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The Place of Life

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With the Seal Prince and his warriors defeated, their journey south was easier. After the battle, they were given shelter by one of the surviving veterans of the Ninth, a man calling himself Levin who had once been an optio of the Fifth Cohort, now a farmer with a Caledonian wife and children.

They stayed two nights, just long enough for Marcus to get his strength back, and to be sure there was no danger of the wound-fever setting in. Levin was willing to shelter them until the wound was fully healed, but between them, Marcus and Esca agreed they should move on as soon as possible. The battle had broken the pursuit and given them space to breathe, but it was inevitable that when the surviving warriors of the Seal People made it back to tell of what had happened, more would be sent after them. Added to that, word of the Eagle’s disappearance would soon spread to the other tribes — if it hadn’t done so already — and there could be few warriors among the Painted People who wouldn’t savour the thought of hunting down such a prize and bringing it back to stand in the sacred places of his own clan. If they dawdled, they might very well find all the Lowlands up in arms against them. And with autumn wearing on towards winter, they couldn’t afford to waste time.

So they set off again, well supplied with dried deer meat, barley bannocks, and skins full of heather-beer, following a route described to them by Levin, which took them through certain passes and remote glens seldom used by other travellers.

They made good progress, but even without the hunt snapping at their heels, they had to contend with the weather. It rained constantly: fine, chill swathes that blew in on the raw wind. The glens echoed with the boom and brawl of a hundred swollen streams, and the woods were dripping and dour, the trees almost black with the damp. Clouds marked in heavy, low ranks, thickening day by day, until the hills were hidden from view and they seemed to be walking in a place detached from the rest of the world.

At first, Marcus’ leg bore him well enough, but as the days went on, it got harder. The fresh wound ached, and their flight from the village had taxed him so direly that the old hurt also came creeping back, until almost all his concentration was taken up with merely keeping pace.

Two days after crossing the Cluta, they found themselves among some high moors. It was another wet day, so hung over with mist that even by noon it hardly seemed to grow light at all. A strange, desert landscape, roughly pelted with heather and gorse, except for great bare stretches of rock that came thrusting up through the covering, and with no cover save the odd ragged drift of hawthorn or rowan scrub. The path they followed was hardly more than a deer-trail, and they went the whole day without seeing so much as a dark line of hearth-smoke against the sky to show where there might be a homestead. Indeed, the only sign that men had ever set foot here at all were the standing stones that stood up against the skyline, and the hulking shapes of the cairns upon the crests, ancient relics of a forgotten people.

Marcus’ leg was even worse today, perhaps because of the cold and the wet, and he found himself gritting his teeth against the white-hot streaks of pain that came shooting up and down the length of it.

More than once, he came close to asking that they go more slowly, but every time he glanced at Esca’s face, it killed the request on his tongue. Esca’s jaw was clenched, his whole face tight with some suppressed tension, and his expression was hard and forbidding in a way Marcus had never seen before, even among the Seal People.

But at last, the pain finally got the better of him, and he had no choice but to call out, “Esca. Esca — wait.”

Esca, whose eyes had been fixed determinedly on the path ahead, turned to him. His face was still grim and set, and Marcus had to overcome a decided feeling of trepidation before explaining: “My leg… I need to rest it.”

In a moment, Esca’s face changed. That forbidding expression vanished, and for a heartbeat, he looked startled, wrong-footed, as one wakening from a reverie. Then he looked at Marcus, and at his leg, and his whole face was suddenly full of concern and alarm.

“Oh, Marcus. Forgive me, I wasn’t thinking. You should have said. Is it bad?”

Marcus shrugged. After all that had happened, there was little need for either pride or shame between them, but he still found it hard to admit to. “It should be better after I’ve rested it a while.”

Esca’s brows came together in another frown, and he sent a swift glance all around them, as if he suspected there were Seal People hiding behind every tussock, ready to leap out and fall on them at a moment’s notice. Then he fell back to Marcus’ side and took him by the arm. “Come, let’s find some shelter.”

They found it soon enough, in almost the next fold of the moors: a small cave, little more than a fissure in one of those bare thrusts of rock, just above a tangle of hawthorn. Marcus wondered a little at that. It wasn’t the first of its kind that they had seen that day, but Esca, as far as he had seen, had hardly spared them a glance before, even when the rain was heavier. But his wonder was quickly replaced by relief as Esca helped him inside, and he lowered himself onto the rough floor, stretching his leg out before him.

“All right?” Esca asked, crouching down at his side.

Marcus rubbed his leg for a moment or two, teeth clenched as he felt the first sharp knots of pain begin to loosen. “Yes.” He gave a small smile. “Thank you.”

But Esca only shook his head — sharp, almost angry. “I should have noticed before.” He paused, then asked, “Is it any better?”

“A bit,” said Marcus, still rubbing. “But I don’t think I can go much further on it today.”

At those words, that odd, hard frown came back into Esca’s face, and he turned to look out the mouth of the cave, at the grey, weeping sky and the dark waves of the moors that rose and fell until they were lost in the mist.

“It’ll be getting dark soon,” he said at last, almost to himself. “We should probably stay here tonight.”

There it was again: that strange, oppressed mood that had hung about him all day. It was something more than Esca’s usual reserve, something deeper, and Marcus found it impossible to read.

But before he could ask what it was, Esca said, “I’ll fetch some firewood. You wait here and rest. I won’t be gone long.” He got to his feet and, drawing his cloak close about his shoulders, went back out into the rain. Marcus watched him go in silence, wondering more than ever.

He returned soon enough, bearing an armload of wood, and together they built up a fire, working briskly and in silence. By some miracle, Esca had managed to come by wood that was mostly dry, so there was very little smoke, and before long their rough little shelter was bathed in warmth and flickering amber light. They sat for some time simply warming themselves at it, letting the feeling seep gradually back into the tips of their fingers and toes; then, Esca stirred and asked, “Do you want me to help tend to your leg?”

Marcus nodded, and sat back to unroll the leg of his braccae while Esca rummaged among their belongings for the little clay pot of salve that Levin’s wife Blanid had made up for him. Against the pain-heated skin about the wound, it was startlingly cold, but warmed quickly beneath Esca’s fingers as he spread it out and rubbed it in, releasing the scents of sheep-fat and bog myrtle. By and by, the pain shrank to a dim ache, and despite himself, Marcus felt himself relaxing, comforted by the familiar sensation of Esca’s strong, narrow fingers as he rubbed long, slow circles into the flesh, before carefully kneading the strained muscles.

“I’m sorry,” he said in a low voice. “I’ve taxed you too hard.”

“It’s all right,” said Marcus. “I should have said something earlier. But I could see you wanted to push on.”

Esca gave a terse nod. “I’d hoped to find a way down from these moors before nightfall.”

“Why the urgency?” Autumn was far advanced, but the danger of being hemmed in by the winter snows had faded. It had been highest while they were still in the hunting-runs of the Seal People, when any wrong step would have seen them wandering aimlessly along that broken coast, among the wild mountains and long slashes of sea-loch. But now that they were south of the Cluta, all that lay between them and the Wall were the moors and shallow river-glens of the Lowlands. Hard country, yes, but not deadly.

For some long moments Esca gave no answer, nor did he even meet Marcus’ eye, but sat frowning into the heart of the fire. The silence stretched and deepened, and Marcus was just about to give up hope of an answer, when he said, quietly, “It’s not easy to put into words. I’m afraid it will sound foolish.”

Marcus smiled a little at that. “I know you’re no fool, Esca.”

Esca glanced back at him, showing the hint of a smile of his own. But then it faded, and he asked, “Do you know what day it is?”

Marcus blinked at the apparent irrelevance of the question. “Towards the end of October, I think.” His days among the Seal People had run together in one bleak misery of helplessness and confusion, and he suspected he’d lost track somewhere along the way. But surely not by very much. “But why…?”

“The very last day of October,” Esca agreed. “By your Roman calendar, at least. But tonight is also the night of the full moon, which means that for my own people, it is the feast of Samhain.” He glanced at Marcus’ face, and clearly seeing that the name meant nothing to him, went on: “It means many things here among the Tribes. It marks the end of the harvest and the beginning of winter. In the valleys, they will be bringing the cattle down from the high pastures and laying in stores for the winter. But there’s more than that.” And now he met Marcus’ gaze in full. “The priests say it’s also the night of the year that the spirits of the dead walk abroad.”

Once, before, Marcus might have laughed. But now, when he looked into Esca’s face and saw the hard, deadly earnestness etched into every line of it, laughter was the thing furthest from his mind.

Roughly, for his mouth was oddly dry, he said, “Spirits?”

Esca nodded. “They say that the boundaries between this world and the Otherworld — the world of spirits and the Sidhe, the Fair Folk — open, and the dead are free to return to the places they knew in life. In the villages and the duns we light fires and hold gatherings, there’s song and feasting and dancing, and we set out places for the spirits of any ancestors who might return. It’s a good time, a time of homecoming and welcome, but out here…” He shrugged. “It’s always different, out here in the wild. Here, the old magic is stronger, darker, especially in places like this, where the Old Ones raised their stones. They say the mouths of the cairns become doorways to the Otherworld, and that if any mortal ventures inside, the way will close up behind them and they’ll be lost to this world forever. Or if they go into the hills, they might be ensnared and carried off by wandering spirits.”

While Esca was talking, the hairs on Marcus’ neck had begun to prickle, and despite himself, he darted a glance at the darkness gathering outside. Slowly, sounding more doubtful than he really felt, he said, “But all those things, the standing stones and the cairns, they’re all ancient magic. Forgotten now.”

The corners of Esca’s mouth lifted in a small, grim smile. “I think the ancient magic is still strong here in the north. Do you remember the cave where the Eagle was kept?”

“I do.”

As if he could forget. The weight of shadow pressing down upon them as they groped along the passage; the mingling of land and sea in the darkness — the uncanny feeling of a place betwixt and between two worlds.

“There’s a deep strain of the blood of the Old Ones still in the Painted People, including the Seal People, and they keep to the old customs still. Many of their ways were as strange to me as they were to you. That was why I pushed us so hard today. I wanted to get down from these moors, so we wouldn’t be left wandering among the cairns after nightfall. I’m sorry.”

Marcus shook his head. “Don’t be. I’m sorry there’s no help for it.”

For a long moment there was silence between them, broken only by the soft hiss of the rain outside, and the crack of wood in their fire. Marcus found himself thinking of Lemuralia when he was a boy, rising at midnight and listening to the prayers and the clashing of pots and pans as the farmhands chased any lurking spirits from the house. Sometimes he joined in, helping his mother make the offerings of beans, or to dress the altar in the atrium, but more often he had found some out of the way corner to sit in, determined to stay up all night in case the shade of his father should return to them. Looking back, that had simply been the act of a lonely little boy, missing his father; but lying beneath that, there had been the sense of something — more. As if, somewhere just over his shoulder, a veil had parted and the solid, familiar world had opened upon another; that if he looked round quickly enough, he might catch a glimpse of it, or even feel it reach out to touch him…

“They wouldn’t take any notice of us, would they?” he asked. “Neither of us had any kin here in the north. We should be safe as long as we stay here and don’t go near the cairns.”

But Esca still looked uneasy. “There’s been a lot of blood spilled over the Eagle — Briton and Roman. I know we did what we could for the fallen on both sides, but tonight…” He gave a deep, helpless shrug within his cloak.

Almost without thinking, Marcus put one hand on the Eagle, bundled up in his old cloak, and as he felt the now-familiar weight of it against his thigh, he couldn’t suppress a shiver. Yes, he had tried to do honour to all the fallen when they laid Guern upon his pyre, but now he wondered if that would be enough, after all. All those warriors of the Seal People, lying dead far beyond their own hunting-runs. And the prince — what if his shade still thirsted for revenge, and came back out of the mists to strike at them?

“What can we do?”

Esca glanced up with a faint glint. “You mean you believe me? You don’t think this is all just some savage superstition?”

The teasing, slight as it was, provided an odd sort of relief amid the gathering shadows, and Marcus found himself smiling back. “Esca,” he said, and reached out to touch his wrist, just for a moment, “you stayed by my side even when I thought you’d betrayed me, and you returned to me when you could have saved yourself. If you tell me the dead walk tonight, then yes, I believe it. So,” he asked again, “what can we do to defend ourselves?”

Esca flickered him another smile, less guarded this time. “Well,” he said, “I’m sure together we’ll manage. After all, we’ve already outrun the Wild Hunt.”

-

If that tense nighttime watch on the ramparts of Isca Dumnoniorum had tested Marcus’ nerves, it was nothing to their vigil in the cave that night. It was one thing to prepare defences against fellow flesh-and-blood mortals, but against beings belonging another world entirely…

It was Esca who made the first preparations, taking their swords and laying them across the mouth of the cave. “Cold iron,” he explained, “to repel spirits and the Evil Eye.” To these he added a few thin branches of rowan that he had brought back with the firewood, still bearing sprays of red berries, which Marcus suspected he had brought up for that very purpose.

Marcus himself remained by the fire, building it up and offering prayers to Mithras, calling upon the power of the sun against the encroaching darkness. They hadn’t much he could offer as a sacrifice, but he crumbled a bannock into the heart of the flames, followed by a libation of the heather-beer, which splashed among the ash with a great hiss and a rush of thick, earth-smelling steam.

After a quick meal of meat and bannocks warmed about the edge of the fire, they banked the flames and settled down at the far end of the cave, putting the fire between them and the entrance, huddled close together in their cloaks as they were now used to doing.

But, though the day’s hard journeying had left him sore and bone-tired, sleep was a long time in coming to Marcus. When he did sleep, his dreams were fretful and full of shadows, and for long stretches at a time he found himself lying fully awake, listening to the night. Outside, the wind soughed, and from somewhere distant rose the long, mournful call of a wolf, a lonely sound in all that wilderness.

Then, deep in the middle of the night, he jolted awake from another shallow sleep, his heart pounding with the sudden knowledge that there was now something else out there. Nothing as tangible as a wolf, but certainly more than his imagination. A presence — or rather, presences. Suddenly those moors outside, which had been empty and desolate all day, seemed as teeming as any forum at the height of market day. There was no sound, no footfall, yet he felt them out there, sensed their coming and going, drifting upon the mists.

At the same time, the warm weight that was Esca curled closer against his back, and warm breath fanned across his ear as Esca leaned in and whispered, “Do you feel it?”

“Yes,” he whispered back.

Esca’s arm curled about his waist, drawing them closer together. Against Marcus’ body, his smaller frame felt slender but strong, like a holly sapling that has sprung up between the roots of an oak, leaving the two to grow together. The thought made Marcus smile in the dark, and he slid his own hand up to close over Esca’s.

He had no idea how long they lay like that — hours, probably, while the atmosphere outside their cave thickened, until it was as oppressive as it had been in the cave of the Seal People. They were out there: he could feel them, gathered about the mouth of the cave. Their presence bore in upon him, full of a dark yearning, the desperate envy of the dead for the living. More than once, the thought of the face of the Seal Prince as he had last seen it — startlingly white as the river scoured away the paint, eyes wide and staring — and he closed his eyes tight, lest he see that same face glaring in at them from the night.

Even if the prince’s shade wasn’t there, he had the uncomfortable sense that the shadows out there were impatient to get it. He could swear he felt them, straining at their little barrier of iron and rowan wood, prodding, testing, as if seeking for a weakness and allow them to break in. He had the horrible thought that their little campfire had acted as a beacon to draw them in, and yet he would rather have the fire than not. The thought of being in complete darkness was even worse.

“Mithras, Lord of Light,” he prayed under his breath, “grant us your protection. Let the light of the sun give us strength to face the night ahead. Let us not go down into darkness…” Over and over he prayed, and held fast to Esca’s hand, feeling him gripping back with equal strength, their fingers tangling together.

Then, after some time — he never knew how long — he realised there was something else out there, too. It came winding through the darkness like a silver thread: the sound of singing. It came only faintly, and he could make out no words, but he suspected that even if he could, this was a language unknown to any mortal. Was this, then, one of the Sidhe that Esca had spoken of? Judging from the way Esca shivered and burrowed further in against his back, he suspected it was.

The singing went on and on, a shining skein through the night, full of a mournful beauty that pierced him to the heart. It conjured images of dark glens lost in lonely hills, of sorrows as old as the stars, things lost beyond the sunset when the world was young; griefs he could not understand but now came welling up, aching, in his heart. Come, follow, it called to him, come to me beyond the mists. It promised nothing, neither riches nor happiness, yet for all that, he felt something in his soul rise up, longing to answer its call.

Had he been alone, he would almost certainly have yielded, left behind the fire and crossed that line of iron and rowan sprigs, and been lost in the mists forever. But even as the yearning grew, Esca’s arm tightened about him. And suddenly, all he could feel was Esca: the heat of Esca’s body pressed against his, the solid beat of Esca’s heart against his back, the warm rush of Esca’s breath in the crook of his neck.

Suddenly, he realised he was hard. And before he could draw another breath, before he could even think of being ashamed, he realised that so was Esca. He could feel it there: the solid ridge of Esca’s cock nudging the small of his back. Heat poured through him, and at Esca’s sharp intake of breath next to his ear, he turned until they lay face to face.

“Marcus…” Esca breathed his name, reached for him, and without time for hesitation or even thought, Marcus leaned in and pressed their mouths together.

It was like the sunrise breaking over the hills, a sudden flood of light and warmth that spilled over and through him. His breath went still in his chest, even as his heart leaped in his chest. Then Esca’s lips moved against his, his arms coming up to wind about Marcus’ body and pull them fast together. The gesture pulled at Marcus’ heart with the same force as the fairy singing outside, but in the other direction — towards light and life and warmth.

And, gladly, Marcus answered its call. His body curled in, moulding itself against Esca’s, seeking the warmth of him through his garments, and he gathered Esca’s narrow frame greedily to himself, nudging his head back with clumsy fingers so he could kiss him all the more deeply. And Esca granted the request, his own hands coming up to tangle themselves in Marcus’ hair as he kissed back, fiercely, with a desperation that matched Marcus’ strength for strength. Within moments they were bound up together, each seeking the heat of the other. Esca’s leg came up to hook about Marcus’ in a bid to bring them closer; Marcus, for his own part, was possessed by a hunger for everything of Esca’s: the wet heat of his mouth, the sure strength of his limbs, the pulse that raced just below the skin at the corner of his jaw — the brilliant, vital warmth of another living body alongside his, on this night when the dead held sway.

But that alone could not account for the sheer joy he now felt coursing through him as he held Esca in his arms, the joy that bloomed and expanded as one kiss flowed into another. It was the fulfilment of something more, something that had been growing between them — slowly, silently — for almost as long as they’d known each other, perhaps from the moment their eyes had first locked across the arena in Calleva. They had held it off, each for his own reasons, but now it was free to emerge and enfold them together, and it would carry them through this night as it had carried through all that had come before.

Esca,” he gasped, breaking the kiss to draw air into his lungs.

“I know,” Esca murmured, and brought his forehead up to press against Marcus’ own.

Even through the urgency of Marcus’ desire, the tenderness of the gesture pierced his heart. Here was something real and true, which even the power of the Sidhe-music outside couldn’t match. Oh, it was still there — he could hear it even now, just above the racing of his heart, just as he could still sense the fretting of the shades. But now their power dwindled, paling in comparison to the great warmth rising between him and Esca. As long as they held to each other, as long as they kept that fire burning, the powers outside could not touch them.

They moved together almost blindly, hungering for each other. Kisses grew clumsy, mouths glancing, breath ragged. Roaming hands sought warm flesh beneath clothing, undoing laces and buckles, shedding tunics and braccae. And then they were together, flesh against hot flesh, and Marcus groaned aloud as a great shiver rippled through his body.

He found himself propped up on his elbows, looking down at Esca lying between his arms. Esca looked back, eyes catching the gleam of the fire’s embers, open to him in a way he had never been before. He smiled, the quick of his lips both invitation and challenge — and Marcus could resist neither. Enthralled, he drank in the sight of him: the rich wash of amber light across his skin, firelight and shadow combining to pick out all the sharp angles of his body, the hollows of his lean muscles. How many times had he seen Esca unclothed like this, in the arena, in the baths? But somehow it had never been like this before, never with this shame, living sense of anticipation. He reached out, thumb tracing the shape of one sharp cheekbone; Esca’s eyelids flickered, and he gave up his breath on a sigh of enjoyment. His parted lips were too much temptation, and Marcus moved to kiss him again; but even as he did, pain flashed up and down his leg, and at once he recoiled, gasping.

“Marcus?” Esca’s eyes flew open, and already he was shuffling into a sitting position. His face was questioning, full of concern; then understanding. “Is it your leg?”

“Yes,” Marcus admitted, unable to prevent a flush of embarrassment and frustration. But it melted away almost at once as Esca darted him another smile, his eyes low-lidded, with something of the predator in it that sent a thrill through Marcus’ blood.

“Let me, then,” he murmured, putting a hand to Marcus’ chest and pushing lightly. Marcus yielded at once and lowered himself down to lie upon his back among the nest of their discarded clothes. Esca was on him at once, moving to sit astride him, fixing Marcus to the ground with his weight and pinning his hands to the ground on either side of his head, before leaning in to kiss him hard, almost brutally, his teeth catching deliberately at Marcus’ bottom lip. The sensation of being used so roughly sent a strange thrill spinning through Marcus’ veins, calling up desires he had never indulged before, kept hidden because he had thought them shameful and un-Roman. But there was no room for such things between him and Esca now, only the glory of their coming together.

Then Esca moved his hips, bringing their cocks together, and that was the end of all thought.

It was swift and fierce, a tangle of limbs and delving kisses, harsh gasps and bitten-off cries. Lying back, Marcus felt the pain fade in his leg, and he was content to stay as he was, to let Esca guide and determine the pace of their coupling. He gave Marcus no quarter, but moved against him in swift, hard, hot thrusts that had them both biting back cries. His kisses were hard, his teeth sharp as they nipped against Marcus’ throat, his shoulder, a nipple, each one sending a shiver of sheer delight through Marcus’ body. He in turn clutched at Esca, scratching his fingertips down the length of his back, feeling the movement of those lean muscles beneath the skin, as fine and supple as an otter. Outside, the rain still fell, the Sidhe still sang, and the dead still wandered, but here, between them, the heat rose and flared, until Marcus could almost believe they were throwing off their own aura of light, as warm and golden as any fire, beating back the cold shadows of the light.

Then Esca gave a gasp, a great shudder wracking the length of his body, and Marcus knew the end was not far off. Taking one hand from where it had been braced on Esca’s thigh, he moved it into the narrow space between them, wrapping around them both at once, chafing hard as together they reached for the height of their pleasure.

And it was together they found it. Even as the last kiss seared between them, the heat flared and burst, and they clung to each other as it swept through them both, leaving them gasping and trembling together in its wake, in a place that no shadow could reach.

-

When they woke the next morning, it was to a day clear and sharp with frost. The mist had retreated and the rain had stopped, leaving every sedge and heather-frond beaded with dew. The sun was already high, its light the pale gold of mead, and overhead a buzzard circled, enjoying the currents of the wind. Emerging from the cave, Marcus took in a breath of that pure, cold air until his lungs ached, and smiled. They had come through the night of shadows, and on the other side found a world that felt clean and newly made.

Esca now emerged, coming up to his side, and they shared a smile. Something was new between them, too: a new understanding, a new knowledge of each other.

“Ready to go?” Esca asked.

Marcus hefted the Eagle beneath his arm. “Ready.”

And they set off once more upon their journey south, walking side by side.