The boy was pretty, there was no doubt of it. Even under the grime and blood, one could see the fineness of the jaw, with hair as dark as any true-born Roman's and eyes of the most astonishing blue, like lapis lazuli. So: pretty, extremely pretty. But also filthy, smelly, and in Marcus' room.
"And just what," he drawled in his most patrician accent, "is this, and what is it doing here ?"
"Sir, a present, Sir!" barked the big legionary with the iron grip on the youth's arm.
"A present, Manto ?"
"Sir !" agreed Manto, and then, after a pause in which the inadequacy of this explanation gradually struck him, added: "The lads thought Sir, what with you going back to the City an' all, and being so cut up about your boy going that way last year, well, we thought it'd be nice for you, a going-away present like."
"Great Jupiter," murmured Marcus. "And you thought this would be appropriate?"
"'E's very pretty Sir," maintained Manto stoutly. "Needs cleaning up a bit, like."
"I'd noticed," said Marcus. "Oh for the gods' sake, Manto, I mean it's very nice of the men and all that, but it's quite impossible. You'll have to take him back."
"Can't do that, sir," said Manto. "'E'd only end up wiv the auxiliaries and they'd bugger him nine ways from Friday, begging your pardon sir. 'E wouldn't last five minutes."
Marcus bit his lip in angry frustration. What Manto said was indisputably true: without a powerful protector the boy wouldn't last five minutes in a military camp, not looking like that. Undoubtedly he was Dumnonian, taken in one of the recent reprisal raids, which meant he was a fair way from whatever the 2nd Augusta had left of his tribe, so he couldn't even be discreetly released at one of the gates and sent about his business. But it was quite impossible that Marcus take him. And to suggest that he could replace Antinous - it was completely ridiculous.
No-one could possibly understand who hadn't been brought up that way, the old-fashioned Roman way that so few adopted these days, but Antinous had been far more than just a slave. Since Marcus' seventh birthday, Antinous had been with him. They had learned together, played together, received their beatings together. Antinous had been as much part of the family as Marcus' brothers or sister: inseparable friend, companion, and eventually lover. The fact that one man had, in the eyes of the law, owned the other had been a complete irrelevance. It was all that shared history that was irreplaceable - and irretrievably lost to the fever that had carried Antinous off here in this miserable arse-end of the empire.
"Look, Manto, it's not as if I didn't appreciate the men's gesture . . ." And he did. They were a good bunch, provided that you were fair with them. At least they hadn't tried to frag him - unpopular junior officers had more than once returned from raids dead of native spear wounds that looked suspiciously like those left by a Roman short sword.
"Thank you, Sir," beamed Manto. "I'll just be on me way then," he added, backing out of the tent.
"Freeze, soldier !" snapped Marcus. Manto stopped dead: he was a good troop, and he knew that tone.
Marcus looked at him, and then at the boy, eyes blazing hatred and defiance, and back to the soldier, his face carefully blank. He didn't want the boy, that was for sure; and he didn't want to leave this command with any unpleasantness between him and the men who had, after all, paid for the boy themselves out of their fairly meagre salaries. Maybe he should just put the decision off.
"Take the boy to Aulus and get him cleaned up, at least," he sighed.
"Sir !" Manto grasped the boy's arm and he flinched, then pulled back.
"Wait a minute, Manto," said Marcus, then turning to the boy asked in Latin: "What is your name ?" The boy gave no response, so Marcus switched to the local dialect:
"Ennwn dych ?"
The boy's eyes widened a little but he refused to answer.
Marcus shrugged. "Small matter," he said, still in Celtic, "no doubt you were raised nameless as a dog, in some kennel unfit for the notice of brave men, being of no honourable line."
"Very well known are my line in the annals of honour !" spat the boy, stung to speech. "Derweddyn son of March, son of Donu Dubha am I, and my father was sister's son to Elyr Gwyn that was King over the People of Mon. That is my line and my name, that the bards will sing when you lie rotting in your long grave, man of Rome."
Marcus raised an eyebrow.
"Son of March, go with this man, who will take you to a place where you will be made clean. Do not oppose him, for it will happen anyway, whether you will or not."
He turned back to Manto, and to Latin. "Very well, Manto, you can take him now."
The trooper shook his head in admiration. "Wonderful how that jabber just flows out of you sir," he said cheerfully. "I could never manage more nor two or three words meself. And them filthy ones," he added reflectively. "Right, come on laddy, let's be 'aving you."
The boy allowed himself to be led, sullenly, from the room.
With a sigh of despair, Marcus flung himself down on the couch. What a bloody mess ! All the bitterness of last year, the burning memory of the dark nights spent weeping silently so that no-one would hear, suddenly broke free again from the prison he had made for it in his heart. Why in Hades couldn't the damned men have left the thing alone, or bought him a jug or two of decent wine, instead of this, this little savage ? Well he didn't need another slave, and he most certainly didn't need a reminder of this stinking, freezing island that had robbed him of the one thing he valued most in all the world.
"He goes," said Marcus aloud. "At the first halfway decent slave market I come across, he goes." He found himself surprised at the venom with which what he had intended as a simple statement emerged.
He rose from the couch, and rummaged around among the debris of half-packed possessions for the amphora of alleged Falernian that Cestus had given him yesterday: now that was a decent present, even if it was more likely some swill from Gallia than the high-priced vintage it was claimed to be.
He unstoppered it, and sniffed, cautiously. Since his eyes didn't water and what was within smelled reasonably like something drinkable, he filled a cheap clay goblet with the wine and knocked back a healthy swig. Hmm, not bad. Not genuine Falernian, of course, but really, not at all bad. He had another cup to confirm his impression, and presently a third.
There was a small commotion at the door of the room, and the boy was abruptly propelled by the thrust of a meaty hand - Manto's, Marcus assumed - into the room. The legionary did not appear, and from the sound of sandals on the floor outside, was beating a hasty retreat before Marcus changed his mind again.
Marcus looked up from his wine cup and caught his breath for a moment. Truly, the young man was beautiful, the raven hair curling from the bath, the freshly-scrubbed skin now revealed as having that alabaster paleness that one saw on many of the natives, and the enormous eyes as vivid as some wild mountain tarn. They had found him a decent tunic, blue linen: a little large around the torso, and revealingly short on the long legs, but clean and not too worn.
"How Pheidias or Praxiteles would have loved to sculpt you."
The boy frowned.
"What is - 'sculpt' ?" he asked, his Latin tinged with the Celtic singsong, but otherwise clear and grammatical.
"To make an image in stone," replied Marcus gravely, and saw the young face unknot a little. "So you do speak Latin, after all."
"I speak three tongues," said the boy proudly. "I learned yours that I might know my enemies."
Marcus swallowed some more wine. "What did you think I meant by 'sculpt' ?"
The youth blushed and looked down.
A defiant look again, that bright gaze used like a weapon.
"They say the Romans love to lie men with men and women with women. I thought you meant . . ."
Marcus laughed, and colour mantled the fair skin.
"The word you were thinking of is 'fuck', boy. And what of your warriors and their chariot drivers ? Do they not share one bed, often as not ?"
"That is different !" Marcus raised an eyebrow. "It is ! There is a bond of life between those who do so, they are - cynenad. One heart, one life. That is a holy thing. Otherwise it is a game for boys tending the flocks together, not a thing a man should do."
"Well you need have no fear of your virtue from Pheidias or Praxiteles. Both are long dead, and that far across the sea." He took another gulp of the wine, feeling the warmth it awoke in his stomach. Really, it wasn't bad at all. Perhaps he would buy some for the journey back to Rome. "And have you played such boys' games, Derweddyn ?"
Again the gaze dropped. A mumbled answer, indistinct.
"Look at me when I'm speaking to you, damn it !" barked Marcus, parade-ground steel suddenly present in his voice.
The face was a mask of blazing anger.
"Is it this 'fuck' you wish of me, Roman ? You will force me, yes ?" With a sneer, he tore the linen of the tunic he had been given away from its fastening at his shoulder, letting it slither in a pool of blue to the floor tiles. His body was slender in the way of those who must hunt for every meal, every muscle delineated, moon pale except for the frosting of hair between his nipples and running in a narrow line down to the bush of his pubes and his small, pale, cock. He turned his back and thrust his buttocks contemptuously at the older man. "Have your 'fuck', Roman filth. That is what you bought me for, they tell me, because your other fucky boy died."
"You scum !" Without, it seemed, any intervening moment, Marcus found himself standing over the boy he had just knocked to the floor. "You filthy barbarian piece of shit, don't you ever, ever, mention him again." With each word he kicked the half stunned youth hard enough to force out an involuntary groan. He reached down and, grabbing a handful of the dark hair, pulled the boy off the floor. His lip was swollen from Marcus' original backhand blow, but the defiance was still there.
"Damn your insolent hide," whispered Marcus. "I'll teach you." He pulled the youth over to the couch, and sitting down pulled the naked body across his lap. The pale buttocks, high and taut, flexed helplessly as he pinned the Celt down with his left elbow, holding him in position, and brought his right hand down, hard, on the young man's right cheek.
Red blossomed on the pale skin, the outline of Marcus's palm and fingers. Again he struck, and again, and again, settling into a rhythm, watching the milky skin flare and blaze. After a few dozen smacks the boy's breath began to whistle hard in response; after perhaps fifty, he began to cry out. But Marcus was strong, fit and merciless, a thing of iron and brass like the siege engines of the Legion's engineers: the spanking never slackened.
On and on the punishment went. Every inch of the young Dumnonian's arse was an angry red, flecked with tiny purplish bruises; now the skin was blistering in the places his hand lit upon most frequently. Marcus' own breath was ragged with exertion, but the consuming anger had faded a little, replaced with a grim determination to break this arrogant savage. At last he heard what he had been waiting for: a torn, raw-voiced plea for mercy in between the sobs and gasps of pain.
"Mercy ? I'll show you Roman mercy, boy." Marcus paused a moment, fumbled at his waist, and unbuckled the broad belt he wore around his tunic: supple Baetican leather, an inch and a half wide. He doubled the formidable implement in his hand. His father the senator had a belt not unlike this: both Marcus and Antinous had felt it more than a few times, at the senator's hands or those of old Geminius, the major domo.
"I will complete your punishment with a good old-fashioned Roman thrashing, twenty strokes of the belt. You will count each one, and thank me for it. Do you understand ?"
A silence, a long silence, broken only by the gulping breaths the youth took. Then:
"Y-yes." The voice flat, no trace now of the bluster, the boyish bravado.
"Yes, what ?" asked Marcus sharply.
"Very well. Get up."
Snivelling slightly, the youth rose awkwardly and gingerly to his feet, permitting Marcus in his turn to rise.
"Kneel by the couch, and lie your upper body across it," the Roman officer ordered, and watched as the youth hastened to obey. His backside glowed angrily, as if badly sunburned. Marcus flexed the belt. A sudden twinge of anticipatory pleasure stiffened his cock. It was a game he and Antinous had played often, having learned as boys that the heat of a soundly thrashed bum produced heat elsewhere. Angrily he tried to ignore the treacherous arousal of his body.
"Every blow that you fail to count, I will not count either. Do you understand?" he said, suddenly savage again.
"Yes, master." Dull now the tone, hopeless.
Marcus brought the belt down, smartly. The youth's breath hissed between his lips.
"One, master. Th-thank you." The tone was ragged, uncertain: the voice of a little boy, not a man. Suddenly Marcus felt like a complete shit. He tightened his jaw: he had spoken, and now he had to go through with it.
He brought the belt down again: perhaps a little less hard.
"Ahh." A momentary pause. "Two, master. Thank you."
By the fifth blow the buttocks were flexing, trying vainly to pull away from the belt's wicked kiss. Dark stripes were overlaid on the already bruised flesh. Each count was now preceded by an involuntary cry. By fifteen he had already forgotten twice to thank Marcus, but the Roman decided that he would not press the point.
The slap of leather. "Ahuh. Six-sixteen, master. Thank you master. Oh master, I beg you. I will die."
"No, boy, you won't. You might wish to, but you won't. No-one dies from pain alone: I can tell you that for sure." He paused a moment, wiped a bead of sweat - just sweat, surely, that blurred his vision for a moment and made his eyes sting - from the corner of his eye. "Just four more. Keep counting." He touched the youth's shoulder gently, and was surprised when it suddenly heaved with convulsive sobs, not of pain, but true and uncontrollable weeping that shook his whole frame.
"Ah, look . . ." began Marcus uncomfortably, as the boy scrambled off the couch and clasped his arms tightly around the Roman's legs, tears streaming down his reddened face.
"My father . . ." the young man managed to get out before a further burst of sobbing silenced him. Marcus reached down and drew him gently, held him, somewhat awkwardly, until the sobbing subsided a little.
"There, there now, calm down." He spoke small meaningless phrases of reassurance as he would to a small child or an animal until the youth's sobbing stilled, became just an occasional hiccup.
"Your father was killed, was he ?"
A nod. "I'm sorry." It seemed inadequate, somehow. "Sometimes these raids - well things happen in them, unpleasant things, like your father, and you being taken . . ."
"I'm sorry ?" Damn, they always said the best policy with slaves was never apologise, never explain, and here he was doing both.
"He did not die in the raid. He has been dead three years. But since then there has been no-one who cared for me. He would have beaten me as you did, for insolence."
Holy Mother, thought Marcus, what sort of upbringing must you have had where the only sign of affection you can recall is being beaten ? But in a curious way he understood what the youth was trying to say: his father had cared enough to try to make his son worthy, even at the cost of that son's hide. Marcus had known a father like that, a man whose pride and love had hidden behind Roman stoicism and paternal sternness.
"Yes." He patted the boy gently between the shoulder blades. "Better now ?"
The boy nodded, a little tearful still, the very picture of contrition.
"Good. Now, I'm not angry with you any more, boy - ah damn it, I can't keep calling you that, and Roman tongues will never handle Derweddyn. You'd better become Demetrius."
"But it is not my name," the boy objected.
"Think of your real name as a treasure to be hidden away," said Marcus. "You have a new life now for good or ill. You need a new name. Become Demetrius."
The boy looked for a moment as if he would argue the point further, but then swallowed convulsively and nodded. "Master, I will be Demetrius."
"Good. Now, as I said, I'm not angry with you any more, but there is a little matter of your punishment: I said you would have twenty strokes, and you've only had sixteen."
Panic shot across the youth's face, and one hand went convulsively to his mottled and still flaming buttocks. He searched Marcus' face for a moment, then seeming to read something there that reassured him he drew himself up, nodded, and without a word went back to the couch and laid himself down, presenting his bottom meekly for its punishment. Marcus surveyed the welted flesh and lifted his belt without much enthusiasm.
Slap. "Ah, ah. Holy Cernwn aid me ! Seach-deg, seach-deg - ah, seventeen."
Marcus waited a second to see if the required 'thank you' was forthcoming, but again it had been forgotten. "Is there not something else you wish to add ?" he prompted gently.
"Master, in truth I cannot trust my voice. May I not just thank you at the end ?"
"You are pushing your luck, boy," said Marcus, amused but trying to keep laughter from his voice. "Keep counting."
He was just piqued enough to make the last few blows full force. Whack. Whack. Whack. WHACK ! "Ach Duwe Mor ! Twenty, master, thank you master. O Mam Lan !"
"Hmm. Very well, get up. In truth I should give you a few more for insolence, but perhaps we'll save those for another time."
The young man rose gingerly from his kneeling position. The eyes were a little reddened, his cheeks wet with tears, but there was a suspicious fullness to his cock which had not been there before. The belt had worked its old magic, thought Marcus wryly.
The lamp guttered and Marcus realised that it must be getting late.
He went to the chest in the corner of the room - not yet packed away, thanks be to the gods - and drew out a blanket.
"Here, Demetrius," he said, throwing it down on the second couch. "You sleep here"
The boy looked at him though lowered eyelashes that any of the prostitutes in the camp would have killed for.
"Where will you sleep, master ?"
"Through here," he said. "I'll just be through here, in the inner room. And the latrines are opposite the officers' block if you need one during the night. Don't hang around though, and if anyone troubles you just tell them you serve the military governor's attaché."
"Yes master," replied the youth, rather downcast.
"Right. Oh, and Demetrius ?"
The boy looked up, questioning.
"Stay away from the edges of the camp. We guard the walls and gates very carefully, and sometimes the guards get a bit - excitable - if they think they've found someone trying to breach camp security." He didn't think the boy would try to run away - not that Marcus would care that much of course - but there was no point in having any unnecessary trouble.
He snuffed the lamp, filling the air with the usual sickening smoke of half-burnt oil. Then he went into the inner room, and drew the curtain across, undressed himself and laid down. He heard the sounds of the boy moving about for a while, then the creak of the couch as he laid down.
He realised that he had drifted off when something woke him abruptly from sleep. He was out of bed before he realised it, dagger in hand and heart pounding. For a moment there he had been back on patrol during the revolts, the surrounding woods full of hostiles . . . The noise again: whimpering ?
He slipped around the curtain into the outer room. Demetrius lay, half-tangled in his blanket, curled up in a tight little ball. He was whimpering, and shaking in his sleep, the way Antinous' old dog had used to whine and yip, chasing rabbits in its dreams. But the tormented look on the boy's sleeping face suggested that it was not rabbits that filled his dreams.
Marcus leaned over him, tried to straighten the blanket a little. The youth tossed in his sleep, grimaced as his bruised backside rolled onto the hard surface of the couch and rolled back again, losing the blanket entirely. Marcus sighed, and bent to pick it up from the floor. Then he slipped onto the couch and laid down alongside his property, resting one arm gently over the boy, who snuggled blindly against him like a kitten.
It was strange, after so long, to feel the warmth of another body against his. Strange and curiously comforting. The youth seemed calmer now, his breath slowing. Marcus could feel the heat from the beating in the buttocks pressed against him, felt a response in himself that he had not thought to feel again - NO ! No, best not to think about that. He sighed, and felt his own breath begin to slow. He was tired, needed to get some sleep. In the morning there would be the final arrangements to make, the draymen were coming to remove the last of his things. And then the day after the coast road, via Londinium and Dubris, and back to the sunshine, gods willing. And maybe he would keep the boy with him, at least as far as Rome. Not that he wanted him mind, or intended to keep him for good. No, definitely not. But some company would be pleasant on the road.
"I'll keep you with me for a while," he whispered.
As if he had heard, in his sleep, Demetrius smiled.