When they crossed the Wall into Caledonia, it felt like being caught in a veil.
The air felt different, more damp, and the wind carried on it a sharp green growing scent that made Esca want to sneeze. The forest was quieter, older, the trees dark and close and gnarled, and the squirrels and birds they had seen in the south had gone queerly silent; indeed, the entire forest was silent, but for the occasional buzz of an insect and a strange high echoing call far off in the mists that made the hairs rise on the back of Esca’s neck.
But most of all the mist felt like nearly a living thing, cold and choking until Esca could hardly breathe. It was like the time when he was very young and he had been playing with one of his sister's shawls and slipped into the river, tangled up in the sodden wool, struggling for breath as his vision went dark. He had not even been able to scream.
His older brother Boduoc had pulled him out of the river, and then cuffed him for his foolishness. Their father had beaten Esca, but there had been an extra bowl of stew that night, eaten curled up under his mother's mantle with her.
It was like that, and Esca had very nearly fallen off his horse when he felt the mist curling into his chest, stealing his breath.
Marcus had made them stop early that day instead of pressing on, and had built the fire and boiled some dried meat to make broth. Esca did not understand it; it was not as if he had actually fallen from his horse, and he had not expected Marcus to notice anything was wrong. When Esca asked him if he had felt anything strange in the mist, Marcus had only shrugged and said, “Your country is full of mists.” But he was a Roman, with different gods and different magic, so Esca said nothing more.
Esca told himself that Marcus was only so kind because he needed Esca alive to find his Eagle. He had not asked for Marcus’s kindness and did not want it, but he was no fool, so he drank the broth without complaint and ate the second bannock Marcus handed him.
As they rode on, Esca found the game increasingly scarce. At first there were still ducks, occasionally, winging their way overhead, and Esca could bring them down with a bow. He didn't much fancy retrieving them without a dog, but he fancied Marcus's bucellatum less, and at least he was hunting again. For long moments, it was almost like being free, even if he had to bring the game back to share with his Roman master.
There were a few squirrels, when they ventured into the forest, and once a peculiar lizard much larger than any Esca had seen before. Marcus eyed it dubiously, but it tasted tolerable when roasted in the coals, and neither of them took sick after eating it.
Then the squirrels were replaced by other animals, not quite squirrels or rats, and certainly not hares. Small, wary things they were, nigh impossible to catch. Ducks still skeined across the sky, but even they looked differently shaped, something wrong in the lines they made against the fishbelly gray of the sky.
And there were no singing birds, Esca realized, some days into the journey. He had been so used to awakening to the liquid warbling and chirping of sparrows and larks greeting Lugh's chariot that he had not at first realized that he woke to silence now.
Well, not silence. There was the faint hum of insects in the heather when they came out of the trees, and the occasional soft whistle or click in the brush, but none of it sounded familiar.
He had expected Caledonia to be different, the way Calleva was different from the country around Eburacum, where he had grown up; different too, perhaps, in being out of the Roman shadow, like the stories his grandfather had told of the days of kings and heroes, before Rome came to Britain’s shores. He had not expected eerie mists and creatures unlike any he had seen before. What kind of country had no songbirds in the bushes?
Even Marcus, who had only seen a very little of the south and could not know how strange this was, seemed uneasy, his hand never far from his sword-hilt.
Esca still did not understand why Marcus had insisted on this mad quest. No one, without the aid of the gods, could hope to find one Roman Eagle in all of Caledonia. They were more likely to be killed by bandits or the Tribes than anything else, and Rome had done well enough for herself without the Eagle for twenty years. They had certainly not needed it to kill Esca’s clan.
Still, while he did not look forward to death, better a clean death here than to die a meek slave in Calleva.
The horses were nervous, too, shying at shadows, snorting and stamping when Marcus and Esca unsaddled and hobbled them for the night. Esca had half-expected Marcus to leave that to him, but Marcus insisted on caring for Vipsania himself. Perhaps it was simply a habit from his soldiering days. They slept in watches, although they had seen no one thus far to give them harm, and no signs of bear or wolf either; it was better to be certain, and Esca did not think he could have let himself sleep if Marcus were not awake with sword in hand, looking out beyond the too-small circle of firelight.
He had not been so afraid since he was a small boy, afraid of the dark beyond the walls of the dun, and he very nearly hated Marcus for ordering him here like a dog to heel. But he had sworn an oath of honor, and like a dog he would protect, as long as he still owed a debt.
On the sixth day, they finally found a settlement, a little walled enclosure of bothies high upon a hill. The fortifications were of earth embankments, topped with sharpened logs, a strong wall for such a small settlement. It must have taken a great deal of labor to haul the logs from the forest. Why had they gone to such effort?
There was a faint frown between Marcus’s brows when Esca looked over at him, and Esca knew he was thinking the same thing. It had certainly taken him long enough to realize there was something strange about Caledonia.
The people were friendly enough, though, and they had told Esca which way the soldiers had marched, twenty years before. When Esca had asked why there was so little game, they stared at him in puzzlement. Deer? Hares? They only shook their heads, and Esca gave up. Perhaps they used different words in this tribe. Esca would have been glad to stay there another night, safe within walls, but Marcus insisted they move on.
“I don’t like how they looked at our horses,” he said as they rode away. Esca said nothing and kept his face blank. A slave did not express an opinion, nothing that might be used against him.
But Marcus was right. They had looked at the horses strangely, like they were afraid of their presence and wanted them gone, badly enough to do something about it.
Esca was scraping the last of the porridge from his bowl when he saw the movement behind Marcus’s shoulder. A flicker of motion in the distance, briefly revealed by the mists, and then nothing.
“Don’t move,” Esca whispered, keeping his gaze fixed on the birch tree. “There’s something out there.”
“Bear?” Marcus said, going tense. “Wolf?”
“Have you seen any sign of such since we crossed the Wall?” Esca hissed, reaching slowly, slowly for his bow. There was another rustle of motion, off to the side. More than one of them, whatever was out there; he felt sick with fear, choked again as he had been when they crossed the Wall. He wished it was a bear. “Your sword. Move slowly.”
Esca had an arrow nocked to his string and loosed before he even saw the thing break cover: it was already rushing towards them, seeming all teeth and claws, shrieking horribly as it kicked at Marcus with its taloned hind feet.
It crumpled to the ground in the clearing, shrieking cut off into a choked bubbling noise. “Name of Light,” Marcus breathed, his face gone sallow. “What is that?”
Esca spared it a glance: it was a scaled lizard near the height of a man, built something like a bird to run on two legs, with short clawed arms and a vicious pointed head full of serrated teeth. Its hide was a cold iron-blue streaked with livid red markings. The yellow eyes were already dimming, and the rustling in the trees had grown louder. Esca jerked back to stare at the mists again, desperately trying to see where they were--how many there were--
He fumbled another arrow from his quiver, nearly dropping it, and had to wipe his sweating palm on his braccae. “I don’t know,” he said. “My grandfather--he told stories about terrible lizards in the north.” He nocked and half drew, ready to aim and loose as soon as he had a target. “Said one of them bit him.” He didn’t have to say We didn’t believe him.
Grandfather had returned from the North with a wound in his thigh, when Esca was only a boy, raving about terrible beasts out of legend, sea monsters and great birds whose wings carried the sound of thunder, giant lumbering lizards and swift two-legged death.
At first they had all thought it the wound-fever, as Grandfather's leg grew hot and inflamed, and then festered until there was no other way to save his life but to take the leg. Then they had thought it the ramblings of an old man, although Grandfather had still been strong and clear-eyed, at first.
If only he had listened better. His grandfather had been so certain, and Esca had never quite managed to believe his stories were only madness. Of course, if he had said anything, Marcus the Roman likely would have thought it the foolish superstitions of an ignorant tribesman, anyway.
Esca’s palm was growing slick with sweat where he gripped his bow, and he had to remind himself to keep his hand loose, relaxed. Beside him, Marcus was breathing harshly, his sword-hand trembling so that the blade caught the light, glinting, glinting like a fish.
The forest was eerily silent, as it had been since they crossed the Wall, free of the chatter of squirrels or the calling of birds in the brush.
And out there, no more than a flicker of movement in the corner of Esca's eye, something that might have been the wind catching and lifting the pale silver underside of a dry birch leaf so it caught the dim light, the terrible lizards waited.
Marcus shifted until they were back to back, still moving slowly, but his arm was trembling. “How many do you think there are?” His voice was steady, the calm voice of a man who had commanded men, and knew not to panic them, but it was too late: Esca had gone well past panic as soon as he realized what they faced.
He’d seen at least three out there; he would not have bet a sestertius that there were not twice as many, and the one that had rushed them had been gods-cursed fast. If they all broke out of the mist at the same time...a prickling chill ran down his spine. “I don’t know. We have to get them into the open.”
A horse screamed; there was the rustle of dry leaves and the snap of twigs, the shrieking of one of the lizard creatures, and then wet sounds and the crunch of bone. One of the mares was still whinnying, crashing about wildly in terror by the sound of it.
Esca barely stopped himself from turning to see. Everything had gone sharply clear and slow, his hearing more acute. His hands had steadied. Behind him Marcus cursed, his voice shaking.
“How many?” Esca asked, still watching the swirling mists. One of the lizards was moving around the clearing, towards where they had hobbled the horses.
“Four,” said Marcus. “They took down Vipsania. The others are circling Minna. Three--no, five--at least--”
"In a Land of Dinosaurs," by Motetus
The mists shifted again, and there, a flash of red and blue; Esca drew and loosed in one smooth motion, and nocked and drew again before the terrible lizard’s dying scream had choked off.
Minna gave a high, panicked whicker, accompanied by a chorus of low snarls, and that was all the warning they had before the terrible lizards came out of the forest in earnest, snarling and shrieking, talons slashing the air and tails whipping. Esca drew one arrow after another from his quiver, sending them into heads and throats and narrow scaled chests.
There was no time to be afraid, or to think, only to react, Marcus at his back moving with surprising agility despite his build and his bad leg, his sword thrusting at any lizard which came too close. They fought well together, holding back the seemingly endless pack of terrible lizards--
--and then Esca reached back and found his quiver empty. His stomach lurched, his heart skipping a beat. It was as if the mists had again stolen all the breath from his lungs. There was a swift streak of red, and all he could do was throw up his arms in a vain attempt to protect his head.
Marcus turned and thrust, gutting the lizard which had nearly reached Esca. His tunic was dark with blood at the shoulder. “What are you--” he began, clearly furious, and then he saw Esca’s empty quiver and paled.
At that moment a long, low, mournful note sounded through the forest, echoing off the fog-shrouded trees, followed by a strident brassy trumpet. It was a little like a carnyx, Esca thought, but not quite the same: deeper, less metallic.
The terrible lizards all went still, narrow vicious heads cocked as they listened to the sound. Marcus began cursing in a low trembling voice, but he too seemed rooted in place.
Then Esca hear the crunch of heavy steps in the dry leaves carpeting the ground, the creak of wood bending and snapping, like a very large beast crashing towards them. As one, the terrible lizards still standing whirled and melted away into the mists.
Whatever it was, they were afraid of it. “Give me your sword,” Esca said, reaching for Marcus’s hand, for the stain on his tunic was spreading alarmingly and he seemed to be having trouble keeping his sword up. Marcus let go of his sword easily, his eyes wide, still trembling like a spooked horse.
Esca had not had a sword in his hand in seven years, save for a moment in the arena (and that sword he had not wanted). It felt good, right, like a part of himself that had been returned. He gripped the hilt and brought it up to guard and waited, as the crashing and trumpeting came closer.
It was another terrible lizard, this one huge, more than twice the height of a man: it also ran on two legs, but its more delicate front legs bore broad toes for running, not slashing claws, and its muzzle was flattened like a duck’s bill. At the back of its head a tall crest rose, curving back over its neck, and on its back, lashed into a curious padded saddle, was a man.
As the lizard came to a stop in a cloud of dry leaves, it gave that mournful low call that they had first heard, so loud this close that Esca’s ears rang for a moment.
“Well,” said the man, “I see you have found the Swift Killers. Or rather, they have found you.”
The man's name was Guern, and his duck-lizard mount was a swamp-grazer, and no threat to them.
"Then why should the Swift Killers run?" Esca asked. Marcus was still pale, but listening intently; they had found earlier that Gaulish was near enough to British that Marcus could understand some of what the northern tribes said, although if he spoke he gave himself away at once.
Guern gave them a vicious, toothy smile through his curling black beard and patted the crossbow hanging from the saddle. "They're not clever like you or me," he said, "but they can learn by fear, and we of the Selgovae have taught them well."
He whistled between his teeth and the great duck-lizard knelt, so that he could swing a leg over and slide down from the saddle. "There are only the two of you?"
"Yes," said Esca. "We crossed the Wall some days past."
Guern's brows rose. "You are fortunate to have made it this far." He prodded one of the lizards with his foot, and bent to thrust a long knife through its throat when its talons twitched a little. "I expect you are hungry, and these are good eating. Let us build a fire and you will tell me why you have come to the Land of Mists."
Marcus saw to Minna while Esca built the fire and Guern skinned one of the lizards with the efficiency of long experience and thrust a sharpened stick through one haunch.
As the lizard roasted over the little fire, fat dripping down into the coals causing it to sizzle and splatter hot grease every so often, Esca told Guern that they had come to the north to trade.
“And what goods have you brought?” Guern asked, leaning forward. “My woman Murna might like a new cook-pot, or some good southern wool--it is not so easy to get wool fabric here in the north.”
“I am afraid we did not know that,” Esca said. “We have some little trinkets--jewelry and the like.”
“We might trade our cloaks,” Marcus said. “They’re good wool, and new enough.” His words were still thick with the accent of Gaul, and Esca winced and prepared to explain that Marcus was from the south. If only Marcus had remembered to hold his tongue, as they had decided.
Guern laughed and replied in much the same accent as Marcus, "And when did you learn to speak Gaulish? I do not think it your birth-tongue, not with your face."
"I served with the Eagles a time in Lutetia, before my discharge." Marcus had flushed a little, although Esca was not sure why. "For you I think it is your birth-tongue. Gallia Belgica?"
"Samarobriva," said Guern, nodding. "My mother was of the Ambiani," but there was a new respect in his gaze when he looked at Marcus. Esca had the feeling that there was a great deal under their words, but again he did not know what, so he took another bite of the roasted lizard--it was not so bad, really, a bit like a stringy old chicken, and he had eaten much worse before--and listened, still keeping half his attention on the trees around them. Guern's arrival had frightened away the terrible lizards, but Esca had no doubt they would prove an ongoing temptation, even without the horses, especially if the ordinary prey bore thickly armored hides and great sweeping tails like Guern's duck-lizard mount.
"I will not ask why a man born in Gaul counts himself among the Painted People," Marcus was saying.
Guern stiffened, and if he had been a dog his hackles would have risen, but his hand on his eating-knife was steady, and he kept slicing meat off the lizard leg. So Esca stayed where he was, but gave more of his attention to Guern again.
"I am not," Guern said carefully, "one of the Painted People."
"Your pardon." Marcus looked confused now; he had been doing well, at least as far as Esca recognized the pattern of this particular dirk dance, but not every northern tribe had much love for the Painted People. It was a great strength of Rome, that by greed or force or clever oration they had brought so many to follow the Eagles; but Esca thought they had lost something by it, too, a kind of memory. "I only thought because of your inking--"
"My woman is of the Selgovae," Guern said, with a queer fierce pride beyond the normal way of things. "As am I, and we also paint ourselves with the warrior patterns. There is no way back through the waters of Lethe."
"I see," said Marcus, which was good, for Esca had no idea at all what that meant.
Guern threw the picked-clean bone over his shoulder and wiped greasy fingers on his tunic. "Well, I will not be so courteous, for I cannot help you if I do not know your aim. I will ask what the son of your father does in Caledonia."
There was a high rattling call out in the darkness, which made both Esca and Marcus go still, and Marcus reach for his sword, but Guern only waved a hand. "It is only the night-fliers," he said. "They will come to the carcasses, but they do not harm the living."
Marcus's shoulders went down with a jerk, as if he forced himself to relax. "It is in my heart to find out what truly happened to the Ninth Legion, that marched north these twenty years past and vanished into the mists."
Esca started at that; it was the first Marcus had said of anything but recovering the Eagle for Rome to restore his father’s honor. For the first time Esca felt an unwilling sympathy for the boy Marcus had once been, a boy whose father vanished in ill-rumor and mystery. He had lived under that all his life; at least Esca had always known who his father was, and what it meant to be a son of Cunoval.
"There are many things that vanish into the mists," Guern said, his face giving away nothing.
"Before, I thought they were killed by the Painted People,” Marcus said, very quietly, "and that the only mystery was in whether they died well."
Guern spat in the ash; it sizzled. "No man ever dies well. That is a lie they tell warriors, so that we may comfort ourselves when our brothers die gasping and reeking beside us for a fool's cause."
"Be that as it may," Marcus said even more gently, "now that I have seen this land I think the truth may be something stranger."
"It may at that." Guern stared silently into the embers, chewing meditatively on another bite of lizard, his broad face unreadable under his swirling blue tattoos and dark beard. At last he said, "I will take you, then, although I swore never to return. Because you are the son of your father."
"Thank you." Marcus very nearly bowed his head, and Esca could not at all tell what he felt about Guern's words.
It did not matter. This was Marcus's quest, and Esca had no reason to be curious. What did it matter to him who Guern the Hunter had once been, or if he had known Marcus's father?
"It is too far to go today. Come you back to my home tonight; we may sleep safe there for a night, and my woman will give you bread and salt."
Guern’s home turned out to be a neat little roundhouse enclosed in sturdy stone walls, which had sharpened logs set into the tops, as if it were a fort.
A tall woman with dull-gold hair thrust back from her face and caught up with amber-headed pins met them at the gate, a half-naked brown girl-baby propped on her hip. “You have brought guests, Guern my husband,” she said quietly, with a questioning look. Her tunic was made of skins, likely from the terrible lizards Guern hunted, but her mantle was of coarse red wool. A poor woman’s mantle, in the south; but Esca suspected it was otherwise here.
Guern glanced at them, a little sheepishly; in the aftermath of the Swift Killer attack, neither Esca nor Marcus had thought to give their names. “Esca son of Cunoval,” Esca said, “of the Brigantes. This is...Marcus. We are traders from the south.”
The woman’s eyebrows raised a little at that, but she only said, “I am Murna, and you are most welcome in my house,” and then, with a little cry, “But you are wounded, Marcus! Come, I will bind that up for you.” She drew Marcus over to the fire and made him take off his tunic so she could wash and bind the wound. There was a great deal of blood, but once she had wiped it away the wound did not look so bad, or even very deep. They had been lucky, in the forest.
Esca fell asleep that night warm and dry, under a pile of lizard-skins; it was a strange feeling, knowing he could sleep the night through without having to wake and keep watch, trusting in the walls of the house to keep away the dangers of the forest. But he did not know how long it would be before they found such safety again.
“Twenty years ago,” Guern muttered. “Twenty years ago--I was a new-made centurion, fresh from my posting in Dacia. Now that was a hellhole, subduing the countryside, and then shipping half of them off to die in the arena or work in the mines. The Costoboci and the Carpiani and their Sarmatian allies with their cataphracts hammering away at the borders, and always the backbreaking labor of building, between fights. I thought Britain would be better. Easier.” He snorted.
Before them the mists were clearing, revealing the bare moss-crusted frames of trees that had shed most of their leaves for the winter, and the drifts of dried brown leaves piled about their roots. Here and there among the leaves Esca caught a glimpse of white or gray, a boulder, perhaps. Except for the rustle and crunch of leaves beneath their feet, the forest was eerily quiet, the strange rattling calls and shrieks absent for the first time in days, as if even the monsters of the north avoided this place.
“I didn’t know your father well. He was primus pilus, and I only a junior centurion in the Fifth Cohort. We were told to march north and so we marched, building a road as we went--you probably saw pieces of it, if you came up from Vercovicium, but in twenty years the moor takes back its own. Soon enough there won’t be anything left up here of the Ninth but a handful of crumbling altars...at any rate, we didn’t know what we were marching into. Not long after we crossed the wall, sentries started disappearing. Not in the middle of the night, usually, but at dawn and dusk. There’d be blood, usually, signs of a struggle, but no sign of the poor soldier.”
Guern stopped, then, in a clearing that looked just like every other clearing, cold and drifted with fallen leaves, the trunks of the trees closing around them slick and green with moss. “Then we found one of them. Poor Gaius--we assumed it was Gaius, anyway, because of his signaculum, but there wasn’t much left of him, just a smear of blood and brains and some smashed bones. We thought it was the Tribes, of course; we’d heard stories about the Varian disaster, the things the German tribes did to defeated soldiers. It was the kind of thing you expected barbarians to do.” He glanced at Esca, dark mockery in his eyes, and Esca stared back, stony-faced.
“The weather got worse: rain all the time, mud thick enough to break a mule’s leg. And the mules were disappearing, too. One day we woke up and the sacred chickens had all vanished, nothing left but feathers and a lot of chicken shit. That was when the men started getting scared--and hungry, because the cattle were starting to go, too, and there wasn’t much hunting. We cursed the barbarians and their cattle-raiding; we cursed old Bradua for sending us and that furcifer of a legate for marching us here; we cursed the gods.”
“Then it stopped. For three days no one disappeared, not even a dog. Some of the men started to mutter about mutiny, killing the legate and running during the lull, because whatever was out there wasn’t going to rest until we were all dead. Where they would have gone if they succeeded, I don’t know, but it didn’t matter in the end, because the Painted People came down on us, them and all the northern tribes. They picked us off with arrows, hiding in the heather and the mists and vanishing again, fouling the springs so those of us who weren’t half-dead already with hunger were too busy puking our guts out to go after them.”
“My father--” Marcus said, sounding as if he had choked on the words.
“He wasn’t one of the mutineers,” Guern said, “but I don’t know what happened to him.” He looked away, and when he went on, his voice was filled with bitterness. “I am a coward, you see, and when the Red Crests attacked us, I ran. You have not seen the Red Crests yet, I think--they are much larger than the Swift Killers that attacked you, twice the height of a man and longer than a house, and terribly strong. They will defile and eat the dead, but they do not hesitate to hunt the living, either. That is why the Tribes call them Red Crests, you see.” He tapped his head, then gestured to indicate a crest.
Marcus had gone pale, with either rage at the insult (although it seemed a blow that caught Guern himself as well, if glancingly) or pain; Esca was not entirely sure. “What happened to the Ninth?” Marcus asked, his voice tight.
“As I said, I ran,” Guern continued. “When the Red Crests came down on us, it was worse than any battlefield I’ve seen. We had no chance. The Painted People had vanished back into the mists--they knew better. So I ran; I was wounded myself, and the wound festered, as wounds from the terrible lizards often do. I must have fallen at last, but the gods smiled on me, for I woke to the peat-smoke of a house, with Murna who became my woman leaning over me. Word came later, that between them the Red Crests and the Painted People and their allies had finished off the Ninth. I expect your father died with them. The Tribes will allow no word to reach Rome of what lies in the mists of Caledonia, lest they return better-prepared.”
Marcus rocked back a little, as if he had been struck, and he looked like he was about to be sick. It must have been a terrible way to die, ripped apart by monsters. Marcus would only have been a child at the time, thinking his father had died honorably in battle. “And the Eagle?”
Guern shrugged. “All I know is rumor. The Epidii often pick over the battlefields after the fight, and they are fierce enough that none of the other Tribes would dare take their prize. I met a trader once who told me he saw a bronze sculpture of a strange beast in the village of the Sea Dragon People, one of their clans. But it is a rumor; it might be anything. And you do not want to cross the Sea Dragon People, for they are as cold and cruel as the great toothed beasts that swim in their fishing runs.”
Guern bent down and brushed away a pile of leaves. And there, revealed, was the pale gray of rotting, moss-eaten bone. Part of a skull, Esca thought. A little further on there was a scrap of armor, the leather mostly rotted away and half the rusty scales missing.
He heard Marcus make a choked noise, and then quick footsteps, and turned to see Marcus walk off a little way and turn his back.
This was the killing field, he realized, distantly. This was where his grandfather had fought the Romans--and perhaps where he was attacked by the terrible lizard. That bit of bone, unlikely as it was, could be all that was left of Marcus’s own father.
“He will not rest until he finds it, will he?” Guern said quietly, and Esca shook his head. “His father was much the same. Stubborn to the point of foolhardiness. But honorable. He knows Rome will never rebuild the Ninth, does he not?”
Esca shrugged. He had no idea about these things, although certainly he had no wish himself for more legions. “I think he does it for his father’s honor,” he said. “If the son regains the Eagle his father lost, perhaps the stain is washed clean.”
“I am not certain he will find it so simple,” Guern said, looking at Marcus’s back, on the other side of the clearing. “I had a commander once who liked to say ‘Eagle lost--honor lost; honor lost--all lost.’ And then I lost the Eagle, and lost my honor, and found that there were other things worth having--and in the end, a different kind of honor.”
“Perhaps,” Esca said, but although Guern’s words woke a little spark of something in his chest, he was not thinking of Marcus’s honor. “Where do the Sea Dragon People live?”
Guern waved a hand vaguely. “To the northwest, up along the coast. But they will not be easy to find, in among the cliffs and sea-lochs.”
But nothing yet about this mad quest had been easy.
Esca was used to keeping watch at night, for the dangers that could hide in darkness, but Guern had told them that the terrible lizards slept at night, preferring the warmth of the sun for their hunting. Soon enough most of them will be sleeping for the winter, Guern had said. Esca was not entirely certain that was better: the cold could kill them as easily as any terrible lizard.
So Marcus built a fire and muttered some prayer to one of his gods. Esca did not pray, for he was not even sure the gods of his people would hear him in this strange land, and he had no wish to attract the attention of the northern gods. They ate some of the lizard they had roasted back in the forest, in silence; it was not as if they were friends, and Marcus had been quiet and sullen since Guern had told them of the Red Crest lizards, earlier. Whatever his Roman master was thinking of, Esca was certain he had no wish to hear it.
Esca almost started when Marcus spoke at last, breaking his firelight trance. They had both been staring into the embers in numb exhaustion; it had been a cold, wet day, and the heavy gait of the three-horned lizard Guern had traded them for Minna would take some accustoming. Esca ached like he had been beaten.
“I asked Guern to come with us,” Marcus said. “To find the Eagle. He was Roman, and a soldier. He should have understood. But he--” His face twisted, in an expression Esca could not quite interpret. It might have been anger; or merely incomprehension.
“He was also a Gaul,” Esca said, something in Marcus’s quiet, defeated posture loosening his tongue when he should have stayed silent. “We peoples who do not write things down as you do, we have long memories.”
“But--” Marcus saw Esca’s face, and stopped. “I see. To you we are all Red Crests. Scavengers and thieves.” But he did not say it like he was angry, only very tired. “What Guern said, about the Painted People and their allies--and your grandfather was--your grandfather--”
“Yes, my grandfather went north to fight against Rome, when I was a boy, and a handful of others with him,” Esca said steadily. His grandfather had been the only one to return, brought back by grim-faced northern tribesmen who would say little of what had happened, only that the others had died bravely. “We have kin-ties in the north, duties owed. I was a child; that was all I knew of it.” Although now that he thought on it he minded a knife his father had owned, with a hilt wrapped in some kind of scaled skin; and there had been a few other things in the dun, little things that could have been explained as being made from the skins of ordinary lizards or snakes. Perhaps not everyone in the tribe had known nothing.
“And did we deserve it?” Marcus snapped. “To be slaughtered by thousands of tribesmen, eaten by beasts, their bones left to rot under the sky--”
“What of the Dacians in the arenas of Rome? What of the Iceni slaughtered and enslaved when their queen’s rebellion was put down? Has Rome always made sure the odds are fair?” Esca stopped, almost afraid; he had let slip the sullen slave’s mask, shown Marcus the anger behind it. It was the one thing a slave must never do, if he wanted to live.
But they were in the north, beyond the reach of Rome.
Marcus bowed his head, but said nothing. Resting on his knees, his clenched fists were white-knuckled and trembling.
“My father was Cunoval of the Brigantes, Lord of Five Hundred Spears,” Esca said, more quietly. “Seven years ago, we rose against Rome. It is--a common story. Heavy taxes. Injustice. A bad harvest.”
Marcus flinched a little at the last, but said nothing.
“We rose, and were beaten back. My father and two brothers died.” Esca’s eyes prickled and his vision blurred a little, remembering Boduoc pulling him out of the river. He had failed; Esca had owed his brother a life-debt, and Boduoc had died with it still unpaid, a Roman soldier’s spear through his chest.
He could not think of Docca at all.
“My mother also. She killed herself, before the legionaries broke through.” He held Marcus’s gaze until Marcus looked away. “Of all my kin, I am the only one who still lives.” He did not say Because you would not let me die, but he saw in Marcus’s startled, guilty glance that he understood, finally.
Esca should have died with them: it was the shadow on his own honor, that he had not died fighting shoulder-to-shoulder with Boduoc, and when he had awakened in the close, ill-smelling darkness of the slave-cart with the others who had been captured, his hair sticky with blood and his head aching, he had not killed himself then, either. Someone would have helped, if he asked, but he had not. It had taken him seven years to find the courage, and even then, he had not been able to make himself hold the blade.
So he understood why Marcus had brought him on this fool’s quest, better, perhaps, than anyone else could.
“I had a friend at Isca Dumnoniorum,” Marcus said, almost hesitantly. “I thought him a friend, anyway. But--it is a common story.”
Esca had not expected Marcus to have called a Dumnonii man a friend, but he pushed aside the tangle of feeling that rose in his breast to think about later.
“Bad harvest,” Marcus continued, his voice still soft. He was looking into the fire again, but what he saw there Esca would not have guessed at. “There was a wandering druid, as well, preaching fire and the sword. My friend--was his charioteer. I had hunted with him, taken bread from his wife, held his child. I looked into his eyes, and I killed him.”
He was kneading absently at his injured thigh with one hand, and although he had never wished it, Esca had to allow he felt some sympathy for the man. “There are greater duties than friendship,” he said, carefully. “Perhaps for him that was so.”
“Yes, I expect it was,” said Marcus, still staring at the fire and pressing his fingers almost viciously into his leg, and then, brusquely, “I’ll take the first watch.”
Esca rolled himself into his cloak and curled up in the fading heat radiating from the embers, and shivered until the damp wool warmed up, but although he was tired sleep remained stubbornly out of reach.
As they clambered stiffly up into the padded saddle strapped to Tracornos’ back and set out with the rising sun to their right again, Esca murmured, “I would not mind one of your Roman roads at present.”
It was an offering of peace, and when Marcus gave him a small, almost shy smile, Esca felt unwillingly warmed. He could, perhaps, even learn to like Marcus Aquila, and he wasn’t sure he wanted that.
They were lost.
Esca was not sure where they were, but it was certainly nowhere near the coastal hunting runs of the Sea Dragon People, and he rather thought they were too far north as well, with the first hints of winter ice on the wind and the heather going dry and brown around them. The sky had been a dull leaden gray, hiding sun and stars alike, since they left the hunting runs of the Selgovae, and they must have confused their direction of travel. They had not seen any tribesmen for days, although they also had not seen very many terrible lizards, and none of the Swift Killers or Red Crests. Although it meant they had only the oddly-shaped, tough squirrels of the north to eat, and those few roots and leaves Esca knew would not make them sick, Esca was relieved.
They could always tighten their belts, but he was not so sure about Marcus in a fight now. He hoped they would reach a village before they encountered any more predators, or it would be their cracked bones rotting under the northern sky like the bones of great thunder lizards jutting palely from the heather around them.
He was worried about Marcus, although he wished he were not; but despite himself he was finding it harder to dislike the man, in all of his stubborn honor. Marcus had been favoring the arm wounded by the Swift Killer for some time; it did not seem to be healing as it should, but Marcus had said nothing when Esca changed the bandage, only winced a little, and Esca was no healer at any rate.
But the last few days he had ridden in utter silence, slumped over the neck of the three-horn Tracornos, his wounded arm hanging limply. Sweat gleamed dully on his brow despite the cool autumn weather, and when they stopped to eat it took him twice as long as Esca, for he moved slowly and with great care, as if every bone in his body ached.
Esca had thought about tying him to the saddle, but decided it would be too dangerous if they were attacked, so instead he rode in front and insisted that Marcus hold onto him.
Marcus complied with the easy obedience of one too ill to argue. His good arm around Esca's waist was solidly muscled, a soldier's arm, used to the weight of a sword; Esca tried not to think about it, but only urged Tracornos forward and hoped to see the smoke of a dun's hearthfires curling up against the pale sky.
He did not let himself think of what might happen if they did find a dun, but no herb-woman or druid, or worse, if the folk proved unfriendly and turned them away into the wilds.
They rode on, the muscles of Tracornos’ great back shifting steadily under the padded saddle-frame. Off in the distance Esca heard the sad, low cry of a bird that was not like any of the birds of the south, and he shivered, despite the too-hot weight of Marcus draped heavy and confining against his back.
The waters of the loch spread silver before them like a woman's mirror, surrounded by low green hills dotted with trees. And there, near the shores, a sprawl of round turf-roofed houses and pens of livestock, so much like Isurium where Esca had spent his boyhood that his throat went tight and sore.
But there was no Roman fort casting its shadow over the little village, only the Caledonian hills, and instead of sheep and cattle the pens held three-horns and smaller grazing lizards. Like unto his home and yet more foreign even than the straight-walled, half-Roman towns of the south.
"Marcus," he said, but his voice came out a dry croak after so many days of little speech. "Marcus," he tried again, "There is a village, down by the loch."
Marcus stirred a little against Esca's back and slurred something unintelligible. Esca himself felt a little dizzy with fear and hunger, a hard cramped knot in his belly. If Marcus died--he would have to pray he could find a place among these strangers.
Perhaps that would be better. No life-debt to bind him. Nothing to hold him back from freedom.
The thought was shameful, nearly as bad as it would have been to break his oath and leave Marcus to die. No, there would surely be someone in the village with the knowledge to heal him. Esca would not abandon him now. If Marcus lived, and they found his Eagle, Esca would go with him as far as the Wall. But no farther; his debt would be paid, and it was better to stay here in this strange and terrible land than return to be a slave, his only hope of freedom the goodwill of his master.
Tracornos plodded carefully down the hill towards the village, scattered a flock of brightly colored little feathered lizards like songbirds before his heavy paws. But they only cackled like jackdaws and flew off, until their bright shapes faded into the dull gray-green of the dying heather.
"Please, help," he cried as they reached the outskirts of the village, the people already clustering around the strangers. "He's injured."
Exhausted and aching, Esca could only slide awkwardly from Tracornos' back into strangers' hands, and let them guide him into the warm peat-reek of a house. Someone pushed a steaming bowl that smelled of rich broth into his hands.
"Your friend is with Merida the herb-woman," a woman said, giving Esca a hunk of bread to sop up the broth. She was small and round and flour streaked her lizard-hide tunic and sprinkled white through her auburn braids; she minded Esca of his mother, a little, and he turned his eyes to the steam-wreathed bowl of soup, so he would not have to look at her. The soup smelled better than any feast, and woke his stomach again to fierce aching. He dipped the bread in the broth and took a more careful bite than he wished, closing his eyes at the smooth fat saltiness of it.
"How did he come by his wound?" the woman asked.
Esca swallowed and carefully set the bowl down. His hands were shaking. "Swift Killers," he said, "in the Selgovae lands, perhaps a fortnight ago."
"Ah. The Swift Killers have poison on their claws. It is not good, when the wound has gone bad like that. But Merida has saved those with worse injuries, and your friend is fighting it. He may even keep his arm." She reached over and patted Esca’s shoulder, clearly meaning it as comfort.
For a moment Esca forgot his hunger. He had not even thought of what it might mean to Marcus if he lived but lost his arm, Marcus who so bitterly resented his wounded leg and all it had cost him. He would have felt glad about it once, a Roman soldier losing all that mattered to him; too little repayment for what they did to Cunoval’s clan.
Esca finished the soup, slowly, gave the bowl back to the little auburn-haired woman, and went to find out where they had taken Marcus.
Marcus had been sweating and shivering under a pile of lizard-hides and good wool blankets traded from Eriu for days now as the herb-woman Merida fed him herbal drinks and dressed the wound with grease and honey, but he looked little better than when they had arrived. When he woke at all, he seemed not to truly see anyone.
Before, when Marcus burned with the wound-fever after the surgeon's ministrations, Esca had cared for him, had fed him and wiped his brow and changed his filthy tunics, because he was a slave.
Here, no one thought him a slave except perhaps Marcus himself--and even he, Esca thought suddenly, had started to see Esca as a man, born of a mother like his own, with no less honor than any Roman, and not only a slave.
Merida had apprentices, two little dark girls not yet old enough for marriage and a gawky lad with the mark of Nodens pricked between his russet brows. It was for them to care for Marcus; Esca did not have to do it.
"Father, I'm sorry." Marcus's voice was low and pained, and he clutched wildly at the blankets. "I lost it. I'm sorry. Please, Father." One hand went to his throat and then fell away, groping in the blankets again.
The crudely carved wooden eagle he wore under his tunic was gone. Likely Merida had feared he would tangle in the thong and choke himself. Esca glanced around the dimness of the house until he saw it, set next to a cup and pitcher.
And because he did not have to, he poured water into the cup and took it and the wooden eagle over to Marcus, still moaning half-intelligible words to his dead father.
Marcus's hand was clammy and hot to the touch, but his fingers closed convulsively around the eagle and at once he went still.
His eyes opened, fever-bright and confused. "Esca?" he rasped. "I thought--I thought you had left me."
He sounded so sincere, as if he believed Esca a friend and cared for him, that Esca grimaced before he could stop himself. Marcus was a fool if he thought Esca a friend, and Esca was a fool to think Marcus might see him as anything other than a slave. "I am here," he said, the Latin heavy and awkward in his mouth after days of speaking British with the Moridoni. "You must rest." He slipped a hand behind Marcus's head (as he had a lifetime ago, and yet for the first time), and held the cup to his lips. Marcus drank, his eyes already sliding closed again.
Esca found Merida waiting for him outside. "He will live," the old woman said quietly. "Already the poison burns away. When he is well, you must make an offering to the goddess of the loch."
"I will," Esca said, and realized so sharply it felt like a knife under the ribs that he might mean it in truth.
Merida regarded him shrewdly, with something in her narrowed black eyes that made him shiver. "He has not been your friend," she said, and although he did not wish to answer, Esca shook his head in agreement. "But he may be yet," she said, her voice sounding queerly distant, as if from the bottom of a well. "He may become the truest friend you will ever have, if only you choose the left-hand way."
She blinked, then, all briskness once more, and the shiver Esca had felt at her words turned into a chill, like a cold hand on the nape of his neck. "Yes," she said. "He will be well soon. There is stew on the fire; go you and have some."
Esca mumbled something and slipped out into the autumn grayness. What could he say to Merida: that no matter what the Romans believed, there could be no true friendship where one held the power of life and death over the other?
Yet he thought she had something of the true seeing; and those like her did not see wrong.
It was for him to choose the way, she had said, and she had not told him what lay down the other way, the right-hand way. Sword-arm or shield-arm, enemy or brother, for him to choose.
It would have been an easy answer, before, but now Esca could not say which way to take.
"Is this what you have been doing while I lazed about in bed? Shoveling dung?"
Esca looked up to find Marcus leaning on the low stone fence of the three-horn paddock, looking a little sallow but otherwise well enough. Merida must have given him her blessing--or else Marcus had decided he was well, for Esca did not think any of Merida's little apprentices could stop him.
He scrubbed the sweat off his brow with his sleeve and leaned on the pitchfork. "For the most part. And other little things Merida needs, in payment for her hospitality."
"You might have left it to me," said Marcus, a queer look on his face that Esca could not begin to speculate about. "It was my injury."
Esca snorted. "And then when you were well, you could order me to make payment for you. This way it was my choice." He did not say The last time I tried to choose something for myself, you took it from me, but by the way Marcus looked away, he was thinking of that, too.
Marcus unlatched the gate and came into the paddock, thumping one of Merida's three-horns on the flank so it knew he was there and moved aside. "Here, let me do that," he said, reached out and grabbing the handle of Esca's pitchfork.
Too shocked to do anything but stand there gaping, Esca did not let go. Marcus had never offered to do his work before; it was unthinkable, an equestrian doing a slave's labor.
"Merida said I ought to use my arm, so it will heal right. Do you think I have never shoveled dung before?" Marcus shook the handle a little and smiled, a crooked, open smile that made Esca wonder who he might have been, if he had not grown up in the shadow of his father's honor.
It was a good smile, and Esca almost smiled back, before he caught himself. He made his fingers unlock, and blew on them; they were red and chapped from the cold. "I will not argue," he said, tilting his chin up and wrapping himself again in the prince's pride that had been for so long all he had left. Perhaps Marcus would not notice he had unsettled him.
Market day in the village was busier than Esca had expected; it seemed every family had put out a stall or a hide with wares, and there were merchants from further lands: Irishmen out of Eriu, their bright chequered wools nearly hurting the eye after the dull lizard-hides of Caledonia; a little group of Painted People with scarlet lizard-feathers plaited into their lime-washed hair and bales of hides strapped to the saddles of their three-horn mounts; an olive-skinned Greek with sleek black curls selling amphorae of wine.
But what Esca had not expected were the pilgrims, tribesmen and women from all over the North, their skins inked in the swirling blue patterns of a hundred tribes, some tall and fair as Gauls, others little and dark as the old people who had been here before ever Esca's own ancestors had come to Britain's silver shores. They came to pray to the goddess Nessan, for deliverance from illness, for safety from the terrible lizards, for good fortune. They brought thanks-offerings for a child who had lived through a marsh-fever, the birth of a healthy three-horn calf, a safe hunting trip.
It was very much like the great market-fair near Eburacum that Esca had gone to as a youth. Then he had been the son of a clan chief who commanded five hundred spears. Market-fairs had meant a chance to wander with his friends, buying a bronze arm-ring here or a new hunting knife there, flirting with the girls and laughing at the hounds racing through the fair like puppies.
It had been a long time since Esca had flirted with a pretty girl, or laughed at anything.
"Have you come to make offering to the goddess Nessan?"
Esca looked up at the voice, and met the golden-brown eyes of a tall young woman, still with some of the coltish grace of girlhood. She had a pointed, vixenish face that was not quite pretty, and a mass of wildly curling hair the color of the red amber beads at her throat.
"We have," said Marcus. "What is the usual offering?"
The woman's eyes widened. "You are from the south!" She gave Marcus the kind of appraising, impressed look that Esca had seen some of the Roman matrons in Calleva give the gladiators. Marcus had the grace to blush, and Esca had to stop himself from smiling--so Marcus was human after all! But when the woman met his eyes, she must have seen the smile there, for she did smile at him, and Esca found himself blushing as well. It had been a very, very long time since a woman looked at him like that.
"You must be great warriors, to come so far," she continued, looking oddly wistful. She glanced down in front of her at what Esca now noticed were an array of rough wooden carvings, although at a glance he could not have said what any of them were, and scooped two of them up. "Here," she said, handing a carving to each of them. "Many people also buy some fish to feed the lake-steeds; Argentokoxos over there has a fresh catch, and he will not cheat you for being strangers."
Esca looked at the carving resting in his palm, like any votive offering he had bought and dropped into a spring or lake a hundred times before, if a little more ill-made than some. It was some kind of creature with an oblong body something like an egg, but not so round; four stubby legs, and a long neck. He could not imagine how the creature could walk without falling, pulled over by the weight of its neck.
"My younger brother carves them," the woman said, noticing his puzzled look. "I am afraid his skills do not quite match his vision yet, but I am sure the goddess knows what is in his heart," she added fiercely, with a glare that dared them to disagree.
"I am sure she does," Esca said dryly.
"We will take them.” Marcus handed her a few coins and thanked her.
As they turned to go to Argentokoxos the fishmonger, he looked back at the woman; but although he smiled a little there was something troubled in his face.
Esca did not care; he would not ask. Whatever they might be in time, he was still unwillingly bound to Marcus, and they were not friends. Deliberately, he looked back himself and smiled at the woman, who laughed as she turned again to her wares.
They made their way across the smooth rounded hills draped with dry grass and heather, between pale weathered outcrops of rock half-eaten by lichen and moss, until they could see the long silver band of the loch stretched out below them. The trail down to the beach was narrow and winding, and Esca let Marcus lead the way in case he fell.
Below them the beach was dotted with the dark, polished shape of boulders, curiously different from the gold-flecked crumbling rock of the surrounding countryside, but at this distance Esca could see none of the mysterious lake-steeds the red-haired woman at the market had told them of. Esca had been long enough in the North now that he did not expect them to look anything like horses, even the fearsome water horses he had been warned about as a boy. But what they might look like, he could not imagine. Argentokoxos had assured them that the lake-steeds were quite gentle, Unless you are a fish, of course, he had added, with a laugh that shook his broad, round shoulders. Or you have angered the goddess.
As they drew closer to the beach, picking their way between the clumps of spiky gorse that bracketed the trail, Esca saw one of the boulders roll over, lazily, exposing another side to the faint warmth of the weak autumn sun filtering through the clouds. Not boulders, then.
"Seals?" Marcus asked softly, but Esca did not think he thought they were seals, either.
The lake-steeds looked as like to the votive carvings as a horse to a child's drawing of the horse scratched into the dust with a stick. They did have oval bodies, but instead of stubby legs they bore four limbs like a seal's flippers, and long, surprising graceful necks that ended in small earless heads. They were covered entirely with sleek black scales that gleamed dully, which had given them the look of sea-polished boulders. Of course they did not need to walk on land, then, and the waters of the loch would help them balance.
As they came closer, the long necks of the lake-steeds went up, all at once, like deer scenting a predator, and then they were all humping and slithering down the beach into the cold silver waters of the loch, with all the grace of a seal on land. But they lingered there in the shallows, their eyes fixed on Marcus--no, on the basket of fish he carried--bright and curious as any puppy. They were rather small; perhaps they were young, and out there in the dark depths lurked greater beasts.
Esca shivered. The Moridoni had lived here for generations; they revered the lake-steeds, and even if there were huge beasts out there, they must be gentle.
But some of the southern tribes looked to bear or wolf as totems, and the Painted People kept the narrow, sharp-fanged skulls of the Swift Killers in their places of mystery. It was hard not to be a little afraid.
He glanced over at Marcus, who did not look frightened at all. He wore a soft little smile, the same one he gave his uncle's dog Procyon when he slipped the old wolfhound scraps under the table. "Why, Esca," he said quietly, slowing a little, "they are like seals. Look, they scent the fish. Softly, now, do not frighten them."
Esca rolled his eyes, behind Marcus's back. As if he had never seen a wild animal before! Do not frighten them--might as well teach his mother to suck eggs. (Did Marcus have a mother, back in Rome? He had never spoken of her, only of his dead father.)
Up close, the lake-steeds were not so small--perhaps the size of one of the great war-hounds out of Eriu, but with much longer necks, so that in the water, when they craned their heads to point at Marcus's basket of fish, their heads were level with his chest. They clustered in the shallows, frothy little wavelets breaking over their sleek dark bodies, and hummed to each other, their long throats vibrating.
Marcus reached into the basket and pulled out a fish; seven pairs of eyes followed the silver glint of it, and it was plucked deftly from the air by the largest in a snake-swift dart and snap of teeth. The others hummed louder, jostling against each other in the water.
"Come help," Marcus said. He was smiling; and he looked younger and less shadowed than Esca had ever seen him as he tossed another fish to the waiting crowd of lake-steeds. They were less polite now, wrestling and snapping in a flurry of foam and writhing serpent-necks, but it was like the scuffling of well-fed puppies, all the fierceness on the surface. Esca thought so, anyway, but he would not have waded into their midst, even for his manumission.
Esca took a fish from the basket, grimacing at the cold, slimy feel of it, and tossed it towards the smallest of the lake-steeds, the one with a dull purple streak running down its forehead lingering a little apart from the press. One of the larger ones was quicker, though, and snatched it almost from the little one's jaws.
But the little lake-steed had not given up; with a queer low shriek it darted for the larger one, biting its neck. Esca did not think even those needle-sharp teeth could bite through scales, but he winced in sympathy all the same. The larger lake-steed dropped the fish with a hiss and turned to swim towards where Marcus was still throwing fish the the others.
Illustration by Motetus
The smallest lake-steed scooped up the fish and swallowed it down; Esca watched the lump move down its long throat and disappear, and then he stepped a little closer, almost to the edge of the surf. He was shaking a little as he held out another fish, on a flattened palm as he would feed a horse.
With surprising delicacy, the lake-steed reached out its long neck and plucked the fish from Esca's hand, not even grazing his fingers with those teeth.
"I see you have made yourself a friend," Marcus said, holding out the basket of fish.
Esca's throat felt tight, but he nodded, holding out another fish to the lake-steed. For all that it seemed at first to be cobbled together from other animals, all Esca could see now was the oddly beautiful whole. He had to stop himself from touching it: he knew that no matter how tame a wild creature seemed, all that could change in an instant if you reached for it. But he ached to see what that dully shining gray-black hide felt like, the flex of strong muscle under it, how it might vibrate when the creature hummed.
They did not speak any more as they emptied the basket, trying to be sure that every one of the lake-steeds had eaten a few of the fish. Then they washed their hands in the cold shallows of the loch. Marcus sat down on the beach, pulling his good leg up to his chest and leaning on his knee, and after a moment Esca sat as well, a careful distance between them.
The lake-steeds had retreated out past the shallows and were chasing each other, flashing over and under and around, silent but for the splashing of their flippers. Esca drew a long, slow breath. It came easily, the cold crisp air filling his chest, and he felt peaceful, very nearly content, as he had not felt in seven years. The only sounds were the splashing of the lake-steeds and the lap of waves against the shore, and now and then the flapping of leathery wings as some flock of little flying lizards winged overhead. Esca had stopped expecting to hear the bubbling cry of a curlew or the shrill peewit of a green plover some time ago, although occasionally they still saw one of the waterbirds that was almost like a duck.
After a while the lake-steeds began swimming back towards the beach, where they hauled themselves out of the water and shimmied onto the stones, stretching and humming as the turned their bellies again to the weak sunlight. One flopped down next to Marcus, who smiled and reached down to lay a hand on its neck.
Esca's warning caught in his throat, for it did not snap or bite or even hiss a warning, but stretched and hummed contentment before shifting to lay its neck across Marcus's legs. Marcus stroked it as he might a nervous horse, long slow sweeps of his hand down the creature's neck.
He looked up at Esca with a soft, awestruck gaze that made Esca look away.
It was easy to find the small one with the purple streak again, lying a little apart from the others on the beach. At Esca's approach it raised its head to peer at him with those bright, curious eyes; this close, Esca could see its scales, smooth little ovals that fit together more perfectly than any armor.
It felt like a snake, he thought at first, dry and smooth and under the skin all sinuous muscle. But it was warmer than a snake; he supposed it must be, to live in the cold waters of the loch. He had caught harmless little grass snakes when he was a boy, always trying to frighten his older cousin Tancorix.
With the little lake-steed's neck draped warm and trusting over his lap as it hummed under his absently stroking hands, the thought of his cousin made his vision go hot and blurry as he blinked back tears.
And suddenly it seemed to him that not speaking of his clan made them worse than dead, as if they had never lived at all, and he opened his mouth and said, "When I was a child I used to catch snakes and try to frighten my cousin Tancorix."
Marcus looked faintly puzzled, but said nothing, only rubbed the forehead of his lake-steed, between where the ears would be on a hound.
"She was never frightened. I suppose I expected her to shriek because some of the women would have, but that was foolish of me. She knew they had no poison, and she always sighed and put them outside." He swallowed past the lump in his throat. "One day she caught me at it. She looked very disappointed, and I was sorry at once, but of course I pretended innocence. I had no idea how the snake found its way into the house. I was only trying to catch it to take it outside. I could tell she was trying not to laugh at me, but she only said, very gravely, 'Esca, would you like it if a giant came along and snatched you up, and then other giants screamed at you and tried to beat you with sticks?'"
He looked over at Marcus again. He had stopped petting the lake-steed in his lap, although it kept nudging his hand with its head.
"I would like to say I was always kind to those smaller and weaker than me, after that," Esca said, "but I wasn't. I was never the cruelest boy in my clan, but neither was I the kindest."
"She was no warrior, but when they cut down her husband and children in front of her, she took up his hunting spear and fought like a wildcat. I tried to reach her--I tried--"
He had to break off then, because he could no longer clearly see the purple-striped lake-steed, only feel its solid, comforting warmth against his clenched hands, and his voice was threatening to break like a youth's.
"She was brave," Marcus said quietly.
"Yes." Braver than I was, Esca thought. The last thing he remembered before waking to pain and darkness in the back of a stinking slave-cart was the sight of Tancorix’s russet hair as she fell, and the red of the soldier's cloaks closing in around her. He had been a little bit in love with her, in the hopeless way of a youth, and he had not even been able to help her escape.
"What Rome did," Marcus said, hesitating, "What we did to your clan was wrong. I used to think that the glory of Rome was enough, that everything else was simply the price that had to be paid--"
"Not by you," Esca said, before he could stop himself.
"Not by me, but perhaps by my ancestors," Marcus said. "Etruria was not always part of Rome, although I had not thought about that much before--before I met you."
Esca had nothing to say to that.
"I know it means little, but I am sorry for your clan," Marcus said, "and for the Dumnonii."
He patted the lake-steed draped across him, awkwardly wiggled free of its half-asleep bulk, and clambered to his feet, winced a little as he put weight on his bad leg.
For a moment Marcus stood over Esca, his shadow falling across him, and then he crouched down and held out a hand. "I hope it will mean a little more to say I am also sorry for how I have treated you. I should not have brought you north when you could not say no, although I am not sure I can be sorry for not letting you die in the arena."
"I am not sure either," Esca said, reluctantly, and reached over to clasp Marcus's hand. He had big hands, square and callused from sword and road-building, and they were warmer than Esca's, so that he was almost reluctant to let go.
"You are free," Marcus said, very quietly. "And if you do not leave me here alone, I will go before a magistrate and say so when we return."
"I swore an oath."
"And you have saved my life at least once," Marcus said, smiling a little. "There are no debts between us."
"What will you do if I stay here, with the Moridoni?" Esca asked. His heart was pounding hard enough to make him a little dizzy. His freedom! And yet.
"I will go seek out the Sea Dragon People alone," Marcus said, "and pray they will part with the Eagle for a bale of good wool fabric and a brace of flying lizards. If I am not eaten by Red Crests first, that is."
"You will die."
Marcus shrugged. "I may. But I must do this. You understand that."
He did. "I put too much effort into saving your life to send you off to die alone," Esca said. "I will go with you to find the Sea Dragon People. And then--I don’t know."
“That is more that I hoped for,” Marcus said gravely.
They sat there for a while longer, but this time shoulder to shoulder, until the lake-steeds began to awaken, slipping back into the water one by one. The morning had seemed somewhat apart from the world; but as the lake-steeds grew smaller into the distance, their splashing less audible, it was as if the world returned all at once. Esca’s legs ached from sitting still for so long, and his stomach growled with hunger. “Will you come to table with me as a free man, Esca?” Marcus said, and Esca nodded, his heart too full for words.
Before they set back on the trail to the village and Merida's fish stew, Esca took the carved wooden lake-steed and kissed it. Please, he thought to the goddess Nessan, let my clan know peace. Let them know in the lands beyond the sunset that I love them still, and will not forget them. The offering barely splashed as it struck the surface of the water and then floated there, bobbing in the shallows. If he squinted out into the glare off the water, Esca thought he could see a dull flash of purple on one of the lake-steeds.
And then, far out in the loch, the back of a great dark shape, longer than a house, broke the surface of the water; a huge serpentine neck rose up, and it looked at them.
"Marcus," Esca breathed, and Marcus turned back to look.
All the little lake-steeds swam towards the great one, their playful chaos transformed at once to the neatness of a line of ducklings following their mother, and then in a blink they were all gone, vanished under the water. Only the spreading circle of ripples marked their passage, until that, too, was gone.
"It is a sign,” Esca said quietly. But Nessan was not a goddess of Esca’s people, and he did not know what it meant.
They saw few of the terrible lizards as they made their way back southwest towards the sea-loch country of the Sea Dragon People; perhaps it was the protection of the goddess Nessan on them, or perhaps it was the bite of oncoming winter in the air. The smaller lizards, the ones who acted something like birds, scratching around in the grass and performing graceful midair dances, seemed not to mind, but Tracornos had grown slower and needed more forage every day. Esca hoped they would have their business done quickly so they could turn south again, for he had no wish to walk south in winter, and even less to spend the cold months in the houses of the the Sea Dragon People. He did not think either of them would live to see spring if it came to that.
It was strange, at first, riding pressed close together on Tracornos’ back, when Marcus was not sick with the wound-fever, but vital and healthy, the muscles of his sides flexing under Esca’s hands with the motion of their mount. But at least now they could talk to each other, instead of riding in sullen silence.
At first they traded songs and stories, the simple, harmless things a man might sing in a tavern or a woman might tell to her babe. They did not speak any more of Marcus’s Dumnonii friend, whom he had killed at Isca Dumnoniorum, nor of Esca’s family. But the silence was there between their words: that Marcus had been a soldier and Esca had been a slave, and before that, a prince.
On the third day, Esca told Marcus of how he had nearly drowned, but for his eldest brother pulling him out of the river.
The next day, Marcus told Esca about his mother, who had not spoken to him since he had sworn the sacramentum and joined the army. I cannot bear it if you do not come back either, she had told him, so if you do this I will have no son.
He had not listened. “Perhaps I should have,” Marcus said, very quietly. “Certainly it did not bring me the glory and honor I thought I wanted.”
“I am sure your men did not think so,” Esca said, feeling almost outside himself. Comforting a Roman--comforting Marcus! “They gave you that bracelet for saving them, did they not?”
“I could not save all of them,” Marcus said, and then, “Thank you. That is something.”
“Guern told me that he had lost his honor with the Eagle, but he found in the end that there were other things worth having, and a different kind of honor. Perhaps for you it will also be so.” And for me as well.
Marcus said nothing for a long moment; Tracornos’ back rose and fell under them, steady and powerful. “Perhaps it will be so.”
His hand on the rein brushed against Esca’s arm, where he was holding on to Marcus’s waist, and he let it set there for a moment.
Esca did not flinch.
Marcus had just put the rest of the food back in one of Tracornos’ packs when they appeared: a group of warriors who seemed to materialize from the very hills themselves, although a moment earlier Esca would have sworn they were alone. The warriors’ faces were painted a dull gray color that blended with the rock, their hair pulled back and worked up with clay. Most of them carried spears or axes tipped with chipped flint, although a few wore iron swords, mostly of the short Roman kind. They looked old, but well-cared for; perhaps they had even taken them from the dead soldiers of the Ninth.
Marcus’s hand had dropped to his sword hilt, but Esca shook his head, very slightly. There were far too many of them to fight.
One of the warriors stepped forward. He was tall, and carried himself with a prince's arrogance, and the gold of a curiously-wrought torc gleamed at his throat, its finials worked in the shape of no animal Esca had ever seen. The terrifying sea dragons, no doubt. But his dress was strange, even for Caledonia; he wore layers of skins, hardly shaped at all, their scales mottled like dappled water; no doubt that was how he and his warriors had surprised them, for even now more warriors appeared from the hillside, noticeable only when they moved. And around his neck was a necklace of long, fierce-looking teeth.
"I am Natiran son of Deinorix. My father is chieftain of the Sea Dragon clan of the Epidii," the man said. He leaned on his spear with apparent unconcern, but Esca did not trust that in the slightest. "How have you come to the hunting runs of the Epidii?"
"We are traders from the south," Marcus said, as Esca was discreetly trying to decide whether they were completely surrounded, if they had to run, for certainly they were outnumbered.
Natiran looked puzzled at Marcus's Gaulish accent. "Traders of...?"
"He is from the south," Esca said quickly. "Very far south. We have jewelry and bronze pots, knives from Eriu and pottery from Gaul." They had been sure, at the loch, to exchange some of the jewelry and silver they had brought from Calleva for trade goods, when Esca had pointed out that they would have to tell the Sea Dragon People what business two southerners had in Caledonia, and We wish to take back that Roman eagle standard you won in battle twenty years ago would not ensure a warm welcome.
"From very far south, I expect," said Natiran, looking Marcus up and down with a look that said I know what you are. But he sounded amused, and at least Marcus's new beard covered the chinstrap scar, so perhaps Esca had only imagined that look because he was nervous.
"I am Esca son of Cunoval," Esca said, because there was really nothing safe to say to that. "This is Marcos son of...Boduoc."
Natiran said nothing for an agonizingly long moment, looking them both up and down, marking the sword at Marcus's side, the bow and quiver strapped to Tracornos' saddle, the bulging saddlebags. "Come you back to my village," he said at last. "My father will wish to meet you, and I am sure my wife would be pleased with a new bronze cauldron."
Marcus smiled and thanked him; this at least Natiran seemed to understand without trouble, and they followed Natiran down the trail, Tracornos plodding behind them and the silent, watching warriors closing in after. Esca shivered; but of course it was a damp, chill day, with the smell of winter on the wind.
The village of the Sea Dragon People sat on a high promontory with a fine view of the western sea; a path led down the slope to a rocky beach where several little fishing-boats had been pulled out of the water. The village itself was not like any Esca had seen before: the Sea Dragon People built in stone, likely because of the openness of the country, but their houses were curiously fashioned, and like the Moridoni, they had not built a wall around the settlement.
And all around the settlement were the bleached skeletons of great finned and toothed beasts; one very large one stretched past several houses, like a fence. Even if the water was not cold enough to kill a man, Esca would not have swum off this shore for anything in this life or the next.
The women and old men of the Sea Dragon People dressed much like Natiran and his warriors, in layers of shapeless scaled skins and coarse flax, and they regarded Esca and Marcus warily out of dark eyes.
Natiran murmured something to an older woman preparing fish for drying, who shook her head and pointed towards the largest house, at the end of the promontory.
Before Natiran could say anything else, a boy ran over to him. The stern lines of Natiran's face softened, and he put a hand on the boy's shoulder and turned to face Esca and Marcus. "This is my son, Liath," he said, with pride clear in his voice and smile. "Liath, do you take our guests' mount and see to it, while I take them to see your grandfather."
The boy gave Esca a quick, shy smile and darted over to take Tracornos' lead. There was something about him that minded Esca of his brother Docca, always hanging around the horses, but the memory did not hurt as much as it once had.
They followed Natiran towards what must be the chief's house. Esca was watching the people, who had all paused in their work to stare openly, and so he nearly tripped when Marcus jostled against him and hissed, "Esca, look up."
He looked, and saw nothing but the chief's house, round and thatch-roofed--and then, so clearly he did not understand why he had not seen it at once, what must be the Eagle of the Ninth Legion. But this was no proud golden standard of a legion: it was fixed to the roof-peak as an ornament, tarnished nearly black by time and the salt sea-winds and listing unsteadily to one side.
Inwardly Esca swore. They had no hope of stealing something from the chief's own roof and escaping; it would have been easier had the Sea Dragon People kept it in some secret sacred cave, taken out only for ceremonies. But of course, they likely did not even know what an eagle was. It would have no meaning to them except as a trophy of war.
Perhaps they could convince the chief to trade it for something, if they were patient, and did not let him know how much they wanted it.
Deinorix the chief was a man of middle years, but he looked ageless, weathered by hard life. He wore an elaborate headdress of bones on his graying head, and regarded Esca and Marcus through shrewd eyes. Behind him an older woman with her own curiously made headdress busied herself pouring something into a glass cup, a thing incongruously delicate and lovely in the dark, smoky interior of the house. Esca wondered where it had been made; it must have been expensive, something so fragile from so far away.
"Father," Natiran said, bowing his head in respect. "These men have come to trade. This is Esca son of Cunoval and Marcos son of Boduoc."
"Southerners?" asked the chief.
"Yes," said Esca, "although we came by way of the Moridoni at the great loch."
"That is a long and dangerous way for two to travel alone. Well, I hope that your wares are as fine as your courage."
The woman stepped forward and offered Esca the cup. He drank; it was full of heather beer that tasted like unfamiliar herbs, with a faint hint of the sea, wild and salty. "Blessings upon this house and upon the women of this house," he murmured, handing the cup back. She nodded and offered the cup to Marcus in turn.
"But there will be time enough for trade tomorrow," said Deinorix. "You must wish to rest and eat."
Natiran showed them to a curtained-off area on the men's side, where a bed had been piled with striped wool blankets and a sleek, spotted sealskin. Esca wondered if there were seals in these waters, or if that, too, had been dearly purchased.
The Sea Dragon People had been all hospitality, but Esca could not shake a feeling of unease, remembering Guern's words: They are as cold and cruel as the great toothed beasts that swim in their fishing runs. He thought of those great bleached bones, from monsters the size of a ship, and those rows of vicious teeth set in the long skulls. What kind of people called that a protector?
The trading had gone well enough, although Esca suspected that they had not bargained as well as real traders might have; no matter. Feeling as though they had the better of the strangers had made the Sea Dragon People good-humored, secure in their cleverness.
Although Marcus had been chafing with impatience, Esca waited until they were nearly ready to leave to offer to trade for the Eagle. "We cannot seem too eager," he had told Marcus, the one time they were certain of not being overheard. "If Deinorix the chief knows how much you want it, he will ask a price we will not wish to pay."
"It is nothing to them!" Marcus whispered back. "Why should he care for it?"
"Do not say it is nothing to them when they paid for it with their blood," Esca said. "But even if it were less than nothing, they would see what it meant for you. They have been polite to us because we are guests, but they are not a soft people."
And Marcus had looked up at the great sea dragon skeleton casting its shadow over them, and fallen silent.
"It has been good trading, Esca son of Cunoval and Marcos son of Boduoc," Deinorix said gravely, after Esca told him they planned to leave. "You are welcome here if the road should carry you back."
"We are grateful for the hospitality of the Sea Dragon People," Esca said, bowing his head courteously. "But there is one more thing. I had not thought of it until this morning, when I remembered a man of the Selgovae who might want a matched pair for his gateposts. That old Roman bird--"
But Deinorix was already shaking his head. "Na, na, that is not a thing for sale or trade. We paid dearly for it, we of the Sea Dragon people."
His shrewd black eyes were on Marcus, who had made a stifled little motion at Deinorix's first words, and who was now as blank-faced as a Roman statue. Subterfuge was not his strength, Esca thought grimly. Marcus was too much a soldier: always for him the straight paved road. It had been so for Esca once, too, but he had been forced to learn otherwise.
"But," Deinorix continued, raising a hand, "were you to do me a favor--"
"Of course," Marcus said, too eagerly. Esca could have struck him.
"The joy is on me to hear it," said Deinorix, and smiled, revealing teeth Esca half-expected to be as pointed as a sea dragon's. It was not a smile that set Esca’s worries to rest. "Come you inside and I will explain."
I’m sorry, Marcus mouthed to Esca as they followed Deinorix inside. He looked a little pale, like he had just realized agreeing to unknown favors could be dangerous, but Esca glared at him anyway.
“Well,” Marcus said once they were out of earshot of the village, “that does not sound so bad, finding some eggs to bring back.”
Esca shot him a withering look. “Lance-beaks. They sound quite friendly, don’t they?”
Marcus looked away, hitching the padded bag webbed about with rope up higher on his shoulder; the Sea Dragon People had given them two, as well as more rope, and they had brought Esca’s bow and Marcus’s sword, although Esca was not sure a sword would be much use against flying lizards.
They had not seen any flying lizards much bigger than a dog, though, so perhaps it would not be so difficult to fend them off. But if that were so, wouldn’t the Sea Dragon people have fetched the eggs themselves?
The lance-beaks nested further up the coast, on a sea-cliff overlooking a shallow sheltered cove, where the nestlings could learn to hunt with less chance of being eaten by the sea dragons, or tearing their wings against sharp rocks in the buffeting wind and surf.
The weather had cleared a little that day, so that every so often the sun broke through the gray, limning the edges of the clouds in glowing fire; and against them little dark shapes of birds and lizards wheeled and swooped, sometimes plummeting down into the waves like divers, only to reappear with silver fish caught in their beaks. But Esca could not see any nests in the grass along the cliff edge.
Marcus had walked up to the very edge of the cliff, where the sea-wind whipped at the grass.
“Esca!” Marcus called, the wind half-carrying his voice away. “Come look!”
It seemed a very long way down to the churning foam and the sharp black knives of the rock below. On a ledge a few man-heights down from where they stood, two small lizards perched on a mound of dry grass snarled at each other over a fish, but Esca saw nothing that looked like eggs.
“There,” Marcus said, pointing over at another ledge, piled high with dry grass and wilting plants. “They must cover their eggs to keep them warm, if they do not sit on them all the time like birds.”
A sick feeling was beginning to settle in Esca’s gut. One of them would have to climb down to the ledge, and he did not think Marcus’s leg was fit for climbing, so it would have to be him.
Marcus had evidently realized that as well, for the look he gave Esca was guilty and pleading all at once. “Esca, you know I cannot--”
“And if I say no?” Esca asked, carefully. He did not think Marcus was the kind of man who would take back freedom, once granted; but Esca had heard enough from other slaves to know that a Roman freedman was not free, no more than a spearbearer among the tribes who had sworn an oath to his lord. The difference was that the spearbearer swore willingly; Esca had not chosen to be a slave, and he had not promised to be a good Roman freedman, either.
But he was not sure of what Marcus thought he would be, for all his talk about going on alone if Esca stayed with the Moridoni.
Marcus swallowed, but did not look away. “Then we must go back and tell the Sea Dragon People we could not do it. I know I have no right to ask this of you, when I cannot do it myself, but please believe that I would not ask it of you otherwise. It is for you to decide.”
If Marcus had commanded him, Esca would not have done it; but it must have cost Marcus some pride to ask. Perhaps, by doing this freely, because he chose to, Esca could regain a little of his own honor, the honor he had lost in defeat and slavery. “Very well.” Esca slipped the coil of sturdy rope he had been carrying off his shoulder, and set his bow and quiver aside. He knotted one end of the rope around his waist and began securing the other around a heavy boulder. He could do this. The rope would catch him if he slipped, and Marcus had the bow, if any of the lizards came too close.
He avoided looking at the waves as he backed down over the cliff edge, clinging to the rocks. They were rough and sometimes jagged, and bit painfully into his cold hands, but at least that meant there were many places to set his feet and catch on. One hand after the other, one foot at a time. The muscles in his arms begin to ache from holding his body against the rock, but he dared not relax, for fear he would lose his hold.
The rock beneath one foot loosened and crumbled away, leaving him with one leg dangling in mid-air, his fingers cramping, until he could feel around for another foothold.
It was almost a shock when his foot finally touched the firmer rock of the ledge, and he crouched there for a moment, pressed against the cliff, his legs trembling. The pile of grass and plants looked larger than it had from the cliff-top, and bore the dry, sweet smell of hay. He knelt by it and began carefully brushing the plants aside, until he uncovered the pale ivory curve of an egg, warm to the touch and drily leathery, nothing like a chicken’s egg. He carefully picked up the first one--it was large, a pointed oval shape nearly as long as his forearm, and heavy enough that he was afraid he might drop it as he gently slipped it into the first of the padded bags. He tied the back to the rope Marcus had dropped down and yelled for Marcus to pull it up, then began uncovering the second egg.
“Esca!” The rope had come back down, but Marcus was yelling something Esca could not hear over the wind, more biting down here than it had been above. “Esca--out there--the sea--!”
Esca looked out at the horizon, where the lizards had begun winging their way towards the coast. The dark shapes were growing larger at an alarming rate, large enough that Esca knew the lance-beaks must be far, far larger than any of the winged lizards they had seen before. And even if they did not sit on their eggs, that did not mean they had no care for them.
“Esca, come up!” Marcus yelled. “Leave it!”
But they had promised Deinorix the chief two eggs, Esca thought, and if they only brought back one, then Marcus would not have his Eagle. He had not come this far--had not given this much--to fail. He finished uncovering the other egg as quickly as he could, not daring to look out to sea again, tucked it into the second bag, and tied it to the rope.
He began climbing without looking to see if Marcus had pulled the egg up. This time he climbed as quickly as he dared, ignoring the stab of the rocks and the vicious wind that tried to tear him from the cliff face. If the lance-beaks reached him before he reached the top, he had no hope of fighting them off.
Esca hauled himself panting onto the grass just as he felt the rush of wind from huge wings pass over him, the vibrations of a loud, piercing call setting his bones to aching and his ears ringing. Marcus was shouting; as Esca scrambled to his feet, he saw Marcus draw and lose arrow after arrow.
At first he could scarcely comprehend the size of the lance-beak; it seemed impossible that something so huge, with a beak large enough to swallow a man, could even fly. Its wings blotted out the sky, like a monster out of story.
Stumbling, Esca ran over to Marcus and the eggs, catching the bags up and strapping them to his sides as best he could, praying that they would not be damaged. “We have to run,” he gasped, as the lance-beak wheeled away, shrieking at the arrow that had torn through the membrane of its wing. Esca had no doubt it would return. “Run!”
Marcus could not run easily, with his leg, but fear pushed him to run faster than Esca would have thought possible, although he stumbled often. The eggs felt heavier and more awkward as Esca ran, falling into the old hunter’s lope as best he could, as the shrieking echoed above them as they dodged and wove. The lance-beaks were built for gliding out over the open water, and did not turn quickly, and this one seemed reluctant to simply pluck them up with that great beak, while they carried the eggs. “Esca--” Marcus shouted between breaths, “Big--need to stay by the coast--run inland!”
Esca turned inward, away from the sea, and hoped Marcus was right and the lance-beak would turn back.
At last, when they were well inland, the lance-beak banked and swept back towards the coast, with one last shriek that felt like a knife thrust in Esca’s ear. He stumbled to his knees, cradling the eggs against him--oh, let them not be broken or harmed!--and beside him Marcus also feel, crashing into the heather. “Gods be praised,” he gasped, and then began laughing, so hard that Esca was very nearly worried. Had he gone mad?
Marcus reached over and caught Esca’s hand in his, tightly. “We did it,” he said, smiling. “You did it. Thank you.”
Esca found himself smiling back, the blood singing in his veins; he had not felt so alive in years as he did sitting in the dry brown heather on this cold Caledonian moor with Marcus, and it was a good feeling.
They limped the rest of the way back, leaning on each other, each carrying one of the lance-beak’s eggs.
When they staggered back into the village, exhausted and battered, but still cradling the lance-beak eggs, Deinorix the chief insisted that they stay another night or two. Esca’s hands were scraped raw from his desperate clamber up the cliff, and Marcus had managed to reopen the wound in his arm. But they were alive, and they had succeeded, although Esca had loudly cursed Marcus and his too-quick tongue the entire way back, until Marcus had given him an amused look and said that Esca had clearly thought about his tongue a great deal. Esca had held his own tongue after that.
There was a feast in the chief’s house again, with the eggs carefully arranged in a nest of blankets at a particular distance from the fire, watched over by two of the younger warriors with a kind of fierce pride. Marcus was in better humor than Esca had ever seen him, flushed from the sharp liquor the warriors passed around and laughing at every joke, although Esca was certain he barely understood half of them.
On Esca’s other side, old Tradui, Natiran’s maternal grandfather, had been expounding all evening about the battles of his youth (far greater than these scuffles the youths call battle) and the sea dragons of his youth that were of course toothier and fiercer (which Esca very much doubted was possible) than those of the present. Esca was only half listening, distracted by the Irish harper on the other side of the fire, singing a very long and complicated song about Irish heroes Esca had never heard of; but his playing was a fine and silver thing.
“Esca,” Marcus hissed, his lips almost brushing Esca’s ear. Esca tried not to shiver. “Tradui’s ring.” He prodded Esca in the ribs until Esca turned to look. Tradui was explaining how he had once seen two sea dragons locked in combat, and as he shaped the struggle in the air with his hands, eyes bright, the firelight woke to green flame the emerald of a signet ring.
“You have a harper’s tongue, Tradui the Warrior,” Esca said, when the old man’s story had come to a close. “But that ring is a fine thing, and not of the Tribes’ making, I think. Is there a story there as well?”
Tradui looked at the ring for a moment, and then said, “That is a story from a dark time, when the Red Crests marched north--not the lizards, but the men from the south. And they might have taken our hunting runs, not just we of the Epidii, but all the tribes of the north. There was a great war-hosting--” He squinted at Esca for a moment, as if trying to remember something. “The Brigantes were there...but you are far too young. But they did not expect the terrible lizards, the Swift Killers and the Red Crests and all the rest. They were afraid, already scattering when we found them. We hunted them down, those last few who did not flee. The last one held the bronze bird you have now, and fought to keep it as fiercely as if it were his own child; strange that he should care so much, when a bird is such a weak little animal, not much of a clan protector. But perhaps that is why they must wear so much armor, for they do not have a powerful god like we of the Sea Dragon People....”
He went silent for a long moment, staring at the ring, turning his hand this way and that so that the glowing ember woke in the green heart of it and then went dark, over and over. Esca glanced at Marcus, who was leaning forward, listening very carefully. Tradui’s voice was not always strong, and his way of speech was difficult even for Esca to understand sometimes, but Marcus seemed to understand something of the story.
“He was a brave warrior,” Tradui said at last, “an enemy worthy of the Sea Dragon People. The grief is on me that I will not face his like again before I go into the Western Waters.” He slipped the ring off his finger with some difficulty, for his knuckles were swollen, and held it out to Esca. “Do you know what the carving is? I have always thought it was a fish-lizard, but my eyes are old...and perhaps the Red Crests do not know of the fish-lizards."
Tradui's hand trembled as he held out the ring, so violently Esca feared he would drop it. He squinted at the ring in the firelight, but the Roman way of carving was strange to him. "Marcos," he said. "Tradui wishes to know what animal is carved in his ring."
There was a flame in Marcus's eyes, a desperate longing, as he reached for the ring; he knew it. It must have been his father's.
"The Red Crests call it delphinus,” Marcus said, looking at Tradui. He spoke very slowly, his voice almost sharp when he said Red Crests.
He held out the ring to Tradui, who shook his head and folded Marcus’s fingers around the ring, his hands still trembling. “Na, I do not need it anymore,” Tradui said. “You have something of his look in you; perhaps his spirit will give you strength.”
"I cannot accept such a gift," Marcus said as courtesy demanded, although he looked at the ring as if there was nothing in the world he wanted more, and his tongue tripped over the words.
Tradui looked confused, and Esca had to explain to him what Marcus had said.
"Na, na." Tradui waved his hand dismissively. He coughed a little, dryly. "I am old and sick. A man of the Clan swims with the Sea Dragons twice, Marcos son of Boduoc. It has been long and long since I proved my manhood by swimming in these fishing runs, and the time has come for me to swim with them once more. This time, I think, I will not walk out of the sea again."
Marcus, for all his efforts to be polite, looked horrified at whatever part of Tradui's words he had understood. Tradui looked at him and laughed, which set him to coughing again.
"Your southern friend thinks us savages, does he not?" Tradui said to Esca when he could speak again. "But the great sea dragons watch over us and our fishing runs. They keep away the sea-steeds and the fish-lizards that would eat all the fish; there are few who would dare raid our fishing runs. They let us take what we need and leave us be, so long as we are not greedy and make the proper offerings. Is it not right that we should give back what we have borrowed?"
"Sa, sa, of course." Esca nodded, and contrived to subtly kick Marcus's shin until he, too produced some semblance of respectful agreement. Doubtless Tradui would think Roman ways just as strange and savage. "But would you not rather give it to your grandson?"
"No one listens to an old man anymore," Tradui confided, leaning closer. "My grandson is a hothead. What would a Roman trinket mean to him? The man who wore that ring was brave; if he had a son, I am sure he would have wished the ring to go to him.” And he gave Marcus a surprisingly clear-eyed look, before slumping down again, once more the fuddled old man. “But I do not know his son, so I will give it to you....”
Marcus slowly slipped the ring onto the little finger of his left hand; where it had been loose on Tradui’s finger, it fit him perfectly, and with a little shake to settle his shoulders back, he inclined his head to Tradui. “I thank you, Tradui the Warrior.”
“It is no great thing,” said Tradui. “Have I told you yet of the time my sword-brother and I fought a Red Crest alone, a huge old monster, with many spears broken in his hide?”
Marcus blinked and smiled. “Not yet, I think.”
The Irish harper was still striking bright notes on the other side of the fire as he sang; the music seemed to fly up into the dark peak of the roof like the sparks from the fire. Looking at Marcus smiling to himself, glancing down every so often at the ring on his signet finger, and pretending he understood Tradui’s story, Esca found he could not bear the close heat of the house any longer. With a murmured excuse to Tradui, he slipped out into the crisp chill of the night.
As they came closer to the Wall, the air felt different; faintly less sharp as the forest began to thin out. The nighttime calls had been more and more quiet as winter drew nearer, but now they vanished entirely.
Once Esca woke in the night, heart pounding and hand already reaching for his knife, only to realize that he had heard an owl's soft hooting call, for the first time in more than two months. Across the guttering fire, Marcus met his eyes and grinned sheepishly, taking his own hand away from the hilt of his sword.
Before Esca had felt choked by the Caledonian mists, afraid of whatever he had sensed out there among the trees. But now that he knew--some of it was still frightening, to be sure, but there was wonder here, too, and things Esca was not sure about. He remembered old Tradui, clad in the tattered warrior’s finery of his youth, sitting up perfectly straight as the little coracle bobbed in the waves of the harbor-mouth, and the sudden froth of churning water and the glimpses of great scaled backs after Tradui let himself fall. He had not felt the presence of the gods, but the Sea Dragon People standing around him, silent and grave-faced, had seemed to; and after all, their gods were not his.
But there was a kind of freedom here from the presence of Rome. At least the Red Crest lizards would only eat you because they were beasts and it was their nature, not slaughter your family and sell you into slavery; and they would not tell an old man that his chosen death was barbaric and illegal.
They had sold Tracornos back to Guern once they reached the Selgovae, although the rest of the way would be slower on foot; the lizards would not go so close to the Wall, Guern had warned them. So when the Wall came into sight, slicing across the next ridge of brown, snow-flecked hills like a scar, with the fort at Vercovicium the still-open sore, Esca checked in his tracks.
"Esca, are you--" Marcus began, but stopped when he saw Esca's face. His jaw tightened, and he said, very carefully, "Esca, you do not have to come with me. You owe me nothing. I can return alone from here, I think; once I reach the fort, there will be post-horses and a letter from the commander to aid me on my way, I am sure. If you would rather stay--"
This was somehow more true than the manumission on the beach at the loch, Esca thought, because Marcus knew him now, and did not want him to go. He shook his head; there was time enough to take his leave later, perhaps. "No," he said, "it is nothing." He hitched his pack up further on his back and started down the hill, leaving Marcus to follow.
Crossing the Wall going south felt like muffling himself in a veil, so that he could not see or hear clearly, but after a few moments the feeling passed, and he was standing in the courtyard of a Roman fort as Marcus clasped hands and laughed with a man in a centurion's crested helmet. Some army friend of his, Esca thought dully, and did not smile at any of them.
The hall of the great fort in Eburacum went silent at their entrance, but a murmuring rush of whispers rose up behind them like the sea. At their approach, the Legate looked up, shock plain in his face, but it was the mingled disbelief and disgust in the expression of the tribune Placidus that made Esca smile, just a little. Doubtless they looked like a pair of grubby bandits, unshaven and dangerous. They'd bathed and had fresh clothing at Vercovicium, but they'd ridden hard since then, and Marcus had insisted on coming directly to the fort.
The legate's gaze dropped to the bundle cradled in Marcus's arm, lizard-hide concealing the Eagle. "Marcus Flavius Aquila," he said, slowly. "A most welcome surprise. Have you come about the matter we spoke of this last summer?"
"We have," said Marcus, glancing over at Esca, who had fallen back a step, not so much because it was proper, for a slave or a freedman, but because this was Marcus's quest, and he had helped for Marcus's sake, and not Rome's. "But I think the telling of it had best be in private, sir."
The legate raised his brows, but said, "Of course, my boy. Come back to my office, if that will suffice."
"It will, but--" Marcus began, as the tribune Placidus, a look of skepticism on his elegant face, made as if to follow. "I should prefer we speak with you alone, legate."
Placidus snorted. "Do you truly think the legate means to hear you and your barbarian without me?" The look he gave Marcus made Esca's fists clench at his sides, although there was a time when he would have liked to look at Marcus that way himself. But that time was past, and he no longer missed it.
"I hardly think you need concern yourself for my safety, Placidus," the legate said mildly.
"Sir--I am your staff officer!"
"Indeed," said the legate. "And you will serve on my staff by remaining here to go over the plan for sending reinforcements to the garrisons on the Wall. I have every confidence in your ability to manage that, and I will expect a full report from you later."
"Sir," said Placidus. He had gone quite white, but the look he gave Marcus and Esca was black hatred. He contrived to bang into Marcus's bandaged shoulder as he passed. "Oh! I am eternally sorry, Aquila," he said sweetly, as Marcus gritted his teeth, trying to hide the pain. Of course he could not start a fight with the tribune, not now.
The legate sighed, once Placidus was out of earshot. "I must apologize," he said. "I have done my best to make a man of him, as his father asked, and he is not entirely without his merits, but I am afraid there is still too much of the petulant child in him. Perhaps an inspection tour on the Wall might do the trick...but come, you must tell me of your journey."
The legate's office was a dark little room in the heart of the fort, lit with guttering terracotta lamps; his desk, of dark-stained wood worn smooth by time and touch, was piled high with wax tablets and scrolls. "So," said the legate, "you have it."
Marcus started a little, as if his thoughts had been far away, and then he nearly thrust the bundle at the legate, who took it carefully. "Unusual skins," he observed. "Snake? But where would they find snakes so large?"
"Not exactly a snake,” said Marcus, “but you are not so far off."
The Eagle lay in the cradle of the legate’s hands, dull and black in the lamplight, with only a few glimmers of gold in the crevices of its breast-feathers. Marcus had tried a bit to polish it, but twenty years of Caledonian sea-mists had taken their toll, and it would take more than a handful of sand and a cloth to restore it to golden glory. Esca could not say he was sorry.
"Well, my lad, I am impressed. A lost Eagle has never been regained after so long. I suppose now we must decide what to do with it."
"I believe you ought to hear how we found it, first," Marcus said quietly. He sat on the chair the legate had offered easily, with his shoulders back, like a man who had had a great burden lifted from him. He was thinner now, exhausted-looking and certainly dirtier than the man he had been when they first set out for Caledonia; less Roman, perhaps. But he looked like a man content in himself. "It is Esca's story as much as mine, sir, and I warn you that it may seem a mad story."
The legate waved Esca to a chair, negligently; he still did not really see Esca, but his curiosity kept him polite. It did not anger Esca as it would have before: he was free, and Marcus would not hold him to a freedman's bond if he wanted to go. He would not have to endure arrogant Romans ever again, if he did not choose to.
Halfway through the story, Esca's throat was beginning to feel dry, and no doubt Marcus's was as well. The legate called for wine, and then leaned his chin in his hand again as Marcus continued, telling of how they met the Sea Dragon People.
"You are right," the legate said when they had finished, his own wine-cup still sitting barely touched by his elbow. "It is a mad story. Oh, certainly there were once monsters, but hardly anyone sees that sort of thing anymore. The days of gods and heroes walking among us may be past. But I am inclined to believe you: those traders who go north are close-mouthed, but every so often one may say something indiscreet in his cups, and on occasion a soldier hunting near the Wall has brought back strange prey--although nothing like the great beasts you describe. No, I do not think either of you are mad, but of course I cannot put any of this into my report to the Senate--and there is nothing to be said that would remove the stain on the Ninth."
Marcus bowed his head. "I know, sir."
"I recall something your uncle told me, long ago when we served together in Judaea: 'There is no way back through the waters of Lethe.'"
Esca started; it was very like what Guern the Hunter had said to Marcus, in that strange conversation that had been all deep, dark waters that he could not see into. Esca thought now that he knew a little better what it had been about: Marcus's father, and Guern's own past. There was no unspinning the threads of fate.
"I did not expect it," Marcus said, and as before Esca thought there was something unspoken passing between them that was not for him to know.
The legate sighed again. "A pity. You would have made a fine primus pilus someday--or a staff officer, if you wanted it."
Marcus shook his head, and glanced sidelong at Esca again. "I do not think my leg would bear it, sir...nor my heart."
"Well, then, I think the Senate might be persuaded to grant you something for your service. A small reward, or land for a farm, perhaps. Full citizenship for your freedman."
Esca did not give a dried leaf for full citizenship, not anymore, but he made himself murmur thanks and smile at the legate. It had perhaps too many teeth in it, for the legate recoiled a little and turned his attention back to Marcus.
"I must consider it," Marcus said.
The legate stood, a clear dismissal, and they stood as well. He reached up to clap Marcus on the shoulder, and after a moment of hesitation, Esca as well. "See that you do, Aquila. And know that you have done a great thing for Rome today, both of you."
I did not do it for Rome, Esca thought, but he held his tongue.
Outside, he blinked for a moment, eyes watering at the sudden brightness of the sunlight, and drew a deep breath. It was over with.
"Huh," Marcus said, pulling something from his purse. "I must have forgotten to give this to the goddess Nessan.”
The thing in his hand was the crudely carved wooden lake-steed that the red-haired woman of the Moridoni had sold him. "You were rather distracted," Esca said, "cooing over those lake-steeds like a girl with a kitten." It was odd, teasing Marcus; he had not wanted to before, and he would not have dared. What was between them felt new and tender, fragile, as if it could be carelessly crushed in an instant.
Marcus smiled at him, sweetly and without shadow; something in Esca's chest seemed to unfurl and take wing, an eagle soaring on an updraft. Perhaps he was not entirely free after all, but he no longer wished to be alone, safely wrapped in his grief. A little less freedom seemed a fair exchange for friendship, if freedom meant loneliness.
"What now?" Esca asked, hoping desperately that Marcus would not say Rome, or worse, Farewell.
Marcus shrugged and pressed the votive offering into Esca's hand. "You decide."
The joy in Esca's chest broke into a smile, one that only felt strange for a moment. And Marcus's arm, flung casually across his shoulders, did not feel strange at all.
Before them both the left-hand way, the shield-arm path, stretched silver and shining, into the future.