In the morning, with the rosy light of dawn washing over their camp and making the dew sparkle on the grass, Esca woke to find Marcus already awake and watching him. Esca grinned, feeling ridiculously pleased to see the other man, and propped himself up on his elbow and leaned in to kiss Marcus’s lips. As he drew back and looked more closely at him, he saw that Marcus looked worn, like he hadn’t been able to sleep easily after all.
“You have not slept?” Esca asked, touching gentle fingers to his chin and turning his face this way and that to look at him.
Marcus smiled softly and gave a quiet, almost shy laugh at his concern. “I slept a little, eventually. I still felt too sick and wound up for it, at first.”
Esca nodded in understanding. He stroked his fingers over Marcus’s face from chin to temple, and then tangled them in Marcus’s hair, thick and slightly tangled and falling to just above his shoulders now. He tugged it gently in the way he knew that Marcus liked, and was rewarded with a soft, pleased sound and Marcus’s eyes falling closed. How wonderful…
“We will need to leave soon,” Marcus said softly after a moment, sitting up fully and looking down into Esca’s face, his eyes turning solemn. “Or, I will at least.” As Esca watched him, he took a deep breath and lifted his chin slightly, drawing himself up. “Esca, you need not go any further with me if you don’t wish to. When we started, this journey was about restoring the good name of my father and his Legion, but now that we know the truth, it is more about protecting Rome from the tribes that would use the Eagle against it. I know that must matter little to you, so I will not force you to continue. You are free to do as you wish.”
Looking into Marcus’s face, serious and kind and handsome, Esca found unexpectedly that this new framing of their mission didn’t change anything for him. It was for Marcus that he had started this, and he would see it through with him. He felt that this was a noble quest; the Eagle belonged to Rome, so they wouldn’t be stealing it but taking it back to its rightful owners, and preventing harm to Marcus’s people. That was important and honorable, surely? To do this for Marcus, and for Rome, because they were Marcus’s people?
He knew his answer. “I will come with you. Of course I will.” And he sat up too, and kissed Marcus again, feeling the other man smile into it and laugh quietly.
As the kiss continued, Esca found himself thinking unexpectedly of what his father would think of this, and if his spirit was watching Esca now. Cunoval had died fighting the Romans, and now Esca was helping Rome and even falling in love with a Roman.
He felt faintly guilty at the thought of his family, especially his father, being disappointed in him, and his breath caught in his throat. He pulled away from the kiss just enough to look into Marcus’s soft brown eyes, made all the more striking by his strong brows and sharply-carved features. Esca could only hope that his father would see Marcus for the wonderful man he was, not as some faceless Roman, because Esca would not give Marcus up.
“Esca?” Marcus’s face was full of concern, and he touched Esca’s cheek gently.
Shaking his head, Esca thrust aside his guilt and tried to clear his thoughts. “It is only that I was thinking of my own father,” he said slowly. He took a deep breath and almost whispered his next words. “Were he here, he would surely have me take my freedom among the tribes here, and leave your fate to chance rather than continue this quest that would help Rome.” Marcus inhaled sharply and paused for a second before taking both Esca’s hands in his.
“If it is that you would wish to live with the tribes—” Marcus started, and the effort in his voice surprised Esca. His eyes were bright and intense and focused on Esca’s face, and Esca shook his head fiercely, cutting the other man off, and cupped Marcus’s face with both hands.
“No, I do not wish that. It is for me to choose, Marcus, and it is in my heart that I would choose to stay with you and help you in this quest. My true place is with you. None of these northern tribes are my own, and more importantly, I would feel terribly unhappy and unsatisfied to live there without you.”
Watching his face, Marcus murmured, “Yes? Truly?” His eyes took on a smiling and joyful look, though the rest of his face remained still; Esca took some pride in knowing that he was likely the only one who knew Marcus well enough to see this expression, the only one who was close enough to him to know the subtle signs of his emotions.
“Of course, mi Marce. I am coming with you.” Then, feeling that Marcus might need further reassurance, he added, “Truly, Marcus, I would never leave you, not willingly. My home is with you.” He nudged his nose gently against Marcus's, and Marcus half laughed half sighed, a soft, relieved sound, then leaned in to kiss Esca soundly and lingeringly until Esca groaned against his lips.
They lay there for a few more minutes, then Guern woke on the other side of the fire, and the three of them ate. Then he showed Marcus and Esca the best way to go, pointing into the misty purple distance of the rolling hills and valleys.
“I can tell you only this,” Guern said finally, as Esca and Marcus looked out into the distance, carefully memorizing the directions they’d been given. “The men who carried the Eagle north were of the tribe of the Epidaii, whose territory is the deep firths and mountains of the west coast running from the Cluta.”
Esca looked at the other man’s face. He had heard a little of the Epidaii when he lived among his own tribe, had even gone to one of the villages of their many clans with his father. It was just after he had become a man, and he didn’t know now which clan it was that they’d visited.
“Can you hazard any guess as to where in this territory their holy place may be?” Marcus asked.
Guern shook his head ruefully. “None. It may be that if you find the Royal Dun, you will find the holy place not far off. The Epidaii is divided into many clans, so I have heard, and the Royal Clan may not be the guardians of the holy place and the holy things of the tribe. It would be a clan as powerful or more so than the Royal Clan, but very likely quite small.” There was a short pause, and Esca saw Guern’s eyes dart between Marcus and himself. “There is no more help that I can give you,” he said quietly.
None of them spoke for a long moment, and Esca went to bring up their mares.
“Do not follow that trail,” Guern said in a rush, turning to Marcus and gripping his arm. “It leads into the mouth of death.”
“I must take my chances with that,” Marcus said, running his hand down his mare’s neck. “And you, Esca?” His eyes met Esca’s cautiously as he asked it, as if Esca had not just assured him he’d gladly go anywhere Marcus went. Esca smiled.
“I go where you go.”
At the words, Marcus returned the smile, relaxed and pleased.
“Why did you come?” Guern demanded, half angrily. “I was happy with my wife and my tribe, and I’ve been nearly able to forget I ever lived a different life, at least until I was drawn back to Trinomontium. And now I will be ashamed all my life, because I let you go north alone.”
Marcus shook his head. “No, no need that you should carry a new shame. This is a trail that two can follow much better than three. Go back to your tribe, Guern, and thank you for sharing your food and your shelter, and for answering my questions.”
They turned and mounted their ponies, and when Esca looked back at Guern as he and Marcus started riding, Guern raised a hand to wave to them, and Esca waved back.
The next month of traveling was heartbreakingly disappointing for Marcus. The two of them traveled throughout the lands of the Epidaii clans, going to their holy places and seeking signs of Marcus’s lost Eagle. Many times, they’d been so sure they were close to their goal, but still the Eagle was nowhere to be found, and both Marcus and Esca were becoming discouraged.
When they went to a new Epidaii village, they would spend several days there and watch their religious rites as closely as they could without seeming suspicious. Some of the rites Esca was familiar with and was able to explain to Marcus, but many of them were strange to him and he didn’t know whether or not something like the Eagle would be part of them. The not knowing made Esca feel anxious, and that seemed to make Marcus restless as well.
It took a month of searching, a long discouraging month, before they found themselves on the right path. Marcus was dismal and near to giving up, and Esca about the same, when they met a small group of hunters on the road.
“Is there anyone in your dun who has eye sickness?” Marcus asked as they approached.
“Is it that you can cure the eye sickness?” asked a man at the front of the group who wore the twisted gold torc of a chieftain and who carried himself proudly. His face was half eager and half suspicious, and his eyes flicked from Marcus to Esca and back.
“Can I cure the eye sickness? I am Demetrius of Alexandria, the Demetrius of Alexandria!” It was clear Marcus had learned the value of advertisement, as he almost always introduced himself this way, to Esca’s continued amusement. “Speak my name in the Royal Dun itself and men will tell you that I can indeed cure any sickness of the eye.”
“We have several in the dun who have the eye sickness,” the chieftain told him. “None of your trade have ever come this far north. You will heal them?”
“Well, how should I know, even I, until I see them?”
“We are headed for the dun now, if you would come with us.”
Marcus glanced quickly at Esca, for his agreement, and Esca nodded. “Lead the way,” Marcus told the chieftain with a smile. “I will do my best for those among you with the eye sickness.”
“Thank you,” said the chieftain gravely, and he walked by Marcus’s horse as the hunters led them back to the dun.
And though he had no reason to think they were any closer to their goal now than before, Esca had a sudden prickling feeling, like an omen from the gods, that they were being led right where they needed to go. He shivered, and followed behind with the rest of the hunting party, eager to see where this step of the journey would take them.