Rating: PG13 for 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: A not-particularly graphic hunting scene with a deer
Word count: 4646 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 notes: I am a little dubious about how anyone not in the army obtained weaponry by legal means, but Marcus and Esca seem to have got some from somewhere in the film, and Uncle Aquila doesn't look like the kind of guy to just randomly have pointy stuff around the house. So I'm hoping the armourer outside the city walls in this chapter isn't too far off the mark. If it is, you know where I am ;)
ETA: This chapter now has gorgeous, gorgeous art by the lovely bunn It captures the atmosphere perfectly and I am so very grateful to her for drawing it :)
They made their way across town the next day to avail themselves of the equipment Marcus knew they lacked, after he had taken a quick inventory and found that yes, indeed, one sword, a few kitchen knives, an adze, his old crutch, several garden spades and Sasstica's trusty wooden spoons (despite her ability to deliver something approaching a mortal blow with them) would not serve well for either hunting or sparring. When he had turned to find Esca glaring at a long-handled broom out of the corner of his eye, as if assessing its potential as a weapon for sparring, Marcus had almost laughed aloud. It was no use. The house distinctly lacked a soldier's touch, and it was down to Marcus to rectify that.
They paused briefly at the Mithraeum, where Marcus asked for the blessing of the soldiers' god for the new equipment he hoped to buy. The shops around the main square of Calleva were huddled together against the cold, their bright awnings shivering in the biting wind. Underfoot, the cobbled stones were perilous with a thin sheen of ice, and the face of both merchant and customer reflected the gloom of the day. When he had first arrived in Britannia, Marcus had found the all-pervading obsession with every minutiae of the weather completely baffling, bemused as to why it was so often a topic of conversation for Roman and Briton alike, and why all and sundry seemed to derive such grim satisfaction from describing how thoroughly dreadful the climate was, regardless of whether it was fair or foul. If it was hot, it was too hot. If it was cold, it was too cold. The weather never did as it ought to do, and why that still came as a surprise to anyone, Marcus found quite impossible to fathom. Now, after almost a year under British skies, he was finally beginning to understand, as, without warning, the sky shuddered and unleashed a volley of hailstones in a deafening clatter, plinking off the helmets of a couple of nearby guardsmen and rattling over the tiled roofs. The impact of each frozen raindrop stung in tiny sharp pinpricks, the cold burning where it struck the bare skin of his face and hands, as if he had sat too close to a heatless fire that had spat out a glut of white sparks. Even Esca showed a fleeting expression of surprise at the sudden forcefulness of the storm. They picked up their pace, and hastened through the South Gate to the armourer's, beyond the city walls.
The arms merchant who supplied the nearby fort was a tall, thickly-muscled Briton, who had mouse-brown hair that hung past his thick shoulders, and the eyes and whiskers of a fox. Around the walls were weapons of every kind – long-bladed spathae, gladii akin to Marcus's own, though not so fine, and iron-tipped hastae that stood as tall as Marcus himself.
The armourer was circumspect at first when they ducked inside out of the hailstorm. He was accustomed to supplying only soldiers and guardsmen, but the weighty coinpurse Marcus carried was soon persuasion enough for him to begin equipping them with practice weaponry – the heavy wooden gladii and bucklers similar to those Marcus had trained with another lifetime ago - and several hunting spears.
As Marcus tested the weight of one of the practice swords, he observed the way that Esca's gaze fell on the bows and lingered on one in particular. A shortbow alive with the warm red-brown gleam of yew wood.
“That one is to your liking,” Marcus asked, as Esca's hand went out to fit the tip of his finger into the small cleft of the string nock.
“It is a bow of the Brigantes,” Esca said simply, hefting the bow up and assessing it with the dispassionate air of an expert.
“It was made by one of your kin?” Marcus was surprised by the cold wash of disquiet that went through him at the thought.
“No,” Esca said quickly, a deep frown cutting into his brow. “By another clansman of the tribe.” He studied the carved grip and patterning worked into the belly side of the limbs closely. “From the westerly coast, where they border with the Carvetii, I think.”
“It is fine work, Domine,” the armourer said immediately, lumbering over to Marcus as he saw an opportunity to further add to his coinpurse with Roman silver, and quoted a price so high that it give Marcus a moment's pause. Even at a glance, Marcus could see with his soldier's eyes that it was far superior to the other stock on display. He did a few quick calculations in his head, and reasoned that the benefits of purchasing such a finely wrought weapon would outweigh the extravagant cost.
“Put it with the other things,” Marcus said to Esca with a nod of approval.
Esca shot him a look, leaning a little closer then muttering so only Marcus could hear.
“The price is too high. The work is passing fair, but I have held better. It is not worth so much.”
“That is for me to decide. Put it with the rest.”
He saw the flicker of consternation in Esca's face, and recalled his reaction on the previous occasion when Marcus had given something to him. He had not considered that Esca might see the bow as a gift; he had not even considered it that way himself, so he chose his next words carefully, bending his head down towards Esca's to keep their conversation from being overheard. Marcus kept his voice low whilst maintaining an abrupt tone of command.
“I would never have sent my men out to fight with inferior weaponry. I demanded the best for them, without exception. And so, when we go hunting, you require the right equipment. If the bow is what you are best with, then it stands to reason that we will have greater success if you are armed with one.”
Esca's eyes quested over Marcus's face for a moment, flickering back and forth, as though he wanted to say something more, but Marcus stood quite resolute and would not be swayed from his decision. Finally, Esca's gaze settled and held Marcus's own for a moment, then with a small nod, Esca turned and spoke rapidly to the arms merchant in his native tongue. Marcus did not understand what was said, but he recognised a couple of the words which he took to be related to Esca's name and tribe – Cunoval and Brigantoch. Marcus felt disconcertingly redundant. It seemed he was no longer the one in charge of the transaction; Esca was.
The armourer scoffed and said a few words to Esca in return, emphasising one – tràill – with particular scorn. Silently, Esca stepped forward, pushing back his damp cloak from his shoulder and rolling up the sleeve of his tunic to reveal the blue markings on his arm. A look of dismay and disbelief flitted over the merchant's sallow face, and briefly his eyes flicked to Marcus. There was none of the polite deference that had been there previously; for a moment, Marcus thought he imagined outright hostility and his hackles rose defensively on instinct. When the armourer caught him looking, he gave Marcus the broad smile of a seasoned professional.
“My apologies, Domine,” he said, obsequious once more, and quoted a price that was close to half of what it had been previously. Marcus pulled out his coinpurse and shot Esca an interrogative look, but he was busying himself with gathering up their newly acquired equipment. Esca had not disobeyed him in any way, but he had bypassed Marcus's authority. True, it had been to turn the situation to their advantage, but all the same, Marcus was unsettled. They had barely left the armourer behind before Marcus demanded of Esca,
“What did you say to him?”
“The man has travelled much of the land,” Esca replied, hefting the bundle of weapons carefully onto his back. “My father's name is known even here, among the Atrebates.”
Esca said no more, but it was enough for Marcus to understand his meaning well enough. Mercifully, the storm had passed, since they had to take the long route home around the outskirts of the city walls: it was not permitted for them to go through the town so openly laden with weaponry. Their course took them across the path from the East Gate that led to the amphitheatre, and Marcus gave a sidelong glance at Esca. He gave no sign of any reaction to their surroundings, trudging alongside Marcus with his head held high and his eyes fixed straight ahead. As they walked along, Marcus thought on the exchange he had witnessed between Esca and the armourer, and how the mere mention of a name could create such differing reactions. How, in his experience, any mention of the notorious Ninth Hispana, or worse, of his own father, would stir up hostility and negativity amongst any Roman who heard it uttered, some even going so far as to surreptitiously make the sign to ward off the evil eye, and how much that angered and shamed him. And how, even after defeat and death, the name of Esca's father could still command respect, even fear. Something akin to jealousy or perhaps resentment clenched in his breast, but there was no malice to it. He couldn't quite put his finger on it. It felt like a tiny needle went through the centre of his heart, twisting and twisting, drawing a fine thread of yearning in its wake.
On their return, they set up a target board in their makeshift training ground. Marcus withdrew to the shelter of the colonnade around the villa, leaning on one of the pillars to take some of the weight off his weary legs, and observed as Esca learned the feel of the new bow. His earlier disquiet was soon lulled away by the hypnotic rhythm of squeak-whizz-thump as Esca drew back his bowstring and released arrow after arrow, hitting home almost every time, until the centre of the target bristled with white fletching feathers.
His uncle approached and stood next to him, humming quietly to himself as he too watched Esca. After a while he cleared his throat and said conversationally,
“Stephanos tells me you intend to take him hunting.”
“When the weather improves, yes.”
“Far be it from me to tell you what to do,” Aquila said, using his most innocuous tone, “but be cautious, won't you, Marcus?”
“I have no doubt of his loyalty,” Marcus said emphatically, catching his uncle's meaning immediately and drawing himself up straight. He instantly regretted how his quick, hot temper forged a tone of arrogance in his voice, when he had only intended to give his uncle confident assurance.
“That bow cost almost as much as he did,” Aquila said, shaking his head. His anger roused, Marcus shot a sideways scowl at his uncle, but there was no censure there in the old man's expression, only a quiet, troubled frown. Aquila plucked the edges of his cloak up round his shoulders and turned to go inside, then paused, looking back over his shoulder across the palaestra, where Esca was smoothing out a bent feather with a careful thumb.
“I don't know which is worse; that you value him so highly, or that others have valued him so little.”
Deep in the shadow-hours of one night soon after, it was the silence that woke Marcus. Even in sleep, his keen ears had registered that something was amiss: there was an absence of noise when there should have been the soft, sleepy sounds of night-birds and the low, keening wind through the trees.
He rose quietly, cautious not to wake Esca who lay flat on his stomach, snoring softly into the pillow. Upon opening the doors to the garden, Marcus sucked in a quiet breath of surprise. It was still the dark time of the year and long before dawn, but the cockleshell moon was bright above, edging everything it touched with an eerie blue light. The world outside was heaped in white, distorting the far trees into nebulous shapes, and the sloping hills beyond had become the smooth curves of a titan goddess, sleeping naked on the icy land. Even the familiar surroundings of the small garden seemed like a landscape that was wholly new and unknown. White flakes tumbled out of the sky like shaken goosedown. A flurry blew in over the lintel and settled on Marcus's bare toes, dropping a score of fleeting, frozen kisses onto his skin.
As the blast of cold air shouldered past him into the room, Marcus heard a soft grunt behind him and turned to see the moonlit glint of one baleful eye staring at him out of the nest of blankets.
“Look,” he said, unable to keep the enthusiasm from his voice. “It is snowing.”
He had spent much of his career stationed to warmer lands, and had not seen it at this depth before, only on the high mountaintops of Dacia when he had passed through her verdant lowlands. When he had marched the Fourth Cohort through Gaul, it was later in the year, and though the cold had been bitter there too, the snows that had fallen were meagre and thin in comparison. This was already several digits thick. Marcus bent down and scooped up a handful of the glittering crystals, rubbing them between his fingers and feeling the icy grains compact together into something fleetingly solid, before they melted against the warmth of his skin.
“It will still be there in the morning,” Esca said, biting back a yawn.
“I should like to ride out and see it,” Marcus said, wiping the wetness off on his tunic from his numb fingertips and closing the doors over again. It would be the first time he had been riding since his injury, and the thought of taking out the horses in such an alien landscape filled him with eager anticipation.
“Then we will,” Esca said, pulling the covers up until only the crown of his head was visible. Any heat which might have been indoors had been stolen by the night air, and Marcus was shivering when he returned to the snug cocoon of his bed.
“You are cold,” Esca huffed, though he didn't sound irritated, just tired.
“I have made the room lose its warmth too,” Marcus said ruefully, crossing his arms over himself and willing more warmth from the blankets. Minutes passed, then Esca shifted beside him. Marcus tried not to jump when Esca tucked his legs backwards, and with only a slight twitch at the initial contact, curled his long, narrow feet over Marcus's own, warming his ice-cold skin. It was the first contact he had made while not asleep, nor out of duty to attend to Marcus's injury or at Marcus's behest. As though the snow had frozen him, Marcus lay very still, very quiet, listening to the sound of Esca's breathing slow down as he fell asleep. And soon, Marcus too lapsed into a deep, dreamless slumber.
When dawn finally came, it revealed that the lake was frozen across from bank to bank. Above was a bright shocking sky of deepest cerulean, the knife-blade air cold enough to cut through leather and wool and skin. As they rode out towards the woodland, the horses stamped and shook their heads, unsettled by the curious scent of the snow and the crisp feel of it underfoot, ashcloud plumes rising from their flared nostrils. The snow was deep enough to cover the fetlocks of Esca's small grey mount, Minna, completely, and Vipsania's ears flicked back and forth, keenly attuned to even the slightest sound.
Across the fields, Marcus could see the shape of the wind picking up the topmost layer of snow and tumbling it into spirals that rolled away and away over the silent land. When they passed into the woodland, the snow that was piled into narrow wedges along the lengths of the branches would burst forth in a shower of glitter that tumbled silently to the ground when they brushed past. Everywhere he looked, Marcus saw familiar shapes wrought into something strange and new: here, the distinctive curled fronds of ferns hidden under their layer of crystalline whiteness, trembling in the icy air; there, a star-strung cobweb spread wide between the white-rimmed leaves, outlined in thick frost.
Steam rose from the warm flanks of the mares, and Marcus could even see it rise from the backs of his arms and his thighs in gossamer-fine webs. Every breath wreathed their heads in wispy white gauze. By his side, Esca hunched in his cloak against the cold as the silence of the snowy wood surrounded them. All at once, there was a movement up ahead, and Marcus raised his hand in a swift, wordless signal to halt. Between the trees, he could make out a doe and the distinctive, spotted hide of a fawn, picking their way through the snow with shy grace.
“We should have thought to bring our spears,” Marcus said quietly.
“No,” Esca said after a moment of contemplation. Marcus looked to him, and saw how motionlessly he was watching the timid creatures of the woodland, and wondered that Esca should display such sentimental folly. Thwarting Marcus's expectations as always, Esca then said,
“They would not make for good eating yet. They're too thin, from the cold. Give them another month or two, and we will have them.” As Esca exhaled the words, he looked to Marcus as though a frost-borne shroud of funereal muslin had been laid over his solemn, still features. Marcus recalled the teachings of the Stoics, and considered that he should attend to his own folly before that of others.
Upon their return, instead of heading straight into the villa to warm himself, Marcus set to rubbing Vipsania down before the cold penetrated her warmed muscles and made them cramp. He had missed even this, the reassuring mundanity of cleaning tack and laying down fresh straw and currying the coat of his horse. The centurion in him still dwelt just beneath the surface, looking to see that everything was kept to inspection standards. If he maintained those standards himself, then all the better.
Distracted as he had been by the excitement of riding and the beauty of the snow, he had given little thought to how the curved saddle horn dug into his leg just above the old injury, aggravating the muscles there. As though he had a Sybil's insight, it was just at the instant that Marcus had paused from fastening a blanket over Vipsania's back to knead the pain from his thigh that he heard Esca's quiet voice come from over the stable door.
“I will finish here. The cold will do your leg no good.”
“I will decide what is best for me,” Marcus said, the pain making him irritable at Esca's well-meant nagging. “I have no wish to be idle indoors any longer.”
Esca unlatched the door to the stable and stepped into the small space.
“She is well tended to,” he said, admiring Vipsania's gleaming coat, “but you are not.”
Marcus was concentrating very hard on not letting his thigh go into a cramp, and trying not to lose his temper, and he had half a mind to order Esca to leave him be, when Esca stepped in close and pressed his fingers into the exact spot on Marcus's thigh that allayed the threatened contraction. Breathless with relief, he was too surprised to protest when Esca walked him back a couple of paces until his shoulders bumped against the wall. He leaned into it for support, involuntarily letting out a shuddery exhalation as Esca worked his thumb deeper into the muscle. His muscles began to relax as the sweet smell of the straw filled his nostrils, but sweeter still was the hot metal scent of Esca's skin. Marcus watched him out of the corner of his eye. Esca was staring past his shoulder at the wooden wall of the stable behind Marcus's head, seemingly rapt in his task as he circled his fingers round and round, when his gaze abruptly flicked sideways and he caught Marcus looking at him. Despite the frigid air, Marcus's cheeks flushed and a shock of heat licked its way up his spine, as the release from the pain skirted dangerously close to pleasure, too close. Esca was standing far too close to him. Marcus grabbed Esca's hand and held him still.
“Enough,” he said, his commanding tone made rough with desire. It would be such a small thing, instead of pushing Esca's hand away, to force it higher, to press it between his thighs where he still ached, where he still needed Esca's touch.
He released Esca's wrist.
“I will finish here,” Esca said again, voice soft but emphatic, and went to Vipsania's side, tightening the girth-straps to keep her blanket in place.
Marcus trudged back to the villa through the snow, feeling twice as cold after the sudden warmth of the stable.
The snow brought a temporary halt to their sparring, and when the surface of the snow turned to ice and became treacherous, it halted their riding too. Though Marcus had sworn that the last thing he wanted was to stay indoors, once again he was unwillingly confined to the villa. There were only so many games of Merels he could play with his uncle, only so many accounts to balance or scrolls to read before boredom set in. He had had his first real taste of activity again, and wanted more of it.
It was during a particularly trying afternoon that Marcus heard the sweetest sound he could have imagined – a single, plashing drop of water sliding off the roof outside. Soon, it became the steady drip-drip of thaw. As suddenly as the snows had come, they once again shrunk from the earth, leaving only odd patches of dingy white beneath the denser trees and hedgerows, and running alongside the walls where the sun could not reach.
This, then, was the ideal moment for them to go out on their first hunt, when the creatures that had hidden away from the icy touch of the snow would once again venture out, looking for food in the newly revealed land. To Marcus's happy surprise, he and Esca worked perfectly in tandem as though they had done this a dozen times before. By his side, Esca wove Minna nimbly through the thick trees, anticipating Marcus's instructions almost before he had uttered them. As they approached their quarry, Vipsania shied at the last, and Marcus had to duck to avoid a low branch just at the moment of his spear-throw. Quickly compensating for the sudden shift in movement, it was a testament to his hard-earned skill that he regained his seat, and his flung spear still hit the beast, scoring a deep graze into her hindquarters. She buckled, but kept on running.
Glancing up, Marcus saw Esca galloping through the trees ahead, looking over his shoulder at the deer, then across to Marcus.
“Take her down! Esca, now!”
In an instant, Esca had nocked an arrow into his bow and let it fly. It hit home, piercing through the deer's neck, and down she went, kicking.
Marcus reined in Vipsania and slid to the ground, kneeling on the beast's shoulder to stop her thrashing while he drew out his dagger. With the other hand braced against her straining neck, he sent up a quick prayer of gratitude to Mithras before slitting her throat and ending it quickly.
“It's been too long,” Marcus said as Esca jumped down from Minna to crouch beside him. “I am going to need more practise.” He handed over his dagger to Esca so he could gut the beast, and got up, using the hem of his tunic to wipe the blood from his hands. Under the blade, the deer's viscera spilled forth, steam rising up from the red tangle into the cold air.
“The kill is yours,” Marcus said. “It was well done.”
Esca craned over his shoulder to give Marcus a nod of thanks, then swiped a smear of drying blood from his cheek with the back of his arm, spreading it crimson-bright across his pale skin. All at once, Marcus was aware that they were alone, that he was unarmed and Esca was not, and as Esca stood, cleaning the gore from the dagger off onto his braccae, he remembered his uncle's warning. Esca approached him with the dagger, and Marcus felt every one of his muscles grow tense. For one foolish moment, he half-expected Esca to throw it at his feet again, or worse. As if he could read that thought in Marcus's face, Esca's brows twitched and his eyes grew bright with what could only be amusement. He flipped the blade in his hand to offer Marcus the handle, then walked straight past him to retrieve Vipsania's reins. As Marcus tucked the dagger away, an odd warmth spread through his chest. To call it relief or gratitude would have done his courage a disservice. For a moment that had carried such weight, he felt light, unburdened, vindicated that his trust in Esca's loyalty had proven true. It was not unlike that strange elation that had gone through him when Esca had wrestled him to the ground. Though it was more than that. It felt almost as if they had shared a private joke.
“Ours,” Esca said, holding the mare still while Marcus mounted her.
“The kill. It is not mine alone,” Esca said, hefting the deer onto Minna's back. She whinnied in protest, but held still under Esca's hand. As he led her past Vipsania towards the path back to the villa, he glanced up at Marcus.
“Though I will not refuse if you credit me with it,” he said, and almost smiled.
Each day, they rode out together, sometimes to hunt, sometimes for the simple pleasure of racing their horses against each other across the land. Each day they sparred, progressing soon from practise weapons to steel. Marcus showed Esca the precise steps of a Roman military drill, how each stab and thrust was designed to maximise damage, and in turn, he learned the swift steps of close combat favoured by the tribes, the way to counter evasive and surprise attacks, and how merciless and deadly Esca could be with a sword in each hand.
Daily, Marcus felt himself become more of the man - the soldier - he had once been, as each day their sparring grew in speed, until they learned the language of sword against sword, fluent in the tongueless exchange of parry and thrust, the clash of metal sending fire-bright sparks into the ringing air. And with it, the silences between them grew shorter, less stilted. The thin-lipped, almost-smile came to Esca's solemn mouth a little more frequently. Marcus would never be so fond to call the bond that was forming between them amicable, but the palpable animosity lessened, slowly and steadily giving way to a tentative accord.
Soon, delicate white flowers with drooping heads crept their way up through the hard carapace of the earth, and covered the forest floor with a dusting that was like those first few flakes of snow. The tender shoots of newest green were finally returning to the cold, barren land.
A change was coming.