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The Road Home

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The Seal Warrior’s thrust is a blur, but I manage to shift my body and block the blade with my own shorter one. I stumble on a river rock beneath my foot, use the motion to my advantage as it knocks my opponent off balance, and stab my second blade into my foe’s taught belly. He staggers back a step, enough for me to swipe my dagger across his throat, a spray of red blossoming against the blue grey mud packed on his skin. I don’t wait for him to fall before I glance behind me to where I last saw Marcus.

I have a moment of panic when he is not where I thought he would be, where he had last been locked in battle with the prince of the Seal People. It is one of the few times in well over a year that I have not known exactly where he is, or at least where he should be. It is unsettling how, even as a man freed of my slave’s bonds, I feel obligated to keep him in sight, to keep him safe. Then my gaze drops, and I see the two struggling in the water. Marcus’ back is a broad target for the warrior racing to save his dead chieftain’s son.

Pushing my legs into motion, I fight against the current of the stream to reach Marcus before the man does. The Roman is oblivious to the danger behind him as he struggles desperately to hold the chieftain’s son beneath the water. My body protests against the cold and my exhaustion, but I manage to tackle the warrior before he can strike. I pin him from behind, making quick work with my blades to dispatch him.

Staggering back to my feet, I cut off another fighter before he can reach Marcus. I find myself using some of the Roman techniques I’ve learned sparring behind Old Aquila’s villa. Once Marcus’ leg began to heal, he was eager for physical activity. I was just as eager to show a Roman master what a spear bearer of the Brigantes clan could do. The thrust I use against the painted warrior is the same ones Marcus had used against me that first day. He had taken the time to point out how it was superior to my own even as he offered me a hand up from the dust of the stables. A day later, I did the same with him, laying him low with a blow that cut through the disciplined moves he’d learned in his regimental training. The first time it happened, I was fully prepared to be beaten for my insolence. Instead, his look of surprise to find himself staring up at a slave with a practice sword at his throat turned to one of curiosity, and he ordered me to show him the move again. We learned much from each other that summer, until we were both fighting with a style that melded the disciplined control of Rome with the passionate determination of the Brigantes.

The technique is successful against my opponent, and he crumples dying into the water. I ready myself for the next attack but none comes. I allow my sword to lower as I stand gulping air, studying the scene around me. The river flows red and swollen with the bodies of Legionaries and Seal People alike. A few Seal warriors remain, but the Legionaries are making quick work of them. The golden eagle standard still stands, glistening wings spread over the battlefield from atop the staff Marcus carved. To be honest, I still do not see how so much honor… so much shame…can be tied to such a thing. It is not a god to the Romans, not like the bull-god Marcus worships. Marcus calls the eagle Rome itself. But if that were true, the Romans would have fallen, fled this land, and returned to their homelands long ago. Its loss has done nothing to slow the advance of Rome. Rome has stood, has thrived, has spread across Briton even without their glorious eagle.

All save for Marcus Flavius Aquila.

Behind me, the prince’s body is limp in death, but Marcus still uses all his strength to hold him down.

"Marcus," I call, but he does not respond, so I trudge through the water to lay a hand on his shoulder. "Marcus."

He is deaf to my voice, but my touch has him releasing his hold on the dead man beneath him, reaching behind, and pulling my legs out from under me. The shock of cold water is nothing to that which I feel at being attacked. I barely have time to spit water and sputter his name again before his sword is swinging down toward me.

"Marcus!" I yell over the din of his sword hitting mine with a force that vibrates through my arms. "It’s me! Esca!"

He blinks dark shadowed eyes, stilling his upraised sword as he pulls in a deep lungful of air. "Esca?" He frowns as the battle blindness clears and he can see me for who I truly am. And with clarity comes guilt. "Mithras, save me…" His grip loosens and his sword falls unheeded into the water. "Esca, forgive me, I did not…"

Words fail him, and he simply offers me a hand.

I take it without comment. Nothing I could say would make him feel less guilt, anyway. It is simply Marcus’ nature to carry the responsibility of the world on his shoulders.

He wraps his hand tightly around mine and heaves me up with a weary grunt, keeping a tight hold even when I am on my feet. At first I think it is to be certain I have sure footing, but then he rests our linked hands on his chest and shows no intention of releasing the grip. I can feel his heart pounding like a battle drum hard against his chest, and in time with my own, which is actually beating faster now than it was in battle. Then his eyes narrow and I realize he is simply pulling my arm straight to better see it.

"You are wounded."

"I am." I glance at the slice on my upper arm. I had forgotten about it in the fight, but the pain is returning now that the world has calmed. "That sort of thing is known to happen in battle."

"Come." He is already pulling me toward the shore. "I will bind it for you."

He stumbles after a few steps, but I manage to catch him before he goes down, a feat made all the more difficult since he has yet to release my hand.

"I think I shall have to return the favor and do the same for you," I note about the gash in his leg.

He gives a soft chuckle, leaning into me a bit more even as he moves us closer to the beach. "We make quite the pair, my friend."

Friend. Twice he has called me that now that my bond of slavery is broken. Although, even during my servitude he treated me as more friend than slave, something I was too blind to see during much of my time in slavery. But I have thought on this since the first time he addressed me as such. Did he call me friend out of fear I would not return? Out of fear that once I had my freedom, I would turn my back on him and keep running as far from Roman rule as I could? I saw it in his eyes when I refused to take the eagle from him. He thought I had refused to return honor to his family name even as he lay dying in the wilds of Caledonia. But he had no need to fear, because my first thought when he returned my father’s dagger was, now that I am free, Marcus, I will do all that is within my power to free you, as well. Because he was as much a slave to Rome as I was, he just never recognized the guilt that had been laid at his feet over his father’s failures as the ropes they truly were. Rome had beaten him down as surely as it had my own people, and perhaps that is why we have always been less master and slave and more shield brothers.

Not long ago, I had sat in the camp of the Seal People and told them a lie about how I had tricked a Roman into bringing me north to my freedom. But I had also told them a truth-- my heart hunts for a place to be free. I cannot help but feel Marcus hunts for the same. Perhaps now, we are both one step closer to finding that place.

When we reach land, I nudge him gently toward a dry spot under a tree. It is darker here in the shade, but the sun is providing little warmth anyway, and I fully expect it to start raining again soon. At least there is a chance of staying drier here, although we are both already soaked to the bone from the river. I take most of his weight to ease him down, causing me to hiss at the pain in my arm.

"And here I had meant to care for you," he chides at my reaction, but his face twists in his own pain until he is seated in the sand.

"It is of little concern," I assure, even though the strain has brought new blood flowing down my arm.

Marcus shakes his head, examining the wound closer. "Just because you observed my surgery does not make you a physician, Esca."

Although present, I had seen little of the actual surgery. While it was true that I had learned nothing of Roman medicine from that experience, I learned a great deal about Marcus. Bravery, vulnerability, fear, strength, determination… he is all of those things that I saw play across his face that day… that I see play across his face on any given day.

Romans. They can hide nothing they are thinking or feeling, Marcus least of all. Like now.

Beneath his own pain and exhaustion, there is genuine concern in his eyes. "This cut is deeper than you admit. I would sew it closed if I had the kit. As it is, a bandage will have to do."

He tugs futilely at the bottom of his tunic for something to make a bandage, and then looks to his belt for his dagger, only to find that it is gone. Lost somewhere in the icy water, no doubt, and even I have no desire to go searching for it. The dread is doubly so on Marcus’ face.

I pull my father’s dagger from my own belt and offer it. His eyes narrow and fill with a somewhat pained expression as to what the dagger has meant between us for the past year. "A loan, only," I stress with a lightheartedness I hope he hears.

"I would have it no other way," he assures and cuts into his tunic, handing me back the dagger to rip the cloth free with his hands.

"There is no regret, then, on freeing me?"

"My only regret is that I did not do it sooner. Besides, I never wanted a slave. Remember?"

"So this journey north was only an excuse to rid yourself of your uncle’s gift. And what if he is angry with you for doing so?"

"My uncle’s reaction is my concern." He wraps the bandage around my arm, intent on his work as an excuse not to make eye contact with me. "Besides, whatever fate brought you to slavery has been cleared by what you have done here today. Cleared a thousand times over."

I, however, study him closely, looking for the signs of what his true meaning is behind the words. I see it in the furrow of his brow, the curve of his mouth. There is regret. Maybe not at the loss of a slave, but regret of something else, of that I am certain.

"Then I have honored my father as you have honored yours." That earns me a small smile, but still not a straight look in my eyes. "Is this how Romans celebrate their victories? Should you not be more…jubilant?"

Tying off the bandage, Marcus surveys the river and surrounding banks littered with the dead and sighs. "We have lost good men here, today. Both sides." Now he does look at me, and the worry is obvious. "I fear I may lose even more in the coming days."

"Marcus, as I have said, my wound is minor. There is nothing to fear…"

He shakes his head, and I realize I have misread what truly troubles him when he blurts out gruffly, "Will you stay, Esca?"

My eyes widen momentarily in surprise. "Of course. After all that has happened… I have been of no other mind since we left the camp of the Seal People."

My confusion only grows when my reassurance has his expression hardening. Does he not wish for me to remain in his service? Even as a freedman I know I will need employment, I had assumed I would be welcome at his uncle’s villa for a while longer.

He nods his head in resignation. "I cannot say that I blame you. I had hoped I had been a fair enough master that you might be willing to see past your hatred of the Romans and return with me." He sighs again. "But these are your people, and you are now free to choose…"

I, however, find myself smiling at the misunderstanding. He had been asking if I planned to stay here, in Caledonia. "Marcus…" I try to stop him, but his tongue has been loosed.

"… why would you not wish to remain among your brethren now that you are free to do so?"

"Marcus…" I call once more, my irritation growing that he will not listen to me.

He ignores me still and implores desperately, "My threat to kill you in the camp… I did not mean it. You must know that."

"Marcus!" This time I grab his wrist and squeeze until he meets my eyes, then I speak slowly, as if to a child. "I plan to stay with you."

Even if I wanted to stay north of the wall, I could not. The Seal People are not friends to many, but neither are they the Romans. When word spreads of what has happened, my life will be as forfeit as Marcus’. Even if I wanted to stay here among the free Britons, I couldn’t… and the odd thing is, when Marcus smiles at me in gratitude and relief, I find I don’t want to remain behind.

He twists his hand to grip my forearm in return. "Good. That is good news indeed."

With a decisive nod of my head, I give his arm a final squeeze, noting how chilled his skin is, before I release it and turn my attention to his leg. With the heat of the battle over, the cold is starting to seep in once again, something Marcus has always suffered more than even most Romans with his wounded leg.

"We will need to start a fire soon," I tell him as I retie his bandage. "And food! I almost forgot that I brought you food from Geurn’s home. Not much, but at least it is cooked." My grin fades as I look up to see Marcus’ expression.

"There will be fires enough this night. Unfortunately, the first will be for Geurn."

I had forgotten the Roman’s tradition of burning their dead. And to think we Britons are considered the barbarians. But if nothing else, it is an excuse for us to be warm and hopefully dry for the first time in days. Satisfied that the bleeding in his leg is improving, I sit beside him in the sand and pull the rucksack from my back. "I will help gather wood while you eat."

Unfolding the cloth that contains the food, I spread it across my legs to reveal a soggy ration of bread, a hunk of cheese, and a few pieces of dried venison. "The river has been a curse on us," I note as the bread falls apart as soon as I touch it.

Marcus, however, seems not to notice as he scoops up a sodden clot and stuffs it into his mouth. I sometimes forget he is a hardened soldier, used to the trials of the battlefield, including eating what was put in front of him regardless of its condition… unless, of course, it was a raw rat.

By the look on his face, I would think he was reclining in his uncle’s villa, dining on a meal of wild boar and the sour wine they are so fond of. He tears a bite out of the venison and exhales in as close to contentment as I have heard from him in weeks. He leans against me, keeping me from going in search of wood for the pyres, and offers to share the dried meat.

I shake my head. "You need it more."

I had eaten at Geurn’s roundhouse while he gathered the other Roman soldiers, warmed myself near his fire while his woman shot angry glances at me from across the room. I understood her anger; I had pulled her man back into a world he had been better off leaving behind. I have no desire to be the one to deliver the news that her fears for her husband have turned to truth. My heart is heavy for her, for her sons, for the families of the other men who fell today, but death comes to all men. These should have met theirs when I was just a boy. Good men, yes, but I had bartered their twenty years of borrowed life for that of Marcus Aquila. The only guilt I have about that trade is that I feel no worse for doing it.

I need no food, but a fire, a night’s rest, those I would welcome gladly. By the way Marcus shifts to lean against my own back, I know he needs the same. We had slept this way many a night on this journey north, both too exhausted to stand watch, depending on one another for protection and warmth. It gave little of either, yet, it felt…right.

He slumps down so his head can drop back on my shoulder, and I can feel him chewing. "You have my thanks, Esca."

It is foolish how proud I am to hear those words, because I know it is for more than the simple meal I have brought him. So I cover my smile with a question.

"Will Rome thank you for the return of the eagle?"

"What? Do you mean reward me?" I feel him shrug against me. "It is not why I went on this campaign, but I suppose there may be compensation of some kind."

"What would you do with such a thing?"

"I have never thought on it," he admits. I hear the truth in his words. "I suppose it would depend on what they gave me." He tilts his head, looking back at me. "What would you do with a reward?"

"Me?" I ask in surprise. I may no longer be a slave, but I am not prideful enough to believe Rome will be anxious to shower me with gold and cattle. Marcus must know this as well, which means the question is actually what would I do if I were Marcus?

I consider for a moment then ask him in return, "Would you return to your father’s lands?"

Marcus makes a scoffing sound around his food. "Etruria is no longer home to me since my mother died and my aunt’s husband sold my father’s lands. A boon he chose for himself for being burdened with a nephew orphaned at twelve years of age."

Marcus has never spoken of his mother before, and this is the first time I have heard that Rome has left us both without land to call our own. The bitter tone in his voice tells me he holds little regard for his family there nor does he wish for sympathy in this matter.

"A position some other place, then." I suggest, "Rome, itself."

He sounds surprised by the proposal. "Would you truly go to Rome with me?"

"Would you truly go to Rome?" I counter.

When he pauses in thought for a moment, I fear he might want such a thing, and I curse myself silently for ever mentioning it. But then he laughs softly.

"I cannot picture you in Rome, Esca. Walking the streets in a toga with a scowl for every citizen you pass chiseled into your face like on a marble statue. I fear I would never see you smile again."

I find myself smiling, not sure if it is for the image he conjures or for the way his voice softens when he says, "I should miss it very much if that were to happen."

"But you would be happy in Rome. Welcomed as a hero, the name of Aquila restored to the glory you seek for it."

"I had enough of Rome living with my aunt and uncle." The shake of his head has his wet hair coming to rest easily against my neck. "Rome is full of senators and statesmen and military men who play at war without ever living it. It is not for me."

"Then you will have to decide what else to do with your reward," I conclude.

"You speak true, Esca." He exhales and it turns to a yawn. His voice slurs slightly, exhaustion winning out when he asks again, "Would you truly have come to Rome with me?"

"Would you but ask me, I would go," I confess quietly.

He falls silent then, and if not for the tension I can feel in his muscles, I would think he was only concentrating on eating. But he is thinking, I know. I do not push for him to speak, if he wishes me to know his mind he will. If not, then he will keep his own counsel, such is the way it has always been between us.

Eventually, he does speak. When he does, it is barely above a whisper, like when we are hunting and the prey is just in sight and he does not wish to scare it away. "There are a great many things I have wanted to ask of you over the days since we first met."

"If they are in your heart to ask, then ask them now," I coax.

"I think I may be wiser counsel to keep these wants to myself." He slumps back against me more.

I am not a fool; I know he speaks of bedding me. Marcus was not my first master, and he was not the first to consider using me in that way, but he was the first to think of me as more than just property and not act or even speak of those thoughts. I was a very poor slave. A good slave does not end up in the ring facing down a gladiator. This is not to say I did not work hard or do as I was told, but I did not lower my eyes as was expected, I did not beg for mercy when they beat me for my insolence, and I did not try to garner favors in their bed. What they got from me, they took. They stole it like they did my father’s land and my family’s lives.

"As my slave I had every right to ask them of you," he continues, "and you no right to refuse. I had every right and yet every fear that you would have hated me for it, and that I could not live with."

He is right, I would have hated him. Not because he beat me, or treated me as lower than the dogs, which he has never done. But because he is Roman, and as such, Rome gave him the right to do all of those things to me and more. I hated him for that, just as I hated myself for secretly wishing that he would claim his right to my body and take me to his bed.

I harden my courage to ask, "And what is in your heart?"

I knew full well what was in mine, felt it with every beat. I had cursed my gods daily for bringing Marcus to the arena that day, for Aquila buying me for him, for Marcus’ nobility and kindness and friendship that he gave freely, not as master to slave, but as one man to another. A man I would have willing offered myself to if not for his birth giving him the right to take it without my consent. There were times I had hoped he would force me, give me a reason to hate him so that it would eat the love that was steadily growing in my heart each day I spent with him, my heart that was now pounding hard in my chest awaiting his answer.

"My heart wants very much to ask now that you can say no, and yet the fears remain that you will."

And now, everything had changed, save for my feelings for him.

I rest my head against his and whisper. "As with Rome, Marcus, ask and I will go where you lead."

"Even though you can now refuse?"

"Because I can refuse, and because you gave me the freedom to make that choice, I will choose you."

I suck in a breath when I feel a sharp, icy jolt as the tip of his nose runs along my neck, but it’s the warmth of his breath on my skin that sends the shutter through my entire body. My eyes fall closed as he speaks my name, so low I can barely hear it even though his lips brush right below my ear. I find my fingers running through his short hair, not even aware that my hand had risen, knowing only that I want something more, something stronger and more demanding than a feather’s touch of his mouth. Then, even that vanishes as Marcus sits up abruptly.

My eyes fly open, and my hand goes to my sword when I feel the tension in the shoulder against mine. I scan the river, the bank, looking for the threat, and see only the bodies of the dead and the remaining living dragging them out of the water.

"Esca, I…" Marcus is flush, from desire or embarrassment, I cannot be sure. I decide it is both. "My father’s men…"

Romans. They can do whatever they please with whatever slave passes their way, but to choose a man who will have him willingly and gladly, and it must be done in secret. I frown my displeasure at this, which has Marcus’ skin turning even redder, and I curse myself for finding it as endearing as it is infuriating.

With an annoyed swear word in my native tongue, I place what remains of his food in his lap. "Eat before you help with the dead," I order then push myself to my feet wearily to look down on him with crossed arms. "As to the other, Marcus, we will finish it later," I tell him with pointed bluntness.

His lip quirks up on one side in a cocky grin, "I shall hold you to that promise."

I turn from him quickly and start back toward the water to hide my own pleasure at the thought.

* * * * *

Later, to my sorrow, does not appear to be coming soon enough.

The pyres go late into the night, and the Roman tradition is to stand watch until the embers die. Marcus is swaying on his feet by the time he allows himself to be led over near the watch fire and eased to the ground. The lines of pain around his mouth and eyes are common enough, and I cluck disapprovingly even as I work at the muscles on his bad leg.

"You have been too hard on it today." His new wound makes it difficult to do too much, but I am familiar enough with how to ease these cramps that within a few minutes he exhales as the muscles release.

"I would be lost without you," he tells me with a soft smile and half-lidded eyes, the dark shadows under them have nothing to do with the play of firelight across his skin.

Damn him, he has a way of catching me off guard when he says things like that. It was the same when in the Seal People’s camp he told me he thought he had lost me. And just like then, I find myself torn between wanting to rap him upside the head for being a sentimental dolt, and kissing him senseless while I make similar confessions. It makes it hard to think, to breathe, to speak. So, for a time, I don’t.

I continue to rub his leg, soothingly now, until I trust my voice not to break. "Sleep. The watch is mine tonight."

"The Legionaries will stand watch," he assures around a wide yawn. Tugging at my arm, he pulls me down beside him. "You need sleep as much as I."

He speaks true, as within seconds of hitting the ground, I am asleep.

Then, I am running.

The trees are thick, catching at my clothes with unseen thorns, the roots tripping me, but I must reach the river. I must reach Marcus. The Seal People are coming; I can hear their dogs baying across the hills, know they move faster than I can, so I push myself to run faster. I want only to stop, to catch my breath, but if I do, I know I will be too late. Finally, I see it-- the water, the small island where I left him lost in the white eddies the wind swirls in the fog.

"Marcus!" I call to the mist-shrouded shape I see leaning against the rocks. There is no answer, so I start across the water. "Marcus!"

My footsteps slow when I see the severed foot in the sand, then the second nearby. Cut off so he cannot walk into the afterlife, Geurn had explained to him.

"Marcus?" My voice breaks, but I keep walking toward the shape of his body that peeks through the shifting veils of fog.

I know what I will find when I finally reach it, and I want to stop, stop and sink to the rocks and scream until my throat is raw. I want to wail like the bean-sidhe foretelling death, because I know that is all that is waiting for me now. But I cannot stop walking, no matter how much I try, my feet will not still, until they trip over his head several lengths from his body. The eyes are staring at me, through me. There is no life, no spark of anger or humor or shadowed affection that I have seen thousands of time before in them. The mouth is pale, slack, hanging open… until he speaks.

"Esca!"

I jerk awake, fighting the hands on me before I even open my eyes. When I do, the head speaks my name again.

"Esca!" it says, "all it well. You dream; nothing more."

The hands continue to hold me down until I recognize the feel of them. Marcus’ hands, strong and alive, pinning me down as he has when we have sparred. I study the face closer, the mouth taught in worry, the eyes creased with the same. Alive.

Alive.

"A dream," I repeat hoarsely, as if I have been screaming, panting hard beneath him. My grip on his forearms loosens, but I don’t release them. The strength I feel in them serves to remind me all the more that he lives.

"You’re shaking," he notes, moving a hand to my neck and then my brow. "There is no fever."

"The dream…" I try to explain, but stop because I feel childish to be reacting so to nothing more than a bad dream. Still, I am shivering so hard from the cold sweat covering my skin that my teeth chatter and I cannot seem to stop. "It will pass."

Marcus raises a hand and calls out, "All is well."

Following his eyes, I can just make out the shadowed form of one of the men standing watch in the trees on the hill above us. Now I feel even more the fool, for I must have cried out in my sleep to have caught their attention.

"It is…nothing of concern," Marcus yells, and I am grateful that he tells them no more. "Return to your sentry."

My breathing has thankfully slowed, but I am still shaking uncontrollably.

"Here." Marcus lies down beside me, nudging me onto my side so that the length of his body can press against the back of mine, then he drapes his cloak across us both. His big hand rubs briskly across my arm then my chest. "Are you warmer?"

I pull in a stuttering breath but nod. "Yes, it helps. Thank you."

"I can stoke the fire…"

I shake my head at his offer, catching his hand in mine and pressing it against my chest before he can pull away. "No, this is good."

My shivering is already slowing, but there is still the occasional tremor that shakes my body violently, then passes just as quickly. With each one, Marcus tightens his arm around me until it fades.

"Do you wish to tell me of what you dreamed?"

"No," I answer instantly.

"Very well." There is no hurt or judgment in his words. I have had to wake him out of his own dreams on many occasions. "Do you think you can sleep again?"

"No." As shameful as it is, it is at least an honest answer.

"Shall I sing you a lullaby then?" I can feel his grin as he presses his face behind my ear and kisses lightly.

The touch warms me instantly and goes even further to let me know he lives and it was all only a dream. He is alive and whole and holding me close. I almost fear this is the dream. If it is, I hope I never wake.

"And draw every rutting elk in search of a mate within a league of us?" I attempt to tease in return, but my main thought is that he is alive.

Alive and warm and pinching my ribs.

"That is unfair," he protests.

I squirm and grab the offending fingers to twine them with my own.

Shifting slightly, he slides his other arm around me so that I can rest my head upon his bicep and he whispers in my ear. "If we were alone, I would lull you to sleep another way."

"If you were not so Roman, I would take you like a lover at Beltane, writhing beneath me here by the fire until we both collapsed spent and sated for all the world to see."

Now it is he who shivers and my grin becomes self-satisfied.

"Esca, I will not deny my love for your wild nature, but the ways of Rome are not those of your people."

"We are not in Rome, Marcus."

"I am Rome," he counters.

His words sour the good mood he has created. "Rome murdered my family, took my lands. Did you do that, Marcus?"

"Your father rose against Rome, rode against her…" he starts.

"I rode against Rome. Had you been here at that time, we might have met in battle." I shake my head. "I stood against Rome and that is why Rome made me a slave. It is why Rome beat me into unconsciousness for not showing the proper respect to my last master. It is why Rome threw me in the arena and Rome called for my death because I refused to show them good sport for their afternoon’s entertainment. Rome would have me killed for how I treated you in the Seal People’s camp. Rome has no love for Esca Mac Cunoval. So, I ask you Marcus, do you still call yourself Rome."

There is a moment of silence then he asks quietly, "You have so much hate for Rome. How is it that you do not hate me?"

I almost laugh at the thought of how oblivious he has been all this time to my hatred, but I know I am the one who has been just as blind, because as much as I wanted to hate him, I never could. He is not Rome. He is an ideal of Rome that he holds in his mind, and maybe that Rome would not have so many enemies here in Briton if it were the true one.

With a squeeze to his hand, I explain, "Because you are Marcus Flavius Aquila, a good man who stood against an entire arena of Romans and saved my life for no reason he can name. That is not Rome, Marcus, that is simply who you are."

He tips my head then, catching my mouth in a kiss that is soft and lingering, full of thanks and gratitude, but restrained and controlled. I wonder if this is how he always kisses, if he must always maintain a certain amount of discipline, at even this, the same sort of discipline he demanded of his men when he was in command. It doesn’t stop me from cupping the rough skin of his jaw and kissing him back with everything I want and need from him. For a moment I can feel that same need in return, feel the loss of the control he works so hard to maintain, then he is pulling away and it is gone.

It is still in his eyes, burning black in the dark pools spread wide in lust and amazement. He is breathing hard, looking down on me, and I see the struggle playing across his face. He wants me as much as I want him, and still he holds back.

"Esca…" It is the same way he speaks the name of his god in prayer, when he asks for strength, for courage, to save him from failing. When he pleads for his god to grant him what he wants while keeping him from shaming himself. In my mind, these are the same, but to Marcus he cannot have one without sacrificing the other.

His thumb traces across my lower lip and I claim it between my teeth, nipping it before pulling it into my mouth and thinking of other parts I should like to do the same to, parts pressed hard against my thigh. His eyes slide shut and he groans low in his throat, his hips tipping forward, and I think that I have him. He shall be mine tonight and I his. But then the fire pops and he tenses, rolling away from me.

The lack of contact has me shivering, not just from the cold. "Marcus, all is well," I promise him.

"I should relieve one of the men," he insists breathlessly.

"They have no need of your relief. I, on the other hand, cannot say the same."

He looks down to where I gesture to the bulge straining against the fabric of my braccae and takes a deep breath, exhaling it in a cross between a whine and moan. He closes his eyes and reaches for the wooden eagle that no longer hangs around his neck, and I realize he is trying to pray for strength to resist me. I am equally flattered and infuriated. Finding no talisman at hand, his expression become even more panicked and flustered than it was before.

"I’m sorry, I cannot do this here…tonight…now…" he chokes the words out and moves awkwardly to stand.

"No." I grab his arm before he can gain his feet, anger at his stubbornness draining away the passion. He will run blindly into battle against an army of angry Britons, but one very willing and highly aroused one has him bolting for cover. "Stay. The fault is mine for waking you in the first place. You would still be sleeping soundly if not for my dream. If my manhood is too much for you, I will be the one to go stand watch. I doubt I will be capable of sleep anytime soon anyway."

Now he stills me from leaving and I snap, "What is it that you want, Marcus? Do you want me near you or away?"

"Mithras save me, you can tie me in knots so I know not what I want." He scrubs a hand through his hair. "I want… your dream…" His eyes drop under my scrutiny. "I want to be here for you the way you have always been there for me and my dreams. I want you to feel…safe…like you have always done for me." He sighs before looking up imploringly. "But, Esca, the men… my father’s men… as much as I want to…with you…with your…manhood…" His voice actually squeaks.

I raise my hand to silence him, roll my eyes. "Romans," I exclaim in my own tongue. "I will never understand you." I pull his arm so that I can lay on it once again. Coupling may have to wait, but I will not do without his embrace.

"Now what will you have us do?" I demand irritably when he settles beside me. I feel his wariness, which just annoys me all the more, so when I pull his other arm around me, it is perhaps a bit rougher than I intend.

"Sleep?" he offers hesitantly.

"I have told you I cannot sleep," I say between clenched teeth, pulling hard on his arm to bring him closer behind me.

"Then we could talk?"

"And what shall we talk about?" There is silence, and I can almost hear the thoughts running through his head, desperate to find a topic. I exhale impatiently. Must I do everything? "What is the first thing you will do once we are south of the wall?"

I fully expect him to say he will return the eagle standard, but he does not, just as he does not hesitate with his answer.

"Arrange for your manumission so you will be a freedman."

I frown at the comment. "Am I not already free?" He’d returned my father’s dagger, told me I was free, I even burned it on the pyre with Geurn and Marcus’ wooden eagle. We are both free now, free from the bonds of honor we’d vowed on both our father’s graves. How can I not be free?

"Of course you are free. To me."

My frown just deepens. "And to everyone else?"

"It is a legality, Esca, nothing more. There are papers to be signed, taxes to be paid…by me," he adds before I can complain about having to pay for something he has already given me, "and then you will be given a new name as a citizen of Rome."

He rushes that last bit, and I raise my head in indignation. "A new name? A Roman name? I will no longer be Esca Mac Cunoval? And who will choose this Roman name for me?"

"As I will be your patron, you will take my name."

"Yours?"

"In the eyes of Rome, you will be Marcus Flavius Esca." When I stay silent, he offers, "As I said, it is a legality only. You will be a citizen of Rome, as much as I know you care nothing for that, you will have all the rights and protections that go with citizenship. You would never have to refer to yourself by your Roman name except in legal matters."

I lie back down on his arm but remain quiet, thinking over all that he has said. Only in Rome would they believe that the reward of a man’s freedom should come with the price of becoming even more Roman. I could serve Romans or be Roman. The gods must surely be laughing at me now. Was it not bad enough that I loved a Roman?

After a few moments, Marcus speaks tentatively, "Esca? If you are troubled by this, perhaps my uncle will know of another way. But as for me, I hold it an honor to have you share my name."

The anger bleeds away at his words. How can he say things that sound so wrong to my mind and so right to my heart all at the same time?

"It seems it will be confusing for us both to be Marcus," I grumble, only to have him laugh lightly.

"You will still be called Esca in all but the most formal settings. I promise, I will call you by no other name."

I sigh. "If I am to have a Roman name, yours will do," I begrudge him with a kiss to his fingers linked with mine.

It is truth. A hard truth, but truth nonetheless. And it is a while before I fall asleep once more.

* * * * *

It seems that Marcus has thought on these things, as well. All day he has become more and more brooding as we walk. The day started in rare sunshine, but as it progresses, the wind comes from the west, and with it, high billowing clouds heavy with the smell of rain and the promise of worse. The Legionaries split off one by one in the morning, each heading home. I gratefully accept a bow and small quiver of arrows from one of the men. Another gives us a water skin and some jerky. We are still several days’ march from the Wall, and we had lost everything except our blades and the eagle on our run from the Seal Tribe, even our cloaks we now wear were taken from the dead. Marcus thanks them each, becoming quieter as the number dwindles, until it is just the two of us walking in near silence. I don’t mind the quiet. It is in my mind that Romans talk the way they wage war…excessively with little reason behind it except for the act itself. Marcus, however, is quiet by nature, and we have spent many gloriously silent afternoons tending to chores without speaking more than a few words. But it is the barely hidden worry I see writ on his face that has me smiling at him along the trail trying to earn one in return.

At first I think it may be his leg, and there is no doubt that is continues to pain him just as the wound in my own arm does me, which is why I call our day short a few hours before I truly need to.

Marcus looks up at the sky, dove grey above but raven black to the west where the storm is spreading its wings toward us. "There is still plenty of day left."

"Those clouds building are not going to lead to a pleasant night. I would rather find some shelter, hunt some game, and settle in now instead of trudging through the rain."

He agrees with a nod, and I point to the trees on the rise to our east. "They will offer protection. We can use the branches to build a lean to, capture the heat of the fire."

We find a spot up against an opening in the wall of rock- not quite a cave, but set back enough that a few tree boughs topped with heather gives it a roof that should keep most of the rain out. A gathering of fern leaves growing along the river bank will provide a soft spot to sleep. I leave Marcus to finish setting camp and start the fire while I take my bow to find us dinner.

The ground is wet from the recent rains, the leaves soft under my feet, the musty smell of the world so thick I can taste the colors when I breathe in-- black dirt, green moss, brown bark. Some would think these are bad hunting conditions as the rain washes away all trace of the prey. But to an experienced hunter, one who knows how an animal thinks, where it is most like to hide, the rain is an ally-- twigs bend instead of snap, footfalls are dulled by the mulch, scents are lost in the swaddling of mist. It is a test of the skills I learned in childhood, tricks my father and the men of our clan passed on, and I relish the challenge as much as the memories. I survey the forest around me, sight a deer path that climbs up the ridge, and pad up it at a steady pace, eyes open for any sign of game.

It is rare that I have had this type of solitude since I was made a slave by Rome, I cannot deny it is an odd sensation, like muscles eager to stretch upon waking. I had more freedom in the Aquila household than any other that I served, but the occasional lone trip to fetch something in the market is not the same as hunting the highlands in search of a meal. Marcus and I have hunted plenty of times, just the two of us on horseback turning out boar, giving chase to a roe buck. Those were the days that sometimes I forgot I was a slave-- riding side by side with Marcus, my heart pounding in time with the hoof beats of my mount, returning his smile that was as feral and hungry for the taste of freedom as my own. On those days it was easy to forget, for one wild moment, that I was bound to return to the villa when Marcus decided he was ready to go. The only thing that made it bearable was seeing the same trapped expression on Marcus’ face when we started back to his Uncle’s home. Marcus couldn’t permanently leave the villa any more than I could. Where would he have gone? His injury had left him with no money, no employment, no chance to return to the military like he had always wanted. He was a captive of that villa by the good graces of his Uncle as much as I was by the binds of slavery. I am hopeful this trip north has changed all that for both of us.

Now I can make the decision to stay or go for myself. If I want, I can range across the hills and lowlands for days-- exploring, hunting, or simply lying in the grass and staring up at the sky if I so choose. It is in my heart to do just that as I stand at the top of a ridge and scan the brown-heathered countryside roiling wavelike out toward the Wall I can just make out in the distance. The massive stone structure wanders across the landscape in the same sinuous manner as the deer path I followed to this vantage point, finding the easiest, if not straightest, way across the rugged terrain it crosses. It is the sight of that Wall that has the wanderlust in my heart fading, replaced by an even greater desire to return to the camp where Marcus is waiting for me. For some reason I cannot explain, knowing he is there awaiting my return seems a bigger thing than the expanse of wilderness spread before me, and pondering what lies ahead for us south of the Wall, after the eagle is returned, after life resumes at a more normal pace, seems a greater adventure than even what lies behind us. So, I turn my attention back to my hunt, so that I can return back to that future all the quicker.

*****

By the time I walk into camp with a fat and already gutted hare, he is warming his hands by the low flames of a fire.

"A feast!" I proclaim, holding my game on high.

Marcus smiles back at me, the first genuine one I have seen on his face all day. "Well done! The day is yours." The smile wavers. "You seem flushed. Winded."

"It was a good hunt, that is all," I dismiss, although he is correct about my condition. A full night’s rest somewhere warm and dry will serve us both well. I am hopeful this will be our last night in the miserable weather for a while. "From the ridge, I could see the Wall. Down and across the valley; if we push, we will make it before the sunset tomorrow."

It will be a hard march on the marrow, but one we must do to save ourselves from making camp out in the open tomorrow night. The safety of the Roman garrisons will be much preferred to the raiding parties that regularly attack the Wall. Still, I expected Marcus’ good humor to remain with the news. I watch him out of the corner of my eye as he pokes at the fire, still deep in thought.

"Is this not good news?" I ask as I find a supple branch to use to spit the meal over our fire and set to work skewering the meat

"Oh, very good news," he assures me, but a cloud has settled over his face darker than any over our heads.

"It is in my heart to know what is troubling you, Marcus."

I see the protest forming on his lips, and I raise my jaw and narrow my eyes in warning that I will not stand for a denial of what I can plainly see.

"How do the Brigantes free a slave?" he finally asks.

So it is the manumission and my words from the previous night that have him concerned. The truth is, I do not want to take another name, but Rome leaves me little choice. The fault is not his. While I may not be happy with the conditions set on my freedom, I will not turn them down given the alternative. I also will not have Marcus feeling the guilt of laws he did not create. My anger is with Rome, not him, although sometimes, I admit, I cannot separate the two.

"How do we free slaves? First, we steal their father’s eagle standard from a tribe of deadly warriors who are intent on killing them. Next, we drag their wounded arse across the countryside." I fiddle with the branch to place it close to the fire without burning the meat. Satisfied with the placement I sit back within an easy arm’s reach of Marcus and stretch out my legs. "But it is all just legalities."

He fights the threat of a laugh at my joke. "You mock me, Esca."

My grin spreads when he throws a clot of muddy moss at me. "I would never mock a Centurion of Rome," I assure him in exaggerated innocence as I throw the clump of dirt back and state casually, "And did I forget to mention, your name is now Marcus Mac Cunoval?"

"I believe you might have forgotten to mention that."

There is merriment in his eyes even though his face is dark, and I suddenly find myself laying flat on the ground, the wind knocked from my lungs as he rubs the moss in my face. I spit dirt through my laughter and can do little else as my arms are pinned by a Centurion who moves much quicker than I had given him credit for considering his wounded leg.

"Do you not like my name then?" I manage to ask after he tosses the dirt aside.

I give a cursory test of his resolve and find his hold on me is solid, a fact that has his lips curling smugly.

"I will take it, and gladly."

"Liar," I snort up at him.

"That is true," he concedes. "But I will gladly take you."

He leans in and kisses me, his breath mingling with mud and moss. The taste of Briton and Marcus on my lips, and I can thinks of no two things I love more. All his reserve from the previous night is gone, and if my hands were free, I’d pull him in closer. As it is, I’m at his mercy and at a loss when he pulls away too soon.

My skin feels feverish, and my breath is quick in my chest at the predatory look on Marcus’ face. I refuse, however, to let him get the best of me. "Are you not worried one of your father’s former soldiers will happen upon us?" I taunt. "Perhaps a clutch of birds will light on a branch above and watch."

"Let them see. I will have you this day, and all this night, as well, if you allow it."

"It is you who will be begging for mercy, Marcus Mac Cunoval."

I lift my head, intending to capture another kiss, and he pulls back just out of reach.

"Your evilness could make Hades himself blush," he accuses.

"And what does it make you to withhold your affections?"

"Would these be the affections of which you speak?" And finally he is kissing me again, hard and hot and causing the same in my loins.

In the distance, thunder rumbles. Marcus lifts his head to the sky.

"Do not even consider stopping now," I glower dangerously.

He looks down on me with a crooked smile. "We may get wet."

"We have been wet for days," I argue. "If we wait until we are dry to do this, we will be old men with cocks too withered and wrinkled to do either of us any good."

His smile just grows. "And what of our meal? It could burn and we would have nothing to eat."

"I have hungered for you much longer than I have a roast hare. But, if your belly takes precedence in these matters, all you need do is release my arms, and allow me to get to the task at hand, I promise to make fast work of you so you shall not miss your meal."

"So you say?" he scoffs but releases my arms and straightens, hands proudly on his hips as he straddles mine. "We Romans are made of stronger stuff than…oh, by the gods, Esca, do that again."

His boast has been cut short by my fingers hastily opening his braccea and taking him in hand with a quick squeeze and stroke.

Instead of giving in to his request, I still my hand but maintain my grip. "Forgive me, Centurion, I believe you were telling me about the strong stuff of Romans. I did not mean to interrupt you." When he thrusts into my hand, I loosen my grip and he growls in frustration. "You have nothing more to say on the subject?"

"Esca…" he begs.

I tighten my hand slightly; run my thumb along his length. "Perhaps you would like to hear about the fortitude of the Brignantes, instead. We could compare notes after--"

He lunges forward and captures my mouth again, his kisses desperate as he rolls us over so that I am now on top of him, effectively trapping my hand still around him against my own hardness. His hips thrust up, and now I find myself moaning against his mouth as I rub against him and my fist. A second thrust has him doing the same. Then he’s pushing me away, his large fingers frantically working at the ties of my own braccea. He’s clumsy with desire, and I slap his hands away to do it on my own, having little more luck than he did seeing as he’s also pushing my tunic up. I give up on the ties long enough to raise my arms so that he can pull the tunic roughly over my head, only half aware that he somehow manages not to throw it on the fire. My attention immediately returns to my braccae as I wave a distracted hand at Marcus.

"Tunic. Off. Now."

He responds to my orders without question, wiggling beneath me in a way that makes my own task all the more difficult.

"Marcus, I can’t…"

"Here, let me…"

"You are not helping!"

"If you would just…"

"Well, now it’s knotted. Are you pleased with yourself?"

"Where’s my knife?"

"Wait! I have it!"

"Ow! My leg!"

"Then don’t put it there!"

"It is attached to my body! I can put it nowhere else!"

"If you just lift your hips a little I could slide them down past your knees…"

"They are going nowhere with our boots still on!"

"Stop moving so I can…"

"Orcus’ get! Can nothing be simply done between us?"

I give up trying to completely unclothing us and settle on top of him to resume kissing him with the same frenzied recklessness in which we had undressed. It is then that it all becomes very simple between us, our bodies taking over with only one common purpose. There is no restraint in Marcus now, no floundering attempt at control. There is only the taste of salty skin on my lips, his head falling back to expose more of his neck, voice guttural, begging for more as I suck at his throat, feeling his blood pulsing against the press of my tongue.

His hands move over my back to my ass to grip and pull me in tight against him. The action has me biting his shoulder and grinding down with my hips. He thrusts up, breathless gasps escaping against my cheeks and chin as his mouth moves with no clear destination over my skin. I press my face against his neck, meet his next thrust, and make a few broken noises of my own. The sensation as we continue to move has my head spinning, the feel of him against me, beneath me, around me is overwhelmingly good.

There is another rumble of thunder, closer this time. I feel the first few drops of rain make their way through the trees overhead and splatter along my back, icy cold pinpricks on my hot skin. It was like this when I ran for help. My clothes had clung cold and sodden from river and rain, chilling me to my very bones, but fear and desperation burned hot in my soul. If I could find no help, Marcus would be dead. That sharp truth had cut through me, freezing my blood more than the wind and rain ever could. Freed from my blood debt or not, as long as I drew breath, I would not let Marcus die. So I ran, as fast as my legs would carry me, ignored the cold, and let my need for Marcus, for his life to remain in mine, keep me moving.

A similar need, this one more primal and base, keeps us moving now, even as the rain falls heavier and harder. Neither of us stops moving, stops kissing, stops touching. And by the time it is over, with both of us gulping air as I lay sprawled across the expanse of Marcus’ chest, neither of us is in any position to claim bragging rights for the staying power of our lineage.

He is tracing his fingers along the nape of my neck as I kiss his shoulder, his chin, lick a drop of rainwater from the lobe of his ear, before finally kissing his mouth deeply. His strong arms wrap around me, holding me close.

"Esca?" he murmurs, running his nose against mine.

"Yes, Marcus?" I nip and suck leisurely at his lower lip.

"Must it rain every day in this infernal place?"

I drop my head to his chest and laugh, his own mirth echoes under my ear.

"It is an honest question," he insists even as he continues to chuckle.

"Only when it can fall on hard-headed Romans, mo chroí," I explain and kiss over the heart that I had just claimed as my own.

The endearment has slipped unbidden from my lips, and I find myself embarrassed by the look of puzzlement and tenderness on Marcus’ face. I doubt he knows the meaning of the words in Latin…my heart…but the affection must have been apparent in my voice so that their intent is clear enough.

With a quick kiss to his lips to cover my discomfiture, I sit up and pat his stomach, "Come. Let us take shelter and I will show you how my people warm themselves in this sort of weather."

He heads to our makeshift dwelling as I add wood to the fire to keep it burning in the rain and check on the meat. I snatch our tunics and cloaks lying nearby and follow him to the lean-to to strip off the remainder of my clothing.

"And how does this differ from what we just did?" he asks, as I settle beside me.

I glance up at the boughs blocking most of the rain above our heads. "We do it under a roof." Still grinning, I spread my cloak on the ferns of our bed and wrap his cloak around his shoulders and rub briskly to dry him.

"You could not tell me this before the rain started?" His fingertips trace lightly along the curve of my spine as I lean over to pull the boots from his feet.

"I cannot reveal all of my secrets too soon." I grin back at him as I finish with his boots and pull his trousers free with a flourish.

He drapes his arm around me to share the warmth of the cloak as I set to work on my own boots. "I’m sorry, Esca, but I believe your manumission may have to wait a few days. I have decided the first thing I wish to do when we cross over the wall is find an inn, with a real bed, and take you into it. Perhaps learn a few more of these secrets you claim." His fingers trace over the markings on my arm.

When I finish with my boots, I work off my braccae and quirk my lips. "You will have me again even without my Roman name?"

"I will have you again as soon as you are able." He kisses my shoulder before resting a prickly cheek there.

"Then what are you waiting for?" I seek out his mouth, pulling him back onto our bed without breaking the kiss.

Endurance we may be lacking, but resilience we seem to have in abundance.

* * * * *

I wake with a brush of chilled knuckles along my jaw and Marcus calling my name softly. It is full dark with the rain still falling lightly, and it takes a moment for me to remember that Marcus had volunteered to take first watch after we had finally decided to dress and eat our slightly charred meal.

"That time already?" I yawn, deciding coupling with Marcus has exhausted me more than I thought possible, since I can’t seem to shake the fog of sleep. I smile hazily. "I had hoped you might want to wake me to relieve you in other ways than taking the watch."

"Would that I could." He smiles back, but it seems a little forced. "But I need you to see something."

Whatever he wants me to see is obviously troubling him, so I pull my cloak around me, take my sword, and follow as he leads me back up the ridge I’d hunted earlier. My injured arm aches fiercely and I shiver, blaming both on the cold drizzle falling on us, forcing my legs to climb the steep slope when they would much rather be back in the lean-to sleeping.

Once we reach the top of the ridge, I see for myself what has Marcus concerned. The Wall in the distance is marked by signal fires all along its length, indicating the milecastles with their garrison of men stationed every mile and the watchtowers in between. But it is the multitude of smaller camp fires in the valley just north of the wall that makes me curse under my breath.

"I count more than thirty fires," Marcus tells me. "That could mean a force of at least five, ten times that many waiting to attack the Wall."

"At this location," I amend. "There are probably more hidden by the darkness further along the length."

"You think they are using the fires as bait in hopes of drawing troops from the other garrisons to the one with the siege forces."

I nod. "Why else would they make themselves known?"

"It won’t work," Marcus acknowledges with a shake of his head. "The Centurions will not leave their posts for a ruse such as that."

"Then they will attack multiple ones. There is no way to know how many are truly out there."

"We cannot go down there, Esca." The disappointment is obvious in his voice. "Not in the middle of a battle."

"It could last days," I point out.

"Do you think we are safe here? We could simply wait them out."

"If no other tribes join them, or reinforcements from their own come across our path." The truth is, we have been fortunate since our battle with the Seal People not to run across any other clans. By the looks of the valley below, I start to understand why no one else has been on the trail.

Marcus nods grimly. "Perhaps in daylight we will be better able to judge the situation and weigh our options."

"Then it is best that you return to our camp and sleep. I’ll take watch until dawn."

"I would feel more at ease if I were to remain here."

"Marcus, you need your rest--" I start to protest.

He stops me with a quick kiss. "Have no fear, Esca, I will sleep…just within sight of you if I should wake."

I have to admit, I do feel better knowing he is near.

"There is no fire for warmth," I remind. "And I would not light one. If we can see their fires, then they could see ours up here."

"It will not be the first time we have shared one another’s warmth to fend off the cold on this trip."

I let him pull me toward a hemlock tree with a large spread of branches to protect us from the light rain. Once we are both sitting, he moves in close, slumping to rest his head on my shoulder. He slides his arm under my cloak and around my chest.

"Warmer already," he announces with a yawn of his own.

Placing my hand over his, I hiss. "Your fingers are like ice!"

"I will not lie; the temptation to join you under the covers to warm myself in the lean-to was strong." The touch of a cold nose to my neck has me squirming. "But I knew you would not be able to resist having me near and you needed your sleep."

"I have controlled myself well over a year. I think it is you who cannot keep his hands to himself."

"When there are so many wondrous things to touch, can you blame me?" As if to prove his point, he moves his broad hand across my stomach.

Linking my fingers with his under the cloak, I still his hand and kiss the top of his head. "Marcus, sleep. We have a long day tomorrow if we are to reach the Wall."

"And if we cannot reach the Wall because of the forces in the valley?"

"Then we will have a long day here doing pleasant things to one another," I promise with another kiss. "Either way, you will need your strength."

"I almost hope we cannot reach the Wall, then," he confesses as he shifts to make himself more comfortable.

Marcus falls silent for a few moments but I can tell he does not sleep. "They are doomed," he finally murmurs. "The tribes may outnumber the smaller garrisons, but every fifth milecastle has a force of up to one thousand men."

"The odds do not matter," I respond quietly.

My father had ridden with five hundred spears at his back against a Roman force twice that size. We knew we stood no chance of victory, but it did not stop of us from trying. There comes a time when a good death means more than living a life that is no longer yours. It is why my mother asked for her own death at my father’s hands instead of being treated as a Centurion’s whore. It is why I marched with my father and brothers into a hopeless battle against Rome. It is why I would not fight in the arena the day Marcus first saw me, and it is why those fires burn in the valley below us.

Marcus’ voice drops to barely a whisper. "Would you join them tonight around their campfires if you could?"

"My loyalty is to you, Marcus," I promise in honesty. "You cannot doubt that now."

"I have no doubt of that, my Esca," His fingers squeeze mine in reassurance. "But if I was not here, if the Seal Prince had followed through with his threat to slit my throat—"

"He would not have harmed you," I assure him instantly.

He exhales heavily. "How were you so certain that he would not?"

"Because in his eyes, you were my property, and I was his guest. It would have been seen as an insult to destroy my property with his hand." I wish I had found a way to let him know this earlier. "Besides, if he had tried, he would have fallen where he stood."

"And you would have been just as dead seconds after that," Marcus counters. "You could not have stood against all his men."

"Then that would have been my fate to die defending you as I had sworn to do." I sigh against his damp hair. "It is in my heart to ask that you forgive me for how I treated you with the Seal People. I knew of no other way to maintain our ruse and keep you alive."

"You were very convincing in your playacting, Esca, that I cannot deny," he laughs lightly against my neck. "But I know now your only intent was to keep us both alive until we could find the eagle. All was forgiven when you woke me on the beach that night and made your true intentions known."

I feel a weight lifted to hear his words, until he speaks again.

"Except for that slap. For that I still owe you."

I think I detect a hint of humor in his voice, but still I offer, "If you wish to slap me now in return, I shall pay the debt I owe and gladly so that no ill will remains between us."

"On my part, there is no ill will." His lips press against my neck. "But, I think I will save the slap for another time, when you are not expecting it." This time, there is no missing the amusement.

I chuckle lightly. "Then I shall be on guard at all times in anticipation."

"A battle of wills between us, then. After all that has happened, it appears little has changed."

My eyebrows rise in question. "Would you wish it to change?"

"After the amazing things that have transpired between us this night, I would not wish anything to change between us since we first met, Esca."

"And what of before we met?"

"Before?" he asks in confusion.

He had asked if I wished to join the tribes waiting to attack the wall, now it is my turn to ask if he wished to join the garrisons preparing for defense.

"Would you wish to still hold your command if you could?"

The question has him straightening for the first time. "That is not even a possibility."

"You have proven you can still fight by recovering the eagle standard. Is it not possible Rome will reward you with a new command?"

"I…that is… I cannot see it being…"

He is obviously floundering with the idea, so I repeat, "Is it possible?"

"Anything is possible, I suppose."

"And if it were possible, would you want to resume a command?"

The way he seems to be considering how to answer my question is an answer all in itself. I didn’t even need to ask the question for I know that is Marcus’ greatest dream.

"Would there be a place for me in a fort?" I ask, trying my best not to show dread at his answer.

"There are often craftsmen supporting the garrisons, hunters--."

I rephrase my question to ask what I really mean. "Would there be a place for me with you in a fort?"

"There would be…complications."

"Would I be allowed to share a bed with you?" I ask with a frown.

"On occasion."

My eyes narrow, understanding what he is not saying. "As you would a slave? Or a whore? For release and nothing more?"

"That would be the only way I would maintain respect from those I command," he admits. "But I would not want to have them believe I used you without affection, and there’s the rub."

"More like the lack of rub," I mumble angrily.

"Esca, there is no need to even discuss this. My leg--"

"It is in your heart to be a Centurion again if you could." I don’t pose it as a question; I know it to be truth. I have spent a year watching the frustration and anger at his inability to serve Rome eat at him.

He shifts back to lean against me and reclaims my hand in his. "It is in my heart to wake with you beside me every morning. If I cannot do that in a Roman fort, I will do it elsewhere." His eyes drift up to the branches above our heads. "Even if it is under a tree in Caledonia."

I lean my head against his; listening as his breathing slows as he drops into sleep. If all goes well, this tree in Caledonia will be far behind us by tomorrow night. We will be south of the Wall and one step closer to returning the eagle and Rome’s reaction to the deed. It will be then that I will see what truly resides in his heart.

* * * * *

"Esca?"

I pry my eyes open at the sound of Marcus’ voice, not sure why he is waking me when I had been standing watch. All I remember was the night growing colder and colder, and even with Marcus close against me, my body ached with the chill. It appears I had fallen asleep, something I have never done on a watch before. The crease in Marcus’ brow shows he is not pleased that I did.

I straighten as best I can, an apology already forming on my lips. "Marcus, I’m sorry. I don’t--."

He stops me as his hands move across my face and neck. "You’re burning with fever. Why did you not tell me?"

I have no answer because I did not know myself. I had dismissed how I felt to exhaustion and the damp weather. Marcus doesn’t seem to want a response anyway as he is already checking my wounded arm. I bite my lip to keep from crying out when he touches it.

"It is inflamed. You need a doctor." He looks back longingly over his shoulder to where the Wall, and no doubt army surgeons, sits just out of reach.

"The tribes?" I ask hopefully.

"Started their siege just before dawn," he tells me. "The fighting continues and may for a while to come."

I give him a weak smile. "You have had two surgeries; did you learn nothing from your Roman surgeons on how to care for a wound?"

"The value of a Roman surgeon is what I learned," he counters, then shakes his head. "I can clean it, rebandage it, but we have no poultices, no honey or salt to treat it to keep the fever at bay…"

We have both seen wounds from the battle field that seemed small kill a man when the fever sets in and does not break. Sometimes it comes down to strength and the will to live. The worry in Marcus’ face just confirms how much I have to live for.

"…you need a fire, a warm bed with furs, food, a skilled physician, all things I cannot give you here."

I do my best to control my shivering, but my hand still shakes as I cup his jaw. "Marcus, you have told me more than once that I am stronger than I look. Clean my wound, pack it with moss, and we will reach the Wall for your Roman medicine by nightfall."

Marcus’ mouth forms a tight line. "We will have to skirt wide around the fighting, further east to Chilurnium, the next garrison with a gate. It will be a longer march than we had planned by at least five miles."

I nod in understanding. "Brigantia will give me strength," I promise.

"The goddesss of your people?" Marcus has never asked about my gods, but I know he puts much faith in his own. I hope he will trust in mine today.

"The goddess of healing who watches over all Brigantes."

"And she is one of your more powerful goddesses, this Brigantia?"

"I prayed to her for your recovery after your surgery," I tell him. It is the first time I have admitted to such a thing, and at the time, I had not known if she would be willing to answer a prayer on behalf of a Roman. I had only hoped she would have the same mercy on Marcus as he had shown me at the arena. "If she is willing to help a Roman, surely she will help one of her own."

He nods again, seeing it as the good omen that I know it to be. "Then we should go to the river to tend your wound and start for the Wall."

He helps me to my feet, and I blink away the black spots before my eyes, doing my best to cover my dizziness. My attempt is to no avail as Marcus keeps a hand under my elbow and hovers close by all the way down the path to our camp from the previous day. There we gather what few provisions we have left, along with the water skins and bow the Legionaries gave us before parting ways.

At the river, Marcus sits me on a boulder then unbinds my wound, wincing in sympathy when I do at the pain. I risk a look at it to see the gash is an angry red with puss forming and I grimace again. Marcus cleans the bandage in the river in preparation to use it to clean the cut.

Standing above me, he hesitates then asks, "Will you translate for me?" When I frown in confusion, he explains. "I do not wish to offend your goddess by praying in Latin."

I do my best not to let it show how much the thought touches me that Marcus would call on one of my gods to help me. "Speak the words and I will translate."

"Brigantia, guide my hands as I treat this wound. Please use your powers to heal your loyal son, Esca Mac Cunoval."

He looks questioning to me, as if to ask if that is an acceptable way to pray to her. I answer by repeating his words in my native tongue.

He attempts to repeat what I have just said, mangling the words as they tumble clumsily from his tongue, but when I break them down into a few words at a time, he gets better. Although his accent is horrible. Still, it is a way to distract me from the searing pain in my arm as he works.

Marcus continues to chant the words, low and reverent as he rebinds the wound, only stopping when he is finished with my arm.

"You did well," I assure him, doing my best to keep my face from showing my discomfort.

He hauls me up from my seat on the rock. "A surgeon will do better. Are you ready to walk?"

I give him a single nod. "I am."

We set off at a pace to match the drizzle falling on us—slow, steady, and miserable. I can tell the weather is no friend to his leg, and I trudge on beside him in a mental fog that thickens as the rain grows heavier. With the Wall in his sights, there is no need for me to act as a guide, and I gladly let Marcus lead the way. I lose count of how many times he takes my good arm to keep me from tripping over a hidden root or rock in the path, and after a while my focus narrows to watching my boots to make sure I stay upright.

Marcus calls a halt to our march every mile or so, claiming it is for his leg, but the way he keeps a wary eye on me, finds an excuse to touch me to check my fever, I know it is more for me than him. I feel so weak and chilled, I do not mind the breaks, even though I hate to be the reason behind them slowing our progress. At midday he finds a stand of trees, rare in the open grassland of the valley, and stops our march yet again.

"I should like to be out of this rain for even just a little while," he tells me, tugging me toward the cover of the trees.

I follow mutely, too cold and tired to even put words to my agreement. Once under the branches, the rain tapers off considerably. He sits me down against a large tree trunk before easing himself down beside me with a grunt. My head hits his shoulder an instant later, and I immediately drop into an exhausted, fevered sleep.

I dream of grey and white shadows in the trees, dogs braying across the wind, the red shields of the Ninth Legion before me, and the blue shields of my father behind. Death surrounds me, no matter which way I turn. Then Marcus’ voice is calling to me from above.

I open my eyes to see his looking down on me in worry and apology. "If I could, I would let you sleep more. But the sooner we reach the Wall the better."

Somehow, my head is lying in his lap. I know not how it got there or how long I have been asleep, but there is no denying he is right about our need to start moving again. It is dangerous out in the open with the clans rising against the Roman garrisons. Marcus, however, is intent on reaching his fellow countrymen for another reason.

"I want only to get you warmed and under the care of a physician before the night is out."

I attempt to push myself up but can’t seem to get my arms under myself. "You should have woken me sooner."

"I tried," he tells me quietly, his face growing darker still.

"The sleep has done me good." It is not too much of a lie. If I hadn’t slept, I’m not sure how much further I would have gone anyway. "How far to the Wall?"

"Ten miles, maybe less."

"Help me to my feet and I will make it," I promise.

Ten Roman miles on any other day would pass beneath my feet at an easy stride in a few hours. I had run more than that distance when I found Guern a few days prior to this one. But today, it seems every step leaves me feeling as spent as I did at the end of that desperate run for help. Marcus coaxes me on, at first gently, then his voice takes the tone of a cohort highly disappointed in his troops. Whether he is truly angry at me or knows that is one thing that will prod my willfulness, it works, and I square my shoulders as best I can and continue on our march.

* * * *

Hours later, the rain still falls relentlessly, and we are both as soaked as we were in the river when the Seal People were tracking us. We have reached the road leading to the Chilurnium gate, walking along the muddy ruts formed by the wagons of the few traders who dare to cross into the north, although we have seen no one else on the road and are still miles from the Wall and the protection it offers. My cloak provides little warmth as the approaching night darkens the sky even more than the pressing clouds, but I walk with my arms crossing my chest to try to control my shivering. Marcus is limping badly, but his stubbornness is even stronger than my own, and he steadfastly places one foot in front of the other. My only choice is to do the same, even when the world tilts suddenly and I feel myself falling. Marcus grabs for me, but his bad leg isn’t strong enough to support the two of us, so we both go down in the mud. Habit has me rolling to avoid landing on the bow strapped to my back, but not far enough to keep Marcus’ weight from landing on my injured arm. I cannot stop the yelp of pain when he does and Marcus lets out his own curse about his leg.

"By the Light, you should know better!" I snap.

"I was trying to help!"

"How is both of us in the mud helping?" I bite hard on my lower lip, squeezing my eyes shut against the black spots floating above me. Then Marcus’ hand is across my mouth to silence me. I don’t hear anything at first, then it comes to me, dense and muffled yet distinct—the sound of horse hooves, riding hard.

"Two," I grunt out, "coming fast."

With a shake of his head, Marcus corrects my count. "Three at least."

"They have heard us." It is all the warning I need to give that they will not be friendly. There is no telling how long they have been aware of us on the road; with the rain dampening sound and our sorry state, they may have been following us for miles waiting for a chance to attack without us even knowing. But they would have heard us yell when we fell, more than that, they would have heard Latin, telling them we are not one of the local tribes.

Marcus is struggling to his feet, pulling me up with him. "Can you draw your bow?"

My arm is throbbing, but I am already fumbling arrows from the quiver and planting them in the ground beside me for ease of access. "String it for me, and be quick."

The first dark shape is already forming out of the grey sheets of rain when Marcus pushes my strung bow into my hand and draws his sword. I wipe water from my eyes but it does little to clear my vision that has the horse and rider swimming drunkenly down the road.

Marcus must be able to see more clearly than I because he grumbles, "Rogue warriors," at my shoulder. "Once you fire, stay behind me."

That is all the notice I need to notch my first arrow and let it fly. It goes wide, and I curse my injured arm as I set the next, holding my breath to stop the shaking that wracks my whole body. This one hits the target square in his chest, sending the man tumbling out of his saddle and clearing the view to the other two riders fast behind him.

Marcus moves in front of me, but I order, "Stand aside!"

By now they are close enough I can see the swirling tattoos covering their chest and face. To my blurred sight, the markings seem to writhe like worms exposed from under an overturned log. A wave of nausea passes over me that has me swaying where I stand.

"Now." Marcus’ voice is tense beside me.

I have a chance for one more shot before they are too close, and I choose the one raising his spear, my arm burning with an unnatural fire as I loose the string and send the arrow flying. It grazes along my target’s cheek, not enough to kill him, but enough to have him drop his spear with a scream of pain.

The final rider is bearing down on us hard, and Marcus gives me a rough shove out of the way of the horse as he raises his blade to block the blow of the mounted warrior. I land in the mud again, the distressed whiney of a horse where Marcus fights behind me drowning out my own grunt of pain. The second still-mounted Rogue I had injured regains his purpose and starts his charge toward me. Sitting up, I grab for another arrow. It is an awkward position for a pull, and by the time I do, the horse rears over me, blocking my shot at the warrior. I roll out of the way of the hoofs crashing into the mud where I had just been sitting. It rears again, and I scramble backwards, slipping in the muck of the road, but avoiding the deadly hooves once more.

"Esca!" Marcus yells, not in need but in warning, as if I am unaware of my current danger of being trampled to death.

I can barely hear him over the war cries of the man above me and the shrill neighing of his horse dancing dangerously close to where I wallow helplessly in the mire. Blinking to clear my vision, I fight to reach at least my knees for another shot. The man in the saddle has his small war ax raised to throw as I strain desperately for one last burst of strength to draw my bow, but it won’t seem to come. Before he can release his ax, the rider slips backwards out of view to land in the road on the other side of his mount. Marcus drops viciously on the warrior’s chest and delivers a swift killing swipe with his dagger across his foe’s throat.

Between the nervously prancing legs of horses, I can see the body of the third Rogue lying unmoving on the road; all dead and no more coming or they would be on us by now. Marcus is mud-coated, breathing hard, but pushing himself to his feet. He swipes at his cheek, smearing red into the dark smudge already there, and I cannot be certain it is not his blood I see.

"Esca, how fare you?" He is surveying the countryside for any other sign of attack.

As much as I try, my tongue won’t form words. I’m not really sure how to answer anyway, as my field of vision has narrowed to Marcus. Marcus, always Marcus. It is the only answer I know. So I speak his name. It comes out as little more than a slur.

He’s pushing at the shoulder of the horse between us to reach me. The frightened creature is jittery enough from the fight that it rears again, and Marcus grabs at its reins to pull it aside. With a smack to its rump, he sends the horse running clear of the two of us. This time when I try to call his name, my lips won’t even move.

"Esca?"

His eyes meet mine, and I can tell he has not been injured further. It is all I need know to let my body give into the pain and exhaustion and collapse into darkness.

"Esca…no!"

Then, I am flying.

There is a steady rumble around me, a rhythmic drumming of thunder that rolls on endlessly. Wind blows rain hard and stinging against my face. I attempt to raise a hand to block the gale and groan at the sharp pain that shoots through my arm.

Marcus speaks at my ear. "Easy. We will reach help soon."

I force my eyes open to see Marcus is flying with me, arms holding me close to his chest, and if I wasn’t in such misery, I might enjoy this. But when I lift my head from his shoulder, I see the sleek dark neck of a horse, rising then stretching out in a gallop. Flight of a different sort then, but at least there is no more marching through the rain. There is also a certain amount of warmth cradled between Marcus and the steed, and I am cocooned in both my cloak and his, so I let my head drop back to the crook of his neck, feeling his pulse point racing strong and steady against my cheek.

"All will be well," he promises. He sounds as I did when I promised to return to him, as if he is swearing it to himself as much as to me. I know what he fears, for I feared the same thing that day in the river. He fears it is a promise he may not be able to keep.

I focus on that strong and steady heartbeat. Strong and steady, just like Marcus. "A chuisle mo chroí," I murmur. Another endearment, but this time it does not slip unbidden from my lips. I want him to hear it, to know it, to have no doubt of how I feel for him and exactly what he is to me, no matter what the outcome of this wild flight may be. "Pulse of my heart," I repeat in Latin for him and him alone. "A chuisle mo chroí." It comes out as little more than a sigh against his neck as I feel myself sinking once again.

His hands tighten on the reins, pulling me closer to him, as he urges more speed from the already heaving mount.

* * * * *

"In the name of Caesar, open the gate!"

Marcus’ bellow has me coming to myself once more. I squint my eyes against the painfully bright glow of torches above us on the Wall, instinctively turning my head away from the light and back into Marcus’ neck, so that I cannot make out who he is calling to. Whoever it is, he is not impressed with Marcus’ order, no doubt because he is not much impressed with our appearance.

"You will have to be Caesar himself for these gates to open on a night such as this," the guard challenges, "and you are most definitely not him."

I feel the rumble of a growl forming in Marcus’ chest and he yells, "Who commands this garrison, soldier?"

"Lutorius Drussilus Salinator is cohort commander here."

Marcus exhales in relief to hear the name. "Tell him Marcus Flavius Aquila requests his hospitality, and be quick about it." Apparently the guard isn’t moving fast enough to suit Marcus. "Move!"

"Mithras has held us in favor." Marcus tightens his arms around me as he tells me, "Lutorius was my second-in-command at Isca Dumnoniorum."

I find myself drifting again while we wait, jerking awake when a much more friendly voice questions from above, "Commander, is that actually you beneath all that mud and muck?"

"Well met, Lutorius!" Marcus exclaims happily.

The relay of orders to open the gate sounds down the parapet as Lutorius calls back, "You are a welcome sight, Commander. Although an unexpected one, and forgive me for saying, a sorry one in your current state."

"It is a long story, my friend. One I will gladly share with you," Marcus promises, "once safely inside."

In short course, the great gate creaks open, and Marcus urges the horse into the dimly lit courtyard. I do my best to straighten, but it is a miserable attempt. It just makes our sidestepping horse prance a bit more so that Marcus has to call soothingly to it to keep it from interfering with the work of the men at the gate.

Lutorius meets us as the large doors swing shut, once more, and are barricaded. "Marcus Flavius Aquila! Never would I have thought to meet you here in Chilurnium, and on the north side of the Wall no less!"

"It is a happy coincidence to find you here, as well," Marcus agrees, his exhaustion cooling the edges of the warmth in his voice.

Lutorius looks at me questioningly. "And who do you carry bundled before you?"

"Esca Mac Cunoval," Marcus replies, as I cannot.

"A Briton?" Lutorius asks in surprise.

"One very dear to me," Marcus states earnestly. "And in dire need of your surgeon."

"He would be at your service had you arrived a day earlier," Lutorius laments. "As the Fates would have it, he went with the century of men I sent to reinforce the gate at Borcovicus that is under siege."

"And what shall you do for a physician if attack comes here?" Marcus asks.

"There is a pensioned surgeon in the town," Lutorius tells him. "He took a Briton wife upon his retirement-- half his age, but she has bore him five sons. The eldest is studying surgery under his father. When we have need, they come."

"Where can I find him?" Marcus asks eagerly. "I would have Esca in his care as soon as possible."

"I will send someone to fetch him. You know how the Britons have no reason to the lay of their towns; you will spend longer searching for the way than it will take to bring him here. Besides, you look as if you are in nearly as much need of his services as your friend."

Marcus slumps in gratitude. "You have my thanks, Lutorius."

After a quick order to one of his men, the commander pats the neck of our horse indicating we should stay mounted for the time being. "Come, I will show you to the infirmary for your friend, and you are welcome to a room in the Praetorium with me."

"Thank you for the offer, but I will stay with Esca as long as he is under the surgeon’s care."

"As you wish," Lutorius acknowledges with a bit of surprise, but he guides us down the straight pathway, giving the occasional greeting or order to his men as we go.

"It is good to see you have been promoted, my friend," Marcus says sincerely, although I can hear the hint of sorrow for his own lost command.

"My first command and it is at the edge of the known world." Lutorius shakes his head. "I am not sure if it is promotion or punishment."

Lutorius is older than Marcus by several years, meaning he must have worked his way up through the ranks.

"Promotion," Marcus assures, "well earned and far overdue."

"I shall take your word, although it is a hard post," Lutorius admits. "There will be nothing for months from the north to the point where we are desperate for some way to keep the men from going lax with boredom. Then, out of nowhere, a garrison will be attacked with the viciousness of a rabid dog."

Marcus nods grimly, "We saw the tribes massing last night from our camp, and ran into Rogue warriors not five miles from here on the road."

"I am not surprised. We have been hit by small raiding parties since night before last. Nothing more than to harry us," Lutorius admits, "but it is why I only dared to spare so few men to Borcovicus."

"The three we met will bother you no more," Marcus ensures him.

"That is good news, although I fear there are more hiding under cover of night." Lutorius shakes his head. "It is a lesson I learned well from you."

Their words buzz around me like bees on a lazy summer day, lulling me until Lutorius stops us, and Marcus gives me a gentle shake to rouse me. I lift my head wearily to see Lutorius standing in front of a long lime-washed building and offering a hand up to me. Between the two men, I am eased down to the ground. I lean against the horse, gripping tightly to the bridle to stay on my feet until Marcus dismounts, as well.

Fearful that he may try to carry me, I tell him quietly, "I can walk." I don’t trust my voice to speak beyond that.

Given Marcus’ restraint around the military, and the already strange expression on Lutorius' face from Marcus’ refusal of a room for himself, I feel it is for the best. Besides, I have no desire to look even weaker than I already feel. But the first step I take has the world going grey around the edges, and my knees wobble dangerously. Marcus is a full head taller than me. In my current state, he could easily scoop me up like a stubborn child and carry me if he so chose. Fortunately, he takes me at my word, simply wrapping an arm around my waist and helping me along. It is a short walk to the building that houses the medical facilities, but it seems an eternity before we arrive inside, and by the time we cross the threshold, Lutorius is helping to support me, too.

The fire is already stoked high and burning, and I feel warmer just walking through the door, but it does little to stop my chattering teeth. Marcus takes both of our sodden cloaks and drops them to the floor before sitting me on a cot. My mud-packed boots soon follow by Marcus’ hand, and when I curl shivering on my side, he drops a thick blanket on top of me, then another.

His fingers are icy cold when he rests his palm on my neck. "The surgeon will be here soon."

He is dripping wet, and where mud isn’t smeared on him from the battle in the road, it is spattered from the ride to the Wall. For the first time I can see a bruise forming on his jaw; from the fight or fall, I honestly don’t know.

"You look like a mongrel dog that was beat and turned out into the rain," I mumble.

"I have no doubt you speak true." His lips quirk as his thumb rubs just below my ear. "And yet I could say worse about you."

"Eat," I coax before my voice fades to nothing. "Warm yourself."

He nods his consent, and I slip into oblivion once again listening to Marcus telling our story to Lutorius

I cannot say how much time passes after that; it is as thick and heavy as seawater in the lungs. Images and sounds go as quickly as they come, some real, some dreams, some I cannot tell which they are, and I fight them like a man drowning beneath the waves.

I know the surgeon arrives. There is a sharp pain to devour the steady throbbing that has eaten at my arm since my fever has begun. There is Latin, words I should easily understand that are as nonsensical as the babbling of a babe. There is a cup at my mouth, a bitter taste on my lips, an unfamiliar voice telling me to drink, which I refuse. Then Marcus is telling me calmly to do the same, praising me when I do, murmuring words I don’t understand, but they are calming because they are his, until the world fades again.

I call a warning to my youngest brother. He has not yet danced the spear but still he fights. It is his first battle and I know it will also be his last. The Roman soldier is upon him too quickly for him to heed my notice and he goes down. I run to his aid, slicing through the back of the Centurion before dropping to my knees to grip my brother’s shoulders. Only, it is not my brother, but a young Rogue warrior staring up at me with terrified eyes. I look down at myself to see I’m dressed in Roman red, and in my own horror at what I’ve become, I let the young Rogue up to run away.

But I know it will do no good, because of what is coming next. And when Marcus’ dagger strikes home in the boy’s back, it is my brother I see falling to the ground.

I wake with Marcus wiping a cloth across my chest. His smile flickers with the candlelight when he catches me watching him as he dips the cloth into a basin before running it over my shoulder. "Since you cannot go to the baths just yet, it seemed only fair that I should bring them to you."

The cloth is coarse; the water warm and cooling quickly on my skin, but his touch is gentle, tender. I have seen these same soothing hands kill with brutal efficiency. Deep down, it shames me that I want nothing more than to lay here and let him use those same hands to wash away the mud and sweat and blood of our journey, that I want him to do so much more. I am a disgrace to my father’s clan to love a Roman Centurion. But the Clan of Cunoval is no more, just as Marcus Flavius Aquila is no longer a soldier of Rome. I want to start anew with Marcus, be washed clean by Marcus, both of us free from the ghosts of our past.

He rings water from the rag again, moves it to my jaw, then my brow, and I close my eyes.

Then we are riding across the highlands, the dogs of the Seal People braying in the distance when my horse goes down. I am trapped beneath its weight, struggling to free myself as I hear the dogs growing closer.

My arm feels as if it may be broken, and I am too weak and tired to budge my floundering mount. I look up to where Marcus still sits in his saddle. "Marcus, help me."

"I cannot," he tells me simply.

"You can!" I insist. "You must!"

"It is up to you now." He ignores my pleas, only turns his horse and rides away without looking back, leaving me to struggle futilely against the weight and the pain to pull myself free.

I groan, and Marcus flinches awake on the cot beside mine. The basin is gone from when I last saw him in this room, and the pale light of dawn is at the window. He sits quickly, scrubbing away the exhaustion from dark-shadowed eyes even as he stumbles toward me. "Here." His voice is husky with sleep and he uses the side of my cot to steady himself. "This will help."

Sitting beside me, he slides an arm under my neck then puts the cup to my lips once more. "Believe me, I know the taste is horrible, but it does cut the pain."

I drink, then roll my head to rest against his shoulder, already feeling the drowsiness taking me again. Whether from the tonic or my sickness I know not, all I know for certain is that I like having Marcus near.

With a press of lips to my forehead, he tells me, "Rest. The surgeon says it does you good."

"Stay." I force the word out in little more than a croak.

He rests his cheek against my head. "I will be nowhere else but here with you."

I swing my sword, slicing through the Roman’s defenses, and he goes down in a heap. Hefting the blue shield of my clan, I scan the battlefield around me to see the combat still rages fierce and bloody. My father’s spear impales a Roman soldier, my brother uses his own shield to bash into a red-clad foe of his own, and I look for the next man I shall face. He appears before me, wearing the two-faced mask of the Roman god, Janus, and striking his shield with his sword in invitation to fight. The length and bulk of my own shield has vanished, leaving me only the small, round boss from the center that is almost useless in a real battle. The battlefield has vanished, as well, to be replaced by the gladiator’s arena. I survey the crowd to find both my father’s clan and the Romans seated in the stands. All of them, to a man, are giving the thumbs down, the Roman symbol for my death.

I look desperately for Marcus in the stands, circling anxiously in the dirt, but can find him nowhere. It is then the gladiator strikes me with the butt of his sword.

The world jars violently, and with each quake, the pain sears through my arm anew.

There are the sounds of people going about their daily life floating somewhere out in the murkiness-- two women haggling shrilly over the price of eggs, the clang of a blacksmith’s hammer, the tromp of sandaled feet marching in time, the whiney of a horse, the scolding of a mother to her child, the grunt of men lifting a heavy load, the creak of wagon wheels beneath me. Marcus is nothing more than a dark outline backed by sunlight above me when I finally open my eyes.

"How much further?" he asks of someone I cannot see.

"Two miles," a voice responds. "The road will smooth out some once we are beyond the center of town."

My head is pillowed in Marcus’ lap, and it looks as if we are riding in the back of a horse-drawn wagon, but all I can see is the looming shadow of Marcus’ broad shoulders and square jaw, and further beyond, high clouds on a pale blue sky, a blue that always remind me of my home. Marcus pulls the blanket up beneath my chin when he looks down at me.

"Appius believes he can better care for you at his villa," Marcus tells me. "His son, Vibius, takes us there now."

My mind searches for meaning to those names, but nothing comes. Marcus trust them, though, else we would not be destined for their home; thus, I have no choice but to do the same. It is only then that I realize the people we pass in the wagon are speaking my native tongue.

"I shall see you beyond the sunset," my mother tells me in the language of my birth.

She kneels before my father, her blue eyes, pale as the autumn sky, are bright with the life that is about to bleed out on the floor of our dwelling. She is proud and beautiful as she lifts her head, dark hair falling back from her shoulders as she exposes her throat. She is a queen of Brigantes, more regal and loyal to her people than the treacherous queen Cartimandua could have ever hoped to be, because of this, her final stand against Rome.

My father’s dagger slides easily through her skin and her eyes never leave mine as she slips down, slumps silently into death. In them I can see her last thoughts. Soon, my son. I shall see you soon.

I do not doubt that she is right. The world of the dead seems closer tonight than it even does on Samhuin when The Crone skulks in the shadows. After what I have just witnessed, I almost welcome her touch. There is nothing to keep us here. Better to pass beyond the sunset than remain here as Roman dogs. My mother’s body drops lifeless to the floor, the only sound the clatter of her heavy bracelets of Egyptian glass and copper, but there is no time to mourn. The battle cries are already rising through the village; the Legionaries have broken through. I will fight my last fight shoulder to shoulder with my brothers and father and have a good death this night.

The door to our home flies open, and a Centurion bursts into the room. I raise my sword, ready to face him and any who follow, but he stops, removes his helmet and smiles happily to see me.

"Marcus?" My sword dips as he reaches out his hand. I am unsure how I know this man, but know in my heart it is his name, just as I know I can do him no harm.

"Esca, you must come with me."

Leave my family? With a Roman? I look back toward my father, my brothers, and what I see has my stomach twisting, threatening to revolt. They are coated with blood, their rotting skin exposing skull and skeleton beneath. Dead. All of them dead and still beckoning for me to join them.

Marcus’ hand drops on my shoulder, pulling me away. "Esca, please, return to me."

"Return?" I twist out of his hold in confusion, unsure of where I have been, where I am.

"Please, Esca."

I look back at my family, all dead now. Dead this night, dead these seven years. And I, somehow, am alive. I am alive with a Roman begging me to leave them here and join him instead.

"Esca, all I ask is that you come with me."

I look at the hand he offers and for no reason I can name, I know I want nothing more than to take it.

So, I do. There is a rightness to his touch I feel deep in my heart.

Then I repeat the promise I will make to him years in the future, the one I had made to him days before. "As with Rome, Marcus, ask and I will go where you lead."

Where he leads me is out of the house of Cunoval and into one of a decidedly Roman style.

The room I wake in is dark except for the fire burning in the hearth and the embers smoldering in the small brazier where Marcus kneels. His words are low and muffled, but I hear my name more than once while I watch him sweep his cupped hands through the rising smoke. It is his gesture of prayer, and I am more than familiar with it.

"Is it as bad as that, then?" I ask, my voice cracking from disuse.

Marcus turns away from his altar abruptly, a kind of wonder showing through the shadows on his face to be hearing my voice.

"It has been that bad," I surmise from his expression.

The pain in my arm is back to a dull ache, and the world seems more real than it has since our ride to the Wall, but when I try to push myself up, I find that I am still as weak as a newborn foal.

"No, don’t move!" Marcus orders. He quickly closes the short distance from the wall where he’s been praying to my bed. Once there he rests a hand on my arm, then as if he can’t believe what he has found, he moves to touch my face, my neck, and my chest. A smile breaks across his face, like the ice cracking on a pond in spring. "Your fever has broken." He exhales heavily, cupping my face gently. "Mithras be praised, you heal." Then he kisses me soundly.

I try my best to kiss him back but it is a poor effort. Besides, there is more relief than passion behind the gesture.

"And what of Brigantia?" I challenge when he lifts his face from mine.

His laugh is broken but joyous all the same. "The goddess be praised, as well." He laughs again then drops another quick kiss on my lips. "I must wake Appius to see you."

He is already turning for the door, and I raise my arm to stop his leaving. "Marcus—"

He cuts me off with a forceful warning. "Don’t move!" He pushes my arm back down to the bed. "You mustn’t disturb their work."

I follow his eyes in confusion as to who ‘they’ are, and suck in a sharp breath when I see the maggots writhing in the wound in my arm. Marcus grabs the wrist of my other hand to keep it from brushing them away. Even in my weakened state, he has to struggle to still it.

"It’s fine, Esca." His hand tightens slightly on my wrist. "Trust me in this."

"They are eating me!" I insist.

"Yes," he agrees, which just has me fighting against him harder. "But only the rotten flesh that was killing you." His throat bobs visibly when he swallows, and his eyes drop to our hands. "And it was killing you, Esca."

The fight leaves me to see him so upset, and I collapse back limp against the bed. Marcus searches my face in worry, and I frown with a crinkle of my nose. "It’s disgusting."

"It is," he agrees with his own sickened expression. "But you are alive and that is all that matters to me."

"Your leg?" I ask to have something else to think about.

"Healing clean," he assures me, "and soon you will be, too, if you let them do their work."

"Now that I know they are there, I can feel them…moving," I confess, unable to suppress my shudder.

A new voice at the door tells me, "Some people claim they can feel them moving even after they have been removed. But eventually, that too, will pass."

"Vibius!" Marcus greets. "His fever has broken."

The young man cannot be past his seventeenth year, but he is already as tall as Marcus, although thin with an overabundance of arms and legs. I have no doubt the broad shoulders of his Roman blood will come when his beard is able to thicken. His skin and hair color is fairer, more like the local Brigantes clans-- his mother’s influence, no doubt, if I remember what Lutorius said in the fort.

He nods knowingly. "My mother has proven correct about the strength of his lineage." His seriousness gives way to his youth as he grins. "While father will be pleased to see Esca recovers, his pride will never live down mother’s smugness. I may see if I can find an excuse to be out of the house for the next few days."

Vibius rests a hand on my chest and closes his eyes in concentration. Then he leans closer to look at my arm. I pointedly do not look, grimacing instead at Marcus.

"Should we wake your father?" Marcus asks.

Vibius shakes his head. "There is no need. Besides, why wake the beast before it is necessary?" Straightening he nods in approval. "It begins to heal. I think a bowl of broth will help you strengthen even further."

He returns in a few minutes with a bowl he hands over to Marcus. I’m ashamed to say that I have almost dozed off again awaiting his return. "Eat what you can," he tells me in the perfectly accented Brigantes of one who has spoken it since his first words, then returns to a Latin spoken with the same familiarity. "Then both of you get some more sleep."

"I can feed myself," I argue as soon as Vibius leaves the room.

Marcus ignores my protests and spoons some broth into my mouth. "You are not to move your arm too much," he reminds.

"You sound like your Roman physicians," I accuse. It is a good excuse not to think about why I shouldn’t move my arm.

"I have had a great deal more experience with them the past few years than I had ever wished to."

The broth sits warm in my belly, and I take a few more offered spoonfuls, using the time to study Marcus. His jaw is more bearded than stubbled, and his eyes are so dark ringed they look to be blackened from a fight, but there is a happy set to his mouth and hope in his eyes.

"Maybe you could study medicine, rejoin the military as a surgeon," I suggest.

"A surgeon? Me?" He shakes his head and spoons more broth into my mouth. "I cannot see it."

"I can," I tell him honestly. "You have cared well for me."

"That is different," he dismisses.

"How so?"

"It is you."

Even with the smile on his face, he looks haggard and exhausted.

"When was the last time you slept a full night?" I ask.

"A full night?" He chuckles and feeds me another bite. "When did we leave my uncle’s house?"

"I don’t even know how long it has been since we passed south of the Wall," I confess.

"I’m not sure I do either, the days and nights have blended one with the other it seems."

I shake my head when he offers another spoonful, feeling full and exhausted from half a bowl of broth. "Will you sleep with me now?"

He hesitates a moment, then sets aside the bowl and crawls onto the bed to lie down beside me, then turns to his side to face me. That look of wonder to see me looking back is still on his face.

"I’m sorry I have ruined your plans." When he frowns I explain. "You wanted to find an inn and a bed and learn all my secrets. I confess I was looking forward to that, as well."

"I have changed my mind about that," he tells me.

Now it is my turn to frown in concern.

His smile softens as he traces the downturn of my lips with the tip of a finger. "I have no wish to learn all your secrets at once. I want to discover them slowly, take my time doing it."

"I have many secrets," I tell him. "It could take years to reveal them."

"That is what I’m counting on."

He leans in and gives me a soft, almost chaste kiss, but he rests his head so close to mine our noses almost brush.

"Although, there is one thing I would like you to teach me this night," he admits.

"If it is within my powers to do it, I will teach you," I assure him, even though all my body wishes to do is sleep.

"There were words you spoke to me in Briton on our ride to the Wall. I would learn to say them properly."

Most of our trip to the wall is a blur once I fell sick, but when Marcus tries to repeat what I said, I know what he means even though he doesn’t get a single word right.

"A chuisle mo chroí," I correct.

His eyes lighten when I say it, and when he repeats it, he is closer to getting it right. It is ridiculous how happy it makes me feel to hear him speak it aloud and with heartfelt emotion.

"A chuisle mo chroí," I say more slowly, emphasizing the inflection of each word.

He repeats each word after me, and I grin when he says them almost perfectly. "Good. Very good."

He puts them all together. "A chuisle mo chroí."

"Do you think you can remember how to say it now?"

"I plan to practice it often enough it should stay with me."

I drift off to sleep with him doing just that.

* * * * *

 

The next day I see why Vibius called his father the beast. Appius is taller even than his son, though his shoulders have hunched with age. Still, I have no doubt that in his younger days, he would have made even Marcus look small. He has let his hair grow long in the style of the Britons, and it floats about his head as white and wispy as thistle down on the wind. It gives him the look of one of the wild cats, the leones, that sometime fight in the arenas. His temperament mirrors his appearance, growling loudly that I have taken my time in healing even as he insists I stay in bed for at least two more days with the worms eating my arm, else I will ruin all his hard work.

I am not pleased to be bedridden, and even less pleased about the maggots, but between his bitter medicines and the rains that continue to fall, I find myself sleeping most of the days away. And when I often wake to find Marcus dozing beside me, I find it even harder to complain. Each day, Marcus looks healthier, better rested, and he moves easier on his leg.

On the third day of my confinement, Appius declares the maggots have completed their work and removes them. Vibius spoke true when he said I would still feel them squirming, but Marcus swears there are none there whenever I insist otherwise. The same day, Appius decides I have laid around long enough and should go outside for fresh air. My eagerness to be up and about soon wanes when I sit on the edge of the bed and the room spins sickeningly. It is then I realize how weak I truly am, but even without Appius ordering me to leave the bed, I would not pass up this opportunity.

Marcus bundles blankets around me before easing me to my feet and helping me shuffle to the courtyard where I collapse winded and exhausted onto a bench there. The rain has thankfully stopped, but the sun has not managed to cut through the heavy clouds. Still, the breeze is crisp and thick with the tang of wet grass and manure.

Appius’ wife, Birkita works with her two youngest sons in the small garden behind the villa and waves to us. She is shorter than all but the two youngest of her household, with a full bosom that she wields like a war shield when challenged by her husband, which I suspect is why she seems to win most of their arguments. While older by several years, she is still closer in age to me and Marcus than she is to her husband, but there is no doubt she is the woman of this house and runs it with an efficiency that keeps her men folk jumping when she calls an order. Yet her eyes twinkle with mischief when Appius is near, and her tongue is quick with biting wit that makes my heart ache with familiarity. She has already questioned me about my family line as if interrogating a prisoner, with short direct questions that can only be answered in the same manner. My father’s land laid many leagues south of here, but she quickly concludes her cousin may have married into my clan. Her hair, the color of dried wheat, is pulled back in a braid for her work, and she has tucked up her skirts to keep them out of the mud of the garden. Her voice carries from where she labors to the terrace where we sit as she tells her boys to pull turnips for tonight’s meal. If I close my eyes, I can almost believe it is my mother’s voice from my boyhood telling me to do the same.

"Esca, is it too much for you to be outside?"

The concern in Marcus’ voice has me opening my eyes and giving him a reassuring smile. "Birkita, this place… they have stirred memories; that is all."

"Do you like it here?"

"Well enough." I shrug, although the motion is lost under my blankets.

"It looks like it would make good farmland, but I remember seeing few on the trip north."

When Marcus takes the seat beside me, I slump against him, happy for his nearness for more than just his company. "The land in Brigantes is fertile, but the farming backbreaking, particularly here in the north. There are rocks the size of a prized bull in the fields. My people decided long ago it is easier to herd cattle on top of the land than try to dig boulders their size out of it."

Marcus returns my grin then shakes his head. "I know little of herding cattle. I prefer farming." He laughs. "Don’t look so surprised. I come from a long line of farmers."

"I thought you came from a long line of soldiers."

"Soldiers have to do something with their pension when they retire." He rubs at his leg, thinking, no doubt, on how that pension will never come now because of his injury.

I decide not to make the wound worse by mentioning it. "My father kept cattle. I preferred to tend his horses, though; they didn’t wander off as much. Cattle are more trouble than they’re worth. My first battle of manhood was defending our herd against raiders from a neighboring clan."

I drop the blanket around my shoulders enough to tap the marking on my arm that commemorates that victory. Marcus brushes his finger across the blue lines almost reverently, another secret of mine revealed, and I shiver at the touch. His eyes meet mine with a greedy fire to learn more, and if we were here alone, I would lean in and teach him a great deal more with my lips. As it is, Birkita calls into the house for her middle child, then answers a question from her brood already in the garden, reminding us how crowded Appius’ house truly is.

The skin of Marcus’ neck flushes red, and he clears his throat as he pulls the blanket back up to my shoulder. "Speaking of horses, Lutorius has stabled the one we took from the Rogue Warriors on the road, and has added a second for our use that was recovered from the battle at Borcovicus. It was meant to go into his military stables, but as he says, one horse more or less won’t be noticed on the lists, especially with the prize we carry."

"That is a boon for our trip south," I note.

"The mare I rode was a sturdy mount," Marcus tells me. "If the second is her equal, we will be well prepared for our return to Calleva."

With a solemn nod, I agree. "They are Iceni, no doubt. The Rogue are known for stealing only the best."

Marcus blinks at my comment then grins at my jest. "Esca, you have no idea how good it does my heart to see you back to yourself."

The smile on his face is all the proof I need and I lean harder against his shoulder.

* * * * *

It is another twelve days before Appius declares us fit enough to travel. Of course, he does it in his typically gruff manner as we sit around the hearth following the evening meal. Vibius and his two younger brothers sit at the dining table looking over a series of scrolls as Vibius instructs them on what sounds to be the muscles of the human body. The younger two boys sit by the fire at their mother’s feet playing with wooden animals and soldiers. I finish up a carving I have been working on of a horse, and squat beside them to add it to their game.

They thank me happily then immediately set to arguing over who will play with it first. Birkita lowers her sewing long enough to threaten to take the toy away unless they find a way to share. The two settle down and quickly come to a compromise. I look back at the seat beside Birkita where I had been sitting, feeling at a loss as to what to do now that the carving is done. I also can’t help but think back to the last carving I had made, that one a fish, and the boy I had given it to and his sorry fate. The same blade that had taken his life had nearly taken my own. It would have taken it if not for Marcus bringing me here and Appius and Vibius caring for me.

Marcus’ voice brings me from my dark thoughts, "Esca, are you feeling unwell?"

"I am fine," I assure, then force a grin. "Do not tempt our host to bring out his worms again."

"There will be no need for that," Appius says as he studies the draught-board he and Marcus are playing. "In fact, it is high time you two were on your way, else my wife may take a liking to young, healthy men in their prime over her husband who is of an age to be her father."

Birkita snorts. "You wish you were as young as my father, old man." But her eyes flick up from her mending to meet her husband’s and a teasing grin curves her lips. "Besides, you have nothing to fear with these two on my behalf."

"You have no idea what desires reside in the hearts of young men," Appius warns as he makes his next move on the board. "Trust me, I have been one, I know. It is how I became bound to you, mo chroí."

Marcus intentionally turns his attention back to the board, but I see his own smile to hear the familiar endearment. I don’t realize I am watching him with a similar expression until Birkita’s hand lands on my shoulder briefly.

"I know full well what is in the hearts of these two," she tells him, then leans forward and says quietly in our own tongue. "He is blind to everything but his healing when it comes to those he treats." Her eyes move knowingly from me to Marcus and back. "You chose well; Romans can be difficult but can also be well worth the effort."

I flush and drop my eyes to the wooden toys again to have been so easily read, but it also warms my heart to hear the approval in her voice. Marcus looks questioningly to me as to what Birkita said, and my smile just widens, he has no choice but to do the same in puzzlement.

"If we have overstayed our welcome, you have our apologies," I tell Appius as I stand. "The hospitality of your home makes it hard to leave, but we will make arrangements on the morrow to be off."

Appius shifts in his seat and waves me back into my chair as he grumbles, "There is no need to go so soon. Proper preparations must be made for a trip such as yours."

"You have my thanks," Marcus assures him. "More than you will ever know or that I could ever repay."

The old surgeon moves another piece. "You say that now, but you have yet to see my bill."

* * * * *

As much as Marcus and I have come to like the surgeon and his family, we are both eager to be off, and spend the next day gathering provisions for the trip. That evening, Lutorius brings our two horses. I had been right in my prediction; they are both of strong Iceni stock and well up to the journey ahead.

We have bought supplies enough for several days on the road, and will have ample opportunity to buy more as our journey will take us through plenty of towns along the way. Still, Birkita hands me up a sack from her own kitchen as we say our goodbyes in the early dawn hour.

Appius grumbles from where he stands in the courtyard wrapped in a blanket with his bedclothes still underneath. "Is it not enough I have saved their lives with my skills and kept them fed and out of the cold for near the full turning of the moon? Now you send them off with food from my own larder?"

Birkita turns, shoulders thrown back and hands on her hips. "Esca is my kin by marriage. Would you shame my clan through your selfishness?"

"Well, since he is family I suppose there is no way around it then," Appius mumbles before reaching up and taking Marcus’ arm in the Roman style. "Keep an eye to his wound. It is not unknown for the fever to return even when all seems well."

"Have no fear, I shall watch him closely," Marcus promises.

After a final round of well wishes, we are off. The day promises to be a clear one, although the air has a chill that makes me thankful for the warm cloaks we wear. It doesn’t dampen my spirits, though, to be out and moving and alone with Marcus once again. While I feel recovered from my fever, Marcus sees fit to call an early halt our first day on the road. I cannot say that I am against such an idea as I am still prone to tire quicker than before, and there is no need to push ourselves as we had in Caledonia. Besides, the inn we find is small but welcoming, the food warm and comforting, and the bed soft and inviting, and we make good use of it. It is the first time we have been together since that night in the rain when I first fell ill, and even in our eagerness, we both know there is no need to rush.

There is also no desire to sleep given the alternative use of our time, and I find myself watching Marcus with half-lidded eyes as he lies beside me in a similarly sated and drowsy state running his fingers lazily along my spine.

"I did not over exert you, did I?" Although he smiles when he asks, there is a hint of genuine concern in his voice.

"Did I overexert you?" I counter.

"I am not so recently arisen from a sick bed as you are. And considering what happened the last time we were intimate, I have reason to worry."

I laugh. "Marcus, as amazing and skilled as you are, even you cannot kill me by laying with me."

His hand on my back stills but he doesn’t remove it even as he frowns. "How do you know? Maybe I’ve been going easy on you?"

Now my own eyes narrow. "Have you? Because if you have, I will be very angry with you. I will settle for nothing less than your very best efforts."

"You have no need to fear; I cannot help but do everything in my powers to please you."

"You have succeeded at every attempt," I assure him with a kiss that grows warmer as Marcus’ hand slides further down my back and I scoot closer, eager to put him to the test once more.

Unfortunately, Marcus has other ideas and finally pulls away. "Esca, I have been thinking…"

I sigh and bite his lower lip. "Unless it is about new ways to pleasure me, I would rather you did not do that right now." But I can tell from the tone of his voice, that is not what he has been thinking.

"That has been on my mind, as well," he promises me, moving him mouth along my throat. "But since we are in Brigantes, I was wondering if you would like to see your father’s lands again."

My eyes that had slid shut to savor the caress of lips and hands open again at the suggestion.

"I have seen them already, Marcus," I tell him in controlled simplicity. "We passed through them on our trip north." He lifts his head in surprise and I continue. "Isurium. The Romans took the land to build their garrison there."

He blinks in surprise. "But you never said anything when we traveled through there before."

"What is there to say?" I shrug.

I had hardened my heart before we ever entered the town, rode through with my eyes facing forward in fear of seeing something that would stir old memories, insisted we continue on when Marcus suggested a rest, never gave him a chance to argue the point. There was no need to worry, as nothing was as it had been before. It bore no resemblance to my father’s settlement, and I honestly did not know if that was better or worse. In the end, I had left feeling a dull numbness in my heart as well as my body, and had been even quieter that evening than I normally was. Marcus had noted the silence. I had dismissed it as a long day in the saddle and curled in my blankets soon after, feigning sleep because it would not come willingly. Even now, my emotions about Isurium remain as dead as the people of my clan who once lived there.

Marcus seems at a loss. "It is your place of birth, your home—"

With a firm shake of my head, I challenge, "Did anyone hail me on the road? Did anyone stop and greet me? When my father lived, I wore the silver torque of my clan. Everyone knew me for the son of Cunoval and gave greeting when I passed. Not one person in that town lived there when I did. My kin are all dead; those in my clan who survived fled or were taken into slavery the same as me. It is no longer my home; it is just another Roman town."

"Esca…" he flounders.

I cup his jaw and silence him with a kiss. "Is Etruria still your home now that your parents are dead and the land no longer yours?" He pauses then shakes his head. "It is not so different for me."

Marcus sighs again and rests his forehead against mine. "Then we shall find a home for us."

"I have found it already." I kiss him again and slide my hand between us, feel him growing hard against my palm. "It is here in this bed, and the next we shall share, and the next…"

He moans my name, capturing my mouth with his, and kisses me hungrily as he takes me in hand in turn. I come alive at his touch, the death of Isurium far from this bed, these blankets, this man.

It is the best home I could ever hope to have.

 

* * * * *

The mood for the rest of the trip is much more joyous than our travels north. Gone is the dread and worry and uncertainty that hung over the two of us when we left Calleva, not to mention that the nights are much more pleasant being spent tangled in Marcus’ arms and legs. But although our destination this time is a much friendlier one than in Caledonia, I have much to occupy my thoughts during our journey.

While Marcus will be welcomed with open arms, there are plenty of doubts to fill my heart. What if his uncle does not approve of the manumission? How will Marcus act as my patron and provide a wage if he cannot yet support himself? All of these could easily be resolved if Marcus receives a reward for returning the eagle, but Rome could take months to act on it, and even then I am not sure Marcus knows what he would like to do. And what if Marcus chooses to leave Britain? I had sworn I would follow if he asked me to go, and I have no doubt he would ask, but the thought of returning to a house where I served as slave is discomforting enough. I can only imagine what it would be like to be in a land where I was the oddity, and it is not a pleasant thought. My only choice is to determine a course of action that is acceptable to us both.

Still, even with these worries, the homecoming to Calleva is a happy one. Stephanos is the first to see us from the small kitchen garden, waving then calling excitedly into the house to his master. By the time we pull our horses to a halt, Old Aquila is in the courtyard to greet us, his smile questioning as Marcus offers him the bundle containing the eagle standard.

"Is this…?" At the weight he holds in his hands, Aquila’s eyes look between us in disbelief.

"It is," Marcus confirms, nodding with a proud smile. "Our journey was successful."

Aquila quickly unwraps the standard, his smile growing as the gold glistens in the afternoon sun. "Indeed it was successful. Indeed it was." He covers the eagle with the cloak once again and hands it back. "Well done, my boy." His uncle clasps Marcus’s shoulder before he glances over to me. "Well done, both of you. Although it does not look as if it was a task easily undertaken."

"No, it was not without its trials," Marcus shakes his head with a look back at me. Even now, he sometimes has that flicker of amazement in his eyes to see that I am still with him. "But the reward has been worth it."

Old Aquila misses little, and his curious expression shows he has seen that same look in Marcus’ eyes. "Come. Come. I would hear all about it. Of course you must be hungry. Stephanos, some food, for our conquering heroes!" He laughs pushing Marcus toward the door.

As I follow, he pats my back, too. There is a look of thanks in his face, and perhaps a bit of surprise that I had not slit Marcus’ throat as he had warned I might. I duck my head as he repeats, "Well done, boys. Well done."

Marcus and I eat the remnants of the midday meal standing around the kitchen work table as Marcus tells the key points of our journey north. The details, per his uncle’s request, will wait until evening, around the fire, after we have washed away the dust of the road.

"Barbaric tales are best told by civilized men," he declares. "It is a lesson we learned from the Greeks…Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides. Is that not right, Stephanos?"

The old Greek smiles and nods at his master’s reasoning as he clears away the scraps of the meal. For a moment, I feel the pull of my own responsibility as slave to master to help him, but I am slave no more. It is in an odd sensation that prickles at the hairs on my neck, even more so now that we have returned to this house.

As if sensing my discomfort, Marcus addresses his uncle. "If you have a moment, I should have a word with you."

He will want to speak with him about my manumission, and while I know I would be welcome to be there, it is a conversation I believe should remain between the two of them so that they can both speak freely.

"I will see to the horses and unpack our things," I offer as a way to excuse myself from the talk.

"Esca," Marcus protests, "that is not necessary—"

"It’s fine," I assure him, then quickly exit out to the courtyard where the horses have been left waiting.

I think again of how fortunate we were to take the two horses, and I plan to have my own conversation with the elder Aquila before the day is out, that is if I can find an excuse for Marcus not to be there. Fortunately, Marcus gives me a way when he returns to his room after talking to his uncle.

"Your manumission will take place in the morning," he tells me happily. "Uncle Aquila will go with us into town to act as witness."

I nod and continue unpacking our gear.

He stills my hands. "And I have told you it is not necessary for you to see to my things."

"Then you can do it for us both instead," I tell him with crossed arms

Although I know Marcus means well, his constant insistence that I do not need to do these things acts as one more reminder that not so long ago I was required to do them.

"I will, and gladly," he asserts. Stepping back, I let him resume the work I had started. "And before we bathe, we should go to the auxiliary camp on the outskirts of town to see if they have word of where we can find the Legate, Claudius, to return the eagle."

"I shall remain here instead."

His brow furrows. "You will not go with me?"

"Is it not my right to stay or go as I please?" I challenge.

"Of course it is."

"Then I choose to remain here," I say firmly.

His frown turns from confusion to worry. "Esca, has something happened you aren’t telling me?"

I sigh and step forward to cup his jaw. "Marcus, you must learn that just because I choose to do something different than you, it is not because I am angry. Sometimes it is simply because I do not want to do it." Then I give a gently rap to the back of his head. "Go. Find news of Claudius. On the trip to deliver the eagle, I will accompany you; of that have no doubt."

He nods, somewhat reluctantly, but finally leaves for the auxiliary camp, and I go in search of my own audience.

I find Marcus’ uncle in his study working on his manuscript on siege warfare. I have not told Marcus I am coming to speak with him because he would have wanted to come with me, and this is something that I, as a freedman, need to do on my own. I stand patiently in the doorway, waiting for him to notice me. It does not take him long.

"Esca," he says without turning around from his seat at his desk, "I have been expecting you. Marcus told me of his plans for your manumission. I cannot say that I was surprised by the news." He sets aside his stylus and finally turns to face me.

"But do you approve?" I ask. "After all, you were the one who bought me."

"As a gift," he stresses, "for Marcus. What he chooses to do with his property is his choice alone."

My back stiffens at the word property, but as much as I would like to turn and walk from the room, this must be done. So I stare out the window above his desk into the countryside I have come to know so well since coming to live here.

"Marcus may free me, but we both know that he has no means to act as my patron." And this is another reason why I did not want Marcus to be here during this conversation. "Rome may reward him for returning the eagle, but until that time he has nowhere to go."

"Marcus is welcome here as long as he wishes to stay. He knows that."

"Your obligation to Marcus is through blood, it does not extend to me." My eyes flick to old Aquila to see a curious expression on his face.

"So you fear I will see this as an opportunity to turn you out?"

"No," I say honestly. Although, now that he mentions it, he could if he chose to do so. "It is… this is your home and Marcus…" I sigh, frustrated this is not going the way I had played it in my mind. "He presumes, for the both of us, where he has no right to do so now that I am free."

Just as I have no requirement to stay here now that I am no longer a slave, I know Aquila has none to hire me to work here. Only Marcus, as my patron, has that duty, and Marcus has very little to his name that has not been given to him by his uncle.

Aquila studies me for a moment before asking, "Do you know why I bought you for my nephew?"

"He was in need of a body-slave after his injury," I state simply.

"He was in need of something, I’ll grant you that. But Stephanos could have easily cared for us both." Aquila shakes his head. "No, I bought you because you were the first thing Marcus had shown any interest in, the only thing he had cared about, since coming to Calleva."

I feel my face warm slightly, but say nothing.

"At first, I thought that he was so angry and frustrated by his injuries and inability to do what he wanted that he finally saw a way to make a difference in saving your life. Then when he was angry with me for buying you, I thought he just wanted to be contrary with anyone who crossed his path, even an arena full of spectators. But the longer I saw the two of you together, I came to suspect that he had simply been lonely." Aquila spreads his hands. "A young man surrounded by old ones in this house. Or he saw a kindred spirit in you that day. Whatever the reason, you have always been more than a slave to him, and freedman or not, he will not wish to part from you easily."

"Nor I him," I admit.

"I see." Aquila regards me with that slightly amused expression of his face. "And you have come to me with a proposal. I suppose it is best that we have it then."

I take a breath and spell out what I have been thinking on during our trip south. "You have seen my work; you know that I am good and true at it."

"I have seen you spend the past year hunting and fishing with Marcus." His lips quirk when I flush again. "But it puts food on the table often enough, and you complete your other household chores as well as Stephanos, and can do those things that take a younger man’s foolishness and strength where he cannot, so I have no complaints." He tilts his head. "So that is your proposal? To continue doing as you have? How is that any different than being a slave?"

I ignore the bite of his question. Old Aquila is using this to test me; that much I have learned of him. "Is it not customary to pay a wage to a freedman?"

"A wage?" he scoffs. "Would it not be a better investment for me to simply buy another slave?"

"Would you need another slave if Marcus was not here?"

It is spoken as a simple question, but Aquila clearly hears it as the threat I intended. I will not stay without a wage, and Marcus will not stay without me, and we both know that to be truth. It is one thing to see his nephew out making his way in the world with means and a plan; it is another entirely to see him blindly follow his former slave into the unknown.

Aquila’s eyes narrow, not in anger but something more akin to recognition of a piece well played by an adversary on the draught-board. "Go on. I am listening."

"I ask only for food on the table, which you yourself admit I contribute with my hunting skills, a roof over my head, which costs you nothing more than you currently have--"

Old Aquila feigns remorse. "I have no spare room unless you plan to banish poor old Stephanos to the barn."

"Marcus will be willing to share his room," I assure him coolly.

There is a knowing glimmer in his eye as he agrees, "I have no doubt you are right." Before I can continue on, Aquila turns back to his table. "Now then, there is usually a stipend for clothing, but of course that will decrease the number of sestertius for your wage--"

I shake my head, turning down his offer of the brass coin. "I do not wish for sestertius,"

"Well, surely you are not demanding denarius for a daily wage," he scoffs.

I raise my chin and tell him, "I only wish for a horse."

"A horse?" He seems genuinely surprised by my request. "But you and Marcus returned with two new mounts from your trip north."

I give a firm nod in agreement. "Two fine mares of Iceni stock. I would have a stallion of the same."

He turns around in amazement. "You would turn my villa into a horse farm?"

"Only until we can afford one of our own."

Or until Marcus finally decides what he would like to do. I have resolved to do as he wishes, and gladly if it means I can be with him, but I have spent over seven years in slavery never having the luxury of dreaming of a future. Marcus, it seems, has no desire to determine a path for himself. Every time I have asked him on our return trip, every time I have prodded him to think of something, anything he would like to do, he turns it around and asks me what I would do if I were him. It is near infuriating, but if Marcus won’t choose a path for us, then I must do something to at least feel as if I am or I’ll go mad.

"Do you have any idea how much a horse such as you want will cost?"

"Less than a new slave," I assure him.

He rolls his eyes with a snort. "The last slave I bought cost me half of what I would have paid for any other. Damaged goods, insolent, more trouble than he was worth, I was told. I start to believe the arena master spoke the truth." He turns back to his tablet. "I also believe it was the best purchase I ever made. I robbed that bastard blind and it couldn’t have happened to a more deserving man."

I think that is a compliment, but I can’t be entirely sure. But for a man who accused me of wanting to slit his nephew’s throat before we headed north, I suppose that’s the best I can hope for.

"So we have a deal?" I ask hesitantly.

"Yes, yes!" He waves an annoyed hand over his shoulder in dismissal. "I’ll draw up the contract."

Satisfied, I turn to leave, but he calls, "And one more thing, do not expect me to buy an extra bed for Marcus’ room. The two of you will have to find a way to work an arrangement or purchase one on your own. I agreed to a roof over your head, I did not agree to furnish it."

I stop in midstride and open my mouth to remind him that I have chosen a horse over the sesterius. Instead, I close it, then finally say with a barely contained grin, "Have no worry, we will make due."

When Marcus returns from the auxiliary camp, I am pulling clean clothes we had left behind from the closet. Having heard his horse in the courtyard, I am more than ready for the baths.

As soon as he enters the room, I speak before he can protest. "I am well aware I am not required to see to your needs, but it does not mean I cannot do so if I wish."

"Fair enough," he concedes quietly.

Placing the clothing over a chair, I turn to regard him. "Any word on the Legate?"

"Londinium," he tells me, "until at least the Floralia Festival."

I nod. "That is only a five days ride. When shall we leave?"

"I would have it done with as soon as possible, although I confess I am weary of the road."

"Then we shall wait," I agree simply. "We have time."

"Esca, is something wrong? Have I done something wrong?"

"Marcus," I assure him, "nothing is wrong."

"You seem ill at ease ever since we have returned," he observes, dropping his eyes to his boots.

"It is strange," I admit, "to return free to the place I lived as slave for so long." I wave a hand at our clothes laid out on the chair like I always did before for our baths. "I find myself wondering if I do things out of habit or consideration."

"And your love for me?" he glances up to meet my eyes.

I smile. "That I do out of pure selfishness."

He reaches for me, pulls me into a warm, lingering kiss. "I shall take you from here," he swears quietly, arms still holding me close. "You will not have to live in a house were you feel uneasy."

I kiss him back, my Marcus. My ridiculously prideful Marcus who thinks he is responsible for every wrong that become those he cares for. Romans. Sometimes they can be unbelievably stupid, and sometimes I think my Roman is the stupidest stupid Roman there is. He has no idea how fortunate he is to have me around, I decide, and I deepen the kiss.

Marcus smells like a horse and tastes of salt and dust, but I don’t mind. It seems we’ve been on the road so long, I’m honestly not sure if I will recognize him clean and bathed, but I look forward to learning how this night and many more to come. I, however, have no intentions of waiting until tonight to bed him.

"You shall take me away?" I cluck disapprovingly. I slide my hands beneath his tunic to hook my fingers in the top of his braccea and walk backwards toward the bed. "After I just negotiated a deal with your uncle for a roof over my head and food from his table?"

He blinks in confusion, but still he follows me to the bed. "You what?"

"Even now, he draws up the contract for my employment in his household. Although, he had one caveat; we must share this room and he will not buy us a second bed." I push him back on the mattress at the crux of the negotiations.

"He will not budge on this matter?" With a wolfish smile, Marcus grabs the front of my tunic and pulls me roughly on top of him.

I nip at a stubbled jaw. "He seems very resolute in his decision."

"Then we have no choice but to find a way to make due with what we have."

I would tell him I said the same to his uncle if I wasn’t so busy being kissed senseless. In the end, what I say or his uncle’s opinion matters little, as we find we can make due with the one bed very easily indeed.

******

We spend the evening by the fire while Marcus tells his uncle more of our journey in Caledonia. I leave the storytelling to him, sitting silently unless Marcus asks me to recall some detail he cannot.

His uncle listens to it all with an eager smile on his face, nodding in my direction and noting approvingly, "Good eyes," when Marcus tells him how I had spotted the Rogue warriors around our camp one night. Even laughing and declaring, "You as his slave? Now there’s quick thinking for you," when Marcus tells him of the lie I had told the Seal People. But Marcus says nothing of how I had tackled him to the ground during our argument, or how I allowed the Seal People to drag him behind his horse, or the offer to let them slit his throat when so many other details are given in the telling.

I do not volunteer this information either, even though it strikes me odd to hear it omitted. So, I lay awake late into the night, even with Marcus snoring lightly beside me with his arm draped across my chest. My fingers thread through the short hairs at the nape of his neck as I find myself wondering why Marcus would not speak of these things. Did he fear his uncle would scorn me if he knew the truth? Did he fear he could not help but make me look untrustworthy no matter what my reasons? Or did it pain him to recall that time and he wished to leave it in the past?

I had had very little chance to think on what I had done and how I had treated him and allowed him to be abused by the Seal People. With our escape, the battle, our injuries, my illness, and the many days it took to recover, by the time we were on the road once again, I was content to let those memories fade into the past and concentrate on the much happier present I am having with Marcus. But hearing the stories again had brought all those things Marcus didn’t say into clarity once again, and lying in the dark lets the guilt finally seep in. I have no doubt of my affection for Marcus or his in return for me, which only serves to make my shame all the worse.

He shifts, moving closer against me and slides his leg between mine as he exhales against my shoulder in his sleep. Wrapping my arms around him, I kiss his brow, and he wakes, lifting his head to look at me blearily in the faint moonlight through the window.

"Forgive me," I whisper, "I had no intention of waking you. Go back to sleep."

"You are awake?" he asks hoarsely. "What is the hour?"

My years as hunter have allowed me to measure the passage of time in my mind, and I tell him, "Well past midnight."

"And yet you do not sleep?" He yawns and settles his head in the crook of my neck. "What troubles your rest? Bad dreams?"

"Bad memories," I confess quietly. "I never should have let them treat you so."

He doesn’t even ask of whom I speak, which only makes me feel even worse. "What were your choices? To show favoritism to a Roman slave? At best they would have sent us away, at worst they would have killed us. Either way, we never would have found the eagle."

"They treated you worse than my previous master did me," I tell him. "And I think, maybe, that is why I allowed it. I was angry with you, angry with Rome. There was a part of me that felt it fair to punish you for Rome’s wrongdoings against me and my people."

"I was angry with you, too." His fingers trace across my chest. "But I have seen stronger men than us break under the stress of a campaign. I lay no blame on you, Esca. I only thank you for what you did for me and my family, what you do now for me by simply being here."

"So why did you not tell your uncle about what happened?"

"Because it was between us, just as this moment is." He laughs lightly. "I will not be sharing this with my uncle either."

I laugh softly in return. "For that you have my thanks."

"I like the sound of your laugh," he tells me. "It’s rare that I ever heard it before, but now it comes easily and warms me through every time I hear it. Don’t let anything change that, mo chroí." He kisses my neck. "A chuisle mo chroí."

My eyes close as my own smile grows. "You have learned to say that so well, I will have to teach you more of my language."

"What more shall I learn that would be better than this, mo chroí?" He slides down my body, kissing as he goes.

The anticipation of what is to come has my belly clenching. "Marcus, that is not my heart."

"Heart?" he questions in mock confusion as he nuzzles against my ribs. "Is that what it means?" He rests his chin on my hipbone grinning up at me, the faintest hint of whiskers prickling my skin since his shave this afternoon. "It is not the word for manhood?"

I laugh again, fingers sliding through his dark hair, "No, that would be--." I choke on the word when he licks along my length, and my hips rise off the bed of their own accord.

"I was raised a soldier," he tells me, broad calloused hands hot on my skin as he pushes me back into the mattress and licks again. "I learned action is often the better course than conversation."

My breath stutters in my chest, and my fingers tighten in his hair as he takes me in his mouth without further delay. The pleased sounds Marcus makes deep in his throat at my reaction have a stream of words in Brigantes falling desperate and adoring from my tongue. It is not that I am trying to teach them to Marcus, it is simply that every single word in Latin that I once knew has left my head. I have no sense of anything other than Marcus’ mouth on me.

Afterwards, I have no problem at all falling asleep.

Unfortunately, the dawn breaks within a few hours, and Marcus, eager for my manumission this day, nuzzles at my jaw to wake me. I grumble for another hour of sleep, pulling the blankets up over my head.

"You always rise before me. Are you not feeling well?"

"It was always my duty to wake before you," I counter crankily.

"You’re right. I’m sorry. Sleep a while longer." Marcus kisses me and climbs out of bed and I instantly miss his warmth beside me.

"Marcus, I did not mean for you to leave," I try to explain, catching at his arm when I hear the hint of hurt in his voice.

He sits on the edge of the bed, hair standing out in all directions, eyes still soft from the night. "I cannot sleep another minute, but there is no reason you should not sleep more if you want." He kisses me again. "I will wake you when the morning meal is ready."

I watch him dress quietly and leave the room, and after a futile attempt to fall back asleep in a bed that seems suddenly too large, I rise and dress in preparation for the day’s activities.

The magistrate is a heavy set man with eyes sunk deep beneath thick black eyebrows that look at me with disapproval that I should be in his presence. I’m sure my defiantly crossed arms do little to improve his opinion of me, but my own mood is as dark as his unnaturally black hair. My temperament has more to do with lack of sleep and the hours we’ve spent waiting our turn on the docket than any ill will…at least until the magistrate scowls at me as he would a stray dog in the street.

The look for Marcus and his uncle is more one of disappointment when he learns we are here for my manumission.

With a sigh he picks up his stylus. "And what limitations would you like me to record on his freedom?" he asks, preparing to mark them in the ledger.

The spike of alarm I feel that there should be limitations passes when Marcus quickly answers, "None."

The man looks up at him in surprise. "Surely you plan to abide by the custom that he must gain your permission to marry."

Marcus blinks, obviously unaware that is a common requirement. "I didn’t know…that is, that should not…" He looks back at me, unsure how to respond.

"Why would he care if I married?" I ask defensively. Not that I have any plans to do any such thing—although, the alarmed expression on Marcus’ face at my question shows he might now be worried I could-- but it seems odd to require it of a former slave.

The magistrate glares at me for speaking, much less questioning Roman law. "Because he has agreed to be your patron, not that of a wife and brood of young whelps."

"Then shouldn’t I be consulted if he wishes to marry, as well?" I challenge. "If he must support a wife and children, he might not be able to support me."

The dark eyebrows nearly fly up and off the magistrate’s forehead. "That is no concern of yours," he begins before launching into a rant that I only half hear about how grateful I should be to be freed in the first place.

Old Aquila clears his throat in an attempt to contain his own humor at how I have agitated the magistrate while Marcus is still looking at me with a troubled scowl as to the possibility that I might marry.

I find my lips twitching and my eyes drop to my boots to keep from laughing. As much as Marcus claims to love my laughter, now would not be the appropriate place for it even though I did intentionally anger the magistrate with my questions. The truth is, I have no desire to be with anyone ever again except Marcus, and a ridiculous Roman law has nothing to do with it.

"Well?" the magistrate demands irritably of Marcus once he has finished with his lecture.

I raise my head and meet Marcus’ eyes, and by the small relieved smile that crosses his face, he understands my feelings clearly.

"There is no concern for leaving that restriction," he tells the magistrate. "We will both be well informed of any marital plans we may have."

The magistrate looks as if Marcus at least has some sense left despite his desire to free a Briton slave. "Very well, it shall be so recorded. Now then, there is the matter of the tax. Five percent of the purchase price—"

Old Aquila steps forward then and places the coins on the table. "I believe you will find this to be in order."

"Uncle, that is not necessary," Marcus protests. "I still have funds left from my discharge payment."

Aquila waves him off. "I bought him for you, it is only appropriate that I see this business transaction through to the end."

One bushy eyebrow rises on the man behind the table. "I will confer the purchase records to confirm, but it looks to be an appropriate amount." Another mark on his tablet and the magistrate says, "This is typically when the last punishment is delivered, if you so choose."

 

My forehead furrows in confusion that barely has time to register before Marcus raises his hand and strikes me hard across the face. Bewilderment is quickly replaced by eye-widening shock as I take a step back and my hand goes unbidden to my cheek at the unexpected blow. Even worse than the sting to my skin is the sting of Marcus’ amused expression, and the highly approving one of the magistrate.

Behind us I hear his uncle scolding, "Marcus, it is meant to be a symbolic gesture only…"

Whatever else Old Aquila says is cut off as Marcus pulls me into a rough embrace and whispers at my ear, "Now we are even for the slap in the camp of the Seal People."

He pushes me out to arm’s length, still gripping my shoulders and taunts, "You said you would be on guard at all times for that. I’m almost disappointed you did not see it coming."

Even though my face still burns, I cannot help smiling at him for his cleverness. "It won’t happen again. That I promise."

"I promise the same," he tells me earnestly. "No harm shall ever come to you again if I have my way."

He good-naturedly shakes my shoulder before draping his arm around it and addressing the magistrate with a broad smile. "Are we concluded here? There is a celebration to be had."

"All we are lacking is the proper name to be recorded for your freedman," the magistrate says as he pulls out a scroll.

"Marcus Flavius Esca," I answer before Marcus can. No, I am not pleased with the requirement, but the smile Marcus gives me is worth the sacrifice.

The magistrate writes the name then hands Marcus the quill. "Very well, I need your signature and one for your witness and the deed is done."

Marcus and his uncle sign, then the parchment is blotted and handed over to me, but not before the magistrate takes a rod and taps me half-heartedly from where he still sits behind his desk. Marcus had told me this was part of the ceremony, so I am not surprised, although his slap was more than surprise enough for the day. "You are now a freedman," the magistrate states in an unenthusiastic tone. "Do not forget you are still expected to pay all the same respects to your patron as you did when he was your master."

"I shall pay him more now that I am free," I assure him with a self-satisfied grin.

The magistrate quickly dismisses us for the next people waiting for his services, two rough-dressed men pulling a third badly beaten and bound one behind them. Slave catchers here to collect their bounty for hunting down a runaway. Not so long ago, that could have been me. If it hadn’t been Marcus I was brought to serve, if I hadn’t owed him my life, I was prepared to use my father’s dagger to escape. I find myself shuddering at the thought.

"I say it is time for drinks," Marcus declares, looking around for me when he realizes he has left me standing and staring at the men as he walked toward the door.

I quickly catch up as his uncle rolls his eyes at the news. "I suppose this is to cost me even more money."

"No," Marcus assures, "that will not be necessary. It is I who owes you. I will always be grateful to you for purchasing Esca and bringing him to me. I cannot imagine what my life would have been like without him."

Aquila gives Marcus a hug. "The happiness is all mine to see you so satisfied." Stepping back, he waves us away. "Now, off with the two of you. Carousing is the work of younger men than me. I shall see you back at the villa."

Marcus tries to persuade his uncle to join us, at least for one drink, but he is intent on returning to his home, claiming he is in a critical part of his book and dare not leave it for long else he lose his thoughts to strong drink.

I am barely aware of the discussion, or that old Aquila has left us, until Marcus places his hand on my shoulder to draw my attention once again away from the slave catchers.

"Esca?" he asks warily.

I turn and force a smile, it isn’t hard when I see the happiness on his own face. "Come," I coax, "I could use a meal as well as a drink."

It is well past midday, but the tavern to which Marcus leads me is still willing to serve more than wine for the coin Marcus offers. The room is stuffy from the fire stoked high in the hearth, even though the day is clear and the sun shines outside. That is probably why it is so popular with Romans, who easily outnumber the few Britons scattered at the tables, and those are dressed in the Roman fashion. Even Marcus has put aside the braccae and tunic he usually wears in favor of the Roman robes. He had explained it as his uncle’s idea…formal matters require formal attire. He had known better than to suggest I do the same. Not all Britons rebelled against the Romans as my tribe did, some have embraced the Roman lifestyle and have made a good deal of gold as a result. I am not convinced there is enough gold in the world to betray your ancestor’s way of life, and yet, here I sit, with a paper tucked inside my tunic, declaring me Marcus Flavius Esca, freeman of Rome. It is a strange day, there is no denying it.

Marcus is oblivious to my mood, or at least he has chosen to ignore it as he eats heartily and talks of hunting in the morning. To see him so happy, I do my best to shake off my unease, suggesting we follow the ridgeline outside of town to the forest in search of boar. He eagerly agrees, and for the rest of the afternoon, the conversation flows as easily as the wine.

As sunset nears, we are both feeling the effects of the drink, Marcus’s face is flush and his grin inviting, and I am just about to suggest we head back to the villa and continue the celebration in our bed when the door to the tavern flies open to the sound of boisterous laughter. Everyone in the bar turns to see two men stumble into the room, obviously having spent even more time in their cups than we have this day. My jaw clenches when I see it is the two slave catchers from earlier.

The grin on Marcus’s face vanishes when he looks from the men to me. "What is it? Do you know them?"

I shake my head. "Not them, but men like them." My heart is racing, and while I know there is no reason for it this day of all days, I cannot shake the trapped feeling I have with them in the room. "We need to go."

Although the rest of the patrons have dismissed the men as quickly as they noticed them, Marcus doesn’t question me further, only nods as he stands and steadies his wobbling with a hand on the back of his chair. "I’ll settle our bill."

I stop myself before I can tell him to forget the debt, we need to go, we need to run. There is no need for that, I remind myself. I am not on the run; I am not even a slave any longer. Still, I find myself sliding down in my seat, hunching over the cup still in front of me on the table, trying not to draw their attention while Marcus crosses the room unsteadily to hail the barkeep. It is a futile effort; by my dress alone, I stand out among the other patrons in the tavern as a Briton.

The taller of the two men pats his companion on the back and hitches his bearded chin toward the table where I sit. "Do you see what I do? We may have doubled our fee this day."

I look desperately to where Marcus stands at the bar when the men start for my table. I finally decide to go after Marcus, only to have my path blocked as soon as I stand.

A hand lands flat on my chest and pushes me back into my seat. "And where would you be heading?" the bearded one asks. This close, I can see he is missing two teeth and has a scar running from his jaw to his ear. Too bad the blade had not sliced lower, I think to myself. He leans forward, one hand on the table, the other resting lightly on his short sword. It only serves to remind me I am armed with nothing more than a dagger.

I swallow down my fear, my mind filled with memories of another encounter like this with slave catchers who had every right to question me that day, and motion to where Marcus stands. "I’m going to join my patron to return to the villa."

"Your patron?" The man looks back at this companion with black grin. "Did you hear that? He fancies himself a freedman."

The second man, several years younger than the first given his smooth face says nothing, only laughs at the joke.

Raising my chin, I tell him, "I am a freedman, and you have no right to question me."

Breath heavy with alcohol rushes against my face as the tracker leans in closer and snarls, "I have every right to question you, Briton. You have the look of a slave. More than that, you have the look of a slave who’s run. Do you deny it?"

My mouth goes dry. I cannot deny it. I did run, before Marcus, before the arena, and I’d nearly paid with my life when the slavers had finally caught me. And this man can see it, can see it all, and I can’t move under that piercing stare.

"What is the problem here?"

Marcus’s voice has me sucking in a sharp breath, my eyes widening in a guilt I’d never felt before. I’ve never told him about my masters before him, I’ve never spoken of my time in the arena and how I came to be there, and I fear he can see it all as clearly as the slave catcher can.

But all Marcus asks is, "Esca, are you ready to go home?"

"So the Briton speaks true?" The slaver seems surprised. "He is a freedman?"

"He is," Marcus confirms as he steps closer, eyes narrowing on the man. "Not that it is any business of yours."

Marcus may be drunk, but the tracker is not only drunker but better armed, and by the way he straightens to face Marcus, he knows it.

"Hunting down runaway slaves is my business, and this one has the smell of the run on him. I’d say that makes him my business, and it is a business that pays very well."

The younger catcher looks as nervous as I feel, unsure if he should step in and help his friend when a Roman citizen claims I am free. With a lick of his lips, he finally speaks up. "Maybe we should take him to the Magistrate to be certain--"

Whatever else the younger man was going to say ends with a dull thud and the crash of pottery as Marcus grabs him and slams his head against the table. He’s pulled his own dagger and has it against the man’s throat. "No one is taking him anywhere. Is that understood?"

I don’t hear a response as my own attention is drawn to the bearded man as he starts to pull his short sword from the scabbard at his hip. I elbow him in the face, sending blood spurting, then take the sword from his hand as he yelps and grabs at his busted nose.

The room has gone quiet except for the cursing of the injured slave catcher, the others in the room are unsure if they should sit or stand, with many hovering between the two positions.

"Marcus," I say quietly, holding the confiscated sword at the ready, "we need to go."

Marcus doesn’t take his eyes from the man he’s pinning to the table. "We will have no further trouble from you and your friend. Am I right?"

The wide-eyed nod he receives is enough to have Marcus straightening, although he doesn’t release the hold on his dagger.

Fishing an extra coin from his purse, Marcus drops it on the table, telling the wary barkeep, "For the damages." With a gentle shove, he pushes me in front of him toward the door, never looking back, and completely ignoring the stares of the others in the tavern.

A washer woman carrying a basket of laundry takes a wide berth around me on the street outside the bar when she sees the sword in my hand. I look at the blade in confusion, not really sure what I should do with it. I’m not really sure what we should do at all until Marcus takes my free hand by the wrist and pulls me across the street and toward the stables where we left our horses earlier in the day. I let him lead me through the nearly empty market as we weave our way clumsily through the merchants packing up for the day, neither of us very even on our feet. The stable boy barely looks up at us from his chair outside, grunting a thanks when Marcus tosses a few coins his way.

We stagger into the dimly lit stables, hit by the sweet smell of hay and manure. Our horses look up and blow out a greeting from their stalls midway down the stable and I start toward them. But before I can reach them, Marcus grabs my arm to stop me.

"What was that about?"

"They’re slave catchers," I explain.

"And why should you care? More than that, why should you have any fear of them?"

I pull away from him and the accusatory tone of his voice, but remain silent.

When I don’t answer, he shakes his head. "Esca, they were no more than common thugs, barely capable of handling a sword. I’ve seen you face down twice as many men a hundred times more deadly and not even flinch. And with them it was…" he looks back, as if they will appear and perhaps explain what he cannot understand. When they don’t walk through the door he sighs. "…it was like that day I first saw you in the arena. You seemed resigned to let them do what they would to you."

"How do you think I ended up in the arena, Marcus?" I snap.

He blinks as understanding dawns on him. "You were a runaway?"

With a defiant rise of my chin, I tell him, "And I would have run again if anyone but you had been my master."

More than likely I would have been dead if Marcus hadn’t been there that day. That had been my plan, because I knew I could not serve another master like the one I had fled, and death would have been more welcome than what the slave catchers would do when they caught me again.

Marcus stares at me in shocked silence, so I try to explain.

"Not every Roman takes their slave hunting or even bothers to learn his name when they can simply give him any name they wish. Not every master withholds the rod when they are displeased, and there are plenty who will take by force what I have offered you gladly." My eyes drop as my voice does, hoarse with emotion. "And if it is possible, the slave catchers are even worse when they find you."

With an exhalation of breath, I continue. "When you are on the run, you try to blend with crowds, be small, unnoticeable. If they don’t recognize you, they can’t take you away."

Big hands that I’ve come to know so well cup my jaw roughly. "No one will ever take you away from me, Esca. No one." His forehead presses against mine. "That I swear to you. As long as I draw breath, no one will take you from me."

He stays close in even as he walks me backwards, toward the back of the nearest horse stall, so I grasp onto his wrists to keep my balance. "I ran," I say helplessly, lost. "I know you cannot approve...Roman law was on the side of my master, but I could not live like that…"

Marcus shakes his head, still against mine. "As long as you are here with me now, I do not care how it came to be. No matter what the law says, I am only thankful to have you."

My back hits the wall and I close the small distance between our lips. His mouth is sour with the day’s wine, but the sweetness of the kisses is enough to have me drunk from more than just the alcohol, and I find myself thirsting for much more. The toga he wears gives me easy access and my hand finds him hard and ready.

He groans with the first stroke, declaring breathlessly, "You are mine. No one will take you from me. Mine, Esca, mine." The faster I stroke, the more he professes his claim on me until his words are as broken as his breathing.

"Yours," I finally promise.

The word is barely a whisper in his ear, but as soon I speak it, he cries out in his release. After, his body goes limp against me, breath ragged on my neck until he starts to slump down. I tighten my hold on him, afraid he may be losing consciousness thanks to the wine, but he kisses me again even as he pulls my arms away and drops to his knees in the soft hay.

Green eyes look up at me, filled with a sincere affection that has me shuddering. "Mine," he repeats then nuzzles at my manhood.

My head clunks back against the wood of the stable wall when his fingers dig into my hips as he mouths me through the fabric of my braccae. I have never begged for anything from a Roman. Not when my former master had me flogged or the slave catchers beat me into unconsciousness. Even faced with death in the arena, I had refused to beg for my life. But after several minutes of exquisite torment from Marcus’ mouth and hands dulled only by the thin cloth, I begin to beg him for relief.

Eventually he gives into my pleas, unlaces my pants, and takes me in his mouth. It is then that I know I spoke true-- I am his. I belong to him more surely now than I ever did when he owned me as his slave.

* * * * *

As much as Marcus wishes to deliver the eagle to the Legate, neither of us is anxious to travel so soon after our return from the north. Besides, we both still have healing to do from our injuries and by the time our bodies are ready to travel again, winter sets in early, putting our travel plans on hold. The cold, which has always been hard on Marcus’ leg, is even more so thanks to his new wound. Although not as bad as when I first arrived as his body-slave, he still walks with more of a limp than he had that first day in late autumn when we had set out for Caledonia.

The winter months at Calleva are as strange as they are wondrous. The weather, hard and unforgiving, keeps us trapped indoors for days at a time. As much as we enjoy our time keeping ourselves warm at night in our room, the days spent with Marcus’ uncle often leave me feeling like a caged animal on display for the arena crowd. Old Aquila seems as fascinated as he is wary of my presence in the house. Whether he is oblivious to the true nature of my relationship with Marcus or simply chooses to ignore it for the sake of Roman decency, I may never know. But no matter what I am to Marcus, to his uncle I am only a freedman. A freedman his nephew is very attached to, but a freedman all the same. As much as it pleases him to see Marcus so happy, to admit that I am anything more than a trusted servant to his nephew would bring nearly as much shame to the family name as losing the eagle.

Romans. I will never understand them.

It is considered weak and indecent for a Roman man to use his body to give pleasure to another man. He can take pleasure from a man’s body with no dishonor, but not give it. I wonder what they would think if they knew I could take pleasure from Marcus’ body and he need not even be present. Just the memory of digging fingers into the curves of his muscles or mapping the scars on his skin with my lips is enough to have me hard and yearning for release. My pleasure and how I gain it should be no concern but mine, but it does concern Marcus… a great deal, thankfully…and that would greatly displease his uncle if he knew or acknowledged that. Therefore, to Old Aquila I must remain a freedman and nothing more.

Marcus, however, insists I join them at their table for dinner each night, something a freedman would never do regularly. His uncle grumbles but never forbids it, although I find it easier to remain silent unless directly asked a question, which Aquila almost never does. I also almost always find an excuse to leave the table as soon as I complete my meal…the horses need tending to make sure their water hasn’t frozen, there is wood to be brought in for the evening fires, any excuse to be away. On the nights Aquila has guests, I volunteer to help with the service of the meal, always negotiating an extra wage for the work. Those are the nights Marcus is the one who looks uneasy, rarely meeting my eyes, calling on Stephanos to fill his cup instead of me, and then making sure he is the one who serves me in bed at the end of the night, Roman decency be damned.

As pleasurable as those nights are, I still felt trapped in the villa, and being under his uncle’s scrutiny has me desperate for escape. The few hunting trips we take leave Marcus with his leg aching so badly that I am reluctant to take him with me again. He is just as reluctant to let me go alone, despite my many assurances that I am well suited to hunt in winter and will return. My one ally in these arguments is his uncle, who sees no reason why I should not go out, and reasons it is one of the duties for which he pays me as part of our agreement of my employment. Marcus eventually relents, and I happily leave the confines of the villa for three days.

I return with a doe strapped to the back of my horse and my heart in my throat to see the look on Marcus’ face when I ride into the courtyard. It is the same I’d seen when I woke in the home of the surgeon, Appius, when Marcus had been as relieved as he was shocked to see me alive.

He exhales heavily, a white cloud blown almost instantly away by the wind, as I dismount. He forces a smile of greeting to cover his obvious relief that I am whole and returned. "The hunting was good, I see."

Snow is falling-- fat, wet, clumps tumbling ungracefully from the sky to coat everything in sight. The clouds had hung low and gray for the past two days, heavy with the threat of it until I feared I would be forced to return empty handed from my hunt. I had startled the doe that afternoon, and dressed it as the first white specks had spit hard and stinging against my skin. In the end, the worst of it had not started falling until I was on the road through Calleva on my way back to the villa. I shake the furs around my shoulder to clear the snow away, run my fingers through my damp hair, and smile back at Marcus, a genuine smile to see him once again. Now that he is here, within arms reach, I can easily admit to myself how very much I had missed him.

"It would have been better had you been there," I confess honestly, stepping closer. "I grew lonely without you near."

We are alone in the courtyard, and I could kiss him with no one there to see, and I would if he did not take a step back.

"Marcus?" I fight to keep my voice level. This is not the welcome I had been hoping for, but now that I see him, see how he has worried over me being gone, it is what I should have expected.

Marcus pulls the cloak around his own wide shoulders a little closer as the flakes sputter in the flame of the lamp he holds. "Three days and the weather turning for the worse," he mumbles, then finally reaches out to lay a warm hand on my wind-chilled neck.

It feels like being branded, but I don’t dare pull away. Instead I turn my face into his touch.

"A chuisle mo chroí." His voice is barely even a whisper and would be lost on the wind if I hadn’t heard him say those same words a hundred times before. Only this time, I hear them for what they are; not just a murmured affection, but a warning. I am the pulse of his heart, and if my pulse his hand rests against were to stop, so would his.

A broad thumb brushes across my jaw. "Mithras, you are like ice. Next time you must take heavier furs."

"There won’t be a next time," I promise quietly, gripping his wrist.

His eyes search mine, looking desperately for the truth in my words. With his hand still on my neck, he pulls me in close enough to press his lips to my forehead. It is the only thanks I will get and it is more than welcome. Then he wraps his arm around my shoulder and lead me to the door. "Come inside and warm yourself. My uncle will be pleased to see you have been so successful."

The hunting may have been good, but the toll on Marcus had been high. After that, I have little desire to leave for more than the day and always return before nightfall. The meals are leaner but Marcus’ spirits are higher. What is that against a little confinement?

Still, it was with a certain amount of relief on everyone’s part that the pale green of spring grass colors the fields and we are able to leave the villa for the freedom of the open road once again, this time bound for Londinium with the eagle in tow. The bite of winter’s chill lingers on the breeze on the third morning we set out, but by midday, the air is warm enough to shed my cloak and feel the sun on my bare arms. The scar from my own wound is nothing more than a stripe of puckered pink slicing through the blue lines of my tribe’s markings.

Marcus’ cloak remains draped around his shoulders, but it hangs loose, and he rides with a peaceful curve to his lips as he surveys the small farms around us on the road to Londinium. "It is good land," he notes.

I nod beside him, keeping our horses to an easy pace, enjoying the day and his company. "There is better in the south."

"The lands near Isca Dumnoniorum were fertile… when the weather cooperated."

"Cursing the weather is never good farming," I taunt my soldier who wishes to be a farmer.

He laughs lightly. "True, but there is only so much a man can do against the gods and their whims."

"Further east of Isca Dumnoniorum, in the Downs," I tell him after pondering his comment. "That is where I would farm."

His eyes narrow slightly as he regards me. "Would you, then?"

With a decisive nod, I breathe deeply; the air is thick with the tang of wet earth and new onions. "The land is rich for farming and wide open for horses. A man could build a home, a farm, make a life." I give him a small smile at the thought of us doing just that, together. "He could be happy there."

"The Downs," he considers.

"If the choice were mine, that is where I would settle."

"Why wouldn’t the choice be yours?" Marcus questions with a frown.

With a small snort, I shake my head at how foolish he can be. "I am but a freedman. You are my patron. The choice of where we go will always be yours."

Marcus pulls his mount up short, and I have no choice but to do the same unless I am to leave him sitting in the middle of the road by himself. "Do you truly believe that is all you are to me? A freedman to work my fields and take a turn in my bed at night? Do you truly think you are anything less than…everything to me?"

"Marcus," I sigh, "no. I have no doubt of your love for me or mine for you in return. But we will be old men by the time I save enough money from the wage your uncle pays me if I am to buy a farm for us. If we are fortunate with the horses, we may have foals by this time next year. But the sale of a few horses will not secure us a place away from your uncle’s villa in less than three or four years, if we are lucky. I will wait there with you for as long as it takes, but as long as we are there, I am simply a freedman."

"But the eagle…" he starts.

"Is yours," I conclude. "And any reward you receive will be yours, as well."

"It would still be hidden away in the Seal People’s camp if not for you."

"Rome will not care about my role in any of this," I state with no doubt, and by the scowl on Marcus’ face, he knows I speak true. "However they choose to reward you, it will be for you alone."

"And once it is mine, any decisions of how it is to be used will be of no concern to Rome," he says defiantly.

I frown, because this is what I have been telling him all along, that the decision is his and his alone, and yet he seems to be arguing with me. Nor does it address the one thing I fear the most.

"What if they offer you a place back in the army?"

We had discussed this once before, briefly, and Marcus could not give me an answer.

"What would you have me do?" he asks.

I shake my head. "I cannot make that choice for you."

"I am asking you to make it," he challenges.

"I cannot."

But Marcus sees what I am truly saying. I will not. I will not tell him what is in my heart because I fear it will break his and I love him too much to do that. I love him too much to deny him his greatest desire; to resume command and bring glory and honor to his family name.

Marcus sits straighter in his saddle. "As your patron, I order you to make it."

"That is not within your right…" I argue.

"Is it not?" he asks coolly, all the arrogance of Rome in his eyes and voice. It has my jaw clenching tightly. "Have you read the Roman laws and what is or is not within my rights as your patron?"

"Very well," I snap angrily. "If the choice were mine, you would not rejoin the Roman army. You would not go back to a life where you kill Britons for the glory of Rome. You would not leave me to follow after, waiting in some town surrounding a fort, hoping that tonight is the night you feel it is safe or appropriate to summon me to your bed. You would ask instead for your pension and allotment of land and you would work it beside me. We would plow fields and harvest them together, and tend to our horses together, and hunt together, and pleasure each other without shame beneath an oak on a hill that overlooks everything we have built together. That is the decision I would have you make every day for the rest of our lives."

His face softens as he gives a gentle kick to his mount’s flank to get her moving down the road once more. "Good. We are in agreement, then, on how we plan to proceed."

I blink as he rides past me, at a loss for how to respond.

"Are you coming, Esca?" he asks over his shoulder as he turns his horse off the road and into the field. "I think that may be an oak tree I see on that rise to the east." His smile is as dangerous and it is inviting.

With a grin and a bemused shake of my head, I follow after Marcus. It ends up it is an oak tree he saw, and while it may not overlook the land that will one day be our farm, it provides an enjoyable spot for practice.

* * * * *

 

Londinium is like nothing I have ever seen. The roads are stone, as are the buildings towering over us, so that every sound… horse hoofs, chariot wheels, wagons, footsteps and voices, armor and shields…echoes around us. It presses in from every side, overwhelming my senses, and I find I dislike it instantly. Everywhere there is movement and noise and all of it blends one into another. How is a man meant to know which of them could be a threat to him? And if there is a danger, how is he to keep it in sight?

"Is this what Rome is like?" I ask as we dismount our horses. Almost no one is dressed in the Briton style except us. There are soldiers in leather and citizens in togas everywhere I look, and I feel my spine locking and chin lifting in silent challenge to them all. Despite my unease at not being able to distinguish any peril among the crowd, I soon realize most people are simply ignoring us.

With an amused expression, Marcus takes the reins from my horse. "No. Rome is much larger with many more people." I consider myself fortunate that not only is Marcus so busy turning our mounts over to the stable boy that he doesn’t see my shocked expression at this news, but that he has chosen to remain in Briton over returning to Rome. I cannot imagine anyplace more crowded and more…Roman than this one.

My attention, however, is drawn from the sights around me to Marcus as he unwraps the eagle from where it has ridden on his saddle. He cradles it gently, as if, now that the time has come to actually turn it over to the Legate, he doesn’t want to let it go. His eyes meet mine, and I wordlessly ask if he is ready. With a decisive nod, he turns to walk down the street, and I fall into step beside him. The citizenry of Londindium is no longer ignoring us, instead they make way for us to pass, all eyes on the golden standard in Marcus’ arms.

The senate house is a short walk from the stables, but the people inside react to our presence the same as those on the street had. Their first reaction is to stare…two men in rough clothing still covered with the dirt of the road…two men, one Roman and one Briton walking side my side…two men in possession of a golden eagle, the lost standard of the Ninth. The tribune Savius Placius had spoke true; every Roman remembers the Ninth. I wonder if they will remember the return of its standard in the same way.

Marcus keeps his eyes locked straight ahead, his focus on the man he seeks at the far end of the massive room. The Legate Cladius is busy with scrolls and surrounded by men, the Tribune Savius Placius among them. Neither man seems to recognize us until Marcus sets the eagle down on the table before him.

"For my father," Marcus says simply. There is no pride in his voice as is his right considering what he has accomplished and the astonished look on the faces of the Legate and the other men.

Cladius lifts the eagle as if it might break. "My dear boy, I congratulate you. Rome congratulates you. Your family’s good name is restored." He raises his voice to take in the whole room. "The senate will want to reform the Ninth. Perhaps they can reward you with its command."

And there it is-- my worst fear and Marcus’ dearest wish. I feel my heart pounding hard in my chest as my eyes drop to my boots, afraid to look at Marcus’ face, afraid of what I might see there.

"How ever did you do it?" the Legate asks in awe.

"With only a slave to help you," Savius Placidus adds, his own shock at my role in all of this greater than seeing the eagle returned.

"He is not a slave." The humble tone that had been in Marcus’ voice has been replaced by one of controlled anger.

I raise my eyes to see the steely look in Marcus’ as he tells the Tribune, "He knows more about honor and freedom than you ever will."

Obviously, having nothing more to say to the Tribune, or the Legate, or anyone else for that matter, Marcus turns his back on the eagle, on the Legate, on Rome and begins to walk away from them all. Marcus may not have felt the need to gloat over his victory, but I cannot keep it from the smirk I give the surprised men.

He chose me. Over all the glory and honor of Rome, he chose me. I believe that is reason enough to show a little pride.

With a tip of my head to the men, I turn and quickly catch up with Marcus.

"So what now?" I ask, the grin still on my face as we walk briskly through the building.

For the first time since arriving in Londinium, Marcus smiles a real smile, a knowing smile, and yes, even a bit of his own gloating. "You decide."

If possible I smile even wider. A farm, horses, a home to call our own, that is my decision, and I shall have it. We shall have it. When we step out into the late afternoon sun, that thought is what fills my head above the din of the city around me.

"There is a horse market a few days ride to the north," I tell Marcus. "Iceni breeders are known to trade there on occasion."

He looks up into the sun, gauging we still have a few hours of daylight left. "Shall we leave now or wait until morning?" It appears that is to be my decision, as well.

"Morning," I announce with authority. "I have decided you and I shall have a bed this night and do many things that would not meet with Rome’s approval."

Marcus lets his grin spread slowly wider. "You should have been making the decisions all along, Esca."

* * * * *

"There is a hive around here somewhere," I note as I kiss lazily along Marcus’ heaving chest, the taste of his sweat mingles with a different, and yet entirely and purely Marcus taste on my tongue. "We should find it and move it near the garden."

"Hive?’ Marcus questions, as dazed as he is breathless.

"Bees," I clarify, then kiss him warmly. Turning over, I lay with my head resting on his shoulder and my face turned up to the sun peeking through the leaves of the elm tree above us. Not an oak, but the end results are what I had intended, so I see no reason to complain.

By the way Marcus gulps air, he’s not going to complain about what I just did to him either.

"Right." His hand moves to slide clumsily through my hair. "Bees."

I grin smugly, as I have every right to given Marcus’ befuddled tone.

"For the honey," I explain further.

"Honey?" Marcus laughs lightly. "Leave it to you, Esca, to try to find a way to make this life even sweeter than it already is."

"There is much I could do with honey," I boast with a wicked grin. "You would find it very sweet indeed."

"Mithras! I’m not sure I could survive what you might come up with."

"Is the mighty Marcus Flavius Aquila scared of me?"

"I’m still seeing spots from what you last did to me with just your hands and mouth!"

My grin turns into a full out smile and I roll over to look down on him. "Have I bested you, Centurion?"

"Bested, captured, enslaved… you pick the word… you have done it and more." He reaches up and rubs his knuckles along my jaw, his touch as soft and gentle as his eyes. "But I am a centurion no more, nor do I wish to be. I am content to be a simple farmer for the rest of my days."

The Legate, while disappointed Marcus would not return to the Ninth, understood he was no longer physically capable of regular military service and readily agreed to the compromise Marcus offered for land in the Downs and a pension. The Beltane fires had burned by the time everything was in order and the land was deeded to Marcus. We were packed and moved out of the villa within a few days of the news, and have been on the farm, our farm, for almost a market week now. I can’t remember a time I was happier.

If possible, Marcus is even happier than I. He spoke true about his love and knowledge of farming, having already marked out the fields for late grains and a small kitchen garden near the house. I would have never thought to find myself happy to be working fields, but to see Marcus so pleased, it is hard not to be the same. Also, I have my horses, and one of the mares is already with foal. So, if Marcus wishes to call himself a farmer, then that is what he is.

Although…

"Yours is not the body of a simple farmer," I observe, taking in its full glory in a way I’ve rarely had the privilege to see it, spread naked in the sunlight. It is beautiful—lean, muscled, scarred, and turning brown from the days we’ve spent working the farm. And it is all mine to do with as I please. I run a slow, possessive hand from his throat to his belly, taking pride in the way he trembles under my touch.

"I could say the same about you, Esca." Marcus sighs contentedly when I rub small circles where my hand rests on his stomach. "Nor was yours the body of a slave. I thought that the first day I saw in you in the arena."

Propping myself on my elbow, I grin. "So you took notice of my body that day?"

"I noticed little else." With a sated yawn he puts his hands behind his head. "It was embarrassing how aroused I was by the sight of you. You were…spectacular to look upon. I believe that is why I saved you in the end."

The curl of his lips and the way he cracks one eye open to look at me has me believing what he says is in jest… at least the last part about saving me is.

My eyebrows rise mockingly. "You could not imagine the world being denied such majesty?"

"Something like that," he admits, green eyes twinkling with amusement. "Although now that you have given me leave, I am more than happy to deny the world and keep your body all to myself."

"And what will you do with my body now that it is yours and yours alone?" My hand slides along the dip of his pelvis so my fingers can curl into wiry hair.

Marcus pulls in a deep breath as he shifts beneath my hand. "Esca, we will never finish the fencing if you keep this up."

He is right, but I do not care. By the way his eyes slide shut with a soft moan when I move my hand to his thigh and kneed, I do not believe he cares either. He didn’t the first two times we did this here today. We have a lot of work to do before summer ends, but what is the point of having a place of our own if we cannot take a warm afternoon and lay naked with one another on a blanket in a field of high grass and wild flowers surrounded by the buzz of bees and the song of grasshoppers?

We are fortunate in that the land Marcus was given by the army already had an abandoned, small farm on it. The buildings are in ill repair and the enclosure is much too small for the horses for any length of time. Even now, the three of them prance restlessly in the confines of the fencing. But we, at least, have something to start from, and a roof that keeps out most of the rain, which is a blessing considering fall is just around the corner. Yes, we have some long days ahead of us, which is just one more reason why we deserve one long afternoon just for us. It is more than wood and stone that makes a home, and that is what we have.

A home.

The thought has a warmth running through my body that has nothing to do with the sun, and serves to stoke my desire further. My hand slips between his legs and I smile to see his manhood twitch, already on its way to hardening again. My own is way ahead of him.

With another soft exhalation of breath, Marcus’s head tilts back, exposing his neck. It is too much to resist, and I suck and nibble it leisurely, sliding my leg between his so that I can thrust lazily against his hip. "Shall we return to the fence repairs then?" I ask against his skin.

"By the gods, you drive me mad," Marcus breathes, cupping my face in both his hands, and kissing me with growing eagerness.

I desperately kiss him back, continuing to move against him until he tugs me on top of him to thrust back in return.

"Marcus…" The heat of him against me is unbearably good and all I want is to make it last as long as I can.

His hands move along my sides, gripping my hips, guiding my movements, and I fight to hold back a little longer…

Months ago, I had sat in the camp of the Seal People and told them a lie about how I had tricked a Roman into bringing me north to my freedom. But I had also told them a truth.

…I use my arms to push up, missing the feel of his mouth on mine, but the shift in position has my vision narrowing and Marcus groaning in approval…

I had told the Seal People that my heart hunted for a place to be free.

…Then I feel Marcus’ hand on me, wrapped around both of us together, stroking, and there is nothing more I can do to hold back….

…because there is nothing more free than this.

Marcus gasps my name as I collapse on top of him, wraps strong arms around me, kisses my temple, whispers tender words in my ears that have me pressing my face against his neck.

And I know. Without a doubt, I know.

My heart hunts no more.

The End