“Here I am in a rabbit run, here I am in a valley of pine, waiting for you to find me. I could pretend I’m speaking to everyone—assume a middle distance and transcend myself—but I’m taking to you and you know it…
But you are my nomad and I love you sideways daily. Sideways because I have to beam my love in all directions, hoping it bounces off something and eventually finds you…
So here we are again: me being here and you being off the map and me sending it out across the wires and being overheard.”
― Richard Siken, The Long And Short of It
Esca Nic Cunoval is given a boy’s name and taught a boy’s skills, much to her mother’s dismay. But she is her father’s darling, and she wants nothing more for when he hugs her and says, dear Esca, little hawk, you are the swiftest of them all.
Her mother loves her too, Esca knows this; her mother will stroke Esca’s hair behind her ear and say, Esca, I named you for the river you so resemble. Remember, a woman’s heart is deeper than the ocean, and you are as swift as a river’s waters.
So Esca is daughter, and darling; she is river and hawk, and it is enough. She hunts with the men of the tribe and she outruns them all; she stitches badly but fights well; she is hot tempered and, according to her mother, spoiled.
When Esca is thirteen, her parents have their first major fight about how she is being raised, about how her father is indulging her.
“She’s like a hunting hawk,” her mother exclaims angrily, “ready to be loosened to fly and hunt where you will.”
“And what is wrong with that?” Her father asks, soothingly. “She can defend herself. You know what the Romans do to our women if they are captured.”
It was an argument her mother couldn’t win, and Esca was glad, glad to be her father’s hunting hawk and her mother’s river, and swifter than anyone that chased her.
It was enough, until one day it wasn’t.
It was winter when the Romans came, and it was winter when they lost, and it was winter when they captured her. Esca had fought alongside her father with the promise that, if she was captured, she would kill herself.
But she did not have the chance, because due to her slim body and her short hair, they thought she was a boy. Because it was winter, and snowing hard, they did not make her strip to prove her sex.
It gives Esca hope.
By the time Esca is fifteen, she’s been sold four times. No one is satisfied with a hot tempered slave who gives as good as he gets, who doesn’t understand Latin and is a dangerous hand with a spear or a knife. She has kept her father’s knife, but instead of a symbol of hope and home, her captors turned it into a symbol of Rome; “this is your bond,” one of them had explained to her in clumsy Gaelic, and Esca had closed her eyes in defeat from before nodding.
When they throw her into the small, dirty gladiator ring, she is without her knife. They give her a sword she doesn’t know how to use and shield instead. It is early spring and still bitingly cold, so they do not require her to strip to the waist like they normally would. If it had been two years ago, Esca would have thanked whatever Gods were listening that her charade hasn’t been discovered.
But two years is a long time to be a slave, and being a slave is a terrible thing to be when you are growing up. When Esca was first captured, she had the impossible dream of hiding her sex in order to avenge her family. But she’s fifteen now, and tired; so she throws away her sword and shield and beckons the other masked fighter on.
He hesitates, and she snarls at him in her own language.
“Come on, idiot.”
He hesitates again, so she walks up to the tip of his sword until she’s bleeding and waits, trying to find his eyes behind the mask.
“Kill me, you idiot,” she orders him. “Kill a helpless British slave for the glory of Rome.”
It works, perhaps too well. When she’s on the ground with a split lip and two black eyes, gasping for breathe, he points his sword at her throat and she stares back at him, hating him, wanting him to see her eyes as he kills her for the glory of Rome. Maybe he’ll see what a fucking joke it is, what a lie it is; maybe he’ll see that killing a defenseless slave is no glory and no entertainment.
And then, because fate hates Esca: “Life!” Someone shouts, and she turns to see who it is, to glare at them and curse them in every tongue she knows.
“Life!” They shout again, and it’s a young man leaning on a cane and being supported by an old man, his thumb up. “Life!” He repeats, and Esca shakes her head.
But a simple slave’s wishes do not matter as much as a citizen of Rome’s. The crowd is convinced, and Esca hears mutters of “such courage” and “so admirable” and grits her teeth so she doesn’t scream in frustration.
It wasn’t courage, what she did. It wasn’t determination.
She was a coward, she was without honor; she preferred death rather than vengeance, and she was punished for it.
She’s spared, and as she stands, she makes eye contact with the tall Roman. He looks uncomfortable, perhaps realizing what he had done.
Why? She asks him silently as she wipes the blood from her mouth. Why did you interfere?
He flushes and she turns away in disgust, because she doesn’t have time for him.
It doesn’t matter. She’ll never see him again.
When the old man that was with her defender comes and purchases her, Esca is not surprised.
Annoyed? Yes. Angry? Of course. But surprised?
He shakes off the idea of handcuffs and says, “You won’t run, will you, slave?” And she scowls at him instead of answering.
“You don’t fool me,” he tells her as they climb into the cart. She has a minute to absorb his kindness, with her actually riding with him instead of running alongside the cart, before his words hit.
What does that mean, exactly?
Perhaps her sudden stillness tips him off, because he smiles. “I know you can understand Latin, probably even speak it.”
She raises an eyebrow at him, because he’s an old man and she doesn’t like him. He indulges her, smiling.
“A cheeky slave,” he remarks. “What’s your name, slave?”
“Esca,” she says, and blesses her father for insisting she have a boy’s name to go with her boy’s life.
“Well, Esca,” he says quietly, “you are to be my nephew’s body slave. You owe him a debt.”
She makes a face, uncomfortable that this Roman can see what is in her heart. “Yes,” she says, staring out at the fast-passing countryside, and in her head she adds: I know.
When the old man presents her to his nephew, it’s clear the nephew – Marcus – doesn’t want her.
Esca tries not to be insulted, because she’s a bad slave and she doesn’t want to be here, but this Roman is selfish and ungrateful.
“Slave!” His uncle calls, and she shuffles into the large, airy room, darting in front and too the side of the uncle.
“His name’s Esca,” the uncle says, emphasizing her name. He leaves, and Esca stares at the Roman – Marcus.
“I have no use for you,” he tells her, and she averts her eyes so he won’t see the flash of anger.
She studies the tiled floor and says: “I had no wish to be bought,” and tries to keep her voice low and neutral.
“You should have run. My uncle wouldn’t have stopped you.”
Marcus tries to stand. Esca resists the urge to help him, because he doesn’t want it, and he leans heavily on his cane when he does manage to straighten.
His statement infuriates her. For all Rome claims to know of honor, and glory, and civilization, they know nothing.
Besides. His uncle wouldn’t have been able to catch her. I am swift; I am river and hawk.
“You saved my life.” Esca says in reply, but he doesn’t twitch, doesn’t realize it’s an explanation of why she didn’t run, why she couldn’t run. “I have a debt of honor to you now.”
“Against your wish.”
Then why did you do it then? She nearly snaps. But she is a slave, and he is a big man, even if he is crippled, so she holds her tongue. Instead she says: “No man should ever beg for his life.”
Her father hadn’t begged. He had been struck down and had died watching his murderer, but he hadn’t begged.
“You didn’t,” Marcus says. “I did, on your behalf, and…I met nothing by it.”
And yet it means everything now.
Esca would never willingly be a slave, would never willingly hold her tongue, if it were not for the fact that she owed him her life. He was her master now, until her debt was repaid – if ever.
She draws her father’s knife and advances, and when Marcus looks up she sees genuine fear in his eyes.
“I am a son of the Brigantes,” she tells him softly, head held high, “who never broke his word.” She throws the knife – once her father’s, now her curse – at his feet. “My father’s dagger is my bond.” She pauses, makes eye contact, proud as a hunting hawk, as a river. “I hate everything you stand for, everything you are.” She swallows. “But you saved me. And for that, I must serve you.”
Esca bows her head and waits. Marcus says nothing, but she can feel the wait of his eyes on her, assessing her.
I hate you, she thinks. I hate you.
The very next day, a doctor comes to look at Marcus’s wound – the one that makes him walk with a cane. Esca, who is now dressed befitting a personal slave, in a sleeveless shirt and half braccae, resists the urge to ask what happened and watches with interest, wincing for Marcus when the doctor proclaimed that the wound was messily done and saying Marcus had probably been in constant pain.
Esca had only been with Marcus for a day and she knew that about him, knew he favored that leg but also resented it and what it did to his independence.
“We’ll have to re-open it,” the doctor says. “There’s still metal in there.”
“Well,” says Marcus’s uncle. “If it needs to be done, then do it, right?” He’s aiming this last bit at Marcus, who nods after a minute, jaw clenched.
Esca can feel the color drain from her face at this prospect. Is Marcus insane? Are all Romans this way?
“It will be over before you know it,” the doctor is saying. “I have the best knives in the business.” It’s meant to sound comforting but Marcus twitches. Esca avoids looking at him, or the ugly wound on his knee, as Marcus’s Uncle and the doctor leave.
She only looks up when Marcus says: “Some Wine.”
Esca fetches it for him quickly, hoping she will not have to watch this cruelty, hoping the wine is far more potent than most.
They strap Marcus down onto a rough wooden table. Esca, busy fetching supplies for the doctor, watches Marcus kiss a wooden bird that hangs around his neck on a leather thong. He lies down, his posture perfect, and stares straight ahead.
“Ready?” The doctor asks.
Marcus nods. Esca watches him, terrified, and hears the doctor rinsing off his knives.
It takes a minute for her to realize that Marcus is watching her, and she tries to school her face, to hide her pity and disgust and shock.
“You can go,” he tells her, and for some reason she wants to squeeze his fingers as if he were her brother, to offer him comfortable. Instead she turns, eager to obey, eager to leave this bizarre room, but –
“No.” The doctor says. “I’m going to need the slave to hold you done.”
Esca freezes, her back to everyone.
My name is Esca, she thinks. My name is Esca and I am not a slave.
Then, after a moment: My name is Esca and I owe Marcus a debt of honor. I will serve him.
“Can’t my Uncle do it?” Marcus is asking, sounding surprised – almost panicked – when his uncle refuses and leaves.
Esca goes to him, stands next to him, wondering how this will work.
“Quickly now, hold him down,” the doctor tells her and she presses her arm across Marcus’s chest and has a split second panic of what if he feels my breasts when the doctor shouts: “Put your weight on him, slave!”
She rests her chest on top of her arm, presses Marcus down on the table, straining. Marcus is bigger than her, is a military man – how is she supposed to hold him down?
“Harder!” The doctor orders and Esca practically lies down on Marcus, her face inches from his.
She can tell when the knife goes in because Marcus struggles and his eyes roll back, even as he makes incredibly pained noises. Esca feels as if she is trying to hold back a galloping horse with a few strands of its mane. Marcus’s body bucks beneath her and she rests on him more, pinning him with her elbow.
He passes out quickly enough. Esca is grateful. She understands that Marcus is like her father, or her brother; he would be shamed if he screamed or cried from pain.
Marcus wakes up slowly, swimming through a haze of pain. His knee is on fire, and he groans before he can stop himself, before he realizes that Esca is still in the room.
In fact, Esca is by his side, offering him water with Marcus sips, eagerly.
“Did I shame myself?” He asks when he can speak.
The look on Esca’s face is unreadable. “No,” he answers in his quiet, soft voice.
When he comes too again, Esca is again standing guard, whittling a piece of wood. Marcus props himself up too look at the slave, who stares back at him calmly.
“I didn’t know you had tattoos,” Marcus says, and he wonders if he can blame the fact that he is sleepy and injured and recovering, because slaves don’t ever talk about their personal life, because such a question is inappropriate and that fact doesn’t matter.
Esca, however, takes in stride. “I do,” he says, and after a minute, shifts so Marcus can see his arm better. “They represent major events. It is the way of – of my tribe.”
Marcus wants to ask what tribe Esca is from, but something the man’s face suggests against it.
Instead Esca asks, “How did you get your injury?” and Marcus tells him, about the druid and the chariot with the blade on the axel of the wheel, about the fort that was undermanned and out in the middle of nowhere. Esca makes a soft, curious noise when he finishes.
“You think I’m a fool,” Marcus guesses, and Esca’s head jerks up, his grey eyes wide and surprised and slightly amused.
“I – no,” Esca says. “I think it was brave.” Marcus nods, and Esca adds: “Stupid, though,” but he’s smiling slightly and Marcus smiles back.
When Marcus takes his first steps, with Esca’s help, he makes Esca promise to walk with him. Esca takes two steps for every one of Marcus’s and perhaps falters under Marcus’s weight, but obeys.
Marcus thinks they have become friends, over the months. He cannot read Esca, and Esca flinches away when Marcus goes to pat him on the shoulder or sock him in the chest in jest, but they have established a sort of easy companionship.
His uncle brings it up one night.
“You seem very friendly with Esca,” he says as he chews on a fig, and Marcus looks at him questioningly.
“He’s all I have for company,” Marcus answers after a moment, and his uncle shrugs.
“Just remember he’s a slave,” his uncle answers, and Marcus tries not to think of how Esca will react, as Esca is surely listening in the corner of the room, as Esca is surely offended.
But Esca is only a slave, and uses his class whenever Marcus asks him too many questions.
“I am only a slave now,” Esca will say if he doesn’t want to answer. “Why should the origins of your slave matter?”
Marcus can’t give a good reason, can’t tell Esca that he thinks Esca is just as brave and stupid as he is, so he doesn’t push it. It’s only on rare occasions, when Esca is smiling, that Marcus tries to bridge the gap between them and asks about Esca’s life.
Of course, this can sour Esca’s mood in a moment. Marcus learns this the hard way.
“What does your name mean?” Marcus asks Esca one day. They have just completed a run, Esca leading the entire way, and are now resting in the grass.
“River,” Esca says after a minute.
Marcus laughs. “How accurate!” He says, and remembers watching Esca run, how Esca had seemingly flown across the ground. “You’re as swift as a river.”
Esca does not laugh. When Marcus looks back at Esca, he is pale and his eyes seem wet.
“Esca?” Marcuc asks. “Are you hurt?”
“I’m fine,” Esca says, standing. “I must get your medicine.” He leaves, quickly, and Marcus watches him and feels lost.
It’s a year before Marcus is well enough to ride, or hunt. He admits to himself, late, that he will never regain his old stamina and his bitterness makes his stomach clench.
Esca catches him glaring down at his cuff and takes it from him with gentle fingers, turning it so he can read it.
“Honor and Faithfulness,” he reads. “What is this from?”
“It’s something Rome gave me when I was honorably discharged,” Marcus replies after a minute, and Esca’s brow furrows.
“What will you do now?” He asks.
“I don’t know,” Marcus replies. He had never planned on being honorably discharged, had never planned on being injured so badly he could never march again.
Marcus is not politician material. He is not rich enough to live a life of languish like his uncle.
“Perhaps I will become a farmer,” he murmurs, and shrugs. He doesn’t really want to talk about it. Esca understands.
Esca only understands when fate intervenes. Uncle Aquila has guests over, a man elder man named Claudius and a younger one named Placidus. They sit and talk of politics for a while and Esca grows bored, but perks up again when talk turns to Marcus’s family.
“Your father marched with the Eagles, did he not?” Placidus is asking, and Esca can see Marcus’s jaw clench for half a second before he forces a smile and answers: “He commanded the 1st Cohort of the Ninth.”
Esca feels herself pale; her head snaps up without her permission and she stares, hard, at Marcus’s face, at the cheek she can see and his dark hair.
His father did what?
His father commanded the killing legion?
His father’s legion killed my uncle and older brothers?
Her hands are fists before she notices. She goes to take a step forward, then freezes:
I owe Marcus a debt of honor, she thinks, and stops.
They are still talking. They haven’t noticed her, haven’t noticed how she is standing as if to kill.
“Every Roman remembers the Ninth,” Placidus is saying, and Esca bites back a scream of frustration.
Every Briton remembers the Ninth too, she wants to say. We do not forget. You will not take away this from us.
“Speaking of the Ninth,” Claudius is saying. “There’s been a rumor recently. They say The Eagle’s been seen, receiving divine honors in some tribal temple in the Far North.”
Marcus looks up, tense as a strung bow and Esca wants to laugh at how much this means to him – an eagle statue, a piece of metal. But he seems to be going through the same kind of inner turmoil that she had just mastered.
“The Eagle in the hands of the painted people; a potent weapon,” Placidus drawls, and Esca twitches. “One has to wonder how any Roman could let it go.”
Uncle Aquila lays a large and restraining hand on Marcus’s arm, and Esca wonders what she is missing, and why Marcus is so upset.
“If this were to be true,” Uncle Aquila is saying, “surely we should act. What would Rome say?”
Claudius sighs. “Eagle lost, honor lost. Honor lost, all lost.”
Oh, Esca thinks and watches Marcus’s hands curl beneath the table. It’s his family’s honor that is at stake.
Such a silly thing, an eagle statue. It shouldn’t determine an entire family’s honor.
“Listen, Rome would love to get The Eagle back,” Claudius is saying. “But politics being politics, one senator won’t risk thousands of lives on a tainted legion.”
Marcus flinches. “My hands are tied,” Claudius finishes.
“Not if you sent one man,” Marcus says. Everyone looks at him, incredulous.
“North of the wall?” Uncle Aquila asks. “No Roman can survive up there.”
“Has anyone ever tried?” Marcus demands.
“Well, no,” Uncle Aquila answers. “That’s the point. To try would be to fail.”
Esca smiles to herself, because they know nothing.
“One man can hide where an army can’t,” Marcus is saying. “No one would even know he was there.”
We would know, Esca thinks to herself.
“It’s too risky,” Uncle Aquila says, and then Placidus chimes in and adds:
“Quite right. The loss of the Ninth was humiliating enough without adding another pointless death.”
Marcus leaps to his feet. Placidus looks taken aback. Esca moves too, ghosts a hand on the small of Marcus’s back, trying to avoid a fight.
Funny, as she had been contemplating killing everyone just moments ago.
Later, when Claudius and Placidus are gone, Uncle Aquila broaches the topic again. They’re in the courtyard this time, Esca again in a corner, and the night air is cold, even though it’s summer.
“You can’t let the likes of him get to you,” He tells Marcus, and Esca nods to herself.
Marcus isn’t listening. “All I’ve ever wanted was to be a soldier,” he says instead. “I can still remember watching my father ride off, can still remember how proud I was. Can you imagine anything more magnificent? To serve Rome with honor and faithfulness?”
“You did,” Uncle Aquila says, and Marcus turns.
“For what?” he whispers. “For what?” He’s yelling now. “For an honorable discharge?
“I’ve always wanted to serve in Britain, to win so much glory for Rome that no Roman would ever bring up the Ninth in my presence. I wanted to regain my family’s honor, and now I can’t. Instead I sit here and listen to some silk ass politician’s son piss on our family’s name!” He pauses, breathing heavily. “This isn’t my life. I won’t sit here, rotting and remembering.”
Uncle Aquila rocks back on his heels and Esca winces for him, wonders about Marcus’s rage.
“If I can’t win back my family’s honor as a soldier, I’ll do it by finding The Eagle.”
“You’ll never survive alone north of the Wall,” Uncle Aquila says flatly.
“Then I’ll take Esca.”
Esca freezes, then looks up and stares at Marcus.
“You’d entrust yourself to a slave?” Uncle Aquila demands, disbelieving, and Esca stops herself from making a face, from insisting that her name is Esca.
I am a slave and I serve Marcus Flavius Aquila, she tells herself. I serve him because I owe him a debt of honor.
“Why not?” Marcus demands, and Uncle Aquila laughs.
“My dear boy,” he says, condescending, “he may not be from North of the Wall, but he’s still a Briton. What’s to stop him from slitting your throat the moment you’re alone?”
This man has the nerve to ask that, has to the nerve to insult her after he looked at her and said, you owe my nephew a debt.
Esca cannot even see, she is so angry.
“He gave me his word!” Marcus snaps, and he’s almost as angry as Esca. But not at the insult to Esca’s honor. Esca is a slave. Slaves have no honor. Slaves do not matter.
No, Marcus is angry at the idea that his friend, Esca would betray him.
I am not your friend, she tells him silently. I serve you because I owe you a debt. There’s a difference.
“His word?” Uncle Aquila sounds incredulous. Then his voice hardens. “He’s a slave. He does what he does and says what he says because he has too.”
“If I’m wrong,” Marcus interrupts, “then I’ll die.” He leaves, then. Esca follows him out, but then retreats to the garden.
I made a vow, she thinks as she plucks a mint leaf and rolls it between her fingers. I gave him my word. I owe him a debt.
His kind killed your family. His father led a legion that would have erased your culture. The voice that speaks is her mother’s, and it’s sharp and angry.
I owe him my life, Esca tells herself. He saved my life.
And the lives of your family?
She has no answer. The wind pulls at her tunic and she wraps her arms around herself and shivers, wishing that she could still have long hair, wishing that she could be clothed properly.
I owe him a debt, she thinks fiercely. I will not break my word.
When Esca wanders into her and Marcus’s room, Marcus is sitting on the bed, apparently waiting for her.
“Esca,” he says, and Esca nods and thinks about punching him.
How can one man mess up her life and her plans so much? How can she resent him and still owe him her life?
“Marcus,” she says finally, blinking hard. “Do you need anything, domine?”
“I need your word,” he tells her, firm and proud. “I need to know you won’t kill me when we’re beyond the wall.”
Esca resists the urge to fidget, resists the urge to slap him or yell or leave, resists being insulted by his lack of faith in her. Instead she walks forward and kneels before him, bowing her head so he won’t see her face.
“I am the centurion’s hound, meant to lay at the Centurion’s feet,” She says after a moment, and she is helpless.
I will find a way to avenge my family and repay my debt, she promises herself. I will not dishonor myself.
Esca swallows hard, and when she looks back at Marcus, his face is unreadable.
“Hawk, and River, they called you,” he murmurs. “And now you are hound.”
And now she was hound.
They leave almost immediately. Marcus bullies his uncle into providing supplies and two horses.
For the first time since the arena, Esca is given a proper weapon; a sword, and a bow and quiver full of arrows. They sing in her hands, prompting her to flee on her horse and escape.
Marcus’s easy smile stops her.
At night they camp, Esca sleeping among the horses and Marcus sleeping near the fire, if there is one. They do not try and keep guard until they approach the wall, where Esca is from, and Marcus always insists on taking first guard. Esca wonders about him, wonders if he knows, but it’s clear that he doesn’t.
“Where are you from?” Marcus asks one night, when they are nestled amongst the bracken and Esca can practically smell home, can smell the thistle and the heather and the wild moors that she had once run across.
“Here,” Esca admits after a moment. She raises her head; it’s a mistake. Marcus is looking at her with a strange mix of empathy and incredulity.
“Why didn’t you mention it?” He’s quiet, but intense; his voice is shivering with it.
“It doesn’t matter anymore.” She almost snaps at him; instead she pokes at the fire. “My tribe is gone.”
“No one survived?”
“Only me, out of all my kin,” she’s curt – rudely so – but Marcus doesn’t say anything. He lets the topic drop, and Esca wraps herself in her cloak and tries to lose herself in listening to the wind, thinking that she can hear the ghosts of her family.
She dreams, that night, of being a hawk, loosened wherever her father wills; she dreams of flying free, beyond the shackles of Rome and the debt of her honor, a debt that weighs her down even in dreams.
She’s grumpy with Marcus in the morning, bitter that he’s done this to her, refusing to accept that she will be forced to betray her people for his stupid quest.
Marcus does not push it, doesn’t ask why she’s so upset; instead he lets her push forward, silent and wary. She can feel the weight of his eyes on her back, can feel his silent questions. It makes her grit her teeth and push her horse faster.
When they reach the wall, Marcus is once again in control. He becomes Roman again, not Marcus with an easy smile, and Esca hangs back, head bowed.
Marcus speaks with the kind of arrogance that makes the men obey and he sits on his horse and fears nothing. Esca, wrapped in her cloak and peering around through her lashes, can feel the men’s eyes on her, can feel their hatred and disgust and wonders if Marcus is blind or if he doesn’t care.
What would this be like if they knew that she was a woman?
She has known Marcus for over a year now and she still doesn’t know how he would react.
Would he – no, she thinks. No, do not think of it.
You are a slave. Your name is Esca and you serve Marcus Flavius Aquila. You are a boy. Esca the girl died with her family.
“Come, Esca,” Marcus says. The gate is open, and the wild lands – the lands unclaimed by Rome, the lands where she belongs – stretch out before them.
The land sings to her, just as the sword at her hip sings to her, and she thinks about kicking her horse into a gallop and leaving Marcus to fend for himself.
Instead she goes to his side, compliant like a hound, happy to sit at his feet and wait for the next command.
She cannot even look at him.
The first time Esca saves Marcus’s life, he is terrified that Esca will walk away, will say debt repaid.
They are sitting next to a fire, eating what is left of their lunch, when Esca says, very casually: “Don’t look, but there are three rogue warriors behind you.”
Marcus’s heart stutters painfully against his ribs and his skin buzzes with the kind of nervous anticipation that he always gets before a battle. He shifts, careful, and rests a hand on his sword, trying to make it look like an accident.
Esca smirks at him, lips twitching up and Marcus observes, distantly, that Esca is as pretty as a girl.
“How many behind me?” Esca asks, so calm, and Marcus’s eyes dart around. He sees nothing but bracken and river rock, a territory unforgiving and unfamiliar.
“I don’t see any,” he admits and Esca laughs quietly, though there’s no humor.
“They’re there,” Esca shifts, hand on the hilt of his sword, bow within easy reach. “Are you ready?”
It’s quick and it’s bloody; rogue warriors charge them, surging from the rocks and the river bed and the trees and Marcus runs one through and cuts another in the belly, deep. He turns and sees one rushing up to him, axe raised for a killing blow, and can only think get your sword up but the man falls, mouth sagging open and bowels voiding. Esca’s arrow is in his back and when Marcus looks over, Esca’s face is set, jaw clenched with determination as he shoots and them tumbles, tussling with a youth.
Marcus doesn’t have time to wonder why Esca is pausing, why he’s staring down at the youth with horror, because then the youth flees and Marcus pulls out Esca’s bond-knife and throws it. It sinks into the youth’s back and he falls, and Marcus makes himself get up and walk towards the dying boy.
“Next time, don’t hesitate,” he tells Esca roughly, and he kneels next to the boy and slits his throat, easing the body down and pulling Esca’s bond-knife out of the boy’s back.
Esca’s face is a mask of pain and rage, and Marcus thinks it is only fitting a British blade kills a British boy but Esca will not even speak to him after that, will not even look at him, merely packs up the camp in furious silence and jumps on his horse. Marcus follows and they ride, hard.
Even on a gangly horse, Esca is swift, as swift as the river he was named for and Marcus is torn between calling him back and between watching him run, because it is quicksilver, it is beauty in motion; but his horse cannot keep up with this pace.
“Esca!” He finally calls out. “Esca, the horses will be tired. We should rest.”
He sees Esca’s shoulder hunch and he thinks, for a minute, that Esca will kick the horse into a faster pace, will leave him behind, but then Esca straightens and the horse slows, turns and then he sees Esca’s perfectly blank face once more.
“Yes,” Esca says, curt and short, and Marcus doesn’t understand his rage, but he never does; Esca is a book he cannot read, a language he cannot translate. “Of course. Where would you like to camp?”
He understands, a little better, when they are sitting around a fire and Esca’s face is slightly more open, grey eyes easy to read.
They have accomplished nothing; Esca speaks his guttural tongue to the natives and the natives direct them north, and Marcus wonders just how far north they will go, wonders if anyone knows anything. The more people they talk to, the more pinched Esca’s face becomes, like he is waging an internal war.
Marcus wants to ask about it but doesn’t dare; instead he takes over making dinner and lets Esca rest, wanting to see the tension drain from his jaw and shoulders.
“You know,” Marcus admits quietly, “sometimes I think I’ll find my father up here, just…living in the wild.” He laughs to himself, watching Esca for a response. The other man’s eyes are silver now, and the fire throws shadows onto his face, making him as wild as the ink that curls around one bicep.
“Is that why you’re here?” Esca is quiet and his voice is low, but his eyes are fixed on Marcus’s. Marcus swallows with difficulty, tries to pretend that his mouth is dry from the fire and lack of water.
“No,” and he means it, even though he harbors hope that his father is still alive. But what would that mean? Could he bear to have a deserter for a father? Better his father died defending The Eagle than deserting, than running to hide like a cowed dog. “We’re here for The Eagle.” He tries to place emphasis on we, but Esca doesn’t notice, simply looks down at his small hands thoughtfully, then looks back up.
“How can a piece of metal mean so much to you?” Marcus wants to retort with what about your bond-knife, Esca, is it metal and bone and it means the world to you but it is not the same; The Eagle is about honor, is about Rome.
“The Eagle is not a piece of metal,” Marcus shifts, leans closer, meeting Esca’s eyes. ‘The Eagle is Rome. Everything Rome did, everything Rome accomplished…The Eagle represents those glories.”
Esca is silent for a long time, and Marcus wonders if he has lost him or if Esca is simply mulling it over. The only sound is the crackle of their fire, and Marcus thinks that maybe Esca has let the subject drop, but then Esca looks up, fierce as a wolf.
You are no hound, Marcus thinks to himself, almost in terror, but the thought is gone as soon as it arrives.
“When the legionnaires broke through our defensive lines, my mother knelt in front of my father. She went willingly, knowing what the Romans would do to her if she was still alive. She knelt, and my father slit her throat. She made no sound.” Esca pauses a beat and Marcus can feel his helpless rage just as he can feel the fire’s heat on his face and hands. “Rome did that, as well.”
Where is the glory in that? Esca is demanding him silently and Marcus has no words, nothing to offer him; the explanation that is different falls short, because truly, there is no glory in that.
“I’ll take first watch,” Esca says, and Marcus watches him go, feeling lost.
Esca is distant after that, proud and silent like a hawk on his white horse, and Marcus wishes he could take back his words, his claims – and falls short, because why else would he retrieve The Eagle?
He believes in The Eagle, believes in Rome, and the men that ruined Esca’s life are not Rome – but they are Roman, and they were working on Rome’s orders, and Marcus feels sick and tries to think of other things.
Marcus has never been one for thought, but he knows something is wrong, knows that it is wrong to turn Esca loose on these lands and say hunt and then punish his hound for the simple fact of his birth.
He takes great care, too, of making sure Esca does not feel cornered, does not feel threatened; he does not want his hound to turn into a cornered wolf.
“Why d’you pray?” Esca asks one day, when Marcus is finished with his prayers. They are in a small glen, trees on three sides of them and the horizon on the forth, and it is the horizon that Marcus was praying too.
He sounds genuinely curious and Marcus sits back on his haunches to look at Esca, brow furrowing.
“I pray to Mithras, the all conquering.”
“You call him that, even after he failed to protect your father?” Esca’s voice is soft, but his grey eyes are keen and Marcus feels stung, thinks of his father’s green ring and broad smile and wonders how bleached his bones are, by now.
“You say that like you have no Gods,” he says to distract himself, and Esca shrugs, face still.
“We have many Gods, for many things. But they did not defend my family when they needed them,” when the Romans killed them lies heavy and unsaid between them, and Marcus flushes and wishes he could blame it on the nonexistent heat.
“Then what guides you?” Marcus asks, and he finds that he’s clutching the carved eagle around his neck. Esca has noticed too, and his eyes jump from the carving to Marcus’s face.
“My eyes. My heart.” Esca pauses and Marcus’s mouth is dry, his heart is too loud, and impossible thoughts run through his mind, but then – “If I find a reason, then I will believe.”
It’s said almost like a challenge and Marcus looks away. “Do you think our quest is impossible, then? Do you not believe in it?” He tries to keep his voice neutral, hopes not to draw Esca’s anger, but Esca’s silence is thoughtful, and he moves closer to Marcus, sitting by his side.
“I have seen my father kill my mother for love,” Esca’s words are slow, like he’s thinking about them very carefully, and Marcus looks at him, only to find Esca staring back. “I know there is no impossibility this world cannot contain.”
It’s impossible, it’s terrifying, and Marcus feels like he’s on the lip of a huge abyss, like he’s about to take a leap.
“And here I am, a Roman asking a Briton to defend me from his people,” he almost whispers it, breath leaving him in a silent gasp, and Esca’s brow furrows.
“They’re not my tribe,” he says. Night is falling and Marcus can barely see Esca, can see the shadows cast on his profile and the curve of his mouth, and he wonders, absently, about the lack of stubble on Esca’s jaw.
“They’re still your people,” he says, quiet and desperate, and then the spell breaks as Esca’s face tightens.
“I gave you my word,” he says, intense, the words tripping over themselves, and then he looks away, refusing to acknowledge Marcus, refusing to say anything else at all.
I’m sorry, Marcus wants to say. I’m sorry, I didn’t know what this would do to you, I’m so sorry. But he knows Esca won’t welcome his pity, and he thinks back to his uncle: he’s a slave.
A slave. A tool. A river. A hawk. A hound. And now a wolf.
But he’s beginning to see Esca as a person, too.
Marcus grows impatient, when they run across the 10th village and Esca claims they know nothing, and by the 11th village, the gig is up.
Marcus explodes from behind Esca and shoves the man she was talking too up against a tree, Esca’s bond-knife at his throat. He yells at her in Latin and she shuts her eyes for a fraction of a second, thinking and now he knows and they will kills us, they know you are Roman and Romans must always be in control.
“Ask him! He knows more than that!” Marcus insists and Esca sighs and asks the man, who is copper haired and looks offended.
She pleads with him, with her eyes, to trust her; she did not know that Marcus would do this.
“My friend will not hurt you, relax. I will have to teach him better manners,” and the man’s mouth curls up for a half a moment, so she presses her luck. “The Roman legion that came here many summers ago, the one that came to kill – do you know what happened to them?”
When the man speaks, it’s slow and Esca blinks, because she can’t lie about what he’s saying; she just hoped he wouldn’t know, hoped he wouldn’t say this.
“Far beyond the snowy mountains, in the forest, there is a man that will tell you what you want to know.”
Esca repeats this and Marcus releases the man, who flees immediately. Esca wonders if he will bring the wrath of his tribe upon them, wonders why Marcus didn’t stay back like Esca told him too. But he’s staring at Esca, who stares back, keeping her face carefully blank.
“So we must go over the mountains,” Marcus doesn’t sound pleased and Esca shrugs, unsure where this is heading.
“No more lies, Esca. No more games.”
She wants to hit him. Instead she mounts her horse, the mare knickering quietly.
“If we have to go over the mountains, we should get started.”
“Did you hear what I said, Esca?” Marcus demands and she turns her horse to look at him, lifting her head high with the arrogance of a warrior.
“I did,” it is good they are alone, with only the bracken and the ghost-grey barked trees to hear them speak thus, angry and hushed and in Latin. “And if you pull my bond-knife on another Briton who is trying to help us, I will gut you myself.”
It’s not a wise thing to say, not when Marcus is huge and hot tempered, and he sets his jaw angrily, but says nothing. It’s satisfying to see him cowed thus, looking down and away from her furious gaze and when he finally mounts his horse, he nods to her.
They do not speak of it again and Esca is glad, because the trek across the mountains is hard.
They take to sleeping next to each other, huddled by the fire, the horses picketed with their heads down against the snow. Esca always curls away from Marcus, afraid to let him touch her, afraid he will find out, but it becomes clear that he was never made for this weather, and she ends up wrapping them in their cloaks and holding him against her, trying to soothe his shivers with her body heat. She does this only at night, unable to sleep for fear, listening to the wind howl and staring up at the starry sky.
In the morning she always moves away before he wakes, and lets him sleep as long as she can before waking him. He shivers constantly and Esca wonders what is worse, if he dies in pursuit of The Eagle via frostbite or if they turn back and he keeps his stupid life.
She doesn’t dare bring up, because Marcus is stubborn and always staggers over to his horse, knotting his fingers in the stallion’s mane and tugging himself up into the saddle, refusing Esca’s help.
The only time Marcus falters is, when with rocky terrain and a blizzard, Esca dismounts to lead her mare through the snow, trusting her feet to guide them over each dangerous ledge.
“Esca?” Marcus asks and she turns to peer at him, snowflakes landing on her lashes. “Esca, must we do it like this?”
“It is the only way,” she says, trusting the wind to conceal their Latin words and Marcus sighs heavily and dismounts, legs buckling beneath him in his exhaustion.
“Just a bit longer, Marcus,” she says quietly, but he is so exhausted that she ends up going to him, trusting her mare to stand and wait.
“Marcus,” she repeats, and lifts her hands to his face. He blinks at her and she almost smiles, because he looks young and frightened in the face of this British weather. “Marcus, we can do this. There will be a cave that we can shelter in, and the pass will lead us to the other side. But we must hurry.”
“I hate the cold,” is all Marcus says and Esca nods, tying his horse’s lead to her own and convincing Marcus to follow along his stallion’s side.
They make the pass, with Marcus stumbling every step of the way. Esca wants to rest but Marcus insists on pushing on and soon they are riding along the forested ridge, Marcus swaying on his stallion, unmistakably Roman even in his rough spun garments. Esca bites her lip and follows, wondering if she has been away from her lands for so long that she’s not used to the staring trees and wandering land spirits, or if someone is watching them.
She curses her foolishness and the fact she didn’t listen to her gut when a man attacks them, launching himself at her so they both tumble off her horse.
“Esca!” Marcus calls, angry and terrified but Esca cannot hear him, is grappling with the long haired stranger who is holding a knife at her throat.
She’s too quick for him, adrenaline making her slam his head against the leave covered ground, fear that her identity will be discovered making her punch him in the stomach so he gasps and drops the knife – an inexperienced warrior, then, or someone whose skills are rusty from long disuse.
Esca holds the knife at his neck and he bares his throat, like he is a young wolf and she is the alpha, an appeal to her and her good sense.
Her eyes land on his chin-strap scar even as Marcus screams, “Kill him, Esca! Kill him!”
Roman. Roman deserter.
She remembers far beyond the snowy mountains, in the forest, there is a man that can tell you what you need to know.
His brown eyes meet hers and he is Roman, an old enemy, a shameful deserter. She puts down the knife just as Marcus storms over to her, obviously furious.
“Chin strap scar!” She gasps, voice shaking. “Only a Roman legionnaire has that. Don’t kill him, he’s the one we wanted to find.”
Marcus freezes and so does the man, pinned down by Esca sitting on his torso, eyes flicking between them.
The man is called Guern, though he used to ‘Lucius Cauis Metellus, 1st Cohort of the Ninth.’ Marcus trusts him immediately, glad for a fellow Roman in this harsh, forbidding land, glad they’ve found someone that can help them.
Esca does not trust him. She takes two watches, not allowing Guern to watch, not trusting him. Marcus curls up next to her and she finds herself resting a small hand on the back of his neck, as if she can keep him safe by mere touch.
Guern knows that Esca doesn’t trust him and speaks to her in their shared language, like he has a right to it. She doesn’t answer him, only stares at him scornfully until he stops trying.
Marcus doesn’t notice their tension and only grows angry when Esca takes him aside and says, “I don’t trust him.”
“He’s a Roman,” Marcus says. “He will not dishonor my father a second time by betraying us.”
She wants to hit him, wants to break his nose until he understands that in the face of survival, honor no longer matters.
Then why are you still here, Esca?
She ignores that voice. “He was a Roman when he ran,” is all she says, and Marcus glares at her and strides over to speak to Guern, leaving her to watch them carefully from the shadows of the trees.
Guern spins a long, dark tale and it is almost enough to distract Esca from where he is leading them.
“All I know is, we had it coming,” is how he starts off, making Marcus frown questioningly at him and Esca smile down at the mane of her mare. “Sixty years we’ve occupied the south. Why did they have to come North? All we do is take and take. Why couldn’t we be happy with what we had?”
He mutters further in this vein, making Marcus uncomfortable – it’s treason to speak like that, apparently, and Esca has to stop herself from reminding him that this isn’t Rome, that Rome does not exist her. Only the wild lands of the British tribes exist here.
“When we marched north, it was autumn, worst weather we’ve had in years. For weeks we marched without sight of them, and then they appeared one day. We could hear them, picking off men in the back one by one. That went on for a week. The further north we marched, the worse it got. By the end of the second week we were so run down that they picked us off with bows and arrows.”
Marcus’s face shudders between emotions; horror, rage, incredulity, and deep sadness. Esca fights to keep her face impassive; it is only right that it happened, only right that the Romans suffered for trying to take their land.
“How were we to know that we were facing a confederation of all of the Northern Tribes? Their army was vast, numberless. Eventually we gave up looking for open ground and turned to face them. For four days and nights we held them off. On the fifth night, most of the men had mutinied.”
Guern finally stops in a clearing, shrouded in mist and leaf fall. Esca can see bleached bones poking out of the leaf litter, can see rotting sandals and the rusted remains of armor. She knows this place, thinks that if she still worshipped Gods she would offer up a sacrifice, for this is the holiest place, the place of Heroes.
The place of death.
Marcus is frozen, horrified, and Esca tries to see it through his eyes, sees the numberless bones and sandals – enough sandals for five thousand men – and the twisted bones on top of limestone slabs, indicating corpses that had long since rotted away.
She tries to feel sorry for him and can only feel a dull sort of satisfaction.
Look, and look well. See what happens when you incur our wrath.
If things were different, she would mourn; this is where her uncle and a brother had died, fighting to protect their freedom.
Esca wonders which bones are theirs.
“You have to understand,” Guern is saying. “By then, all pride, all dignity was gone. We were no longer Roman. We were hardly even human. It was every man for himself. Still… I kept faith with The Eagle.”
“What is this place?” Marcus asked, voice hushed like they’re in a temple and Esca almost laughs – a laugh that dies in her throat when Guern points one grubby finger at her.
“He’d know. He’s Brigantes. They fought here,” and she has underestimated him indeed, had written him off as an idiot, but he has been here a long time if he can put the shape of her nose, her accent, and her tattoos together and identify her heritage.
She stiffens, head coming up automatically to challenge him; she is no slave now, she is daughter of Cunoval and she hates him, this Roman-turned-Celt deserter.
Marcus has also stiffened; he will not look at her, like this is her fault, like she has done something wrong.
Of all the things to be angry at me about, she thinks, my heritage is not one of them.
“The sandals?” Marcus asks when he is calm, but the hand he clutches in his cloak is shaking.
“The Seal people cut off the feet of the dead so they couldn’t walk into the afterlife.”
“And the rocks?”
“Alters they sacrificed the officers on.”
Marcus forces himself to stop shaking. Esca watches, wonders why a fist is squeezing her heart. “My father?”
“After the mutiny, your father planned to break out to the west of the glen with the remaining men. That’s when I ran,” Guern ducks his head when he admits it and Esca glowers at him. It is right, that he should feel shame.
“How many were left?” Marcus asks. Esca tunes them out, watches Marcus wander off in the direct he imagines his father went and follows him.
Guern comes too and they watch Marcus in silence until he turns back to them, jaw set.
“Where is The Eagle?” He demands, and Esca thinks so you have accepted the inevitable, then? But it hurts, to see the hope that Marcus had tried to hide die. His father was dead. There was no denying it.
When Guern speaks, his voice is tired. “The Seal people have it.”
She looks at him, sharp, before she can control himself, and he gazes steadily back. The weight of his gaze tells her that he knows exactly what that means, knows of the Seal People and knows they will never get it back.
This mission is a lost cause.
Marcus sees their look and doesn’t understand it, but pushes on. “Where are the Seal people? How do I find them?” and Esca almost laughs.
Guern says what she wants too. “You don’t want to find the Seal people,” and Marcus doesn’t take orders well so his head comes in a challenge, but Guern holds his eyes.
“You ran,” Marcus snaps. “You lost the right to advise me, lost the right to call yourself a Roman when you ran.”
“Oh, no,” Guern says, shaking his head. “You don’t know what it’s like. You weren’t there.”
Marcus glares at him and Guern says, without irony, “You’ve never been hunted. Pray you never are.”
Esca twitches, thinks of being dragged into the cell to be sold, thinks of the terrified looks in her peoples’ eyes when the legionnaires broke through.
They leave Guern there, Esca climbing onto her horse and riding off, Marcus catching up with her and staring at her intently. She can feel his eyes on her face, can feel the heat of his gaze and refuses to blush, refuses to look at him.
Marcus is impatient – the Roman blood in him, she supposes – and finally cracks, snapping out words like the snap of bracken across the unwatchful face.
“You always knew that place existed, didn’t you?” She says nothing. “We’ve wasted weeks searching, and all that time you could have told me!”
Do you have any idea what it is like to have your service and your oath used to make you betray your people? She demands of him, silent, staring ahead. The back of her neck pricks, like they’re being watched, but Marcus is yelling again.
“What happened in that forest is beyond imagining.” Marcus says, quiet and fierce. “Your tribe was there,” he makes it an accusation and Esca twitches, curls her hand around the hilt of her sword in a non-so-subtle hint.
“They butchered my father’s men like dogs!” Marcus says and Esca cannot take it anymore.
“Your father came to kill!” She snarls, voice cracking. “He came to punish us because we would not bow to the name of Rome!” Marcus stares at her, chest heaving, and she glares at him. “Yes, I had heard of that place. To my people, it is the Place of Heroes.”
“How dare you!” Marcus yells.
“One Roman bleeds and the entire world has to know!” She yells back at him. “Ten thousand men were slaughtered in my tribe alone! Should I grieve less for them than you do for yours?!”
“You’re still my slave!” Marcus spits at her.
She is not his slave. She is Esca, Daughter of Cunoval, Lady of the Brigantes. “You’d be dead in ditch if it wasn’t for me!” She yells.
“You lied to me!” Marcus yells. “I saved your life, you miserable tribal scum!”
She throws herself at him, forgetting about her identity, forgetting he outweighs her by a hundred pounds and is a professional soldier, and forgetting everything except the need to pound him into a pulp.
They tumble down the hillside, Esca punching Marcus and Marcus punching her back, and then Marcus is straddling and braces himself on her chest to slug her on the face, only to –
“What is this?” Marcus whispers, hand on the swell of her tiny breast. He snatches back his hand, looking horrified. “What is this, Esca?”
“Marcus,” she says, helpless, and she can practically hear when everything he’s ever wondered about her snaps into place – her height, her dainty build, the lack of hair on her jaw, the way she’d flinch away from his touches.
“You’re…You’re a girl?!” He demands, and Esca flinches because this is a hundred times worse than you didn’t tell me about the forest?!
This is a true lie, a proper lie.
He looks away, jaw set, and Esca feels that weird prickle on the back of her neck again. They are being watched.
She surges upward and slaps him, more out of fear than anger, and then a Seal Warrior steps out of the shadows.
She knows he’s a prince, immediately, because of the bone necklace around his neck and the bone trinkets plaited into his hair. He stares at her with dark eyes, eyes so strange from the strange blue-grey mud that covers his body, and slowly she stands up.
“Who are you?” The seal-prince asks in their native tongue and she smiles weakly.
“I am Esca, daughter of Cunoval, slain chief of the Brigantes.”
There is a slight stirring; they have been surrounded by Seal People, and they have heard of her tribe, of their slaughter. Marcus is still crouched on the ground; perhaps instinct tells him he needs to be quiet, to avoid drawing their attention.
“Who is it you talk to in the Roman tongue?” The Seal Prince asks, and Esca raises her head, tries to become a proud, arrogant warrior rather than a pitiful girl.
“My slave,” she says, and there’s a flash of amusement in the Seal Prince’s eyes.
He moves forward and Marcus tries to crawl away, but the Seal prince lifts him by his cloak and examines him like one would examine a horse, checking his teeth and body and finally, for a chin-strap scar.
“It’s true!” He announces to his fellow warriors. Esca has been counting them while they watched Marcus being man handled, and has come to the realization that they are heavily outnumbered. It must be a hunting party; the thought chills her, because they have been caught like prey. “Their God marks them with the same scar.”
He turns back to Esca and Esca forces herself to nod at her, to hold herself like nobility instead of a slave. She was too stubborn to be broken by Roman hands. She will not fail Marcus in this.
“I have never seen a Roman slave before,” The prince says casually and Esca bares her teeth at him in what could be a smile.
“I tricked him,” she says, like she’s proud of it, and the prince’s eyes crinkle in amusement.
“My father will wish to meet you,” he announces. “You will be our guest.”
“I am honored,” Esca says.
“Our village is a five day march to the North,” The prince continues. “I am Liathan, son of the Chief of my tribe.” He glances at Marcus. “You should not allow your slave to speak to you in such a way. We will help you.”
He nods at two men and they move, tying Marcus’s hands together and then securing him to a rope. Esca’s mouth dries, because he is to march behind their group, and it is eerily reminiscent of how she was taken into the city to be sold; following a horse, falling down when she was too tired to walk and receiving the lash as inspiration to walk further.
She swallows. If she could survive that at 13, reeling from the loss of her tribe, then Marcus can survive this.
“Esca?” Marcus sounds frightened and lost. “Esca, what’s happening?”
She ignores him, turns away to smile at Liathan, hoping that she is not shaking.
She cannot face Marcus. She will fail them if she looks him in the eye. Already apologies are swarming her throat and she has to force her hands to be still, to not shake.
The walk to the village is hard for Marcus. Esca can keep up with the Seal Warriors; truthfully, she revels in being able to match their strides, to be taken seriously like she never was by the warriors of her tribe. Back then, she was a little girl – the daughter of the chief, but a little girl none the less. Here, she is the last of her tribe, a warrioress, fierce and swift and unforgiving.
Liathan sticks close to her; perhaps to guard her imagined horrors, perhaps because he doesn’t trust her. He asks her many questions – why is your hair so short? How did you trick the Roman? How did you hide your sex for so long? – and she answers patiently.
When she tells him that she keeps her hair short not only to complete her masquerade, but also to mourn her slain family, he smoothes a hand over her short hair and says, “You have beautiful hair, long or short.”
She smiles at him and ducks her head, imitating the ladies of her tribe. They had always acted meek and submissive when accepting compliments.
When she looks up, Marcus is watching them, and the hurt on his face is unmistakable. She meets his eyes for a minute before he turns away, jaw clenched, and she wishes she could go to him and smooth away the hurt, say, forgive me, Marcus.
Liathan sees her watching Marcus and remarks on it, and she glances back at him.
“He’s a dangerous man,” she says quietly. “He will not forgive my betrayal.”
“We will protect you from him,” and Esca does not say that she doesn’t need or want their protection, because that’s not what she meant. But how can she explain that to the Seal Prince? She can’t.
She watches Marcus struggle, watches the Seal warriors taunt him and makes no move to intervene. Marcus sees her watching, perhaps takes it as her condoning his treatment and he falters, hope draining from his face.
It is perfect, because he finally looks like a proper slave there, head bowed and defeat weighing him down, crushing the air from his lungs.
His disguise is complete, she thinks, and tries to turn her heart to stone.
They reach the Seal Village soon, to Esca’s relief; Marcus is untied and brought to stand next to Esca, before the Chief.
“Are these people for me to eat as well?” The Chief asks and the tribe laughs. Esca does not laugh. Let them think that she is proud; she is so afraid that she is alive with it, that her body hums with it and her mouth is dry.
“I bring guests, father,” Liathan says. “This is Esca, eldest daughter of Cunoval, slain chief of the Brigantes. And this is her slave. A Roman.”
The last bit makes everyone murmur. Marcus senses he’s being talked about – he can understand the word Romanoh – and stiffens. Esca steps on his foot, because he must not appear the proud Roman; he must be a slave.
The Chief approaches them, skin grey and wrinkled like the Seal his tribe is named for and Esca tries not to draw back.
“Does the slave have a name?” The Chief asks and Esca almost sighs to herself.
“Marcus Flavius Aquila,” the words are heavy and odd on her tongue after she has spent days speaking Celtic; the Latin is altogether unwelcome, too close to reminding her of her past identity; Esca, boy, slave.
“Marcus Flavius Aquila,” the chief says mockingly. He pauses, for effect. “I have brought many Romans to my village, Marcus Flavius Aquila, but never with their heads attached to their bodies.”
A roar of laughter. Esca forces herself to smile, to chuckle with the rest of the tribe. Marcus is so angry, so afraid and confused, that he is shaking. She wants to soothe him as she would a nervous horse, wants to smooth a hand down the back of his neck, but he is just a slave. She does not care about his feelings.
The Chief grows tired of tormenting Marcus and turns back to Esca, smiling. She smiles back. “You are welcome, Esca, daughter of Cunoval.”
“Thank you,” she says.
“Come,” he beckons to his hut. “Eat with us.”
The crowd disperses and she lets herself be guided by Liathan, only to be stopped by Marcus’s panicked cry.
“Esca! Esca, what’s happening?”
She turns back to him, keeping her face carefully blank, like the face of a hunting hawk or a wolf. “You’re my slave,” she tells him, and his face crumples, betray and hurt and fear flashing across it before vanishing. “Work, and you’ll survive.” She indicates the youths watching them – “Show him where to go” – and then turns back to Liathan, and goes into the Chief’s tent.
Time passes quickly at the Seal Village. Marcus works so hard that he hardly has time to think; when he does, he broods over Esca’s betrayal, tries to fit every piece, every confusing detail, into place.
Much makes sense, now; she is a girl – a woman – and he thinks that maybe the Seal Prince is courting her.
He notices, in a distant corner of his mind that isn’t consumed by anger, that Esca is happy here, and he thinks back to when she insisted, quiet and fierce on that hilltop, they aren’t my tribe.
But they could be he thinks.
He thinks this only in his melancholy moments, when anger has drained away; he considers leaving Esca here, so she can be happy, free in the wilderness with her Seal Prince and her Celtic language, unbound to him and no longer a hound meant to lay at the Centurion’s feet.
But then, he thinks back to I am Esca, son of Cunoval, lord of 500 spears, who has never broken his word and he wonders where that went. Anger usually follows this line of thought, and he plans murder and revenge and stealing The Eagle – but the image of Esca’s broken body stops him cold, makes him wake up in a cold sweat at night and shake.
He can still remember the feeling of her breast beneath his handle, her heart drumming against her ribs.
Sometimes, he remembers I gave you my word and he dares to hope, hope that they will get out of here, alive, and figure out this mess.
The Seal people think him fascinating; he is always being watched. A young boy likes to tease him, and eventually Esca intervened to take the boy under her wing, smiling down at him with such obvious happiness that Marcus’s heart had lurched into his heart and he had almost gasped.
(He wants this, wants things he can never admit to himself – but the image of Esca as a mother, as a woman, makes him press a hand against his groin in the middle of the night and bite down on his lip so he won’t groan.)
The women of the tribe watch him too, and he tries not to watch them back. He doesn’t know why they find him so fascinating. Perhaps it is a cruel fascination, perhaps it is everything to do that roles have been reversed and he is Roman and a slave. Perhaps it is because he looks very different from all of them.
One day, while he is gutting fish, a giggle makes him look up. He regrets it immediately – the woman leers at him and even waves, and then he is struck across the head, and he falls immediately.
The Seal Prince is there, is swearing at him, and he punches Marcus in the face, making Marcus’s nose break and blood splatter everywhere.
Marcus tries to shield himself, and then the rain of blows stops. He dares to look up and sees Esca standing over him, still dressed as a man. Crouching like this, he comes up to her hip, and he feels a second of peace, a second of relief – Esca will not hurt him, he is sure of it.
She is talking to the Seal Prince, voice raised, and he wonders if she’s angry they’ve hurt him or angry that they did it without her permission.
Without warning she turns around and slaps him and the peace, the relief, is gone; he cowers down against her leg, and then she tangles her fingers in his hair and pulls, until he is kneeling, throat exposed.
She says something to the prince in their strange, guttural language, motioning to Marcus, and he holds still, terrified.
He sees the Seal Prince’s hands clench on his dagger and he wants to jerk away but he is held in place by Esca’s hand, by the force of her body, and he trembles, sure he is about to die.
Instead, the Prince looks at Esca and smiles, speaking to her, and she nods. He leaves and Esca watches him go before releasing Marcus.
He stands, shaky, and regards her, the image of Esca, his male slave flickering over the image of this proud, strange woman.
“First chance I get,” he hisses at her, trying desperately to cover his confusion. “I’ll kill you.”
She simply raises her chin in defiance, grey eyes hard. “You won’t get a chance,” she promises him, and he tries not to shudder, because he knows – he knows it’s true.
She will die before she’ll let him kill her.
After five weeks of humiliation
and exhaustion, Marcus gives up hope. Esca’s hair is longer now, curling around her ears and softening her face, and he watches her like he promised, waiting for his chance – but he knows he could never kill her.
Do you punish a hawk for wanting to fly free? Do you punish a wolf for howling at the moon? How could he punish Esca for following her nature?
The only thing that gives him hope is when he sees the Seal Prince make a move; Esca turns away from him so his kiss lands on her cheek. She looks down, as if to apologize – it doesn’t suit her at all – and mumbles an excuse, which the Seal Prince takes with good grace.
He’s in love with her, Marcus can see that, and it frustrates him because he doesn’t deserve her. A painted warrior marrying Esca? She is not a seal. She is a hawk, a wolf, a river. She doesn’t belong here.
Sometimes, Marcus manages to resign himself to life here, telling himself that he’ll escape, that he’ll kill the Seal Chief and get The Eagle and make it back to Rome, to restore his honor. But such ideas are too exhausting, are too full of hope, for him to maintain them. His main goal is staying alive.
He thinks about Guern, thinks about how his father’s men had become mere men instead of Romans, desperate to survive. He thinks maybe he understands.
And then everything changes.
On the night that the young men become warriors, everything is a nightmare. Marcus emerges from his tent to find the Seal people dancing in a weird, frenzied way, the young men splashing through the bay. Esca sits at the side of Liathan, looking proud and distant, like a queen. The Chief is absent; Marcus hopes, absently, he is sick.
He ends up serving Liathan and Esca food and drink, and he does not look at them, offering up the beverge and the rack of fish like they are Gods and he is a mortal, and then he feels Esca’s fingers brush his and his heart stops.
Drums call the tribes attention to the bay, the young men being painted in their strange mud and adorned with weapons and bone trinkets in their hair, and then the dancing picks up, Esca and Liathan joining in, eyes strangely glazed over.
Marcus thinks it’s the drink; it seems strange and everyone seems light headed from it.
But he doesn’t care, suddenly, because an enormous horned man emerges from a cave, striding out into the low tide, a mask on his face and the golden Eagle in his hands.
Marcus sees his life flash before his eyes. He sees Esca’s pale face out, sees her reach out to him. Instead he charges down the beach.
Everything goes black.
When she wakes Marcus up, he flinches away from her and she pretends that doesn’t hurt. “It’s time,” she tells him. “We have to do this now, while the others sleep. It’s our only chance.”
He just stares at her, bloody-faced and wided eyed and then he says, shaking: “I thought I’d lost you.”
“Never,” Esca whispers before she can stop herself, and it is as if they are alone instead of stranded in the middle of a seal village. It is like they are the only ones beneath the night sky.
His eyes widen and she adds, hurriedly, “While I have honor left, you will not lose me.”
She ends up lifting him, curling an arm around his waist and grunting with his weight – but she has carried him before, and knows that he is lighter now, that he has been slowly starving, slowly wasting away from loss of hope and the harshness of the North.
They stumble, quietly, towards the cave, splashing into the bay and wading out. Esca offers Marcus his sword and he takes it, his fingers brushing hers, making her flinch away.
There’s no time for this she thinks, disgusted at herself, and they slosh through the water and into the cave. The torches burning cast weird shadows on them, making Marcus start nervously. Perhaps he can sense that this is a holy place.
Esca does not care. She lost faith in holy places long ago. It is she that presses onward, sword out, hand gripping Marcus’s and pulling him along with her.
The Eagle is there, shining, decorated with talismans of the tribe; thick furs, animal teeth, bones and feathers. Marcus goes to immediately, drawn by it’s call, and Esca regards the golden thing.
You better be what he thinks you are she tells The Eagle silently, hand on her sword hilt. I have sacrificed everything for you.
But looking at Marcus’s face, quiet and hopeful in the shifting light of the cave, makes Esca shiver.
I have sacrificed everything for you she thinks again, and is struck by the honesty of it. Her heartbeat is surely too loud, or perhaps she gasps, because Marcus turns to look at her, face inquiring beneath its mask of blood and grit.
“Hurry,” is all she says, and if her voice is choked then he does not comment on it, only seizes The Eagle.
They end up having to kill The Horned One, who appears to pass judgment. Esca almost falls to her knees at the appearance of The Hunter – if there was any God she worshipped, any God she believed in, this would be it – but Marcus stabs him without fear and it is revealed to be Liathan’s father.
Esca bites down on her lip to stop herself from shouting out, from protesting; knock him out, do not kill him, he’s all Liathan has.
But instead she is silent, and the chief gurgles up a last few insults and curses at Marcus when it becomes apparent that Marcus is attached to the emerald ring on his finger.
“Who did you get this from?” Marcus demands and Esca drifts to his shoulder, wincing at the dying chief’s words.
Just another Roman. Coward knelt and begged for his life.
“What did he say?” Marcus demands but Esca shakes her head and tugs him forward, his hand slippery with blood, the ring on his littlest finger.
“We have to go, Marcus,” she hisses and he runs after her, cradling The Eagle like it is a babe.
When the young Seal Boy – Liathan’s brother, she’s learned – finds them, Marcus moves as if to slit his throat and Esca blocks him.
The five weeks have caught up with him, because he falters in fear and she sends him to ready the horses.
He does not argue. The power is heady.
She turns back to the boy and presses a carved fish into his hands, thinking of her cousins, her nephews, and all the tribes children that were slain.
“Bil,” she says, his nickname like ash on her tongue, “Bil, you cannot come with us.”
“But I want too,” he says in only the way young children can, and Esca takes him in her arms and blinks back tears.
“Tell your brother,” she whispers, “That Esca is terribly sorry, but she has to go now. But she’ll miss you both, ok?”
Bil’s lower lip is trembling and Esca curls his tiny hands around the fish, smiling at him with difficulty.
“Keep this,” she says. “I made it just for you. It will bring you good luck when you go fishing.”
“Really?” He asks and she nods, pressing her lips together, trying to maintain the smile.
“Really. Go now, Bil. It’s too early to be awake.”
She watches him go and Marcus comes up behind her, leading their horses.
She does not look at him, frustrated with herself more than anything, and then he slips his hand into hers and squeezes.
“I am so sorry,” he tells her quietly, the Latin grating on her ears, “that you had to do this.”
He means only to comfort her, and it is not what she wants; she flinches away, shoulders curling in as if to fend off a blow.
“Don’t,” she says quietly, turning and taking her horse’s lead from him and mounting up.
He watches her, face carefully blank – a skill he learned from being a slave – and Esca wonders if she has hurt him.
That’s all she seems to do, despite wanting to do the exact opposite.
She cannot understand Marcus, and rather than waste time trying, she motions for him to mount up.
“They will wake soon,” she says as she kicks her horse into a gallop. “You better prey they don’t catch us.”
When they first hear the barking of dogs, Marcus turns to Esca and she sees his face with pale with fear.
“They’ll never catch us,” he says, to convince himself and she snorts, guiding her pony over a bracken-covered ridge, Marcus following.
“Have you seen them run?” She asks, and Marcus’s eyes slid to her legs, wrapped in braccae like a man’s. She flushes, hot, and then Marcus meets her eyes again.
“Can they run like you?” Is all he asks and she nods, wordless and curt.
She is glad, though, that he does not ask who is faster; she doesn’t know, doesn’t want to find out.
They shelter in thickets of gorse, Esca curved around Marcus’s back and clutching him to her. He is injured, she finds out, and she bandages his thigh as he blushes and stammers out excuses.
“You idiot,” she snaps, “you could have bled to death. I have not given everything for you to die now, you stupid Roman oaf.”
He doesn’t take offense, only smiles at her, knowing her words are mostly due to fear, and her hands falter on the bandage.
“Stop,” she tells him. “Do not look at me like that.”
“I am sorry,” he tells her, sounding earnest, and she pushes him down.
“Rest,” she orders, sitting back on his heels. But he shivers and so she spoons him, holding him to her breast and trying to calm his shivers with his own body heat.
Too soon they are moving again, the horses tired but resolute, and Marcus grows even paler when they hear the first barks of the dogs.
“They’re half a day behind,” Esca tells him reassuringly. “The wind always lies.”
He turns to look at her and his eyes are like that of deer – frightened, hunted, with the knowledge that he is prey, that he cannot out run them.
“I never wanted this,” he whispers, and Esca wants to go to him, to hold him. Instead she bares her teeth at him in what could be a smile, and says:
“We have a fighting chance, Marcus,” she promises, and some of the fear abates from his eyes as he looks at her.
She doesn’t feel like a hunting hawk, she feels like a goose; a stupid, terrified goose, flying south and trying to create an air current to guide her fellow. Esca pretends she has every idea what she is doing, pretends confidence and tries not to let Marcus hear the stuttering of her heart, tries not to let him see her wipe sweaty palms onto her braccae.
Eventually he sees, because he turns to her when he is resting and whispers, “Esca, I am afraid.”
She can only hold him, pretending it’s to chase away his shivers, and nod into his chest.
“Me too,” she admits and he shifts, deep in thought.
“Remember what Guern said?” He asks and Esca thinks back to the black haired wild man, half celt and half Roman, and she shakes her head.
“’You’ve never been hunted. Pray you never are.’” Marcus shudders and Esca raises her head to look at him, squinting in the dark. The moon has gone and starlight is not enough to see by, not with Marcus’s dark skin and darker eyes.
“There is no shame in fleeing like this,” she tells him, soft, and he raises a hand to brush a finger along her cheek. “We’re doing what we have to, to survive.”
“Do you not mind it, hunting hawk?” He asks quietly. “You have always been the hunter. Do you not hate for the roles to be reversed?”
“I have not been a hunter for a very long time,” she admits. “I am a slave, Marcus, a hound. The only thing of a hunter I have left is my honor.”
“I am sorry,” he whispers and she shakes her head, wrapping her cloak more tightly around her.
“Honor lost, all lost, isn’t that right?” She asks, wry, repeating Claudius’s words back to him, and Marcus grins despite himself.
“Esca,” he says when his smile has dropped, “why didn’t you tell me?”
He means about her true identity, about her sex, and she flushes hot and looks away, wishing again for long hair to hide her red ears and neck.
“Now is not the right time, Marcus,” she says. “If you are this talkative, we should press on.”
When Marcus’s horse flounders, he stares in horror when Esca cuts its throat and then turns them in the other direction, trying not to give away their trail. She wipes the blood on her tunic; there’s no time to feel remorse, to feel regret, and she makes Marcus ride her horse while she runs alongside. Marcus is injured, barely able to walk, and when her horse also flounders, Esca begins to lose hope.
“Come on,” she says, after she’s cut her mare’s throat and is leading Marcus through the bush, wishing they had clothes that blended in better with the harshness of the North. Marcus is weak, clinging to Esca and slipping on the brush underfoot and Esca wraps an arm beneath his and grits her teeth.
She hushes Marcus whenever he speaks, leading them along deer trails in an effort to confuse the dogs. Once they even cross paths with a stag and Esca only nods to it and wonders if the Horned One is watching them, has cursed them or is apathetic.
When the dogs bark again, much louder than before, Esca whirls and sees the shapes of the hunters on the horizon.
“I thought you said they were behind,” Marcus whispers and Esca clutches him, leading him to a river.
“The wind changed,” she says, as much to comfort herself as to reassure him, and then Marcus sees where she is leading them and stops, making Esca roll her eyes and tug him onward.
“It’s cold,” he whispers, scared like a child and she hushes him again, rubs a hand along his neck.
“It will confuse the dogs,” she tells him, and then slips into the river. “See?”
He goes, grudgingly, treading water and she guides them beneath a jutting cliff; just in time, too, because she hears the Seal Warriors stop along the ridge that they are hiding beneath, hears Liathan’s voice.
“They can’t have gone far,” he says. “Split up. We’ll find them.”
They wait, clutching the stone wall and then Marcus breathes, “You know he’s in love with you, right?” and Esca cannot answer him, because she doesn’t care.
Because that is the least of her worries right now.
“Once they track down the stag, they’ll be on us again,” she says instead. “We have to keep moving, going up stream. Maybe we can find some ponies.”
She hopes her voice doesn’t sound as shaky to Marcus as it does to her, but he only nods and tries to stand, faltering when his leg refuses to bear his weight.
His trust is something that warms Esca despite the river and she props him up with her shoulder, ducking her head and guiding them up stream. They stick close to the walls, Esca looking for a niche to hide in, a way to get Marcus dry and warm.
When it begins to rain, she curses in every language she knows but keeps going, Marcus staggering along at her side.
When the current pulls Marcus under, he doesn’t even fight it. Esca tugs him up and slaps him, hard, in anger as much to wake him up.
He blinks at her, water pouring down his face and she drags him onto the shallow river bank, trying to find something that will shelter him from the water.
“Rest,” she tells him, voice shaking. He only shakes his head.
“Esca,” he tells her, “This is madness. I can’t go on without a horse.”
“Yes, you can,” she tells him, voice shaking. He’s propped up against the cliff and she’s kneeling next to him, curling a hand around the knob of his wrist. Her hand is so tiny that it doesn’t fit, but he leans forward and covers her hand with one of his enormous ones.
“Esca, take The Eagle,” she shakes her, trying to tune him out. “Keep south. If you find horses, come back. Otherwise…make sure it gets to Rome.”
“No,” she tells him. “No.”
“They’ll never catch you,” he tells her and her eyes are burning, making her gasp and tighten her grip on his wrist convulsively. “I’ve seen you run, Esca. You can make it.”
“I am not,” she snarls, desperate, angry like a trapped wildcat, “leaving you behind.”
“Oh, Esca,” he whispers. “Brave, beautiful Esca,” and she wants to hit him, but he’s looking at her with such naked adoration that her glare softens and she looks away, jaw set, pretending it’s rain on her face and not a stupid display of emotion.
“I order you,” he says finally and she almost does hit him. “Take it,” he holds out The Eagle and she backs away.
She did not come here for The Eagle.
“I will not leave you,” she tells him.
“Do not dishonor me,” he pleads, but her heart is stone and she shakes her head, spraying water everywhere from her limp curls.
“I came this far with you,” she tells him, stubborn, trying to ignore the sadness, the fondness, in his eyes. “I’m not leaving you behind.”
“Damnit, Esca!” he snaps and he pushes himself up, only to fall, and she goes to him, standing above him with her arms crossed and her tunic soaked, shivering from the rain and the cold and the fear that creeps along her spine.
“If you want me to take it,” she snaps, “give me my freedom.”
It’s a challenge, something to push him back up so they can stagger farther upstream, but instead he fumbles for her bondknife and then offers it to her. Shaking, she steps forward and he presses it into her hand.
The bone hilt feels strange in her hand, for she has never held this as a knife; it became a symbol of her bondage and she hated it. But now, it is a symbol of her freedom, and her past.
“You are free,” Marcus says, “my friend.”
He lays The Eagle down in front of her and turns away, and Esca can see defeat in every line of his body, can see that he doesn’t struggle against the rain or shiver against the cold.
This bland acceptance makes her angry, makes her crouch down and lay her palm along his jaw, turning his face until they are eye to eye.
“I will return,” she whispers, and they are so very close, and Marcus’s eyes are wide and dark.
She thinks of leaning forward and brushing his lips with his; she thinks of slapping him and saying don’t you dare die; instead she stands, shaking, and leaves.
For all of Esca’s insistence that she was swift, for all of the encouragement that Marcus had given her whenever he saw her run, it was not enough. Even as she flew over the bracken and the heather, splashing through streams and jumping over boudlers, she thought of Marcus, alone, clutching The Eagle and prepared to die.
No she thinks. No she whispers when she rushes into the glen, and Guern looks up, taken by surprise, and his sword is out.
“No –” she pants. “Stop. It is I, it is Esca.”
“The Brigante slave,” Guern says, and Esca’s head comes out, pride battling with desperation.
“Do not think that just because the Selgovae took you in that you are one of us,” she snaps, and he looks at her with strange, unreadable eyes.
“Why have you come here?” He asks and she draws herself up.
“We have stolen the Eagle,” she says, and her heart is pounding painfully against her ribs, but it is worth it to, see Guern’s look of surprise. “The Seal People hunt us. We need your help.”
“The Eagle means nothing to me now,” Guern says, and Esca strides forward, hot headed and proud.
“Lucius Cauis Metellus!” She spits and he snaps to attention, instinct warring with old experience. “Rome needs you. Do not fail it again.”
“I…” Guern stammers, and Esca glares at him, hands folded before her. She has the bond knife tucked into her belt, but she does not want to coerce this fellow.
“Help us,” she urges him, running an impatient hand through her hair; it is wet but drying slowly, curling around her ears, and Guern follows the path of her hand with his eyes and then something clicks.
“You are a woman,” he says, amazed, and Esca blinks at him. “You – you are only a girl. What are you doing, girl, fighting a man’s battle?”
“It is my battle,” she is not just a girl, she is not just a slave. “I am the last of the Brigantes, and I will fight to preserve my honor.”
He regards her with his strange sad eyes, eyes that fit a sad sniffing hound more than the face of a man. “It is a sad day,” he murmurs finally, “when a British lass has more honor, more loyalty, than a Roman soldier. Aye, I will help, and so will my fellows. It was not just I that survived.”
“I did not think it was,” she is so incredibly grateful that she smiles at him, a true smile, and he, incredibly, smiles back.
They rush to Marcus, Esca leading the way. The warriors cannot run like she can, laden down with armor and shields, and one even presses a shield into her hands, making her buckle beneath it’s weight.
So they march, but the Roman march eats ground at a reliable pace, if not like Esca’s doe-running does, and soon they are crashing through the river, and none to soon.
Marcus is standing and holding The Eagle in a last act of defiance and Esca wants to hug him. But the Seal People advance, Liathan in front, and the way he looks at her is terrible.
She hangs back when the men form the line, but Marcus beckons her to his side and presses a sword into her hand, his fingers lingering on her wrist.
“Fight,” he tells her. “This is as much your battle as mine.”
She has to restrain herself when Liathan steps forward and is dragging Bil with him, and Marcus wraps an large hand around her arm when Liathan meets her eyes and says, “This is what happen to those that betray their people.”
He slits Bil’s throat and the little boy drops, still clutching the fish Esca made him, and she is helpless.
She remembers how her mother sagged, lifeless, her throat cut; she remembers her father, dismembered and bloody, and remembers thinking this is my fault.
Now Bil is on that list.
It is clear that Liathan is here for her, here to kill her, and when he knocks her down and his sword is swinging towards her throat she stares back at him, defiant.
But Marcus gets there first, desperate and clumsy on his wounded leg but still powerful and he strikes Liathan down, cleaving his skull in too.
She watches Liathan die, watches his eyes go wide and blood trickle from his nostril and then he falls, heavily, into the stream, the water washing away his war paint until he is only a skinny, pale youth wearing a bone necklace.
There’s no time to thank Marcus; he’s already spinning to fight another warrior and Esca stands up, shaking her hair out of her eyes and bringing up her sword to meet a spear.
The pyre they build smokes dimly in the fading light. Guern is on it, hands folded over his sword. Esca wonders if Marcus will tell his family in Rome that he fought bravely, or if Guern will be forgotten by all but them. The other warriors, long haired and uncomfortable, stand in ranks and watch the smoke spiral into the heavens. Esca can almost swear she sees an Eagle in the smoke, but she blinks and it is gone.
By some silent agreement they leave the Seal People where they fell, though Esca goes to close Bil’s eyes. After a moment, she closes Liathan’s eyes as well, thinking you wished to be my husband.
I would have made a poor wife she tells him and she retreats to stand next to Marcus. After a moment, he puts an arm around her and she leans against him. The men next to them say nothing, and Esca wonders how many of them knows she is female. She finds she does not care.