Rating: PG (this chapter)
Summary: In between the lines of a story about honour is another story about love. This is an attempt to fill in those lines and to tell that story, with all the scenes that weren't shown.
Warnings: None in this bit!
Word count: 4848 for this chapter
Disclaimer: The characters from the book 'The Eagle of the Ninth' belong to the estate of Rosemary Sutcliff, and the film, 'The Eagle' is the property of Toledo Productions, Film Four and Focus Features. All creative rights to the original characters and situations depicted within are held by the respective owners; any additional original material is attributable to the author, and no profit is being made from this story.
Author's note: Um, the very small mention of ancient British customs and beliefs regarding trees and greenery in this chapter are a bit handwavey and neopagan. Also, there's some debate about the duration of the Saturnalia festival. The number of days it was celebrated changed over time. I've kept it to just one day here.
Sixteen days before the Kalends of January, Saturnalia came in earnest. As the youngest and newest member of the household, Aquila had named Esca as Saturnalia Princeps, the Lord of Misrule, the day before the festivities commenced.
“Don't make me regret it,” he had said with a wry smile. At the time, Esca had dipped his head in acknowledgement, though much later, when he and Marcus were alone that evening, Esca stood in the gloom of a recess, a thoughtful look troubling his features. Marcus could not fail to notice it with a few furtive glances in Esca's direction as he tried to read in the lamplight of the study. The frown Esca so often wore was cut deeper into his brow than usual. When Marcus realised he had read the same few words several times without absorbing a single one of them, he let the scroll roll back on itself and looked up to catch Esca's eye.
“What troubles you, Esca?”
“Tomorrow,” Esca said, shifting his crossed arms more tightly against his chest. “What is expected of me?”
“There is little to it -” Marcus said, abandoning the scroll entirely and rising to his feet to make his way to bed. Esca was already at his side before he had fully straightened up, and Marcus shot him a sideways glance as Esca took hold of his arm. He no longer truly needed Esca's support, and he guessed that Esca knew this as well as he did. It had become a pernicious habit Marcus was sure he ought to break soon, for the sake of his pride.
“You are in charge of the revelries,” Marcus said, as Esca settled Marcus's arm round his shoulder and led them onwards through the villa.
“So,” Esca said, “the wine, then.”
“Yes, the wine,” Marcus said with a small smile. “Though tomorrow, you are not the one to serve it, only to demand more for all as you see fit. The household is yours to command.”
“Your uncle,” Esca asked, setting Marcus down on the edge of the bed and beginning to undress him. “And you?”
“Yes,” Marcus said, ignoring the little shudder that went down his spine at the thought. “Do you want to know anything else?”
Esca shook his head, though he muttered, “It seems a strange sort of festival,” as he handed Marcus his sleeping tunic.
“Why? I thought you would welcome it,” Marcus said, slipping the tunic over his head. He shifted the covers aside and drew his legs up onto the bed. Esca frowned at him as he tucked the blankets around Marcus, as though he was faintly disappointed. Marcus frowned back.
“For one day,” Esca said, smoothing out a wrinkle on the blanket, “a slave is granted a taste of freedom, and for the rest of the year he is left with only the memory of it. That does not seem a cause for celebration.”
“It's not midnight yet, for you to speak so freely,” Marcus said, giving Esca a look of mild rebuke. He had never considered it like that before, and the thought astonished him, that what was seen as a day of joy and celebration throughout the empire could be construed as cruelty.
Esca hovered by the side of the bed, still watching Marcus sullenly, as though waiting for further instruction.
“You are dismissed,” Marcus said, rolling onto his side. Esca doused the lamps in the room and brought the gathering dark, but not before Marcus had seen a hard glitter in his eyes, frost-rimed as the moon on a winter night.
Less than an hour later, Marcus whispered Esca's name into the darkness, and finally let himself sleep when Esca tugged the covers back over them both without a word, turning the cold arch of his jutting spine to Marcus and hunching into the small space he made his own in the bed.
The arrival of the dawn gave the slaves of the family licence to do or say whatever they wished with impunity. Marcus could only wonder what this might entail, as he woke at the feel of Esca shifting beside him, how he hastily drew a hand away from where he had rested it on Marcus's hip in his sleep. Marcus moved instantly and stopped Esca from rising with a light touch to his arm. Esca's eyes narrowed in warning, and Marcus quickly explained,
“You do not have to get up yet, if you wish. Today, you are our guest.”
Esca regarded him levelly, then said in a low voice.
“A guest who cannot leave.”
Marcus pursed his lips, and his heart sank to see how the tone of the day had been set so quickly. There was nothing he could say to that in return, even if he had been able to think of a rebuttal. The fact remained that today Esca was free to make his opinions known. Instead, Marcus chose to reply with action. He rose and went to the chest in the corner of the room, unlocking the heavy lid.
“It is the usual custom for us to wear one another's clothes today, but somehow I do not think they will fit. I had Stephanos get these instead,” he said, reaching into the chest and moving his old centurion's uniform aside, not dwelling on how his fingers pricked with nostalgia as he did so. He pulled out a stack of new clothing; pale woollen bracae and a tunic of soft grey-green, and a heavy cloak of dark wool to keep out the chill of winter. Atop the pile was a bronze fibula brooch, wrought with a simple design.
Marcus's eye was drawn to the small dagger tucked into the corner of the chest, the white bone of the carved handle stark against the dark wood. He could still recall the clatter of it against the tile of the floor when Esca had thrown it at his feet the day they had met: how he had made a promise to Marcus sworn on the edge of a knife, felt just as keenly as its blade. Marcus had not touched the dagger since that day, save to put it in the chest for safekeeping, and though he was curious to study the intricate design upon the handle, he refrained from doing so out of respect for the bond it represented. Esca had given him the dagger of his father willingly, despite the aggression in his gesture. Marcus would not flaunt it before him as though it were the spoils of war.
Marcus held out the pile of clothing, and gave Esca an expectant look.
“They're yours. Take them.”
Esca slipped out of the bed and approached him slowly, as though unwilling to get too close. Marcus wondered at how grave he looked, for a man about to receive gifts. He reached up and handed them to Esca with a bashful smile. Esca's lips parted but no sound came out.
“Ah, and there is also this,” Marcus said, fishing a red felted-wool cap out of the chest.
Esca cleared his throat and swallowed.
“What is it?”
“It is a pileus,” Marcus said, turning it in his hands. “The cap that a freedman wears. It is yours, for today.”
“No,” Esca said, staring down at him and shaking his head. Then he cut his proud gaze away, the tendons jumping in his jaw. “I am not free,” he muttered.
“But it's your right to wear it. It is tradition,” Marcus said, his hand tightening around the cap as he felt a spark of anger flicker in his chest, threatening to ignite.
“If I understand this festival correctly, today it is also my right to refuse to wear it,” Esca replied with a quiet assertiveness. It was painfully evident that he would tolerate no further discussion of the matter. They both lapsed into an uncomfortable silence.
Esca stood there as if frozen, looking fixedly at the pile of clothing in his arms. By now, Marcus thought there was little use in waiting for any word of gratitude in return for his gifts.
“I'll go and see if Stephanos has anything that will fit me,” he said with a sigh, levering himself to his feet on the lid of the chest and starting towards the door.
“What should I do,” Esca asked, roused from his torpor. Marcus turned to look at him over his shoulder. Esca had a haunted look on his face, his arms crossed tight against his chest, clutching the bundle of clothes to him. Marcus felt his anger dissipate a little when he looked upon him.
“You may do as you wish today. Just be back for supper.”
After bathing and making an offering to Saturn, Marcus and his uncle spent much of the morning in the kitchen, preparing for the feast that night. It was the first time he had had to prepare a real meal - the extent of his experience of cooking while he had been in the army ran to digging maggot-holes out of apples, and making porridge or bread in his mess tin. Unsurprisingly, he found that he was quite adept with the small, sharp kitchen knives, chopping the ingredients under Aquila's instruction. He was wiping his eyes with the back of his hand as the sting of the onions wrung a few manly tears from him, when his uncle asked,
“Have you thought any more on what you might like to do, once you are fully healed?”
Marcus had anticipated this particular conversation with little relish. So that his hands might keep busy, he put his knife to use on one of the fat herrings that sat in a shiny silver pile, and replied truthfully,
“I confess, I have thought little on it.”
His uncle reached for a nearby bowl and began cracking several eggs into it.
“You have a good head on your shoulders, Marcus. The army always needs skilled engineers. You already have plenty of experience, and as you know, I can help you with any of the finer specifics you might lack in that field.”
Marcus said nothing, focusing instead on the the glassy dome of the herring's eye as he took off its head, and began working his knife along its backbone as his uncle had shown him.
“That way,” Aquila continued blithely, “you can still contribute to the campaign, without having to worry about the marching or fighting taxing your leg.”
Marcus put both knife and fish down on the table, suddenly very aware of the weight of the armilla around his wrist.
“To always be on the edge of action, yet never to see it? No, I could not--”
His voice cracked as he attempted to keep his emotions in check. He could think of nothing worse than watching the men prepare for battle, knowing that he would not be the one to lead them.
“It was merely a suggestion,” his uncle said with a sigh. “Here, use some of that energy on these eggs, why don't you.”
In between filleting the fish, Marcus had been keeping an eye on a pot of lentils bubbling in wine that hung over the fire, and he only turned his back for what felt like a short space of time to beat the eggs together for his uncle's honey-cakes. Yet, when he returned and stirred the lentils again, he found that they had coagulated into a sort of paste, and there was a heavy, burnt-on layer of them at the base of the pot. He lifted the spoon out of the pot and stared at it in puzzlement, as though it could explain to him the mystery of how the lentils could be fine one minute, and ruined the next.
“Oh, Marcus,” his uncle said, catching sight of Marcus's calamity and putting his hands on his hips. “What did you do?”
“I don't know,” Marcus said, banging the spoon on the side of the pot in an irritated attempt to loosen the sticky mess back into it. “I have no talent for this.”
“Never mind,” his uncle said, peering over Marcus's shoulder and chuckling merrily. “Take it off the heat and put more honey and garum in it. I'm sure that's what Sassticca does most of the time. No one's going to care what it tastes like after their second cup of mulsum. Now, off with you.”
“We're not done yet,” Marcus said, as his natural stubbornness to see things through to the burnt, bitter end set in. He felt he had not yet fulfilled his duties, though he had little eagerness to continue. Aquila took hold of him by the shoulders and gave him a placating pat on the arm.
“You've prepared everything more than adequately. The fish are filleted to perfection. The eggs are beaten to within an inch of their lives. But please, leave the cooking to me, if you want to eat tonight.”
“Shoo,” Aquila said, turning away and flicking the muslin cloth he was about to use to cover the spelt dough at Marcus, unleashing a cloud of flour. “Get out of my damned kitchen and go tend the horses. I know that's what you'd rather be doing.”
Marcus gave him a small, grateful smile and made his escape.
The day was unseasonably warm for December, with a clear blue sky shot through with dazzling sunlight that took the edge off the winter air. Marcus felt good to be outside, working up an honest sweat. The low burn in his muscles from the exertion of mucking out and grooming the horses made him consider how his body had begun to grow soft during the months of his recovery. He knew he would have to remedy that soon enough. His fingers missed the grip of a sword, the harsh routine of the military drill.
As though she knew his thoughts, the big black mare, Vipsania, whickered softly at him, tossing her head up and down as Marcus led her from the stable to tether her outside where there was more room and better light.
“There's my girl,” he said with affection, running his hands over the mossy softness of her muzzle and clever pricked ears. She was his favourite, reminding him of the chariot pair of his boyhood, though she was set much larger, her flanks built for strength and endurance rather than speed. She would have made a fine cavalry horse, one Marcus would have been proud to ride into battle – though he stopped that thought as soon as it came to him.
“Perhaps I'll be able to ride you soon,” he mused aloud to her, putting his back into it and beginning to curry her coat to a dark sheen. “Take you out across the fields and see if we can find some good hunting, hmm?”
He ran a hand down each of her legs, leaning his weight against her and gently thumbing behind her fetlock until she lifted her foot. His uncle's questioning from earlier troubled him greatly as he worked.
I must find something to do, he thought. I must earn my keep somehow. He brushed the dirt from under each of Vipsania's hooves, checking the pad of the frog beneath with his thumb to ensure it was sound, lost in his musings.
I cannot simply stay here forever, living off my uncle's charity. But if I cannot fight, if I cannot win glory for my family on the battlefield, what can I do? I have only known war; so what am I good for, when rest gives me no peace?
He had never had much of a desire to marry, even if the army had permitted it, though as he stood pondering while he began to unknot the tangles in Vipsania's long mane, he thought fondly of the idea of having children he might call his own one day. Yet, the more he thought on it, the less comfort he took. What child of his could hold their head high under the weight of the name he bore? And though he had received honours for his bravery in battle, if he never saw action again, what would he do to provide for a family?
He turned over every scenario he could conceive of in his head, mapping out all the eventualities, thinking of every possible course his future might follow, as though he was planning the strategy for a battle. None satisfied him. None grasped at his anima and shook him with the realisation that it was the right path. He had spent most of his life working on split-second decisions, the result of an instinct drilled to perfection by years of training. Whenever he came to a conclusion, he had always been instantly satisfied with its rightness – though, now that he thought about it, it did not mean that his decisions had always brought about the desired consequences. He gave a sigh as he recalled his order to send the patrol out for the grain shipment, and how badly that had ended. He had thought he was doing the right thing by trying to provide all the men of the garrison with food, but as a result, he had put all of them in danger. Many had lost their lives because of his miscalculation - because he had been unwilling to take advice. He had redeemed that mistake in the ensuing battle, but by making it in the first place, he had set into motion a series of events that resulted in him being here, a lamed man brushing the dirt from a horse in a wintry stable-yard, instead of a centurion galloping astride her, leading his men to battle and glory.
Marcus saw movement out of the corner of his eye, and looked up to see Esca in the distance, walking up the pathway to the villa. He was wearing the new clothes Marcus had bought for him, and Marcus was pleased to see that they fitted him perfectly. He raised his hand in greeting, and Esca gave him a brisk nod, not breaking his long stride as he made his way to the house.
Vipsania nudged him in the shoulder with her muzzle, demanding his attention, the breath rising from her nostrils to hang like mist in the cold air. Marcus looked away from the guarded line of Esca's shoulders as he disappeared inside, and resolved that it was unwise to think further on matters of destiny. Wherever the Fates led him, he would have to follow.
The light was beginning to fade, and he had another task left before the celebratory dinner was served. He shut Vipsania into her stall and gave her one last, affectionate pat on her strong, glossy neck, before making his way from the stables and over his uncle's land, down to where it bordered on a wood. At the edge of the forest stood an ancient oak, which seemed fit for Marcus's purpose. A large holly bush grew at its foot, and he began by hacking off several thorny bunches, though not without several cuts and scratches to his arms, the tiny beads of blood welling up from his skin to match the bright berries. He wiped them off on the edge of his tunic, unable to remember the last time his blood had been shed outside of combat.
Twined around the oak's trunk were thick vines and tendrils of ivy, and Marcus began to cut away at these next, unwinding the strands and putting them in a pile on the soft loam of the darkening forest floor. He noticed that there was another curious plant that he did not recognise, hanging from several of the higher branches of the oak and sprouting from the trunk itself in a shock of bright green, with small, pretty white berries like pearls. This, too, he managed to gather from the portion of the trunk that he could reach, stretching up onto his toes and forcing the tremor in his leg to hold until he had an armful of greenery. He gathered the lot to his chest, heedless of the prickles, and trudged back over the fields as the sun began to set behind the hills, flooding the land with scarlet like a spilled wine-cup.
As he entered the house, laden with his leafy burden, he found Stephanos and Esca playing knucklebones, while Sassticca regaled them with some salacious piece of gossip about the neighbours who lived over the way from them. He paused to watch them for a moment and rest his leg. It had grown weary quickly from lack of use. Esca glanced up at his approach, mid-throw, the bones turning and turning in the air, and Marcus couldn't help but be impressed when Esca made the catch without looking. Stephanos was less enthusiastic, dropping another coin onto Esca's pile and muttering crossly. Esca got to his feet as though to help, but Marcus shook his head firmly.
“No, I do not need your assistance, and I will not interrupt you from your leisure time.”
All the same, Esca approached him, his eyes darting to the deep cuts and scratches on Marcus's forearms. He reached out and unhooked a holly thorn from where it had caught in the weave of Marcus's tunic. Marcus hadn't realised that it had been poking through the fabric and scraping at his chest until Esca removed it.
“They have fought well against your blade,” Esca said with the vaguest hint of amusement, rubbing the pads of his thumb and forefinger over the shiny smoothness at the centre of a holly leaf. Then his face dropped as he reached out to touch at the bright green plant, brushing at the pale berries with his fingertips as though he feared to bruise them. He seemed to be in some distress.
“Centurion, did you put this on the ground at any point?”
Marcus had not seen Esca so animated since the first hour of knowing him. He looked ready to take the entire bundle of foliage from Marcus's arms and claim it as his own. Marcus was puzzled to see such a strong reaction, and shook his head.
“No, I gathered it last, so I have had it in my hands the whole time.”
Esca nodded with relief.
“This plant, it is the most holy among all my people. It must not touch the earth.”
It was rare enough for Esca to respond to any of Marcus's questions about his tribe or their customs, so for him to give up any information freely, Marcus knew that it must be of great import.
“I assure you,” he said, drawing himself up straight and true, “it will not.”
Esca seemed satisfied at this, and tipped his head to Marcus, allowing him to continue through to the triclinium.
Marcus began to strew the greenery over the lintels of the doorways, and arrange it on the dining table. He paid special caution to the plant that had caught Esca's attention, taking care not to let it drop any of its foliage or softly luminous berries on the floor. He had seen how reverently Esca had caressed the leaves, and was struck by a sudden, impetuous idea. He took up a few stray ivy vines and a couple of sprigs of this curious plant, though he thought better of including the holly. Pretty as it might have been, it would not do to have its prickles ruin his endeavour, as he began twisting the vines together.
“What is that?”
Esca leaned on the doorway, arms folded, and Marcus broke his toil with a start, though he had heard Esca's near-silent approach.
“Oh, this?” Marcus glanced at the small wreath he held, and he didn't know why he let a foolish lie trip off his tongue at the last moment. “I had thought to hang it on the door. But, perhaps,” he said, quickly attempting to restore his courage and sound as guileless as possible, “you would like it.” He held it out, feeling guilty and shy and utterly foolish. “The Lord of Misrule must have a crown.” He wondered if Esca would again refuse, would grow cold and distant as he had that morning.
“You wrought it?” Esca blinked. His expression spoke of little other than idle curiosity, though he sounded less than aloof when he uncrossed his arms and said,
“This I will gladly wear.”
He stepped in close to Marcus, and under the sharp, green scent of the foliage Marcus held in his grasp was the smell of warm iron, like a blade that had been taken white-hot from a forge fire and plunged into water. It was the way his bed smelled in the morning, his sleeping tunic, the comforting scent he would wake to daily with his face buried in the tangled nest of Esca's hair.
“Put it on me,” Esca said.
Marcus drew a breath and held steady, raising the circlet in his hands without a word. A great silence opened in his mind like a deep cavern. Esca lifted his head up to meet Marcus's gaze as he crowned him with the wreath, and then stood perfectly still, the shifting energy within him held in check, poised with tension apparent in every one of his muscles. Once again, Marcus had the unnerving image in his mind of a sylvan god, a creature to be worshipped and which demanded the blood of sacrifice upon his altars, as in the Bacchic mysteries. This time, Marcus vowed he would not be the first to look away. If Esca spent his time as a slave outstaring Marcus, then today when Esca was master, Marcus would do the same to him.
“Does it look foolish,” Esca asked, his voice a low hush.
Marcus watched the pulse in Esca's neck flicker beneath his translucent skin, the way his throat bobbed as he swallowed, the cruel bow of his small, lovely mouth which drew up at one edge when Marcus replied without hesitation,
“No. Not at all.”
He tried to keep his voice level, even as his throat went dry. It took every ounce of his will to keep his eyes raised, to maintain eye contact. Esca stood so close that Marcus could see the filaments of his blue irises as they caught the last glow of the afternoon light, saw how they shifted and contracted, then became a small circlet of cobalt around the edge of his pupils, dilated black.
They had stared each other down for too long, and it was becoming uncomfortable, too intimate and claustrophobic. Stubbornly, Marcus kept his eyes fixed on Esca, unblinking, determined not to back down. Esca leaned even closer, tilting his head a little, and his eyes narrowed slightly, as though demanding an answer to a question that had not been asked. For a fraction of a second, his gaze dropped to Marcus's mouth, and the silence in Marcus's head broke as he heard blood throb loud in his ears, and he said in a rush,
“I-- must go to help my uncle make the final preparations for dinner. We still need to make the sauce for the oysters.”
Esca gave him a curt nod, though his eyes were bright - no doubt, Marcus thought, at seeing the obvious discomfort Marcus was in.
“You are dismissed,” Esca said.
Marcus felt a small itch of irritation at hearing his own words from the previous night repeated back to him in Esca's haughty, accented Latin. The greater dint he felt to his pride was self-inflicted. He dipped his head and turned on his heel to make for the door, feeling angry and humiliated.
“Centurion,” Esca said, more softly this time.
“Yes,” Marcus said without turning around, holding his emotions in check as he kept his eyes on the floor and his hands curled into fists.
“Your gift is welcome.”
Later, as he carried the laden plates from the kitchen for dinner, Marcus would berate himself for turning to smile at Esca, for being so foolishly happy at receiving a slave's gratitude, for thinking how with the evening light upon him, crowned and stood proud in his finery, Esca looked every inch the prince of his clan.
But in that moment, he felt the blood flush deep and low with pleasure in him, and after he left the room and stood in the safety of the empty hallway, he leaned against the wall and winced, pressing the heel of his hand to his groin, as his accursed body betrayed him against his will.