By the time I walk into camp with a fat and already gutted hare, he is warming his hands by the low flames of a fire.
"A feast!" I proclaim, holding my game on high.
Marcus smiles back at me, the first genuine one I have seen on his face all day. "Well done! The day is yours." The smile wavers. "You seem flushed. Winded."
"It was a good hunt, that is all," I dismiss, although he is correct about my condition. A full night’s rest somewhere warm and dry will serve us both well. I am hopeful this will be our last night in the miserable weather for a while. "From the ridge, I could see the Wall. Down and across the valley; if we push, we will make it before the sunset tomorrow."
It will be a hard march on the marrow, but one we must do to save ourselves from making camp out in the open tomorrow night. The safety of the Roman garrisons will be much preferred to the raiding parties that regularly attack the Wall. Still, I expected Marcus’ good humor to remain with the news. I watch him out of the corner of my eye as he pokes at the fire, still deep in thought.
"Is this not good news?" I ask as I find a supple branch to use to spit the meal over our fire and set to work skewering the meat
"Oh, very good news," he assures me, but a cloud has settled over his face darker than any over our heads.
"It is in my heart to know what is troubling you, Marcus."
I see the protest forming on his lips, and I raise my jaw and narrow my eyes in warning that I will not stand for a denial of what I can plainly see.
"How do the Brigantes free a slave?" he finally asks.
So it is the manumission and my words from the previous night that have him concerned. The truth is, I do not want to take another name, but Rome leaves me little choice. The fault is not his. While I may not be happy with the conditions set on my freedom, I will not turn them down given the alternative. I also will not have Marcus feeling the guilt of laws he did not create. My anger is with Rome, not him, although sometimes, I admit, I cannot separate the two.
"How do we free slaves? First, we steal their father’s eagle standard from a tribe of deadly warriors who are intent on killing them. Next, we drag their wounded arse across the countryside." I fiddle with the branch to place it close to the fire without burning the meat. Satisfied with the placement I sit back within an easy arm’s reach of Marcus and stretch out my legs. "But it is all just legalities."
He fights the threat of a laugh at my joke. "You mock me, Esca."
My grin spreads when he throws a clot of muddy moss at me. "I would never mock a Centurion of Rome," I assure him in exaggerated innocence as I throw the clump of dirt back and state casually, "And did I forget to mention, your name is now Marcus Mac Cunoval?"
"I believe you might have forgotten to mention that."
There is merriment in his eyes even though his face is dark, and I suddenly find myself laying flat on the ground, the wind knocked from my lungs as he rubs the moss in my face. I spit dirt through my laughter and can do little else as my arms are pinned by a Centurion who moves much quicker than I had given him credit for considering his wounded leg.
"Do you not like my name then?" I manage to ask after he tosses the dirt aside.
I give a cursory test of his resolve and find his hold on me is solid, a fact that has his lips curling smugly.
"I will take it, and gladly."
"Liar," I snort up at him.
"That is true," he concedes. "But I will gladly take you."
He leans in and kisses me, his breath mingling with mud and moss. The taste of Briton and Marcus on my lips, and I can thinks of no two things I love more. All his reserve from the previous night is gone, and if my hands were free, I’d pull him in closer. As it is, I’m at his mercy and at a loss when he pulls away too soon.
My skin feels feverish, and my breath is quick in my chest at the predatory look on Marcus’ face. I refuse, however, to let him get the best of me. "Are you not worried one of your father’s former soldiers will happen upon us?" I taunt. "Perhaps a clutch of birds will light on a branch above and watch."
"Let them see. I will have you this day, and all this night, as well, if you allow it."
"It is you who will be begging for mercy, Marcus Mac Cunoval."
I lift my head, intending to capture another kiss, and he pulls back just out of reach.
"Your evilness could make Hades himself blush," he accuses.
"And what does it make you to withhold your affections?"
"Would these be the affections of which you speak?" And finally he is kissing me again, hard and hot and causing the same in my loins.
In the distance, thunder rumbles. Marcus lifts his head to the sky.
"Do not even consider stopping now," I glower dangerously.
He looks down on me with a crooked smile. "We may get wet."
"We have been wet for days," I argue. "If we wait until we are dry to do this, we will be old men with cocks too withered and wrinkled to do either of us any good."
His smile just grows. "And what of our meal? It could burn and we would have nothing to eat."
"I have hungered for you much longer than I have a roast hare. But, if your belly takes precedence in these matters, all you need do is release my arms, and allow me to get to the task at hand, I promise to make fast work of you so you shall not miss your meal."
"So you say?" he scoffs but releases my arms and straightens, hands proudly on his hips as he straddles mine. "We Romans are made of stronger stuff than…oh, by the gods, Esca, do that again."
His boast has been cut short by my fingers hastily opening his braccea and taking him in hand with a quick squeeze and stroke.
Instead of giving in to his request, I still my hand but maintain my grip. "Forgive me, Centurion, I believe you were telling me about the strong stuff of Romans. I did not mean to interrupt you." When he thrusts into my hand, I loosen my grip and he growls in frustration. "You have nothing more to say on the subject?"
"Esca…" he begs.
I tighten my hand slightly; run my thumb along his length. "Perhaps you would like to hear about the fortitude of the Brignantes, instead. We could compare notes after--"
He lunges forward and captures my mouth again, his kisses desperate as he rolls us over so that I am now on top of him, effectively trapping my hand still around him against my own hardness. His hips thrust up, and now I find myself moaning against his mouth as I rub against him and my fist. A second thrust has him doing the same. Then he’s pushing me away, his large fingers frantically working at the ties of my own braccea. He’s clumsy with desire, and I slap his hands away to do it on my own, having little more luck than he did seeing as he’s also pushing my tunic up. I give up on the ties long enough to raise my arms so that he can pull the tunic roughly over my head, only half aware that he somehow manages not to throw it on the fire. My attention immediately returns to my braccae as I wave a distracted hand at Marcus.
"Tunic. Off. Now."
He responds to my orders without question, wiggling beneath me in a way that makes my own task all the more difficult.
"Marcus, I can’t…"
"Here, let me…"
"You are not helping!"
"If you would just…"
"Well, now it’s knotted. Are you pleased with yourself?"
"Where’s my knife?"
"Wait! I have it!"
"Ow! My leg!"
"Then don’t put it there!"
"It is attached to my body! I can put it nowhere else!"
"If you just lift your hips a little I could slide them down past your knees…"
"They are going nowhere with our boots still on!"
"Stop moving so I can…"
"Orcus’ get! Can nothing be simply done between us?"
I give up trying to completely unclothing us and settle on top of him to resume kissing him with the same frenzied recklessness in which we had undressed. It is then that it all becomes very simple between us, our bodies taking over with only one common purpose. There is no restraint in Marcus now, no floundering attempt at control. There is only the taste of salty skin on my lips, his head falling back to expose more of his neck, voice guttural, begging for more as I suck at his throat, feeling his blood pulsing against the press of my tongue.
His hands move over my back to my ass to grip and pull me in tight against him. The action has me biting his shoulder and grinding down with my hips. He thrusts up, breathless gasps escaping against my cheeks and chin as his mouth moves with no clear destination over my skin. I press my face against his neck, meet his next thrust, and make a few broken noises of my own. The sensation as we continue to move has my head spinning, the feel of him against me, beneath me, around me is overwhelmingly good.
There is another rumble of thunder, closer this time. I feel the first few drops of rain make their way through the trees overhead and splatter along my back, icy cold pinpricks on my hot skin. It was like this when I ran for help. My clothes had clung cold and sodden from river and rain, chilling me to my very bones, but fear and desperation burned hot in my soul. If I could find no help, Marcus would be dead. That sharp truth had cut through me, freezing my blood more than the wind and rain ever could. Freed from my blood debt or not, as long as I drew breath, I would not let Marcus die. So I ran, as fast as my legs would carry me, ignored the cold, and let my need for Marcus, for his life to remain in mine, keep me moving.
A similar need, this one more primal and base, keeps us moving now, even as the rain falls heavier and harder. Neither of us stops moving, stops kissing, stops touching. And by the time it is over, with both of us gulping air as I lay sprawled across the expanse of Marcus’ chest, neither of us is in any position to claim bragging rights for the staying power of our lineage.
He is tracing his fingers along the nape of my neck as I kiss his shoulder, his chin, lick a drop of rainwater from the lobe of his ear, before finally kissing his mouth deeply. His strong arms wrap around me, holding me close.
"Esca?" he murmurs, running his nose against mine.
"Yes, Marcus?" I nip and suck leisurely at his lower lip.
"Must it rain every day in this infernal place?"
I drop my head to his chest and laugh, his own mirth echoes under my ear.
"It is an honest question," he insists even as he continues to chuckle.
"Only when it can fall on hard-headed Romans, mo chroí," I explain and kiss over the heart that I had just claimed as my own.
The endearment has slipped unbidden from my lips, and I find myself embarrassed by the look of puzzlement and tenderness on Marcus’ face. I doubt he knows the meaning of the words in Latin…my heart…but the affection must have been apparent in my voice so that their intent is clear enough.
With a quick kiss to his lips to cover my discomfiture, I sit up and pat his stomach, "Come. Let us take shelter and I will show you how my people warm themselves in this sort of weather."
He heads to our makeshift dwelling as I add wood to the fire to keep it burning in the rain and check on the meat. I snatch our tunics and cloaks lying nearby and follow him to the lean-to to strip off the remainder of my clothing.
"And how does this differ from what we just did?" he asks, as I settle beside me.
I glance up at the boughs blocking most of the rain above our heads. "We do it under a roof." Still grinning, I spread my cloak on the ferns of our bed and wrap his cloak around his shoulders and rub briskly to dry him.
"You could not tell me this before the rain started?" His fingertips trace lightly along the curve of my spine as I lean over to pull the boots from his feet.
"I cannot reveal all of my secrets too soon." I grin back at him as I finish with his boots and pull his trousers free with a flourish.
He drapes his arm around me to share the warmth of the cloak as I set to work on my own boots. "I’m sorry, Esca, but I believe your manumission may have to wait a few days. I have decided the first thing I wish to do when we cross over the wall is find an inn, with a real bed, and take you into it. Perhaps learn a few more of these secrets you claim." His fingers trace over the markings on my arm.
When I finish with my boots, I work off my braccae and quirk my lips. "You will have me again even without my Roman name?"
"I will have you again as soon as you are able." He kisses my shoulder before resting a prickly cheek there.
"Then what are you waiting for?" I seek out his mouth, pulling him back onto our bed without breaking the kiss.
Endurance we may be lacking, but resilience we seem to have in abundance.
* * * * *
I wake with a brush of chilled knuckles along my jaw and Marcus calling my name softly. It is full dark with the rain still falling lightly, and it takes a moment for me to remember that Marcus had volunteered to take first watch after we had finally decided to dress and eat our slightly charred meal.
"That time already?" I yawn, deciding coupling with Marcus has exhausted me more than I thought possible, since I can’t seem to shake the fog of sleep. I smile hazily. "I had hoped you might want to wake me to relieve you in other ways than taking the watch."
"Would that I could." He smiles back, but it seems a little forced. "But I need you to see something."
Whatever he wants me to see is obviously troubling him, so I pull my cloak around me, take my sword, and follow as he leads me back up the ridge I’d hunted earlier. My injured arm aches fiercely and I shiver, blaming both on the cold drizzle falling on us, forcing my legs to climb the steep slope when they would much rather be back in the lean-to sleeping.
Once we reach the top of the ridge, I see for myself what has Marcus concerned. The Wall in the distance is marked by signal fires all along its length, indicating the milecastles with their garrison of men stationed every mile and the watchtowers in between. But it is the multitude of smaller camp fires in the valley just north of the wall that makes me curse under my breath.
"I count more than thirty fires," Marcus tells me. "That could mean a force of at least five, ten times that many waiting to attack the Wall."
"At this location," I amend. "There are probably more hidden by the darkness further along the length."
"You think they are using the fires as bait in hopes of drawing troops from the other garrisons to the one with the siege forces."
I nod. "Why else would they make themselves known?"
"It won’t work," Marcus acknowledges with a shake of his head. "The Centurions will not leave their posts for a ruse such as that."
"Then they will attack multiple ones. There is no way to know how many are truly out there."
"We cannot go down there, Esca." The disappointment is obvious in his voice. "Not in the middle of a battle."
"It could last days," I point out.
"Do you think we are safe here? We could simply wait them out."
"If no other tribes join them, or reinforcements from their own come across our path." The truth is, we have been fortunate since our battle with the Seal People not to run across any other clans. By the looks of the valley below, I start to understand why no one else has been on the trail.
Marcus nods grimly. "Perhaps in daylight we will be better able to judge the situation and weigh our options."
"Then it is best that you return to our camp and sleep. I’ll take watch until dawn."
"I would feel more at ease if I were to remain here."
"Marcus, you need your rest--" I start to protest.
He stops me with a quick kiss. "Have no fear, Esca, I will sleep…just within sight of you if I should wake."
I have to admit, I do feel better knowing he is near.
"There is no fire for warmth," I remind. "And I would not light one. If we can see their fires, then they could see ours up here."
"It will not be the first time we have shared one another’s warmth to fend off the cold on this trip."
I let him pull me toward a hemlock tree with a large spread of branches to protect us from the light rain. Once we are both sitting, he moves in close, slumping to rest his head on my shoulder. He slides his arm under my cloak and around my chest.
"Warmer already," he announces with a yawn of his own.
Placing my hand over his, I hiss. "Your fingers are like ice!"
"I will not lie; the temptation to join you under the covers to warm myself in the lean-to was strong." The touch of a cold nose to my neck has me squirming. "But I knew you would not be able to resist having me near and you needed your sleep."
"I have controlled myself well over a year. I think it is you who cannot keep his hands to himself."
"When there are so many wondrous things to touch, can you blame me?" As if to prove his point, he moves his broad hand across my stomach.
Linking my fingers with his under the cloak, I still his hand and kiss the top of his head. "Marcus, sleep. We have a long day tomorrow if we are to reach the Wall."
"And if we cannot reach the Wall because of the forces in the valley?"
"Then we will have a long day here doing pleasant things to one another," I promise with another kiss. "Either way, you will need your strength."
"I almost hope we cannot reach the Wall, then," he confesses as he shifts to make himself more comfortable.
Marcus falls silent for a few moments but I can tell he does not sleep. "They are doomed," he finally murmurs. "The tribes may outnumber the smaller garrisons, but every fifth milecastle has a force of up to one thousand men."
"The odds do not matter," I respond quietly.
My father had ridden with five hundred spears at his back against a Roman force twice that size. We knew we stood no chance of victory, but it did not stop of us from trying. There comes a time when a good death means more than living a life that is no longer yours. It is why my mother asked for her own death at my father’s hands instead of being treated as a Centurion’s whore. It is why I marched with my father and brothers into a hopeless battle against Rome. It is why I would not fight in the arena the day Marcus first saw me, and it is why those fires burn in the valley below us.
Marcus’ voice drops to barely a whisper. "Would you join them tonight around their campfires if you could?"
"My loyalty is to you, Marcus," I promise in honesty. "You cannot doubt that now."
"I have no doubt of that, my Esca," His fingers squeeze mine in reassurance. "But if I was not here, if the Seal Prince had followed through with his threat to slit my throat—"
"He would not have harmed you," I assure him instantly.
He exhales heavily. "How were you so certain that he would not?"
"Because in his eyes, you were my property, and I was his guest. It would have been seen as an insult to destroy my property with his hand." I wish I had found a way to let him know this earlier. "Besides, if he had tried, he would have fallen where he stood."
"And you would have been just as dead seconds after that," Marcus counters. "You could not have stood against all his men."
"Then that would have been my fate to die defending you as I had sworn to do." I sigh against his damp hair. "It is in my heart to ask that you forgive me for how I treated you with the Seal People. I knew of no other way to maintain our ruse and keep you alive."
"You were very convincing in your playacting, Esca, that I cannot deny," he laughs lightly against my neck. "But I know now your only intent was to keep us both alive until we could find the eagle. All was forgiven when you woke me on the beach that night and made your true intentions known."
I feel a weight lifted to hear his words, until he speaks again.
"Except for that slap. For that I still owe you."
I think I detect a hint of humor in his voice, but still I offer, "If you wish to slap me now in return, I shall pay the debt I owe and gladly so that no ill will remains between us."
"On my part, there is no ill will." His lips press against my neck. "But, I think I will save the slap for another time, when you are not expecting it." This time, there is no missing the amusement.
I chuckle lightly. "Then I shall be on guard at all times in anticipation."
"A battle of wills between us, then. After all that has happened, it appears little has changed."
My eyebrows rise in question. "Would you wish it to change?"
"After the amazing things that have transpired between us this night, I would not wish anything to change between us since we first met, Esca."
"And what of before we met?"
"Before?" he asks in confusion.
He had asked if I wished to join the tribes waiting to attack the wall, now it is my turn to ask if he wished to join the garrisons preparing for defense.
"Would you wish to still hold your command if you could?"
The question has him straightening for the first time. "That is not even a possibility."
"You have proven you can still fight by recovering the eagle standard. Is it not possible Rome will reward you with a new command?"
"I…that is… I cannot see it being…"
He is obviously floundering with the idea, so I repeat, "Is it possible?"
"Anything is possible, I suppose."
"And if it were possible, would you want to resume a command?"
The way he seems to be considering how to answer my question is an answer all in itself. I didn’t even need to ask the question for I know that is Marcus’ greatest dream.
"Would there be a place for me in a fort?" I ask, trying my best not to show dread at his answer.
"There are often craftsmen supporting the garrisons, hunters--."
I rephrase my question to ask what I really mean. "Would there be a place for me with you in a fort?"
"There would be…complications."
"Would I be allowed to share a bed with you?" I ask with a frown.
My eyes narrow, understanding what he is not saying. "As you would a slave? Or a whore? For release and nothing more?"
"That would be the only way I would maintain respect from those I command," he admits. "But I would not want to have them believe I used you without affection, and there’s the rub."
"More like the lack of rub," I mumble angrily.
"Esca, there is no need to even discuss this. My leg--"
"It is in your heart to be a Centurion again if you could." I don’t pose it as a question; I know it to be truth. I have spent a year watching the frustration and anger at his inability to serve Rome eat at him.
He shifts back to lean against me and reclaims my hand in his. "It is in my heart to wake with you beside me every morning. If I cannot do that in a Roman fort, I will do it elsewhere." His eyes drift up to the branches above our heads. "Even if it is under a tree in Caledonia."
I lean my head against his; listening as his breathing slows as he drops into sleep. If all goes well, this tree in Caledonia will be far behind us by tomorrow night. We will be south of the Wall and one step closer to returning the eagle and Rome’s reaction to the deed. It will be then that I will see what truly resides in his heart.
* * * * *
I pry my eyes open at the sound of Marcus’ voice, not sure why he is waking me when I had been standing watch. All I remember was the night growing colder and colder, and even with Marcus close against me, my body ached with the chill. It appears I had fallen asleep, something I have never done on a watch before. The crease in Marcus’ brow shows he is not pleased that I did.
I straighten as best I can, an apology already forming on my lips. "Marcus, I’m sorry. I don’t--."
He stops me as his hands move across my face and neck. "You’re burning with fever. Why did you not tell me?"
I have no answer because I did not know myself. I had dismissed how I felt to exhaustion and the damp weather. Marcus doesn’t seem to want a response anyway as he is already checking my wounded arm. I bite my lip to keep from crying out when he touches it.
"It is inflamed. You need a doctor." He looks back longingly over his shoulder to where the Wall, and no doubt army surgeons, sits just out of reach.
"The tribes?" I ask hopefully.
"Started their siege just before dawn," he tells me. "The fighting continues and may for a while to come."
I give him a weak smile. "You have had two surgeries; did you learn nothing from your Roman surgeons on how to care for a wound?"
"The value of a Roman surgeon is what I learned," he counters, then shakes his head. "I can clean it, rebandage it, but we have no poultices, no honey or salt to treat it to keep the fever at bay…"
We have both seen wounds from the battle field that seemed small kill a man when the fever sets in and does not break. Sometimes it comes down to strength and the will to live. The worry in Marcus’ face just confirms how much I have to live for.
"…you need a fire, a warm bed with furs, food, a skilled physician, all things I cannot give you here."
I do my best to control my shivering, but my hand still shakes as I cup his jaw. "Marcus, you have told me more than once that I am stronger than I look. Clean my wound, pack it with moss, and we will reach the Wall for your Roman medicine by nightfall."
Marcus’ mouth forms a tight line. "We will have to skirt wide around the fighting, further east to Chilurnium, the next garrison with a gate. It will be a longer march than we had planned by at least five miles."
I nod in understanding. "Brigantia will give me strength," I promise.
"The goddesss of your people?" Marcus has never asked about my gods, but I know he puts much faith in his own. I hope he will trust in mine today.
"The goddess of healing who watches over all Brigantes."
"And she is one of your more powerful goddesses, this Brigantia?"
"I prayed to her for your recovery after your surgery," I tell him. It is the first time I have admitted to such a thing, and at the time, I had not known if she would be willing to answer a prayer on behalf of a Roman. I had only hoped she would have the same mercy on Marcus as he had shown me at the arena. "If she is willing to help a Roman, surely she will help one of her own."
He nods again, seeing it as the good omen that I know it to be. "Then we should go to the river to tend your wound and start for the Wall."
He helps me to my feet, and I blink away the black spots before my eyes, doing my best to cover my dizziness. My attempt is to no avail as Marcus keeps a hand under my elbow and hovers close by all the way down the path to our camp from the previous day. There we gather what few provisions we have left, along with the water skins and bow the Legionaries gave us before parting ways.
At the river, Marcus sits me on a boulder then unbinds my wound, wincing in sympathy when I do at the pain. I risk a look at it to see the gash is an angry red with puss forming and I grimace again. Marcus cleans the bandage in the river in preparation to use it to clean the cut.
Standing above me, he hesitates then asks, "Will you translate for me?" When I frown in confusion, he explains. "I do not wish to offend your goddess by praying in Latin."
I do my best not to let it show how much the thought touches me that Marcus would call on one of my gods to help me. "Speak the words and I will translate."
"Brigantia, guide my hands as I treat this wound. Please use your powers to heal your loyal son, Esca Mac Cunoval."
He looks questioning to me, as if to ask if that is an acceptable way to pray to her. I answer by repeating his words in my native tongue.
He attempts to repeat what I have just said, mangling the words as they tumble clumsily from his tongue, but when I break them down into a few words at a time, he gets better. Although his accent is horrible. Still, it is a way to distract me from the searing pain in my arm as he works.
Marcus continues to chant the words, low and reverent as he rebinds the wound, only stopping when he is finished with my arm.
"You did well," I assure him, doing my best to keep my face from showing my discomfort.
He hauls me up from my seat on the rock. "A surgeon will do better. Are you ready to walk?"
I give him a single nod. "I am."
We set off at a pace to match the drizzle falling on us—slow, steady, and miserable. I can tell the weather is no friend to his leg, and I trudge on beside him in a mental fog that thickens as the rain grows heavier. With the Wall in his sights, there is no need for me to act as a guide, and I gladly let Marcus lead the way. I lose count of how many times he takes my good arm to keep me from tripping over a hidden root or rock in the path, and after a while my focus narrows to watching my boots to make sure I stay upright.
Marcus calls a halt to our march every mile or so, claiming it is for his leg, but the way he keeps a wary eye on me, finds an excuse to touch me to check my fever, I know it is more for me than him. I feel so weak and chilled, I do not mind the breaks, even though I hate to be the reason behind them slowing our progress. At midday he finds a stand of trees, rare in the open grassland of the valley, and stops our march yet again.
"I should like to be out of this rain for even just a little while," he tells me, tugging me toward the cover of the trees.
I follow mutely, too cold and tired to even put words to my agreement. Once under the branches, the rain tapers off considerably. He sits me down against a large tree trunk before easing himself down beside me with a grunt. My head hits his shoulder an instant later, and I immediately drop into an exhausted, fevered sleep.
I dream of grey and white shadows in the trees, dogs braying across the wind, the red shields of the Ninth Legion before me, and the blue shields of my father behind. Death surrounds me, no matter which way I turn. Then Marcus’ voice is calling to me from above.
I open my eyes to see his looking down on me in worry and apology. "If I could, I would let you sleep more. But the sooner we reach the Wall the better."
Somehow, my head is lying in his lap. I know not how it got there or how long I have been asleep, but there is no denying he is right about our need to start moving again. It is dangerous out in the open with the clans rising against the Roman garrisons. Marcus, however, is intent on reaching his fellow countrymen for another reason.
"I want only to get you warmed and under the care of a physician before the night is out."
I attempt to push myself up but can’t seem to get my arms under myself. "You should have woken me sooner."
"I tried," he tells me quietly, his face growing darker still.
"The sleep has done me good." It is not too much of a lie. If I hadn’t slept, I’m not sure how much further I would have gone anyway. "How far to the Wall?"
"Ten miles, maybe less."
"Help me to my feet and I will make it," I promise.
Ten Roman miles on any other day would pass beneath my feet at an easy stride in a few hours. I had run more than that distance when I found Guern a few days prior to this one. But today, it seems every step leaves me feeling as spent as I did at the end of that desperate run for help. Marcus coaxes me on, at first gently, then his voice takes the tone of a cohort highly disappointed in his troops. Whether he is truly angry at me or knows that is one thing that will prod my willfulness, it works, and I square my shoulders as best I can and continue on our march.
* * * *
Hours later, the rain still falls relentlessly, and we are both as soaked as we were in the river when the Seal People were tracking us. We have reached the road leading to the Chilurnium gate, walking along the muddy ruts formed by the wagons of the few traders who dare to cross into the north, although we have seen no one else on the road and are still miles from the Wall and the protection it offers. My cloak provides little warmth as the approaching night darkens the sky even more than the pressing clouds, but I walk with my arms crossing my chest to try to control my shivering. Marcus is limping badly, but his stubbornness is even stronger than my own, and he steadfastly places one foot in front of the other. My only choice is to do the same, even when the world tilts suddenly and I feel myself falling. Marcus grabs for me, but his bad leg isn’t strong enough to support the two of us, so we both go down in the mud. Habit has me rolling to avoid landing on the bow strapped to my back, but not far enough to keep Marcus’ weight from landing on my injured arm. I cannot stop the yelp of pain when he does and Marcus lets out his own curse about his leg.
"By the Light, you should know better!" I snap.
"I was trying to help!"
"How is both of us in the mud helping?" I bite hard on my lower lip, squeezing my eyes shut against the black spots floating above me. Then Marcus’ hand is across my mouth to silence me. I don’t hear anything at first, then it comes to me, dense and muffled yet distinct—the sound of horse hooves, riding hard.
"Two," I grunt out, "coming fast."
With a shake of his head, Marcus corrects my count. "Three at least."
"They have heard us." It is all the warning I need to give that they will not be friendly. There is no telling how long they have been aware of us on the road; with the rain dampening sound and our sorry state, they may have been following us for miles waiting for a chance to attack without us even knowing. But they would have heard us yell when we fell, more than that, they would have heard Latin, telling them we are not one of the local tribes.
Marcus is struggling to his feet, pulling me up with him. "Can you draw your bow?"
My arm is throbbing, but I am already fumbling arrows from the quiver and planting them in the ground beside me for ease of access. "String it for me, and be quick."
The first dark shape is already forming out of the grey sheets of rain when Marcus pushes my strung bow into my hand and draws his sword. I wipe water from my eyes but it does little to clear my vision that has the horse and rider swimming drunkenly down the road.
Marcus must be able to see more clearly than I because he grumbles, "Rogue warriors," at my shoulder. "Once you fire, stay behind me."
That is all the notice I need to notch my first arrow and let it fly. It goes wide, and I curse my injured arm as I set the next, holding my breath to stop the shaking that wracks my whole body. This one hits the target square in his chest, sending the man tumbling out of his saddle and clearing the view to the other two riders fast behind him.
Marcus moves in front of me, but I order, "Stand aside!"
By now they are close enough I can see the swirling tattoos covering their chest and face. To my blurred sight, the markings seem to writhe like worms exposed from under an overturned log. A wave of nausea passes over me that has me swaying where I stand.
"Now." Marcus’ voice is tense beside me.
I have a chance for one more shot before they are too close, and I choose the one raising his spear, my arm burning with an unnatural fire as I loose the string and send the arrow flying. It grazes along my target’s cheek, not enough to kill him, but enough to have him drop his spear with a scream of pain.
The final rider is bearing down on us hard, and Marcus gives me a rough shove out of the way of the horse as he raises his blade to block the blow of the mounted warrior. I land in the mud again, the distressed whiney of a horse where Marcus fights behind me drowning out my own grunt of pain. The second still-mounted Rogue I had injured regains his purpose and starts his charge toward me. Sitting up, I grab for another arrow. It is an awkward position for a pull, and by the time I do, the horse rears over me, blocking my shot at the warrior. I roll out of the way of the hoofs crashing into the mud where I had just been sitting. It rears again, and I scramble backwards, slipping in the muck of the road, but avoiding the deadly hooves once more.
"Esca!" Marcus yells, not in need but in warning, as if I am unaware of my current danger of being trampled to death.
I can barely hear him over the war cries of the man above me and the shrill neighing of his horse dancing dangerously close to where I wallow helplessly in the mire. Blinking to clear my vision, I fight to reach at least my knees for another shot. The man in the saddle has his small war ax raised to throw as I strain desperately for one last burst of strength to draw my bow, but it won’t seem to come. Before he can release his ax, the rider slips backwards out of view to land in the road on the other side of his mount. Marcus drops viciously on the warrior’s chest and delivers a swift killing swipe with his dagger across his foe’s throat.
Between the nervously prancing legs of horses, I can see the body of the third Rogue lying unmoving on the road; all dead and no more coming or they would be on us by now. Marcus is mud-coated, breathing hard, but pushing himself to his feet. He swipes at his cheek, smearing red into the dark smudge already there, and I cannot be certain it is not his blood I see.
"Esca, how fare you?" He is surveying the countryside for any other sign of attack.
As much as I try, my tongue won’t form words. I’m not really sure how to answer anyway, as my field of vision has narrowed to Marcus. Marcus, always Marcus. It is the only answer I know. So I speak his name. It comes out as little more than a slur.
He’s pushing at the shoulder of the horse between us to reach me. The frightened creature is jittery enough from the fight that it rears again, and Marcus grabs at its reins to pull it aside. With a smack to its rump, he sends the horse running clear of the two of us. This time when I try to call his name, my lips won’t even move.
His eyes meet mine, and I can tell he has not been injured further. It is all I need know to let my body give into the pain and exhaustion and collapse into darkness.
Then, I am flying.
There is a steady rumble around me, a rhythmic drumming of thunder that rolls on endlessly. Wind blows rain hard and stinging against my face. I attempt to raise a hand to block the gale and groan at the sharp pain that shoots through my arm.
Marcus speaks at my ear. "Easy. We will reach help soon."
I force my eyes open to see Marcus is flying with me, arms holding me close to his chest, and if I wasn’t in such misery, I might enjoy this. But when I lift my head from his shoulder, I see the sleek dark neck of a horse, rising then stretching out in a gallop. Flight of a different sort then, but at least there is no more marching through the rain. There is also a certain amount of warmth cradled between Marcus and the steed, and I am cocooned in both my cloak and his, so I let my head drop back to the crook of his neck, feeling his pulse point racing strong and steady against my cheek.
"All will be well," he promises. He sounds as I did when I promised to return to him, as if he is swearing it to himself as much as to me. I know what he fears, for I feared the same thing that day in the river. He fears it is a promise he may not be able to keep.
I focus on that strong and steady heartbeat. Strong and steady, just like Marcus. "A chuisle mo chroí," I murmur. Another endearment, but this time it does not slip unbidden from my lips. I want him to hear it, to know it, to have no doubt of how I feel for him and exactly what he is to me, no matter what the outcome of this wild flight may be. "Pulse of my heart," I repeat in Latin for him and him alone. "A chuisle mo chroí." It comes out as little more than a sigh against his neck as I feel myself sinking once again.
His hands tighten on the reins, pulling me closer to him, as he urges more speed from the already heaving mount.
* * * * *
"In the name of Caesar, open the gate!"
Marcus’ bellow has me coming to myself once more. I squint my eyes against the painfully bright glow of torches above us on the Wall, instinctively turning my head away from the light and back into Marcus’ neck, so that I cannot make out who he is calling to. Whoever it is, he is not impressed with Marcus’ order, no doubt because he is not much impressed with our appearance.
"You will have to be Caesar himself for these gates to open on a night such as this," the guard challenges, "and you are most definitely not him."
I feel the rumble of a growl forming in Marcus’ chest and he yells, "Who commands this garrison, soldier?"
"Lutorius Drussilus Salinator is cohort commander here."
Marcus exhales in relief to hear the name. "Tell him Marcus Flavius Aquila requests his hospitality, and be quick about it." Apparently the guard isn’t moving fast enough to suit Marcus. "Move!"
"Mithras has held us in favor." Marcus tightens his arms around me as he tells me, "Lutorius was my second-in-command at Isca Dumnoniorum."
I find myself drifting again while we wait, jerking awake when a much more friendly voice questions from above, "Commander, is that actually you beneath all that mud and muck?"
"Well met, Lutorius!" Marcus exclaims happily.
The relay of orders to open the gate sounds down the parapet as Lutorius calls back, "You are a welcome sight, Commander. Although an unexpected one, and forgive me for saying, a sorry one in your current state."
"It is a long story, my friend. One I will gladly share with you," Marcus promises, "once safely inside."
In short course, the great gate creaks open, and Marcus urges the horse into the dimly lit courtyard. I do my best to straighten, but it is a miserable attempt. It just makes our sidestepping horse prance a bit more so that Marcus has to call soothingly to it to keep it from interfering with the work of the men at the gate.
Lutorius meets us as the large doors swing shut, once more, and are barricaded. "Marcus Flavius Aquila! Never would I have thought to meet you here in Chilurnium, and on the north side of the Wall no less!"
"It is a happy coincidence to find you here, as well," Marcus agrees, his exhaustion cooling the edges of the warmth in his voice.
Lutorius looks at me questioningly. "And who do you carry bundled before you?"
"Esca Mac Cunoval," Marcus replies, as I cannot.
"A Briton?" Lutorius asks in surprise.
"One very dear to me," Marcus states earnestly. "And in dire need of your surgeon."
"He would be at your service had you arrived a day earlier," Lutorius laments. "As the Fates would have it, he went with the century of men I sent to reinforce the gate at Borcovicus that is under siege."
"And what shall you do for a physician if attack comes here?" Marcus asks.
"There is a pensioned surgeon in the town," Lutorius tells him. "He took a Briton wife upon his retirement-- half his age, but she has bore him five sons. The eldest is studying surgery under his father. When we have need, they come."
"Where can I find him?" Marcus asks eagerly. "I would have Esca in his care as soon as possible."
"I will send someone to fetch him. You know how the Britons have no reason to the lay of their towns; you will spend longer searching for the way than it will take to bring him here. Besides, you look as if you are in nearly as much need of his services as your friend."
Marcus slumps in gratitude. "You have my thanks, Lutorius."
After a quick order to one of his men, the commander pats the neck of our horse indicating we should stay mounted for the time being. "Come, I will show you to the infirmary for your friend, and you are welcome to a room in the Praetorium with me."
"Thank you for the offer, but I will stay with Esca as long as he is under the surgeon’s care."
"As you wish," Lutorius acknowledges with a bit of surprise, but he guides us down the straight pathway, giving the occasional greeting or order to his men as we go.
"It is good to see you have been promoted, my friend," Marcus says sincerely, although I can hear the hint of sorrow for his own lost command.
"My first command and it is at the edge of the known world." Lutorius shakes his head. "I am not sure if it is promotion or punishment."
Lutorius is older than Marcus by several years, meaning he must have worked his way up through the ranks.
"Promotion," Marcus assures, "well earned and far overdue."
"I shall take your word, although it is a hard post," Lutorius admits. "There will be nothing for months from the north to the point where we are desperate for some way to keep the men from going lax with boredom. Then, out of nowhere, a garrison will be attacked with the viciousness of a rabid dog."
Marcus nods grimly, "We saw the tribes massing last night from our camp, and ran into Rogue warriors not five miles from here on the road."
"I am not surprised. We have been hit by small raiding parties since night before last. Nothing more than to harry us," Lutorius admits, "but it is why I only dared to spare so few men to Borcovicus."
"The three we met will bother you no more," Marcus ensures him.
"That is good news, although I fear there are more hiding under cover of night." Lutorius shakes his head. "It is a lesson I learned well from you."
Their words buzz around me like bees on a lazy summer day, lulling me until Lutorius stops us, and Marcus gives me a gentle shake to rouse me. I lift my head wearily to see Lutorius standing in front of a long lime-washed building and offering a hand up to me. Between the two men, I am eased down to the ground. I lean against the horse, gripping tightly to the bridle to stay on my feet until Marcus dismounts, as well.
Fearful that he may try to carry me, I tell him quietly, "I can walk." I don’t trust my voice to speak beyond that.
Given Marcus’ restraint around the military, and the already strange expression on Lutorius' face from Marcus’ refusal of a room for himself, I feel it is for the best. Besides, I have no desire to look even weaker than I already feel. But the first step I take has the world going grey around the edges, and my knees wobble dangerously. Marcus is a full head taller than me. In my current state, he could easily scoop me up like a stubborn child and carry me if he so chose. Fortunately, he takes me at my word, simply wrapping an arm around my waist and helping me along. It is a short walk to the building that houses the medical facilities, but it seems an eternity before we arrive inside, and by the time we cross the threshold, Lutorius is helping to support me, too.
The fire is already stoked high and burning, and I feel warmer just walking through the door, but it does little to stop my chattering teeth. Marcus takes both of our sodden cloaks and drops them to the floor before sitting me on a cot. My mud-packed boots soon follow by Marcus’ hand, and when I curl shivering on my side, he drops a thick blanket on top of me, then another.
His fingers are icy cold when he rests his palm on my neck. "The surgeon will be here soon."
He is dripping wet, and where mud isn’t smeared on him from the battle in the road, it is spattered from the ride to the Wall. For the first time I can see a bruise forming on his jaw; from the fight or fall, I honestly don’t know.
"You look like a mongrel dog that was beat and turned out into the rain," I mumble.
"I have no doubt you speak true." His lips quirk as his thumb rubs just below my ear. "And yet I could say worse about you."
"Eat," I coax before my voice fades to nothing. "Warm yourself."
He nods his consent, and I slip into oblivion once again listening to Marcus telling our story to Lutorius