The smell of the fire carries that of blood and sweat away. The heat conquers the cold of the rain and wind that had seeped so deeply into Marcus’ bones that he had forgotten what it feels like to be warm. The crackling of burning logs is louder than the water. The sighs and the breathing, the shuffling of feet of the men whose names he doesn’t know but who feel like a solid, unwavering presence behind him, seem to shut out the foreignness of the woods.
Someone’s breath hitches, every now and then. The pyre is burning high now, blurring and deforming the shapes it is feeding off, but none of them takes their eyes away. Marcus cannot either. He knew Guern for a day and hasn’t yet asked the names or stories of the soldiers they’re burying next to the pyre. The men around him are mourning friends, comrades in arms, men they spent the last twenty years of their lives with. But amidst their unity, he feels less out of place than he ever did in the legion.
The wooden eagle his father carved fell prey to the fire a while ago. Marcus cannot make out its shape in the flames, and he guesses that all that is left of it is ashes. It feels appropriate. Next to where it lay, Cunoval’s dagger is melting into a puddle of glowing iron.
Slowly, the light of the sun is turning red. The flames crackle and grow higher, bright glowing ashes rising up to the treetops but never quite touching them.
Esca takes his hand.
It’s a light touch. Warm, they’re all warmed by the fire, and Marcus’ hand moves on its own to interlace their fingers. It’s so natural that it takes him one, two heartbeats until he notices and turns to look at Esca.
He doesn’t know what he’d been hoping to see, but Esca hasn’t moved an inch. He is watching the flames, his eyes fixed on the same spot Marcus was looking at earlier.
The way the light plays on his face is like a sign from Mithras himself.
He doesn’t let go of Esca’s hand until he has to. Then, as he takes the first step away from the burnt-down pyre, a stinging ache in his leg makes him stumble and Esca catches him so reflexively that it’s obvious he expected it to happen.
Marcus’ pride rebels at the way he’s limping even with his arm around Esca’s shoulders, but the exhaustion and the remains of the fever have turned his limbs heavy as stone. Around him, the old veterans are leaving what is left of their friends to return later with the fallen men’s families, and Marcus has little regard for his pride in this moment. He allows himself to let Esca help him through the worst parts of the river.
Someone hands him the eagle, when they’re back on solid ground. He cannot take it with his arm still around Esca, so he lets go. Esca stays where he is, walking close enough for their shoulders to brush.
Marcus looks down at the eagle and the way the gold reflects the evening light. It’s heavier than he expected, solid in his hands, and so misplaced in the middle of the Caledonian woods that it doesn’t quite seem real.
His grip tightens around it. He looks up at Esca, who is watching him out of the corner of his eyes, and throws him a smile.
They fall into lockstep.
They don’t keep south. Esca told him, after the battle, after he found him crouched over the prince’s body and helped him to his feet, before they lit the pyre, that Guern’s tribe would take them in.
When they arrive, Esca has taken Marcus by the arm again, more to guide him than to support his balance. It’s gone dark, and Marcus wonders hazily how far Esca must have run, without rest, until he found whatever gave him the idea to raise who by all means should be dead.
Whatever he sees and hears in the village goes by in a blur. He can hear the blood in his head louder than the voices of the people next to him. A dull, pulsating ache has spread through his body, intensifying tenfold in his left leg. The lights of a fire dance before his eyes and turn the whole village into a flickering dream-space.
Esca does most of the talking. Marcus doesn’t understand what he says, nothing but Esca’s and his own name, but his voice is heavy and tired. While he is pulled away by one of the veterans - reassuring Latin in his ears - and handed a bowl of something warm that smells of herbs, he watches Esca talk to a weeping woman, who holds Marcus’ gaze when she catches him staring.
Esca turns not a moment later and lets his bright eyes wander over the crowd by the fire, until he finds Marcus. Unwavering, without looking away, he says something Marcus couldn’t understand if he could hear it, and slowly, the woman nods. Marcus nods back and wishes he knew the words to tell her he’s sorry.
They give him a small hut, where he sinks down on a bed made of furs that is softer than the most luxurious Roman feather mattress could ever be. His consciousness flickers out as soon as he is alone, and in again when he hears foreign and yet familiar words spoken in low voices.
Esca says his name and Marcus looks up, briefly, to find him leaning over him and looking down. He is pale in the dim light of the torch they brought and the rings under his eyes are almost starkly violet, but his eyes are kind, with all the warmth he had when they were fleeing but only half the worry, and his hand is a comforting pressure on Marcus’ shoulder.
He is talking to someone when he looks up again. When Marcus lifts his head, Esca’s hand almost reflexively slides to the back of his neck and holds him up.
An old man treats Marcus’ wounds with confident motions and muttered words. The whole hut smells of herbs and oils. Esca tells him that the man is the druid of the tribe, and the druid laughs deeply at that and asks something thick and foreign.
Somewhere in the back of his mind, Marcus can still sense the fear of his five-year-old self when his mother told him about the wild magic men beyond the borders of Roman security, but Esca watches him work carefully, with an ease in his posture that speaks of utmost trust.
Marcus lets his head sink down onto the furs and closes his eyes. Esca pulls his hand from Marcus’ neck and rests it against the side of his head.
The druid leaves them a long time later. Marcus is still awake when he does, though he cannot explain to himself why he hasn’t lost consciousness an eternity ago.
He has moved, eventually, to the side of the hut. Marcus doesn’t have to look up anymore to watch the flames dance on his face. He’s close enough to touch if Marcus reached out.
Marcus watches him pull his coat around his shoulders and look over at the wall, where they put up the torch. The light isn’t half as strong as that of the half-sunken sun and the tall flames of the pyre were. It casts deep, dark shadows on his face. Their shift and flicker when the torch is disturbed is intriguing, though Marcus wonders whether he is just looking for an excuse to watch Esca.
He has never met someone quite as mesmerising. Maybe it should be more irritating than it is. But the soothingly warm, all-surrounding peace, that has replaced all the tension and the fear, isn’t something Marcus would want to trade for the world.
There are a thousand questions he wants to ask him, the man whom he told to leave and who went and rallied an army for him. He cannot pry a single one of them from his persistent headache.
“You can rest too,” he says. His voice is barely more than a whisper. He spent his last remaining strength on his speech at the pyre.
Esca turns and musters him, unreadable as ever. He stifles a yawn. “I will. Later.”
Marcus nods and settles back to let his eyes fall shut. He thinks about reaching out just a few inches and taking Esca’s hand again, but he doesn’t find the strength in his arm.
He falls asleep to warm pressure against his forehead and fingers running through his hair.