From Calleva they had been able to follow the broad Roman road North-East towards Glevum for the first two days of travelling, but on the third day, the directions they had been given turned Marcus and Esca off the paved road and onto a muddy drovers' way travelling West. And now, as they got closer and closer to the village where Marcus had bought land, he was disheartened to see that the road narrowed into a trail, and finally was no more than an animal track leading them up into the hills.
Marcus looked around at the rocky ground and the pale green turf, the uneven edge of the wind-whipped forest further up on the hillside. "I am beginning to believe that Gnaeus may have embellished his description of this land he has sold me," he said. The reins in his hand jerked as his horse stumbled over a stone on the path.
Esca, walking beside him leading his own heavily-laden pony, opened his mouth to answer, but was interrupted by the faraway bleating of sheep. Soon the flock of sheep came into sight, ambling down the hillside. Once they were closer, Marcus and Esca could see that they were herded by a small boy and two dogs which stood almost as tall as he did. As soon as they were inside of earshot, Esca called out a greeting. The boy answered hesitantly and came down onto the trail to meet them. Marcus stayed back while Esca and the boy exchanged a few words in the Britonnic language. Finally, Esca turned towards him. "This is Brenhin. He will take us to Gnaeus' farm."
Brenhin set off up the road with the sheep crowding around him. Marcus and Esca followed for a couple of miles, and then the boy called them over his shoulder, pointing ahead up the road. Esca answered, raising his hand in thanks. "We are almost there now," he told Marcus in Latin. Coming round the next bend, they saw the house, lying a few yards away.
Marcus stopped. Gnaeus' farm was a low-roofed roundhouse of Britonnic build, nestled into a low glen and surrounded by wattle fencing. Within the fencing were two smaller outbuildings: a stable and a storage house raised above the ground on stakes. A couple of disused animal pens lay to one side of the buildings, and behind the main house and stretching up the slope of a large hill were a couple of fields which looked like they had been spring-ploughed at some point but were now beginning to grow over with weeds.
Marcus' pony, sensing the prospect of rest and food, began to pull forward. Marcus followed, speechless. Uncle Aquila had warned him to be careful when he set out to find land to buy instead of accepting the veteran's house that he had been offered in Calleva. "I can't imagine what kind of shed a soldier's pension will buy you when you are too proud to take a lot here in the city."
Marcus had not heeded the warning. The veteran houses were small and all built after the same design, lying always at the edge of the city, with small plots of land where a man might be able to support himself but never a larger household, and never with an opportunity to gain any fortune. It was not the life he wanted.
The merchant, Gnaeus, who had sold him this property, had spoken of a solid main building, of well-kept pens and fertile soil, all newly abandoned by deceitful tenants and only cheap because he was tired of the whole business and wanted the land off his hands for good. He had talked of neighbours and a village nearby with opportunities of trade. But he had entirely failed to mention that the house seemed to lie deep in tribal country.
Brenhin called out a final greeting and turned away again, leading his sheep up over the hill.
Esca stayed behind to tether the horses while Marcus walked up to the main house and stepped inside. The house consisted of a single room. It was half dark inside - illuminated only by the light from the doorway now that the leather apron which covered it had been pulled aside. A few rays of pale sunlight crept in through the cracks and holes in the reef-thatched roof. In the centre of the room stood a raised hearth and a domed clay oven. A mouse squeaked and fled across the floor when Esca stepped inside. Esca moved close, but he did not speak, probably sensing Marcus' low spirits.
Marcus slowly turned around, taking in the primitive, stamped dirt floors and the wattle-and-daub walling. This was where all the money from his gratuity had gone, the prize that he had been bestowed for returning the Eagle of the Ninth from the tribes. He had seen the inside of this type of house before, when he had visited the Britons in Isca Dumnoniorum as a centurion, to settle disputes or collect late taxes, and he had stayed in one very briefly, crowded together with the other slaves in the weeks that he and Esca stayed with the Seal People. But he had never imagined that he would live in one.
He was wrested from his thoughts by a hand on his shoulder. "Come, let us unsaddle the horses"
Dark was falling, so they made quick work of unloading the sacks of grain seed they had bought in Calleva: a local grain, on Esca's advice, and Roman broad beans. They carried all their belongings into the main building and then they wiped down the ponies and let them loose in the yard to graze.
They had a fire going and were settling down to eat the last of the wheaten biscuits and the dried fish from their saddle packs, when they heard the sound of someone approaching outside. They both rose to stand. By instinct Marcus gripped for his sword, but Esca raised a hand in a wordless warning, and Marcus released his grip on the hilt.
The man who entered looked to be about thirty years of age. He was small of stature, but of a powerful build. The hair at his temples was touched with grey, but his beard was dark brown and very thick. He was unarmed, and Marcus saw him cast a nervous glance in the direction of their weapons before he fixed his eye on Marcus. "Feasgar math," he said - which Marcus knew to be a greeting - and then he followed it with a long string of words that Marcus could not make out. But Esca stepped forward and clasped the man's arm in greeting, answering him with a sentence in which Marcus could recognise their own names.
"Marcus?" The man repeated, turning towards him. "A' bheil e Rómanoc?"
Esca nodded. "Seadh."
The man frowned. "Gu dearbhfìor?"
The man sent Marcus a long, searching gaze. "I am Louarn Mac Áed," he said finally, switching into heavily accented Latin. "I have a farm on the west-facing side of this same hill. You have met Brenhin, my youngest, earlier today. I come now with my oldest child, Meghan." He stepped aside and a young woman who must have been waiting right outside stepped in through the entrance. She had dark brown hair which fell down to her waist and the bony, coltish limbs of someone on the cusp of adulthood. Looking closer, Marcus saw that she couldn't be much more than fourteen years of age, but she was a tall, sullen-looking girl and she was armed, unlike her father, with a dagger in her belt. Meghan offered no greetings, but Louarn pointed at the round loaf of bread and the clay jug in her hands. "We bring you this with welcome and wishes for good relations among neighbours."
"Thank you, Louarn." Marcus stepped forward and clasped his arm. "Come sit down. Let us share our food."
Louarn accepted the biscuit and fish without comment, but Marcus saw Meghan grimacing at her first bite of the dried anchovies. For his own part, Marcus dutifully chewed down the coarse, unleavened bread that they were offered and held out his cup to accept the grainy fluid that Meghan poured them. He hesitated before he brought it to his lips. The drink was sour in smell and, Marcus noted privately, had a colour not unlike the fluid emptied from the chamber pot in the morning.
"Home-brewed mead," Esca said. He raised his cup. "If you are going to live on this land you'll have to learn to drink it," he muttered in an aside to Marcus.
So Marcus drank. Meanwhile, Esca told the the guests a little of their story.
"Ah, you are warriors," Louarn said after a while. "Shieldbrothers, perhaps?"
Something passed over Esca's face at the word, but Marcus couldn't read his reaction. The word was Latin but it held no meaning to Marcus. "I was his shieldbearer once, before he released me from that bond."
"I see," Louarn said slowly, with a look as if he didn't really understand but knew not to ask. "My wife, Vail, died in childbirth five winters ago. I live now with my three children. And grandmother." Louarn hesitated, with an odd glance in Marcus direction, before he carried on. "Further up lives Faron and his kin. There are few other homesteads scattered in the hills. Down in the valley, a day's journey from here, is the town, and the Roman villa where the tax collector lives."
Marcus lifted his head. "Romans?"
Louarn answered easily enough, but some subtle change in the atmosphere made Marcus refrain from pursuing the subject. Instead Esca asked about the hunting in the area, and soon he and Louarn were debating the best way to hunt boar.
The guests stayed for a while longer before Louarn declared that they had to get back to the little ones. Esca saw them out and through the clay walls Marcus could hear them exchange a few words in their own tongue. The whole situation reminded him uncomfortably of their travels in the North and the many times he had been reliant on Esca's knowledge of the native language and the ways of the tribesmen. His heart was sinking in his chest. This was to be his home, but he could not rely on Esca forever. Esca was a free man, and they both knew that he was only here for the time it took him to earn enough to get him what he needed for his trip North to the land of the Brigantes. That was the agreement they had come to, when Marcus had received his gratuity, and had given Esca his official manumission: Esca would help Marcus through the first year, and in return they would share whatever they might earn.
Esca came back inside and they unrolled their sleeping pallets and their blankets.
"Good people," Esca said, once they had lain down. His voice carried a hint of a challenge, as if he was expecting Marcus to disagree.
"Yes," Marcus said simply, too tired to argue. Despite the holes in the roof, the room was comfortably warm. He pulled his blanket down to his waist. "I will have to go into town soon, to announce our arrival at the tax office," he said, yawning. "I was surprised to hear of the Roman villa. I thought that local gentry would have taken over the office this far out in the province."
Esca did not answer, he was already sleeping. Soon Marcus followed.
The next morning Marcus woke up to find himself alone inside the hut. The fire was newly tended, and there was fresh water in a bucket by the hearth. He pulled his tunic over his head, drank a couple of mouthfuls from the bucket, and then he walked out into the misty morning. The sun was already up and beginning to gain power. It shone over green grasses, spotted with weeds and flowers. Some way down the hillside he could see the narrow tendrils of a small river joining and parting like a tangle of silken thread. There was a scent of honey in the warming air - up in the forest the rowan trees must be in flower, he thought. He stood for a while, breathing. In the light of a new day, his dark thoughts from the night before seemed less powerful.
After a while, Esca appeared from the other side of the house. "Gnaeus did not lie to you," he said by way of greeting, running a hand over the clay wall, "it is a good house." He paused. "Although the roof needs mending. And we will have to plough the fields again before putting in the seed."
Marcus simply nodded. Esca moved in to stand beside him. Together they looked out over the green hills sloping steeply downwards. From somewhere high above them came the whistling call of an eagle.
As Gnaeus had promised, the previous occupants had left a scratch-plough with an iron blade in the stable. Marcus and Esca were eager to get the seed into the ground, since it was already early summer and the time for planting had almost passed, but they lost most of the first day struggling with the ponies, which were unused to pulling and grew anxious in front of the plough. On the second day they managed to turn most of the soil on the first of three fields. On the fifth day they let the ponies out to graze in one of the pens and went hunting on foot, to save the little food they had left.
There was plenty of work to do, and in the end, almost two weeks passed before the seed was in the ground. But finally Marcus found the time to go down into the valley. He set out early in the day. His pony neighed and threw its head, as he started down the hill. It was unhappy to be separated from its friend, but Esca had not wished to join him on the trip, and so Marcus and the mare had to make the journey on their own.
It took him a full day to make his way down from the high moor. He spent the night sleeping under a cluster of low-growing trees at the foot of the hills and rode into the valley in the first morning light. Down in the lowland the flora seemed more lush, sheltered from the wind. At the far end of the valley, Marcus saw the small clutter of roundhouses, surrounded by neat squares of fields and gardens. The village had neither basilica nor a bathhouse, but a little away and up on the far hillside lay a large sprawling estate of Roman build. Marcus' chest ached with a sudden pang of longing to see the vineyards on the terraced slopes around it.
He rode past fat brown cattle grazing in the meadows, fields with crops already standing tall. As he got closer to the villa, the wind carried down the scent of rosemary and thyme, the smells of his old home in Etruria. Marcus thought of the hut and the pebbled fields, the gnarled forest. It seemed pitiful in comparison.
The gates of the villa were guarded by a couple of large slaves. He introduced himself and explained his business, and one of the slaves led him through a large courtyard, surrounded on three sides by square buildings with red tiled roofs and walls painted white with chalk to imitate Roman marble. A gardener was working quietly among the flowerbeds, nursing imported flowers: lilies and white cyclamen.
Inside, dappled light from glass windows fell on mosaic floors. Even through his sandals, Marcus could feel the heat from the hypocaust beneath. The large slave mutely led him into the great dining room and announced him in a droning voice. Marcus was surprised to see that the large room was inhabited by a single person, a woman reclining on a dais at the far end of the room. She was dressed in a bright orange stola, with layered necklaces of many-coloured glass beads around her neck. Uncle Aquila had friends in high places who had sometimes come to visit while Marcus lived with him in Calleva, but he had still never seen a person who exuded wealth in this manner before. "Greetings, Marcus Flavius Aquila. I am Herminia, wife of Priscus, the tax collector of this province." She beckoned him closer. "You are Roman-born, are you not? How wonderful! My husband is away in Londinium for business, but I can take note of your arrival."
Marcus stepped up to her and handed over the deed for the farm. Herminia looked to be a little older than him, but her face and hands were smooth from good food and no hard labour. Her hair was arranged in elaborate curls held back with many pins. A single lock had fallen down over her shoulder and she twirled it absently between her fingers as she read over the document. Finally she lifted her eyes from the paper. "A Roman soldier buying Gnaeus' farm - how amusing. We are glad to have you here. Although my guess is that the farm was a bit of a surprise. Gnaeus didn't tell you much about your neighbours, I wager?"
The question forced a reluctant smile from Marcus' lips. "No he did not."
"Oh," she exclaimed in a sweet voice. "Poor Marcus! And now you are stranded up in the hills with the Britons."
The smile fell from Marcus' lips. The comment did not sit easy with him - he had never endured pity well. He gave a non-committal shrug.
Herminia continued, unaffected. "I can tell you that the people who live here are quite a docile lot, and I do believe we have managed to drive their warmongering priests out of the valley entirely. Still, I'd advise you to keep your eyes open. I do sometimes still hear rumours of druids hiding in the hills." She turned away from him to call, "Tullius! Wine!"
A small figure stepped out from a dark corner of the room. It was a boy of eleven at the most, with blond hair but curiously dark eyes. He was carrying a heavy amphora. He moved in to pour her a glass of wine, but his hands slipped on the amphora and it knocked the cup out of her hand and onto the floor where it shattered.
"Stupid boy. Come here." She slapped him hard across the face with such casual violence that it made Marcus take a surprised step back.
"Look at that now, good quality ceramics is so hard to come by here, and I try to take such care with my belongings," she complained. The boy wiped blood from his lip. For a moment he looked straight up at Marcus, his eyes flashing with the same kind of emotion that Marcus had seen in Esca's eyes, when he had been lying on the ground in the gladiator ring with the tip of a sword pressed against his chest.
"Pick that up!" Herminia snapped. The boy lowered his eyes once again and the moment was broken.
Herminia let out a sound of frustration. "I am so sorry about that," she said, reaching over to touch Marcus' hand. "I've had Tullius in the house since he was little, but he doesn't seem to be able to learn any manners. His mother is a Briton. I had her bred with a Carthaginian in the hopes of diluting that wild blood, but it doesn't seem to have made any difference."
The boy stood with the broken pottery and turned to leave.
"Oh well, once he's fully grown I will sell him to the mines in Iscalia. Meanwhile I suppose I'll have to suffer his ill manners and bad temper." Herminia raised her voice, making sure that Tullius heard her, and Marcus saw how the boy's shoulders hunched reflexively at her words.
Back in Calleva, Uncle Aquila had often reprimanded Marcus for his quick temper, and his inability to tolerate what his uncle called 'the natterings of polite society'. Marcus took a deep breath through his nose. If he was to make his home here, it would be a very bad idea to be on bad terms with the tax collector, he reminded himself. "Forgive me, Domina, but I have business in the town that I would like to finish before nightfall."
"Of course! But do come back, someday," she said. "We always appreciate the company of a Roman and I'm sure my husband would be entertained to hear some soldier's tales."
Marcus stood. He bowed lightly. "Domina." And then he took his leave.
Returning to the courtyard, the smell of the white cyclamen suddenly seemed cloying. The gardener was squatting by the edge of the garden path, and now Marcus noticed the visible lashings down the back of his arms. When the large slave closed the gate behind him, he felt happy to be outside in the fresh air once more.
Esca had used the days after Marcus left to visit Louarn, to ask for advice about the planting, and to pay his respects to Grandmother. He had gone to the bog in the forest clearing, to lay down a handful of their seed grain for the spirits in the water, praying for a good harvest.
Esca was a good warrior, a charioteer and a skilled hunter. But the truth was that he had been raised as the son of a warlord with a large household and many slaves to do his labour, and so his knowledge of farming was limited to what he had been taught as part of his formal education, and what he had learned helping out during the harvest when all hands had been needed, regardless of breeding. Marcus had been a farmer in his youth, Esca knew, but in land with a different climate and a different crop. It would take them some time to learn the way of this land.
It was late afternoon on his third day alone, and Esca was up on the roof thatching a hole, when he spotted Marcus returning from the valley. Even from the distance Esca could tell that something was troubling him: his eyes were on the ground and unaware of being watched, his face seemed darkened by uneasy thoughts. But as soon as he spotted Esca up on the roof the expression was smoothed over and he raised his hand in greeting.
Esca waved back and quickly climbed down from the roof. "Was it a good journey?" he called out.
"Yes, it was fair travelling." Marcus rode into the yard and dismounted.
Esca grabbed the reins as Marcus set about pulling the saddle and the bundle of blankets from the mare's back. "And was it good to see kin?"
Marcus placed the saddle on the fence. "The family living there are members of one of the noble families from the city of Rome. I doubt that they would call me kin." He turned around and smiled, but there was a hard edge to the expression. Then he shrugged, looking suddenly tired. "But I am now properly registered in the annals of Priscus Considius Balbus. His wife Herminia saw to it." He walked over and washed his face and hands in the trough near the stable. "She warned me of druids in the hills," he added as an afterthought. "I hope that there is no truth to it."
Esca felt his shoulders tensing, and relaxed them by force of will, but Marcus was already turning away – he had seen the long straw that Esca had collected for the roof. "Here, you must teach me how to do that."
"I am no expert," Esca answered, relieved to change the subject, "but I shall teach you as best I can." He showed Marcus how to shape a proper wick and then how to fasten it to the wooden strakes, working from the bottom and up. They worked side by side on the roof in comfortable silence into the long summer evening.
They were almost done with the work when Marcus spoke. "Do you think in the next spring that I should have four hundred denarii to use if the harvest is good?"
Esca stopped his work to cast a curious glance at Marcus. It was an odd question, and he could not guess what had prompted it. "That is a large amount. For that kind of money you could buy a fine horse, or even a person. I don't think we shall see that kind of profit for a while." Esca frowned. "Why? Did you see something in town that you wanted?"
Marcus looked a little guilty. "No." He quirked a weak smile. "I am letting my thoughts wander towards silly ideas. Forget that I asked."
They spent the next weeks tending to the beans and grain, which were beginning to sprout - pale and green and soft like a rabbit's pelt to touch – and mending the fencing on the animal pens with slender willow saplings that they brought down from the forest. It was only five weeks since they had left Calleva, but it had been five weeks of hard labour - and already it seemed to Esca that Marcus was losing some of that wheat-fed Roman soldiering muscle, replacing it with the sinewy strenght of hard labour instead. He could not explain to himself the weird joy he felt to see Marcus looking more and more like a man native to the land, like someone who felt at home.
In the month of Iulius, there was a large midsummer feast in the valley. Marcus and Esca bathed and washed their clothes in the river before setting out. They brought with them a large roe-deer buck, fat from the spring feed, which they had caught the day before, and when they rode onto the festival grounds they were greeted by cheerful shouting and a group of women and men who rushed over to help them with the butchering.
In the middle of the field that held the feast was a great cooking fire where men and women were preparing a large communal meal. Marcus and Esca helped cut out meat and roast it on a large iron pan, while others brought bread and vegetables and huge cauldrons of stew spiced with chickweed and sorrel.
Marcus sensed that this was a time to make connections and to strengthen relations, and so when he saw Meghan at the tables, he made sure to offer her a fine cut of the deer. The girl had still not warmed towards the tall alien speaking in a foreign tongue, even though her younger siblings often came down the hill to see Marcus' exotic belongings or laugh at his attempts at speaking the Britonnic language.
"Ith gu leòir," he said to her now, stumbling over the sounds, and was rewarded by the twitch at the corner of her mouth – the closest he had ever seen her come to a smile - as she accepted the plate of food that he was offering.
The fair was filled with local families in bright dyes – the people had a love of colourful clothing - and a few Roman and Britonnic merchants who had come down from Glevum in the hope of doing business. Pens of wattle hurdles had been erected and contained flocks of bleating, confused sheep and goats. Large poles had been hammered into the ground and around them ponies and cattle stood tethered. Cow hides had been put out on the ground and the merchants had spread out their goods in a way to attract the eye of potential customers.
By now Marcus had spent most of his army gratuity. He sold one of the ponies to a Syrian freedman and his Britonnic wife to gain some money, and gave Esca half of the profit. "You are a free man and I pay you for your work," he said, handing over the money.
"Marcus, you can pay me in spring."
"In spring I will pay you again," Marcus answered, smiling.
For himself, Marcus bought a striped native blanket in heavy wool, and a pair of braccae long enough to bind at the ankles. "It will serve you well when winter comes," the merchant said, accepting the price which they had finally agreed on after much haggling. Marcus had worn braccae occasionally when he went hunting. He still remembered the disdainful look on the faces of Uncle Aquila's Roman guests, the day they had come to visit and had seen Marcus wearing Britonnic clothing. He wrapped his new acquisitions into a bundle with a rueful smile at the memory.
Together Marcus and Esca set out to buy the things they still needed for the farm. They found a pair of sickles with handles that were worn smooth with many years' use, but which still had gleaming sharp iron blades. Then they walked over to the animal pens to buy sheep. Like a fool, Marcus had dreamt of cattle. His parents had had a heard of small black cows, and a short, stocky bull which he had tested his courage on as a boy. But they could not afford cattle.
"You will need dogs," Esca said.
In one corner of the field was the barking and clamouring of large wolf-hound pups and powerful, well-trained Agassian hunting dogs. Marcus looked at them with regret. A good dog could amount to the price of several sheep and Marcus' purse was almost empty. "We can't afford dogs, I'm afraid."
Finally they returned to the feasting table, where large casks of mead had been brought out. At first Marcus accepted a cup only out of courtesy, but the drink here was quite different than what they drank at Louarn's house: it was strong and smooth, and had a sweet aftertaste of honey. "I am beginning to like this," he told Esca after the first two cups, bumping his shoulder against him, feeling loose and warm from the drink. Esca laughed. "I guessed that you would, once you got a chance to taste the feasting brew." He leaned in close. "I must tell you that Louarn is not a skilled brewer," he confessed in a confidential tone, eyes crinkling with amusement.
In the late afternoon the sun - which had beaten down bright and hot for most of the day - turned sweet and golden. Large swarms of midges came in from the bogs and were dancing in the air above the market, but thankfully the smoke from many fires kept them from becoming too much of a bother. The people who were skilled at music brought out their instruments and soon everyone at the table was engaged in singing long meandering melodies from which Marcus could only understand a few words.
At some point, he became aware of the sound of shouting and cheering down in the far corner, and soon Faron came to the tables to seek them out, grinning and flushed, a little glassy-eyed from good mead and stripped to the waist. "Come," he called, pulling them from the table, "let us have some sport."
They followed him down to the far end of the field where many people were gathered. Faron unceremoniously broke into the circle of men and women. "Make way, make way," he bellowed, "we have two real warriors here: Esca, son of Cunoval, and his Roman shieldbrother."
Faron pulled them through the crowd of people. In the middle of the circle was a sanded square, Marcus saw, where the men of the village were testing their strength against each another, wrestling.
"Come now, you must show us a real fight!"
The men who had been fighting in the court drew apart and looked at them expectantly.
"What do you say?" Esca asked Marcus, eyes glimmering with good humour and playful challenge. In answer, Marcus stooped down to unfasten his sandals, and the crowd cheered. Some of the men who had been fighting were in their braccae, and some had stripped down to the nude in the Roman manner. The sun had been beating down hot upon the field all day and Marcus was happy to pull off his hot woolen tunic and dress down to his undergarments.
When he had finished undressing and turned around, Esca was already standing ready at the other side of the circle drawn in the sand, bare except for his short braccae. Esca was small and wiry. Marcus stood almost a head taller than he, but he remembered all too well how badly he had underestimated his strength at the first months of their acquaintance, when he'd asked Esca to spar with him to regain his own strength. Without agreeing to in words, they both assumed the opening stance of the Roman style of wrestling which they had practiced back then, crouched low to the ground with open palms. Marcus feigned the first attempt of attack and then they were off - grappling to get hold of one another, trying to get a firm grip on the neck and flicking their hips forward to break the other's balance. They were probably a little slower than they would have been without a meal of roe-deer and a couple of mugs of mead in their bellies, but they were still almost equally pitted – Marcus taller, with a longer reach, but Esca lither and quicker - and the crowd was well entertained, judging by the loud shouting and clapping which rose every time one of them made an attempt on the other.
In the end Esca made a bad move to the left and Marcus was quick to duck in and exploit it. He grabbed Esca around the waist and flipped him over, throwing him chest to the ground. He scrambled to sit astride Esca's narrow hips and bore his weight down on Esca's shoulders to keep him still. For a moment Esca struggled, his back arching into Marcus' chest, his frantic breathing matching the wild beating of Marcus heart. Esca kept struggling against the lock for a long moment, and then he finally yielded, to much jeering and shouting.
Marcus pushed himself to stand, brushing the dirt from his thighs. He was laughing, shaking a little from the exertion. Looking around, he saw that they had drawn a huge crowd of spectators, straining to see over each others shoulders. Marcus caught sight of Meghan in the crowd, hiding a smile behind her hands. Some of the townsfolk moved in to clap Marcus on the back. A few offered him drinks of mead and water. On the other side of the court Esca was treated to the same.
"Good fighting," he said to Esca when they were finally near one another again, clasping his arm. "And you," Esca said, and Marcus could see that he was feeling the same wild joy that came of a satisfying fight, even if he hadn't come out victorious.
"We have drawn a crowd," Marcus noted.
"They haven't seen this style of fighting before."
"What are they shouting?"
Esca cocked his head to listen. "I fear it would offend your Roman honour," he answered cryptically, face flushed and laughter in his eyes.
"Again!" someone called.
"Again?" Marcus repeated, already knowing that Esca would never back down from a challenge.
"If you have the strength," Esca retorted, laughing, and they drew apart to resume the starting position at each side of the ring. But before either of them had launched an attack, a hush came over the crowd. Marcus straightened up from his crouch and looked around to see what had caused it. At the edge of the throng of people, lifted high above the crowd in a litter carried by slaves, came Herminia. She was with an elderly man who had to be Priscus, her husband. Following their litter were a couple of impeccably groomed, toga-clad young men - Priscus' clients, perhaps. "Marcus Aquila," Herminia called, "fancy meeting you here at the barbarian festival. And what a fighter you are! Very impressive."
Marcus reluctantly turned to face them. "Domina. Dominus."
He was aware of Esca standing stubbornly mute beside him, tense like the drawn string of a bow.
Priscus rose to stand in the litter. "A denarius for you, Marcus Flavius Aquila, if you can pin the painted man again." A murmur went through the crowd. Slowly, Marcus and Esca turned to face each other again.
Esca made the first attack. They fought for a while and then Esca managed to fling him to the ground. Marcus had the breath knocked out of him, and before he got a chance of recapturing his breath, Esca was on him, pinning him down. His underarm was braced across Marcus' chest, waiting for the retaliation.
Marcus could tell from the weight of Esca's hips across his thighs that his feet were not properly braced, that if he pushed up hard enough he might be able to wrest himself free, put them back on even ground. He squirmed, testing Esca's hold. From his position on the ground he could glimpse the suddenly sober faces of the people in the crowd. His eyes caught on one of the toga-clad youths: he was watching the fight with his chin raised and a scornful twist of a smile playing on his lips. Marcus took a deep breath. In response, Esca bore his weight down even harder. Marcus knew himself to be both competitive and proud. He had always brought all of his strength into every battle he encountered, and he had never thrown a game in his life. But now, for some half-realised reason, he stayed still, pressed against the ground.
Esca kept his grip for a long moment, waiting for Marcus to fight back, before he realised that his opponent had yielded. Then he slowly, almost reluctantly released his grip and helped Marcus to stand. The crowd erupted into loud cheering and clamouring.
Marcus did not really hear it. He found his feet and stood up tall, turning to look Priscus directly in the eye. It felt like a victory.
It was late night before Marcus and Esca returned from the festivities to the camp they had made a little way up the hillside, by the edge of the river. In the morning they would collect the sheep and the goats, the big-horned ram that they had bought from a farmer in the village. For now they pulled off their tunics and rolled themselves up in their blankets without even lighting a fire. After the wrestling, people had been eager to toast with them, and now Marcus' head was swimming a little, and his body was deliciously tired from good food, wrestling, and drinking and dancing in the very late hours of the night. He closed his eyes.
"Why did you not fight back?" Esca asked, voice soft in the quiet. They were lying close together on the cowhide which they had brought to shield them from the cold seeping up from the ground. "We could have well used that denarius."
Marcus opened his eyes, although it was too dark to see, now that they had extinguished the torch. "My leg would not bear."
"You lie." Esca said, but there was warmth in his tone of voice. He yawned. "To be honest, though, I was happy to disappoint those Roman aristocrats." He rolled onto his side, settling in to sleep.
Marcus smiled up at the sky. He closed his eyes again, and let sleep come.
In the first light of the next morning Esca waded into the river to wash the sweat and dirt from the day before off his body, laughing at Marcus, who was squatting in front of the breakfeast fire, shivering and pale, unwell from too much drink.
Marcus watched Esca for a moment - the blue warrior patterns moving on arms and thighs as the muscles slid under his flushing skin - before he forced his gaze away. He had become aware last night - after the fighting, with good mead in his belly, and Esca sitting close to him with laughter in his eyes - that his body was waking up to sentiments that he had been too worried or tired to give much thought for a long time. He knew his own heart, the foolish yearnings that he couldn't seem to rid himself of, though he hadn't been a boy for a long time, and should have long since outgrown them.
When Esca came out of the water, he wrapped himself in a blanket and began carefully laying out their acquisitions from the fair, to see if they had everything they needed. Marcus looked over the sickles, the rope and winter clothing. Among the carefully laid out things, he saw something that was new to him: a small dagger, inlaid with bits of shell. It looked to be ornamental rather than practical. He picked it up.
"It's nice, isn't it?" Esca said. "I bought it with a little of the money you gave me." He was scrubbing a hand through his still-wet hair.
Marcus turned the small weapon over in his hand. It was a fine piece of workmanship.
"It is custom among the tribes to give an offering to the earth before you venture out on a journey. This will be my gift to the bogs when I set out next spring, so the water spirits may let me pass safely into the North-land."
Marcus' hands stilled on the dagger. "I see." he said, and placed the weapon carefully back on the ground.
The summer was hot and dry but very short, and as Lúil drew to a close the weather was already turning cold and grey. It would not have been unusual in Esca's homeland, but by his knowledge of the weather in the south, autumn was moving in even earlier than usual. He shared his observations with Louarn, who confirmed it with a note of worry. Esca and Marcus often went out to check on their crop. As it had been sown late, the kernels on the head of each stalk were still green and sticky, clinging close to the spike. They needed more sun.
They didn't have many full days without rain, so when they finally got three consecutive days of dry weather, Marcus and Esca spent them cutting hay from the meadow and carrying it back to the house. They worked from sunrise to sundown, long days of hard labour to make sure they had enough to feed the animals through the winter, and Esca couldn't help but notice how, after the first day, Marcus would kneel on the ground to spare his wounded leg. It made him think about how Marcus would fare once he himself had left for the North-land, but he knew Marcus would not welcome worry, so he didn't voice his concern. Still, he did not know how to stop himself from caring. He wondered if it was a remnant of his days as a slave that made him want to rush to Marcus' side every time he saw him stand up gingerly and test his leg to see if it would carry his weight.
For a while Foran and Louarn had kept their pigs in the sty so they wouldn't eat the treasures that were turning ripe in the forest. The autumn foraging was a communal effort. With the wild winds blowing in from the North, they needed to work quickly before the wet gales blew the fruit and nuts to the forest floor to rot. For a full week all men, women and children of the hillside homesteads went into the groves to collect the wild apples and pears, some sweet and red, some small and green and sour. It was not the juicy domesticated fruit that Stephanos had served them in Calleva, but their taste seemed just as luxurious after months of eating mainly gruel and mutton.
One day Louarn's children came home and told them of a cluster of heavily-laden damson trees which they had discovered in a hidden grove far into the forest. The following day they all went up there with buckets and baskets. Meghan hitched her skirt into her belt and crawled into the tall trees with a basket to pick the best fruits at the top of the tree. When she came back down, Esca saw her offer a handful to Marcus, blushing sweetly.
Esca had noticed that she had treated Marcus differently after the solstice feast, seeking out his attention in her own shy way, listening intently whenever he spoke.
A few days later, Esca and Lourn went out to check the snares they had set up at the forest's edge, and found two hares strangled in the trapping string, one so fresh that its open eyes were still wet. They sat down on the forest floor to gut the animals before returning home.
"I shall cook this with chickweed and damsons," Louarn said cheerfully, pulling his dagger from his belt. "The children will like that." He paused. "Do you know, I think Meghan has changed her mind about Marcus." Esca looked up quickly, but there was no concern in Louarn's voice, only mild amusement. "But I do not think I shall have to fear for her honour from your Roman friend."
Esca returned to working the string which was wound tight around the animals' neck. "Marcus is an honourable man," he said evenly.
"That," Louarn huffed, sounding amused, "and I know the way of warriors. I don't believe that Marcus is looking for a maid to despoil." He shot Esca a sly smile and then returned to his work.
Esca swallowed. Louarn would not know, but Esca had stayed long enough with Romans to learn about their contradictory cultural dictates and their backwards taboos. "It is not as you think," he finally said. "I am leaving come summer."
"Aye. I am Brigantes. I long to be free of Roman reign."
"Brigantes." Louarn's hands were still working, but he shot Esca a searching look. "Your queen once swore allegiance to Rome."
Esca felt his jaw tensing. He finally managed to untangle the string and let it drop to the ground. "The clan of Cunoval never did." He broke the neck of the animal and separated the head from the body with a swift cut.
For a while they gutted the animals in silence. Then Louarn said: "I'm sorry if I caused offence. I wouldn't understand. I am a peasant, my father was a peasant, and his father too. Most who live here are of the Dubonni tribe." He shrugged. "Before we paid tax to the Romans, we paid fief to the Catuvellauni to the East. It has never made much difference to me."
Esca's hands stilled. He nodded. "I am not offended," he offered weakly, but he did not know what else to say. The Brigantes were a warrior tribe like the Catuvellauni and had never paid fief to anyone. It grated on him, the idea of freely giving away to Roman aristocrats what he had earned through hard labour.
The hare lay spread open before him. He sheared the entrails from the ribs and cut carefully around the connective tissue to release the crimson, still-warm heart. He held it out to Louarn. "Please, will you give this to Grandmother."
"Aye." Louarn took it and wrapped it in a piece of cloth.
"Two hares. It is a good day." Esca said, trying to lighten the mood.
"That it is." Louarn answered amiably, never quick to take offense.
Esca returned to the farm with the hare slung over one shoulder.
Marcus was by the stable. "Esca, come, I want to show you something," he said, clearly excited. "Quietly." He pulled Esca inside the stable and over to one of the stalls. Inside it their white goat was braying indignantly, but it wasn't until Esca's eyes had adjusted to the dark that he saw the newborn kid that she was trying to shelter from their sight. "The second of the season," Marcus whispered, leaning in, "would you look at that."
Esca nodded, but he found himself looking at Marcus instead: his dark hair tousled by the wind, his new beard covering his cheeks and chin, and his large, callused hands wrapped around the wattle fence. Marcus was a Roman soldier, Esca thought, and did not know the way of warriors.
Marcus tore his eyes from the nursing kid to give Esca a blinding grin. "That is a good omen if ever I saw one," he laughed, and despite the tightening in his chest, Esca found himself smiling back.
For a long time, Marcus had had the luxury of almost being able to forget about his old wounds, but as the air turned colder and wetter, his old pains began to return, and he found himself limping when the day drew towards evening.
The time for harvest came, but there was little sunlight and the wind brought down heavy swathes of rain all through the days. At this time of year in Etruria the wheat would be hanging fat and golden on the straw, ready to fall at the touch of a finger. Here, the barley they'd sown hung green and sodden in the never-stopping rain. It was beginning to be a cause of real concern: too much rain and there would be no ripening. By now they had moved into the month of Augustus, and the window for harvesting was closing.
"Some of the grain is beginning to rot," Esca noted, cradling a few heads of wheat in his hands. Marcus nodded, for he had noticed it, too. They had been tending the fields for half a day, pulling weeds from the rows of beans and wheat, and their cloaks and tunics were soaked through with rain. "If the rain doesn't stop soon we won't have much left to harvest," Esca continued. He looked up at Marcus. "Louarn told me yesterday that a tenth of our grain must go to the Romans in the villa."
"Yes, that's right."
Esca said no more.
Later in the day, Faron and Louarn came down the hill. Marcus was milking the goats when he looked up and saw them talking with Esca out in the field. He raised his hand in greeting and they waved back at him, but they didn't come down to the house. The three men stayed talking for a while and then Faron and Louarn set off up the slope of the hill again.
"What did they want?" Marcus asked when Esca came down from the fields.
"They had a message for me."
Marcus woke up in the middle of the night and saw Esca crouching by the fire, kindling a lamp with a twig from the hearth. The wick flickered and spluttered and then the flame grew bright, casting a dancing pattern of shadow and light across the room. Esca turned and cast a wary glance towards where Marcus was lying, and something made Marcus lie perfectly still. As he watched from his pallet, Esca stood and pulled on his cloak. He collected his sword and his dagger and fastened it by his side. Then he picked up the lamp and left the hut, leaving it dark once again. Marcus stayed still for another long moment, listening to Esca's soft footfalls disappearing, and then he crawled across the hut and pulled aside the leather apron.
In the weak light from the moon he could see Esca's dark form walking up the trail climbing upwards from their farm. As Marcus watched, another dark shape joined him on the path, carrying its own little light. Surprised, Marcus looked towards the hilltop and realised that there were many more lights flickering in the darkness further up the hill - lamps and torches, carried by people all making their way in the same direction. Some were close and some far away, like stars spread across the ground. It was the men and women of the town coming up past their house, headed towards the forest, Marcus realised, but there was no talking or laughing, no calling out to each other. No one made a sound, and as they moved away towards the hilltop, the thick mist creeping down from the high moor slowly swallowed up the light from their torches and they disappeared into the night.
Marcus sat for awhile in the doorway, gazing upwards and listening above the sound of his own quickened breathing for sign of what was going on. But the night was once again as quiet as death, and after some time Marcus went back inside and lay down. But his mind was troubled and he did not sleep.
The night was followed by a rare, dry morning. Marcus rose with the sun and set about his duties of letting the sheep out into the pen, milking the goat and boiling the morning gruel. Once in awhile he glanced up at the hilltop, but there was no evidence of the nigh-time activities. The day passed slowly.
It was night again before Esca returned. He came back as quietly as he had left, offering only a muted greeting as he stepped into the hut. Marcus was cutting dried meat from a leg of deer, and he carefully kept at the work while he watched while Esca ate a little of the cold stew that Marcus had left in a pot on the hearth and then lay down on his skin and covered his eyes with his arm. He looked exhausted.
Marcus waited for a long moment for Esca to speak, but Esca said nothing and finally Marcus lost his patience. "There is blood on your sleeve," he said, unable to keep the anger from his voice. The stain was dry and brown but Marcus had seen enough of it to know what it was. When the Roman army had arrived in Britain many years ago - he had been told - the druids had ruled the lands with dark magic. They had sacrificed men and women and children in the forests in cruel rituals to sate a horned god. "Who did you cause to bleed, up in the forest?"
Esca muttered something in the Brittonic language that Marcus could not pick up. He shifted on his pallet, body tense with irritation. Marcus watched his russet-brown beard and grey eyes, the powerful muscle laid over with tribal designs - and like someone had turned over an autumn leaf to reveal the veins underneath, Marcus suddenly saw just how different Esca was, now, from the clean-shaven slave he had first met in Calleva.
"What are you asking me?" Esca finally said in Latin.
"I saw you leave last night." Marcus could feel anger packing in his chest. All morning his thigh had been cramping and throbbing and it had left him ill-tempered. "I saw the people gather on the hill," he continued. "Last time I saw something like that was when a druid had arrived at Isca Dumnoniorum, and those night-time meetings evolved into violence and blood."
Esca sat up straight. "You speak in disrespect of what you don't understand," he snapped, his voice hard.
Marcus jerked back, surprised by the hostility. He threw the knife into the bowl and wiped his fingers. "I understand this: druids ripped the hearts from living men in my father's legion, and butchered the soldiers from my patrol."
"And Roman soldiers put my people's heads on stakes along your roads to scare us, and fed us to animals in the gladiator ring for sport," Esca spat with a quick anger that Marcus hadn't seen for a long time. He stood up swiftly like an animal roused to fight, and Marcus jerked to his feet in response. Something dangerous passed between them; a challenge, a remnant of the quarrel that had made them raise fists against each other in Caledonia. But then Esca sighed. "No more of this," he said in a tired voice, and pushed past Marcus to go outside.
Marcus was half-convinced that Esca was going to leave again, but he returned after only a moment, carrying a bundle wrapped in cloth which he threw at Marcus' feet. The cloth was spotted with blood. Esca was staring down at him with dark eyes, waiting, so Marcus picked up the knife from the bowl and used it to draw apart the folded cloth. Inside it lay a large slab of meat, cut roughly with the hide still on. Marcus recognised it as the hide from Louarn's spotted bull calf – the one he had been spoiling with good feed all summer.
"We give the blood and the heart to Lugh," Esca said. "The rest of the meat we share among us." Then he turned away again, going outside once more.
Marcus sat staring at the meat and the bloody cloth for a long time, feeling foolish and cursing his own suspicious mind.
Esca returned with a bucket of water. He stripped off his tunic with quick, angry movements and, squatting on the floor, began to wash it out. The water turned pink in the bucket.
Marcus folded the cloth back over the meat. "Forgive me, Esca," he said. "I spoke in anger. If we lived in Calleva or Londinium, I would not have brought you into the cave to worship Mithras. I perceive now that it is the same for this god, also."
When Marcus had been a soldier, his honour had forbidden him to acknowledge the emotion, but now he was a peasant; he could admit - if only to himself - that when he had seen the torches disappearing into the fog the night before, when he saw Esca return with blood on his clothes - he had felt fear.
Esca remained quiet for a little while longer, and then his shoulders slumped down and he turned to Marcus with a tired expression. "I'm sorry for what I said as well. You are my friend and I trust you with my life." He drew up one naked shoulder to his chin. "But sometimes it is as if my past falls over my eyes like a veil that only allows me to see the Roman soldier."
Marcus moved closer and reached out. Esca clasped his outstretched arm.
"No more." Marcus said.
They sat like that for a long moment, both unwilling to release their grip, before they broke apart.
In the days after Lughnasadh the skies finally ceased their weeping, and Esca and Marcus were able to bring in the dry grain. A few days later Marcus set off down the hill, with the pony heavily loaded, to pay their taxes for the year. Esca felt bad making Marcus make the journey with his weak leg. But he could not go. He watched Marcus limping down the hillside with their hard-won grain, and he couldn't help the fierce anger he felt, the sickness in his belly that he had carried with him always while he was a slave.
"Next year there will be more grain and it won't sting so badly," Marcus had commented, and both of them quieted as soon as he had spoken, the argument that Esca wouldn't be there to see it hanging uneasily in the silence.
As soon as Marcus returned from the valley they loaded the rest of the grain into the storage pits, which Louarn and his children had helped them dig out. Esca knew the grain pits from his childhood and could show Marcus how to seal them with a cap of clay, making very sure that there were no cracks to let in air or light or water
"But how does it work?" Marcus asked, puzzled. In his country, he explained, they stored the grain above ground, in large jars built for the purpose.
"The dirt spirits will bless it and keep it safe for us," Esca answered.
They walked away from the pits, two filled and sealed, one left empty. They had dug out three in preparation, but the wet weather had affected much of the barley, and it had been a poorer harvest than they had hoped for.
"I think we will manage through the winter," Marcus said, casting a glance backwards at the gaping pit. "We have the sheep and goats, and we can set up snares for partridge and hares. There are still wild mushrooms in the forest. We have managed before to bring down deer and boar." He paused. "I believe we will have to work hard, this year, not to starve. But at least we are both used to sparse living."
Esca pressed his lips together but refrained from saying anything. There was no reason to voice concerns that might not come to pass. But he had been a fugitive for a full year before his capture by the Romans, a then a slave in the lead mines in Iscalis before evidence of his strength and endurance had brought him to the Ludus in Calleva - and during that time he had learned to fear starvation.
The wet wild winds from the North died away altogether as they entered November, and instead the air gained a cold clear tang. Marcus and Esca pulled on their winter cloaks and went to the forest to gather the large dead boughs which had been shaken from the trees by the many storms.
The days grew very short as they moved closer to winter solstice, giving them only a short time to get the day's work done. The long evenings they spent doing what work they could by the light of the fire. The rasping, grumbling sound of the quern was a constant background noise in the afternoons when they ground the barley for the daily bread.
Marcus paused to stretch to relieve his sore shoulders. "I find it strange that I can carry spear and sword for year after year without trouble, but not work a quern for a couple of hours without getting a crick in my neck."
Esca laughed. "I suppose a woman would know better how to do it." He was sitting by the fire, whetting the blade of a sickle. Marcus smiled and bent down to return to the quern when the repetitive, singing sound of the stone against iron stopped. "You know," Esca said, in a slow, oddly careful voice, "you could take a wife. In two or three years Meghan will be old enough to wed."
Marcus huffed out in surprise. He instantly thought about how Uncle Aquila and Stephanos would have reacted to hear it suggested that Marcus should marry a Briton. He remembered all the jokes and rumours in the army, about the wild Britonnic girls, who would speak freely in crowds and cuff their men about the head if they failed to please them. Marcus shook his head to himself. His time in the army was a memory, now, and he said nothing of these thoughts. "Do you really think Louarn would give his jewel away to a poor Roman peasant?" he asked instead, keeping his voice light.
Esca shot him a queer look. "He might, if he saw that you were sweet on each other."
Marcus shook his head in disbelief. "Meghan is a child, and she will remain a child in my eyes even after two years have passed."
"I was considered a man of age at sixteen, by my tribe," Esca interjected.
Marcus looked down at his hands resting on the handles of the quern." And did you have a sweetheart then?" He had never before asked for Esca's story, not wishing to walk in without leave where he was not wanted. There was a long pause. Marcus resumed his work to fill the silence, and for a moment the heavy sound of the quern was the only noise in the silence. He cast an apprehensive glance in Esca's direction, and was surprised to see him smiling softly, lost in some memory, the whetting stone and sickle hanging forgotten from his hands. "There was a girl, Dreda," he started, sounding a little sheepish. "She was a warrior and trained in my father's house. She was two years my senior and when we sparred she would always beat me. The summer I turned fourteen, I bought her three green beads for the Samhain festival, and she would not take them. She was very beautiful. I tried for two whole years to get her to take me to bed, but she cared not for the chieftain's son."
Marcus laughed, warmed by the glint of humour in Esca's often too-sombre face. "And did you never manage to charm her?"
The small smile slipped from Esca's mouth."We were invaded that same autumn." He turned his gaze away. "She was one of the first to die in the revolt that followed."
Esca stared into the fire. The atmosphere was abruptly changed. Marcus swallowed. "And when you were a slave?" he finally ventured, watching Esca for his reaction.
Esca let his head fall for a moment. He looked down at the instruments in his hands as if he had forgotten their use. "I was beaten, made to push the stone grinder, and thrown into the gladiator ring, but no Roman ever used my body for their pleasure." He let out a deep breath. "And I am glad of it. If anyone had tried, I would have killed them and then killed myself." Marcus watched Esca's hands as he resumed his work, pulling the whetting stone over the shining blade with casual skill. When Uncle Aquila had brought Esca home, Marcus had never before owned a slave. He remembered how he had been tempted once or twice - in the first summer after he was healed - to touch Esca so, to see how he might react. But something had always held him back. He had never liked the idea of taking pleasure from someone who could not freely offer it.
"And you?" Esca asked, rousing him from his thoughts. "Did you have a girl back in Etruria?" He paused. "Or a shieldbrother, maybe, in your cohort?"
Marcus could feel heat creep into his cheeks under Esca's steady gaze. He had lived long enough among Britons, now, to begin to understand what a shieldbrother might be. He stalled for time by gathering the ground barley and pouring it back into the hole in the centre of the quern. "By Roman honour, soldiers should not lie down for one another." He saw Esca nodding, he already knew this. Marcus hesitated. "But there was a soldier at the camp where I trained in Clusium." He had not spoken about this for more than five years. But there was only Esca with him, here, looking at him expectantly with no judgement on his face. Esca, who he had trusted with all of his fears and hopes for two years now. He took a deep breath. "His name was Mahu, an Egyptian-born auxiliary." Marcus stopped again, unable to find the words.
"Was he very beautiful?" Esca prompted.
Marcus had still not grown accustomed to the Britons' free speech in these kind of matters. Embarrassment made him drop his eyes to the ground like a boy. "Yes."
"And did you charm him into your bed?"
Esca laughed then, soft and warm, with no scorn at all.
They spoke no more of it for the remainder of the evening. They finished their work and retreated to their beds. The fire burned low. Marcus lay awake beneath the covers, listening to the embers crackling, the wind pushing against roof, Esca's steady breathing.
The moon had travelled across the sky, sending its pale light through a new angle in the doorway, when he heard Esca push aside his covers, bare feet sliding over the floor. He opened his eyes to see Esca crouching above him. Esca whispered his name, then, a question, and Marcus lifted his blanket to let him in.
They did not say much in the morning. Esca would leave in the spring, but in the time they had left, they could find some pleasure together.
The first snow fell. Faron had warned them that the winter would drive wolves down from the forest. Soon they began to hear their long-drawn cry in the night.
Not long after they'd heard the first wolf howling they were roused by a harrowing sound in the dark. It sounded like a wounded man screaming. "The sheep!" Esca exclaimed in a sleep-clogged voice. They both jumped to their feet and bolted out of the house. Outside, the hurdle covering the stable doorway had been torn from its hinges, and the sheep were running wild in the yard, braying and drooling in their panic, the whites of their eyes gleaming in the dark. On the other side of the fence, Marcus thought he glimpsed the shadow of a large animal disappearing up the hill.
Marcus thought first that Esca was talking about the wolf, but when he turned around he saw that Esca's attention was on the white mother goat which stood panting heavily in distress, pressed against the wall of the stable. Its hide was smeared with blood. The new kid was gone.
It was an ill omen of things to come.
The week after the wolf attack, they broke the seal on the second pit to find the grain there gone green with mould. They stood for a long time, side by side, staring down into the hole in silence. The contents of the pit represented half of their harvest.
"Maybe we can salvage some of it," Esca offered.
"No," Marcus answered, voice low. "I saw a man in Isca Dumnoniorum who'd gone mad from eating mouldy grain." He suppressed the shudder that rose unbidden at the memory. "It is too dangerous."
They worked through the day in a daze, hardly speaking. When dark fell they climbed into bed, huddling close. "We still have the sheep," Marcus murmured, but he had been thinking about it all day, turning over the possibilities, and Esca was simply finishing his sentence when he said: "but if we slaughter all the sheep now we will starve hard in the spring."
Outside the wind howled. It was snowing again.
"I can still hunt," Esca said after a long silence.
"You tire out yourself hunting for a squirrels and rats, and they don't have enough meat on them to replenish the energy you use." Marcus shifted onto his back, wincing when he put weight on his leg. "We could ask Louarn or Faron for help, but I would feel very ill at ease taking from someone who had so little." There was no easy answer. They lay close together, saying no more, but they did not sleep for a long time.
The answer had come to Marcus during the night. In the end, it was obvious to him what he needed to do, although he also knew why his mind had resisted the idea . He rose before Esca in the morning and quietly set about getting ready. He was mostly packed, and dressed in his toga, when Esca awoke. "Marcus?"
Marcus stopped was he was doing to turn around and face him. "I shall go down in the valley and ask Priscus if we might borrow grain," he said without preamble.
Esca looked confused for a moment, but then he blinked fully awake. A grim expression settled over his features, but when he finally spoke, all he said was: "The roads are not for travelling alone in the winter."
"It is only two days' journey. Three maybe, with the snow."
"Will your leg bear it?"
"I hope so."
Marcus turned pack around to continue his packing.
Esca let out a forceful breath. "Let me go, instead."
"You can't," Marcus said, turning around again with a humourless smile. "You are a Briton, Esca, they wouldn't give you anything."
He found his thin-bladed iron razor among his belongings and began the task of cutting off his beard, aware that Esca was watching him.
"Among my people there is a harsh punishment for cutting the hair or the beard of a grown man," Esca said after a while. He offered Marcus a wan smile, and then he rose from the pallet. "Here, let me help you."
Esca followed him out into the yard and helped him ready the pony. Finally Marcus slung his cloak over his shoulder and jumped into the saddle. "I will be back in three days' time."
Esca waited. By the third day, Marcus had still not returned. The wolves were roaming in the forest again; Esca heard them call to each other during the night. By the evening of the fourth day, he had made up his mind to go down the trail on foot. But when morning came he once again weighed his options – thinking over what might have happened, what decisions Marcus might have made. He thought about their valuable animals alone in the night without the protection of fire and the scent and sound of humans, which most wolves had learned to fear. Finally he unpacked the bag he had prepared the night before. Marcus was resting his leg in the Roman villa, he told himself, eating wheat bread and olives, and he forced that image to push away all the other scenarios that his worried mind was trying to suggest.
On the evening of the seventh day he was stood gazing out over the dark grey hills - his breath a thick mist in the frigid air – when he suddenly saw two dark lupine shapes come rushing up the hill. He was about to run inside and gather his bow, when one of the dark shapes barked excitedly. Esca strained his eyes. The shapes were not wolves at all, he realised: they were two lanky half-grown wolfhound pups.
A high-pitched whistle broke the quiet and the dogs turned around, heeding the command. Soon after, Marcus came out of the shadows with the dogs trailing at his side; he was on foot, limping awkwardly, and leading the horse which was heavy laden with goods that made up much more than a few sacks of grain.
Esca stood in wonder for a moment. Then he began to guess what had happened. He was suddenly torn between relief and anger. When Marcus saw him, he stopped on the trail and raised his hand with a triumphant yell. He was grinning, but beneath his smile his skin was greyish white and his eyes were sunken with exhaustion.
Esca rushed down the hill, but brought himself to a halt a few steps before him. "You walked all the way to Calleva, didn't you?"
"You are a fool, to put yourself in such danger."
Marcus pushed his bad leg forward, rested a hand on the thigh of the other. "I am sorry, Esca, I made it down the hill, I could not bring myself to go to the villa. They are not our friends there. My honour forbade it. I followed the road from the bottom of the valley out to the Roman road."
"Seven days you've been gone," Esca snapped, unable to contain his anger.
"My uncle forced me to stay and rest for a night, or I would have been home earlier." Esca saw now that Marcus was shuddering, with either cold or exhaustion, or both. "I am glad to be back, now."
"You're a fool." Esca stepped up close and fisted his hand in the front of Marcus' cloak, and Marcus came forward, leaning against him with most of his weight. They embraced. After a while Esca became aware that his hand was twisted tightly in the hair at the back of Marcus neck. Marcus did not protest it.
The pups, it turned out, came from a litter that Uncle Aquila's new bitch had birthed in the early summer. "A precious gift, that I have sworn to repay some day," said Marcus. The saddle packs contained a wealth of riches: an amphora of olive oil, lentils, biscuits and two sacks of wheat.
That night they ate well.
But two days after his return, Marcus woke up in the early morning with shaking chills and a feeling like someone had packed his chest with stones. He coughed, trying to relieve the sensation, and was rewarded with a sharp pain in his ribs.
Esca stirred awake beside him. "Marcus?" He reached out, touching his arms and face. "Your skin is burning."
Marcus rose to get up for breakfast, but soon he had to retreat to the pallet, dizzy and short of breath. As the day passed, he was alternately shivering with cold and sweating under the blankets, and his heart was hammering, quickened by fever. Esca brought him food, but Marcus could not eat - and even drinking provoked a stabbing pain in his chest which stole his breath away. He tried to rest. Esca was sitting close by, watching him with worried eyes. Marcus slipped into sleep. Night fell. Sometimes he woke for short intervals, unable to shake a heavy confusion - and always Esca was there, sitting by his side with that same apprehensive expression.
He woke up at some point with a cough he felt would choke him. When the coughing fit finally ceased, he rolled onto his back, exhausted. Through a narrow crack in the thatching, a ray of sun shone through, and Marcus wondered where the night had gone. He closed his eyes again. After a moment he felt a cup being held to his mouth, hot water touching the cracked skin on his lips. Esca's cool hand was cradling the back of his neck. "Drink, Marcus." Marcus opened his mouth and tried to take a few sips, but he had trouble swallowing, and the water in his throat provoked another violent bout of coughing. "I can't," he said, shivering, when the coughing ceased. He was so tired. He closed his eyes.
The next time he woke up, he saw Esca standing at the door, wearing his woollen cloak. "Esca? Wait. Don't leave," he tried to say, but either Esca didn't hear him, or Marcus lost consciousness before he could answer, because when he woke again, he was alone in the hut. In his fever, he dreamt that Esca had marched off to the North-land; he dreamt of wheat withering black on the stalk and bull calves with blood streaming from the neck.
He woke up again to Esca coming in from outside with flakes of snow in his hair, leading a small form huddled under a heavy cloak in through the doorway. Marcus tried to speak, but he couldn't catch his breath to make sound.
Esca came over and crouched down next to the pallet. He placed a cool hand on Marcus' forehead. "It's all right, Marcus. It will be all right," he said. But Marcus had never seen him look so scared.
The cloaked figure moved in, and Esca retreated.
"Esca?" Marcus called. He could feel his lips cracking around the word, could taste blood. The dark figure stooped over him, and suddenly it didn't seem small, but large and ominous – darkness looming in. "Esca!" he called again, but Esca stood at the far side of the hut, his arms wrapped around his chest and wearing the same grim expression as when he held Marcus down for the surgeon's knife in Calleva.
The shadow above him slid back the hood of its cloak, and Marcus saw now that it was the old woman who lived with Louarn, and for whom he'd never heard a name. She was wearing a head-dress made of bird feathers. The light from the hearth was behind her, and her shadowed eyes were large and dark, unblinking like an owl's. She pulled the covers away and reached out to touch him. Marcus wanted to raise his hand to push her away, but he found he could not move. Her small fingers spread over the width of his chest, trailing over his ribs, and he could feel the point of each of her fingernails against his skin through the fabric of his tunic. She leaned in over him, muttering. Marcus became aware that he was panting in fear like a trapped animal, but he could not stop himself. His chest burned beneath her touch, and then the jagged darkness closed over him.
When he came to, the covers were packed around him once again. He gazed around him. The old woman was squatting by the fire, working on something with her back turned. Esca stood unmoving as he had done before. When their eyes caught he nodded slightly, then turned his gaze to the woman. "He is awake," he said.
The old woman rose from the fire and walked over. She tilted his head with surprising strength and held a cup to his lips.
Whatever was in the cup, it had a foul smell. The old woman tipped it upwards and a cold, thick fluid slid past Marcus' lips and into his mouth. It tasted like mould. In an instant, Marcus saw before him the mad man from Isca Dumnoniorum, raving in the street with drool hanging from his lip, his irises clouded over with white. "No," he protested, flinging his head to the side and spitting out the liquid.
The woman let go of his neck and his head fell back. She snapped out a word, and Esca came over, taking the cup from her hand.
"You must drink this," he said, taking her place by Marcus' pallet.
Esca's warm palm came up to cradle the back of his head. "Do you trust me?" he asked. He held the cup to his lips once again, and finally Marcus drank.
The fever broke quickly after that, but it took another week before Marcus was back on his feet.
On one of the first days when he felt truly well, he and Esca were sitting by the fire, enjoying a quiet moment, when Esca leant in and softly kissed his mouth. Marcus was too surprised to respond, and Esca pulled back. He looked a little apprehensive - a rare look on Esca, who was almost never insecure. "I have wanted to touch you like that for a long time, but I was afraid that it would shame you."
Marcus looked at Esca: strong and stubborn, proud. By Roman honour Marcus should not want him. He should want a soft, perfumed boy or a subservient slave. He should want only to satisfy his desire, and care nothing for affectionate touches.
He reached out to touch Esca's hand. "It does not shame me."
As Márta came in they began to see the first promises of spring.
They had been able to sustain themselves on the wheat and lentils that Marcus had brought back from Calleva without slaughtering all of their animals, and so Marcus could go down to town with three sheep and sell them for more spring seed to supplement the little they had left of their own. In Aibreán they put the seed in the ground. The air was warm and dry once more, and Esca was happy to see Marcus walking freely again, striding across the fields with the two wolf-hounds at his side. He was thinner now, after the hard winter, but stronger than Esca had ever seen him - and after long days spent under the spring sun his neck and hands were the colour of a hazelnut.
Once the seed was planted, it was time for Esca to go. Summer was the time for travelling. Esca had good clothes, now, made from roe-deer skin and heavy wool. He had weapons, tools, cooking ware, and the customary offering to ensure safe travelling. Marcus had said that he was going to give him the pony as pay for his work on the farm. But Esca found himself lingering. He sometimes wondered what had made him stay in the south for as long as he already had. For years he had dreamt of nothing but travelling North and finding out who remained of his tribe, if any of his kin had survived the attack of the legion. It was eight years now, since he fled from the burning remains of his childhood home, seven since he was caught and made slave.
Esca had learned that the Roman word for slave, 'servus', also meant 'preserved'. A fellow slave at the ludus had explained it to him: the Romans called their war slaves for the living dead - the preserved - because, rightfully their life had been taken from them when they were captured instead of killed. Esca was beginning to think maybe he really had lost his life when he became a slave; and maybe when Marcus freed him he was given a new one. In his years as a slave he had remembered only blood and war. But out here now, in the green hills, he found himself for the first time able to think back to his life before without the heavy sickness in his belly: river-bathing with his friends, lying on his back in the meadow on a summer day and looking up at the blue sky, working in the field in harvest-time side by side with his brothers.
In his life as a slave, Esca had burned with anger towards all Romans. Now Marcus was like a brother.
In the end he went to see Grandmother, to ask her where his future should lie.
"Are you sure you want me to look?" she asked him as she brought out the small golden dishes which the druids used for divination. "Sometimes you will not like what the blood tells you."
"I am sure." Esca said. He handed her the small dagger with the inlaid shells and then he offered her his hand, his palm held open.
Esca was late in returning, so when Marcus had finished the milking and tended to the new lambs, he decided to walk up towards Louarn's house, to see what was holding him. He was surprised to find Esca not far from their own farm, lying spread-eagled on the ground in the tall grass, staring up into the sky. "What are you doing?" he laughed, amused to see Esca like this, daydreaming like a boy and unaware of his presence.
At the sound of his voice, Esca jumped to his feet, brushing dandelion fluff from his clothes and looking a little sheepish.
"Don't worry," Marcus said, "The day's work is done. There is time to daydream." Then he saw the cloth wrapped around Esca's hand. "What happened to your hand?"
"It's nothing," Esca said, brushing him off. "Come, let's go home."
They began to walk back down the hill, side by side. They were walking along the edge of the farthest field. Esca reached out and let his fingers skim lightly over the new wheat. "The harvest will be good this year, I think."
Marcus looked out over the field. The green stalks were growing visibly everyday, at this time. "Yes."
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Esca rubbing his wounded hand.
"What were you planning to do for work when I am gone?" Esca asked.
Marcus felt his good spirits fall. He ducked his head and kept walking. Esca had not talked much about his leaving before now. Marcus had been beginning to hope that -- He stopped himself from that thought. The muscles in his jaw started working through no will of his own. Esca was not bound to him any more.
"I was hoping that Faron and Luoarn might be willing to lend me a hand with the harvesting if I helped them in turn." He hesitated. "Also, there is a slave boy by the name of Tullius down in the Roman house. He is ill treated by the Domina, and she was talking about selling him to the mines in Iscalia. I know I swore to never own someone again, but if she would let me buy him, I could let him work for his freedom for the next two or three years until he comes of age. By then I should hope to be able to pay a free man for his labour."
"Iscalia." Esca shuddered. "If we can help anyone escape the lead mines, I think that we should." They had reached the farm and stood by the fence. Esca pulled the dagger from his belt and held it out by the blade to Marcus. "But I am not leaving, Marcus. You are my shieldbrother, and I want to stay."