Esca is welcomed into the Epidii clan, treated with all the courtesy of a favoured guest. Little pieces here and there remind him of his boyhood, of his tribe. The Epidii are a different tribe, made harder from the tough conditions. But there are similarities to his remembered home that hit hard and fast.
He made a promise, to repay the life-debt he owes but keeping it will prove more costly than Esca could ever have imagined. To keep it he must betray the clan who took him in on faith, who welcomed him if not warmly then sincerely.
Esca watches the preparations for the night’s celebrations. Up until now he has been balancing, keeping his word and no betrayal in sight. He has a choice to make; either way there will be no going back.
Esca's choice is this: Betrayer or Oath Breaker. It is no choice at all.
Esca sips slowly at his rough hewn cup of sour wine. A ration of wine is supposed to be a treat. A reward, perhaps. It is little better than vinegar to Esca who is more inclined to the grain based beverages native to his land. The wine Cunoval, leader of the blue shields, had traded for to serve at feasts was of a far superior quality, rich and flavoursome and unpolluted with water.
Still, change in fare - no matter what form - is usually welcome.
He considers the dark liquid. Being given a 'treat' so soon after his latest act of defiance is suspect at best.
He tips most of the contents away. Let those of Rome believe he offered it to the gods if they wish. Esca will not let himself be grateful for the scraps off someone else's plate. (Not yet, anyway.)
Esca settles in the corner of the room, sitting on his haunches, wary. He is being kept for something. Three quarters of a moon it has been since he was sold to the arena and three quarters of a moon he has spent festering, mostly in the room filled with sleeping pallets.
He would run, only the others are watchful of him. Beppo has promised the others consequences if he escapes. It would bring his running attempts up to three if he tried again. Esca stretches the line of his shoulders as though he is about to break into a sprint.
"Esca." A voice calls impatiently. Esca breathes in and out evenly and slowly raises his head. "Come." The man orders, a whip curled around his waist.
Esca leans his head against the rough, stained plaster and surveys the man in a leisurely fashion. Strong is the first impression. A solid body not yet run to fat, back a mess from numerous floggings and a pallid face that could benefit from less wine and more hunting, Esca decides.
"Now." The man says, as though Esca has not the wits to understand him. The Latin the man speaks is rough; his mouth forms the words without ease. Esca looks at the man and just in the moment before his hands go for the whip, he stands and steps forward. Head high. Insolent, many have said of him. The man reeks of fish and wine, though at the moment Esca has no cause to criticise someone else's stench.
"You are to bathe. Beppo's orders." The man informs him, glowering darkly as though he would like nothing more than to sink his fist into Esca's face. Others have tried that method to gain his compliance. It fails.
Esca tilts his head, just a little to the side. His silence unnerves people, he knows, as too does his gaze.
"You are for the arena tomorrow." The man elaborates, almost against his will, scowl deepening as he shoves Esca over to the small chamber that is called a 'bath' with great irony. Having seen the bath house built in Cavella, Esca sees where the humour comes from. This room is nothing like the large pool of water open to the air, or the steam rooms where Romans go for massages and to talk. The best this cramped room can boast is a metal basin, hip high.
Growing up there had been a river close by for bathing, cold in the summer and freezing in the winter. Esca had spent many days playing at the banks, learning how to tickle trout, hearing stories of the Great Flood and collecting water for the cooking pots. He had had his naming day on the shores of that river as a babe, swum in it during the rites that would turn him from boy into man and bathed the wounds received in battle in the soothing waters. The river led to the sacred pool where none dared enter, to touch the water there was to court the gods’ displeasure. Esca had tossed an intricate armband of silver into the pool before his first battle, an offering made to Nemain’s depths to court the luck of the gods.
"Wash." The man shoves him towards the pot. Esca gives him a scathing look before complying. He only does so because he wishes to be clean; it has been too long since he last bathed.
After, his tunic is taken away - not that Esca was attached to the filthy garment - and he is taken to a man who burns sweet smelling herbs in the fire and waves the smoke right into Esca's face. Esca fights the urge to cough, the smoke making him light headed for a moment.
The grandmother had done similar things when blessing them for battle, daubing light patterns over their skin and invoking the gods.
Esca says nothing as he is escorted back to the sleeping quarters.
'You are for the arena tomorrow.' Even Esca knows what that means. He has been hearing of the hype over the games intensify over the last week. That one match was to be to the death. (Unusual in an arena like this where there is not the funds to buy gladiators and slaves purely for the purpose of having them put to death for the amusement of the crowds.)
So it is to be his death which is to entertain the masses. Well, he will not make it easy.
He waits, perched in the corner, for three thousand heartbeats before he slips from the room using the window thought too high and narrow for him to escape through.
Sliding through the shadows which deepen with the onset of night Esca makes his way steadily to the gates. He is almost there when a quiet whine moans through the air.
He turns and cautiously approaches the whimpering noise. A hound in a cage too small for any animal born to the wild lays on its side, tongue lolling out its mouth.
He and the hound stare at one another warily. A breathy whimper has Esca reaching into the cage. Sudden, like the dart of a fish, the dog is there, teeth snapping for his fingers which only escape becoming the hounds dinner by a hairsbreadth. Gone is the crying hound an inch away from death and now a snarling beast remains, straining through the bars to get at Esca.
A hoarse chuckle escapes Esca's throat which only serves to enrage the hound further. The growl eventually quietens into a low whine and back again is the helpless animal of before.
"There is life in you yet." Esca murmurs, reaching into a fold of his braccae and slipping the animal a heel of bread that he had saved from breakfast. The hound again tries to take his fingers but Esca does not let him.
He watches as the dog tears apart the bread. It is a meagre ration, not even a hint of the bloody meat which the hound burns for.
The hound will cater to no one, doing only what the desperation of starvation will press him to in order to get his next meal. If that is to be his opponent in the ring tomorrow then Esca will not begrudge him his flesh.
A hand grips Esca's shoulder tight and Esca walks with the grip back to the sleeping quarters knowing that his chance of escape has gone.
It is not his fate to fill the belly of the hound, it seems.
Instead Beppo pits him against a gladiator.
Esca was once a warrior of the Brigantes. Once, this would have been an even fight.
Two years of slavery and no access to blades (let alone a practice area) have dulled him. Esca can feel the shake in his limbs, telling of his lack of food. It is one way to try and keep him complacent. Hunger dulls the wits and eats at strength, Esca knows.
The jeering crowd have not come to see a fair fight. They have come to see him cut down. A bloody sacrifice to their amusement.
The man with the whip pushes him forward, again when one stumble is not enough to bring him into the arena. He does not need the third push.
The short sword thrust into his hands moments before is dull at the edge; Esca can see that without the need to touch. And the shield is little better than a dinner plate. A serving platter would be of better use.
One of the houses he had worked at (brought because he was young and lithesome and before his first escape attempt) had platters of strong metal, of heft enough to be a weapon.
He steps forward, holding the sword and shield up. Once the act of doing so was almost as natural as breathing. Now the fit is awkward, as though he is an unbloodied boy trying to lift his father's spear. The crowd shouts and heckles.
During the feast nights, before Rome had squashed his tribe once and for all, fights had broken out. Angry words spoken, offense taken under the weight of thick wine and honey sweet mead. Oftentimes an official fight would take place, honour stacked against honour. It would be a spectacle, a bloodthirsty fight with no holds barred. Sometimes it would even end in a death. Often severe injuries.
This is different. This is not a fight between two warriors. This has nothing to do with honour.
He lowers his arms.
The gladiator could end this before it even begins. Instead he shouts at Esca to start the fight. Esca scans the stands, the crowd egging him on. He is a spectacle for Rome to mock. How his family would be shamed to see him. His mother, who knelt and bared her throat to the knife so she would not become a victim. So her defeat could not please Rome. They knew they were going to lose then, just as Esca knows his own fate now.
Esca tosses aside his shield and sword.
If he is to die then at least he can follow his mother's example and go on his own terms. He is not yet brought low before Rome.
A blow from the sword handle sends him to the ground, spitting blood. A waste of his bath, he is no longer clean.
He can hear the dog, straining again, brought to fever pitch by the excitement of the crowd, yearning to taste his life blood.
He stands, lower jaw awash with fire, and feels the kiss of steel against his throat. The gladiator again incites him to fight before aiming for his ribs.
Esca has taken blows before, in practice, in reality. Recently in punishment for perceived mistakes. Before: age mates learning to fight, cuffs from his brothers, older warriors teaching their craft...
He fights for breath. Fights to keep his feet after another hit then falls. The sand is coarse beneath his skin. Soon, soon he will be reunited with those he has lost.
Some last shred of pride, of self respect, has him mustering up the will to force unwilling muscles to let him stand, one last time.
This, here, is the last stand of the Brigantes. It is not a noble end of tales told by the fireside. No one will weep for him, for his family, his tribe.
The shield swings into his face.
Esca breathes, down on the ground, body aflame. He will not close his eyes; will not give Rome even that satisfaction. Though his blood may be spilt; it will be because he willed it. Not the crowd, not this man holding him at sword point and certainly not Beppo.
The sky is as it ever is and in that Esca takes hope. This land is not one to be conquered by the likes of Rome. One day a storm will come to wash away all that of the past. Probably too any scrap that remains of the Brigantes but it matters little when there is no one to keep the songs alive. His tribe lost long ago, it's long past time to join them.
He watches the clouds and waits. He will not beg for death.
The gladiator lowers his sword.
"-fe! Life!" A strong voice calls, commands and begs the crowd. Giving voice to a plea alien to Esca.
The gladiator steps away. Esca's victory snatched from him when it was within his grasp.
He will not be seeing his family today, after all. He fights the urge to weep. If he hasn't got his escape then Rome will not have his tears.
A warrior does not seek death. Nor is he afraid of it.
Esca has to remind himself of this. His service is offered to Marcus not because he is a slave, but because of honour. Once, this willing act would have been the highest of honours, either to give or to receive. A shield brother.
Now, it is akin to slavery.
It is solely due to the last remnants of his pride and sense of justice as a Brigantes that Esca does not run when Stephanos buys him at the behest of his master. Well, once he learns that the man he is to serve is the same one who bargained for his life.
Beppo had him dressed in a clean tunic not his own. Probably so the price of sale was not lowered further. What use is a fighting slave that does not fight?
"The Aquila household is fair." Stephanos says to him, smiling, as they break their fast. Esca sips at his tea. It is hot and the herbs are fresh but the blend is not familiar to him. His mother used to favour fresh mint, Esca never thought he'd miss the vile, pale green liquid.
The cook, Sassticca, snorts but sets down a fresh apple in front of him.
"Too skinny." She clucks her tongue every time she hands him a plate.
Life in the Aquila household is...strange.
"I hate everything you stand for. Everything you are." Esca says and means it.
The light flickers off the honed blade of the knife that was once his father's. After the battle, after Esca had been tied up, half dead from a blow to the head, a soldier had taken fancy to the elaborate knife.
Esca had seized the first opportunity to steal it back the moment he saw it. It has been like a dance, keeping the dagger hidden, keeping it from each master in turn and away from those whose fearfulness amped up the moment he held anything remotely close to a weapon in his hands. More than once he had buried it, kept note of the location to return to later. It was why he was caught the second time he ran, he stopped to unearth it despite freedom being in the opposite direction. He cannot regret doing so.
And now, after all his carefulness, all his plans he tosses it at the feet of a Roman. Worse: a Roman soldier.
"But you saved my life and for that I must serve you." Esca vows, feeling the bitter curl of the words at the back of his throat.
Marcus stares. He does not know what response you must make to a declaration bond. To be fair, Esca doubts any of the Brigantes would know quite what to do after such a hateful vow either. It is not in keeping with tradition but. Traditions have not been helping him any, lately.
"Well, if you are to be my slave, lace up my sandal." Marcus eventually says, holding onto his walking stick with something akin to desperation. As though he will fall if he lets go. His face is pale with ill health, strained around the mouth and eyes. Esca looks at him and waits until Marcus is sitting back down before he approaches to lace up the sandals that Rome thinks is adequate footwear. Clearly these Romans are unused to the boggy ground of Esca's home.
The silence between them is sullen and only half of that can be attributed to Esca. Marcus glowers at the wall.
In the past Esca had been acknowledged wherever he went. A nod of greeting from those who held him close in their hearts. A tilt of the head, respect to a son of Conoval even if they did not respect him. Or, respect to his mother's get, she was a proud woman and many knew Conoval was lucky to be allowed to share her sleeping furs. The gold around his arm told strangers who he was. A bronze torc across his neck, donned for special occasions, a declaration.
Now as a slave he reaches invisibility. As a hunter he should be impressed, Esca thinks with dark amusement. As a person, well, he is not one anymore in the eyes of Rome.
His father owned slaves, Esca knows, but even they were someone.
Marcus does not often leave his uncle's villa while his knee is still mending from the most recent surgery. But sometimes he has to, bidden by his uncle or just driven to distraction by the same walls.
He was invited to attend the arena with the son of an old friend of his uncle. Marcus decides asking Esca to accompany him would not be the best tactic. Especially not when he still goes to bed every evening expecting to wake up to the feel of iron against his throat. Marcus has woken from fever dreams enough during the nights to catch Esca watching him, crouched like a hunter in the corner, back against the wall.
Marcus is not the only one who finds that proud, unrelenting stare unnerving.
He returns from the trip with an aching leg to find Esca sitting in the sun carving a thumb of wood.
Marcus knows if he asks where Esca obtained the knife then he will be treated to a look of incredulous disdain. Esca does not speak often, Marcus has found. But then, he has no need to when one scornful glance from him is far more eloquent than a long diatribe.
Esca does not rise as Marcus approaches, nor does he make any movement to suggest he knows that Marcus is there. He does though. Underestimating Esca would not lead to pleasant times.
"Nice day." Marcus eventually says, after wracking his brains for something to say, to begin a conversation. Esca looks at him flatly, a sliver of wood flying from the carving and into the grass.
"Rain will fall tonight." Esca says abruptly. Marcus almost falls over in surprise. He looks doubtfully at the clear blue skies studded with white clouds here and there. It is windy, true, but it hardly looks to rain.
"Are you sure?" Marcus asks. Possibly trying to carry out a conversation with Esca would go better if he did not immediately say something that made his doubt of such declarations clear.
A few more slivers of wood join the pile at Esca's feet. He is not wearing shoes, Marcus notes, or a tunic. It reminds him of their first meeting. Well, the first time he laid eyes on Esca. He's got more meat on his bones now, a healthy sun-glow to his skin.
"It will rain." Esca repeats firmly, examining the unvarnished wood in his hands critically. It is a wolf, or a particularly vicious hound, teeth bared and lips curled back in a snarl.
"Well, we will know by tonight." Marcus says, finally having enough of the ache in his leg to begin to limp indoors.
The next time he catches Cottia playing in the bottom of the garden she shows off her new toy. A small roughly carved wooden wolf with its lips peeled back, ready to bite.
"Here I am," Marcus huffs out, feeling the strain in his entire body, "a Roman, asking a Briton to defend him against his own people."
Esca looks at him, he's still not much for words; Marcus thinks that's just the way he is.
"They are not my tribe." Esca says, muted but far from hesitant.
"But they are still your people." It's Marcus' turn to speak quietly.
"You think too much like a Roman." Esca shakes his head but he doesn't refute the sentiment.
"I am a Roman." Marcus says, because he knows Esca never forgets this but sometimes Marcus feels the need to remind him that he is proud to stand under Rome's wings.
"Yes, and Romans think everyone else thinks the same as you." Esca pours some water into his mouth and Marcus watches as he swallows. "To you, any tribe of this land must think of themselves as of this land first then of their individual tribe. You were not born in Rome but you think of yourself foremost as Roman."
"...and this is not the case here?" Marcus enquires, not sure what Esca is getting at.
"I am a warrior of the Brigantes first. Son of Conoval second. Esca third. There is no collective tribe." Esca pauses, eyes fixed over Marcus' shoulder before he moves his uncomfortably intense gaze to meet Marcus'. "The Brigantes are gone," there is a depth of sorrow twisting in that narrow face but his voice is steady, "now, I have only individuals, no tribe."
"But the tribes have fought together; have united under one banner before." Marcus points out. There are some battles fought here that nearly resulted in Rome deciding to ignore this little island.
"They did not 'unite' the way you are thinking. Think of it more as a hunt with your friends, you work together but the kill is granted to one. After, you return to separate households. Rome is just a bigger tribe than we are used to fighting."
Marcus does not like the way the plurals such as 'we' that slip off Esca's tongue. He also thinks it proves his point: Britain may not be united but it is still people from the tribes before Romans.
"You think too big, Roman." Esca scoffs, catching Marcus' disagreement.
Marcus watches Esca reserve soft touches - kind actions and gentle words - for the strays he gathers.
Cottia and her fox-like grins, slowly builds up a menagerie of carved wooden animals, every line and curve made with care. Her exuberant chattering greeted with silence, more often than not, but also fond creases to Esca's eyes which is where all his smiles are kept. (A correcting hand - firm but kind - when he teaches the young girl how to properly hold a knife, how to attack and defend.)
The Seal boy gets a warm arm around his shoulder. Affirmation in the small upturn to the corner of a sullen mouth. Taught with guiding hands how to make snares for ground mammals and birds that nest on the ground.
The wolf cub gets first fed by hand, a cloth soaked in milk, then ear scratches from nimble fingers. A game of tugging the bone turns into tussles on the floor, two sets of teeth narrowly missing flesh. A warm, capable hand running through coarse, thick fur while the cub slumbers - legs twitching against a firm thigh as the cub dreams of running.
The cats that Sassticca kept to keep the mice away receive surreptitious scraps of meat, (when Sassticca caught Esca she would smack him, hard, the irascible cook would complain the cats were supposed to catch their dinner) and the occasional affectionate tickle to the chin.
Every time Marcus catches evidence of Esca's soft spots he hoards the memory like a rare and precious thing.
He thinks Esca's version of gentle kindness is reserved for animals and children. It takes him a long time to notice that Marcus himself receives some of Esca's jealously guarded underbelly. Smiles not touching sullen lips and care taken with him and for him.
Just like his smiles, kindness from Esca is a hidden thing.