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Warmed Out of the Grey Ash

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“But a new life, a new beginning, had warmed out of the grey ash, for himself, and Esca, and Cottia; perhaps for other people too; even for an unknown downland valley that would one day be a farm.”
-The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff

They built a roundhouse, in part because Esca knew the way of it, from his boyhood, and in part because they would not have to cut stone or buy tile. Cottia made no secret of her pleasure that they would not be living inside square Roman walls.

She carried wood and hauled mud and dung alongside Marcus and Esca without complaint, her skirts kilted up from her bare, muddy legs, her amber-red hair tied ruthlessly back from her face. Indeed, she was more fit to the work than Marcus himself, now, although he did what he could.

At first she and Esca were shy with each other, wary as wild creatures at an unknown scent. But by the Ides they were laughing and joking with each other, sometimes speaking so quickly together that Marcus could not understand.

At night they slept inside the walls of the half-built roundhouse, under a makeshift shelter, only a striped native rug hung between to separate Marcus and Cottia from where Esca lay. Cottia felt small and birdlike in Marcus’ arms, like she might fly away if he did not hold her to him.

They had been married since spring, and he did not know how to touch her. They were tired, always, and it made a good reason to simply fall asleep at the end of the day; and the woman she had become while he was in the north was still something of a stranger to him.

The women he had known before--not many, and briefly--were the sorts of women who lived around the forts, women who knew exactly what to do. If they had laughed at a young soldier’s fumbling, they had done so where he could not hear them. He knew he would not bear it, if he hurt Cottia.

And then, too, there was Esca, on the other side of the rug.

Cottia could not cook at all; she had been too young for much skill when her mother sent her away, and Valaria had not thought it a suitable task for a Roman maiden of good family, not when there were slaves to do it.

Esca had never learned more than the quick cooking of meat in the ashes on a hunting trail, and so it fell to Marcus to prepare their meals. He at least knew how to make bread from his army days, after a fashion, and he found he did not mind it so much, although it was women’s work. It was at least something he could do when his leg pained him too much to haul and carry, and he had to watch Esca and Cottia labor when he should have joined them.

They ate the evening meal late, more often than not, and on those rare evening when they were not too tired to talk, they sat around the fire and told stories of gods and heroes.

Cottia’s stories were not quite the same as Esca’s, but they were near enough that sometimes Marcus felt a queer kind of longing ache, as if there were no place for him in their stories.

“Cottia is a woman,” Esca told him as they sat on the bank after swimming in the river. He had thrust his wet russet-brown hair back from his face and tilted his head back to put his face to the sun, and for a moment Marcus found himself staring at the line of his throat. “And your wife. Has she done aught to displease you?”

“No!” Marcus swallowed past the tightness in his throat. “I--has she said anything to you?” He did not think Cottia would; but he had also not thought, before, that he had hurt her by touching her only as a brother. In truth, he had not been sure at first that the kinship between them was the kind of thing a marriage was built on, but she had begged him not to leave her in a cage, and he could not say no. And now, now that he ached to be a husband to her, he did not know how to reach for her.

“No,” said Esca, “but I have eyes to see, and I see how she looks at you, and how she looks when you turn away from her.”

“Oh.” Marcus’s stomach cringed within him, and then, although he should not be confiding this to Esca, of all men, “I do not know what to do with--a woman who has never--”

“You did well enough with me,” Esca said quietly, and he turned to look at Marcus then. There was no reproach in his grey eyes, and that, perhaps, made it worse.

He had not worried about hurting Esca in the same way; it had only been the once, in the north, with them both too cold and weary to be afraid or do anything but cling to each other in their cloaks, skin against skin, and glory in still being alive.

It had been simple, in the north, above the Wall.

And after they had not spoken of it, although Marcus had desperately wished to; he had felt a weight settle on him as soon as they reached Borcovicus, and he had watched the change in Esca, too, how he had become more grave, more quiet, even as they reached safety. He had thought perhaps to Esca what passed between them meant no more than friendship, and so he had set aside the hurt and told himself that it was better that way.

And then he had married Cottia, and by doing so hurt Esca after all; he saw that now. Hurt all of them, maybe.

“I will go sleep wild some night, if you like,” said Esca, on an evening when Cottia had gone to bed early, weary and aching from her woman’s courses. “Or--” and then, very quietly, and without looking away from the fire’s heart where a green branch sputtered and sent up sparks, “if it is that you must send me away, that there is not room--”

“Esca, no. As I said to you before, you are free to go, or stay, as you wish.” Marcus’s pulse had quickened, with something more like fear than he cared to name. “Only I would like you to stay. Cottia would as well, I think.”

“I do understand,” Esca said, pulling his legs up and wrapping his arms around his knees. “Cottia is--she is the kind of woman I should have liked to marry, if I were to marry. Were I you, I would have chosen her, too.”

And again, Marcus could hear no reproach in his voice, and for the first time since their eyes had met in the arena he was angry at Esca, Esca who had not said anything after they reached the Wall, who had never suggested that there might be a choice to make, but only smiled and told Marcus that Cottia would make him a fine wife. Esca, who did not think he was worth the choosing, after all they had been to each other. “This is the first I have heard of a choice! You never let me choose you, not since we came south! And now--I would I could have both of you, if I had that choice.”

Esca looked up again, and said gravely, “And I also, but is that not a thing for Cottia to decide?”

And Marcus turned at the sound of the rug being pushed aside to see Cottia standing behind him, a rug about her shoulders, her hair in a wild tangled cloud and her wide golden eyes catching the firelight into them. “Sa, is it not a thing for Cottia to decide?” she said. “If you must keep me awake with your arguing, at least let me join you in it.”

"I am sorry," Marcus said, into the soft curve of Cottia's throat, after. "I should not have neglected my duty to you."

She sat up on the pallet, quickly enough that Marcus had to roll away lest she catch him with an elbow or a shoulder. "Your duty!"

Marcus winced at the sharp note in her voice. "Na, Cottia, I do not mean it like that. Only I was--afraid, and I did not wish to hurt you."

She stared at him for a long moment, her face very white in the moonlight, and her eyes so bright that Marcus could not tell whether she was angry or about to weep. At last her shoulders slumped, and she said very quietly, "I did not say anything, because I was afraid you were sorry you had married me."

He caught her wrists and pulled gently, until she let him draw her back down into the blankets. She nestled against him, but she still felt taut as a bowstring under his hands. "I am not sorry," he said. "I could never be sorry, my heart. I belong to you."

"And to Esca."

"Yes." It was not a thing he could deny any longer.

"I am not Esca," said Cottia.

"I do not ask you to be. But neither do I ask him to be you," said Marcus. He took her face in his hands and kissed her, and as before she seemed to hesitate a moment, and then came to life with swift, eager response.

"That is good," she said breathlessly a moment later. "I do not think I would wear warrior's ink so well."

Marcus had felt a little guilty, leaving Cottia alone on their pallet, but she had only mumbled something nonsensical and sprawled over the entire thing, leaving no room for him.

It was a clear, pleasant night, and Esca had spread out a rug under the stars. He had not said anything since Marcus sat down beside him, only reached out and taken his hand. Marcus's hands were shaking; and Esca's hand in his felt none too steady either.

And then suddenly Esca was pressed against him, his face buried in Marcus's shoulder. "I thought of this," he said, "every night since the wolf-hunt."

"I did not know." Marcus tried stroking the hand Esca was not brushing down his back, gentling him. He wished a little that Esca were not still wearing his tunic, that they could touch skin to skin. "We are here now."

"We are here now," Esca repeated; he was not like Cottia, to need talk. They had always, aside from this, understood each other well enough without words.

Esca kissed with a whole-hearted intensity that made Marcus ache in heart as well as body, and he accepted Esca's solid weight on him as he had accepted Cottia's slight frame earlier. They were both a part of him, and he of them, and he hoped for it to always be so.

It was a slower, sweeter thing than the first time: Esca was not like Cottia, all fire and fierceness, but careful and deliberate in this as in all things. Marcus tried to return that care in his own touch, to tell Esca in a language deeper than words all that was in his heart.

When he went to crawl back into bed with Cottia, she rolled over sleepily, raising the blanket, and murmured, “There is room enough for Esca.” He fell asleep with Cottia curled back against him and Esca’s stocky warmth behind him, and nothing had ever felt more right.

It was not a simple thing, never a simple thing; but Marcus had rather come to believe that nothing worth the having was.

The first time he saw Esca and Cottia with their heads bent towards each other, their hands tangled together, it hurt more than he expected it to, like a blow landed too hard in sparring.

The second time, when they leaned over him in the pile of furs on the pallet and kissed each other, it hurt less.

And when Cottia had finished painting the doorposts and lintel of the house in bright swirling designs of red and blue and yellow, and stood there with her hands on her hips and a smear of paint across her cheek looking entirely satisfied with herself, Marcus only smiled when Esca put his arms around her and kissed her.

Then Cottia said, “Oh, do come over here, Marcus, for I have no one to put my arms around,” and he went and kissed the both of them, in the doorway of the home they three had built together.