They are in Calleva, purchasing some necessary staples for their farm now that the harshness of winter has passed. There is still a frigid chill in the air, though its bite is not nearly as terrible as it had been, and Marcus walks better now that some warmth is starting to come back to the land.
Esca keeps an eye on him all the same, knowing his Roman and his pride, his shear stubbornness that will force him to keep going when any other sane person would call for a rest.
It is with this watchful eye that he first notices.
When they pass a small group of legionaries, bedecked in their red tunics and armor and haggling over the price of small trinkets from one of the vendors, Marcus’ eyes linger for a just a moment.
There is a twitch of his brow and the tug of a frown at his lips before he turns his attention back to the street and he is looking again for the trader they seek.
Esca still hates the legionnaires, hates everything they stand for, but…
He places his hand gently on Marcus’ shoulder to steer him to the left, away from the more crowded sections of stalls to the Briton who has the finest leather Esca has ever worked with.
“Hail, Drust!” Esca greets the man in British, clasping his arm and smiling as he takes in the booth with all of the large man’s wares spread out.
His fellow Briton is tall, taller than Marcus, with a broad chest and thick, bulging arms. His yellow beard is braided, but his long hair is curly and falls to his back in thick tangles. He looks as out of place in this Roman town as Esca still feels some days, but he is a jovial man who smiles widely and easily.
Even though the weather is still cold he wears only short sleeves, exposing the blue lines twisting around his arms. They are not Brigantes, but similar in style, and Esca always feels a twinge of homesickness when he sees them.
“Hail, Esca. I see you have finally brought your Roman to inspect my wares?”
Drust releases Esca’s arm and turns to Marcus, who offers his own arm with one of his small, almost shy smiles. He is wearing his armilla, as some of the vendors give them a better deal when they see it, but Drust pays it no mind, and his grin widens as they clasp hands and he says in heavily accented Latin, “Good morning, friend of Esca.”
Marcus’ smile grows as he nods in greeting.
“Tell me, Esca, what can I help you with today?” Drust turns back to Esca and once again speaks in British.
Marcus watches as they haggle, their words too fast for him to follow with his still limited knowledge of the language, but Esca’s animated face and Drust’s exaggerated expressions are enough for him catch the progress of the sale.
After several minutes, Esca finally digs into his purse and hands over four denarii. In exchange, Drust selects several skins and strips of soft leather, folds them together and ties them neatly into a small bundle that will be easy to carry. They nod at each other, then Esca is turning, barely giving Marcus a chance to exchange his own nod with the seller before they are off again.
“We’ll need to stop at the weavers,” Marcus says as they make their way back into the center of the market. “And I could use some new needles.”
Esca nods, keeping his eyes warily on those around them, watchful for thieves.
He had been a bit shocked when, their first winter together on their farm, he had come in from a hunt and found Marcus sitting by the fire, calmly sewing a new pair of braccae. Marcus had looked up from his work and promptly started laughing at his expression.
“I was a soldier, Esca,” Marcus had pointed out, as though that had explained everything. When Esca continued to watch him, entranced by those large fingers skillfully moving the needle, he had continued. “I was often posted in remote locations, where not even the whores would follow, and with no women to tend to such things it fell upon us to learn how to mend and cook. I actually prefer it,” he added, suddenly bashful. “Sometimes the others would pay me to fix their tunics, or to help them learn how to do it.”
Esca had pictured it then, a young Marcus, whole and healthy, wearing the red tunic and sewing, surrounded by other legionnaires who would also be tending to similar tasks. It was not an altogether comfortable picture, for it reminded Esca of what his friend had been, before, and the differences between them which lingered. But Marcus had smiled, and turned back to his work with a peace that banished any negative thoughts from Esca’s mind.
Ever since then it had become a common sight, Marcus sitting by the fire as he did the mending or sewing, content as Esca could ever recall seeing him, while Esca would work on the leather of harnesses and saddle, oiling them and keeping them supple, fixing places where they had worn.
He had never imagined he could be so happy with such a simple life, but Esca finds he loves every moment of it, and cannot imagine any other way now.
“I suppose you would like to look at threads, as well?” he says, quirking an eyebrow in Marcus’ direction.
“Of course. I need something other than green to finish. Perhaps blue, or maybe yellow...” Marcus trails off as they approach the vendors that sell cloth and sewing supplies, the fabrics and threads spread out like a tangible rainbow. In front of the booth they need is another group of legionaries.
They are young, the three of them huddled around the cloth as they debate over who will purchase what. They look to Esca as though they are barely out of their youth, and it causes something to tighten in his chest as he realizes that Marcus had looked this way once, fresh faced with round cheeks and excitement still in his eyes.
“Excuse us,” Marcus says softly, making his way past the little group to look at the cloth himself, his cloak pulling up his arm as he does to expose his armilla.
It is not done on purpose. Esca knows this by the way he tries to tug the cloak back in place a moment later. Still, the effect the armilla has on the young men is instantaneous, and they all seem to snap to attention around Marcus like ducklings surrounding their mother.
“No, no,” Marcus says quickly, waving them down as they stare at him with serious eyes. “Please, go back to your shopping.”
Marcus deliberately turns away from them, examining the thread spread out before him with more care than is needed, and Esca is quick to go to his side, putting himself between the soldiers and his friend, glaring at them until they turn back to their business.
“The blue, please, and the yellow. And the grey weave, may I see that?” Marcus says to the woman behind the table.
She is familiar with the two of them now, as they always stop at her booth whenever they pass through Calleva, and she smiles as she shows Marcus the cloth he asks about before naming a price much lower than her wares are worth. Marcus smiles back, all but fluttering his eyes, and Esca has to refrain from rolling his at the display.
Secretly he is amused, as Marcus is a terrible flirt, but it wouldn’t do to let his feelings be known so openly. That is for the two of them alone, and not for any of those in this market who speculate and wonder at the pair of them.
Marcus pays for his purchase, pausing as he turns to nod at the young men still eyeing him covertly, and they make their way toward their next destination.
“They look so young,” Marcus murmurs as they head towards a little shop that sells bread. The fires from the ovens heat the area around them and the smell of fresh bread lingers in the air like a perfume.
“We all did, at one point,” Esca reminds him, and Marcus nods before he steps up to make his selection, taking the small loaf with a grateful smile and handing over a few coins before breaking it in half and handing Esca his portion.
“I’ve already told Uncle I don’t wish a large gathering tonight, but he wants to do something special for dinner,” Marcus says, changing the subject. “Don’t let me drink more than a few glasses of his wine, you know I don’t have a head for it now.”
“You’ll drink as much as you like, and if you have a sore head tomorrow it will be your own fault,” Esca rebukes. “I know you like the local blend, but it doesn’t particularly like you.”
“Truth,” Marcus agrees, blushing slightly.
They continue making their way through the market, eating their bread and pausing to admire the little trinkets and protection amulets that are always available. They pass more legionaries, and always Marcus’ eye lingers for just a moment before he continues on.
When Marcus’ limp starts to become more pronounced, Esca declares the shopping is done and they should return. Marcus gives him a knowing look but says nothing as they start to make their way back, shoulders brushing as they head towards the relative quiet of Uncle Aquila’s villa.
Dinner is a hearty fish stew with thick bread and fruit. There is indeed wine, and Marcus valiantly tries to refrain from drinking more than his share, despite his Uncle’s urgings to the contrary. Esca privately thinks the old man likes to watch his nephew smile and giggle, as he is prone to do when he has too much to drink, and the temptation to get Marcus to the point where he is laughing heartily is too great to resist.
Esca indulges as well, though he knows his limits and refrains after a third cup, content to watch Marcus joke and laugh with an ease he does not display when sober. The Roman’s cheeks are red from the drink, and his body loose-limbed and not entirely coordinated as he recounts his most recent battle with their newly acquired geese.
Uncle Aquila is laughing outright at the tale, his eyes nearly squinted shut with his amusement.
“I swear they will not beat me!” Marcus concludes, smacking his hand against the table. “Tell him, Esca!”
“It is an ongoing battle,” Esca agrees ruefully, feeling his own cheeks pull as he smiles fondly at his friend. “It will not be pretty once they start laying eggs again, but I’m sure our Marcus will be the victor.”
Uncle Aquila wipes his eyes as his laughter dies down, and he smiles broadly at Marcus.
“Well, nephew, I wish you well. I think now it’s time to retire, as you have a long journey tomorrow. Esca,” he adds, nodding to the Briton.
Esca nods back, and then moves to help Marcus stand, laughing at his uncoordinated attempt.
“You will have a sore head tomorrow,” Esca sighs as he helps Marcus make his way to their room, fitting his body neatly next to the larger man’s with the ease of long practice.
“Most likely,” Marcus agrees, giggling again at nothing as they make their way down the hall.
Esca can only smile fondly and takes a bit more of his weight.
They set off later than they had intended the next day, with the sun nearer it’s height than either would have wanted, but Marcus’ head, and his stomach, had not been kind to him that morning.
After he had been sick a second time, Esca had begun to worry that the journey would be too much for him, but Marcus had been adamant that he would be recovered enough after a short rest.
While Marcus had lain on his bed, the furs drawn up to his chin and a cool cloth on his head, Esca had set about making sure their bags were packed and horses ready. When Marcus joined him shortly before noon, he was still pale and sickly looking, but had proclaimed himself well enough to travel.
“I have only myself to blame,” Marcus said as he eyed his horse with trepidation. “I won’t hold us back because I have no stomach for drink anymore.”
Esca snorted, earning a glare, but kept his silence as Marcus made his final good-byes and mounted stiffly.
Uncle Aquila watched as they departed, Stephanos at his side as, until the two had passed beyond his sight.
Marcus remains quiet for the most part, slumping over his saddle and looking more miserable as the day passes. Esca keeps watch on the road, unable to find it in himself to be upset at his friend, as he had warned Esca to prevent him from doing exactly what he had done, and Esca had enjoyed the show of it.
Finally, as the sun is touching the horizon, they come upon a small inn that boasts of clean beds and fine wine. The smell of cooked food floats out to them as they stable the horses, and Marcus turns an alarming shade of pale.
He makes it to the back of the inn and some bushes before he loses whatever was left in his stomach, retching miserably as Esca stands nearby, watching for any who might wish to take advantage.
“I am never drinking with my uncle again, ever,” Marcus vows as he makes his way on wobbly legs back to the stable, Esca’s hand on his shoulder steadying him.
“If we had waited one more day to travel you could have rested and be recovered by now,” Esca points out, grinning unrepentantly as Marcus glares at him. “I take it you don’t want dinner?” he asks innocently.
“I will vomit on you, I swear it!” Marcus groans, leaning his weight more heavily on Esca’s shoulder.
Esca laughs, squeezing Marcus’ side before leading him into the inn and procuring them a room from a suspicious innkeeper who keeps sending glares towards Marcus’ pale form.
“Come on,” Esca urges, helping Marcus up the stairs to their room, which is small but indeed clean, and helping him undress. Only after he is settled on the bed does he get him some water.
Marcus keeps his eyes closed as Esca places the cup to his lips, for Marcus’ hands are shaking, and then lays him gently back down. He cannot help but remember when he had been newly purchased, helping Marcus after his second surgery and he had been too weak to even take a piss without assistance. It seems the Roman’s thoughts follow a similar path, for he gives Esca a fond smile and says, “Whatever would I do without you, my Esca?”
Esca smiles in agreement and makes sure Marcus is comfortable under the bedding, the water close at hand.
“I’m going to get some dinner and then be back. I won’t be long.”
Marcus hums his acknowledgment, already halfway to sleep, and Esca leaves him to it.
The food is bland but filling, and Esca eats swiftly, since he hadn’t had the heart to eat in front of Marcus on the road. He doesn’t linger at the table but makes his way back up to their room, where Marcus is already sleeping deeply and doesn’t stir as Esca prepares for bed.
When he crawls under the covers, slotting himself next to Marcus and wrapping an arm around him, Marcus turns in his sleep to place his head beneath Esca’s chin, burrowing into his warmth before settling once more.
Esca falls asleep listening to the sound of him breath.
They wake early the next day, Marcus much more alert and refreshed and even, to Esca’s relief, showing a bit of appetite. He eats sparingly, but smiles whenever he catches Esca’s eye.
The innkeeper is much more predisposed to them, now that Marcus doesn’t look like he’s about to vomit all over his floor, and goes so far as to provide them bread and cheese for the road.
Both of them are in much better spirits, knowing they will be home that night, and each looking forward to their own bed and the privacy of their walls. They speak of the chores waiting for them once they return, and make plans on how to deal with the geese, which truly seem to hate Marcus with a passion.
“They probably sense I want to eat them,” Marcus muses, earning a laugh from Esca.
Before Esca can reply, however, there is the sound of marching steps approaching, and both men look warily down the road, to where a long column of men can just be made out.
“Soldiers, marching to their next post, most likely,” Marcus says quietly, pulling his horse off the side of the road to let them pass.
Esca follows and the two of them watch as lines of men march forward, their armor and kits rattling as their steps plod on, their voices hushed but relaxed as they speak to each other. No one acknowledges the two men on the side of the road, and after a few minutes it’s just Marcus and Esca once again.
Marcus says nothing as he urges his horse to start moving, but there is that glint in his eye again, the same sad, longing look that Esca had first caught a glimpse of in the market.
“Do you miss it?” Esca finally asks, the silence drawing out between them. He knows his Marcus, and knows that he too often gets lost in his head if left to himself.
Marcus looks over to him, surprised, and then over his shoulder, even though the soldiers are long out of sight. When he turns back to the road, his face is thoughtful.
“I miss some things,” Marcus answers, and his voice is so soft that Esca almost misses the words. He does not push, because he know what it is to miss the good things and feel guilty for not missing the bad.
“Tell me again how you plan to defeat the gander, then,” Esca prompts, changing the subject and lighting the mood, so that Marcus’ smile is bright once more.
The rest of the journey is uneventful and they reach the gates to their farm just before sundown. Cassius, the caretaker they’ve hired to watch the farm while they are away, greets them warmly as they enter the stable. His own lands are near enough they can be seen from the farm on a clear day, and he stays only long enough to report all is well before he’s leaving them for the night, eager to see his own hearth after nearly a month away.
Esca dismounts first, ready to assist Marcus if his leg bothers him from being in the saddle so long, but he moves easily and limps only a little as he adjusts to being on the ground. They tend to the horses and Marcus takes their bags inside while Esca reacquaints himself with the two mares and stallion left behind, feeding them a wrinkled apple each and cooing at them softly until his stomach starts to rumble.
He enters the house slowly, taking a moment to breath in the scent of home as he allows his eyes to adjust to the dim light of candles and hearth fire. Their house has grown over the years, so that now there are three rooms and a proper bath, but the kitchen will always be his favorite.
It is hear where Marcus tends to cook their dinner, and in the evening they do their mending and other projects. It truly is the heart of their home, as this was the first room they built with their own hands, and it was here they became lovers and spent their first year properly together.
Marcus is already sitting before the fire, his bad leg propped up by a stool as he stirs something fragrant in the cooking pot.
“We are in luck!” he greets, smiling widely as Esca closes and locks the door for the night. “Cassius was good enough to prepare supper for us, so we won’t starve tonight!”
“Thank the Gods,” Esca mutters as his stomach rumbles again.
Marcus ladles the food for them and there is no talk for quite a while as they sate their appetites. The stew is thick and fragrant, filled with vegetables and some of their salted meat from last autumn’s hunting. Marcus retrieves his bread that he received that morning from the innkeeper, grinning at Esca as they share it.
After, they wash the bowls in companionable silence, putting away their purchases and gifts before settling in for the night.
Marcus retrieves the tunic he is working on from the trunk at the foot of their bed and happily sets about using his new needle and thread. Esca watches him sleepily from his chair, content to be idle for once. They sit close, shoulders brushing every now and then, and Esca lets the warmth of the fire seep into his bones.
When Marcus finally breaks the silence, Esca is nearly nodding off, his head bouncing towards his chest only to be snapped up when he finds himself drowsing. At Marcus’ words, however, he finds all traces of sleepiness leave him.
“After… After Isca Dumnoniorum, I felt as though I would forever be eating at the feast of others.” Marcus looks up, catching Esca’s eye before turning back to his sewing. “You asked me if I missed it, being a soldier. For a long time I did. It had been my only purpose since I was sixteen, all I had known as a man, and I feared that I would fade away until there was nothing left of me. A shadow that would occasionally be given form.”
Esca keeps his silence, waiting. They do not speak often of the times before they had met, too much in their history that could cause pain to either of them. But Marcus’ voice is gentle, his words careful as he continues.
“After the second surgery, once I had begun to regain my health, I still felt like little more than a burden, unable to pay my way or have a purpose again. But the Eagle - and you - changed that.”
Marcus carefully ties off the thread and sets the tunic aside, turning to look at Esca full on. His eyes are serious, filled with such love that Esca can not look away.
“I once believed that I would never feast again save for at the mercy of others, but now I have my own feast, and I am full to bursting every day with my fill of it. I am a farmer, with my own house and land. And I am your friend.“ Marcus takes a deep breath before continuing. “I no longer have to look at what is laid out for others, because I only have to turn my eyes to you, and know that I shall never be hungry again. We shall always feast together.”
Marcus reaches out and gently cups Esca’s face with his large hand, his fingers warm and calloused against Esca’s cheek.
Esca turns his head and kisses his palm, then stands and pulls Marcus with him, leading him into their bedroom and pushing him down onto the bed. They remove their clothes quickly, uncaring that they have not bathed yet that day, save for with a bucket and cloth that morning, and wrapping their arms around each other.
They move gently, slowly, taking and giving pleasure with all they have learned about each other over the past years, feasting on each other until they can not contain all the love they share and they spill over.
Later, once their skin has cooled and the passion settled, they will head to the baths and wash each other gently, reverently. Esca will suck small red marks into Marcus’ neck, and Marcus will leave bruises on Esca’s hips.
When they retire, sleepy and content and full with the love they share, their dreams will be only peaceful, and neither will long for anything other than each other’s arms.