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Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
Help me keep my gaze and thoughts from Esca.
Do not let me shame myself nor my father's name.
Please help me behave as a good man and a proper Roman.

 

Marcus is awake two full days before he catches sight of Esca. He appears one evening, standing in Marcus's doorway, and watches as Stephanos frets over Marcus's bad leg. He'd been absent when Marcus woke, assisting Guern with a horse trade several towns over, and he heads straight to Marcus's room upon his return. Whether out of curiosity or duty, Marcus isn't sure, but Esca offers nothing and says nothing before disappearing again.

Marcus can't help but be intrigued by him – his small size, his delicate features, his pale skin turning darker at his neck where the sun has kissed him.

Not that Marcus notices such things.

He doesn't notice the way Esca's bright eyes pierce him when they're in the same room, nor the way his young muscles flex and strain when he carries water from the stream to the horse trough. If Esca's lithe body is pale and smooth beneath his tunic, Marcus certainly doesn't notice, nor spend time pondering the notion.

For the boy is fifteen and a slave, and Marcus is a battle-scarred man of nearly thirty. He has no business setting his thoughts on Esca.

*

Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
Please help me control my desires.
Strike me blind if you must, to keep my gaze from Esca.
His visage pervades both my waking moments and my dreams.
Let me regain my control.

 

Summer is at its peak when Esca finds him by the river.

Marcus is lounging on the grass, enjoying the heat of the sun and the soft breeze flowing off the water when Esca appears at the crest of the forest. Their eyes meet only for a moment before Esca steps forward, stripping his clothes as he cuts through the reeds.

Marcus has dreamed of this. Desired it, wished for it, and he can only stare, slack-jawed, as Esca stands at the water's edge, pale and naked and proud.

He turns back briefly, catching Marcus's eye as if to make sure he's watching, before he dives below the water. Marcus leans forward, trying to catch sight of him below the surface until he finally emerges on the opposite side of the bank. His skin is pale against the dark blue of the water, droplets clinging to him, his hair slicked back in a manner Marcus has never seen.

“Hello, Marcus! Come swim with me!”

“I fear I should not,” Marcus calls, turning his eyes away.

“If you refuse I'll simply have to join you on the bank.”

“Stay where you are,” Marcus warns, cursing his body's reaction to the suggestion.

When he realizes Esca is already rising from the water and heading his way, Marcus keeps his eyes down-turned. He refuses to meet Esca's gaze even when he reclines beside Marcus on the grass.

Esca mimics Marcus's position, propping himself on his elbows, stretching out his legs and crossing one foot over the other. “You're quite timid for a centurion.”

“Not timid, only respectful of your privacy.”

“If I am not concerned with it, why should you be?”

“You'd do well to concern yourself with it. Someone so young should have more shame than you do.”

“What have I to be ashamed of?”

“Stripping yourself so freely. There's no telling who could be in these woods.”

“I'm confident it's just the two of us, and I don't fear you.”

“Perhaps you should.”

“Perhaps I should, “ Esca concedes, edging closer, “and yet, I do not.”

Marcus keeps his gaze averted, willing himself to outlast Esca's own stubbornness. He succeeds when Esca sighs and reaches for Marcus's tunic, using a small section of it to cover himself.

Relieved, Marcus glances up, but his relief lasts only for a moment as he finds himself growing stiff at the sight of his tunic resting between Esca's pale thighs. It covers barely enough to be decent, and it leaves Marcus wanting to see more.

Esca laughs, as if he recognizes the frustration on Marcus's brow. “Why do you never speak to me?”

“I speak to you.”

“Asking for more bread or wine is not the same as speaking to me.”

“What would you like me to say?”

Esca shrugs his shoulders and falls back onto the grass. The fabric of Marcus's tunic slips slightly, and if Esca notices he does nothing to remedy it.

“When your uncle told me you'd be arriving, I thought I should like to meet this centurion. With so many old men around, I was happy to meet someone my own age.”

“I am not your age.”

“In years, you are closer to my age than you are to Guern or your uncle. And Stephanos is older than that, he's told me.”

“Years mean very little. I've seen far more in my life than you've seen in yours.”

“That will change someday, I'm sure of it.”

“You'd do well to hope you never see the things I've seen.”

“I'd like to hear stories of such things.”

“I promise you, you would not.”

“Very well,” Esca sighs, and he tilts his head to meet Marcus's eye. “If you won't talk to me I think you should touch me instead.” He shifts, barely, the slightest distance, but it's enough for the fabric of Marcus's tunic to fall away from his thighs.

Marcus catches a brief glimpse of Esca's cock, as slim and pale as the rest of him, the dark head of it peeking out from beneath hooded skin.

Marcus turns his head quickly, muttering, “I would never.”

“I've seen your eyes on me. I'd quite like your hands on me as well.”

Marcus’s cock begins to stiffen again, and he wills his body to calm.

“Esca, you'd best forget these things you think you've seen.

“And if it's true, what then?”

“True or not, I have no business looking at you, nor placing my hands on you.”

“And yet, I want it.”

“You will have to keep wanting then, for I will not.”

Esca stands quickly, striding away. “As you wish.”

Marcus turns for a brief moment to watch him leave, his naked flesh bare for anyone to see as Esca makes no motion to cover himself. Esca retrieves his clothes by the river's edge and heads back towards the forest.

Marcus waits, giving Esca a good head start before he makes his own way back to the villa.

*

Esca says nothing at dinner, keeping his gaze averted from Marcus, and Marcus is so vexed by it he finds himself focused on Esca completely, willing him to look up. He's so distracted his uncle has to call his name twice before he's able to continue with their dinner conversation.

 

That night, as Marcus tries to sleep, his mind is flooded with images from the river.

Esca's pale skin, his steady gaze, his confidence as he walked across the riverbank. The brief glimpse of Esca's cock, nestled between his thighs.

Marcus can see himself taking it in hand, pulling Esca to his release. He can picture himself putting that beautiful cock in his mouth, tonguing the dark head until Esca cries out above him. Touching Esca in other places, and doing all manner of things that would make Rome frown upon him.

The images stay with him until he's thrusting into his hand, letting out a stifled groan against his pillow as he spills his seed into his fist.

Marcus's mind clears as he catches his breath, and he stares down at the slick of white spread over his palm.

“Mithras, help me.”

*

Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
Please distract me from my thoughts and keep my dreams more pure than they've been.
I fear I shame Rome with every thought I have of Esca.
Please help me cleanse myself of these desires.

 

Esca spends nearly a month avoiding Marcus, speaking only when spoken to, and serving Marcus only when no other servants are available to do so. If Marcus were a crueler master he would've beaten Esca for his insolence, but instead Marcus finds himself completely frustrated by it. He'd like to call Esca's attention to him and hold it there, to force Esca to bow to him, and in his dreams he does.

The most wicked dreams hearken back to that afternoon at the river's edge, with Esca naked and spread for him, calling to him, begging Marcus to take him there on the grass. In those dreams, Marcus takes Esca, sullying him in front of their gods and in clear view of Rome, and it's only after Marcus has woken and spilled his seed in his fist that the guilt washes over him and he begs Mithras for forgiveness.

The dreams become so vivid that Marcus finds himself torn between a desire to revisit them each night, searching for Esca in his thoughts and allowing himself a moment of sheer abandon, and a need to be proper and honorable in the eyes of Rome. Each night before slumber, Marcus calls to Mithras, praying for respite from these visions and from his dishonorable thoughts, and each morning Marcus wakes to find himself praying to Mithras again.

*

The heat of the summer sun has begun to wane when Esca changes his tactic.  Marcus is quick to recognize the change in strategy, but is still stunned to silence the first time he finds Esca's hand on his own at the dinner table. At first he assumes it is a mistake – surely Esca lost his balance and was merely using Marcus to right himself.

When Esca's hand remains, however, and runs a long smooth stroke over his fingers, Marcus knows it is no accident. Marcus's gaze falls to his hand and the quick retreat of Esca's fingers, and then his eyes flick to his uncle as surely someone else has witnessed the moment.

His uncle continues eating, talking into his plate as he shovels bread into his mouth, and seems none the wiser as to Esca's movements. Marcus's gaze falls back to Esca, following him as he moves around the table, and Marcus finds himself wanting to shout, to call Esca's gaze to him and demand an answer.

Another, more selfish, part of him wants to remain quiet, to keep the moment between them. This other part of Marcus is curious to know what Esca will do next, because perhaps Esca will touch him again. Marcus spends the rest of the meal waiting for Esca to make another move, then leaves the table frustrated when Esca avoids his gaze and keeps his hands at his side until dessert has been eaten and the plates have been cleared.

 

When Marcus struggles for sleep that night he finds himself focused on the smooth feel of Esca's fingers, his skin far softer than most slaves, and certainly much smoother than Marcus's own hands. Marcus imagines the feel of those hands on himself, moving from his fingers and up his arm, over his chest and then separating, one moving down to cup him through his braccae and the other up to touch his face, sliding one of those slender fingers between Marcus's lips. He can imagine the feel of his tongue curling around the slim digit, tasting the salt of Esca's skin.

As Marcus slips his hand in his braccae, his mind able to ignore the thickness of his fingers and the familiar feel of his hand, imagining instead that it is Esca's hand on him -- teasing, smoothing, stroking, then pulling Marcus to his release as he fists the knuckles of his other hand in his mouth and grunts Esca's name against them.

*

Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
Esca has visited my dreams of late,
Help me keep him from my dreams.
Turn his heart to someone else, so that he may leave my thoughts.
I beg you to let me regain my control.

 

Esca grows braver in his approach, moving from Marcus's hand to touching him elsewhere, his wrist, the sensitive underside of his forearm, and once –when Marcus's uncle is lecturing them both on the proper method of feeding and caring for horses– on the back of his neck. Esca stands behind him, still and quiet as he listens to Marcus's uncle speak, and strokes the fine hairs on the back of Marcus's neck.

Due to Esca's position, the movement is undetectable, and Marcus is left staring into his soup, trying to keep himself from moaning and leaning into Esca's touch, wanting more of it as his cock grows stiff beneath the table. His uncle continues speaking, and Marcus does his best to respond to each question, his replies growing more and more strained as Esca's hand remains on him.

Finally, as the conversation ends, the questions stop and Marcus can only sip his soup and hope that the dim light of the room hides the flush of his cheeks.

“I think I would like to have my own horses someday,” Esca says, pulling his fingers away and granting Marcus some reprieve as he moves to take away the empty bread plates.

“When you are of age, I will ask Guern to help you get a start.”

Marcus is finally able to bring himself to glance at his uncle, slightly confused by the statement but not questioning it. Marcus has noticed that his uncle seems to favor Esca, and if he wishes to grant the boy freedom when he comes of age, it is not for Marcus to argue.

“I would need someone younger, with more strength.”

“Marcus, then,” his uncle replies, looking to Marcus and giving him a wink. “Unless he is busy with a farm and family of his own by then.”

Marcus recognizes the implication behind the words, and he does not find himself quick to reply.

As a soldier, Marcus never imagined life beyond the army. During his recovery his thoughts occasionally drifted to a farm of his own, but never to a wife. He'd never imagined himself married, other than a vague notion that he might one day want children to carry on his name, and women had never stirred much of an interest in him. He'd never been able to relate to the suggestive words and easy laughter that spread amongst his cohort when they spoke of conquests and lovers left behind, and his heart had never desired the soft comfort of a woman. It was only the hard strength of men that caused a stirring in his loins. He'd known of it for years, that unspoken desire, but he'd figured himself no different than most soldiers during those lonely and strenuous years of service, taking what he needed and giving none of his heart.

Marcus is drawn away from his thoughts when he catches sight of a frown on Esca's mouth, the moment gone in an instant but Marcus can still see the annoyance in Esca's brow as he speaks. “I am not so far from adulthood that Marcus will find a wife before then.”

“With his good looks and the skill of a soldier under his belt, it will be no surprise if a woman scoops him up and marries him long before you come of age, Esca.” Marcus's uncle winks at him again as Esca hastily clears the table.  “Guern will be of help to you and, as you've just heard, I know enough about horses that I could help you get a start.”

“Perhaps I've changed my mind,” Esca spits, tipping a bowl as he moves and seeming not to care as it spills the last few drops of its contents onto the table.

*

An autumn chill has settled in the air when Claudius Marcellus pays a visit to the villa. An old friend of Marcus's uncle, Marcellus greets Marcus when he returns from a hunt, and Marcus finds himself shaking hands with the old man and sitting down to dinner with him and his tribune Servius Placidus.

The meal begins with pleasantries and quickly descends into snide comments regarding the Ninth Legion and suggestions of dishonor brought forth by Marcus's father and his men. Marcus finds himself so distracted by the conversation, and angered at the accusations which fly between them, that he barely notices Esca's presence in the room. The young slave serves their meal, slipping silently between their chairs as he spoons soup into each bowl, and Marcus shouts over him, fighting against the words that Placidus shouts back -- dishonor and shame, cowardice and treachery, and the suggestion that Marcus's father turned his back on Rome when he lost their treasured Eagle standard.

Marcus nearly knocks Esca over as he rises from his chair.  He pays little heed to Esca, too distracted by the smirk on Placidus's mouth and the surety with which he states that the Ninth Legion brought humiliation and shame to Rome.

“There's rumor the Eagle is in the hands of the painted people,” Placidus says, seemingly undisturbed by Marcus's standing position. He breaks off another piece of bread, casually glancing up at Marcus. “What is it they say? Eagle lost, honor lost?”

“Honor lost, all lost,” Marcellus continues, nodding as he takes a sip of soup.

Marcus can feel his uncle's hand on his arm, attempting to calm him, and Marcus can only fist his palms upon the table and bite his tongue. His body screams at him to fight, to pound his fists into Placidus's smug face until he begs for mercy and takes back every foul word he spoke against Marcus's father and the Ninth.

Instead, he excuses himself, seething as he escapes to his room.

If what they say is true, and the Eagle exists now and is in the hands of the painted people, Marcus must think of a way to find it. His mind slips to Guern and his experiences in the north, and Marcus considers the danger of two Romans crossing over the wall. Surely they'd never survive, with Guern's age and Marcus's leg, and neither of them familiar with the Briton tongue.

Marcus considers his options, death or dishonor, and wonders whether it's worth risking his own life and Guern's for the chance that a rumor might have some truth to it. If the Eagle exists, how would they ever find it?

 

Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
I pray that you guide me in this decision,
Show me whether this search would be for naught --

“Marcus?”

Marcus is pulled from his prayers by Esca's voice, and turns to find Esca standing at his door, the light of the fire casting harsh shadows across his youthful face.

“Esca,” Marcus stresses, raising his hand as he turns back to his prayers. “Please, I beg you, spare me some respite tonight. I fear I could not resist you if you were to tempt me again.”

Esca ignores him and takes a step forward. “I only wish to offer you comfort.”

“Esca, I order you.”

“And what will you do if I disobey your order?”

Marcus can sense Esca at his side, the warmth of him radiating as he waits for Marcus's reply. Marcus knows he'll be unable to resist Esca like this, his bright eyes, his pale skin, and the way he offers himself so freely. It would take only a movement, a slight suggestion on Esca's part, and Marcus would be unable to keep his hands from him.

“Please,” Marcus begs. “Tomorrow I will have strength again, but tonight I cannot bear it.”

“Marcus,” Esca replies, his voice low as he reaches out his hand and cups Marcus's face. Marcus can barely keep himself from leaning into the touch, and he strokes his cheek lightly against Esca's palm. The skin there is soft, barely calloused, and still full of youth. It is a welcome comfort against Marcus's weary flesh.

“Let me comfort you now, and if tomorrow you wish to cast me away again, I will let you.”

“I wouldn't wish to cast you away,” Marcus breathes, eyes closed as he leans into Esca's hand. “It is why I must resist you now.”

“And who has told you you must resist? If we both should want it, who is to tell us we shouldn't have it?”

“The gods say we shouldn't,” Marcus whispers, “and Rome as well.”

“My gods say nothing of it,” Esca replies, thumbing over Marcus's lips. Marcus clamps his jaw tight, willing himself to not purse his lips and kiss the stray digit as it caresses him. “And Rome is far from here. It is only you and I in this room.”

Marcus hums his refusal against Esca's hand, not wanting to open his eyes for fear the sight of Esca will break his already weak resistance.

“Marcus,” Esca says again, “Please, come to bed. I only wish to be of comfort to you now and nothing more.”

Esca slides his hand from Marcus's face and hitches it under his elbow, trying to pull him up from his kneeling position. “You need rest.”

Marcus allows himself to be pulled upright and guided to bed, thankful to have someone to lead him when his mind and heart are in such disarray. To his surprise, Esca kneels before him and removes his sandals before gently pushing him down into the bedclothes and the soft comfort of his bed. Marcus is glad to still be fully clothed when Esca nestles in beside him, smoothing his hand over Marcus's tunic and settling on his stomach. Esca thumbs over the fabric there, the motion seemingly unconscious on his part and without ulterior motive.

“I would still like to hear your tales,” Esca says quietly, “should you wish to tell them to me.”

“I fear I'm not in the mood for tales tonight.”

“Another night then.”

Marcus glances down at Esca's rumpled hair, his copper locks resting against Marcus's chest. “Perhaps.”

“I suspect your father was not a coward, despite what Claudius and his companion said tonight.”

“And why would you suspect that?”

“If such a man created you, I imagine he would be full of your same strength and honor.”

Marcus finds himself unable to respond, so he sets his hand against Esca's neck instead, gently stroking the soft skin there. For months, Marcus's body has longed to be in this position, to have Esca against him and be allowed to touch.  But Marcus finds himself too weary to react, his body only vaguely humming with the thrill of having Esca so near, his mind and his limbs too tired to do much more than hold Esca close and listen to his voice as he speaks of honor and the tales he's heard of Marcus's family. Embellished, quite likely by his uncle, but Marcus welcomes them nonetheless.

He's nodded off by the time Esca stops talking, and he only vaguely wakes when Esca burrows in closer and pulls the furs up higher over them.

“Goodnight, Marcus,” Esca whispers, placing a palm over his face and easing his eyes closed again. “Sleep well.”

*

As the first hint of morning sun breaks through the curtain, Marcus wakes from his slumber to find Esca still with him, his legs tangled with Marcus's and his arms askew. It's an unexpected sight for Marcus, after growing so accustomed to Esca's typical appearance, either proud and sleek in his movements when he's attempting to gain Marcus's attention, or quick and silent as he moves through the house, as any good slave should be.

Esca's head is tilted up towards Marcus, and soft breath falls from his open mouth as he remains in the deep comfort of sleep. Marcus allows himself to stare at Esca's face, youth still playing around his eyes, and dark eyelashes resting against his flushed cheeks. Marcus raises a hand, skimming a finger across the smooth skin, over the freckles on Esca's nose, and down to the soft pout of his lips. Marcus skims the flesh there, dry from Esca's breath but still soft and giving beneath his touch. He's longed to touch those lips, to capture them in his own and slick them with his tongue, but Marcus remains gentle, sliding his finger away and trailing it down Esca's chin. The feel of his skin sends a thrill through Marcus, it's been a long while since he's felt the touch of anyone, and even then it was always the quick hard contact of another soldier, taking what they needed and parting as quickly as they'd come together.

It had never been like this, with another so soft and pliant against him, the feel of breath against him, reminding him that he's alive and Esca is alive too, and they're together in the early morning dawn.

Marcus knows he should send Esca away but he finds himself reluctant to, not wanting Esca to wake because it will mean the end of this closeness between them. Marcus knows Esca has offered, but the shadow of Rome hangs over him and he fears the wrath of the gods should he take what his heart most desires.

He holds his breath when Esca stirs, and Marcus watches the slow blink of his eyes as he wakes to find himself against Marcus's tunic. Esca surveys the room and then takes a quick glance up at Marcus, surprise registering on his brow when he discovers Marcus awake and staring back at him.

“It is morning,” Esca whispers. “Will you send me away?”

“I must.”

“How is the morning so different from the night? Your gods saw us then as they see us now, and none have struck us down.”

“I suppose I will be granted forgiveness for my moment of weakness. I was wrecked, and my heart was weary, but this morning I am less so.”

“You are less so because I was here to comfort you.”

Marcus smiles, unable to keep himself from stroking Esca's hair. “I am less so because I slept well.”

“You slept well because I was with you.”

“Esca – ” Marcus warns.

“Do you really intend to send me from you?”

“I do. Though if you feign sleep you may stay for a while longer.”

Esca closes his eyes, his face still tipped towards Marcus. “I am asleep then. Will this fool your gods?”

“No,” Marcus tries to mask the tinge of amusement in his voice, “and you'll win no favors with them with a smart mouth like that.”

“Fine,” Esca sighs. Keeping his eyes closed, he turns his head to rest his cheek on Marcus's chest. “I will sleep then.”

“I can't imagine why you want to stay with me anyway,” Marcus says after a moment, and Esca does his best to keep his eyes closed and his head lowered. “What's a young slave want with an old, lame soldier?”

“You are not old, and your leg does not bother me,” Esca replies. “And there are many reasons I'd want to stay.”

“Surely you could find a local girl to love. There are any number of slaves in the village, I imagine they'd be pleased to find themselves the recipients of your affections.”

“I've no interest in village girls, or boys for that matter. My heart set itself on you, and that is where it will stay.”

“Your heart will grow out of it.”

“My heart might,” Esca says, turning his hips to rub himself against Marcus's thigh. “I'm unsure whether my cock will feel the same way.”

An unmistakable hardness presses into Marcus's leg and his mind flashes back to the afternoon at the river's edge, and the brief glimpse of Esca's cock. He can still see it now, slim and pale and beautiful, and Marcus easily imagines it swelled with blood. He curses himself as his body reacts to the visage in his mind, and the feel of Esca's hard cock rubbing against his thigh.

“Your cock will grow out of it as well,” Marcus replies, his teeth clenched as he wills his body to regain control of itself.

“Perhaps it will,” Esca says, stilling his hips. “Perhaps I will grow tall and old and decide I was a fool for wanting you. Then you'll regret you didn't take advantage when I offered all those years before.”

“Perhaps I will,” Marcus concedes. His heart can't deny the regret he'll feel, as he feels it already. Want and need and desire have dwelled within him for so long, and he's familiar with the pang of regret he feels each time he spurns Esca's advances.

“Or perhaps I'll grow old and still want you, and then you'll have no reason to resist me.”

“It is not only your age, Esca.”

“Then tell me your reasons.”

“There are things,” Marcus begins, pausing as he removes his fingers from Esca's hair. “Things a Roman should not want.”

“And yet you want them.”

“What I want is of no matter,” Marcus says sternly. “All that matters is what I do in this life, and that I live to please the gods and honor the name of Rome.”

“So you strive to live an unhappy life all in the name of pleasing your gods?”

“I am not unhappy.”

“Are you not then?”

“No,” Marcus says, despite the doubt that begins to form in his heart.

Surely he is not unhappy in life. Unhappy with his situation and his injury, yes. Unhappy that he was discharged from his army and sent to waste away in a villa, indeed. Unhappy that he has yet to restore honor to his father's name, without question.

But living an unhappy life? Marcus ponders the notion for a moment.

“I am not unhappy,” he repeats, and he can hear the doubt beginning to seep into his words.

Esca nods against him and is quiet for a moment. “I could make you happy.”

“Coitus does not equal happiness, Esca. When you are grown you'll come to realize this.”

“Coitus may not,” Esca snips in reply, “but love and companionship might. You think I'm too young to know such things, but I know that you're lonely, and I know that we could be good for each other.”

“And why would that be?”

“Because I am lonely too.”

 

Marcus takes a breath, surprised by Esca's honesty.

“Surely there are enough people in this house that you could never be lonely.”

“This house is filled with old men and slaves,” Esca says. “It remained that way until you came along. So why shouldn't I want to spend my time with you?”

“Esca,” Marcus sighs, placing his hand back over Esca's hair, stroking gently as Esca leans into his touch. “We should end this talk, or I fear we'll argue ourselves into a circle.”

“So give in.”

“Perhaps we should reach a compromise.”

“And what is that?” Esca glances back up at Marcus, his eyes open as he waits for a reply.

“You may spend time with me, if you wish it, and I will keep you company to stave off your loneliness.”

“And what is the compromise?”

“The compromise is I will not put my hands on you, and you will stop asking it of me.”

“Your hands are on me now.”

Marcus removes his hand from Esca's head and places his palms flat at his sides. “I won't put my hands on you in a way which will shame me or anger the gods.”

Esca reaches above the furs and grasps Marcus's hand, placing it on him again. “There should be no shame in comfort,” Esca whispers. “Place your hands on me in comfort and I'll ask for nothing more.”

Marcus gives in, placing a hand at Esca's neck and another at the small of his back. Surely the gods will grant him this small concession.

“It is still early,” Esca continues, nestling closer against Marcus's side. “We should sleep. The gods cannot judge you while you sleep.”

“They can judge my dreams.”

“Your dreams are your own,” Esca says. “The gods cannot see in your head, Marcus, nor mine. And in my dreams you touch me when I ask for it, and love me when I need it. I should like to dream now, if I cannot have you when I am awake.”

Marcus nods, pressing his hand tighter against Esca's back. “In our dreams, then.”

*
Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
Esca has not left my thoughts, nor my dreams.
I fear he has burrowed a place in my heart.
I beg you, give me the strength to resist him.

 

After their agreed upon compromise, Esca grants him four days of peace before he suggests an afternoon together. Marcus is thankful for the reprieve, though his mind is unable to forget the feel of Esca against him, nor the gentle sound of his breathing in the early morning. His cock, as well, seems anxious to remind him of the sensation of Esca's own cock pressing into his thigh with quick needy thrusts. It grows thick each night, keeping Marcus from sleep until he reaches into his braccae and pulls himself to release, calling weakly to Mithras after he's shamed himself again.

In the daylight, however, Marcus is better able to resist. He spends long hours hunting, and bides the time between supper and sleep engaging his uncle in idle conversation. Esca is often present after they've eaten, having completed his chores, and he sits in the doorway, listening with a keen ear as Old Aquila tells tales of Marcus's father and their adventures from long ago. It proves a welcome distraction for Marcus, and he is lost in the tales as he tries to imagine his father as a boy. Until now, he has had nothing more than the blurred memory of the man from his childhood – a noble face, an emerald ring, and a goodbye on an afternoon like any other as his father rode off into the north and disappeared forever.

“He was not unlike you,” his uncle says. “Tall as a house, with the strength of a mule, though I dare say you have your mother's looks. Your eyes are hers, at any rate.”

“You knew my mother?”

His uncle nods, the firelight casting shadow on his face and highlighting the age on his brow. “Not well, though I met her once or twice. She seemed a fine woman.”

Marcus listens enthralled as his uncle tells what he knows of Marcus's parents, stories he assumed were lost after the disappearance of his father and the death of his mother – too private to tell Marcus when he was a small boy, and then too painful for his mother to recount after his father was gone.

 

The sun has long set when they rise from the fireside, bidding each other goodnight, and Marcus notices the way Esca lingers near the door. He almost wishes to call his uncle back, but feels shamed with the need of it. What would his old cohort make of that?  Their garrison commander needing another man to protect him from a boy of fifteen.

Besides, Marcus reminds himself, they've agreed to compromise, and it is only fair he holds up his end of their bargain.

“Surely you're in need of rest,” Marcus says, nodding to Esca as he passes him in the doorway.

A smile forms on Esca's face at the acknowledgment. “Not any more so than you.”

“You'll be tired then, as I find myself exhausted.”

Esca ignores the comment as he follows Marcus through the adjoining room and into the small corridor.

“If the weather is fine tomorrow, I'll head to the river. You may join me if you'd like.”

Marcus's mind slips back to the afternoon at the river. The warmth of the sun, the breeze across the water, and Esca –naked and proud– taunting him from the river's edge.

“I trust you'll keep yourself covered,” Marcus whispers, lest anyone should overhear them.

Esca pushes an elbow into his side, and Marcus is surprised at the gall of it.

“You'd suppose me foolish enough to swim in the freezing river?”

“I wouldn't,” Marcus replies, shooting Esca a meaningful stare. “And I wasn't referring to a swim.”

“A walk by the river was all I had in mind.” Esca meets the stare with one of his own.  “Though I'd like to hear more of what your mind was conjuring.”

Esca,” Marcus says, and it’s a warning, though Marcus knows he was the one to bring the discomfort into the conversation. “I only meant – ”

“I know what you meant,” Esca says, pausing at Marcus's door, “and I only meant a walk. If you'd care to join me, I'll be leaving after my morning chores.”

“I would like that,” Marcus admits. He stands at his door, not wanting to step inside for fear Esca will follow him, and yet, curious to see if Esca will once again be so bold.

To his surprise, Esca simply turns and walks away. “Fine then, 'til tomorrow. Sleep well.”

“You as well,” Marcus stutters.

Sleep comes easily that night, his mind too overwhelmed with stories of his family to spare much thought for Esca. It is just as well, for Marcus knows he would get very little sleep were he to let himself think too much on the day ahead.

An afternoon at the river with Esca is sure to bring back memories, memories Marcus has revisited on numerous occasions already, and Marcus fears the temptation that may come with them.

*
Marcus spends the morning resting his leg before meeting Esca outside the stables. They hadn't settled on a meeting spot, and Marcus finds himself surprised that his mind is so aware of Esca's schedule that he knows where to find him, and at what time.

Esca seems surprised too, a pleased smile playing on his mouth when he nearly bumps into Marcus as he rounds the corner. But he is quick to cover it, marching on ahead of Marcus as they make their way to the tree line and down the well-trodden path which will lead them to the river.

“You forget I am not as quick as you,” Marcus calls, embarrassed by the admission, yet wanting to remind Esca of the differences between them.

“I do not forget,” Esca calls back, slowing enough for Marcus to catch up before charging ahead again. “I merely fear you'll change your mind before I get you far enough into these woods.”

Marcus slows his pace further. “Are you plotting against me?”

The sound of Esca’s laughter cuts through the silence of the forest, and he slows to a snail's pace. “I only wish to get you halfway there, at least, for once you're halfway it's easier to complete the journey before resting your leg, rather than turning back.” He stops then, and gestures for Marcus to follow.

“I fear you don't know me as well as you think,” Marcus replies, quickening his pace, limping slightly as he moves over the uneven ground. “I'm not one to give up on a journey, and my leg is fine as it is, I've rested it all morning to prepare for our walk.”

“Shall we race then?”

Marcus looks to Esca with surprise, “surely it wouldn't be much of a race.”

“It likely wouldn't,” Esca concedes with a wink, “but I would be glad to give you a head start.”

“Walk beside me instead,” Marcus says when he finally reaches Esca. “I would rather that, than have you walk ahead or offer me a head start and remind me of how pitiful I am.”

“You're less pitiful than you think,” Esca replies firmly, moving closer as they walk, his feet falling in perfect step with Marcus's. “And I was teasing when I offered you a head start. I imagine if you set your mind to it, you could beat me in a race.”

“My leg could never match the two you've got, you'd have me beat before I even moved.”

“Your leg might not, but you've got the mind of a soldier. I've no doubt you'd form a strategy, and I'd race through the forest only to find you already waiting for me at the river.”

Marcus laughs, for the first time in a long while, and it's Esca's turn to look surprised.

“I wasn't sure you could laugh.” Esca smiles, head tilted towards Marcus as they continue down the path.

“I was growing unsure myself,” Marcus admits. “It's been some time since I've had a reason to.”

The clearing isn't far ahead, and Marcus can see the sunlight beckoning to him. He hasn't been to the river since that summer afternoon, and he's suddenly anxious to get there. He's missed the comfort of it, and the feel of the sun's rays on him as he watches the river flow peacefully along the banks.

The scene will be gloomier now, the trees beginning to shed their leaves, and the grass growing dull with mud and the cold air of fall, but Marcus longs to see it, longs to sit by the river's edge. Although part of him still worries over the fact that Esca is with him, another part of him is glad to have Esca by his side.

“Shall we sit and rest a moment?” Marcus gestures to a sloped hill, a small piece away from the spot he'd been lying on that summer afternoon, and Esca nods.

He can sense Esca's eyes on him as they sit, but his gaze seems concerned rather than predatory.  “Does your leg pain you?”

“Only a little,” Marcus replies, and it's barely a lie. He's in more pain than he expected –the walk over uneven ground sending a dull ache through him, and the cold air allowing the ache to settle in his bones– but he's had worse days.

Whether Esca senses his pain, or not, he says nothing more of it – a gesture which Marcus appreciates.

“If we'll be resting awhile, will you tell me of your adventures?”

“We'll rest but a moment and be on our way,” Marcus says, attempting to avoid the question. “We came for a walk, after all.”

“I'm happy to spend time with you, whether we walk or simply sit here on our arses.” Esca pats the grass beneath him and leans back to make himself comfortable, raising an eyebrow at Marcus. “And I've been waiting patiently to hear tales of your battles.”

“This isn't the place to tell of such things,” Marcus says quietly, not wishing to darken the day with tales of blood and death. “Someday I will tell you, but not today.”

“I'd like to hear something,” Esca prods, seemingly unwilling to give in. “Surely there is some tale you could tell.”

“The stories I could tell you today are mundane and would be more likely to put you to sleep than thrill you.”

Esca leans back further, resting his palms under his head as he lies on the grass. “I'd like to hear the mundane tales too.”

Marcus sighs in defeat, and settles back on his elbows, lying next to Esca on the grass.

He tells Esca stories of his early days in the army, long night watches, and tiresome patrols. He tells of digging holes and building defenses, and chasing chickens when he was on supper duty in his younger days.

Marcus leaves out the back-breaking training, the battles, the blood, and the guts, and the day he stood and watched as one of his men had his head sliced clean off. Those are stories for another day.

“Have you ever killed a man?”

The question hangs in the air between them, circling on the cold autumn breeze, and for a brief moment Marcus considers a lie.

But he chooses the truth instead.

“I have.”

Esca sits up slightly, resting on his elbows so he's even with Marcus. “How many?”

“Too many to count,” Marcus admits.

“And what was it like?”

Marcus can't bring himself to look at Esca. He focuses on the river and the rush of the water, and he can feel Esca's gaze on him as he replies.

“Thrilling,” he says, “and terrible, as well.”

Esca is quiet, as if he's considering Marcus's words. “Is it the blood that makes it terrible?”

“That, and taking the breath from a man's lungs, and seeing the light leave his eyes. Whether from an enemy, or not, it is still a terrible thing.”

“Is that why you never speak of it?”

“It is one reason.”

Esca sits up, and Marcus finally dares to glance over at him. His gaze is no longer on Marcus, but on the river instead. It's not often Marcus is able to look at Esca –really look at him– without finding Esca's gaze already locked on him. He admires the line of Esca's jaw, strong despite the youthful skin over it, and if Marcus were braver he'd reach forward and touch, trying to determine whether a hint of a beard has begun to grow there yet. He knows the color of Esca's hair, the hair between his thighs nearly matching the hair on his head, and Marcus wonders if his beard would be just as light. The thought of Esca with a beard brings a small smile to Marcus's face. It seems impossible that Esca would one day grow old. Esca has reminded him that the day is inevitable, but Marcus hates to think of the youthful face ever growing weary with age and strife.

At his silence, Marcus speaks again, “have you suddenly grown frightened of me?”

Esca turns to look at him, surprise registering on his young brow. “Why would I be frightened of you?”

“I've just told you I've killed a man, countless men, and now you fall silent.”

“There is very little you could do that would make me frightened of you,” Esca says, reaching out as if to touch Marcus's arm, and then thinking better of it. “And a soldier doing his duty does not frighten me.”

“What keeps you quiet then?”

“I was only thinking,” Esca says softly, turning his gaze to the water once more. “Do you ever think of that afternoon by the river?”

Marcus wants to feign ignorance, but he is sure Esca will see through him if he were to try.

“I do.”

Marcus watches as a smile breaks over Esca's mouth. “And what do you think of it?”

“I'm sure you know what I think of it,” Marcus mutters. “It is no secret between us.”

Esca nods. “I wish it were still summer.”

Marcus says nothing, fearing the meaning behind Esca's words.

“Do you wish that as well?” Esca asks.

“I prefer today as it is. Cool and dull, with only a hint of sun to warm us.”

He's not prepared for the laughter that escapes Esca's throat, loud and hearty, and he turns to Marcus with a smile. “You're always on guard, aren't you?”

“I fear I must be, with you.”

“You needn't be,” Esca says, displaying his hands for Marcus. “You see, I've kept my hands to myself this whole time.”

“Yet, your words conjure memories I'd rather forget.”

Esca's smile seems to wane. “Would you really rather forget?”

Marcus considers Esca for a moment, an ache forming in his heart as he watches the smile die on Esca's lips. As often as he prays to Mithras, he would hate to lose the memories of that day. He steels himself at the realization, ready to be struck down by the gods, but then he remembers Esca's words –“The gods cannot see in your head, Marcus”– and he wonders whether it is true, and whether or not the gods are able to see his thoughts.

If Esca is right, then perhaps Marcus can make a place for him in his mind, and he can love Esca in his dreams and hold him whenever he'd like.

Yet, he knows his mind is not the place for it. He'd rather love Esca openly, and touch him by the river, and hold him while they sleep.

Mithras, please help me.

“No,” Marcus admits, slightly perturbed by the notion that he can't keep the truth from Esca. “I wouldn't like to forget that day.”

Esca smiles again, and Marcus is relieved that his words seem to have been enough to return the happiness to Esca's face.

“Shall we head back?” Esca asks, and it is Marcus's turn to frown.

“Have you grown tired of our conversation?”

“It's doubtful I'll ever grow tired of conversation with you.”

“And yet, you wish to head back.”

“The sky grows dark.” Esca nods to the swirl of black clouds moving in from the north. “I only thought we should return before the rain sets in. With your leg, it wouldn't do you well to be out in a storm.”

Marcus nods in agreement, and rises slowly. His leg aches from sitting on the cold ground for so long, and he can feel the familiar frustration growing within him as he attempts to stand upright. He takes an uneasy step forward, his leg seizing beneath him, and he pauses to regain his bearings.

When Esca offers his hand, Marcus declines. “I am able to manage on my own.”

“I only thought – ”

“I am not an invalid!” Marcus barks, annoyed by the dull ache that radiates through his thigh and into his knee.

“I've never suggested you were,” Esca spits back at him, “I only wished to offer you a hand. A less stubborn man might've taken it, but I can see you’re not in need of my help.”

As if to make a point, Esca marches ahead of him and heads for the tree line.

Marcus sighs to himself, cursing his leg as he rubs his palm over it. He's sure it will take him some time to walk back to the villa, and with the rain coming, he realizes Esca was right to offer assistance. His pride screams at him to go on his own, but his mind knows it would be more sensible to call Esca back.

“Esca!” he shouts.

Esca turns, but gives no indication that he intends to return to Marcus's side.

“I apologize” Marcus calls, humbled at the realization that he needs Esca's help. He beckons to Esca, limping as he takes a few uneasy steps forward. “I was foolish, please, your arm– ”

To his relief, Esca doesn't make him beg any further, and is quick to rejoin Marcus's side.

“Stubborn Roman,” Esca chastises under his breath. “Hurry now, before the rain comes.”

Esca slips an arm around him, and Marcus settles his own arm over Esca's shoulder, and they move quickly toward the trees. The forest is darker than when they came, the light having grown dim as the storm moved in, and Marcus finds himself glad for Esca's help as they navigate the uneven ground.

The skies open up just as they reach the far side of the tree line, and the rain falls in great sheets, drenching them both.

*
“I would still like to have horses someday, whether you help me build up a farm or not.”

 

Marcus has grown used to Esca's presence in his room, and Esca has been sure to take full advantage of their agreed upon compromise. For the most part, Esca has done his best to go easy on Marcus, touching him only occasionally and without thinking, before recollection dawns on him and he'll withdraw, yanking his hand away as if Marcus's skin is made of fire and Esca has been scorched by it.

Esca often looks at him then, surprise and disappointment flickering over his face as he watches Marcus, as if he's waiting to see whether this will be the moment when Marcus gives in and finally asks Esca to touch him. Marcus is careful in those few seconds, minding his reaction and being sure to give Esca nothing that would encourage him to touch again.

Yet, with each unexpected touch a slow burn begins to simmer in Marcus's gut, his cock awakening again and reminding him of the softness of Esca's skin and the slow touch of his fingers on Marcus's at the table. Marcus's mind travels back to the first afternoon at the river, and then to the evening Esca stroked his neck, slowly, gently, teasing the fine hairs until Marcus's skin was alight with the tension of it and his cock was raised beneath the table, wanting Esca's hand.

Marcus finds if he keeps his gaze averted, eyes lowered or to the window, he is able to speak to Esca without his cock distracting his thoughts. It is only when Esca moves closer, sitting by Marcus or catching his eye, that Marcus finds himself wishing that Esca would leave him be. In those moments, he prays silently to Mithras and asks for the strength to resist, and so far Mithras has granted it to him.

 

“I would rather you were there, but I realize it is not in my right to force you.”

Esca had accompanied Guern on a horse trade a few days earlier, and he often came back from such trips with his mind ablaze with plans for the future and wild notions that involve Marcus helping him build a farmhouse and staying with him forever.

“You think I would leave you to farm on your own?” Marcus says without thinking. He takes a quick glance at Esca before attempting to remedy his blunder.  “Considering the size of you, you'd likely be trampled if you were left alone with a horse.”

“I know my way around horses, Marcus,” Esca replies haughtily, and Marcus can feel his eyes on him. “I may be smaller than you, but you shouldn't doubt my strength. Nor my heart,” he adds, his tone deliberate, and Marcus is aware of the underlying meaning behind his words.

“I've never doubted it.” Marcus glances at Esca again, wanting to right his insult. “I only meant that you would need someone on hand with the ability to carry a heavy load or reign in a spooked horse.”

“I am quite able.” Esca looks away, making a point to avoid Marcus's stare.

Marcus can feel the old frustration building in him – the need to have Esca look at him.

“I apologize if I've offended – ”

“It's likely I would be more skilled with horses than you. Guern has taught me nearly all he knows, and with the size of you, you'd be more likely to just get in the way.”

Marcus closes his eyes for a moment, smiling to himself because he deserves the returned insult.

“Esca – ”

“Besides,” Esca mutters, “I've been told you will have a wife by then.”

“I have no desire to take a wife,” Marcus replies, his voice so confident that it turns Esca's focus back to him.

“Your uncle said – ”

“My uncle says many things, but he knows not of what is in my heart.”

He can see the hope bloom in Esca's chest, possibility lit on his face as he asks, “And what is in your heart?”

“In my heart I know that I will never take a wife,” Marcus admits, and he realizes it is something he has never voiced to anyone, not even himself. “Beyond that, I do not know.”

A moment earlier he'd been anxious for Esca's attention and after having gained it, Marcus suddenly finds he'd rather be anywhere else. He turns his gaze to the window and attempts to keep his focus there, cringing inwardly when he hears Esca rise and move forward.

“Marcus.”

“Please, Esca,” Marcus whispers, knowing he has opened a door that should have remained closed. “Please don't ask it of me.”

“I ask nothing of you,” Esca replies, his voice low as he reaches for Marcus's hand and holds it gently in his own. “I hope for everything from you, but I will ask for nothing.”

Upon hearing the words, Marcus breaks for a moment, raising Esca's hand to his cheek and holding it there, pressing it into his skin as he lowers his head. “Why has your heart set itself on me?”

“I would never try to understand the heart,” Esca whispers, “particularly my own. I only listen to it, and my heart desires you. It has from the moment I saw you.”

“You could have anyone.”

“As could you,” Esca retorts, “and yet, you deny it and force your heart into conflict with itself.”

Marcus shakes his head, gripping Esca's hand as he looks up at him in defeat. “A lame old soldier and a young slave, what would the gods make of us?”

“The gods have no punishment for men who lie with slaves,” Esca reminds him, dropping to his knees and resting his head across Marcus's lap, “and there is no shame in taking what is offered.”

Marcus is quiet for a long moment, his eyes fixated on Esca, the familiar copper locks resting across his thighs. He reaches out, allowing himself to touch, stroking Esca's hair, and Esca sighs against him as if he's been longing for the same touch.

“If I were to give my heart to you, you could never give it back,” Marcus says, admitting what he knows to be true. “Even if you grew tired of the wretched thing, it would be yours forever.”

“It is far from a wretched thing,” Esca replies, turning his chin and smiling up at Marcus, “and I will never tire of it.”

Marcus's heart aches as Esca smiles at him, the brightness of it radiating to the core of his being, and he can't help the soft cry of defeat that escapes him as he pulls Esca to his feet.

“I would like to kiss you,” Marcus whispers, feeling as if he's no longer able to hide his deepest desires from Esca.

“Do it then.”

Esca remains still as he stands before Marcus, honoring his word and not forcing Marcus's hand. Marcus knows Esca is waiting for him to finally break and give in to what his heart has desired for so long.

“Esca,” Marcus sighs, placing his hand on Esca's hip and pulling him forward. It's slow, hesitant, as if he's hoping his will might win out over his heart, and he'll be able to stop himself.

“Esca,” he says again, and Esca tilts his head and leans in, the only act of submission he offers, leaving the rest in Marcus's hands.

Marcus spreads his thighs and pulls Esca even closer, so close Esca could rub his knee against Marcus's cock if he wished it, but Esca remains still.

At last, unable to resist it any longer, Marcus leans forward to capture Esca's lips with his own. The small gasp of breath that escapes Esca's throat goes straight to Marcus's loins, and he finds himself unable to pull away, kissing Esca's soft, yielding mouth, letting out a gasp of his own when Esca slips his tongue out to tease Marcus's lips.

Marcus's breath grows harsh as he pulls Esca closer, and an ache of want radiates through him when Esca presses his knee into his cock, grinding against it as if trying to pull a moan out of Marcus.

“You'll be the death of me,” Marcus groans, and a smile breaks across Esca's mouth as he moves over Marcus's face, placing kisses first on each cheek and then on his chin. Marcus tilts his head as Esca continues to kiss him, his wet lips trailing over Marcus's neck and down, tracing the line of his tunic.

“Will you remove this?” Esca asks, tugging at the fabric, and Marcus stills in his chair.

“I shouldn't.”

“Marcus,” Esca whispers, “it is only your tunic. I'd like to feel your skin on mine.”

Marcus submits without a second thought, easing Esca back for a moment as he pulls his tunic over his head. Esca sets back on him immediately, as if he fears Marcus will change his mind and send him away. His hands travel down Marcus's torso, stopping just below his navel where the fabric of Marcus's braccae covers the rest of him.

“I've dreamed of touching you,” Esca is whispering, and Marcus can barely move with the sensation of Esca's hands on him. His fingertips trace Marcus's chest, tugging at the light hair there as if he's surprised to see it and not entirely sure of what to do with it. “I've often imagined you bare, and how thick you must be here. Your shoulders, as well, they're far stronger than any I've seen.”

As if thinking of his own body, Esca leans back to tug off his own tunic, and Marcus's breath stops in his throat when he catches sight of Esca's pale skin. His lithe body curves against Marcus as he leans in, and he takes one of Marcus's hands and places it on himself.

“Would you like to touch me?”

“Yes,” Marcus breathes, raising his other hand and grabbing hold of Esca, thumbing over his narrow hips. “More than anything.”

“You may then,” Esca whispers, kissing the edge of his mouth. “I told you long ago, I'd like your hands on me.”

Marcus sighs in surrender, finally allowing himself to look at Esca's body. His skin appears flawless in the low afternoon light, and Marcus runs his hand over Esca's stomach, surprised at the fine dusting of hair he finds there. He follows it with his fingers, trailing down, down, and pausing at the ties to Esca's braccae.

Esca's hips stutter at the touch, but he says nothing, as if he's waiting for Marcus to decide how far they should go. Marcus holds the ties between his fingers, fighting the temptation to tug them, before trailing his hand further and cupping Esca through his braccae. Marcus can feel his hardened length, and he grips the fabric, stroking Esca through it. A low whine escapes Esca's throat, and Marcus's eyes flick to him. His mouth is open as he stares down at Marcus, soft breath falling as he gives a small thrust against Marcus's hand, and his eyes seem to plead with Marcus to give him more.

Marcus expects his mind to shout, telling him to stop, and warning him of the gods' wrath, but he realizes he hears little more in that moment than his own panting breath mixed with the pleading whimpers falling from Esca's mouth.

He pulls Esca closer, pressing his lips to his belly. The fine hair tickles his chin as he kisses over Esca's skin, and Esca raises his hands to tangle in Marcus's hair, holding him in place. With his other hand, he grips Esca harder through his braccae, thumbing over the head of his cock as wetness begins to seep through the fabric, and the sounds Esca is making grow more desperate with each stroke of Marcus's hand.

“Please,” Esca gasps, his hands falling to fumble with his braccae, making quick work of the ties.

Marcus is able to do little more than stare as Esca opens the front of his braccae and takes himself in hand, giving one long, slow stroke.

“Please, Marcus.”

“Esca,” Marcus's hand hovers close to Esca's, afraid to touch, “what would you have me do? I will do anything.”

Marcus is surprised as the words spill from his lips, and yet he finds he doesn't regret them. In that moment he's sure his heart would give Esca everything.

“Touch me,” Esca replies, laughing softly, “I'd prefer your hand over my own.”

He reaches to take Esca in hand, his own loins surging with need as he finally wraps his fingers around Esca's cock. Marcus has spent countless nights dreaming of this moment, yet he's unprepared for the sleek warmth of it, the smoothness of it, slimmer than his own, and much more beautiful. It takes him a moment to stroke, wanting simply to touch, and Esca seems to permit him this, his hips jerking only slightly when Marcus's thick thumb slides over the head, teasing the hooded skin there.

“I've wanted to do this,” Marcus can hear himself confessing, and he looks to Esca for understanding, or perhaps reassurance. “For so long, I've wanted it.”

“Marcus, you may have it,” Esca whispers, touching his face, his inexperienced hands surprisingly reassuring against Marcus's skin. Esca pushes against his hand, his cock sliding easily through Marcus's fingers. “I'm hard for you,” he whispers, “it fills only for you.”

It is enough to appease his heart, and Marcus cannot stop himself from stroking Esca, stripping the hooded skin to uncover the head of his beautiful cock. His eyes dart from it to Esca's face, enthralled by the look of sheer abandon that's come over Esca as he thrusts into Marcus's hand, his fingers gripping tightly to Marcus's shoulders, sure to leave bruises over him.

“I've dreamed of you,” Marcus murmurs, “of this.”

“I've dreamed of you as well,” Esca replies, his voice stuttered as Marcus pulls him to the brink. “Thought of your hands on me, touched my cock and imagined it was your hand on me.”

Marcus's own cock surges with each word, pressing hard against his braccae. He pulls Esca closer, placing a kiss to his belly and then to his ribs, his mind very aware of the closeness of Esca's cock. It would take merely a second, a dip of his head, and he could take Esca in his mouth. Marcus's cheeks burn at the thought.

“I've done the same,” he whispers, wanting to tell Esca, but still too ashamed to voice it out loud.

Esca's hips jerk against him, and his hand slips to Marcus's cheek, trying to pull his gaze up. “Will you tell me? Marcus, please, tell me?”

“You've been in my thoughts,” Marcus whispers, daring to look at Esca for a moment, “and you've haunted my dreams. In the night, I'd think of you by the river, or imagine you in my bed.”

A low whine escapes Esca as he ruts against Marcus, the head of his cock slick as it slips through Marcus's fingers. “And what would you do?”

“Fist my cock,” Marcus admits, his cheeks burning with the shame of it. “I'd stroke myself, thinking of your body, remembering your eyes watching me that day at the river.”

“Yes, Marcus,” Esca gasps. His pace quickens for a moment, his body tightening as Marcus speaks.

“I'd dream of taking you, before Rome, and before my gods,” Marcus whispers, feeling Esca tense in his hand, his cock seeming to surge for a moment before he comes, his seed shooting onto Marcus's bare chest. His entire body seems to still, his belly taut with the strain of it, and then his hips twitch as he resumes slow thrusts into Marcus's fist.

Marcus can only look at him in amazement, shocked both by his own admission, and that Esca could be so affected by his words.

“Was it what you hoped?” Marcus asks after a moment, and Esca seems to shake himself out of his daze.

“It was everything I hoped,” Esca says softly, smiling at him. “Everything.”

Marcus nods, watching as Esca straightens his body and eases his spent cock out of Marcus's hand.

“And you?” Esca asks. “Is there something you hope for? If there is, I would like to give it to you.”

Marcus hesitates before pulling Esca closer, tilting his head for another kiss.

“I should like to kiss you again. Will you let me?”

Esca breathes his name, smiling as he shakes off his braccae and climbs onto Marcus's lap. He places his knees on either side of Marcus's thighs, constantly mindful of his bad leg despite the distraction of Marcus's hand on him.

“You may kiss me now, and whenever you'd like, you need never ask.”

Marcus can't help the groan that escapes him when Esca's mouth is on his again, and his hand slips to Esca's bare back and down to trace the smooth slope of his arse. He's dreamed of this moment, having Esca with him, naked in his lap, and his cock aches at their closeness.

Esca pulls away for a moment, chancing resistance from Marcus as he moves his hand down to cup Marcus through his braccae. Marcus cannot bring himself to fight it, wanting to have Esca's hand on him.

“Your cock is bigger than mine,” Esca says, his eyes widening when he locates Marcus's length beneath the fabric.

“Does that surprise you?”

“No,” Esca smiles. “When I thought of you like this, I imagined your cock fit with the rest of you. I say it only because it feels different than my own.” His back arches as he leans into Marcus, his hand fitting between them. “Shall I do you like this?”

Yes.” The word is stifled by another groan as Esca gives Marcus's cock a strong squeeze, and a quick pull, his pace already too intense for Marcus to last.

“Esca, please,” Marcus begs, wanting Esca's mouth on his own. Whether as a distraction from his shame, or as a means of being closer to Esca, he does not know. Perhaps it is both.

His face burns when Esca kisses him again, the press of his lips strong and incessant.

“There is no shame in these desires, Marcus.” Esca whispers to him between kisses, his voice enough to bring Marcus to the brink of release. “I only wish to see you happy. Give in, and allow yourself to be.”

Marcus's hips arch up, nearly lifting Esca with him as he moves, pushing his cock harder against Esca's hand, and for a moment he stops punishing himself, stops worrying over the gods and Rome, and thinks only of himself and of Esca.

Heat builds in his loins, and Marcus can feel his climax swelling, nearly there as Esca's hand rubs harder against him, and he suddenly wishes he were naked, baring himself to Esca, and letting Esca see every part of him. His cock, stiff and wanting, leaking as it reaches his release. His body, larger than Esca's, and older, worn from battle. His leg, heavily scarred and grotesque to his own eye, yet still a part of him that he wants Esca to see and know. In that moment, he would show Esca everything, and as his cock spills beneath his braccae he can hear himself admitting this to Esca, telling Esca that he will show him everything and give him everything. If Esca would like his heart, it is his to take. His cock, his body, all of it belongs to Esca if he wishes it.

As his breathing slows, and he comes down from his climax, Marcus can't help but lower his head, unable to meet Esca's eyes.

“Marcus,” Esca says, not allowing him to retreat back into his shame. Esca takes his chin and tilts his head up, forcing Marcus to meet his gaze. “I wish for all of it. I've told you, I want it and will never tire of it. It is only you and I here. Rome cannot see us. Your gods cannot see us. You need never feel shame with me.”

Marcus nods, accepting Esca's words as truth. In that moment, they're more comforting to him than any prayer to the gods.

*
They spend many nights kissing and rubbing off against each other, and Marcus convinces himself he is content with that much. It is only after Esca begs Marcus to go further –to touch and lick and take pleasure in it– that he finds he wants more. Esca encourages him to do the things his mind tells him not to, and Marcus is hesitant at first, still ashamed of the things he would like to do, but Esca soon breaks him of his shame.

There is the first night Marcus shows Esca his cock, baring himself fully. He is hard before he's completely undressed, his arousal spiking as Esca helps him remove his clothes, and when Esca takes him in his mouth Marcus barely has time to revel in it before he spends across Esca's tongue.

There is the night Marcus kneels between Esca's pale thighs and hesitates, shame gripping him as he considers what he would like to do. Esca pushes him past this, thrusting up and begging for Marcus to taste him, and when at last Marcus has his lips around the slim length he hardly knows what to do with himself. Esca takes control then, fucking into Marcus's mouth. Each thrust is frantic until Esca spills over Marcus's bottom lip, and when Marcus's face grows red with the shame of it, Esca pulls him closer and kisses his cheeks until the color fades.

Then there is the night Esca comes to him, having already slicked himself with oil, and he climbs on Marcus's lap without asking, taking what he wants because he knows Marcus will give it to him. It is a slow build, both trying to stay quiet, both trembling as Esca kneels over Marcus and sinks down onto his cock. Marcus waits until Esca's breath returns to him, the fill of Marcus's cock almost too much, before he dares thrust up, not wishing to hurt Esca.

“You'll not break me,” Esca whispers, “take what you've been wanting.”

Marcus stifles a groan, easing his hips up once, experimentally, then pulls back slowly, so slowly, too slowly for Esca's liking, and he tells Marcus as much.

“Do it, Marcus. Take me before your gods. If Rome can see us tonight, show them what it is you want and take it without shame.”

It is enough to push Marcus to give in to the desire he’s held for so long, to feel himself inside Esca, to take pleasure in the way their bodies come together.

Later, when their breath has returned to them and their sweat has cooled, they lie together in Marcus's bed, and Marcus whispers “I love you” into the darkness. He waits for the familiar feeling of shame to hit him, but he finds happiness is the only feeling that comes when he hears Esca whisper in reply, “and I love you.”

*
As the colder months move in, bringing with them the biting air of winter, Marcus has grown so used to Esca's presence that he's begun to miss him on the nights he is unable to sneak away to be with Marcus.

They've sworn each other to secrecy, neither wanting to explain their relationship to Marcus's uncle or anyone else in the household. What they do together in Marcus's room is known only to them, and both are determined to keep it that way until Esca is of age and he will be granted the freedom Marcus's uncle promised. Esca tows a fine line with this promise, however, teasing Marcus in the stables, secretly touching him in the presence of others, and occasionally neglecting his chores to spend more times with Marcus.  His uncle has yet to notice, going easy on Esca the one morning he was noticeably late to serve breakfast, and not seeming to connect Marcus’s own absence with Esca’s lateness.

Esca still talks of a farm and horses, and setting up a home with Marcus, and on particularly reflective days, Marcus still talks of traveling north and finding the Eagle.

 

“If we had our own farm I could undress you in the stables and put my hands on you whenever I wished it.”

Marcus hushes Esca, looking over him to the far side of the barn where Guern sits on a stool next to one of their horses. He seems distracted, but Marcus cannot be sure his ears haven't picked up on Esca's words.

“Lower your voice or Guern will hear you.”

“I can't imagine he would care,” Esca says, making no effort to lower his register.

“He may not, but I imagine word would soon get back to my uncle.”

“Perhaps I should kiss you now, and then everyone will know,” Esca teases, taking a step towards Marcus, causing Marcus to take a step back.

“Perhaps I should go ahead of you to set up farm,” Marcus suggests. “It would take a good year or two to settle, and if I am not here you won't be able to threaten to strip me in the barn and let everyone know of what we do.”

“Marcus, you wouldn't really go, would you?”

“I suppose not,” Marcus says with a wink.

“I couldn't bear it if you left me behind.”

“You may have to bear it, if I head north someday soon.” It's a conversation they've had many times before, always in passing, never with much thought behind it. Marcus has yet to figure out how he would manage by himself north of the wall, and his only feasible companion, Guern, would likely be very little help in foreign lands with men who speak a foreign tongue.

“If you wait until I am older, I'll go with you,” Esca suggests as he follows Marcus from the stables to the house.

“You won't, it would be too dangerous,” Marcus says firmly. He glances around, watching for anyone with a keen ear before lowering his voice and speaking to Esca directly. “The north is no place for one so young. I would never ask you to put yourself in danger that way.”

“You've been in enough danger on your own,” Esca spits back, “who are you to say I shouldn't be permitted some adventure in my life?”

“You may have adventure,” Marcus whispers, entering the house and keeping his voice low as Esca follows him into his room. “Going north of the wall is not an adventure, it's more likely to be a death sentence.”

Panic shows on Esca's face and he moves toward him, gripping Marcus's arm as if he's ready to leave for the north at that very moment and Esca's hand will somehow stop him. “You won't go then. Tell me you won't.”

“I have no plans to go today, or tomorrow, or even a week from now.”

“Tell me you won't ever go,” Esca demands, the bravado in his voice unable to mask the terror on his young face. “Marcus, promise me.”

“I have promised you many things,” Marcus replies, touching a hand to Esca's cheek to soothe him. “But I cannot promise you that.”

“Then wait until I am old enough, at least. You shouldn't travel so far unaccompanied.”

“Esca,” Marcus sighs wearily, “we can discuss it when the time comes.”

“When the time comes I will change your mind and keep you with me. We will have our own adventures in these lands, and we'll set up our farm together as you promised.”

Marcus concedes with a tilt of his head, wanting to end the conversation before he finds himself promising Esca he won’t search for the Eagle. It is easy for Esca to dismiss it, not being Roman, not feeling the shame that Marcus feels. Marcus knows, though, that it is a journey he must make someday. Even if it means he will die trying, and never return to Esca.

*
“I will be sixteen tomorrow,” Esca whispers one morning, tucked into Marcus's side, and Marcus blinks his eyes open, staring at Esca in surprise.

“Why have you not told me before?”

“I did not think it would matter.”

“To see you turn sixteen?” Marcus asks, stretching and tucking an arm around Esca. “You think it should not matter to me?”

“It's been of little importance to anyone before,” Esca admits. “Your uncle usually gifts me a new tunic on my birthday, and I'm given two honey cakes at supper, but it matters little beyond that.”

“And that is why you've only told me now? If I'd been given more time, I would've liked to make you a gift.”

Esca turns onto his stomach, sitting up on his elbows. “What would you gift me?”

“I don't know,” Marcus admits. “I suppose I would've carved something for you.”

“An eagle?”

Marcus instinctively clutches the eagle that hangs from his neck, the wood darkened from age. He's been wearing it more often now, especially on days he thinks of his father, and the Eagle, and the journey north. He can still remember his father handing it to him on the afternoon he rode north and was never seen again. He can still remember the pride he felt as he clutched the pale wood, the eagle’s wings outstretched in mid-flight. Marcus lets the eagle fall from his hand as he glances down at Esca.

“Not an eagle.”

“What then, if not that?”

“Something else. Something strong, I imagine,” Marcus says. “A boar, perhaps?”

Esca frowns. “I wouldn't like a boar.”

Marcus smiles at his honesty. “A horse?”

“A horse would be better,” Esca smiles, leaning in to rest his chin on Marcus's chest. “Galloping, with its mane flowing wild in the wind.”

Marcus laughs. “I think you overestimate my skills as a wood carver.”

“Then you should practice, and give it to me next year instead.”

*
As the days and weeks go by, they become careless.

Esca grows more reckless on the nights he steals away to Marcus's room, not always waiting for all members of the household to be asleep. Marcus, too, has grown less strict in the morning, not always as quick to remind Esca of his duties and shoo him away before his uncle or one of the other slaves notice his absence.

 

Esca has been away for four days, having accompanied Guern on another trade a few towns over. During his absence, Marcus distracted himself with hunting and conversations with his uncle, but by the day of Esca's return Marcus has been missing him so much that it takes all his will not to pull Esca from his horse and lift him into his arms.

Esca seems anxious as well, his smile widening as they ride up the path and he catches sight of Marcus. He shouts a greeting when he sees Marcus waiting for them at the entrance to the villa, seated to take the weight off his leg as he'd been keeping watch for some time. To Marcus's relief, Guern pays little attention to Esca's enthusiasm, and Marcus greets them both as he stands and takes the reigns of their horses.

“Stephanos has prepared your supper,” Marcus says simply, catching Esca's eye for a moment before looking away. “I'll bed down the horses.”

 

That night, Esca comes to him earlier than he has before. Most days they spare time for each other in the afternoon, sitting together in Marcus's room, or walking around the villa, but in the evenings they've been more careful. Esca waits until the rest of the house sleeps soundly before he sneaks to Marcus's room and climbs into his bed. This night, though, Esca is quick to complete his duties and he appears in Marcus's doorway earlier than he ever has before. It's reminiscent of the first time Marcus set eyes on Esca, standing still and silent at his door, but this time he seems to thrum with excitement, waiting for Marcus to smile and nod before he enters, sprinting across the room, and Marcus no longer fights the urge to lift Esca into his arms.

“Have you missed me?” Esca whispers, his breath warm against Marcus's neck.

“Every day,” Marcus replies. “It feels as though you've been away an entire month.”

“It was four days only,” Esca laughs.

“It was too long for my liking.”

Such confessions would've embarrassed Marcus before Esca came into his life. Yet, he knows now he can say such things, and show his heart, and Esca will only smile and kiss him and likely say something equally secretive back. Esca's confessions are always slightly more wicked than Marcus's, often involving mention of his cock and his need for Marcus's hand, and Marcus will throw him upon the bed, or pull him into his lap, and give Esca what he craves.

He should worry that Esca is there too early, or ask whether anyone saw him sneak away, but Marcus is too distracted by Esca to think of such things. And if Esca thinks of them, he's too distracted by Marcus's hands on him to mention it.

Marcus brings him to bed, stripping them both of their clothes, and tracing his fingers over Esca's skin, remembering all of his soft places and the hard jut of his narrow hips. He places kisses over Esca's body, as if it's been months since Marcus has seen him and he needs to put his mark on Esca again.

As Marcus finishes, trailing the last kiss down Esca's shin and pressing his lips to the inside of Esca's ankle, Esca whines beneath him, his cock reaching out from between his thighs.

“Marcus, please,” he begs, writhing a little, trying to wrench his ankle from Marcus's grip. When Marcus lets him go, Esca reaches up, his fingers clawing at Marcus's hips as he tries to pull Marcus to him. “You're cruel to tease me.”

“You know I would never be cruel to you,” Marcus replies, kneeling between Esca's thighs. He favors his right knee, trying to place most of his weight on it as he reaches for the oil, slicking his cock before Esca has a chance to beg again. “You know I could never deny you a thing.”

“I know,” Esca breathes, tilting his head to the side as Marcus slides into him. His fingers clutch the bedclothes beneath them, holding on tight as Marcus tucks his arms under Esca's knees and lifts him.

*
His uncle's voice calls Marcus from his sleep, muffled at first as he taps against the curtain over Marcus's door.

“Marcus, have you seen Esca this morning? Stephanos tells me he disappeared last night and his bed hasn't been slept in.”

Marcus has little time to react, his blood running cold when he notices Esca at his side, both of them stripped naked and leaving little doubt as to what they'd been doing in Marcus's bed.

“A moment,” he calls, attempting to stall his uncle. Marcus pulls the furs up higher around them as he reaches with his other hand, trying to locate his crumpled tunic on the floor.

“Marcus?”

“A moment, Uncle, please, I beg you – ”

But it is too late.

Marcus can only watch as the curtain shifts, and his uncle's face appears from behind it. “I thought we should check the – ” His words stop short when he catches sight of Marcus. He looks from Marcus to Esca, who remains sleeping at Marcus's side, bare from the chest up, though covered, thank the gods, from the waist down.

“Marcus, what have you done?”

Marcus tries to sit up, protecting Esca bodily as he is unsure how his uncle might punish them. He can bear whatever might come, being larger and stronger, but he won't let his uncle lay a hand on Esca in punishment. “It is not as it appears.”

“It appears you have sullied Esca, am I to believe something different has occurred here?”

“I've done no such thing, if you will give me a moment to explain.”

Marcus can feel Esca stir next to him, likely pulled from his sleep by Marcus's voice.

“Marcus,” Esca sighs, opening his eyes a crack and sliding his hand across Marcus's belly. The motion is innocent, yet unmistakable. “Lie back and sleep a while longer.”

Marcus makes a noise in his throat, hushing Esca as he stares down his uncle.

“Am I to believe that means nothing?” his uncle asks, his voice rising. “His hand on you that way?”

“It means something, of course,” Marcus admits, “but it is not as reckless or sinful as you imagine it to be.”

His uncle ignores him, taking a step further into the room and shouting, “Esca! Leave that bed and return to your room!”

Esca jolts awake, his eyes looking at Marcus with fear as he attempts to understand the situation they've found themselves in.

“Go back to your room,” Marcus mutters under his breath.

“Marcus?”

“I will find you after, now do as my uncle asks of you.”

His uncle averts his gaze as they move, Marcus turning to sit on the edge of his bed as Esca slips from beneath the furs and locates his discarded clothing. As he redresses he looks to Marcus, his face panic-stricken and confused.

“Go now,” Marcus says quietly, and Esca obeys, pulling his tunic over his head as he passes through the doorway.

“Do you realize what you've done?” His uncle hisses, turning once again to meet his gaze.

“I've done nothing to be ashamed of,” Marcus says firmly, reaching for his braccae and pulling them on before rising from his bed. “You may not understand it, but there is no shame in what is between Esca and I.”

“No shame?” His uncle yells. “You come into my house and sleep with a boy of fifteen, and you tell me you feel no shame for it?”

“He is sixteen now.”

“Sixteen now,” his uncle says bitterly, “and I suppose you think me foolish enough to believe this is new? You think I was blind to the way the boy worshipped you when you arrived here? He's wanted you for a long while, I just never imagined you'd be foolish enough to give in and bed him.”

“The gods have no punishment for men who sleep with slaves,” Marcus replies, echoing something Esca said to him long ago, hating himself for using it as a defense, though he knows there is truth behind the words.

“Slaves?” His uncle roars.  “No, the gods have no punishment for men weak enough to obtain their pleasure from slaves, but Esca is no slave.”

Marcus is taken aback at the statement, looking to his uncle in confusion. “He serves us, and performs any duty you ask of him. What is he, if not a slave?”

“He performs those duties out of debt to me, not because he is a slave.”

“He's told me he is a slave.”

His uncle mirrors his look of surprise. “He would say that, wouldn't he? I'm surprised you weren't wiser to his trickery.”

“What is he, if not a slave?” Marcus repeats, ignoring his uncle's insult.

“I took him in as a small child, and he has always worked to pay the debt owed for that. Marcus, he is your family. He is a member of this household, the same as you and I.”

“My family?” Marcus exclaims, his ire rising as he attempts to understand. “Family should not serve at the table as a slave.”

“That is the way of it,” his uncle says firmly. “I took him in, cared for him, and in return he works. He is family to us, you don't sully your family, you don't copulate with those who share your blood.”

“My blood?” Marcus shakes his head. “He hasn't my blood. But he has my heart, and I have his.”

“Surely you can't be serious.”

“I don't ask you to understand it, but I am absolutely truthful in saying that I love him.”

“Love!?” his uncle spits, “love and copulation are two very different things, and you'll do well to keep your hands off him from now on.”

“You cannot keep me from him.”

“I can and I will.” His uncle steps forward, pointing a finger at Marcus. “If I hear of you messing with him again I'll have you sent back to Rome, and you'll be left to fend for yourself. A lame soldier won't get far alone, not with the name Aquila branding him a failure in the eyes of Rome.”

Marcus can feel the anger rise in him, his heart beating faster as he stands his ground, his shoulders back, his chest pushed out as he stares down his uncle. “I've heard many terrible things said about our family, but I never imagined I would hear them from your mouth. You should be ashamed to call yourself Aquila.”

“Then we are united in our shame,” his uncle mutters. “I'll warn you only once, Marcus. Stay away from Esca.”

“When he's of age, you cannot keep him from me.”

“Then you will wait a long while. He owes me a debt until he turns eighteen.”

“I will wait then.”

“Marcus, you're a fool.”

“Call me what you wish!” Marcus shouts, sure his voice must be echoing through the house. “If I am to be branded a fool for loving Esca, than I am a fool. It will not change what I feel for him.”

*
Esca seems to know enough not to seek out Marcus, avoiding him throughout the day, and refusing to meet his gaze while serving soup at supper.

It seems almost as it was before, when Marcus would keep his gaze from Esca out of shame, or when Esca would keep his gaze from Marcus out of spite. Now, though, Marcus has grown so used to their secret glances that he finds himself aching for them as he sits at the table, his neglected food quickly turning cold.

“A hunger strike won't change my mind, Marcus.”

Realizing his uncle has been watching him, Marcus looks up to meet his eye.

“I've no intention of starving myself,” Marcus replies. “I was merely distracted by my thoughts.”

His uncle nods knowingly, turning back to his own food. “If your thoughts pertain to Esca, you'd best ignore them.”

“I'll keep my hands from him, if you wish it,” Marcus mutters, anger rising within him. “But you cannot control my head, nor my heart.”

There is a pause before his uncle responds.

“Let's speak no more of it tonight, nephew. In time you will come to your senses.”

Marcus concedes, not willing to lose the battle, but not wishing to continue fighting.

As silence falls between them, there is a crash in the kitchen as something –likely a soup tureen– hits the floor and shatters. Rustling follows, and Stephanos' voice drifts from the other room.

“Esca,” he hisses, “keep your wits about you. We can't have you breaking everything in the house.”

Marcus's chest aches at the sound of Esca's voice, trembling, “It was an accident, it won't happen again.”

“Hurry then, help me tidy this.”

Marcus wants to shout to them and tell them it's no matter. He'd like to rise from the table and step into the kitchen – to see the mess Esca made, and perhaps share a laugh over it. Instead, he waits silently, as if a crash hasn't just been heard, and they haven't heard Stephanos scolding Esca over it. His uncle seems determined to remain just as silent, breaking off a piece of bread and dipping it in his soup, refusing to look in Marcus's direction. Only a day before, they likely would have laughed together, and his uncle would've called Esca into the room and gently chided him for his carelessness.

Marcus can hardly comprehend the difference one simple day has made in their household.

 

That night, Marcus waits until the sounds of the house have died away, and the last voice and clang from the kitchen were heard over an hour before. The house is dark when Marcus leaves his room, and as he sneaks away to find Esca, he is secretly pleased that Esca has trusted him and hasn't been foolish enough to seek him out on his own.

The halls grow cold as he slips further from the warmth of his own room, and Marcus is nearly shivering when he reaches the door to Esca's room. He's never been inside, but Marcus has seen enough of it in passing to know Esca has the small space to himself.

As he raises his hand to pull aside the thin sheet, Marcus is gripped by sudden fear as he envisions his uncle on the other side of the curtain. Perhaps he expected Marcus to search for Esca in the darkness. Perhaps Esca did attempt to seek out Marcus, but was stopped by his uncle and held captive in his room.

Marcus shakes his head at his own foolishness, for while his uncle may be strict he has never been cruel.

He pulls aside the thin sheet, stepping into the darkened room.

“Esca,” Marcus whispers, willing his eyes to adjust to the darkness.

There's a sound to his right –the rustle of bedsheets, and the soft pad of feet across stone floor– and then a hand is on him, tentatively searching his face.

“Marcus,” Esca whispers in reply, the unmistakable sound of relief in his voice. “I wasn't sure you'd come.”

“Of course I would come for you, I promised I would.”

Esca pulls Marcus closer, forcing Marcus to bend and fit into his arms.

“After what your uncle said,” Esca whispers, his voice close to Marcus's ear, “I wasn't sure. I heard him, at supper– ”

“And dropped a soup tureen because of it?” Marcus laughs softly in reply.

“Will you really come to your senses?” Esca asks, ignoring Marcus's laughter. “Will you decide you never loved me?”

“I am in control of my senses. It is my uncle who needs to come to his own.”

“Will you though, Marcus?” Esca asks again, his voice desperate against Marcus's ear. Marcus hasn't heard that tone from him since the first morning they woke together, when Esca feared Marcus would send him away. “Will you decide you never loved me?”

“Never. Never.” Marcus turns his head to kiss Esca's mouth, pressing hard to his lips, willing him to believe his words. “I'll continue to love you, regardless of my uncle's wishes.”

Esca breathes a sigh of relief against him.

“You must tell me though,” Marcus continues, and he can feel Esca tense against him. “Why did you lie to me? You told me you were a slave, and I know now that you're not.”

“I am a servant,” Esca replies. “The two things are similar.”

“My uncle sees you as a family member, you must know that.”

“I do,” Esca admits, “but I am not treated as one. Better than a slave, perhaps, but not as an equal. Not as a nephew or a son. And your eyes could see that, you assumed I was a slave.”

“Why did you never tell me the truth?”

“I was already in your heart, but the lie got me into your bed. It was an innocent lie only, Marcus. You see that, don't you?”

“Innocent?”

“Yes, innocent,” Esca whispers, his tone seemingly less certain than before. “I only played along with your assumptions.  I never meant to hurt you.”

“Innocent,” Marcus concedes, “but still a lie, Esca, and I'd ask that you not repeat it. If we love each other, there should be no lies between us.”

“I would do it again because it brought you to me,” Esca replies defiantly. “But after today, I promise to be truthful with you.”

“Fine,” Marcus agrees, unable to stay angry with him.  “After today then.”

He can feel Esca nod against him and grip him tighter, showing his promise bodily, seemingly unwilling to let Marcus go. Marcus allows it for a moment, glad to hold Esca again, as if he hadn't woken with him that morning, or held him close the night before. It feels as if a month has passed since they’ve had a proper moment alone.

Marcus takes advantage of the few spare minutes, wrapping his arms around Esca and lifting him from the floor, listening for Esca's breath of surprise. He leans in closer, nosing against Esca's neck and breathing in his scent.  He kisses the soft skin there before forcing himself to whisper, “I must go.”

“No, Marcus,” Esca whispers in reply. “Stay.”

“You know I can't.”

Esca sighs against his ear, “I know.”

 

Marcus leaves Esca in his room, with whispered promises on their lips and warnings from Marcus begging Esca not to do anything foolish. When he returns to his own room, it seems cooler than before and empty without the presence of Esca's face and smile and breath.

 

It is hours before Marcus is able to sleep, his mind racing. He thinks of Esca, his uncle, his father, and the shame of the Ninth. He thinks of his days as a soldier, and wonders how he's found himself here, wasting away in a villa. Marcus thinks of the years he'll be forced to wait until he can be with Esca, truly, both of them free to do as they wish. He imagines Esca, taller and stronger, caring for their horses and working the land, and smiling at him beneath a blue sky. It seems an age away, the bright clarity of it seemingly impossible.

Even if his uncle were to grant Esca freedom, where would that leave him? A lame soldier, still, with the shame of his father's legion hanging over him. He'd be forced to depend on Esca, the same way he now depends on his uncle. Marcus knows his pride would never let him live that way. Not forever.

It is nearly dawn when Marcus's eyes grow tired, his heart as weary as the rest of him, but he's made his decision.

It is time to head north and find the Eagle.

*
Word travels quickly through the house, and the forlorn look on Esca's face tells Marcus when the news has reached him. They speak nothing of it, both holding to their word to lay low and refrain from drawing attention to themselves, but each night Marcus waits for Esca to come to him. He's sure Esca will break, and sneak away, and come to him with pleading eyes, begging Marcus not to do something so foolish.

To his surprise, true to his word, Esca stays in his room.

 

As the day draws nearer, the tension is palpable in the household. There are whispered voices, and worried looks, and claps on the shoulder from those wishing Marcus well. Marcus knows the others are likely to think him foolish and thickheaded, traveling across the wall without a guide.

Guern offered to accompany him, a gesture Marcus was glad for, but it won't be the same as having a guide. Guern knows the land north of the wall, but he isn't a Briton. Marcus knows the two of them won't be able to hide for long. Still, two is better than one, and if they keep their wits about them they might last long enough to find the Eagle, at least.

 

On the evening of his departure, Marcus sits with his uncle, discussing his intended route. Esca stands close, looking at Marcus with worry as he sets the plates for supper.

“The quicker you're across, the quicker you'll return, if the gods will it.”

At his uncle's words, Marcus notices Esca still. He stands, watching as Marcus outlines the plans for his journey, and Marcus knows his words will only worry Esca, but he can't bear to force him back to the kitchen.

At the thought, his uncle speaks up, making the decision for both of them. “Esca, stop listening and get back to work.”

Esca complies with a nod and makes himself scarce.

As Marcus and his uncle continue to speak, Marcus can see Stephanos scurrying about in the kitchen, but Esca is nowhere to be seen. Marcus imagines him standing just out of sight, listening out of defiance, and he's relieved that if his assumption is correct at least Stephanos has left him be.

 

Esca doesn't come to him that night, and Marcus is almost glad for it. He's not sure he would be able to resist any sort of pleading from Esca, and he's sure in the deep dark of night it would only take a few words from Esca to convince him to change his mind.  Being with Esca in the darkness, holding him close under the bedsheets, would be a reminder of why he should stay, and Marcus doesn’t want to be given a reason to stay.  The journey to find the Eagle is one he knows he must take.

And yet, Marcus aches to hold Esca one last time.

*
While Guern is in the stables preparing the horses, Marcus returns to check his pack and say one last prayer. Stepping through the thick curtain, he's surprised to find Esca standing in the middle of his room.

“Esca,” Marcus whispers, “you mustn't be here. If my uncle finds you he will be furious, and I wouldn't wish to leave knowing he is angry with you. I would be sick with worry, wondering how he might punish you.”

Esca holds his head high, setting his stance. “I've no fear of punishment from him.”

“You should fear,” Marcus replies, “he could cast you out, and how would I find you then?”

“I would survive.”

“Guern will be with me, so who would you run to?” Marcus waits for an answer from Esca, and when he receives none he whispers, “go now, you mustn't let my uncle find you here.”

Esca's stance gives a little, weakening as Marcus holds firm and orders him away. “You don't really mean to leave without saying goodbye to me, do you?”

“No.” Marcus steps forward, placing a quick kiss to Esca's forehead. “No, of course not.” He glances at the doorway, afraid his uncle might appear at any moment, and lowers his voice again, “do you remember when you came to me that afternoon, so long ago? Do you remember the place?”

Esca nods and whispers, “yes.”

“Meet me there in one hour, and I will say goodbye to you. Do you understand?”

Esca nods again, turning quickly and leaving the room.

 

Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
I ask that you guide me on this journey.
Please give me the sight I need to find my way.
Please give me the strength I need to withstand the hardships that may befall me.
Please give my heart the hope it needs to find the Eagle and return it to Rome.
Accept whatever sacrifice that I may restore my family's honor.

Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
I ask that you watch over Esca while I am gone.
He is reckless and I fear for him should I not be here to protect him.
And should I not survive this journey, please watch over him for all of his days.
Bring happiness to his heart again and let him forget me.

 

As Marcus rises, he notices his uncle standing in the doorway. It's not clear how much of the prayer he's heard, but to Marcus's relief he says nothing of it. He seems worried, fear leeching through the brave face he seems to be putting on for Marcus's benefit.

“I wish you well on your journey.”

Marcus nods his thanks, retrieving his pack and checking it over one more time.

“Marcus,” his uncle says, his voice low so as not to be overheard by prying ears, “you needn't go. You have nothing to prove.”

Marcus shakes his head, wanting his uncle to quiet. “I must do this. For Rome, for my father, for our family name.”

“No one will deem you a coward if you stay.”

“That may be so,” Marcus nods, “but I'll not spend my life sitting in some villa, rotting and remembering.”

His uncle looks pained at the words, but Marcus refuses to let himself feel guilt over it. He will not live the life his uncle has chosen, wasting away, forgotten, longing for the glory days of old.

“If there's a chance I can find the Eagle, I must take it.”

“And Esca?”

Now you ask me of Esca? After keeping me from him?”

“He loves you, whether I like it or not. And what of him, sitting here waiting for you to return?”

“If I return, and he should still want me, I'll wait until he's eighteen. I'll wait as long as it takes for you to free him of his debt.”

“Marcus,” his uncle sighs. “When you are older you'll understand the ways of things.”

“If I should not return,” Marcus continues, ignoring his uncle's words, “I beg you, grant him his freedom as you promised. Let him live a good life.”

“You think I would want anything less for him?”

“I have yet to know what you want for him. You call him family, and yet, you treat him as a slave. I see it, and he sees it as well.”

His uncle takes a step back, aghast. “He owes a debt to me.”

“He was only a boy when you brought him here. How you could hold a debt over a boy's head, calling him family but treating him as a slave, I'll never understand.”

“Marcus– ”

“I'm sorry, Uncle, I must go.”

*
Marcus meets Guern near the stables. He readies his horse, setting his blanket and tying his pack, and tries to hide the anxiousness dwelling within him. Marcus knows he must spare a moment to meet Esca at the river, but he's not entirely sure how he'll mention it to Guern.

There is a moment of unease, as Marcus stutters, “I must,” looking from Guern, to the tree line, and back.

He's not sure what it is, an arch of his brow or a smirk on his mouth, but it is suddenly quite clear to Marcus that Guern knows.

Guern gestures in the direction of the river, nodding, “Go. I'll wait here until you've said your goodbyes.”

Marcus can't bear to think of how Guern knows but he is thankful for the understanding, calling it to Guern as he takes off at a near run. Marcus moves quickly over the grass and through the forest. As he runs, he tries to be easy on his leg as it wouldn't do him well to injure himself before he sets off on such a long journey, but he is anxious to reach Esca.

Esca must hear him coming –trampling over the ground, branches snapping beneath him– and he rises just as Marcus reaches the clearing.

The early spring air is still cool, and Marcus wonders how long Esca has been waiting, seated on the cold, hard ground. But Esca seems to think nothing of it as he runs to meet Marcus, his cheeks red with the cold, and his fingers icy as they grab Marcus's hands and then wrap around his neck.

“Marcus,” Esca whispers, pulling him closer. He seems anxious, desperate, clinging to Marcus as if he'll refuse to let him go. “Promise you'll return to me.”

“Esca,” Marcus replies, hating that he cannot promise Esca the thing he longs to hear. “You know I cannot make that promise. Though, if I return, I promise to love you until the end of my days.”

“And if you don't return?”

“Then I will love you until my dying breath,” Marcus swears, “and my last thoughts will be of you.”

Esca looks stricken. “You don't have to go. Perhaps you'll never find the Eagle, and it will be all for naught. Marcus, stay with me, we'll build our farm and I will give you a stable with a thousand horses, so you shall never have to ride the same one twice.”

“A thousand?” Marcus asks, smiling.

“If it would keep you here, I will promise it to you.”

“I wouldn't wish for a thousand horses,” Marcus replies, taking Esca's face in his hands. “I only wish for you.”

“You have me already.”

Marcus kisses Esca, surprised at the sudden desperation in his own movements, as if he'll never feel Esca's lips on his again. There's a sound from Esca as Marcus lifts him off the ground, a small little whine that Esca cuts off with a breath as if he doesn't wish Marcus to hear it.

They hold onto each other, clinging, neither wanting the moment to end.  They whisper to each other in the cool air of the morning -- private things, promises, and goodbyes, and Marcus's chest aches as Esca begs “please, Marcus, stay.”

Finally Marcus pulls away, setting Esca back on his feet, and it feels as if his heart is being wrenched from him as the dark realization sets in that he may never see Esca again. Esca stares up at him bravely, his eyes damp with unshed tears, his chin set in determination as he tries to appear strong for Marcus.

“Wait by the river until you're sure I'm gone,” Marcus instructs firmly, not wanting his uncle to see Esca bid him goodbye. “Promise me you'll stay out of trouble and do everything my uncle asks of you. Do not give him reason to be angry with you.”

“I'll try my best.”

“Esca,” Marcus chides, surprised that Esca's stubbornness can draw a smile from him in such a serious moment. “Please, promise me.”

“I promise.”

He kisses Esca one last time, whispering one last promise against his lips, “we'll come back here someday, if the gods grant me safe passage and I return from the north.”

Esca nods and Marcus turns from him, heading back the way he came. He looks back only once, turning and walking backwards a few steps.

“I love you,” he calls to Esca. “I'll always love you.”

He takes one last look, trying to remember every detail, but in the end he doesn't remember how bright the sun was, or how cool the air, or whether the river made any sound. All he remembers is Esca's face, looking broken but brave as they waved goodbye.

*
The ride to the wall is a silent one, with Guern leading the way. Marcus tries not to think of Esca, focusing his mind on the journey ahead, and when they reach the gates on the fourth day Marcus is back in soldier-mode, glaring at the men who heckle them from the ground.

A small man with a wide sneer stands and motions to stop them. “Where are you headed?”

“North,” Guern growls, without glancing down.

The man laughs, glancing at his comrades before replying. “Didn't they tell you this is the end of the world?”

Guern ignores the comment while Marcus meets the man's eye.

“Just open the gate, soldier,” he commands.

The man takes a step back, waving a hand toward the gate. “See you in the afterlife, Roman.”

 

They're barely across the other side when Guern eases his horse to a stop. “Now that we're across, you should let me speak for us. If we encounter someone just stay back and remain quiet.”

Marcus gives an uncertain nod. “If you think it best.”

Guern doesn't explain further, but his reasoning becomes clear when they meet two men along the road and Marcus stays back as ordered. He can hear Guern speaking, an unfamiliar lilt in his voice as he communicates in another language. Briton, Marcus can only assume, and he wonders how long Guern has held this secret.

 

“You should've told me you spoke the language,” Marcus says later, after they've made it past the men without incident, and found a small cove for shelter. “I might've made this journey long before now.”

“Living in the north for so many years, you think I wouldn't pick up a few words?”

“I hadn't considered it,” Marcus admits.

“It's broken,” Guern explains, “but it is enough to communicate our purpose, and to ease suspicion. Traveling with a Roman the size of you won't be an easy thing.”

*
They are nearly three days beyond the wall when Marcus finds himself sitting around a fire with Guern. It is late afternoon and they've only now allowed themselves a rest after beginning their ride at dawn. Their only encounter of the day was a small group of people, their tiny huts hardly enough to call them a village or even a proper farm. Marcus had stayed back again, trying to appear unimposing as the people looked at him with suspicion and awe, and Guern spoke their unfamiliar language, pointing beyond the hills and confirming their route.

Marcus pokes at the fire while Guern skins the hare they've caught.

“We should camp until morning,” Guern says, passing a skinned hare to Marcus who spears it and places it over the fire. “If we let the horses rest, we can travel a full day before resting them again.”

Marcus doesn't respond, his attention distracted by a sound in the distance. He listens, straining his ears, and detects the snapping of twigs and branches. Horse hooves, quite likely, as it sounds too big to be a man on foot, and it is getting closer.

“A hare for both of us,” Guern says, nudging Marcus as he tries to pass the second skinned hare to him.

Marcus hushes him, gesturing in the direction of the sound. “Listen.”

Marcus steels himself, readying his weapon as their eyes stay on the direction of the sound.

“Don't hesitate,” Marcus warns, and Guern hums in agreement.

A shadow appears some distance beyond, and it is large enough to confirm it is someone on horseback. Marcus remains silent, hopeful that by some stroke of luck they'll go undetected and the traveler will move beyond their camp. Alas, luck is not on their side, and they're nearly ready to strike as the stranger cuts through the last few trees, their cloak pulled so high it is hard to see their face.

“We are armed!” Marcus shouts. “Show yourself!”

Guern shoots him a wave, quieting him, and Marcus cringes at the realization that he is shouting Latin in the wilds of the north.

Marcus clamps his mouth shut as Guern calls something indecipherable.

The traveler calls something in reply, and Marcus doesn't have time to consider the familiar lilt as the man pulls down his cloak and Marcus's blood runs cold.

Esca.

“No,” Marcus says, disbelieving, his voice sounding pained. “It cannot be.”

“Marcus,” Esca smiles, looking proud as he pulls his cloak back further to leave little doubt that it is him.

“No.”

Marcus stalks across the forest floor, his mind racing as he heads straight for Esca. He reaches up, pulling Esca from his horse and forcing him to the ground, going down with him and kneeling over him, wanting to cover Esca with his body as if doing so will somehow protect him from the threat of their surroundings.

“Marcus?” Esca looks up at him with fear and confusion.

“Tell me you are not here,” Marcus demands. “Tell me you are safe in Calleva and my mind is playing tricks on me.”

“I am here,” Esca says carefully, his face white with terror, making him look paler and younger than Marcus has ever seen him. He is too young to be in these woods. Too young to be traveling in the north alone. Too young to accompany Guern and Marcus on their journey.

“How did you get here? How did you track us?”

“Two days travel from the wall,” Esca whispers, “one of those nights was without sleep, I rode on until the sun rose again.”

“How did you track us alone?”

Esca answers without speaking, looking from him to Guern. Marcus follows his gaze to find Guern staring back at them, amusement playing on his mouth.

“You taught him this?” Marcus asks, unable to keep the accusatory tone from his voice.

Guern shrugs, smirking, “I've taught him many things over the years. Trading, riding, and this too. But I couldn't have known he would use that knowledge to follow us over the wall.”

“Well now he has.” Marcus looks back to Esca, still holding him down. “You shouldn't be here.”

“And yet, I am here,” Esca replies defiantly.

“You are, and now you will return to Calleva.” Marcus motions to Guern. “Leave me. If you accompany him on the ride back he'll have a better chance of survival.”

“And what of you?” Guern scoffs. “Leave you here on your own? With no knowledge of the land, no knowledge of the language, I give you three days before you're captured or killed.”

“Better me than Esca,” Marcus replies, “and I won't have him return alone. If you refuse to take him then we'll all three head back today.”

“If we turn back now we'll have wasted seven days.” Guern steps forward, nudging Marcus's shoulder as he reaches out a hand to Esca. “Let him up, he'll be fine if he stays with us.”

“Stays?” Marcus resists Guern's movements, not wanting to let Esca rise from the ground. If Marcus can keep him there, with his body over him, maybe danger won't be able to reach Esca. Maybe the unseen threats in the forest won't notice his presence and Marcus can keep him safe a little while longer. “He is not staying here.”

“He's here already, and it's safer to keep him with us than to split up and take him back or let him return on his own.”

“I won't let him stay and be injured,” Marcus says. “Or worse,” he adds, not wishing to voice the meaning behind the words.

“And what if I refuse to leave?” Esca interrupts. “I'm not a boy, Marcus, you can't force me to bend to your will.”

Marcus frowns, meeting Esca's gaze. “You know I've never asked that of you. I only want you to be safe.”

“I want the same for you, and yet, you insist on risking your life for a piece of metal.”

“The Eagle is not a piece of metal –”

“Let him up,” Guern says again, grabbing Esca's hand and tugging him, forcing Marcus to ease his hold over Esca. “He's not a boy, and you know that. He can handle himself on horseback.”

“Knowing how to ride has nothing to do with being out here,” Marcus stresses, moving to let Esca stand. “It's too dangerous.”

Guern laughs, shaking his head. “You're blinded by your heart.”

“You know nothing of it,” Marcus spits.

“I do,” Guern says quietly. “I loved once, and I know what tricks the heart can play. So you love him, that's no secret, but you shouldn't let your heart influence your decision. Esca is already sixteen, only a year younger than I was when I became a soldier.”

Marcus nods, remembering how mature he felt at seventeen. Proud and brave and strong, certain he was already a man when he left his home to join the Roman army.

But surely he was different. Surely he was far older than Esca is now. Wiser, more world-weary.

“He's no different than we were at his age,” Guern continues as if he's been reading Marcus's thoughts. “And all he knows he's learned from me, so I trust he's ready for this journey.”

 

Marcus agrees reluctantly, losing his fight to send Esca home. It isn't what he would prefer, but in the end he would rather have Esca with him than send him off alone. At least if they're together Marcus can protect him, and do all in his power to keep Esca alive.

 

Their camp is quiet that evening, with Guern and Esca talking quietly together while Marcus's mind can focus on little else but Esca's presence in the north. In his heart, he is glad to see Esca, but his mind knows the dangers they face. Before, at least, if Marcus died, he would have done so knowing Esca was safe in Calleva, and he would one day be free to live a good, long life. Now, if he should die, who will keep Esca safe?

They don't speak again until night has fallen and they are camped by the fire, Marcus's arms tight around Esca, as if it will somehow protect him while they sleep.

“Marcus, are you angry with me?” Esca whispers, keeping his voice low so Guern cannot hear the conversation.

“Not truly. I'm proud that you'd be so brave.”

“And yet, you've said little all evening.”

“I'm frightened,” Marcus admits. “I fear for you out here.”

“You needn't worry. Guern has taught me well – riding, hunting, tracking. Things I've never told you, he swore me to it to keep from upsetting your uncle.”

“My uncle,” Marcus groans, remembering Esca's promise. “Does he know you left?”

“He didn't,” Esca laughs quietly, “but he will know by now. And I took his best horse.”

Marcus sighs. “He'll be unhappy with you when we return.”

“I hope he is,” Esca says, hugging him tightly. “When we return.”

Marcus hadn't meant to say it, his mind so focused on the possible negative outcomes. As a soldier, he'd been taught to prepare for the worst – to go into battle assuming he would die because often it was the only way to face a terrifying enemy.

And yet, he'd said it. When we return.

Perhaps there is hope for them after all.

*
Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
We have made it beyond the wall, and now find Esca with us.
Please protect him on this journey.
Guide him home if I should be lost.

 

The days grow long, but the nights are still cold, and Marcus keeps Esca near him, not letting him out of his sight. At night, he curls himself around Esca, protecting him bodily. Some nights Esca fights him, pushing at him and whining, “get off, you'll crush me,” and most nights Marcus refuses. But on the nights he gives in, too tired to battle against Esca's resistance, he eases off and moves away only to soon find Esca backing up against him, seeking the warmth and protection of his arms.

 

They're seated by the fire one afternoon, not yet ready to camp, and preparing a meal so they can ride on until dark. Marcus is skinning a hare, his hands slick with the blood of the animal, when Guern mutters through the smoke, “Don't look, but there are three rogue warriors behind you. How many behind me?”

Marcus's eyes flick to Guern and then move carefully over the forest behind him. “I don't see anyone.”

“Another two.” Esca's voice sounds from beside him.

Marcus looks again, straining his eyes to see what Esca sees, but still he sees nothing.

Marcus's hand is on his dagger when Guern whispers, “are you ready?” and he doesn't have a moment to worry over Esca before they're on their feet, back-to-back, prepared for the inevitable fight.

It happens quickly, the warriors descending on them so frantically it is impossible to know how many there actually are. Marcus takes out one with a single blow as Guern strikes one to his left, then he struggles with another before Guern takes him down with an arrow to the heart. Guern takes out yet another, the fourth by Marcus's count, and his mind barely has time to register that there is surely a fifth amongst them when he sees Esca moving on the ground, a warrior below him, his arm raised high and dagger in hand.

“Strike!” Marcus yells. “Esca, kill him!”

Esca seems to hesitate, not hearing Marcus's words or perhaps ignoring them, then eases off, letting the warrior go. When the warrior rises, escaping in the direction of the forest, Marcus sees the reason for Esca's hesitation. The warrior is smaller and leaner than Esca, quite young by the look of him. His skin is still pale and free of the tattoos that had marked the older warriors.

Without a second thought, Marcus throws his dagger, his aim perfect as it strikes the young warrior in the back and sends him to his knees. Marcus can feel Esca's eyes on him as he stalks past, heading for the youth, and Marcus has to look away as he steels himself and cuts the warrior's throat. A sickening gurgle escapes him as blood pours from his wound, and when silence falls Marcus knows the last breath has been taken.

He plucks his dagger from the warrior's back, ignoring the crunch of metal on bone, and turns back to the camp. Esca's eyes are still on him, his mouth widened in surprise.

“Next time, do not hesitate,” Marcus mutters, walking past him and taking a seat at the fire.

 

Esca is quiet the rest of the day, whether out of anger or shock, Marcus isn't sure. They ride on in silence, and Esca seems unwilling to speak to Marcus, addressing only Guern until they are once again seated by the fire and resting for the night.

There is a nagging in Marcus's heart, guilt that he has upset Esca, but he also knows he did what needed to be done. This is why he did not want Esca in the north, this is why he didn't want him to see the things that are done in the wild, and now he's made Esca frightened of him.

“Would you like to hear those tales now?” Marcus asks after they've eaten and the forest has grown quiet with the calm of night.

Esca's expression is one of confusion, and he gives Marcus no reply.

“The tales you've begged me to tell,” Marcus continues, “of my days as a soldier, and the death I've seen. I think tonight might be a good night to tell them.”

Esca says nothing, as if he's suddenly unsure whether or not he'd like to hear such tales, but he shifts closer to Marcus, taking a seat by him on the ground. Guern, as well, watches Marcus from across the fire. It is likely that he knows some of what Marcus is about to tell, having been through similar horrors himself. A soldier's life is not unique to himself, and most have been through similar battles, left with tales too gory to retell outside of the barracks.

As Marcus begins to speak, the memories come flooding back, each one with its own element of horror. Each vision comes back to him, every sound, the clang of metal on metal, the slice of a sword through skin and bone, the shouts of the men, the cries as they died.

He tells Esca of the sound a man makes when you slice through his stomach, and the sick gurgle as your sword pierces his chest.  He tells stories of the early days, of the men who were so frightened they were sick to their stomachs, both before and during battle. He tells Esca of the men who cried out for their mothers, wailing on the battlefield as they fought the pull of death.

Weakness, some said, but one cannot know how they'll react when faced with death until they are in that moment, looking death in the eye.” Marcus looks to the ground. “I do not doubt that when I nearly lost my leg I cried out for my father. I know I dreamt of him, saw his vision in my mind, and called out to him in the dark.”

“Will you tell me of your leg?” Esca asks, his expression unreadable in the shadow of the firelight. “How it happened?”

Marcus nods and takes a moment to remember before telling of the night his patrol disappeared, and the attack on their fort.

He swears he can still smell the scent of burning flesh, and the cries of the Britons who fell into the flames. He describes the morning after the battle as they retrieved bodies and counted their dead, and later the same day when he saw his missing patrol brought back as prisoners. He tells Esca of the man who had his head sliced clean off, and the last rally to save their men.

Esca's eyes are wide when Marcus recounts the testudo, the blood and the carnage as his men began to fall around him and all hope seemed lost. He recounts the terror they felt when the chariots appeared and there seemed no way to win against such a well-armed enemy.

“I wasn't afraid,” Marcus says quietly. “In that moment, the terror was gone, and there was nothing to replace it. 'Conspicuous gallantry' they called it, but I do not know. In that moment, I did the only thing I could think to do. Whether it was gallantry or foolishness, I haven't decided.”

“Gallantry, surely,” Guern says across the fire, and Marcus can only give a shrug of his shoulders as he falls silent.

*
“Have I frightened you?” Marcus whispers, having remained quiet until they were ready for sleep and Esca was forced into close proximity with him. He knows Esca can likely hear the worry in his tone, but he does little to mask it.

“I was only surprised at the boy's age,” Esca whispers in reply, “and the fact that you killed him so easily.”

“It wasn't easy,” Marcus explains, “it is never easy, but it was something that needed to be done. Sparing his life could have resulted in our own deaths if he'd hunted us again. I'm not sorry for it, I'm only sorry I've made you frightened of me.”

Marcus hears Guern shift, rising from his place by the fire. He murmurs something about pissing, disappearing amongst the trees, and Marcus imagines it is likely a means of giving them privacy to speak. Guern had taken the first watch, and Marcus knows how easy it is to hear every breath and movement and whisper in the darkness.

“I've told you I'm not frightened,” Esca whispers after Guern has disappeared. “Only surprised.”

“You shouldn’t be.  I’ve warned you of the dangers of this journey. You'd best remember that your youth will not save you out here. An enemy won't spare your life because you are young, and I'll do all I need to do to keep you alive.”

 

They fall asleep in silence, an unspoken understanding between them.

Marcus wakes only once at an unexpected sound, his hand moving to his dagger, but it is only Guern slipping back into their camp and taking his seat by the fire. In two hours he will wake Marcus to trade off on the night-watch, but until then Marcus will sleep at Esca's side, holding him tight to protect him from the unseen threats and the darkness of the night.

*
Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
It is nearly thirty days since we left Calleva.
Though the Eagle calls to me, I feel no closer to finding it.
Please tell me which direction to take.

 

As the days drag on, they quickly grow dirty, their skin turning darker with the sweat and grime of their journey. There is little chance to bathe, save for the warmer, sunnier days when they can bear a quick jump in the river. Marcus finds some amusement in seeing Esca so filthy, his face looking scruffier by the day as his facial hair begins to grow in. It is sparse, but it is there, and when the light catches it, it makes Esca look older – far older than the boy Marcus caught sight of in the doorway on that first night.

On the easier days, when the sun shines high above them during the day, and the threat of an unseen enemy seems to lessen in the night, Marcus teases Esca, nosing against his neck, and lifting his arms to smell him. Marcus had grown so used to the luxuries of the villa, and was accustomed to Esca being clean and well-kept, but it's different in the wild. Esca has a different smell to him, sharp and pungent, and Marcus cannot help but seek it out, sniffing at him as Esca pushes him away, annoyance in his voice as he mutters, “get off, Marcus, you stink as well.”

Marcus is pleased to find Esca doesn't mean it, as he's soon back in Marcus's arms, indulging Marcus's curiosity. He lets Marcus touch, exploring the new hair on his face, and curling his fingers in the longer hair that's begun whorling around Esca's ears. Marcus wonders if he looks just as different, his hair longer than when he left Calleva, and his face dark with scruff.

Some nights, when the moon seems hidden beneath the clouds and the firelight has begun to die, Esca's hands will linger on Marcus's face. He thumbs over Marcus's chin, tracing the sharp line of Marcus's jaw, as if making sure it is indeed Marcus there with him in the darkness. On these nights Marcus will kiss him to let Esca know it is him, and to remind them both that their hearts still beat for each other. The kisses are gentle, silent, so as not to call attention to them, and when Esca pushes against him –needy, meaningful thrusts– Marcus eases away and shushes him, reminding him of Guern's close proximity.

 

Marcus does well to resist Esca's advances, the north being too dangerous for them to let down their guard.

So he cannot explain what comes over him the morning he gives in.

Marcus slips away for a moment, the same as any other morning, choosing a tree to piss on and leaning against it, yawning as he pulls open his braccae and takes himself in hand.

Esca appears out of nowhere, and it is obvious he's seeking out Marcus, wanting something from him as he pulls open his own braccae before he's even reached the tree.

“Marcus,” Esca says, smiling as he approaches, and Marcus gives a shake of his head.

“Not here,” he replies, “I've told you–”

“Guern is distracted, and we have a moment, will you not give me what I need?”

“I cannot.” The reply is weak, and Marcus's resistance fades as Esca reaches him, pressing his hips to Marcus's and rubbing his open braccae against Marcus's bare cock.

There is soft laughter from Esca as Marcus turns them, pushing Esca up against the tree and slipping a strong hand down his braccae. Marcus strokes his cock, teasing him beneath the cloth, pulling whimpers from Esca with each slow tug his fingers give.

“Let me,” Esca groans, “here,” and he reaches to open his braccae, letting Marcus take him out so as not to spill inside and soil his clothes.

Their hands on each other and the sounds of their encounter seem too loud in Marcus's ears – the shuffling as they remove clothes, the sharp pant of breath, Esca's soft moans which are quickly silenced by Marcus's thick fingers over his mouth. He shushes Esca as they stroke each other beneath the shadow of the trees, the sun peeking through and dappling their skin.

They've both been desperate for it for so long, and the moment is fleeting. As they spill over the ground, Marcus kisses Esca, desperate for the taste of his mouth, and they redress quickly before heading back to the camp.

Marcus is smiling as they walk, the encounter another secret between them, and he's missed having such secrets with Esca. The morning seems bright, full of possibility, and he reaches for the eagle around his neck, giving it a strong squeeze, listening for it to tell him something.

Perhaps today will be the day. Perhaps this will be the day they find the Eagle, and the journey will not have been as treacherous as Marcus had expected.

He can almost see them, traveling back to the wall, the Eagle tucked under his arm and Esca at his side.

Later, Marcus will despise himself for this moment. It was careless to let his guard down, careless to hope for so much.

*
Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
I have failed you.
Esca has been taken, and all seems lost.
Please save us.

 

In the slave tent, the days tireless and never-ending, Marcus replays the moment over and over in his mind.

They were taken by surprise when they returned to find Guern surrounded by the warriors of the painted people, and Marcus can still feel the hands that grabbed him, wrenching him from Esca's side. He can still see the terror on Esca's face, and hear the sound of Guern's shouts.

At first, Marcus had presumed Guern a coward and a betrayer as he yelled frantically, pointing to Esca, and Marcus recognized only two words amongst the foreign ones that fell from his mouth – 'MacCunoval' and 'Brigantes.'

He'd seethed with anger, rage building in him as it appeared Guern was giving Esca over to the men that held them. But then Esca had shouted something in response, calling attention to himself, and Marcus could only watch as the leader marched over to Esca, taking him by the chin and tilting his head, looking into his eyes. What he saw wasn't clear, but it seemed enough to satisfy him, and he spoke with Esca for a moment before motioning to the other men to seize Marcus and Guern while allowing Esca to walk freely beside them.

Marcus had struggled, putting up a fight until he was tied behind a horse and dragged as if they hoped to exhaust the fight in him. It was only when they stopped to rest that he was able to speak with Guern, the two of them bound at the wrists and ankles to keep them from running, left out in the rain as the warriors sought shelter with Esca.

Guern warned him against struggling, telling him to quiet. “They will kill us, and Esca too.”

“Coward,” Marcus had muttered, “if you hadn't spoken, they wouldn't have taken him.”

“If I hadn't spoken, they would've killed us all,” Guern spit back, “they know he's Brigantes, the son of Cunoval. It will keep him alive for a while at least, and may give us time to find the Eagle.”

Marcus didn't ask how Guern knew this, or how he'd recognized the men on sight, their gray skin nothing more than river mud. “These are the painted people you've been searching for” Guern explained. “The Seal People. If the Eagle still exists, it is likely they have it.”

He was battered and bruised by the time he was thrown into the slave tent, his tunic torn and hanging from his body, and when an old slave woman offered to wash him, Marcus could only accept and be thankful for the brief moment of kindness.

 

It's been fifteen days since they were taken, and Marcus finds himself growing weaker as the days wear on. The broth they're given to subsist on is rancid and hardly enough to keep a grown man living for long. Guern seems to take their imprisonment in stride, holding far more patience than Marcus as they spend their days brushing horses and scaling fish, and their nights shivering by a pitiful fire pit.

When Esca appears, always with the head warrior, he hardly casts a glance their way. Guern tells Marcus it is for their own safety, but as the days wear on and Esca seems to grow increasingly comfortable amongst the tribe, doubt begins to creep into Marcus's mind.

 

On the nineteenth day, Marcus watches Esca leave with the tribe, a sack of arrows slung over his back and a bow tucked under his arm. A young Seal boy follows Esca and asks him questions, looking to him with admiration as if he cannot see that Esca is barely more than a boy himself. Marcus watches Esca guide the boy, pointing in the direction of the trees, likely indicating where they will hunt. The other warriors speak, laughing together, and there is a twisting in his chest when he sees Esca smile at something another warrior has said. Perhaps he's grown to like it here, now a member of a tribe rather than a servant forced to work to repay a debt he'd been too young to agree to.

 

As the days pass, anger and jealousy burn within Marcus each time Esca walks by the slave tent, never sparing them a glance. Yet, he finds the days he doesn't see Esca are worse. On those days Marcus's anger is replaced by fear. Perhaps they've done something to Esca, or perhaps he left on a hunt and never returned. They would have no reason to inform Marcus or Guern, keeping them locked away as slaves until they either died or attempted an escape which would surely end in death as well. And so, he finds himself relieved when he spots Esca again, the relief lasting only a day or two before anger seeps in and the cycle begins again.

*
After a month has passed, and Marcus still spends his days in service and his nights in the slave tent, he finds he's begun to lose track of the days. Surely yesterday was the thirty-fourth day? Or perhaps it was the thirty-fifth? Was it yesterday he spent the afternoon brushing horses, or had it been that morning? His strength wanes, and each glimpse of Esca looking quite content with the tribe draws a little more hope from him.

If he didn't know better, he would think Guern happy with their situation as well. He speaks to the slave women, and sits by the fire, and doesn't seem bothered by the horrible broth they're fed each morning and again at night. Guern tells him to have patience, to trust that Esca will stay loyal, and to believe that the gods have a plan for them, but Marcus's patience is waning and his hope has begun to fade.

As he resigns himself to the fact that Esca won't look at him, and they are now living in two very different worlds, it is only the hope of finding the Eagle that keeps him breathing and keeps him fighting.

 

Marcus doesn't know what prompts him to smile at the girls by the river. He's scaling fish, minding his own business, when the trickling of their laughter pulls his gaze away from his work. He is surprised to find them watching him, both smiling, and Marcus is so desperate for some sort of kindness, some sort of acknowledgment, that in the moment it doesn't matter whether it comes from a friend or an enemy.

It is only a brief second, but it is enough to attract attention as the man Guern calls the Seal Prince rushes over to him, shouting something indecipherable and backhanding him across the face. Marcus is too large to be knocked down by the hit, but he's weak and the blow sends him back a few steps.

As Marcus wipes his mouth with the back of his hand, he looks to the small crowd that has gathered and finds Esca standing amongst them. Marcus stares for a moment, meeting his eye, looking for any sign that Esca still cares, or any signal that will tell him they will live through this.

But Esca gives him nothing.

The Seal Prince follows Marcus's gaze to Esca before saying something to him, and whatever Esca says in reply results in two men grabbing Marcus's arms and forcing him to his knees. As they hold him, the Seal Prince hits him again, and Marcus is both too weak and too proud to resist. If Esca wishes him beaten then he will take his beating. He will not cry out or beg for mercy or show any sign that he has been broken.

It is only later that he will face how broken he has become. When the beating is over and the two men drag him back to the slave tent and push him inside, when Marcus stumbles in the dirt, when he's bloodied and his split lip spills blood down his already filthy tunic, it is then that he will allow himself to break and feel sorry for himself.

He wipes at his face, smearing blood across his skin, and when Guern asks him if he is alright, Marcus says nothing.

 

Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
At my best count it has been two months since we were enslaved.
It seems I have lost Esca, and I fear I am losing hope as well.
Please give me the strength to go on.

 

Each prayer to Mithras seems more and more futile, and Marcus cannot help but feel bitter each time he prays and then wakes to find himself still weak and cold and stinking, stuck in a slave tent while Esca lives life happily with the Seal tribe.

He no longer looks for Esca.

If he is forced to work outside the tent, he keeps his gaze lowered, and when he is wasting his hours with the other slaves he does little more than lie on his back in the dirt, staring up at the tent as it ripples in the wind.

There was a time he'd lie that way and dream of Calleva. Marcus would picture himself by the river with Esca, and imagine he was staring up at the stars, with the gods staring back at him. In the early days he could still imagine that, holding out hope that they would escape this place and return to their life on the other side of the wall. But now he finds he cannot imagine such a thing. Surely this is his life now, enslaved until he dies.

Perhaps their waiting has been for nothing. Maybe the Seal People do not have the Eagle. Maybe Esca knows this, and he is content to stay.

 

Mithras, help me,
I am lost.

*
It is the sound of drums that pulls him from his sleep and leads him from the tent. It is late summer, or early autumn by Marcus's best guess, and Marcus follows the sound to the water where the warriors of the Seal People have gathered. When he reaches them, he realizes the sound was not drums at all but the chanting of the men and the stomping of their feet. Marcus watches them dance in the firelight, their bodies moving in unison as they chant together. It would be impressive were his heart not filled with such hatred for them.

As Marcus surveys the crowd, he catches sight of Esca amongst them. It is the first time he's allowed his eyes to settle on Esca in weeks, and he is surprised at the ache in his heart. He loves him still, whether Esca has betrayed him or not, and Marcus curses his heart for not having the strength to let go.

The chanting increases, sounding almost like thunder as it echoes across the land, and as the pace becomes more frantic something gleams across the crowd, the flickering light catching his eye. Marcus squints into the darkness, willing his eyes to focus.

Surely the gods are taunting him. Surely his eyes do not see what is before him.

The Eagle.

Without thinking, Marcus stands and breaks into a run. He does not feel the ache in his leg as he moves, he does not notice the men around him as he reaches the crowd and pushes them out of his way, and he does not even notice whether or not Esca has caught sight of him. All Marcus sees is the Eagle, the brightness of it beckoning to him, all the glory and the shame of his father's legion, there before him.

He is nearly there, close enough to claim what is rightfully Rome's, when all goes dark.

*
Marcus wakes near the slave tent, as if someone dragged him there and dumped him in the dirt. A hand is on him, and a voice speaks near his ear.

“Marcus.”

He jerks at the sound, though he can't help but think that it seems familiar.

“Marcus.”

It sounds like Esca, but surely he is dreaming. Esca has left him.

He turns, groaning against the pain in his head, and sees Esca leaning over him in the darkness.

“It's time,” Esca says, “this is our only chance while they sleep.”

Marcus cannot help the words that escape him as he stares up at Esca. “I thought I'd lost you.”

“Never,” Esca whispers, taking his arm and forcing him to stand. “Now, quickly, come.”

Esca whistles once as they move, a trilling sound that could be mistaken for a bird, and Marcus is unsure why until he spots Guern sneak from the slave tent and follow them.

“It is kept here,” Esca whispers, leading them past the water and along a path of rocks. The three of them squeeze through an opening and down a suffocating tunnel, the rock walls spattered with blood, before they emerge in a wide cave.

The Eagle sits on an altar, shining like a beacon, and Marcus can hardly believe it has been there all this time. All the weeks and months he's waited, hopeless, and here it is.

“Marcus, take it,” Guern's voice echoes, and Marcus steps forward, plucking the Eagle from its perch.

He takes a moment to hold it in his hands, the danger of their situation no longer forefront in his mind as he stares at the thing he's waited his lifetime to find.

“Hurry,” Esca hisses, “we must go.”

Marcus nods, turning, and a threatening voice booms through the cave.

It is the chieftain, blocking their escape path. Two warriors stand at his side, and they charge, swords drawn as they run. Marcus and Guern take them out quickly, and Marcus turns his attention to the chieftain, his mind no longer thinking as he charges, striking, killing him.

It is easy, and hope begins to return to Marcus's heart as they head back the way they came, squeezing through the tunnel until they find themselves in the early morning air.  They retrieve their horses in silence, securing the Eagle to Marcus's horse, and Marcus cannot help but pause for a moment, turning to Esca.

“If you wish to stay I would not stop you.”

Esca looks to him in confusion. “You are my life and my heart, you fool. I have no wish but to be where you are.”

Though the words bring a smile to Marcus's face, it is another moment he will regret later. It is another moment he shouldn't have taken.

The Seal Prince appears from behind them, as if he'd stalked them from the cave, and he sets his sights on Esca, calling out something as he raises his dagger.

Marcus's breath catches in his throat and he is too slow to pull his own weapon before he sees the blade cut into Esca, slicing a hole in his gut. A surprised gasp escapes Esca, and Marcus reaches for his blade, all the strength he'd lost seeming to return in that moment, and there is nothing for it but to kill the man who aims to take Esca's life.

Marcus stabs wildly, striking a blow and then another, stabbing until the Seal Prince is on the ground beneath him.

“Hurry,” Guern calls, “he is dead, and we must get Esca to safety.”

Guern mounts Marcus's horse, the Eagle tied tightly behind him, and he gestures to one of the other horses. “We can only take two. Take your uncle's for she is a far better horse than mine.”

Marcus throws Esca on with him, with little time to be mindful of his injury, and they ride.

*
Mithras, lord of light, father of our fathers,
If you give me nothing more in my life, I beg you,
Give me this.
Please save him.

 

If they ride hard, keeping their route as straight as possible, it is four days journey to the wall, Guern guesses.  Marcus is frantic at the suggestion, for surely Esca will not survive four days without treatment.

They pause for only a moment, using their own clothing to wrap around Esca's wound, attempting to slow the blood loss. Esca slips in and out of consciousness, barely able to respond when they speak to him, and Marcus holds him tight after they are back on their horse, whispering, “stay with me,” as they ride.

They ride through the night and into the next day before stopping, their horses unable to go on without rest. Esca wakes for a moment as they place him near the small fire Guern has built, and he mumbles something about Calleva.

“We are nearly there,” Marcus whispers to Esca, sitting beside him on the ground, trying to keep him alert and listening. “Can you see it, Esca? Do you hear the river?”

Esca nods in reply, though Marcus isn't sure whether it is simply the sound of Marcus's voice that draws a response from him or whether he actually hears the words being spoken. Marcus continues speaking anyway, hopeful that Esca can hear him and that his words might give him strength. “It is autumn now, so the leaves will soon be falling. I think it is likely too cold to swim on a day like today, what do you think of it?”

“I would swim,” Esca murmurs.

“You would,” Marcus laughs, “I'm sure you would.”

 

What little food they catch they give to Esca, forcing him to swallow, hoping it will keep up his strength. They eat the scraps that are left, subsisting mainly on water, and Marcus fights the hollow ache in his stomach as they ride on, nearing the wall, almost close enough to begin to hope again.

On the third day, Guern's horse begins to slow, struggling to climb each hill, and seemingly too exhausted to gallop.

“He won't go on,” Guern says when the horse finally comes to a stop and collapses with a whinny.

“Ride with us,” Marcus says, encouraging Guern to climb on behind him.

“We would only kill her too,” Guern says, untying his pack and the Eagle from the dying horse. “You go on without me.”

“It is only another day, she will make it.”

She won't,” Guern says emphatically, fitting the Eagle amongst Marcus's pack and tying it tightly. “And I wouldn't want you to risk it. You are nearly there, another day's ride and you will be over the wall. Get Esca to safety.”

Marcus nods. “Then I'll come back for you.”

“No,” Guern turns, considering the land behind him. “I've survived in the north before, and I can do it again.”

“Don't be a fool. Hide out and I will return.”

“If you do, you won't find me.” Guern swings his pack over his back, smiling up at Marcus. “I lived here once, and loved as well, so perhaps I will again. Maybe I'll find a wife and settle down.”

“You don't have to do this.”

“I want to do this,” Guern replies. “Give my thanks to your uncle, and give Esca my goodbyes. He won't understand it, but tell him it was my choice.”

“He'll be furious with you.”

“He will, won't he?” Guern laughs. “Tell him to remember all the things I taught him, and perhaps I'll see him again someday.”

Before Marcus can reply, Guern gives his horse a whack on the side, causing her to startle and take off at a run.

“One day's ride,” Guern calls behind him. “Get Esca there and keep him safe.”

Marcus can hear Guern shouting a goodbye, his tone happy rather than fearful, so Marcus rides on until the wall comes into view and hope blooms in his heart again.

*
They reach safety not far beyond the wall, and manage to locate a doctor who tends to Esca's wound and sews him shut again. They rest a few days before they risk the trip to Calleva, and when Esca comes around and begins to speak, asking when they'll visit the river, Marcus finally decides he is well enough to make the journey.

Marcus steels himself as they approach the villa, prepared for his uncle's anger and readying the explanations he will need to make on Esca's behalf. His horse is still alive, at least, and Marcus hopes this will ease any bitterness in his uncle's heart.

To his surprise, his uncle is frantic upon their arrival, rushing outside at the sound of horse hooves, and worrying over Esca as Marcus helps him down from the horse.

“You're alive!” his uncle exclaims, clasping a hand on Esca's shoulder, seemingly unwilling to let go. “I was starting to fear I would never see either of you again.”

“Yet, here we are,” Marcus says warily, “I hope we haven't angered you.”

“Angered? No, my boy, how could I be angry on a day like today? You've both returned and you both still breathe. It is a fine day.”

His uncle's smile falters for a moment, and he looks in the direction of the road, as if looking for another horse.

“What of Guern?” he asks quietly.

“He lives,” Marcus replies, placing an arm around Esca's waist and helping him to the house. “He chose to stay behind, but he lives, and he sends you his thanks for all you did for him.”

“Chose to stay behind?” his uncle repeats, disbelief in his tone. “But why– ”

“Looking for a wife,” Marcus laughs, “or a long-lost love, if I understood him correctly.”

“Genovefa,” his uncle murmurs knowingly.

“There is something tied to my pack,” Marcus calls from the doorway. “It might be of interest to you.”

Marcus is through the door, easing Esca into a chair, when he hears his uncle's shout of joy.

*
His uncle brings a doctor in to look over Esca's wound, likely remembering the difficulty Marcus had with his own injury. Later, after Esca is recovered and resting, his uncle calls Marcus to his side and they take a seat by the fire.

“I am prepared to let him go,” his uncle says.

Marcus holds his tongue – not wanting to presume, but hoping he understands the meaning behind his uncle's words.

“It wouldn't be right of me to hold him to his debt,” his uncle continues, “not after what you've both been through.”

His uncle looks to him, waiting for a response, but Marcus is careful to offer him nothing, fearful he will rescind on his promise. In these situations, he knows better than to hope.

“I can see that you love each other. I saw it long ago, but I didn't want to acknowledge it. But now, if you still wish it, you can leave together and I won't stop you.”

“Do you wish us to leave?”

“I would love for you both to stay,” his uncle laughs, “and you are welcome to it. But I know Esca has his own dreams for you.”

Marcus nods. “He would like a farm, with horses.”

“And you?”

“I would like that too,” Marcus replies. “I would like to give him anything he wants.”

His uncle turns back to the fire, looking thoughtful. “I could help you get a start. I promised Esca long ago, and I intend to hold to that promise.”

“And you would do this now?” Marcus asks carefully.

“I would do it whenever you'd like. I realize now that I've been unfair. I've only ever wanted to see Esca happy in his life, and you bring him happiness. Why should he have to wait for that?”

Marcus rises from his chair, and his uncle looks to him in confusion.

“Where are you going?”

“To wake Esca,” Marcus replies, “he will be angry with me if I wait until tomorrow to tell him.”

Marcus leaves the room with the sound of his uncle's laughter behind him.

 

Esca is sleeping soundly when Marcus slips into bed beside him. He nudges his nose against Esca's neck and whispers his name.

“Esca.”

“Marcus?” Esca groans, his voice rough from sleep. “Let me rest.”

“You'll rest after,” Marcus whispers, pulling him closer, “but right now, would you like me to tell you of our farm and our horses?”

“Don't tease me with that,” Esca mumbles, “It is at least another year away.”

Marcus smiles and kisses his cheek. “You know I wouldn't tease, and it's not as far away as you think.”

Esca wakes enough to hear Marcus's good news, and he manages enough movement to curl himself around Marcus.

“A farm of our own,” he says, smiling, “and a thousand horses for you.”

“I don't want a thousand horses,” Marcus replies, “I've only ever wanted you.”

“And you have me.”

 

They talk into the night, telling each other their dreams, and deciding where they should build their farm, and Marcus is still smiling as he drifts into slumber.

“Marcus?” Esca whispers.

“Yes?”

“Shall we visit the river tomorrow?”

“Yes,” Marcus replies, smiling into the darkness, thanking Mithras for granting them safe passage back home.  “And perhaps it is still warm enough to swim.”


the end.