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 chapter.
Word count: 3355 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.
The low warmth of the lamplight bloomed a dull orange glow in the silky glaze of the Samian cups and bowls laid out on the table, piled high with food. The wine jugs brimmed darkly, holding a sweet, intoxicating secret deep within their hearts. All around was the flicker of beeswax candles, giving off the sticky scent of summer in the depths of winter. Their aureoles of light were reflected in the burnished sheen of the waxy leaves that Marcus had wound around the edges of the room, kindling a false-fire in the branches that spilled over the table as though they had sprung from the polished wood itself, and each tendril that encircled Esca's tawny head in a garland of green was edged with gold.
It seemed that Esca had found his tongue at the bottom of his wine cup, for he said more to Marcus in the space of an hour over dinner than he had in all the months they had spent together at the villa.
“Your people, do they also celebrate this time of year,” Marcus asked, reaching for a loaf that was still warm from baking, and handing it to Esca.
“Yes,” Esca said, breaking off a crust and putting it on his plate, brushing the crumbs from his fingertips.
Marcus thought that as usual, the brusque monosyllable would be the only response he got. Instead, Esca took another sip of wine and leaned on his fist, watching Marcus for a moment before he continued.
“We do. My people gather at the places of the stones and mark the dawn.”
“The stones? The ones that are stood in circles?”
Esca nodded at him, tearing off a small piece of bread.
“I have heard tell that there is a great circle near here,” he said, popping the morsel into his mouth and chewing thoughtfully. “I should like to see it, some day.”
Marcus leaned forwards so he could be heard over the loud chatter at the other end of the table. His uncle was retelling his favourite joke about the fishwife and the eunuch. No doubt Stephanos and Sassticca had heard it even more times than Marcus, though they still laughed along with him: Aquila's laugh was infectious.
“This circle you speak of – is it the one where each upright has a stone across it, like a doorway?”
Esca nodded, spooning lentils onto his plate.
“I have seen it,” Marcus said, pleased that he could share this information with Esca “when I travelled to Isca Dumnorium.”
Esca looked up sharply, brows creased in a frown.
“You have? What is it like?”
“It is a great wonder, though the stones are rough-hewn and unfinished to my eyes,” Marcus admitted with a shrug. “It is not like the great buildings of Rome, though it is full of power.” He had marvelled at it as they passed by, this alien structure that jutted out of the earth, casting great and terrible shadows across the land.
Esca was silent, and shovelled a spoonful of lentils into his mouth. His frown deepened to something almost painful. Marcus found he was unconvinced that his uncle's helpful advice to disguise the flavour of the lentils had worked, and said,
“Is it truly that bad?”
Esca took a gulp of wine and swallowed valiantly.
“Try these instead,” Marcus said with a quirk of his mouth, passing Esca a plate of stuffed kidneys. “My uncle made them, so it's more likely that you can actually eat them. Give me a road to build, or an aqueduct to mend, or a battle to fight – that I can do. The army breeds soldiers, not cooks.”
“It is no great task for you to be a better fighter than you are a cook,” Esca said, taking another deep gulp of wine. Marcus drew in his breath, trying not to let the affront to his prowess in battle settle too deeply; Esca was permitted to say what he wished today, after all. Then he felt Esca's knee nudge his own beneath the table, and Esca looked at him askance with a faint twitch at the corner of his mouth. Marcus huffed out a small, reflexive breath at his own foolishness, and broke into a smile over the rim of his cup, tilting his head back to drain the wine and hide the flush that had risen in his cheeks at Esca's teasing.
Automatically, Esca made to refill Marcus's cup from the wine jug, and Marcus halted him with a quick shake of his head and a hand to his wrist.
“No. Today I serve you, remember?”
Esca's lips pursed in annoyance that he had forgotten himself. His limbs were loosened by the wine, but under it, Marcus could still see that ever-present hardness in him, the thinly veiled hint of aggression in every movement he made. He felt the pulse at Esca's wrist quicken in anger beneath his fingers, before Esca pulled his hand away and lifted his wine cup in expectation. Dutifully, Marcus topped-up Esca's cup first before filling his own, then raised his wine in salute.
The cry went up around the table, until Esca too lifted his cup, mumbling,
“Io, Saturnalia.” He leaned in a little closer to Marcus, pushing a stray ivy tendril out of the way of one eye, and muttered, “Must I say this every time the wine is poured?”
“Tradition,” Esca said, snagging a finger irritably on the roving ivy again. Marcus wanted to reach out and tuck it behind one of Esca's bold ears, but he knew that the thought had sprung from wine, not wisdom. Luckily, Esca changed the subject.
“How long has your uncle lived here?”
“A long time. Since before my father came here on campaign.”
“He too was a soldier, then.”
“Yes. He was also a centurion.” Marcus felt a knot tie in his throat, sadness settling low in his belly. “My father marched with the Eagles too, though he did not return.” He drew the little wooden eagle out from under his tunic and showed it to Esca.
“Before he left, he made this for me. I've worn it ever since I was a boy.”
Esca lifted his hand as though to touch it, then his fingers curled back towards his palm and he drew back, respectful, a flicker of tension around his eyes. Marcus felt a deep surge of appreciation for that, to see how Esca had marked his totem as a thing worthy of regard, just as Marcus had with the dagger Esca had bestowed upon him.
“You draw comfort from it,” Esca said. “Though, it is a heavy burden, for a man to carry his father around his neck.”
“No,” Marcus said in surprise, “that's-- that's not it.”
Marcus knew that Esca could not understand why he wore this symbol in honour of his father's memory, to venerate him when others did not, to show that he bore his family's name with pride, and not simply out of duty. He knew little of Marcus's past, and Marcus had never spoken much of his father. But why could Esca not see that it was all Marcus had left of the man who had sired him, when he himself had relinquished the one thing that tied him to his own father? And yet, Esca's words stirred something deep within him, hearkening back to his own troublesome thoughts from earlier that day. It was not something he wished to dwell on.
Esca reached past him for one of the dense, sticky honeycakes.
“Did your father teach you how to do this also, to work wood with a knife?
“No,” Marcus said, thinking with a pang of how little time he had spent in the company of his father before he had lost him. He had no desire to grow maudlin on what was supposed to be a happy occasion. “My blade has no artistry, other than on the battlefield.”
Esca cautiously nibbled at a corner of the cake, then made a small noise of appreciation.
“My father showed me how,” he said, swallowing his mouthful. “He taught us that a blade can be used to destroy, but also to create. That way, there is balance in all things.”
Marcus felt his credulity being stretched that Esca's father – though he might have been a warrior worthy of respect – could display wisdom equal to that of the Greek philosophers. The Britons were known for being strong and shrewd and brave, indeed, but there was little sophistication in their thought. Else why had they so few stone buildings, and no unified leadership or written words? They had needed Rome to bring that to them. Marcus knew that. He knew it.
“These are good,” Esca hummed, taking another bite.
“Well,” Marcus said with a terse sigh, “my uncle made those too. I just beat the eggs together.”
Esca shrugged, evidently unconcerned which of them had made it, only that he liked the taste. He crammed the last of the cake into his mouth and sucked the honey off his fingers. An involuntary shiver went down Marcus's spine, pooling heat into his lap, and he looked away, clutching the stem of his wine cup as though it was a raft to keep him afloat.
“I saw how you were with the horses today,” Esca said quietly, and it took Marcus a moment to fully register what he had said, before he swung his head round and stared. Esca was leaning on his hand again, and met Marcus's stare with cool appraisal. “You are good with them,” he said, as though this satisfied him. They were the first kindly words Marcus had heard come from Esca's mouth that were not delivered with reluctance or tinged with sarcasm.
“I had not realised you were watching me for any length of time,” Marcus said, a little unnerved at the thought of Esca spying on him. He felt the pulse at his throat quicken and took a hasty sip of wine.
“I wasn't,” Esca said, his eyes growing fractionally narrower for a moment. “Did you learn to tend them in the army?”
“No,” Marcus said, toying with the rim of his wine cup. “I have known horses all my life. Back when I was a boy, I drove a chariot.” He paused, closing his eyes for a moment at the memory, vivid flashes returning to him in a jumble like one of his fever dreams: the rattle of the wheels; the scent of crushed grasses and horse-sweat whipped up by the wind into his face; the thunder of hooves and the broad, black flanks of his beloved Castor and Pollux. He opened his eyes again and found Esca watching him with his lips pressed together in a pale, agitated line. Though Marcus had been reluctant to speak of his father earlier, he now found himself unable to conceal the sorrow he carried in his heart for this loss, and laid it bare before Esca.
“It is one of the things I miss most of all. And I think it must be some cruel joke of the Fates, that my greatest joy was also my undoing.”
It is the wine, Marcus told himself. It is merely the wine that makes me speak to him so freely.
Much of the colour had drained from Esca's face, leaving only two high spots of colour at the crest of each cheek. He gave Marcus a long, considering look, then asked,
“Which is the greater regret: that you are no longer permitted to command a battle, or that you can no longer command a chariot?”
Marcus sucked a breath in between his teeth as though the words alone could make him wince. Both losses pained him more than he could express. He was a soldier first and foremost, following the path his father had taken, so that he might tread in the same footprints his father had left, to feel that the connection between them was still there. Above all, he had wanted to be the best commander he could be. That had always been his public ambition. Though, privately, he had loved the race most of all. It was a thing for him and him alone, purely selfish in the pleasure it brought him. And although it sent a low throb of guilt into his gut, as if speaking the truth was somehow a betrayal, he gave an honest answer.
“I cannot say. Truly, I cannot.”
An indefinable series of emotions appeared on Esca's face for a fleeting moment, faint tremors like ripples appearing in still water when a pebble has been dropped in, sinking down to lie heavy at the dark, deep riverbed. Esca took his wine cup in both hands, rocking it gently between his palms, gazing upon the liquid within. When he finally spoke, it was to the surface of the wine, not to Marcus.
“I was also a charioteer, once. I drove my father's chariot. And I, too, long to do it again. Though,” he raised his eyes to meet Marcus's, and his face was pensive and drawn. “I know that I will not.”
Marcus felt his chest grow unexpectedly tight with sympathy, to think that they shared this common ground, this common loss, a kinship in the love of the race, the speed, the heartpounding rush that only a hurtling chariot pair could provide. It was a discomforting thought for him to recall how he had contemplated the possibility of breaking Esca as one might break a horse. The man before him was a slave, sure enough, but he, too, had known the wild gallop that sent up white flecks of foaming sweat upon the necks of the horses. He too had known that freedom.
“Io, Saturnalia,” Esca said, solemn and so softly that only they two could hear. He raised his cup to Marcus. Marcus echoed his words, and they toasted each other in silence, sharing an uneasy moment of solidarity and sadness.
“Hi, you two,” Aquila said, his voice booming jovially from the opposite end of the table, “why don't you join the party. It's like a funeral where you're sitting. Listen to this – Stephanos met a man in the market the other day who has seen a real, living cameleopard. Even you have not seen one of those, have you, Marcus?”
“No, uncle,” Marcus said, smiling to see that the wine-flush was also in his uncle's cheeks. “I have not.”
“Do you know of this beast, Esca?”
Esca shook his head.
“Well,” Aquila said, leaning back in his chair, “it has a head like that of a camel, and a neck like a horse's neck, but long – long like the branch of a tree, and on its hide there are these spots-”
Stephanos made a very distinct 'ahem' noise, and Aquila gestured to him, managing to look simultaneously impatient and apologetic,
“Yes, yes, of course. It's your story. You tell it, Stephanos.”
Marcus twisted in his chair, stretching out his legs under the table. He was sore from being on his feet all day, and he surreptitiously rocked the backs of his knuckles into the flesh around his scar, trying to ease the stiffness. Stephanos spread his arms wide to show how long the cameleopard's neck was, according to the tale he had heard in the market, and nearly knocked over Sassticca's wine cup. She gave him a clip round the ear, tutting and rolling her eyes, and Marcus chuckled softly as his uncle roared with laughter. Marcus shifted again as a sharp twinge went up his thigh, then jumped and looked down when he felt a hand slide next to his above his knee. Esca worked his thumb into the contracting muscle in Marcus's thigh, pushing Marcus's hand out of the way so he could get a better purchase. Esca did not look at him, focusing instead on the story Stephanos was telling them, but he inclined his head towards Marcus, saying under his breath,
“It pains you, doesn't it.”
“Yes,” Marcus whispered, both grateful and disappointed that Esca had noticed he was in distress. The ache began to ease almost immediately. Esca was well-versed by now with the way to unknot even the worst spasms Marcus still occasionally suffered. He relaxed into it as Esca shifted his chair a little closer. Marcus let his shoulders drop as the tension that had worked its way up his spine dissipated under Esca's determined fingers. But the wine was strong in his veins, and he had had more than his usual share that night. He found that his breath was quickening, and little blood-hot rushes were trickling over his skin as Esca worked his hand higher, harder, and just as Marcus thought he must push Esca away, lest relief turn to illicit pleasure, his uncle rescued him.
“Well,” Aquila said, rising to his feet. “Come along, Marcus. These dishes won't clear themselves.”
“No,” Esca said, standing up immediately. “I will do it.”
“Esca,” Marcus said gently, “that's not the way things are done. You are relieved of all your duties this day.”
He saw how Sassticca shot Esca a terse look, and Stephanos fidgeted uncomfortably. More than likely they both expected to be called upon for help, but Esca only shook his head at them, thumbing the wreath he wore back a little to push the leaves out of his eyes. He began piling the plates up.
“I will do it,” Esca said, more firmly this time. “I will not be served by those who are more weary than I am.”
“Marcus,” Aquila said, settling back down in his chair, “let him do as he wishes. The rules are made for breaking today, and the gods know he does that better than anyone.”
“He has strength enough for all of us, that one,” Sassticca said as Esca disappeared into the kitchens, and she reached for another of the cakes. “You are becoming quite the expert at making these, domine,” she said with an amused glint in her old, sharp eyes.
Marcus couldn't help but smile as his uncle chuckled and patted her on the back of her hand.
“I had a very good teacher. Remember when I first began making them? I was almost as bad a cook as Marcus!”
Marcus rubbed his hands over his face, and laughed along with them.
“You're never going to let me forget this, are you.”
“Not unless you improve next year,” Aquila said, with a jovial wag of his finger.
Next year. It seemed so far off, so much empty space to fill in between without action. Marcus listened to their idle chatter, picking at the remnants of his meal and sipping at his wine, glad of the heady hum it sent through his limbs. He noticed a movement at the corner of his eye and did not need to look up to know its source. His uncle roused himself, spreading his hands with a smile.
“Esca! Our lord of misrule returns from his reign in the kitchens. Marcus, see that Esca's cup is filled.”
Esca shook his head, coming to stand behind his empty chair, but he did not sit down.
“I have had more than enough of your wine to drink this evening, and would like to sleep now.” He bowed his head to Aquila. Then his eyes darted sideways to meet Marcus's for the briefest moment.
“Thank you,” Esca said, as though the words were addressed to Marcus alone, before he glanced away to nod to the rest of the company. “I bid you goodnight.”