They arrived late in the afternoon, and their first glance of their new home was bathed in the cool sunshine of spring.
Esca jumped down from their heavily laden wagon, walked up to a gnarled old oak that marked a boundary and the south-westernmost corner of their land, and admired the beauty of the sloping hills and a nearby lake shining like an enormous alabaster platter set at the edge of a dense woodland. Water burbled over rocks nearby: a brook, perhaps, or a small stream.
“How does it look?” Marcus yelled, and Esca turned back to see him sitting up with a hand raised to his eyes to shield himself from the glare of the sun, his skin made golden with sunshine, a touch of auburn in his dark hair. Deep shadows set the contours of his body in stark relief. He’d lost a lot of youthful padding since Esca had first met him but his body had the well-muscled look of hard work to define it.
“Good,” Esca said, turning back to the view and thinking the land - their land - looked good too.
There were wild apple trees in bloom along a creek that ran through a corner of their property and ran off to the lake, and Marcus whooped when he saw them, clapping Esca on the shoulder. “Our first harvest!” he said, and Esca hadn’t seen Marcus smile like that since they delivered the rescued Eagle of the Ninth Legion Hispana back into Rome’s fold.
Their scout had done well; their land was well-positioned, near water, and only a short ride from Cunetio, where they could purchase just about anything they would need to establish themselves.
Eagle lost, honor lost, honor lost, all lost, worked quite well completely in reverse to restore honor to the Aquila family, and so in exchange for the eagle, the Senate had been only too happy to give Marcus and Esca a far bigger piece of Britannia than they’d receive if they’d wanted land in Italia, which was much more highly prized to every Roman citizen, but not to Marcus apparently, who’d insisted. The Downs, he’d said, would be good for farming or so he had heard.
They’d spent months traveling together, had been through life and death trials together, and Esca knew Marcus in some ways as well as a man knew his shieldbrother, but sometimes, he still didn’t understand him at all.
They had money, too, from old Aquila who’d called it Marcus’ inheritance from the sale of his dead father’s holdings many years ago, and no shortage of motivation to make something of this new life that fortune had dropped in their laps.
There was only one problem.
“How about here?” Marcus shouted, tanned shoulders straining under the weight of a timber log, thick thighs set apart in a wide stance to hold the weight, every muscle in his body working. Esca sighed.
Marcus frowned, oblivious to Esca’s struggle. “A man of few words, eh? Very well, I shall see for myself.” He lowered the log which would mark the east wall of their farmhouse down to the ground, set it just so, and came down to where Esca was sitting on a stack of felled logs just like the one Marcus had carried up the incline. Esca noted his uneven gait. Marcus’ old injury was troubling him today.
Marcus sat down heavily next to Esca, bringing the scent of sweat and sunshine-heated skin with him, and surveyed the proposed orientation of the farmhouse with a thoughtful frown. Esca eyed the incline, and said, “We could move it back from the edge so we can have a flat between the house and the hill. I’ve seen grapes growing on hills like that. We could try grapevines.”
“Where did you see this?” Marcus asked, “Perhaps we can buy some seedlings from them to start our own—”
“It was before I was brought to Calleva,” Esca said, and Marcus shot him a quick glance, but respected Esca’s silence on these matters, as he had always done. He only nodded to acknowledge Esca’s words.
“We can see what they have in Cunetio, or perhaps Venta Belgarum if we are of a mind to travel a little further.”
Marcus got to his feet and trudged back up the hill to re-position his east-facing log, while Esca went back to the ax.
How much worse would Esca’s unfortunate affliction become when he and Marcus truly settled into their new lives? They were bound together for good, as unlikely a match as it was. It was one thing to travel with a companion, to know them in a way that indicated there would be an end to things and a return to normal life.
But there had never been such a thing as a normal way of life with them, only transient states which were now coming to a stationary end as they settled on their land. Their land! They would be together every day, working side by side, sweating, eating, pissing, and bedding down the same way they had been for months, except that this was for good. What was Esca to do?
There had been a time when he’d thought himself wise to every Roman’s intentions towards him: they wanted either to beat him or fuck him, or beat him for refusing to be fucked. The first time he’d seen Marcus in the arena, he’d thought he’d recognized the look in his eye and hated him on sight. He’d planned to die that day as honorably as was possible for a slave, and this proud young Roman had robbed him of the only thing he had left. Esca had hated him. He had hated him even more the next day when he’d realized that the old man who’d purchased him from the lanista had done so on behalf of that very same haughty young Roman who’d saved his life in the arena.
Esca knew this could mean only one thing.
He would look at his new master and wonder how long it would take for the inevitable; how long it would take Marcus to be recovered from his injury well enough to use him as previous masters had done; to try and take his pleasure in Esca’s body and treat it like his property. Marcus never did, and Esca had hated him even more for making him wait for it and dread the inevitable and the fight that would follow and the beating that would result from it, because no matter how hard they beat him for refusing, Esca would never get on his knees for a Roman. He’d take any beating, but he had never lain down quietly and he never would. He’d been prepared to die and so he was, still.
He wouldn’t lift a hand against Marcus otherwise; he owed the man a blood debt for saving his life, and a blood debt would not be betrayed even if an enemy had made it.
Esca had waited for months. It never happened. He would punish himself whenever he got complacent, smiling at Marcus without thinking when they played latrunculi, or dice for Saturnalia. He was well fed and well rested and lightly worked, and it became difficult to remember to stay on guard under the constant lack of hardship. The other slaves belonging to old Aquila’s household walked with their shoulders straight and with no fear on their faces, and yet Esca couldn’t bring himself to believe it. To do so went against everything he had already learned about Romans.
Marcus would ask to go hunting, and Esca would enjoy their success, remembering only later that he should be stone-faced and unmoved by Marcus’ shy, pleased smile. He would take pride in Marcus’ healing, and make himself sick with reproach for succumbing to it, and for his growing respect at Marcus’ ox-headed resilience.
Eventually, Esca had come to accept that Marcus would never try to claim him as other masters had, or use him, or treat him as property. Marcus wanted Esca to be his friend. It was ridiculous. It could never be. He wanted Esca to talk with him. He enjoyed Esca’s dry humor. And although they could never be friends when one of them was the other’s chattel, Esca stopped waiting for the summons to give Marcus pleasure or relief. He stopped waiting to be beaten for impertinence. And somewhere along the way, he’d started liking Marcus for the loyal, proud and honorable man he was.
When he delved further into his fears, Esca had realized that it wasn’t just him. Was it possible that Marcus was one of those rare men who never sought out sex or needed it at all? Certainly, Esca had almost begun to accept this.
That was until the night he had awoken to Marcus’ desperate, bitten-off cry, and went to him expecting that his leg had cramped in the night, but instead had found Marcus face down in his bed, and two-knuckles deep in his own ass.
Esca had retreated unseen, and then quietly went about reevaluating every interaction he’d ever had with Marcus in light of this new information.
There was the slightly glazed look on his face if a wrestling match ended with Marcus on his back when Esca, uncaring of strict Roman conventions of sportsmanship, would scratch or gouge Marcus’ ticklish sides to make him collapse, or when Esca used cunning and eel-like grace to have Marcus in a hold with his arm wrenched back, shoulders straining.
There was Marcus’ reaction to Esca attending him at his bath, where a scraping with the strigil and Esca’s rough and unpracticed massage—for he had never been trained as a body slave and yet Marcus would not have anyone else do this for him—would have him breathy and pliant and lying on the bench for a good long time afterward before rising to dress.
At the time, it had never occurred to Esca that a man such as Marcus, so tightly bound to Roman convention, could have a different reason for behaving as he did.
And much later, there had been the way Marcus had given himself over to Esca’s rough handling when they had been among the Seal People, and Marcus had been Esca’s slave for the eyes of the Epidii. Even then, there had been no opportunity to think on this, let alone act upon it.
But now, they were living together in close quarters. They rose in the morning together from pallets that lay close under the temporary shelter they’d made with their own hands, splashing their faces and under their arms with cold water from the trough they’d fashioned from a hollowed-out log, Marcus’ nipples pebbling in the dawn chill as he splashed Esca like a boy at play.
On the incline which they’d worked over to suit the growing of vines, and past a flat where vegetables were beginning to sprout in neat rows, rose the makings of the house they were building together, with room enough for the animals they would buy to shelter under their roof.
They sweated together on their land, Marcus pulling the hand plough, his bronzed shoulders straining in the sun, and Esca behind him pushing it through the dirt, trying to keep his eyes on the ditch.
It was becoming harder for Esca to keep his private thoughts to himself.
“I do not think I have ever had wine quite like this,” Marcus said, and sat back, relaxing against his blankets.
“That’s because you’ve only had it watered down,” Esca said and slurped up the dregs in his cup so Marcus would laugh at him, feeling very gratified at the sound of it. Marcus laughed easily these days.
The day before, Esca had taken the wagon to Cunetio for supplies and had come back with all manner of goods for building up their stores; tools for building and farming, leather for crafting, and some furs and blankets for more comfortable bedding which they were reclining on now. He’d bought grains and vegetables, oil and seeds for planting, and a crate of chickens so they might have eggs and even meat sometimes. All of that, and some jugs of wine to celebrate their new beginnings. He had even found a man who would trade some new seedling grapevines for Esca’s skilled woodcarving.
Marcus had been down bathing in the spring when Esca had arrived home. He’d heard the wagon and he’d walked up out of their wild apple grove bare-breasted and smiling, and something in Esca had simply given in. It would be all or nothing. He could take nothing as long as he had tried. And so here they were now, and a jug of wine between them while they lay about on their new furs, and Esca’s heart about to throw in its lot.
“I never told you about my people,” Esca said, knowing the effect this would have. Marcus had never asked him this, believing it too sacred. He sat up a little straighter now, and focused on Esca’s words, as Esca knew he would.
“Do you wish to tell me about them?” Marcus asked gently and only smiled when Esca held out his cup, which Marcus promptly filled up for him.
“You know that I am the son of Cunoval, chief of the Brigantes. But these are only words, now. They mean nothing to anyone here. But I would tell you of them someday because I want my clan to live through my words once again. I want to honor them.”
“Someday? But not today,” Marcus said, and Esca took a deep drink of his cup.
“No, not today except for one thing. It is in my heart that I would tell you about my shieldbrother, who was most dear to me, and a true companion for most of my youth. He was a little like you, Marcus,” Esca said, looking at the way Marcus’ shoulders rounded and sloped, heavy with muscle, the way his thighs looked soft when he was lying down and relaxed. Marcus colored under his gaze, and it was so tempting to reach out, to touch him. Esca reined himself in. Slowly, slowly this would go, or not at all.
“We hunted together and bathed together, played as boys do, and then as we got a little older...well. We played as young men do,” Esca murmured, taking another drink, and letting his body speak in languid stretches. “He would lay down for me, and sometimes I for him, but when he let me inside him, it was as though the gods couldn’t see where one ended and the other began.”
Esca allowed himself a glance at Marcus’ face. Gods. He took a sip, a small one. He could not afford to lose himself here. There were twin roses blooming on Marcus’ tanned face, and his eyes were nearly black, glassy and huge. “Your shieldbrother was a. He was a cinaedus?”
Esca smiled. “We do not use such words, because we do not think in such ways as Romans do. We simply...fuck. However we like it. He was my shieldbrother and I his, and we fucked however we liked.”
Marcus licked his lips, but stayed maddeningly silent.
“Did you ever have such a friend, Marcus? To teach you and show you all the ways men can please each other?” Esca said, and watched from under his lowered lashes as Marcus began to stir under his tunic.
“I know how it is done,” Marcus said, but his tense body belied it. Esca licked his lips, remembering the way Marcus’ thighs flexed that night. How his skin gleamed in the light of the moon.
“Yes, one must use oil, and great care to make certain that a body is opened. It takes practice.”
“And you have this? Practice?” Marcus, said, eyes dark, lips red with wine.
“Oh yes. I could teach you, Marcus. It would be my pleasure to show you.”
Marcus’ eyes took on the look of a man who had been thirsting in the desert, and there would be no better time than this.
“If you do not share my desire, it will be well,” Esca said softly, “I will understand it. We will continue to work and live as we have been, and maybe one day you will take a wife and we will part ways as true friends. But I think you do, Marcus. I think you would like me to fuck you just as much as I have been wanting to fuck you.”
“You have been wanting this from me?” Marcus asked, and it broke Esca’s heart a little to hear him say it as though it was an unlikely thought that anyone should want him. It made him say more than he should say.
“I have wanted everything from you. I want everything you will give to me, and everything you want of me, it is yours.”
“I want it too, I never imagined it would be possible, I have never wanted it from anyone else, only you, and I never imagined that you—”
Esca lunged up and kissed him and Marcus moaned and melted for him until they were in the furs, stretched out and curled around each other until Marcus was glassy-eyed and flushed all down his neck, and made as if to rise, but Esca stopped him with another kiss, and then another, licking into the seam of his kiss-swollen mouth.
“Do you know that I hated you at first?” Esca said, caressing Marcus’ thigh, the soft rise of muscle that curved into his hip. “I waited for you to exercise your right as my master. But you never did. And when I grew to know you and the man you are, I knew then that you could never want someone who was unwilling. And then, I thought perhaps you just didn’t want anyone at all.”
Marcus nodded, hands grasping Esca’s shoulders, and curling around his neck as Esca caressed him with gentle touches, everywhere except where Marcus was straining and yearning for it, giving him the sweetest of torture. “You were right about me,” Marcus said thickly. “Except for the last of it. I wanted as much as any man. But I never imagined I could have what I wanted, that you would not look at me and not be repulsed by my desires. I did not want to lose your friendship.”
Esca smiled. “It is as I have already said, we Brigantes do not hold with Roman ways when it comes to fucking. To me, what you want from me,” Esca said lowly and came in close to nibble at Marcus’ ear, letting his fingers finally touch Marcus’ ass, seeking out where Marcus was hot and tight and wanting with the tips of his fingers, “it is what I want most to give you.”
Marcus shuddered beneath him and gripped Esca’s hair to bring their mouths together again until Esca was moaning and rocking against Marcus’ belly. Marcus moved as if to rise on his knees but Esca put out his hand to stop him and push him back into the furs, urging his tunic over his shoulders and untying his braccae. He took a moment to look over Marcus’ gleaming body, bronzed by the sun and pinked by Esca’s caresses. He did not hide his gaze, and Marcus did not hide from it. “You are beautiful,” Esca said, and Marcus smiled at him, a small and shy thing, and Esca wanted to ravish and cherish him all at once.
“I want you to be comfortable, and not for your leg to pain you. Lie down like this,” Esca said once they were both naked, and maneuvered Marcus onto his belly with his weak leg raised up so Esca could drizzle oil in the groove of Marcus' shapely, round ass. “Are you well?” he asked, and when Marcus simply nodded, melting into the furs for him and letting Esca do as he would, Esca placed a chaste kiss on Marcus’ temple and nibbled at his neck as he bullied in between his thighs. Marcus’ back rippled with the hard-won muscle of farm work, and the hair on his ass was golden in the candle-light and soft under Esca’s hand. When he brought oiled fingers to Marcus’ hole, Marcus arched for him, wanting him, and Esca slipped them into him with firm, gentle presses until Marcus panted and writhed beneath him, nearly ready to beg. Esca wondered if Marcus would like to beg for it. Maybe one day they could try it. Tonight he could no longer wait a single moment.
“I will take you now,” Esca murmured into the back of Marcus’ neck, fitting himself to that muscled, round ass, and letting his hand close around the back of Marcus’ neck, and he had never heard a sweeter sound than Marcus’ soft whine as he lifted his leg yet higher so Esca could slip the head of his cock inside him.
They panted together for a moment, and when Marcus would rock up to take more of him, Esca tightened the hand on his neck and thrilled at Marcus melting back into the furs, allowing Esca the lead. When finally he was sheathed as well as could be, their shelter was dense with their scent and that of the fragrant oil, and their body heat was enough so that they could lie naked on the blankets and feel no cold. He fucked Marcus slow and easy in long, deep strokes, and delighted in all the wonderful, shocked sounds he made, like the pleasure surprised him, like Esca was wringing it out of him. Gods, it was good, Esca had forgotten how good it could be, and now, to have it with Marcus, it was more than he could have hoped.
“I would do this every day, if you wanted it,” Esca said, scraping his teeth over Marcus’ shoulder, shivering with the need to come.
“I want it, I want you to, I have wanted you to, always,” Marcus panted into his arm, and Esca nearly crowed with joy that he had been right to try, and that he had done it in such a way as not to offend Marcus’ Roman sensibilities but to open a way forward for them, a new way they could love and respect and honor each other.
“You are my shieldbrother,“ Esca said, overwhelmed with love for him, “and I am yours, and I will give you everything,” and Marcus cried out and began to meet him stroke for stroke, surprising both of them when he spent himself into his furs with not even a hand on his own cock to speed the way along.
Esca panted into his shoulder and wanted him again right now even though he was not quite finished with him yet, and looked to tomorrow and the next day and the next day when he could love Marcus with fingers and cock and maybe even his mouth if Marcus would allow it. He carefully pulled free from Marcus’ body and with his hand still around Marcus’ neck and Marcus’ thick thighs spread open for him, Esca stroked himself to completion over that gleaming, bronzed ass.
“I will go to Cunetio tomorrow,” Esca said, sinking bonelessly over Marcus' back, and Marcus made a quizzical sound beneath him. “I will buy another horse. No, an ox. I will buy two strong oxen that will pull the plough so I’m not too tired to fuck you every night,” and Marcus laughed beneath him until they were both shaking helplessly against each other in the safety of their shelter, with their chickens sleeping nearby and their farmhouse on the hill taking shape like the rest of their lives, together.