Whatever Marcus expected when he asked for a post in Britannia, he thinks to himself as he looks around the camp in mounting horror, it wasn't this.
It is not precisely a true statement; he ought to have expected this. He knows of course that centurions command various kinds of centuries within cohorts, and from his blurry memories of his father riding off to war he thought that he might be put in command of an infantry unit, as was his father. Or perhaps—he allowed himself to imagine this scenario, luxuriously, a few times—he would command an entire permanent fortification, a small one, doing his part to repel the advances of the Britons. Such duties could be suitable for a newly-promoted centurion, could they not?
But a man whose father was a centurion in the ill-fated Legio VIIII Hispana, a man whose father lost the Eagle—that man should not dream of being so lucky. Marcus should have realized this. He knew when he found that his posting was to be north of the Aelian Wall that he was to suffer for it, in the very land in which the legion itself was lost. This is a small camp, not even properly built up yet, barely north of the wall, housing what seem to be the rejects of the army. It is in stark contrast to the elegant stonework of the fort at Trimontium, just to the west, with their well-trained cavalry. His rank, the orders informed him, was hastatus posterior, the most junior of the six centurions in a cohort, the tenth cohort (oh, the lowest of the low) at that, and as for his century, well...
"I'm afraid we're all a bit of a joke here," the hastatus prior tells him as they walk through the camp, in the kind of confidential tone that suggests he already thinks of Marcus as a friend even though they have known each other barely two hours. He's Aulus Herennius Eonus, one of the other centurions. As the fifth centurion of the cohort, he ranks higher than Marcus, but he greeted him with an exceedingly joyous welcome when Marcus rode in earlier this morning; it makes Marcus wonder how awful his predecessor must have been. "No offense meant, but your century is especially so."
Marcus tries to nod firmly, to appear as though this doesn't bother him. It's a look he likes to think he's mastered, over the years.
Marcus' new command, a century of eighty men, is listed on the papyrus of his orders as part of this cohors tumultuaria, an auxiliary cohort of irregulars. Spies and scouts against the British tribes, his orders said, but Marcus can believe all too easily that "irregular" applies to the entire damned disorganized century.
He knows perfectly well what the camp ought to look like. As this is only a summer-camp, he expects tents rather than barracks. His century ought to have ten tents, eight men to a tent, arranged in a double row and facing each other. The soldiers' gear and weaponry, of course, should be neatly stacked, leaving room for a walkway. As centurion, Marcus' double-sized tent should be at the end of the row, to serve both as his own space and his century's common area. This is what regulations stipulate. Everything orderly, everything in its proper place.
What Marcus actually sees is near-absolute chaos. If they have four tents, that is a generous estimate, and those four are so worn and patched again and again that he doubts they would ever keep any of the British rain out. Gear is strewn everywhere across this section of the camp, out in the open, hardly in any order whatsoever. Men sit with their backs against piles of belongings, and others laze in the dirt; few appear to be doing any kind of useful work at all, and only five or ten of them are in any sort of proper uniform. Most wear only civilian tunics. His own tent—or what he concludes must be his own tent—is half-collapsed at the back of the area, only one side up. Within the shadows he can see the outlines of a few men seated there, and from the way they lean in close he suspects they are dicing.
He is aware of Eonus' eyes on him, watching him very closely for a reaction, and so he swallows and forces a smile. A faint one is all he can manage. "Well," Marcus says, while inside he is beginning to crumble, "it could be worse."
This is what Rome thinks of him. This is what Rome thinks of his father. And they have rubbed his face in it.
Eonus laughs to hear it; Marcus knows then that this was the right thing to say, that he was right to hide the shame. "You seem like a clever one, Aquila. You may even be able to make something of this bunch."
Marcus squints at the men in the shambles of the camp, trying to take the measure of them, to see if even one of them might be a worthy soldier. He cannot tell. At any rate, he could hardly do worse by them than their last commander, whoever that was. He tilts his head in acknowledgment of Eonus.
"Tell me something, Eonus," he wonders aloud, turning to address the other man. "You wouldn't happen to know where the optio of this century is, would you? I have a mind to ask him about the conditions here." For he cannot very well blurt out every appalled thought in his head to his own superior: Where are the tents? Why are these men not in uniform, and why are they not on duty? What has gone wrong here?
He is surprised to see a reticent, hesitating expressing pass over the man's face; the tour of the camp this morning has become progressively more disgraceful the closer they go to the walls, but never once has Eonus flinched. And now, only now, does the man balk.
"You want to see Quintus Seius' optio?" Eonus asks, almost in disbelief, and then hastens on as if to assure him. "You know, he needn't be your optio, yes? You can always have him transferred, or demoted if you find it necessary. You can pick whoever you like as your second-in-command. It is your century now. Just because Laetinianus was Viridio's optio doesn't mean he has to be yours—"
Marcus is beginning to wonder what in the world can be wrong with the man such that Eonus thinks he should not even see him. "Is there a reason I should not address my concerns to him? I know I am free to choose my own man, but I would fain begin by hearing from the optio himself about the state of the century that this Viridio has left to me." Belatedly, the thought drifts through his mind that perhaps he should be curious as to why Quintus Seius Viridio is no longer here. Or perhaps he should not.
"There is no reason as such," Eonus says, too quickly again, too quickly by half. "It is only that I do not know where Laetinianus is at present."
Marcus manages with great difficulty not to sigh. "Do you know if any among these men would know?"
He watches as Eonus' gaze takes in the entire disgrace that is his century, and finally settles on one. "That man," he says confidently, pointing with a jerk of his head to a faraway figure, too far to see properly, sitting alone in the sunlight, bent over some task in his lap. "His name escapes me now, but I know that he knows the whole of your century. It seemed to me, the times I met him, that he knew the men better than either Viridio or Laetinianus did."
"I thank you," Marcus says, gratefully seizing upon this one scrap of information. "I am sure he will aid me."
Eonus gives him a strange look, almost as if he thinks the man will not. "Well, then, Aquila, if you have no other questions at this time, I ought to return to my century."
"I'll be fine," Marcus tells him, because that is what one says, even though he is not quite sure if it will be true.
"I'll see you at the daybreak assembly tomorrow, eh?" Eonus says as he leaves. It is a redundant question, because of course Marcus will be up at the trumpet-call to receive the day's orders. He would not dream of disgracing himself more with laziness.
Marcus nods and turns to face his new command. His very own personal nightmare. He'd best talk to this other man and then the optio, and then perhaps he can begin to salvage the situation.
As he approaches the man Eonus indicated, Marcus sees that he is sharpening a dagger in his lap, a careful, rhythmic slide of metal against whetstone. At least he is performing a useful task, Marcus thinks, even though he is clearly out of uniform, not even armed. The man wears braccae as the natives do and a plain, undyed tunic, ordinary and Roman in its sleevelessness. He notes, oddly, the bold line of a tattoo, as some of the continental tribesmen bear, curling around the man's pale upper arm. He has pale hair too, or at least paler than most native Romans. Surely he is a Gaul, then; Marcus knows from walking through the camp that many of the men here, in the other cohorts they are camped with, are Gaulish in origin—huge blond giants, the lot of them. But this one is a much slighter man than they. Marcus supposes that it is sensible to have smaller men among the scouts, to be light and fleet of foot.
And the man still does not look up at him, does not seem to be aware of his presence. He can fix that soon enough.
"You! Soldier!" Marcus snaps out, with the voice one uses to call the raw recruits to attention, and the other man finally looks up.
Marcus almost wishes he hadn't spoken, for now he can at last see the man's face, and Marcus... is struck speechless. It is as the poet says: no voice remains in his mouth, his tongue is numb, fire flows down through his limbs, and all the rest of it. The Gaulish man is— Marcus doesn't know if "beautiful" is the word one would use to describe him, for this man is nothing like the soft, perfumed, long-haired boys that usually merit the phrase. He is thin, all wiry strength and a face of odd planes and angles, with strange eyes, brilliantly blue. And Marcus cannot stop staring. He would look at him forever if he could.
By the time he knows he has been staring too long, it is already too late. He is transfixed, and he curses himself for it. Marcus is already now serving in what must surely be the worst cohort in the empire; he cannot, he will not be one of those lecherous commanders with eyes always and only for their subordinates. He will not let himself become effeminate, consumed by constant passions. He cannot. He must ignore this.
The man blinks at him and abruptly Marcus realizes he still has not acknowledged him. His stunned astonishment starts to transmute into annoyance. The man has to see that Marcus is a centurion. No one is that stupid. Why has he not stood or saluted?
"I am Marcus Flavius Aquila," he tells him, as sternly as he can possibly manage. "The new commander of your century," he adds, in case this fact is not obvious.
The man blinks again.
Marcus takes a deep breath. "Are you going to salute me or not?" The words hiss out from between teeth he is trying not to clench.
At this the man sets his dagger and whetstone aside, locks eyes with Marcus—Marcus tells himself, very firmly, that he does not feel the fire as before—and gives him the most lackadaisical salute that Marcus has seen in his life, fist bouncing lazily off his chest. He doesn't even stand up. By Hercules! And Eonus implied that this was the best man in the century. Perhaps he, too, only thought the man handsome. This is going to be the worst posting of Marcus' life.
"Your name, soldier?" Marcus demands of the Gaul. He has had enough of this. Let him have the man's name, no matter how pretty he is, and he will be up for discipline once Marcus has told the optio about it. That is, if he will even decide to leave disciplinary matters to the optio. Perhaps he will address this matter himself. He is perfectly capable of beating him; it is, after all, why centurions carry vine-staves.
The man smiles, then, and as he does his face transforms into something even more beautiful.
"I am called Esca." His accent is unmistakably, purely British. Not Gaulish. Only British.
Marcus is rendered silent by this man for the second time. He is British and serving here? In Britannia? This cannot be. Everyone knows that auxiliaries recruited in a given province are always sent to serve elsewhere, to lessen the risk of sympathies and rebellions. That is why so many of the other men here are Gauls; they are distant kin to the Britons, yes, but they bear neither love for nor loyalties toward any of the British tribes.
He waits for this man, Esca, to laugh and tell him in a proper Latin accent that it was a joke, to tell him that truly, no, his name is Gaius Valerius, perhaps, or some other good Roman name. Anything. Anything other than this, for this makes no sense.
Esca says nothing else.
He stares stupidly down at Esca when no other explanation is forthcoming, only able to summon up words to describe the patently obvious. "You're British."
Esca tilts his head up at him, wide-eyed and guileless. "Didn't they tell you anything about your command? We're all Britons in this century."
Marcus gapes. "All of you?" This is... impossible. It's a wonder they haven't all revolted.
Esca merely shrugs. "About half of us are from the tribes. The rest are half-Roman, born to British mothers, but close enough to native as makes no difference."
"But— but why?" He can't wrap his mind around it. None of them should be here.
Esca looks at him with lips firmed as though he is trying especially hard to repress the urge to correct his ignorance. "We are spies and scouts, yes? To act as scouts we have to know the territory; to act as spies we have to know the language and customs well enough that we might pass for locals. The easiest way to do that is to have grown up here speaking the language."
It is a dangerous risk Rome is taking, filling a unit with locals—and judging by the upkeep of the place, it is a risk the empire seems to have forgotten it ever took.
"Indeed." And Esca smiles as if he knows exactly how dangerous he is.
"I am told you know the men here well," Marcus tries again. It is a reasonable question for a commander to ask of his subordinate. It is certainly not that he is trying to become more familiar with him.
Esca nods. "I know many of them very well. I have the honor to be decanus of my tent."
Decanus. Marcus tries not to groan. Of course he would be. This means, of course, that Marcus will have to deal with him more than he would with any ordinary soldier, as decani are the leaders of the eight-man squads that are the very smallest unit of the army.
He tears his eyes away from Esca's face, briefly, to look out at the wreck of a camp. "And do you have an actual tent, decane, or is that title only for the convenience of logistics?"
Esca has the grace to look a little embarrassed, but from the way he does it it is as if he is putting on the act of emotion because it is a manner that someone told him Romans would use toward Romans. False, all of it, like an actor and his mask.
"We have had some... supply problems, you might call them, in this century," Esca says, very quietly.
Marcus may as well agree with the obvious. "I see that."
"But," Esca adds, and his voice brightens now, truly brightens, with real pride, "I can show you my men. There and there—" he points to two of the men dicing— "are Sintorix and Paetinus, and over there are Gavo and Ancus and Carantos."
The names are a mix of British and Roman, which is odd, but it goes with what Esca has told him about the century's composition. Marcus frowns and counts on his fingers. "Including you, that only makes six."
Are they that under-strength? The look on his face must be stricken indeed, because Esca corrects himself quickly, as if to reassure him. "No, we have our full eight. The other two are at the infirmary. Vatto has an injured arm, mending well, and Galerus suffers from quartan fever, though they say he is better than he was. This morning I called on the surgeons myself to ask after them."
So here is one man who cares about the men, at least, even if he has not treated Marcus with anything near the degree of deference due a centurion.
"Good." Marcus nods briskly. Enough of this talking just to hear the man talk; he ought to ask him what he came to ask. "I was told you might know the whereabouts of the optio."
He watches as Esca's face turns incredulous, and then, inexplicably, the man bursts into laughter. "Laetinianus? You—" he is still chuckling— "you don't want to see him. Not right now. Maybe tomorrow morning."
Marcus bites back the instinctive dressing-down: don't tell me what I want, soldier. Somehow he knows already it will do no good with this one. Esca will tell him what he wants only in the manner that Esca wants to tell it; he already has the measure of the man. Punishment would not cure him; it would only delay Marcus learning anything.
He forces himself to breathe. "Humor me, soldier. Suppose I wanted to see him now. Do you have any idea where he is?"
"Off drinking," Esca says, shortly. "As he does every day. It's early yet, so he might still be able to walk, but I would not lay money on it." His voice is empty of emotion now.
Marcus cannot think of a thing to say. The optio, a drunkard? He should be on duty. He should be leading the men in exercises. He should— Marcus doesn't even know what to think.
"It's not even the seventh hour," he concludes, looking up at the sky, while inside he is growing more and more wretched. How can the Fates have picked this life for him? What has he done?
Esca shrugs. "Our optio, he starts this duty at dawn. If you still want him, I can fetch him for you, but I can't promise he'll be very helpful. Or sober."
"Do that," Marcus says, curtly. "Now, if you please," he adds, when Esca does not immediately move.
He watches as Esca stands up, unfolding lanky limbs, and he is surprised at the man's height—nearly a full head shorter than Marcus himself. Esca still does not salute.
"And after I have seen the optio in my tent, I would like to see you there," he adds. Maybe even this man can become a proper soldier. Perhaps Marcus can talk obedience into him. "In uniform, decane." He puts the bite of a command into his voice. He hopes the century even has uniforms.
Esca's face hardens then, as if he hates to be commanded, but this order he acknowledges. "I obey. Sir." Esca finally gives him a real salute, and then he turns and lopes off down one of the camp roads.
Esca runs with an elegant, economical grace, holding his limbs just so, every movement perfectly controlled, even at speed. His chest rises and falls as he breathes in rhythm, like a messenger who could keep a pace for miles, like Pheidippides at Marathon. At the same time there is the suggestion of more power there, a man who could scramble through the wilds if he had to. He is beautiful, and he is everything Marcus cannot have.
Marcus reminds himself that the man is insolent and bordering on insubordinate until the heavy, tingling weight in his chest lifts. Then he turns toward his century, to meet more of the men and see what can be done at least with his lurching, unstable tent. He will not receive his new optio only to have his tent collapse on them. It would be ill-omened. On the other hand, it could hardly be much worse than it is.
He discovers, shortly thereafter, that Sintorix and Paetinus in the tent are happy enough to welcome him to the century—and to instantly cease their dice game at his disapproving glare, which already endears them more to him than did their decanus—but that the tent is beyond help without additional equipment. One of the support poles has snapped, accounting for the tent's lopsided nature. Marcus only hopes the rest of the tent does not pick this moment to fall.
It is just after he discovers this fact that the optio comes laboring across the camp, dressed more or less in uniform, and Marcus adds to his tent-related hopes the additional, fervent hope that the optio himself does not fall. For this Laetinianus is leaning heavily on the tall staff that is the mark of an optio, clutching it as though it is the only thing keeping him upright. Perhaps it is. He bears neither weapons nor helm, but he has at least not neglected his armor: the scales of the lorica squamata gleam in the dim sunlight. And he is older than Marcus had thought he would be, forty at least, by Marcus' reckoning—and a man who is still an optio at forty cannot be a very good one.
"Sir," the man says, in a halting, wavering voice, thick with drink, when he has reached the edge of the tent. "Titus Amatius Laetinianus. I was told you sent for me." He grips his staff, taller than he is, even tighter with one hand as he frees the other hand to make an admirable, if uncoordinated, attempt at a salute.
Unlike so many of the others in the century, this man has a proper Roman name, and a Roman cast to his features, dark-haired and olive-skinned like so many of Marcus' countrymen in Etruria. His Latin is flawless, with only the accent of Rome herself. He is the only man Marcus has seen so far in this century who looks like a native Roman, and with a sinking, awful feeling, he knows why the man must be holding this post. Romans promote Romans, after all, and even more so in a unit full of provincials. No wonder Eonus called them a joke; this sort of move would fracture any loyalty the century might feel to their commander.
"I did," says Marcus, stepping closer and then recoiling; the man stinks of wine. "I am Marcus Flavius Aquila, the new centurion."
"Welcome to hell." Laetinianus laughs, then, harshly. "And what did you do to end up here?"
Marcus contemplates the ugly pattern of broken veins across the man's face, reddened by the drink, before he answers. "What makes you think I did anything?" he says, as carefully as he can.
Another hoarse, raucous laugh, as the man wobbles and clutches his staff again. "This is Tartarus, boy. You're here because you've offended the gods. Or the army."
Or both. The thought comes to Marcus, unbidden.
"You're leading half-trained barbarians who will be happy to stab you as easily as they'd stab the enemy. Maybe easier. They won't trust you, and they'll hate you until they die, or you do. Which might be soon. We get the worst of the provisions and the most suicidal of the assignments."
"Is there nothing to be done?" He will not give up on his first command before it has begun, even if it is as hellish as all that. "Is there no way to win the loyalty of the men?"
Laetinianus snorts. "If you survive these furciferes, you can take a transfer." He casts a glance at Marcus that is almost greedy. "They'd let you bring your optio out with you, if you left."
Marcus has the feeling the man expects camaraderie from him because they are both Roman, but something within him stubbornly refuses to give it. Let Laetinianus earn his friendship, if he can.
Marcus gestures to a chair, one that looks reasonably stable. "Sit, and tell me about the activities of this unit."
And Laetinianus does so, embarking on a convoluted, hideous report; it is one of the worst that Marcus has ever heard. Marcus hopes that it is because the man is only drunk and not that he is irredeemably stupid. He rambles from topic to topic, mission to mission, completely uninformative as to tactical information, and all of it is filled with blistering invective for his own men—his own men!—who, to hear him tell it, are always needing to be beaten for this thing or the other thing.
"The worst, though, is this one fellow, Esca," the man confides, leaning in. "He's one of the decani, but to be honest he was only promoted so highly because his tent-mates insisted they would not serve without him to lead them. One of their damned bizarre British ideas, I suppose."
Marcus frowns. "I met him. Seemed... insubordinate. I've already asked him here; I was going to talk to him about discipline."
"Talking?" Laetinianus chuckles. "Oh, talking will do you no good with that one. You need the staff for certain! Even Viridio could barely keep him in line!" He laughs again, more drunkenly still.
"Nonetheless, I will give him the chance to prove himself to me," Marcus says, and as he says it he realizes that the man has not yet once mentioned the former commander, not until now. It is a very strange omission. For that matter, the optio has not mentioned why the men seem to be doing absolutely nothing, as if they have no orders, not even the usual sentry details and such other things as ought to come with camp life.
But before he can say anything, ask anything, Laetinianus rises, looking oddly green. "I will have the men assemble in uniform for you at daybreak tomorrow," he says, hurriedly, as if Marcus has already concluded the interview. "Forgive me, centurion, I must—"
The man's throat works oddly, and then he rises from the tent. Marcus hears the sound of retching from somewhere very nearby.
He learned nothing of use, then. Laetinianus could not even tell him who they had campaigned against most of the time, nor when and how. His optio is indeed a drunkard, possibly incompetent on top of that, hates the men, and is most likely going to be in this very post until someone kills him. Tartarus indeed.
Outside, the wind gusts hard, and his tent lists alarmingly downward. Marcus shuts his eyes and curses.
With his eyes shut, Marcus obviously doesn't see the man approaching, but the cough and the murmured "sir" alert him in to the fact that one of his soldiers has clearly taken the optio's abrupt departure as his cue to enter.
Marcus opens his eyes... and sees Esca. Esca, who has pieced together a uniform after all, stands before him. He looks Esca up and down, telling himself that he is not admiring the man's body, that he only wants to see what uniform Esca has made of the limited supplies they have on the frontier.
He half-feared Esca would show up in segmented-mail, or even worse, a borrowed set of formal parade gear, gilt breastplate and all, made for a man twice his size. Given the optio's choice of dress, a more reasonable expectation would be to see Esca in scaled-mail, as was Laetinianus, and even there it would still be ridiculous, as if Esca were swimming in it. Any of those things would dwarf him.
But Esca has gone for none of these choices, and is wearing—sensibly enough for a scout—lorica hamata, the lightest armor available. It suits him very well indeed. The mail-shirt hangs heavily off his shoulders and falls unimpeded to Esca's bare thighs. Underneath it he is wearing the usual subarmalis, one of the thick, padded and felted tunics to provide additional cushioning from blows and the chafing of the armor. He stands there bare-legged, thankfully having left the braccae off; the very bottom rings of the mail shine dark against pale skin and the only thing covering his calves are the top straps of his boots. Over it all, Marcus is pleased to see, he is even wearing a proper military cloak, one that is not too threadbare. Esca carries a helm tucked under one arm. He watches Marcus watching him, and a small smile plays across his lips.
To make the uniform as complete as possible, Esca is of course armed, and Marcus can only stare, mouth dry, as he takes note of the weaponry at Esca's belts. As is the custom for ordinary soldiers, a dagger hangs from his left side while the gladius is at his right, spanning almost the length of his thigh. The overall effect is deadly—but deadly not in the reassuring way that a centurion should feel proud of, looking at soldiers and knowing that this great and well-trained force is at your command. Esca looks deadly as would a slave who has had the master's weapons pressed into his hands, and an angry slave at that. It is not at all comforting. Marcus remembers, suddenly, the history taught to him of slave rebellions, long ago. And Spartacus, the one who had come the closest to toppling the state, he had been in the auxiliaries too, they said, before he was a slave. Marcus wonders if that man's commanders saw him and felt thus. Here is power, yes, but power he cannot trust.
Esca looks at him, still with that wild predator's smile. "Is my appearance now satisfactory to the centurion?" he murmurs, and somehow manages to make even that question sound insolent. Yes, something deep and forbidden within Marcus says. More than satisfactory.
Esca salutes, but unlike the lazy salute from earlier, this one has too much force in it. It matches the lethal nature of his stance, and all of it makes Marcus uncomfortable. It is not that it might arouse him, not that, never that.
But Esca is his subordinate, Marcus reminds himself, and he will not let this man dictate the terms of their conversation. Marcus raises an unimpressed eyebrow.
"Are you going to put on that helm, soldier, or only carry it?"
"I can if you want," Esca replies evenly, setting the helm on his head and fumbling with the leather thongs at the chin as if they are unfamiliar to him. "It is only that it is wisest in this century not to wear it at all."
What a strange statement. A single blow to the head, even a glancing one, can bring an unhelmeted man down, and it seems a dangerous risk to take. Certainly not a wise thing to do. Despite himself, Marcus finds that he is interested; Esca at least will share information with him, he hopes. "Why is that, then?"
"You know how the chin straps mar the skin of the throat, yes?" Esca asks, running his finger across his neck in illustration. "Men who wear the helmets often, the legionaries, have scars there?"
Marcus nods. He is not quite as callused there yet as some men he has seen, but he can feel the evidence at his own throat. "I have a scar there myself."
"The men of the tribes also know about the scars," Esca says, and gives him a thin, crooked smile that is not at all pleasant. Marcus can only imagine the number of Romans who must have died because of that knowledge. "They are not stupid, and our lack of scarring helps as proof of goodwill. Or feigned goodwill, I should say. I suppose we'll have to keep you away from any missions involving talking." His tone is thoughtful and oddly proprietary.
"You would have to anyway," Marcus points out, and somehow he has fallen into this trap, as if Esca is somehow his superior. "I don't speak British."
"I didn't think you did," Esca replies, and from his tone it is as if he is refraining from adding a sneering Roman to the end. A fine tone to take with his commander, indeed, but Marcus cannot very well beat the man when he hasn't done anything.
"I could learn." The offer tumbles unexpectedly out of Marcus' mouth and hangs between them, a silent offering of peace. He has no idea what prompted him to say that.
Esca smiles, then, a true smile, and he looks away. "You'd never pass for one of us, but it is a kind gesture." Marcus pays attention to the words, so as not to think about how the sight of the smile makes him feel. Not one of the tribesmen or one of the Britons. No, one of us. There are sides, and this man is on the wrong side for that uniform. Marcus finds that his mouth has gone dry again.
Marcus coughs and changes the subject. "Thank you for bringing me the optio."
"Drunk and incompetent as ever?" Esca asks, his voice mild in comparison to his words.
Why is Esca saying these things? Is he trying to goad him? Does he want to be beaten already? Doesn't he know no soldier speaks that way to his commander? Marcus begins to feel his muscles tighten in the slightest stirrings of anger. "That's your optio you're talking about, soldier."
"It's the truth." Esca shrugs, or as much as he can in the armor, looking completely unfazed by the rebuke. "He was drunk when I found him for you and he never knows anything about anything. I'll wager Laetinianus told you nothing of the century and you're still sitting here wondering why you've got no tents and your men have no assigned duties."
He does have a point. An annoying point, but a point nonetheless. Marcus motions him to the same chair the optio occupied. "Why don't you tell me the answers, then?"
Esca's eyebrows rise, surprised, but he sits, weapons swinging at his sides as he moves. "The supplies are easy enough. We're at the end of the supply chain already, at this camp. Being north of your wall does that to you. And the quartermaster is a stingy Greek who thinks that if we're from here already, we won't mind sleeping with a mouthful of the local rain every night. It would be nice if you could get more out of him; Viridio didn't really care enough to try. Even when it was his tent—" he gestures upwards— "and even though this is the usual garrison we're encamped with when we're not on assignment. But mostly we do not use tents in the field, so the state at camp is not quite as important. As for the orders... you seem to be a man who's accustomed to serving with a standard line-of-battle cohort, yes?"
Marcus nods. "You could say that, yes." If by could one meant that all of his hopes, all of his dreams, and most importantly all of his training had gone to being a proper legionary, someone who meets the enemy nobly with a shield-wall and does not stab them from behind as they sleep—then, yes, one could say that.
"Well," Esca says, and he frowns as though he is trying to think of the best way to explain it, "here we're a little different. Our orders pass to us through the garrison, of course, and we come here between missions. We aren't an officially permanent part of the camp, and so they don't treat us like the rest of the soldiers in terms of the watches and so on. And we're usually only here for a day or two at a time. Most of the time we're out and on the run, and we'll rendezvous with the rest of the cohort or send back single messengers to the camp if needed. The current situation is unusual for us. We've been waiting a month for Viridio's replacement, and they weren't going to send us out with just Laetinianus, because even the tribune doesn't hate us that much. Sir."
Marcus stares. It is so different from the normal order of things, where all soldiers in camp are set tasks as a matter of course, and where they pick up the usual daily duties, like serving as sentries. "So while you've been waiting for me you had no mission... and you weren't doing anything?" It is unbelievable.
Esca nods. "The optio, he occasionally sets us make-work orders if he's capable in the morning. You just caught us on an especially bad day. I shouldn't think they'll have real orders made out for you already by tomorrow morning, so they'll probably tell you to use your discretion and find something for us to do, and we can clean up the camp or run miles with the legionaries or whatever pleases you. I should probably tell you—" he gestures down at his outfit— "that we're all very unused to running in armor of any sort, if you want to take that into account. Mostly we don't even take it with us on assignment."
Marcus looks at him, stupefied. "You don't even wear armor?" He feels like somehow he ought to have known that, but then again, he's never been posted anywhere that had to have a unit of spies.
"Centurion Aquila," Esca says, finally using his name, and the way he says it makes it sound like centurion is a nicer word for you idiot, "what exactly do you think the irregulars do?"
Marcus clenches his jaw. This man is more knowledgeable than the optio, but he has to be the most infuriating person Marcus has ever met. And he does not think he can beat obedience into him. "My orders said you were scouts and spies."
"We are," says Esca. "We spend days at a time crouching in the mud watching the Votadini ride past and we note what they say and where they go. Or we meet a trader of the Selgovae on the road and act as though we are his best friend, and has he heard word of the tribes moving that he would give us? And sometimes we might spy Caledonii warriors, far in the north, and we might very carefully slit their throats in the night. But none of these things can we do dressed like Romans, in the armor and habits of Rome. It would be impractical for scouting and have us dead for spying."
That sounds true enough. He just... wishes Esca would not talk to him thus, as though he thinks Marcus is stupid. It is not only the insolence of it. He wants— he wants this man to like him. It is ridiculous.
"I hope that answers your questions," Esca says, flatly, as if he hopes no such thing, and Marcus feels just the smallest bit sadder hearing it.
Then one question does occur to him, the one no one has yet answered: "What about your last centurion?"
"Viridio?" Esca gives a short, sharp laugh, as if he finds the topic both hideous and amusing. "No one here will have anything fond to say about him. Except Laetinianus. He was always fawning over him; he thought it would earn him a transfer."
He hadn't meant to ask about what kind of man Viridio was, but he'll take any answer. "Did he not have the respect of the men?"
Esca laughs again. "Hardly. He thought us all ignorant, savage barbarians and slept with a dagger at hand every night, fearing for his life. That is, when he did not force us into deliberately foolhardy maneuvers intended to kill us. We hated him."
"I hated him very much," Esca says, simply, blandly, as if there is no emotion behind it. "He hated me too, worst of all of us. I think he thought me the most likely to want to kill him."
Esca's mouth firms. "I do not claim to know the affairs of the dead." But there is some story there that Esca knows, and he is not telling it.
"He's dead, then?" Somehow this fact surprises Marcus. "I had thought perhaps he might have been transferred to another cohort—"
Another laugh from Esca, dry and mocking. "No, he's quite dead, believe me."
"How did he die?"
"Oh, on a mission," Esca says, lazily, as if the matter is of no import. "He was stabbed in the back one night. Died instantly."
As Esca's mouth curves into a dangerous, pleased smile, knife-thin, Marcus is abruptly conscious of the fact that this man has come to him with weapons and is still armed. His mouth is dry again and he swallows and swallows and has nothing to say.
"Did you have any other questions, sir?" Esca asks, still with the same terrifying cast to his face. He can't have killed the centurion and still be serving. He would be dead now. Someone would have turned him in. But maybe not in this century, since they are all Britons, since they all hated the man—
"No," Marcus says, quickly, and waves him away. "You may go."
Esca—obediently, this time—gets up, and Marcus watches as the man's hands go reflexively to his hips, stilling the swinging arcs of his weapons as he walks away. This is a man who can handle himself in a fight, fair or unfair, his body says.
Every hour of this day keeps getting worse. Well, Marcus thinks, half-angry and half-afraid, if I am murdered in bed, at least it will be by someone pretty.
The next day Marcus at least has the fortune to arise a little before the morning's trumpet-call. He scrambles into full uniform, trying to fasten his cloak hurriedly and one-handed over his mail-shirt while helping himself to slightly-stale bread left from the previous night. He will have to come up with a better routine later—if in fact they stay at the fort much longer—but for now it will do, as it is only the first full day of his first command. He is gulping down water when the trumpets finally do sound, and he steps out, vine-staff in hand, to see his century sprawled in their hides and cloaks on the ground before him, only beginning to stir at the noise. A couple of men who were in the tents are starting to drag themselves out.
Esca, one of the few awake men on the open ground, gives him a sleepy-eyed look Marcus cannot interpret, pushing himself up and half-out of the blankets with one elbow as Marcus picks his way past him, down smaller streets, and onto the main camp road, the via principalis. As all centurions must, Marcus is heading toward the principia, the very center of camp at which stands the praesidium, there to receive the day's orders from the tribunes, while his men breakfast.
Having arrived, Marcus steps easily into the back of the formation with the other centurions of the tenth auxiliary cohort, next to Eonus. His body falls reflexively into a stance of attention as his new tribune paces before them.
The tribune is an older man, with a scowling, hawk-like brow, who carries himself with all the authority one would expect from a man of such a rank. Marcus recalls his orders only dimly; he thinks the man's name might be Suilius.
"Scouts," he says, finally, as he comes around to address the tenth, "I have no specific orders for you today, but I expect that there will be need for you shortly. In the meantime I suggest that you put your men through their paces, have them fight, or do whatever you need to that you might ensure their field readiness. You may run with the legion, morning or afternoon as you prefer. The new centurion, though—" and here he stops in front of Marcus— "might take the time first to become accustomed to his command, yes?"
Marcus salutes, fist to chest. "As the tribune wills it."
He watches as the man's face crinkles in something that might equally be confusion or recognition. "Remind me of your name, centurion."
Marcus will have pride in his name, even if no one else will. "Marcus Flavius Aquila, sir."
"Aquila?" The tribune frowns more. "The name seems familiar. Did you perhaps have a relative who served in Britannia, years ago?"
By Hercules, now the man will have the whole sordid affair out of him—and at an assembly, no less, so now all the cohorts here will know in short order. This day is not going to go any better than yesterday. Still, he cannot fail to answer a tribune's question. Marcus straightens up, as tall as he can manage. "Yes, sir. My father was primus pilus of the Ninth Legion."
Just as he had thought, the man's face turns to a hideous mix of horror and sympathy, and he will not have sympathy for this, he will not. It is bad enough knowing that his father marched five thousand into Caledonia and never returned; it is worse having to live with the shame of it.
"You look very like him," Suilius says, more quietly now, and seems to be at a loss for words. If his father had been primus pilus in any other legion, it would be appropriate to compare him favorably to his father, or to wish him such good fortune to be promoted so highly, but here it is unthinkably ghastly. The tribune, visibly unsettled, opts for the smallest possible wish. "Luck to you, Aquila, and may the gods bless you."
Marcus salutes again, keeping his face perfectly still.
When the assembly finally breaks up, he mumbles muted replies even he doesn't remember to Eonus' startled "You're one of those Aquilae?" Now everyone will know why he is here. It is like an exile for something he himself never did. He half-wishes Rome had sent him to Tomis and been done with him. But they did not, and so he will make the best of this, he thinks, as he walks the long road back to the walls.
Meeting over, it is time to see his men, now that they have breakfasted, and he is surprised when he comes upon their area of the camp. Laetinianus, carrying his staff, wearing an optio's tufted helm with his uniform, and looking perfectly sober, has chivvied the men into an arrangement resembling proper lines, and they stand—most of them in uniform, even—at something very much like attention. He cannot help but smile a little as he sees it from afar. Perhaps they are not so worthless as he has been told.
The men stand in ten lines, arranged by squad, a decanus heading each line. Most of the men stare blankly ahead; Esca tilts his head up almost defiantly and Marcus has to look away. He does not know what is in his eyes, but he is a man who has just been reminded of his failings and he does not want Esca—for some reason, Esca more than any other of them—to see that.
He supposes he ought to make some sort of speech, on the occasion of his new command; he remembers his own previous centurions doing such things, and curses the fact that he did not think to pay attention then to what they might have said. It hardly seemed important to him at the time. He suspects they were probably reminding him of his duty to the army, to the state. Well, so, he has no plan; nonetheless, he can surely manage to tell them something.
"My name is Marcus Flavius Aquila," he calls out, pacing the heads of the columns, "and I am your new centurion." He nearly expects to see the men recoil in remembered disgrace, as did the tribune, but none of these men move. Not a flicker. They do not know him. Of course they do not, he realizes—they are Britons all, why would they? Even if they knew of the Ninth, they surely could not name its men. Something inside him almost wants to smile. Perhaps commanding a band of wild Britons has its benefits. A fresh start, at least within the century.
He does not know where the words come from, but come they do, and as he opens his mouth Marcus finds that a speech spills from him anyway. "I know very little about the last man to hold this post, but I suspect that if he made speeches of this sort at all, they would be to remind you firmly of your loyalty to Rome, and then to insult you by suggesting you had none because you were not Romans, and no honor besides." Startled, nervous grins begin to break out on a few faces; this is not the speech they expected. Good. Laetinianus shifts anxiously and stamps his staff. This is not the side he wants Marcus to take; that much he made clear at their meeting yesterday.
"I will admit," Marcus continues, oddly compelled to honesty, "that this posting was a surprise to me, when I found that it was intended to dishonor me." He sees the men nod. They aren't stupid; they know their reputation, he is certain. "But I will not let it be a disgrace to me, and I will strive not to be a disgrace to you. I will assume, then, that no matter the reasons that led you to join, that you did so with your eyes open to what it means to be a soldier, to serve Rome, and I will not question that without need. I have never served with scouts, and I have never served in Britannia, so the land and the duties are unfamiliar to me—" he admits this willingly, oh, the strangeness of it— "and I ask for your help, and your patience, as you serve with the skill I know you are capable of. And also—" he allows himself a smile— "I would very much appreciate it if no one stabbed me in the back while I slept."
There is some laughter at that—Esca, curiously, is not one of the laughing men—and he lets the smile fall away. "As for orders," he says, more sternly, "I was told to prepare you for an upcoming mission, but I have not been told what that would entail. Perhaps, for the morning—" he gropes about for a quick plan— "you could wrestle? Surely you need some sort of fighting practice. Don't break anything, eh?"
He waves his hand, and they are dismissed.
The men smile then, as though he has allowed them some sort of extravagant luxury, when it is only wrestling. How has Viridio treated them? The smiles, though are a little strained, as if they do not trust him. Well. He would not trust him, either, if what Esca said was true (and why, he wonders suddenly, did he believe the man absolutely, without question?) about Viridio. And he has made Laetinianus even more anxious.
"You can't be planning to give them free rein," Laetinianus says under his breath, coming toward him. "By Pollux, you cannot command them as you would Romans! You cannot merely assume their loyalty! They're savages, the lot of them, they'll go mad, they'll—"
"They're my soldiers," Marcus interrupts, "and I'll command them as I like."
Laetinanus abruptly shuts his mouth, nostrils flaring. "Sir," he says, finally, in a tone that only barely suggests respect. "Very good."
Marcus suddenly has an idea. A brilliant, brilliant idea.
"Before you begin," he says to the men, beginning to form rings already, "could I borrow a few of you? You three, there—" he gestures to the three tallest, heaviest men in the century— "you will do nicely."
"What are you doing?" Laetinianus asks this practically loud enough for the entire century to hear.
Marcus stares. "I'm getting tents. Enough for the entire century, because this is a disgrace I can remedy." He points at the three men behind him. "They're going to help me carry them."
His optio looks completely taken aback. "There are no tents to give you— the quartermaster won't—"
"I'm getting tents," Marcus repeats.
Then, only then, does Esca turn and smile at him. Something in Marcus' heart lifts, and he tells himself this, all of this, the freedom and the largesse alike, is for the entire century. Not only for Esca, and especially not for Esca's smile. He is not certain whether he believes himself, but perhaps the thing will become true the more he says it.
The quartermaster's name is Dikaiopolis, and, exactly as described, he is a stingy Greek. Oh, there is more to him than that, of course; he is balding, and his uniform's tunic is running ragged around the neckline, as though he cannot spare a better one for himself. He glares at Marcus, in fact, as though he cannot spare one of anything to anyone for any reason at all.
"There are no ready tents," the man says, sounding very angry with Marcus just for having asked. "None. Oh, I could put in for some, certainly, and perhaps in a month the supply train might come back, but with anything of use or value having been commandeered by those sluggards on the wall who cannot be bothered to make their own requests. And once it arrives, if you are not quick about it, another man will take your tents before you have even heard word of the supplies' arrival. We make do with what we have, centurion. I understand you are new here—"
Marcus holds up his hands in supplication. "I do not mean to put impossible tasks on you," he says, hoping he sounds at least comforting. "And we certainly do not need fine new work requisitioned. I only thought—" the idea occurs to him as he talks— "that if you had leftover scraps, things that have not been mended yet, or thought to be past mending, that I might have some of that."
Dikaiopolis blinks, seemingly rendered mute by this most unusual request. "I—" he stops, then tries again. "Of course there is leather. But none of it is sized for a tent, and the scraps that once used to be tents will need to be sewn."
"Perfect," Marcus says. "What can I have? Goat-hide? Heavy thread and needles? Poles?"
The quartermaster shrugs as if to say all of it.
And so he takes all of it. The three men Marcus picked—Aratus, Gryllus, and Crimos, their names turn out to be—carry the bulky bundles with ease, and Marcus feels his chest beginning to lighten in a strange sort of pride as they make their way back. He may now command the lowest century of the lowest cohort, but they will have proper supplies. He will do right by them.
Back at his area of the camp now, he sees that the men have indeed taken to wrestling; many of them form a loose circle with two men in the center, too far away to see properly. He will just wait until this bout is over before informing them of the tents; it is the courteous thing to do. Marcus motions his three soldiers to put down their burdens, and he steps even closer to watch. One man is far smaller than the other—how can this match be a fair one?—and they both seem to hold themselves with a certain wariness.
The nearer he gets to the fighting men, the odder it gets. Something about their motion is wrong, but he cannot quite figure out how. They do not close as wrestlers do, each seeking to throw their weight on top of the other, but instead they remain apart, circling, looking for an opening and unwilling to commit to an attack, lest they be injured. It is very like a knife-fight, he thinks, and then he sees the unexpected glint of metal in one man's hand. No—it is a knife-fight.
"I believe I said wrestling," Marcus murmurs to no one in particular, moving in still closer. "I don't recall mentioning daggers."
The two men continue to circle, and he sees now that his imposition of uniforms only lasted as long as the assembly, for the two fighters are wearing only braccae and boots, both bare to the waist. They're fighting until first blood, he guesses; that is easier for the crowd to see against bare skin.
"I told you you cannot treat them as Romans," Laetinianus grumbles from somewhere behind him. "They wrestled for a few falls and grew bored, and out came the weapons."
Marcus turns and, in the carefully-calculated arch tone of a superior, asks, "And you did not stop them?"
Laetinianus reddens and says nothing.
Well, he will certainly not distract men with knives. He only hopes neither of them will come to harm from it, for if they are bad fighters mistakes are all too easy.
Crimos steps up next to him, eyes flickering over to him briefly, away from the fight. The man must have divined something of Marcus' thoughts from his expression, for he smiles a reassuring smile. "Relax, sir. Esca and Igennus are both very skilled with daggers. They're the best in the century. No one's getting hurt."
Though Marcus knows the words are intended to calm him, they do the opposite. That's Esca out there? Already insubordinate, and now fighting? Is Esca doing this to irritate him? To test his limits? To see what he can get away with before Marcus will have to beat him?
Marcus moves even closer, to the very innermost ring of men watching the fight, and he can finally see that, yes, the smaller of the two fighters is Esca. Esca fights with a pure, natural grace, like that of his running earlier, weaving easily in and out of Igennus' reach in a deadly dance, sliding in for his own feints before darting away. He is well-built for this sort of fighting, too; Marcus feels his resolve not to lust after the man begin to crumble, seeing Esca's body displayed like this, almost as a spectacle of the arena, practically an invitation toward wanton gaze. Esca is wiry and light, just the sort of shape that pleases Marcus most, and he cannot help but follow with his eyes the line of Esca's hips, the way the muscle traces down next to his hipbone just so, and he can easily imagine following it, with his eyes, with his hands, down underneath the thin braccae—
He is staring. This man is his subordinate. He cannot. He will not. It is only lust, a passing fancy, one that will surely leave him soon enough. Marcus swallows and focuses his attention properly on the fight itself.
And it is over sooner than he thinks. The taller one, Igennus, leaves an opening at his side and Esca rushes him. His precise movements are obscured by his body, but the knife slides out of Igennus' hand, across the dirt, and then Esca somehow has the man pinned, sitting on him, and from the way his arm is positioned he is surely holding the dagger at Igennus' throat. Igennus flexes against him once, then yields down into the earth, the familiar language of the defeated.
There are pleased looks all around the ring, and Igennus and Esca come to their feet and finally seem to notice that their commander has been watching all this time. What shall he say? Shall he punish them already for this? No, he thinks, he cannot gain the men's trust if he is shown to be that rigid and humorless already. A reminder, then, is best. And he is not looking, oh, he is not noticing at all the way Esca is looking at him, smiling a victor's smile, panting, skin flushed from the exertion, exhilarated—
"That was well-fought," Marcus says, pitched loudly enough for the century to hear, and the men all turn to listen. "Only next time, ask before you bring out the daggers."
Damn him, but Esca does not look even a little chastened. Marcus continues. "And I have begged material from the quartermaster, scraps of tents; he says we must sew them back together ourselves." He gestures, then, to the pile of fabric and poles. "They will be worn, but they will be ours."
The men smile, and the glint in Esca's eyes changes to something that might, perhaps, be approval. Marcus tells himself this does not matter to him.
They spend the rest of the day setting the camp to rights, and Marcus only has to berate a few men who think sewing might be women's work—"you should be glad you were not taken into the army as sailors," he tells them, "for you would do this every day, with the canvas sails, in the cold and rain besides"—and that quiets them quickly enough. Everyone else is more than happy to work needles through leather for the gain of having tents. A brighter group (and of course, Marcus realizes as he watches, this is Esca's squad) starts by taking down one of the existing tents to get the lay of the pattern. Two of them even know how to sew a waterproof tent-seam; they, skilled at this task, are willing to help the others.
Toward the end of the day, when all but one of the new tents are up, Marcus begs help for his. And so Carantos, a huge, burly Briton from Esca's squad, comes in, and together they push in a new, unbroken pole, and they ease out the old one. His tent finally stops tilting.
"Well," Marcus says, satisfied, "that's almost the end of it. If the last squad will get theirs up, then we can say we are indeed a properly-equipped century, each tent with a tent."
Carantos wipes the back of his hand on his forehead and looks at Marcus nervously, as though he is not quite sure that this is not some kind of joke and Marcus will begin beating them next. "Camulorix' squad will manage," he says, and his accent is thick, thicker than Esca's. "And, sir, if I can say—"
Marcus gestures at him to go on.
Carantos shifts from foot to foot. "We wanted to thank you for caring, sir. Some of us, at least. It might take a while for everyone to—"
"I understand." He allows himself a smile. "Thank you, soldier."
That night, Marcus sleeps well in his mended tent, curled up on the small pallet that is his, and dreams it is Esca who has come to thank him.
The next several days pass similarly to the first, the way camp life often does. Marcus does send his century on morning runs with the legionaries, even in armor, and in the afternoon the men are checking and mending their gear, in readiness for their real next assignment, wandering in and out of the common areas of Marcus' tent (for it is their tent too), laughing and talking sometimes in British, sometimes in Latin. Marcus pulls more and more scrolls out of scroll-cases, reading through old reports—whoever Viridio's scribe was, his hand was execrable—hardly looking up most of the time. He stares at maps far into the night, reading by flickering lamp-light, squinting until his eyes burn, as if he can learn the lay of the land by seeing it drawn on papyrus.
Finally—it seems like hardly any time has passed at all, but when Marcus takes stock of it he realizes it was from the Nones to the Ides—one morning Suilius has real orders for him. He scrawls them down on wax to pass back to Laetinianus, who should really be attending morning assembly with him to write it down, but Laetinianus is never awake for it. These orders sound very similar to some of the previous orders he has been reading about: the Votadini, who usually live much further to the east, are starting to move in this direction, skirting the edges of this land, which is the territory of the Selgovae. Marcus' century is to track their movements without being seen, observe, and report whether they seem to be directly threatening any Roman-held areas. This seems to Marcus like a mission that is simple enough, especially as it requires no open contact with the enemy. Good. It will be a good first mission. He can do this.
Back in the sixth century's part of the camp, he shakes Laetinianus awake—he has somehow missed breakfast with the rest of the century, and they did not see fit to wake him—and he is thankful that the man was asleep and not drunk already, as he passes him the folded tablet. The rest of the century has taken this opportunity to sit around idly, without him awake to order them about. Marcus tries out a stern glare in their direction as Laetinianus grumbles sleepily.
"Optio," he says quietly, in Laetinianus' ear. "The day's orders."
Laetinianus comes fully awake then, finally, flipping the tablet open and mouthing the words to himself. Then he stands up, optio's staff next to him—is he ever without it?—and announces the contents to the men.
"Orders!" he calls out. "We go east to keep watch on the Votadini. Short duration, pack light. Decani, ready your squads!"
And as Marcus watches in a stunned sort of appreciation, Esca, the nearest decanus, begins giving his men a vast and precise set of orders, the scope and details of which were not suggested to Marcus in any of the reports.
"Right," Esca snaps out, and six men—for the unfortunate Vatto's arm is still healing—regard him with instant respect. "Short mission, you know the routine. No uniforms, no armor, no shields. Dress like a local. Light gear, which means satchels and not furcae, so just cloaks for bedrolls, though wrap an extra hide round your gear if you think you'll need it at night. Nothing longer than daggers, and nothing—" he pauses to glare at one of them— "nothing that looks Roman. This means no gladii—yes, you, Ancus! And no Roman daggers! Bows only if you want to carry them the whole way; don't come whining to me when your quiver's too heavy. Mess gear! Sintorix, bring your own food this time because I'm not sharing my bucellatum again. If you have to talk to someone who doesn't want to kill you, today you'll be from the Novantae, so try to sound like it, eh?" He says some words in British, and a few men laugh, so Marcus gathers he must have said them with some peculiar accent. "We'll split up in the field. Get your gear and I'll be by to check you."
Esca dismisses them with a curt jerk of his head, and Marcus is still staring at him in awe. Marcus' own orders mentioned none of these fine details, but he can see, now that Esca has said them, how necessary they must be to the squad's success.
"Yes?" Esca asks, seeing him staring. The expression on his face must be strange indeed. "Did I give some order not to your liking?"
"No," Marcus assures him. "It is only that I have never served with scouts, so I do not know how any of these small details go. I suppose it would be wise for me to follow these orders as well?"
The corners of Esca's mouth twitch a little, and something inside Marcus glows warm. "I would if I were you, excepting the advice about the accent. I think, as I said, it would be wiser if you stayed silent."
"I can do that," he promises. The cloak and field rations, those are easy, since he has those. He does own braccae, for when the weather gets colder, later in the year; he is not so obstinately Roman that he would never wear them at all, but he supposes he can begin wearing them now. The weapons, now, those are a problem. He frowns. Oh, he has a fine dagger, but it is Roman through and through, adorned in silvered designs of the she-wolf with the twins Romulus and Remus on hilt and scabbard, given him by his aunt's new husband when he turned eighteen and joined the army, as a grudging recognition of his service. It will not do. No Briton—nor anyone who is pretending to be a Briton—would ever carry it.
Esca must notice the worried nature of his thoughts on his face, for Esca's own face shifts into a kind of concern. "Is there a problem?"
"It is only that my weapons are all Roman," Marcus says, feeling his skin grow hot in embarrassment. He wants to be prepared and confident before this man. "I do not have a suitable dagger I could take." As he says it the thought drifts idly through his head of that statement of Plato's that he learned as a boy, the one that gave rise to the Sacred Band, that the best army would be pairs of lovers, for they would fight harder that the one might not shame himself before the other. Perhaps there was truth there, since here he is, already feeling shame about his lack of readiness, before this man who should mean no more than any other soldier. It will pass, he tells himself. It is only a base, physical desire. It must pass.
Esca stares at him for a long time, as if the words he has heard are somehow entirely different than what Marcus said, a difficult question for which he needs to work out the answer.
"Wait here," Esca says, and his voice is carefully, strangely empty of emotion. "I have another dagger."
So Marcus waits as Esca disappears into one of the tents, and comes back holding a small dagger. The dagger is clearly British in nature and of very good make, worked all over with twining patterns. Esca unsheathes it just a little to show him the sharpness and quality of the blade before pressing it into his hands. He does not meet Marcus' eyes.
"Thank you." It is the polite thing to say, after all.
Abruptly, Esca's hands close over his, pushing his fingers around the dagger so that he grips it tightly. Esca's fingers are warm and slightly callused, and he swallows hard to try not to think about the feel of them. It is the first time Esca has touched him.
"Guard it with your life, Aquila," Esca says, meeting his eyes now, and his words are rough, voice hoarse, as though he is fighting back some strong emotion. "If it is lost, I— I cannot get another like it."
It seems a very strange request for Esca to make, and a strange way to act, especially as he's giving this to him of his own free will. Perhaps the dagger is the prized work of some long-dead master weapon-smith? It does not make sense. But it is what Esca has asked of him, and he will honor it.
Marcus nods. "I will keep it safe for you."
Esca opens his mouth again then and closes it after a second or two, as if he wanted to say something else in return. But he says nothing, drops his hands, and turns instead to check on his men. Marcus clutches the dagger tighter and can only wonder what that was about.
The century has barely marched away from the fort, into the woods to the east, when Marcus realizes that none of the maps have prepared him for the reality of it. Already the land is entirely unfamiliar. He nods authoritatively a few times and tries to look as though he knows what he is doing. Laetinianus, after appealing quietly to him for permission, splits up the men by squads, and he arranges search directions and a rendezvous point that—to judge by the looks on everyone's faces—is familiar to them. Perhaps the optio is not completely useless, after all. Marcus trusts that he himself will learn this terrain soon enough, to be able to give the same orders.
Then Laetinianus stands by Camulorix' squad, and Marcus realizes that he, too, should pick a squad to attend now, as they are already splitting up.
"Well, sir?" Laetinianus stamps his staff—his very Roman optio's staff, because he has in no way considered Esca's, or any other of the Britons', suggestions—and asks, "Shall we head out? Who will you accompany? Me?"
He ought to accompany Laetinianus; is it not the sensible thing for a centurion and his second-in-command to stay together? That way he can delegate effectively to the man. But then why would he offer him the choice? Marcus opens his mouth, about to say that, certainly, he will go with his optio, when someone behind him curls an almost-possessive hand on his shoulder.
"I'll take him." The voice rings out, confident and loud, and Marcus turns to see that it is Esca.
It surprises him that Esca would seek out his company; it surprises him, in fact, into saying nothing, so that even the extraordinarily brazen Esca drops his hand and hedges the rest of his reply. Marcus' face is still with astonishment, likely unreadable, and Esca takes it for a negative.
"That is," Esca adds, "if the centurion wishes."
Oh, how he wishes. He allows himself the quick luxury of filling in the rest of the sentence with words he is positive the man will never say or intend toward him. Marcus nods firmly. "That will be acceptable."
He almost thinks he sees Esca smile, but no, it must be some trick of the light playing through the trees.
Laetinianus looks at him as though he is insane. Understandable, given the things he's said about Esca. "Very well, sir," he says, not even bothering to make it sound as though he approves of this plan. And then, to the century: "Is everyone ready?"
No one says otherwise, and so Marcus calls the command. "Split up by squad, and good fortune to you."
Marcus adjusts his satchel across his back—how odd to carry it by itself and not on a furca—to position it better under the heavy traveling cloak. With these clothes, especially the braccae, he fancies he looks very much like a Briton indeed, though he feels silly and effeminate in the long-sleeved tunic. The fabric lies unfamiliarly and heavily on Marcus' arms and he picks self-consciously at the cuffs against his wrists, even though no one Roman is around to disapprove of his attire. Esca suggested the outfit before they left; it has the additional effect of covering up the lack of tattoos on Marcus' body. Un-inked skin, he has gathered, would be very unusual for the sort of man he is pretending to be. It is very odd, this business of spying. He follows the rest of Esca's squad into the forest and wonders why the man picked him.
He decides he has to ask, and catches up with Esca at the rear of the group, who is loping along, nimbly making his way over twisted tree limbs, and generally making the whole thing look easy. Marcus nearly trips on a rock. "I was going to go with the optio."
Esca doesn't look at him, only keeps walking. "I know you were."
"Is there a reason I shouldn't?"
Esca turns to him and laughs at that, a real laugh, and, oh, he should be annoyed that the man is mocking his superiors, but something about the joy of the sound pleases him beyond the telling of it. "I thought you might not want to die, Aquila, seeing as how you explained that you knew nothing of scouting."
"And Laetinianus knows nothing?" Somehow this should not surprise him.
Esca snorts. "He is bringing Roman gear on a spying mission. He always does. Usually we get Camulorix to take care of him like he thinks he's in charge here and prevent him from getting anyone else killed. You're safer with me."
Marcus has to raise an eyebrow, even though Esca can't see it. "How do I know you won't get me killed?" Like you might have killed your last centurion, he wants to add.
In front of him, Esca's shoulders move in a shrug, and he says, completely blandly, "You don't, but I don't hate you yet, sir, so your chances are fairly good. I like to keep my options open, though." He suspects Esca is smiling that awful smile again.
If this is British humor, Marcus wants no part of it. "Thank you, decane." He allows iciness to pervade his voice; perhaps this will dissuade him.
This, of course, has no effect on Esca, who gives an exaggerated sigh. His head shakes like he's smiling ruefully, but he doesn't turn, so Marcus can't be sure. "Relax, Aquila. I'm the best in your century." He says this without any hint of bravado, as another man might have; he says it simply, as though this is the absolute truth. "You'll be fine. I'll show you what you need to know. For now, just watch where you're walking."
Not more than an hour or two later, slogging uphill, when the forest is empty of all but animals and the noise of the other squads has disappeared into the distance, Esca elects to slow the squad's pace to something more leisurely, and then finally to halt them. At some signal Marcus doesn't quite see, they all stop and come to a semicircle within a small clearing.
"All right," Esca says, quietly, but with a note of command in his voice. "My best guess is the Votadini trail is on the other side of this valley, and then the hill after that—you know the one—and if they're cutting this way it will take them a while. Pair up and take positions, but track all the way there in case I'm wrong. Now the waiting starts. I'll be at the top of the ridge, the usual place; check in on the usual schedule. That's today's plan. Keep cover."
He eyes Marcus as if waiting for the order to be countermanded, but Marcus just nods, and the men all seem to melt silently away into the forest, leaving only him and Esca alone in the glade.
"You keep acting," Marcus says, at last, "as if you expect me to tell your men otherwise."
Esca looks at him almost helplessly, as though he thinks there is some obvious answer that Marcus ought to know. "You're my commanding officer, sir," he says, quietly, like there is finally some discipline in him after all. "And we are yours, to order as you wish."
"And I already told you," Marcus replies, "that I am new to this business of commanding scouts, and for now will yield to you until I can give what I think to be the best orders. Your orders seemed perfectly sensible to me. Do you believe that I will countermand them just because I can?" As he says it he realizes that, yes, this must exactly be what Esca believes, although he is not sure why.
"Viridio did," Esca says, darkly. Some memory has been stirred up here. "Laetinianus does. You're all—" He breaks off, unwilling to go this far, but Marcus begins to see; it is the company Esca has grouped him with.
"Have you ever had a commander who wasn't a native Roman?" he asks, carefully, and Esca's face tenses and then goes blank. This is the reason, he knows.
Esca's features suddenly twist into something ugly and mocking. "You mean you hadn't guessed it the day you came, centurion? Your superiors want someone who will keep us in line, held tightly. They regret ever recruiting any of us. And they certainly would not trust us to give orders. To them we Britons are no better than wild animals. Worse than animals, even, for at least an animal can be trained, and they say we cannot be; they say they chain us back that they might point us at the enemy and let go. I am sure Laetinianus has warned you about us. I have heard him telling you so."
Marcus is hot with anger now, and he doesn't even know why. Is he mad at his own commanders, or at Esca for instantly judging him and assuming the worst? Which is more awful, to him? He does not know.
"You are a soldier of Rome," Marcus says, fiercely, "and if you say you swore in your heart to serve her, I will treat you no differently than any other man I have served with. The same goes for the rest of the men. I care not about who you were before you joined, or where you are from; it is no business of mine. I understand others may have hated you, Esca, but I swear I am not as they are."
Esca's look is one of complete disbelief, returning the same anger Marcus has given him. Then, suddenly, the man makes a decision: the disbelief turns into a half-smile followed by a real salute. "Sir."
Marcus smiles back, only a little. It is a tentative amount of trust, and he will have to prove his words with actions, but he will take it. "It's all right, decane," he says. "Now, show me where we are going."
"Up there." Esca turns, pointing, and they head off.
It is a good thing that Esca has taken him on as a pupil, of a sort, Marcus discovers a short time later—for scouting, much like legionary training, is the kind of thing that requires precise training to execute precise movements. And neither of those does he have yet, at least as far as Esca is concerned. Which is what he finds out, after an hour of trying to stay perfectly still amidst dense bushes next to some broken bits of grass at the top of a ridge that Esca insists is a trail, as unlikely as that sounds to him.
He has given Esca the lead here, temporarily; he has to respect that.
"Ow." His legs are cramping again, and while he knows he should not move he has to. He has to, his body tells him, otherwise it feels as though he will never move again. So he slides his legs out behind him on the ground, hissing with renewed pain as the unused muscles protest. And to think he'd always thought the scouting life was soft, with all that sitting around. "This hurts."
"Be still. And if you're not going to be still, at least be silent." Esca's breath on his ear has just enough sound in it for him to hear, so precisely has he pitched it. Marcus does not bother turning his head; he wouldn't be able to see much of the man in this dimness, and besides, he should not move any more. He has learned this much, at least.
So he shuts his mouth and does not give Esca a piece of his irritated mind; out of the corner of his eye, he thinks he sees Esca's crooked smile.
There is no sign of any life on the trail for the rest of the day, but Marcus knows this is to be a lesson for him in all the ways of scouting whether or not the enemy is there, and so he does not complain of it. It would be ridiculous, anyway, to complain to his subordinate—it is not as if Esca is somehow making him do this. It is not as if Esca is really in command.
At twilight Gavo, Galerus and Carantos show up, stepping out from the shadows as quickly and silently as they disappeared earlier. Marcus does not even notice them until Carantos touches his leg, which makes him startle so hard he slides down the hillside and out of the bushes, scraping his skin as he goes, and he has his—or rather, Esca's—dagger half-drawn before he recognizes them. He hopes the look on Esca's face is not suppressed laughter, but he thinks it might be.
Esca smiles at him, more kindly now, touching his shoulder, and with a few significant glances at him and then back at the forest Marcus understands. They are to retreat to where they can speak aloud, beyond where anyone on this trail could hear them.
"News?" Esca asks, once the shadows of the trees have covered them and Marcus can no longer see the trail.
Galerus' gaze fixes on Marcus as he makes his report, as is proper, and he salutes and does all the respectful things, but as Marcus watches he is taking his cues from Esca's slight nods rather than Marcus'. This is only to be expected, Marcus thinks; Galerus has been reporting to Esca far longer than to Marcus. But still, it makes him uncomfortable. Carantos is more polite, friendlier; he has seemed the most welcoming man of the squad, so far. But neither of them have seen anything. Gavo mumbles something that isn't even Latin.
Esca eyes Marcus in response to Marcus' raised eyebrow. "He hasn't seen anything. And he does not speak Latin very well."
Marcus tries not to sigh. "Can you at least have him salute?"
Esca's face is dubious, but he says a few words in British, and Gavo does at least attempt a salute.
"Thank him for me."
Esca does—or at least he hopes that's what Esca does—and Gavo nods. He looks every inch the Briton, and hardly like anyone who would be taking orders from Marcus, even if he did understand Latin. Well. It will change soon. He hopes it will, at least.
"You can all go for the night," Marcus says, and then he thinks to look at Esca. "Unless there's some reason to stay here." But Esca shakes his head.
Then the three disappear, and now it is him and Esca again. A feeling he can't quite name, half-strange, half-familiar, runs through him and makes him shiver, and it is not the cold British night. It is only the two of them. Anything could happen. He could— he could— no. He doesn't let himself get as far as imagining anything. He must refuse this. All of this.
"We should eat and bed down, I suppose," Marcus says, feeling alone in the darkness. "Shall I make a fire?"
What he can make out of Esca's face is absolutely incredulous, and Esca makes a noise that might have been a strangled laugh, and then there are a few heavy breaths while the man composes himself. "No, sir," he says finally. "No fire."
"Oh." Marcus is grateful for the dark; Esca cannot see his face burning. Of course they do not want a fire, he realizes, only too late; it is as good as telling their quarry where they are.
So they eat tasteless bucellatum silently until Esca tilts his head over at him. "Do you want first watch of the Votadini trail, or shall I?"
"I'll take it," Marcus says, gratefully, as Esca nods and curls up in his cloak. Esca, who doesn't like him, who thinks him stupid, turns over and ignores him, and Marcus doesn't care, he doesn't. It will be easier this way, too, if Esca hates him. Something in Marcus' chest knots and twists and does not loosen even through the first watch of the night.
Esca is of course awake before him, having taken sentry duty for the fourth watch, and when Marcus opens his eyes Esca is standing above him.
"What do you know about tracking or moving silently?"
Marcus blinks his bleary eyes. "I— very little."
"I thought as much," Esca says, handing him more bucellatum and water as he sits up. "Gavo will hold the position we were holding for the day, as I don't think the Votadini will arrive until at least tomorrow, and I'll show you how not to get yourself killed." He smiles, then seems to remember his rank then and adds, "If this is acceptable, sir."
"You do like me," Marcus says, still sleep-fogged, too free with his tongue, and then realizes what he has just inadvertently said. Oh, that was in no way appropriate.
But Esca laughs, and Marcus thanks the gods that Esca took it as a joke. "I said I hadn't decided yet."
"Will you let me know when you do?" Marcus tries to force himself into making more of a jest of it, so that Esca will not figure it out. "I would tire quickly of guarding my back from you every night for the rest of this command."
Esca nods and then bites his lip, face suddenly gone serious. "I didn't kill Viridio. None of us did. It was enemy action. I just— wanted you to know that. Even if I did happen to hate you as much, I wouldn't—"
"I understand," Marcus cuts in, and is suddenly, pathetically grateful that Esca has told him this. It is a sign of trust, in a way. A very, very small one.
It turns out to be a sign that he is even more grateful for after a few hours have passed, because clinging to the idea that Esca likes him in even some small way and is doing this because he doesn't want him dead is the only thing keeping him from turning on Esca and all his almost-mocking almost-insolence in a rage.
Marcus, as he soon discovers about himself, cannot follow a trail, and worse, can hardly disguise his.
"Again," Esca snaps out, coming up on Marcus where he is standing behind a tree he would have sworn he left no track to, even after doubling back through a stream, and Marcus only barely keeps himself from punching Esca in the face.
"What did I do?"
Esca points at fallen leaves that look no different to any other, and at twigs that to Marcus' eye are only twigs. "That. And if you're going to run through the water, don't come out of it onto the driest place on the riverbank. That was obvious."
They try it again, and again, and after the third time Marcus tries tracking Esca, but gives up an hour later when Esca jumps out of a tree he'd never considered that anyone could climb and taps him on the shoulder.
"All right," Esca says, seeming to read the look of anger on Marcus' face as though it is some measure of his competence as an instructor. "I think it is time to try something else. How are you with a bow?"
Marcus smiles at this, his ire draining, relieved to be back on ground that is at least somewhat familiar. He had learned to shoot when he joined the army, though never quite as seriously as he took his other weapons-work. His first centurion had been of the opinion that all of his men should be able to do a bit of everything, so Marcus had brought his skills up to a level he considered passable, with the help of the local cohort of Syrian archers. He thinks they were Syrians; they had been from far to the east. Maybe farther than Syria. It had been good enough for the centurion, at least. Certainly it would be good enough for Esca.
"How good do I need to be?" he drawls, smiling.
"Out here, that depends on how hungry you are," Esca says, grinning back. "Or how sick you are of eating bucellatum. Or whether the man you want to kill is far away. Come, if you can catch anything today, I'll even let you build a fire and cook it before you eat it. Sir."
"I don't have a bow."
Esca shrugs. "I'll loan you mine."
For, despite his warnings to his own men, Esca has brought his own bow. Marcus never examined it closely the day before, and now stares stupidly at the single piece of wood that Esca presses into his hands. It is inelegant compared to the double-curved Roman bows he has used, and will be harder for him, he thinks; this must be what the Britons use, though, else Esca would not have it. But it will be close enough—a bow is a bow, and he is sure he can manage.
Esca holds out the quiver. "Here, and try to save me some arrows. Sir." Again, the word sounds like a complete afterthought on his part.
Marcus takes the quiver and waits, but when no further gear is forthcoming he has to ask, "Can I also borrow a thumb ring?" Esca's hands are smaller than his, but it might fit.
"A what? I don't have any rings." Esca's face begins to cloud a little in confusion.
And now Marcus doesn't understand either. "How else do you expect me to shoot?" He mimes the draw, wrapping his thumb around the bowstring.
Esca just stares. "What do they teach you in Rome these days? You can't draw like that here. Not if you want to pretend to be a Briton. I suppose some Easterners taught you to shoot, did they?" The gesture he makes is entirely different, an imaginary arrow between his first two fingers.
He does not even bother to hide the crestfallen look he is sure is on his face. Archery is the one thing he thought he might be able to impress Esca with, and it turns out Esca will have to teach him this, too.
The rest of the day is a failure. It is an embarrassingly long time before Marcus even manages to draw before having the arrow just fall out; there is apparently some trick to tilting the bow exactly so, that one must learn in this style. Marcus does not even want to think about how many times he drops arrows, and misses, and misses, and misses, until by the end of it entirely different muscles in his arms are sore and he has not even come close to any of the game he tries for, but most of the time can manage to hit the plant life, although not with any of the speed and skill he is accustomed to for himself. Esca only makes a sour face at him once, when he misses the bush and buries an arrow deep enough into a tree that they cannot fetch it out again without breaking it.
When the men come back to report the continued lack of news, neither of them mention how Marcus has spent his day.
The meal that evening is bucellatum again, and Esca must pity him, because he builds them a fire anyway, a small one, taking care to hide it so that there is hardly any smoke.
Marcus sits and stares glumly at the little sparks and licking tendrils of the flames, and not at Esca's face. In his mind he composes a letter to his aunt. It is a ridiculous impulse. He has hardly sent her any letters thus far; why should he begin now? Neither she nor his step-uncle cared overmuch for him. But nonetheless, the words start:
M. Flavius Aquila Corneliae salutem dicit.
If things are well with you, then— he can't even lie his way through the expected words of opening— they are not well with me, Aunt. I am sent to Britannia to shame myself, to command a force of scouts, that I might show my incompetence, as I have not been trained to fight in this manner. The men of my command are all Britons and they do not act as proper Romans do. And the one I find myself accompanying most frequently is the one who thinks the worst of me. He is the most insubordinate, the most infuriating, the most beautiful—
He stops in horror at his own thoughts, to see that his gaze has drifted up to Esca's face, and Esca is smiling at him ever so slightly across the fire.
"It's all right, you know," Esca says, sounding almost kind, and Marcus has the irrational, awful idea that somehow Esca knows every one of his thoughts. It feels as though he cannot breathe, that all the blood in his veins has turned to ice.
He manages to choke out a question. "Is it?"
Esca nods. "It is only this difficult at first, learning the tricks of scouting and spying. It was hard for me in the beginning, too," he says, sounding sheepish, as though this was not quite something he wanted to confess. "I am sure you will learn it all soon. You would not have risen to centurion were you a bad soldier. I did not mean to sound hard, earlier."
Marcus starts to breathe again. Esca does not know his thoughts after all. It is all right, indeed. "I took no offense and I am glad to hear it," he says.
"I did not want you to think yourself that inept," Esca says, and his voice is oddly gentle. Esca's reassuring him, Marcus realizes, and it is only so strange because who would ever think that he, a centurion, would need reassurance from his own soldier, who has somehow spent the day berating him with Marcus' full permission? Esca seems to realize the strangeness of this too, for he adds, sounding rueful, "That, and I do not want you to think me cruel and insubordinate. Sir. I would rather not have the staff on my back again already."
What can he say to that? If Esca were anyone else, the beating would have happened long ago, but Marcus took the measure of Esca the first day. "I could beat you," he says, and Esca's eyes narrow a little. "But I do not think you would learn anything by it except to hate me for giving it to you." He speaks more honestly than he perhaps should, but Esca is being honest with him as well.
Esca laughs, a dry sound with no humor in it. "I wish Viridio had known that."
"Did he take well to this scouting?" Marcus asks, the question occurring to him before he can think better than to say it. He can hardly imagine the man as Esca has described him liking this business of learning to dress like a Briton, or shoot like one, or do anything that was less than Roman.
Another laugh. "Hardly. I told you no one got along with him." And then Esca smiles at him, a real, true smile, and something warm and perfect shivers down his spine. "You have already been the best to us so far, better than any other Roman they've ever given us. No one else cared for the clothing, or learned to shoot, or any of it. I've certainly never lent anyone—"
Esca stops abruptly, and his eyes go to the dagger, at Marcus' belt, and he makes a strange helpless gesture, as if he does not quite understand himself why he lent Marcus it. But it means something to Esca, and so the mere fact that he has done so is enough to fill Marcus with an odd tingling pride.
"Thank you," Marcus murmurs. "Whatever it means to you, I will try to be worthy of it."
Esca nods gravely and says no more.
The night presses in on them now; the conversation is already too serious, beyond their ability to hold it. Marcus grins and makes it a joke. He has to. "Even if I think you have only said such things because I have not beaten you yet and you do not want me to."
"Can you blame me for trying, sir?" Another smile, one that Marcus tries very hard not to read anything else into. This lust is only his. Not Esca's. Esca is being friendly. He means nothing by it.
Marcus looks away and shakes his head. "I can't. First watch for you, soldier," he adds, absently, and Esca douses the fire and heads off into the night.
Marcus wraps his cloak around himself in the darkness, and his hand drifts to the hilt of the dagger, Esca's gift to him. It is cold tonight, but he is not cold now, and already tomorrow seems better, even if he will step on a thousand twigs and leave a trail a blind man could follow.
The Votadini do not come the next day, nor the next, and in the intervening time Marcus alternates between staring at the empty trail and practicing the scouting tasks Esca has set him. He thinks he is getting a little better—once Esca did not find him for nearly an hour, and he starting to have a keener eye for tracking—but he is hardly good enough yet. And his skills with a bow, he thinks in frustration, are still practically incompetent. He is worse than useless with this draw.
On the third day they pull the squad together, so that Marcus may tell them what they already know: they need to look elsewhere.
"The Votadini have not come," says Marcus. He can see that none of the other groups have had any luck either.
Esca frowns. "I thought they would use this trail, but perhaps I am mistaken. I advise that we spread our search wider."
Marcus nods his agreement, and they make a plan, once again, and move out.
He stays with Esca, of course, and they are walking through the woods on the other side of the hill when Marcus sees—something. A flash of movement between the trees. Too large to be even the largest deer. A person, then.
Esca goes absolutely still. He must have had a better view, because his lips form near-silent words, his breath hot on Marcus' face. "A hunter. I cannot tell his tribe from his clothes, but if he is hunting here I would guess Selgovae, and most of them are friendly enough to the kind of man I will seem to be to them. But I do not think he would be as friendly to a Roman. If you hide, I can talk to him. I would ask him of the Votadini."
"Do it," Marcus whispers back.
So they slink closer, and closer still, and Marcus ducks down behind a bush, just near enough to see and hear the man who is now strolling through a small clearing, bow slung across his back. He is a Briton, to be sure, with hair and tattoos to match. Esca gives Marcus a quick, tight grin, pulls the hood of his cloak up to hide his shorn, Roman-style hair, and circles around to the other side of the clearing so that he might not be seen with Marcus, before he steps out to greet the man.
Esca holds out his hands, saying something that to Marcus' ear sounds like a friendly greeting, but of course Marcus does not understand the words. The man looks at Esca with some suspicion in his eyes at first, but gives a curt nod and returns a few words in British. Marcus watches as Esca smiles again, looking so open; even if it is a pretense, he admits to himself, he likes this look of happiness in Esca. He imagines Esca is beginning by asking about hunting, or concocting some story as to why he is here, and as he watches, the hunter seems enthralled by Esca's enthusiasm, nodding his head and interjecting some words here and there amidst Esca's patter.
Then Esca's voice goes up, a lilt of curiosity, and he must be asking the question that has brought them there, because Marcus thinks he catches something that sounds like Votadini, even though the accent is very different. And though he cannot understand Esca, he leans in closer to hear better, as if it will make the words make sense. It is an unconscious move on his part.
And it is his undoing.
As Marcus leans forward, he shifts his weight from one foot to the other, and a branch beneath him cracks. It is not a loud noise; in most circumstances, one would hardly take any notice of it. But this is not a normal situation.
The man's head snaps up, and his gaze fixes exactly on Marcus' position. At the man's shoulder, just behind him, Esca has turned too, and on his face now is a look of horror, one that the hunter cannot see with his head turned.
The hunter and Esca exchange some quick words, rising in anger and intensity, and Esca finally drops his hand to the hilt of his dagger, with a fierce glare at Marcus' hiding place. He is pretending to be on the hunter's side, Marcus realizes, and Esca wants him to know it.
Then Esca stares harder and calls out something in British, brazen and challenging. The words cannot be for the hunter; they must be for him, but he does not understand them. If Esca wanted him to run he would have said nothing. He would have assured the man he did not hear the noise. Maybe he has just tried to and failed. These words, then, must be Esca asking for Marcus. Come out, he thinks Esca is saying. Come out. I know you're hiding there.
Marcus takes a deep breath, stands up, and steps forward.
The hunter stares evenly at him, and Marcus is not sure from the glare whether he has given himself away as Roman by some manner of movement or look, or if the man has not guessed at all—the stare is unreadable. Then the man nods evenly and murmurs a few words in British, and Marcus has no idea what he is saying. What should he say? What should he do? He knows no words to respond with, and if he spoke in Latin, the man would kill him for sure—if it had been all right to say he was a Roman, Esca would have done it, Esca would have called to him in Latin, and he did not. Instead, Esca is still standing, watching Marcus walk forward, his hand on his dagger as all these thoughts run through Marcus' head. Time seems to stand still.
Shortly thereafter, everything happens very, very quickly.
It is so quick that Marcus is not certain exactly what happens; he does not even see the hunter move, or start to move, or indeed anything after the hunter's face shades through suspicion and into outright anger.
But all at once Marcus is down, flat on his back in the clearing with a knee pressing into his chest and a very sharp knife at his throat.
The hunter tilts Marcus' head back for him, and runs his free hand down Marcus' chin, and Marcus remembers, all too vividly, Esca's face when he told him how the Britons also knew of the scars from Roman helmets. The hunter's eyes widen, and he bites out a few words in British. The only one Marcus recognizes sounds very much like Roman, and this is when Marcus realizes he is going to die.
The hunter leans back and nods over at Esca, whose face is marked through with anger and surprise, although probably not for the reasons the hunter thinks. The hunter calls out to Esca. Would you like to kill this one? Marcus imagines that he is asking.
Esca only shrugs.
He had not thought he would die like this. He always thought he would die nobly in battle, fighting for the honor of Rome. He never thought it would happen from his own stupidity and carelessness. He could never have imagined that the last words he would hear, what he is dying for, would be questions snapped at him in a barbarian tongue he does not understand, while a barbarian slits his throat. And Esca will stand by and do nothing. If this is his death, he will face it bravely. He must, even if he has been betrayed. He wonders if this is how his father died with the Eagle.
Esca steps closer when the hunter turns back to Marcus, and he sees that, now that the man's back is turned, Esca is drawing his dagger, trying to save him after all, but slowly, slowly, and he will not be fast enough—
No. He will not die like this. Marcus flexes and surges up, and he can almost reach his own dagger with his fingertips, and he grabs it, and—
The hunter yells and slams Marcus' hand back into the earth with a heavy blow. Pain shoots through Marcus' fingers and the dagger arcs out of his grasp to land next to his head. The bite of the knife at his throat grows sharper still, and this is it. He shuts his eyes—
And then nothing happens.
He opens his eyes again to see that the hunter is staring at the dagger, shock written across his face, as if it were the very last thing he expected to see in Marcus' hands. He recognizes it, Marcus knows, suddenly, but he does not know how he knows this. It is not only that it is a British dagger, for even some Romans own those; from the look on his face the hunter recognizes this very one.
The hunter's shocked gaze shifts to Esca, then, Esca who has dropped his own dagger back into his sheath and has gone white, though Marcus knows not whether it is from tension or fear. Then the hunter chuckles and says something low and mocking, and whatever it is makes Esca grow even paler.
The hunter's tone has turned cruel now, and Marcus wishes more than anything he understood the words.
Then Esca's skin goes blood-red, and his face contorts with fury. Marcus has not seen Esca angry at anyone, not in the month he has been here, and he has hardly ever seen anyone angry like this. This is rage in its purest form. Esca looks as if he would rip the man apart with his bare hands.
The hunter presses his knife into Marcus' throat again.
And Esca has his own dagger out now and is screaming something in British, wild-eyed, as he starts to move toward the hunter. Esca is defending him, Marcus realizes. Perhaps he is saying that the hunter cannot kill both of them. Perhaps he is saying that he will kill the man if he makes another move. Marcus cannot say, but the threat—or whatever it is—works, for the man shifts off him.
The hunter comes to his feet and spits out a few more words—insults, by the sound of them—and then turns and runs into the forest.
Marcus pants and stares up at the sky, feeling the fine trickle of blood at his neck. He can hear only the sound of Esca breathing, now, hoarse and wild and rasping, and he watches Esca's chest heave. Neither of them say anything for several long moments.
"Esca— what—?" He can't even form words. Nothing is making sense yet, his thoughts hazy and still circling about the death that no longer awaits him quite so imminently. "What just happened?"
"Other than that we both almost got ourselves killed?" Esca does not say you nearly got us killed, but Marcus knows that is the truth of it. "That's about it."
"You have to teach me British," Marcus says, fervently, and Esca's face closes off at once, hard as stone.
Esca stares at him. "It wouldn't have helped. You would still have sounded Roman, and he wasn't in a mood to believe you even if you'd been his own brother."
"No," Marcus insists. "Not about that. I mean, to understand what he said to you to enrage you so. I don't even know why he didn't kill me when he could have. It was something about your dagger, wasn't it?"
He comes to his feet, finally, and picks up the dagger from where the hunter had flung it; Esca's eyes track the motion as if it is the only thing worth looking at, and then something in the mask of his face cracks, and behind it Marcus can only see an awful kind of misery, cold and lonely.
"I should never have given you the dagger," Esca says, and his voice is flat.
Even though my having it saved my life? Marcus wants to ask but dares not. Instead, he pushes as much as he can. "He recognized it."
"He recognized you," Marcus says, but as he says it he knows this can't be right, otherwise the hunter would never have begun talking with Esca as an ally before Marcus gave it all away.
Esca shakes his head. "Not me personally. But once he saw the dagger he knew who I must be, and he made some... assumptions about why I had given it to you when he saw it in your hands." Esca is evading him. Why? What does he have to hide?
"What did he say?"
Esca says nothing.
"What did he say?" Marcus repeats, and then commands it of him. "Decane. I order you to tell me what he said."
Esca does not meet his eyes, but he stands straighter and answers, and Marcus wishes that he had not ordered this as soon as Esca speaks.
"He asked—" Esca swallows hard— "if I liked to lie down for you. Sir."
There is no emotion whatsoever in the sentence, and yet Marcus goes hot with twisted arousal, and he is grateful Esca is not looking at him. Oh, how he would like if that were true, his body says, in one wonderful and hideous rush of lust sliding down all through him, leaving him cold and shivering in its wake. No. He cannot have Esca. This is not right, not proper, and now it is even worse, a thing his enemy said to shame him, a thing Esca could not, could never want from him—
"He said he expected no better of us," Esca continues, dully. "He said we were always Roman dogs. Then I drew on him, and I told him—it doesn't matter what I told him, but I convinced him that leaving was a better plan for his continued health than killing you, sir."
Marcus drags his mind back to the current conversation in time to see Esca, having finished speaking, looking up at him. Marcus hopes his face does not show his former thoughts. Then he realizes that Esca has left rather a lot out of his account.
"What did you say to him? And what do you mean we?"
Esca exhales hard, a heavy sigh. "It doesn't matter." His voice is still flat.
"Doesn't it?" Marcus curses his own voice, for sounding far more querulous than he intended it to.
Esca's chin tilts up defiantly: finally, a show of emotion. "You told me you didn't care who I was before I joined the army. Did you mean that?"
He gave Esca his word. He cannot very well go back on it.
"I meant it."
"Then it doesn't matter," Esca says, still with defiance in his voice, but with a terrible sadness lurking behind it.
"All right," he says, and Esca gives him a ghost of a grateful smile.
This is not Marcus' affair. He has vowed, it seems, that it is no business of his. But he cannot help wanting to know who has put such pain into Esca's heart, he thinks as they continue on their trek through the forest. Even if Esca will not— could not want him as he wants Esca, he does not want Esca to hurt. And if he ever sees that hunter again, he will kill him.
They do not talk about the hunter again, but as a day passes, and another, Marcus practices his scouting skills with single-minded intensity, knowing now as he did not quite know before that they will keep him alive. He holds himself still for what he thinks must be hours, while his muscles scream in pain, but he thinks of the knife at his throat and knows he can endure this.
Esca watches him do this and only smiles, saying nothing as he sees this. But Marcus thinks that he must be getting better, for Esca criticizes very little now. His tracking needs work, but his facility with Esca's bow is improving ever so slowly, even if Marcus thinks he will never be able to shoot at the speed needed in combat—for in Esca's mad version of archery, precious time is wasted due to a need to put the arrow through the bow first rather than holding it on the side, and it is the wrong side, and there are so many things alien about it. But he must learn this to live. He has realized this now.
They still have not seen the Votadini, and everything seems silent and empty for miles around, so Marcus feels safe in suggesting different exercise to occupy them as they wait. Besides, he is tired of this, of Esca leading him about. He is the man's commander, after all. And he wants to practice proper fighting; he has not sparred in what feels like an age.
Esca picks that moment to start the conversation for him. "You are doing well in this," he says, smiling. Marcus has the feeling that the compliment should not make him as ridiculously pleased as it does; his heart lightens in his chest. And the way Esca has said it spares him from having to talk about his failure with the hunter, for which he is grateful. But, wait, he realizes—here is Esca leading this conversation, and though his words are sweet to hear, Marcus has just decided he ought reclaim his command now. And that begins with the conversation.
So he looks over at Esca, and tries to make his tone deliberately casual. "Though I was not trained in scouting, I count myself a good soldier, and there are many things I learned to do well."
The conversational opening is left, and Esca takes it. "Oh?" Esca asks, still smiling.
Marcus nods. "I would spar with you, if you will have it."
"With daggers?" Esca asks and laughs brilliantly, his voice incredulous, and Marcus remembers how Esca took down Igennus, a man Marcus' size at least, as though he had merely been toying with him. Esca does not quite suggest that Marcus would suffer the same ignoble fate, but Marcus is sure it is in his thoughts.
"Or any weapon you like."
"No weapons, then," Esca says. "Wrestling." Marcus gapes at the suggestion—he is built so much more heavily that the contest cannot possibly be equitable—and Esca glares at him in annoyance, seeming to know his opinion by the expression on his face.
"You're... short. For a Briton," Marcus at last manages to say.
Esca is still glaring. "And you're tall for a Roman. What of it? You think I have never fought men larger than I in my life? You think that when we are attacked the enemy are kind enough to arrange themselves by height? I would not be alive if I could not defend myself from anyone by any means available."
It was Esca's suggestion, and Marcus knows he would not have offered it if he did not think he could provide a fair challenge. So he nods his agreement.
"All right. Wrestling it is."
The trees thin out ahead, and the ground is even enough, so when they reach that spot they stop by silent agreement, dropping their gear on the outskirts of the small clearing, and Marcus watches as Esca pulls off his tunic, leaving him bare-chested in the sun, and he swallows to see the sudden expanse of flesh now, when they have spent all these days covered to their wrists and ankles. The previous denial only makes the look of him all the more intriguing, and— no. He cannot think these things.
"I don't want to rip my favorite tunic," Esca explains as he tosses it on the pile.
It seems a reasonable idea, so Marcus follows suit, removing his own tunic and grateful Esca has not suggested taking off the braccae as well; he did not bring a loincloth and feels oddly awkward at the idea of fighting Esca in the Greek style.
He looks up and Esca is standing, arms at his sides, a half-smile on his face.
The smile on Esca's face sharpens and his eyes gleam. "Take me. If you can."
Oh, how he would like to take Esca. In so many senses of the word. But he cannot, must not think about that now. Or ever. For now, Marcus must win.
He rushes Esca quickly, as soon as the taunting words leave Esca's mouth. If he can get Esca to the ground, none of Esca's agility will matter, and then Marcus, with his greater size and strength, will have him. And if he can take Esca now, by surprise, the fight will be over in almost no time. Marcus exults in the thought that now, finally, he will have something he can do better than Esca, some area in which he will have the upper hand. It is an unkind thought, and it is petty of him; Marcus knows he should be a better man than this, letting his emotions control him, but at the moment he finds he does not care. Let him have this one thing, and he will be confident again, in command of the situation.
His tactic works just as effectively as he hoped. Esca is not quite prepared for him to open with such an aggressive move, Marcus thinks; either that or he was not ready when he spoke, because Esca jumps back, but he does not move fast enough to avoid Marcus.
So Marcus hits him hard, taking them both to the ground. Esca's back hits the dirt rather unceremoniously, Marcus slams him in the chest, and Esca gives the great undignified wheeze of a man who's just had all the breath knocked out of him. From here it is only too easy to pin him, and there. He has done it. It was perhaps a little unsporting, but was Esca not just telling him battle was unsporting? He is perfectly justified in this.
He grins down at Esca. "Well?" he asks, and he cannot keep the boasting out of his voice, "What do you think of that?"
Esca wheezes at him a few more times, and Marcus is briefly concerned that he has not caught his breath yet, until he realizes—damn him, Esca is laughing. "I think that was an excellent start, centurion," he says. Esca's voice is low and teasing, and there is a note of some feeling Marcus cannot identify, but it makes him shiver to hear it. Esca has never spoken like this. "But I do not yield," he adds in the same tone, and his lips part in a smile.
Then Esca pushes up against him, as if he thinks he hasn't lost, as if he thinks somehow that he still has a chance of getting himself out, even with Marcus' full weight on him. He is still laughing, seemingly delighted with the entire situation, as he shoves up and tries to turn, pressing bony hips into Marcus' side.
"You really ought to consider yielding," he says, half in disbelief that Esca hasn't given up. "I've got you right where I want you." He can't quite stop the smirk on his face.
Esca only laughs again and replies in the same secretive tone as before, "Ah, that's where you're wrong."
Esca's skin is warm against his. It would be a joy to do this in other circumstances, Marcus thinks briefly, helplessly, a traitor to his promises, and one slippery thought is all it takes to change every one of his perceptions, and suddenly all he can feel is Esca's body pressed against his. So close. He is already holding him down; it would be so easy to just lean in and take—
Marcus realizes, suddenly, that the desire curling through him now is about to become very obvious to Esca very quickly, especially if Marcus' thoughts remain on this path and if Esca manages to turn himself in the way he is apparently trying to. The sudden terror all down Marcus' nerves does nothing to calm his incipient arousal. Esca cannot find this out. He cannot. And yet Marcus is growing harder and harder still. Esca smiles at him, and for one brief moment of fear and pleasure he forgets entirely that they are even supposed to be wrestling, and he slides, his grip slackening.
This inattention must have been what Esca was waiting for, because Esca makes one final surge up against him, with what feels like all of his strength behind it, and it is perfectly timed to catch Marcus unaware. And so Esca rises up, and pushes, and pushes, and they roll as he flips Marcus hard, shoving Marcus now into the dirt, as Marcus did to him.
When Marcus' lust-fogged head clears just enough for him to figure out what is going on, he is lying on his back and Esca is perched on his chest, smiling down at him, holding Marcus' wrists together and down against the earth above Marcus' head with both of his hands. Marcus' first thought is that this is no kind of wrestling hold and he could throw Esca off in an instant. Then Esca smiles down at him, a smile with too many teeth. There is something strangely knowing in his bright, laughing eyes, and the rest of Marcus' thoughts flee.
"That was a fine effort, as I said," Esca murmurs. "But it's much better this way, don't you think?"
Esca leans closer, pressing Marcus' wrists harder against the ground, and Marcus can see now that Esca's eyes are starting to go dark—odd, in the sunshine. And of course it is not better this way; that is a ridiculous thing for Esca to say. Esca cannot even hold him. He could push Esca off in an instant. He should. This is absurd and disgraceful; it is as if the man is trying to mock him.
"I don't think so," Marcus says. The question is almost too obvious—why in the world would he think this better than him winning?—but he asks it anyway. "Why is this better?"
Infuriating as ever, Esca only grins again, and Marcus flexes his wrists up against Esca's grasp, only to be stopped by Esca's hands. He could break Esca's grip right now. He wants to be free. He wants to be in charge again. Of course he wants that.
Esca whispers the reply like he is giving up a secret. "Because, Aquila, I'm in control."
And everything Marcus thought he knew about himself burns away in one hot rush of pure need.
Until this moment, Marcus would have sworn he understood desire. Not that there was much to understand about it, he'd thought. Either you wanted to fuck someone or you didn't, but if you did the basic notion was simple. Easy. Men or women, slaves or whores—it didn't matter which. You dictated the terms, you took your pleasure and you were done with it. Exactly how things should work.
Esca's hands are on his wrists and he doesn't want Esca to let go. He doesn't want to fight his way free. Esca is holding him down and Marcus Flavius Aquila is more aroused now than he has ever been by anything else in his entire life. Esca could do whatever he wanted to him right now, anything, and Marcus wouldn't be able to stop it. He doesn't want to stop it.
He should. He has to push Esca away right now. If what he wanted before was wrong, this is— unimaginable. Horrific. There are no words. No, that is not right—there are words, but none of them should ever describe him. He cannot do this. He cannot let this happen. And Esca is still smiling at him like nothing is wrong, like everything is fine, with that little smirk of pleasure in his own victory and cleverness.
Marcus feels his face flush hot and he hopes Esca will take it for anger and not shame.
"Let me up," he says, roughly, and before giving Esca a chance to respond he throws him, and Esca goes off him in a surprised, awkward sprawl of limbs. Marcus comes to his feet, only a little unsteadily. "You've had your fun, pretending you could best me, but remember your place, eh, soldier?" The words are harsh, rasping his throat; they have to be, so Esca cannot hear his voice trembling.
Esca stands. Dirt is smeared across his body and there is pain in his eyes, but he nods and salutes. "Sir," he says, his voice sounding tight in his chest. "It won't happen again."
Marcus cannot look at Esca, not now, not like this. And worse, he is even still aroused, and it will be worse yet to have Esca staring at him, to have him knowing what he has done to him— no. He must never know this. He cannot.
"I have to piss," he lies, heading toward the safety of the empty, darkened forest. "Watch my gear." He does not know if Esca will believe him, but he does not care. Let him think what he likes. Why should Marcus care for the opinions of an insubordinate Briton? But he must have a few moments alone with his thoughts, or— he does not know what will happen.
Once Esca is well out of sight, Marcus stops and leans his back against a tree, digging his palms into the rough bark as if it is the only thing keeping him stable. The sensation is a distraction, which is good. He needs one of those, because he cannot bear his thoughts. The image of Esca, laughing above him, is seared into his mind.
He imagines he can feel Esca's fingertips, still, against his wrists, points of warmth where he was holding him. What if Esca were to press harder, he wonders. What if Esca were to cause him pain, exactly thus? What if he were to leave bruises, signs anyone could see and read and know? The thought is terrifying and awful and entirely, helplessly arousing. No. Marcus palms at his cock once, heavily, angrily, willing it to go down. He will not touch himself and think of this. This is wrong.
He thought he knew how this worked. It is not as though he is some blushing maiden or inexperienced youth, after all. He has had slaves practically since he knew what his cock was for, and thought himself quite satisfied by them as well as the occasional visits to brothels while on leave. And he always counted himself fortunate, more moral than some of his fellow soldiers, for he was never overly distracted by their charms, never enamored of some particular dancing-girl or pretty boy. He fucked the ones he liked, and he left. Lust, like all things, came in moderation for him, exactly as appropriate.
Marcus wraps his hand around his arm, clenching the very spot Esca's fingers had lain upon, and begins to consider the possibility that maybe he is not as well-acquainted with what lust is as he thought. This is overwhelming. This is uncontrollable. And, oh, the irony of that—
He remembers Esca's words about control and starts to shake. He didn't know this. How could he know? How could he not have known? He had always known what he wanted, always just taken it. He cannot want to submit. He cannot want to suffer. No good Roman does this. He has seen the cinaedi, who scratch their heads and wear their tunics loose-belted, and dance about as though they are proud, as though they want to be seen, as though they want people to know of their filthy perversions. He is not one of them. He cannot be.
But no one has ever pushed him. No one ever tried. Not until now. It seems that Esca, laughing and holding him down, Esca and all his infuriating insubordination and fierce pride, like no one he has ever known—Esca was what it took. And Esca does not even want him, of course. He is certain of that. Esca's reaction to the hunter's words were perfectly clear. Esca must have been joking just now, a joke that Marcus took in the worst possible way.
Marcus will have to ignore this. It is the only possible course of action, for so many reasons. And perhaps this is all a mistake, a hideous aberration. Yes, that is most likely. It was only a passing thought, Marcus tells himself, firmly. That is all it was. Certainly he will never allow any man to fuck him, to force himself on him. There is no need to consider it again. There, he is in control of himself.
He stands there until he no longer pictures Esca smiling down at him, even as he wishes—and tries not to wish—that reality could be as he desires it. These horrible thoughts will not bother him again. He will not let it happen.