Characters: A Roman centurion and his former slave. Sometimes all it takes is one small incident to make one realize what one wants. After the events of "The Eagle," Esca is Marcus' friend and armour-bearer, no longer his slave, but Marcus ponders the nature of their bond, and wrestles with the fact that his feelings go beyond mere comradeship. Not extremely graphic, but I've rated it M just in case. Marcus-Esca SLASH.
Not for Sale
"By Jupiter," said Uncle Aquila, squinting against the sun. "If it isn't that fellow from Camulodunon again? What a nuisance! I can only hope he isn't going to ask to buy one of the horses. I told him twice, over dinner, that they were not for sale."
He got to his feet, his massive frame towering over his seated nephew. Marcus Flavius Aquila looked up at his paternal uncle and smiled, raising one bronzed hand to shield his eyes from intense light of the mid-day sun. It had been a week, already, of warmth and blue skies—none of the mist and mizzle, to which Marcus had become accustomed, that was so typical of Britain—and he and Uncle Aquila had been playing draughts in the courtyard, relaxing in the scent of the earliest-blooming of the imported roses growing in their tall stone jars along the colonnade. Their conversation had centered on the pair of magnificent chariot horses Uncle Aquila had seen fit to purchase earlier that spring (in spite of the fact that he owned no chariot), and the envy that had arisen in the hearts of his neighbors as a result. At first, he had turned them over to Marcipor and one of the other house slaves to look after—Stephanos, his Greek body-slave, being too elderly to deal with them—but in the end he had had to relinquish their care to his nephew's armour-bearer, Esca, the young Briton who, not long ago, had been Marcus' own slave.
As Marcus himself stood up, tall, athletically built, and (as someone had once said) Roman to his fingertips with his military demeanor, chiseled features, light olive skin and dark hair, he steadied himself with one hand on the edge of the draughts board. His old battle injury—received long before the events of the past year, before he had taken to the wilds of Caledonia with Esca, in search of the Ninth Legion's missing eagle standard—occasionally rendered his right leg stiff and painful. An unwelcome reminder of why he was ineligible to return to the legions. Uncle Aquila tutted disapprovingly as Marcus walked the length of the courtyard colonnade, doing his best to minimize his slight limp.
"You are impossible," Uncle Aquila said resignedly. "You refuse to take enough rest to repair that leg. I can't help but notice how like my brother you are. Ah well! Here comes that slippery-eyed fellow now. I suggest that you talk to him...I really must return to the first draft of my manuscript."
Marcus obligingly crossed the courtyard to where his uncle's less than welcome guest stood in the doorway, having been ushered into the villa by old Stephanos. Quintus Porcius had once served with the legions, in Judea, in Gaul, and finally in Britain, but he had long since retired to private life. Now he was one of a number of ex-soldiers who earned a living providing entertainment for the circus displays in places like Camulodunon and Londinium, and when he wasn't procuring wild beasts or booking acrobats, he was on the lookout for gladiators, mostly free men but on the occasion slaves.
These days Quintus Porcius was heavy-set, if not completely rotund, and he had lost the trim, hard surface of a Roman legionary. He wore a cape of fine wool, bordered with gold thread, and the scent of an expensive perfume preceded him. As he was a distant relative of Uncle Aquila's old commanding officer in Gaul, he had been invited to take the evening meal with them the night before (Esca had not been present, having been in town on Marcus' business until late), and had regaled them with tales of the shops and wealthy patrons of Camulodunon, where he spent most of his time, and how his business travels had taken him all over the south of Britain. Halfway through the meal, Marcus had found himself thinking that it was just as well that Quintus Porcius had never called on them before, and rarely visited Calleva.*
As Marcus approached him, Quintus Porcius smiled and inclined his head, a courtesy to a former cohort centurion as well as the previous night's co-host. In one hand he held a gift, a long-necked ceramic jar, which he handed to Stephanos as he explained: "Some of the finest quality oil from our homeland, Marcus Aquila. From the olive groves in Etruria, which is, I understand, where you were born."
"Thank you, yes," said Marcus, for some reason reluctant to discuss the beauties of the Etruscan landscape with this arrogant, obviously well-to-do man in his middle years, Roman though he might be. "Won't you be seated, sir? My uncle is..." he waved a hand vaguely. "He begs your forgiveness, but he was required to go into town on some urgent business." (Well, it wasn't exactly a lie; Uncle Aquila might have headed into town, with the very urgent desire to avoid this particular visitor.)
"Shall we go into the garden?" his guest replied. "The weather is unusually fine, and I did not have the pleasure of viewing it last night."
Marcus acquiesced and led Quintus Porcius out of the villa and into the garden behind it. For the next quarter of an hour, he was forced to listen as the older man waxed poetic (although Marcus had his doubts about the poetry) on the wonders of nature. They had seated themselves on the grey marble bench, facing the wild fruit trees and, beyond the old earthworks of British Calleva, the forest whose trees spread out into the distance, and Marcus was beginning to wonder how in the names of all the gods he could get this man to shut up.
The sharp sound of a breaking twig caused both men to turn their heads. Esca was walking along the path to the stable, his head up but eyes downcast, as though searching for something on the ground that was invisible to anybody else. He was wearing an old tunic of Marcus' that fitted him loosely, as he was rather short for a Briton, and quite slim, although wiry and extremely strong. Two years ago, when he was still a slave, his angular form and keen features had attracted the notice of female slaves from the neighboring Kaeso estate, but he had never seemed to pay them any heed, and had laughed when Marcus joked about them. Now a freedman, he had grown his hair just long enough to partially hide his clipped ear—the unmistakable sign of bondage—and most of the folk in Calleva had nearly forgotten his former status.
No doubt Uncle Aquila had asked him if he could tend to Orion, the more spirited of the beautifully-matched bay chariot horses, who had only this morning butted poor Marcipor in the backside with a vengeance.
"I was disappointed," Quintus Porcius was saying, looking casually at Esca before returning his attention to his host. "Disappointed that your uncle has no intention of parting with one or both of his horses. Splendid creatures. I do, however, have another proposition to put to you. To you, Marcus Aquila, not your uncle. Ah, what a magnificent view! And the fruit trees...they must remind you of home, eh?"
"Yes," said Marcus pleasantly, wondering when, if ever, this cold-eyed, overfed ex-legionary was going to get to the point. "Your proposition, sir? If it is about a horse-?" He no longer kept one, himself, although he had been thinking of purchasing a pair of ponies, so that he and Esca could hunt, or ride to the outback for a day's relaxation.
"Your slave," said Quintus Porcius, jerking his head in the direction of the stables, where Esca could be seen grooming the recalcitrant bay. "I'm off to the north, just below the Wall, to look for men trained in gladiatorial combat. As I'll be dealing with the locals, I may have need of someone who speaks their barbaric tongue and can barter on my behalf. They all claim to speak Latin, of course, south of the Wall, but still...Your barbarian, there, was once a gladiator, I've been told. So he'd know the sort of men I'm looking for."
"He is not for sale," Marcus began, but before he could even attempt to explain, Quintus Porcius held up a well-manicured hand, the thick fingers ringed with gold, and spoke rapidly.
"I am prepared to offer upwards of two thousand sesterces for him." Marcus opened his mouth again, but Quintus Porcius continued. "He may be a painted barbarian, but it is obvious that he is a good hand with horses, and I understand he speaks excellent Latin."
"Why shouldn't he?" Marcus said coldly. "He has been with me for a long time. But you are mistaken, sir, if you think that he is mine to keep or to sell. Esca has been free since our travels in the north, and it is for him to decide whether he goes or stays."
"Ahhh," said Quintus Porcius on a long exhale. He looked at Marcus shrewdly, and then away. "A freedman. I see. A pity. Strange, though, that he remains in your uncle's villa, when he could be away and back to his own people, or even go north to where the free tribes still keep their villages with no influence from Rome."
"Esca has a life here," Marcus replied stubbornly, working hard to restrain a grin at the sight of his guest's suddenly downcast expression. "He is my armour-bearer, but also my comrade-in-arms. He could return to his people, I daresay, but here he has a home and acquaintances, and the respect of many. Nobody forces him to stay. He has...has become accustomed to Calleva, and Calleva to him."
"Perhaps," said Quintus Porcius, almost in a whisper. "And no doubt he is well worth what you once paid for him." He gave a sideways smile, and suddenly Marcus felt a little sick.
"Roma Dea!" he said to himself, as he caught the look, sly but intent, that the other man shot in his direction. "He wants more than a translator who will also fetch and carry, more than a slave. He wants someone to warm his bedroll at night. And he has the audacity to think that I...that Esca and I..." And he was suddenly filled with anger, on Esca's behalf, certainly, but also on his own.
"If you require a slave familiar with the criteria for selecting gladiators," he said between his teeth, doing his best to keep his expression civil. "May I suggest that you have a word with the circus master, who has quarters just by the East Gate. Beppo, I believe his name is." Esca had been bought from him, not long after Marcus came to live with Uncle Aquila, but this he did not say.
Watching Quintus Porcius' broad back retreating towards the road, Marcus headed for the stables in a fit of righteous anger and no small degree of embarrassment.
"Your visitor did not please you," Esca said flatly at the sight of him, and Marcus scowled.
"The arrogant sot!" he muttered as his eyes adjusted to the dimmer light inside the stable door. "He had the temerity to think that he had a chance at buying you."
Esca blinked, but his calm, cool-eyed expression did not change, save that he cocked his head a little to one side. Then he reached into one of the nearby feed bins and drew out several stalks of grain. "And you enlightened him, no doubt?"
"I did," Marcus said sharply. "He needs a man who can speak the native language and somebody must have mentioned...but he wants more than a mere slave-translator, it seems. It's plain he's looking for someone he can...um. And when I told him you are a free man, he was very put out. He couldn't believe that you remain in Calleva, in this household, as if, as if..."
Esca raised his eyebrows and tapped his chin with the grain stalks, but still said nothing.
"And now he thinks…he thinks…" said Marcus indignantly, making vague gestures in the direction of his former slave. "He believes…" He flung up his hands in exasperation, and then laughed a little shamefacedly in an attempt to make light of it.
Esca's face had lit up with understanding, but he did not laugh; instead, he lowered his head and examined the blades of grain he held in his hand, as though considering the quality of the seed for future harvests. When he looked up again, his eyes were dancing with suppressed amusement and something else, but still he did not smile.
Marcus' flush of discomfiture had already begun to cool, but the Briton's next words had him on the verge of turning crimson again.
"He believes that you had me, when I was your slave," Esca said quietly, his grey-blue eyes looking past Marcus' shoulder at the distant figure of Quintus Porcius. "And that this is why you would not sell me now, even if you could."
"The man is a gutter rat," snapped Marcus, looking anywhere but at Esca. "A Tiber rat, for all his perfumes, gold rings, and fine woolen cape. Mithras! I nearly flung his gift in his supercilious, florid face!"
The smile that came so rarely to the Briton's face suddenly materialized with a flash of white teeth. "A fine story they would have told at the tavern this evening if you had."
"And why should I care?" Marcus snorted, kicking at the straw on the stable floor. "No one with any integrity or sense of honor would listen to him." Feeling unaccountably annoyed, with himself, with Esca, with the world in general, he spun on his heel and stalked through the door into the sunlight, sensing Esca's eyes, cool and inscrutable, on his retreating back.
Upon returning to the villa, Marcus found that Uncle Aquila had retreated to his study lest Quintus Porcius, having failed in his efforts to acquire a slave, should resume his attempts to purchase a horse.
Braving his kinsman's displeasure, Marcus made his way to the inner sanctum and gave an abbreviated account of his conversation with Quintus Porcius, omitting their guest's words of innuendo. Uncle Aquila, who had been writing away diligently at his History of Seige Warfare, grunted and rolled his eyes, asked him if he had told Esca, and then chuckled dryly and enigmatically before returning to his manuscript. Still feeling highly irritated by Quintus Porcius' misunderstanding, Marcus returned to the garden, where he kept himself busy for some time with the cleaning, repairing, and assessing of his uncle's impressive collection of native weapons, a project he had been working on for some time.
Shortly before the evening meal, weary from scraping, cutting, and polishing under the hot sun (this was not the sort of work he would assign to one of the slaves, as the collection was a rare and valuable one), he stood up stiffly and strode back towards the house, yearning for a bath. Calleva boasted baths modeled after the establishments in Aquae Sulis** and, of course, Rome itself, but many villas had their own small, private bath houses, and Uncle Aquila's was one of them.
No doubt Esca was just as tired and sweat-soaked as he was. At least, this was what Marcus told himself as he gestured for Esca to join him.
And it was bliss, after a day of unusual, unrelenting warmth and an afternoon of hard work, to sluice himself with heated water before moving on to the cold plunge. Afterwards, he and Esca sat on the bronze bench in the bath house and dried themselves, all the while talking in a desultory fashion about the price of land in the downs country, and whether farming there might prove to be a good venture. But Marcus' thoughts kept drifting back to Quintus Porcius and his insinuating comment.
The mere suggestion that he could have used Esca so, in the days when Esca was a slave, had infuriated him beyond belief and stung his sense of honor. Unlike many a well-born Roman, he would never have ordered any slave, woman or man, to his bed, certainly not one for whom he had respect and liking, and whose pride would have been destroyed by such a forced encounter.
That Esca was both proud and a man of honor—not to mention skilled in battle—could scarcely be doubted. One had only to consider his upright carriage, the way he held his head high, tossing back his russet-blond hair with an impatient shake, the slimness that could not hide his very genuine strength and endurance. Marcus surreptitiously raked his eyes over Esca when the Briton happened to glance away, noting the young man's long-limbed, fine-boned litheness, his sullen, taut face, with its mobile, thin-lipped mouth and straight brows, that took on an odd, peculiar attractiveness when his eyes brightened with eagerness or amusement or anger, his clever, sensitive hands that could calm the most high-strung of Uncle Aquila's horses or grasp a weapon—and wield it—with both power and finesse.
(As for the rest of him...Marcus cleared his throat and looked away. Strange that he should avert his eyes now, he thought uncomfortably, when they had bathed together before, and when no Roman was ashamed to bare himself in the baths.)
Esca, son of a chieftain of the Brigantes, once a warrior (as the blue tattooed patterns on his upper arms indicated), two years a slave before he came to Marcus, purchased by him for reasons he had been hard put to explain fully to himself. Taken in war, yes, but before that, charioteer for his chieftain father, young, yet a man among men within the society of the tribes. Glancing at him again, Marcus suddenly wondered whether he had been promised to another Briton warrior's daughter, or if, indeed, he had ever had a woman to lie down with. Or whether a previous owner had ever...but no, no, Esca would have fought to the death rather than...Marcus winced at the thought.
"The old wound pains you?" Esca asked gravely, handing Marcus his tunic and belt as he had in the days when he was the young Roman's body-slave. "There is no redness or swelling, but-"
"No, Esca, it is nothing to speak of," Marcus replied shortly. His friend looked at him sideways in clear disbelief, but made no response, simply reaching for his own tunic, pulling it over his head in one fluid movement. "Or rather, it isn't the old wound. I was thinking of that infernal fellow, Quintus Porcius, and how he was offering to buy you." The corner of his mouth quirked upwards as he remembered the pleasure he had felt at the disappointment in the ex-legionary's eyes. Something in himself, and in Esca's sardonic expression, urged him to lessen his discomfort with the subject by turning it into a joke. "I can't deny his offer was tempting...more than two thousand sesterces, so he said."
"Now by Lugh, Lord of Light!" Esca expostulated, drawing his brows together before he realized that Marcus was laughing. "That was hardly a well-chosen jest." Marcus chuckled helplessly, and Esca's lips quivered in a reluctant smile before Marcus flung a towel at his head.
As they strolled from the bath house to the villa, they noted that the western sky was beginning to turn vermilion, and could hear Sassticca banging her pots and pans in the kitchen. These things were enough to inform them that the meal would be served shortly, and once inside they headed for the dining alcove off the atrium, where the supper couches were draped with beautifully finished deerskin, rather than the cloths and embroideries popular in Rome. Uncle Aquila, seemingly famished after having rewritten his outline of the Battle of Alesia for the third time, presided over the meal with his usual sarcastic good humor, twitting Marcus for not having sent Quintus Porcius to the wrong side of town in search of the circus master, and thanking Jupiter that he had not asked to stay the night with them before his return to Camulodunon.
"I imagine he's staying at the inn near the West Gate," he mused over a plateful of grilled fish. "Of course," he added, wrinkling his brow with distaste, "He may very well be spending his evening at one of the brothels instead."
Marcus frowned and glanced quickly in Esca's direction. Esca—who after all this time in a Roman household, had never quite gotten used to the concept of eating in a reclining position, propped up on one elbow—had been squirming a little uncomfortably on his couch, but now he flushed slightly, and lowered his eyes. Marcus felt his own face grow warm, and raised his head to catch Uncle Aquila looking thoughtfully from one young man to the other.
To Marcus' relief, Uncle Aquila then turned his conversation to the Battle of Alesia, and went on at some length about siege warfare before rising to his great height, stretching, and saying that an old man like himself needed to retire early, as the call of nature would undoubtedly wake him in the middle of the night. Then he gathered his cloak about him (for the evening was cool), and took himself off after bestowing a smile of surprising gentleness on his nephew and his comrade.
It must have been shortly after midnight when Marcus' labored breathing and thrashing limbs tore him from the depths of his nightmare. He half sat up, feeling the sweat of fear pouring down his forehead and naked chest and cold on his back, clenching his fists in the linen sheet. It was his father's face (so like his own) he had seen in his dream, streaked with blood, mouth open in a death cry, as the golden eagle standard above his head crashed to earth and the shouts of the native warriors assailing his troops echoed round him. Marcus squeezed his eyelids shut and forced himself to take deep, steadying gulps of air, relaxing his cramped fingers...and then Esca was beside him, kneeling by the bed, one hand on Marcus' brow, his eyes alive with surprise and concern.
"Did I cry out, Esca?" Marcus asked, feeling embarrassment for the second time in a space of twenty-four hours. "It was...I saw..." He must have shouted in his sleep, Marcus thought with shame, for Esca no longer slept on a pallet across his bedchamber door. Since becoming a freedman, he had been given his own little sleeping chamber on the courtyard, next to Marcus', and surely could not have sensed his distress unless he had cried out.
"You are fevered." Esca said, without answering his question (this was typical of Esca), as he felt for his former master's pulse. "I thought you took more wine than usual at dinner." Marcus snapped his mouth shut and opened it again, about to tell Esca to stop hovering over him like a nursemaid, and that he was not fevered, and had not had too much wine at all, but before he could utter a word, his friend was wiping his face with a soft, worn linen cloth, brushing lightly over his hairline, and the small, raised mark between his brows, the brand of the Raven Degree of Mithras.
Marcus closed his eyes and smiled a little, recalling how his mother would come to his room after a nightmare, when he was a small child, and stroke his hair back from his brow with a soft cloth, as Esca was doing now. "It's all right, my fine falcon," he remembered her saying in her gentle, soothing voice. "Everything is going to be all right." The surgeon who had repaired his leg, Uncle Aquila's old friend from the Second Legion, had also said as much, when Marcus regained consciousness after his wound had been agonizingly reopened, explored, and bound up once more. "You will be a sound man again. Everything is going to be all right."
He opened his eyes and of course it was not his mother he saw, or the surgeon, but Esca, his eyes changing from grey to grey-blue to aquamarine in the flickering light of the single brazier. He had a fresh cloth, wrung out in cool water, and with this he was now wiping the sweat from Marcus' shoulders, back, and chest. When he had finished, he sat back on his heels and rinsed the cloth again in the bowl of water, setting it down nearby. Then he turned back to look at Marcus, and Marcus found it increasingly difficult to slow his breathing, because Esca was leaning over him again, all lean muscle, sun-browned silky skin, and feral sinuousness, his eyes wide and the color of water.
Thoughts that Marcus would never have allowed himself to entertain had Esca still been a slave flooded his mind. The young man was no longer bound to him by law, in servitude, and was free, free to make choices...free to decide how or with whom he might wish to spend his late night hours...
A part of Marcus suddenly wanted nothing more than to pull the slighter man down into the cot beside him, roll on top, and take him, but the disciplined side of his mind told him that it was too soon for so precipitous an act, that it would seem too symbolic of dominance, and that he should wait to see what Esca was going to do. The disciplined side won out, as usual, and Marcus simply turned his head enough so that he and his former slave were face to face. Their eyes met and held for what seemed like a long time, before Esca put his hands on Marcus' shoulders and pushed him gently down onto his back. Wordlessly, Marcus shifted to make room, and the Briton slid into the cot beside him.
Esca's hands made short work of what little they were wearing, and began to caress him, long, careful strokes that set his blood on fire more surely than the powerful native barley drink had ever done. Marcus set his teeth in his lower lip and arched his back, trying not to make a sound, senses alive to the warmth of his companion's breath on his skin, the touch of those hard, work-roughened palms and slender, smoother fingers. Then they were pressed close together, Marcus' hip brushing against Esca's narrow loins, but Esca drew away long enough to move one hand between them. It was all Marcus could do not to groan when those supple fingers closed round him, grasping just hard enough as they slid along the length. Through the haze of pleasure it occurred to him—in the recesses at the back of his mind, which seemed unable to think very clearly—that some sort of reciprocation was in order. He reached out blindly, exploring the terrain of a slender waist, elegantly defined torso, slim but muscular thighs, and what lay between them. Still blindly, he flattened his palm against the smooth skin of Esca's chest, and a moment later felt fingers lightly close round his wrist as Esca guided his hand to where he meant it to go. It took a while to find exactly the right rhythm, as he was not accustomed to doing this sort of thing to another person...and it was becoming increasingly difficult, anyway, to concentrate on anything beyond sensation. It seemed, however, that his efforts were appreciated, because he heard rapid breathing that was not his own, a few strangled words in the native language, and then felt the fierce play of lips and teeth against his throat. Before long he himself gasped, and panted "Esca, Esca!" as the built up tension within him exploded in a blaze of white-hot gratification, and he felt in his hand and against the base of his stomach the heat of the Briton's own release.
Later, Marcus wasn't exactly certain how much later, he came to himself a little, hearing the faint crackle of embers in the brazier, and feeling the warmth of Esca curled against him, one leg flung over his hip. When the Briton felt him stirring, he raised himself slightly and then moved as though to slide out of the cot, but Marcus took him about the waist and held him fast.
"No, stay," he said gruffly, at the same time pulling gently to bring his friend's head down beside his on the pillow, but Esca lowered his head to Marcus' shoulder in a simple gesture that moved him immensely. They lay in companionable silence for a while, until Marcus slid further sideways within the rather narrow confines of the bed, and then propped himself on one elbow so that he could look down at that face, all planes and angles, still faintly flushed, the eyes no longer veiled and unreadable but soft with sleepy contentment.
It was too early, Marcus realized, himself relaxed with blissful fatigue, to even try to analyze anything that had just occurred. Somehow Esca had sensed his need, and had responded to it with a need of his own. Stretching cautiously—the bed was wider than a legionary's cot, but still intended for one, not two—he reached for the cool, wet linen cloth Esca had sponged him with earlier, and began to wipe the stickiness from both of them. Yawning, Esca took it from his hand and finished the job more efficiently.
No, he wasn't going to analyze...what would be the point? This was Esca, who probably understood him better than anybody living. Esca, murmuring drowsily against his shoulder. And all he knew was that the young Briton, with his sea-colored eyes, his rumpled hair, and his graceful, catlike body, looked beautiful to him in the dim glow of the brazier, where the embers were about to fade away to nothing.
He bent lower and paused for a moment, almost hesitating before pressing his lips against Esca's - because a kiss seemed somehow so much more intimate than what he and Esca had just done together.
Esca gave a little start of surprise before his mouth softened beneath Marcus' and he returned his kiss.
Yes, everything was going to be all right.
* Calleva is present-day Silchester.
** Aquae Sulis is present-day Bath.
Yes, I know, this was dripping with fluff.
I recently saw The Eagle on cable pay-per-view. Although it was not exactly great cinema, it did feature some nice period detail, striking, dramatic scenery, and a rather charming, edgy bromance between two attractive young men which had a fair amount of slash potential. The actors themselves have joked about that aspect of the film in interviews. (Jamie Bell made a reference to "Brokeback Eagle," and Channing Tatum said, of Bell, "Yeah yeah, I love him, we cuddle," in response to the suggestion that he had a "mancrush" on his co-star.)
The novel, written by Rosemary Sutcliff in the 1950s, handles the Marcus-Esca friendship a bit differently from the way the movie does. It is a well-written piece of historical fiction, and I have relied on it, as much as the film, for details. This fic came into my head after I wrote a consumer's review of the film on Amazon, and I realized that this might be the appropriate place to post it.
Kudos to KnightGuardian for the lovely Eagle fanfic, "Esca's Smile."