Title: The passing of winter
Genre: Angst, romance
Summary: Originally written for a prompt on the_eagle_kink before I went back and rewrote it: So Marcus and Esca settle down as Happy Gay Farmers, but one day Marcus hears someone who is/was a member of the Brigantes insult Esca for betraying his people by basically becoming a whore to a Roman and make all sorts of horrible comments about how Esca's father and family would be ashamed etc,. I just want Marcus' reaction, some anger and maybe guilt and then Esca shrugging it off and being like 'my family would be happy that I'm happy' or 'even though you're a Roman you're not like the others'
Warnings: None, apart from sappiness
A/N: I didn't like the abrupt ending of the original version, so I went back to fix that and backstory happened. And it got extra sap. Sorry about that
Gaelic translations are at the end.
Marcus hated the glances of strangers, the casual assessment of his limping gait and the briefest glimpses of sympathy and – worse – pity that were somehow worse than the outright staring of children still too young to have learned discretion. He had hated it back when his leg had pained him so much that he had to be half-carried on the shoulders of two of his uncle’s slaves, and he still hated it now when he walked awkwardly at Esca’s side and Esca discretely slowed his step to match his, hated it when Esca dipped his shoulder to support Marcus when Marcus leaned to look at a market stall’s wares and his leg gave way beneath him, and especially hated it when Esca laid him down in their bed at night and carefully worked the corded muscles of his leg, his face screwed up in concentration as he hunted down the source of the pain and dealt with it as ruthlessly as he might a charging stag.
Marcus had plenty of time to think his grievances over during the long, dragging winter afternoons spent shivering in bed, wrapped in every blanket they possessed with his leg propped up and aching and seemingly set with a chill that never eased. The doubts that had lurked at the edges of his consciousness in the heady days that had followed their return to Calleva with the eagle slowly crept from the shadows and settled themselves in his heart without him ever being aware of their coming, until he woke one cold, dank morning and felt the terror and shame flood in. It had been a secret since, a secret to be fiercely guarded even at the times it welled up within him so strongly he felt it must be written across his face for Esca to see.
With every day that passed Marcus wondered why Esca stayed when he had no reason to do so. A free man he might now be, and a Roman citizen at that, but he was still stubbornly, unescapably a Briton, and one who did not pretend for a moment that he felt any particular loyalty to Rome, or had much time for any Roman save for Marcus himself and old Caepio, who had brought his missio honesta to Marcus at the start of the winter, along with his loyalty for his former centurion and his reluctance to take passage for Rome. Marcus often wondered whether Caepio regretted his decision, whether he would have been better to strike out on his own rather than tie his fate to that of a man who could barely stand when the sleet and snow blew in from the north.
As he sat contemplating his miserable state, Marcus could hear Esca and Sativola, Caepio’s woman, talking outside the shuttered window. About what, Marcus had no idea, could not begin to follow. Another reminder that he was a stranger in their land. He sighed to himself, and then stiffened as he heard his own name spoken, and Sativola’s laughter. He wondered if he was imagining the mocking edge to it.
Esca came indoors some time later, bearing the newly-baked bread and cold meat brought to them by Sativola. He gave Marcus a tired smile, fetched them both wine, and settled himself at his side to share the meal with him.
“How’s the leg today?” Esca asked when he had sated the first hunger.
“Better.” It felt like a lie, even though Marcus had walked further today than he had for a month.
Esca nodded, apparently engrossed in tearing apart the last of the bread. Marcus could not help resenting the silent acceptance. Esca never remarked on Marcus’s weakness, or complained that he was the one shouldering the responsibility of construction while Marcus rested. He never showed the slightest hint of bitterness over the fact that, for want of Marcus’s labour, the house itself was still half-built and the villa fructuaria nothing more than lines on a roll of parchment. Yet Marcus had seen his mouth set tight with weariness when Esca thought Marcus’s eyes were elsewhere, felt the cold and tremors settled deep into Esca’s limbs from hours of arduous labour in the biting wind and lancing sleet of winter, lain next to Esca at night in the warm cocoon of their bed and heard the hitch in Esca's breathing each time he shifted in his sleep and aching muscles protested.
“Caepio is to fetch back the roof tiles tomorrow.” Esca turned his head to look at Marcus. “He tried to explain how they fit together but it still makes no sense to me.”
Marcus had shown him before but he was happy to do so again, if only to have Esca close. “These are the tegulae, the flat tiles. They are laid overlapping, like this.” He drew the pattern with his finger in a splash of wine that had spilled on the table. “And then the imbrices cover the gaps, like this.”
Esca frowned at the crude drawing but said nothing. Marcus could only wonder what he was thinking.
“The work should not take long,” he began, faltering when he realised what he had said. It was easy to say such a thing when he would not be the one carrying tiles up to the roof, hour after back-breaking hour, and fixing them into place. Esca glanced up at him and shook his head.
“No. It cannot.” When Marcus gave him a quizzical look, he added, “Sativola wants their house built too by summer. She says her son will not be born in a hut.”
Marcus could not help smiling. “Then we must make sure of it.”
“Yes,” Esca agreed. He yawned, and rose to his feet, glancing sidelong at Marcus. A silent invitation Marcus was not going to refuse.
They did not speak as they went to their bed, not a word said when the lamp was extinguished and they scrambled underneath the warmth of the covers, each blindly seeking out the other.
“Is thu m'annsachd,” Esca said, very softly, when their breathing had settled and slowed and Marcus was drifting into sleep.
Outside the wind howled.
Marcus spent the first clear morning of spring pacing out the new fields with Caepio, marking the lines of them on his parchment while Caepio drove markers into the earth. At noon Sativola brought them food, and they sat in the shade of a yew tree and ate in companionable silence. The sun shone brightly on the new roof and the foundations of the grain store and it was already becoming hard to remember, now, how miserable the preceding months had been.
“We should begin tilling the soil,” Caepio observed. “If we are to get the spelt sowed. Before the rains come again.”
“Yes.” Marcus drained the last of his wine and tried not to think of the sesterces that had been spent lately. There were so many things to be purchased, every one necessary. Bricks and tiles and plough and oxen, and there was still more to be bought. “You think the rains will come again?”
Caepio’s eyes crinkled in amusement. It had taken months of patient coaxing on Marcus’s part to persuade the man to treat him as something more of an equal rather than his centurion and there was still a certain reserve to their interactions. “This is not Rome,” he said after a moment’s thought.
Marcus smiled ruefully. “No, it is not.” He nearly asked Caepio if he regretted his choice to stay in Britain, but then he followed the line of the man’s gaze to where Sativola was hanging out laundry, her flaxen hair bright in the sunlight, and thought he knew the answer, for it was so close to his own.
And any cost was one he would gladly pay.
Three days ride north of Calleva, Marcus eyed the turbulent grey skies ahead and wondered grimly how long it would be before the rain began to fall again. At home it had been spring; here, it seemed like winter still. Marcus’s leg did not yet ache but he rode on constant edge, waiting for the pain to strike.
He risked a glance sideways at Esca; the slightest turn of his head so that Esca would not notice. The Briton seemed transfixed by the vista before him but Marcus still saw his lips twitch minutely under Marcus’s scrutiny. Sometimes it seemed that Esca knew him better than Marcus knew himself.
"Remind me why we are not at home roofing the grain store,” Marcus said to cover his embarrassment.
Esca shrugged, still staring at the road ahead and the gently-rising hills. "That can wait. It's fast enough as it is. This is more important."
Marcus could feel the rain in the air. He cursed under his breath. "There's cattle to be bought in Calleva,” he said. “There was no need for us to ride north."
"You could have stayed behind," Esca observed mildly. "I would have come alone."
There was no particular edge to his voice but Marcus looked at him sharply nonetheless. "And left you to face this journey alone? No."
Esca shook his head, but in amusement not anger and they rode on in companionable silence. To Marcus’s relief the threatened rain did not come, and they halted for the night at the side of an immense oak tree, the lee of it providing a safe rest for the night, near enough to the road that they could be on their way easily in the morning, yet far enough away from it that they could remain hidden from view if it should become necessary. Esca took his bow and disappeared silently into the trees, while Marcus saw to the horses. It struck him as curious how easily they had slipped back into old habits without a word ever being spoken, as if the intervening months of domesticity belonged to some other life they had both, however temporarily, left behind. Curious, and a little unsettling.
Esca returned soon enough with a rabbit ready for skinning. Marcus had a fire already kindled and he left Esca to it while he collected more firewood in the gathering gloom. By the time he returned to their camp Esca had their dinner skewered over the fire and the blankets laid out in a natural hollow formed by the roots of the oak tree. Marcus eyed it warily.
“That looks made for you and not for me.”
“Don’t worry,” Esca said without looking up, engrossed in cleaning his bow. “I have the measure of you.”
When they finally lay down Marcus fitted into the hollow as snugly as he might his own bed and, with Esca wrapped around him, warm and sturdy against the cold of the night, he drifted easily into sleep.
They had halted briefly at Ratae Corieltauorum on their journey south the previous year but Marcus’s hazy recollection had not prepared him for the sight that met his eyes when they arrived in the town a second time. Gone were the neat lines and order of a Roman town: a bustling metropolis of crude shelters and tents had been erected all along the approaches to the town to house what seemed to Marcus to be a population of thousands, Roman and Briton both. The press of humanity was coupled with such noise and smell of cattle and pig and horse that Marcus was sorely tempted to remount his horse and ride back towards Calleva.
“It’s busy,” Esca shouted unnecessarily as he elbowed his way past a man selling apples and deftly avoided another trying to show him his potter’s wares.
Marcus nodding, keeping close behind the Briton. Esca was no weakling, diminutive as he was, and he cleared a way through the crowd for Marcus with enviable ease. Those he elbowed aside sometimes looked inclined to protest but seemed to quickly think better of it once they got a better look at Esca’s bearing; today, Esca was every inch the chieftain’s son.
Marcus was content to follow in his path, all the while looking with interest and not a little suspicion at the faces of those around them. Most of them were Britons. Dressed as Romans, hair cut in the Roman style, their manners very carefully Roman, but Britons all the same. A few ex-legionaries turned farmer also, easily recognisable even in civilian clothes. And then there were the Britons who did not affect Roman habits, who spurned all trappings of Rome and carried their sense of outrage at the presence of interlopers in their lands as visible as a brand upon their foreheads. It was at these men that Marcus looked most closely, since he was well aware of the unfriendly glances they were giving the Romans in their midst. Most of them, too, were glaring at Esca, for a reason Marcus could not fathom.
“They’re Coritani,” Esca said dismissively, when Marcus finally broached the subject, sometime after Esca had haggled with and turned away from the fourth sullen merchant in a row with a shake of his head. “They have no reason to love a son of the Brigantes.”
“Your people fought them?”
“My father, and my father’s father and his father too. That’s why the Coritani allied themselves with Rome against us.” Esca’s smile, as sudden and rare as sunlight through rain clouds, banished the shadows of memory hovering at the edges of his words. “Come. That one, there, is Parisi.” When Marcus looked confused, he added, “My people could not fight everyone. Their lands bordered ours, to the east. They are good farmers and honest merchants.”
The sky had begun to darken as they talked, though it was not even noon. Marcus cast a baleful eye at the clouds and followed Esca to the stall he had indicated, where a rotund man sat on an upturned barrel, calling to the passers-by. To Marcus’s eyes, the cattle in the pen behind him looked much the same as any other but Esca seemed pleased by what he saw and Marcus was content to let him haggle as he wished.
His attention was caught instead by a shorter, dark-haired man who leaned against the rail of the pen, watching Esca with a frown upon his face. As if aware that he had attracted Marcus’s notice, the man turned his unfriendly stare to the Roman instead.
Marcus turned to look at Esca as the Briton tugged at his sleeve. Esca’s expression was as impassive as ever but Marcus could see the amusement in his eyes. “What is it?” He glanced back but the man watching them had gone.
“He offers a fair price. What do you think of them?”
Marcus thought of all the well-rehearsed responses he could make; that cattle could be purchased in Calleva perfectly well, that these cattle looked much the same as any other. But then Esca would tell him – again – of the inferiority of the stock of the Atrebates, and the foolishness of Romans who traded with them, and the wind was cold and his leg was starting to ache again. “Whatever you decide,” he said.
With the deal done – and the merchant beaming at the thought of the coins he would receive when the cattle they had purchased were driven to Calleva – they turned back. Marcus bought bread from a baker – pretending he had not understood the man’s less-than complimentary remark as he handed over coin – and they shared it in the lee of the stall, sat companionably shoulder to shoulder watching the passers-by.
Marcus saw the man watching them before Esca did; indeed, it was his unease that Esca reacted to. The Briton looked at Marcus quizzically.
“What is it?”
Marcus nodded his head towards the man, the same dark-haired man from the trader’s stall. Esca looked over, and went very still, so still that for a moment Marcus thought he had stopped breathing.
“Do you know him?”
“No,” Esca said shortly. “But I know what he is.”
The man was walking towards them, grim-faced. Esca rose to his feet, as graceful as a cat. Marcus rose too, though with considerably less grace.
The man halted two paces from Esca. “C'ainm 'tha ort?” he demanded harshly.
The words were familiar: even if Marcus’s knowledge of Esca’s language was still scanty he knew that question, since it was one of the first phrases Esca had taught him. He listened to Esca’s reply, saw the man’s frown deepen in response to his name.
“Có so?” he asked, indicating Marcus.
“Marcus Flavius Aquila,” Esca said, with a quick glance at Marcus. Don’t worry, the look said. He’s not a threat.
A torrent of words poured from the man and Marcus could not pick out much of it, aside from his own name, repeated with a sneer. Esca let him talk, his face impassive. When the well of words finally ran dry, Esca said something Marcus did not catch.
The man looked between them, and then scornfully back at Esca. “Tha an cù dileas.”
“Cù-luirge, mas e do thoilur toil e.” Esca glanced at Marcus again. “Let’s go.”
The man’s face convulsed in anger and he took a step towards Esca. Marcus reached for his sword but Esca’s dagger was already in his hand. The man fell back, red-faced and furious.
“Ä siùrsach!” he hissed. There were more words, none familiar to Marcus. He had heard that particular word before though, months before, and seen the same reaction to it in Esca.
“Let’s go,” Esca said again. “He’s not worth it. Not here.”
Marcus had no wish to turn his back on the man but Esca seemed dismissive of the threat, turning and striding away at such a pace that Marcus had to quicken his step to keep up. Soon the man was lost in the crowd behind them.
“What did he say to you?” Marcus demanded when they were well away.
“Nothing.” Esca stepped around a man trying to show him rolls of badly-woven cloth. “Let’s go.”
Esca stopped so suddenly Marcus nearly walked into the back of him. “Home,” he said simply.
The rain came before dusk but not before Esca had found them a place to camp for the night. He took up his bow and disappeared into the gloom almost as soon as he dismounted, leaving Marcus to build the fire and see to the horses and puzzle over the words he had heard.
“He called you a dog,” he said accusingly when Esca finally returned. “My dog.”
Esca, crouched over the rabbit he was skinning, glanced up briefly. “Yes.”
“What did you say to him?”
Esca dipped his head but Marcus thought he saw a flicker of a smile. “Have I not told you how it is? I am the Centurion’s hound.”
One mystery solved; another still remained. “And then?” Marcus asked. “What did he say to you after?”
Esca’s hands stilled, all amusement gone from his face. He shook his head. “Nothing of any importance.”
“I am no longer your slave,” Esca shot back and he scrambled to his feet, clumsy in his haste, and looked for a moment as if he might bolt into the night.
“You are not,” Marcus agreed quickly, startled by the sudden outburst. Esca’s hands were clenched into fists, his body tensed and ready to run. “I’m sorry.”
For a moment Marcus thought that Esca would run anyway. He deliberately turned away as he levered himself from the ground. “I’m going to collect firewood.”
It was raining hard by then but Marcus took his time about collecting the firewood, reasoning that Esca was better without his company for a while. It seemed he had been away longer than he had thought, however, for when he finally returned to their camp it was to find Esca stood by the fire wild-eyed and with his sword in his hand.
“Where have you been?” Esca demanded fiercely, dropping the sword and crossing to Marcus to wrench the firewood from his arms. That too was dropped to the ground as Esca took hold of Marcus’s arm and pushed him bodily towards the fire. “You’re freezing. And sodden.”
Marcus took the hectoring for what it was: an apology of sorts. He went to sit by the fire and, after a while, Esca came to sit at his side and they ate their makeshift dinner. No words were spoken but the silence was not uncomfortable; the storm had passed and there was a calm between them now, a truce of sorts. Marcus watched the fire and waited for Esca to speak, knowing that he would.
“He called me your whore,” Esca said eventually, his voice soft and curiously precise, as if the Latin words came less easily to his lips than they might do otherwise. “A whore to a Roman and a traitor to my people and to my father’s memory.”
Marcus glanced down at Esca’s hand, laid over Marcus’s wound, fingers spread wide. The gesture seemed unconscious on Esca’s part, an instinctive searching for something Esca could not put into words.
“He said I have brought shame to my tribe. To my father’s name.”
“No,” Marcus ground out before he could think better of it. “No, you have not shamed him.” He wished that he could see Esca’s expression more clearly but this could not wait until morning. If they slept with this unresolved it would ever be so. He cautiously laid his hand over Esca’s, entwining their fingers. He felt Esca shudder at the touch but Esca did not pull away.
“It is I who should be ashamed; my people took your lands, killed your kin.”
“You are not like them,” Esca said, sounding more like his usual self.
“Yes, I am,” Marcus persisted. Somehow he knew that it mattered, tonight more than any other, to make Esca understand this. “I am like them; you know that. I was a soldier. A few more years between us and it might have been my men who killed your father, your brothers. Perhaps even me.”
He felt Esca’s hand tense, felt his fingers dig into the muscles of his leg. It hurt; perhaps it was intended to. There were ghosts around their fire tonight, out there beyond the flickering circle of light; Roman and Briton both.
“So if you are shamed,” Marcus said slowly, carefully. The words felt awkward on his lips, as if he spoke a language not his own. “Then I am also. Yet I can feel no shame when I am with you.”
Esca was silent and still for a long time, so long that the fire burned low and the darkness lay heavy upon them. Marcus held still, barely able to breathe. When finally Esca moved, though, it was towards Marcus and not away.
“I will never know what my father would think of you,” he told Marcus later as he pulled the blankets close around them and settled himself more closely against Marcus. “He was a proud man, a strong leader.” Esca hesitated, and then he pressed his face into Marcus’s shoulder and Marcus felt the scratch of stubble against his skin as Esca smiled. “But I think he would be pleased that I am happy.” Esca’s hand slid across Marcus’s chest, fisting in the fabric of his tunic. “Even if you are a Roman.”
The ghosts were still there, just out of Marcus’s sight. He could still feel the weight of their presence but it was no longer a threat, no longer a knife held to his throat. He drew Esca closer and felt the answering response in him.
“Is thu m'annsachd,” Esca breathed, and this time Marcus did not feign sleep.
Much later, when the fire had burned low and Esca was snoring softly against him, Marcus realised that his leg no longer ached at all.
Is thu m'annsachd (thou art my beloved)
C'ainm 'tha ort? (what is your name)
Có so? (who is this?)
Tha an cu dileas. (the dog is faithful)
Cù-luirge, mas e do thoilur toil e (hound, if you please)
Ä siùrsach (his whore)