I cannot say how much time passes after that; it is as thick and heavy as seawater in the lungs. Images and sounds go as quickly as they come, some real, some dreams, some I cannot tell which they are, and I fight them like a man drowning beneath the waves.
I know the surgeon arrives. There is a sharp pain to devour the steady throbbing that has eaten at my arm since my fever has begun. There is Latin, words I should easily understand that are as nonsensical as the babbling of a babe. There is a cup at my mouth, a bitter taste on my lips, an unfamiliar voice telling me to drink, which I refuse. Then Marcus is telling me calmly to do the same, praising me when I do, murmuring words I don’t understand, but they are calming because they are his, until the world fades again.
I call a warning to my youngest brother. He has not yet danced the spear but still he fights. It is his first battle and I know it will also be his last. The Roman soldier is upon him too quickly for him to heed my notice and he goes down. I run to his aid, slicing through the back of the Centurion before dropping to my knees to grip my brother’s shoulders. Only, it is not my brother, but a young Rogue warrior staring up at me with terrified eyes. I look down at myself to see I’m dressed in Roman red, and in my own horror at what I’ve become, I let the young Rogue up to run away.
But I know it will do no good, because of what is coming next. And when Marcus’ dagger strikes home in the boy’s back, it is my brother I see falling to the ground.
I wake with Marcus wiping a cloth across my chest. His smile flickers with the candlelight when he catches me watching him as he dips the cloth into a basin before running it over my shoulder. "Since you cannot go to the baths just yet, it seemed only fair that I should bring them to you."
The cloth is coarse; the water warm and cooling quickly on my skin, but his touch is gentle, tender. I have seen these same soothing hands kill with brutal efficiency. Deep down, it shames me that I want nothing more than to lay here and let him use those same hands to wash away the mud and sweat and blood of our journey, that I want him to do so much more. I am a disgrace to my father’s clan to love a Roman Centurion. But the Clan of Cunoval is no more, just as Marcus Flavius Aquila is no longer a soldier of Rome. I want to start anew with Marcus, be washed clean by Marcus, both of us free from the ghosts of our past.
He rings water from the rag again, moves it to my jaw, then my brow, and I close my eyes.
Then we are riding across the highlands, the dogs of the Seal People braying in the distance when my horse goes down. I am trapped beneath its weight, struggling to free myself as I hear the dogs growing closer.
My arm feels as if it may be broken, and I am too weak and tired to budge my floundering mount. I look up to where Marcus still sits in his saddle. "Marcus, help me."
"I cannot," he tells me simply.
"You can!" I insist. "You must!"
"It is up to you now." He ignores my pleas, only turns his horse and rides away without looking back, leaving me to struggle futilely against the weight and the pain to pull myself free.
I groan, and Marcus flinches awake on the cot beside mine. The basin is gone from when I last saw him in this room, and the pale light of dawn is at the window. He sits quickly, scrubbing away the exhaustion from dark-shadowed eyes even as he stumbles toward me. "Here." His voice is husky with sleep and he uses the side of my cot to steady himself. "This will help."
Sitting beside me, he slides an arm under my neck then puts the cup to my lips once more. "Believe me, I know the taste is horrible, but it does cut the pain."
I drink, then roll my head to rest against his shoulder, already feeling the drowsiness taking me again. Whether from the tonic or my sickness I know not, all I know for certain is that I like having Marcus near.
With a press of lips to my forehead, he tells me, "Rest. The surgeon says it does you good."
"Stay." I force the word out in little more than a croak.
He rests his cheek against my head. "I will be nowhere else but here with you."
I swing my sword, slicing through the Roman’s defenses, and he goes down in a heap. Hefting the blue shield of my clan, I scan the battlefield around me to see the combat still rages fierce and bloody. My father’s spear impales a Roman soldier, my brother uses his own shield to bash into a red-clad foe of his own, and I look for the next man I shall face. He appears before me, wearing the two-faced mask of the Roman god, Janus, and striking his shield with his sword in invitation to fight. The length and bulk of my own shield has vanished, leaving me only the small, round boss from the center that is almost useless in a real battle. The battlefield has vanished, as well, to be replaced by the gladiator’s arena. I survey the crowd to find both my father’s clan and the Romans seated in the stands. All of them, to a man, are giving the thumbs down, the Roman symbol for my death.
I look desperately for Marcus in the stands, circling anxiously in the dirt, but can find him nowhere. It is then the gladiator strikes me with the butt of his sword.
The world jars violently, and with each quake, the pain sears through my arm anew.
There are the sounds of people going about their daily life floating somewhere out in the murkiness-- two women haggling shrilly over the price of eggs, the clang of a blacksmith’s hammer, the tromp of sandaled feet marching in time, the whiney of a horse, the scolding of a mother to her child, the grunt of men lifting a heavy load, the creak of wagon wheels beneath me. Marcus is nothing more than a dark outline backed by sunlight above me when I finally open my eyes.
"How much further?" he asks of someone I cannot see.
"Two miles," a voice responds. "The road will smooth out some once we are beyond the center of town."
My head is pillowed in Marcus’ lap, and it looks as if we are riding in the back of a horse-drawn wagon, but all I can see is the looming shadow of Marcus’ broad shoulders and square jaw, and further beyond, high clouds on a pale blue sky, a blue that always remind me of my home. Marcus pulls the blanket up beneath my chin when he looks down at me.
"Appius believes he can better care for you at his villa," Marcus tells me. "His son, Vibius, takes us there now."
My mind searches for meaning to those names, but nothing comes. Marcus trust them, though, else we would not be destined for their home; thus, I have no choice but to do the same. It is only then that I realize the people we pass in the wagon are speaking my native tongue.
"I shall see you beyond the sunset," my mother tells me in the language of my birth.
She kneels before my father, her blue eyes, pale as the autumn sky, are bright with the life that is about to bleed out on the floor of our dwelling. She is proud and beautiful as she lifts her head, dark hair falling back from her shoulders as she exposes her throat. She is a queen of Brigantes, more regal and loyal to her people than the treacherous queen Cartimandua could have ever hoped to be, because of this, her final stand against Rome.
My father’s dagger slides easily through her skin and her eyes never leave mine as she slips down, slumps silently into death. In them I can see her last thoughts. Soon, my son. I shall see you soon.
I do not doubt that she is right. The world of the dead seems closer tonight than it even does on Samhuin when The Crone skulks in the shadows. After what I have just witnessed, I almost welcome her touch. There is nothing to keep us here. Better to pass beyond the sunset than remain here as Roman dogs. My mother’s body drops lifeless to the floor, the only sound the clatter of her heavy bracelets of Egyptian glass and copper, but there is no time to mourn. The battle cries are already rising through the village; the Legionaries have broken through. I will fight my last fight shoulder to shoulder with my brothers and father and have a good death this night.
The door to our home flies open, and a Centurion bursts into the room. I raise my sword, ready to face him and any who follow, but he stops, removes his helmet and smiles happily to see me.
"Marcus?" My sword dips as he reaches out his hand. I am unsure how I know this man, but know in my heart it is his name, just as I know I can do him no harm.
"Esca, you must come with me."
Leave my family? With a Roman? I look back toward my father, my brothers, and what I see has my stomach twisting, threatening to revolt. They are coated with blood, their rotting skin exposing skull and skeleton beneath. Dead. All of them dead and still beckoning for me to join them.
Marcus’ hand drops on my shoulder, pulling me away. "Esca, please, return to me."
"Return?" I twist out of his hold in confusion, unsure of where I have been, where I am.
I look back at my family, all dead now. Dead this night, dead these seven years. And I, somehow, am alive. I am alive with a Roman begging me to leave them here and join him instead.
"Esca, all I ask is that you come with me."
I look at the hand he offers and for no reason I can name, I know I want nothing more than to take it.
So, I do. There is a rightness to his touch I feel deep in my heart.
Then I repeat the promise I will make to him years in the future, the one I had made to him days before. "As with Rome, Marcus, ask and I will go where you lead."
Where he leads me is out of the house of Cunoval and into one of a decidedly Roman style.
The room I wake in is dark except for the fire burning in the hearth and the embers smoldering in the small brazier where Marcus kneels. His words are low and muffled, but I hear my name more than once while I watch him sweep his cupped hands through the rising smoke. It is his gesture of prayer, and I am more than familiar with it.
"Is it as bad as that, then?" I ask, my voice cracking from disuse.
Marcus turns away from his altar abruptly, a kind of wonder showing through the shadows on his face to be hearing my voice.
"It has been that bad," I surmise from his expression.
The pain in my arm is back to a dull ache, and the world seems more real than it has since our ride to the Wall, but when I try to push myself up, I find that I am still as weak as a newborn foal.
"No, don’t move!" Marcus orders. He quickly closes the short distance from the wall where he’s been praying to my bed. Once there he rests a hand on my arm, then as if he can’t believe what he has found, he moves to touch my face, my neck, and my chest. A smile breaks across his face, like the ice cracking on a pond in spring. "Your fever has broken." He exhales heavily, cupping my face gently. "Mithras be praised, you heal." Then he kisses me soundly.
I try my best to kiss him back but it is a poor effort. Besides, there is more relief than passion behind the gesture.
"And what of Brigantia?" I challenge when he lifts his face from mine.
His laugh is broken but joyous all the same. "The goddess be praised, as well." He laughs again then drops another quick kiss on my lips. "I must wake Appius to see you."
He is already turning for the door, and I raise my arm to stop his leaving. "Marcus—"
He cuts me off with a forceful warning. "Don’t move!" He pushes my arm back down to the bed. "You mustn’t disturb their work."
I follow his eyes in confusion as to who ‘they’ are, and suck in a sharp breath when I see the maggots writhing in the wound in my arm. Marcus grabs the wrist of my other hand to keep it from brushing them away. Even in my weakened state, he has to struggle to still it.
"It’s fine, Esca." His hand tightens slightly on my wrist. "Trust me in this."
"They are eating me!" I insist.
"Yes," he agrees, which just has me fighting against him harder. "But only the rotten flesh that was killing you." His throat bobs visibly when he swallows, and his eyes drop to our hands. "And it was killing you, Esca."
The fight leaves me to see him so upset, and I collapse back limp against the bed. Marcus searches my face in worry, and I frown with a crinkle of my nose. "It’s disgusting."
"It is," he agrees with his own sickened expression. "But you are alive and that is all that matters to me."
"Your leg?" I ask to have something else to think about.
"Healing clean," he assures me, "and soon you will be, too, if you let them do their work."
"Now that I know they are there, I can feel them…moving," I confess, unable to suppress my shudder.
A new voice at the door tells me, "Some people claim they can feel them moving even after they have been removed. But eventually, that too, will pass."
"Vibius!" Marcus greets. "His fever has broken."
The young man cannot be past his seventeenth year, but he is already as tall as Marcus, although thin with an overabundance of arms and legs. I have no doubt the broad shoulders of his Roman blood will come when his beard is able to thicken. His skin and hair color is fairer, more like the local Brigantes clans-- his mother’s influence, no doubt, if I remember what Lutorius said in the fort.
He nods knowingly. "My mother has proven correct about the strength of his lineage." His seriousness gives way to his youth as he grins. "While father will be pleased to see Esca recovers, his pride will never live down mother’s smugness. I may see if I can find an excuse to be out of the house for the next few days."
Vibius rests a hand on my chest and closes his eyes in concentration. Then he leans closer to look at my arm. I pointedly do not look, grimacing instead at Marcus.
"Should we wake your father?" Marcus asks.
Vibius shakes his head. "There is no need. Besides, why wake the beast before it is necessary?" Straightening he nods in approval. "It begins to heal. I think a bowl of broth will help you strengthen even further."
He returns in a few minutes with a bowl he hands over to Marcus. I’m ashamed to say that I have almost dozed off again awaiting his return. "Eat what you can," he tells me in the perfectly accented Brigantes of one who has spoken it since his first words, then returns to a Latin spoken with the same familiarity. "Then both of you get some more sleep."
"I can feed myself," I argue as soon as Vibius leaves the room.
Marcus ignores my protests and spoons some broth into my mouth. "You are not to move your arm too much," he reminds.
"You sound like your Roman physicians," I accuse. It is a good excuse not to think about why I shouldn’t move my arm.
"I have had a great deal more experience with them the past few years than I had ever wished to."
The broth sits warm in my belly, and I take a few more offered spoonfuls, using the time to study Marcus. His jaw is more bearded than stubbled, and his eyes are so dark ringed they look to be blackened from a fight, but there is a happy set to his mouth and hope in his eyes.
"Maybe you could study medicine, rejoin the military as a surgeon," I suggest.
"A surgeon? Me?" He shakes his head and spoons more broth into my mouth. "I cannot see it."
"I can," I tell him honestly. "You have cared well for me."
"That is different," he dismisses.
"It is you."
Even with the smile on his face, he looks haggard and exhausted.
"When was the last time you slept a full night?" I ask.
"A full night?" He chuckles and feeds me another bite. "When did we leave my uncle’s house?"
"I don’t even know how long it has been since we passed south of the Wall," I confess.
"I’m not sure I do either, the days and nights have blended one with the other it seems."
I shake my head when he offers another spoonful, feeling full and exhausted from half a bowl of broth. "Will you sleep with me now?"
He hesitates a moment, then sets aside the bowl and crawls onto the bed to lie down beside me, then turns to his side to face me. That look of wonder to see me looking back is still on his face.
"I’m sorry I have ruined your plans." When he frowns I explain. "You wanted to find an inn and a bed and learn all my secrets. I confess I was looking forward to that, as well."
"I have changed my mind about that," he tells me.
Now it is my turn to frown in concern.
His smile softens as he traces the downturn of my lips with the tip of a finger. "I have no wish to learn all your secrets at once. I want to discover them slowly, take my time doing it."
"I have many secrets," I tell him. "It could take years to reveal them."
"That is what I’m counting on."
He leans in and gives me a soft, almost chaste kiss, but he rests his head so close to mine our noses almost brush.
"Although, there is one thing I would like you to teach me this night," he admits.
"If it is within my powers to do it, I will teach you," I assure him, even though all my body wishes to do is sleep.
"There were words you spoke to me in Briton on our ride to the Wall. I would learn to say them properly."
Most of our trip to the wall is a blur once I fell sick, but when Marcus tries to repeat what I said, I know what he means even though he doesn’t get a single word right.
"A chuisle mo chroí," I correct.
His eyes lighten when I say it, and when he repeats it, he is closer to getting it right. It is ridiculous how happy it makes me feel to hear him speak it aloud and with heartfelt emotion.
"A chuisle mo chroí," I say more slowly, emphasizing the inflection of each word.
He repeats each word after me, and I grin when he says them almost perfectly. "Good. Very good."
He puts them all together. "A chuisle mo chroí."
"Do you think you can remember how to say it now?"
"I plan to practice it often enough it should stay with me."
I drift off to sleep with him doing just that.
* * * * *
The next day I see why Vibius called his father the beast. Appius is taller even than his son, though his shoulders have hunched with age. Still, I have no doubt that in his younger days, he would have made even Marcus look small. He has let his hair grow long in the style of the Britons, and it floats about his head as white and wispy as thistle down on the wind. It gives him the look of one of the wild cats, the leones, that sometime fight in the arenas. His temperament mirrors his appearance, growling loudly that I have taken my time in healing even as he insists I stay in bed for at least two more days with the worms eating my arm, else I will ruin all his hard work.
I am not pleased to be bedridden, and even less pleased about the maggots, but between his bitter medicines and the rains that continue to fall, I find myself sleeping most of the days away. And when I often wake to find Marcus dozing beside me, I find it even harder to complain. Each day, Marcus looks healthier, better rested, and he moves easier on his leg.
On the third day of my confinement, Appius declares the maggots have completed their work and removes them. Vibius spoke true when he said I would still feel them squirming, but Marcus swears there are none there whenever I insist otherwise. The same day, Appius decides I have laid around long enough and should go outside for fresh air. My eagerness to be up and about soon wanes when I sit on the edge of the bed and the room spins sickeningly. It is then I realize how weak I truly am, but even without Appius ordering me to leave the bed, I would not pass up this opportunity.
Marcus bundles blankets around me before easing me to my feet and helping me shuffle to the courtyard where I collapse winded and exhausted onto a bench there. The rain has thankfully stopped, but the sun has not managed to cut through the heavy clouds. Still, the breeze is crisp and thick with the tang of wet grass and manure.
Appius’ wife, Birkita works with her two youngest sons in the small garden behind the villa and waves to us. She is shorter than all but the two youngest of her household, with a full bosom that she wields like a war shield when challenged by her husband, which I suspect is why she seems to win most of their arguments. While older by several years, she is still closer in age to me and Marcus than she is to her husband, but there is no doubt she is the woman of this house and runs it with an efficiency that keeps her men folk jumping when she calls an order. Yet her eyes twinkle with mischief when Appius is near, and her tongue is quick with biting wit that makes my heart ache with familiarity. She has already questioned me about my family line as if interrogating a prisoner, with short direct questions that can only be answered in the same manner. My father’s land laid many leagues south of here, but she quickly concludes her cousin may have married into my clan. Her hair, the color of dried wheat, is pulled back in a braid for her work, and she has tucked up her skirts to keep them out of the mud of the garden. Her voice carries from where she labors to the terrace where we sit as she tells her boys to pull turnips for tonight’s meal. If I close my eyes, I can almost believe it is my mother’s voice from my boyhood telling me to do the same.
"Esca, is it too much for you to be outside?"
The concern in Marcus’ voice has me opening my eyes and giving him a reassuring smile. "Birkita, this place… they have stirred memories; that is all."
"Do you like it here?"
"Well enough." I shrug, although the motion is lost under my blankets.
"It looks like it would make good farmland, but I remember seeing few on the trip north."
When Marcus takes the seat beside me, I slump against him, happy for his nearness for more than just his company. "The land in Brigantes is fertile, but the farming backbreaking, particularly here in the north. There are rocks the size of a prized bull in the fields. My people decided long ago it is easier to herd cattle on top of the land than try to dig boulders their size out of it."
Marcus returns my grin then shakes his head. "I know little of herding cattle. I prefer farming." He laughs. "Don’t look so surprised. I come from a long line of farmers."
"I thought you came from a long line of soldiers."
"Soldiers have to do something with their pension when they retire." He rubs at his leg, thinking, no doubt, on how that pension will never come now because of his injury.
I decide not to make the wound worse by mentioning it. "My father kept cattle. I preferred to tend his horses, though; they didn’t wander off as much. Cattle are more trouble than they’re worth. My first battle of manhood was defending our herd against raiders from a neighboring clan."
I drop the blanket around my shoulders enough to tap the marking on my arm that commemorates that victory. Marcus brushes his finger across the blue lines almost reverently, another secret of mine revealed, and I shiver at the touch. His eyes meet mine with a greedy fire to learn more, and if we were here alone, I would lean in and teach him a great deal more with my lips. As it is, Birkita calls into the house for her middle child, then answers a question from her brood already in the garden, reminding us how crowded Appius’ house truly is.
The skin of Marcus’ neck flushes red, and he clears his throat as he pulls the blanket back up to my shoulder. "Speaking of horses, Lutorius has stabled the one we took from the Rogue Warriors on the road, and has added a second for our use that was recovered from the battle at Borcovicus. It was meant to go into his military stables, but as he says, one horse more or less won’t be noticed on the lists, especially with the prize we carry."
"That is a boon for our trip south," I note.
"The mare I rode was a sturdy mount," Marcus tells me. "If the second is her equal, we will be well prepared for our return to Calleva."
With a solemn nod, I agree. "They are Iceni, no doubt. The Rogue are known for stealing only the best."
Marcus blinks at my comment then grins at my jest. "Esca, you have no idea how good it does my heart to see you back to yourself."
The smile on his face is all the proof I need and I lean harder against his shoulder.
* * * * *
It is another twelve days before Appius declares us fit enough to travel. Of course, he does it in his typically gruff manner as we sit around the hearth following the evening meal. Vibius and his two younger brothers sit at the dining table looking over a series of scrolls as Vibius instructs them on what sounds to be the muscles of the human body. The younger two boys sit by the fire at their mother’s feet playing with wooden animals and soldiers. I finish up a carving I have been working on of a horse, and squat beside them to add it to their game.
They thank me happily then immediately set to arguing over who will play with it first. Birkita lowers her sewing long enough to threaten to take the toy away unless they find a way to share. The two settle down and quickly come to a compromise. I look back at the seat beside Birkita where I had been sitting, feeling at a loss as to what to do now that the carving is done. I also can’t help but think back to the last carving I had made, that one a fish, and the boy I had given it to and his sorry fate. The same blade that had taken his life had nearly taken my own. It would have taken it if not for Marcus bringing me here and Appius and Vibius caring for me.
Marcus’ voice brings me from my dark thoughts, "Esca, are you feeling unwell?"
"I am fine," I assure, then force a grin. "Do not tempt our host to bring out his worms again."
"There will be no need for that," Appius says as he studies the draught-board he and Marcus are playing. "In fact, it is high time you two were on your way, else my wife may take a liking to young, healthy men in their prime over her husband who is of an age to be her father."
Birkita snorts. "You wish you were as young as my father, old man." But her eyes flick up from her mending to meet her husband’s and a teasing grin curves her lips. "Besides, you have nothing to fear with these two on my behalf."
"You have no idea what desires reside in the hearts of young men," Appius warns as he makes his next move on the board. "Trust me, I have been one, I know. It is how I became bound to you, mo chroí."
Marcus intentionally turns his attention back to the board, but I see his own smile to hear the familiar endearment. I don’t realize I am watching him with a similar expression until Birkita’s hand lands on my shoulder briefly.
"I know full well what is in the hearts of these two," she tells him, then leans forward and says quietly in our own tongue. "He is blind to everything but his healing when it comes to those he treats." Her eyes move knowingly from me to Marcus and back. "You chose well; Romans can be difficult but can also be well worth the effort."
I flush and drop my eyes to the wooden toys again to have been so easily read, but it also warms my heart to hear the approval in her voice. Marcus looks questioningly to me as to what Birkita said, and my smile just widens, he has no choice but to do the same in puzzlement.
"If we have overstayed our welcome, you have our apologies," I tell Appius as I stand. "The hospitality of your home makes it hard to leave, but we will make arrangements on the morrow to be off."
Appius shifts in his seat and waves me back into my chair as he grumbles, "There is no need to go so soon. Proper preparations must be made for a trip such as yours."
"You have my thanks," Marcus assures him. "More than you will ever know or that I could ever repay."
The old surgeon moves another piece. "You say that now, but you have yet to see my bill."
* * * * *
As much as Marcus and I have come to like the surgeon and his family, we are both eager to be off, and spend the next day gathering provisions for the trip. That evening, Lutorius brings our two horses. I had been right in my prediction; they are both of strong Iceni stock and well up to the journey ahead.
We have bought supplies enough for several days on the road, and will have ample opportunity to buy more as our journey will take us through plenty of towns along the way. Still, Birkita hands me up a sack from her own kitchen as we say our goodbyes in the early dawn hour.
Appius grumbles from where he stands in the courtyard wrapped in a blanket with his bedclothes still underneath. "Is it not enough I have saved their lives with my skills and kept them fed and out of the cold for near the full turning of the moon? Now you send them off with food from my own larder?"
Birkita turns, shoulders thrown back and hands on her hips. "Esca is my kin by marriage. Would you shame my clan through your selfishness?"
"Well, since he is family I suppose there is no way around it then," Appius mumbles before reaching up and taking Marcus’ arm in the Roman style. "Keep an eye to his wound. It is not unknown for the fever to return even when all seems well."
"Have no fear, I shall watch him closely," Marcus promises.
After a final round of well wishes, we are off. The day promises to be a clear one, although the air has a chill that makes me thankful for the warm cloaks we wear. It doesn’t dampen my spirits, though, to be out and moving and alone with Marcus once again. While I feel recovered from my fever, Marcus sees fit to call an early halt our first day on the road. I cannot say that I am against such an idea as I am still prone to tire quicker than before, and there is no need to push ourselves as we had in Caledonia. Besides, the inn we find is small but welcoming, the food warm and comforting, and the bed soft and inviting, and we make good use of it. It is the first time we have been together since that night in the rain when I first fell ill, and even in our eagerness, we both know there is no need to rush.
There is also no desire to sleep given the alternative use of our time, and I find myself watching Marcus with half-lidded eyes as he lies beside me in a similarly sated and drowsy state running his fingers lazily along my spine.
"I did not over exert you, did I?" Although he smiles when he asks, there is a hint of genuine concern in his voice.
"Did I overexert you?" I counter.
"I am not so recently arisen from a sick bed as you are. And considering what happened the last time we were intimate, I have reason to worry."
I laugh. "Marcus, as amazing and skilled as you are, even you cannot kill me by laying with me."
His hand on my back stills but he doesn’t remove it even as he frowns. "How do you know? Maybe I’ve been going easy on you?"
Now my own eyes narrow. "Have you? Because if you have, I will be very angry with you. I will settle for nothing less than your very best efforts."
"You have no need to fear; I cannot help but do everything in my powers to please you."
"You have succeeded at every attempt," I assure him with a kiss that grows warmer as Marcus’ hand slides further down my back and I scoot closer, eager to put him to the test once more.
Unfortunately, Marcus has other ideas and finally pulls away. "Esca, I have been thinking…"
I sigh and bite his lower lip. "Unless it is about new ways to pleasure me, I would rather you did not do that right now." But I can tell from the tone of his voice, that is not what he has been thinking.
"That has been on my mind, as well," he promises me, moving him mouth along my throat. "But since we are in Brigantes, I was wondering if you would like to see your father’s lands again."
My eyes that had slid shut to savor the caress of lips and hands open again at the suggestion.
"I have seen them already, Marcus," I tell him in controlled simplicity. "We passed through them on our trip north." He lifts his head in surprise and I continue. "Isurium. The Romans took the land to build their garrison there."
He blinks in surprise. "But you never said anything when we traveled through there before."
"What is there to say?" I shrug.
I had hardened my heart before we ever entered the town, rode through with my eyes facing forward in fear of seeing something that would stir old memories, insisted we continue on when Marcus suggested a rest, never gave him a chance to argue the point. There was no need to worry, as nothing was as it had been before. It bore no resemblance to my father’s settlement, and I honestly did not know if that was better or worse. In the end, I had left feeling a dull numbness in my heart as well as my body, and had been even quieter that evening than I normally was. Marcus had noted the silence. I had dismissed it as a long day in the saddle and curled in my blankets soon after, feigning sleep because it would not come willingly. Even now, my emotions about Isurium remain as dead as the people of my clan who once lived there.
Marcus seems at a loss. "It is your place of birth, your home—"
With a firm shake of my head, I challenge, "Did anyone hail me on the road? Did anyone stop and greet me? When my father lived, I wore the silver torque of my clan. Everyone knew me for the son of Cunoval and gave greeting when I passed. Not one person in that town lived there when I did. My kin are all dead; those in my clan who survived fled or were taken into slavery the same as me. It is no longer my home; it is just another Roman town."
"Esca…" he flounders.
I cup his jaw and silence him with a kiss. "Is Etruria still your home now that your parents are dead and the land no longer yours?" He pauses then shakes his head. "It is not so different for me."
Marcus sighs again and rests his forehead against mine. "Then we shall find a home for us."
"I have found it already." I kiss him again and slide my hand between us, feel him growing hard against my palm. "It is here in this bed, and the next we shall share, and the next…"
He moans my name, capturing my mouth with his, and kisses me hungrily as he takes me in hand in turn. I come alive at his touch, the death of Isurium far from this bed, these blankets, this man.
It is the best home I could ever hope to have.
* * * * *
The mood for the rest of the trip is much more joyous than our travels north. Gone is the dread and worry and uncertainty that hung over the two of us when we left Calleva, not to mention that the nights are much more pleasant being spent tangled in Marcus’ arms and legs. But although our destination this time is a much friendlier one than in Caledonia, I have much to occupy my thoughts during our journey.
While Marcus will be welcomed with open arms, there are plenty of doubts to fill my heart. What if his uncle does not approve of the manumission? How will Marcus act as my patron and provide a wage if he cannot yet support himself? All of these could easily be resolved if Marcus receives a reward for returning the eagle, but Rome could take months to act on it, and even then I am not sure Marcus knows what he would like to do. And what if Marcus chooses to leave Britain? I had sworn I would follow if he asked me to go, and I have no doubt he would ask, but the thought of returning to a house where I served as slave is discomforting enough. I can only imagine what it would be like to be in a land where I was the oddity, and it is not a pleasant thought. My only choice is to determine a course of action that is acceptable to us both.
Still, even with these worries, the homecoming to Calleva is a happy one. Stephanos is the first to see us from the small kitchen garden, waving then calling excitedly into the house to his master. By the time we pull our horses to a halt, Old Aquila is in the courtyard to greet us, his smile questioning as Marcus offers him the bundle containing the eagle standard.
"Is this…?" At the weight he holds in his hands, Aquila’s eyes look between us in disbelief.
"It is," Marcus confirms, nodding with a proud smile. "Our journey was successful."
Aquila quickly unwraps the standard, his smile growing as the gold glistens in the afternoon sun. "Indeed it was successful. Indeed it was." He covers the eagle with the cloak once again and hands it back. "Well done, my boy." His uncle clasps Marcus’s shoulder before he glances over to me. "Well done, both of you. Although it does not look as if it was a task easily undertaken."
"No, it was not without its trials," Marcus shakes his head with a look back at me. Even now, he sometimes has that flicker of amazement in his eyes to see that I am still with him. "But the reward has been worth it."
Old Aquila misses little, and his curious expression shows he has seen that same look in Marcus’ eyes. "Come. Come. I would hear all about it. Of course you must be hungry. Stephanos, some food, for our conquering heroes!" He laughs pushing Marcus toward the door.
As I follow, he pats my back, too. There is a look of thanks in his face, and perhaps a bit of surprise that I had not slit Marcus’ throat as he had warned I might. I duck my head as he repeats, "Well done, boys. Well done."
Marcus and I eat the remnants of the midday meal standing around the kitchen work table as Marcus tells the key points of our journey north. The details, per his uncle’s request, will wait until evening, around the fire, after we have washed away the dust of the road.
"Barbaric tales are best told by civilized men," he declares. "It is a lesson we learned from the Greeks…Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Is that not right, Stephanos?"
The old Greek smiles and nods at his master’s reasoning as he clears away the scraps of the meal. For a moment, I feel the pull of my own responsibility as slave to master to help him, but I am slave no more. It is in an odd sensation that prickles at the hairs on my neck, even more so now that we have returned to this house.
As if sensing my discomfort, Marcus addresses his uncle. "If you have a moment, I should have a word with you."
He will want to speak with him about my manumission, and while I know I would be welcome to be there, it is a conversation I believe should remain between the two of them so that they can both speak freely.
"I will see to the horses and unpack our things," I offer as a way to excuse myself from the talk.
"Esca," Marcus protests, "that is not necessary—"
"It’s fine," I assure him, then quickly exit out to the courtyard where the horses have been left waiting.
I think again of how fortunate we were to take the two horses, and I plan to have my own conversation with the elder Aquila before the day is out, that is if I can find an excuse for Marcus not to be there. Fortunately, Marcus gives me a way when he returns to his room after talking to his uncle.
"Your manumission will take place in the morning," he tells me happily. "Uncle Aquila will go with us into town to act as witness."
I nod and continue unpacking our gear.
He stills my hands. "And I have told you it is not necessary for you to see to my things."
"Then you can do it for us both instead," I tell him with crossed arms
Although I know Marcus means well, his constant insistence that I do not need to do these things acts as one more reminder that not so long ago I was required to do them.
"I will, and gladly," he asserts. Stepping back, I let him resume the work I had started. "And before we bathe, we should go to the auxiliary camp on the outskirts of town to see if they have word of where we can find the Legate, Claudius, to return the eagle."
"I shall remain here instead."
His brow furrows. "You will not go with me?"
"Is it not my right to stay or go as I please?" I challenge.
"Of course it is."
"Then I choose to remain here," I say firmly.
His frown turns from confusion to worry. "Esca, has something happened you aren’t telling me?"
I sigh and step forward to cup his jaw. "Marcus, you must learn that just because I choose to do something different than you, it is not because I am angry. Sometimes it is simply because I do not want to do it." Then I give a gently rap to the back of his head. "Go. Find news of Claudius. On the trip to deliver the eagle, I will accompany you; of that have no doubt."
He nods, somewhat reluctantly, but finally leaves for the auxiliary camp, and I go in search of my own audience.
I find Marcus’ uncle in his study working on his manuscript on siege warfare. I have not told Marcus I am coming to speak with him because he would have wanted to come with me, and this is something that I, as a freedman, need to do on my own. I stand patiently in the doorway, waiting for him to notice me. It does not take him long.
"Esca," he says without turning around from his seat at his desk, "I have been expecting you. Marcus told me of his plans for your manumission. I cannot say that I was surprised by the news." He sets aside his stylus and finally turns to face me.
"But do you approve?" I ask. "After all, you were the one who bought me."
"As a gift," he stresses, "for Marcus. What he chooses to do with his property is his choice alone."
My back stiffens at the word property, but as much as I would like to turn and walk from the room, this must be done. So I stare out the window above his desk into the countryside I have come to know so well since coming to live here.
"Marcus may free me, but we both know that he has no means to act as my patron." And this is another reason why I did not want Marcus to be here during this conversation. "Rome may reward him for returning the eagle, but until that time he has nowhere to go."
"Marcus is welcome here as long as he wishes to stay. He knows that."
"Your obligation to Marcus is through blood, it does not extend to me." My eyes flick to old Aquila to see a curious expression on his face.
"So you fear I will see this as an opportunity to turn you out?"
"No," I say honestly. Although, now that he mentions it, he could if he chose to do so. "It is… this is your home and Marcus…" I sigh, frustrated this is not going the way I had played it in my mind. "He presumes, for the both of us, where he has no right to do so now that I am free."
Just as I have no requirement to stay here now that I am no longer a slave, I know Aquila has none to hire me to work here. Only Marcus, as my patron, has that duty, and Marcus has very little to his name that has not been given to him by his uncle.
Aquila studies me for a moment before asking, "Do you know why I bought you for my nephew?"
"He was in need of a body-slave after his injury," I state simply.
"He was in need of something, I’ll grant you that. But Stephanos could have easily cared for us both." Aquila shakes his head. "No, I bought you because you were the first thing Marcus had shown any interest in, the only thing he had cared about, since coming to Calleva."
I feel my face warm slightly, but say nothing.
"At first, I thought that he was so angry and frustrated by his injuries and inability to do what he wanted that he finally saw a way to make a difference in saving your life. Then when he was angry with me for buying you, I thought he just wanted to be contrary with anyone who crossed his path, even an arena full of spectators. But the longer I saw the two of you together, I came to suspect that he had simply been lonely." Aquila spreads his hands. "A young man surrounded by old ones in this house. Or he saw a kindred spirit in you that day. Whatever the reason, you have always been more than a slave to him, and freedman or not, he will not wish to part from you easily."
"Nor I him," I admit.
"I see." Aquila regards me with that slightly amused expression of his face. "And you have come to me with a proposal. I suppose it is best that we have it then."
I take a breath and spell out what I have been thinking on during our trip south. "You have seen my work; you know that I am good and true at it."
"I have seen you spend the past year hunting and fishing with Marcus." His lips quirk when I flush again. "But it puts food on the table often enough, and you complete your other household chores as well as Stephanos, and can do those things that take a younger man’s foolishness and strength where he cannot, so I have no complaints." He tilts his head. "So that is your proposal? To continue doing as you have? How is that any different than being a slave?"
I ignore the bite of his question. Old Aquila is using this to test me; that much I have learned of him. "Is it not customary to pay a wage to a freedman?"
"A wage?" he scoffs. "Would it not be a better investment for me to simply buy another slave?"
"Would you need another slave if Marcus was not here?"
It is spoken as a simple question, but Aquila clearly hears it as the threat I intended. I will not stay without a wage, and Marcus will not stay without me, and we both know that to be truth. It is one thing to see his nephew out making his way in the world with means and a plan; it is another entirely to see him blindly follow his former slave into the unknown.
Aquila’s eyes narrow, not in anger but something more akin to recognition of a piece well played by an adversary on the draught-board. "Go on. I am listening."
"I ask only for food on the table, which you yourself admit I contribute with my hunting skills, a roof over my head, which costs you nothing more than you currently have--"
Old Aquila feigns remorse. "I have no spare room unless you plan to banish poor old Stephanos to the barn."
"Marcus will be willing to share his room," I assure him coolly.
There is a knowing glimmer in his eye as he agrees, "I have no doubt you are right." Before I can continue on, Aquila turns back to his table. "Now then, there is usually a stipend for clothing, but of course that will decrease the number of sestertius for your wage--"
I shake my head, turning down his offer of the brass coin. "I do not wish for sestertius,"
"Well, surely you are not demanding denarius for a daily wage," he scoffs.
I raise my chin and tell him, "I only wish for a horse."
"A horse?" He seems genuinely surprised by my request. "But you and Marcus returned with two new mounts from your trip north."
I give a firm nod in agreement. "Two fine mares of Iceni stock. I would have a stallion of the same."
He turns around in amazement. "You would turn my villa into a horse farm?"
"Only until we can afford one of our own."
Or until Marcus finally decides what he would like to do. I have resolved to do as he wishes, and gladly if it means I can be with him, but I have spent over seven years in slavery never having the luxury of dreaming of a future. Marcus, it seems, has no desire to determine a path for himself. Every time I have asked him on our return trip, every time I have prodded him to think of something, anything he would like to do, he turns it around and asks me what I would do if I were him. It is near infuriating, but if Marcus won’t choose a path for us, then I must do something to at least feel as if I am or I’ll go mad.
"Do you have any idea how much a horse such as you want will cost?"
"Less than a new slave," I assure him.
He rolls his eyes with a snort. "The last slave I bought cost me half of what I would have paid for any other. Damaged goods, insolent, more trouble than he was worth, I was told. I start to believe the arena master spoke the truth." He turns back to his tablet. "I also believe it was the best purchase I ever made. I robbed that bastard blind and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving man."
I think that is a compliment, but I can’t be entirely sure. But for a man who accused me of wanting to slit his nephew’s throat before we headed north, I suppose that’s the best I can hope for.
"So we have a deal?" I ask hesitantly.
"Yes, yes!" He waves an annoyed hand over his shoulder in dismissal. "I’ll draw up the contract."
Satisfied, I turn to leave, but he calls, "And one more thing, do not expect me to buy an extra bed for Marcus’ room. The two of you will have to find a way to work an arrangement or purchase one on your own. I agreed to a roof over your head, I did not agree to furnish it."
I stop in midstride and open my mouth to remind him that I have chosen a horse over the sesterius. Instead, I close it, then finally say with a barely contained grin, "Have no worry, we will make due."
When Marcus returns from the auxiliary camp, I am pulling clean clothes we had left behind from the closet. Having heard his horse in the courtyard, I am more than ready for the baths.
As soon as he enters the room, I speak before he can protest. "I am well aware I am not required to see to your needs, but it does not mean I cannot do so if I wish."
"Fair enough," he concedes quietly.
Placing the clothing over a chair, I turn to regard him. "Any word on the Legate?"
"Londinium," he tells me, "until at least the Floralia Festival."
I nod. "That is only a five days ride. When shall we leave?"
"I would have it done with as soon as possible, although I confess I am weary of the road."
"Then we shall wait," I agree simply. "We have time."
"Esca, is something wrong? Have I done something wrong?"
"Marcus," I assure him, "nothing is wrong."
"You seem ill at ease ever since we have returned," he observes, dropping his eyes to his boots.
"It is strange," I admit, "to return free to the place I lived as slave for so long." I wave a hand at our clothes laid out on the chair like I always did before for our baths. "I find myself wondering if I do things out of habit or consideration."
"And your love for me?" he glances up to meet my eyes.
I smile. "That I do out of pure selfishness."
He reaches for me, pulls me into a warm, lingering kiss. "I shall take you from here," he swears quietly, arms still holding me close. "You will not have to live in a house were you feel uneasy."
I kiss him back, my Marcus. My ridiculously prideful Marcus who thinks he is responsible for every wrong that become those he cares for. Romans. Sometimes they can be unbelievably stupid, and sometimes I think my Roman is the stupidest stupid Roman there is. He has no idea how fortunate he is to have me around, I decide, and I deepen the kiss.
Marcus smells like a horse and tastes of salt and dust, but I don’t mind. It seems we’ve been on the road so long, I’m honestly not sure if I will recognize him clean and bathed, but I look forward to learning how this night and many more to come. I, however, have no intentions of waiting until tonight to bed him.
"You shall take me away?" I cluck disapprovingly. I slide my hands beneath his tunic to hook my fingers in the top of his braccea and walk backwards toward the bed. "After I just negotiated a deal with your uncle for a roof over my head and food from his table?"
He blinks in confusion, but still he follows me to the bed. "You what?"
"Even now, he draws up the contract for my employment in his household. Although, he had one caveat; we must share this room and he will not buy us a second bed." I push him back on the mattress at the crux of the negotiations.
"He will not budge on this matter?" With a wolfish smile, Marcus grabs the front of my tunic and pulls me roughly on top of him.
I nip at a stubbled jaw. "He seems very resolute in his decision."
"Then we have no choice but to find a way to make due with what we have."
I would tell him I said the same to his uncle if I wasn’t so busy being kissed senseless. In the end, what I say or his uncle’s opinion matters little, as we find we can make due with the one bed very easily indeed.
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