We spend the evening by the fire while Marcus tells his uncle more of our journey in Caledonia. I leave the storytelling to him, sitting silently unless Marcus asks me to recall some detail he cannot.
His uncle listens to it all with an eager smile on his face, nodding in my direction and noting approvingly, "Good eyes," when Marcus tells him how I had spotted the Rogue warriors around our camp one night. Even laughing and declaring, "You as his slave? Now there’s quick thinking for you," when Marcus tells him of the lie I had told the Seal People. But Marcus says nothing of how I had tackled him to the ground during our argument, or how I allowed the Seal People to drag him behind his horse, or the offer to let them slit his throat when so many other details are given in the telling.
I do not volunteer this information either, even though it strikes me odd to hear it omitted. So, I lay awake late into the night, even with Marcus snoring lightly beside me with his arm draped across my chest. My fingers thread through the short hairs at the nape of his neck as I find myself wondering why Marcus would not speak of these things. Did he fear his uncle would scorn me if he knew the truth? Did he fear he could not help but make me look untrustworthy no matter what my reasons? Or did it pain him to recall that time and he wished to leave it in the past?
I had had very little chance to think on what I had done and how I had treated him and allowed him to be abused by the Seal People. With our escape, the battle, our injuries, my illness, and the many days it took to recover, by the time we were on the road once again, I was content to let those memories fade into the past and concentrate on the much happier present I am having with Marcus. But hearing the stories again had brought all those things Marcus didn’t say into clarity once again, and lying in the dark lets the guilt finally seep in. I have no doubt of my affection for Marcus or his in return for me, which only serves to make my shame all the worse.
He shifts, moving closer against me and slides his leg between mine as he exhales against my shoulder in his sleep. Wrapping my arms around him, I kiss his brow, and he wakes, lifting his head to look at me blearily in the faint moonlight through the window.
"Forgive me," I whisper, "I had no intention of waking you. Go back to sleep."
"You are awake?" he asks hoarsely. "What is the hour?"
My years as hunter have allowed me to measure the passage of time in my mind, and I tell him, "Well past midnight."
"And yet you do not sleep?" He yawns and settles his head in the crook of my neck. "What troubles your rest? Bad dreams?"
"Bad memories," I confess quietly. "I never should have let them treat you so."
He doesn’t even ask of whom I speak, which only makes me feel even worse. "What were your choices? To show favoritism to a Roman slave? At best they would have sent us away, at worst they would have killed us. Either way, we never would have found the eagle."
"They treated you worse than my previous master did me," I tell him. "And I think, maybe, that is why I allowed it. I was angry with you, angry with Rome. There was a part of me that felt it fair to punish you for Rome’s wrongdoings against me and my people."
"I was angry with you, too." His fingers trace across my chest. "But I have seen stronger men than us break under the stress of a campaign. I lay no blame on you, Esca. I only thank you for what you did for me and my family, what you do now for me by simply being here."
"So why did you not tell your uncle about what happened?"
"Because it was between us, just as this moment is." He laughs lightly. "I will not be sharing this with my uncle either."
I laugh softly in return. "For that you have my thanks."
"I like the sound of your laugh," he tells me. "It’s rare that I ever heard it before, but now it comes easily and warms me through every time I hear it. Don’t let anything change that, mo chroí." He kisses my neck. "A chuisle mo chroí."
My eyes close as my own smile grows. "You have learned to say that so well, I will have to teach you more of my language."
"What more shall I learn that would be better than this, mo chroí?" He slides down my body, kissing as he goes.
The anticipation of what is to come has my belly clenching. "Marcus, that is not my heart."
"Heart?" he questions in mock confusion as he nuzzles against my ribs. "Is that what it means?" He rests his chin on my hipbone grinning up at me, the faintest hint of whiskers prickling my skin since his shave this afternoon. "It is not the word for manhood?"
I laugh again, fingers sliding through his dark hair, "No, that would be--." I choke on the word when he licks along my length, and my hips rise off the bed of their own accord.
"I was raised a soldier," he tells me, broad calloused hands hot on my skin as he pushes me back into the mattress and licks again. "I learned action is often the better course than conversation."
My breath stutters in my chest, and my fingers tighten in his hair as he takes me in his mouth without further delay. The pleased sounds Marcus makes deep in his throat at my reaction have a stream of words in Brigantes falling desperate and adoring from my tongue. It is not that I am trying to teach them to Marcus, it is simply that every single word in Latin that I once knew has left my head. I have no sense of anything other than Marcus’ mouth on me.
Afterwards, I have no problem at all falling asleep.
Unfortunately, the dawn breaks within a few hours, and Marcus, eager for my manumission this day, nuzzles at my jaw to wake me. I grumble for another hour of sleep, pulling the blankets up over my head.
"You always rise before me. Are you not feeling well?"
"It was always my duty to wake before you," I counter crankily.
"You’re right. I’m sorry. Sleep a while longer." Marcus kisses me and climbs out of bed and I instantly miss his warmth beside me.
"Marcus, I did not mean for you to leave," I try to explain, catching at his arm when I hear the hint of hurt in his voice.
He sits on the edge of the bed, hair standing out in all directions, eyes still soft from the night. "I cannot sleep another minute, but there is no reason you should not sleep more if you want." He kisses me again. "I will wake you when the morning meal is ready."
I watch him dress quietly and leave the room, and after a futile attempt to fall back asleep in a bed that seems suddenly too large, I rise and dress in preparation for the day’s activities.
The magistrate is a heavy set man with eyes sunk deep beneath thick black eyebrows that look at me with disapproval that I should be in his presence. I’m sure my defiantly crossed arms do little to improve his opinion of me, but my own mood is as dark as his unnaturally black hair. My temperament has more to do with lack of sleep and the hours we’ve spent waiting our turn on the docket than any ill will…at least until the magistrate scowls at me as he would a stray dog in the street.
The look for Marcus and his uncle is more one of disappointment when he learns we are here for my manumission.
With a sigh he picks up his stylus. "And what limitations would you like me to record on his freedom?" he asks, preparing to mark them in the ledger.
The spike of alarm I feel that there should be limitations passes when Marcus quickly answers, "None."
The man looks up at him in surprise. "Surely you plan to abide by the custom that he must gain your permission to marry."
Marcus blinks, obviously unaware that is a common requirement. "I didn’t know…that is, that should not…" He looks back at me, unsure how to respond.
"Why would he care if I married?" I ask defensively. Not that I have any plans to do any such thing—although, the alarmed expression on Marcus’ face at my question shows he might now be worried I could-- but it seems odd to require it of a former slave.
The magistrate glares at me for speaking, much less questioning Roman law. "Because he has agreed to be your patron, not that of a wife and brood of young whelps."
"Then shouldn’t I be consulted if he wishes to marry, as well?" I challenge. "If he must support a wife and children, he might not be able to support me."
The dark eyebrows nearly fly up and off the magistrate’s forehead. "That is no concern of yours," he begins before launching into a rant that I only half hear about how grateful I should be to be freed in the first place.
Old Aquila clears his throat in an attempt to contain his own humor at how I have agitated the magistrate while Marcus is still looking at me with a troubled scowl as to the possibility that I might marry.
I find my lips twitching and my eyes drop to my boots to keep from laughing. As much as Marcus claims to love my laughter, now would not be the appropriate place for it even though I did intentionally anger the magistrate with my questions. The truth is, I have no desire to be with anyone ever again except Marcus, and a ridiculous Roman law has nothing to do with it.
"Well?" the magistrate demands irritably of Marcus once he has finished with his lecture.
I raise my head and meet Marcus’ eyes, and by the small relieved smile that crosses his face, he understands my feelings clearly.
"There is no concern for leaving that restriction," he tells the magistrate. "We will both be well informed of any marital plans we may have."
The magistrate looks as if Marcus at least has some sense left despite his desire to free a Briton slave. "Very well, it shall be so recorded. Now then, there is the matter of the tax. Five percent of the purchase price—"
Old Aquila steps forward then and places the coins on the table. "I believe you will find this to be in order."
"Uncle, that is not necessary," Marcus protests. "I still have funds left from my discharge payment."
Aquila waves him off. "I bought him for you, it is only appropriate that I see this business transaction through to the end."
One bushy eyebrow rises on the man behind the table. "I will confer the purchase records to confirm, but it looks to be an appropriate amount." Another mark on his tablet and the magistrate says, "This is typically when the last punishment is delivered, if you so choose."
My forehead furrows in confusion that barely has time to register before Marcus raises his hand and strikes me hard across the face. Bewilderment is quickly replaced by eye-widening shock as I take a step back and my hand goes unbidden to my cheek at the unexpected blow. Even worse than the sting to my skin is the sting of Marcus’ amused expression, and the highly approving one of the magistrate.
Behind us I hear his uncle scolding, "Marcus, it is meant to be a symbolic gesture only…"
Whatever else Old Aquila says is cut off as Marcus pulls me into a rough embrace and whispers at my ear, "Now we are even for the slap in the camp of the Seal People."
He pushes me out to arm’s length, still gripping my shoulders and taunts, "You said you would be on guard at all times for that. I’m almost disappointed you did not see it coming."
Even though my face still burns, I cannot help smiling at him for his cleverness. "It won’t happen again. That I promise."
"I promise the same," he tells me earnestly. "No harm shall ever come to you again if I have my way."
He good-naturedly shakes my shoulder before draping his arm around it and addressing the magistrate with a broad smile. "Are we concluded here? There is a celebration to be had."
"All we are lacking is the proper name to be recorded for your freedman," the magistrate says as he pulls out a scroll.
"Marcus Flavius Esca," I answer before Marcus can. No, I am not pleased with the requirement, but the smile Marcus gives me is worth the sacrifice.
The magistrate writes the name then hands Marcus the quill. "Very well, I need your signature and one for your witness and the deed is done."
Marcus and his uncle sign, then the parchment is blotted and handed over to me, but not before the magistrate takes a rod and taps me half-heartedly from where he still sits behind his desk. Marcus had told me this was part of the ceremony, so I am not surprised, although his slap was more than surprise enough for the day. "You are now a freedman," the magistrate states in an unenthusiastic tone. "Do not forget you are still expected to pay all the same respects to your patron as you did when he was your master."
"I shall pay him more now that I am free," I assure him with a self-satisfied grin.
The magistrate quickly dismisses us for the next people waiting for his services, two rough-dressed men pulling a third badly beaten and bound one behind them. Slave catchers here to collect their bounty for hunting down a runaway. Not so long ago, that could have been me. If it hadn’t been Marcus I was brought to serve, if I hadn’t owed him my life, I was prepared to use my father’s dagger to escape. I find myself shuddering at the thought.
"I say it is time for drinks," Marcus declares, looking around for me when he realizes he has left me standing and staring at the men as he walked toward the door.
I quickly catch up as his uncle rolls his eyes at the news. "I suppose this is to cost me even more money."
"No," Marcus assures, "that will not be necessary. It is I who owes you. I will always be grateful to you for purchasing Esca and bringing him to me. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without him."
Aquila gives Marcus a hug. "The happiness is all mine to see you so satisfied." Stepping back, he waves us away. "Now, off with the two of you. Carousing is the work of younger men than me. I shall see you back at the villa."
Marcus tries to persuade his uncle to join us, at least for one drink, but he is intent on returning to his home, claiming he is in a critical part of his book and dare not leave it for long else he lose his thoughts to strong drink.
I am barely aware of the discussion, or that old Aquila has left us, until Marcus places his hand on my shoulder to draw my attention once again away from the slave catchers.
"Esca?" he asks warily.
I turn and force a smile, it isn’t hard when I see the happiness on his own face. "Come," I coax, "I could use a meal as well as a drink."
It is well past midday, but the tavern to which Marcus leads me is still willing to serve more than wine for the coin Marcus offers. The room is stuffy from the fire stoked high in the hearth, even though the day is clear and the sun shines outside. That is probably why it is so popular with Romans, who easily outnumber the few Britons scattered at the tables, and those are dressed in the Roman fashion. Even Marcus has put aside the braccae and tunic he usually wears in favor of the Roman robes. He had explained it as his uncle’s idea…formal matters require formal attire. He had known better than to suggest I do the same. Not all Britons rebelled against the Romans as my tribe did, some have embraced the Roman lifestyle and have made a good deal of gold as a result. I am not convinced there is enough gold in the world to betray your ancestor’s way of life, and yet, here I sit, with a paper tucked inside my tunic, declaring me Marcus Flavius Esca, freeman of Rome. It is a strange day, there is no denying it.
Marcus is oblivious to my mood, or at least he has chosen to ignore it as he eats heartily and talks of hunting in the morning. To see him so happy, I do my best to shake off my unease, suggesting we follow the ridgeline outside of town to the forest in search of boar. He eagerly agrees, and for the rest of the afternoon, the conversation flows as easily as the wine.
As sunset nears, we are both feeling the effects of the drink, Marcus’s face is flush and his grin inviting, and I am just about to suggest we head back to the villa and continue the celebration in our bed when the door to the tavern flies open to the sound of boisterous laughter. Everyone in the bar turns to see two men stumble into the room, obviously having spent even more time in their cups than we have this day. My jaw clenches when I see it is the two slave catchers from earlier.
The grin on Marcus’s face vanishes when he looks from the men to me. "What is it? Do you know them?"
I shake my head. "Not them, but men like them." My heart is racing, and while I know there is no reason for it this day of all days, I cannot shake the trapped feeling I have with them in the room. "We need to go."
Although the rest of the patrons have dismissed the men as quickly as they noticed them, Marcus doesn’t question me further, only nods as he stands and steadies his wobbling with a hand on the back of his chair. "I’ll settle our bill."
I stop myself before I can tell him to forget the debt, we need to go, we need to run. There is no need for that, I remind myself. I am not on the run; I am not even a slave any longer. Still, I find myself sliding down in my seat, hunching over the cup still in front of me on the table, trying not to draw their attention while Marcus crosses the room unsteadily to hail the barkeep. It is a futile effort; by my dress alone, I stand out among the other patrons in the tavern as a Briton.
The taller of the two men pats his companion on the back and hitches his bearded chin toward the table where I sit. "Do you see what I do? We may have doubled our fee this day."
I look desperately to where Marcus stands at the bar when the men start for my table. I finally decide to go after Marcus, only to have my path blocked as soon as I stand.
A hand lands flat on my chest and pushes me back into my seat. "And where would you be heading?" the bearded one asks. This close, I can see he is missing two teeth and has a scar running from his jaw to his ear. Too bad the blade had not sliced lower, I think to myself. He leans forward, one hand on the table, the other resting lightly on his short sword. It only serves to remind me I am armed with nothing more than a dagger.
I swallow down my fear, my mind filled with memories of another encounter like this with slave catchers who had every right to question me that day, and motion to where Marcus stands. "I’m going to join my patron to return to the villa."
"Your patron?" The man looks back at this companion with black grin. "Did you hear that? He fancies himself a freedman."
The second man, several years younger than the first given his smooth face says nothing, only laughs at the joke.
Raising my chin, I tell him, "I am a freedman, and you have no right to question me."
Breath heavy with alcohol rushes against my face as the tracker leans in closer and snarls, "I have every right to question you, Briton. You have the look of a slave. More than that, you have the look of a slave who’s run. Do you deny it?"
My mouth goes dry. I cannot deny it. I did run, before Marcus, before the arena, and I’d nearly paid with my life when the slavers had finally caught me. And this man can see it, can see it all, and I can’t move under that piercing stare.
"What is the problem here?"
Marcus’s voice has me sucking in a sharp breath, my eyes widening in a guilt I’d never felt before. I’ve never told him about my masters before him, I’ve never spoken of my time in the arena and how I came to be there, and I fear he can see it all as clearly as the slave catcher can.
But all Marcus asks is, "Esca, are you ready to go home?"
"So the Briton speaks true?" The slaver seems surprised. "He is a freedman?"
"He is," Marcus confirms as he steps closer, eyes narrowing on the man. "Not that it is any business of yours."
Marcus may be drunk, but the tracker is not only drunker but better armed, and by the way he straightens to face Marcus, he knows it.
"Hunting down runaway slaves is my business, and this one has the smell of the run on him. I’d say that makes him my business, and it is a business that pays very well."
The younger catcher looks as nervous as I feel, unsure if he should step in and help his friend when a Roman citizen claims I am free. With a lick of his lips, he finally speaks up. "Maybe we should take him to the Magistrate to be certain--"
Whatever else the younger man was going to say ends with a dull thud and the crash of pottery as Marcus grabs him and slams his head against the table. He’s pulled his own dagger and has it against the man’s throat. "No one is taking him anywhere. Is that understood?"
I don’t hear a response as my own attention is drawn to the bearded man as he starts to pull his short sword from the scabbard at his hip. I elbow him in the face, sending blood spurting, then take the sword from his hand as he yelps and grabs at his busted nose.
The room has gone quiet except for the cursing of the injured slave catcher, the others in the room are unsure if they should sit or stand, with many hovering between the two positions.
"Marcus," I say quietly, holding the confiscated sword at the ready, "we need to go."
Marcus doesn’t take his eyes from the man he’s pinning to the table. "We will have no further trouble from you and your friend. Am I right?"
The wide-eyed nod he receives is enough to have Marcus straightening, although he doesn’t release the hold on his dagger.
Fishing an extra coin from his purse, Marcus drops it on the table, telling the wary barkeep, "For the damages." With a gentle shove, he pushes me in front of him toward the door, never looking back, and completely ignoring the stares of the others in the tavern.
A washer woman carrying a basket of laundry takes a wide berth around me on the street outside the bar when she sees the sword in my hand. I look at the blade in confusion, not really sure what I should do with it. I’m not really sure what we should do at all until Marcus takes my free hand by the wrist and pulls me across the street and toward the stables where we left our horses earlier in the day. I let him lead me through the nearly empty market as we weave our way clumsily through the merchants packing up for the day, neither of us very even on our feet. The stable boy barely looks up at us from his chair outside, grunting a thanks when Marcus tosses a few coins his way.
We stagger into the dimly lit stables, hit by the sweet smell of hay and manure. Our horses look up and blow out a greeting from their stalls midway down the stable and I start toward them. But before I can reach them, Marcus grabs my arm to stop me.
"What was that about?"
"They’re slave catchers," I explain.
"And why should you care? More than that, why should you have any fear of them?"
I pull away from him and the accusatory tone of his voice, but remain silent.
When I don’t answer, he shakes his head. "Esca, they were no more than common thugs, barely capable of handling a sword. I’ve seen you face down twice as many men a hundred times more deadly and not even flinch. And with them it was…" he looks back, as if they will appear and perhaps explain what he cannot understand. When they don’t walk through the door he sighs. "…it was like that day I first saw you in the arena. You seemed resigned to let them do what they would to you."
"How do you think I ended up in the arena, Marcus?" I snap.
He blinks as understanding dawns on him. "You were a runaway?"
With a defiant rise of my chin, I tell him, "And I would have run again if anyone but you had been my master."
More than likely I would have been dead if Marcus hadn’t been there that day. That had been my plan, because I knew I could not serve another master like the one I had fled, and death would have been more welcome than what the slave catchers would do when they caught me again.
Marcus stares at me in shocked silence, so I try to explain.
"Not every Roman takes their slave hunting or even bothers to learn his name when they can simply give him any name they wish. Not every master withholds the rod when they are displeased, and there are plenty who will take by force what I have offered you gladly." My eyes drop as my voice does, hoarse with emotion. "And if it is possible, the slave catchers are even worse when they find you."
With an exhalation of breath, I continue. "When you are on the run, you try to blend with crowds, be small, unnoticeable. If they don’t recognize you, they can’t take you away."
Big hands that I’ve come to know so well cup my jaw roughly. "No one will ever take you away from me, Esca. No one." His forehead presses against mine. "That I swear to you. As long as I draw breath, no one will take you from me."
He stays close in even as he walks me backwards, toward the back of the nearest horse stall, so I grasp onto his wrists to keep my balance. "I ran," I say helplessly, lost. "I know you cannot approve...Roman law was on the side of my master, but I could not live like that…"
Marcus shakes his head, still against mine. "As long as you are here with me now, I do not care how it came to be. No matter what the law says, I am only thankful to have you."
My back hits the wall and I close the small distance between our lips. His mouth is sour with the day’s wine, but the sweetness of the kisses is enough to have me drunk from more than just the alcohol, and I find myself thirsting for much more. The toga he wears gives me easy access and my hand finds him hard and ready.
He groans with the first stroke, declaring breathlessly, "You are mine. No one will take you from me. Mine, Esca, mine." The faster I stroke, the more he professes his claim on me until his words are as broken as his breathing.
"Yours," I finally promise.
The word is barely a whisper in his ear, but as soon I speak it, he cries out in his release. After, his body goes limp against me, breath ragged on my neck until he starts to slump down. I tighten my hold on him, afraid he may be losing consciousness thanks to the wine, but he kisses me again even as he pulls my arms away and drops to his knees in the soft hay.
Green eyes look up at me, filled with a sincere affection that has me shuddering. "Mine," he repeats then nuzzles at my manhood.
My head clunks back against the wood of the stable wall when his fingers dig into my hips as he mouths me through the fabric of my braccae. I have never begged for anything from a Roman. Not when my former master had me flogged or the slave catchers beat me into unconsciousness. Even faced with death in the arena, I had refused to beg for my life. But after several minutes of exquisite torment from Marcus’ mouth and hands dulled only by the thin cloth, I begin to beg him for relief.
Eventually he gives into my pleas, unlaces my pants, and takes me in his mouth. It is then that I know I spoke true-- I am his. I belong to him more surely now than I ever did when he owned me as his slave.
* * * * *
As much as Marcus wishes to deliver the eagle to the Legate, neither of us is anxious to travel so soon after our return from the north. Besides, we both still have healing to do from our injuries and by the time our bodies are ready to travel again, winter sets in early, putting our travel plans on hold. The cold, which has always been hard on Marcus’ leg, is even more so thanks to his new wound. Although not as bad as when I first arrived as his body-slave, he still walks with more of a limp than he had that first day in late autumn when we had set out for Caledonia.
The winter months at Calleva are as strange as they are wondrous. The weather, hard and unforgiving, keeps us trapped indoors for days at a time. As much as we enjoy our time keeping ourselves warm at night in our room, the days spent with Marcus’ uncle often leave me feeling like a caged animal on display for the arena crowd. Old Aquila seems as fascinated as he is wary of my presence in the house. Whether he is oblivious to the true nature of my relationship with Marcus or simply chooses to ignore it for the sake of Roman decency, I may never know. But no matter what I am to Marcus, to his uncle I am only a freedman. A freedman his nephew is very attached to, but a freedman all the same. As much as it pleases him to see Marcus so happy, to admit that I am anything more than a trusted servant to his nephew would bring nearly as much shame to the family name as losing the eagle.
Romans. I will never understand them.
It is considered weak and indecent for a Roman man to use his body to give pleasure to another man. He can take pleasure from a man’s body with no dishonor, but not give it. I wonder what they would think if they knew I could take pleasure from Marcus’ body and he need not even be present. Just the memory of digging fingers into the curves of his muscles or mapping the scars on his skin with my lips is enough to have me hard and yearning for release. My pleasure and how I gain it should be no concern but mine, but it does concern Marcus… a great deal, thankfully…and that would greatly displease his uncle if he knew or acknowledged that. Therefore, to Old Aquila I must remain a freedman and nothing more.
Marcus, however, insists I join them at their table for dinner each night, something a freedman would never do regularly. His uncle grumbles but never forbids it, although I find it easier to remain silent unless directly asked a question, which Aquila almost never does. I also almost always find an excuse to leave the table as soon as I complete my meal…the horses need tending to make sure their water hasn’t frozen, there is wood to be brought in for the evening fires, any excuse to be away. On the nights Aquila has guests, I volunteer to help with the service of the meal, always negotiating an extra wage for the work. Those are the nights Marcus is the one who looks uneasy, rarely meeting my eyes, calling on Stephanos to fill his cup instead of me, and then making sure he is the one who serves me in bed at the end of the night, Roman decency be damned.
As pleasurable as those nights are, I still felt trapped in the villa, and being under his uncle’s scrutiny has me desperate for escape. The few hunting trips we take leave Marcus with his leg aching so badly that I am reluctant to take him with me again. He is just as reluctant to let me go alone, despite my many assurances that I am well suited to hunt in winter and will return. My one ally in these arguments is his uncle, who sees no reason why I should not go out, and reasons it is one of the duties for which he pays me as part of our agreement of my employment. Marcus eventually relents, and I happily leave the confines of the villa for three days.
I return with a doe strapped to the back of my horse and my heart in my throat to see the look on Marcus’ face when I ride into the courtyard. It is the same I’d seen when I woke in the home of the surgeon, Appius, when Marcus had been as relieved as he was shocked to see me alive.
He exhales heavily, a white cloud blown almost instantly away by the wind, as I dismount. He forces a smile of greeting to cover his obvious relief that I am whole and returned. "The hunting was good, I see."
Snow is falling-- fat, wet, clumps tumbling ungracefully from the sky to coat everything in sight. The clouds had hung low and gray for the past two days, heavy with the threat of it until I feared I would be forced to return empty handed from my hunt. I had startled the doe that afternoon, and dressed it as the first white specks had spit hard and stinging against my skin. In the end, the worst of it had not started falling until I was on the road through Calleva on my way back to the villa. I shake the furs around my shoulder to clear the snow away, run my fingers through my damp hair, and smile back at Marcus, a genuine smile to see him once again. Now that he is here, within arms reach, I can easily admit to myself how very much I had missed him.
"It would have been better had you been there," I confess honestly, stepping closer. "I grew lonely without you near."
We are alone in the courtyard, and I could kiss him with no one there to see, and I would if he did not take a step back.
"Marcus?" I fight to keep my voice level. This is not the welcome I had been hoping for, but now that I see him, see how he has worried over me being gone, it is what I should have expected.
Marcus pulls the cloak around his own wide shoulders a little closer as the flakes sputter in the flame of the lamp he holds. "Three days and the weather turning for the worse," he mumbles, then finally reaches out to lay a warm hand on my wind-chilled neck.
It feels like being branded, but I don’t dare pull away. Instead I turn my face into his touch.
"A chuisle mo chroí." His voice is barely even a whisper and would be lost on the wind if I hadn’t heard him say those same words a hundred times before. Only this time, I hear them for what they are; not just a murmured affection, but a warning. I am the pulse of his heart, and if my pulse his hand rests against were to stop, so would his.
A broad thumb brushes across my jaw. "Mithras, you are like ice. Next time you must take heavier furs."
"There won’t be a next time," I promise quietly, gripping his wrist.
His eyes search mine, looking desperately for the truth in my words. With his hand still on my neck, he pulls me in close enough to press his lips to my forehead. It is the only thanks I will get and it is more than welcome. Then he wraps his arm around my shoulder and lead me to the door. "Come inside and warm yourself. My uncle will be pleased to see you have been so successful."
The hunting may have been good, but the toll on Marcus had been high. After that, I have little desire to leave for more than the day and always return before nightfall. The meals are leaner but Marcus’ spirits are higher. What is that against a little confinement?
Still, it was with a certain amount of relief on everyone’s part that the pale green of spring grass colors the fields and we are able to leave the villa for the freedom of the open road once again, this time bound for Londinium with the eagle in tow. The bite of winter’s chill lingers on the breeze on the third morning we set out, but by midday, the air is warm enough to shed my cloak and feel the sun on my bare arms. The scar from my own wound is nothing more than a stripe of puckered pink slicing through the blue lines of my tribe’s markings.
Marcus’ cloak remains draped around his shoulders, but it hangs loose, and he rides with a peaceful curve to his lips as he surveys the small farms around us on the road to Londinium. "It is good land," he notes.
I nod beside him, keeping our horses to an easy pace, enjoying the day and his company. "There is better in the south."
"The lands near Isca Dumnoniorum were fertile… when the weather cooperated."
"Cursing the weather is never good farming," I taunt my soldier who wishes to be a farmer.
He laughs lightly. "True, but there is only so much a man can do against the gods and their whims."
"Further east of Isca Dumnoniorum, in the Downs," I tell him after pondering his comment. "That is where I would farm."
His eyes narrow slightly as he regards me. "Would you, then?"
With a decisive nod, I breathe deeply; the air is thick with the tang of wet earth and new onions. "The land is rich for farming and wide open for horses. A man could build a home, a farm, make a life." I give him a small smile at the thought of us doing just that, together. "He could be happy there."
"The Downs," he considers.
"If the choice were mine, that is where I would settle."
"Why wouldn’t the choice be yours?" Marcus questions with a frown.
With a small snort, I shake my head at how foolish he can be. "I am but a freedman. You are my patron. The choice of where we go will always be yours."
Marcus pulls his mount up short, and I have no choice but to do the same unless I am to leave him sitting in the middle of the road by himself. "Do you truly believe that is all you are to me? A freedman to work my fields and take a turn in my bed at night? Do you truly think you are anything less than…everything to me?"
"Marcus," I sigh, "no. I have no doubt of your love for me or mine for you in return. But we will be old men by the time I save enough money from the wage your uncle pays me if I am to buy a farm for us. If we are fortunate with the horses, we may have foals by this time next year. But the sale of a few horses will not secure us a place away from your uncle’s villa in less than three or four years, if we are lucky. I will wait there with you for as long as it takes, but as long as we are there, I am simply a freedman."
"But the eagle…" he starts.
"Is yours," I conclude. "And any reward you receive will be yours, as well."
"It would still be hidden away in the Seal People’s camp if not for you."
"Rome will not care about my role in any of this," I state with no doubt, and by the scowl on Marcus’ face, he knows I speak true. "However they choose to reward you, it will be for you alone."
"And once it is mine, any decisions of how it is to be used will be of no concern to Rome," he says defiantly.
I frown, because this is what I have been telling him all along, that the decision is his and his alone, and yet he seems to be arguing with me. Nor does it address the one thing I fear the most.
"What if they offer you a place back in the army?"
We had discussed this once before, briefly, and Marcus could not give me an answer.
"What would you have me do?" he asks.
I shake my head. "I cannot make that choice for you."
"I am asking you to make it," he challenges.
But Marcus sees what I am truly saying. I will not. I will not tell him what is in my heart because I fear it will break his and I love him too much to do that. I love him too much to deny him his greatest desire; to resume command and bring glory and honor to his family name.
Marcus sits straighter in his saddle. "As your patron, I order you to make it."
"That is not within your right…" I argue.
"Is it not?" he asks coolly, all the arrogance of Rome in his eyes and voice. It has my jaw clenching tightly. "Have you read the Roman laws and what is or is not within my rights as your patron?"
"Very well," I snap angrily. "If the choice were mine, you would not rejoin the Roman army. You would not go back to a life where you kill Britons for the glory of Rome. You would not leave me to follow after, waiting in some town surrounding a fort, hoping that tonight is the night you feel it is safe or appropriate to summon me to your bed. You would ask instead for your pension and allotment of land and you would work it beside me. We would plow fields and harvest them together, and tend to our horses together, and hunt together, and pleasure each other without shame beneath an oak on a hill that overlooks everything we have built together. That is the decision I would have you make every day for the rest of our lives."
His face softens as he gives a gentle kick to his mount’s flank to get her moving down the road once more. "Good. We are in agreement, then, on how we plan to proceed."
I blink as he rides past me, at a loss for how to respond.
"Are you coming, Esca?" he asks over his shoulder as he turns his horse off the road and into the field. "I think that may be an oak tree I see on that rise to the east." His smile is as dangerous and it is inviting.
With a grin and a bemused shake of my head, I follow after Marcus. It ends up it is an oak tree he saw, and while it may not overlook the land that will one day be our farm, it provides an enjoyable spot for practice.
* * * * *
Londinium is like nothing I have ever seen. The roads are stone, as are the buildings towering over us, so that every sound… horse hoofs, chariot wheels, wagons, footsteps and voices, armor and shields…echoes around us. It presses in from every side, overwhelming my senses, and I find I dislike it instantly. Everywhere there is movement and noise and all of it blends one into another. How is a man meant to know which of them could be a threat to him? And if there is a danger, how is he to keep it in sight?
"Is this what Rome is like?" I ask as we dismount our horses. Almost no one is dressed in the Briton style except us. There are soldiers in leather and citizens in togas everywhere I look, and I feel my spine locking and chin lifting in silent challenge to them all. Despite my unease at not being able to distinguish any peril among the crowd, I soon realize most people are simply ignoring us.
With an amused expression, Marcus takes the reins from my horse. "No. Rome is much larger with many more people." I consider myself fortunate that not only is Marcus so busy turning our mounts over to the stable boy that he doesn’t see my shocked expression at this news, but that he has chosen to remain in Briton over returning to Rome. I cannot imagine anyplace more crowded and more…Roman than this one.
My attention, however, is drawn from the sights around me to Marcus as he unwraps the eagle from where it has ridden on his saddle. He cradles it gently, as if, now that the time has come to actually turn it over to the Legate, he doesn’t want to let it go. His eyes meet mine, and I wordlessly ask if he is ready. With a decisive nod, he turns to walk down the street, and I fall into step beside him. The citizenry of Londindium is no longer ignoring us, instead they make way for us to pass, all eyes on the golden standard in Marcus’ arms.
The senate house is a short walk from the stables, but the people inside react to our presence the same as those on the street had. Their first reaction is to stare…two men in rough clothing still covered with the dirt of the road…two men, one Roman and one Briton walking side my side…two men in possession of a golden eagle, the lost standard of the Ninth. The tribune Savius Placius had spoke true; every Roman remembers the Ninth. I wonder if they will remember the return of its standard in the same way.
Marcus keeps his eyes locked straight ahead, his focus on the man he seeks at the far end of the massive room. The Legate Cladius is busy with scrolls and surrounded by men, the Tribune Savius Placius among them. Neither man seems to recognize us until Marcus sets the eagle down on the table before him.
"For my father," Marcus says simply. There is no pride in his voice as is his right considering what he has accomplished and the astonished look on the faces of the Legate and the other men.
Cladius lifts the eagle as if it might break. "My dear boy, I congratulate you. Rome congratulates you. Your family’s good name is restored." He raises his voice to take in the whole room. "The senate will want to reform the Ninth. Perhaps they can reward you with its command."
And there it is-- my worst fear and Marcus’ dearest wish. I feel my heart pounding hard in my chest as my eyes drop to my boots, afraid to look at Marcus’ face, afraid of what I might see there.
"How ever did you do it?" the Legate asks in awe.
"With only a slave to help you," Savius Placidus adds, his own shock at my role in all of this greater than seeing the eagle returned.
"He is not a slave." The humble tone that had been in Marcus’ voice has been replaced by one of controlled anger.
I raise my eyes to see the steely look in Marcus’ as he tells the Tribune, "He knows more about honor and freedom than you ever will."
Obviously, having nothing more to say to the Tribune, or the Legate, or anyone else for that matter, Marcus turns his back on the eagle, on the Legate, on Rome and begins to walk away from them all. Marcus may not have felt the need to gloat over his victory, but I cannot keep it from the smirk I give the surprised men.
He chose me. Over all the glory and honor of Rome, he chose me. I believe that is reason enough to show a little pride.
With a tip of my head to the men, I turn and quickly catch up with Marcus.
"So what now?" I ask, the grin still on my face as we walk briskly through the building.
For the first time since arriving in Londinium, Marcus smiles a real smile, a knowing smile, and yes, even a bit of his own gloating. "You decide."
If possible I smile even wider. A farm, horses, a home to call our own, that is my decision, and I shall have it. We shall have it. When we step out into the late afternoon sun, that thought is what fills my head above the din of the city around me.
"There is a horse market a few days ride to the north," I tell Marcus. "Iceni breeders are known to trade there on occasion."
He looks up into the sun, gauging we still have a few hours of daylight left. "Shall we leave now or wait until morning?" It appears that is to be my decision, as well.
"Morning," I announce with authority. "I have decided you and I shall have a bed this night and do many things that would not meet with Rome’s approval."
Marcus lets his grin spread slowly wider. "You should have been making the decisions all along, Esca."
* * * * *
"There is a hive around here somewhere," I note as I kiss lazily along Marcus’ heaving chest, the taste of his sweat mingles with a different, and yet entirely and purely Marcus taste on my tongue. "We should find it and move it near the garden."
"Hive?’ Marcus questions, as dazed as he is breathless.
"Bees," I clarify, then kiss him warmly. Turning over, I lay with my head resting on his shoulder and my face turned up to the sun peeking through the leaves of the elm tree above us. Not an oak, but the end results are what I had intended, so I see no reason to complain.
By the way Marcus gulps air, he’s not going to complain about what I just did to him either.
"Right." His hand moves to slide clumsily through my hair. "Bees."
I grin smugly, as I have every right to given Marcus’ befuddled tone.
"For the honey," I explain further.
"Honey?" Marcus laughs lightly. "Leave it to you, Esca, to try to find a way to make this life even sweeter than it already is."
"There is much I could do with honey," I boast with a wicked grin. "You would find it very sweet indeed."
"Mithras! I’m not sure I could survive what you might come up with."
"Is the mighty Marcus Flavius Aquila scared of me?"
"I’m still seeing spots from what you last did to me with just your hands and mouth!"
My grin turns into a full out smile and I roll over to look down on him. "Have I bested you, Centurion?"
"Bested, captured, enslaved… you pick the word… you have done it and more." He reaches up and rubs his knuckles along my jaw, his touch as soft and gentle as his eyes. "But I am a centurion no more, nor do I wish to be. I am content to be a simple farmer for the rest of my days."
The Legate, while disappointed Marcus would not return to the Ninth, understood he was no longer physically capable of regular military service and readily agreed to the compromise Marcus offered for land in the Downs and a pension. The Beltane fires had burned by the time everything was in order and the land was deeded to Marcus. We were packed and moved out of the villa within a few days of the news, and have been on the farm, our farm, for almost a market week now. I can’t remember a time I was happier.
If possible, Marcus is even happier than I. He spoke true about his love and knowledge of farming, having already marked out the fields for late grains and a small kitchen garden near the house. I would have never thought to find myself happy to be working fields, but to see Marcus so pleased, it is hard not to be the same. Also, I have my horses, and one of the mares is already with foal. So, if Marcus wishes to call himself a farmer, then that is what he is.
"Yours is not the body of a simple farmer," I observe, taking in its full glory in a way I’ve rarely had the privilege to see it, spread naked in the sunlight. It is beautiful—lean, muscled, scarred, and turning brown from the days we’ve spent working the farm. And it is all mine to do with as I please. I run a slow, possessive hand from his throat to his belly, taking pride in the way he trembles under my touch.
"I could say the same about you, Esca." Marcus sighs contentedly when I rub small circles where my hand rests on his stomach. "Nor was yours the body of a slave. I thought that the first day I saw in you in the arena."
Propping myself on my elbow, I grin. "So you took notice of my body that day?"
"I noticed little else." With a sated yawn he puts his hands behind his head. "It was embarrassing how aroused I was by the sight of you. You were…spectacular to look upon. I believe that is why I saved you in the end."
The curl of his lips and the way he cracks one eye open to look at me has me believing what he says is in jest… at least the last part about saving me is.
My eyebrows rise mockingly. "You could not imagine the world being denied such majesty?"
"Something like that," he admits, green eyes twinkling with amusement. "Although now that you have given me leave, I am more than happy to deny the world and keep your body all to myself."
"And what will you do with my body now that it is yours and yours alone?" My hand slides along the dip of his pelvis so my fingers can curl into wiry hair.
Marcus pulls in a deep breath as he shifts beneath my hand. "Esca, we will never finish the fencing if you keep this up."
He is right, but I do not care. By the way his eyes slide shut with a soft moan when I move my hand to his thigh and kneed, I do not believe he cares either. He didn’t the first two times we did this here today. We have a lot of work to do before summer ends, but what is the point of having a place of our own if we cannot take a warm afternoon and lay naked with one another on a blanket in a field of high grass and wild flowers surrounded by the buzz of bees and the song of grasshoppers?
We are fortunate in that the land Marcus was given by the army already had an abandoned, small farm on it. The buildings are in ill repair and the enclosure is much too small for the horses for any length of time. Even now, the three of them prance restlessly in the confines of the fencing. But we, at least, have something to start from, and a roof that keeps out most of the rain, which is a blessing considering fall is just around the corner. Yes, we have some long days ahead of us, which is just one more reason why we deserve one long afternoon just for us. It is more than wood and stone that makes a home, and that is what we have.
The thought has a warmth running through my body that has nothing to do with the sun, and serves to stoke my desire further. My hand slips between his legs and I smile to see his manhood twitch, already on its way to hardening again. My own is way ahead of him.
With another soft exhalation of breath, Marcus’s head tilts back, exposing his neck. It is too much to resist, and I suck and nibble it leisurely, sliding my leg between his so that I can thrust lazily against his hip. "Shall we return to the fence repairs then?" I ask against his skin.
"By the gods, you drive me mad," Marcus breathes, cupping my face in both his hands, and kissing me with growing eagerness.
I desperately kiss him back, continuing to move against him until he tugs me on top of him to thrust back in return.
"Marcus…" The heat of him against me is unbearably good and all I want is to make it last as long as I can.
His hands move along my sides, gripping my hips, guiding my movements, and I fight to hold back a little longer…
Months ago, I had sat in the camp of the Seal People and told them a lie about how I had tricked a Roman into bringing me north to my freedom. But I had also told them a truth.
…I use my arms to push up, missing the feel of his mouth on mine, but the shift in position has my vision narrowing and Marcus groaning in approval…
I had told the Seal People that my heart hunted for a place to be free.
…Then I feel Marcus’ hand on me, wrapped around both of us together, stroking, and there is nothing more I can do to hold back….
…because there is nothing more free than this.
Marcus gasps my name as I collapse on top of him, wraps strong arms around me, kisses my temple, whispers tender words in my ears that have me pressing my face against his neck.
And I know. Without a doubt, I know.
My heart hunts no more.
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