By the time Marcus walked out and away from Rome and into the late afternoon Eburacum sun, he had decided to leave everything that was part of his old life behind him (with the exception of Uncle Aquila, of course). The rescue and delivery of the Eagle, as well as the restoration of his father and family's honor signaled a new beginning. And Marcus was more than ready for that new beginning.
"So, what now?" Esca's voice was a welcome interruption of the moment.
"You decide," Marcus answered back, willing to go along with anything Esca had in mind. They were both weary, dirty, and tired from the long exhausting journey to and from the north, so Marcus was hoping somewhere in Esca's plan (if he had one) there was a trip to the baths and a nice cozy bed to lay their bones down on.
It was as though Esca had read Marcus' thoughts because his plan consisted of a quick visit to the baths, getting a room at the inn they had passed on their way to the administrative building to deliver the Eagle, but with the addition of something Marcus had not thought of: a meal. And that was how it all began.
By the time the two of them laid their heads down on the soft feather pillows, their bodies were clean, and their bellies full.
"I wish there would have been a room with two beds available."
"Why?" Esca asked as he made himself comfortable and covered them both with a large warm wool blanket that had been neatly placed over a corner chair.
"I do not wish to hog up all the bed and throw you to the floor while I sleep."
Esca laughed, "I will be fine, Marcus. I do not take up that much room while I sleep, and if you do throw me to the floor, I will take a blanket with me and sleep there. I can sleep standing I am so tired."
Marcus nodded rather than say a word for he was just as tired as Esca. Soon after that, Marcus and Esca drifted off to a deep and peaceful sleep until shortly before the sun rose the following morning, and then it happened.
Esca's head had found itself a resting place atop Marcus' chest. Marcus smiled in his sleep at the feel of the head resting directly over his heart. In his sleep, he moved his hand over and under Esca's now clean-shaven chin, lifted the face to meet his, and kissed the waiting lips. At first, Marcus was gentle, but the kiss turned urgent soon, and his strong hand went from under Esca's chin to caressing Esca's face and burying itself in Esca's hair. And Esca answered in return needy and with equal passion. And then.
Esca opened his eyes and pushed away from Marcus with such force that he fell off the bed. Marcus awakened and jumped out of bed and stood to one corner wide-eyed and red-faced looking at Esca on the floor.
"Esca apologies! I am so tired. My mind is tired. I thought you were; I thought you were a girl I left behind in Jerusalem."
Esca breathed deeply and smiled. "Do not worry yourself, Marcus. My reaction was more instinct than disgust. I had no idea who was kissing me."
Marcus apologized a few more times, but Esca waved it away uncaring. "Marcus, please, it was not as though I awakened to find your dick in my mouth. It was a kiss for Lugh's sake. It is of no concern." Both men laughed and agreed that they were hungry more than tired, and so they went downstairs to the dining room.
The dining area was nearly empty as Marcus and Esca found a table and sat to have the morning meal before sunrise.
"If you are up to it, perhaps we can begin our journey home after we have eaten," Marcus suggested, and Esca nodded.
The serving girl brought over warm bread, honey, boiled eggs, cheese, and water. As they ate, Esca could not help himself from asking Marcus who the girl was that he had left behind in Jerusalem.
"She was the daughter of the man who supplied our horses." And he stopped there, but that purposeful silence only made Esca more curious, "Did she have a name this girl?
Marcus finished drinking his water, and as he poured himself another cupful, he answered Esca. "Aziza. Her name was Aziza."
And more silence.
"Was she beautiful?" Esca smiled.
"Yes, yes, she was. Very beautiful."
"Was she Roman?"
Marcus shook his head as though he were tired of Esca's interrogation, but his smile said otherwise. "No, she was not Roman. She was Arab."
It was evident to Esca that Marcus was not comfortable talking about the girl who still drove his passion, so Esca tried to put his friend's mind at ease by sharing a confession of his own.
"I, too, left a girl behind. Her name was Etain, and she was the daughter of the Chief of the Carvetti. Had things remained as they were, we would have married."
Marcus nodded sympathetically, and a silence fell over the table. Wanting to lighten the moment, Marcus offered a bit of humor, "Then you must have been quite disappointed when you saw that it was I kissing you and not Etain."
Esca laughed heartily, "Oh, yes. Very disappointed. But then again, you must have been equally disappointed."
Marcus opened his eyes wide and nodded, "Very much so."
The journey home began shortly after the morning meal, and both Marcus and Esca could not wait to get back on the road. The sooner they arrived in Calleva, the happier they would both be. But there was a question that nagged at Marcus until he could not keep it to himself any longer.
"Esca, why instead of following me to Calleva, do you not go in search of Etain? I can accompany you if you wish, as you did me." But right after the words left Marcus' lips, he found himself regretting having asked Esca such an intrusive question. What if the girl had been killed during the raid that left Esca orphaned of his family and a slave. Esca, however, did not seem to take offense. He continued nibbling on a piece of dried meat, looked over at Marcus and answered honestly, "It has been seven years Marcus. I do not believe Etain has been waiting seven years for a man she believes dead."
"How do you know she believes you dead?"
"If my body was not found among the dead, she would know I was captured and put into slavery. If not dead, she would know there is no chance of escape; and if I were to try, I would probably be caught and put to death."
Marcus nodded, and they continued riding for a few more hours before Esca announced he was hungry, and Marcus, who's injured leg had been bothering him since they left Eburacum, did not oppose for he needed rest.
Esca went hunting for their evening meal while Marcus stayed behind. When he returned, Esca carried two rabbits with him and promptly sat to ready them for the fire. Marcus was lost in thought, that much was evident to Esca. He stared unflinchingly into the flames as though something substantial weighed on his mind, but
Esca did not know how to broach the subject, so he went around it. "Does your leg pain you Marcus?"
A startled Marcus shook his head, "No, it is much better. Thank you." The first thing Esca had done before heading out to hunt for their dinner, was clean, and bandage Marcus' thigh, and it had made all the difference.
"Marcus you asked me why I do not search for Etain, but I can ask the very same of you. Why do you not search for the Arab girl? That kiss, the passion behind it, would tell anyone you are still in love with her." Esca began skinning the rabbits.
Marcus laughed softly but shook his head as he raised his eyes to meet Esca. "Her father did not know about us, Esca. He would never have permitted his daughter to marry a Roman. The Arabs trade with us, but they do not need us and do not like us. Our love affair, Aziza and mine, happened in the shadows. Only one person knew of it, my commanding officer, and I have always believed one of the reasons he sent me here to Britannia was to put immeasurable distance between us."
"Why would he do that?"
"To save me from the impending heartache that awaited."
"I do not see where he accomplished there, Marcus."
"Had I stayed in Jerusalem I would have witnessed her being given in marriage to another. He saved me the heartache."
Esca drove the spit through the two rabbits and put them over the fire to roast. As the two men sat in front of the fire watching their dinner cook, there was little conversation and nothing that had anything to do with either Etain or Aziza. If Marcus' commanding officer had been considerate enough to take Marcus' feelings into account when he decided to send him to Britannia, Esca would do no different. It served no purpose anyway. They had both lost the women they cared for, and there was nothing that could be done about it.
When the rabbits were ready to eat Marcus and Esca smiled with great satisfaction for by then they were both starving. The topic of the women they had loved and lost was not brought up again. After eating dinner, they spoke while watching the flames. They talked about the look on Placidus' face when Marcus had told him Esca had more honor than he would ever know. And the look on the Legatus' face when Marcus dismissed his suggestion to reform the Ninth and give its command to Marcus, turned his back on him and walked away. Esca wondered what if anything they would or could do about it, but Marcus calmly reassured his friend that there was nothing that they could do. Marcus, after all, had restored Rome's honor, as well as his father's, with the restoration of the Eagle, and he was a hero. He had done what no legion could have done, with only a slave at his side. The Legatus had no other course of action but to ignore Marcus' afront and forget it ever happened.
Wanting to get an early start the following morning, Marcus and Esca turned in early.
"I am going to move my blankets on the other side of the fire in case you get an inkling to kiss Aziza, and instead you end up kissing me again." Esca joked, and Marcus appreciating the humor laughed as well.
"Ah, you would think I was the worst kisser."
"No, you are not the worst kisser. You are actually an excellent kisser, but nevertheless, I do not wish to be kissed by you."
Marcus moved his blankets to the other side of the fire opposite Esca and smiled widely. Before turning his back to him, since Marcus preferred sleeping on his right- hand side, he complimented Esca in return. "And you are a very pleasant kisser indeed, my friend."
When the sun finally rose, Esca had been awake for more than an hour. There was something bothering him, and although he knew it had to do with Marcus' kiss, he could not figure out why he could not take the memory of it from his mind. Of course, Esca knew of men who preferred to lay with men, but he had never had that inclination. But there was something about Marcus' kiss. It was the way he had caressed his face, the way he had urgently forced his tongue into Esca's mouth, the softness of his lips, the feel of his hand entwined in his hair. Esca finally decided he knew exactly what the problem was; he had been far too long without a woman. It had been seven years since anyone had kissed him in that way. It had been the night before the raid. He had visited Etain since they were soon to be married, and before leaving, they had kissed. An urgent kiss. A sweet kiss. A kiss that had stayed with him all those years later, and as a slave, it was the memory of Etain and that last kiss that had given Esca the will to work, to eat, to sleep, and to do anything that was ordered of him to do. Yes, Esca nodded to himself, he had been too long without a woman, and he made a mental note; As soon as he arrived in Calleva, he would search out the company of a woman.
Esca looked over at Marcus who was sound asleep, and he felt ashamed for he was sure Marcus did not even remember the kiss, nor was he losing sleep over it. Yet, here he was doing just that. But what Esca did not know was that as he slept, Marcus had also lost sleep thinking about the very same thing. Marcus, however, attributed the feelings he had experienced while kissing Esca, to the fact that he thought he was kissing Aziza instead. It had nothing to do with Esca. But unlike Esca who figured his feelings toward the kiss came from the lack of a woman, Marcus knew the emotions he was experiencing were a product of his missing the woman he loved, but there was nothing he could do to change that. Another woman would not fill the void, and even the thought of another woman made him cringe. There would be no other woman for Marcus. Never again.