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Before All Things

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The boy’s eyes are huge and guileless in his round face and maybe it’s that that lets Marcus agree. Esca’s face is lit in moonlight and his eyes speak of a young rogue warrior with no choices and no life ahead, breathing his last into a bloody river, and maybe it’s that. But mostly, Marcus thinks, it’s the relief, sharp and stark and still cooling his throat, and the Ruse, it was only a ruse, thank Mithras, I almost lost him…

 

Whatever the reason, the boy comes with them and - Marcus can see Esca hope - avoids his fate.

 


 

The boy doesn’t speak Latin. Marcus doesn’t speak Brittonic.

 

“Does it hurt?” The boy is looking at Marcus, eyes wide and innocent. 

 

Marcus sighs and rubs his thigh. “Intellegere te non possum.”

 

“Oh,” says the boy in realization. He moves closer and puts his hands on Marcus’ leg. Marcus throws him off and skitters away, still so damn edgy.

 

He grits his teeth and says, harsher than he means to, “Me piget. Sed noli tangere.”

 

The boy flinches and drops his eyes, muttering, “I only wanted to help. I think it’s bleeding.”

 

“What’s bleeding?” asks Esca, popping around the tiny hill they’re sheltering next to with a brace of what looks like...yes, rat. Lovely.

 

The boy beams at Esca and points at where Marcus is still rubbing at his old wound. Marcus narrows his eyes.

 

“Marcus, let me see,” says Esca, handing the vermin to the boy.

 

“Quid?” asks Marcus irritably, moving away from his questing fingers. “Hercle! Latine dic.”

 

“Oh,” says Esca, surprised and something harsher. “Crus tuum. Ronan dicit sanguinem esse.”

 

Marcus glares at the boy, who is humming quietly, skinning the rats.

 

“Quid putas te perficere cum non me narras?” Esca asks. His fingers are gentle but his face reminds Marcus of a lakeshore and giggling girls and fingers in his hair, fingers that are not gentle at all.

 

Marcus turns his head. Glares at the boy some more. “Nihil.”

 

“Cede,” snaps Esca, lightly tapping his cheek to turn his head back. “Ronan non malefecit, drutos.”

 

Drutos?” Marcus has heard Esca use this word before, usually in conjunction with his name or Ròmanach, which he knows by now means Roman.

 

Esca doesn’t reply, just pulls tighter on the makeshift bandage before tying it off. He smooths the outline of the wound and tucks the ends of the knot in, looking up at Marcus with distant eyes. Marcus coughs and awkwardly straightens his leg, but finds himself unable to look away.

 

The moment is broken by the boy, who seems to have just finished skinning their disgusting meal. “There!” Esca looks toward him, smiling fondly.

 

“Necesse erit puero Latinam discere,” comments Marcus.

 

Esca frowns. “Or maybe you can learn Brittonic.”

 

Marcus scowls. “Quid?”

 

“Nomen suum est Ronan. Non puer.”

 

“Scio,” grumbles Marcus, sure Esca changed his sentence but unwilling to ask again.

 

Esca passes him a raw, cold rat. “Consume.”

 


 

Later, under cover of night, they huddle against a rock, as much out of the rain as possible, and Marcus smooths Ronan’s hair when he whimpers in his sleep. Esca’s arm tightens around him.

 


 

The fight - it can hardly be called a battle - is short and bloody and Esca makes certain Ronan is kept out of the worst of it.

 

There is a moment - and it still raises the bile in his throat to think on it - when the Seal prince had slipped his notice, only surfacing with Esca’s cry and he had almost… Marcus had almost…

 

He shudders and looks long and full on Esca beside him, whole and hale. His face is lit in fire and his eyes speak of lose and gain, hand firm on Ronan’s shoulder.

 


 

“Est semper Hispania,” suggests his uncle one afternoon.

 

They’re strolling around the peristylium, Esca and Ronan chattering over a tablet nearby. Marcus hums absently, eyeing Ronan’s messy mop. He’s due for a trim soon.

 

“Marcus,” his uncle sighs.

 

“Me piget, patrue,” Marcus replies, jerking his attention back to the conversation. “Hispania, certe.” He hesitates before adding, “Esca dicit familiam esse sibi in Hiberniā.”

 

“Hibernia? Tune secum is?”

 

“Paulisper.”

 

His uncle eyes him, a smile forming slowly. Marcus does not like the gleam in his eye.

 

“Marce, Marce, ecce!” shouts Ronan, running up to them and pushing the tablet at Marcus’ elbow, face shining with pride. “Litterae! Litterae Romanae! I made them!”

 

“Ego eas feci, Ronan,” corrects Esca quietly, which Ronan repeats, only stumbling a little.

 

“Lepidissimae,” says Marcus. He looks inquiringly at Esca, who seems pleasantly surprised.

 

“Very nice,” provides Esca, and when Marcus parrots it to an ecstatic Ronan, he smiles at Marcus, slow and steady. Marcus feels warmth unfurl at the base of his skull, smiling back helplessly.

 

His uncle coughs to cover what Marcus suspects is a laugh. He ignores him.