Author's Notes: I have seen "The Eagle" three times already. And, surprise, surprise, I have been struck by the relationship between the two main characters. As I was discussing this with a friend of mine, we began thinking "what ifs", sparked by the last two lines of the movie: "So what now?" "You decide!"
Let's hope that our collaborative effort is worth it!
Oh! And this contains two (2) yaoi scenes, so IF YOU DON'T APPRECIATE YAOI OR ARE A HOMOPHBE, PLEASE BE WARRNED! If you like it, drop me a line! Even if you dind't like it, review. Also, THE PLOT, CHARACTERS (except Odilia and her father) ARE PROPERTY OF THEIR RESPECTIVE AUTHORS! I DISCALIM, DISCLAIM, DISCLAIM...
The Eagle's Flight
"Marcus Flavius Aquila, you are hereby named centurion of the first cohort of the reinstated Ninth Legion. Ave!"
A chorus of "Ave" was heard all around the hall that held the ceremony. Marcus' face bloomed in a restrained smile. His life's dream had just come true. His family honour had been restored, he had become the talk of the entire Roman Empire. He had everything he had ever wanted. His smile widened at the tribune's next words: "Esca, of the Britains, we name you as the first officer of the Ninth Legion. Ave!"
The answering "Ave" was again heard. Glancing at his left, Marcus could see the top of Esca's head and he could very well imagine the controlled smile his face had. He rembered well the words that lead to this: "You decide!" And Esca decided that Marcus should take the command of the Ninth. Marcus' answer was "Only if you become my first officer." And he did. Now they both stood in front of the Roman Senate and they had been named commanders of the reinstated Ninth Legion.
"Commander Marcus Aquila, here are your next orders." The tribune handed him a scroll. Unrolling it, Marcus read their next destination for adventure: Germania. Although it had been conquered for the Roman Eagle, Germania was still teaming with barbarians and the forts, although not in the same state of disrepair as the ones in Britain, were still understaffed. He took the scroll and left the hall together with his friend and companion, now his first officer, Esca.
"Well, what do you think awaits us there, Esca?" asked Marcus. His friend's eyes had lit up with an inner fire that Marcus always marvelled at. Even when he had first met Esca, as a slave in a gladiator ring, he had seen the same fire. Maybe it was that fire that had made him choose to save his life.
"What else could there be but fights and more fights? And more wounds for you. Your leg is still troubling you, isn't it?"
"A bit, yes. And why do you think there will be more wounds for me, hm? I am not an unskilled academy student that manages to wound himself with his own weapon, am I?"
"True, but you seem to collect more scrapes and light injuries everywhere we go! Shall I remind you of that little fight that broke on the ship to Rome?" Esca said in a teasing tone. Their light-hearted bickering continued to the barracks where they were staying for the duration of their stay in Rome.
They were greeted at the gates by none other than Lutorius, who, upon hearing that Marcus was being transferred the Ninth Legion, asked for a transfer himself. Together with him, were all the other legionnaires that had been under Marcus' command during his brief stay in Britain as a centurion. Of course, there was no love lost between Lutorius and Esca but they had both agreed that it was better to keep their disputes outside of Marcus' hearing.
"Congratulations to both of you, sir!" he saluted when he saw them approaching.
"Thank you, Lutorius! Prepare the men. We are leaving in a week."
"Of course, sir!"
The week was both long and short for Marcus and Esca. Uncle Aquila had come to Rome to personally see his nephew and Esca off, apologizing to Esca for not trusting him.
"You were right not to trust me then, Aquila. But the journey changed us both. I am now a free man. And Marcus' friend. I will not betray that friendship."
"Then, I leave him in your care." Those had been the last words that the two exchanged before the new Ninth legion left for its first assignment in Germania.
The road was long and littered with dangers, but they had managed to finally reach the fort. It was outside a larger town and the barracks were a far cry from the ones in Britain. The soldiers were honoured to receive the two heroes that had brought back the eagle of the Ninth legion. And the townsfolk were also secure in the knowledge that their town was guarded by one of the best legions that the Empire had to offer.
Odilia had always been fascinated with the Roman soldiers. She had always wanted to wed one. But they were as fickle as the wind. And besides, her father didn't even want to consider such a marriage. He told her that the only way she could marry a legionnaire was if he were a centurion or a higher rank. And all the higher ranks were too old. So Odilia resigned herself to just watching. Until she saw the two ranking officers of the Ninth Legion. She, like all the rest, had heard of Marcus Flavius Aquila and of Esca of the Britains. But she had never considered that they would ever come to their town or that they would both be so young.
"Marcus, I firmly believe that you are a wound collector. How many times has this been?" asked Esca in an angry tone. His head was bowed over Marcus' thigh, the same one that had sustained both the operation and the second wound in Britain, so his friend could not see the worry that lay deep inside his hazel eyes.
"You are being unfair, Esca, my friend. I am not attracting wounds. They are attracted to me!" Marcus said in a teasing voice, although he was touched by the concern Esca was showing him. His friend finished wrapping his thigh wound with a strap of bandage and slowly helped him get to his feet.
"You did not have to rescue me. I am perfectly capable of fighting. Or should I remind you again who exactly won our spar two days ago?"
The two of them made their way to the barracks. There had been an attack on the fort, but the garrison had been able to repel the attackers. Marcus, following Esca's advice, had posted more men during that night shift and that had saved their lives. Also, Esca had asked to be put on night shift, himself. He had gained the respect of the entire garrison, for both his wits and quick thinking, but also for his battle skills. Many believed him to be nothing but a former slave. But when they challenged him, they saw what he was really capable of. Marcus often watched those fights and he kept remembering the first time he saw Esca in a fight. The gracefulness he exhibited in the spars with the soldiers was a striking contrast to the unwillingness to fight the gladiator. And every time he saw a sword, even blunt, pointed at Esca's chest, he remembered the cold shiver that had passed him when Esca was about to be killed.
The attack that had occurred the past night was not as brutal as they had feared. The Germans had only wanted to test the new legion. But it was a known fact that they will return. And the next attack was sure to be more aggressive.
"Sir! Are you alright?" asked a worried Lutorius when he saw his two commanding officers returning from the field.
"Yes, Lutorius, we are fine. Esca is just worrying for nothing." Said Marcus.
"Ah, is that so?" and Esca dropped his arms from around Marcus' shoulders. Of course, not being supported, he fell in an ungraceful heap on the ground. Lutorius smothered a smile at the sight of his centurion sprawled on the cold ground.
"Eeeeeeescaaaaaaaa!" was heard in the fort, along with the rare laugh of the former slave.
"Tell me again, oh fearless commander, why we are in town now when we are expecting an attack from the German tribes any day?" the sarcasm in Esca's voice was palpable.
"Because we need a break. The soldiers need a break. They love us, but I can see that we are driving them crazy with all the drills we have done with them in the past days."
"Those drills are for their own safety. They need it. The fort had been speared for many years. But as soon as the tribes learned of OUR command, they flocked to the fort. I have no intention to have a repeat of your fist command."
"You were not even there." Marcus' tone indicated that the command he held briefly in Britain still weighed heavily on him. And Esca understood. He rarely brought up that part of Marcus' life, although it had changed his life too.
Esca became pensive as they were strolling through the town. Marcus was right. The men needed some time away from their two commanders, but he did not want to have to burry another one of his fellows. And he knew that he would not be able to withstand it if Marcus died. The Gods knew, he would go insane if that were to happen. He sometimes wondered what was going through his friend's mind. He would be the first to admit that Marcus was a brilliant strategist and a wonderful soldier. But the man was sometimes to accident-prone for his own good. And he had the tendency to try and save everyone. But that was also a trait that endeared him to Esca. The Brigand had laid awake many nights after their adventure in Northern Britain and prayed to all the Gods he knew that nothing like that ever happened. He hated leaving Marcus alone for those 12 hours. He had hated the thought that, when he came back, he would only find his corpse. And he thanked every God in existence that he had found him alive and whole. Seeing Marcus leaning on the tree-branch that held the eagle was worth the exhaustion that had gripped him from days and weeks of running, hiding, galloping and fighting. His very soul had sung when he saw the fire of life reignite in Marcus' eyes. And all the pain he went through went away. Him burning his father's dagger was his silent vow to remain by Marcus' side, as a friend and, if he permitted, more. He had wanted to join Marcus in the Ninth Legion. He would have been happy to just be soldier. But Marcus had given him the rank of first officer. And the way to always stand guard over him. To see the centurion wounded made Esca fly into a burning rage that left nothing but ashes of the enemy behind. And it would only be cooled when he knew that Marcus was back at the fort and in good hands. Then Esca would go to the training grounds, pick the toughest soldiers and spar with them. Many time he had sensed Marcus' eyes on him, just like in the arena so long ago that it seemed that tens of years had passed since that day when he was saved by the booming voice of one crippled man, a man he had despised at first, respected then for his determination to fight back his injury and to bring back honour to his family. And then, the man who he considered as his friend and even, dare he think it, only person he would ever be able to share his life with. But of course, Marcus only considered him his friend and nothing more. So thoughts of other things he might want were nothing.
"Help! Somebody!" The cry startled Esca from his thoughts. He flicked his gaze up to Marcus and they rushed to where the cry had come from. There, they saw a girl surrounded by men. They appeared to be from one of the German tribes. How they got into town was a mystery. But hey were crowing onto a girl and it did not look like they just wanted a little chat with her.
"Esca, get her out of here. I'll distract them!"
And Marcus pulled out his sword to engage the Germans. Esca had a momentary look of appreciation towards the centurion, and then he took the startled girl's arm and took her away from the fight.
"Thank you, sir!" she said in a tinkling voice. Her blue eyes, glazed with unshed tears, were turned to Esca.
"Come, we must hurry. My commander will take care of the ones that bothered you." Esca spared a thought that Marcus will not arrive at the fort with too many wounds and then lead the girl to her house.
"You are one of the commanding officers of the fort, right?" the girl asked.
"Yes, my name is Esca, I am the first officer."
"I am Odilia. I must thank you again for saving me."
Esca just nodded. They were soon joined by Marcus, who had managed to only get a scrape on his cheek and a shallow cut on his arm. "Ah good! The young lady is safe!" he said when he caught up to them.
"Many thanks to you, sir! Please, my father would be very happy to meet the ones who saved his daughter."
A brief look passed between Esca and Marcus and the latter obliged. They arrived at the girl's house. It was one if the richest in town, for it belonged to one or the most prosperous merchants, Nikolas. The old man was in front of the house. He had been expecting his daughter for the past hour, but when she had not returned from the walk she went on, he became worried. Seeing her in the company of the two commanding officers of the garrison stations outside the town both reassured him and made him worry even more. He knew of his daughter's wish to marry a soldier and to lead an adventurous life. And it seemed that her wish would come true if she had caught the eye of the Empire's hero, Marcus Flavius Aquila.
"Oh, Odilia! Are you alright? I was so worried. The rumors of the German tribesman coming into town… I am so glad that you are home safe."
"It is thanks to commander Aquila and Esca that I am safe, father." The girl said, embracing her father.
"Then the commander and his first officer are welcomed to join us in the evening meal." Said the relieved father.
"Thank you sir! You are most gracious!" smiled Marcus. "We accept your invitation."
As the two friends were returning to the fort in order to change into more formal wear, Esca was thinking of the calculating look the merchant had thrown Marcus' way. Of course, from a political point of view, a marriage between a centurion and the daughter of a wealthy merchant could only be seen with good eyes. But that would mean that Marcus would no longer belong only to him. That stung him. He was used to having Marcus depend on him, listening to his advice. The happy mood had been somewhat disturbed, but Esca thought that, as long as Marcus was content, he would be also.
In the meantime, Marcus was, himself analyzing the looks that Odilia had sent towards Esca. It was clear as day that she had formed an attachment to him. And that, somehow, bothered him. He was used to having Esca for himself, even though he was no longer his slave. But they still shared much of their time together. Still, Marcus reasoned that, at one point in time, Esca had to marry and that would mean he will have to spend less time with him. And if Esca choose Odilia, then his station would rise from a freed slave to a wealthy man. Yes, although it will pain Marcus to loose Esca's constant companionship, he would be much happier with Odilia.
In the evening, Marcus and Esca arrived at Nikolas' house, where they were greeted by the servants and shown into the lavish house. As expected, the meal was plentiful and the conversation soon turned to the Eagle's tale, as it had become known. Marcus tried to avoid the subject, but, in the end, with much coaxing from both Odilia and her father, he told an abridged story. They seemed content with that, as it was still longer than the stories that they had been hearing. As the meal ended, Odilia asked Esca to accompany her on a walk in the garden. Marcus saw the uncertainness in Esca's eyes and told him to accompany the girl.
"The story that your commander told... that was not all of it, was it?" asked Odilia as soon as she and Esca were in the garden of the property. She walked next to Esca and, at the question, she looked up at him.
"There were some other details, but the core of the story is as Commander Aquila said." Answered Esca.
Odilia was still looking up into Esca's face, so she did not see that one of the flagstones on the path was raised a bit. She stumbled and, if not for Esca's fast reflexes, she would have fallen. The girl sighed happily. While not as strong as Marcus, Esca was, in her opinion, her perfect fit. With his arms around her, she felt safe. She fell in love more than she was.
"Odilia, are you all right?" asked Esca in concern. He had heard Odilia's sigh, and had thought that she had hurt herself. Looking at her bowed head on his shoulder he realized. His thoughts came crashing down around him. "Odilia?" he asked again.
"Ah, I am sorry. How clumsy of me!" she laughed and righted herself. Esca noticed she did not let go of his arm, though.
Many weeks passed by in a similar way. Odilia or her father would extend invitations to Marcus ad Esca or just Esca alone. Nikolas had found out about her daughter's affections when he pressed her to tell him after the third invite of Esca alone. He figured then that, even though he was a former slave, he was now a Roman citizen and if Marcus Flavius Aquila trusted him, then he was worthy to also entrust his daughter to him. And it did not hurt that the boy was easy on the eyes.
One day, Odilia came to the fort. She was, by now, a known visitor. The sentinel welcomed her and showed her to the general location of both the commander and his first officer. When Odilia got to where they were, she saw a spectacle that she was not likely to forget. Both men were half-naked and were sparring. Their skill was evident. And the fact that this was not their first spar, also. Marcus, used to harsher methods, kept attacking, while Esca, more lithe and light on his feet, dodged. They were not using weapons, but it was clear that they did not need to. They moving around the field like in a well practiced dance and Odilia, as well as the other spectators, were entranced. Suddenly, Marcus pushed Esca to the side. The former slave slipped on the ground and fell. But, like a cat, he sprang to his feet and jumped on Marcus' back. They both tumbled to the ground in a tangle of limbs. One could hear the punches that landed on flesh. In the end, Esca emerged on top.
"Do you yield?" he asked the exhausted commander through a breathless pant.
"I yield" answered Marcus.
Esca jumped up from on top of his commander and offered him a hand up. They smiled at each other and only then did they notice the crowd around them.
"Why is it that every time we spar we manage to attract half of the garrison?" asked Marcus, still breathless from the fight.
"Maybe they are still expecting you to win?" was the teasing reply. "And maybe they just want to learn something new. They admire you, you know. They want to learn more about fighting and strategy from you. Not that you employ too much strategy in your fights." Marcus laughed at Esca's tart reply. His eyes lost their laughter though, when he spied Odilia in the crowd.
"Esca, you have a visitor." He said. While he was bothered by the fact that Odilia came very often to the fort because she was proving to be a distraction to the men, he acknowledged that if Esca were to indeed marry her as was hinted by Nikolas numerous times, then she was a necessary evil.
Esca turned his head and he, too, saw Odilia. His eyes also lost their laughter, but the girl rushed to him and did not notice.
"Oh that was so beautiful!" she said in an airy tone. The soldiers had cleared out from around the field, when they sensed their commanders' change in mood. And although they would have wanted to stay and see more of the beautiful maiden, they were too fearful of both Esca's and Marcus' ire to linger for too long.
"Fighting is in no way beautiful, Odilia." Esca said in an even tone. "Fighting is a way of life for some. For others, it is a sport. And for me it is both. But not even I consider it beautiful. From fighting always comes suffering. So no, it is not beautiful."
"But I was not talking about the fight itself. Your form was the one I was admiring." The innocent girl said. Esca felt a blush climb to his cheeks. Odilia was still a girl, she did not know what she was talking about. She had rose-coloured notions about life and its hardships.
"Why have you come today, Odilia?" asked Esca.
"Ah, yes, I completely forgot. Can you take me to the fair that has opened in the fields?"
"Let me get cleaned up and we can go. Wait for me outside the fort please."
Odilia left the sparring ring with a jump in her step. The soldiers were all looking after her and whispering that their first officer was very lucky indeed to have the attention of such a beautiful girl, and rich one, too.
Marcus had watched the talk between Esca and Odilia and a strange sensation had creped upon his heart. He felt defeated in a way that had never happened before. Even when he was sure that he will never again be able to return to the military and regain his family honour, he had not felt this way. He saw Esca leaving the fort and, unconsciously, he left after them, following in their footsteps, but keeping silent, knowing that Esca could sense him if he made the slightest noise. He had learned the hard way of Esca's perceptiveness. After all, Esca was the one who taught him how to walk soundlessly. Marcus still remembered the lessons.
It was before they had been summoned to Rome to receive the honours and gain command of the Ninth Legion. They were still in Britain, in the forests surrounding Uncle Aquila's villa. Marcus was still recuperating from the wounds he had received and Esca was by his side. They were reminiscing about their trip when Marcus asked Esca how he knew that there were three enemies behind Marcus. His friend's eyes took a far away sheen to them.
"Because I was taught how to sneak upon my prey when I was a child." He answered. And, in a flash, he disappeared from Marcus' sight. For half an hour, Marcus looked for Esca, only to be jumped from behind by his friend. That had been their first spar and Esca had won it. He then began to teach Marcus how to use the ground in his advantage. Every bush, every tree became his allay. And for three months until the summons to Rome came, they trained together and sparred together.
And now Marcus as employing the same tactics that Esca had taught him in order to spy on his friend. On his friend that happened to be on a walk with a very beautiful girl.
While following them, Marcus kept asking himself why he was doing it. He had already decided that, if Esca wanted to marry Odilia he will not be against it. He had given his word to let Esca decide long before all of this, when he told him "You decide!"
"Damn me and my words. Oh Mithra, what am I doing?" Just as he was berating himself, he saw Odilia stumble over a loose stone in the road. Esca, of course, caught her. But her fall had been more forceful than they had anticipated and Odilia ended up falling and bringing Esca down with her. As luck would have it, she landed on top of Esca in a position that was nothing short of compromising. And under Marcus' astonished eyes, she leaned in to kiss Esca. Who responded to the kiss.
Marcus could have uttered a sound, foe Esca shot up and took Odilia with him. As he scanned the surroundings, Marcus lay down in the tall grass. He could feel a burning in his heart, a burning that he only felt when insulted for his family's honour or for his crippled days. But the next words that Odilia said burned even more.
"Why did you do that, Odilia?" asked Esca
"We are engaged to be wed, are we not?" she answered. Her happy expression was so honest that Esca could not bear to tell her otherwise. He had heard a sound when they fell and he startled when, form the grass came the tall form of Marcus. His eyes were the colour of steel, not their usual calm green-blue. He went past them, not even acknowledging them.
"Marcus!" cried Esca after him. "Marcus, wait!"
"Go back to your intended, Esca! You left her alone. Who knows what can happen to her out here."
Esca let go of an almost inaudible gasp. "Marcus, let me explain"
"What is there to explain? You lied again to me. I have asked many times what is between you and Odilia. I asked where you were going almost every night and why was Nikolas so much friendlier towards you. And you just avoided the answer or answered in half truths! Again! Esca, I had hoped that we were friends, that you were past the stage of lying to me!"
Marcus was beyond angry. He, himself, could not understand why. It had been his wish that Esca were happy. And to see him with Odilia would have been the happiest Esca could have been besides returning to Britain. And he could have still returned to Britain after the Ninth Legion would have finished serving in Germania. But Marcus was angry.
"I congratulate you, commander Esca of the Brtians, for your upcoming nuptials." He said in a cold voice, leaving Esca stunned in the middle of the road and continuing to wander the fields.
The news of the wedding spread like wild fire. All the commanding officers of the Ninth Legion were invited, including, of course, Marcus. Nikolas was happy. He would be gaining a son-in-law, a strong one, a capable one, an intelligent one, that could, one day, take over the business and even make it flourish. For Esca, the times he had come to his house, had demonstrated a sharp wit and Nikolas was sure that he could let the shop in his hands later on. Especially since Esca had resigned from his post as first officer of the Ninth Legion. He said that he had seen enough fighting. Of course, if worse came to worst, he would still take up arms, to defend the town where his new family now lived. Those were the vows that he spoke before the assembly. And his smile, when he looked upon Odilia was sincere. Sincere in the eyes of all but Marcus.
After leaving Esca and Odilia in the fields, Marcus had wandered for many hours. The fort had been peaceful for some time now and the men were so well trained that they could respond to a threat in the swiftest way possible. And Lutorius was also with them and could very well lead them if the need arose. In his wanderings, Marcus began reviewing his life up until this point. He had been amazed at his anger. It was as if Esca had betrayed him even worse than when he pretended that Marcus was his slave to the seal-people. That, at least, had been for Marcus' protection. He understood that. But this? What purpose did this betrayal serve? And why, Gods above, why did it feel like a betrayal? Esca was a free man, no longer his slave. He could do whatever he wanted. Marcus should, for intents and purposes, be happy that Esca was going to marry and have a family again, he still remembered the bitter tone in his voice when he told Marcus about how Rome had killed his family. And after they came back from their adventure, Esca also confessed that he wanted to form his own family. Little by little, many more words and moments spent with Esca came to Marcus' spirit. The first time he had ever seen Esca in the ring, not even attempting to fight for his life, when Esca appeared from behind his uncle, his eyes burning with fire. The time when the surgeon had Esca hold Marcus down. The sleepless night that Esca had to face in order for Marcus to be comfortable. Finally, their journey. The harsh words, but also the tales they told each other. The days he spent as a slave for the seal-people, and the loneliness he felt. Finally, his own words came back to him: "I thought I lost you!" He had been truly happy that Esca was still his slave, still his friend, still the man who had vowed to be by his side. He began looking at all the moments in another light. He realised that Esca was not mistrustful by nature, so there was no reason for him to be so of the former legionnaire. If he had wanted to escape, Esca would not have warned him about the enemies behind him. If Esca was not there, he would not have lived. Marcus suddenly stopped. He realised that Esca, while his friend, also had some deeper feelings for him. The truth pieced itself together. But still, why would Esca, if he indeed loved Marcus, marry Odilia? Unless he thought Marcus would have no feelings for him. "Do I?" Marcus asked himself.
That question still remained unanswered. And now, at the wedding, when Marcus was sure that Esca felt more than just friendship for him, he had to hear him say words of love and commitment to another, even if they were not true. But they still stung. After the wedding and the customary ribbing from the fellow officers, Marcus left Nikolas' house, but this time, without Esca by his side.
Two months passed and, as luck would have it, the fort was attacked almost every week. But thanks to their brave commander, the men had nothing to fear. Marcus was as brave as a wild lion and just as deadly. His strategic thinking was brilliant and his manoeuvres were the talk of the legion. Only few dared to engage him in spars and those that did were very quickly defeated. The only one speared from his ire was Lutorius, with whom he spent most of his days and nights, locked in his room, planning how to efficiently defeat the barbarians. Marcus soon found out that, without Esca by his side he attracted even more wounds than before. But none were life threatening and the Ninth Legion won many awards for bravery. For its commander, it was a shallow victory. The soldiers that went into town kept talking about how well Esca had adapted to being a merchant's son-in-law, how they could see so much love in the eyes of Esca and Odilia. But Marcus would shut them up the moment they began talking about it his presence. The rumours were flying around that the commander had, in fact, been in love with Odilia and that Esca had stolen her from him. Those particular rumours were punished by Marcus with rigorous training sessions and one-on-one spars with the instigators of said rumours.
"Sir, you have to lay off the men for a while! They are beginning to grumble," said Lutorius one night when they were pouring over maps and plans for the fights to come.
"Why would they grumble? They have food, they are trained, we have not lost battles and men," said Marcus in a tone that brooked no argument.
"Sir, I understand that you are still angry at Esca for leaving… "but Lutorius stopped himself. "I will be leaving now, sir. Please try and get some sleep." The man left Marcus to his own devices.
The water was shallow where they stopped. And after the tumbles he had suffered to get there, it was a reprieve. "Rest. You need to rest!" Marcus heard Esca's voice from far away.
"No, there is no time!"
"Marcus, you need to rest!" Easca's face came into clear focus. They argued back and forth, until, finally, Esca agreed to leave, but only if he was set free. Marcus removed the dagger that had not left his side ever since Esca had given it to him and gave it back to its rightful owner. The moment their hands touched, the sound of the rushing water stopped. So did the chill. "I will return" said Esca and leaned forward. He caught Marcus' lips in his in a brief kiss. But, in his fever, Marcus could not be satisfied with just that small touch. He pulled Esca to him and searched his mouth avidly with his tongue. The young man let him, even encouraged him. Marcus could feel the evidence of Esca's desire for him through the thin layers of clothing that still separated them. Undressing Esca became his priority, to feel his flesh beneath him became his longing. When the final pieces of clothing were gone from their bodies, Marcus rolled the lither body beneath him. Submerged by half in water, Esca was begging for Marcus' touch. And he was happy to provide it to him. He ran his hands over Esca's chest, tweaked his peaks until he was as hard as stone. He ran his mouth over the traces of his hands, paying special homage to the lower regions of Esca's body. The young man was now bucking his hips and Marcus obliged him by taking his hardness into his mouth. He sucked it until Esca was about to reach his peak, then he just stopped.
"No, my love, not yet!"
"Marcus, please, please…" the proud warrior begged for his master's, no, his lover's touch.
And Marcus, unable to resist the sight before him, impaled Esca with one smooth thrust. They began an age-old rhythm of rocking. The moans of them both could be heard over the rushing sound of the river. Then, just as Marcus was about to reach completion… he woke up with Esca's name on his lips and soiled sheets.
Marcus woke up that day with the dream still fresh in his mind. And he had to go through the day and in the evening, he had been invites, with the other commanding officers, to Nikolas' house for it was the merchant's anniversary. Marcus feared what he would do once he saw Esca again after two months, and especially after the vivid dream.
The evening came sooner than Marcus would have wished. The dinner was pleasant, and the conversation lively. The officers told stories of the fights they had engaged in, parsing Marcus' courage in the face of enemies. Their commander was just sitting there, smiling at the right moments, but otherwise, the officers were sure that he was uncomfortable.
As soon as the evening had ended, Marcus excused himself from the other guests. But Nikolas had other news he wanted to share with the assembled guests. Raising his cup he said:
"My dear guests, I am proud to announce that my daughter and son have given me great news. They have announced that Odilia is expecting a child." The news was met with cheers and wishes for good-luck. Marcus was pale as a sheet. Had he been wrong in his assumptions? Did Esca really love Odilia? Was his own love doomed to fail? The questions rang inside his head. Marcus left the house and went to the garden. He knew he could not yet leave. He had come to the house with the other officers and he would have to wait for them in order to leave and not make a bad impression on the host.
"Marcus!" he heard his name called from behind. He turned to find Esca framed in the light coming from the house. He could not see his features, but he was sure that they were just as stony as they had been when they had first met.
"Esca, congratulations! You have made the family that you have always wanted. I am happy for you."
"Are you really?" asked Esca in a voice that sent chills down Marcus' back. For a moment he wanted to deny everything that he had just said, he wanted to just forget that Esca was now beyond his reach, just like the eagle that soars above the mortals. But he did not say another word. Esca was now in front of him.
"You lie, commander," said Esca in a bitter voice. "You lie like you breathe, you said that it was y decision. You gave me freedom so I could decide. I decided. Why are you not happy?"
"Because this is not what you want, is it? You do not want her in your arms at night, do you?" Esca's horrified expression, an expression that he had never seen, not even in the heated of battles, was proof enough for Marcus that he had said too much. But the dream of last night, together with the emotions that he had struggled with ever since he had first discovered that he had fallen for the young Brigand made him want to hurt Esca even more. He advanced towards Esca and pinned him to the wall.
"It's me you want, isn't it, my friend? It is me that you have dreamed of having in the middle of the night. Not some little merchant girl."
"Marcus, you are drunk. You do not know..." But Marcus would not let him finish. He sealed is mouth with his own in a passionate kiss. But, just as Esca had begun responding, it was just as a pail of cold water was dumped on Marcus' head. He ripped himself from Esca and fled, leaving the Brit behind.
The officers saw Marcus leave in a rush, but they could not go after him. Lutorius said that the commander had been feeling ill for some time now and asked for the host's forgiveness. Nikolas, drunk himself, just laughed it off and the feast continued. Esca left without a word, not even to Odilia. He had to find Marcus. Who knew the trouble he could get into in the state he was. The kiss had burned through him like a sweet fire. But the words had burned even more. He had thought that he had hidden his feelings well. It seemed that it had not been so. And Marcus had decided to cast him from his life. But he still owed it to Marcus to not let him make a fool of himself in town. Esca had been searching for hours when he finally found Marcus. The centurion was in the fields surrounding the town, almost passed out from the drinks he had been indulging since leaving Nikolas' house.
"Marcus! Thank the Gods I found you!" said Esca. "Come, I'll take to the fort and you can sleep the drink off." But the older man batted Esca's hands away.
"No, it's because of you that I had to restore to this. Why did you lie to me, Esca? Why did you not tell me? Why is she with you and not me?"
Esca was stunned. His thoughts, so organized, had always come undone next to Marcus. "Come, Marcus. I'll take you to the fort." He said, at last. And, this time, he managed to lift Marcus up and half drag him, half walk him to the fort. The soldiers on guard recognized them both and let them enter without much fuss. When Esca arrived in Marcus' room, he wanted to deposit him on the bed, but found that he could not, as Marcus was clinging to him too hard to be able to dislodge him.
"Marcus, let go and go to sleep. You need to rest." Said Esca in an even voice. But Marcus was too far gone to hear. So Esca had no choice but to lie next to Marcus on the small bed and hope that during the next few hours, his friend would let him go. But the exhaustion of the day and searching for Marcus for half a night caught up to him and Esca fell asleep next to Marcus.
The morning came and with it, so did Marcus' consciousness. He groaned and covered his eyes with his arms. Or tried to. When he couldn't move his arms from his side, he realised that there someone else in bed with him. Looking down, he was met with a most startling sight: Esca was lying in his bed, using his chest as a pillow.
The events of the previous night came back to Marcus. He was surprised that Esca had found him and brought him back to the barracks. Marcus sighed. It was probably just Esca's good heart. He could not leave someone he knew stranded. Just then, Esca moved in his sleep and brushed against Marcus' thigh. The evidence of his manhood was pressing against the confines of his clothes. Marcus was startled, but also pleased. He moved a bit and that tiny movement woke Esca. He was embarrassed, but Marcus made no mention of his problem. Instead, he offered Esca to take a bath inside the commander's chambers and Esca accepted.
"May I wash your back?" asked Marcus. It had been a standard practice for them. One or the other would wash the other's back and would be returned the favour. Esca pondered the question for a moment but then decided that it was no danger in accepting.
Marcus took the soft cloth that he used for the bath and wet it. He poured warm water on Esca's body and began washing his back. The motions were familiar and soothing for both of them. Until Marcus dipped his hand lower and to the front. Esca jumped, but Marcus just held him to his chest.
"No." The command was spoken softly but was understood nonetheless. Esca stilled in Marcus' embrace as the Roman began to wash his front as well. With a strangled moan, Esca let his head fall onto Marcus' shoulder. The action was rewarded with kisses peppered on the offered body part. Hands roamed further and the washcloth was soon forgotten in favour of bare hands and hot mouths. But the roles had reversed. Esca would not let Marcus take control of their union. He won the brief struggle and managed to pin Marcus to the floor of the chambers. A shiver went up the commander's spine at the coldness of the stones, but it was soon forgotten as Esca trailed his hands and mouth over his body. A hot tongue lavished Marcus' body like it was the statue of a god deserving the highest of praise. And to Esca, that was what the body in front of him was. Hands, smaller then Marcus' own, but not less callused, roamed the expanse of flesh beneath them until they arrived at their destination. There, Esca stopped. He was not sure that they should be doing this. But a kiss from Marcus was enough to make him loose all thought. He breached the opening that encased his fingers in warm velvet. The moans that Marcus was emitting were enough to tell him that the Roman was not far from the brink. Esca prepared himself and entered the body of his former master, his friend, his lover. The moment of the union pulled a strangled cry from Marcus' throat. But soon, his hips had started moving and encouraging Esca to continue. They were not able to sustain the rhythm for too long. They were both too wound up for it. And they stepped over the precipice together.
As the two men came back from the height of pleasure, Odilia was entering the fort. She had waited for Esca the whole night and some servants had told her that they had seen him walking away, in the same direction that commander Marcus had left in. The guards told her that both Esca and commander Aquila had come in at a very late time. Odilia searched for Marcus' room. And when she entered, she wished that she had never did, for there lay both Esca and Marcus in an embrace. It was clear what they had done. Her gasp was heard only by Esca who even in sleep, was as keen as ever. He shot up from next to Marcus and saw Odilia in the room.
"Odilia! What are you doing here?" he asked, a touch of fear creeping into his voice.
"The question, my Esca, is what are YOU doing here? What happened? Please tell me that it is not true. That you love me. Please, Esca." Pleaded Odilia. But the silence that met her was answer enough for her.
"Very well. I release you from your vows. I can see that you love him, that you have always loved him."
"It is not only about love, Odilia, although I do admit to it. I have been his ever since he saved my life. A Brigand does not go back on his word. Especially to the one that has saved a life. But I will not disregard our own vows, Odilia. This has been the first and last encounter between me and Marcus. Nothing else will happen. I swear this to you."
Odilia's eyes were filled with tears. She could see the determination that shone out from Escas's own eyes and she could not bear it. She ran all the way home. There, she told her father: "Oh, father! It was horrible. Commander Aquila... he.. he abused Esca! He was keeping him prisoner for the night! Oh, whatever will we do?"
Nikolas' eyes shuttered. He had held respect for Marcus, but now that respect had been stripped away. He wrote to the leader of Germania, who, in turn, wrote to Rome. The replying letter was as followed:
"Marcus Flavius Aquila,
You are hereby discharged from your post for unbecoming conduct towards a citizen of the Empire. You will be relieved of your post commencing immediately."
When he received the letter, Marcus felt as if he had been dealt a mortal blow. He had heard the discussion between Odilia and Esca and his heart had broken at the fact that he could not see Esca anymore. But he respected his wishes and, by the time Esca had left, Marcus had already decided that, indeed, that would have been the last encounter they will ever have. And now, to receive such a letter was too much of a blow.
Shamed, he embarked the first ship to sail to Britannia. His uncle received him with open arms and an open ear. But although Marcus made full use of the house, he could not tell his uncle why he had been discharged. Even worse, every place he went reminded him of Esca. The forest where they would hunt. The fields where Marcus learned the art of concealing himself. Even the house reminded him of his stay as an invalid and the care that Esca provided for him. Nightmares came to haunt him. In them, he could see Esca leaving him behind in the hands of the seal-people. Or killing him in his sleep. He always woke up with a heavy heart and a hopelessness that could not be lifted.
A year passed thus and one day, a visitor came to the villa. Seeing the familiar face of Lutorius made Marcus' heart clench even more.
"Sir! I am glad that you are well! The men have been asking for you!" it was a conversation that had already taken place once, but this time, Marcus was sure that no more bad news could come. Oh, how he was mistaken.
"Lutorius, you look good yourself. May I ask, though? What are you doing here?"
"Sir, the town... the town and the fort had been conquered. The barbarian tribes had taken control over that part of Germania and they have destroyed the fort. The Ninth is now no more."
"So the Ninth Legion of Rome is cursed. First they are decimated in Northern Britain and now they are decimated by barbarians in the heart of the Roman Empire. What other news do you have for me, then, Lutorius?" asked Marcus resigned.
Lutorius took a large breath of air. He was the only one in whom Marcus had confided before leaving. He knew that the next piece of news will either destroy him or make him come back. After all, the Empire wanted him back. They knew he was capable of many things, things considered by most miracles. And now the Empire needed a miracle.
"The barbarians have killed all the merchant families."
The words, at first, seemed to not have registered in the mind of the man before him. But as he began to finally understand, he shot up from his seat. His eyes were burning with inner fire the likes of which Lutorius had only seen during the most fierce of battles.
"Sir, the Empire is requesting that you rejoin the army and try and regain the fort. They are willing to..." but Lutorius did not finish his sentence as Marcus was already on his way to the door.
The Greek ships navigated alongside the river banks. The passengers were milling around, not really care free for they were in enemy territory, but not quiet either. They bore no markings of any armies, or of any trading companies. Simple passenger ships.
"Sir, we are about there." Said Lutorius to Marcus when they had approached the town.
"Very well, Lutorius. Prepare yourself. This will may be your last battle." Marcus' voice was grim and had a gravelly quality to it, as he had not used it much. And it was true. Except for a few words changed when they left, the commander had not uttered many words during the journey. His eyes were haunted and hooded. Lutorius feared for the ones that would cross his path. He was glad, though, that his commander had agreed to come. The troops that had survived were waiting for them and, although small, Marcus Flavius Aquila had said that the battalion that had survived would be enough to regain the town. Lutorius had believed him. How could he not. Love was as powerful a motivator as hate. And when those two combined, the insuring emotion would be devastating. Lutorius had seen the signs of the love between his commanders. Esca had always been near Marcus and had made everything possible for them to not be separated. And Marcus had been more than happy to spend all his time by the Brigand. The appearance of Odilia had disrupted the peace that they had been feeling. But still, Lutorius could not bring himself to hate the girl. She had also been in love, and Lutorius had also known the powerful feeling once and the foolish things it made you do.
They arrived at the desired destination and they disembarked. The woods were silent, not even the birds daring to disturb the quiet. Suddenly, the cry of an eagle was heard all over the forest. And answering cries came back. The troop that had survived the attack was before their commanders. The leader reported to Marcus that they had been studying the town for a few weeks now. The barbarians, after the first attack in which they had decimated both the fort and the town, were now settling in the houses they had robbed. Sometimes, there were war cries coming from outside the town but they were unfamiliar to both the troops and the barbarians. The reporting officer said they seemed more savage than the norm for those parts. Marcus listened to the report. His plan was simple. They would infiltrate the town as a simple band of merchants that were sympathetic to the barbarian's cause. They would wait for the night, then they will attack. Lutorius went with the remaining officers to discuss the details of the plan. He looked behind him for a second. Marcus' eyes were still clouded and he seemed to be far away.
"The commander is ill, isn't he?" asked the officer.
"Yes, he is. Ill from an illness that had no cure. A broken heart." The soldiers shock their heads. They will still follow their commander even if he led them to certain death.
Suddenly, Marcus had his sword in his hand and the throwing dagger ready.
"Who is there?" he asked in a deadly whisper. The soldiers had not seen or heard anything. The undergrowth rustled and from it emerged someone that they had no hope to ever see again. Marcus' sword clattered to the ground from is nerveless fingers.
The man before them was both a welcome sight and as unexpected as an apparition. Gone were the fine clothes they had last seen him in. He was now in a simple pair of pants and a shirt that might once have been blue. But Esca was standing proud before them, with the defiance burning in his eyes.
"You are too loud. The barbarians from the other side of the mountain will be able to hear you." He teased. "And dropping your sword. Tsk, tsk, Marcus. That is unbecoming of the Eagle of the legion, isn't it?" He bent, picked up the sword and handed it back to Marcus. There was only a brief touch of his hand on Marcus' but it was enough to raise him from the stupor he had fallen into. The fire that the soldiers had always known was in his eyes ignited.
"Change of plans. We are not cowards. We do not sneak into a town. Rome has no need to resort to stuperfuge. The Eagle of the Ninth will shine again in the town square." Marcus' booming voice brought smiles to the faces of the ones before him. Esca was a step behind him, watching him with a secret smile. He knew they will have to talk. And he knew that he will have to explain to Marcus what had happened. But for now, they formed one of Marcus' favourite formations and began the march through the woods that would lead them to the town.
The fight for the town was fierce. And many good men died. But under the guidance of their three commanders, the soldiers did not despair. Esca and Marcus were fighting back to back. They had not separated since they had seen each other again. Their inner fire was burning brighter and hotter than any others. Marcus' mind could still not understand how Esca was again with them, but the warmth at his back reassured him that it was no illusion and he thanked Mithra with every second breath.
Suddenly, they were surrounded. The barbarians were many, but they were not organized. They drew their strength from numbers. A brief touch on the back of his hand alerted Marcus that Esca was going to do something and that he should not interfere. As they fought, Esca began to inch away from Marcus. Fear gripped the Roman' heart but he did not let it cloud his judgment. If Esca thought he could do something, than he certainly would do it. But the next few seconds were like an eternity for Marcus. Esca ran towards the barbarians. They attacked him and, for a moment, Marcus lost sight of Esca among the taller men surrounding him. But he could hear his battle cries and he continued to fight, if only to reach Esca and get him out of harm's way. Then he could hear nothing. Esca's voice had faded. 'No' he thought. 'Esca could not have died' and Marcus lost all coherent thought then. The next minutes, or maybe hours, were a blur to him. Fighting and more fighting, and the enemies were even more numerous than before. And then he saw Esca lying on the ground. A wound was at his side and blood spilled freely from it. Time had stopped then. The same desperation that had gripped him while fighting the seal-people came over him now. He stood over Esca's body and fought like a mad man. And then, Lutorius was at his side. And he was telling Marcus that the enemy had been defeated. One look at Marcus' feet and Lutorius understood. They managed to take Esca to the nearest house and there they started to treat him.
For days Esca was battling death. And for days, Marcus did not move from his side. He would wipe his forehead when the fever became too much and he would give him watered down wine. He would try to feed him small portions of food. For days, Marcus prayed to Mithras and begged the god of light for Esca's life.
"Please, Mithras, god of light, father of my fathers, bring him back. Bring him into the sun. Let us soar together to your heavens. Please, Mithras, god of light! He is the one who gives this eagle his wings. He is the wind that lifts him. Please, father of my fathers, do not let him pass into the shadows." Those were the words that he repeated every day.
"Are you calling me a liar again, Marcus?" a tired voice said, one day.
Marcus, at first, could not believe what was right in front of him. Esca had opened his eyes and he was smiling. Tiredly, but it was a smile, a warm smile meant only for Marcus.
"Why would I call you a liar, Esca?"
"Do you not remember? The wind always lies."
Esca looked at Marcus with light shinning in his eyes. "You would not fight to you fullest. There was only one way to make you fight."
"By sacrificing yourself?"
"I had once sworn that I will only be yours to command and that I will serve only you. That feeling turned into so much more. I would gladly give my life if it means that you can live."
"And do you believe that I can live without you?" asked Marcus. His hands were clutched together tightly. He would have wanted to take Esca in his arms and never let go. But the wound in Esca's side prevented him from doing it. But as soon as it would be healed, Marcus would never let Esca more than arm's length away.
Suddenly, Marcus remembered that Lutorius had said that all the merchant families had been murdered. So he asked Esca how he escaped.
"Odilia saved me. She hit me in the back of the head and hid me in the basement of the house. I think she knew tht she will never escape alive. So she sacrificed herself. I believe that she found it romantic that she could sacrifice herself for love, but..." Esca stopped talking. Marcus could see that he was still struggling with the fact that his wife, although he had never loved her, had sacrificed for him to live.
The only thing that he could do right then was to hold Esca in his arms and make sure that he forgot about the pain.
Several months passed and Marcus and Esca had returned to Britain, to uncle Aquila's villa. Their life was, finally, peaceful. Until a footman came with a letter addressed to Marcus. It bore the seal of Rome. The footman said that the letter did not require immediate answer and he left.
Marcus opened it and, over his shoulder, Esca was reading it too. As he lifted his head, Marcus met Esca's gaze with his sea-like eyes. The letter was an invitation to retake his post as commander of the Ninth Legion.
"What now?" asked Marcus.
"You decide" said Esca and he prepared to leave the room. But strong arms caught him around the middle. The ground was now littered with small pieces of parchment.
"I have already decided." And, as their lips met in a slow and languid kiss, they knew that their lives were now complete.