Title: Almost Like a Son
Genre: Book verse, with some film verse thrown in
[Note: Sassticca's tirade at the other slaves, and one of her later statements, both marked with an asterisk (*) are taken almost verbatim from The Eagle of the Ninth, by Rosemary Sutcliff.]
People who knew old Aquila had begun to say, of late, that his nephew, Marcus Flavius, had become like a son to him. Visitors to the Calleva villa noted that atrium, the courtyard, the garden, were no longer as silent as the tomb, and that old Aquila no longer spent every waking moment in his study, up the stairs of the squat tower that constituted the one architectural oddity of the house. His friends, and even his slaves, were pleased by this turn of events; the old soldier now had something to care about, apart from his eternal scribbling, somebody to play draughts with in the evening, or take a turn about the garden with; the elder Aquila tempering his still-vigorous stride in order to match the step of the young man hobbling at his side with the aid of a walking stick. There was no mistaking the gruff affection that sometimes entered his voice, although his gaze remained as coolly sardonic as ever, and every now and then he told Sassticca to add something special to the evening meal: a plate of her honeycakes, a serving of dried sugared fruit, a bottle of costly Falernian.
Sasstica had been one of old Aquila's household slaves for many years, ever since his term of service to the Eagles had come to a close and he chose to settle in Britain, rather than return to his homeland. She was old now too, like Stephanos, his Greek body-slave; Marcipor was younger, but hardly young. Tall and gaunt, with a tendency to cuff the other slaves if they annoyed her, she ruled over the kitchen and battled with Marcipor over the running of the villa. Before the arrival of his nephew, her Master had lived much on his own, visiting with friends on rare occasions, given to sitting in the courtyard with Procyon, his wolfhound, and a scroll of some (to her) indecipherable classic, when he wasn't at work, writing his history of something or other.
She knew, because she had heard—she'd forgotten from whom—that taciturn old Aquila had once been vibrant young Aquila, and that he had once been devoted to a girl in Glevum…his camp commandant's daughter. It was hard to reconcile the Aquila of today with the image of a young man in love. If what people said was true, he had never really looked at another woman after she died, at only eighteen years of age, when he was a mere twenty-two. Ah well, the fires and passions of youth burned dimmer when one was past a certain age. She ought to know; she could remember her husband of two years, Marcipor's predecessor, but the memory of any passion she might have felt for him had long since faded. He hadn't been of much use to her anyway, dying of some winter sickness that settled in his chest, but he had left her pregnant with the only child she would ever bear.
What she had felt for the father seemed petty and insignificant compared to what she had felt for her little son. Such a beautiful boy, with feathery dark hair and light-colored eyes, a hearty appetite for her milk. He appeared so robust at birth, but within days he was listless and pale; a fever, Stephanos muttered, clucking his tongue and frowning. Then he was dead, gone to the Afterlife, or so others said, and it seemed as though he had taken his mother's soul with him.
No person, woman or man, should have to feel this pain. The child is meant to outlive the parent, not the other way around. She rocked on her heels, back and forth, crouched in front of the empty basket cradle, arms wrapped round her head. She made no sound, the keening was all in her mind. The other slaves gave her room, fearful of, and a little humbled by, her dreadful sorrow, and once, passing by the kitchen, the Master stopped and put a kindly hand on her shoulder.
"The will of the gods can be harsh," was all he said, but for that day and the next two she was given no chores to do, and the Master put up with Marcipor and Stephanos's ghastly attempts at cooking. Forever after, he respected her bitter grief, never mentioning the child who died. Sassticca herself built a hard shell around her aching, grieving heart and went on with her work, each year growing a little more rough-handed, harsh-voiced, and irascible. She watched her master's hair go from black flecked with iron grey to white, and Stephanos' gait change from an even pace to a shuffle. Marcipor took over some of the heavier household duties from Stephanos, and the three of them managed to patch together a decent existence, looking after the aging Aquila, who was, after all, a good master. They tended to the house and garden, and saw to old Aquila's clothing and meals, not really happy but certainly not unhappy as time went by.
So it was nice to have a young thing in the house, a good change, and it pleased the Master, although he did not say as much aloud. And when Marcus Flavius Aquila remained in the villa—healing far too slowly for his liking—and lay in pain on his bed, or on a makeshift couch in the courtyard, she warmed to him. Sometimes, looking at his dark hair, thick and feathery over his brow, and hazel-green eyes, she liked to imagine that he was the babe she had lost, grown to manhood. He was handsome, as she believed her son could have been. And the desperate look of a wounded animal that appeared in the lame centurion's eyes, when he thought no one was watching him, touched a chord in Sassticca's hardened, guarded heart and made her want to mother the young Roman. He might bear himself with dignity and fortitude, but she could tell that he was hurting and impatient, that he was heartsick, and homesick, and almost at his wits' end with not knowing what to do about himself. In response, Sassticca fussed over him as though he were a child, bringing him hot milk in the evenings, warmed wine on the coldest days, little cakes fresh from the oven every time she baked bread for the household. She told him he was too thin, and watched over him like a mother tigress to see that he ate properly. He was always courteous, but she could tell that he was beginning to find this trying; nevertheless, she persisted in her efforts to see to his well being—as she would have done had he been the boy that still haunted her dreams at night.
Then came the young Master's new body-slave, a Briton purchased from Calleva's circus master, down at the arena; a former gladiator with bright rufous-brown hair and a look of sullen wariness on his closed, angular face. Sassticca could tell, from the blue ink on his right arm, that he was an acknowledged warrior who had been taken in battle, for all that he looked little more than a green youth. She could tell, too, from his stance, and the way he held his head, that he was proud. Later, something Marcus let fall, in conversation with his uncle, informed her that he was also a clan chieftain's son, from the Brigantes tribe, which made him something close to minor royalty among the British natives. Well! But nothing was too good for her Marcus, and it seemed appropriate, to Sassticca, that the young Master's slave should have been of such high status among his own people. And, although she was as gruff with Esca as she was with the other slaves, she felt for him, too, knowing his family to have been killed and his clan all but obliterated, and thinking that having another young person on the estate would do Marcus some good. Truly, whatever his views about Rome and Romans, the Brigantes slave looked after Marcus conscienciously; when the healer with the knife came and reopened the young Master's wound to cure him, Esca fed and cared for him, and changed his bandages, and later walked with him, and finally wrestled and sparred with him, once the leg was sound and almost as good as new.
The sleepy, quiet villa was awake now, to the sound of youthful voices, the abrupt chuckle of the young Master at some news Esca had brought him from the marketplace, Esca's crisp, unrepentant responses to Marcipor's frequent criticism, the light, swift tread of the new slave's feet in the atrium. Shortly before the surgeon's visit, Esca had returned from a local hunt with a wolf-cub, and presented it to Marcus as a gift, ignoring the outcry of the other slaves, who had flung up their hands at the prospect of a wolf roaming free within the confines of the villa. Stephanos—being Greek—tended to look down his nose at the barbarisms of the Britons, and Marcipor muttered that a wolf was no fit house pet for any civilized person. They felt their distaste for this new addition to the household to be entirely reasonable, so both were astonished when this brought Sassticca's wrath down upon their heads. Who were they, she scolded them at the top of her voice, with their two sound legs apiece, to begrudge the young Master a pack of wolf cubs if he wanted them.* For shame! And she had stormed off to the kitchen to bake an ovenful of her much-praised honey-cakes, three of which she delivered to the young Master, along with a little clay bowl, painted with a simple hunting scene in red slip, for him to use as the cub's feeding dish.
Not long after, as Marcus was recuperating from his procedure with the surgeon, the British slave brought a second offering home, this time from the fields: a very young hedgehog curled up into a grayish-brown ball in his hands. Carrying it gingerly, he delivered it to Marcus, who received it just as gingerly, his eyes alight with amusement. Both the wolf cub and old Procyon were perplexed by this diminutive but well-armed newcomer, and once again the other slaves muttered about barbarian foolishness, and how they were bound to step on the wretched thing and stab their toes on its spiny back. But Sassticca, thoroughly irritated by their sour griping, said that if she heard any more complaints they would be feeling her broomstick across their shoulders. Pleased no end to see how the hedgehog made the young Master smile, she showed Esca how to feed it goat's milk through a wheat straw, until it was old enough to gorge itself on insects and other things from the garden. In the evenings, when the weather was fine, she surveyed the garden benignly from the kitchen door, as Marcus, Esca, and Cub watched the little animal hunt for grubs and other delicacies amidst the foliage. (It slept during most of the daylight hours, to the profound relief of Stephanos and Marcipor, who had taken to stepping gingerly and watching their feet whenever they were close to the young Master's sleeping chamber.)
Stephanos and Marcipor had a variety of uncomplimentary names for the creature, but Esca called it Dunn, meaning brown in his own language (Marcus had suggested that they name it Ow), and gratefully accepted a round basket from Sassticca to be used as its resting place during the day. The antics of Cub and Dunn made Marcus, and sometimes Esca, and once even old Aquila, laugh, bring a lightness of spirit into the house, where it had not existed before. The Brigantes lad put Sassticca in mind of a hedgehog, himself. All prickly on the outside, curled tightly in on himself, cool-eyed and unreadable. Obedient, a good body-servant, yet removed, in heart and mind, from the Roman environment in which he was forced to live. But gradually, he had uncurled, and drawn in his spines, although he was aloof with everybody in the household except the young Master. With Marcus he was faintly deferential, as befitted a slave, but he almost never lowered his eyes to him, and spoke to him with a quiet directness that was unusual for somebody in his subservient position.
And what did the young Master think of his slave? Ah…that was more complicated. Sassticca saw the look in Marcus' eyes when they rested upon the young man. Did he find Esca beautiful? He wasn't bad to look at, she mused, with his pretty hair—like the leaves in autumn—and blue-grey stare, milky skin and strong, slender frame. And his narrow-lipped mouth, tender pink in spite of its tenseness. She watched Marcus' gaze follow his angular grace as he went about his duties, and it occurred to her that she knew what was in the young Master's heart before he himself knew.
Once, when she went to throw kitchen refuse onto the midden on the other side of the wall at the bottom of the garden, she glimpsed the two of them walking up from bathing in the river, tunics slung over their arms, talking intently, light from the westering sun glinting off the young Master's broad, wet shoulders and dark hair, and highlighting Esca's tawny locks with copper-chestnut and gold. Marcus was much the taller, but Esca, with his long-legged, springy stride, kept pace with him effortlessly. They were at ease with each other, more like shield brothers than master and slave, but there was no intimacy there, yet. It was plain to Sassticca, though, that intimacy was what the young Master wanted, whether he admitted it to himself or not.
It didn't shock Sassticca, or her fellow slaves, when Marcus gave Esca his freedom. It had been bound to happen, she told Stephanos, what with the two of them having become like two halves of an almond these many moons past* (she said nothing to the others about what she thought would occur, someday, between them). No sooner had this happened, however, than both young men began preparing, quite rapidly, for a journey to the north. Something to do with the Aquila family in the past, and something that was lost; but they would be heading north of Hadrian's Wall, into the wilderness where the Painted People lived free of Roman law. It also had something to do with old Aquila's visitor, the Legate of the Sixth Legion, who had arrived at the villa with a member of his staff, a haughty young tribune, the very day Esca was given his manumission papers. But the Romans kept their own counsel, saying nothing to the slaves, and Sassticca never knew precisely what was in their minds.
That very night, however, she passed by the young Master's door on her way to dust the household shrine in the atrium, before going to bed. The curtain was pulled to, but open enough on one side that she could see just a little way into the room, where Marcus and Esca stood face to face, Esca with the little scroll of his manumission in one hand, Marcus with his own hands resting on the Briton's shoulders. As she hesitated, about to draw away, Esca tossed the scroll onto Marcus' cot, and placed his hands over Marcus'. There was a soft rumble of voices, and Sassticca, transfixed in the shadow to one side of the door, saw Marcus bend his head, and the former slave lift his chin, raising his mouth to be kissed.
They moved beyond her field of vision, but she heard Marcus speak again, his voice a little hoarse and strained with wanting: "Ah Esca…Esca…let me?" A murmur of assent from the Briton, and the soft slide of garments falling to the floor, another almost inaudible whisper, a catch of breath. Moments later, a faint, shivery moan—it was impossible to say from whom—and then the creak of the cot, with the combined weight of two bodies moving upon it. A gasp, and then a gentle, soothing mumble, followed by the sound of kissing. As she turned away, moving stealthily so as not to make a sound, she glimpsed again, round the edge of the curtain, the little room's interior, with the fire in the brazier casting a warm light on the far wall, and two figures—one bronzed and solid, the other smaller, lithe and fair skinned—supine and entwined.
She didn't stay to see or hear more, but walked carefully, so as not to make a sound, back to the slave quarters. Perhaps it's as well this happened now, she thought as she paused to pour a few drops of wine, an offering to the Lar, at the household shrine. If the Brigantes lad truly loves the young Master, she reasoned to herself, he'll look after him. He'll see that no harm comes to him in the cold north.
Nobody else in the household appeared to notice how, next morning, the young Master was yawning and sleepy-eyed but smiling, and that his freeman's boyish mouth was rosy-pink and kiss-swollen. A day more, and then they were gone; if old Aquila knew exactly where, he wasn't saying. His stern, craggy face looked grim, but he behaved much as he had always behaved, sitting with Procyon in the garden after supper, reading through his scrolls or drowsing a little as the dark came on. The slaves noticed how frequently his eyes turned to the north, but they dared not comment on it. As for Sassticca, in some ways it was almost like losing her infant son all over again. She consoled herself with the thought that Marcus wouldn't be alone in the mountainous, seagirt, forbidding wilds of Caledonia. When the days became shorter, and grew cold, she reassured herself that Marcus would not freeze; he would lie with Esca in the crook of his arm, the Briton's body pressed against his for warmth. Surely, once their mission—whatever it was—was accomplished, they would be returning to the villa. Surely…and Sassticca bent her head and prayed to the gods as she had not done since her little child fell ill. She did her best to see to Cub's feeding—although he sulked, clearly pining for his master—and kept Dunn's basket in the kitchen, close to the oven, so that he could stay warm at night. But her heart was in her throat whenever she thought of the young Master on the far side of the Wall, and she poured offerings to the gods daily, in spite of Marcipor's whining about the sticky floor, and how he was growing tired of cleaning it every morning. It seemed as though she had emptied nearly an entire amphora of wine before the household shrine, certainly enough to keep the Lar and the other deities in a drunken good humor, by the time Marcus finally came home.
Yes, he returned! When the young Master and his Briton companion burst through the door and made their way into the atrium, it was almost dusk, but there was light enough to see who they were, in spite of the disreputable-looking, ragged clothing in which they were dressed, the grimy bundle Marcus clutched to his chest. Pandemonium ensued: Stephanos bleated with shock and nearly dropped an oil lamp, Marcipor tripped over his own feet as he ran to tell old Aquila, Cub flung himself onto Marcus' chest, nearly knocking him over, and Sassticca herself rushed in, an iron ladle clutched, forgotten, in her hand, to see the young Master for herself. Old Aquila, who had been hosting (once again) the Legate for supper, emerged to grip his nephew's hands in his own, and Sassticca—once everybody had regained breath and stopped shouting—turned her thoughts towards the contents of her pantry, and what there might be that could be served up as a feast.
As for the two young men…she saw them look at each other often, with warmth and pride in their eyes, and although they did not touch, it was as though their minds moved as one. Her heart was filled with gratitude: the gods had sent Marcus back to them, had protected him through who knew what grave perils; this time they had listened to her prayers and given back, rather than taken away. She was grateful to Esca, too, for loving Marcus, and being there for Marcus to love back. No doubt he had played his own part, at risk to himself, in seeing that the young Master came safely to Calleva.
As Sassticca stood in the doorway to the kitchen, looking on as the men spoke solemnly to one another, her Master paused nearby.
"Our boy is home," he said, speaking to her, for a moment, as an equal, even if he didn't realize it. "Thank Jupiter. Thank the gods."
And they turned their eyes towards Marcus with relief and happiness in their hearts, because yes, to both of them, he was almost like a son.