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The Centurion’s Hunting Hound

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The journey back to Calleva from Hadrian’s Wall seemed to Esca to take an impossibly long time and an impossibly short one, all at once. After their desperate, terrifying flight from the Epidaii, the slow passage of the days at the Wall while Marcus recovered his strength to continue their journey seemed almost dull and hazy, except for the concern he felt as he took care of Marcus. Then when they set out again toward Calleva, with the Eagle of the Ninth Legion still wrapped in the ragged purple cloak Marcus had kept it in, the days and the weeks blended together to feel very much the same. 

With the Eagle safely in their possession now, there was no sense of urgency and alarm as there had been when they made this same journey to find it all those months ago. And so they went a little more slowly now, but Esca still found himself wishing they could be out here longer, and he felt the days slipping by almost unnoticed. In the course of their journey, he had felt as free as he ever had before his slavery, and he loved sharing the adventure of the hunt with Marcus. But he also knew Marcus was impatient to reach Calleva, his home, and so he couldn’t bear to voice his reluctance to go back.

“We should reach my uncle’s villa by tomorrow evening I think, Esca,” Marcus told him one morning, as they broke their fast with some of their remaining strips of deer meat. His face was bright and excited, and as they finished their meal Esca could feel Marcus’s mood rubbing off on him. They made good time that day, and despite himself, Esca found he was almost looking forward to reaching Calleva.

 

***

 

The next evening when they arrived at the villa, both of them exhausted from walking the last leg of their journey, it was a moment of mixed emotions for Esca. He was happy to see Cub, as the wolf first jumped on Marcus and then licked Esca’s hands, barking joyfully with his tail wagging; and he was happy to see how joyous the homecoming was for Marcus; but as soon as they were through the door, he became immediately, painfully conscious that everyone in this house had only really known him as a slave. Marcus had freed him only a day before they started their journey, and so, although the other slaves had congratulated him, none of them had really had time to absorb the information and see him as a free man. Marcus’s freedman, rather, he supposed.

Sassticca ransacked the kitchen and made an elaborate meal to celebrate Marcus and Esca’s return, and then Uncle Aquila, Marcus, Esca, and Claudius Hieronimianus, who had been staying at the house for a few days already before their arrival, ate together, reclined on couches around the table. It was the strangest meal Esca had ever experienced—the food was much finer than he’d had in a long time, and he couldn’t get used to reclining on one elbow while eating, in an almost decadent lounge. Aquila and the Legate looked entirely comfortable, but Marcus seemed unused to it as well, after all this time away from civilization. The light from the candles was soft, flickering, and suffused, and it all felt strangely unreal and almost dreamlike. Only Marcus, who seemed nearly as out of place here as Esca, seemed real and solid and familiar in the midst of this strangeness.

When the meal was finished, the Legate Hieronimianus suggested that they retire to Aquila’s study so Marcus and Esca could make a report of their mission. 

Esca’s awareness of being out of place in a house where he had been a slave, which had been present throughout dinner, now came back in stronger force. He glanced at Marcus, almost panicked, but the other man only smiled, soft and tired. It steadied Esca a little, and he smiled back.

At the foot of the stairs leading up to Aquila’s watchtower study, he faltered. It hardly seemed appropriate for him to enter the sacred space of the master of the house, where none of the slaves had ever been allowed to go. Even Marcus had only done so a few times, he thought, after his leg was long healed.

No, Esca could not go up with them.

Marcus, already halfway up the steps with Cub trailing behind him, turned around when he realized Esca wasn’t behind him. 

“I think I will not come,” Esca told him quickly, before he could lose the nerve.

“But you must come!” Marcus said, concerned and confused. “This is as much your story as it is mine.”

Esca shook his head. “This thing is between you, your uncle, and the Legate.”

“Not only between us.” Marcus came down the stairs again, Cub still behind him. “What has gotten into your head, Esca?”

“I think I should not go into your uncle’s private sanctum, since I have been a slave in his house,” he admitted stubbornly.

“But you’re not a slave now.”

“No. I am not.” Then, admitting his thought from earlier, “I am your freedman now. It is strange. I had never thought of that until today.”

“But—you didn’t feel like this when we went north,” Marcus said, a little pleadingly, searching his face. “What has changed now?”

“That was at the beginning. I didn’t have time to—to fully understand what it would mean. And then the next day we were gone, and I only knew that I was free, like a hound off its leash on the hunt. Now, we are back.” He hoped Marcus understood.

Suddenly Marcus reached out and gripped his shoulder hard, his face intense. “Listen to me. You can’t let this hang over you all your life and never move past the shadow of it.” His voice was hard now, but still slightly pleading. “You don’t like being a freedman, do you? Well I don’t like being lame. I know it is difficult, but the only thing you and I can do about it is to learn to carry the scars lightly.”

He was right, and Esca knew it. His first instinctual reaction was to be angry, for how could Marcus know what this was like? But he was perhaps the only one who could know. Esca had been with him through the worst point of his life, and Marcus had learned to carry his scars admirably. It had taken a long while to heal his body and spirit, but now he was whole again. Perhaps Esca could do the same, in time.

“Come up with me now,” Marcus offered, softer now, still gripping his shoulder.

“I will come.”

He followed Marcus up, at his heels as ever, like a faithful hunting hound.

 

***

 

When they had finished their report, the Legate told them the Ninth Legion could not be reformed, even with its Eagle back in Roman hands. It was something Esca and Marcus had suspected already, but it still hurt to know for certain that Marcus’s father’s Legion was gone forever now. The four of them buried the Eagle under the floorboards of Aquila’s study, and once again Esca was aware of that difference between them and himself: all three of them had served in the Roman Legions, and Esca had been enslaved in Rome’s conquest of Britain. He didn’t feel any bitterness or hurt with the realization, though.

“It was a good hunting, Esca,” Marcus said, as the two of them stood over the Eagle’s burial place. His eyes were very bright and hot.

“Yes. It was a good hunting.” Even though the Ninth couldn’t be reformed after all, it had all been worth it, and they had shared in the good hunting together.

 

***

 

The Legate left a few days later, after the four of them had gone back up to the study to seal up the Eagle’s resting place. The next morning after that, Marcus didn’t wake until much later than usual, when the sun was shining bright through the windows.

“Are you well, Marcus?” Esca asked, worried that he was becoming ill, sitting on the edge of Marcus’s bed.

“Yes, I am well,” he said softly. He rubbed the back of one hand across his forehead and sighed. “It’s this damn leg. It has been giving me trouble since last night. I had hoped rest would help, but now it only feels worse.”

“Just rest more for now. I will bring you something to eat.”

“No, Esca, you do not have to do that now,” he protested.

Esca shook his head and ignored the protest. He brought food to Marcus’s room for the both of them, and when they had eaten, Marcus got up rather stiffly to try walking around. It didn’t seem to get much easier for him, and when he sat down again, he said, a little laughingly, “You know, perhaps I have been using it overly hard over the past months.”

“Our adventures certainly weren’t easy on to it. And now, you will need to rest to let yourself heal and recover your strength.”

“So it is all to do again,” Marcus sighed. Esca gripped his shoulder and squeezed gently.

Over the next few days, Marcus’s leg grew worse. He stayed in bed much of the time, and he and his uncle began playing draughts again in the evenings, as they had done before. 

It was a little like it had been when Esca first came to live there—Marcus needed help walking most of the time, and he was often impatient with the slow speed of his recovery and irritated that he was so hobbled by the old injury. Esca stayed with him and helped him, as he had helped him from the first, and Marcus thanked him for everything he did, as he had also done from the first.

It seemed that for both of them, things were unpleasantly different now that they were back from their journey. Marcus’s wound pained him, and his old worries for the future had come back anew, so that he was returning to his idea of becoming someone’s secretary. He spoke to his uncle about it, but Aquila dismissed the idea and made Marcus promise to wait and think about it more seriously once he was strong again. Marcus told Esca this when he brought the topic up to him one evening.

“I shall have to do something with myself, Esca,” Marcus said. “I cannot go on living here with my uncle with no livelihood of my own, and I think being a secretary would not be so bad.”

“I am sure your uncle does not mind housing you as he has. You must see how much he cares for you, and he surely doesn’t see you living with him as a burden.”

“I know he doesn’t see it like that. But I still feel guilty, and I would prefer to have my own work and livelihood.”

Despite his words, Esca didn’t think being a secretary was work Marcus would enjoy. It didn’t seem to suit him at all, and he thought Marcus’s uncle agreed, judging from his reaction that Marcus had told him about. “I understand that, but in truth I do not think you should jump into this secretaryship just yet.”

“You are right, Esca,” Marcus sighed. “My uncle as well. I suppose I should wait until I am stronger to make my decision.” Then after a pause, “And what of you? What will you do?”

He didn’t have to think long about his answer. “I am your armor-bearer, Marcus. I will continue to serve you, and you will feed me, and maybe between whiles I will hunt for food, or sell my kill to bring in a few sesterces.”

It seemed only natural that he would stay with Marcus; he couldn’t even think of leaving him now, after all they had been through together. The words made Marcus smile, and Esca returned it.

 

***

 

When Esca had the time, he started to go out and hunt in the woods outside Calleva. He felt free, as he had been in Caledonia, and he would bring back his kill for Sassticca to prepare for dinner. He felt useful, not as a slave now but as a man in his own right.

As the season shifted to winter, the weather turned colder an rainier, but Esca couldn’t bring himself to stay stuck in the house through it. It seemed entirely worth it to be outside and free, if he got a little cold and wet. It was what he would’ve done in Caledonia or in his tribe. 

One day, in full winter, he returned to the house in the middle of a storm, entirely soaked from the rain and shivering all over with the cold. He hadn’t even seen any deer, and his clothes were wet through and through. Sassticca saw him immediately as he came in, and clucked her tongue at him disapprovingly before wrapping a blanket around him and pushing him into the front room.

“You will get sick if you keep going out in that!” she scolded. Marcus, who was sitting by the fire and mending some of his uncle’s Celtic weapons, with Cub settled comfortably at his feet, looked up in concern.

“Esca! What on earth happened?”

“I was caught out in the storm,” he managed through chattering teeth, pulling the blanket tighter around himself. “I didn’t even catch anything.”

”Poor Esca. Come sit here.” Marcus leaned forward to stoke the fire higher, and Esca stepped closer gratefully, settling into the empty seat. Cub stood up briefly to push his muzzle into Esca’s hand, before returning to Marcus. He tried to relax; the fire was flickering and warm on his skin, and soon it soaked into his body enough for him to at least stop shivering. He would need to change out of his wet clothes, but for now the heat of the fire was enough.

“You must be feeling about as restless as I am, to go out in such weather,” Marcus murmured at last, breaking the comfortable silence that had fallen between them.

“It wasn’t raining quite so much when I left,” Esca admitted, “but yes, I would have been restless indeed to have to stay indoors.”

“You know, Sassticca may not let you leave again for a while yet,” Marcus said laughingly. 

And Sassticca did not let Esca leave the house for the rest of the day, and the next few days as the storm continued, threatening to hit him with her giant metal spoon if he did. It was pouring rain and windy, and part of Esca was grateful that she was making him stay in the house, but part of him still would rather be outside, in any weather. Marcus distracted him by teaching him to play draughts and latrunculi and all the other board games that his uncle had, and they began to enjoy spending the hours this way, playing and talking together. It was good for both of them to have this distraction from their gloomy thoughts, and the general mood in the house seemed to lighten.

The winter months dragged on in much the same way. Esca would still hunt occasionally, when the weather was decent, but Marcus had to continue to stay in the house as he healed. Always he would ask Esca to tell him about the hunt, and Esca would describe it in as much detail as he could. He could tell Marcus was still frustrated and impatient, and missing Cottia as well: she and her family had gone to Aquae Sulis for the winter. Esca missed her too, although he hadn’t been as close with her as Marcus.

Both of them continued to heal, slowly, as the months went on. Marcus’s leg was strengthening under him, and he had less and less need to use Esca’s shoulder for support, instead walking on his own for longer periods. Esca was becoming more and more comfortable with freedom; he had been a slave, yes, but now that dark time had passed, and he was beginning to accept that. It was difficult, sometimes, to still live in the same house where he had been a slave, but now it seemed that the other residents were starting to see him as his own man rather than just as a former slave, and so even that was becoming easier. He wasn’t sure he could ever be entirely comfortable there, though.

He never outright spoke to Marcus about these things, but he could tell the other man noticed a shift in him, just as Esca noticed the shift of Marcus’s lessening impatience as his leg grew strong again.

 

***

 

It was sometime in early spring when the letter arrived.

Esca had been out on an errand, buying some things for Sassticca, and when he returned to the villa, there was a letter from the Legate Claudius Hieronimianus, addressed to Marcus. It had to be something to do with their adventure in Caledonia, Esca thought. What other reason could the Legate have to write to Marcus, using the seal of the Sixth Legion?

“Marcus!” He shouted eagerly. “Where are you, Marcus?”

“Down here. I’m coming!”

Soon Marcus joined him in the courtyard, and Cottia with him. Esca had noticed her family’s arrival a few days ago, and he was glad to see she and Marcus had met again. Marcus’s uncle was there too suddenly, and he watched the three of them with somewhat detached interest.

“This letter has just come for you,” Esca told him, pushing the papyrus into his hand.

”From the Legate Hieronimianus?” Marcus said almost in shocked wonder as he took the letter from Esca. For a long moment, he just read silently, his face surprised and awed. He looked up, at Esca then Cottia then his uncle and back, wordless in shock, then dropped his eyes to the letter again.

“The Legate has laid the matter of the Eagle before the Senate, and their ruling is as we knew it must be. But he says that ‘in just recognition of service to the State, which is nonetheless real that it must remain unpublished...’” He looked up quickly and met Esca’s eyes. “Esca, you have been made a Roman citizen.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” he said slowly, puzzled and a little wary. “What does it mean?”

“It is as though they gave you your wooden foil,” Marcus told him, his eyes bright, before turning back to the letter.

The wooden foil of a gladiator... it meant full freedom and honors, and the cancellation of his clipped ear. It wouldn’t matter that he had been a slave. He would be seen only as a free man, a Roman citizen, now. The realization made his throat tighten, and he swallowed against it as Marcus started reading again.

“The Legate says that for the same service, I am to be awarded the gratuity of a time expired Cohort Centurion—paid partly in land, partly in sesterces. ‘Following the established custom, the land grant will be made over to you here in Britain, as the province of your last military service; but a friend of mine on the Senate tells me there should be no difficulty in exchanging it for land in Etruria, which I believe is your own country. The official documents will be reaching both of you in due course, but since the wheels of officialdom are notoriously slow, I hope I may be the first to give you the news...’”

Marcus looked up at them again for a long moment, from Esca to Cottia to Uncle Aquila, before turning away, leaning against the little stone wall of the courtyard. Land in Etruria... Esca knew Marcus had been desperately homesick for his homeland in Italy, but he also thought that Britain had become his home over the months. Either way, wherever he decided to accept the land grant, Esca would still go with him. It would be hard to leave his own home country, but with Cottia and Marcus there with him, it would surely not be impossible.

Cub nudged Marcus’s hand with his nose, and Marcus turned back to the rest of them, drawing a deep breath.

“Congratulations Marcus,” his uncle said. “It is not for everyone that my friend Claudius would work so hard to drag justice out of the Senate, as he must have worked for this.”

“I could lay my head at his feet,” Marcus said softly. “It is a new beginning—a new beginning for all of us, Esca.”

“It may take some time to work the exchange, but I imagine you could be back in Etruria by autumn,” his uncle said. 

Marcus looked at Esca and Cottia again, then said, “I don’t think I will be going to Etruria. I would much rather take my land grant here in Britain, and we will build our home here.”

 

***

 

That afternoon, Esca and Marcus and Cottia sat in the atrium together, sharing an amphora of fine wine to celebrate everything that had happened, and making their plans for their future. Esca felt warm and joyful and excited, truly looking forward to the future for the first time in a long time. The others felt the same—their faces were bright and open, their laughter loud.

Truly, they had much to celebrate now.

“What shall we do with the land?” Cottia asked. Her eyes were full and bright, and her face was slightly flushed.

“I had thought to use it for farming, if we have enough space for it,” Marcus suggested, glancing at Esca.

The people of his tribe had always farmed, but Esca, being the son of the chieftain, had never had experience in it. He had wanted to learn, before, and now he was suddenly eager to try once again.

“Perhaps we could breed horses on this farm,” Esca said, and Cottia gasped in excitement.

“Yes we must breed horses! Ours will be the best horses any of our neighbors have seen!”

Esca grinned, and Marcus grinned back, and Cottia laughed, pleased. Life was good, and it would continue to be good for long years to come.

“We will have thyme for bees, and maybe a vine terrace so we can make our own wine, and animals, and fields of wheat...” Marcus added.

“I think you are the most knowledgeable about the practices of farming, Marcus,” Esca said, half-laughingly, “you will have to teach us how to do this.”

“I will be glad to teach you,” he grinned.

There was a brief pause, and they all glanced at each other, sharing the excitement. “Where would be the best place for such a farm?” Cottia asked.

Marcus sat with one elbow propped on the side table, and he dropped his chin into his hand thoughtfully. “Somewhere in the south, I think,” he said after a moment. “A gentle climate would be best.”

“I believe the South Downs is famously good farming country,” Esca said.

“The South Downs it is then,” Marcus grinned, lifting his head again. “We will have good land for our crops there and it will be a new life for all of us, a good life.”

 

***

 

The next day, Marcus wrote a reply to the Legate in which he thanked him for his efforts, and declined the offer of land in Etruria, instead requesting it in the Downs. Esca took the roll of papyrus into town to have it delivered. 

As he returned to the villa, it came to him that he was truly a free man now, no longer only a freedman. He was a Roman citizen—though no less a Briton, as Cottia assured him fiercely—with all the privileges that entailed, and in only a few months, he would be living with the two people closest to him on their own land. They could do what they wanted with it and live their own lives there.

As he came up to the villa, he started whistling the first song that came into his mind, the old marching song that Guern the Hunter had sung, in Caledonia.

 

Oh when I joined the Eagles

(As it might be yesterday)

I kissed a girl at Clusium

Before I marched away...

 

Life was good, and Esca knew it would continue to be good for long years to come.