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In the Breathless Night

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Vercovicium was where we emerged from mortal danger. But it was no safe harbour, at least not to me.

As Marcus pitched face-first over Drusillus's writing-table, I rushed to his side, ready to gather him up and bear him to a bed-chamber to rest. The man who commanded Vercovicium told me sharply, "You shall do no such thing. You are as spent as he, and I will not have you drop him and his head laid open. Sit."

I obeyed resentfully. Drusillus opened a kist in the corner of his office and concealed the bundle containing the Eagle therein. Then he summoned a burly, fair-haired soldier, who hefted Marcus's limp form in his arms. Marcus was to be bathed and shaven, and his wound seen to by the garrison's physician. Then he would be brought to a chamber to rest, and I could join him there.

I was the one who should do all these things for Marcus, I thought, the one who had earned the right to. But I suppressed the flare of anger and made a quick calculation. Let them wash him and shave him.

"Centurio," I said as emphatically as I thought I could without risking his ire. "Please, let me see to his wound, when he is clean and shorn. I have tended it all this summer and into the autumn, and—" I bit back the words I do not trust a Roman physician not to bleed him out and said instead, "I shall be able to ease his pain and, with willow-bark and salve, to guard him from fever."

Drusillus looked at me hard for a moment. I resisted the familiar instinct to drop my eyes and, instead, returned his gaze. He was the first to blink.

"Very well." He nodded to the soldier, who bore Marcus away. I watched them disappear through the doorway.

Then Drusillus leaned against the table and said to me, "I imagine there to be a long story behind your impromptu visit here."

"There is," I said wearily. I had not anticipated this, but I should have.

"Well, we will have time for that. I do not think you or Aquila will be in any condition to leave us come morning, and I suspect the adventures you have had will not be forgotten with a sound night's sleep."

I might have laughed bitterly at that last remark, had petitioning Drusillus for the care of Marcus’s wound not drained me of yet more reserves. I said nothing.

He continued, with a note of kindness in his voice now, "I suggest you avail yourself of the baths, too, and of a barber tomorrow. Litugenos, the soldier who was just here, will seek you out at the baths and bring you both to a chamber."

It was not simply a kind suggestion, but an order, and an astute one. I nodded. "Yes, centurio." Then I stood, and realised I did not even wish to stand right then.

"I do ask one thing of you right now. I am at a disadvantage." His teeth flashed in his olive-skinned face. "You know my name and my rank. I do not know yours."

I regarded him without expression, too tired for even that, and said, "I was once body-slave to Marcus Flavius Aquila, but I am a freedman since this spring. I am called Esca. Esca, son of Cunoval."

*

The baths were not open to all at this hour, but Drusillus had a key to them that he had given Litugenos. The big Gaul and another soldier of his nation, whose name I later learned was Ilianos, scraped and rinsed Marcus repeatedly and shaved his face.

I shifted for myself, as always, fatigue abating somewhat as I stripped weeks of grime and sweat from my skin and hair and, pending the visit to the barber, trimmed as much of my wet beard as I safely could with my dagger. Occasionally I caught a sidelong glance from one of the two Gauls, which I did not acknowledge. By dawn every man in the garrison will have heard of our arrival, I thought, and then I was glad Drusillus had hidden the Eagle.

The clothes we had worn for weeks were not fit for even a rag-pile; the soldiers gave me, and dressed Marcus in, clean braccae and tunic. Then they led me, Litugenos once again carrying Marcus, through the still-sleeping garrison to a chamber with two cots. The big soldier laid him down on one; as he and Ilianos arranged him on it, I noticed the kist in the corner. A cup stood on it, emitting a bitter, woody scent. Next to it stood a vial, an amphora, and a pile of clean linen.

As soon as they left us, I unlaced Marcus's braccae and shoved them down to his knees. His wound was fiery-red and swollen, emanating heat, and I swore under my breath.

The amphora contained vinegar, and I both cursed myself for not having thought to ask for it and breathed a prayer of thanks that another had considered it. I cleansed both Marcus's wound and my dagger with it, and then I carefully lanced where his skin was swollen tightest, pressing dry linen against it to soak up the foul exudation. He moaned and twitched in his sleep but did not recoil from the blade. After I swiped the wound clean again with a second vinegar-soaked cloth, I salved it and wound a length of linen round his thigh for a bandage.

To get him to drink the infusion of willow-bark, I would have to wake him.

"Marcus," I said, propping him up with my left arm about his shoulders as I held the cup in my right hand. He groaned and his eyelids fluttered. I repeated his name, louder and louder, until they stayed open, and then I pressed the cup to his lips. "Drink."

He took a draught. His features twisted at the bitterness of it, but I would not let him push the cup away until he had drained it. At his reproachful look, I said softly, "Willow. Your wound was bad, Marcus. I have cleansed it, but the infusion will help chase away fever. Sleep now."

"Yes, domine," he said hoarsely, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth as I lowered him to the cot again. Almost immediately his face went slack and peaceful.

Would that my own sleep were so; instead it was shot through with dreams of icy rivers and treacherous currents and always, always, the Epidaii on our heels. I woke with a start some time the next day, rested only in the most nominal sense.

After breaking my fast, I sat across from Drusillus in a small room hidden within another, two guards posted to the outer room's door. I told him all, from the amphitheatre in Calleva to our appearance at his gates, sipping periodically at a cup of heavily-watered wine. Occasionally he would ask for a clarification, or for details of strategic significance. But mostly he listened without interruption, and he remained silent for some time after I finished.

Finally he said, with deliberation, "I do not know that it is the business of this garrison to dispose of the Eagle. The Ninth is no longer. If any man have a right to keep the standard, it is Aquila. When you and he are fit to travel, you shall take it with you, and its fate shall rest in his hands."

He then looked at me sharply. "And you shall not speak of this matter to the men of this garrison. The tale of your arrival has made the rounds, but let my men think what they will."

"As you wish, centurio," I said. I wondered how much of his decision sprang from loyalty to Marcus, how much from desire to side-step a political thicket of thorns. Either way, it was none of my concern.

I returned to Marcus's side. He slept peacefully, his skin cool to the touch; under the bandage his wound was much less angry. I salved it again and wound new linen about his thigh.

As I finished, he stirred, and his eyes flew open.

"Esca?"

"I am here, Marcus," I said quietly.

He put his hands to his face. "I am clean and clean-shaven. It is a passing strange thing."

I smiled. "Drusillus had his soldiers tend to you. I am sure he feared me to wield a razor last night; I was barely less tired than you were."

"We are still at Vercovicium?"

"We are. We shall be here for some days, I think."

He frowned. "Surely we can ride out tomorrow for Calleva?"

"Your wound is open and draining, and you are as weak as a new-born lamb. We shall rest and eat until we have the strength to take to the road again."

From the hard look that came over his features, I suspect my own had turned withering. The hard look wavered and vanished shortly; that he lacked the strength to even argue with me was, I imagine, what convinced him.

Then his eyes widened. "Drusillus."

"I have spent much of the day telling him the entire story."

"And?"

"He orders us to take the Eagle to Calleva with us. We are not to speak of it to any of his men."

Marcus blinked. He lay still for several moments. Then he blew out his breath. “I wish he would take it from us, Esca. It may be safe with us, south of the Wall, but … it seemed to burn in my hands, through the cloth, until I laid it on Drusillus's table."

He did not need to explain. I said not a word, but I covered his hand with mine, and he turned his so that it could close about my fingers.

Then he turned his eyes up to my face. I thought, as I had thought many times before, that they were the eyes of a doe, all the more striking under the strong Roman brows and in a face that was all harsh planes and angles. His thumb was stroking the back of my hand, and I became acutely conscious that his braccae remained about his knees and that his cock had begun to stir. I shivered of a sudden. But I was unable to give myself over to the flush of desire. This must have shown in my features, for his hand tightened about mine.

"We are alone, Esca, and safe, and warm…" he said, husky-voiced.

"We are not alone, Marcus," I whispered. "We are in a Roman garrison, and we are the subject of any number of rumours by now. I should not like to add to them."

He scoffed. "No man here would think ill of me for taking pleasure—"

"—of your slave?" I finished for him. My tone was neutral but he drew back as if I'd spat venom at him, and he released my hand.

"That is not what I was about to say," he whispered.

"It does not matter what you meant to say. In truth, I wonder if you are feverish, that you cannot see why."

When the hard look reappeared, I sighed in exasperation. "Marcus. Think. My manumission papers are in Calleva. Drusillus seemed to believe me when I said I am free, but his men do not know one way or the other. If we… lie together and it is found out, we may rouse the contempt of the Romans here — including Drusillus. Or they may see me as yet a slave. I have served in a garrison before, Marcus. I have no wish to again be regarded as a slave in a garrison."

His look changed to one of remorse, and he passed a hand over his face. "Forgive me, Esca. I thought and spoke selfishly, out of desire."

I reached for his hand again. Once more he turned it in my grasp to cover my own hand, and he clutched it tightly.

"When we are gone from this place, Marcus…" I left the thought unfinished as another occurred to me. "Perhaps, when you next see Drusillus, you could ask him for papers permitting us to stay at mansiones, and some money as well. A loan, if not a gift."

He grinned. "A bold thought. Well, if nothing else, we have given him some useful intelligence. The worst he could do is refuse, and I do not think he will."

*

We did not ride out from Vercovicium for another week and a day. For the first few placid days — placid other than when I dreamed — we did little more than sleep, eat, visit the baths and the barber, receive Drusillus as a visitor a few times, and speak with one another as we lay on our cots.

On the fourth day, Marcus began to take walks about the garrison to strengthen his leg. I accompanied him, at first solely for his own sake, soon also to soothe my own growing restlessness and anxiety to be gone from Vercovicium. I had been approached once by Litugenos, once by Ilianos, while alone; each soldier had invited me with overweening friendliness to dice and drink with him and his mates. Each time I demurred politely: I did not wish to leave Marcus’s side for long, nor was I in a condition to be drinking hard so soon after an ordeal that had harrowed me nearly as much as it had Marcus. The first was very true, the second probably so. But I refused because I had no desire to loosen my tongue for them.

Drusillus had insisted that, before we leave, the garrison surgeon come to our chamber to examine Marcus's wound for himself. One morning late in the week, the surgeon finally appeared at our door, Drusillus at his side. As the commander and I looked on, he probed and pressed, Marcus responding no worse than with an occasional flinch.

At length he looked up at Drusillus and said, "The wound seems to be on the mend. I do not think travelling will put it at risk. It might be wise, however, to bleed him a bit, to encourage any remaining putrefaction to flow out of him—"

"That shall not be necessary," I said in a tone that made Drusillus swing his head round toward me.

The surgeon stared blankly at me for moment, then said, "Centurio Aquila?"

"I will forego the bleeding, medice," Marcus said drily, meeting not the surgeon’s eyes but mine.

The man shrugged and took up his satchel. Drusillus continued to eye me warily, but he addressed only Marcus once the surgeon had left. "Well. It seems you are fit to travel again, Aquila. What are your plans? "

"My freedman and I will take our leave on the morrow,” Marcus said. “And I would speak with you again privately, Drusillus, before we depart."

*

We set out early the next day across fields laced with hoar-frost, our own breath clouding before us. The Eagle was bundled into one of our travel-bags, along with a permit assuring the suspicious that the Army post-horses we rode were not stolen — and papers declaring us Imperial travellers.

And, too, thanks to Drusillus, we had sufficient coin for our needs until we reached Calleva. Marcus had paid the commander a visit in his office the previous evening, at Drusillus’s invitation. He told me of it before we settled in for a final night’s sleep within the garrison’s walls.

"I promised him I would pay it back as soon as I could,” he said. "Drusillus scoffed and said he did not believe that Rome, let alone he himself, could repay me enough for Isca Dumnoniorum." He paused, and added, "Incidentally, your name came up shortly thereafter, as we were discussing my wound."

A bolt of cold shot up my spine. "Did it," I said, with a careful lack of inflection.

"He was startled by how you spoke to the surgeon earlier, and he asked me what you were to me and I to you. I told him that he had had the story from you a week before — I saved you from the amphitheatre, I manumitted you, and what more did he need to explain a man’s loyalty? And then I told him that I owe my right leg as much to you as to Rufrius Galarius and that I would take your counsel on its care over that of most Roman medics." He laughed. "I do not think that last sat well with him, Esca."

I wondered what Drusillus saw between the two of us. An esteemed Roman citizen, indulging an overly familiar Briton and former slave? Or… more? It was not a question I could raise with Marcus; clever though he was, he did not, I thought, always read other men with great acuity. Given how well disposed he was toward Drusillus — in fairness, he had much reason to be, and so did I — pressing the issue would gain me nothing but his acrimony.

I said only, "I shall be glad to leave this place." Marcus made a noise of agreement, and in the ensuing silence we drifted into sleep, his restorative, mine haunted.

On the morrow, once gaining the road south from the Wall we did not dally, but neither did we risk riding hard. Marcus had demanded much, too much of his wounded leg all summer and into the autumn, and he paid for it now. As the days grew ever shorter and the winds began to keen, he would pay even more, no matter how well I tended him.

All told, we covered a respectable distance that first day, and then we put in at a mansio for the night. The mansionarius seemed to want to ask us whom we had stolen the papers from, but in the end he bit his tongue and called for a lad of perhaps thirteen, who gathered up our travel-bags and led us to our room.

A small, bare, clean room would have been luxury enough, after our last several months. This room was not small; and its floor was strewn with wolfskins, its large bed piled high with furs and cushions, and its walls covered in brilliantly coloured tiles. A long, polished table by the arched window bore a mixing-bowl banded in finely chased silver, two cups in the same style, an ewer of water, and several amphorae.

The lad knelt before one of the room's two ornate braziers, fished out steel and flint from a belt-pouch, and struck a flame. Then he stood and turned to me, smiling expectantly. I pressed a coin into his hand, and he delicately bit at it to test it.

"My thanks, domine," he said, his smile more genuine now. It was passing strange to be addressed so by any other than Marcus, and not in jest.

When the lad had gone, I stood at the brazier and warmed my hands over it. After a moment I realised Marcus had not spoken a word since we had entered. When I turned round, I saw him sprawled across the furs of the bed and heard the steady, easy breathing of his sleep.

Well, let him rest, I thought, loath to disturb him even to remove his boots and ease him under the furs. Much as I wished to rest beside him, I wished first for a meal, then to wash off the dust of the day. I could stave off sleep long enough for both.

In the common room, it seemed less the dinner hour than the drinking hour, but for small coin the wife of the mansionarius parted with some bread and cheese and two pears. I bought a cup of barley-beer for to wash down my half; the other half I would save for Marcus. I sought no conversation with the other men about me; I was too weary, and the looks aimed at me from the edges of their eyes plainly said that such an effort would have been in vain.

There were a few women, too, obviously not there to take their ease but to earn their living. I caught one of them smiling at me. She was pretty enough, at least from so many paces away, but her smile did not quite reach her eyes, and her assessing stare made me remember what the Romans call them: "she-wolves." I gave her a brief nod but no smile and turned back to my cup.

I had not been with a woman since before Marcus and I rode from Calleva. She would not still be at Calleva, now. When her master's daughter wed in the spring, she went with the daughter to Camulodunum. Though she had had no choice in the matter, she would have had it no other way: a Hound, herself. We had no love-match, but there was respect and there was affection, as well as desire. That is more than many ever have, all their lives, and no coin will buy it.

In any event, I did not want a woman. Not now.

After the meal I visited the mansio's bath-house, open at this hour but silent, no attendants on hand. In the apodyterium I stored my clothes and boots along with the cloth in which I had wrapped Marcus's share of dinner. Then I walked past the cold and tepid pools straight to the hot one.

It seemed so long ago that I had scorned hot baths as decadent pleasures for soft Romans. That was before I had spent weeks riding all the day through ceaseless rain, wading through frigid rivers, sleeping against chill earth that sucked all heat straight out of one's marrow, and despairing of ever being warm again. With the bones nearly coming through my skin like razors now, I did not precisely fear being regarded as "soft."

I sat immersed in the near-scalding water for a long, long time, leaning back against the tiled wall of the pool, eyes closed, steam wreathing my head. Eventually I would have to scrape myself down and rinse in the tepidarium. But it need not be this minute, I thought, or the next, or perhaps even the one after.

With no other sound in the calidarium except the intermittent trickle of condensation, and my hearing trained all too keenly by the hostile woods and glens of the North, the soft pad of bare feet on tile was jarring. I felt the water shift against me and flow away again as the newcomer eased himself into the pool. It occurred to me that, perhaps, I should bestir myself.

I opened my eyes and took in the other man. Roman. A boyish face, for that, but with lines beginning to etch themselves into it. He regarded me with a calculated sort of casualness; it would have seemed so even without the small smile playing about his lips. With the same feigned nonchalance, he lifted his hand to his head and discreetly scratched at his scalp.

I swung my head round, away from him, without acknowledgement. Then I rose from the pool and, careful not to look at him again, strode from the calidarium.

I did not want a man, either. Save one.

In the tepidarium I worked briskly with the oil and the strigil before immersing myself once more. I hoped the other man would have the sense not to join me, and I was relieved when he remained in the calidarium. I dried myself with equal alacrity.

On the shelf above the one where I left the damp towel sat ten or twelve little oil flasks. On impulse, I took one; when I retrieved my clothes, I tucked it into the bundle that held the food for Marcus.

Shortly thereafter I returned to a dark, chill, and empty room. Our travel-bags remained on the floor. Marcus, I guessed, was out after a dinner and a bath himself. I felt a bit of remorse that I was not with him, helping him, but by now I was too exhausted to have been much use to him.

I set the bundle on the table by the window. Standing by the bed, I removed my boots and shrugged out of my clothes, letting them lie where they fell. Before the chill could raise goose-flesh on me, I crawled under the furs, where I blinked in the darkness for some brief moments, and—

—and I was half-numb, tunic and braccae heavy as lead and all but frozen to my skin. Marcus and I trudged through the stream, fighting the current, the icy water leaching out of us all the strength we needed to ford the waters. The Epidaii raged all about us, above us, their scent-crazed hounds baying for our blood.

And then we were no longer in some nameless stream but in the Cluta. The waters raged, picking us up and carrying us as easily as a hawk does a hare. I saw Marcus driven head-first into a jagged pile of stones; he sank beneath the surface and did not appear again. Blood floated atop the churning waters, red spiraling into the silver froth. I cried out his name, and before I could close my mouth I was pulled under and my lungs filled—

I sat bolt-upright in the bed, taking in air with great, shuddering gasps, then gave a start as a warm pair of arms encircled me from behind.

"The Cluta, again?" Marcus murmured against my left shoulder-blade.

I nodded, unable to speak. My heart still raced.

He released me briefly, leaning toward the side of the bed. In the dark I heard the soft sound of liquid flowing from one vessel to another. Then one arm was about me again, and the hand of the other was pressing one of the finely-wrought cups into my own hand.

"Drink," he said. For a moment I thought of the willow-bark infusion I had pushed on him in Vercovicium. But this cup was half-full of sweet, rich wine, not a drop of water in it. Falernian. I had had it once, when my clan still lived; several amphorae had been given to my father in tribute. I drank deeply without hesitation, and by the time I had drained the cup the wine had warmed my blood and begun to chase off the tremours and rigour my night-mare had left in its wake.

When I had finished, Marcus took the cup from me and placed it on the bed-side table, then drew me back down to the bed with him and pulled furs over us. I clutched him to me, and his arms tightened about me.

"You will cease to dream it, in time," he whispered.

"And you know this how?" I spoke more harshly than I had intended, yet with a reedy note of despair in my voice.

He moved his head back from my shoulder and looked me in the eyes.

"When first I came to Calleva," he said softly, "for months there was not a night in which I did not launch myself anew at that damned chariot and feel it come down upon me and drive a thousand white-hot splinters into my thigh. Yet, now, I cannot remember the last time I had that dream."

I frowned. "You have never told me this, Marcus."

He shrugged. "The night-mare had begun to trouble me less and less often by the time I… knew you. Afterward, there was no need to mention it."

I thought of one or two nights, not long after Marcus had bought me, when I stirred on my pallet to the sound of groans coming from his bed on the other side of the chamber. I had assumed his leg pained him in his sleep, but I had not woken him because he needed rest, even imperfect rest.

I settled against him, willing myself to take comfort from his words. I took more comfort from the warmth of him against me and the smell of oil and salt and calamus on his skin.

Pallid starlight trickled in through the window and caught in his eyelashes, glistening when he blinked. I must have been staring, for he abruptly turned his sharp-hewn face with its doe-like eyes to me again. Then he lifted a hand to my face and gently stroked it from temple to chin, and he leaned in close to touch his lips to mine.

Cold, fatigue, terror, and then wariness had kept lust at bay for a long while. Now it came rushing back, a candle reviving after guttering in a draught. I put my own hands on either side of his face so I could draw it even closer, and I kissed him back deeply, caressing everywhere inside his mouth with my tongue. He moaned softly against my lips, and he shifted in the bed-clothes, pressing full against me, his cock hard against my thigh.

Myself, between the wine and the kiss, I was half-hard — or at least I was until his hand slipped down between us and wrapped round my cock, and immediately I was as rigid as a standing-stone. I hissed a sharp breath in and bit into his lower lip, and when he cried out softly in both pain and pleasure I began without thought to rut into his hand.

"Esca, stop," he whispered. I will swear, it took more effort to hold myself still just then than it had taken the both of us to escape the Epidaii.

"Oh, Marcus, no," I managed to get out. “Why would you have me stop?"

He laid a hand on my cheek. "We are alone, we are safe, we are warm, and we are not in a Roman garrison. I want more, so much more, Esca, than just our hands on each other's cocks."

Warm, indeed. With that declaration he might as well have set me afire. And, yet, I could not be entirely sure what he wanted. With another Briton, or a Gaul, there would have been no question, but the lust of Roman men is restrained and rechannelled with rules upon rules, as if manhood were a fragile thing easily destroyed by the most unremarkable of desires.

I pulled him close again and took the lobe of one ear into my mouth, sucking hard. "And what is this 'so much more' that you want, Marcus?" I asked hoarsely, and then I drew a wet line down to the base of his neck and scraped my teeth over his protruding collar-bone. "I will do nothing until you tell me, and tell me very explicitly."

His eyes closed; he was the one who could barely speak now.

"I want you to take me, Esca. I want to suffer for you."

Hearing him say it made me dizzy; still I could not help but laugh softly. "Romans. To use such a word for something that brings so much pleasure…"

He looked confused. "I… did so for a few men when I was much younger. It did hurt, somewhat, although it also felt good. Should it not have hurt at all?"

"No, it should not have,” I said, brushing my lips against his in reassurance. “It does not, if done right. If done slowly and patiently, and with… something to ease the way, and enough of it."

I wanted less than anything to rise from that bed, warmed by the furs and his body, but there was a brazier to be re-lit — and a flask to be fetched. I braced myself and set my hand to the first task, silently cursing the chill air as it began to soften me. The coals blazed anew, and I moved to the long table and untied the bundle I had set there.

I returned to the bed, flask in hand, as the air in the room began to warm again. Marcus, dark eyes huge in his face as fire-light played across it, leaned forward and wrapped his hand round my cock again. And then his head followed his hand.

"Marcus, what—"

I could not finish the question. His mouth was a hot, wet space of sliding silken flesh, and at once my cock flared back to life within it. As he sucked, he gently caressed the base of it, my stones, the insides of my thighs. I twined my fingers into his hair as if to anchor myself, then tipped my head back, gasping for breath, staring at the ceiling-beams and seeing nothing.

I am ashamed to say I actually heard myself whine when, far too soon, he moved backward and away from me.

"I just wished to revive you," he said with a wicked, wet-lipped grin.

I returned the grin as I set the flask down on the bed-side table, next to the cup and the amphora. Then I pushed him down, face-first, and held him down with my left arm braced about his shoulders, his left side pressed against my chest. With my right hand I began to stroke his arse, at first lightly, then cupping and squeezing. His breath began to come faster. When I dug my nails into one buttock hard enough to score it, he began to make soft noises of want and need into the furs.

"Enjoying this, are you?" I growled.

He whimpered in reply. I slipped a finger between his buttocks and began to stroke back and forth, up and down. If he had not already brought me to full hardness again in his mouth, the way he now pushed his hips upward — as shamelessly as any of the women in the common room might have — would have sufficed.

My hands abandoned him so that I could uncork the flask. I poured a small measure into my right palm, which I held above his arse, letting the oil drip onto his buttocks and into the cleft between. It was cold, and he yelped slightly, squirming a little against the mattress.

I gently began to work the oil downward into the cleft. He sighed, and his thighs eased apart. With the tip of my forefinger I probed gently, finding the opening to his body and caressing it softly until he began to whimper again. But when I slid it just inside, he clenched round it.

"Marcus," I whispered, drawing my finger out and softly stroking the little opening again. "Let that muscle slacken. Breathe deeply, and just concentrate on how it feels, me touching you inside. If I hurt you, tell me, but if you do not clench against me it should not hurt."

He tried to obey, settling into the mattress. But his shoulders stiffened as if he could do no more than shift his tension upward, rather than dispel it entirely. Roman fears, and perhaps ordinary nerves, warring with desire.

I caressed his shoulders and neck gently with my left hand for a long while, kneading here and there, finding the tiny spots that, when pressed, loose pain by means of more pain. With the undoing of each knot, he groaned and tensed under my hand, only to go limper than before against the bed.

When he seemed utterly adrift in languour, I began to smooth his buttocks again with my right hand. And, again, I slipped my forefinger into him, slowly, steadily. This time it met with no resistance. He breathed deeply and did not move, although I saw a tremour pass along the column of his spine, sharp under his skin after all these hard lean months.

"Yes," I whispered. "Just so, Marcus." And then, again, I found what I sought — a small knot of flesh inside him — and I caressed it gently, ever so gently.

Marcus cried out sharply and arched upward against my hand. His head lifted up from the bed as he arched; his eyes were tightly closed, his mouth open. Fighting down a sudden, savage urge to seize him by the hips and plunge wildly into him, I instead slipped another finger into him, found the little protuberance again, and pressed it into the surrounding flesh with both fingertips. The sounds that came from him were choked, desperate. He froze in mid-arch and quivered; I felt him pulse round my hand.

The air in the room felt too thick to breathe. There are not words to describe how arousing it was to watch my brother-in-arms, Rome's self-assured centurion, my former master, writhe against the hand, my hand, moving inside his warm body, the usually deep and confident voice uttering only needy, broken pleas. I wondered what sound he would make this time, how far and how hard he would thrust his arse into the air, if I pressed just the tip of one finger, just so—

There was more squirming, more shameless thrusting, more abject whimpering. After a long while he uttered something coherent, though hoarsely and shakily: my name.

"Yes, Marcus?" I barely breathed.

He turned his head to me. His eyes were completely black, and the sheer want in them sent more blood surging into my cock, almost painfully.

"Please, Esca. Please, I want you in me… not just your fingers…"

I could have teased him, ordered him to say I want your cock inside me or Fuck me, but my throat felt too tight and my mouth to dry to speak — and I feared I would spend just hearing him say the words. Then something occurred to me, and I did managed to utter, "Your leg—"

"Ah. Yes." He reached out to gather several firm cushions to him, then he thrust them beneath his body and angled himself forward over the pile. "This should suffice." His arse jutted upward, his thighs widely splayed. He turned his head again and set those beseeching eyes on me once more.

"Now, Esca," he whispered.

I drew a ragged breath, then took up the flask again. He watched me pour more oil into my palm and pass my hand over my cock, gritting my teeth as I did so. Then I did, in fact, take him by the haunches, and I slid into him to the hilt.

His flesh was scorchingly hot against mine as it embraced me tightly. But any man's might have been. Any man's flesh would not have been Marcus's. Marcus, so Roman that I would never, ever have wagered on him begging me to take him. Marcus, who had risen in the amphitheatre, though he had had to clutch the railing to stand, and spared me from dying for the brief amusement of an indifferent crowd. Marcus, who did not command me to come North with him but freed me that I could say yes or no, not like a slave but like a man.

Marcus, whom I loved.

I did not move, at first, but remained still, feeling him quiver about me. I whispered, "Are you all right, Marcus?"

"Oh, Father of Light," he gasped. "Esca… I pray you, move."

I withdrew as far as I could without slipping from him, and then I filled him again completely. He moaned and pushed back against me, alternating between welcoming me deeper into his body and contracting about me — slick, tight-clinging, and furnace-hot.

I could hear myself moaning softly as I fucked him, loosing a torrent of half-broken words, Latin and British tumbling together like stones down to the sea. I stroked the bony plain of his back, then the nape of his neck, then across his shoulder and down his left arm. When I reached his hand, straining flat against the mattress, he seized mine, tightening his grip until my fingers ached in it. But I returned the pressure until our joined hands were a tight lovers' knot against the bed, and I held him by that hand and by his right hip as I thrust into him again, and again, and again.

I wanted to reach under Marcus and take his cock in my hand. But I could not and would not have withdrawn my hand from his, not even had he loosed it. On one thrust forward, my head just to the left of his, I stilled myself long enough to draw the tip of my tongue round the shell of his ear, and I whispered into it, "Touch yourself."

His right hand disappeared beneath him. I could not see it round his cock, but I could feel the motion of his arm through his body, and I could hear his breathing quicken in the way of a man who is nearing his peak. I was not far from my own, and I held faster to him, hand and hip, as I began to shuttle in and out of him hard.

Of a sudden he went very still and rigid in my hands. Then a shudder passed through all of him, long and lingering. As he shook, he cried out, low and soft and just as prolonged. And then he was still again, and slack, panting beneath me, his skin damp.

"Oh, Marcus—"

My voice caught on the end of his name. One, two more thrusts, wild and trembling, my fingers digging into his hip so hard I knew they would leave bruises — and then I was spurting deep inside him, over and over. I shut my eyes and let the world be lost to me except the sensation of spending, and the moist warmth of him beneath me, and his clean sweat coming through the scented oils.

He still grasped my hand in his. As I rolled to his right, extricating myself, he touched it to his lips, and then, finally, he let it go. It ached as the blood flowed back into it, a distant, unimportant ache.

He dispersed the cushions that had supported him, and then he lay beside me, pressing his back into my front. I buried my face in the hair at the crown of his head. I could still feel his heart pounding through his back, though it had begun to slow, as had my own.

"Perhaps we should… cleanse ourselves a bit, before we fall asleep?" he said slowly.

I sighed. Unfortunately, that was a good idea. Just as unfortunately, there would ultimately be less to clean if I were the one to rise from the bed to fetch linen and water. At least, this time, the room was warm.

We had brought linen with us from Vercovicium. I soaked a cloth with water from the ewer and cleansed myself, Marcus, and the bed beneath us. Then with a second cloth I dried all as best I could. Marcus lay in a daze of contentment as I passed each cloth over him, fore and aft. When I was done I balled them up and tossed them to a spot on the floor not covered by wolfskin.

I slipped under the furs once again. Marcus settled against me with his head in the crook of my neck, and we spoke no more. Or, at least, I spoke no more. Perhaps it was just a trick of the twilit land between wakefulness and sleep, or perhaps he was speaking in a dream himself, but the last thing I heard was Marcus murmuring, "Te amo."

Then I slept, and I did not dream again that night.