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An Unexpected Omen

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"Come on!" said Esca, turning back to look at Marcus. His russet hair whipped back in the wind as the fading sun shone palely on his face; his wide-set eyes caught and reflected the last of the light.

Marcus laughed. "What, do you fear we will be late?"

Pausing to catch his breath, Marcus considered his friend before him. Esca had let his hair grow long since they had returned from Valentia; with that and the mustaches, he was the very picture of any free Briton in his bright tunic and chequered braccae. He looked fine, indeed, but it was not a thing Marcus ought to appreciate. He was married now, after all. Perhaps it could have been different between them, if he had not met Cottia. He loved Esca -- after all they had gone through together, how could he not? -- but they could never be anything more, no matter how much he wanted it. He had stepped across the river and made his choice. He had Esca's friendship. It was enough, he told himself.

Esca looked nothing like a Roman slave, or a man who had been a slave, and Marcus found himself wondering if Esca was grooming himself thus for precisely that reason. It was a thing he himself could not quite ask. Cottia, he thought, could have done it, but she, usually so bold, had never asked Esca either. Even though they had lived on their little farm for half a year now, as equal as they could be, he knew himself to be too Roman to venture an opinion.

Esca tilted his head up. "Sundown, we said. Here at sundown." His mouth quirked. "Besides, Cottia has kept the torches. You will want to find her before dark."

"Very well," said Marcus, and he grinned and dragged himself forward and up the hill.

The stone circle was a strange thing at the best of times, thought Marcus, as they stood next to it. Now, as night was falling, the circle grew stranger still; the standing stones were beginning to darken and cast long shadows. Marcus thought that, perhaps, if he looked at the ring just right, out of the corner of his eye, they looked almost like men, like the immortal gods, standing there for thousands of years in the stillness.

Then he saw a pair of figures that were not still at all, coming up from the opposite side of the circle, and he forgot his unease entirely.

"Cottia!" he called out, and Cottia ran towards them, Cub bounding forward at her side, until they met next to the circle.

He caught her up in his arms and kissed her, and she laughed and laughed, her delighted laugh like the chatter of birds, while behind them he could hear the whine and thumping sound of what he was sure was Cub leaping happily upon Esca.

"I have missed you," she said, smiling, kissing him again, and then she wriggled out of his arms to embrace Esca, though of course she did not kiss him. "Both of you."

Esca chuckled. "We have been away for not even a day!"

"And see," Marcus added, "we have good new tools for the farm. And we -- I -- brought a necklace for you." He smiled, for he was proud of that, and it would please Cottia to have fine things of her own. Dubnos had traded them some pots and a pair of shovels without much trouble; his wife had had some jewelry she no longer wore, but she had been a fierce haggler who would surely have wrung every last denarius out of even a clever trader in Rome.

"Last time," she said, in an accusatory manner, "you were gone half a year and you came back to Calleva with a wingless golden eagle! And you did not even tell me about the eagle until long after it was gone!"

The eagle lay buried now, of course. That was behind them. "I do not think there is another one left in the north," Marcus said, with only the faintest twinge of regret for the paths closed to them, the rivers crossed that could not be stepped in twice.

"All the same," began Cottia, but she did not finish her sentence, and she had a fierce look in her wide amber eyes.

He decided it was prudent to change the subject. "Why did you wish for us to meet you here?"

"Did Esca not tell you?"

He turned back to Esca. "Marcus," Esca began, "you never did ask."

"For the omens," added Cottia.

Marcus began to wonder if he had missed something; there were still so many things about the Britons that he did not know. It was neither midsummer nor midwinter, but that did not mean no other days were sacred. "It is not one of your feast-days, is it?" he asked, chagrined. "We did not have to go trading today--" But surely, he realized, if it had been that, Dubnos would have said something to them or perhaps would not have even been there to trade.

She was shaking her head. "When I last made an offering at the household shrine, I went to sleep that night and dreamed, the three of us at this circle. And I knew, in my dream, there were things we should learn here. So I wanted us to come."

"And what do we do?"

She pointed at the circle. "We wait. We watch."

Just as there were still things he had to learn about Cottia and Esca, there were things they had not learned about Rome. He had tried to explain this, when they had all tramped outside in the snow one February morning to look for the-gods-knew-what. Signs, Cottia had said. Omens were not for men like him to interpret, he had told them. Omens and prodigies were for the priests, for the Senate, and he could not say what they meant. And the two of them had looked at each other in complete and utter confusion, and then at him, and he knew they did not understand that, even though it was perfectly sensible.

He knew they still would not understand. So he turned toward the circle and waited.

Next to him Cottia and Esca were silent, and even Cub sat complacently at Cottia's feet, his tail thumping slowly and lazily. Marcus watched the shadows lengthen, watched the wind blow through the long grasses that grew more indistinct as the light left, the hills blurring into each other like ink spilled on papyrus. The standing stones loomed over them more and more, until they seemed to swallow the entire sky.

Still moving silently, Esca lit one of the torches behind them; the light off the stones and the light in the darkness brought the Mithraeum to Marcus' mind, though an open field was a far cry from a cave. He felt as he had when he had stood among the Seal People for the Feast of New Spears, at their standing stones, that chill of awe and sense of waiting for something to come forth. Although there was no door into the mound here, within the circle of the stones the darkness seemed itself a gateway from one world to another, and though the night was not cold, a shiver ran through him at the sight of it.

Nightingales called to each other, though he could not see them in the dusk. Neither Cottia nor Esca said anything at this, so he knew that was not the sign. It was not like a proper augury at all, then. What could they be looking for, if not birds?

Then, very suddenly, something small and low to the ground darted into the circle and stopped. Cub stood, lifted his head and sniffed, the way he did when he scented prey.

"That's it," Cottia murmured. "First in the circle. On the left."

Esca shaded his eyes from the torchlight with his hand and squinted into the dusky darkness that lay beyond. "A hare, I think."

A hare? Marcus expected Cub to leap up and bound after it, as he ordinarily would at a hare, but Cub only whined and sat down, as if he too knew it to be a sign.

As Cottia turned away from the circle, toward him, toward the torches, Marcus could see that her face was twisted and she was fighting back tears. And Esca, too -- his face seemed haunted.

"Cottia?" Marcus ventured, and then Cottia wrapped her arms around him and buried her face against his shoulder. She was crying, each sob an angry sound, a wail of complaint.

"A hare, of all things," she cried out. "I do not want you to leave! I do not want ill-fortune! I do not want any of that!"

"I am not leaving," said Marcus awkwardly, confused, "and I do not see why you think I should." He looked over at Esca; perhaps Esca knew.

But Esca stood, quiet and unmoving. "It is Cottia's place to say," he said.

"I won't let it happen!" Cottia drew back and her face was grim. "Before-- before she went to Camulodunum, Boudica took the omens with a hare. She let it run forth from her skirts, and it ran left." Cottia swallowed and looked away. "For my people it was -- it had been -- a good sign. A sign that the Romans would leave, and Andraste would bless us with victory."

She did not have to say what had happened to Boudica, after that.

"She won Camulodunum," Marcus pointed out, softly, and he tried not to think about how Rome reckoned that day, how many people Rome had lost, how the Iceni had even killed those who had sought refuge in the temple, men who had been begging for mercy on sacred ground. He had met a survivor, missing an arm and blind in one eye, in a tavern once in Nemausus; the man had been as old at that battle as Marcus was now, and he had said nothing except to curse the British in between cups of wine. Marcus opened his mouth and shut it again. Cottia needed to know none of this.

But Cottia was starting to cry once again. "But she could not win the war," said she. "Not when it counted. And since then, for the Iceni the hare has been bad luck and death. And even if it should be a good sign, it would mean driving the Romans out, and I will not lose you!" she said with a fierce determination. "So either way it is bad, it is wretched."

"I love you, Cottia sweet. I will not leave you," Marcus said, but Cottia was still crying; the tears ran down her face and made her eyes luminous in the torchlight.

Esca came up next to them, and Marcus felt Esca's arm settle cautiously on his shoulder just as he saw Esca's arm go around Cottia. They stood in a circle now, the three of them mirroring the stones behind them. It was a strange thing; Esca usually kept to himself in these matters, where the two of them were concerned. Marcus had always thought it was Esca being private, so it was odd that he should put himself here, as if he himself were a part of the marriage.

Esca gave a very little smile. "I had a thought, just now," he murmured. "Perhaps it is not a sign of the Iceni."

Cottia stopped crying and raised her head. "What do you mean? A sign of your people?"

"No," said Esca, "it means much the same thing to the Brigantes. I was thinking -- Romans have hares, do they not? It must mean something to them. Perhaps it is Marcus' sign to read, and not either of ours."

They were both looking at him now.

"He said he would not tell us," Cottia said, frowning. "You remember."

Marcus opened his mouth and was about to agree, was about to say that it was certainly not his place to take the omens. Then a memory, long-forgotten, rose to his mind. The last time he had seen his father, on that last leave, when his father had told them he was to be centurion of the First Cohort of the Ninth Legion, his mother had been anxious. After he was supposed to be asleep, he had hid himself behind the curtain of his room and seen them talking in the atrium -- his mother grabbing at his father's arm, insistent, asking him once again not to go. She had seen a sign, she had said: there had been nine birds on the oak tree by the door, nine like the legion, and they had all flown away at once, off the tree whose very name meant "strength." His father had scoffed and said it was only a tree, and anyway it was not a proper divination by an augur or a haruspex. But his mother had said that it was a sign anyone could read if they had the inclination for it, the way her grandfather had done for all the neighbors who still kept to some of the old ways, and it was only that Marcus' father was from Rome itself that he would not trust himself to see them--

Marcus knew what he had to tell the two of them, then. He could feel Cottia tense on his right, and Esca, still mysterious at his left, Esca's arm warm and full of life at his shoulder, and he knew that both of them together would give him the courage for this.

"A long time ago, when Rome was only the smallest of towns, Etruria, my homeland, was great and mighty. They used to say that we had a gift for prophecy." He smiled, remembering a better story. "One day a man and his wife were on the way from Etruria to Rome. An eagle snatched a hat off the man's head and then dropped it back on. The man's wife, watching, said this meant that he would become king of Rome. And he did."

Cottia looked impressed. "There, you see," she said, nudging Esca. "I told you Romans were not that different about this."

Esca's eyes were intense with a feeling Marcus could not quite read. "He is not talking about being Roman now," said Esca, and Marcus knew Esca understood.

"I am not saying I am Tanaquil," Marcus said, hastily, "and I am not promising anything. I only wanted you to know that, that, perhaps."

He could not shake the feeling that he was doing something un-Roman in suggesting the very idea, that he would be so presumptuous as to take the omens. The gods would understand. They had to. He would make offerings. He would do this for his friend, for his wife.

Esca's hand slid up to the nape of his neck, a warm reassuring presence, almost a caress. Marcus wondered if he ought to be enjoying the feeling this much. Surely Esca did not mean it in that manner.

"It is all right," Esca said, low and soothing. "You do not have to, if you feel it would offend your gods or your people."

"No," he said. "I will try. I want to try." He glanced over at the hare, then away again. "Only I do not know how."

This time it was Cottia's hand that tightened on his arm. "Oh, that part is hardly difficult," she said with ease in her voice, and Marcus marveled at it. Perhaps all the Iceni were seers. "You need only look, and think to yourself what it means."

The hare. The hare. Well, if it was a sign, it should be a simple thing. What was the first thing he thought of, when he thought of them?

Oh.

Well.

It couldn't be that, could it? And the hare still sat on the left side, the auspicious side, but it couldn't possibly--

"Marcus?" asked Esca, frowning. "You've gone all red."

"Nothing," he said, hastily. "It is only that the hare is sacred to Venus, so that would be love. And-- and desire. Lust. Fertility. That-- that sort of thing. But it can't mean that, with all three of us, because that doesn't make any sense, and even if I did, even if I wanted that, it is not as if either of you wanted--"

Marcus shut his eyes. And the worst of it was that he did want that, if he was to be honest with himself. It was not only that he wanted Esca in his -- their bed -- but that it seemed almost wrong that Esca was not there. And perhaps the poet had been wrong, and he could walk again in the same river and this time choose them both, for he loved Esca as much as Cottia. But surely Esca would say no, and as for Cottia, what woman could want her husband lying with another? And if she had cared for Esca in that way -- why, surely she would not have married Marcus if she had loved another!

When he opened his eyes again, the two of them were staring at him. Cottia's brow was furrowed, her head set high in that familiar fierce tilt, with a look in her eyes as though she wanted to fight, though Marcus could not have said the reason. Esca seemed paler, withdrawn, biting nervously at his lips, as his gaze darted between the two of them.

"Don't tell me what I want," Cottia said, and Marcus gaped. "Why would you think I would say no? You never asked. Either of you." Now she was glaring at Esca.

Esca was trembling a little as he spoke. "I wasn't going to ask. I know Romans are different, and they speak ill of men whose wives have lovers, or who lie with men themselves. I thought Marcus might disapprove, and I was afraid to chance it, for where else would I go, if the two of you did not want me to remain after you knew my desires?"

The life Esca had resigned himself to live unfolded in Marcus' mind, night after night of Esca curling up alone in his tiny bed, just as he had done when he was Marcus' slave, staying at their side because he-- because he loved them, and taking all the meager scraps of affection they gave and never asking for more. Marcus' heart ached. Esca had called himself the centurion's hound once, but that did not mean he should become the centurion's kicked cur.

"I didn't know," Marcus said, helplessly.

Esca's smile was slow, but wide and hopeful when it came. "I did not want you to know." He turned the same smile on Cottia, said her words back to her. "Either of you."

They stood there, staring at each other, Marcus awed into silence. It was all too new, and he did not know what to say, what to do--

"Pah!" Cottia said, stepping back and holding out her hands. "Men! Must I do everything?" But she was smiling as she said it.

Esca was still staring at her in disbelief. "Cottia, you cannot want--"

"You think I will say, no, no, I do not want two fine lovers? And I do not want the two people I love best in all the world to find happiness? Here, closer," she said, and Marcus realized that he was, somehow, holding Esca's hand. "Kiss him. Go on."

Esca smiled down at him, a nervous smile, and the kiss was a quick brush of his lips on Marcus'. It was different from kissing Cottia, not in the least because Marcus had to stretch up to reach him. There was also the matter of the mustaches. It was scratchy and a little uncomfortable, but it was Esca, but Marcus would not have traded it for anything in the world.

"Will you give me a better kiss, I wonder?" Cottia said, speculatively, and Marcus started laughing.

"Which of us?"

There was a challenge in her voice. "Whichever one of you reaches me first."

Esca was closer, and he wrapped his arms around Cottia and kissed her, perhaps a little more boldly than he had kissed Marcus. Marcus managed to put his arms around both of them, and he was smiling and smiling. Esca kissed him again, and then Cottia, and he was filled with the greatest joy.

"Come now," said Cottia. "Home. We must heed the omens, mustn't we?"

And so they walked away, their arms around each other and Cub trotting behind, while in the circle a hare still sat, watching them until they disappeared into the darkness.