When Flavia was in her fifteenth year, her father died.
Watching her mother cry, she felt curiously numb. She should grieve, she should weep at the news of the loss of the Ninth Legion, but she felt none of it.
Flavia had loved her father, certainly, but in a distant way. It was only appropriate, she thought, as he had always been distant. He had always been off soldiering in Judaea or Egypt, and his brief stops home were all too short. She remembered a huge man, hulking, shining in his armor. She had never been certain if he loved her. If she had been a boy, he would have; she knew that much. If she had been a boy, there would have been a little wooden sword and shield for her. There would have been proud talk about how she might follow the Eagles as her father did. She would have liked that, she thought. But his only child, alas, was a girl, and he had always been awkward with her, as if he did not know what to say or do in her company.
When he had come the last time, three years ago, before leaving for Britannia, he had been carving a clever little eagle out of wood. Flavia's eyes lit upon it with excitement -- did he mean that for her?
"It is nice, Father, that little bird," she told him eagerly.
He looked up, startled, and then squinted at the carving again. "I suppose it is, isn't it?" he said, as if he had not noticed before what he was doing.
And he had sheathed his knife, gotten up, and left the atrium.
No, Flavia thought, confused, she could not see why she should grieve for such a man, even though she was supposed to, even though her mother's eyes went shadowed and hooded, and she could only speak of how she missed him. The slaves whispered about other things, things Flavia did not quite understand, about how it was a disgrace for her father to die in Britannia.
"It is nothing," her mother said one day, sounding almost desperate. "It is politics, all politics, men's business."
Flavia stared; she was missing something important about this and she could not tell what.
"Don't worry, darling," her mother continued, and her voice was even more wretched, her eyes wide, her pulse beating wild and quick through her thin skin like a frightened, wounded creature. "It isn't anything you should concern yourself with. They only say that because your father lost the Eagle and-- well, no matter. I will remarry, and you will have a good dowry, and we will find you a fine husband, hmm?"
This, Flavia had an opinion about.
I do not want to marry, she thought, and she bit her lip and did not say it, because of course she had no choice in the matter. She must be virtuous, after all, and proper, and bring honor to her family, and this was the only way.
Perhaps her mother's new husband would be kind.
Her mother sickened and died before spring was out.
And at that Flavia did grieve. She grieved for her mother, but she grieved for herself as well, for now her own fate was uncertain. If her mother had lived and remarried, they could have stayed most likely in Clusium, or at least in Etruria. But Flavia had to be under a man's care until she married, and that meant her father's brother, a man she had never met, a man who lived in Britannia, a province so far away Flavia could scarcely imagine it.
She would never see her homeland again. She would never see her friends again. She would be living with a man who likely did not want her and would care as little for the arrangement as she would, and her life would be miserable. And no doubt her uncle would have her married off to the first Roman he could find and be rid of her, and she would be alone in a land of barbarians.
It was with these thoughts in mind that she was packed off on the long journey across Italia and Gaul with old Felix and Anna to accompany her as was proper; her days were full of the jostling of mule-carts and the dread of what was to come.
They took ship for Britannia, a thoroughly unpleasant experience; Flavia spent most of the time retching and wishing herself dead. She had heard there were beautiful pale cliffs at Dubris, but when they made landfall the sky was gray, heavy with clouds and rain obscuring the view, and she could see nothing but high alien shapes in the distance.
This was her home now, she thought, despairingly, this awful dark place, and she missed the familiar hills of Etruria with an ache in her heart.
The weather did not turn any brighter until the very end of the journey, down the long roads from Dubris to Londinium, from Londinium to Calleva Atrebatum, until she found herself at the end of a very ordinary street near the city's high walls, standing in front of the door to a very ordinary house -- ordinary except for the strange tower rising from one corner. As the sky finally cleared to let in a few rays of sunshine, the door was opened for her.
"Hail," the door-opener said, and he raised his eyebrows, a quizzical look, even though he had to know who she was, for she was after all expected. "What business have you at Lucius Aquila's home?"
"I am his niece," she made herself say, "come to stay with him."
The slave smiled. "Then enter, for your uncle is waiting."
In the atrium a tall stranger stood to greet her, smiling. He was old and white-haired, bearded like the emperor was on all the coins and statues, and his sparkling eyes held a kindly look.
"Be welcome, Flavia," the man said, still smiling but sounding a little strained. "Be welcome to Britannia, to Calleva, and to your new home."
"I am welcome, Uncle," she said, and was pleased that her voice did not shake at all as she said it.
He smiled again, more faintly. "I know it is awkward to meet under these circumstances, but I think we will make the best of them, won't we?"
We will have to, thought Flavia, and she nodded politely.
"Well," he continued, sounding more and more uneasy as he went on, "let me show you around the place."
He seemed to be more comfortable with that, walking around the house as if he were an engineer pointing out camp fortifications -- which he had been, once, he told her, when he had been in the army. The house was built for colder weather than Italian houses, with a great hypocaust to warm even the atrium in the winter; it was not so open to the sun. He showed her her bedroom, a simple enough thing, and gestured to his tower where, he said, he worked on his writing with his hound Procyon for company.
When they finished the tour, they were standing in the garden, and it was strange again because it was at the very back of the house, past the slave-quarters, but Flavia supposed it made sense in the cold to be able to close the whole house off. It was already cold, and it was nowhere near winter.
"Well," her uncle said again, and eyed her, and that was when Flavia realized that, exactly like her father, this man had no idea what to do with her either. "I will have the slaves bring your things in. I-- er-- I have some correspondence to answer. Would you prefer to stay out here for a little, or go back inside?"
Even as her heart fell, she seized on the chance not to be shut up indoors. "Oh, out here!" she told him. "That would be wonderful!"
He smiled and then said, as if quoting some relative reporting advice on how to raise girls, "Very well. Only do not let your face go brown in the sun, like a barbarian or slave!"
With that he was gone, back inside the house.
Flavia sat down on a bench and, quite suddenly, began to cry.
She did not know how long she cried for, only that she did, huge wracking sobs coming forth as she mourned everything she could no longer have. She felt hideously alone, here in this strange cold country where nothing was as it ought to be and painted men on the street called out in languages she did not know. She put her head in her arms, crumpling down and shutting her eyes, as if she could pretend that without looking she was secretly home again, with her mother alive, with everything the way it had been. But the air felt different, the land smelled wild, and she could not even pretend that. So she cried, and she cried, and she cried.
Presently she became aware of movement, not too far away, the sound of someone shifting past branches. She was being watched, and she lifted her head hastily, surprised and ashamed.
"Oh!" came a girl's voice. "I did not mean to startle you; I only heard you crying. Are you hurt?"
And as Flavia looked on, the owner of the voice revealed herself, standing on the other side of the garden wall. She was a British girl, perhaps a year younger than Flavia herself, with a pointed face and red hair, the color of flame itself. She was the brightest thing in the garden and quite pretty; the sight made Flavia smile, even though she knew she ought not to envy the barbarian girls their appearance. Why, she even had freckles across her cheeks!
"I am not hurt," she said carefully, "I am only sad, I suppose. I have only just come here and I do not think I like it."
The other girl nodded. "I was sad when I came here too, at first. But it is better now, a little. Here," she added. "You must be cold. You do not even have a cloak with you!"
The girl promptly hiked up her tunic and undertunic both, revealing pale legs scabbed at the knees, and she scrambled up over the wall as if it were perfectly proper for girls to behave thus, as if there were nothing wrong with it. Flavia stared.
And then all at once the girl was next to her on the bench, wrapping her own cloak around Flavia, and she felt a little better for it, the chill receding.
"Th-- thank you," she sniffled.
"It is no matter," the girl said. "Are you living here with old Aquila, then?"
Flavia nodded. "He is my uncle."
"Why, then, we will be neighbors!" This seemed to please the girl greatly. "I am living here with my aunt and uncle. They took me in when my father went beyond the sunset, and my mother's new husband had no room for me in his home."
"My father is dead too," said Flavia, seizing on their common background. "My father and mother both, and now I have had to leave Italia, and I do not think I will see it again--" She felt tears begin to well up in her eyes.
The other girl's arm went around her. "It is all right. It is not so bad here, though I thought it was at first when I came from the Iceni and had to live here in walls."
Flavia stopped and stared. "You are Iceni?"
The other girl lifted her head in pride. "As Boudica herself! And one day I will go back to them, when my mother sends for me, for I do not like this business of being a Roman girl." She paused, seeming to realize that Flavia might have taken offense. "It is all very well if you do," she added, pained, "but for myself I think it is like a cage, and aie! I cannot stand it!"
It was curious how she said it as if there were other ways to be. As if there were choices. "I must try to be a proper Roman girl," Flavia said, and then whispered the rest. "But I do not think I am very good at it. I wish I did not have to be."
There came a long, considering stare from the other girl, and then she grinned, wide and pleased. "I think we will get along well, then. It would be hard to talk to you if you only cared about when you would marry, or your hair-style."
Flavia laughed and twisted a lock of her own tangled dark hair between her fingers. "All I have to say about my hair is that I wish it would behave itself!"
Someone called, indistinctly, from the house next door, and the girl looked around. "I must go."
"Wait," Flavia said, pulling off the cloak. "I don't even know your name!"
"Cottia," the girl said, proudly. "I am Cottia of the Iceni, but my aunt and uncle would have me called Camilla." She made a face. "Everyone calls me Camilla. I do not like it."
"Cottia, then," Flavia said, and watched as Cottia smiled. "I am Flavia," she added, and she felt odd as she said it, as though she wished she had a secret name of her own to offer, not one shared by relatives and probably half the empire besides. But she was only Flavia.
"It is nice to meet you, Flavia," Cottia said, and rose up, hurrying toward her home. "But I must go, or my uncle Kaeso will be cross with me."
Flavia held forth the cloak. "Here, do you not want your cloak?"
Halfway over the wall already, Cottia turned back and grinned. "Keep it! We are friends now, and if you only have clothing from warm sunny Italia you need it more than I do!"
When Flavia's uncle came back for her, he found her clutching the cloak and smiling.
Supper that night was fish, a pleasant enough meal, but soured by the uncomfortable air pervading the dining room.
"I saw you met Camilla," her uncle said, and smiled. "That is good for the both of you. She is lonely, and it will please her kin that she should have Roman friends."
Flavia almost asked him who Camilla was, but remembered the name in time. "She seemed very nice to me, Uncle," she said, politely. "Do you think we could invite her over?"
He nodded. "I don't see why not." But then he looked ill at ease again, and Flavia knew he did not know what to say. "You are how old, again?"
"In my fifteenth year, Uncle."
He hmmed to himself. "That is not so old yet," he said, and she knew he was thinking of marrying her off, already, and she had only just come here! "You can read?"
"Of course," she said. She had had tutors a little longer than most girls did, and always looked forward to more, learning of wars and strategy and battles, grand things. She had sneaked into her father's office a few times, where the scrolls were kept, and tried to make sense of the military works, always hungering for more.
He made a hmming noise again. "I suppose Stephanos does not need to tutor you," he said, and she saw that she had missed her chance, that she should have said she needed more work, more studies--
"I would be glad to read more," she added. As long as it was not any of those dreadful works on how to run a household, she thought, but there was no chance he would let her read what she liked.
And then her uncle's face brightened, really brightened. "Can you play latrunculi?"
It was better than weaving, she told herself. "I adore latrunculi," she lied.
Her uncle smiled. At least, she told herself, he was no longer thinking of marriage.
The next day, Cottia jumped the wall and was in the garden again practically as soon as Flavia had arisen.
"Oh, you came back!" Flavia said, smiling. "I had hoped you would."
Cottia looked just as excited. "I could hardly stay away. Come, tell me about yourself. I scarcely know anything, and that is not right if we are friends now." And she looked fierce as she said it, as though friendship were an oath like men swore to each other in tales.
So they sat, and to her astonishment Flavia found herself telling Cottia everything about herself, everything in one great rush. She talked of Etruria and how it had been there, of the songs her mother sang to her, of her father and how he had soldiered, and even the parts she did not quite understand about the lost Eagle, the parts not even her uncle would tell her. But those other ambitions within her, those she did not mention, for who would understand wishing she should never marry, wishing she had been born a boy so she could live as a man did, to fight bravely in battle, to be free and not beholden to some father or husband?
"You must have liked it there very much," said Cottia, when she had finished, "as much as I liked my home, near Venta Icenorum in the east. But I will go back there. My mother will send for me, and I will have my ponies, and there will be my spears for me in battle, and I will live a proper life at last!"
Flavia could only stare as Cottia said this astounding thing, as if she truly believed it were possible. It could not be. Surely not even barbarians could live like that. Surely someone would forbid her it.
"What?" Cottia asked, sounding a little annoyed, after Flavia said nothing. "Oh, do not tell me, you think it is scandalous and wrong too? You Romans. I will have it, I tell you."
"No, no, not at all," Flavia said, in wonderment. "I only-- I just-- British women can fight?"
And Cottia must have seen the look on her face then, must have realized Flavia's dream, because she smiled. "Of course women can fight! Who do you think our old queen was?" Her smile turned sharp, then. "I would be as her, or as one of the northern queens, and I would not marry, or if I did it would be who I wanted, and they would all beg for my favor, and I would bear children only as I wanted it." She nodded, thoughtfully. "I will like that."
"So you will go," Flavia said, suddenly even more wretched now that she knew the thing existed and she could not have it, "and I will stay, and my uncle will marry me off to some ugly old man and I will likely die in childbed--"
Her voice broke.
"Come here," said Cottia, and held her close. "When my mother sends for me, I will bring you, if you like. We will spirit you away. You will not have to marry either, and you can bear my spears. It is an honor."
Flavia's breath caught. "You cannot mean that. I cannot-- I do not-- I don't even know British." It was the least of the things she could object to, she thought, but it was the first one that she spoke.
"I mean every word." Cottia's voice was strong, like a vow, and Flavia envied Cottia her bravery. "And as for the other thing, that is easy; I will teach you to speak British."
Flavia's heart lifted, and she clung to Cottia's words, her only hope. "Will you?" She did not truly think it would happen, of course, that she could ever leave -- she could hardly imagine such a life, where she alone ruled herself -- but it was a pleasant thought.
Cottia nodded. "The word for warrior, that is laicos. That is what we shall be together, you and I. Laicou. Two warriors."
"Laicou," Flavia repeated, and she smiled.
Flavia stared at the board for a long time, cautiously, thinking. If she moved one piece just so-- ah, there!
"Ha!" she cried out, triumphant. "Uncle, I have captured your Eagle! Look! I won! I won!"
Her uncle winced a little, but not only, it appeared, at his loss. "Flavia, dear," he said, quietly, and he did not look up from the latrunculi pieces. "it is not seemly to yell, nor to boast."
She hunched over the board, embarrassed. She had done it again; she was always doing this. It was hard to remember how to behave properly. When she was concentrating very hard, she could do everything correctly, she could behave as expected, but the instant she thought of something else and no longer thought of how she was sitting or how loudly she was talking or what she was talking about, something would slip, as it had just now.
Flavia was also beginning to get the idea that she should not try so hard to win, judging by the aggrieved face her uncle made at every loss. Possibly that was not appropriate either.
"Should we--" she started, more timidly, and added a little smile-- "could we play again?"
Her uncle beamed at this, and began setting up the board again. She vowed she would lose this match and practice being graceful about it. It ought to be easy; she did not even like latrunculi. But her uncle was hardly offering her anything more interesting to do. And it would not have been so intolerable were she not stuck inside.
It was a cold day out, the seasons having passed from an already chilly summer into fall, and now into the beginnings of winter as rain poured down. Flavia was grateful for the hypocaust and for her heavy woolen tunic. It was ghastly weather, too unpleasant to go out in. Cottia had come over for a little while earlier and amused herself sitting cross-legged on the warm floor and petting old Procyon the hound, murmuring to him in British, but she had gone again before the rain had really started. Now it was only Flavia and her uncle and the slaves elsewhere in the house, and she hated that the weather was too poor to leave. It was like being trapped.
"I wish Camilla could come back," she said wistfully, mostly to herself, as her uncle finished putting the pieces back in place. She never forgot to call her Camilla to other people.
"You are not so enthralled by latrunculi, then?" her uncle asked, laughing, as if he wished to be jovial.
It is boring, Flavia wanted to say. But she knew she must not say she did not like it even if that was true; she had learned that much at least. So she only smiled a little.
"Latrunculi is a fine game," she said, politely, "but I do like when Camilla visits."
Her uncle's face seemed to soften at that. "I am happy she is such a good friend to you," he started, but then his face closed off abruptly, then, as if he was about to quote more advice on how to raise daughters that he did not himself understand, "and I am glad as well that she is growing into a proper young lady and not teaching you to be a barbarian instead!"
Cottia did a better job than she did at her manners, when she put the effort into it -- which she always did when anyone could see them, and never did when they were alone. Flavia smiled in relief, as it seemed her uncle had not noticed any of that, any of the things they said to each other, any of the tales Cottia told her about her people.
"Though I am worried Camilla will be a bad influence on the hound," he continued, his eyes twinkling with humor, "telling Procyon he is a great hunter like that!"
Flavia laughed-- and then stopped suddenly, her heart gone heavy and cold, for Cottia had only spoken to the hound in British.
"Oh, is that what she said?" Flavia asked, quickly, trying to think if there were ever a time Cottia might have addressed her in British with her uncle there, if Cottia had ever spoken of their secret plans in his presence-- "I did not understand her at all," she lied. "And I did not know you spoke British."
Her uncle chuckled, and she relaxed. He did not suspect anything.
"When you have marched across Britannia with the Eagles for your full twenty-five years, my Flavia, you cannot help but learn some of their tongue!"
And with that he bent to the board and made the first move as the wind outside blew harder.
After a few moves had been made, Flavia looked up and asked a question, before she could think better of it. "Uncle," she wondered, "if-- if I had been a boy, if I had been your brother's son, what would we be doing?"
Would they read all the things she had been quietly forbidden to read? Would they go riding together, or hunting, or to dinner parties? Would there be anything other than endless days of nothingness, where the only permitted excitement was a shopping-trip?
His brows drew together. "You ask the queerest things, Flavia!" His laugh now was uncomfortable. "If you were a boy I suppose you would have liked to join the army, as many boys wish, when you were old enough, and then we might never have met."
"But if we had met?" Flavia pressed him. "What if it were today?"
Her uncle sighed. "In this weather? We would be playing latrunculi!"
She tried to take comfort in the clear evidence that he would not have known any better how to raise a son, and smiled again, and moved her piece.
She never asked it again.
It was a long cold winter, but it seemed to end very suddenly, and all at once Calleva came to life, the garden flowers budding, more strangers streaming in through the gates, and the days were warm and bright.
On one such morning, she found Cottia standing alone in the garden, her face streaked with tears.
"Flavia!" Cottia said, brokenly, and from the rawness in her voice she had been sobbing for a while now.
In an instant Flavia was at her side, and she was minded of the day they had met, only it was all backwards now.
"What's the matter?"
Cottia fell against her, and the two of them collapsed onto the bench. Cottia's face was buried against Flavia's neck, and Flavia felt hot tears against her skin.
"My cousin has come," Cottia forced out, between hiccoughing gasps, "and he said my mother fell ill and died in the winter. She is gone, Flavia, she is gone!" And she cried again.
Flavia put her arms around Cottia, awkwardly, and ran her fingers over Cottia's tangled bright hair. "Shh," she told her, and she did not know what else she said; it did not matter so much, because she did not think Cottia heard the words. It was only important that she was there.
Cottia's voice was full of anger and grief. "And now that my mother is dead they will never send for me, never, and I will have to stay here too and be a Roman and I do not want any of it!" She lifted her head and looked Flavia full in the face; her eyes were glassy from crying, green like emeralds, the very color of a ring Flavia's father had shown her once. "I am sorry, Flavia, I know I promised you--"
"Shh," said Flavia again, and gathered Cottia close. "We will be warriors somehow. You will see. It will happen. We will fight great battles together."
Even as she said it she knew it would never happen. It would never have happened anyway, but now there was no chance at all, with none of the British to take them in. But saying it would make Cottia feel better. She hoped.
"Pfah." Cottia wiped her face off on the front of her tunic. "Thank you, Flavia," she said, shaking. "That is a very nice lie."
And Flavia held her as she cried again.
As it turned out, Flavia hardly had to worry about how to fend off suitors. They simply did not come.
She was in her nineteenth year now. It was not as if she did not have a decent dowry to provide for her needs, and she was not -- or so she thought to herself -- especially ugly, though she wished she were taller. She was small and slender and dark-featured; her hair still did not behave itself, though that was a tiny detail. But appearance was not what mattered, for everyone else her age and Roman had been married long, long ago. Julia, Claudia, even cross-eyed Tullia all wore the stola now, and Flavia was close to twenty and still in tunics. There was something wrong, indeed, but the fault was not hers.
No, she knew what was keeping the suitors away, and she was grateful for it even as she was ashamed. She understood now: it was what her father had done, or rather, what he had not done. He had not kept the Eagle safe. He had lost it along with his legion in the north, and all of that was a stain on the honor of the family. No one would want a wife from such a disgraced family, no matter how well-mannered she was otherwise, no matter her beauty or wealth.
Her uncle had gone to the forum this afternoon, and Flavia lay across a couch in the atrium, with Cottia perched on the end of it, her long legs tucked underneath her. Cottia had grown so tall and elegant like a queen, Flavia thought enviously, and yet somehow she was glad no one had married Cottia either.
When she asked about it, Cottia laughed.
"Oh, I have had suitors, of course," she said. "But they do not last long. I am as hideous as I can be, and then they leave. You only have to find the most appalling thing to say."
Cottia's plan, it seemed, was to avoid all marriage until her kin finally tired of her and sent her east somehow. Flavia did not know if it was working, but from the lines on Kaeso and Valaria's face every time she saw them, she knew Cottia was at least succeeding in being an annoyance to her family.
"You should try it if someone courts you," Cottia advised. "It works well."
"No one will."
Cottia frowned. "I would if I were a man. You are very pretty."
Some tangled, strange feeling twisted through Flavia and then was gone.
"Thank you," she said, and then after the uncomfortable feeling had left, said the same thing she had said the last time, because Cottia still did not understand, "but it is not about being pretty. It is about the Eagle."
Cottia shook her head. "You keep saying that. There are so many symbols and flags and the garrison here has their own too. Rome has so many Eagles. What is one more?"
Flavia sighed. "It is important because it is Rome. Because my father lost it." She laced her hands above her head and stared up at them. "I wish someone could find it, for my family."
"Then you would have to get married," Cottia pointed out.
She was not Roman. She would never understand.
"It would mean my family's name was cleansed. And it would mean that Rome had done well, that we could hold the frontier against the tribes."
"But Rome cannot," Cottia said, and there was a strange proud note in her voice, "else the emperor would not have had to build that new wall to protect the province from the Caledonii and Votadini and Selgovae and half the Brigantes besides!"
"Cottia!" cried Flavia again, a little appalled but at the same time secretly pleased.
Cottia shrugged and then grinned a small pointed grin, like a fox, and Flavia loved her for it.
"It does make them go away when you say things like that," Cottia added. "You should try it, if there is need."
Saturnalia was, of course, one of the bright spots of winter, a thing to look forward to when all outside was gray and dull. This year the games promised to be extravagant; she had heard her uncle and Kaeso talking about them, over dinner, and she began to anticipate the event. Oh, there had always been games, with sword-fights and races, in Italia, but here there was no circus for races and the games had always been a few underfed slaves who swung swords at each other dully and then retreated. Flavia did not think she wanted to see death in the arena, but a little excitement would not go amiss.
Truly the gods favored them, because the day of the games dawned clear and cloudless, and even a little warmer than usual, though Flavia's teeth still chattered as she wrapped herself in her cloak. She and her uncle walked with what seemed like the entire population of Calleva to the arena, the slaves behind them following with cushions.
Once they had taken their seats, she looked out over the empty sands, waiting, avid. Today, perhaps, she would see a true fight indeed, not some sham.
Her uncle laughed a bit to see her. He seemed to have made peace, in a limited way, with the idea that she would always be just a little bit unlike all the other proper Roman girls, just as he himself was an eccentric man.
Flavia nodded, and he laughed again.
"I hear this year we have rare beasts and even a death-fight."
Flavia's stomach twisted a little at that, but she composed herself. She would be strong. It was only watching. Men went into battle all the time. British women went into battle, Cottia had told her, and if other women could fight that meant she could certainly only watch fighting, for she would not be more cowardly than they. It was only blood.
When the fights started, they were nothing like Flavia expected.
There was nothing noble about it.
There was a bear, already wounded, ripped apart from afar by spears, and a mangy, hungry wolf, its ribs showing, who barely moved and was dispatched neatly, staining the sand. They did not even fight back. They could not have fought back. It was not like the willing sacrifices of temple-beasts, for they at least lowered their heads and submitted. It was not like hunting, or what she imagined hunting was like, capturing a free animal who had a chance, outwitting it with your own cleverness. It was not fair, none of it.
The pard should have been exciting, for she had never seen one of those before. She could almost imagine what it had looked like before it had been captured; there was a hint of quick, sleek, dangerous movement in its steps, the way it twitched its tail. But its spotted coat was dull and there was no fire left in its eyes. It knew it was to die, Flavia thought, and watched in sickened horror as they sent three men against it. She almost cheered as the cat took a swipe at one of the fighters, but the other two men surrounded it and killed it as quickly and efficiently as one might slaughter a chicken for dinner.
It was not right. And as Flavia looked around, the entire crowd was cheering, heedless of how unjust the whole thing was, how it was not at all a contest of skill or bravery. Only Cottia, on the other side of the ring with her aunt and uncle, looked about as horrified as she herself felt.
Her uncle must have seen the look on her face, because he nudged her as they dragged the pard's body away. "Flavia, are you well? If this is too rough for you, we can go."
"No." She shook her head. She felt determined, somehow, to see this through. "I want to stay."
Perhaps this was what true battle was like, too, and in that case she had best prepare herself, a tiny voice in her mind whispered. For in all these years, she and Cottia had not forgotten their dream together. And even though she knew it would never happen, pretending as though it could lifted her spirits. A real warrior would be able to watch such a thing.
Her uncle lifted his eyebrows, but only turned back to watch.
It was better when the staged fights came on, the very same fights she had been deriding as boring just a few days ago. At least they were fair. And it was pleasant to watch the trained men swing and lunge at each other in an intricate dance of swordplay, to watch another man whirl and throw a net. Flavia hoped she could glean some scrap of strategy by watching, but it all went by too quickly.
Soon enough, those fights concluded, the victors raising their swords high, and the losers picking themselves up from the sand and still looking determined. They had a few cuts, the ones who were slower to dodge, and the onlookers had loved those moments best, as they always did.
Then the arena-master stepped out, alone. "A fight to the death!" he cried out, and the crowd roared in approval as he left the sands again and the gate was raised.
Perhaps this would be a fair fight, Flavia thought, like the last ones. Perhaps the fighters would be evenly matched in skill and it would be less like the slaughter of the poor beasts.
Her heart sank as the first gladiator stepped into the arena, for unless they had another fighter of his size there was no conceivable way the match would be equitable. He was a huge man, bigger than the biggest Gaul or German Flavia had ever seen, and it seemed as though every inch of him was muscle. He was stripped to the waist, unarmored but helmeted, and he carried his sword and shield with confidence. The sun gleamed off his skin as he raised his sword high to greet the crowd. Flavia could not see the man's face under the helmet, but she was sure from his movements that he was confident in his victory.
A second figure stood awkwardly at the edges of the sand, silhouetted in the dimness of the gate, bearing a sword and shield of his own. He was small; Flavia could tell that much from here. She knew already how it would go: the fight fixed, the man killed, everything already arranged.
Still he stood in the shadows, motionless. It was no wonder, Flavia thought; he likely was not in a hurry to come to his own death.
The arena-master shoved the man hard between the shoulders and he stumbled out into the light as the gate dropped down behind him--
Flavia caught her breath--
For the other fighter was not a man at all, but a young woman.
Flavia could not tear her eyes away from the sight of her. The woman was about Flavia's age, thin and bony, dressed in a man's short tunic that was a little too large. She had long, light brown hair, pulled back into an unruly braid. Scars and bruises ran down her legs, down from her knees to the straps of her boots. On her arms were swirling dark designs, the ink of the tribes, going at least as far up as her shoulders, with the rest hidden by the tunic. She had a hard, angular face, sharp and pointed. Her eyes were queer and pale, and she held her head high, with a fierce set of her jaw. She was not what men would ever call pretty, Flavia thought, but in all the world she had never seen anyone like this woman and she stared and stared and could not stop staring.
"Oh ho," her uncle said softly. "A painted warrior-woman! I have not seen her like since I marched with the Eagles." And he clicked his tongue in reproach. "It will be a shame to watch this. Not a fair fight, not at all."
With his words Flavia remembered why they were there and what they were watching, and a horrible chill passed through her. She did not want to see this woman die.
The woman in the arena took a ready stance, like a trained fighter, gripping her buckler and holding her short-sword a little higher. She knew how to fight. It was true, like Cottia had always said; someone had taught her. Maybe, just maybe, she could win; maybe the overconfident gladiator would slip, and the woman would have him, and she would live, she would live after all!
The woman's face was grim as the two saluted each other. And then--
Flavia watched in horror as the warrior-woman flung her arms wide and threw her sword and buckler down.
No, thought Flavia, no, please. The woman had a chance, she was brave, she could fight as a warrior. She couldn't just stand there and die! For if even this woman had given up already, then no one, no one could win!
"Fight!" came the yell from the gladiator below, came the displeased roar from the crowd. They wanted to see blood. "Fight!"
Fight! she thought with them, though she knew she thought it for a different reason. You can do it. Come on.
But the warrior-woman only stood there, proudly, and she did not flinch as the gladiator raised his arm and held his shining sword against her neck.
"She's a brave one," said her uncle quietly. "She wants her own death, as honorable as she can make it."
Flavia could only watch as the gladiator swung his sword-arm back and then struck out, hitting the woman across the stomach with the flat of the blade. She winced as the woman doubled over, and then winced again as the gladiator hit her in the face.
Blood was trickling from the woman's lip now as she struggled to her feet, panting, head raised high, and all at once Flavia understood why she did not fight. Such a woman had been noble and free, Flavia was certain, with that bearing in her. Surely she hated the life of a slave. She knew it was a trick, she knew she would die sooner or later, and if she had rather die than live under Rome she would die on her own terms. Ah, it was brave indeed.
But that did not make it any easier to watch, and Flavia still did not want to see it.
The woman stood there, staring out at the crowd, eyes unfocused, before the gladiator took her down. She pushed herself up, slower this time, shaking. Again. The crowd roared, and the gladiator hit her again. This time she crumpled hard onto the sands and the man kicked her in the back. It was long moments before she rose to her feet, and Flavia knew this would be the last time. Sweat and blood mixed together dripped down the woman's face, soaking her hair and her tunic, and she gave a little nod.
The gladiator lunged forward and smashed her face with the edge of the shield, and at that the woman fell onto her back in the sands, her chest heaving in huge ragged breaths, the movement shifting the stained tunic as she gasped for air. She tilted her head back, her neck bare and exposed in the sunlight.
This was it, then, Flavia thought, dismally, as the gladiator pressed his sword-point to the hollow of the warrior-woman's throat. The crowd around Flavia was already roaring for death, their thumbs held up like a sword poised for the kill.
The woman's mouth worked soundlessly, bright with blood. There was blood all down the side of her face, but her eyes were clear and unafraid, and suddenly her gaze locked with Flavia's--
And Flavia found herself on her feet, thrusting her closed fist in the air. "Life!" she cried out, "life!" Though even as she said it she knew she was only one woman against the will of the crowd.
Her uncle gave a startled jump next to her. "Flavia, what are you--?"
"Come on!" Flavia yelled again. "Life!"
Across the arena she saw that Cottia too had risen, her face bright with hope, and was raising a closed fist and shouting--
And then her uncle was standing, and his great low voice was even louder than hers, calling for mercy, and then people she did not know joined in, and all the while the warrior-woman's eyes were fixed on hers--
Very suddenly, the gladiator stood up and spread his arms in acquiescence. Life, indeed. The woman shut her eyes and turned her face against the bloody sand.
It was over. She had lived. Flavia had spared her.
"Well," said her uncle, sounding curious, though at least not angry, as they settled back into their seats. "That was interesting. Why did you do that?"
I could not watch her die, Flavia thought, but that was not really an answer, and it would be silly and strange to say it anyway, what she was thinking, that it would be wrong to let the woman die when she was fierce and strong and unlike anyone else in the world.
So she asked a question of her own in return, as she watched the woman stand and retreat back behind the gate, abandoning the arena.
"Uncle, what will happen to her now?"
He shrugged. "A gladiatrix who does not fight? Either she'll be dead in the next fight they put her in, or perhaps the arena-master will sell her to the mines. She looks strong enough for it."
Flavia felt her brief hope begin to dim, falter, and fall. It had been for naught after all. The woman would still die, and Flavia could not save her this time. Unless-- unless--
"Uncle," she asked again, smiling as prettily as possible, and then she took a deep breath and said it. "How much do you think it would cost to buy her?"
Her uncle blinked a few times, surprised, and he could only stare for long moments.
"I should have known you would want a painted barbarian for a maid," he said, quietly, to himself. "Well, I suppose your Anna is getting old to serve you, and this one should be cheap, anyway."
Flavia's heart was full of a great sudden joy. "Oh, Uncle, thank you!"
He was even more surprised, she thought, when she flung her arms around him, embracing him hard.
"My dear," said he, chuckling, "if I had known it would make you this happy I would have bought you another slave long ago!"
It was not that she wanted another slave, particularly, but it would save the warrior-woman's life, and besides, Flavia wanted more than anything to see the woman again, even though she herself could not have said why. Yes, yes, something within her said, warm with pleasure. This was the right course.
The next morning her uncle winked broadly at her as he left the house early with Stephanos behind him, carrying his money-pouch. He was off to see the arena-master about buying the woman, then.
Flavia ate breakfast, barely pausing between bites of bread as Sassticca cast a watchful eye upon her. Today, if her uncle could prevail on the arena-master, today the warrior-woman would be here! What would she be like? Would she be kind? Would she tell Flavia of how it was to fight, of all the great battles she had fought with her people?
"Slow down, domina," Sassticca said, half-scolding. "You will choke on your food, and then where will we be?"
She tried to look contrite, but she did not think she had succeeded. She did eat the rest of the bread a little more slowly.
In the atrium she tried and failed to concentrate on reading, for who could read on a day like this, when so much else was to happen?
What seemed like an eternity later, there came the heavy tread of booted steps outside, and Flavia jumped to her feet. Old Marcipor opened the door, and her uncle and Stephanos stood there, finally, with the warrior-woman between them.
She was dressed still in the stained man's tunic she had been wearing yesterday, without even a cloak; it was likely she owned nothing else. She did not shiver with cold, but stood there, silent, still proud. Her face was bruised dark from the fight, beginning to scab and heal, and even with the wounds, even with her hard, sharp face, Flavia still found herself thinking how queerly beautiful the woman was. She was taller than Flavia -- everyone was taller than Flavia! -- and her eyes were a pale blue-gray, like the winter sky. And still she did not speak.
"Flavia, this is-- Esca, as you asked," her uncle said to her, smiling a little. And then he turned to the woman -- Esca -- and nodded curtly, indicating Flavia with a jerk of his head. "Your new mistress. I am not cruel to my slaves, and if you serve my niece well and perform your duties diligently, we shall have no problems, eh?"
Esca tilted her head a little and said nothing.
Her uncle stared at the two of them. "I, er-- I must get to my writing," he said, plainly uncomfortable with the silence.
And then he was gone into his tower. The other slaves left shortly, and it was only the two of them alone in the atrium.
Esca still stared, and her face did not change.
Flavia had thought, perhaps, that she would be pleased to still be alive. That she would be grateful for what Flavia had done. Instead she stood there looking as if she wanted to fight. Flavia nearly expected the other woman to pull out a dagger.
"You saved me," Esca said, and her voice was low and harsh, her accent thicker than Cottia's. "I saw you. You were the first one to call out. Why did you save me?"
"I did not want you to die." Flavia's own voice sounded weak in her ears. "It was not fair." And she knew as she said it that it was not the whole reason.
Esca gave a short dry laugh. "Fair? Nothing is fair, Roman. Life is not fair. What your people did to mine was not fair. And you took my death from me. Was that fair? Tell me, since you care so much about it."
Flavia gritted her teeth. Who was this woman, to talk to her like this? It was as if she did not realize she was a slave! Well, someone would have to teach her to bow her head and take orders: it might as well be Flavia.
"I wanted you to be free!" she snapped back, and stopped, shocked by the truth that wanted to come out of her, the feelings she had not known.
Esca raised an eyebrow; the motion tugged at the healing cut all along her cheek. "So you made me your slave? An interesting choice, I must say."
Flavia felt herself growing angry, but pleased in her anger. Here was someone who would talk to her, really talk to her like her thoughts mattered and were not just silly fancies. Save Cottia, there was no one else like this, and even Cottia never challenged her like this.
"I would free you if I could, I swear it," she said, quiet with resolve, "but you are not mine to free, and you are hardly thirty besides. We are none of us free," she said, and she was surprised to find tears coming to her eyes, "and I will be trapped here in my uncle's house until I marry, and then trapped in my husband's, and you, at least you can fight, and then you did not!"
There came another laugh, this one almost mocking. "You think we are the same? You think because you ought to do as your uncle bids you, it is like being a slave? Talk to me when he starts beating you."
"I think," Flavia said, stubbornly, "that we are more alike in our hopes than you would like to believe."
Esca clenched a fist in silence, dangerous, and Flavia thought she would say nothing at all, but then she spoke, her voice flat. "I have tried fighting. Sometimes even a blade does no good."
"So you thought you would die?" Flavia stepped forward, stretching out her hands toward Esca's. "If you die-- if you die, they will have won. I know you will think to yourself, oh, it is your own death, your honor, dying as you wish, but they do not see that. They only know that they have killed you, as they wished."
Esca's fingers were warm under hers, callused from the sword, and Flavia watched as Esca cocked her head to one side.
"You are a strange Roman."
She felt her face flush hot, but she would not let her shame get the better of her, not now.
"Give me your word," she said, urgently, "your word for your life. Tell me you will not take it."
She was aware, an odd, unfamiliar awareness, of how close they were, and then Esca freed a hand to wrap around her own so that their fingers were laced together.
"You have had my life since you held up your fist for it yesterday," said Esca, her voice low and solemn, though there was a hesitation in it that hinted at discomfort, as if she was a little unwilling for Flavia to know this. "Had I my father's dagger still, I would swear on it."
Flavia nodded. "I will trust your word, then. I am sorry you do not have his dagger."
"I as well," Esca said, quietly, and a shadow crossed her face. "I took it from his hand as he died, but the slavers took it from me, and then they--" she stopped very suddenly. "I do not think you need to know what they made me do."
She was not so sheltered as that, not to know what Esca was talking about, but at the same time she hated to think of it happening to Esca. "Oh," she said, and then, very formally, in her best British: "The grief is on me."
Esca's eyes widened a little at that. "You are a very strange Roman indeed," she returned, in the same language.
Flavia did not know the shape of what lay between them. It was not friendship, not yet, but it was full of a wary kind of loyalty, with the slavery in there all mixed up and barring the path.
She held Esca's hand until her uncle came down from his tower.
By the next day someone in the house had found Esca a proper long tunic, and she looked so uncomfortable and out of place in it that Flavia almost wished to let her keep the short one. But that would be scandalous indeed.
Esca made a disastrous attempt to plait Flavia's hair and arrange it. At least she only stuck her once with the hair-pin.
"I have never been a lady's maid before," Esca said, apologetically, after the third time she had pulled apart one of the braids and muttered something very rude in British under her breath. There was a tension in her hands, then, as though she feared Flavia might have her beaten for her lack of skill.
"It is all right," said Flavia, and Esca's fingertips relaxed against her scalp. "I never wanted you for one."
"Then what did you want me for?"
Flavia took a deep breath and found she could not answer.
"I think we should go to the baths," Flavia told Esca, a little later that day, after the hour when they would be open to women. "The heat will be pleasant in this dismal weather." It was, naturally, cold and cloudy again that day. "With any luck, my friend Cottia will be there."
Esca raised her eyebrows, a silent commentary on how the name was not Roman, and she nodded with a tiny jerk of her head. She did not say yes, mistress or anything of the sort, and Flavia was grateful for it, for then she would have had to explain to her why it would have made her feel sick inside to have Esca address her so. And that, like so many things, she could not even explain to herself.
In the streets, people stared. They had never stared at Flavia before, and the weight of their gazes was threatening. Then she realized they were not staring at her, but at Esca, whom they no doubt remembered from the games. And if they did not remember her, well, Esca was distinctive enough in a crowd, especially the way she looked today. She did not walk like a beaten, cowed slave, even though the bruises stretching all down her face were plain enough to see. She stood tall and held her head high, as if the wounds were a soldier's nobly-won battle-scars.
Her demeanor faded once, only a little, as her eyes flicked over to Flavia's. "Do I bother you?"
"Not at all," Flavia assured her. "Far from it."
Esca smiled a little smile, but only a very little one, and she drew herself up again.
They arrived, finally, at the small dark apodyterium of the baths with its places for clothes; Flavia had her tunic halfway off before she realized Esca was still standing behind her, shifting her weight a little from one foot to the other as if she wanted to run. Esca was making no move to undress.
"It helps if you take your clothes off first," Flavia said. She knew she sounded a little dry about it, and that was yet another one of those inappropriate things, but she did not really want to order Esca to strip. It was best to make it sound reasonable, which it was, and surely Esca would go along. "Otherwise you'll be wearing a sopping-wet tunic and you'll smell like an unhappy sheep all day."
She finished pulling her tunic off and turned to see why Esca had done nothing. Esca only stood there, and her face was carefully still, as a statue.
Esca's words, too, were just as careful. "I think perhaps my appearance might disconcert the fine women of Calleva. And--" here she paused for a long time-- "I would not like to make things ill for you."
What could she be talking about? "Nonsense!" Flavia waved a hand. "You are hardly ugly, and you deserve a bath as much as anyone here. There is nothing to worry about."
"As you say." She spoke quietly, almost unwillingly, but it was agreement. People brought slaves to the baths all the time, after all; of course she would agree!
Flavia turned away and there was the sound of rustling fabric behind her. Good.
When Flavia stepped into the frigidarium with Esca trailing just behind her, it became very quickly apparent exactly what Esca had meant.
"Hail, Julia!" Flavia called out, greeting the other woman just as she always did.
Julia's dark eyes widened. "Hail, Flavia, and-- oh-- um." As Flavia watched, Julia's eyes fixed somewhere beyond Julia's shoulder, where Esca was standing.
Flavia turned and found herself staring as well.
She had been a fool. She had not seen Esca in the light before, not properly, and it had not occurred to her -- how had it not? -- that all of the blows Esca had taken in the arena would be visible somewhere on her body. Being hidden under clothing did not mean that they were gone. A heavy purpling dent that looked to be the rest of the gladiator's shield-edge started at Esca's collarbone and continued diagonally to the middle of Esca's chest, diffusing across her small, high breasts. Across Esca's ribs lay another long bruise, the width of the flat of a sword-blade. And from her narrow hips down, everything was scratches and old scars.
And that was only the wounds. In the light, too, she could see Esca's arms, and then her back as Esca turned to the side. The swooping, swirling, blue lines that had been only barely visible in the arena, or when Esca was clothed, now revealed themselves fully. She had ink as the warriors of the tribes did, all across her shoulders and down her back in intricate patterns. Esca's back was long and elegant, and the strange lines only made it more so, curving this way and that down her spine and out to her hips, ending in trailing dots that wrapped around her side, inviting the eye to keep looking.
Flavia thought it beautiful. She thought Esca beautiful.
But she did not think she was supposed to.
"Oh," Julia said again, more faintly. "I-- I think I'll be going now. Good day."
She hurried out of the baths as if she could not wait to get away, before Flavia could say anything else.
Flavia's face felt hotter than ever in the chill of the room.
Esca gave a little shrug of her shoulders, making the ink-drawings shift with the movement, as if to say I tried to tell you.
"She wasn't really my friend anyway," Flavia mumbled.
Cottia was in the pool in the caldarium, and of course Cottia did not mind one bit.
"Flavia!" she cried out, eagerly, and she smiled. "And you have brought the fighter from the arena with you! How did you do that? Come, come, sit and tell me!"
She was perched, half-underwater, on one of the benches, and she laughed with delight as she beckoned them over. Her hair unbound itself and fell around her shoulders as she grinned. Looking at her at these times, Flavia always thought she must be akin to a nymph of some river, the way the water played so beautifully over her.
"My uncle bought her," said Flavia, and if she had not been watching Esca's face at that instant she would have missed it: the barest flicker of sadness.
Cottia had not missed it either. "I suppose it was the only way," she said, more kindly than she often said things, and Esca's mouth twitched in an acknowledgment that might have been a smile.
"Her name is Esca," Flavia said, as they slid under the water, and she felt a small pleased thing glow within her to see how Esca relaxed at the warmth, how her limbs spread out languid and easy. "Esca, this is my friend Cottia. She is of the Iceni."
And Esca did smile at that; it only belatedly occurred to Flavia that Esca might have a quarrel with Cottia's tribe. "The Iceni, eh?" Esca asked. "So you are the reason Flavia's British speech has that accent!"
Cottia laughed. "I will not apologize for that!" And she splashed at her a little.
Esca burst out into a full grin, her smile wide, and her face was transformed. Even bruised, even beaten, she was prettier than anyone, Flavia thought, unaccountably pleased to see Esca's smile. She ignored the little twinge of odd envy she felt, looking away; she only wished that her own smile was as pretty.
"I was not asking you to," Esca said, laughing in return, "for my people have always liked the Iceni. You have always been brave and proud."
Esca smiled again as she spoke and stretched wide on the bench, pushing herself up out of the water, revealing one bony hip. Her skin was pale, Flavia found herself noting. Would it be soft, if she touched Esca, if she were to run her hand along Esca's side just so, hip to bosom to throat? Were her breasts softer than Flavia's own? They looked to be. How would Esca be, beneath her fingertips? How would it feel to Esca? Would Esca smile at her--
She felt warm, tingling all over. She was only jealous, of course, that Esca was pretty. It was not a thing she should encourage.
Cottia brightened at Esca's words, as Flavia had known she would. "That is kind of you to say. And what tribe do you hail from?"
Flavia leaned forward with interest, for she wanted to know this as well, but it had not felt quite right between them to ask. And if she had asked and Esca had refused to say, she did not think she could have borne it. But Cottia was a Briton, and she could ask things Flavia could not.
"The Brigantes," Esca said, and there was a proud sort of catch in her voice as she spoke, like how senators and soldiers sounded when they talked of the glory of the empire. "My father was Cunoval, who led five hundred spears in battle. I was his eldest daughter, and when I was old enough I was his armor-bearer too, and I would have ruled the clan after him had the slavers not found me first."
Even Cottia looked impressed; Cottia had been noble enough among the Iceni, Flavia had gathered, but that was a far cry from being a clan-queen.
But Esca did not finish her story. She stopped and looked at Flavia, as if she thought Flavia might object, as if it might upset her.
"I want to know," said Flavia, determined to hear the rest. She wanted to know who Esca was. So what if she was Roman, or did not know anything of being a slave? "If you would tell me, I would hear the story."
Esca talked again, but she was not looking at either of them, only dipping her fingers in and out of the water, cupping it in her palms as she talked. "There is not much to tell. When they came to build the wall, we rose to fight. We lost. My family died. I did not, and I was sold into slavery further and further south these past two years. Now I am here."
"Ah," sighed Cottia, sadly. "Rome always wins."
Esca gave Flavia a narrow-eyed look, then, as though she expected Flavia to object. But Cottia always said such things in that manner, and besides, it was true, wasn't it?
It was well into January before Flavia worked up the courage to ask. She probably would not have at all if it hadn't been for Cottia. It was not that Cottia did anything special, or behaved any differently, but her visits seemed to please Esca more and more, as if the more Esca saw of Cottia the more she liked the both of them. Perhaps she trusted Flavia more now that she knew she was friends with a Briton; perhaps now she could see they were not so different. Flavia did not know, and Esca did not say.
It had been a good day. In the morning Flavia had dutifully read a treatise on household management, but ah, in the afternoon Cottia had run in from the rain, complaining in between bursts of laughter about the chill. They had all bundled up on one of the couches and Cottia had then spent a long time mocking the treatise before deciding she should sing.
So she sang, a song of her people, and the tune was jaunty enough; the words were about some spurned lover of course, because weren't they all?
"I know that song," Esca said. Flavia had her own cloak thrown over Cottia as well, but Esca was sitting a little apart from the both of them. It surprised Flavia that Esca would speak.
"Do you?" Flavia asked.
Esca nodded and smiled, but there was something different about her smile, and it took Flavia a moment to realize it. There was no pain on her face, none at all.
"I do, but with different words," said Esca, and then dropped her eyes, oddly shy, and Flavia did not quite know if Esca wanted her to ask.
Cottia, of course, asked. Cottia would ask anyone anything. "Oh!" she cried out. "Sing it, do!"
"I am not a bard," Esca murmured, and she reddened a little.
"Ah, neither am I!" Cottia retorted. "Go on!"
Flavia thought Esca would say no, but she opened her mouth, and to the same tune came an entirely different story: the tale of a cow, the most beautiful cow in all the land, and how it was stolen back and forth by arguing rivals, each of whose parts Esca did in a different voice. By the end of it Cottia and Flavia were laughing, and then Esca started laughing. She laughed so hard that she had to stop singing it.
Esca's face was brilliant, her smile shining like the sun, and it was in Flavia's heart that Esca should be so happy always.
At this moment she is not a slave, Flavia thought. It is like she is among her people again. And she wished more than anything that she could give that to her.
Even after Cottia left, even after Flavia and her uncle dined, a trace of that happiness lingered in Esca, and perhaps that was what finally gave Flavia the courage to speak, knowing now that Esca might not consider her an enemy.
And as Esca helped her ready herself for sleep, as Flavia sat on the edge of her bed, she finally had the strength to ask.
"Will you teach me to fight?" she said, quietly, into the silence. "I know you will think it silly, since I am Roman and of a good equestrian family, but-- I want to know."
She hungered for it; she wanted it so much that she almost didn't care if Esca laughed at her. Esca would laugh, of course, for who could do anything other than laugh? Flavia knew she was small, she was weak, and her dream was only a dream.
Esca said nothing, and Flavia exhaled, shaking. She had been silly to think it would be otherwise. She should not have said anything. Her whims had gotten the better of her.
"Ah, never mind," she said. "You are right; it was a pointless thing to say--"
"I think the sword is most likely too heavy for you," Esca interrupted, sounding thoughtful.
"Too heavy for you," Esca repeated. "And at any rate, even if it is not, any sword-fighter who faced you head-on would certainly best you in strength and reach."
Esca was actually considering it. Esca was looking at her and thinking about it, imagining her as a warrior.
Then Esca's eyes brightened. "The dagger, though, that has promise. You do not have to be large to use one, and there are ways to fight where it helps to be small and quick. You might do well at that, yes." She nodded. "The bow as well, perhaps, or the sling."
Flavia's heart was in her throat. Esca wasn't mocking her. Esca was, in fact, taking her perfectly seriously, and she smiled in the dark and couldn't stop smiling.
"So you'll teach me?"
But Esca was shaking her head for no, and Flavia's hopes crashed down again. "I would if I could," she said, slowly, "but we have no weapons and no way to get them, and I am a slave besides. And you are often watched. It would be hard to keep it a secret even if we could."
And then Esca smiled, a smile Flavia could just barely see in the dark. "Don't lose heart. Stand up."
Bewildered, Flavia stood. "What--?"
"It is not a sword, but I will do what I can," Esca said, and she was as solemn as she had been the day she had arrived, when she swore oath to Flavia. "Hold out your hand."
She did, and Esca gripped it with both of her hands. Not hard, or at least not hard enough to hurt, but she was strong and Flavia's hand was held fast. She did not quite understand, but at the same time she did not want to take her hand away either; Esca's fingers were warm over hers and she liked the feel of them.
"If you have someone's hand, like this," Esca said, her voice low and intense, "you can take it and turn it like so--"
And she twisted Flavia's wrist out and away, until her wrist had no give left, and then her elbow turned with it, and Flavia could not move. It did not quite hurt, but there was the suggestion that it would if Esca pushed a little more.
"If you keep going you can break their wrist or elbow. You can sometimes hurt their shoulder. It depends upon how much they fight you. At the very least you can usually get them on the ground."
Esca's voice sounded calm, reasonable, as if she were one of Flavia's old tutors explaining poetry. It was all at once very like and very unlike that.
But it could not be that simple. "You are only saying that because you are taller than I am," Flavia said. It seemed impossible that such a tiny motion could hurt someone.
Esca laughed a little. "I have brought down men twice my size with that. Even a gladiator's arm doesn't bend backwards, no matter how strong he is." She gave another considering look. "It helps if they are off-balance first."
Flavia nodded, still dubious.
"Here," Esca said, and dropped Flavia's hand, then pushed her own hand into Flavia's fingers. "You try."
Flavia gripped Esca's hand just as Esca had done to her, or tried to; her hand was slick with sweat, and she was not quite sure why she was nervous. She turned Esca's hand, and Esca hissed with something that might have been pain--
And the movement dragged Esca forward, her hand still trapped between Flavia's. Their faces were inches apart, and Esca was grinning at her with a fierce grin, like a wolf on the hunt.
"Exactly so," Esca whispered, and her breath sent a hot shivery feeling all through Flavia, and there was a look in her eyes--
Flavia did not know what to say. She did not know what to do. "Thank you," she said finally. She opened her fingers and dropped Esca's hand, and the moment, whatever it had been, vanished.
"I will teach you what I know," said Esca, still quiet, "as I can manage." She was silent for long moments, moments in which Flavia's heart still pounded quick and heavy. "It will bring you happiness to know it, as you have said, and for myself-- it is important to remember that I can still fight."
Then, with a whisper of the curtain sliding open, Esca was gone.
They were inseparable after that, and all at once it was less awkward between them, the burden lifted, the tangled binding freed. In its place grew a different kind of tension, the thing Flavia had sensed that night in the dark.
As the nights of winter began to shorten and it came to be the spring of Flavia's twentieth year, the feeling only increased. She tried to ignore it, for it did not make any sense. Perhaps she was only still uneasy that Esca was a slave and she was not; sometimes she could almost, almost forget it when Esca laughed with her jokes, when Esca taught her in secret how to break a grip should someone choke her. Sometimes it was like Esca was only her friend, as Cottia was, and was never a slave. But she knew Esca never forgot. Yes, perhaps it was that difference that plagued her.
It did not help that Esca stared at her so.
Oh, it was not a hostile look in any way, but Esca still stared. It had started out normally enough, understandably enough; since Esca was a slave, one might even expect her to be attentive. But she looked at Flavia a little too long, looked when she did not have to, and it gave Flavia a warm, shivery feeling deep within her.
She knew it was bad on the day Cottia noticed. It was a warm day, the first day where it was nice enough to be in the garden, and so there the three of them were, enjoying themselves.
Cottia, sitting next to Flavia, had said something funny, inconsequential, and Flavia had laughed aloud--
And then she realized that Esca, sitting on Cottia's other side, was looking at her again. Oh, Esca looked away quickly, but not quickly enough, and even Cottia noticed.
I wish Esca would sit next to me, Flavia thought, and was confused by it. Esca was already here; why should she want her to sit closer?
Cottia's eyes darted between the two of them. "What is the matter? Are you two cross with each other?"
"I--" Flavia started, and then stopped, because she had no idea whether Esca was. Maybe Esca was, and that was why she looked at her so.
At the same time as she answered, Esca looked aghast. "Certainly not!" she cried, and then, quieter: "I am not, anyway."
"I am not either," said Flavia, firmly.
Cottia blinked a few times, and then put a hand on each of their shoulders. "Well, whatever it is, I am in the way." She shrugged. "Tell me when you have sorted it out."
And she was up over the wall and into her family's house.
Esca didn't look at her, and Flavia wished she knew what was going on.
Esca was quiet for the rest of the day. She was not given to great speeches at the best of times, but this silence felt heavy, like it held something else within it, and Flavia could not bring herself to ask.
At night Esca helped Flavia ready herself for bed, and she sat in her undertunic at the edge of the bed, staring at Esca by the light of the oil-lamp that Esca had not yet extinguished.
"Flavia," Esca said, drawing a shaking breath and not looking at her. "I have-- I have been ill-mannered to you, and I am sorry."
This did not help either, but at least Esca was talking. She did not think Esca owed her any sort of apology, but at least she might tell her why she thought that.
"Come here," she said, and patted the bed next to her. "I do not think you have anything to be sorry for, but at least come tell me what it is."
So Esca sat, perching uncomfortably on the edge of the bed as if she should prepare herself to run from it in an instant, and as she did the strange thought Flavia had earlier resurfaced, only now the tension in it held an odd sort of anticipation. Good, she thought, still confused. Esca was close now, and somehow, somehow that was better.
Esca licked her lips, and Flavia found herself drawn to the tiny motion of it, unaccountably warm even though the night was cold.
"I am not sure you will like it if I tell you," Esca said finally. "It may be it is a thing you would not have wanted to know."
Of course she wanted to know. She watched Esca fidget a little, bumping against her, and she was warm again, everywhere they touched; why was she warm?
"Tell me," said Flavia. "I promise I will not think poorly of you, whatever it is. You are my friend."
Esca smiled a little, still nervous, and Flavia thought again how pretty her smile was. Why was she so nervous? It was like how women behaved around their paramours, the idea occurred to her, suddenly. Perhaps Esca had met a man in town on one of her errands -- for it was spring now, and she was out alone sometimes -- and had become acquainted with him, and all the nervous looks were because she had been hesitant to tell anyone. Sometimes girls were shy about that; she knew as much from her friends. Well, from her friends who weren't Cottia, who was never shy. Perhaps that was what it was. She felt dissatisfied at this thought, and she was not entirely certain why. It did not make sense. She wanted Esca to be happy, after all.
"I--" Esca stopped and laughed again, seeming to laugh at herself. "I am sorry; this is hard to say." She took another trembling breath. "I wanted to say-- I would like-- if you would-- oh, this is intolerable! It would be much easier if I could only show you, if you wanted--"
Show her? This was making less and less sense, but, well, whatever made the conversation possible would be good, certainly.
Flavia nodded. "I want to know."
And Esca kissed her.
It was a gentle sort of kiss, at first, the kind of kiss one might give a friend in greeting, but it became rapidly clear that it was more than that. Esca's arms went around her, Esca's fingers tangled in her hair, and the unfamiliar feeling in Flavia pulsed and burned white-hot with need, deep within her, and she wanted Esca to touch her, to kiss her more, yes, to do all of this and never ever stop. It was as though she had been trying to read a scroll all her life only to discover that she had been holding it upside down, and now all the words made sense. And, oh, she wanted to touch Esca too, somewhere, anywhere, everywhere! Her hands went to Esca's arms, Esca's shoulders, under the edge of her tunic, and Esca moaned--
And they pulled apart, staring at each other, unsure what to do with this new knowledge now.
"Well," said Esca, her voice low, her eyes wide and dark, as though she could not quite believe this was happening, "at least I do not have to worry I am unwelcome."
"Oh, you are very welcome," whispered Flavia, in a voice she did not know she even possessed, and when Esca shuddered a little at her words, desire -- for that was what it was, what it always had been, she knew now -- ran all through her.
Esca smiled, and Flavia saw now that what she liked about Esca's smile was that she wanted to kiss it and kiss it so that Esca never stopped smiling. It was simple, when she thought of it like that.
"I am glad of that."
And now Flavia had to laugh at her thoughts from earlier, about how wrong she had been. "I thought you were going to tell me you'd met some man in town, perhaps, and you would fear I'd be angry with you for wanting more time away--"
Esca shook her head. "Only you, Flavia."
And there was a hint of something in her eyes that spoke to it being difficult -- a slave pining after her mistress, after all, surely must not be the the easiest thing for Esca. But Esca had been brave, and they would not let it come between them. They could not, not when it felt like this, more right than anything. It was so wonderful already, in all its newness.
"I do not know anything," Flavia admitted, ashamed of her own ignorance. What could women do with each other? Was there even a way they could give each other pleasure? "Only that I want to be in your presence, and have you be happy, and I want-- I only know I want to touch you, and have you do the same to me."
It sounded silly when she put it like that, but Esca grinned in a very kind way. "That is all you need to know." She sounded confident. It was fortunate that at least Esca knew something about how to go about this.
"Truly?" She reached out, daringly, to stroke Esca's face, to run a finger along her lips as she talked.
"There are -- mmm -- refinements," Esca said, nipping at her finger as it passed and still smiling. "But that is the basic idea."
And Flavia pulled Esca to her and down to the bed, and this time she kissed Esca first.
"Oh," she said, afterwards, sleepily, full of wonder. "That was a fine thing, Esca. Is that some secret trick only the tribes know?"
The lamp had long since burned out, and at her side in the dark Esca laughed and kissed her neck. "I am flattered, but I would be very surprised if Rome had not also discovered it."
"Then why did they not tell me?"
She felt a little indignant, but she was too sated to summon up anything other than scraps of annoyance, not when she had Esca here in her arms.
Esca laughed again. "I suspect it might be one of those improper things."
"Or perhaps," Flavia said, giggling as inspiration hit her, and running her hand over Esca's hip, "they knew if they told us we would never get anything else done and only stay in bed, and houses would cease to be run, and then everything would go wrong!"
"Perhaps," said Esca, "but among the Brigantes we have time to do both." And she sounded proud but her voice shook with sadness as she said it.
"It sounds like a fine place to live."
"I wish I could have met your family," Flavia said, and she found herself sad as well. "I wish I had known you before."
Esca pushed herself up one elbow, and the light from the small window fell across her face. Her eyes were bright and reflected too much. "Ah, Flavia. We only have now."
And Esca smiled and kissed her again and again until Flavia had entirely forgotten what they were talking about.
"Excellent!" cried Cottia, when she saw them the next day in the baths. "I am so happy you two have made up!"
Flavia gave a guilty start and then nodded; it was strange to keep anything from Cottia, but she was not exactly sure what she should say about it. She was not sure there were even words for it. And what if Cottia were repulsed, or angry?
She only noticed after Cottia had gone that she had left little biting bruises at the base of Esca's neck. At least Esca's hair today covered them, more or less. Cottia had not said anything, anyway, so she must not have seen. It would be all right.
Spring was full of joy. She had Esca, and Esca had her, and Flavia was happy. She could not remember having been so happy, not like this, never like this. She caught herself looking over at Esca all the time, and smiling and smiling until her face nearly hurt from it.
And somehow no one else noticed. It was perfectly ordinary that Flavia should spend time with her maid, after all, and she hardly needed a chaperone for that. What was between them did not seem to be anything anyone else could think of, so they did not know to look, and Flavia was grateful for that. Her uncle never noticed, but he was always shut in his tower, writing. And, well, if they touched a little more when Cottia was around, more than they had before, Cottia did not say. Flavia felt daring, somehow, secretly thrilled, that Esca could sit beside her and hold her hand, brush her hair, trace her fingertips along the back of Flavia's neck, where anyone could see them. They could see them and they would not know what they saw.
Even her uncle seemed happy.
One evening in May, over dinner, her uncle called out from the other couch, as if it were an easy, usual thing: "I've had word that one of my old army companions will be in town soon; I'll be inviting him for dinner, of course."
He hardly ever had the grand dinners expected of equestrians; he hardly ever accepted the invitations, either. Kaeso and Valaria still invited him, but they were so determined to be thought of as Roman that they were always inviting everyone of any importance at every chance they got. So this man must be special indeed, Flavia thought, to merit this.
"Who is he, Uncle?"
Her uncle beckoned to Marcipor to refill his cup, then shrugged and chuckled. "No one you would have heard of, my dear. His name is Claudius Marcellus, and we served together for a while." His eyes grew distant, and his smile was fond. "Ah, we were the best of friends, but he is legate of the Sixth Legion now, up in Eburacum, and so he is a very busy man. I have not seen him in years."
What would it be like if she went years without seeing Esca? She nodded. "You must be looking forward very much. When will he be here?"
"Oh, in a few days, I should think." He smiled as if he meant to be kind. "You need not dine with us, Flavia; it will all be old war stories, and you would not want to hear those."
She made herself smile. "Of course not, Uncle."
Flavia had nearly forgotten about that conversation by the last market-day in May. She had been out with Esca, buying a meal from the sellers in the forum, and then, extravagantly, buying fruit. Ceres had blessed them all indeed; the weather had been so good that berries were in season early, and in a quiet side-street she and Esca ate them, laughing and occasionally holding one out for the other, staining their fingers and mouths red.
So they tarried a while, Flavia not being particularly eager to return home for dinner when she was no longer hungry -- and anyway, how could dinner be sweeter than her day with Esca? -- so it was dusk by the time they reached her uncle's house.
They were not alone.
She stopped in surprise and stared at the two men in the atrium with her uncle, both dressed in the togas and tunics of senators. One man was old, her uncle's age, and he glanced at her quickly before turning back. But the other -- ah, he was young, and Flavia disliked him instantly. It was not that he was ugly; Flavia rather suspected that many women she knew would have found his smooth skin and sculpted features quite pleasing. No, it was how he looked at her. He stared at her as if she were a thing to be looked at, to be judged, and then he smiled in a way that suggested all sorts of things Flavia did not want to think about.
"Ah, Flavia!" her uncle said. "Good! You are back. This is Claudius Marcellus, legate of the Sixth, and his tribune Servius Placidus, come to visit for a meal. Marcellus, Placidus, I present my niece Flavia."
She inclined her head to both of them. "It is a pleasure to meet you."
Marcellus gave a businesslike nod; Placidus smiled something more like a smirk, and Flavia wanted to shudder and run.
"I think it is just about dinnertime," her uncle said to the guests, and then raised a questioning eyebrow to Flavia. "I would not ask this of you, ordinarily," he said in an undertone, "but Marcipor is unwell and we need a slave in the dining-room. Would you mind if I borrowed Esca to serve for dinner? You will have her again, of course, afterwards."
Esca was standing motionless at the edge of the atrium, her face unreadable. Slaves were as furniture, as decoration, as tools, and no one took their wishes into account. This was up to Flavia to decide. And certainly there was no reason she ought to refuse. Anyone else would have handed Esca over without a second thought. She had to pretend to be that person.
"Certainly you may borrow her, Uncle," said Flavia, trying to sound gracious, and out of the corner of her eye she saw Esca head for the dining room, to prepare.
Placidus gave her another smile. She tried to make herself smile in return, but she feared it was more of a grimace.
Then her uncle and his guests rose, and as they left Flavia could hear Placidus talking, almost out of earshot.
"--your niece, eh?" he was asking. "Wonderful girl. And she is not married?"
There came a laugh Flavia didn't recognize, and the legate Marcellus' voice. "Don't mind my tribune, Aquila! He is only eager to marry, and he asks that of everyone!"
Whatever her uncle said in response was too faint to hear, and Flavia dropped to a chair, her legs suddenly weak under her.
It would be all right, she told herself. This Placidus surely knew nothing of her father, and when the story was all told, since of course her uncle would mention it, he would lose interest. He had to. That was how it worked.
She wished that Esca were here.
The dinner-party ran late, and it was well after dark when the guests departed; they were staying with another old soldier, or so Flavia gathered from the chatter in the atrium.
Esca did not come.
She undressed herself, awkwardly, and tried to fix her hair herself before giving up and curling in on herself, alone in bed.
Where was Esca?
It was very late, it seemed, when the curtain opened and a familiar shape stood outlined in the faint light, a dark shadow against a paler one.
She sat up. "Esca?"
Esca was at her side in an instant. She smelled of wine and her tunic was damp; there must have been some spilled on her at dinner. And she was trembling as she tucked her head against Flavia's neck. Without even thinking, Flavia brought her arms up to hold her.
"Esca?" she whispered again, when Esca still had not spoken. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing," said Esca, quickly, but she clung to Flavia for a long time in the dark.
Esca had left for her pallet in the slave-quarters in the middle of the night, and Flavia woke late and alone. By the time she struggled out of bed and into the day's clothing by herself, she found that she had just missed Esca; over breakfast Sassticca informed Flavia that Esca had gone out on an errand.
"For Uncle?" she asked, taking a long swallow of water.
Sassticca shook her head, confused. "Domina, did you not order her?"
"Oh," said Flavia, surprised, and she hoped fervently it sounded like a late realization. "Oh, yes, I remember now."
Except she did not, for she had given no such order. Why would Esca lie? Where had she gone?
"Flavia, dear," her uncle called from his office, and his voice was unexpectedly serious. "There is something we need to talk about."
She had heard, from the atrium, the low tones of Stephanos reading out a letter some ragged messenger-boy had brought, but dismissed it as none of her business -- though it seemed it was now.
When she entered, her uncle waved Stephanos out of the room and gestured for her to sit. He seemed happy, full of life; perhaps it was a very good letter.
"What is it, Uncle? Good news?"
"Oh, very good indeed!" replied her uncle, smiling. "Servius Placidus, the tribune you met last night--"
A cold knife of fear twisted through Flavia's gut.
"He was very taken with you, my dear, and has written to ask if you would be amenable to seeing him again. I believe he is desirous of a wife. Is it not great fortune that he should be interested in you?"
No. No, no, no, no. Her vision greyed a little and she dug her fingers into her palm to steady herself, to anchor herself to the world. This could not be happening.
"Uncle," she forced out, through the rising panic that was rapidly draining her of all thought, "I have hardly even met the man."
His brows drew together in confusion. "That is why you can meet him again, yes? He seemed very interested to hear about you over dinner."
"Does he know?" Now Flavia was reaching desperately, she knew, but it seemed inconceivable that he could know about her father's loss and not care. "Did you tell him about my father?"
Her uncle shrugged. "He did not seem to mind; he said he thought that enough time had passed now that the shame was surely behind us all." And then he finally seemed to see the expression on her face. "Flavia, what is wrong?"
"Nothing," she lied, terrified, and then remembered as she said it that Esca had told her the same thing last night. Perhaps Esca had heard them talking about her and she had guessed rightly that this was to come. But that did not explain why Esca had left, either.
"Well, then," her uncle said, smiling, "if you are willing, he would like to visit with you later today."
She had to. There was no other choice. She could not simply say that she wished not to marry.
She smiled and wished she were braver. If she were braver, she would refuse. She was weak. "Of course, Uncle."
Placidus stared at her for a long time with a smile that was polite enough, but Flavia knew enough to know there was something hidden behind it.
"At least you are not ugly," he said, finally, and his voice was kind, as though he honestly meant this to be a compliment.
But you are an ass, she wanted to say, for that was how the entire conversation had gone, with him blundering his way through well-meaning, ill-mannered compliments and looking at her in an uncomfortably lecherous way.
Cottia would have called him an ass, too, had he been her suitor. She would have been obnoxious and insulting in return, and he would have left.
Esca would have broken his arm for one of those glances. Flavia knew how to do it, now. There were so many little tricks Esca had taught her, and Placidus would not expect it. She considered his toga-shrouded forearm thoughtfully. She would not really have done it, of course, and she hated herself for knowing that was true. For she had asked Esca to teach her to fight, and she was too much of a coward to ever use the knowledge.
Neither of them were here, and Flavia only smiled prettily and nodded.
"It is pleasant enough in Eburacum," he added, although this was surely a lie because if nothing else it had to be colder there than here. "And you would have fine clothes and jewelry and-- er--"
Someone must have told him once what women liked, and it seemed he had forgotten the rest of the list he was reciting. She smiled politely enough. It seemed to be her fate in life that no man would understand her -- not her father, not her uncle, and now not her husband-to-be. "And?"
Shall I have spears and war-ponies as Cottia promised? The thought drifted, slowly, sadly, through her mind. No, I never shall. I always knew it would never be true.
"Oh, and whatever else you would like," he managed, recovering his smile. Flavia wondered what it might be like to hit him in the face. Esca had taught her to punch, a bit, but she could never practice properly, so she did not think it would do any good.
"That is very kind of you," she murmured.
"And you will have many slaves to tend to you, of the best quality." He wrinkled his nose. "You will not have to settle for an ugly barbarian warrior to braid your hair, certainly!"
Esca. Flavia clenched a fist in the folds of her tunic, breathed, and then unclenched it. Placidus did not know. He could not know. She almost wished he had been trying to be cruel; she could have borne it better. But no, he wanted to be kind, he wanted to take Esca from her forever--
She smiled and nodded again as her heart cried out.
"He is of good character, is he not?" her uncle asked, afterward.
She wished she could have said no. It was the only reason she could refuse.
Flavia stared helplessly into the distance. "Uncle, I am sure he is an excellent citizen."
Even he could tell that something was wrong, and Flavia tried not to cry as her uncle awkwardly embraced her.
"There, there," he said. "I understand it must be frightening, but truly it will not be so bad. You will run a fine household, I am certain. And it is not as though I am giving you into his power."
No, she thought, bleakly, but I will still be in yours.
"And you will have your dowry to provide for you," he continued. "You will have money, and slaves -- why, I will give you Esca, for I know you are fond of her, and besides I do not need her to arrange my hair." And he smiled, as if he wanted to make a joke of it.
She had been silly to think her life could ever go otherwise. Of course she would have to marry. Of course she could never be like the British warrior-women. Her life had never been her own. She was old already, almost unthinkably old to marry, and only growing older -- the first offer (from a man of senatorial rank, no less!) was likely to be the best of them, and she did not think Placidus meant to be an ass. It was like that tale, the one by the old Greek, Aesop, of the frogs who asked the gods for a king. If she refused Placidus, the next man would no doubt be worse.
Flavia took a deep shuddering breath. "I suppose I shall marry him, then."
"There, see?" her uncle said again, letting her go. "That was not so difficult, was it?"
Esca came back late at night, an oil-lamp in her hands, and she had barely set it down on the shelf at the far side of Flavia's room before Flavia had wrapped Esca in her arms. She had intended to ask where Esca had been, what she had been doing, but all of that was driven out of her by her own fear. She held Esca tightly, as if by some magic Esca's touch could make everything better, could erase the situation she had found herself in.
"Esca, oh, Esca!" she cried, against Esca's skin, against Esca's neck, pressing her fingers into the whorls of ink just visible on Esca's shoulders, a fine tracery she had grown to know almost better than her own skin. She opened her mouth to speak again but all that came out was a sob.
Esca's arms went round her quickly, steadying her. Esca smelled strange, of hay and grass and wild things. "Shh, shh," Esca said, her breath warm on Flavia's hair. "Let us sit, and you will breathe, and you can tell me about it."
Flavia half-fell on the bed and Esca followed, her arm still around Flavia.
"I am to marry Placidus."
Esca nodded, and her face tightened in sadness -- but not surprise. She had expected this. "Oh, Flavia," she said, her voice breaking, and pulled her closer.
They sat without speaking for a while, though it was not exactly silent; Esca breathed heavily, raggedly, and Flavia was sure her own sniffling was very loud.
"I do not want to marry him."
It felt daring somehow to say that out loud; they both knew she did not, but thinking it was not the same as saying it.
"I know," Esca whispered. And then, even quieter: "I do not want you to, either."
Flavia took another breath. "I do not want to marry any man, Esca."
Esca let go of her, then, and twisted her own hands together in her lap; Flavia stared numbly at the opposite wall, not really seeing her, or anything.
"I have heard it is not as bad as all that," Esca started, reluctantly. She sounded as though she did not want to say it at all, did not believe it, but that someone somewhere had told her it and she felt that she must pass the message on. "Even if you do not love him at first -- the Roman matrons say -- you might come to like him, at least."
"He is a callous idiot, a fool, and an ass!" Flavia snapped, louder than she intended. "I will never love him, much less like him."
Esca sighed. "He is an ass, isn't he?"
She remembered, then, that Esca had served Placidus at dinner last night; Esca had likely seen him for longer than she had, and in a more unguarded way. Perhaps he was a cruel man, truly, and had revealed himself as such among his fellows. She had to know whom she would marry.
"Tell me of him, then," she said, feeling as though someone else were saying the words. "You saw him more than I did. What sort of husband would he be? Since I must have him."
She turned and watched Esca's sharp, beautiful profile as Esca sat in thought.
When Esca finally spoke, her face was still, her tone curiously harsh for her words. "If he is cruel, I do not think he intends to be. He said things at dinner that were awkward, but I think he knew no better. I think he would not know quite how to converse with you -- he said he had only brothers, and I do not think he has known many women well."
Flavia laughed bitterly. "Oh, I already found out he cannot converse with me."
"But I do not think he would try to hurt you," Esca assured her, her words quick. "Not even in the marriage-bed, if you are worried about that."
She bit her lip. That worry had not even occurred to her. It would be nothing like the pleasures of her times with Esca, she supposed. But it was kind of Esca to try to reassure her even about this. "Do you think?"
"I have met men of his ilk before." Esca sighed; for an instant her face looked very, very far away. "I think, since he is not in love with you, he will bed you a few times, to do his duty, to try to get a son. I do not think he will constantly bother you with his lusts. He'll chase all the slaves. No need for you to worry." Her words were delivered in a careful, neutral tone, almost too careful, as though Esca was trying very hard not to let anything show in her voice. Strange, for her words did not warrant it.
That was good, then, thought Flavia, that he would only harass the slaves and not bother--
Her mind filled with horrified realization.
Esca. Esca was a slave.
At the same moment, Esca looked down at her hands in her lap and shifted one hand over the other. Flavia looked too, her eyes drawn by the motion, and--
There was a bruise on the inside of Esca's wrist, dark and heavy against her pale skin, the width of three or four fingers. Esca was moving her arm away. Esca didn't want her to see. Last night Esca had cried in the dark. Something even more horrible took shape in Flavia's mind.
Flavia felt as though she might be sick. Her stomach twisted, and her muscles tensed; Flavia did not know whether she wanted to run or to fight. She almost couldn't breathe through the stab of anger and terror as she reached out for Esca's bruised arm.
"Esca," she said. "What did he do to you?" Her voice was calm, almost cold, but inside she was raging like the Kindly Ones. "Tell me."
Wide, terrified blue eyes met hers. "Nothing," Esca said, but her voice trembled; she was on the verge of tears.
She would kill him. She would kill him. She had not understood until this very moment what that felt like, a dizzying rush of ire and determination. She could do it. Esca had taught her.
"Tell me what he did."
"Nothing," Esca repeated, her voice rising in panic. "Nothing happened, Flavia, I swear. He didn't--" she took a breath, then another, her chest heaving-- "he didn't do anything."
Her fingers tightened on Esca's hand, next to the bruise. "What happened?"
Esca took another shaking breath. "He saw my ink and knew me for a warrior; I think he thought I would be an intriguing sort of... challenge. He had drunk more than he should have. When I was filling his wine-cup again, he grabbed my arm, spilled the wine on me, and... said things. He only said things. He did not do them. Your uncle stopped him."
Flavia's heart was pounding as if she'd run miles. "Did he?"
"He said he'd promised that you would have me back in the evening, and the legate said something about how this wasn't that sort of dinner-party, and then he let me go."
If she married Placidus, she wouldn't be able to protect Esca. And while Placidus might be kind to Flavia herself -- and might even be kind to Esca in her presence -- he would force Esca if Flavia were not there, if she did not know about it. And she could not be there all the time.
She would not do this. She could not do this to Esca.
"I cannot marry him," Flavia said. "Whatever it takes to get out of this, I will do it. I will not do this."
Esca turned and grabbed her by the shoulders, hard.
"Do not do this for my sake," she said, but her eyes were begging Flavia otherwise. "You cannot. I am nothing. I am a slave."
"You are everything," Flavia said fiercely.
Esca took a quick, sharp breath and said nothing for a while, then the corners of her mouth turned upwards, the smallest smile. "You are to me as well."
They had to do something. But what?
"I will not marry Placidus," Flavia repeated.
Esca's smile was grateful, and in the flickering lamp-light she looked away, then back, and she bit her lip. "They will have you marry someone, eventually."
"I know." She had been trying not to think about that.
Esca was silent again, then she breathed out, a fragile, shaking sound. When she spoke her voice was level, calm. "Flavia," said she. "I have to know. If I told you--" she shut her eyes, took another firming breath, and then opened them-- "there was a way for you not to get married. For both of us to be safe. What would you be willing to do?"
"Anything." It would be like a dream. Her dream, the one she had thought never to have in this life. How could she not do everything possible to live it? She met Esca's eyes. "For that, I would do anything I could."
"And if there were danger, at first?" Esca pressed her. "You are brave, Flavia, but I know you have never had the chance to--"
She interrupted Esca, impatient. "I would do it. Whatever it was. It would be worth it."
"Then we will run."
The words did not make any sense at first. She stared. "I don't understand."
"Not all of my clan is dead." Esca's eyes were pale in the light, and her voice was low and intense. "They live still, north of the wall, and they will take us in. And I am Cunoval's daughter and may do as I wish, and if I say you are sworn to me, none will touch you, for as long as you wish. You will be free to do what you like; no man will own you. Even I will not own you; an oath has other obligations, but not that. You could fight. You would not have to marry. You could-- you could be with me, always, if you wanted it."
"How?" Were they truly talking about this? Could it really happen? She hardly knew what to say; her mind was at once blank and at the same time filled with so many questions. She settled on the simplest. "How will we leave?"
Esca looked at her for a long while, as if deciding whether to entrust her secrets to Flavia. Uneasiness rose up in Flavia, slithering and twisting like a snake through the grass. Even after these many months, Esca was hiding things from her? What else might Esca hide? She had not hid anything from Esca!
"There is a man who owns horses," Esca said, finally, seemingly oblivious to her sudden distress. "I have been to see him today, when I feared this might come to pass. He is a freedman of the Brigantes, and he owed my father a great debt, a life-debt. Now he owes it to me. He will not betray us. I can arrange it all."
The uncomfortable feeling only grew stronger at Esca's words, and she drew back. "How long?" she asked, and her voice rose in accusation. "How long have you known this and not told me? You could have run, you could have run the day I met you--"
Esca drew her chin up, meeting Flavia'a anger with her own defiance. "I did not meet the stable-master until spring. Until then I could not have run at all. And it is a dangerous thing for a slave to admit to knowing: I had to be sure."
Spring. So many things had happened this spring.
"Before?" asked Flavia. "Or after?" She found it hard to talk about what they were to each other, but she hoped Esca understood her meaning. She met Esca's eyes, as boldly as she could.
She wondered if it mattered to Esca. She wondered if Esca's life divided neatly into two halves, separated by one kiss. For if Esca had already known of this escape before that first night, if Esca had come to her in the dark thinking of her as a pleasant diversion, something to do until Calleva's gates opened to her freedom-- perhaps, then, it was another way to break a Roman, to have your mistress weeping at your feet, feeling hate and love, tortured by it. What if Esca never loved her, and only Flavia felt this way?
"After," Esca said, and she sounded helpless, the answer torn out of her, and her eyes were wide. "And after-- I did not think I could just run, not without you."
"Oh." Flavia breathed out, relieved; her chest lightened, the crushing weight of panic lifted. She watched as Esca gave a weak little smile.
"You must think me foolish," Esca said quietly. "Anyone else would. A slave who could run, who stayed for love of her mistress--"
And all at once she had Esca in her arms, and they were kissing and kissing and Flavia knew Esca was brave now, braver than anything, because she had said it.
"I would never think that," Flavia whispered, drawing back, when Esca had her eyes shut. She did not think she could say such things with Esca watching. "You know you have my love as well, and if I am foolish, then, oh, let us be two fools together. I will go with you, Esca, gladly will I go!"
She said it over and over, and as she spoke Esca's hand clenched on the neck of her tunic. Esca pulled her close once again and kissed her more, between every word, and she said it and said it until it hardly sounded like a word, until she could not speak. She had made her choice now, and it changed all things, but this, this she would still have, and she kissed Esca again in return.
"Together," Esca said, against her lips.
Esca ducked her head and held Flavia tightly, trembling; she could not see Esca's face, and she did not know if Esca was crying. Flavia felt as though she had already made an oath to her, as the warrior she had always wanted to be, just by saying she would go.
It was a strange feeling, this loyalty, and she realized suddenly what it would mean to swear to Esca. Esca would not be a slave, after all. "You will be queen."
"Perhaps I will." Flavia felt the motion of Esca’s shrug against her. "I do not know who rules now, and if they would be keen to give up their power. But I find I do not care so much, as long as I am free there, which I will be. It is in my heart that you be there with me," Esca murmured into her ear. "But it will be different, you know. You will have to speak only British, now and forever. There will be no baths, no hypocausts, no fine marble buildings. If you see Romans, they will be the Red Crests, your enemy, come to wage war. You will not be Roman any longer, do you understand?"
She knew it was serious, what Esca was impressing upon her, and she did not know if she ought to be afraid. She felt no fear, only joy. Rome had done nothing except hurt her and bind her. This would be a new life, a better life. "I had rather be Brigantes."
Esca's grip on her grew tighter. "Then Brigantes you will be." She paused. "And your name, Flavia, it cannot be yours. I am sorry."
She half-smiled against Esca's hair and thought about having a name of her own, a name that only belonged to her. "I have never liked it anyway."
Flavia had never been so grateful before that it was May.
It was May, and in May there could not be weddings. Esca went out every day to arrange plans for their flight, and even though that meant she had to deal with Placidus' more frequent visits alone, she was grateful -- for while Esca was gone, they were moving ever closer to leaving. She gave Esca coin on the pretext of shopping, and she knew Esca was buying cheap things and keeping the leftover money. They would need it for supplies.
"I am glad you seem more pleased," Placidus told her, one day.
Oh, if he only knew. Eburacum was in the Brigantes' territory. Perhaps a distant relation of Esca's might fight him, might wound him if there was another revolt. Flavia did not even have to fake a smile.
She would miss her uncle, a little, but he would recover, she thought. It would be well.
It pained her that they could not tell Cottia. They both knew they could not. Cottia, for all that Flavia loved her, would never be quiet if she knew something. And though she would not intend to tell anyone that they were leaving -- Flavia was certain of this -- her uncle would think to ask Cottia afterwards, when he would find Flavia and Esca gone. And Cottia might give something away, though she would not intend to. They could not risk it.
It certainly did not help that Cottia kept telling her not to do it.
"You do know he is an ass," Cottia said, indignant, her nostrils flaring. "And you are marrying him? Truly?"
Flavia bit her lip. "I have agreed to marry him." It was, after all, the truth. Part of the truth.
It was the day before the Kalends of June. Esca returned late that night with a cloth-wrapped bundle, which she held out. "Hide this here," Esca said. It was not the way a slave should speak, but they both knew Esca was not a slave any longer. "You have more privacy than I do."
Flavia inspected it curiously. In it were a pair of braccae and a sleeved tunic, the kind British men wore. "Esca-- what-- why?"
"All is in readiness," said Esca. "We will leave tomorrow night."
So soon. So very soon. It was real. It was truly real, and she would leave with Esca, and they would be free.
"What are the clothes for?"
"For me, of course," Esca said, glancing at over her in surprise as though this ought to be obvious. "They will be looking for two women, yes? Not a woman and a man. Your clothing ought to be fine," she added, though her eye was a little critical. "Bring a cloak. You will be cold at night, but we will not freeze. It is good fortune we are not making this journey in fall, or winter!"
"I--" Flavia could hardly think of anything to say. Esca had planned everything. "Will you cut your hair?" She knew it was silly, the most meaningless of all the things she could say, but she could not help but ask.
Esca laughed and pulled her into an embrace. "It will grow back."
It was the middle of the night and all the household was asleep. Her uncle had held a fancier dinner than usual to celebrate Flavia's nuptials, and Esca had made sure that Flavia's wine was watered much more than anyone else's. Her uncle would not wake. The slaves would not wake. Even Procyon was soundly asleep.
She did not dare light a candle or a lamp. It was hard to see in the poor light of the window, but she bundled her things into a cloak with determination, with resolve. She would leave. They would leave.
At first Flavia didn't recognize the man who pulled back the curtain, and she gasped -- there had been no warning.
"Shh," Esca's voice said, and Flavia stared, amazed.
If she had not known it was Esca from her voice, she did not think she would have known. Esca's hair was cut like a man's, and she wore a tunic and braccae under her cloak. She had bound her breasts down, and she was slim enough to pass for a young man, though she would never fool anyone into believing she was a soldier. Esca could pitch her voice low enough, Flavia knew, and hopefully they would not have to talk to very many people.
At Esca's waist, metal gleamed, and Flavia swallowed hard to see it. A dagger. She did not know where Esca had come by it, and she was not certain she wanted to know. Slaves were forbidden to bear weapons. They had not left yet, and they had already taken a step on the path. There would be no turning back now. It would be disastrous to be found.
Esca's grin was white in the darkness. "If I can fool you, I can fool anyone. Are you ready?"
Flavia nodded. "I am ready."
Esca held out her hand.
They crept, silent, through the rest of the house, and Flavia finally let herself breathe again when they stood in the darkened street. After this, it would be a little easier -- Esca's friend with the horses was expecting them, Esca had said. The most terrifying part was done. They had gone unobserved.
Then the door to Kaeso and Valaria's house opened.
No one could have noticed, Flavia thought, panicked. They had been so careful. It must be some awful coincidence, a slave sent out in the night, or some such thing. What would they do? What would they say?
Esca let go of Flavia's hand and stepped in front of her, blocking her from the doorway with her body, and Flavia could only stare as Esca's hand dropped to the hilt of her dagger.
The figure in Kaeso's doorway was cloaked and hooded, and he closed the door behind himself. He was coming toward them, Flavia thought, all of her thoughts slowed and useless. He was going to stop them. It wouldn't work, it wouldn't work after all--
"What do you two think you're doing?" Cottia said, angrily.
"Cottia!" Flavia cried out, dizzy with relief.
Cottia glared. "I am not stupid like that man Placidus," she said. "Do you think I did not notice? You are leaving Calleva! You are leaving me! And you did not say!"
Flavia tried to remember how to breathe again. "We could not take the chance."
"And you did not even ask me to come?"
It was then that Flavia saw how Cottia was dressed; she was outfitted for traveling, as they were.
Then Esca spoke, before Flavia could. "Where we are going, there is no coming back," she said quietly. "And you are Iceni, not Brigantes. I did not know if you would live among strangers."
"I would live among any tribe as long as it is not here," Cottia said, stepping close and seizing Esca's hand, pleading. "I cannot stand to live as a Roman! And you must know that you are my friends and I would fain be with you, wherever that will be."
There was silence, then, and Flavia knew this was Esca's decision to make.
"All right," Esca said, smiling, though her voice was tense. "But if you would come, you must come now."
Cottia stood up straighter, proudly -- she was taller than both of them -- and held her head high. "I am ready." She gave Flavia a look, an odd look, as though she had just remembered something. "And perhaps when we are with the Brigantes, we can learn who has your father's Eagle, hmm?"
Flavia shook her head. "Whoever has it can keep it, and much joy to them. I do not want it any more."
No Roman would ever say that. She did not care.
"To the north, then," said Esca, still grinning.
Flavia took Cottia's other hand, and together the three ran down the street.
"So," said Cottia, calling across from her mount, when the pace of the journey had slowed enough that they could talk, "are you tribades?"
Flavia frowned and readjusted her grip on Esca's waist as their own horse picked his way over the exposed root of a tree. Cottia's Greek accent was execrable, and if that was what she had said it did not make any sense, for what had rubbing to do with anything at all?
"What does that mean?" she asked.
"My aunt Valaria told me that I was to live as a good Roman girl and I should be wary of tribades," Cottia called back, cheerfully. "She said they were unnatural women who were so overcome with lust that they rubbed at each other's shameful parts--" and here she broke off, looking confused, as Flavia felt her face grow hot and could scarcely speak in reply, but then Cottia continued-- "and I did not understand why she used that word. Why do you Romans call the cunt a shameful part when there is nothing shameful about it?"
"Flavia is not a Roman any longer," Esca said, and she could feel Esca's voice resonating through her, strong and proud, even with the layers of wool between them where they were pressed together. "And anyway, it is not her fault. She did not name it."
Cottia seemed to accept this explanation, because she nodded and opened her mouth again to speak while Flavia was still struck silent by her boldness. Of course Cottia of all people would say these things, but how had she known about them? Was she sad? Angry? Did she disapprove?
"At any rate," Cottia said, still cheerful, "my aunt said that tribades only rub at each other in vain because they are jealous that they cannot have cocks like men, which give pleasure. But I think she was lying because it is very nice when I rub at myself even if I do not have a cock. So I wanted to know if it was pleasant to be a tribas."
"Cottia!" Flavia managed, reproachfully, having found her own voice at last. She was scandalized, truly, she was. It was one thing to do it, but it was another to find out there were words for it, improper words she was fairly certain that well-bred young women should not know.
But she was not among Romans now, she reminded herself. She was with her friends, and they were on their way to a better life, and she would have to learn to live differently. Perhaps the British talked of these things all the time. It might be nice, she thought, to be able to talk about it.
So Flavia tried not to look away as Esca turned her own head, her profile outlined sharp in the dimness of the woods, her newly-shorn hair sticking up, and Flavia watched as Esca grinned back.
"It is very pleasant, indeed," said Esca, laughing a little.
"Oh, I thought so!" Cottia replied, sounding very happy with herself. "I do not mean to stop you being tribades or anything like that," she added hurriedly. "I was only wondering." And then there was a long pause, and Cottia's eyes flicked nervously over at them. Cottia was never, ever nervous.
Very suddenly it seemed wrong to her to do this and keep it from Cottia, to say they did it and she could not, for they were all friends here, and they were all together in this perilous journey. Should they not be together in all things? Why should they leave Cottia out of anything?
Flavia took a deep breath. "Perhaps you would like to join us."
It was the right thing to say. Cottia smiled, and Esca smiled, full of promise, as they rode north to freedom.