Esca had fought in dozens of gladiator spectacles by now, and he knew what to expect, but he still despised having to kill for the amusement of these crowds as much as he ever had when he was first bought. It didn’t feel right, didn’t feel honorable, to fight just for the sake of fighting with no real purpose.
Most of those fights had been against other swordsmen, and today would only be the first time he’d fought against a Fisher; though he wouldn’t admit it, he was afraid. He’d seen many men he knew die tangled in a Fisher’s net like flies, and he was afraid, and he found himself missing his life in the wilds of Britain desperately, the feeling rising above the dull background hum it had died down to. Then, at least, he’d only ever killed out of necessity.
The crowds had started gathering for the Saturnalia Games hours ago, and as Esca stepped out into the arena, the seats were completely filled with people. As he looked around at them, he caught the eyes of a Roman man about his own age in the Magistrates’ seating area. The man was handsome, he thought, in a very dark, Roman sort of way; his skin was tanned and olive, but his face had a certain faint drawnness to it that spoke to Esca of illness and pain. His eyes were bright though, a warm brown color, and he watched Esca with a hint of worry or nervousness that struck Esca as unusual. Most of the people who came to see these things were eager to see blood spilled, but something in this young Roman’s face made Esca think he was one of the few who wasn’t.
It seemed only a few minutes before it came to the fight to the death. Esca took a few deep breaths and sent a quick prayer to Lugh for success and glory, and walked into the arena again, watching as the Fisher entered from the opposite side. He had to forcibly restrain himself from looking for the young Roman again in the Magistrates’ box, knowing if he did he’d be distracted, and almost before he knew it, he was chasing the Fisher around the edge of the arena, so close to victory he could feel it in his chest…
And then he was down, the folds of the flung net wrapping around him as he fell headlong, and he knew there was no way he could get out. The crowd was roaring now, and Esca realized he was near the Magistates’ benches again; he allowed himself to look up for the Roman. The man was standing now, almost leaning over the railing in anxious horror, so close Esca could touch him or talk to him quietly, and even with the Fisher standing over him to deliver the killing blow, it felt like they were the only two in the entire arena. He didn’t know why he’d felt so drawn to this man—it pained him to think it, but it was likely he was just as cruel and horrible as most Romans Esca had met—but he’d felt some kind of kinship and similarity to him.
Esca made to raise his arm in an appeal to the crowd, but his pride won out. Let them do whatever they wanted, but he wouldn’t plead for his life. He wasn’t going to give them that satisfaction. He thought it was over as more and more people started to make the thumbs-down sign, but then he looked at the young Roman again, and he was making the thumbs-up again and again, fiercely, clinging to the railing with his other hand.
“Thumbs up! Thumbs up, you fools!”
His face was strong and hard set now, looking challengingly around the arena, and soon more and more people began to turn their thumbs up.
The Fisher lowered his trident, and Esca closed his eyes as he was cut free from the net. This moment, being spared on the whim of the crowd after being bested in a fight, was humiliating for any gladiator, and Esca couldn’t bear to look at the Roman again, couldn’t bear for him to see Esca like this.
The next afternoon, the circus-master told Esca that someone was interested in buying him. He was as surprised as his master, and when he asked the name of the person, the circus-master gave it as Marcus Flavius Aquila. The name was unfamiliar, but Esca thought suddenly of the young Roman from yesterday. He hoped and prayed it was him as the old slave, who had an air of deep mistrust of Esca and gave his name as Stephanos, led him to the house. Stephanos told him a great deal about his new master; he’d been a Centurion of the Auxilliaries of the Second Legion, and he’d been badly wounded in battle. Esca felt a prickle of vague distrust at hearing he’d been a Legionary, but it was almost overwhelmed a second later with sympathy for his wounds, and then Esca dismissed the distrust entirely, because if this Marcus was the man from yesterday, it would hardly matter to Esca if he’d been a Legionary. And if he wasn’t the man from yesterday, then Esca was confident he could escape easily. The tiny knife inside his tunic, the knife his father had given him years ago, was cold against his skin, and Esca touched it absently through the cloth.
When they arrived at the villa, the young Centurion, Marcus, was lying on a couch in the atrium, and Esca thought he looked almost regal. Esca’s heart sped as he recognized the man’s warm, dark eyes from yesterday.
“So it is you,” Esca said after a few moments of silence, slightly astonished despite himself.
“Yes, it is I,” replied Marcus. There was another pause, then Esca asked, “Why did you turn the crowd yesterday? I did not ask for mercy.”
“Possibly that was why,” Marcus said simply.
Esca nodded thoughtfully. Then, feeling some need to explain himself, “I was afraid yesterday. I, who have been a warrior.” He shook his head. “I was afraid to choke out my life in the Fisher’s net.”
“I know,” Marcus said softly. “But still, you didn’t ask for mercy.”
They talked for a while, both cautious and curious of each other, and Marcus seemed like an entirely good man. He was unlike any other Roman Esca had known, and he was becoming quite fond of the man already. Then Esca said, without quite knowing why,
“I could have escaped, you know, when the goaty one, Stephanos, brought me here. It would have been easy to get away, but I had a feeling it might be you we went to.”
“And if it had been another after all?” Marcus asked.
Shrugging, Esca replied, “Then I would have escaped later, to the wilds where my clipped ear would not betray me.” Half unconsciously, he drew the small, slender knife out of his tunic, handling it almost tenderly. “I had this, to my release.”
“And now?” asked Marcus, his dark eyes fixed unwaveringly on Esca’s face.
“Now—” he let the knife fall onto the table next to the couch and knelt closer to Marcus “—now, I am the Centurion’s hound to lie at the Centurion’s feet.” He’d given to Marcus the weapon he’d planned to use to secure his freedom, because he knew he would have no need of it. Esca was in service to this man now, not because Marcus had paid for him, not because he had no choice, but because Marcus had saved his life. He had saved Esca’s life in that arena, and Esca couldn’t possibly think of refusing to help him in return.
Almost immediately, Esca and Marcus became something like friends. After only a matter of days, Esca found that Marcus treated him more like an equal, a friend, than a slave, and Esca found himself partly treating Marcus as a friend. He’d had masters before who’d treated him almost as an equal, but as soon as he’d stopped treating them as a master, they’d become angry or irritated, even violent, once. As much as he wanted to be close to the other man, he couldn’t bear the thought of Marcus, kind and wonderful Marcus, turning on him or hurting him. So, he kept things as unattached as he could manage on his side.
He helped Marcus with almost everything: taking him to the bath house, letting him use his shoulder for support when he walked, running errands for him, carrying things for him, helping him dress and undress… With any other man as his master, Esca was sure he would’ve hated and resented the work. But this was Marcus, who had saved Esca’s life and was now so good to him, and who he felt an undeniable connection with, so he didn’t mind at all.
As hard as Esca tried to keep his distance from Marcus at first, Marcus was slowly starting to wear down his defenses. It became harder and harder to keep the distance a slave should have from his master, and eventually Esca found himself asking for leave to go hunting for a few days. There had been talk of a wolf hunt in town, and hearing about it made something in Esca’s chest ache with longing. He’d missed hunting terribly, more than he’d realized it seemed, and he decided to ask Marcus about it one night.
As he’d hoped, Marcus allowed him to go, and the light of longing in his eyes made Esca wish he could come as well.
"Maybe I'll come another year," Marcus yawned sleepily. "Good hunting, Esca."
He left early the next morning, and the day and night he spent with the small group of wolf hunters was probably the freest and most alive he’d felt since before he was captured. It was very good hunting, until the last night when Esca and a small group of the hunters found the cave of a mother wolf with cubs.
The mother was killed, and then Esca and two others went to look for the cubs. They’d scarcely found the nest when the cubs’ father appeared to defend them, and then it was Esca who killed him, after a short struggle. A young tribune, Servius Placidus, who’d struck Esca as somewhat ridiculous and arrogant, said, “That was very well done.” Esca unconsciously pushed his hair out of his face and behind his clipped ear and Placidus froze as he noticed it, expression changing to faint disgust.
“For a slave,” he added disdainfully.
Esca was suddenly unreasonably furious, and stood up from where he was cleaning his spear. “And you see that as a reason I should be a worse hunter than yourself?”
“None in the world,” the tribune said, still disdainful and superior, “But at least my life is my own to risk as I please. Your master has paid good money for his slave, and he won’t thank you for leaving him with a worthless carcass. Remember that next time you stick your head in a wolf’s lair.”
Then Placidus smiled mockingly and turned away, and the intense feeling of freedom and life Esca had felt came crashing down. He was Marcus Aquila’s property, and that was how the world saw him, probably how Marcus himself honestly saw him, even with all his kindness and openness. Esca didn’t see his service to Marcus as the forced labor of a slave, and he’d almost forgotten that anyone else would see it as such.
There was a soft whining behind Esca that made him turn around, and he saw a cub still in the nest, and he shook off his sudden misery and fury enough to gently scoop it up and set it in the folds of his tunic, close to his chest.
It was almost dawn by the time he arrived back at the villa, and while he’d deliberately tried not to think about what that tribune had said on the way, he couldn’t help it now that he was inside the house of his master, his owner. He tried to be quiet as he fed the wolf cub milk and some scraps of Sassticca’s baking, but Marcus was awake when Esca stepped into his room.
“Esca! How went the hunting?” Marcus asked.
“It was good,” Esca said, setting down his spears in the corner, then turned back toward Marcus’s cot. “And I have brought back the fruits of my hunting…” The cub was beginning to squirm by now, and Esca set it down gently next to Marcus on the bed.
He heard Marcus take a shocked breath as he turned to light the lamps. “Esca! A wolf cub?” The warm, flickering light illuminated the surprise on his face, and Esca knelt down by the cot and explained that hunters in his tribe often adopted the cubs into the dog pack when a mother wolf was killed, if they were young enough.
“Is that how you got this one?”
Nodding, Esca told Marcus how they’d killed a she-wolf in milk and he and some of the others went to find the cubs. “Then his sire came. They are fierce when protecting their young, it was a very good fight.”
“It was a terrible risk.” Marcus met his eyes, half concerned and half angry. “You should not have done it, Esca!”
The words hit Esca in the chest, and he looked away from Marcus as he remembered the words of that infuriating tribune.
“Of course. I forgot it was my master’s property I was risking,” Esca said, a little petulantly.
“What? Don’t be a fool. I didn’t mean it like that and you know it.”
There was a long pause, both of them watching each other, and Marcus seemed to be trying to work Esca out with just a look. “Esca,” Marcus finally said, “has something happened?”
Esca looked away from Marcus’s dark, assessing eyes and said, “No, nothing.”
“That is a lie. Someone has said something, haven’t they?”
Esca said nothing, but he could feel Marcus watching him intently. “Esca, I want an answer.”
Then Esca deflated, finally meeting his eyes, and slowly, painfully, told Marcus what had happened with the tribune. When he’d finished he felt like it had taken all his remaining energy, and Marcus looked furious, his thick brows lowered over his eyes. If Esca didn’t know him so well, the expression would be frightening in his sharp face, and it was still intimidating, even though Esca knew the anger wasn’t directed at him.
Suddenly Marcus reached out and grasped Esca’s wrist, looking almost imploringly into his face. “Have I ever given you reason to think that is how I think of you? Have I by some word or action made you believe I think of you the way that six-month soldier evidently thinks of his slaves?”
“No,” Esca mumbled, feeling awful now, looking away again. “No, you are nothing like Tribune Placidus; you would never give your hound a whipping without need.”
He knew that was taking it too far, and he felt even worse when Marcus let out a frustrated, half helpless sound, his face full of hurt and confusion.
“Oh, curse this Tribune Placidus!” Marcus exclaimed, tightening his long fingers on Esca’s wrist almost to the point of pain. “Did his words strike so much deeper than mine that you talk to me of hounds and whips? Name of Light! Do I need to spell it out in so many words that I don’t believe a clipped ear is the division between men and beasts? Have I not shown you clearly enough this whole time? I have never thought of slave or free, equal or unequal in my dealings with you, but you were too proud to do the same for me! Too proud, Esca, do you hear me?” And Esca’s breath caught in his throat at that, and he suddenly wanted desperately to explain to Marcus and tell him that it had never been pride that made him distance himself.
But he couldn’t find the words, and he could only watch helplessly as Marcus tried to push himself up onto his elbow, forgetting the wolf cub. The flow of words was abruptly cut off as Marcus fell back onto the pillows, holding up a bloody finger, and then he was laughing at nothing and Esca couldn’t help but join him, the tension bleeding away and leaving them both feeling exhausted.