Esca quelled his fears the best he could and took a step forward. He was back in the Place of Life, buried in the stifling dark, and felt as if a thousand eyes were upon him. He listened for the sound of Marcus’ step, the familiar drag of his bad leg against the sandy ground, but nothing came. Esca was alone.
Though it was utterly silent, it seemed to him that the air was heavy with expectation, his heartbeat was loud against his ear. He stepped on something wet and sticky. With the inevitability of dreams, Esca bent down and his hand reached forward until he touched cool skin.
It was then he woke, with the cock’s crowing not far away. He was in Old Aquila’s house in Calleva and not elsewhere, however his mind lingered.
He knew without looking that Marcus was still asleep, deeply so. Marcus had been ill all the evening before, and refused to acknowledge that it was so, though when Esca pushed a sleeping draught into his hand before bed, he had not refused it.
Esca dressed quickly and left Marcus behind (and Cub too, who noted his passing with a sleepy sound of inquiry, but otherwise did not stir) and walked until he was out of the house entirely, in the mist and soft light of early morning.
The sky was the color of dove’s wings and the frost edged the blades of grass under his feet. He could, if he wished, walk away. Though it was late-autumn and the air sharp, he could leave Marcus’ borrowed tunic folded on the step outside and go. He was free, clipped ear or no, and there was none that could stop him now.
Behind him, the house was waking up. He could Sassticca’s voice rise, scolding someone unfortunate enough to raise her ire so early in the day.
Esca’s feet longed to run. And so he indulged them.
He ran and left the dust of the town behind him. The woods swallowed him up easily enough, mist swirling around him. Somewhere not far, one of Cub’s brothers howled and lapsed into silence.
Esca decided to stop and sit, otherwise he might have stumbled and fallen. There was a great bitterness in his heart that grown there since they had come back. He could not ignore it any longer, nor did he wish to do so.
So, there was Marcus’ father’s ghost: settled! But what of Esca’s father? What of his mother? His brothers? His tribe? All were dead or lost to Esca, he was cut off from as if he was also one of the dead, dishonored and alone.
Esca’s father, safe in his memory, was a man much like himself. Short, but powerfully built. Grey eyes and russet hair. A reluctant smile that transformed his face. Esca felt for a minute a feeling of grief as sharp as spear thrust. It had been years since his father’s death, but never had he had the leisure to grieve.
For Cunoval, chieftain of the Brigantes, lord of five-hundred spears, there was much to grieve over. He had been a brave man, and true. He had been slain by the Romans, his corpse left for the wolves and ravens to eat. How would Cunoval feel, knowing that his only surviving son loved a Roman?
That Esca loved Marcus, he knew, had known since the early days of their acquaintance. It had been of no matter; who cared about the feelings of a slave? And he knew however warm Marcus was to him, how friendly, it mattered not. What mattered was that Esca was a slave and Marcus was his master. If Marcus had wished for Esca to warm his bed, Esca would have done it. But he would not have loved Marcus any longer.
But Marcus never did, he never acknowledged what was on offer. For that, Esca loved him more.
And then, he had freed him.
His father, if he lived, would not have understood. Esca could hardly do so himself, and he thought that the difference was that he had lived and altered as he lived. It was not just his clipped ear, but in other ways as well.
Esca grabbed a fist full of dirt and crumbled it in his hand. How he longed for the purity and focus of the hunt! Nothing mattered then except survival and success.
He should not have come back!
But he had, said a cold voice in the back of his mind. He could gotten away as easily as he had left, but now he could do nothing but stay. Esca got up and half-heartedly began to dust off his borrowed tunic.
By the time he reached Aquila’s house, the day had already started in earnest and his absence had been noted. Stephanos’ stares and Sassticca’s scolding did not bother him over-much.
Marcus was awake now and greeted Esca warmly, saying, "It is good that you are here, Esca. Perhaps you can distract me from my gloomy thoughts." He did not ask where Esca had gone to.
Marcus’ gloomy thoughts rested fully on the future. It had not been a week since they had come back from the North, and less than than that since the Legate had taken his leave. After a few minutes of grousing, Marcus allowed Esca to help ready him for the day ahead.
But all the same, Marcus noted, in faintly chiding tones, that Esca need not to do this for him now, for he was a body-slave no more.
Esca pretended not to hear as Marcus' tunic dropped over his head, muffling his voice.
"Have you been outside? You bring a chill with you," Marcus said, resting a hand on Esca's arm.
"For a moment," Esca admitted.
Marcus shook his head gravely. "Poor Esca! You are more trapped here than I. Do you miss the North?"
"I do not miss being run to ground," Esca said, but caught a look in Marcus' eye. There was something appealing after all, of the days of stress and excitement behind them, more so than the empty winter days ahead.
"If only Kaeso and his household would return!" Marcus said, more to himself than Esca. Esca's own feelings about were mixed. He was fond of Cottia, in his own way, but in the confines of his own heart Esca had to admit that he resented, a little, the loss of Marcus' attention.
Later, when old Aquila had scoffed aloud at Marcus' proposal of becoming a secretary. He asked, in acid tones, "How many secretaries do you know of that have need for an armour-bearer?"
And Marcus grew abashed and said no more. No more, that was, until Esca nudged him in the ribs and asked, "What is a secretary?"
Marcus leaned closer to the fire, spreading his legs so that the right would warm better and considered Esca's question. "He is a man who handles the correspondence and affairs of someone like the Legate."
“Like a Tribune, then?” The image of Severus Placidus rose between them like a ghost, freshly summoned.
They shared a smile and Marcus shook his head. “Not quite.”
Aquila, hearing that, snorted loudly and left the room. Esca was still, thinking of how secretaries did not need armour-bearers. But Marcus' thoughts were of an entirely different bent.
"Esca, can you read Latin? Or write it, for that matter?"
Esca cared little for Latin, as most of his conversations with Marcus had long been held in the British tongue. But he could see the gleam of interest and excitement in Marcus' eye that had been lacking only a few minutes ago. And Esca knew well by now that Marcus felt best when he was on a mission.
So he shook his head and said amiably, "No, Marcus, I can do neither. Will you teach me?"
And Marcus said he would.
It was not difficult not to see how much of a toll their journey had had on Marcus. That whole winter, he was as sick as a heron. More often than not, he would not stir for a day until it was time for Esca's lesson. The doctor was summoned, not the fat quack who had bungled the tending of Marcus' leg, but a young doctor who had trained under Rufrius Galarius.
After the doctor had had a chance to examine Marcus, Esca drew him aside and asked what was the matter with him. For a moment, it seemed that he would refuse to tell Esca. But at last, he heaved a sigh and said, "It is not only his leg. He has pushed himself too long and and too hard, and now he pays the price for it. But besides that, it is also that he suffers from battle fatigue. There is nothing I can do for that, save hope that spring will raise his spirits.”
"But he is not in danger of dying?" Esca said as the doctor's eyes flicked over to his clipped ear.
"You are his freed man, I hear," he said.
Esca lifted his head and felt his spine stiffen. "Yes."
"We are all of us in danger of death every moment that we breath. But your -- friend is no more in danger than the rest."
But still, after the doctor had left, Esca stole into Marcus' room and sat quietly on the edge of his bed. Marcus stirred from sleep, and on seeing Esca, smiled.
"You have heard my diagnosis, then? The most useless thing I have heard in my life!"
"He said that you needed only some time to recover."
Marcus sighed and shook his head, irritation coloring his dark features. "I am fine, Esca. You know better than he what I can endure."
Esca nodded and said no more about it.
In the night, he heard Marcus stir from his bed and cry out. When Esca reached his bedside, he saw that Marcus' eyes were still shut. So Marcus too had bad dreams. Esca wondered if they led him back to the Place of Life, or perhaps another, even darker place.
Without thinking, Esca reached down and touched Marcus’ cheek. Marcus woke, Esca’s name already on his lips. “Esca! You are here?” he said, as his eyes cleared.
“I heard a noise,” Esca said, moving his hand away hastily, but not quickly enough, for Marcus caught it and held it. His confusion seemed to have dissipated entirely, leaving behind only a puzzling look on his face, both a question and a command.
“Esca,” he said, “stay with me a while.”
“Yes,” Esca said simply. Marcus moved over to make room of him, and though his bed was narrow, it could hold the two of them.
During their journey, they had huddled together for both warmth and protection and thought nothing of it. Or if -- if either of them had entertained any other thoughts, there was never any time to act on it.
Marcus lay stiff against Esca, his head resting against Esca’s shoulder. He was so still that Esca thought that he had gone to sleep. But then Marcus stirred a little and have a rueful chuckle. "Perhaps this would have been easier if I was still Demetrius of Alexandria."
Esca raised his brows. "You are more comfortable with a mask?"
"No, I meant that Greeks are known to be more -- well, no matter.”
There was a silence that stretched out uncomfortably long. Marcus blinked and cleared his throat. “Esca,” he said gravely, “you know that you have my heart."
"Your heart is shared, Marcus, between Cottia, Cub and I." And your father's ghost, Esca did not say. Instead, he leaned in and kissed Marcus before he could hesitate further.
Hesitant and brief though the kiss was, when Esca pulled back to look at Marcus' face, he saw a look of astonishment there.
"Are you sure of this?" he asked Esca.
"Marcus, you know where my heart lies."
Marcus inclined his head slightly, and closed his eyes. “I know.”
Winter went on. For Esca, the dream of the Place of Life receded from his waking thoughts until it began almost forgotten. For Marcus, he seemed to find it hard to shake off the darkness at times.
He did not say, “I worry,” but nonetheless, Esca knew it.
Still, it seemed to give Marcus some pleasure to teach Esca, in the gloomy nights that they gathered around the fire, with wax tablets and styluses for writing. It took some for both of them to persuade Cub not to knock over the tablets. But eventually, the young wolf sat quiet at Marcus’ feet, only stirring once or twice to lick Esca’s arm.
In his studies, Esca made steady progress, but his heart was not into it. Marcus could feel this was so, and soon suggested that they stop for the night.
Esca relinquished his writing instruments gladly, and they both watched the fire quietly for some time. He was sitting by Marcus, who, bit by bit, began to doze against him. When finally Esca thought that Marcus had indeed fallen asleep, and began to look around for somewhere to deposit him that was not Esca’s shoulder, Marcus spoke. “Are you unhappy, Esca?”
“Do you think your family very much? I think that you do, now that we have returned from our journey.”
It was easier to be honest, Esca thought, and not a struggle to be honest with Marcus. “I have thought of them often. Especially of my father and his ghost.”
Marcus was watching him closely, worry clearly etched into the lines of his face. “I have always thought the loss of our fathers was a thing that first drew us together in friendship,” Marcus confessed.
“Yes,” Esca admitted. “It was something like that. And yet, I think Marcus, if my father had lived, and yours too, we should have never met.”
“Or we would have met in battle, and killed each other.”
Marcus’ reply was doomed not to be heard, for just then, Cub, growing impatient with his master’s neglect and attempted to jump upon Marcus’ lap, upsetting the stylus and wood tablets.
Later that night, Marcus pressed a kiss on the side of Esca’s face, and said, “It would be the greatest tragedy of my life if I had not met you.”
Esca caught Marcus’ hand and tangled their fingers together. For a moment, he was without words, as if his soul had lifted to the sky, but his body had been left behind. Then he sighed and said, “The greatest tragedy, Marcus? Say rather that our meeting was a lesser one.”
Marcus acknowledged the hit, his eyes looked pained. “It is true, and yet…”
“And yet, I do not regret it,” Esca said roughly. He pulled Marcus in for a bruising kiss.
Esca read again the letter that granted him Roman citizenship. He could read it well enough -- as soon winter ended and spring began, he had put a stop to Marcus’ lessons. He had learned as much as he had wanted to. Marcus, sheepishly, had agreed. Esca looked again at the letter and wondered what he should feel about it.
Marcus was glad, his uncle was glad. Cottia threw her arms around him and whispered fiercely in his ear that it did not matter, that he was still a Briton like her. Esca grinned at her and she grinned back.
“Thank you,” Esca said, as he gently pushed Cottia to Marcus’ side. “To be made a Roman! I do not know what to say.”
Marcus caught his hand. “As much as I am a Briton, Esca.”
Esca smiled at him and agreed.