SUMMARY: "Esca wants to hit Marcus Aquila. He wants to hit him so much it is all he can do not to dart in and take one of the many openings a lifetime spent with two brothers has taught him to spot and exploit, two beloved brothers who bled out in a ditch seven years earlier because of men like Marcus Aquila." Set after Marcus's wound was re-searched, while they are still in Calleva. Kind of preslash, but could be read as emotionally messy gen.
RATING: T for mild sparring violence.
NOTES: Lishan asked for consensual punching, preferably someone punching their boss. I was not quite expecting to write this. Thanks to Sineala for the title and the usual cheerleading.
For more The Eagle and Eagle of the Ninth stories, I recommend the ninth_eagle community on Livejournal: livejournal DOT com SLASH community SLASH ninth_eagle. My own Eagle fiction (including many more stories than I have posted here, since most of what I've written in this fandom is sexually explicit and I don't really post to FFN anymore anyway) can be found at archiveofourown DOT org SLASH users SLASH Carmarthen.
Fit Via Vi
Esca circles just out of range, not making any attempt to hit Marcus, his face set and sullen. Marcus is already tired from exercising earlier, the muscles in his injured leg beginning to burn, and he is quickly losing patience. Esca is his slave, whether either of them wishes it, and if he orders his slave to box with him to help him regain his strength, his slave should do it. But Esca will not hit him, only dance around out of reach on his whole and limber legs, and Marcus cannot bring himself to hit a man who won't hit back. Esca's every motion is graceful, the lean muscles of his chest and arms sheened with sweat, and Marcus hates him for that easy grace even as he cannot take his eyes from it.
"Hit me," Marcus says. Not so long ago, he could have used that voice and soldiers would have snapped to obey whatever command he gave. Esca glares at him and throws a punch that goes so wide it is clear he never meant it to land.
Something in him snaps, at that. "Fight me like a man," he says, "don't flinch like a cur!" and he does throw a punch at Esca's wide-open shoulder then, but Esca only dodges out of the way and to the side. Esca's expression darkens and his knuckles are white in his clenched fists, but still he does not truly try to hit Marcus.
Marcus does not understand it. He knows Esca wants to hit him, and of course he will not punish Esca for it, not when he has told Esca to spar with him. Yet Esca is all but disobeying him openly.
"I am no cur," Esca says, gritting the words out. He keeps his guard up, his eyes ever-wary on Marcus's movement, and as Marcus keeps throwing punches that never land. Marcus feels slow and clumsy, and suddenly he is angry, shaking with it, that Esca is taunting him so.
"Would your father have been such a coward?" he snarls, although he knows it is not honorable to provoke any man so, but especially not this surly Briton whose pride slavery cannot break, who clings to the memory of his father's honor just as Marcus does his own. "Would he be proud of such a son? Hit me!"
And he should expect it then, but somehow he doesn't see it coming, only doubles over struggling to breathe after the solid blow Esca lands in his gut. He stumbles and goes to one knee in the dirt, his breathing labored, swallowing back the bile rising in his throat. It hurts—gut-strikes always do—but he's taken them often enough before, and it will pass, it will pass. He forces his breathing into evenness, waiting for the worst of the pain to pass.
When he looks up, Esca has squared his shoulders and tensed his jaw, and he looks like a man expecting the worst, but he says nothing. He makes no apology or excuse, only stands there with his hands lose at his sides, although the muscles of his arms are tight and trembling as if he wishes to bolt.
Marcus feels strangely relieved; Esca has finally done as he wanted. He does not understand Esca, his prickly silence and his pride, but he understands this. This is simple.
"Help me up," he says, and Esca silently gives him an arm up. He flinches a little when Marcus goes to put an arm over his shoulder for support, so little it would have been easy to miss. He keeps his face turned away as he helps Marcus over to where he left his crutch; he has overstrained his leg again, and between that and the ache when he breathes, he will need it to get back inside the villa.
"You're dismissed for the day," Marcus says, and at that Esca's head comes up at once, a flash of disbelief crossing his narrow features. It is annoying, that Esca thinks so poorly of him, and for so little cause. "Did you think I would punish you for doing as I bade?" He will not apologize for what he said, but he deserved the blow and they both know it.
Esca lowers his eyes; it is as a slave should and yet, like everything Esca does, it is not quite right. "Domine," he says, and Marcus knows he means yes.
That night, when Esca helps him out of his tunic, there is a spreading bruise across Marcus's stomach. Esca falters for a moment, and when Marcus looks at him he does not find the satisfaction at his handiwork that he expects to see.
Esca is unusually gentle changing Marcus's bandages, and for once he does not yank viciously at Marcus's sandal laces.
Every muscle in Marcus's body aches and he cannot find a comfortable way to lie, but that is not why he does not find sleep until well into the night.
Esca wants to hit Marcus Aquila. He wants to hit him so much it is all he can do not to dart in and take one of the many openings a lifetime spent with two brothers has taught him to spot and exploit, two beloved brothers who bled out in a ditch seven years earlier because of men like Marcus Aquila.
He wants to do it because Marcus is Roman, because he wants to see that arrogance wiped from his face with shock and pain, and most of all because Marcus has given him this terrible, impossible order. Esca has had other masters who delighted in this kind of thing before, in giving slaves orders that could neither be obeyed nor ignored without calling down punishment, but fool that he is, he had let himself think Marcus was different, that he had some kind of honor in him that Esca could recognize.
If he fights Marcus, truly fights him, he will win—for all that Marcus is bigger and stronger and does this kind of thing more, he is tired and limping a little, and Esca knows all the tricks of fighting dirty. It would be the simplest thing to feint and strike him in the thigh, then bring him down when he staggered. He doesn't guard his head well, perhaps thinking Esca is too short to easily land a blow. There are a hundred ways he could hurt Marcus, and Marcus has told him—ordered him—to do it.
But Marcus doesn't really want Esca to fight him, not as an equal. He wants some exercise chasing a slave around, and if Esca truly hit him, it would be the whip again. Esca has enough scars on his back already, so he keeps out of reach, waiting for Marcus to hit him first. Why does he not strike?
"Hit me," Marcus says, his brows drawing together and his voice snapping like a chieftain in battle. But Esca is a chief's son himself, and he will not. He throws a lazy punch, deliberately wide, so Marcus cannot say he is disobeying.
Marcus flushes with anger. "Fight me like a man, don't flinch like a cur!" He finally tries to hit Esca then, but his punch is wild and easily dodged.
Esca is furious now, and it is all he can do not to succumb and fight back and bear the consequences. He had told the Romans his name when he was captured: Escarix son of Cunovalos, and they had hardly let him get it out before they were laughing. Esca, eh? Well, I suppose this one isn't much good for anything besides bait for dogs, if he even lives. And so, from the son of Cunoval, Prince of Hounds, he has sunk to someone a Roman dares call a cur, expecting to still wake in the morning. I am not the dog here. "I am no cur," he grits, keeping his eyes on Marcus.
Marcus is slow and clumsy, although Esca does not fool himself that he will remain so forever. His punches are easy to avoid even now that he is trying to hit Esca, his face twisted with frustration. Perhaps he will tire of this; perhaps it will go on until Esca lets a blow land and Marcus feels his manhood is satisfied.
And then all thought, all self-control vanishes as Marcus snarls, "Would your father have been such a coward? Would he be proud of such a son? Hit me!"
He does, evading Marcus's guard and slamming a fist into his gut. It feels horribly good for a moment, joyous to finally hurt this man who took from him the only thing he had left, back in the arena in Calleva. Marcus doubles over with a gasp, falling to the ground, his shoulders heaving as he labors to draw breath.
He will be angry, Esca knows, his own anger draining away to be replaced only by exhaustion. He knows this dance; he has been through it more times than he can count now, and he has a stripe on his back for every one. But he will not bend his back for it until Marcus forces him, so he draws himself up and unfolds his cramped hands, trying to look as if he does not care.
Marcus finally looks up, his face unreadable. "Help me up," he says, voice tight, and Esca does. Marcus will hit him now, in the face, perhaps; it is what masters do when they are angry. He cannot quite stop himself from flinching, and is ashamed for it, but Marcus only puts an arm over his shoulder as usual. He doesn't watch as Marcus positions his crutch. "You're dismissed for the day."
Esca looks up, meeting Marcus's eyes before he thinks about it. Surely Marcus does not mean it. "Did you think I would punish you for doing as I bade?"
And in the quick downward cast of his eyes and the faint color in his cheeks, there is something that Esca knows cannot be shame, for no Roman would feel shame for insulting a slave.
"Domine," he says, lowering his eyes. He will not lie and say no.
He goes into Calleva later that day and uses some of the money the elder Aquila tipped him earlier to go to the baths. He tries not to think of what Marcus might be doing; he is likely in a great deal of pain by now, between his leg, the exercise, and Esca's blow.
He deserves it all, Esca tells himself.
That night he helps Marcus out of his tunic as always, trying to ignore the quick intake of breath when Marcus has to raise his arms over his head. The bruise blooms wine-dark across the taut muscles of Marcus's stomach. It was a good blow, a solid blow; his father would have approved.
He had thought he would feel pleased. There is no name for what he feels, nor for the thing he sees in Marcus's face.
Marcus's leg is healing well, still, and Esca changes his bandages as gently as he can. Marcus has enough pain tonight that Esca need not add more.
Fit via vi is a phrase from the Aeneid, and despite what Google will tell you, it means "a way is made by force/violence," not "a way is made by labor." The context, however, is sort of anti-relevant here. Sineala generously gave me the title because she's awesome and can read the Aeneid in the original, unlike me.
Some comments on the bit about Esca's name, if anyone's interested:
Esca probably means "water" in Brittonic, and I'm guessing this is what Rosemary Sutcliff was referencing in the book (she scrambled about for her "British" names, many of which are medieval Irish or Welsh), but it also means "meat" or "bait" in Latin, which I am not sure Sutcliff meant to reference. I think if it was Esca's original name (or part of it), Romans would be pretty amused—especially since movie!Esca is frankly terrible slave material.
There's some evidence that higher-class Celts tended to use compound names in this period; so, as the son of a chief, I wouldn't be surprised if Esca originally had a compound name. One possibility I have been thinking about, and only alluded to here, is that his captors shortened his name to just the first part—in their minds, derogatory. Rix (a common element in British and Gaulish names of the period) means "king," so "Escarix" would be "water king." In my mind, Esca kept the shortened name rather than reclaiming his full name for reasons probably related to survivor's guilt, and I imagine I'll explore this all more fully in another story someday.
Cunovalos (or Cunowalos) seems to come from cunos (the genitive case of cū, "hound") and walos, "prince" or "ruler," and so would translate to "Prince of Hounds." Later Irish culture and likely these 2nd century Celtic cultures as well drew a linguistic distinction between "hounds" and "dogs" or "curs." To call a man a dog was an insult, but to be metaphorically someone's loyal hound could be a role of honor (as Sutcliff well knew!). Cunoval is a shortened, anglicized form.