Beyond the Mists
Epilogue: The Return of the Eagle
The hall of the great fort in Eburacum went silent at their entrance, but a murmuring rush of whispers rose up behind them like the sea. At their approach, the Legate looked up, shock plain in his face, but it was the mingled disbelief and disgust in the expression of the tribune Placidus that made Esca smile, just a little. Doubtless they looked like a pair of grubby bandits, unshaven and dangerous. They'd bathed and had fresh clothing at Vercovicium, but they'd ridden hard since then, and Marcus had insisted on coming directly to the fort.
The legate's gaze dropped to the bundle cradled in Marcus's arm, lizard-hide concealing the Eagle. "Marcus Flavius Aquila," he said, slowly. "A most welcome surprise. Have you come about the matter we spoke of this last summer?"
"We have," said Marcus, glancing over at Esca, who had fallen back a step, not so much because it was proper, for a slave or a freedman, but because this was Marcus's quest, and he had helped for Marcus's sake, and not Rome's. "But I think the telling of it had best be in private, sir."
The legate raised his brows, but said, "Of course, my boy. Come back to my office, if that will suffice."
"It will, but—" Marcus began, as the tribune Placidus, a look of skepticism on his elegant face, made as if to follow. "I should prefer we speak with you alone, legate."
Placidus snorted. "Do you truly think the legate means to hear you and your barbarian without me?" The look he gave Marcus made Esca's fists clench at his sides, although there was a time when he would have liked to look at Marcus that way himself. But that time was past, and he no longer missed it.
"I hardly think you need concern yourself for my safety, Placidus," the legate said mildly.
"Sir—I am your staff officer!"
"Indeed," said the legate. "And you will serve on my staff by remaining here to go over the plan for sending reinforcements to the garrisons on the Wall. I have every confidence in your ability to manage that, and I will expect a full report from you later."
"Sir," said Placidus. He had gone quite white, but the look he gave Marcus and Esca was black hatred. He contrived to bang into Marcus's bandaged shoulder as he passed. "Oh! I am eternally sorry, Aquila," he said sweetly, as Marcus gritted his teeth, trying to hide the pain. Of course he could not start a fight with the tribune, not now.
The legate sighed, once Placidus was out of earshot. "I must apologize," he said. "I have done my best to make a man of him, as his father asked, and he is not entirely without his merits, but I am afraid there is still too much of the petulant child in him. Perhaps an inspection tour on the Wall might do the trick...but come, you must tell me of your journey."
The legate's office was a dark little room in the heart of the fort, lit with guttering terracotta lamps; his desk, of dark-stained wood worn smooth by time and touch, was piled high with wax tablets and scrolls. "So," said the legate, "you have it."
Marcus started a little, as if his thoughts had been far away, and then he nearly thrust the bundle at the legate, who took it carefully. "Unusual skins," he observed. "Snake? But where would they find snakes so large?"
"Not exactly a snake," said Marcus, "but you are not so far off."
The Eagle lay in the cradle of the legate's hands, dull and black in the lamplight, with only a few glimmers of gold in the crevices of its breast-feathers. Marcus had tried a bit to polish it, but twenty years of Caledonian sea-mists had taken their toll, and it would take more than a handful of sand and a cloth to restore it to golden glory. Esca could not say he was sorry.
"Well, my lad, I am impressed. A lost Eagle has never been regained after so long. I suppose now we must decide what to do with it."
"I believe you ought to hear how we found it, first," Marcus said quietly. He sat on the chair the legate had offered easily, with his shoulders back, like a man who had had a great burden lifted from him. He was thinner now, exhausted—looking and certainly dirtier than the man he had been when they first set out for Caledonia; less Roman, perhaps. But he looked like a man content in himself. "It is Esca's story as much as mine, sir, and I warn you that it may seem a mad story."
The legate waved Esca to a chair, negligently; he still did not really see Esca, but his curiosity kept him polite. It did not anger Esca as it would have before: he was free, and Marcus would not hold him to a freedman's bond if he wanted to go. He would not have to endure arrogant Romans ever again, if he did not choose to.
Halfway through the story, Esca's throat was beginning to feel dry, and no doubt Marcus's was as well. The legate called for wine, and then leaned his chin in his hand again as Marcus continued, telling of how they met the Sea Dragon People.
"You are right," the legate said when they had finished, his own wine-cup still sitting barely touched by his elbow. "It is a mad story. Oh, certainly there were once monsters, but hardly anyone sees that sort of thing anymore. The days of gods and heroes walking among us may be past. But I am inclined to believe you: those traders who go north are close-mouthed, but every so often one may say something indiscreet in his cups, and on occasion a soldier hunting near the Wall has brought back strange prey—although nothing like the great beasts you describe. No, I do not think either of you are mad, but of course I cannot put any of this into my report to the Senate—and there is nothing to be said that would remove the stain on the Ninth."
Marcus bowed his head. "I know, sir."
"I recall something your uncle told me, long ago when we served together in Judaea: 'There is no way back through the waters of Lethe.'"
Esca started; it was very like what Guern the Hunter had said to Marcus, in that strange conversation that had been all deep, dark waters that he could not see into. Esca thought now that he knew a little better what it had been about: Marcus's father, and Guern's own past. There was no unspinning the threads of fate.
"I did not expect it," Marcus said, and as before Esca thought there was something unspoken passing between them that was not for him to know.
The legate sighed again. "A pity. You would have made a fine primus pilus someday—or a staff officer, if you wanted it."
Marcus shook his head, and glanced sidelong at Esca again. "I do not think my leg would bear it, sir...nor my heart."
"Well, then, I think the Senate might be persuaded to grant you something for your service. A small reward, or land for a farm, perhaps. Full citizenship for your freedman."
Esca did not give a dried leaf for full citizenship, not anymore, but he made himself murmur thanks and smile at the legate. It had perhaps too many teeth in it, for the legate recoiled a little and turned his attention back to Marcus.
"I must consider it," Marcus said.
The legate stood, a clear dismissal, and they stood as well. He reached up to clap Marcus on the shoulder, and after a moment of hesitation, Esca as well. "See that you do, Aquila. And know that you have done a great thing for Rome today, both of you."
I did not do it for Rome, Esca thought, but he held his tongue.
Outside, he blinked for a moment, eyes watering at the sudden brightness of the sunlight, and drew a deep breath. It was over with.
"Huh," Marcus said, pulling something from his purse. "I must have forgotten to give this to the goddess Nessan."
The thing in his hand was the crudely carved wooden lake-steed that the red-haired woman of the Moridoni had sold him. "You were rather distracted," Esca said, "cooing over those lake-steeds like a girl with a kitten." It was odd, teasing Marcus; he had not wanted to before, and he would not have dared. What was between them felt new and tender, fragile, as if it could be carelessly crushed in an instant.
Marcus smiled at him, sweetly and without shadow; something in Esca's chest seemed to unfurl and take wing, an eagle soaring on an updraft. Perhaps he was not entirely free after all, but he no longer wished to be alone, safely wrapped in his grief. A little less freedom seemed a fair exchange for friendship, if freedom meant loneliness.
"What now?" Esca asked, hoping desperately that Marcus would not say Rome, or worse, Farewell.
Marcus shrugged and pressed the votive offering into Esca's hand. "You decide."
The joy in Esca's chest broke into a smile, one that only felt strange for a moment. And Marcus's arm, flung casually across his shoulders, did not feel strange at all.
Before them both the left-hand way, the shield-arm path, stretched silver and shining, into the future.