonor, half are convinced you found some treasure up among the Painted People and are hoarding it for yourself, another significant portion of them think you just got lost and wandered home in disgrace—no, don’t argue with my arithmetic, some of these people think more than one wrong thing, believe me. Marcellus didn’t know what to think, and I thought the best way to quiet at least a few of these rumors would be for you to tell him yourself what happened.”
Though Marcus hated the idea, he had to admit that Uncle’s reasoning made good sense. And Claudius Marcellus didn’t seem so bad, all things considered. But that Placidus—! He took Esca hunting that afternoon, in hopes that at least success there would bolster his nerve to deal with dinner, but it seemed the game was elsewhere. Probably also hiding from Servius Placidus, thought Marcus.
The dinner didn’t start so badly; Claudius Marcellus did, in fact, bring Placidus, but his greeting sounded genuine, and there was pleasure in his voice as he congratulated Marcus on coming through his adventure more or less in the condition he had begun it in.
“It’s not so bad north of the Wall,” Marcus offered. “The travelling is not easy, but the land itself is very beautiful, and some of the people were very hospitable.”
Claudius raised his eyebrows at that. “Hospitable! Well, I think you had the right idea of it, taking a Briton along with you. Might have been a bit more difficult if you had been alone.”
“It certainly would have,” said Marcus with feeling. “I would never have made it were it not for Esca.”
“Ah, yes,” said Placidus with a face like he smelled something bad, looking curiously at Esca. Esca had put on a clean tunic and washed his face for dinner, but he still looked out of place among this pointless small talk, like a sharp dagger among table knives. So far he had limited himself to the blandest and most unobjectionable of exchanges with their guests, taking his cues from Marcus. But his face as he looked up at Placidus told Marcus that they were thinking along similar lines: that Placidus was about to say something that Esca would object to most strenuously. “I had heard you brought your slave along with you. I’m surprised he didn’t stab you in the back.”
Marcus would have stood up and cursed Placidus for that, but Esca forestalled him with a hand on his shoulder and said, with a sharp, unpleasant grin, “When I stab people, I do it from the front.”
Placidus looked startled at this, and Marcus took the opportunity to say, “Esca isn’t a slave, and he has more honor and courage in his little finger than a thousand politicking tribunes have in their whole bodies.”
Now Placidus looked as if he had bitten into a lemon, and Uncle Aquila hastened to say, “Well, well, what we have here is a meeting of minds—three experts on the subject of the military situation in Britain, with three different perspectives. I know Marcus’s take on things, and Esca’s certainly not shy about sharing his thoughts, but we don’t get much official word out here in the sticks. Why don’t you have some of these stuffed olives, Placidus, and tell us the latest word from Rome on these recent uprisings?”
Claudius Marcellus, who looked grateful for an interruption of the tensions, let Placidus get out a few pompous updates and poured him some more wine before saying, “Now, Marcus, I’ve heard a lot of stories about just what happened to you to north of the Wall, but I’ll tell you, some of them are pretty far-fetched. How about you and Esca tell us the truth of it? We’d love to hear it.” His sharp glance at Placidus made it clear that Placidus had better count himself among that ‘we’ if he knew what was good for him.
Although Marcus knew that this had been the point of the dinner, he found that he didn’t know where to begin. He cleared his throat, took a sip of wine, and cleared his throat again. The silence seemed unbearably long, the eyes of Claudius and Placidus too expectant. To his surprise, Esca came to his rescue, saying, “The trip to the Wall itself was very quick. The roads were good, and the weather was very fine for this time of year. And I did not know it would be so easy to pass through the gate. The guards there didn’t try to stop us at all.”
He sounded unsure of himself, stiff in his way of talking. But it was enough to open the floodgates in Marcus’s mind, and he took over the story, telling of their travels north, the people they had met, their discovery of Guern and the last remnants of the Ninth’s fight against the Seal People in the bog all those years ago. He told of their capture by the Seal People and their discovery of the Eagle, though he left out Esca’s subterfuge; he did not think that Claudius or Placidus (especially Placidus) would understand. He told of their escape, how their horses and their food and finally Marcus’s leg had given out, and how Esca had run as fast as winged Mercury to fetch Guern and his men. He told of that final battle, and the loss of the Eagle. Esca interjected occasionally, but mostly Marcus talked, sometimes feeling as if his mouth was talking without any help from his mind. When he finished talking about the hospitality of the Selgovae and the journey home, he took a long draught of wine and settled back on the bench, weary but content. He was no writer, but he thought this must have been how Homer felt when he finished reciting the Odyssey for the first time. Esca caught his eye and smiled.
“By Hercules,” said Claudius after a moment, shaking his head. “Amazing. Amazing. And I congratulate you—even if you couldn’t bring the Eagle back, you rescued it from those—those Seal People, and took out three generations of their chieftains, and that is an astounding achievement.”
Uncle Aquila smiled proudly and said, “It is.”
“It seems a pity, though, that it should have been lost after all that,” said Placidus. “I certainly hope the Seal People didn’t find it and make off with it again.”
“They didn’t,” said Marcus tersely, all the contentment draining out of him. He’d feared the same thing himself, but he’d be damned if he’d listen to it from Placidus.
“As you say.” Placidus shrugged. “And what do you make of that 'Guern'? I suppose it makes sense to stay with the Britons rather than face disgrace in Rome, but it’s hard to imagine any good Roman willingly living like a savage up in the swamplands.”
Marcus had had enough. “Uncle, will you excuse me?” he asked, but he didn’t wait for an answer before storming out of the room. That seemed to be his general way of dealing with Placidus—it was probably the only way to deal with Placidus without violence, he thought.
He sat in darkness in Uncle’s courtyard, letting the cool damp of the night air extinguish the angry fire under his skin. The stars were so clear and bright here. He never noticed them when he was in a big city, the torch lights and looming buildings always obscuring them, but when he was a soldier, they were constant friends, keeping the gods and their stories close. It was like having a home when you didn’t know where home was.
“He’s a coward, that Placidus,” said Esca, and Marcus jumped and turned to see Esca standing in the back door, illuminated from behind by the lights of the house. “He says he always wanted to be a soldier, but he wouldn’t last half a minute in battle. My mother could kill him with her quern-stone and go back to her weaving without blinking an eye.”
Marcus huffed out a laugh. “My uncle says I shouldn’t let him get to me. He doesn’t know any better.”
“If he doesn’t know any better, than he ought to keep his mouth shut.” Esca settled down next to Marcus, his blurry face coming together in its familiar angles and curves as Marcus’s eyes adjusted to the dark again.
Marcus opened his mouth to apologize for leaving Esca alone with Placidus and the old men, but instead he said, “Esca, what am I going to do here? Just—just sit and swallow shit from rats like Placidus the rest of my life?”
“Well.” Esca shifted. “I have swallowed enough shit in my life that I’d be the last man to tell someone else to do it.”
Of course. Of course he had, and in the grand scheme of things, Placidus was only a minor annoyance. Uncle Aquila was right, Marcus really shouldn’t let Placidus get to him. Really, most people would react as Placidus had. Most people would scoff at the idea that the Selgovae or the Brigantes or even the Seal People lived worthy lives, that they might have anything to teach Rome. Most people would agree that Marcus had been lucky to get away with his life, and that he should spend his days enjoying what Roman civilization had to offer.
But Marcus was tired. Tired of being the one people pitied and looked askance at. And the idea of spending the rest of his life that way suddenly seemed too exhausting to bear.
“We could travel,” said Esca suddenly.
Esca shrugged. “You’re not so bad a hunter, and quite good at setting up a campsite, when you’re not on the run for your life. I can track with the best of them, and I’m good with horses. The Seal People have kin farther north, but they are not so well-liked everywhere. And I think we are good traveling companions. We could go on another trip.”
Another trip? Among the bogs and woods of the north? It was, on the face of it, absurd. They’d barely gotten away alive the first time, and besides, you couldn’t live like that, just traveling from place to place and never setting down roots. Marcus looked at the sky again and thought of the open hills of the highlands, the sun setting and turning the hillsides a molten gold.
“But of course, it might not be good for your leg,” said Esca, tripping over his words stiffly as he had with Claudius and Placidus. “A foolish idea.”
Marcus took a breath and said slowly, “We don’t have any money.” A strange kind of notion was forming in his mind, like a picture coalescing out of smoke.
“I have already apologized,” said Esca, and he shot an irritated glance at Marcus. “It was only an idea.”
“Would you like to learn how to write, Esca?”
Esca blinked. “What has that got to do with anything? Marcus, are you not feeling well?”
Marcus grinned and said, “My uncle writes history, did you know that? About Britain, and Gaul, and the Roman presence there. But he’s working with old material. Tacitus’s geography and ethnography in the Agricola is fifty years out of date, at least. He would give us money to travel, and scrolls and pens to write with, if we would bring him information about the different British people and their chieftains, and the topography of the land.”
“Would he?” asked Esca skeptically.
“If you let me persuade him, he would,” Marcus said, warming to his idea. “He complains about his outdated materials whenever I ask him about his work. And after tonight, I can’t imagine he’s going to want me to hang around talking to his friends.”
“And so we go from place to place...writing things?”
Marcus thought about the clerks he’d traveled with in the army. It wasn’t easy, to keep records on the march or on a battlefield, but the clerks had almost always managed it. He wondered how much a writing desk for travelling cost. “The firsthand knowledge would be invaluable,” he said. “And I think that people in Rome would look differently on people like the Selgovae and the Brigantes if they knew more about them. That they were not savages.”
Esca did not look convinced at this. Marcus could hardly blame him. “Do so many Romans read your Uncle Aquila’s words?”
At that, Marcus had to demur. “I don’t know,” he said. “But he’s certainly got enough friends that if he wrote a really good history of Britain, I think people would read it.”
“Is it not enough simply to travel? You’ve got to write a book about it, too?”
Marcus sat back, at a loss how to explain his sudden enthusiasm to Esca. “I need a purpose,” he said finally.
Esca stared off into the distance, apparently thinking about this abrupt statement, and then nodded. “I understand,” he said, sounding as if he truly did. He looked solemnly into Marcus’s eyes for a long moment before nodding decisively. “I don’t know what ‘topography’ or ‘ethnography’ means. If your uncle’s got any books about them, you’d better read them to me before we leave. If we’re going to poke around the north asking a lot of nosy questions, I’d at least like to be able to explain why.”
“Are you serious, Esca?” Marcus had dragged Esca along without asking his opinion once; he would not do it again.
Esca shrugged. “It seems I’ve gotten into the habit of going along with your crazy plans. It’s worked out well enough so far.” He sighed and added, “And perhaps there will still be some of my cousins who have not heard the Seal People’s stories and will listen to my side of things before they kill me. I was never the bard in the family, but if it’s histories you want, my cousin Verica knows every song and story worth hearing.”
Marcus grinned at him, too happy to speak. After a moment, Esca grinned back. “So,” he said, “this reading and writing business. Where do we start?”
There was a pile of sticks that Stephanos had picked out of the garden and leant against the outer wall of the house to use as kindling; Marcus grabbed one and scratched the word “AMICUS” into the dirt of the leek patch. “Here,” he said. “We’ll start here.”