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In Hoc Modo Incidemus

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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.

Chapter Text

After that morning, Esca let his guard down completely with Marcus, gradually at first, and began to treat him more and more as a friend, only holding the proper respect that befitted a master when they were in public. It was clear Marcus was delighted by this, though he never said anything aloud, and Esca was happy he was happy. And only a few days later, Esca found himself telling Marcus about his life before slavery in his home tribe. 

They’d just finished bathing, and a passing chariot outside started Esca talking about how he’d been his father’s charioteer and armor-bearer before he was captured. He looked down at his lap as he told Marcus, slowly and painfully, about the death of his family and how he was captured. It was something he tried not to think about most of the time, and telling the story felt far less wrenching than Esca had thought it would, in fact it felt freeing, and he was grateful to Marcus for listening so attentively. When he risked a glance at Marcus’s face, he saw it full of sadness and sympathy.

Esca hadn’t talked about his old life with any of his previous masters, and he didn’t think the other man would be so sympathetic and understanding when Esca said that his people—Marcus’s people, his fellow legionaries—were monsters for what they’d done, and that he hated Rome. In fact, Marcus seemed to think it was entirely justified for him to feel that way, and Esca was grateful for that.

Then, feeling more at ease, and wanting to change the topic from such a dark one, he told Marcus about his childhood and life in his home tribe, and he hadn’t felt so safe and comfortable and protected around anyone in years. He told Marcus of days spent playing with his brothers and friends in the heather, festivals and coming-of-age ceremonies, hunting, the otter pup that his oldest brother had taken after its mother had died for Esca and his younger brother to raise, training and learning to fight with his father… The whole time he talked, Marcus listened, his eyes bright, and he nodded interestedly and asked questions which Esca was only too happy to answer. Talking about his life before felt comforting and nostalgic in the best way, and he was pleased that Marcus was enjoying it just as much.

“Esca—thank you. For telling me all this,” Marcus murmured, smiling at him softly. Esca smiled back, and they just watched each other for a few long moments, Marcus’s face full of pleasure. Then Esca stood and held out a hand to help Marcus to his feet, and they went back to the house together.

 

***

 

The weeks passed, and Esca became more and more comfortable with the new closeness of his and Marcus’s relationship, and Marcus seemed even more happy. They did most things together before, but now they were even more closely knit, and Esca found himself enjoying the time he spent with Marcus even more. In addition to his other duties, Esca had started taking care of the tiny wolf cub (which Marcus had decided to name Cub), feeding him several times a day and spending as much time with him as he could. Often when Marcus and Esca were at the house, Cub was there with them too, and Esca showed Marcus how to feed and take care of the wolf cub so he could get used to Marcus.

“I don’t think I could ever be as good with him as you are,” Marcus murmured, almost in awe as he watched Esca patiently give the cub a milk-soaked edge of cloth to suck on. It wouldn’t be long now until his teeth came in and Esca could feed him solid food.

Esca turned to grin at Marcus. “Here, you can try if you like. Just hold him like this—” he tucked Cub into Marcus’s hand and guided it to rest close against his chest, “—and hold the cloth out to him, and he will do the rest.” Marcus looked inordinately pleased at that, and flashed a grin at Esca.

In the warmth of the summer sun, Cub learned to walk, run, wag his tail, and eventually bark, much to the surprise of Esca and Marcus as well as himself, and Esca felt almost like a proud father seeing him grow bigger and stronger. 

Soon enough, there was another addition to their small group: a young British girl, Cottia, who lived next door with her aunt Valaria and uncle Kaeso. She and Marcus would talk and laugh in the courtyard, and Esca often joined them when he didn’t have work to do; to his surprise, Esca quickly started to like her and enjoy her company enough that he lowered his barriers to her (as much as he would with anyone who wasn’t Marcus) and they slowly became friends. The four of them—Esca, Marcus, Cub, and Cottia—spent many sunny days together in the courtyard and in the fields around the house of Marcus’s uncle, talking, laughing, playing, and teaching Cub to do tricks.

As the summer came to a close, Esca noticed more and more that Marcus seemed to be in more pain from his wound. During the day, he limped heavily and leaned more on Esca’s shoulder for support, and his eyes were often lined or clouded over with pain; during the nights, he was restless, and Esca would offer to massage his wounded leg to take some of the stiffness out of it, and Marcus sighed shakily in relief, nodding in assent. That seemed to help, and so Esca started doing it almost every night; it became part of their routine, and Marcus was very grateful, murmuring his thanks to Esca as Esca returned to his own bed.

Finally, after more than a week of this, Marcus’s uncle decided to put a stop to it and ask an old friend of his to come to the house and check over Marcus’s wounds. Esca was relieved when Marcus told him; he couldn’t bear seeing Marcus in such pain, though he knew another surgery would leave him in a great deal of pain before it got better. The man, Rufrius Galarius, did an external examination of the wound first to get an idea of what the problem was, and he said there was still a great deal of shrapnel still in the muscles of his leg that needed to be removed.

Esca went to him as soon as he could and found Cub already there with Marcus, and Cottia was just arriving too, with a very irate Stephanos right behind her. 

“Will you keep him out of here, Esca?” Marcus said urgently, suddenly looking very weary, and Esca didn’t hesitate to obey.

Stephanos was clutching a bloody hand, and Esca raised an eyebrow. “She bit me!” he exclaimed. “She’s dangerous, she should not be in there with the Master—”

“Look, she is the Master’s friend,” Esca explained patiently. “You should go and see if Sassticca can take care of that bite for you. It could get nasty. You might not have use of that hand after too long.” Stephanos spluttered indignantly for a moment before stomping off back to the house, and Esca grinned a little. He did feel a little bad for winding the man up like that, but it was all too easy to do.

Cottia was leaving to go back home when Esca came in, and as he showed her out, she said, “He will be alright, won’t he? You will make sure he’s alright?”

“Of course I will,” said Esca, with as much seriousness as he could. “No harm will come to him, I promise.”

Smiling, Cottia nodded. “Thank you. And you will come tomorrow and tell me when it is done?”

“Of course,” Esca said again, returning the smile and reaching out to touch her arm gently.

“Thank you, Esca.” Then she leaned closer and gave him a little kiss on the cheek, and turned to go back to her uncle’s house while Esca stared after her, a little surprised.

Back inside, he went to Marcus again and sat down on the edge of the bed. Marcus had his forearm pressed over his eyes, and he reached out blindly for Esca; Esca took his hand and squeezed lightly.

“You will be there tomorrow, Esca?” Marcus mumbled, and Esca smiled a little.

“Of course I will, Marcus.” Then after a moment, “I won’t let anything happen to you.”

Then Marcus lowered the arm still covering his eyes and smiled softly at Esca, squeezing Esca’s hand.

 

***

 

The next morning was a challenge for Esca. Watching the surgeon cut Marcus’s leg open and dig out a seemingly endless amount of shards made him feel unexpectedly sick, but he had to hand the man the right tools, bring him more hot water and towels, and hold Marcus still while he worked, so leaving the room wasn’t much of an option. It made Esca’s heart clench to think that Marcus had been walking around all this time with so much debris still inside the wound, and he felt a surge of gratefulness to the doctor and to Marcus’s uncle.

It took a while, but eventually Galarius was sure he’d gotten all the fragments out of Marcus’s leg, and he stitched the new cuts he’d made back together, then disinfected the wound with alcohol and wrapped it in clean bandages. The whole time he worked, he was talking about something; his surgery methods, other soldiers with bad injuries he’d worked on, his travels throughout the Roman Empire…

By this time, Marcus’s Uncle Aquila had appeared in the doorway.

“How is he?”

“Just fine. He should wake soon,” Galarius said, smiling. Cub was locked up in a back room, and Esca could hear him howling mournfully now, very upset at being kept away from his master.

“You’ll need to give him this when he wakes,” Galarius told Esca as he ground up herbs and water in a clay cup. “It will help him heal.”

After only a few minutes, Marcus came to with a small groan, his face crumpling slightly. Galarius measured his heartbeat with a hand over his heart, and then seemingly satisfied, handed the cup of ground herbs and water to Esca.

“I leave him in your hands. You can give him the draught now,” he said, packing away his instruments, and Esca nodded. He knelt down next to the bed and carefully lifted Marcus’s head onto his shoulder so he could drink.

“Cottia—and Cub—” Marcus murmured.

“Yes, I will see to both of them soon, but you must drink this first.” Then he put the cup to Marcus’s lips, and Marcus drank obediently before turning his head closer into Esca’s shoulder. Esca’s heart clenched, and he ran his fingers through Marcus’s hair.

Marcus looked up at Esca’s face, and laughed a little at his expression. He still felt a little sick, and it must have shown in his face. “Was it as bad as that?”

Esca laughed too. “Go to sleep.” Marcus hummed contentedly and turned his head into Esca’s shoulder again, pressing his nose almost into Esca’s neck and causing Esca to shiver a little. When Marcus’s breathing had evened out, Esca moved his head back onto the pillow, running a hand through Marcus’s hair again before leaving the room to let him sleep.

 

***

 

Three mornings later, Galarius came back to check on Marcus and make sure his wound hadn’t gotten infected and that it was healing alright. He unwrapped the bandage that Esca had put on it that morning and looked over the stitches, then showed Esca how to make more of the draught; he’d left some with them before he left after the surgery, since he’d had other clients to see to and couldn’t see Marcus again until today.

“You have been taking good care of him,” Galarius commented to Esca as he questioned Marcus about how his leg was feeling. Esca only shrugged modestly, but Marcus tilted his head back to look at Esca, who was standing right over him, and grinned.

“My Esca would make a fine doctor,” Marcus said, and without knowing why, Esca felt an odd thrill run through him at being referred to as ‘Marcus’s Esca.’ Most people would have assumed he’d meant it in the sense that he owned Esca, but Esca knew now that it was more than that. “I would be utterly lost without him.”

“Well then, I feel I am leaving you in very capable hands.” Galarius smiled broadly first at Marcus, then at Esca. “I will be in the area for some time now, so if you think anything is wrong, you can send for me quickly.”

“Thank you for everything,” Marcus said as the surgeon packed his instruments away, and Esca nodded agreement.

“Not at all, my dear boy.” Standing up, he patted Marcus’s good leg and nodded to Esca, and left, pausing to talk to Uncle Aquila by the door.

The next afternoon found Esca in town, buying herbs for Marcus’s draught, a new collar for the now quickly growing Cub, and food for dinner. He’d gone on his own, despite Stephanos repeatedly saying he should go with Esca to make sure he didn’t forget anything, and walking around the market away from the bustle of the villa gave him plenty of time to think. He didn’t often get much of that, especially now that Marcus’s leg was just beginning to heal, and it felt nice to be on his own for a bit.

He certainly didn’t mind taking care of Marcus; he’d had to reassure the other man about that once already, when Marcus had woken in the night in terrible pain and Esca had applied an ointment under the bandage to try to relieve it, then massaged and rubbed around the wound to the best of his ability. Marcus apologized profusely for disturbing Esca and making him get up in the middle of the night, where most slave owners would have made nothing of it or taken it for granted. 

It was then that Esca realized just how unique and rare and wonderful Marcus was, not just because he showed consideration for Esca as a human being, but because he was a truly, honestly good man. Marcus was gentle yet strong, and he was honorable, and though Esca had tried not to think it, he was also very very attractive. This had been in the back of his mind for he didn’t know how long, and he was only just realizing that he was in love, and he wanted to be with Marcus in every way he could, if only Marcus would have him.

That was what was on his mind now; Esca wasn’t sure if Marcus would have him or not. A few times, he could’ve sworn he saw Marcus watching him, looking intently at him, but he’d never pursued Esca. Then again, it could be that he was afraid. Was he waiting for Esca to make a move…?

The thought was tantalizing, but a sharp bird call over his head brought Esca back to the present enough to realize he’d been walking around the market for a long time now and hadn’t actually bought anything. Shaking his head at himself, he cast the thoughts out of his mind and began looking in earnest for the things he needed to buy. It didn’t take long to find them, but he found himself taking longer than necessary to get home, still lost in thoughts of what it would be like to press his lips to Marcus’s, even feel the press of Marcus’s body arching under him, as impossible as he knew that was…

Chapter Text

Another week and a half passed by, and Marcus was already starting to have less trouble with the pain. He’d been worryingly feverish for days after the surgery, and Uncle Aquila had insisted on sending for Galarius again. The surgeon had said nothing was wrong, it was only his body trying to recover and heal, but he stayed at the house for a few days to keep an eye on things anyway, just in case. He’d left by now, confident that Marcus would be alright, and he’d told Esca which herbs would help keep his fever down if it ever got too high.

Now, Marcus was still a little feverish, but the pain was starting to lessen already. He attempted to walk some, but it was very laborious and he leaned on Esca's shoulders heavily. They only ever went as far as the bathhouse. It had been much worse after he first got wounded, he told Esca; after two weeks he’d barely been able to sit up, nevermind leave the bed to bathe, and Esca winced in alarmed sympathy as he carefully put ointment on the wound and wrapped the bandages around Marcus’s thigh. He suddenly wished he could’ve been there for Marcus in those days; at that time, Esca himself would have been competing in some gladiator competition. It would’ve been much better for both of them, no doubt, if he could have been with Marcus instead.

“Esca—” Marcus started, then stopped as he tried to move his bad leg up and onto the bed, gritting his teeth with the effort; Esca could tell he was frustrated at how little he could move on his own, but he wasn’t going to let him hurt himself any further. He reached to help him, then Marcus lifted his good leg on his own with a soft noise of frustration. 

“Esca,” he continued, more gently now, “you have seemed a little distant recently. Is there something troubling you?”

For a second, Esca thought Marcus had somehow figured out his feelings. He tried to project blank innocence into his expression as he answered, “No, nothing is wrong. I… I’ve just been tired lately, is all.” He knew it was a weak excuse, and he cursed himself as Marcus’s eyes narrowed suspiciously. He thought he’d been subtle, but Marcus was not an unobservant man. Of course he had noticed.

“I do not think you are telling the truth. Tell me Esca, has something happened?”

“Nothing has happened.”

Marcus raised his eyebrows. “Is that true?” Esca was silent, looking down at the floor, and Marcus touched his arm gently. “Esca, what is it?”

“I—Marcus, I can’t,” Esca almost whispered, still not looking at the other man. “I can’t say.”

There was a pause. “Is it—is it anything I can help with?” asked Marcus, softly, and Esca closed his eyes and wished that for once the man could be just a little less attentive. He couldn’t possibly return Esca’s feelings, and his concern felt like salt in the wound of the things Esca could never have.

“This is something I must work out on my own,” Esca said. “But I thank you.” Marcus’s hand was still on his arm, and Marcus squeezed gently, giving him a small, reassuring smile. And damn him, but that small gesture felt so intimate and sweet that it nearly made Esca give in and tell him everything, but Sassticca chose that moment to shout that she needed Esca in the kitchens, and Marcus grinned and waved a hand for him to go. Esca nearly ran, and once there he kneaded the bread dough hard in his frustration and Sassticca had to grab his arm and stop him from overdoing it.

 

***

 

It was nearly another week of the same—the gradual healing of Marcus’s leg, occasional sleepless nights when Esca tried to ease the pain to the best of his ability, long visits from Cottia, Cub sitting with his head or a paw resting in Marcus’s lap—before Marcus mentioned that conversation at all. Though Marcus hadn’t said anything out loud about the conversation, Esca had noticed the concerned looks Marcus would sometimes give him, and he knew he wasn’t doing as good a job of hiding his heart as he had thought he was.

After dinner one evening, Marcus seemed unusually lost in thought and was giving Esca more frequent glances of worry. Esca wanted nothing more than to convince him to stop worrying about him, but the only way to truly do that was to tell him the truth about what Esca’s problem was. I will tell him soon, Esca told himself, but it felt only half truthful, I will tell him soon. 

Esca was distracted as the two of them prepared for sleep, and finally, as Esca was about to go to his own mattress by the door, Marcus reached out and took hold of his wrist.

“Look, I know it’s not my business to ask,” he started without preamble, “but could you tell me now what is troubling you like this?”

There was a long beat of silence, Esca still turned half away from Marcus, his heart pounding now. 

“Please, Esca.” He tightened his grip on Esca’s wrist, pulling him slightly closer again. Esca’s heart twisted a little, and he turned to face Marcus fully again.

“I want to help if I can, whatever it is,” Marcus continued, and Esca could never resist when his voice went soft and earnest like that, and with his face full of so much openness, there was nothing Esca could do. He was practically forced to tell Marcus everything, and he was partly furious with himself and partly relieved that he wouldn’t have to keep this a secret anymore.

“Alright. Very well, I will tell you, Marcus.” Esca took a deep breath, then swallowed. “I am in love.” Marcus’s expression lifted just a little at that, just enough that Esca wasn’t sure if he’d imagined it or not. “I’m in love with you.” And at that admission, Esca looked away, down at Cub curled on the floor next to Marcus’s bed. The wolf was dreaming, and Esca wished he could disappear into the dream with him, and hunt rabbits instead of enduring this conversation.

“I do not know for how long,” Esca went on, because however much he disliked this he still owed Marcus an explanation, “possibly since that first day I saw you in the arena, demanding my life be spared, but I only truly realized it after your surgery. And I’m sorry if that offends a Roman Centurion like yourself—” and Esca really didn’t know where that had come from, but he felt suddenly defensive and defiant and afraid that Marcus would be angry “—but that is the truth of it. I am in love with you.”

After he’d said it, he met Marcus’s eyes full on, lifting his chin unashamedly, his whole body tense with defiance and anxiety for Marcus’s reaction.

“You—You are in love with me?” Marcus asked softly, and he sounded surprised and almost hopeful, not a trace of anger. A very attractive flush spread across his face. “Oh, Esca.” He laughed suddenly, softly, and Esca’s mind was all confusion. “How could I possibly be offended when I have known I felt the same ever since that day you told me about your family?”

Esca’s breath caught in his throat. “You have loved me that long? Why did you not say anything?”

Now it was Marcus’s turn to become hesitant. “I couldn’t. It didn’t feel—it was not right. You are my slave, I could not bear it if you started a relationship with me because you felt you had no choice. I could never force you into anything." He looked earnestly into Esca's face. "It needs to be as much your decision as mine, and I thought that it was only me who was feeling these things.”

And oh, this was one of the things Esca loved most about him, and he had to restrain himself from kissing Marcus to within an inch of his life, right then and there. He was such a brave, loyal, honorable, beautiful man, and Esca couldn’t believe he returned these feelings of Esca’s. It could almost be a dream, but for the pressure of Marcus’s fingers around his wrist, grounding and warm and real.

“It’s not just your decision,” Esca murmured. “I want this if you do truly love me.”

Marcus slid his hand into Esca’s and pulled him closer, and Esca sat next to him on the bed. “I do love you, so much,” he said quietly. They watched each other for a moment, and Esca was captivated. Marcus’s face seemed a little less sharp somehow, his hard angles more smoothed out, and Esca ran his fingers lightly over his jaw, his cheeks, his lips, the straight lines of his eyebrows and the raised scar between them, and he was struck by how pale his own fingers looked next to the olive of Marcus’s skin, darkened in the summer sun.

Smiling softly, Marcus covered Esca’s hand on his cheek. “Can I kiss you?” he murmured, and Esca nodded. Marcus's throat worked briefly as he swallowed, his eyes soft and wide and enthralled, and moved his hand to the back of Esca’s head, stroking over his hair. He drew Esca closer. And then they were kissing, and it was wonderful, and it was both everything and nothing like Esca had expected. Marcus’s lips were chapped, and he started hesitantly, then pressed into Esca eagerly, groaning into his mouth; it took his breath away to see how much Marcus must want him, and Esca deepened the kiss and pulled Marcus closer. Unconsciously, Esca’s hands were running down Marcus’s arms and sides, and he didn’t realize what he was doing until Marcus gave a quiet, pained cry and drew back a little when Esca accidentally pressed on the wound.

“Oh no, I’m sorry—” he started, worried, but Marcus was shaking his head and laughing softly, already pulling Esca in for another kiss. It was less frantic this time, and Esca went gently as an apology.

 

***

 

Cottia was the first one they told. She hadn’t been at the house for a while, and Esca partly missed her and was partly glad to have the time alone with Marcus. For the next three days or so after they’d confessed their feelings, neither of them wanted to go very long at all without seeing or touching each other, and Esca started to spend long, wonderful hours seated next to Marcus on the narrow bed reading aloud to him, his free arm wrapped around Marcus and Marcus’s head on his shoulder and his hand resting on Esca’s chest, tracing over the swirling blue lines of his tattoos, until one or the other of them dozed off.

Mostly Esca would read poetry, and Marcus told him sleepily one afternoon that listening to him read was the most beautiful, relaxing thing in the world. Esca grinned at that, surprised and delighted at how freely Marcus could say those words to him now.

It was four days after they’d first kissed when Cottia appeared as though by magic out in the courtyard, Cub barking happily at her and licking her face. She brought the wolf inside, almost as comfortable as if she lived here, and Esca stood up from his seat on the edge of Marcus’s bed, setting aside the book he’d been reading, to pet Cub.

“Cottia! I think Cub has missed you,” Marcus grinned, pushing himself up straighter against the pillows behind him. Cub nudged his nose against Esca’s hand, then trotted over to Marcus and licked his hands.

“Oh, I couldn’t get away from the house for a second,” Cottia said. “I tried to come see you, I really did want to, but my aunt has been trying to get me to wear all these new clothes and makeup and hairstyles that are the height of fashion in Rome, apparently.” She sounded scandalized, and it was then that Esca really noticed the way her hair was done, and the makeup she was wearing. He gave her a sympathetic look, and she went on. “She tried about a hundred different hairstyles and clothing styles on me, it was horrible and a tedious waste of time I would have rather spent here!”

“That does sound horrible,” said Marcus, his face apologetic, stroking Cub’s ears absently. The wolf was now sitting with his head resting on Marcus’s good leg.

“I’m very sorry for your suffering,” Esca said teasingly, and was rewarded with a laugh from Cottia.

“I don’t want to talk about it,” she laughed again, and sat at the foot of the bed. “What have the two of you been up to? Are you taking care of Marcus?” The last to Esca, and he smiled remembering his last conversation with her before Marcus’s surgery where she made him promise to make sure Marcus was alright.

“Oh yes, Esca is taking very good care of me.” Marcus was smiling at him, and Esca felt his face heat up. “He has been reading aloud to me, but I’m afraid I keep falling asleep.”

Esca laughed at that. “I don’t mind that at all, mi Marce.” He said it unconsciously, just as he unconsciously brushed his hand over Marcus’s where it rested on Cub’s head. For all that they hadn’t even had a week together, it felt only natural to be so intimate with him, to call him “my dear.”

When he looked up again, Esca saw Cottia watching them a little curiously. He glanced back at Marcus again, at their joined hands, then said, “This is something else that has happened since you have been gone. We—Well, Marcus has finally conceded to tell me that he has been in love with me for many months now, and I him.”

“Do you love each other? Truly?” She grinned, delighted, sounding far less surprised than he thought she would be. It was almost as if she’d expected it. “I suppose I have always thought both of you were at least halfway there!” She laughed a little at the surprise and the bright, flushed embarrassment on Marcus’s face, then reassured them that she didn’t think it was wrong in any way and didn’t mind in the least, as long as they didn’t get so caught up with each other that they forgot about her.

“Would we ever do that, dearest Cottia?” Esca said, half serious and half teasing.

“I should hope not,” she grinned. “Your lives would be so boring without me!”

Though she was joking, she was right. As much as Esca loved Marcus’s and Cub’s company, having Cottia there added something exciting and a little unpredictable to their days. Esca squeezed Marcus’s hand. 

She started coming to the house more often, and life continued as normal for the three of them and their Cub.

Chapter Text

For only a further half week, Marcus stayed mostly confined to the bed, and by that time he was growing restless. The pain hardly bothered him at all, though there were still times it kept him awake at night and Esca would apply more ointment and massage the surrounding muscles, or at least try to distract him. When Marcus was first able to walk slightly farther than before, he was frustrated at how weak he felt.

“I used to be able to march twenty miles a day with twenty pounds of armor and gear, and a sword and shield. Now, I can barely walk past the bathhouse, with you nearly carrying me.” He nearly spat out the words in a rare outburst, squeezing his eyes shut, and Esca could only tighten his arm around Marcus’s waist, place a steadying hand on his chest, and reassure him that he would be as strong as ever in time, if only he’d let himself heal properly. Marcus sighed and tightened his own arm around Esca’s shoulders, turning his head to press a soft, grateful kiss to Esca’s lips.

He improved slowly day by day, and Esca was pleased to see his frustration lessen with his healing. Often, when she was there, Cottia would give him a shoulder to lean on on one side and Esca on the other, both of them helping ease him into walking longer distances. A month passed, and another, and Marcus was able to walk with a hand on Esca’s shoulder, and then completely on his own, though he limped quite a bit. Eventually he asked Esca if they could do some sparring for fitness, and since he was getting stronger now and walking fairly long distances without much trouble, Esca agreed.

They did some boxing as well as using shields and dull wooden weapons. Esca recalled the training he’d had as a gladiator and did his best to train Marcus the way he and the other gladiators had. Only this was much less harsh; after all, he wasn’t training Marcus to fight for his life, and even if he were, he’d never treat Marcus the way the gladiators had treated each other in training, almost like they were in the arena already.

The training did both of them good, though more often than not it ended with them sprawled on the grass together, kissing, talking, enjoying the sunshine. Winter crept in, and they continued to train, Marcus’s growing confidence in himself warming Esca.

“I am so happy,” Esca told him one day in late winter, after training, when they were in the warm pool of the bathhouse, “to see you are regaining so much strength and health. It is wonderful to see you so confident and happy.”

Marcus smiled. “It is all thanks to you, my love,” he murmured, wrapping his arms around Esca’s shoulders and drawing him into a kiss. “I cannot thank you enough for putting up with me these past few months.” Grinning, Esca shook his head and set his hands on Marcus’s hips and pressed him back against the wall of the shallow pool. Drops of water trailed down his stomach, and Esca followed them with his fingers. Marcus was smiling too, and when Esca kissed him again, deeply, passionately, he could feel the rise and fall of Marcus’s chest as his breath came faster.

Esca’s hand, still resting on Marcus’s stomach, trailed lower, but Marcus inhaled sharply and drew back, fingers wrapping around Esca’s wrist. It was clear Marcus wanted him, but Esca moved away, trying not to feel hurt when the other man wouldn’t meet his eyes.

“Esca, I—I’m sorry, I can’t.” When he met Esca’s eyes, his own were dark with arousal but apologetic and almost ashamed, and Esca couldn’t figure out why. He half wanted to ask, but if Marcus was not ready to be so intimate with him, whatever the reason, Esca would not push him or force him to explain himself. He gave Marcus a quick smile instead.

“That is perfectly alright. Whenever you’re ready,” Esca reassured, setting both hands on Marcus’s shoulders, and Marcus relaxed under his hands.

 

***

 

Sometime in early spring, Uncle Aquila informed them that they would be having a guest at the house in a few days, and Esca and the other slaves worked to get everything ready for the majority of the next two days. They prepared an extra room, cleaned the whole house, and bought food for the dinners, which Esca spent about half a day on with Sassticca, who kept changing her mind about what exactly she wanted to cook. As a consequence of all this, Esca didn’t get to see much of Marcus except at night, and it was the night before the guest was meant to arrive that Marcus told Esca that he’d told his uncle about their relationship that afternoon.

“It is in my heart that I wish I had asked you about it beforehand, but you were so tired the night before and I did not wish to interrupt your work,” Marcus explained. Esca was just surprised they’d managed to hide it from his uncle for this long.

“How did he take it?”

Marcus laughed at that. “He told me that he already knew, or guessed at least, the change in our relationship. And he does not mind at all.”

“Truly?” Esca’s eyebrows went up, and he laughed too as Marcus nodded. So they hadn’t managed to hide it after all. Not that it mattered overly much, if the man really did not care.

The next day, Esca felt lighter somehow without the burden hanging over him of keeping his love for Marcus a secret from his uncle. He nearly laughed aloud at himself at the thought—it wasn’t as if Marcus was a delicate maiden Esca was courting and Esca needed the permission of his guardian to marry him.

But still, it was a relief to know Uncle Aquila didn’t disapprove.

There was less work to do today, and by that afternoon, Esca was out with Marcus at the place a few miles outside Calleva that they’d recently taken to using for training and boxing. Cub was with them, and Marcus seemed determined, today of all days, to release him and give him the opportunity to go to his own pack if he wanted.

“Go free, brother,” Marcus said as he removed Cub’s collar and stroked a hand over his thick, brindled fur. “Good hunting.” Cub hesitated a moment, then ran out into the bracken of the hillside.

They watched him until he disappeared in the underbrush, then Marcus turned and sat on the fallen tree behind him, Esca sitting down by his feet a second later. It was a beautiful day, and Esca stretched out on the grass to enjoy the sun as he and Marcus exchanged quiet, relaxed words. Esca could feel Marcus’s eyes on him, but he kept his own eyes closed and pretended not to notice as Marcus told him more about the guest that was coming: he was a Legate of the Sixth Legion, and an old friend of Uncle Aquila’s who had served in Judaea with him. The Legate had come from Eburacum and was heading to Regnum, and from there to Rome.

“And now he goes home to his own place?” Esca asked.

“Yes,” murmured Marcus, “but only on some business with the Senate, Uncle Aquila says. Then back to the Eagles again.”

They fell silent, both lost in thought. For a while now, Marcus had been talking to Esca about the possibility of looking for work as a secretary, now that the Legions were closed to him, but Esca knew the other man wasn’t very interested in that kind of work. Marcus had meant to tell his uncle about his decision tonight, but with a guest coming for dinner, it was delayed a while longer, and Esca half wished that this breathing space would change Marcus’s mind. He knew Marcus would need to find work soon, but he didn’t want him to be unhappy as someone’s secretary.

Maybe when this Legate met Marcus, he would offer Marcus a position as his assistant. Esca had no idea if Legates even had assistants or secretaries or anything of the kind, or if that was any kind of position Marcus could have if they did, but surely Marcus would be happier having something to do with the Legions still. Or that might just bring up unwanted memories and thoughts of the life he could’ve had.

Esca sighed, tired of thinking so much, stretching a little in the grass, and opened his eyes to see Marcus smiling at him, softly. They watched each other for a moment, before Esca rose and then seated himself on Marcus’s lap. He didn’t put his full weight on Marcus, not wanting to hurt him, but Marcus just grinned and pulled Esca flush against his chest, unbalancing him so he was fully on top of Marcus.

“Alright?” Esca murmured. Both his hands were on Marcus’s chest, and he could feel the steady beat of his heart. Marcus just hummed and tilted his chin up to kiss Esca, wrapping strong arms around him.

They sat there, just kissing, for what felt like a long time, and Marcus’s hands were warm through the cloth of Esca’s tunic, rubbing up and down his back, and Esca pressed a kiss just under Marcus’s jaw. It was good, it was calm and relaxed, and Marcus seemed very reluctant to suggest going back to the house.

They sat together a while longer, then Esca eventually stood up slowly and took Marcus’s hands to help him up, and Marcus whistled for Cub in case he was within earshot. Cub didn’t hear, and so the two of them went back to the house together, both of them heavy of heart and missing their wolf cub.

They parted ways at the entrance of the villa, Esca to see to the last minute preparations and set out a fresh tunic for Marcus to wear for dinner, and Marcus to greet the newly arrived Legate, plus the additional guest the Legate had seemingly brought.

“Ah, you are back, Marcus. This is my very old friend Claudius Hieronimianus, Legate of the Sixth Legion,” came Uncle Aquila’s voice as Esca headed away toward the bedrooms, and he wasn’t able to catch any more of the exchange.

Setting up an extra room and finding a clean tunic for Marcus didn’t take long, and by the time Esca was finished, Marcus was getting ready to go to the bathhouse before dinner.

And with him, was Cub, tail held high and waving excitedly in the air.

“Cub! Oh, it’s good to see you,” Esca said as he crouched down to pet the wolf. Cub licked at his face, and Esca was grinning as he ran his hands over Cub’s ears and down his back.

“There is another thing that may interest you,” Marcus added, and he seemed oddly tense and his eyes were bright when Esca looked up at him. “A Tribune Servius Placidus is here with the Legate, I think the same man you met when you found Cub.”

Esca looked at Marcus in surprise for a moment, then laughed.

“Is he? Well, it doesn’t matter to me, truly.” The words the tribune had spoken to him a year ago didn’t affect him at all now, though he truly loved and appreciated how prepared Marcus seemed to defend Esca’s honor against the man. He stood and kissed Marcus lightly on the lips, still smiling.

 

***

 

Esca served the dinner and then was dismissed from the room to let the three of them talk alone, and oddly, it brought back memories of when his father would have important guests for dinner and would send Esca and his brothers out of the room so they could talk about trade or whatever else in private. Usually Esca and his brothers would hide just outside and try to listen in, but the conversations had made next to no sense to Esca.

Now, he didn’t intentionally listen in, and he couldn’t make out the words, but he could understand the growing seriousness and urgency in Marcus’s tone. He half wanted to go out and see what was going on, and no sooner had he had the thought, than he heard Marcus shout for him.

“The Centurion called?” Esca said, as politely as possible. He was pleased to see the badly disguised surprise on Placidus’s face at seeing Esca so civilized and obedient, and he hoped the tribune knew he would only ever do this for Marcus. He wouldn’t serve another like this.

“The Legate has been speaking of a rumor from along the Wall that the lost Eagle of my father’s Legion has been seen in the North,” Marcus started, almost tripping over the words in his eagerness. His eyes were bright and intense with life in the warm glow of the lamps. “The rumor is that it is receiving divine honors in one of the Caledonian tribes, and I have volunteered to find out the truth or untruth of this.” He took a deep breath. “You will come with me, Esca?”

It sounded dangerous, being almost alone in the Caledonian wilderness, but it was clearly a noble undertaking that was important to Marcus. Esca couldn’t lie and say he didn’t like the sound of disappearing into the British wilds and leaving their life in the villa behind, at least for a few months. And it seemed that Marcus would need him; Esca knew the land well, and it was more likely that they’d be trusted if one of them was a native Briton, as Marcus clearly was not. His British was fluent, but he had a very noticeable accent, and no one would believe he was British to look at him.

Esca stepped in closer. “I will come.”

The details and plans were laid out, and Marcus explained that he would pretend to be a traveling oculist, with Esca as his assistant, and that the surgeon who had re-opened his wounds could tell him what he’d need to know about doctoring eyes.

“You understand the position?” the Legate asked, after a long silence. “The Province of Valentia is not worth an outworn sandal strap. You will be going out alone into enemy territory, and if you run into trouble, there will be nothing Rome can or will do to help you.”

“I understand that,” Marcus said. “But I shall not be going alone; Esca goes with me.” And Esca felt pride glowing warm in his chest at the trust Marcus had in him.

The Legate sighed. “Go then. I am not your Legate, but I give you your marching orders.”

Later in the night, Marcus came into his room with Cub at his heels, and Esca set down the belt he’d been working on.

“When do we leave?” he asked.

“Probably the morning after tomorrow. That is, for myself at least. First, you should take this.” And Marcus handed him a roll of papyrus he’d been carrying. Esca took it, puzzled, and read over it once, then again more carefully. He looked up into Marcus’s face, amazed but still puzzled.

“Marcus, is this—are you giving me my freedom?” The question was whispered, as if asking any louder would make it not real. Marcus nodded.

“It is your manumission. I made it out this evening, and Uncle Aquila and the Legate witnessed it. Esca, I should have given it to you a long time ago; I have been a completely unthinking fool, and I’m sorry.” Marcus’s face was very open, apologetic and a little afraid, and Esca wished he could find the words to reassure him. Instead, he only said,

“I am free? Free to go?” He hadn’t truly felt like a slave in a long time, but it was still almost unbelievable.

“Yes, free to go, Esca.”

A sudden, terrible thought occurred to Esca. He never would have thought this of Marcus, but… 

But he had to ask it, now.

“Is it that you are sending me away?” Esca whispered, proud that he was able to keep his voice from shaking.

“No!” Marcus shook his head adamantly. “No, Esca, never. It is for you to stay or go, as you wish.”

Esca closed his eyes, relief washing over him, then looked up and smiled at Marcus. “Then I stay.” He remembered seeing Placidus talking to Marcus after dinner, and wondered if this was something he had put in Marcus’s head. “Perhaps,” he said a little teasingly, “it is not only I who think foolish thoughts because of Tribune Placidus.”

Marcus smiled back. “Perhaps.” He rested his hands on Esca’s shoulders, and Esca leaned into the touch a little. “I never should have asked you to come into this with me while you weren’t free to refuse. It is likely to prove a wild hunt, and whether or not we shall come back lies at the feet of the gods. No one should ask a slave to go with him on such a hunting trail.”

Shaking his head, Esca set the papyrus aside and covered Marcus’s hands with his own, looking directly into his face to make Marcus understand how serious he was in this. “I have never served you because I was a slave. I’ve only ever stayed with you of my own choice.”

A thought occurred to Esca suddenly, and he squeezed Marcus’s hands. “Are there other, more intimate things that you have felt you could not ask for because I was a slave?” The way he had pulled away when Esca had tried to touch him when they were in the baths suddenly made so much more sense.

Marcus’s face flushed and he looked away. “I could never do something like that with you while I was your master,” he murmured. “Even though you were the one initiating it, it would have felt shameful, like I was still somehow forcing you.”

Esca felt a hot rush of desire and affection for the man before him, and he kissed Marcus fiercely, moving his hands to Marcus’s waist to pull him closer. “Surely it would not be shameful now?” he whispered into Marcus’s ear. “I want this if you do. I promise you, you aren’t forcing anything on me.” He felt Marcus trembling at the words, and Marcus nodded, his eyes wide and dark.

“Yes, Esca, please—”

He smiled and pushed Marcus down onto the bed, pulled Marcus’s tunic off, and lowered his head to slowly kiss down the whole length of Marcus’s body, filled with a desire to make Marcus his. He whispered possessively into Marcus’s ear that he was Esca’s, Esca’s and no one else’s, just as Esca was only Marcus's, as he took him in hand, and it was over almost too quickly as Marcus finished with a sharp, bitten-off cry. Esca lay down next to him, and then Marcus was pulling him close and kissing him deeply.

It was a long time before they went to sleep.

Chapter Text

“I am so happy to see you are regaining so much strength and health. It is wonderful to see you so confident and happy,” Esca told him after an afternoon of training, when they were in his uncle’s private bathhouse together, alone. The words made Marcus smile uncontrollably.

“It is all thanks to you, my love.” He was only speaking the truth, with no intended flattery, but Esca’s face flushed lightly in pleasure. He drew Esca into a kiss, trying to show just how grateful he was. “I cannot thank you enough for putting up with me these last few months.”

Esca was grinning at him, shaking his head, and then his hands were on Marcus, kneading into the muscles of his sides, moving down to his hips, and pushing him gently against the wall of the pool. Marcus’s breath came faster, and his mouth went dry seeing the dark, intense look on Esca’s face. Then Esca’s hand trailed down teasingly from his stomach to his growing hardness, and sudden shame and horror overwhelmed the desire. 

No, they couldn’t do this. It had been a long time since he’d thought of Esca as a slave, but now, their respective statuses glared full in his face. And maybe other Romans would have no qualms about taking their own body-slaves to bed, but Marcus had never been that kind of man, the kind to demand something that should be willingly given. He had confessed his feelings to Esca on the condition that they both wanted it equally, but in this, he couldn’t feel that it was given entirely freely. Maybe Esca felt that this was expected of him now, that if he didn’t give Marcus this, Marcus might force him—

Feeling suddenly sick, he shuddered and swallowed hard; he reached for Esca’s wrist with a shaking hand to stop him before he touched Marcus, unable to bear even the possibility that Esca might think that.

“Esca, I—I’m sorry, I can’t.” He forced the words out, and they sounded strangled to his own ears. Esca was looking at him curiously, and Marcus couldn’t meet his eyes, filled with shame for his own arousal and wishing he could have a moment to calm down and explain.

The other man seemed almost hurt when Marcus finally met his eyes. He searched Marcus’s face, before giving him a quick smile and setting his hands on Marcus’s shoulders. “It is alright. Whenever you’re ready,” Esca murmured, and Marcus relaxed slightly. After a few moments, Esca turned away to move deeper into the water, and Marcus pressed the heel of his hand hard against himself, trying to dispel the arousal, and gritted his teeth. He cursed himself for not explaining his actions, for now only the gods knew what Esca must think of him, and surely it couldn't be good...

In the next weeks, he tried to come up with the right words to say to Esca, but he could never find the right time to say them. Esca didn’t try again to touch him like that, and Marcus was grateful, though he could see Esca’s eyes on him, full of desire, and he thought maybe Esca didn’t feel forced at all. Still, Marcus couldn’t bring himself to indulge in such intimacy with a man who he technically owned. It would still feel dirty to Marcus.

Finally, on the night of the Legate’s visit, Marcus decided to free Esca, wishing he had done it long ago. He wanted to give Esca his explanation now, but the words stuck in his throat, and Marcus silently cursed himself. But Esca, wonderful and clever Esca, seemed to know them already, and needed only the briefest explanation from Marcus before he was kissing him hard and pressing him down onto the bed; Marcus had no doubt that Esca truly wanted him, and followed his lead gladly.

Chapter Text

Esca and Marcus spent only a few days with Rufrius Galarius before starting North, just long enough for Galarius to show Marcus how to use the salves to treat eyes, and for them to come up with disguises and get two horses. Esca’s role was as Marcus’s spear-bearer, which didn’t feel like a disguise at all to him—he’d felt in his heart that among other things he was truly Marcus’s spear-bearer, not his body-slave, for a long time—and it meant returning to traditional British dress, which he was only too glad to do, and also it meant growing out his beard. After so long of wearing Roman clothing, it felt comfortable and almost like coming home to wear the braccae and furs of his own people. It felt like he was truly free now, like the clothing and his official role as spear-bearer had sealed the pact.

For Marcus, the disguise was a little more elaborate. He was pretending to be a Greek oculist, and he too grew out his beard, and wore braccae and a faded violet tunic, a cloak, a talisman to cover the brand of his god on his forehead, and a Phrygian hat that Esca thought looked absolutely ridiculous. But Marcus said he liked the hat and that it looked good on him, and he insisted on wearing it.

“It’ll help me be less recognizable! No one would expect someone like me to wear this, would they?” He put the hat on, and looked at Esca with a little shrug, his lips quirking into a faint grin.

Esca laughed. “You do look very different. And I have to admit it does look good, but only because it’s on you, Marcus.”

Marcus? Who is Marcus?” He raised an eyebrow. “I am Demetrius of Alexandria, the Demetrius of Alexandria, have you forgotten already?! How will you ever be able to help me treat sore eyes if you can’t even remember who I am!” He managed to keep a mostly straight face as he said it, but Esca laughed, and snatched the hat off his head.

“You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

And Marcus did laugh at that, his eyes sparkling. “I am, a little.”

“You should take up acting when we return home again. I think you could be good at that.”

When they left early the next morning, Galarius wished them the best of luck, and they both thanked him for all his help, promising to come see him again if they came home by the same way.

It was a few weeks before they reached the Wall, and several times now, Marcus had given salves and medical instructions to the best of his ability, and had played the part of Demetrius the quack-salver very admirably. As his loyal spear-bearer, Esca didn’t have to play much of a role, but Marcus had well and truly gotten into character.

When Marcus started telling the soldiers at the Wall about his Invincible Anodyne and bragging about his own accomplishments and importance, Esca was used to the act by then, but he still had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep his face serious and straight. As soon as he was sure they were out of earshot of anyone at the Wall, Esca laughed loudly, and Marcus, riding ahead of him, turned around and flashed a bright grin at him.

That evening when they made camp, Marcus built an altar to Mithras in honor of their first camp site north of the Wall and made a fire on top of it to sacrifice the carved wooden bird that he carried with him. Marcus had told him how he’d carved it from a knot in an olive tree when he was a young boy and living in Etruria, and he’d had it ever since. A fitting sacrifice to his god, surely.

Mostly, they rode during the day in relative silence, comfortable enough with each other that they didn’t need to say much to enjoy each other’s company. At night they shared their bed rolls and blankets, sometimes just for the extra warmth, and other times, they would lie on top of the blankets and furs, touching and stroking and memorizing the feel of each other until they were both gasping and crying out at the pleasure of it, Marcus luxurious and not at all quiet now that they were no longer in his uncle’s house.

This time only last year, if Esca had found himself in the wilds of the North with no Roman presence around him except for a single man, he wouldn’t have hesitated an instant before running. He knew that if he really wanted to leave, Marcus could do nothing to stop him, Esca could leave no trace of where he went, he could be gone. But it was a distant, distant thought, like imagining Marcus becoming the Emperor of Rome—distant, unthinkable, and impossible. Esca didn’t want to leave, and he wasn’t going to leave; Marcus needed and trusted him, and though he had no love for Rome in general, Marcus’s quest was a noble one—a son honoring his dead father by finding the lost symbol he had given his life for, and bringing it home to the country they had both served. Esca would do no differently were he in Marcus’s place.

They travelled to many different villages in Valentia, and Marcus treated as many people with sore eyes as he could, and he was good at it. He was careful and gentle, and did his best for his patients, insisting he and Esca stay for a few days if someone was doing particularly badly. Now that they were north of the Wall, they both spoke more British than Latin, and Marcus still had a strong, slightly harsh accent that Esca couldn’t help finding oddly charming. He was also learning the dialect of the Northern tribes very quickly, and by now he was nearly fluent.

For long weeks and months, they went from village to village, sometimes with a guide if it was needed, but Esca could find no signs of a holy place which could house Marcus’s Eagle. Esca would be able to sense such a sacred place easily, he was sure—his whole life, he’d had a great spiritual sensitivity, and a place that supposedly housed the Eagle God of the Legions would leave signs far and wide.

Marcus grew agitated, worried that they’d never find this holy place, and Esca was beginning to feel the same. They kept pushing on and on to the north, far enough that the weather started getting chilled and the hills were covered in mist. Eventually, they decided it would be better to go back south a ways to the places they had missed before.

They stopped for the night at the abandoned Roman fort of Trinomontium, and with the light fading, it was frightening for Esca. The run down fort was falling down in more places than not, and plants were growing between the stones of the floor, and worst of all, Esca was sure he could feel the vaguely threatening presence of the spirits of long dead Legionaries. Officially, this had been a posting of the Twentieth Legion, but it could have easily been the Ninth as well, for all anyone knew. They could never truly know where the Ninth had served after they disappeared, but it was their ghosts that Esca felt. Marcus seemed to hardly notice the atmosphere, but he had different gods, and likely the Romans didn’t believe the spirits of the dead wandered the earth the way Esca’s people did.

“It is in my heart that we had pushed on to the next village,” Esca said almost under his breath as they looked around. “I do not like this place.”

“Why not? You did not mind when we were here before.” For they had gone to explore it a little when they’d first come this way on their way north. Marcus looked a little surprised, and Esca would have felt embarrassed to have brought it up if he didn’t trust Marcus so much and think so highly of him.

“That was at noon,” Esca explained, still almost whispering. “Now it is evening, and soon the light will go.”

Marcus seemed confused still when Esca explained more, and Esca finally started to relax, at least enough to half laugh at his own worry. If Marcus didn’t think anything was wrong with this place, maybe Esca really was just irrationally alarmed by the dark shadows on the ruin’s walls and the sound of the wind outside.

“I do not think the ghosts would bring us any harm if they did come,” Marcus assured him after a pause. “It seemed to me that this would be a good place to sleep, especially with the curlews calling rain as they are this evening; but if you say the word, we will find a sheltered place among the hazel woods, and sleep there.”

A warm feeling filled Esca’s chest, and he didn’t feel as afraid, though he knew still that neither of them could fight off ghosts if they came. Marcus made him feel more secure, somehow, and Esca trusted his judgement and felt sure that if the danger was imminent, Marcus would feel it too. “I should be ashamed,” said Esca quickly, and they built a fire and set up the bedding under a part of the roof that hadn’t collapsed.

They ate, and sat by the fire talking quietly for a while, then Esca kissed Marcus goodnight and went to settle down in the bedding to sleep. Marcus stayed up, still seated by the fire, and Esca had to work to convince himself once again that they were safe here. He silently made a prayer for their protection to his own gods, hoping they would hear and protect Marcus as well as himself, though they weren’t Marcus’s gods. With the words of the prayer still in his mind, he fell into a light sleep, only half waking a while later when Marcus settled in next to him and wrapped an arm around him, kissing his forehead, the roughness of his beard scratching lightly against Esca’s skin.

Much later, almost at dawn, Esca woke again, completely and alertly, to the sound of someone whistling not far off. He listened hard for a moment, and ice ran through him as the whistling continued; he suddenly imagined that the ghosts of the Legion had found them, but he pushed the panic down enough to stand and grab his hunting spear. He knew it would do very little against spirits of the dead, but he couldn’t bring himself to just sit and do absolutely nothing to protect himself and Marcus.

Esca listened hard as the sound came nearer, and he realized he’d heard the tune before, in Marcus’s deep, rich singing voice. It was a marching song from the Legions, Marcus had said, and it was about the many girls that the writer of the song had kissed in different parts of the Empire. Who, out here in the British wilderness that was almost completely untouched by Rome, would be singing a song of the Roman Legions…?

Panic flared sharply in Esca’s chest again. He woke Marcus quickly with a touch to his shoulder, and he seemed nearly as alarmed as Esca felt when he heard the whistling.

Heart pounding, Esca stood up fully with Marcus, gripping his spear with one hand and Marcus’s hand with the other, likely hard enough to hurt, though the other man didn’t say anything.

As they went slowly to the doorway, the voice started to sing lowly, and Esca recognized it as the last verse of the song:

The girls of Spain were honey-sweet,

And the golden girls of Gaul:

And the Thracian maids were soft as birds

To hold the heart in thrall.

But the girl I kissed at Clusium

Kissed and left at Clusium,

The girl I kissed at Clusium 

I remember best of all.

A long march, a long march, and twenty years behind,

But the girl I kissed at Clusium comes easy to my mind.

Esca took a deep, steadying breath as he and Marcus rounded the corner and looked in the direction of the voice. 

The singer was a human man—no ghost, to Esca’s indescribable relief—and Esca closed his eyes briefly and made a silent, fervent prayer of thanks to the gods. Slowly and shakily, he let out the breath he’d been holding, and Marcus stroked his thumb over Esca’s knuckles reassuringly. Esca squeezed his hand, before letting go to take his spear with both hands, still unsure if he should trust this man. 

It was only then that his relief faded enough for him to take in the man’s appearance fully, and he noticed something very odd about him: he was British, wearing only an ochre colored kilt, his arms, torso, and face tattooed with the same swirling patterns on Esca’s skin. He was clearly no Legionary, and from the tribe of the Selgovae. He was leading a shaggy pony with a dead deer on its back, and he carried a spear in his other hand which he raised when he saw the two of them. The man looked surprised to see them.

“It has been a good hunting, friend,” said Marcus after a pause, gesturing to the deer.

“Good enough until I can do better. There is none to spare,” the man told them. His spear was still pointed toward them, and so Esca didn’t lower his own.

“We have food of our own. Also we have a fire, and you’re welcome to share it.”

“What do you in Trinomontium?” The man demanded after another short pause, glancing at both Esca and Marcus suspiciously.

“We only camp for the night,” Marcus told him. “It seemed to us a far better place to sleep than the open moor.”

Only then did the man lower his spear, turning it so that the sharp tip pointed behind him toward the ground, and Esca did the same.

“I think that you will be the Healer of sore eyes, of whom I have heard?” the man asked. Traveling oculists didn’t often come this far North, it seemed, and so word had spread throughout Valentia of Demetrius the Healer of sore eyes and his spear-bearer, Esca.

“I am.”

There was a pause, then, “I will come share your fire.” The man whistled, and two hunting dogs ran up from the bracken to join him.

Esca stoked the fire and placed more branches on it, and soon the fire was large enough for him to put strips of meat in it to cook. Then he sat back and focused his attention once again on the stranger, the tribesman who knew the songs of the Legions. Esca’s spear was in easy reach by his side, and a quick glance at it comforted him. But for the moment, at least, the man seemed innocuous enough; he cut a few large pieces of meat from his dead deer and set them in the fire to cook, throwing scraps to his dogs, then stood and threw the rest of the deer over a tree branch.

He looked from Marcus to Esca and back intently, and he seemed to be looking them over, especially Marcus, as if he were searching for something. It was then, now that he had moved closer to them, that Esca noticed the faint mark of a scar on his forehead, exactly like the brand Marcus had between his brows for his god. This stranger couldn’t possibly be what he seemed…

“I thank you for the heat of your fire. I am sorry, it is in my heart that I should have been quicker to reverse my spear,” the man said, and Esca felt himself relaxing a little at the words. “Only in all the years I have come here on the hunting trail, I have never until now found any man here before me.”

“And now you have found two. And since we share the same fire, surely we should know each other’s names,” Marcus said with a smile, his teeth very white in his dark, shadowed face. “I am Demetrius of Alexandria, a traveling oculist, as you seem to know, and this,” he set a hand on Esca’s shoulder, “is my friend and spear-bearer, Esca Mac Cunoval, of the tribe of the Brigantes.”

Esca lifted his head and smiled at the man. “The bearers of the blue war shield,” he said, with no small amount of pride. “You have heard of my tribe, maybe, if not of me.”

“I have heard of your tribe, a little.” The man seemed almost grimly amused, and Esca felt a slight sinking feeling in his heart that this man had likely only heard of their last stand, and none of their glorious, golden victories.

“I am called Guern, and I am a hunter, as you see,” the man told them. “My home lies a day’s trail to the west.”

There was a long, silent pause, then Marcus asked where Guern had learned the marching song from the Legions. Guern said that he’d leaned it from a Centurion when he was a boy, and Trinomontium was still a Roman fort, and that he’d learned a little Latin from those soldiers as well. Esca wasn’t very convinced, and it didn’t seem Marcus was, either.

But, Guern shared the meat from the deer with them and offered to let them stay in his house, where he lived with his family as an outdweller from his tribe, for a few nights, and then show them the way to the next village. It was to thank them for letting him sit at their fire, and Marcus accepted the offer. They could trust him, Esca thought, and they could figure out his secrets in time.

 

***

 

It took a few days for Guern to finish his hunting, but then he lead them for about a day’s journey to where he lived. He had a wife and children who loved him, and the day and two nights that Esca and Marcus stayed with them were comfortable. And they found out that Guern was not what he seemed at all, on the second morning when he shaved off his beard. With the hair gone, Guern clearly had a distinctive scar under his chin, which Esca knew could only have been caused by the chinstraps of a Roman helmet. Marcus had seen the scar, too, Esca was sure, but neither of them confronted him about it until that night, when Guern had led them about halfway to the next village.

Marcus sat with Guern by the fire, while Esca sat a little farther to the side to sharpen his spear. He could see both of their faces; Marcus’s confident and curious, and Guern’s suspicious and a little alarmed when Marcus asked, “How did you come to be Guern the hunter, when you once served with the Legions?”

There was a shocked pause. “Who told you such a thing?” Guern asked eventually.

“No one,” said Marcus. “I go by a song, and the scar between your brows. But most of all by the scar under your chin.”

Guern eyed him from under his brows, and said, “I am a man of my tribe, and if I was not always so, none among my sword-brethren would speak of that to a stranger. What need have I to tell you of it?”

“None in the world, save that I asked you in all courtesy.”

Eventually, the hunter admitted, with a little spark of long-forgotten pride, “Yes, I was once Sixth Centurion of the Senior Cohort of the Hispana. Now go tell the nearest commander on the Wall, I shall not stop you.”

Marcus watched him quietly, thoughtfully, for a long moment. “No patrol could reach you out here, and you know it. But even if it were not so, there’s still a reason I should keep my mouth shut. I bear on my forehead a mark identical to the mark you bear on yours.” And he removed the talisman covering his brand of Mithras, and Guern leaned forward to look closely.

“So you do,” he said thoughtfully. His eyes narrowed, and he was looking intensely over Marcus’s face now, as if searching for something. “Who are you, really? What are you?”

And then Guern’s hands were on Marcus, wrenching his shoulders around to the side and making his lame leg twist under him in a way that looked nearly painful, stooping over him and glaring into his face. Marcus’s dark brows were drawn together in a look of prideful offense, and Esca kept a hand on his spear as he silently got to his feet.

“I’ve seen you before. I know your face. In the name of Light, who are you?”

“Maybe it is my father’s face you have seen. He was your Cohort Commander.”

Guern released Marcus and moved back, but kept his eyes intently focused on Marcus’s face; he seemed almost stunned. 

So Marcus told him who they really were, and why they were really in Valentia; this was something they could trust him with completely, Esca realized, and came to sit near Marcus. The other man gave Esca a grateful look, and wrapped his fingers around Esca’s wrist, squeezing gently, before releasing him again all too quickly.

Then Marcus asked, “What became of my father’s Legion? Where is the Eagle now?”

It took a moment for Guern to answer, and Esca could feel the tension quivering through every line of Marcus’s body as they waited for the hunter to speak. When he did, it was in Latin rather than British, and he told them how the Ninth Legion had been cursed by the Iceni queen Boudicca after they put down her rebellion.

“The Legion was cut to pieces in that rising, and when it failed, the Queen took poison. Maybe her death gave potency to the curse. After that, the Ninth never prospered. Perhaps if it had been moved elsewhere in the Empire it might have been saved, but for a Legion to serve generation after generation among tribes that believe it to be cursed is not good for that Legion. Small misfortunes bloat into large ones, outbreaks of sickness are attributed to the curse rather than to the marsh mists… So it became harder and harder to find recruits, and the standard of those taken grew lower, year by year. When I joined as a Centurion, two years before the end, the rind seemed sound enough but the heart of the Legion was rotten. Completely rotten.”

Guern spat into the fire. At Esca’s side, Marcus was still tense and unmoving.

“I strove to fight the rot at first, but the fighting grew to be too much trouble. The Emperor Trajan withdrew too many troops from Britain, for his everlasting campaigns; and we were left to hold the frontier. Then Trajan died, and the tribes rose. The whole North rose up in flames, and we had barely settled with the Brigantes and the Iceni when we were ordered up to hammer the Caledonians. We had already suffered heavy casualties, and two of our Cohorts were serving elsewhere, and another Cohort was left to garrison Eburacum, leaving well under four thousand of us to march north. Then when our Legate took the omens from the sacred chickens, they did not touch the feed he gave them. We gave ourselves up for doomed.

“It was autumn, and from the start the mountain country was blanketed in mist, and out of the mist, the tribesmen harried us. They hung about our flanks like wolves and made attacks on our rear guard and occasionally fired arrows into our midst. The parties sent out after them never came back.

“A Legate who was also a soldier might have saved us, but ours had seen nothing of soldiering and was too proud to listen to his officers who had. By the time we reached the Northern Wall, which was to be our base, upward of another thousand men were gone, by death or desertion. The old fortifications were crumbling, the water supply had given out, and the whole north had gathered in strength by then. They sat around our walls and yelled, like wolves howling at the moon. We stood one attack in that place, and when the tribesmen drew off to lick their wounds, we chose a spokesman and went to the Legate. We said, ‘Now we will make what terms we can with the Painted People, that they may let us march back the way we came, leaving Valentia in their hands.’ And the Legate sat in his camp chair, that we had had to carry for him all the way from Eburacum, and called us evil names. Then more than half of us mutinied, many of my own Century among them.

“Then the Legate tried to convince the mutineers to lay down their arms that they had taken up against their Eagle, and swore that there would be no summary punishment, even against the ringleaders, upon our return. As though we should ever return! But even had the way been clear, it was too late for such promises. From the moment the Cohorts mutinied, it was too late.

“So the thing ended in fighting. That was when the Legate was killed. He called on them to remember their oaths to Rome, but one struck him down, and after that there was no more talking. The tribesmen came swarming over the barricades, and by dawn, there were barely two Cohorts left alive in the fort. The rest were not all dead, oh no; many of them went back over the ramparts with the tribesmen.

“Just after dawn, your father called together the few who were left and determined to move out of the old fort and carry the Eagle back to Eburacum as best we might. It was no use to try to make terms with the tribesmen, for they had no reason to fear us now, and I think we all had the thought that if we won through, we could scarcely be counted as disgraced. That night the tribesmen feasted and drank, and those that were left of us got out and passed them by in the darkness and mist, and began the forced march back to Trinomontium. But they picked up our trail at dawn and hunted us as though for sport. All that day we struggled on, and the sorest wounded, who dropped out, died. Then I dropped out too. I had a wound—” he touched his side “—that I could put three fingers in, and I was sick, and I was frightened. It was the being hunted, more than anything, that forced me to drop out. After dark, when the hunt was far away, I stripped off my armor and left it. I suppose I wandered all night, and at dawn I fell across the doorway of the first hut I came to.

“The people there took me in and tended me. Murna, now my wife, tended me. When they found out I’d been a Roman soldier, they didn’t greatly care. I was hardly the first to desert to the tribes.” Guern drew a deep, heavy breath. “A few nights later, I saw the Eagle carried north again, with a great triumph of torches behind.”

There was a long, strained silence when Guern had finished his terrible story. Esca took a long, deep breath and swallowed the bile in the back of his throat. Finally Marcus asked, “Where did they make an end?” His voice was quiet and hard and strained, and Esca glanced quickly at his face. His eyes were very bright, and he looked as though he felt as sick as Esca did.

“I don’t know. They never made it to Trinomontium. I’ve searched there again and again, and found no signs of fighting.”

“And my father?”

“He was with the Eagle when I dropped out. There were no captives with it when I saw it carried north again.”

“Where is the Eagle now?”

Guern looked at him a long moment. “If it is death you want, you have the means right here.” He touched the dagger in Marcus’s belt. “Save yourself the further journey.”

“Where is the Eagle now?” Marcus said again, as if the other man hadn’t spoken.

With a sigh, the hunter relented. “I do not know. But in the morning, I will give you what direction I can.”

It was full night now, Esca realized. He felt exhausted, and was only too glad to lie down for the night. Marcus too seemed weary, shaken, and almost lost. Guern slept a ways apart from them, and Marcus laid down next to Esca, curling in toward him so his face was against Esca’s shoulder. Esca wrapped an arm around Marcus’s back and felt the deep, measured breaths he was taking. Neither of them said anything for long enough that Esca thought Marcus had fallen asleep, but then Marcus said, half-muffled against Esca’s shoulder,

“I always thought my father’s Legion was honorable and good, at its heart. My father loved that Legion, and I thought it was the best Legion that Rome had, and I wanted so badly to lead it, from when I was young and he would tell me stories of it. But—” his voice caught, and he checked, then let out his breath in a deep sigh. “Guern is right, Esca, it was a rotten Legion, and their honor was lost before ever the Eagle was. I have been following a fanciful dream this whole time.”

The words brought to Esca’s mind his own father, and Esca’s firm belief that his father’s five hundred warriors could never be defeated. He’d had that faith in his father and in the warriors of the tribe a long time, until those last few days of all when he had told Esca that victory against the Romans couldn’t be possible. It had crushed and shocked Esca, as Marcus must surely be crushed now, and Esca held Marcus more firmly to him, his arm tight around Marcus’s narrow shoulders.

“I think,” Esca said carefully, “that every son believes the very best of his father and the men his father leads. But as painful as it may be to learn, they truly are only human, they make mistakes, and they are not capable of everything, however much we wish otherwise.” Esca heard his own voice catch at the end, and coughed quietly in an attempt to cover it.

Marcus lifted his head and searched Esca’s face, his brows drawn together in faint apprehension and concern, and Esca was sure he was realizing that Esca spoke from experience. “Oh, gods, Esca,” he whispered. He placed a hand on Esca’s cheek and drew him closer to press his forehead to Esca’s. “I am sorry.” Esca only shook his head and kissed Marcus, softly, quickly, over and over.

“Your father surely did the best he was able to, with a Legion like that,” Esca murmured when they broke apart. “And I have no doubt that he acted with all honor. But he can’t be expected to have had such control over so many men who were so corrupt.”

“Thank you,” Marcus returned, so quietly that Esca almost couldn’t hear the words.

They just lay there together for long moments, comforting each other with soft touches, before Esca whispered into Marcus’s ear, “Sleep, Marcus. You will feel better, and we will both need rest for tomorrow.” Marcus watched his face a moment, then nodded slowly. He brushed his knuckles over Esca’s cheek and kissed him, gently and lingeringly, until Esca sighed against his lips and tightened his fingers half unconsciously in Marcus’s clothing to try and pull him even closer. When they broke apart, breathing heavily, Marcus was smiling, and he seemed more calm and comfortable.

“Goodnight, Esca.”

Chapter Text

In the morning, with the rosy light of dawn washing over their camp and making the dew sparkle on the grass, Esca woke to find Marcus already awake and watching him. Esca grinned, feeling ridiculously pleased to see the other man, and propped himself up on his elbow and leaned in to kiss Marcus’s lips. As he drew back and looked more closely at him, he saw that Marcus looked worn, like he hadn’t been able to sleep easily after all.

“You have not slept?” Esca asked, touching gentle fingers to his chin and turning his face this way and that to look at him. 

Marcus smiled softly and gave a quiet, almost shy laugh at his concern. “I slept a little, eventually. I still felt too sick and wound up for it, at first.”

Esca nodded in understanding. He stroked his fingers over Marcus’s face from chin to temple, and then tangled them in Marcus’s hair, thick and slightly tangled and falling to just above his shoulders now. He tugged it gently in the way he knew that Marcus liked, and was rewarded with a soft, pleased sound and Marcus’s eyes falling closed. How wonderful…

“We will need to leave soon,” Marcus said softly after a moment, sitting up fully and looking down into Esca’s face, his eyes turning solemn. “Or, I will at least.” As Esca watched him, he took a deep breath and lifted his chin slightly, drawing himself up. “Esca, you need not go any further with me if you don’t wish to. When we started, this journey was about restoring the good name of my father and his Legion, but now that we know the truth, it is more about protecting Rome from the tribes that would use the Eagle against it. I know that must matter little to you, so I will not force you to continue. You are free to do as you wish.”

Looking into Marcus’s face, serious and kind and handsome, Esca found unexpectedly that this new framing of their mission didn’t change anything for him. It was for Marcus that he had started this, and he would see it through with him. He felt that this was a noble quest; the Eagle belonged to Rome, so they wouldn’t be stealing it but taking it back to its rightful owners, and preventing harm to Marcus’s people. That was important and honorable, surely? To do this for Marcus, and for Rome, because they were Marcus’s people?

He knew his answer. “I will come with you. Of course I will.” And he sat up too, and kissed Marcus again, feeling the other man smile into it and laugh quietly.

As the kiss continued, Esca found himself thinking unexpectedly of what his father would think of this, and if his spirit was watching Esca now. Cunoval had died fighting the Romans, and now Esca was helping Rome and even falling in love with a Roman.

He felt faintly guilty at the thought of his family, especially his father, being disappointed in him, and his breath caught in his throat. He pulled away from the kiss just enough to look into Marcus’s soft brown eyes, made all the more striking by his strong brows and sharply-carved features. Esca could only hope that his father would see Marcus for the wonderful man he was, not as some faceless Roman, because Esca would not give Marcus up.

“Esca?” Marcus’s face was full of concern, and he touched Esca’s cheek gently.

Shaking his head, Esca thrust aside his guilt and tried to clear his thoughts. “It is only that I was thinking of my own father,” he said slowly. He took a deep breath and almost whispered his next words. “Were he here, he would surely have me take my freedom among the tribes here, and leave your fate to chance rather than continue this quest that would help Rome.” Marcus inhaled sharply and paused for a second before taking both Esca’s hands in his.

“If it is that you would wish to live with the tribes—” Marcus started, and the effort in his voice surprised Esca. His eyes were bright and intense and focused on Esca’s face, and Esca shook his head fiercely, cutting the other man off, and cupped Marcus’s face with both hands.

“No, I do not wish that. It is for me to choose, Marcus, and it is in my heart that I would choose to stay with you and help you in this quest. My true place is with you. None of these northern tribes are my own, and more importantly, I would feel terribly unhappy and unsatisfied to live there without you.”

Watching his face, Marcus murmured, “Yes? Truly?” His eyes took on a smiling and joyful look, though the rest of his face remained still; Esca took some pride in knowing that he was likely the only one who knew Marcus well enough to see this expression, the only one who was close enough to him to know the subtle signs of his emotions.

“Of course, mi Marce. I am coming with you.” Then, feeling that Marcus might need further reassurance, he added, “Truly, Marcus, I would never leave you, not willingly. My home is with you.” He nudged his nose gently against Marcus's, and Marcus half laughed half sighed, a soft, relieved sound, then leaned in to kiss Esca soundly and lingeringly until Esca groaned against his lips.

They lay there for a few more minutes, then Guern woke on the other side of the fire, and the three of them ate. Then he showed Marcus and Esca the best way to go, pointing into the misty purple distance of the rolling hills and valleys.

“I can tell you only this,” Guern said finally, as Esca and Marcus looked out into the distance, carefully memorizing the directions they’d been given. “The men who carried the Eagle north were of the tribe of the Epidaii, whose territory is the deep firths and mountains of the west coast running from the Cluta.”

Esca looked at the other man’s face. He had heard a little of the Epidaii when he lived among his own tribe, had even gone to one of the villages of their many clans with his father. It was just after he had become a man, and he didn’t know now which clan it was that they’d visited.

“Can you hazard any guess as to where in this territory their holy place may be?” Marcus asked.

Guern shook his head ruefully. “None. It may be that if you find the Royal Dun, you will find the holy place not far off. The Epidaii is divided into many clans, so I have heard, and the Royal Clan may not be the guardians of the holy place and the holy things of the tribe. It would be a clan as powerful or more so than the Royal Clan, but very likely quite small.” There was a short pause, and Esca saw Guern’s eyes dart between Marcus and himself. “There is no more help that I can give you,” he said quietly.

None of them spoke for a long moment, and Esca went to bring up their mares.

“Do not follow that trail,” Guern said in a rush, turning to Marcus and gripping his arm. “It leads into the mouth of death.”

“I must take my chances with that,” Marcus said, running his hand down his mare’s neck. “And you, Esca?” His eyes met Esca’s cautiously as he asked it, as if Esca had not just assured him he’d gladly go anywhere Marcus went. Esca smiled.

“I go where you go.”

At the words, Marcus returned the smile, relaxed and pleased.

“Why did you come?” Guern demanded, half angrily. “I was happy with my wife and my tribe, and I’ve been nearly able to forget I ever lived a different life, at least until I was drawn back to Trinomontium. And now I will be ashamed all my life, because I let you go north alone.”

Marcus shook his head. “No, no need that you should carry a new shame. This is a trail that two can follow much better than three. Go back to your tribe, Guern, and thank you for sharing your food and your shelter, and for answering my questions.”

They turned and mounted their ponies, and when Esca looked back at Guern as he and Marcus started riding, Guern raised a hand to wave to them, and Esca waved back.

 

***

 

The next month of traveling was heartbreakingly disappointing for Marcus. The two of them traveled throughout the lands of the Epidaii clans, going to their holy places and seeking signs of Marcus’s lost Eagle. Many times, they’d been so sure they were close to their goal, but still the Eagle was nowhere to be found, and both Marcus and Esca were becoming discouraged.

When they went to a new Epidaii village, they would spend several days there and watch their religious rites as closely as they could without seeming suspicious. Some of the rites Esca was familiar with and was able to explain to Marcus, but many of them were strange to him and he didn’t know whether or not something like the Eagle would be part of them. The not knowing made Esca feel anxious, and that seemed to make Marcus restless as well.

It took a month of searching, a long discouraging month, before they found themselves on the right path. Marcus was dismal and near to giving up, and Esca about the same, when they met a small group of hunters on the road. 

“Is there anyone in your dun who has eye sickness?” Marcus asked as they approached.

“Is it that you can cure the eye sickness?” asked a man at the front of the group who wore the twisted gold torc of a chieftain and who carried himself proudly. His face was half eager and half suspicious, and his eyes flicked from Marcus to Esca and back.

“Can I cure the eye sickness? I am Demetrius of Alexandria, the Demetrius of Alexandria!” It was clear Marcus had learned the value of advertisement, as he almost always introduced himself this way, to Esca’s continued amusement. “Speak my name in the Royal Dun itself and men will tell you that I can indeed cure any sickness of the eye.”

“We have several in the dun who have the eye sickness,” the chieftain told him. “None of your trade have ever come this far north. You will heal them?”

“Well, how should I know, even I, until I see them?”

“We are headed for the dun now, if you would come with us.”

Marcus glanced quickly at Esca, for his agreement, and Esca nodded. “Lead the way,” Marcus told the chieftain with a smile. “I will do my best for those among you with the eye sickness.”

“Thank you,” said the chieftain gravely, and he walked by Marcus’s horse as the hunters led them back to the dun. 

And though he had no reason to think they were any closer to their goal now than before, Esca had a sudden prickling feeling, like an omen from the gods, that they were being led right where they needed to go. He shivered, and followed behind with the rest of the hunting party, eager to see where this step of the journey would take them.