It's pitch black. The night thick around them like a cloud of ink and silent as a tomb, safe for the summer love-making of the cicadas. No amount of training and fomation, of hitting poles of thick battered wood with their swords, of order and discipline, could ever prepare a man for this. For the pressing weight of the night, pushing against their chests like enemy shields. They are readied for it when it comes, but it does not save them. Postpones their demise merely by several minutes pregnant with hot blood and screams that echo dully into the summer sky.
They attack them like the skilled hunters they are, breaking the weakest ones out from the unit like Marcus had seen wolves do with the young and sick of a herd. Their standard-bearer falls first with an arrow to his throat, drops to his knees choking. There is nowhere to take cover, the forest spiked with spears around them. Marcus hears himself yelling orders and they get as far as a half formed testudo before the barbarians spill onto them like a vengeful river, battleaxes clinking off shields, swords and spears sinking into human flesh with a sickly soft sound, like knives into too ripe fruit.
He is exhausted, feels it bone deep, yet so desperate to live. It's not until strong arms grab him from both sides and force him onto his knees that has Marcus realize that this is it. There will be no more flickering of torches in the dusk-bathed fort, no obscene jokes exchanged with his brothers-in-arms. There is so much he has't done yet, so much he could have done. So much fame and honour he could have won and Marcus bites back a wretched sob that threatens to escape his tender throat.
It takes four men to strip him down of his armour and it fills Marcus with a sort of pathetic pride, that he is at least allowed this much strength in the face of death. He raises his eyes to meet his oppenent with dignity, strives not to give into the cowering fear that invites him into her clutches. With his long heavy robes and antlered crown, the man does not look like a warrior, but he holds himself as one when he reaches the young Roman in slow soundless steps. He must be of the Barbarian priest-folk instead. Marcus has frequently heard his senior officers mutter that there is nothing worse than to have a druid roaming the neaby villages during a new moon, he just hadn't expected to be made an example of that in under a month from his arrival to this godsforsaken island.
'What is your name, boy?' the man says in thickly- accented Latin, his voice gutual and low, revebrating from under his wooden mask. Marcus glares at him for the lack of a better option. One of the men holding him strikes him across the face.
'What is the name, Roman?' he repeats, voice low with threat.
'Marcus Flavius Aquila'
The druid rises his hand and Marcus half expects to be struck again, but the open palm drops grieviously onto his head, the thick splayed fingers digging into his skull like a falcon's claw.
'You Romans like wolves, do you not? I will show you what it is like to be hunted, Marcus Flavius Aquila' the horned figure above him continues in cautious Latin, puncturing Marcus's name like a curse 'And each night I will remind you what you have lost. What you can never ever have. You Romans are savages, and you shall live like one'
What happens next Marcus cannot explain, the man's voice drops to a hum as his fingers harbour themselves further into his skull. He cannot discern the words despite his best efforts and he feels himself shrinking, growing further away from the menacing statue of the hunter-king and moments after the night covers him with her shroud completely.
It is the onslaught of smells that drags Marcus through and pulls him back into consciousness.
Blood comes first. He can tell its scent distinctly, yet somehow it is different from what he remembers.
He recognizes the metallic stench of it, but this time it is so thick and palpable. It is an unfamiliar sensation altogether, as if he can taste it, it is not only the scent of blood itself, it is as if he can tell apart every little particle it is made up from. There are further layers underneath it, the wind echoes back at him sweat and past despair. There's the smell of fresh death, ample and robust in his nosedrils, making his own veins roar in answer.
His thoughts are not thoughts either, not the way he remembers them to be.
Marcus tries to open his eyes, his vision blurry and oddly colourless, he closes them again abruptly. That must have been some blow to the head he had received back there. He makes an attempt to raise himself back onto his feet, hoping everything will even itself out once he can stand up, but Marcus soon realizes he is evidently going to fail at that task also.
They hunt together. They eat and sleep and fuck together.
With his recent joining among the spears, it was but a natural progress of things, Esca knows that. Just as he knows that once it is called upon, they will fight alongside each other; brothers in arms, and that once the time comes, when their gods beckon them they will go to meet them, good cheer in their step, as their mortal shells lie bloodied behind them. It will be how it should be, Esca knows this and he takes comfort in it in those odd moments when it is needed. But it is the constant supervision that gets under his skin like a horde of ants, making him jump and shake, helpless against the bites and the itch. Threatening to drive him insane.
He loves Dogan, he truly does. It has always been so, to an extent at least, of that Esca is sure, ever since they were kids. But nowadays Esca finds himself anxious to get away, making up excuses, longing to be alone if just for a brief moment so he can watch the sunset with no watchful eye upon him. The continuous, undivided attention suffocated him as if he'd been help under water for too long, desperate for the icy spikes of air in his lungs. Like now. He pierced the surface of the lake, lukewarm almost too his adjusted senses and surrounded by late blooming wildflowers. He shakes his hair out of red droplets washing away the dried blood, grabs a fistful of sand to rub himself down, scrubbing away the remains of the grim and the guts of the hunt. Relishing the rare moment alone. When he had made a name of his own as a skilled tracker among his people he had never thought he would use those hard-honed skills to slip away from his companions unnoticed.
He tries not to blame Dogan for it. tries to curb his irritation, because he knows that if anyone is truly to blame for those reigns he's been put into it is his father. It was only typical of Dogan to take the half-growled 'keep an eye on him' and interpret it as 'never let him out of your sight' , which in all practicality translated to Dogan sticking to Esca day and night. Esca did not really mind, especially when it involved a different, more pleasurable kind of stickiness. He just wishes he wouldn't have to see that infuriating concern in Dogan's eyes every time he happened to look into them, as if he expected Esca to come tumbling down some godsforsaken cliff the second the other's back was turned.
It is not that Esca is particularly prone to trouble. It is that he is particularly prone to all kinds of mischief and well, trouble is usually what follows in the case of such endeavours. However, he has sixteen and a half summers behind him and has been made a warrior in his own right since over three moons ago; by the law of his people he is no longer a bairn, he just wishes everyone would stop treating him like one.
The sigh that escapes him is heavy in his chest, pressing. Esca chooses to ignore the pangs of guilt and low-burning anger it sends tentatively through him. He resumes the scrubbing and rinsing, rubbing the back of his neck and between the sharp edges of his shoulder-blades, getting rid of caked blood that leaves his body in crimson rivulets, whorling down his back in intricate patterns, down to the dimples and the wings of his hipbones, purpled with violet kisses of Dogan's fingertips when their playful grappling turned to something darker, the excitement of the hunt forgotten in favour of another, more primal one.
Esca huffs out a surprised breathy laugh as his hand skims absent-mindedly over his ribs, the coarse grains of sand tickling his skin as he smooths it down his abdomen, mindful of the mottled bruises he earned in sparring and breaking young stallions; hissing, half pleasure and half pain when his fingers skip over them as an afterthought and slide to circle his swollen prick nestled in dully golden curls.
He gives himself a few quick tugs smearing the scarce pre-come with the shimmering droplets of water, a sharp breath sucked in between his teeth, eyes drifting shut slowly as sun-rays sneak in through the sieve of leaves, dappling his back in loving dots like open-mouthed, sloppy kisses. Esca slows his strokes, picking up the pace every so often, teasing himself back and forth from the edge, savouring this sweet moment of privacy he is given. His calloused thumb sweeps over the dusky flushed head spreading more of the beads of moisture gathered there and he bites back a hiss, speeding up as he thrusts into the circle of own his fingers, motions sharp and short. All the almost absent-minded languid strokes left behind as he seeks out his peak. Esca tips his head back, breaths growing shallow and frantic; stuttering little puffs into the lukewarm afternoon air and a light blush prickles the exposed column of his throat, wandering down is chest. It makes him shiver when wind caresses the warm skin with its cool fingertips.
Esca's back is a taunt bow when he comes. Hot strands, splashing against his fingers, his wrist and lower abdomen, nesting in the bronzed curls there. He washes off quickly, with broad swipes over his belly and the coarse hair of his trail.
Marring the surface with quick, clean movements and pulls himself out onto the bright April sun-warmed rocks.
Something is not right. There is a rustle, a low persistent hum that makes the muscles in his back tense as his loose long shirt slides down. It could be easily dismissed as a passing front, yet it is enough to draw Esca from his loose and lazy state back into that of ready apprehension. He has been a tracker all of his life, guided and instructed by his father from the moment he was sufficiently steady on his little feet to follow into the woods. By now Esca knows never to ignore even the slightest toyings of wind.
Esca has spent enough time around wolfhounds and wolf cubs brought up by then, has speared enough wolf himself to know that the growl the hum from before turns to, is more of pained whine that anything else. Nonetheless, the pile of his arrow set against the rest, is at the ready. Poised, as his arm strains the string. He caresses the fletchings with his forefinger, smooths the feather vane it's made of, anticipating.
A long, dark snout emerges with another clumsy rustle of the bushes and Esca holds his breath, feels exhilaration avidly rushing through him as he adjusts his aim.
His mouth drops open at the sheer size of it.
It is massive, bigger than any wolf he has ever seen, even after some of the fatter, more abundant years. Bear-like, broad and as black as midnight must surely be in the light of day, it resembles the creatures of old. The divine wolves that devoured gods and destroyed whole villages, the ones that still live on in the bonfire tales of the wandering bards. Esca prepares to shoot, he is not likely to miss, he tells himself as a disobedient muscle trembles in the stubborn set of his jaw and the excitement of only moments before it tinged with the cutting blade of fear.
To his utter disbelief the wolf does nothing. Not a snarl, it does not ready itself for a fight, its fur does not bristle. It sits down on its back paws, beholding Esca through almond-shaped, amber eyes. Unnervingly calm, it is not daring him to kill it, but expecting to be killed. Like a man going to his execution, completely composed, finding comfort in death. As it puts his huge muzzle on the front of his paws, lies itself in surrender, Esca's resolve peels away. He lowers his weapons, still staring at the wolf incredulously.
"Huh. A tame wolf then" he says to himself, more as an afterthought than anything else. He pulls on his braccae and retrieves his pouch, not dropping his eyes from this perplexing animal even for one moment. The wolf, however, stays put, firmly rooted to the ground, watching Esca still. Approaching it with all the caution his curiosity allows and when the wolf does not move or make any other indication that what the boy is about to do is a very bad idea indeed, Esca places the flat of his palm onto the top of its head and flexes his fingers lightly, petting the coarse fur cautiously. It gives out a low, deep rumble. One that could easily have been a purr had he been dealing with a smaller animal.
He laughs in relief, all that pent up tension easing off him in waves. Encouraged further by the pleased little growls, Esca puts both of his hand on the wolf, strokes his back and flanks broadly.
"You're nothing but a big pup, aren't you?" Esca snorts as the wolf rolls over onto itself, exposing the lighter fluff of its middle, writhing in the dry dirty and apparently, perfectly content to have him rub its belly, the eerie amber eyes drifting close. Esca huffs out a snicker as he entertains the thought of the wolf's owner, the look on their faces when they have realized what a monster grew out of the jet black little fur-ball they had taken from its slain dam.
Esca plops down on the dirt beside it, patting the wolf down one last time before leaning back onto his elbows, surveying the gently rippling surface of the lake for a moment before giving the wolf a sidelong glance, considering. There is not that much to ponder as the wolf shoves his massive head into the boy's lap, rubbing its muzzle over his chest, demanding attention.
"Where's your master, eh pup?" Esca croons as he reaches out to scratch the beast behind the ears, earning himself pleased little whines in return. "Who do you belong to?"
It must belong to someone, but Esca cannot imagine anyone who would have just left the animal on its own, even in the fervour of hunt gone havoc. Surely there would be a pack of hounds to follow, he'd have been able to hear their hight-pitched barks by now if nothing else. Unless, its master has fallen down and lies down somewhere bloodied, he thinks as he strokes spiky hairs absent-mindedly. The idea is as unappealing as it is unlikely, for Esca knows full well that no hound and no kept wolf would abandon their master in need. Gods only know, that when he himself fell and twisted his ankle when he was fourteen, his father's wolf nearly took off Dogan's arm in its efforts to get help.
Strange homeless creature.
"Are you hungry, my friend?" Esca asks cheerfully, trying to keep scratching and rattle in his pouch for left-over scraps of smoked meat at the same time. It is really a rather rhetorical question, or would be considered as such had Esca known what rhetorical meant, for the wolf swallowed them up before Esca even managed to get his hand out of the leather sack, the rough pink tongue flickering over and between his fat glistened fingers.
"I take that as a ye--ahahahahaha n-no, don't--" Esca squeals madly, breath suddenly knocked out of him as the wolf gleefully goes for his face, its enormous frame toppling them over. "No no no nnnn-o. Stop it, stop---ahahah that tickles-"
As Esca dissolves into a furiously giggling mess the heavy front paws pressing his writhing form down on the dusty ground as the wolf continues to assault his face.
"Ahahaha no no get off geddoff--" he splutters, arms flailing to cover his face as he shakes with unbridled laughter. "hahha no no--"
Eventually, he manages to shift the overwhelming weight, planting his hands firmly on each of wolf's flanks and pushing it off, fingers digging under its ribs for leverage, bouncing onto his face as soon as he's freed. He expects a half-hearted snap of of powerful jaws, a threat of teeth. Esca'd expect that even from his own tame wolves, not enough to harm him but enough to put the idea of ever doing it again effectively out of his head. However, all he gets in return is a rather forlorn-sounding whine as the beast scrambles back onto its paws. Dusting off his braccae, Esca grins down at him brightly, a little breathless, face red from laughing.
"Good boy" he praises, leaning in to scratch behind its ears somewhat apologetically. "Want me to take you home?"
He gets another deep whine in return and for an uncomprehending second Esca thinks there's something odd in those wide-set eyes that stare at him without as much as a
blink, like a hint of earthy green, something soft and human.
Dismissing it as a trick of sunlight, flickering mischievously between the capricious leaves, he slings his bow and arrows over his shoulder and leaps from the clearing, the monstrous wolf closely behind him.
stunning art by ladytiferet