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Brittannica fides

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It was late when the men parted, having seen the Eagle safely buried in in the hideaway under the shrine. “If the Legate wishes, I will light him to his room,” offered Esca politely, when Claudius Hieronimianus made to leave. Esca did not especially like the Legate, but Marcus respected the man, and for Marcus’s sake, he would perform all the duties of honor that one Roman officer expected from another’s servant.

Hieronimianus turned, not quite concealing a mild startlement. “Thank you Esca.” They had forgotten he was there—as you did with a slave or a freedman, even when he was the one moving the flags and opening the hiding-place in the floor, and then closing it again after the Roman men had spoken over Eagle and made their peace. In this solemn setting, the men’s Latin had become formal and almost incomprehensible. Of course Esca had known that once they returned, Marcus would exchange the ordinary accent he had used on their journey for the flat nasal pitch and of a Roman officer that was natural to him, but this language was something still more unfamiliar, with drawn-out edges to the words and an imperious sing-song rhythm: the sound of the books that Stephanos or Aquila or Marcus would read out on a winter day of enforced inactivity. The words, as far as Esca could make them out, had been to suit: more love for the long-dead spirit of the Eagle than for the shades of the men who had died for it, for the Romans did not understand that the Eagle was powerful because of those men and their death, not in spite of them.

It was the Roman way, but Esca did not like it, nor did he like this new reminder that to Romans, he was nothing but a freed slave continuing to serve in his master’s house. There was the ghost of a ball of fear in his stomach still, as there had been since they entered Calleva again. But he had chosen to serve, and he had his duty. “We must learn to wear our scars lightly,” Marcus had said, and this winter would be the third one that Marcus spent slowly healing his old wound.

They did not speak as Esca held the lamp high to light the Legate down the portico to the wing of the guest chambers, where Hieronimianus’ slave Harpo would be waiting. But when they were not quite out of sight of the study, the Roman stopped short and turned to Esca.

“I regret that I could not congratulate you properly when you were manumitted,” he said, and Esca’s lamp illuminated a kindly smile. “But do take my heartfelt good wishes now as one man to another–Marcus Flavius Esca.” He took something from the folds of his cloak and held it out. “A gift for you, Esca, in celebration of your freedom.” The coin glittered in the torchlight. It was an aureus: a full month’s pay for a red-crest soldier.

Esca felt cold running in his veins, yet his face was hot and prickling. When Marcus had showed him the papers all those months ago, and had explained, as best as his excitement could contain, what their formal phrases meant, there had been something about a name that he had hardly marked. But it had not mattered, across the wall, and even this afternoon, when Esca’s stomach had clenched to return to the house where he had been a slave, he had not quite realized that it was not to be just this house that would always see him as a slave; that the price of his freedom was his self. He almost wished he could hurl the coin at the wall, spit on it and what it represented.

But instead, “th-thank you, sir,” he said. “The Legate is too generous.” The muscles of his mouth remembered the Latin words, and his face stayed set in a polite expression, as he took the coin. The lessons of servitude, but he had hardly felt them so strongly as a slave in Aquila’s house as he felt them now, when a Roman congratulated him on becoming free.

“Your patron and you have deserved well of one another,” continued Hierominianus. “I can think of no one who has better merited the three names.”  

“Thank you, sir,” said Esca again. To quiet the roiling in his mind, he thought over his proper names: He was Esca, Son of Cunoval, of the Brigantes, the bearers of the blue war-shield.

“And shall you stay in Calleva, or…?”

“I will stay here,” said Esca, “with Marcus Flavius Aquila.” But he wondered; they had hardly talked of after, on the Hunt. Would Marcus mind? Would he have some foolish, opaque, Roman objection?

“Ah,” said Claudius, and he smiled again. “Of course. Your devotion does you credit; Marcus Aquila is fortunate to have found so loyal a slave in his Esca, and one so deserving of freedom.” And yet it was not Esca son of Cunoval of the Brigantes that he addressed, but Marcus Flavius Esca, whose British name and service to Marcus Aquila would ever betray slavish, barbarian origins, in a Roman’s mind.

Esca ducked his head, as much to hide the fiery anger that was rising to his cheeks as in politeness, as the Legate took his leave, his own slave holding back the curtain of the chamber where he would sleep.

~*~

“Marcus Flavius.” The legate’s voice carried his smile and rode through the portico into the back of the atrium, where Marcus waited for Esca to return. “I regret that I could not congratulate you properly when you were manumitted, but take my heartfelt good wishes now, Marcus Flavius Esca.” Marcus turned on instinct when he heard his name, and then started back, almost embarrassed. Of course Claudius Hironimianus would wish to speak to Esca. The legate had saluted them both that afternoon, and Marcus hoped that now the he truly understood what an outstanding man the Briton was.

In the torchlight, Marcus could see the further shadow stiffen just perceptibly into that old proud stance, but slaves do not let the architecture carry their voices with abandon, and Esca had been a slave in Uncle Aquila’s house. Only the outline of a reply reached the atrium.

“Your patron and you have deserved well of one another,” continued Claudius Hieromianus. “I can think of no one who has better merited the three names.” The legate Hieronimianus said a few more words, but Marcus ignored them, straining instead to hear the low British-accented rumble of Esca’s reply. He felt foreboding, and a twinge of guilt as he watched the men’s stiff, polite outlines. Esca freed was yet more wholly Rome’s than Esca slave. And yet, Marcus felt an odd pride in the bottom of his heart, to hear his name attached to someone as brave and worthy as his friend. It was merely the truth, that he could think of no one he would rather see bear it. If only it could have been freely desired, freely given, and bear no taint of slavery!

The shadows clasped hands, and Hieronimianus departed, his own slave melting out of the dark to take the light from Esca for him. Marcus started forward.

Esca had turned to look after the legate, but Marcus knew that he must hear his foot-steps, uneven now, as his leg began to stiffen against the abuse it had taken these past months. “Does the Centurion my master require something?” It was the flat deferential tone that Marcus had hated from the first and hated even more now that he could tell exactly what it was: the sound of Esca’s blistering pride.

That after all this time, all they had done together as messmates and friends, Esca should still retreat to this whenever his British dignity felt ruffled! Marcus found that he, too, was angry, whether at Esca or at the Legate or at the fault-line that Rome would seem to force between them forever, he could not say. “What has happened, Esca?”

The Briton opened his palm, and the Emperor’s face glinted out. “A gift from the Legate,” he said. “In honor of my freedom.”

Marcus was puzzled. “It is a great generosity on his part,” he said. “Why should that offend you? For I know you are offended in some way, Esca. You would not speak to me so, else.”

“He gave it to a Roman.” Esca’s expression was hard in the shuddering light. “To Marcus Flavius Aquila’s dutiful freedman. Not to Esca of the Brigantes.”

“Have I not told you there it is no use to brood on old scars?”

“You bade me not brood on old scars—but when they are to be torn open again and again?”

“Is my name so dishonored still, that you should be ashamed to bear it?” Marcus’ words could have ice, too.

“You know that it is not that!” Esca pocketed the coin and turned to take down the last torch from the atrium wall.

“Then what is it? By the Light, Esca, you do not need ever to remember Rome or to think of your Roman name. It is only a formality; you know that I will never lay a patron’s claim on you.”

“Yes.” Esca’s voice was stubbornly wood, and he did not sound pleased at Marcus' promise. “I know." But all will know I am your freedman and a Roman nonetheless.” Marcus could not tell whether the one was more humiliating than the other. “And when I am with you,” Esca said more quietly, “And when I serve you, they all remember that I was your slave.”

“You do not need to stay here if you do not wish it.” It pained Marcus to say it, and his leg seemed to flare up in sympathy. But if his friend wanted to live without the reminder of his servitude, who was Marcus to blame him? If he were able to have a whole leg again, to go back to the Eagles, would he not take it? Even if it meant leaving Cub, and Cottia, and Esca forever? Yet as he pursued that thought, suddenly, Marcus was not sure.

But Esca merely shook his head and made a strangled sound. “It is not that.”

In spite of themselves, they were taking the old path back to Marcus’ sleeping chamber. Even after all of these months, their feet remembered how to match pace with one another: how Esca would hold the torch just so, so that it cast light for Marcus but not pitchy smoke; how, at the place the flags were wickedly uneven in the dark, Marcus would slow, and Esca would come forward a little to steady him if he tripped; how Marcus would take the oil lamp and the flint that were waiting on the ledge just within the bedchamber door, and nod to Esca to put out the pine flame once the wick was definitely caught. Everything was in its place, and all passed exactly as it had so many times before. Neither spoke as the light was struck and the torch extinguished. Without conscious decision, Marcus began to undress and fold his tunic with a soldier’s tidiness, as he had so many nights on the Hunt before falling into his bedroll if Esca was taking the first watch.

In their old bedchamber in Uncle Aquila’s villa, however, there were not bedrolls around a fire, but a single couch that took up most of the small room. A slave had refreshed the bedclothes, beaten the dust out of the blankets and the mattresses. Without pause, Esca stooped to drag the pallet out from under Marcus’s couch.

“I am sorry,” Marcus said in realization. “I did not think.” How like a Roman, he imagined Esca retorting, but there was no answer. He turned, hoping that the Briton could see his apology, even if he didn’t believe the words. “In the morning, I shall see that you have a room of your own, for as long as you wish to stay with us. For tonight, we will share the couch, or you may have it alone. You should not sleep on my floor any more, for—” he had to switch to the British tongue, because these words in Latin were precisely the problem between them—“for you are a free man, not my body servant.”

For a moment, Esca’s face was stone blank, but then it twisted, and something seemed to break in his expression. “You know nothing, you Romans. Your rules and your laws and your contracts that take everything that is good and honorable and grind it down into nothingness and shame! Tchaaa!”

Esca rubbed his face, as if he were trying to compose himself, but when he spoke again his words held even more anger. “I do not sleep by your door because I was your slave, Marcus. I do not serve you because you were my master under the laws of the Romans. I am not the Centurion’s hound because he bought me for gold or even because he freed me and gave me his Roman name, but because I chose to do good service to the man who saved my life, and who showed that he was worthy for me to bear his spear and lie across his door–and I choose it still. Why should there be any shame to serve a good man and a brave warrior? Will you Romans never understand? You think that it is glorious to raze a village in the name of peace, for the sake of a proconsul and a senate and an Augustus whom you have never seen and who care nothing for you, but you think that to serve a man for his own sake is only fit for a slave–or a freedman!” The Latin words were like knife blades slicing through Esca’s British speech, and in the end they cracked his voice and spilled out down his cheeks as sharp angry tears.

It was the dagger sheath and the shieldboss all over again. A place where the British way of being and seeing and valuing the world that was so different from the Roman that Marcus had not known to consider how Roman customs might jar the fragile equilibrium Esca had made for himself. He was ashamed of his blindness, but at the same time, his heart rose to hear the Briton say, “I choose it still.” Esca was not going to leave.

“I am sorry,” said Marcus again. “You are right. I have been stupid and blind, and even after our time among the tribes I did not understand. But I am honored more than I can say, that you think–thought–that I deserved your service and your friendship.” He wondered if he dared to embrace Esca and comfort him with a friend’s touch. Esca was still squatting by the pallet, and Marcus lowered himself too, cautious of the throb in his bad leg, trying not to wince as the exertion strained the muscle that was near to giving up. “I would never refuse anything,” he said more quietly, “that my friend honored me by giving, and I will always honor you, Esca Mac Cunoval.”

For a moment, there was only the clean wool and straw smell of the pallet, and sound of their breathing and the rustle of night breeze from the small window. The muscles in his leg quivered and then spasmed, and sweat began to gather on Marcus’s forehead as he forced his body not to fail him.

Esca broke the silence. “You should not do that to your leg. Come, sit on the bed and I will tend it.” His grip, as he hauled Marcus up and helped him to sit on the edge of the couch, was not soft, but it was gentle.

“You don’t–“ Marcus stopped himself. “Thank you, Esca,” he said instead. Esca knelt and began to massage the old wound; his hands seemed to know instinctively, as always, where the muscles in Marcus’ leg had knotted and frozen. Marcus breathed out, and felt his shoulders and neck release although he had not been aware that he was tense. “Thank you,” he said again. Now he dared to put a hand on Esca’s shoulder, and Esca looked up, and the lamplight caught his dark British eyes as well as his bright British hair. “Thank you for your trust,” Marcus said. “Thank you for staying by me. I am glad of it.”

“Because a Roman doctor would not tend the Centurion’s leg so well.” But Esca spoke lightly, and he smiled. “I am glad, too, Marcus. I will always be glad to be your armour-bearer, and your friend.”