The Road Home
The Seal Warrior’s thrust is a blur, but I manage to shift my body and block the blade with my own shorter one. I stumble on a river rock beneath my foot, use the motion to my advantage as it knocks my opponent off balance, and stab my second blade into my foe’s taught belly. He staggers back a step, enough for me to swipe my dagger across his throat, a spray of red blossoming against the blue grey mud packed on his skin. I don’t wait for him to fall before I glance behind me to where I last saw Marcus.
I have a moment of panic when he is not where I thought he would be, where he had last been locked in battle with the prince of the Seal People. It is one of the few times in well over a year that I have not known exactly where he is, or at least where he should be. It is unsettling how, even as a man freed of my slave’s bonds, I feel obligated to keep him in sight, to keep him safe. Then my gaze drops, and I see the two struggling in the water. Marcus’ back is a broad target for the warrior racing to save his dead chieftain’s son.
Pushing my legs into motion, I fight against the current of the stream to reach Marcus before the man does. The Roman is oblivious to the danger behind him as he struggles desperately to hold the chieftain’s son beneath the water. My body protests against the cold and my exhaustion, but I manage to tackle the warrior before he can strike. I pin him from behind, making quick work with my blades to dispatch him.
Staggering back to my feet, I cut off another fighter before he can reach Marcus. I find myself using some of the Roman techniques I’ve learned sparring behind Old Aquila’s villa. Once Marcus’ leg began to heal, he was eager for physical activity. I was just as eager to show a Roman master what a spear bearer of the Brigantes clan could do. The thrust I use against the painted warrior is the same ones Marcus had used against me that first day. He had taken the time to point out how it was superior to my own even as he offered me a hand up from the dust of the stables. A day later, I did the same with him, laying him low with a blow that cut through the disciplined moves he’d learned in his regimental training. The first time it happened, I was fully prepared to be beaten for my insolence. Instead, his look of surprise to find himself staring up at a slave with a practice sword at his throat turned to one of curiosity, and he ordered me to show him the move again. We learned much from each other that summer, until we were both fighting with a style that melded the disciplined control of Rome with the passionate determination of the Brigantes.
The technique is successful against my opponent, and he crumples dying into the water. I ready myself for the next attack but none comes. I allow my sword to lower as I stand gulping air, studying the scene around me. The river flows red and swollen with the bodies of Legionaries and Seal People alike. A few Seal warriors remain, but the Legionaries are making quick work of them. The golden eagle standard still stands, glistening wings spread over the battlefield from atop the staff Marcus carved. To be honest, I still do not see how so much honor… so much shame…can be tied to such a thing. It is not a god to the Romans, not like the bull-god Marcus worships. Marcus calls the eagle Rome itself. But if that were true, the Romans would have fallen, fled this land, and returned to their homelands long ago. Its loss has done nothing to slow the advance of Rome. Rome has stood, has thrived, has spread across Briton even without their glorious eagle.
All save for Marcus Flavius Aquila.
Behind me, the prince’s body is limp in death, but Marcus still uses all his strength to hold him down.
"Marcus," I call, but he does not respond, so I trudge through the water to lay a hand on his shoulder. "Marcus."
He is deaf to my voice, but my touch has him releasing his hold on the dead man beneath him, reaching behind, and pulling my legs out from under me. The shock of cold water is nothing to that which I feel at being attacked. I barely have time to spit water and sputter his name again before his sword is swinging down toward me.
"Marcus!" I yell over the din of his sword hitting mine with a force that vibrates through my arms. "It’s me! Esca!"
He blinks dark shadowed eyes, stilling his upraised sword as he pulls in a deep lungful of air. "Esca?" He frowns as the battle blindness clears and he can see me for who I truly am. And with clarity comes guilt. "Mithras, save me…" His grip loosens and his sword falls unheeded into the water. "Esca, forgive me, I did not…"
Words fail him, and he simply offers me a hand.
I take it without comment. Nothing I could say would make him feel less guilt, anyway. It is simply Marcus’ nature to carry the responsibility of the world on his shoulders.
He wraps his hand tightly around mine and heaves me up with a weary grunt, keeping a tight hold even when I am on my feet. At first I think it is to be certain I have sure footing, but then he rests our linked hands on his chest and shows no intention of releasing the grip. I can feel his heart pounding like a battle drum hard against his chest, and in time with my own, which is actually beating faster now than it was in battle. Then his eyes narrow and I realize he is simply pulling my arm straight to better see it.
"You are wounded."
"I am." I glance at the slice on my upper arm. I had forgotten about it in the fight, but the pain is returning now that the world has calmed. "That sort of thing is known to happen in battle."
"Come." He is already pulling me toward the shore. "I will bind it for you."
He stumbles after a few steps, but I manage to catch him before he goes down, a feat made all the more difficult since he has yet to release my hand.
"I think I shall have to return the favor and do the same for you," I note about the gash in his leg.
He gives a soft chuckle, leaning into me a bit more even as he moves us closer to the beach. "We make quite the pair, my friend."
Friend. Twice he has called me that now that my bond of slavery is broken. Although, even during my servitude he treated me as more friend than slave, something I was too blind to see during much of my time in slavery. But I have thought on this since the first time he addressed me as such. Did he call me friend out of fear I would not return? Out of fear that once I had my freedom, I would turn my back on him and keep running as far from Roman rule as I could? I saw it in his eyes when I refused to take the eagle from him. He thought I had refused to return honor to his family name even as he lay dying in the wilds of Caledonia. But he had no need to fear, because my first thought when he returned my father’s dagger was, now that I am free, Marcus, I will do all that is within my power to free you, as well. Because he was as much a slave to Rome as I was, he just never recognized the guilt that had been laid at his feet over his father’s failures as the ropes they truly were. Rome had beaten him down as surely as it had my own people, and perhaps that is why we have always been less master and slave and more shield brothers.
Not long ago, I had sat in the camp of the Seal People and told them a lie about how I had tricked a Roman into bringing me north to my freedom. But I had also told them a truth-- my heart hunts for a place to be free. I cannot help but feel Marcus hunts for the same. Perhaps now, we are both one step closer to finding that place.
When we reach land, I nudge him gently toward a dry spot under a tree. It is darker here in the shade, but the sun is providing little warmth anyway, and I fully expect it to start raining again soon. At least there is a chance of staying drier here, although we are both already soaked to the bone from the river. I take most of his weight to ease him down, causing me to hiss at the pain in my arm.
"And here I had meant to care for you," he chides at my reaction, but his face twists in his own pain until he is seated in the sand.
"It is of little concern," I assure, even though the strain has brought new blood flowing down my arm.
Marcus shakes his head, examining the wound closer. "Just because you observed my surgery does not make you a physician, Esca."
Although present, I had seen little of the actual surgery. While it was true that I had learned nothing of Roman medicine from that experience, I learned a great deal about Marcus. Bravery, vulnerability, fear, strength, determination… he is all of those things that I saw play across his face that day… that I see play across his face on any given day.
Romans. They can hide nothing they are thinking or feeling, Marcus least of all. Like now.
Beneath his own pain and exhaustion, there is genuine concern in his eyes. "This cut is deeper than you admit. I would sew it closed if I had the kit. As it is, a bandage will have to do."
He tugs futilely at the bottom of his tunic for something to make a bandage, and then looks to his belt for his dagger, only to find that it is gone. Lost somewhere in the icy water, no doubt, and even I have no desire to go searching for it. The dread is doubly so on Marcus’ face.
I pull my father’s dagger from my own belt and offer it. His eyes narrow and fill with a somewhat pained expression as to what the dagger has meant between us for the past year. "A loan, only," I stress with a lightheartedness I hope he hears.
"I would have it no other way," he assures and cuts into his tunic, handing me back the dagger to rip the cloth free with his hands.
"There is no regret, then, on freeing me?"
"My only regret is that I did not do it sooner. Besides, I never wanted a slave. Remember?"
"So this journey north was only an excuse to rid yourself of your uncle’s gift. And what if he is angry with you for doing so?"
"My uncle’s reaction is my concern." He wraps the bandage around my arm, intent on his work as an excuse not to make eye contact with me. "Besides, whatever fate brought you to slavery has been cleared by what you have done here today. Cleared a thousand times over."
I, however, study him closely, looking for the signs of what his true meaning is behind the words. I see it in the furrow of his brow, the curve of his mouth. There is regret. Maybe not at the loss of a slave, but regret of something else, of that I am certain.
"Then I have honored my father as you have honored yours." That earns me a small smile, but still not a straight look in my eyes. "Is this how Romans celebrate their victories? Should you not be more…jubilant?"
Tying off the bandage, Marcus surveys the river and surrounding banks littered with the dead and sighs. "We have lost good men here, today. Both sides." Now he does look at me, and the worry is obvious. "I fear I may lose even more in the coming days."
"Marcus, as I have said, my wound is minor. There is nothing to fear…"
He shakes his head, and I realize I have misread what truly troubles him when he blurts out gruffly, "Will you stay, Esca?"
My eyes widen momentarily in surprise. "Of course. After all that has happened… I have been of no other mind since we left the camp of the Seal People."
My confusion only grows when my reassurance has his expression hardening. Does he not wish for me to remain in his service? Even as a freedman I know I will need employment, I had assumed I would be welcome at his uncle’s villa for a while longer.
He nods his head in resignation. "I cannot say that I blame you. I had hoped I had been a fair enough master that you might be willing to see past your hatred of the Romans and return with me." He sighs again. "But these are your people, and you are now free to choose…"
I, however, find myself smiling at the misunderstanding. He had been asking if I planned to stay here, in Caledonia. "Marcus…" I try to stop him, but his tongue has been loosed.
"… why would you not wish to remain among your brethren now that you are free to do so?"
"Marcus…" I call once more, my irritation growing that he will not listen to me.
He ignores me still and implores desperately, "My threat to kill you in the camp… I did not mean it. You must know that."
"Marcus!" This time I grab his wrist and squeeze until he meets my eyes, then I speak slowly, as if to a child. "I plan to stay with you."
Even if I wanted to stay north of the wall, I could not. The Seal People are not friends to many, but neither are they the Romans. When word spreads of what has happened, my life will be as forfeit as Marcus’. Even if I wanted to stay here among the free Britons, I couldn’t… and the odd thing is, when Marcus smiles at me in gratitude and relief, I find I don’t want to remain behind.
He twists his hand to grip my forearm in return. "Good. That is good news indeed."
With a decisive nod of my head, I give his arm a final squeeze, noting how chilled his skin is, before I release it and turn my attention to his leg. With the heat of the battle over, the cold is starting to seep in once again, something Marcus has always suffered more than even most Romans with his wounded leg.
"We will need to start a fire soon," I tell him as I retie his bandage. "And food! I almost forgot that I brought you food from Geurn’s home. Not much, but at least it is cooked." My grin fades as I look up to see Marcus’ expression.
"There will be fires enough this night. Unfortunately, the first will be for Geurn."
I had forgotten the Roman’s tradition of burning their dead. And to think we Britons are considered the barbarians. But if nothing else, it is an excuse for us to be warm and hopefully dry for the first time in days. Satisfied that the bleeding in his leg is improving, I sit beside him in the sand and pull the rucksack from my back. "I will help gather wood while you eat."
Unfolding the cloth that contains the food, I spread it across my legs to reveal a soggy ration of bread, a hunk of cheese, and a few pieces of dried venison. "The river has been a curse on us," I note as the bread falls apart as soon as I touch it.
Marcus, however, seems not to notice as he scoops up a sodden clot and stuffs it into his mouth. I sometimes forget he is a hardened soldier, used to the trials of the battlefield, including eating what was put in front of him regardless of its condition… unless, of course, it was a raw rat.
By the look on his face, I would think he was reclining in his uncle’s villa, dining on a meal of wild boar and the sour wine they are so fond of. He tears a bite out of the venison and exhales in as close to contentment as I have heard from him in weeks. He leans against me, keeping me from going in search of wood for the pyres, and offers to share the dried meat.
I shake my head. "You need it more."
I had eaten at Geurn’s roundhouse while he gathered the other Roman soldiers, warmed myself near his fire while his woman shot angry glances at me from across the room. I understood her anger; I had pulled her man back into a world he had been better off leaving behind. I have no desire to be the one to deliver the news that her fears for her husband have turned to truth. My heart is heavy for her, for her sons, for the families of the other men who fell today, but death comes to all men. These should have met theirs when I was just a boy. Good men, yes, but I had bartered their twenty years of borrowed life for that of Marcus Aquila. The only guilt I have about that trade is that I feel no worse for doing it.
I need no food, but a fire, a night’s rest, those I would welcome gladly. By the way Marcus shifts to lean against my own back, I know he needs the same. We had slept this way many a night on this journey north, both too exhausted to stand watch, depending on one another for protection and warmth. It gave little of either, yet, it felt…right.
He slumps down so his head can drop back on my shoulder, and I can feel him chewing. "You have my thanks, Esca."
It is foolish how proud I am to hear those words, because I know it is for more than the simple meal I have brought him. So I cover my smile with a question.
"Will Rome thank you for the return of the eagle?"
"What? Do you mean reward me?" I feel him shrug against me. "It is not why I went on this campaign, but I suppose there may be compensation of some kind."
"What would you do with such a thing?"
"I have never thought on it," he admits. I hear the truth in his words. "I suppose it would depend on what they gave me." He tilts his head, looking back at me. "What would you do with a reward?"
"Me?" I ask in surprise. I may no longer be a slave, but I am not prideful enough to believe Rome will be anxious to shower me with gold and cattle. Marcus must know this as well, which means the question is actually what would I do if I were Marcus?
I consider for a moment then ask him in return, "Would you return to your father’s lands?"
Marcus makes a scoffing sound around his food. "Etruria is no longer home to me since my mother died and my aunt’s husband sold my father’s lands. A boon he chose for himself for being burdened with a nephew orphaned at twelve years of age."
Marcus has never spoken of his mother before, and this is the first time I have heard that Rome has left us both without land to call our own. The bitter tone in his voice tells me he holds little regard for his family there nor does he wish for sympathy in this matter.
"A position some other place, then." I suggest, "Rome, itself."
He sounds surprised by the proposal. "Would you truly go to Rome with me?"
"Would you truly go to Rome?" I counter.
When he pauses in thought for a moment, I fear he might want such a thing, and I curse myself silently for ever mentioning it. But then he laughs softly.
"I cannot picture you in Rome, Esca. Walking the streets in a toga with a scowl for every citizen you pass chiseled into your face like on a marble statue. I fear I would never see you smile again."
I find myself smiling, not sure if it is for the image he conjures or for the way his voice softens when he says, "I should miss it very much if that were to happen."
"But you would be happy in Rome. Welcomed as a hero, the name of Aquila restored to the glory you seek for it."
"I had enough of Rome living with my aunt and uncle." The shake of his head has his wet hair coming to rest easily against my neck. "Rome is full of senators and statesmen and military men who play at war without ever living it. It is not for me."
"Then you will have to decide what else to do with your reward," I conclude.
"You speak true, Esca." He exhales and it turns to a yawn. His voice slurs slightly, exhaustion winning out when he asks again, "Would you truly have come to Rome with me?"
"Would you but ask me, I would go," I confess quietly.
He falls silent then, and if not for the tension I can feel in his muscles, I would think he was only concentrating on eating. But he is thinking, I know. I do not push for him to speak, if he wishes me to know his mind he will. If not, then he will keep his own counsel, such is the way it has always been between us.
Eventually, he does speak. When he does, it is barely above a whisper, like when we are hunting and the prey is just in sight and he does not wish to scare it away. "There are a great many things I have wanted to ask of you over the days since we first met."
"If they are in your heart to ask, then ask them now," I coax.
"I think I may be wiser counsel to keep these wants to myself." He slumps back against me more.
I am not a fool; I know he speaks of bedding me. Marcus was not my first master, and he was not the first to consider using me in that way, but he was the first to think of me as more than just property and not act or even speak of those thoughts. I was a very poor slave. A good slave does not end up in the ring facing down a gladiator. This is not to say I did not work hard or do as I was told, but I did not lower my eyes as was expected, I did not beg for mercy when they beat me for my insolence, and I did not try to garner favors in their bed. What they got from me, they took. They stole it like they did my father’s land and my family’s lives.
"As my slave I had every right to ask them of you," he continues, "and you no right to refuse. I had every right and yet every fear that you would have hated me for it, and that I could not live with."
He is right, I would have hated him. Not because he beat me, or treated me as lower than the dogs, which he has never done. But because he is Roman, and as such, Rome gave him the right to do all of those things to me and more. I hated him for that, just as I hated myself for secretly wishing that he would claim his right to my body and take me to his bed.
I harden my courage to ask, "And what is in your heart?"
I knew full well what was in mine, felt it with every beat. I had cursed my gods daily for bringing Marcus to the arena that day, for Aquila buying me for him, for Marcus’ nobility and kindness and friendship that he gave freely, not as master to slave, but as one man to another. A man I would have willing offered myself to if not for his birth giving him the right to take it without my consent. There were times I had hoped he would force me, give me a reason to hate him so that it would eat the love that was steadily growing in my heart each day I spent with him, my heart that was now pounding hard in my chest awaiting his answer.
"My heart wants very much to ask now that you can say no, and yet the fears remain that you will."
And now, everything had changed, save for my feelings for him.
I rest my head against his and whisper. "As with Rome, Marcus, ask and I will go where you lead."
"Even though you can now refuse?"
"Because I can refuse, and because you gave me the freedom to make that choice, I will choose you."
I suck in a breath when I feel a sharp, icy jolt as the tip of his nose runs along my neck, but it’s the warmth of his breath on my skin that sends the shutter through my entire body. My eyes fall closed as he speaks my name, so low I can barely hear it even though his lips brush right below my ear. I find my fingers running through his short hair, not even aware that my hand had risen, knowing only that I want something more, something stronger and more demanding than a feather’s touch of his mouth. Then, even that vanishes as Marcus sits up abruptly.
My eyes fly open, and my hand goes to my sword when I feel the tension in the shoulder against mine. I scan the river, the bank, looking for the threat, and see only the bodies of the dead and the remaining living dragging them out of the water.
"Esca, I…" Marcus is flush, from desire or embarrassment, I cannot be sure. I decide it is both. "My father’s men…"
Romans. They can do whatever they please with whatever slave passes their way, but to choose a man who will have him willingly and gladly, and it must be done in secret. I frown my displeasure at this, which has Marcus’ skin turning even redder, and I curse myself for finding it as endearing as it is infuriating.
With an annoyed swear word in my native tongue, I place what remains of his food in his lap. "Eat before you help with the dead," I order then push myself to my feet wearily to look down on him with crossed arms. "As to the other, Marcus, we will finish it later," I tell him with pointed bluntness.
His lip quirks up on one side in a cocky grin, "I shall hold you to that promise."
I turn from him quickly and start back toward the water to hide my own pleasure at the thought.
* * * * *
Later, to my sorrow, does not appear to be coming soon enough.
The pyres go late into the night, and the Roman tradition is to stand watch until the embers die. Marcus is swaying on his feet by the time he allows himself to be led over near the watch fire and eased to the ground. The lines of pain around his mouth and eyes are common enough, and I cluck disapprovingly even as I work at the muscles on his bad leg.
"You have been too hard on it today." His new wound makes it difficult to do too much, but I am familiar enough with how to ease these cramps that within a few minutes he exhales as the muscles release.
"I would be lost without you," he tells me with a soft smile and half-lidded eyes, the dark shadows under them have nothing to do with the play of firelight across his skin.
Damn him, he has a way of catching me off guard when he says things like that. It was the same when in the Seal People’s camp he told me he thought he had lost me. And just like then, I find myself torn between wanting to rap him upside the head for being a sentimental dolt, and kissing him senseless while I make similar confessions. It makes it hard to think, to breathe, to speak. So, for a time, I don’t.
I continue to rub his leg, soothingly now, until I trust my voice not to break. "Sleep. The watch is mine tonight."
"The Legionaries will stand watch," he assures around a wide yawn. Tugging at my arm, he pulls me down beside him. "You need sleep as much as I."
He speaks true, as within seconds of hitting the ground, I am asleep.
Then, I am running.
The trees are thick, catching at my clothes with unseen thorns, the roots tripping me, but I must reach the river. I must reach Marcus. The Seal People are coming; I can hear their dogs baying across the hills, know they move faster than I can, so I push myself to run faster. I want only to stop, to catch my breath, but if I do, I know I will be too late. Finally, I see it-- the water, the small island where I left him lost in the white eddies the wind swirls in the fog.
"Marcus!" I call to the mist-shrouded shape I see leaning against the rocks. There is no answer, so I start across the water. "Marcus!"
My footsteps slow when I see the severed foot in the sand, then the second nearby. Cut off so he cannot walk into the afterlife, Geurn had explained to him.
"Marcus?" My voice breaks, but I keep walking toward the shape of his body that peeks through the shifting veils of fog.
I know what I will find when I finally reach it, and I want to stop, stop and sink to the rocks and scream until my throat is raw. I want to wail like the bean-sidhe foretelling death, because I know that is all that is waiting for me now. But I cannot stop walking, no matter how much I try, my feet will not still, until they trip over his head several lengths from his body. The eyes are staring at me, through me. There is no life, no spark of anger or humor or shadowed affection that I have seen thousands of time before in them. The mouth is pale, slack, hanging open… until he speaks.
I jerk awake, fighting the hands on me before I even open my eyes. When I do, the head speaks my name again.
"Esca!" it says, "all it well. You dream; nothing more."
The hands continue to hold me down until I recognize the feel of them. Marcus’ hands, strong and alive, pinning me down as he has when we have sparred. I study the face closer, the mouth taught in worry, the eyes creased with the same. Alive.
"A dream," I repeat hoarsely, as if I have been screaming, panting hard beneath him. My grip on his forearms loosens, but I don’t release them. The strength I feel in them serves to remind me all the more that he lives.
"You’re shaking," he notes, moving a hand to my neck and then my brow. "There is no fever."
"The dream…" I try to explain, but stop because I feel childish to be reacting so to nothing more than a bad dream. Still, I am shivering so hard from the cold sweat covering my skin that my teeth chatter and I cannot seem to stop. "It will pass."
Marcus raises a hand and calls out, "All is well."
Following his eyes, I can just make out the shadowed form of one of the men standing watch in the trees on the hill above us. Now I feel even more the fool, for I must have cried out in my sleep to have caught their attention.
"It is…nothing of concern," Marcus yells, and I am grateful that he tells them no more. "Return to your sentry."
My breathing has thankfully slowed, but I am still shaking uncontrollably.
"Here." Marcus lies down beside me, nudging me onto my side so that the length of his body can press against the back of mine, then he drapes his cloak across us both. His big hand rubs briskly across my arm then my chest. "Are you warmer?"
I pull in a stuttering breath but nod. "Yes, it helps. Thank you."
"I can stoke the fire…"
I shake my head at his offer, catching his hand in mine and pressing it against my chest before he can pull away. "No, this is good."
My shivering is already slowing, but there is still the occasional tremor that shakes my body violently, then passes just as quickly. With each one, Marcus tightens his arm around me until it fades.
"Do you wish to tell me of what you dreamed?"
"No," I answer instantly.
"Very well." There is no hurt or judgment in his words. I have had to wake him out of his own dreams on many occasions. "Do you think you can sleep again?"
"No." As shameful as it is, it is at least an honest answer.
"Shall I sing you a lullaby then?" I can feel his grin as he presses his face behind my ear and kisses lightly.
The touch warms me instantly and goes even further to let me know he lives and it was all only a dream. He is alive and whole and holding me close. I almost fear this is the dream. If it is, I hope I never wake.
"And draw every rutting elk in search of a mate within a league of us?" I attempt to tease in return, but my main thought is that he is alive.
Alive and warm and pinching my ribs.
"That is unfair," he protests.
I squirm and grab the offending fingers to twine them with my own.
Shifting slightly, he slides his other arm around me so that I can rest my head upon his bicep and he whispers in my ear. "If we were alone, I would lull you to sleep another way."
"If you were not so Roman, I would take you like a lover at Beltane, writhing beneath me here by the fire until we both collapsed spent and sated for all the world to see."
Now it is he who shivers and my grin becomes self-satisfied.
"Esca, I will not deny my love for your wild nature, but the ways of Rome are not those of your people."
"We are not in Rome, Marcus."
"I am Rome," he counters.
His words sour the good mood he has created. "Rome murdered my family, took my lands. Did you do that, Marcus?"
"Your father rose against Rome, rode against her…" he starts.
"I rode against Rome. Had you been here at that time, we might have met in battle." I shake my head. "I stood against Rome and that is why Rome made me a slave. It is why Rome beat me into unconsciousness for not showing the proper respect to my last master. It is why Rome threw me in the arena and Rome called for my death because I refused to show them good sport for their afternoon’s entertainment. Rome would have me killed for how I treated you in the Seal People’s camp. Rome has no love for Esca Mac Cunoval. So, I ask you Marcus, do you still call yourself Rome."
There is a moment of silence then he asks quietly, "You have so much hate for Rome. How is it that you do not hate me?"
I almost laugh at the thought of how oblivious he has been all this time to my hatred, but I know I am the one who has been just as blind, because as much as I wanted to hate him, I never could. He is not Rome. He is an ideal of Rome that he holds in his mind, and maybe that Rome would not have so many enemies here in Briton if it were the true one.
With a squeeze to his hand, I explain, "Because you are Marcus Flavius Aquila, a good man who stood against an entire arena of Romans and saved my life for no reason he can name. That is not Rome, Marcus, that is simply who you are."
He tips my head then, catching my mouth in a kiss that is soft and lingering, full of thanks and gratitude, but restrained and controlled. I wonder if this is how he always kisses, if he must always maintain a certain amount of discipline, at even this, the same sort of discipline he demanded of his men when he was in command. It doesn’t stop me from cupping the rough skin of his jaw and kissing him back with everything I want and need from him. For a moment I can feel that same need in return, feel the loss of the control he works so hard to maintain, then he is pulling away and it is gone.
It is still in his eyes, burning black in the dark pools spread wide in lust and amazement. He is breathing hard, looking down on me, and I see the struggle playing across his face. He wants me as much as I want him, and still he holds back.
"Esca…" It is the same way he speaks the name of his god in prayer, when he asks for strength, for courage, to save him from failing. When he pleads for his god to grant him what he wants while keeping him from shaming himself. In my mind, these are the same, but to Marcus he cannot have one without sacrificing the other.
His thumb traces across my lower lip and I claim it between my teeth, nipping it before pulling it into my mouth and thinking of other parts I should like to do the same to, parts pressed hard against my thigh. His eyes slide shut and he groans low in his throat, his hips tipping forward, and I think that I have him. He shall be mine tonight and I his. But then the fire pops and he tenses, rolling away from me.
The lack of contact has me shivering, not just from the cold. "Marcus, all is well," I promise him.
"I should relieve one of the men," he insists breathlessly.
"They have no need of your relief. I, on the other hand, cannot say the same."
He looks down to where I gesture to the bulge straining against the fabric of my braccae and takes a deep breath, exhaling it in a cross between a whine and moan. He closes his eyes and reaches for the wooden eagle that no longer hangs around his neck, and I realize he is trying to pray for strength to resist me. I am equally flattered and infuriated. Finding no talisman at hand, his expression become even more panicked and flustered than it was before.
"I’m sorry, I cannot do this here…tonight…now…" he chokes the words out and moves awkwardly to stand.
"No." I grab his arm before he can gain his feet, anger at his stubbornness draining away the passion. He will run blindly into battle against an army of angry Britons, but one very willing and highly aroused one has him bolting for cover. "Stay. The fault is mine for waking you in the first place. You would still be sleeping soundly if not for my dream. If my manhood is too much for you, I will be the one to go stand watch. I doubt I will be capable of sleep anytime soon anyway."
Now he stills me from leaving and I snap, "What is it that you want, Marcus? Do you want me near you or away?"
"Mithras save me, you can tie me in knots so I know not what I want." He scrubs a hand through his hair. "I want… your dream…" His eyes drop under my scrutiny. "I want to be here for you the way you have always been there for me and my dreams. I want you to feel…safe…like you have always done for me." He sighs before looking up imploringly. "But, Esca, the men… my father’s men… as much as I want to…with you…with your…manhood…" His voice actually squeaks.
I raise my hand to silence him, roll my eyes. "Romans," I exclaim in my own tongue. "I will never understand you." I pull his arm so that I can lay on it once again. Coupling may have to wait, but I will not do without his embrace.
"Now what will you have us do?" I demand irritably when he settles beside me. I feel his wariness, which just annoys me all the more, so when I pull his other arm around me, it is perhaps a bit rougher than I intend.
"Sleep?" he offers hesitantly.
"I have told you I cannot sleep," I say between clenched teeth, pulling hard on his arm to bring him closer behind me.
"Then we could talk?"
"And what shall we talk about?" There is silence, and I can almost hear the thoughts running through his head, desperate to find a topic. I exhale impatiently. Must I do everything? "What is the first thing you will do once we are south of the wall?"
I fully expect him to say he will return the eagle standard, but he does not, just as he does not hesitate with his answer.
"Arrange for your manumission so you will be a freedman."
I frown at the comment. "Am I not already free?" He’d returned my father’s dagger, told me I was free, I even burned it on the pyre with Geurn and Marcus’ wooden eagle. We are both free now, free from the bonds of honor we’d vowed on both our father’s graves. How can I not be free?
"Of course you are free. To me."
My frown just deepens. "And to everyone else?"
"It is a legality, Esca, nothing more. There are papers to be signed, taxes to be paid…by me," he adds before I can complain about having to pay for something he has already given me, "and then you will be given a new name as a citizen of Rome."
He rushes that last bit, and I raise my head in indignation. "A new name? A Roman name? I will no longer be Esca Mac Cunoval? And who will choose this Roman name for me?"
"As I will be your patron, you will take my name."
"In the eyes of Rome, you will be Marcus Flavius Esca." When I stay silent, he offers, "As I said, it is a legality only. You will be a citizen of Rome, as much as I know you care nothing for that, you will have all the rights and protections that go with citizenship. You would never have to refer to yourself by your Roman name except in legal matters."
I lie back down on his arm but remain quiet, thinking over all that he has said. Only in Rome would they believe that the reward of a man’s freedom should come with the price of becoming even more Roman. I could serve Romans or be Roman. The gods must surely be laughing at me now. Was it not bad enough that I loved a Roman?
After a few moments, Marcus speaks tentatively, "Esca? If you are troubled by this, perhaps my uncle will know of another way. But as for me, I hold it an honor to have you share my name."
The anger bleeds away at his words. How can he say things that sound so wrong to my mind and so right to my heart all at the same time?
"It seems it will be confusing for us both to be Marcus," I grumble, only to have him laugh lightly.
"You will still be called Esca in all but the most formal settings. I promise, I will call you by no other name."
I sigh. "If I am to have a Roman name, yours will do," I begrudge him with a kiss to his fingers linked with mine.
It is truth. A hard truth, but truth nonetheless. And it is a while before I fall asleep once more.
* * * * *
It seems that Marcus has thought on these things, as well. All day he has become more and more brooding as we walk. The day started in rare sunshine, but as it progresses, the wind comes from the west, and with it, high billowing clouds heavy with the smell of rain and the promise of worse. The Legionaries split off one by one in the morning, each heading home. I gratefully accept a bow and small quiver of arrows from one of the men. Another gives us a water skin and some jerky. We are still several days’ march from the Wall, and we had lost everything except our blades and the eagle on our run from the Seal Tribe, even our cloaks we now wear were taken from the dead. Marcus thanks them each, becoming quieter as the number dwindles, until it is just the two of us walking in near silence. I don’t mind the quiet. It is in my mind that Romans talk the way they wage war…excessively with little reason behind it except for the act itself. Marcus, however, is quiet by nature, and we have spent many gloriously silent afternoons tending to chores without speaking more than a few words. But it is the barely hidden worry I see writ on his face that has me smiling at him along the trail trying to earn one in return.
At first I think it may be his leg, and there is no doubt that is continues to pain him just as the wound in my own arm does me, which is why I call our day short a few hours before I truly need to.
Marcus looks up at the sky, dove grey above but raven black to the west where the storm is spreading its wings toward us. "There is still plenty of day left."
"Those clouds building are not going to lead to a pleasant night. I would rather find some shelter, hunt some game, and settle in now instead of trudging through the rain."
He agrees with a nod, and I point to the trees on the rise to our east. "They will offer protection. We can use the branches to build a lean to, capture the heat of the fire."
We find a spot up against an opening in the wall of rock- not quite a cave, but set back enough that a few tree boughs topped with heather gives it a roof that should keep most of the rain out. A gathering of fern leaves growing along the river bank will provide a soft spot to sleep. I leave Marcus to finish setting camp and start the fire while I take my bow to find us dinner.
The ground is wet from the recent rains, the leaves soft under my feet, the musty smell of the world so thick I can taste the colors when I breathe in-- black dirt, green moss, brown bark. Some would think these are bad hunting conditions as the rain washes away all trace of the prey. But to an experienced hunter, one who knows how an animal thinks, where it is most like to hide, the rain is an ally-- twigs bend instead of snap, footfalls are dulled by the mulch, scents are lost in the swaddling of mist. It is a test of the skills I learned in childhood, tricks my father and the men of our clan passed on, and I relish the challenge as much as the memories. I survey the forest around me, sight a deer path that climbs up the ridge, and pad up it at a steady pace, eyes open for any sign of game.
It is rare that I have had this type of solitude since I was made a slave by Rome, I cannot deny it is an odd sensation, like muscles eager to stretch upon waking. I had more freedom in the Aquila household than any other that I served, but the occasional lone trip to fetch something in the market is not the same as hunting the highlands in search of a meal. Marcus and I have hunted plenty of times, just the two of us on horseback turning out boar, giving chase to a roe buck. Those were the days that sometimes I forgot I was a slave-- riding side by side with Marcus, my heart pounding in time with the hoof beats of my mount, returning his smile that was as feral and hungry for the taste of freedom as my own. On those days it was easy to forget, for one wild moment, that I was bound to return to the villa when Marcus decided he was ready to go. The only thing that made it bearable was seeing the same trapped expression on Marcus’ face when we started back to his Uncle’s home. Marcus couldn’t permanently leave the villa any more than I could. Where would he have gone? His injury had left him with no money, no employment, no chance to return to the military like he had always wanted. He was a captive of that villa by the good graces of his Uncle as much as I was by the binds of slavery. I am hopeful this trip north has changed all that for both of us.
Now I can make the decision to stay or go for myself. If I want, I can range across the hills and lowlands for days-- exploring, hunting, or simply lying in the grass and staring up at the sky if I so choose. It is in my heart to do just that as I stand at the top of a ridge and scan the brown-heathered countryside roiling wavelike out toward the Wall I can just make out in the distance. The massive stone structure wanders across the landscape in the same sinuous manner as the deer path I followed to this vantage point, finding the easiest, if not straightest, way across the rugged terrain it crosses. It is the sight of that Wall that has the wanderlust in my heart fading, replaced by an even greater desire to return to the camp where Marcus is waiting for me. For some reason I cannot explain, knowing he is there awaiting my return seems a bigger thing than the expanse of wilderness spread before me, and pondering what lies ahead for us south of the Wall, after the eagle is returned, after life resumes at a more normal pace, seems a greater adventure than even what lies behind us. So, I turn my attention back to my hunt, so that I can return back to that future all the quicker.