Hello all! This is actually a fill for a prompt post on LiveJournal! Hope you all liked it! :D
Quick Author's Note: Okay, so I know in the movie (right before the final battle with the Seal people) the Wall wasn't that far away, maybe a day or two. I'm making it take longer partially because it helps with the plot and also because I figured since Marcus's leg was giving him trouble, they'd be walking a bit more slowly. Creative liberties! ^.^
I own nothing! But God, Jamie Bell is sooo fine...*wanders off to fangirl all over the living room*
Marcus thought he'd grown accustomed to Esca's moods now, more so thanks to their travels together. He knew enough about him now to realize that starting a conversation would most certainly fall on Marcus's shoulders instead of Esca's and that even if he responded, the sentences were likely to be clipped and short. He didn't take it to heart, not as he did in the beginning, he just knew now that this was how Esca was. The former slave was a man of few words, introverted and more intelligent than anyone other than Marcus gave him credit for. He would speak when he had something to say but the conversation would always end as abruptly as it had started. Esca would have the last word and that would be the end of it.
Marcus was used to traveling in silence by now. When they'd first crossed the threshold of the Wall, neither had spoken more than a few words to the other in the first two days. That silence had been understandable, justified even. When they'd fled the Seal tribe's camp, silence was mandatory because even the slightest whisper could be their undoing. Even the silence that accompanied their trek from the river after the final battle had been warranted. But this was something new, this silence was strange and uncomfortable like a looming threat and it was making Marcus anxious.
They had been walking steadily for the better part of the morning, their pace much slower than it had been previously due to Marcus's leg. They had received marginal help from the few survivors of the Ninth Legion but their men were scarce as were their supplies. They had enough to bind Marcus's leg though, which was more than the two men had between them. There was still the threat of another attack from the Seal tribe so they set out early that morning, bound for the Wall once more.
At first, Marcus barely noticed the silence, he was too concerned with the warm, solid weight of the Eagle strapped to his back. It felt lighter than it had yesterday, it felt like it belonged to Rome once more. It gave him more strength than he'd felt in a long time and it seemed to dull the pain in his leg with just the knowledge that he had it. But as the morning wore on and passed into afternoon, Marcus became aware that Esca had barely spoken a word since the day before at the river. He had assumed it had been fatigue; Esca had run to find the survivors of the Ninth Legion and bring them back and then had engaged in the bloody battle in the river. It only seemed natural that he should be as exhausted as Marcus felt. It seemed odd though that Esca appeared like he hadn't slept the night before. When Marcus had awoken that morning, Esca was already awake and staring silently into the trees; he looked like he hadn't slept all night. Marcus hadn't bothered to question it at the time but now it was beginning to work its way into his concerns. Finally, he couldn't stand the silence any longer and cleared his throat.
"If we continue through the night, we can reach the Wall by tomorrow evening."
Esca didn't answer him, instead continuing to push forward with his back facing his former master. Had they still been bound by that relationship, Marcus might have ordered him to turn around or at least answer him but they weren't, those titles had dissolved in the rushing current of the river. The statement hung in the air, unacknowledged and open and it just made Marcus even more anxious.
"Esca." Marcus said again and this time was rewarded when the smaller man stopped and looked back over his shoulder. For a brief moment, Marcus wondered if he had somehow managed to anger him but then Esca turned to face him fully and the thought drifted out of his thoughts. "No." Esca said simply, his voice a low rumble in the back of his throat. "We should stop for the night. We will reach the Wall in due time."
Marcus frowned and shook his head. "There is no need. Once we reach the Wall, we can-"
"Continuing on will only succeed in furthering your injury." Esca said suddenly, cutting him off halfway through his sentence. "We have the Eagle, the Wall will still be there when we arrive. There is no sense in rushing." The Roman in him wanted to protest and insist they continue but there was something in Esca's voice that made him hesitate. There was a quality to it he had never heard, not in the entire time they'd been traveling together. It sounded resigned and tired, so much different from the strong, often aloof young man he'd gotten to know over the past couple of months. It piqued his concern once again.
Before he could ask, Esca turned his back to him once more and began walking. Marcus hesitated for a only second before following, the weight of the Eagle suddenly much heavier as it rested against his shoulders.
It was just after dusk when they stopped to make camp in a small clearing in the forest. Marcus set the Eagle down with a huff, glad to be relieved of the consistent weight but still reverent as he carefully placed it on the ground.
Esca hadn't spoken to him for the rest of the day but Marcus could never quite figure out how to approach the subject without sounding like a child. He'd tried commenting on the weather, asking about the countryside, anything that might bring about a conversation with the smaller man, even if it was just for a short time. However, every attempt had been met with silence or a stiff nod and Marcus was beginning to run out of ideas.
They ate in silence, staring at the yellow-gold dance of the flames in the darkness. They cast long, fearful shadows along the ground and the trees but Marcus hardly noticed. Instead, he watched the way Esca barely touched his food, picking at it idly and lost deep in the recesses of his own mind. In fact, he hadn't seen him eat the day before either... "Something troubles you." He said finally, watching as Esca gave up on the food and shifted his attention to stoking the flames across from him.
Esca said nothing for a long moment, so long that Marcus began to wonder whether he'd heard him or not. "Its nothing." He said finally, that same unexplainable tone in his voice. It reminded Marcus of a child getting caught doing something wrong and subsequently being scolded. It was certainly not like Esca.
"Your manner suggests otherwise, my friend." Marcus countered, hoping that by calling Esca his friend, putting them on the same level in his eyes and not one of a slave indebted to a master, he would be more willing to open up.
"My manner suggests nothing." The smaller man snapped suddenly, his voice venomous and sharp as a whip crack. His blue eyes were narrowed, jaw set tightly, and Marcus was taken aback by the sudden change in his demeanor.
"I mean you no offense." He assured calmly, hoping the surprise hid itself in his expression. "I was merely expressing concern for you."
Esca made some sort of "tsk" noise in the back of his throat and shook his head. "No need for concern." He said finally, stabbing at the embers of the fire ruthlessly like they had wronged him in some way. "It is not necessary."
Marcus studied him for a second longer, debating on whether or not he should continue to pry. There was obviously something wrong, obviously something that was weighing on the younger man's shoulders. However, judging by his reaction to the previous statement, it would be unwise to pursue the line of questioning any further. "Very well then." Marcus said finally with a sigh, making his frustration well known to his companion. He laid down on the ground, gathering his cloak around himself and rolling onto one side. "Sleep well." He muttered, keeping his back to Esca.
He wasn't surprised by the lack of answer, he had been expecting it more than he thought. Still, he made a silent vow to himself that he would discover what was troubling his friend in the morning. The sound of Esca stoking the flames carried him far into the night and he slipped into a light, uneasy slumber.
A low rumble of thunder was the first thing that jarred Marcus awake. The second was a bitterly cold gust of wind that cut through the trees and sliced at him like a blade. He opened his eyes, blinking up to the canopy of trees above them. The sky was an ominous grey color, a threatening bank of darker clouds hovering just at the edge of the horizon. They would be in for some rough weather before the day was over.
His eyes shifted to Esca who was standing slowly, unfolding his body like a long puzzle as he righted himself. He looked up into the trees, gauging how long they had before the inevitable downpour. "We should go. The sooner we leave, the farther we can get before the weather catches up to us."
The fire had been put out recently, nothing but thin tendrils of smoke rising from the remains of the pit. Esca had his cloak wrapped around his shoulders and he looked as if the only thing keeping him from setting out into the trees again was Marcus. It seemed he had been awake for a while.
"Did you sleep?" Marcus asked, standing slowly and biting back a wince as his leg protested the movement. The muscles spasmed and jerked but he managed to stand fully upright after a few seconds. He reached down and grabbed the Eagle, shouldering it onto his back like it had been the day before.
"I slept enough." Esca answered cryptically, glancing at Marcus once to make sure his leg wasn't about to give out before turning and beginning the walk into the forest.
"'Enough' may not do you much good." Marcus commented vaguely, not missing the dark, bruise-colored circles that had formed beneath the younger man's eyes. It made his blue eyes seem darker, more intense in the early morning light. It also gave him the look of someone haunted, someone who carried a great burden on his shoulders. "Esca-"
"I'm fine." Esca snapped, not turning to face him but stopping for him to catch up. His shoulders heaved with a deep sigh and he finally turned to face Marcus. "I'm fine." He repeated, he voice a bit softer this time, more reassuring.
Marcus studied him for a second, his gaze falling over the pale complexion and the gaunt, exhausted features. He knew he probably shared a similar appearance but it was far more striking on Esca. It made him look...vulnerable. Not at all like the proud companion he'd been traveling with.
Esca shifted uncomfortably, balancing his weight between one leg and the other. He was ready to go, ready to get out from under the Roman's scrutiny. Marcus seemed to realize this and, no matter how much he wanted answers, decided to let the topic go for the moment. With Esca leading the way, he followed him deeper into the forest, back to the Wall, back to their home.
It was mid afternoon when the storm clouds finally broke, dousing the forest in a torrent of rain and wind. Thunder growled loudly overhead like a hungry predator and lightning sparked above them, illuminating the trees in brilliant flashes of light. In spite of the shortening distance to the Wall, they would have to stop again if the storm didn't let up; it was simply too dangerous to continue on in this kind of weather.
Esca hadn't spoken to him since that morning and it was beginning to become more than Marcus could take. He had tried the same tactics as the previous day, commenting about the weather and other useless conversation starters but to no avail. Esca was still as silent and as elusive as ever. Finally Marcus stopped, not willing to go any further until he got an answer. "Are you angry with me?" He asked, raising his voice to be heard over to rain and the wind.
Esca stopped a second later, looking back at him blankly. His hair was sticking to his forehead, his tunic and cloak clinging to his skin like a second layer and he looked every bit as miserable as Marcus felt. Still, he managed a humorless, bitter laugh and shook his head. "Always so full of yourself, eh Centurion?" He muttered, turning back and fully intending on continuing on. "No, I am not angry at you. This has nothing to do with you, if you can believe that."
"Then what is it?" Marcus asked, stalking up behind him, ignoring the pain in his leg as his foot slid into the muddy embankment. He rounded in front of Esca, blocking his path and looming over him. "What is it that has you in such a bitter mood? If it is not me then what?"
The younger man rolled his eyes and tried to shoulder his way past him but Marcus held his ground. "I will not move until you tell me." He stated stubbornly, earning a surprised yet irritated look from Esca.
"Why do you refuse to accept nothing is wrong?" Esca grumbled irritatably, his mood no lighter thanks to the rain.
"Because "nothing" would not cause you to act this way." Thunder rumbled overhead like it was agreeing with him and Marcus felt absurdly proud of himself. It felt as if the gods themselves were listening in on their conversation.
Esca simply rolled his eyes again and turned him back to him, walking in the other direction in hopes of avoiding the conversation. Marcus thought briefly about reaching out to grab him but knew better than to try on the steep, mud-slicked embankment. Instead, he let out a frustrated sigh and followed after him. "Are you angry about the battle at the river?" He asked, his voice nearly dying in a gust of wind. He honestly had no idea why Esca would be upset about that but he was willing to try any option.
"The battle with the Seal tribe; the prince became your friend, didn't he?" Esca refused to look at him, walking away stubbornly and avoiding the topic all together and Marcus was surprised how jealous he felt by the lack of comment. He shouldn't be jealous, it wasn't as if he had any say over who Esca became friends with but the embarassment and the indignity he faced while posing as Esca's slave in that camp still ran hot in his veins. "Did it anger you to fight him?"
Esca didn't answer, as to be expected, and Marcus felt his frustration mounting. He was about to pursue the topic further when something else entered his mind. It was fleeting, nearly a forgotten memory after the battle, but it was still there. He stopped walking, calling out to be heard over the storm. "This is about the Seal pup, isn't it?"
Esca froze so suddenly it was as if he had been turned to stone. The muscles in his shoulders went rigid and his hands unconsciously clenched at his sides. Marcus knew he had hit a raw wound, one that needed no further prodding. He suddenly remembered the look of despair in Esca's eyes when the boy had been killed, the look he couldn't bare to show on his face. He remembered the boy's face as well, terrified and pleading as he looked between Esca and Marcus. In his mind, Marcus knew there was nothing to be done, they couldn't have gotten to him in time to prevent him from being killed, but it didn't make the memory any less devestating. He approached Esca slowly, reaching out and laying a hesitant hand on his shoulder. "Esca-"
The younger man rounded on him then, a cry of fury and anguish ripping itself from his throat. He threw himself at Marcus, catching the Roman offguard and sending them both tumbling down the wet embankment. They landed in a muddy puddle at the base of the hill and Marcus had barely enough time to realize that he was flat on his back before Esca's fist slammed into his jaw.
The blow was stronger than he would have given Esca credit for when he first met it. There was raw power behind it, force and rage combining into a brutal combination. It was oddly reminiscent of their quarrel right before the landed (quite literally) in the middle of the Seal tribe. This was different though, everything about this was different.
There was another blow, this one just as hard as the first, and Marcus was vaguely aware that he could taste blood. "Do not speak of him!" Esca growled viciously, his words sharp and cutting like a physical wound. "You are never allowed to speak of him!" He was prepared to swing again but Marcus had regained his bearings and shifted his weight, knocking Esca off him and causing him to land hard on the muddy ground beside him. Years of training kicked in and he was on top of him, pinning to smaller man to the ground with all his weight and restraining both of his wrists to prevent another blow. "Esca!" He shouted, using his best former military/master voice to cut over the younger man's struggling and the rain.
Esca fought against him wildly for a few seconds, thrashing and jerking like a caged animal. He was desparate to get loose, desparate to break free, but Marcus's hold was strong and unwavering. When they spared and wrestled, Esca was quick and lithe, easily ducking in and out of every hold Marcus could think of and this shouldn't have been any different. However, considering the apparent lack of sleep and the way he had barely eaten in nearly two days, overpowering the smaller man was surprisingly easy.
Esca let out a frustrated cry, struggling violently one last time before letting his body go limp in the mud, his breathing hard and fast. His eyes were closed tightly, angrily, and mud was streaked across his face. There was water beneath his eyes but Marcus couldn't tell whether it was from the rain or tears. He didn't ask.
"Esca-" He started but the smaller man shook his head sharply, refusing to look at him and glaring up at the the sky angrily. "I could have saved him." He whispered, almost to himself more than Marcus. The words were harsh and desparate, like he was trying to force himself to believe them. "I could have done something."
Marcus sat back then, still keeping him pinned to the ground but releasing his wrists. "Esca, there was nothing you could have done."
"Yes there is!" Esca cried angrily, his voice breaking for only an instant before it was gone again. "I could have taken him with us. He would have been safe!"
Marcus wanted to argue, insist that it wouldn't have done any good. No matter how many scenarios he played out in his head, he couldn't think of a single one that would have put the boy in any less danger. Even if he had managed to come with them, the battle at the river would have probably killed him regardless. That boy had been doomed to die the moment he promised to keep Esca and Marcus's escape a secret. But seeing the look on Esca's face, that absolute misery, he found the words sticking in his throat.
He reached out then, cupping the younger man's face gently for a second and swiping his thumb beneath his eyes to wipe away the telltale tear. He slid off Esca and onto the soft mud, offering him his hand. For a second, Esca didn't move, he just stared angrily up at the heavens and cursed softly in his native tongue. Finally, he grabbed Marcus's hand and allowed the Roman to pull him into a sitting position. They were both completely soaked, clothing sticking to their skin uncomfortably and Marcus knew their journey had ended for the day. They would reach the Wall by the next day, that was certain, but there was no point in pressing on now. Going further would only increase their exhaustion and from his lack of sleep and proper food, Marcus wasn't certain Esca wouldn't fall ill if they continued. It was best to stop.
He stood slowly, ignoring the indignant throb in his leg, and offered his hand once more to Esca. The smaller man took it, allowing Marcus to help him stand. He still looked angry, beyond that, outraged even. But he said nothing.
Marcus reclaimed the Eagle which had fallen into the puddle next to them and strapped it back onto his back. He began to walk and turned back to Esca, waiting to see if the smaller man would follow him or disappear into the trees. He half-expected the latter but was somewhat surprised when Esca let out a weary sigh and began to follow him. Thunder grumbled above them like the gods were laughing at their misery.
After about a mile or so, the embankment made way for steep cliffs and slopes that arched up above both men's heads. It provided a bit more cover from the persistent rain as long as they stayed close to the edges. One side dipped in sharply beneath a large tree, like a chunk of land had crumbled away, and left a small hollow. The indention was deep and it seemed that something had used this as shelter some time before them. The roots of the tree were as thick as a grown man's torso and snaked above their heads, wrapping and tangling around each other and providing a decent roof above them.
Marcus slid down onto the ground, dropping the Eagle down beside him. The ground was damp beneath him but not nearly as wet as it had been on the embankment. For the first time since that morning, he felt somewhat dry. Esca entered the hollow just behind him, hesitating at the entrance and staring out at the pouring rain. He hadn't spoken since the outburst earlier but Marcus wasn't surprised by that. Finally, he seemed to realize that the rain was not going to let up no matter how much he stared at it so he sighed and turned back to face the Roman.
There was no way they could start a fire tonight, nothing was dry enough to sustain a spark, so it seemed they were going to be stuck in their damp clothes for the remainder of the evening. Marcus sighed softly, leaning back against the damp ground and listening to the storm rage above them. Slowly, Esca made his way into the hollow and dropped down beside him, not quite touching shoulders but close enough that what little body heat he still possessed was threaded in with Marcus's own.
They were silent for a time, nothing but the sound of the rain filling the void. Finally, Esca drew his knees up to his chest and sighed deeply. "I see him every time I close my eyes." He half-mumbled, half-whispered, his eyes refusing to meet Marcus's. "I see his face...I hear his voice...he haunt my dreams with his pleading eyes."
Marcus let him speak, listening intently to each word. He wanted to comfort him, say anything that would take away the sting of the wound that was still as raw and fresh as the day it happened. But there was nothing he could think of that would take away the pain.
"It was my fault." Esca said softly, his voice nearly drowned by the rain. "I was the cause of his death..."
"Esca." Marcus reached out to touch his friend's shoulder, flinching a bit at the frigid skin. He knew his couldn't be much better. "That was not your fault...what happened to that boy was not your doing."
"How can you say that?" Esca hissed sharply though the venom in his voice wasn't nearly as potent as it had been earlier. "How can you say it wasn't my doing? It was entirely my doing! Even though I didn't hold the blade, even though I did not cause the lethal wound, I killed him!" His voice faded off then and he slumped forward, a heavy weight seeming to re-settle itself on his shoulders. "His blood is on my hands..." Esca stared down at the limp hands sitting in his lap like he was waiting to see bloody stains marring the skin.
Marcus was still struggling for the right words to comfort his friend but everything seemed false and useless on his tongue. Nothing sounded right, nothing felt right. There was nothing he could say or do to ease his burden other than offering his support. He reached out, grasping one of Esca's cold hands in his own and holding it tightly. "I cannot take this burden from you, my friend." He said softly, watching as Esca tensed slightly beside him. "But I can help you carry it, I can offer you any assitance I possess." He was met with silence so he continued. "I know this feeling, I know your pain, but you must also know that you do not have to shoulder this guilt alone."
A heavy silence was all the greeted him and for a minute, Marcus wondered if he'd made the situation worse by speaking his mind. However, Esca tightened his grasp on his hand and leaned into him a bit then, giving him all the answer he needed. Marcus allowed a ghost of smile to reach his lips and extended his cloak over Esca's shoulders. It was as wet as the younger man's but it helped to share body heat.
The hours stretched on languidly, unaffected by the rain and wind that swirled around them. At some point, Marcus felt Esca lean against him fully, falling into a light sleep. He was glad for it; the circles beneath the smaller man's eyes indicated he had either gotten no sleep in the past few days or it had been very limited. Any amount of rest he could get was welcomed. Occasionally, he would shift uncomfortably in his sleep and Marcus would tighten his arm around his shoulders, trying to give him any amount of comfort he could. They were both cold and miserable but in the grand outlook of things, it seemed better to be cold and miserable together than cold and miserable alone.
A distant crash of thunder jolted Esca awake and he cried out in his native tongue, bitter and remorseful like a plea. After a second he seemed to come to his senses, remembering where they were and letting out an exhausted sigh. Marcus said nothing, allowing him to settle back against his shoulder and recovering him with his cloak. It would be a long night, they both knew, but even the longest nights pass eventually. They stayed huddled together, sharing each other's warmth, long after the storm faded and the night became silent.
Eventually, Esca settled into a deeper, dreamless sleep and he seemed to finally relax for the first time in days. It was Marcus's turn to be silent now, to simply be there for his friend and help him through this trial. It was harsh and it hurt like a reopened wound but it was bareable and Marcus knew Esca could handle it. And he knew that he would be there with him every step of the way.
Hope you all liked it! Thanks for reading! :D