The Centurion’s Hound is a work of fanfiction. It is based on the novel The Eagle of the Ninth, written by Rosemary Sutcliff and first published in 1954. The story you hold between your hands is written for love, not profit. Please be warned that the story contains scenes of a sexual nature.
The Centurion's Hound was very kindly beta'd, in retrospect, by Lebannen.
Author’s Note
Twenty years ago The Eagle of the Ninth was the first novel I ever slashed. What I wrote then is entirely different to what I write now, and better for it,
but the love for Rosemary Sutcliff’s characters remains the same.
For those interested, I have promoted Rufrius Galarius, replaced Procyon with two water-spaniels, given Guern’s daughter two extra years, and taken an authorial license with Pictish gender roles which is wholly unsubstantiated. Placidus’ grave was excavated in the summer of 1997, and his glass cremation urn can be found in Tully House, Carlisle, although it is of course unattributed.

Please note also the absolutely lovely
fiction Forodwaith wrote for me, in Yuletide 2005.

Fox and Hound follows The Centurion's Hound, and it's wonderful, quiet and intelligent and true to the original novel.
Please don't forget to tell Forodwaith how much you liked it.
And my own Summer of the Wolf follows Fox and Hound.

 

The Centurion's Hound
Jay Tryfanstone, 2004-5.

 

It was the resentment in her eyes that he could not understand. Here, in Sorviodunum, it had been fifty years or more since the Legions had built the fort, and the tribes had been quiet since well before the great ramparts rose. Here men sent their sons to Rome for schooling and saw their daughters married in front of the magistrate, bowed their heads to Roman justice and spoke Latin in private. Even here, in the tumbled huts of the old vicus, they drank bitter British wine from Gaulish stoneware rather than small beer from horn cups.

She was one of the women who lived alone, under the shelter of the great walls of the fort, except for the children that massed around Marcus' feet. But there were hangings on the wall of the hut and the floor was clean, and save for the man-cub that lay across Marcus' knees the children were well and bright-eyed. Sometimes it was just of the way of it, with woman like her: it had been similar with her sisters outside the walls of Regnum, where Marcus had learnt his parade-ground step and five different ways to load the dice. But the resentment seemed almost personal, as if she knew who he was and resented him for it.

He let his hands cleanse the cub's eyes with the ease of long practice and wondered. It was the garrison surgeon who'd mentioned that one of the native women had brought the child to him: unusual in itself, for while the men of the tribe would creep in after dark with the small scars of a day's labour the women seldom came themselves. Here in the old vicus, the old tribal sides held true, the women's and the men's, and the Legions were a thing of the men's side. For this woman, though, there was no man to fetch the healer and her acquaintance with the Legionnaires was more than passing: not so unusual, perhaps. She was not to know that Marcus would be visiting his friend Drusillus, and that Drusillus would remember that Marcus carried an oculist's box of salves in his pack, and that Marcus would look up and sigh and duck out of the welcome warmth of the barracks into the night for the sake of a small child with a eyelid so swollen he could not open it.

It had not been so when he ducked into the small hut, blinking from the dark: only when he introduced himself and asked for the child did her eyes cloud, as if she drew a shield over the thoughts behind. At first he had thought it was the fear of a mother for her cubs, but her expression did not change when she laid the child across his knees and retreated to the other side of the smoldering fire. He'd asked a question or two, and her replies had come bitten short and mumbled. Now they sat in silence, with the tension of the thing between them like the wait before the storm breaks.

The eye was nearly clear now, bathed free of the crusted tears and the old goose fat she'd dressed it with: no harm, but no healing, either. He reached down to the slate with its ground salve, and as he did so his hand brushed against something soft, tucked almost under the native rugs that made the bed. Something made his hand close round it, and across the fire the woman took a short breath. He looked up and took it in his hands.

It was a feather. A swan's feather, one of the long feathers of the wing, still with the clean shine of the living bird: and the end of it was pierced with a small hole through which the trailing edge of sinew still ran. Were it not for the woman's eyes he would have thought nothing of it, but he knew, now, that he had seen that feather before. Four nights ago, Esca had sat in front of the fire with Cub and Flavian at his feet, twisting a new collar for the best of his hunting spears from the wing of a swan he'd brought down that morning.

He turned his head away then, and down. Was this Esca's woman then, Esca's cub? Why had the man never mentioned it, if this was so? Surely there was a space by the fire for Esca's woman, would he not know that?

The cub in his hands mewled, and he looked down. It did not have Esca's bright hair, nor his wide-spaced gray eyes, and he could not imagine Esca leaving a woman of his own here under the wings of the Legions, light as their hand might rest on Isca Dumnoniorum. He reached again for the salve, and spread it thinly across the swollen skin, careful and abstracted. The woman said nothing.

"Do you keep that clean," Marcus said. "I will leave you the salve: you saw what I did. The eye should clear in a sen'night: do it not, send for me. Ask for Drusillus, at the fort: he knows where to find me."

"I know where you live," the woman said. "But I will not be asking, despite that I am grateful, for the cub's sake."

"It is for the cub that I say it," Marcus said shortly. He laid the child on the rugs, and stood, packing away the slate and the oil jar and the sticks of medicine with their smell of Grecian pines and sunlight. When he was done he took the feather again, and held it out to her.

"How came you by this?" he asked.

She almost snarled at him, the way Cub did when the dog-pack from the village came hunting over the hills of the farm.

"Men do leave things behind, when they visit a woman like me," she said.

Marcus turned the feather in his hand. He did not know it, but the light from the fire sent shadows across his face, highlighting the harsh line of his cheek bones and his nose: a Roman face, saved from severity only by the flying laughter lines at his eyes.

"It is not how you live your life that concerns me," he said, and meant it: there are always women, where there are the Legions, and most of them would not chose to be where they were. "It is this. Has Esca Mac Cunoval been here?" he asked.

She stood then, pulling the child at her skirts, and hissed at him. "Go you now, you have said enough." There was hatred in her eyes now, but he did not understand, not until he was ducking out of the hut with his pack and the feather still held in his hands.

"He should have been mine," she said, hissing, in the old tongue of the tribes that she guessed he would not understand. "He would have been mine if it were not for you."

It was too late to wish he did not know what she meant.

Because it was late, he spent the night in the whitewashed barracks and woke to the clarion call of the cavalry trumpets. For a moment, as he lay in the little cot, he could not remember and thought the trumpets called to him and he was late, but as he moved the muscles of his thigh caught and twinged, as they did sometimes, and he knew it was ten years and more since the Legions called for him. He was a different man from the callow Centurion who had marched this way with the Fourth Gaulish, still the best century in the Legion, at his back, and his debts had been paid and paid over. For a moment he thought of the wingless Eagle, still hidden in the little shrine of the red-roofed house in Calleva, and that inevitably made him think of Esca and of the wild journey they had made, nine years ago, up beyond Hadrian's Wall and past the battered remnants of Antonine's way forts, up into what had once been the Roman province of Venturia. They had brought the Eagle back, Marcus' father's Eagle, and it would never be used as a tool in the hands of the tribes while it rested in peace in Uncle Aquila's house. But something had happened between him and Esca on that journey, when they slipped from being master and slave to master and freedman and finally to friend and friend, something that ran deep and warm beneath all those other friendships.

It had only been the once. Only the once, but he still burned with the shame of it. He remembered then, as he knew he would, the flame of Cottia's hair deadened by the bright red of the blood, the night she had died birthing Flavian, and that old grief twined with the memory of Esca's hands holding him against the night. He had only half known what he was doing when he had turned and met Esca's mouth with his own, but Esca could have known nothing at all, and for that Marcus still cringed from the memory of those frantic seconds when he had sought and received a violent comfort from his friend's strength. Marcus had chosen, but Esca, bound by all decrees of loyalty and friendship beyond any client, had had no choice.

Afterwards he had torn himself away from those comforting hands, going out into the dark without even Cub at his heels, and when he came back it was as if it had never happened. And if sometimes he woke in the night to the echoes of an old grief and an even older desire, it was nothing of which he would speak.

So Esca had found a woman of his own, a half day's ride from the farm on the downs, and never spoken a word. For a moment Marcus wondered what it would be like, meeting those resentful eyes across his own hearth-fire day in, day out, but then he put the thought aside, for this was Esca, his brother, and if this was the woman Esca wanted then Marcus could make space in his home and by his fire.

He stirred on that thought and sat up, stretching his leg, for if he were to speak to Esca then he would needs be gone. But then Drusillus came in with bread and dates and a request to have a quick look at a young Optio's broken arm, for Marcus had learnt more than oculism in the past ten years, and after that he had had to inspect his friend's new mare with her gangling, shock-furred foal at foot. So it was past noon when he saddled the rough-coated native pony whose hooves he trusted over any calvary mare, and it was coming dark when he crested the hill and made his way down through the sweet briarwood to the lights of his own small farm.

It was quiet when he came up to the gate and knocked, and when Porsillinus came out the old Legionnaire was still struggling into his warm overmantlle and tsking in surprise. Marcus had by-passed the village and there were no dogs, bar Cub, to warn of his coming. Still, the pony's stall was bedded and ready and Porsillinus told him that Silvia was making broth, and there were things he had to say that could not wait. He forwent his usual bath and walked through the red-walled atrium to the little scriptorium where he knew he would find Esca at this time of day.

He was right. For a moment he stood in the doorway, looking in, as if Esca was a stranger to him and not so familiar that Marcus half forgot what he looked like. The shock of untidy hair, longer and lighter than his own, the stocky build of him, the strong muscles of his forearms under the plaid wool tunic. Unmistakably, stubbornly, a British tribesman, even though Esca sat on a carved wooden stool with his head bent over a Latin scroll, and the oil lamp at his elbow came from Egypt by way of Rome herself. Then Cub looked up and yawned in welcome, and Esca rose with his own slow smile and came forward to say that Silvia was fussing already and, was it not the most odd of circumstances, but the gray mare had waited for Marcus to be gone before she foaled in the furthest corner of the horserun. And that the little black cat had had another set of kittens, this time in Silvia's linen chest, so not to expect a clean toga anytime soon for Flavian refused to have the kits drowned. It was soothing and familiar all at once, and he let himself be tucked down on his own couch and fed with Silvia's lamb-rich broth and a glass of the sharp wine of grapes from his own vines. But then Esca turned round to him and asked, as if it was the most normal thing in the world and he had never met the woman and her cubs in the little hut under the walls of the fort:

"Is it well in Sorviodunum?"

Marcus had opened his mouth to reply (and how to start?) when he heard the sound of hooves from the gate and someone shout, sharp and harsh, in the night. He looked at Esca and Esca looked at him, and they agreed quite silently that neither of them expected guests at this time of night. Esca was up and gone and Cub with him before Marcus struggled to his feet, so he stayed in the warmth of the atrium listening to Porsillinus open the gates. The old Legionnaire spoke and was answered: he could hear a horse, two horses, three, and the voices of men talking in the garth. Then Esca ducked back through the doorway, his face gone still and reserved, and behind him-

"The Tribune Placidus, my lord, with Decurion Ducinus Mancius and Cornicularius Mathias Casullus."

There was no time for any more. Marcus stood again, disguising the weariness of the leg he had nearly left at Isca Dumnoniorum, and through the doorway came three men in the scarlet cloaks of the Legions. He recognised the first one, and then he remembered why Esca had had that curious set look to his mouth.

"Marcus Aquila."

He had not changed much, in ten years, the smooth-faced tribune who had sat in Uncle Aquila's house and discussed with them the issue of a certain Roman Eagle and a Legion that vanished into the mists. Not much at all. There was still that air of detached contempt, something about the way he held his shoulders, that reminded Marcus what it had felt like that year to be crippled and aching. Strange though, strange for many reasons, for he could have sworn that Placidus would have left the service after his Staff Officer's year, and yet here he was with the scarlet crest of a Legate's helmet in his hand, and behind him what must surely be his own staff officers, a moon-faced boy with the down still on his cheeks and an older man with small, sharp eyes and a nose like the prow of a ship. Not exactly the reunion of friends.

"Forgive this intrusion," Placidus said. "We find ourselves in need of lodging, and learning this was your farm, I presumed on acquaintance. Marcus, this is Ducinus and this Mathias, my staff: can you find us beds for the night?"

"And welcome," Marcus said stiffly. Placidus' words came smooth: he was smiling. "Esca?"

Esca was already slipping out the doorway, and Cub with him: Placidus' eyes followed them.

"Ah, you still have the barbarian then?" he said, and Marcus bristled.

"I still have the barbarian," he said stiffly, and then sat down. "And the wolf. Will you be seated? There is broth, and Silvia will be heating wine."

"My thanks." Placidus seated himself on Esca's couch, spreading his cloak to the fire. The young Decurion hesitated, looking towards the third couch, but Placidus looked up and said softly: "Ducinus."

There was a stiff hesitation in the way he sat at Placidus' feet that Marcus noted absently, looking up, as Silvia came in with pots and dishes and behind her young Marcia with the pale green Rhenish goblets that had been a wedding gift from Cottia's Aunt Valaria. He was glad of the bustle, for it had been months since they had had guests, he and Esca, and then only Uncle Aquila who seemed to fit as easily in and out of their lives as a well worn tunic.

"I was surprised to find you here," Placidus said, although he did not appear surprised at all. "I understood that the senate offered you land in Etruria, after that errand you ran for the old Tribune." He let his voice tail off.

"A man sometimes finds that home ... is not where he expected it to be," Marcus said. There was a part of him that would always belong among the olive groves of his homeland, but his life lay here under these changeable northern skies. "Equally, I did not expect to see you again, nor in such glorious state. Tell me, did you stay with the Legions then, after your first posting?"

"No," Placidus said. "This is the Senate's choice, to pick the most able ... but you know this."

It would be Placidus' appointment, then, a political assignment that meant the man must have risen fast and far up the list of young hopefuls clamouring at the Emperor's heels.

"Congratulations," Marcus said.

Placidus looked up then, so his tone must not have been as complimentary as it should have been: he opened his mouth to say more, but then Esca came back with a dish of hazelnuts and a quick nod to say the rooms were ready, and he sat himself down at Marcus' feet as if that was where he spent every evening. It was only then that Marcus realised the third man had taken Cottia's couch, for the third man seemed very easy to let one's eyes slide past.

"Is it here that you are posted, then, in Britain?" Marcus asked. He was running the province's three Legions through his head, trying to think whose term of office was up and whose quittance was due.

"In lesser Gaul." Placidus said. "Still amongst the natives, though the girls are prettier than I remember them."

"There has been trouble, recently, has there not?" Marcus asked, feeling his way.

"Nothing more than we can handle," Placidus answered quickly, but the young Decurion stiffened a little, like a good hunting dog when the arrow takes flight.

Just then Cub came to spread himself in front of the fire, entirely self-possessed. Marcus had forgotten that the sight of a fully grown wolf - and Cub was magnificent now, in his prime, with a great ruff of fur that circled his long nose and his wicked teeth - would shock. He could hear the quiet man drew in a breath through his teeth.

"You keep strange beasts in your housespace, in Britain," he said. His voice was rich and oddly accented, as if many places went to the making of him.

"I had him from a cub," Marcus said. "Indeed, Placidus was there as his taking, were you not?"

"There have been many hunts," Placidus said, as if one more or less made no odds. "But that one I remember." His eyes were sharp, sharp and bright against the light of the lamps, knowing, and then he shook the thought off and said: "Mathias here will not hunt, though, he is more scribe than warrior...But a good scribe at that." He said it magnanimously.

Marcus thought that the quiet man stirred a little at that, and noted to himself that the man was lean and muscled, more so than the Tribune, and the hilt on his short sword was worn. But then Placidus poured himself another glass of the cooling wine, and turned to Marcus.

"In truth, now we are here," he said. "It has often occurred to me to ask you the tale of that hunt you took, you and the barbarian. What was the end of it? Did the Legions take the Eagle? It seems to me that the Vestals would have had it if they could, for the symbol of it?"

Across the table his eyes were bright and very dark.

"It seemed to us that it would not be a good thing for the Legions to have it, for the Ninth was ... was rotten at the core," Marcus said.
The words came out slowly, for the Ninth with all its hollowness was still his father's last command. "So we placed it safe, I and Esca and the old Tribune, somewhere where it will never be used against us."

"Strange to think it rests there still," Placidus said. "Surely not here, where you have, what, an old Legionnaire and two womenfolk and a slave to protect it?"

"No," Marcus said. He let his hand slip to touch the very edges of Esca's hair, resting against his couch, to say look, you and I know we are both pretending."Not here."

He was uncomfortable with Placidus' questions, for it seemed to him that there was more here than a casual enquiry into a hunt long gone cold, and he turned the conversation to Gaul and to girls and to wine, for this kind of conversation could be held in any corner of the Empire where soldiers meet. It was only as they stood to go to the little sleeping rooms that Placidus turned round once more and said, very casually, "It was Calleva, was it not, where I met you and the barbarian and your uncle before?"

"Yes," Marcus said. His mouth was dry.

"I thought so." Placidus said, and gathered his cloak around him, clucking to Ducinus as if he were a dog.

Marcus watched them go together to one of the little sleeping chambers, Placidus almost mincing, and the Decurion with his head down. Then he turned his head to meet Esca's, and the look in both of their eyes was the same. But not now, said Esca silently, not now.

He looked in on Flavian before he went to his own bed, and was relieved to see the boy asleep. Now he could kneel by Flavian's bed and smell the sweet smell of him, that young boy smell. Flavian's hair was as vivid as Cottia's spread on the pillow, and his ears stuck out endearingly, and his hand was still clutched around the little wooden carving of Cub Marcus had made the long winter past. The familiar rush of love caught him by the throat, and he thought then of how quiet it would be when Flavian too followed the Eagle's call. Years away and not his choice to make. But this life was precious. He whistled, very low, and Cub came padding through the door.

"Sa," Marcus said, very quiet. "Sleep you here tonight, my heart."

Then he went to his own bed and curled himself up in the warm native rugs Silvia wove for him. He had thought he would not sleep, but as he was warming through he heard the soft shuffle of a pallet dragged before his door. Esca.

He turned over and slept, safe.

In the morning they breakfasted on ryebread and apples, for Placidus was eager to be gone and Marcus eager to see him go, and he watched all three ride out with a sense of relief. He had no idea what Esca had done with Flavian, for man and boy and wolf had been missing when he rose, but he was grateful. Somehow he did not want Placidus' bright eyes resting on his son. Now he was being stupid. He shook himself and turned back into the gate where Porcillinus stood still.

"What is it?" Marcus said.

"Legate Placidus?" Porcillinus said.

"Yes."

"There were tales about him in some of the barracks at Camulodunum, and in Bretae too," Porcillinus said. "Not a man to cross, that one."

"No," Marcus said. He turned to watch the three men ride over the brow of the hill and away.


Flavian and Esca and Cub came back a half turn of the watch glass later, muddied and triumphant with a string of trout, but the look in Esca's eyes was not content and it was only with the briefest of greetings that Marcus surrendered his son to Silvia's comfortable clucking. He was almost reluctant to turn and face the Briton, for it seemed painfully clear that Esca was once again being drawn willy-nilly into a quarrel in which he had no stake. But when he looked up Esca was looking at the narrow entrance to the atrium, and both trout and overmantle were laid aside.

"He will attack tonight, if he does," Esca said. "Before we have time to send for help. He will think we need to go to the Legions."

"He is the Legion," Marcus said.

"That one? Pah," Esca said, and spat. "He is no more a soldier than I am a barbarian slave." His eyes were narrowed. "Marcus, I have been to the village. There will be men in the woods come sundown: for the sake of a man who allows the spring fires."

"So you think - Uncle Aquila," Marcus said, and then more urgently. "Flavian."

"Porsillinus and Silvia will take him to Drusillus, surely," Esca said. "They can hardly snatch him from under the noses of the Tenth."

"Yes. No," Marcus said. "Esca, I had thought this over and done with."

"Did you really think it would rest in peace?" Esca said. "Did you not feel the dark god draw its cloak over us, that night in the Dun when we took the Eagle back? I have been expecting this. Why do you think we built the walls so high, and set the gate of oak?"

"I never thought," Marcus said slowly.

"Then think, Centurion," Esca said, but the brightness of his smile took the sting from his words, as if they set out on nothing more than an autumn wolf-hunt.

So it was that when the first of the young boys came running in from the dark with the words already tumbling from his lips Marcus' peaceful farm was as well prepared as it could be for an attack the Roman had never considered. There were soaked hides on the roof and braziers unlit under the colonnade: cut green hawthorn at the base of the walls and amphorae filled with oil at the gatehouse. Flavian was long gone, bundled up the road to Isca with Cub at his side and Porcillinus at his back, and Marcus and Esca were not asleep but stretched out on the flat roof of the gatehouse with Esca's hunting bow and two swords between them. What they would have done if attacked with force, Marcus never knew, though for the first time since they met Esca bore the blue streaks of a warrior's mask over the edge of his cheekbones, but it was not so. There were three men in the wood and none of them woodsmen, to know the call of the curlew was the call of the hunt, and there was young Huw to tell them the tale of it, peering over the wall and still short of breath: then there was Connaught, swift and shy, to say that now there were but two men in the wood, and then there were shadows under the wall and Esca tense as a strung bow.

There should be trumpets, Marcus thought, and then Esca let himself over the eaves and was there to catch Marcus' fall and the two bundled swords. There were two men, not at the gate but round the corner, where the wall of the stables met the kitchen and the roof was low: they had a rope, but no skill, and no hunter's eyes in the back of their heads. Esca shouted, once, the sharp bark of a tribesman, and they spun into the bared steel of his blade and Marcus'. The taller one would have made a fight of it, cursing and fumbling under his cloak, but beside him Ducinus Mancius stood white-faced and shaking, and it was he whose mouth made the words thrice before the sound came out. "Pax," he said. "Pax, pax, for Mithras' sake."

Afterwards Marcus found it in him to feel pity for Decurion Ducinus Mancius, sent willy-nilly on an mission he knew to be wrong, stumbling through a strange wood between the eyes in the night, with a stranger beside him and one at his back: to know before he reached the farm that somehow one of his companions was lost in the dark, to find himself expected and his opponents forearmed, to turn, shocked, and find himself facing a war-painted tribesman across the gleaming blade of a Brigantine longsword.

At the time he was absolutely, coldly furious. He made Ducinus face the wall whilst he tied the man's hands behind his back, and pushed him into the courtyard, all its braziers lit, with the point of Esca's hunting spear. It seemed to him that what Ducinus had done threatened not just his own home, and Flavian, and Esca, but the whole warp and weft of it: the way Silvia went when called to the birthing hut in the village and the way ex-calvary mares stood to Gerin's rough-coated stallion, the way the lines between Briton and Roman wavered and stretched to make something greater than both. There was something about the way Placidus' eyes slid over Esca, unseeing and greedy at the same time.

The hunters from the woods were here too, and there was a third man lying trussed and motionless on the ground. He had time, now, to look, and he did: the men with Ducinus were not Roman but tribesmen, heavy with fur, with long plaits and lengthy moustaches like no Briton he knew.

"They are Saxons," Esca said, beside him. "Saxons from Gaul. There was trouble there, in spring. Best watch what you say."

Ducinus still wore his army cloak: there would be no pretending he was other than he was. Marcus made him sit on the bench beside the pool, for the man was still shaking.

"Is there any need to ask why you came back?" he said.

In the light of the brazier, Ducinus' nose was pinched, and his lips white at the edges.

"I'm a Roman Citizen," he said.

Marcus laughed. "So," he said. "Then you will wait here until Esca has time to ride to the Magistrate, and then the case will be called, and then it will be heard, and in the meantime your legate will be wondering where you are and so will your master. Or there is a very deep well behind the stables, Ducinus, and you would not be the first secret Esca and I kept for the state."

Ducinus' eyelashes flickered.

"Whose bidding, then, Decurion?"

At that, Ducinus looked up, surprised into action. Marcus' tone had been commandant dry, the words an order, and the shape of his stance was that of the Legions.

"The Greek," Ducinus said. "The Legate."

His face was very young, under the light, and his eyes were wide and frightened.

"He wants the Eagle," Ducinus said. "He wants the Eagle, and the Legion: he says Rome is rotten, and splitting like a windfall: he says he wants to make it strong."

"He says," Ducinus said, and then his face twisted and he looked down, so Marcus had to bend to hear his words. "My father was his freedman, and I his from birth, and it is bad in Gaul, very bad."

"We should kill him here, for that," Esca said, low and dry, and were it not that Marcus knew every pitch and tone of the Briton's voice he would have believed him.

"No," Marcus said.

"There are crops on the fields Agricola salted, these years past, and boys grown to manhood who should never carry a spear against the Legions. Kill him."

"It is the Saxons," Ducinus said. "Always the Saxons." He shivered, and looked across the courtyard at the two men bound on the grass. "They made a pact, their leader and Placidus, two years past. You have no idea," Ducinus said, and his face was white again. "What they are like. Even Placidus fears them, sometimes."

"Placidus is not the one with his hand caught thieving," Marcus said. "If I let you go, you and your friends, what tale will you carry to him? How long can you give us?"

"It is not here?" Ducinus asked, but both Esca and Marcus were silent. He sighed. "It is not here, then. Two days, he gave me, to find it and fetch it back. He did not expect..."

"He is given to ignoring the obvious," Esca said.

"Will you give us two days?" Marcus said. "For your life?"

If Ducinus had not been scared from his wits he would never have promised, for the death of a Roman Decurion is not something which would pass unquestioned, but he was both very young and very frightened, and he promised. They put him in the barn for the rest of the night, he and his friends, and whilst the hunters finished the last season's mead in the garth Esca packed up two bedrolls and Marcus buried the little chest with his Capricorn bracelet and Esca's papers under the hearthstone, just in case. There was a hollow for it there, and Porsillinus would know where it was, should he come back and there be need.

Then it was dawn. Marcus cut Ducinus' bonds while he slept, and stood for a moment, looking down, but there was really nothing else to say and he had always disliked both fear and gratitude.

Outside, Esca was waiting, with Marcus' dun mare and his own pair of ponies huffing into the sharp chill. The Roman's leg was always stiff in the morning, but Esca's shoulder was there for his hand as it always was, and they set the ponies up the track and over the crest of the hill into the soft gold of a fair springtime sun. There were larks over the hillside, and the little white stars of asphodel amongst the short-cropped turf: it could almost be joyful, were it not for the shortsword at his back and the war-bow that hung from Esca's saddle.

It did not need to be said, when they reached the great road that linked Isca to Lindinis and thence to Sorviodunum and on to Calleva and beyond, to Londinium: they set their faces to the east, and rode as fast as Marcus' leg and the ponies could go. A good road, the Fosseway, but there is many a mile of it to ride from Lindinis to Calleva, and it was three days before Marcus and Esca left the ponies with a man they trusted outside the walls of the fort. Marcus went in through the East Gate, limping a little for all his pride, but Esca went over the wall and down through the scrub to the banks of the British dun, the old way, that one of them at least would not be noted. For they were marked. There was a man in Sorviodunum who had left the gates at their coming, and another in a waystation ten miles outside Calleva who had borne a moustache just like to two Marcus had last seen decorating his hay-barn. But there was little Placidus could do, to a Roman Citizen - two Roman Citizens! - in public, on their own business. They took it in turns to sleep, though, and slept light, well off the road, when they did stop.

Not for the first time Marcus wondered, walking slowly down the familiar side street that led to Uncle Aquila's house, if he and Esca had done the right thing in leading the wolves to this particular door, but there was little choice of it. Placidus knew the old man: better to face this together, better yet if Esca could carry out his side of the plan. He checked and looked up. There were two scarlet cloaked figures on the corner, and another across the way. He squared his shoulders and knocked on the door.

It was Uncle Aquila himself who answered the door, the bulk of him with the lamp held steady in his hands and the great bald shape of his head gleaming.

"So I take it this is something to do with you, then?" Uncle Aquila said, and Marcus said, "Yes."

Uncle Aquila looked, hard, at the space by his elbow where Esca would usually stand, and said, "Sassticca made honeycake, against your coming. I've expected you these six hours past. Come into the study."

There were no spaniels at his heels, and the kitchen was silent.

"It is the Eagle, then?" Uncle Aquila said, and Marcus, behind him, said "Yes," again.

"Claudius wrote something of it, in his last letter: there has been trouble in Gaul, and the Ninth were mentioned more than seemed likely. There have been men from the garrison outside my door these two days past."

"He moved quickly," Marcus said, and Uncle Aquila turned in the door to the study and looked down sharply down the steps over the beak of his nose.

"Who?"

"Placidus. Do you remember? He came once to see us, the day Cub came back, the hunter?"

"So-so," Aquila said. "It has been him all the time." For a moment his eyes were far away, as if he counted costs in some other war, but then he ducked into the little office and set the lamp down with a steady hand. "We have some time, I think, young man," he said. "Tell me."

So Marcus did, over honeycakes and watered wine, and Uncle Aquila said nothing but listened with his head bent and his fingers playing with the battered shaft of an elderly quill. There were great gaps among the scrolls in the study, and the desk was clear of the great mass of paper that was The History of Siege Warfare, and there was no other noise in the house at all bar a soft scratching from the atrium that might have been a cat.

At the end of it Uncle Aquila looked at him over the ruined remains of the quill and said, "It would be better elsewhere, the Eagle, and you and that barbarian of yours. Have you somewhere to take it?"

Marcus had been thinking of little else for the last four days. "Yes," he said, and opened his mouth, but Aquila held up one broad finger and said, "I don't want to know. Only tell me it will be safe, and you also."

"It will be safe," Marcus said.

"Then this is what we will do," said Uncle Aquila, who had served his twenty years in the Legions, who had made Prefect before retiring and still counted half the serving Legates of Rome and the Emperor's Physician amongst his correspondents. Then he said, and he was smiling a little, "But that was Esca, was it not, the cat in the atrium?"

And Marcus smiled too, for the cat in the atrium had been and gone and should at this moment be waiting for him in the shelter of a fallen birch tree, with a view across all the wooded hills and the town beyond, well beyond the walls of the fort and nowhere near the farm where they had left the ponies. And during all this time Uncle Aquila and he had been seated up in the watchtower, for anyone with eyes to see.

So when the knock came to the door, and Uncle Aquila went to answer it with his toga lying just so and the gold gleam of his own honours on his wrist, Marcus was ready, standing against the first oil-soaked brazier with flint and steel in his hand. It was blazing already: he knocked it over as Aquila answered the door, and by the time the first shout came the atrium was well ablaze and the fire spreading through the kitchens. He left through the hedge and down the rampart slope, past the arbor where Cottia had come to him in the days of his illness, and looked back from the walls to see the house well ablaze and all the street filled with scarlet cloaks and shouting. Then he was over the wall and gone.

Esca was waiting for him, just below the crest of the hill, with two fresh ponies and just the slightest hint of a smile.

In Caledonia, beyond the Wall, in Spring, the days are light and lengthening and the sun pale over the rounded hills. There are larks above the heather, and the becks run swift and deep between birch trees, trout rising to mayflies under the shade. The hunting is good, and the grass is rich in the fields, and on the hillsides the rowan trees bloom white as the flash of a snow bunting's wing.

There is a loch, caught in the clasp of a tumbling hillside, two miles north of what was once Trinomontium. It is not a deep loch, but rich, and on the banks of it Marcus and Esca could sit with five fat perch in an ossier basket and the silence of friendship between them.

It had been a long journey, away from the roads and along the drover's tracks, up through the bare-sown fieldsof the south and the horse-runs of the north, past Roman and Briton alike, and always, always, with one looking behind and one looking in front. They were nearly caught when they crossed the bridge at Cataractonium and again near the Wall, leading the ponies between the banks of a river at night. Placidus' arm was long: the shouts at Cataractonium came in Latin, but the curses outside Camboglanna were a guttural language Marcus did not know. They rode hard over the hills past the Wall, rode west to the sandy coves and the fisherman's hamlets where the nets lay drying over the rocks and the women gave them dried herring and barley for broth, before they turned east again. And then they rode up the shore of the firth and over the flatlands, past the fields Agricola salted and the farmsteads he burnt, now resettled and green with shoots, and beneath the three hills they followed the track with its lonely lime-tree and the traces of hooves on the grass. Under a friendly full moon they drew rein in Guern's yard, and amidst the dogs, waited till Guern the Hunter himself ducked out from the hall with a half-full ox-horn in his hand. Guern's beard had grown, and his moustache was a thing of pride: he wiped the back of his hand over it, frowning.

For a moment Marcus thought they'd been wrong, as Guern took a step forward, and another, as he laid a hand to Marcus's mare and said, saa, sweet heart, brave heart, it's done.

Then he looked up under the line of his eyebrows and said, "A long coming then, youngster?"

His face, in the light of the rush torch the house-lady carried, was not angry, but rueful, and the light in his eyes was interest.

"Guern," Marcus said, and then could not think of more: his leg was sore, and his back, and the Eagle in the folds of his tunic seemed suddenly far too heavy to hold.

It was Esca who looked down and said, slowly, in the rough British of his childhood, "The hounds are after the Eagle again, to call it to war."

"You gave me my son back a man," Guern said. "And the ponies made their way home. I'm not saying the Druids were wrong, but I had time to think, after, and I'd not have my boys ride to war. Do you give Dani the mares, now, and Murna has stew on the fire."

They had not meant to stay, although the Eagle would have done well enough under the eaves. But Marcus' pony was footsore, and the fence on the in-bye was down, and Murna had been after a weaving-shed faced to the south and the little one coughed in her sleep. And the girl with the red-coral bead was tall and slim by the fire and her eyes were bright when they rested on Esca. She had hair like the mane of a winter-rough pony, Guern's daughter, and the lines of her back were as true as the shaft of a spear.

And Murna had not said a word, though Guern frowned, when the portions that came to Esca's dish came with a smile.
Marcus said as much, three week later, lying out by the shores of a loch with a basket of fish and his friend beside him. The moment he'd said it he wished it unsaid, for, from half a lifetime ago, the eyes of the woman at Sorviodunum rose up to haunt him.

But Esca sighed, looking over the water. There were duck in the reeds, on the other side of the loch, but neither of them carried a bow.

"She is ten years and more too young," he said. "And this is not the right time."

The words of it lay between them, the Eagle, the hunt, Uncle Aquila, a child with a ailing eye, and way behind all of it, Cottia, dying. Marcus looked up, just as the wind blew back the russet strands of the Briton's hair, and for a moment the clipped ear showed through the tangles.

Then Esca looked round, his face whitened and set, and it was Marcus' turn to look at the ducks.

"I left a lover, behind the wall of the Dun, the night the Legions broke through," Esca said. "But I met the man who would own my heart three years later, lying on the sand with a blade to my throat, in Calleva."

It was so quiet between them Marcus could hear the space and echo of his own breath, stopped and then starting, too quick. Esca's voice had been low and all too steady, the measured words of a man who knew what he said.

"I have not served the Centurion because I was his slave," Esca had said, and "I am the Centurion's hound, to lie at the Centurion's feet."

He had not liked Cottia, not at first.

"Esca-" Marcus said, and turned round, but it had been too long. Esca had gone, and only the fish remained.

He had been wrong, then, about the woman under the walls of Sorviodunum, and the cub, and he was wrong about Guern's daughter as well.

It was late, that evening, when Marcus ducked under the hide and came into the hall, with only five fish and a handful of wild onion root to explain where he had been. But he had not been missed. There were five strangers around the fire, bulky with furs, and hunting spears propped by the door, and Murna was frantic with cooking and only too pleased to have fish to add to the broth, and Marcus helped himself to mead and slipped into the shadows to listen. It was the spring hunt and the spring fire they came for, and listening, Marcus thought of his own farm and the village beyond where the boys would be gathering wood and the women grinding corn for spice-cake and cheesebread. Up here in the north it was a bloodier business, and the sorting of who and what was busy enough to allow him to eat in peace, and to Guern's guests it was easy enough to explain he was here for the horses, a trader from over the Wall Guern knew from his traveling days.

Esca was different. Esca was laughing, discussing the run of the deer, with line of the blue tattoos on his arms picked out in firelight. Esca, with the rough, swift burr of his accented British, who two weeks ago had told Murna where he was born and discovered they had two half-cousins in common. Esca was family, almost ... home.

And for Marcus there was Flavian, and Uncle Aquila, and both of them far away and one of them possibly dead. He drank his mead, and when they offered him spears mentioned his leg and his pony's hooves.

Strange days, after that. The men left, in the morning, and the dogs, and the hearth was quiet. Marcus helped carry water, and dug sweet water-lily bulbs from the lake, although he would not grind barley, for that was a thing of the women's side only. The baby's cough healed, and the ponies grew strong on the sweet spring grass, and two of the rough-coated cows calved. Up on the hillside the boys piled wood, which was scarcer beyond the Wall, so Marcus would take one of the ponies and Guern's sons and go down to the river for branches carried down in the winter floods. They dried fresh-cut birch by the fire, and Guern's daughter turned cheese in the still room.

At night, he and Murna would stand under the eaves, looking up at the moon as it filled to full.

Two days to the solstice. One.

And in the morning Marcus awoke to the sound of shouts and knew that, for him and the hearth-lady both, their men had come home.

Marcus walked with the men, to the fire, despite his bare skin. They had argued about that, he and Esca, for in the soft green hills of the lowlands the fires were something of the village, warm and welcoming, and half of their history lost with the druids twenty years and more gone. In the north the wood was green and the memory sharp, and when the men had come back from the hunt there were strangers and a boy with a shaven head and the eyes of a hawk, a boy who had looked at Marcus as if the brand on his brow burnt still. In the peace of the afternoon, after the women had gone, it was the boy who had set out the drums on the great board of Guern's feasting, and he who had sent them down to the river to bathe.

Esca had said, it is not like the great fire, the banefire. Would you not feel it? He had smiled, the flash of his teeth white between five-days' growth of beard, and Marcus, who was not at all sure that he would, kept his peace. For all he had long ago lost his love for the gods, his or Esca's, the weight of the day still hung heavy on his shoulders, the cold of the water leaving him empty and waiting. Esca had found him clean clothes: they dressed together, in silence, and from the silence around them Marcus guessed there was a geas on this, as on the cleansing.

They walked up to the fire through the long shadows of evening. The plovers called from the heather, and over the rise of the hill he could hear the laughter of women. Beside him Esca seemed almost a stranger, someone unknown. The paint was blue on his face, and there were feathers in his hair: he had knelt for that, in front of the boy, but it had not seemed like submission. Beside him Marcus felt painfully tight, the weight of his Romanness, other, suddenly stark and lying between them like the blade of a knife.

Night fell as they breasted the hill, and the first drum spoke deep and slow through the last gold of sunset. Across the bones of the fire the women faced them, silent and tall. Then the pipes sounded, shrill, remote, and from the end of the men's line Dani yelped high and joyful, and the fire leapt forth from the logs. It was no gentle kindling: the flames sprang forth new-born and white like lightning at night, and the men's line swayed forward and the women's line sighed. Then the pipes joined the drum and the women sang out, the words short and the rhythm taking the feet, and hands, the beat of it stepping down all the bones of the back and the turf underfoot. It was not the sound of the priests in the temples of Rome: it was the pulse of the blood in the veins, the curve of the shape of a woman's breasts and the arch of a stallion's neck and the noise his hooves made on the grass, the short sharp joy of the hunt, and Marcus found his breath coming quick and his feet moving before he knew it. The men's line moved as one, a step to the fire and away, a slow circling that chased and was chased by the women's line, spinning slowly and never meeting, and always between them the fire.

After a while Marcus realised there were people outside the dance. There were women with bowls, and a couple of boys flung out and breathless on someone's cloak, and Murna's mother who never spoke wrapped up in furs and nodding to the beat of the drums. He waited his moment and dropped out beside her, curling up on the turf. Someone brought him mead, and a plateful of barley-bread. There would be venison later, but for now he was content just to watch. The lines had thinned out, now. It was the young men and the girls who faced off across the fire, and Guern vast against the fire and facing him Murna, suddenly tall and queenly in a flame-coloured gown with her hair unbound. And Esca, Esca who had lost the cloak and the tunic he'd worn earlier and danced, like the rest of the men, almost naked save for the paint on his face, and the spiraling blue of his tattoos like the living shadows of creatures Marcus had never seen, and facing him Guern's daughter with her hair all tumbling with may-flowers.

Like the thrust of a spear, the wanting. Marcus looked away. He drank mead, and sometime later Murna brought him a plateful of honeycakes, and Guern came to sit beside him and tell him, now the heart of it was done, what the dances were - though not what they meant - and who faced who across the fire.

Then Murna came to refill Marcus' cup, and Guern reached her down, laughing, to sit beside him in a swirl of hair and gown like a waterfall stilled. Guern's arm was round her shoulders, and she was laughing: Marcus smiled at them both and looked away. The lines had split, by the fire: the men and the women swirling in circles, shadows in front in of the flames. He looked for Esca and found him, all his hair flung back and dense with feathers, the sweat gleaming over his skin.

Beside him, Guern said, "Healer-"

He looked round.

Guern said, "Do you take what is yours, and I keep what is mine. I've no mind for my grandchildren to learn Latin at your knee."

"It is not allowed," Marcus said.

Guern laughed. He said, "Is this Rome, now, with its laws all cut into iron? We are different, we of the hills, we have ways of our own." He looked up, then, and shouted, and Esca came tumbling out of the dance to stand beside Marcus, puzzled but willing.

"Do you take what is yours," Guern said to him, and then he was pushing Marcus up, into the music. "Go and dance, youngling. It is spring."

Esca laughed, once, delightedly, and reached out a hand.

"Come on," he said. "You can do this. This is a dance of the men's side."

Guern, behind Esca's shoulder, was smiling, and behind him Guern's son Dani whose tattoos still itched in the night.

"Take my hand," Esca said.

In Southern Britain, in the farm on the downs, Esca liked Herodotus, and Horace, read quietly beside the light of a tame and tile-bound hearth. He bred horses and went fishing with Flavian, and his hands were both slow and sure.

Beyond the Wall, at night, he was a different creature, all skin and paint and fire-gold gleam in his eyes, but his hands were still slow and strong and when they touched Marcus' own they were as sure as if he knew what he did. They danced, he and Marcus, touching lightly, almost the last of the dancers, the drum beat slow and the pipes swung into song as sweet as sunrise.

In the end, Marcus' leg gave up on him, as he knew it would. He stumbled, fell against Esca, and only righted himself with a hand to the Briton's shoulder, sweat slippery under his hand. Esca turned round, but Marcus shook his head and gestured to the fireside. Now he had stopped, he was suddenly aware of how much his leg ached, and walking away from the dance it dragged and pulled at his stride. Even now, he was not sure if Esca would follow, but it was the Briton's hands that pulled him further away from the fire and settled him down on a blanket and ran, gentle and soothing, over the knotted muscles of his thigh.

In the barracks it had been a thing of uncaring, swift and swiftly over, and sometimes of violence.

"I left a lover, behind the wall of the Dun, the night the Legions broke through."

A man did not say that, like that, if there was no chance of love. Marcus reached out, and laid his own hand over Esca's, and twined their fingers. Beside him Esca's breath stopped, just for a moment, and his own heart rejoiced to hear it. Esca's hand was still under his. He said, Esca, and Esca said nothing at all. He dragged his hand though the blue paint and the sweat of Esca's forearm, the muscles curved under the skin fine and firm as a chariot horse's. Esca's shoulders were broad, and the curve of his collarbone shaped like the wing of a swan in flight. When Marcus touched it he shivered, and drew the breath through his teeth, but the look in his eyes was not pain and his hands were clenched on the grass at his knees.

"If you are going to stop," Esca said. "Then stop now."

His neck was strong with muscle, strong as a carthorse, with all the tendons stood proud and the pulse of his blood at his throat where the sweat had pooled. The rise and fall of his chest, breathing, was urgent, and his eyes wide and almost black in the firelight.

"Stop now," Esca said, through clenched teeth

Under Marcus' touch his cheek was rough with stubble and the brush of his hair as fine as a duck's breast feathers. Marcus would not have believed he could hold such tenderness between the palms of his hands, like cupping new-made fire. It was impossible that he could not have this, this sweetness, this strength. The softness of Esca's mouth, where the fine pink flesh curved to meet the skin of his face, so shapely, defined, where the sweat lay beaded up on his upper lip and the first rise of stubble came harsh to the touch. His.

And then Esca's hands came up, and pulled his away, and grasped his shoulders. They were falling, both of them, and Esca's mouth was on his, all teeth and tongues and want, wet and gasping for breath and coming back for more. Esca's hands pulled at his tunic and ripped it free, and then ran over his chest, his stomach, ran the length of his manhood with an entirely arrogant pressure. It was Esca's shoulders that shut out the fire and Esca's weight that pushed him down in the grass, shaking against him, desperate and pushing and hotter than any furnace, the smell of Esca's sweat that surrounded them both. It was Esca's hands on his wrists, pushed into the grass, and Esca's breath hot against his neck before his teeth met and closed over the skin, Esca saying his name over and over again, and then saying something else, something Marcus did not understand, because by then his own back was arched and his heels digging into the mud and he would have given everything he owned to be able to touch skin. He was coming, shaking and coming, his head turning from side to side and his body convulsing, and above him Esca was still, tight, and he would have screamed if Esca's mouth was not robbing the breath from his lungs.

It happened so fast, the shift from man to beast. Marcus' head ached, suddenly, a splitting pain between his eyes, and the weight of Esca above him was stopping his breath and the flesh between their bellies was sticky with the traces of what they had done. He gasped for air and turned his head on one side, and Esca moved, slowly, as if everything hurt. He felt Esca's hand on his face, and caught his own hand from the grass where it lay outstretched and empty. In his hands, Esca's fingers were strong and callused. He spread them out over his face, eyes closed, and kissed the soft skin of the Briton's palm, below the calluses from ditch digging and just above the scar where the knife had slipped carving a walnut-wood bowl last winter. Esca tasted of sweat and paint.

"Marcus?" Esca said, in the darkness.

It was all too easy to slip into sleep.

Marcus woke suddenly, stiff and cold, to a sword at his throat and behind it a man from his nightmares. Placidus' helmet was gone, his cloak bolstered with furs, his clothes ragged, and the smile on his face was one no sane man would own.

"My dear friend Marcus Aquila," Placidus said. "A fine hunt indeed, but it's over."

The sword at his throat was short and broad bladed, a Legionnaire's sword, and how Placidus got this far north of the Wall was not something Marcus could guess. He sat up, slowly: he was shrouded in cloth, and his hands caught under it, and Esca had gone.

"Oh my sweet fool," Placidus said, and his face behind the blade of the sword was twisted with hate. "Did you not think I would find you, you and that barbarian slave?"

The cloth was Guern's cloak, but the dancers were gone, and behind Placidus, hunched and set-faced, was Decurion Ducinus Mancius, and behind him three ponies and a sun risen high in the sky.

Placidus laughed, and the sound of it was shrill enough to make Marcus shiver and Ducinus flinch. "Missing your wolf, Centurion? Your catamite? Your oh-so-convenient friends? You were asleep when the wolves came over the hill, my friend. Think you I'd leave this hunt unfinished? Stand up, Centurion. Stand up and face me."

He was unarmed, they all were, for the fires, and Placidus mad. He stood up as slowly as he could manage, and pulled the tunic closed, stumbling, to remind Placidus he had an old wound and was crippled, harmless, nothing.

"Ducinus," Placidus said, his voice a croon now. " The rope."

And Marcus was bound at the wrists as tight as Ducinus could manage, and just as the man finished over the crest of the hill came Esca, running, and the bundle of cloth in his hands was the plaid that had cradled the Eagle on all its flight north.

"Ahh," Placidus said, hissing.

He made Esca kneel to give him the Eagle, with Ducinus' Cavalry sword at Marcus' throat. When the plaid was unwrapped he took the Eagle and held it, upright, all its battered glory plain in the sun and the empty wing sockets gaping, and laughed. "This is it?" Placidus said, and he swung his sword, vicious and hard, and the flat of it hit Esca's head and the Briton went down onto the turf like a poleaxed calf. He kicked Esca, hard, but the man did not move, and Placidus laughed again.

"Come you, then," he said, and it was at the point of Ducinus' blade that Marcus went to the ponies.

It is not comfortable, riding flung over the saddle with your hands and feet tied, with the strapping pulled tight and at the back of your mind questions you cannot answer. Marcus did not know what Uncle Aquila had done, although Placidus on his own with no Saxons would suggest something. He did not know if the Legate had allies over the Wall, or if Placidus worked on his own. He did not know if Esca lived or died, or if, an he lived, Esca could follow. Or would. And they rode hard, rode till the ponies near foundered beneath them and Marcus was aching with pain, his leg, his bound hands numb, and his stomach sore where the saddle dug into it. It was near dark when Placidus pulled his pony to a halt, and even then he would do nothing but look at the fire and croon to himself while Ducinus cooked. All the time his hands held the Eagle, stroked it, caressed it, and Marcus guessed that by now the man had lost any trace of sanity he had once had. What Ducinus thought was beyond him, but it was the Decurion who unbound his hands for the gruel and brought him water, and for that at least he was thankful. His thigh hurt with little stabs of pain every time he put weight on it, and his hands were so stiff as to make eating near impossible, and he was very much afraid that he could do nothing to stop Placidus getting through the Wall and over to Gaul with the Eagle and quite possibly Marcus himself. What Placidus would do with a half-crippled ex-Centurion over the border in Gaul ... he did not want to consider.

Ducinus gave him a horse blanket to sleep in, and bound his wrists to the birch sapling. Marcus did not think he would sleep, but the warmth of the blanket was good, and the ground not uncomfortable.

He woke, later, blinking into darkness. It was the third watch, the time between midnight and dawn when the night is darkest, and from the other side of the fire came the sound of Placidus' voice. Not talking, but groaning, and the rustle of cloth.

He rutted like a beast, sharp and painful, Placidus. Silent in the doing of the thing. Later Marcus. awake and aching, would hear him weep. It had not been like that for him and Esca. It would never be like that for him and Esca. Even if the night by the fires were the last of it, it would never be like that.

In the morning Ducinus still bound his hands, but let him sit upright on the pony, and for that he was thankful. Placidus still set a punishing pace, but the ponies were tired and worn with more than one day's hard riding and, clearly, it was slower than the Legate wanted. In daylight Placidus bore no resemblance to the smooth-faced Tribune Marcus had met in his uncle's house in Calleva, ten years before. His clothes were tattered and stained, and there was a scar on his cheekbone where a branch had caught it, just under the eye, and the thin growth of beard came scanty and ragged to his face. Worse was the expression in his eyes and the way his hands moved over the bundle of cloth. Marcus was thankful Placidus took the lead, and set himself, grimly, to follow. Ducinus brought up the rear, and what he thought Marcus could not tell. What Marcus was thinking concerned more what Esca would do - if Esca was alive - and what Uncle Aquila had done - if Uncle Aquila was alive.

And what had happened the previous night.

He was thinking about that, Placidus, and the quiet weeping afterwards, when Ducinus drew up beside him. It was long past midday, and they had not stopped to eat. Ducinus' face was a white and miserable as his own must be, and the Decurion's hands clenched on his pony's mane as if that grasp alone kept him in the saddle.

"Centurion." he said quietly, just above the sound of the hooves.

Marcus turned his head.

"Decurion."

It was ridiculous, given the circumstance, but Ducinus' back straightened at the title. Marcus held his tongue, and let his eyes speak for him.

"He's quite mad, isn't he?" Ducinus said.

"Yes," Marcus said.

"Do you think..."

"I am trying hard not to," Marcus said, between his teeth.

"The Saxons deserted, you know," Ducinus said. "After we came to the Wall, they were waiting for us. Your uncle must have told them something. I said then, we should stop, but he insisted. He made me," Ducinus said. "You'll say that, won't you, when we come to the Wall? I couldn't do anything to stop him. I tried." Ducinus said miserably. "I tried."

There was a rush of relief that Uncle Aquila was indeed not dead but very much alive.

"What do you think I can do?" Marcus said. Then he remembered Ducinus weeping in the night, and was sorry, but the Decurion dropped back and did not say another word.

That night they stopped in a clearing Marcus recognised, six miles from the Wall, just outside the patrols. Ducinus laid the fire and cooked, and Placidus held the Eagle and crooned to it, hands shaping cloth. They ate barley gruel again, and it was an elder tree Marcus was tied to, this time. He did not want to sleep. His eyes were burning, and his leg sore beyond measure, almost as if the healer with the knife had set blade to it again, and he was very tired. He did not want to sleep, but he did.

In the night, Ducinus killed Placidus.

He did it with Placidus' own sword. It was not a clean death, and Marcus, lying helpless on the far side of the fire, heard every stroke, and every groan, and at the last of it the bubbling breath come gasping to Placidus' lungs, and the words he said, which were Greek, Marcus thought. He called for his mother.

Then he did not speak again, and, eventually, he stopped breathing.

Marcus held himself as still and quiet as he could. He could hear, on the other side of the fire, Ducinus' footsteps, and the rustle of cloth. After a moment it occurred to him that the Decurion, like every Roman recruit this side of the Legion's forming, was cleaning his sword. It took an age, the cloth passing up and down the blade, and at the end of it he washed his hands over and over again: Marcus rather thought he was weeping again. Then Marcus heard the sword drop on the ground, and Ducinus stand. He tensed, but the rope held firm. Then he heard the footsteps leave, crashing through scrubland, blind and desperate, and Marcus was left alone by the fire with the body of what once had been a Roman Legate and the remains of what had once been a Roman Eagle.

He was never so glad to see anyone in his life as the shocked young Centurion who, on patrol, had seen the loose ponies and followed them back to the camp.

Marcus and Esca rode home in the gentle warmth of a British summer, with the clouds flying high and white under the goad of a wind from the west. It was a long ride, from Luguvalium to Londinium, and from Londinium along the old road, the Icknield Way, before they turned south along the Fosse to Sorviodunum, and the light rain blew softly into their faces, and there was little to say in all those days of riding with half a century following doggedly in their footsteps. What his old friend Drusullus ever thought of this particular assignment he did not say, but the orders had come sealed by the emperor's ring and he and his men treated the British freeman and the Roman settler with courteous circumspection and a care that was startling. Years later, Marcus would look up from a hedge he was laying and find Drusullus looking gravely down at him. "I have my quittance," he would say,"I have come to stay, if you will have me." But now all Drusullus could give was as much haste and protection as the road could offer.

Long days, and it was evening when they crested the brow of the hill and came down the little trackway to the farm. Against the deep blue of the sky, the dark shadows of the downs curved gentle across the fields, and from the in-bye Marcus heard the welcoming wicker of one of the mares before Cub gave tongue, full-belled and joyous. There was little sign of the desperate struggle he and Esca had fought, two moons past: the walls of the villa were newly white-washed and the gates were reinforced with iron banding that glinted in the light of the lantern Pusillinus carried. There was no surprise in the shrewd face he turned to them, battered and warm and so part of his home that Marcus could feel the lump rise in his throat un-called for. He slid from his saddle in the doorway and buried his face in the pony's rough mane, for all at once he could let go, feel it all slipping away from him. Behind him he could hear Drusullus' low-voiced query and Pusillinus answering, the jangle of harness and the thud of hooves as Drusullus turned his half century and took them down to the water meadow by the stream. Then he felt Esca's arm come round him and pull him away. "Sa, sa, a long ride, but over now. See you, here is Flavian and Cub, come to greet us."

So, indeed, they were, Flavian sleepy-eyed with his red hair cock-skewed and his smile showing a missing tooth, and Cub astonishingly restrained for a wolf who had once again been left behind whilst his masters went on adventure without him. Marcus knew then, as if he had not known it before, that this is why it had never been a question, that he and Esca would do it again if they needed, that this, Flavian's smile and Cub's grin and Silvia bustling out from the villa with warmed blankets and possets, meant more to him than any of Rome's honours. And at the same time it was one and the same thing. He tried to say something of this later, to Esca, who was half-pulling and half carrying him to his room, but all the words came out wrong. All the words always come out wrong between us, he thought muzzily. So it was far easier than he had thought it would be to reach out to Esca's hand, as Esca had reached out to him by the fires.

"'It's warmer with two," he said, into the wool of the blanket Esca was attempting to roll him into, and felt rather than heard the sharp breath Esca drew in through his teeth.

"Marcus...?"

Then he had to roll over and open his eyes, because this was one moment when he really could not afford to be misunderstood. "Esca Mac Cunoval. Please get into this bed."

Esca's face was very still, almost as still as it had been ten years before when he had lain, afraid, under the threat of the knife in the arena.

"I might find it ... hard to leave, an I do that," he said eventually.

"I was counting on it," Marcus said. "Come here, you: we have both been fools ... I have been a fool."

He had thought it would be enough just to sleep with Esca's warmth beside him and the knowledge that they would both still be here, safe, in the morning. But when he closed his hand over Esca's, when the lamp was blown out, he learnt that Esca was shaking, that the skin of his palm was astonishingly soft and his fingers astonishingly strong, and that once he allowed it, the flame between them was too bright and fierce to be ignored.

Cub was ecstatic to find his two favourite people sleeping in the same bed, and Uncle Aquila drew his thoughts from Persepolis only long enough to say, "What took you so long?"

Flavian learned tolerance, and when he was old enough, wisdom to trust love in all its forms, and this he taught his children, and they theirs.

Fin.

 


 

Place Names

Bretae .......................................................................Brittany
Caledonia..................................................................Scotland
Calleva....................................................................Silchester
Camboglanna..........................................................Birdoswald
Camulodunum..............................................................Carlisle
Cataractonium...........................................................Catterick
Gaul............................................Greater France and Germany
Isca Dumnoniorum.......................................................Exeter
Lindinis.....................................................................Ilchester
Londinium...................................................................London
Luguvalium..................................................................Carlisle
Sorviodunum...........................................Old Sarum (Salisbury)
Venturia..................................The Roman province of Scotland