The spring came rushing up and across the downs that year, bright and urgent on a wind from the sea. Small clouds chased each across the pale-blue sky, while in the valley, playful fox-red lambs leapt across valley slopes flushed green with new grass. Marcus looked out from the terrace and smiled. The lambing had gone well. After the first wet spring, he had almost despaired of being able to keep sheep. But these new little red sheep that Cottia had found were thriving. Of course it was easier now that they had the lambing pens set up and the hedges in good trim, and could afford to keep a shepherd as well as a herdsman for the cattle.
Over near the byre little Cara, her small dark face solemn with concentration, was feeding scraps to the hens. She was so small that the fierce little black hens came up to her knees, so she fed them very carefully, a scrap at a time, throwing the food well away from her feet. It was good, Marcus thought, that the children were all old enough to help out now, even the littlest, but how quickly it had happened! It seemed only a month ago that Cara had been a crumpled red angry scrap of a baby, screwing up her tiny fists to let out a yell bigger than she was.
He looked down at the letter in his hand, and, half from habit, read it again. It told of Isca Dumnoniorum rebuilt. Temples, baths, law courts, paved roads and bustling shops – all rising on the ashes of the old British town. Grafting the new slip of Rome onto an old stock, and making sure the graft took this time. A complex task for his old friend Cassius, and one not without risk, but it sounded as though Cassius was making a great success of it.
Marcus almost envied him – would have said that he did envy him – only of course that was not the way for a man to think who was lucky enough to have land of his own and a family and friends about him. There was, after all, still so much to do on his own farm.
Still... the things that were left to do were important, of course, but deep down, he felt that the shine had worn off the doing of them for the first time.
He looked again blankly at the wide strips of birchwood covered in Cassius’s sprawling handwriting, his dark brows drawn. He did not see the letter anymore, but rather the road down to Isca Dumnoniorum from the western hills, and the fort on the Red Mount looming over – what? A new Roman city?
Marcus’s farm would never be more than just another little native farm, tucked away in the quiet downs. What Cassius was building at Isca would be something more. If things had gone differently, if Marcus had gained his shining goal and become Legate of an Egyptian legion...then Marcus would have been the one to build new cities and roads to bring law to the provinces, another man helping the Empire prosper.
He sighed and walked in from the terrace to the kitchen of the farmhouse, where Cottia was making bread. Cub lay near her feet, his old muzzle more white than grey now, but still keeping half a yellow eye open for crumbs. Cottia’s heavy red-amber hair had come loose and trailed down her back as she pounded and stretched the creamy dough with a practiced hand.
Marcus leant over and kissed her ear. The Legate of an Egyptian legion could not hope to see a finer sight, he thought. And soon Esca would be back at the farm after his winter away, and when the three of them were together, Marcus’s discontent would vanish away like the mist in the morning sun.
Cottia turned and kissed him back, holding her floury hands away from his clean tunic.
“I see you have Cassius’s letter there,” she observed. The letter had arrived ten days ago. Marcus had read it a number of times already.
“Yes – he has much to say about the extended basilica and the work on the roads to improve the silver trade. I thought I might send him some of our dried damsons as a gift with my reply...”
Cottia looked at him, eyes narrowed in amusement. “Why don’t you go to visit him?” she asked, in the voice that meant she was being terribly sensible and practical. “The farm can spare you for a few weeks, and it would do you good to see your old friend.” She smiled, teasing. “And it would do me good to get you out from under my feet!”
“There is far too much to do around the farm for me to go all the way to Isca Dumnoniorum on a whim! It’s at least three days’ ride. The spring planting….”
“Esca will be back from Canovium very soon. And Senecianus has offered to lend us his sons to help with the spring planting this year, had you forgotten? Flavius is old enough to help this year too. We shall have more help with the planting than I know what to do with. ” She thumped down the lump of dough into the big earthenware bowl. Her sharp face was thoughtful. “Marcus, I’ve been thinking. Before you went away to the North you used to talk about your life with the Eagles often – almost as often as you spoke of your farm among the olive trees. But now – now you never mention the Legions at all. It was your ambition all the time you were growing up, but now you never speak of it.”
Marcus looked a little surprised. “But you never liked the Eagles much yourself.”
Cottia turned to Marcus and gave him an awkward floury hug. She smelled of warm bread, and her body felt a little more of an armful than he had expected. It made a fine change from the lean years, when he could feel the bones in her shoulder too clearly for comfort by the time the new grass came.
“Go to Isca and talk about Roman things with this Cassius,” Cottia told him. “I won’t mind – nor will Esca. Then come back and tell us about it. You worry too much, Marcus.”
Outside the small villa, there was a sudden crashing noise and a distant indignant cry, followed by the sound of a faint but frantic yapping. Cottia and Marcus looked at one another.
“I think your son has fallen out of the apple tree again,” said Marcus, resigned.
“Into the water trough, I think. Why is he always my son when he does things like this?”
“I’m sure he’s not mine,” said Marcus, laughing aloud as they hurried outside, with old Cub’s claws clacking gently on the tiles behind them. “I was a nice quiet boy!”
Under the apple tree, a small damp figure was climbing out of the water trough. Petals from the fallen blossoms stuck to his wet tunic and bare muddy feet. A small, excited white puppy with one black ear and ginger eyebrows leapt up and down next to the boy, yapping furiously.
“Esca always says that only a Roman could create such havoc wherever he goes,” Cottia replied. Marcus thought that Flavius looked more indignant than injured, but he hurried over to check on the boy anyway.
“I think you need to tell Esca more about the history of the Iceni, my love,” he said, over Flavius’s water-damp head, as he bent to look at the impressive scratch along the boy’s arm. “Flavius! What have I told you about the apple tree?”
Marcus had thought, as he rode back down the old road to the West under heavy grey-purple skies, that it would be strange to come back to Isca Dumnoniorum, where the ghosts of so many men he had known might walk. Cradoc, who had begun to be his friend and who he had killed, and who had almost killed him. Lutorius, the commander of the Dacian horse. He tried to remember the names of his own men who had died there, and was a little ashamed to find he had to search right to the corners of his mind to find them.
But when he came over the last rise in the newly-paved road into the wide river valley, with the low afternoon sun sparkling in his eyes under the edges of the grey cloud-bank overhead and glittering on the raindrops caught in the unfurling fern-spirals beside the road, he found that so much had changed at Isca Dumnoniorum that it was almost like arriving at a city that he had never seen before.
The turf walls on the Red Mount still loomed over the town, enclosing the Legio Augusta’s old legionary headquarters which in Marcus’s time had been mostly abandoned. His one cohort had only used a corner of the fort . But where reed-thatched roofs had huddled below the fort without order, looking warily over their humped shoulders at the stone-built basilica and forum, now there were tiled Roman townhouses and shops marching in ordered rows along unfamiliar straight, sharp-cornered streets. There was still that dusky smell of woodsmoke and horse dung, which permeated every British town, but the buildings and the roads looked almost entirely new.
As Marcus rode up, he could see a squadron of auxiliaries sweating to build a new turf rampart and ditch around the new city. Gauls, probably, he thought, noting their height and fair hair. Gauls, like his own cohort, the Fourth that he had commanded for such a short while. He wondered where those men were now. Posted elsewhere no doubt, perhaps in Germania or even farther away by now.
At the gates of the fort on the Red Mount, a soldier who seemed to Marcus quite improbably young and skinny was told to take Marcus up to the Commander. Had he ever been that young? he wondered, looking at the lad’s thin neck as he led the way past piles of timber and stacks of bricks.
They found Cassius in a large room with high white plastered walls. At least, what you could see of the walls was white. Most of them were hidden by a great number of thin wooden sheets, pinned up from head height almost to the red tiled floor. They were covered in careful ink sketches and scrawled notes, some neatly written, but mostly scrawled roughly in Cassius’s rather large and careless writing. More wooden sheets, pens and wax tablets littered the large table that stood in the middle of the room. Behind the table sat Cassius, pen in hand, frowning ferociously at a wax tablet.
Cassius had changed too, though not as much as the town. The languid, elegant young man who had relieved Marcus of his command at Isca Dumnoniorum was stouter now and greying at the temples. He turned to the doorway and frowned as Marcus was shown in, and for a moment, Marcus thought his old friend did not recognise him. Then a broad, familiar smile spread over his face.
“My dear Marcus,” he said in amazement, standing up. “I haven’t seen you in...how long?”
“Twelve years, it must be? Or almost twelve. It was just coming into autumn when you relieved me as commander here.”
Cassius came over and grasped his hand warmly. “Whatever has brought you back to this distant moss-encrusted corner of Britain?” he asked, smiling.
“When you wrote to say that you had been posted here again, I thought I would come and see you. And it does not look as mossy as it used to!”
“Well, we have been working on it,” Cassius said, languidly waving a hand to indicate the building work outside. “Scrubbing, drains – that sort of thing. It sometimes seems that anything one puts down for even a moment begins growing mushrooms. But I am going make a city of this damp old fort or die in the attempt!”
Marcus laughed. “The man who was Commander here before me – Quintus Hilarion, do you know him? He swore that toadstools would be sprouting from my ears by the end of the year. How long have you been back in Britain?”
“Almost a year now.” Cassius elaborately twirled a finger in his ear, looking for toadstools. “Good old Quintus...they posted him to the Rhenus, you know; he was heartbroken to leave Britain.”
“I’m not surprised. He was very fond of his family in Durinum. You were on the Rhenus too for a while, and over in Gaul also, if I remember rightly? Oh, Cassius – did you ever manage to get that lovely team of bays back from Dexion?”
“The team you drove to win the chariot race in the Saturnalia Games for me? Yes, I had them back for a year or so before I was posted to Germania and had to sell them – not the groom though, I’ve still got him. Never found a charioteer to get the best out of them after mine got injured and went off to be a farmer.” He grinned broadly at Marcus.
“You’ll have to complain to the Dumnonii about that,” Marcus said, grinning back.
“Ha!” Cassius said. “I should, at that. It would be something to be complaining to them for a change, instead of them coming to me with a thousand grievances. Nothing we do is ever in the right place and every one of them has an opinion on every plan I make, even the women, if you can believe that. ”
“I certainly can,” said Marcus, laughing. It was so good to see Cassius again, to pick up the old threads as if they had only parted last week. “My wife is a woman of the Iceni.”
“Whew – you’re a brave man! But come, we must catch up! Where are you staying? Can I put you up? I must show you the new Commander’s house; it’s quite a change from your bare old quarters in the old barracks.”
“I left my things down at the new inn in the town,” Marcus replied. “I wasn’t sure if you would be here, or in a position to take guests – what with all the building work.” He waved his hand vaguely at the wooden scaffolding and piles of stone blocks visible through the open door.
“Well, it is a work in progress – but my house is almost finished. I draw the line at sleeping in a building site. You must come to dinner, my dear man, and tell me all about this British wife of yours, and what you have been up to tucked away in the hills all these years.”
That evening Cassius entertained Marcus to dinner in a very splendid room in the new Commander’s house. The warm glow of the oil lamps showed faint patterns on the wall where the clean new plaster was not yet quite dry, but the table was strewn with spring crocuses and the couches were splendid things with red covers woven with a pattern of lilies, and finely-carved lion-feet.
“So you are setting up another town, west of Isca Dumnoniorum?” Marcus asked, as Cassius poured him another cup of excellent wine. “That’s rather out of the way, surely? When I was here, it was a frontier job – keeping the tribes living quietly and the taxes coming in.”
“Silver,” Cassius answered emphatically, and took a sip of wine. “Silver, that’s why I’m here. That’s why everything is happening, out here in the West of the world. Dumnonia, it appears, is richer than anyone knew. Lead too, of course, and iron and tin – we’ve been trading in those for years – but it’s the silver that has got the Senate interested. Straight to the money, our Senators, like a dog on a bone.”
“They have found so much silver then? I thought the Spanish mines produced all we needed.” It was easy, so easy, to slip back into a mode of speech where Rome and all her interests were ‘we’, Marcus noticed.
Cassius blew out his cheeks and leaned back on his couch, looking sideways at Marcus, and then narrowed his eyes so that long wrinkles formed under them, accentuating the tired shadows.
“You can’t have too much silver. But strictly between you and me, Marcus...” He spoke quietly, and Marcus had to lean forward a little to hear him.
“I’ve had reports of gold as well. But I’m keeping that very quiet: I have enough trouble on my hands without rumours flying with every hunter or trader that takes a whim to travel in and out of Dumnonian lands. And the silver – well, there is a great deal of it, and not too difficult to get at either. That is good in one way, but not so good in another. It’s too easy for anyone to pick up the ingots, and these coasts are full of little harbours with boats that can run across to Gaul or Spain in a day. And once in Gaul... well, who is to say the silver came from Dumnonia and is the property of Rome and subject to tax? They say it’s from Hibernia or some other wild place outside the Empire, and sell for their own profit, and there’s no-one will give them the lie.”
Marcus nodded, seeing the scale of the problem in his mind’s eye. “Can you not patrol the coastline from the sea?” he asked.
Cassius quirked his mouth, ruefully. “I have as much of the fleet as they will let me get my hands on, patrolling the Oceanus Britannicus trying to keep the smugglers in check. I have people across Dumnonia too, right the way down to the lsle of Ictis. Nemetio Statio, Uxelis, Durocornovio, Tamaris by the great river and Novocrepidis on the coast... But – well, everyone needs men, and the Wall is the priority, I’m told.
“I don’t have the troops to occupy the land the way it was fifty years ago, before the line of battle Legions were moved North. A town – no, let me be more realistic, a Roman village – west of the river will help to serve the tin trade. There will be a market to bring the tribes down from their hilltops – encourage them to trade peacefully rather than raiding each other – or us, of course.”
Marcus had a sudden, very clear vision of Cradoc’s wife, Guenhumara, and her brown baby. Cradoc’s son would be almost grown to manhood by now, he thought, if he had survived the revenge taken by the Legions after the revolt, the huts burned and the fields laid waste.
“What do the Dumnonii make of it?” he asked Cassius. Cassius raised his eyebrows and looked quizzical.
“Well, they are not happy, but then, when were Britons ever happy? They were working the tin themselves, as they always have, and shipping it out by sea. But we need the silver here in Britain, and the tin too, so we have had to put a stop to that. I’ve put in some of our own administrators to keep records now, and of course that meant troops to protect them and the silver.”
“I have my work cut out here, keeping the local chiefs in order – not to mention trying to keep on top of everything that is going on further West. Some of the tribes down there had half-forgotten they were part of this little island of Britannia, I think – let alone the Empire.
“The tribes are officially disarmed, of course – no swords, no weapons of war – but as you know better than anyone, that doesn’t stop them making trouble if they get in the mood for it. Particularly if the harvest is rained into the ground, as it was last year.” Cassius took another sip of wine.
“But Marcus, here I am talking about work again – I must be boring you rigid. You promised to tell me all about this terrifying Iceni woman of yours!”
Marcus smiled. “Please do not put it that way if you meet her!” he said, and began to tell Cassius about Cottia, and about Flavius falling out of the apple tree.
A couple of days later, Marcus rode out in the spring sunshine, accompanying Cassius to inspect the new little town he had established in the West. The houses and barns spread out, new and raw across the open pastureland, which swept green and smooth down to the little river winding between stiff green reeds and little copses of oak and willow.
The headman of the new town came out proudly to greet them as they rode down the green way that led from Isca Dumnoniorum. He was clad in a thick tunic of brightly dyed local cloth and wore British braccae, but Marcus spotted the helmet-gall under his chin. The disciplined stance of the man as he stood spear-straight to greet Cassius was all Rome, and that made Marcus think of another tribesman with a helmet-gall to mark him, away North of the Wall – maybe dead by now, and maybe not.
The houses were built in the native style, round, with tall roofs of new golden thatch hanging close to the ground, but they stood neatly in Roman lines around the new marketplace. It was little more than a clear space as yet, but Cassius called it a forum.
There was little enough to see, in truth, but Cassius inspected it all gravely, from the well-stocked storage barns, to the old grey hawthorn tree with the bright green spring leaves just showing that leant crookedly over the new drainage trenches, right down to the round-faced tabby cat patrolling the grainstore. Marcus could see how his old friend had managed to achieve so much at Isca Dumnoniorum. Cassius was interested in everything, noticed everything, and took every problem seriously. He seemed to Marcus just the kind of man who might be able to pull together the loyalties of Roman and Briton and begin to build this odd little corner of the Empire into something that would be new and wonderful. Once, Marcus had hoped he might be that kind of man himself. It was good to see that Cassius had the trick of inspiring loyalty without bitterness.
As they came back out of the last barn to be inspected, out into the fading spring sunshine, Marcus heard hooves in the distance – the sound of a horse running fast, coming from the west. No trader or hunter would ride down on a settlement like that.
From his leather shirt and the helmet strapped to his saddle, the man was an auxiliary, and his horse bore the brand of a post-horse, although he was coming from a direction that had certainly been well outside of the range of the official postal service when Marcus had served in Isca.
Cassius stepped out and waved the man down as he pelted down the final slopes of the valley side, heading for the trail towards Isca. The man’s eyes widened as he caught sight of Cassius, and he reined his sweating horse in sharply and slid off, coming smartly to the salute as he hit the ground.
“What is your name, soldier?”
The auxiliary’s freckled face bore an unmistakably guilty air under his close-cropped cap of fiery red hair, but he answered readily enough, “Vallaunus, sir!”
“So, Vallaunus. What is so urgent that you must risk a valuable horse on these slopes at such a speed?”
“Sir, despatches from Centurion Decimus, sir!” Vallaunus turned and pulled a sheaf of reports bound with a leather thong from the saddle bag. “He did say it was urgent, sir.” he added, hopefully.
“Hmm,” said Cassius as he flipped open the folded wooden slats and cast an eye swiftly over the contents. “If your horse breaks a leg then the despatches will not arrive any the sooner.”
“Sir, the slope is not so very steep,and Lovernisca knows the way well.”
“Be more careful in future,” Cassius said absently. Something in the report had taken his attention, Marcus could see. His old friend frowned, unusually serious-faced, at the close-written ink.
“Something urgent?” he asked his old friend.
“Well, not entirely urgent, but delicate, at least,” Cassius said to him, frowning “Decimus sends news from west beyond the moors that I would very much like to look into myself. He has a whisper of... well, something that could cause us a great deal of trouble, if we have another wet autumn like the last.”
A pair of small children ran past, chasing a scrawny, long-legged pullet with a great deal of squawking, and Cassius closed the letter with a decisive snap.
“Still, there’s nothing to be done about it. I can’t go West just now; I must get back to Isca. Old Vindiorix – do you remember him? Wily old brute, chief of all the country along the Nemet river? He’s arriving in Isca any day now, and I must be there to talk to him.”
Marcus nodded, remembering. “I had a centurion who used to say ‘When trouble bubbles up in Isca Dumnoniorum, you can be sure that it has been brewed up in the groves of the Nemet’.”
“Too true, too true... I wish I had more seasoned men here!” Cassius said in frustration. “Half of them are young idiots like Vallaunus here, without the least idea of discretion or caution!”
Vallaunus grinned at them with a transparent innocence, and Marcus could not help smiling in return.
On the short ride back to Isca Dumnoniorum, Marcus carefully kept to small talk. He did not wish to ask indiscreet questions that might presume upon his old friendship with Cassius. But that evening, Cassius was flatteringly eager to tell him about it.
“It is good to have an opinion from someone who I can trust to be discreet!” he told Marcus as they sipped cups of hot spiced wine in the atrium. “And you are not only a friend, but – well, I heard just a little about that business in the North, you know, through dear old Great Uncle Clodius.”
“I thought the Senate were supposed to be keeping that quiet,” Marcus said, although he could not help quietly feeling a little pleased that Cassius, who was achieving so much, had heard of his own small achievement.
“Well, I’m afraid dear old Clodius was never the most discreet of Senators,” Cassius admitted, smiling. “At any rate, there is no question but that you are to be trusted.
“Now, I’ve had Decimus and a few others keeping an ear open for trouble, and when word of trouble does come, there’s often a mention with it of this thing called the White Hare. My thinking is that it is one of the Sacred Things of the Dumnonii. Perhaps a war standard in the form of a silver hare? Or it may be a name we have not heard before for Mars or Jupiter, or a new war dance, for all we know.”
“All these ideas sound possible,” Marcus agreed cautiously. “You know no more about it? No details?”
“Oh, it’s all very thin – no more than a whisper, a rumour that rises with the hill mists, and just as hard to grasp. But I’ve been working on the assumption that the White Hare is a real thing, not just a story. It’s the kind of thing that could cause trouble if it’s allowed to sit out there in the wilds, in the sacred places of the tribes. A failed harvest, or trouble over the silver-tax or the price of tin, and it will become a dangerous rallying point,”
“If it is a standard, we need to get it up to Isca where we can put it into a proper shrine in the new temple here. If it is a new name for Mars, we will perhaps build a joint temple to him and good old Hadrian – that would strike the right note, I think. They know Hadrian, here in Britain, and since he has only just been deified, I am sure that the good people of Isca Dumnoniorum could be convinced to raise a subscription to fund it.”
“Anyway, whatever the thing is, Decimus has sent word that he’s heard from a reliable source that it will be found in a particular place at a particular time. If I could only get away, there’s a chance I could at least find out what it is and who is controlling it.”
Marcus said, “And I don’t suppose our hairy friend Vindiorix will be too helpful if you ask him? Is he still roosting up there on the river Nemet like an otter in his holt?”
Cassius snorted with laughter. “Vindiorix? I’m sure he knows plenty about what’s going on in the West but catch him telling me anything that he thinks I might find useful! He calls himself a magistrate now, if you can believe that – but what he means by it is that all the small chiefs in his lands can shut up and listen to what he has to say,” Cassius smiled, broadly. “Hmm. If we end up having to build a new temple for this thing, then Vindiorix is right at the top of my list of people who I shall expect to subscribe handsomely.”
Marcus frowned, dark brows drawing together. “And there’s nobody else here in Isca who you can send to find out what it is and try to bring it back?”
Cassius looked thoughtful and leant back, half-closing those tired eyes consideringly. “I don’t suppose you would consider extending your visit and doing a little work – for me, and for Rome? I could use your experience. You have served here before, after all.”
Marcus thought of the farm. He needed to get back – but not, perhaps, right away? Cassius’s regard gave him a pleasant warm feeling, which mingled pleasingly with the glow that the wine had given him. It seemed to him that it would be good to help Cassius, to feel that he had added a little to the work being done here in the West.
“If I am needed, then I am here!” he said with a smile.
They rode out in the grey morning the next day, just as the trumpets sounded the morning watch. The mist was hanging low and damp over the heavy shadow of the Red Fort, almost hiding the dim sun, and the walls and road were wet. It did not seem an auspicious start.
Marcus’s head ached a little from last night’s wine and the early start. A part of him was wondering why he had been so eager to volunteer – he a man with a farm to keep and a family to feed. But since he had committed to do the job, he would do it as well as he could. And there was another small part of him that remembered the young centurion marching down to Isca in the joy of his first command, and was uncomplicatedly delighted.
The auxiliary Vallaunus, his red hair covered by a thick hood, led the way with exaggerated care, keeping his horse to a gentle pace as the hooves thudded hollow on the bridge over the Isca river. Behind them rode a pair of Cassius’s astonishingly young auxiliaries, as an escort. Marcus found himself thinking of them as ‘the boys’ and had to stop himself. They were, he told himself, not more than a year younger than he had been himself, when he had first come to Britain and seen the long white sands and the low green hill of Rutupiae standing above them against the cloudy skies.
They rode out of the circle of the raw unfinished red walls through the Western gate, and clattered over the wet dark timbers of the low bridge over the river. When Marcus glanced back, the fort on the Red Mount was no more than a dark shadow against the mist.
It took a full day to ride from Isca Dumnoniorum to the little settlement of Uxelis, tucked into a green valley under the tawny shoulder of the great hills to the South, and Marcus was stiff from the riding by the time they rode down the unmade earth track, with the low sun dazzling in his eyes as it dipped down into the treetops that filled the gentle curve of the valley. Marcus began to turn his horse towards the walls of the old legionary fort on the rise ahead of them, but Vallaunus shook his head and pointed to the cluster of small round houses lower in the valley. Thin trails of blue smoke were rising above them.
“Nobody up there now, sir,” Vallaunus explained. “The old walls are still standing, but the Second Augusta pulled the barracks down when they left for the North. Centurion Decimus has a house in the town here.”
“Of course,” Marcus said. “They would not want the old forts held against them. And you are on attachment to Centurion Decimus? ”
“Me, and a few other lucky souls, out here in the middle of nowhere.” Vallaunus grinned ruefully as they came towards the huddle of houses. “When I joined the Eagles I thought I would get to see Eburacum, Londinium, maybe Lugdunum or even Rome. And here I am: rain, hills, sheep…. I might as well have stayed at home!”
“And where is home?”
“Oh, I’m from the hills around Venta Silurum, I am. Very much like this, only our mountains are bigger – hey, wait, you foolish beast!” Vallaunus broke off as his horse pulled towards her familiar stable.
Decimus was a small man, with bristling dark brows and a soft lilting voice that immediately identified him as as a man of Hispania. He did not seem at all pleased to see the prefect’s representative. He gave Marcus a frown and spent a long, dubious moment examining Marcus’s letter of authority.
“I thought the prefect would want to come himself,” he said at last, looking sulky.
“The prefect has other tasks to do,” Marcus said, rather shortly, for the ride had been longer than he was used to these days, and the old leg wound was aching a little. “He has sent me to discover what may be discovered. I shall report to him, and then he will decide what must be done.”
“And you are...?”
“An old friend of the prefect,” Marcus said, “and a magistrate.” He fixed Decimus with the hard stare that had meant that he had rarely needed to use more extreme measures when disciplining his raw Gaulish auxiliaries, all those years ago.
“Very well, very well!” Decimus said, suddenly warming into belated hospitality. “Would you care to have a sleeping place here in my house? The auxiliaries have a little barracks-room over the way, but it’s a bare enough place... not right for an old friend of the prefect’s. And perhaps you would care for a mug of hot spiced beer with honey?”
“That would be very welcome,” Marcus said gratefully, and sat in the place that Decimus showed him.
It seemed that Decimus had a family of a sort here, although such a thing must of course be strictly unofficial. There was a loom set up near the doorway of the low, thatched house, where it would be easy to carry outside into the light, and half-hidden behind a soft striped curtain at the back of the firelit room, Marcus saw round dark eyes in a small solemn face watching him. But there was no sign of the woman of the house, and in his official capacity, Marcus did not feel he should ask after her.
He asked about the White Hare, instead, as Decimus warmed a little ale in a tall tin jug in the embers of the hearth.
“It will be south of here, along the river – or so the tale goes,” Decimus answered, speaking quietly and glancing over toward the door before he replied. It seemed a little strange to Marcus that he was so nervous, but then, living out here in the hills, surrounded by the tribes, the man must have a good sense of what might cause trouble.
“The precious thing moves around with the seasons, but I’ve been told this year it will go to the tribe along the Tamaris for their Spring festival, at the next full moon.”
“If I can find out who is looking after it, that would be a start.” Marcus said. “Then we can start talking to them about where they keep it. Do you have any idea what I’m looking for?” He was privately doubtful that anything other than force would convince the Dumnonii to meekly surrender one of their Sacred Things to the temple at Isca, but perhaps Cassius would find a way. He could be terribly persuasive, as Marcus had cause to know himself.
“Silver,” said Decimus, with certainty, pouring out the ale into leather cups. “Everything’s about the silver, down here. That’s what they make all their sacred things from: they even play a game with a ball made from the stuff. Silver’s white. It’s a silver hare-thing the size of a man’s head, that’s what I reckon.”
The ale was weak and a little sharp, but the warmth was very welcome: Marcus hoped that Vallaunus and the other auxiliaries had found themselves a hot drink and a fire too.
“But still, nobody has seen it?” he asked, sipping thankfully.
“Nobody that I know of,” Decimus admitted, looking down at his cup. There was still that vague sense that the man was on edge, somehow, but it was nothing that Marcus could quite put his finger on. It might be something as minor as a little petty thieving, and a worry that the prefect’s friend might find out about it. But still, it would be worth keeping an eye on Decimus.
They came for Marcus the next morning, in the darkness before dawn. There was no warning, only a hand across his mouth, hands grabbing at him – two men? three? Still half tangled in a confused dream, Marcus tried to struggle, kicked the feet from beneath one and got in a blow to the stomach of another, but then something came crashing down on his head from behind, and he fell back into dark dreams.
He woke on horseback, his arms and legs tied with rope around the fat, shortlegged pony’s neck and stomach. His stomach roiled at the movement, and he gulped hard to try to keep himself from vomiting. There were other horses ahead and behind him, and they were riding along a lane among thick woodland. It was impossible to tell where they were, or even what direction they were travelling. There was no sign of Decimus, or Vallaunus or the other auxiliaries. Marcus remembered the child peeping through the curtains in Decimus’s house, and hoped with all his heart that the raiders had come and gone swiftly, and done no other harm.
They brought him at last to a high-roofed house, built round and thatched in the British style but greater and taller than was usual, with a pair of antlers from some great deer above the door. It was set above the others on a long sloping sheep-grazed hillside. The men dragged him from his horse and threw him onto his face on the floor inside.
Marcus looked around cautiously as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, trying to catch his breath. The ride had been hard, and his head was still swimming a little.
There were several men lounging about the wide hearth in the middle of the tall room, which was hung about with long woven curtains. A tall warrior with long braids falling around his sharp face strode over and kicked Marcus in the stomach.
Marcus grunted loudly and doubled up, screwing up his face in pain. In fact, the kick had been a glancing one and his wide leather belt had taken most of the force of it, but there was no point in playing the hero. With a little luck, if they thought the first kick had hurt, they would be less likely to kick him harder, and he would be the better able to take the chance to escape if one should come along.
“Talk!” the braided man demanded. “Where is the prefect?”
“In Isca Dumnoniorum!” Marcus replied “Where else should he be?”
“How many men with him?” That was a smaller man, round-faced and dark haired, with a worried look to him.
“A couple of cohorts,” Marcus replied, trying to sound confident, and added, “and the Second Legion only three days march away in case of trouble. Which may well come, when I am treated so discourteously. But let me go now, and I’ll speak on your behalf to the prefect.”
In fact, Marcus knew that there was only half a cohort of auxiliaries at Isca Dumnoniorum now, and they were busy building the city wall. The city was supposed to be at peace, after all. But there seemed no reason to admit that, if the tribesmen did not know it already.
Why didn’t they know? Marcus wondered, from his position on the floor, watching warily for another kick. The people of Isca Dumnoniorum must know how many soldiers were at the Red Fort – but ah! That was it! These tribesmen were not men of the city. These were men of the far West beyond the moors, and clearly they had little idea of what was going on beyond their own hunting-runs.
“Will they come after you?” the dark haired man began to ask, but the braided man exclaimed angrily and waved the question aside.
“Will the Eagles march, when they see that there is no more silver coming out of the West?” he asked.
“I... I don’t know,” said Marcus, honestly taken aback. “Probably they would come, although perhaps not straight away….” It was a weak answer, and both of them knew it. The braided man swung away with a gesture of disgust.
“That’s all the word we truly need, and this….” he gestured dismissively at Marcus. “He doesn’t know. He’s not important enough. The prefect might know for sure, but not this one.” He turned away to the men who had brought Marcus in, fingering the long knife that hung from his belt.
“What did you bring this one for?” he asked angrily. “You were supposed to bring the prefect himself.” Nobody replied.
“What do you want with me?” Marcus asked loudly, trying to sound both confident, and important enough to be not worth the trouble that might come from killing him. “I am the prefect’s representative! If you wished to speak with me, all you needed to do was come to Uxelis and ask me!” He decided to risk struggling to a sitting position: it was hard to sound important lying on your belly.
“Who is in authority here?” he demanded, but the men were not looking at him any more.
To Marcus’s relief, the braided man strode out, followed by two of the others. He glanced around the big, dimly-lit room, looking for opportunities for escape or advantage. There were still far too many people to think of making a run for it, and more of them outside, but at least nobody was kicking him, which was a definite improvement.
Two women were sitting near the hearth, with a child between them in a soft nest of deerskins. One of the women, a dark haired, round-faced girl wearing silver gilt brooches on her shoulders, was tending some bannocks on a griddle at the edge of the hearth, turning them lest they burn, and at the same time, she was playing with the babe, who caught at her finger and giggled.
But the other woman was sitting quite still, watching Marcus with sharp brown eyes. A tall woman of middle age, with hair paler than was usual among the Dumnonii, somewhere between barley-yellow and ash-grey. Although the brooches on her shoulders were of silver gilt, the necklace around her neck surely was of gold. She was looking at him with an air of amused curiosity.
“Who are you, really?” she asked, and her voice had a thick burr to it, stronger than that of the braided man.
“Aquila,” he answered, with a cautious look at the men watching him from the doorway. “The prefect’s representative.”
She smiled. “And is that important? Being the prefect’s representative?”
“Well, it is to me,” Marcus replied with some feeling.
Although not being important enough to be worth kicking had a great deal to recommend it, Marcus knew, with a feeling like a cold breath on the back of his neck, that if he was not important enough to be a source of information, that someone might well decide that the easiest way of getting rid of him would be to slit his throat and drop him in a bog.
Only Cassius’s authority could protect him from that, here in the far West where nobody knew him: Cassius, and any small advantage he could prise for himself.
“You know who I am – could I ask who is my hostess?” he asked the woman, trying to sound polite.
“I am called Gwynnarloedhis,” she said, “and this is Moruin and the little one there is Bryok. Why did you come here, Aquila the prefect’s representative? The prefect has never sent us anyone like you before. He has sent us taxmen, and soldiers, and all of them have come to take what is ours and tell us what we may do, and what we may not do, and to threaten us that the Eagles will return, if we do not obey.”
“That is the Empire,” Marcus answered cautiously. “The Empire comes and it lays down the law, and it offers roads, and peace, and trade.”
“And so, you bring us roads, and peace, and trade, do you?” she asked.
“No, I came...” Why had he come? he thought, a little desperately. “I came to listen to the Dumnonii and to learn more about them. We heard that there was some god or banner – a thing called the White Hare – that was important to the people, here in the West. We wanted to offer it a place of honour in the great new temple of Isca Dumnoniorum.”
Both women looked at him, and laughed in obvious amusement at such a ludicrous idea. Marcus could not entirely blame them.
Many days later, Marcus sat on the floor in the hut where he had been kept for some time now, scribbling on a flat green bit of slate with a crumb of a chalky pebble: an eagle, a horse, a bull for Mithras, who might yet be able to get him out of this mess. There was nothing else to do: they would not even allow him his knife to do a little whittling.
The inactivity was strangely tiring. Marcus had not sat quiet for so long since he had been ill after he was injured in the battle at Isca Dumnoniorum so long ago. The day-to-day work of the farm, which had seemed so routine, seemed now in memory a happy time, and he asked himself repeatedly what on earth had possessed him when he had agreed to travel west, instead of returning directly to the farm on the downs as he had planned. Cottia was bound to be worrying about him by now, and there was nothing at all he could do about it.
Suddenly there was a shout, and the sound of hooves galloping, and splashing, as if the horses had gone for the river. Marcus edged to the door and looked out with caution. He had tried peering out around the ill-fitting door before, and had got a spear-butt in the stomach for his pains. But this time there was no sign of anyone in the limited area he could see through the cracks. He strained to see, wondering if it was worth the risk of opening the door and running for it.
A good deal of splashing and shouting still came from the direction that Marcus knew the river lay, but he could not see what was going on.
He had just made up his mind to go out and risk it when the door swung open. Marcus blinked as the sudden flood of spring sunlight caught him full in the face, and he did not recognise the figure that stood, outlined dark against the light, until it spoke, in a half-whisper.
“Marcus! Let us get away before they return. But quietly – do not run, there are eyes watching all around this place.”
“Esca!” Marcus breathed, and caught his breath.
They slipped away around the side of the little reed-thatched building and away up the slope.
There were few people about, although here and there were signs that the people were not far away: a loom left propped against a wall with half a bright red and blue checkered cloth taking shape; a pile of firewood with the ax still stuck in the last piece to be split; a heap of hazel saplings that someone had begun assembling into a hurdle.
They dipped behind a barn to stay out of sight of a small boy far above them on the close-cropped green grass of the hillside, watching the sheep graze, and walked quietly past an old grandmother, fast asleep in the sun with a tiny brown child beside her, playing busily with pebbles and mud. The child looked up as they passed, looking at them with wide, dark, curious eyes, but she made no sound, and they went on, walking quiet and unnoticed through the scatter of houses and barns. It was almost uncanny, to walk through such a settlement and be seen by no-one.
“What on earth did you do?” Marcus whispered, as they left the open pastureland after what seemed like an age and ducked into the welcome shelter of a hazel coppice.
“Stole a stallion and sent it into the middle of their mare-herd,” Esca whispered, showing his teeth in a grin. “Two of the mares are horsy. He and the king stallion of this place will be battling it out in the river for some time yet, if I am any judge at all. Some of the herdsmen are trying to stop it, and most of the rest of them ran down to watch.”
There was a sharp cracking noise among the trees up ahead. They both froze, barely breathing for a moment. Then a young deer came out of the bushy young trees and crossed the open glade ahead.
“We’d best keep walking and talk later,” Esca breathed, signalling the way with a wary hand. The sounds from the river had faded behind them, but there was the scent of smoke on the air, and far enough away that Marcus could not quite pick out what they were saying, the sound of voices. It seemed clear that not everyone had gone down to the river.
They scrambled up a steep bank and threaded their way cautiously through the coppice, soft green leaves dappling the sunlight and the scent of bluebells dusky and delicate on the air. They walked through the wood for a while, climbing all the while, and then came at last up onto an open hillside, scattered with purple heather and starred with the golden flowers of the gorse. Above them, invisible against the blue, larks were singing.
Esca slackened his pace a little and looked around cautiously. “I think they will not find us here, not quickly,” he said. “I do not think there will be many people passing this way yet, not until the time comes to turn out the sheep on the high pastures. See, the path has been well trodden, but not since the winter.”
Marcus looked cautiously around. There was no smoke or sound nearby, although in the distance against the sky to the north and west, a single tall hill loomed tawny in the spring sunshine.
“Is that a fortress, do you think?” he asked, pointing. Esca followed his finger and squinted at the distant hill.
“There is something happening up there,” he agreed. “Those are earth ramparts, surely, giving that shape to the top of the hill – and people are coming and going on the eastern side; I saw them when I passed there, following your trail. I think there must be one of the old strongholds on the top. But unless they have the eyes of eagles, they will not be able to see us here – they must be three miles away or more.”
Esca led the way, on up a gentle slope, keeping close to the edge of the trees. They were not yet all in full leaf, but the soft green lacing of beech leaves was enough to hide them from prying eyes.
“But what under all the stars are you doing here, and how did you find me?” Marcus asked. “I am very glad indeed to see you, but I thought you were in the North still, or at least back at the farm with Cottia. Following my trail South after I was carried off from Uxelis must have been a puzzle even for a Hound of the Brigantes”
“Oh, well,” Esca said. “That was not so hard. I got back to the farm only two days after you left, and so when you were overdue to come home, it came to my mind that I would ride down to Isca, to see if you were still getting drunk with your friend Cassius. In Isca there was no sign of you to be found, and the whole place seething like an ant hill that has been poked with a stick, so I scented adventure and followed my nose.”
“Seething? How so?” Marcus was diverted.
“The silver wagons were late – or that was the word going around the forum when I was there a few days ago, at any rate. There was supposed to be a consignment coming out of western Dumnonia around the time that you left, but it did not come, and no other wagons have come from the mines, and if the man I spoke to told the truth, no other word either.”
“They asked me about that – the men who took me captive,” Marcus said, thinking hard. “I suppose they must have already decided to stop the shipments then. I told them that the Legions would come...I wonder if that was true.”
“They are saying it is true, in the forum at Isca Dumnoniorum.”
“It is a matter of silver, after all. The Governor is more likely to bestir himself for that than for poor, forgotten Valentia.”
“I think Valentia is not entirely unhappy to be forgotten, ” Esca said and there was that sharpness that sometimes came into his voice now, that Marcus had forgotten about while Esca had been away. “But no matter. There was no sign of you in Isca, and when I enquired at the Red Mount, your friend Cassius bid me sternly to be quiet and go home and wait for you. But he did tell me that you had gone west, and the West was where all the gossip of the forum said that the thunderstorm was brewing. And so it seemed likely that you had found some trouble for yourself, and I was eager to find out what it might be this time. “
“You went to Uxelis?” Marcus asked.
“Yes, there I spoke to the little dark centurion.”
“Aye, very likely, I forget the name,” Esca ducked under a shining branch of new beech-leaves. “He was very loud in his lamenting that you were not there, and said he had sent word to Isca. I don’t know if he had, though, there was something moving behind his eyes that I thought was not quite honest, and the rest of the troop that had been stationed there were gone,”
“Were they?” Marcus said thoughtfully. “I wonder where they are? They were good lads, the ones I met, and they had no orders to withdraw to Isca. And they could not have hoped to hold Uxelis against an enemy that came with any force.”
Esca shrugged. “I did not see them. I told Decimus that I would go back to Isca – he watched me go, back along the Eastern road, so he may even have believed me – and then I waited for a while on a hill outside the town, until I saw a man ride off in a hurry to the South, and I followed him here. Then it was just a matter of watching and waiting, and keeping out of sight, and making a plan.”
“And now here we both are, thanks to you – and I cannot tell you how much thanks I owe you.” Marcus said. “I had no idea I was running into such a nest of vipers. Cassius sent me to find out about some sacred thing of the Dumnonii – a hare, a white hare. He thought it would be a rallying standard for the tribes.”
Esca laughed, a short laugh. “Where have I heard that before?” he asked, drily.
“Well, this is a British thing, not a stolen Roman Eagle,” Marcus said, a little sheepishly. “He seemed to think that if it was approached the right way, the tribal leaders might bring it to Isca themselves – ” He broke off with a half-laugh. “The truth is, I still can’t remember exactly how he talked me into it. And I have no idea what to do next – whether to go on looking for this Hare – and I don’t know where to look – or whether to just give up and head back to Isca with my tail between my legs.” He sighed.
Esca shook his head. “Surely you cannot hope to persuade the Dumnonii to give up this sacred thing to you now? They seem to be almost in open revolt. They will not listen to one Roman who comes alone.”
“It seems unlikely, although I suppose there is still some hope I can find out what the White Hare is, and whether it is really likely to be a threat. At the moment, I don’t even know what I am looking for...do your people have stories about white hares?” Marcus asked, rather helplessly.
Esca thought “Not any that I know of, not from the tribes of the Brigantes – but this is the first time I have ever come into Dumnonia. Even the voices of the people are different, down here in the toe of Britannia. The only stories we had about hares involved stew.”
“That seems unlikely to be the answer,” said Marcus, smiling. “Nothing else?”
“I knew someone, once, who believed that hares were lucky, that you should make a wish if you saw one.” Esca said, his face distant. “I don’t think he was right about that though.”
Marcus looked at him and did not ask. That reserve of Esca’s had come over his face, the kind that said as clearly as if he had said it out loud, that asking any more would be a walking in without leave. Even after all these years, there were some places still raw, some walls that had not come down. They walked on, quietly, through the spring woods. A little cold wind blew down past them from the high moors to the East.
“How were your brother’s wife, his daughters? It must have been good to see your family again,” Marcus said politely, as if to a stranger. Esca’s face was shadowed by the trees, and although he was walking not far away, somehow there still seemed a great distance between them.
“Well. They were well.” Esca said, “and it is good to know that they are safe and happy. Tesni – my brother’s wife, she was once – she has remarried.” He turned to look at Marcus and smiled wryly.
“As to whether it was good to see them again – well. It is what Guern said once, do you remember? There is no way back through the waters of Lethe…. For them, I died long ago. They were kind enough, but it was like...like being a ghost. I was glad to get back to the Downs, and only sorry to find that you had gone gallivanting off to Isca Dumnoniorum without me.”
“I am sorry,” said Marcus, smiling broadly, for suddenly the distance between them had gone away and it was just the two of them: Esca and Marcus again, as it had been for so long.
Esca shook his head, as if coming out of deep water. “You served in Isca Dumnoniorum yourself,” he said. “Don’t you remember hearing anything about hares while you were here?”
“Well, I was not there for very long,” said Marcus, “and I don’t think that the people I knew in Isca – the people who might have known about the sacred things – I don’t think they would have talked to me about something like that. Even the people I thought I knew...well, I was very young, and very new to the country.”
There was a rise ahead in the heather hillside, and behind the bank, the ground dipped suddenly forming a wide, square space, open above to the wispy blue sky, but sheltered from the land around by the massive turf-banks. Marcus had seen turf-banks like that before: had played his part in building them once or twice. This must be a marching-fort of the Legions from their campaigns in Dumnonia, fifty years ago or more. It was abandoned now by all but sheep and larks, but still recognisable from its square, imposing shape.
Marcus had a thought. “Didn’t Cottia tell us some tale about Boudicca of the Iceni and a hare, once?” he asked Esca. “Seeing the future in the way the hare ran, or something of that kind? Not that that helps us much.”
“You can ask her,” Esca answered with a glint of amusement in his eye. “It was her idea to steal the stallion. She said she’d wait for us along this way: Cub is with her and we didn’t want his scent to spook the horses.”
“What!” Marcus was taken aback and stopped half-way up the old turf-bank, but Esca walked on.
Inside on the springy sunlit heather, with Cub sprawled grey-brindle at her feet and a russet hood over her red-amber hair, sat Cottia. She jumped up as soon as she saw them and Cub leapt to his feet to follow her, wagging delightedly.
“Marcus! It worked!”
“Like a charm from the Lady of Horses herself,” Esca said, triumphantly.
Marcus followed him slowly. The sight of her was like a cold shock of water in his face. The danger they were in, the risk that at any moment, armed men might appear over the side of the hill behind him seemed much more real, much more terrible than it had done even a few moments before. Cottia was not supposed to be here. Cottia was supposed to be safe, at home, with the children. His leg felt stiff, and his face was cold.
“Cottia.... what are you doing here? It’s too dangerous for you to be here.”
The delighted smile fell from her face.
“What are you doing here yourself?” she flared back at him, her fox-golden eyes narrowing to angry slits. “I thought you were going to visit an old friend to tell stories of the Eagles and drink wine! You never said that you were planning to go off into the West to get yourself killed!”
“Cottia, I never meant to come here...” Marcus said, taken aback.
“You never meant to come to the back of beyond and get yourself captured by angry Dumnonii? Marcus, you utter... fool! How could anyone do that by accident?”
Esca sat down on the heather and began to laugh, almost silently, but quite distinctly. After a moment, Marcus began to laugh as well. He knelt down and put his arm around Cub, who leaned on him delightedly, then turned his white muzzle the other way and pushed it into Esca’s shaggy hair and made a pleased foofling noise.
Cottia made a furious exhalation of indignation. “Don’t laugh at me! I am just as able to travel as you are. I can ride further and faster than Marcus can, I can do everything around the farm, I’m younger than either of you... and I didn’t get myself caught!” Her bright hair caught the sunlight in an amber net, and Marcus thought how beautiful and fragile she was.
“You have no training with the sword,” Marcus began to explain.
“And what good did that do you when the Dumnonii came and took you? What good did it do Esca when the Eagles came for him?”
Esca stopped smiling, and looked at her, thoughtful. Cottia went on: “You don’t even have a sword any longer! How dare you say it’s too dangerous for me, if it’s not too dangerous for you or Esca? Why should you be able to ride off into danger as you please, and I be always the one left behind?” Angry tears were starting in the corners of her eyes.
“Cottia, my love, I am sorry,” Marcus said, his face serious now. “You are right, I had no right to take the risk, and if I took it, then so can you. We weren’t laughing at you, truly – I was laughing at myself. Accidentally getting taken prisoner by angry Dumnonii. You made me realise how absurd it was.”
The smile began to creep back to the corners of his mouth. “And you are right, too, that it is hard to explain how that could happen by accident. I can only say that Cassius has some very good wine, and is terribly persuasive. But who is looking after the children, if you and Esca are both here? And the farm?
Cottia shrugged. “The children will be well enough. Nissa is looking after Cara, and I told Flavius he is to look after both of them, so he is on his best behaviour – or I hope he is! Hunno and Senecianus’s oldest boy are looking after the farm – Oh, don’t look so worried Marcus! I am sure that there will be no permanent damage, and after all, the lambing is done with for the year.”
“Well,” Marcus said, suppressing his fears with some difficulty, “thank you for coming to rescue me.”
Cottia began to smile again. “It was a good plan, was it not?”
“And executed very successfully, if I say so myself,” Esca added. “But we are not out of danger here. We are still in enemy territory. We should get away from here as soon as we can.”
“Yes,” Marcus agreed. “Did you bring horses?”
“Oh yes,” Esca said, standing up, poised, on edge, as if he were eager to be gone. “The danger is only with you, not with us, at least until we are seen together. They know who you are, you see, but nobody is looking for a trader and his wife, come down the coast from Luguvalium. We hired horses to come and see.. what was it we had come here to see?”
“The cattle,” Cottia said. “We have come to look at some heifers, which we are thinking of buying to improve our stock, you know that!”
“Oh yes. Heifers,” Esca said. He was looking around cautiously, scanning the land outside the brown heather-walls of the dip.
“But Marcus, what about the others?” Cottia asked. “Don’t you want to find out if they are really at the fort? Will it be too late, if we go back to Isca Dumnoniorum now to ask for help?”
Marcus looked blank “What others?” he said, looking enquiringly at Esca. Esca looked annoyed.
“You didn’t tell him?” Cottia said, and she frowned at Esca. “Marcus, we think that they have taken the auxiliaries prisoner – the ones that were stationed at Uxelis. They didn’t go back to Isca Dumnoniorum, and the roof on the barracks at Uxelis had been burned, but there were no bodies. We think that they may be held prisoner up at the fort on the hill.”
“They may be at the fort, but what can we do about it?” Esca asked. “That place must have five hundred spears or more around it by now. If they catch Marcus anywhere around here, then he will join them and that will be the end of all of them, once the Beltane fires are lit.”
Cottia caught her breath. Marcus turned to look at Esca in shock. “Once the Beltane fires are lit? Do you mean that they will make a sacrifice of them?”
“I cannot think of any other reason why they have not been killed already,” Esca said, bluntly. “But to make a sacrifice to their gods, for victory in war? Yes, we would have...they would keep them alive for that. They are soldiers of the enemy; they will be killed before the war-host marches out, and their blood will feed the ravens.”
Marcus thought of young Vallaunus, racing wildly across the hillside on his horse, Lovernisca, because he had been posted to dull Dumnonia and not to Rome after all; and of the two young auxiliaries who had ridden along with him to Uxelis, young Lucius and Rufus. They had seemed barely old enough to be allowed out to herd sheep on their own. He thought of them, waiting to die beside the Beltane fires. But then, there was Cottia, and the children – and Cub too, who was no longer the swift young wolf that he had been.
“Cub will slow us down, if we need to make a run for it,” Marcus said, fondling the wolf’s soft ears. “Whyever did you bring him?”
“Last time he was left behind, he nearly starved himself to death,” Cottia said, and the freckles on her face stood out very clear and sharp as her face went stern. “This time, when Esca told me he was going to go after you, I said: neither of us is going to be left behind. Not me, and not Cub. And he is not so very old. He may not keep up with a horse at full gallop, but he can still run – can’t you Cub?” The old wolf padded over to her, and laid his long grey head against her knee.
“Very well,” Marcus said, slowly, reluctantly. “If you and Cub must risk your lives, then I suppose that they are yours to risk. If they are keeping those boys for Beltane, though….”
“If they are waiting for the Beltane fires, then we do not have time to get back to Isca Dumnoniorum and return in time,” Esca said grimly. “And Marcus....” He hesitated, and rubbed distractedly at his forearm, where the blue marks wove around it, tracing the pattern.
“Marcus, have you thought what calling on help from Isca Dumnoniorum will mean for all the people here? They will kill the young men and enslave their wives and servants, if the Eagles come. Not just the spear-bearers at the fort, but they will ruin all the land, too. That boy, watching the sheep, the old grandmother asleep in the sun….”
“It is a rising against Rome already, if they have taken or killed the garrison from Uxelis,” Marcus said, and his dark eyebrows twitched together. “But...it is true that if they call in the Legions, they will not be gentle. I remember the smell of the smoke that hung about Isca Dumnoniorum, after the Relief Force had done their work: the houses burned to the ground and the young men dead there. I do not feel any eagerness to smell that smoke again.”
“Good!” said Esca and he looked younger suddenly, and happier. “But we cannot raid a fort, just three of us, and I do not think that setting a stallion upon their mares will work again. We were fortunate that they held you to the village by the riverside, rather than up in the hillfort. ”
“But you do not know for sure that they are at the fort?” Marcus asked. “In that case, that must be the first thing to find out. We need to know whether they are still alive, and who is watching them. But the risk of being spotted will grow the longer we stay here.”
“The risk should be small, I hope,” Cottia said. “We are only two British traders, after all, and now we have met with our friend, the travelling oculist.” And she pulled out from a bag, a red Phrygian cap, and a faded tunic, chequered with what had once been bright squares of orange and green, and a small glass charm in the form of a blue eye, to hang over the brand of Mithras on Marcus’s forehead.
“I bought them in Isca Dumnoniorum – they call it Caer Uisc here, by the way – when we heard you had disappeared. Esca thought you might need them. The tunic doesn’t look terribly Alexandrian,” she said disapprovingly, shaking it out. “But we got a little bottle of sandalwood oil, so it smells the part.”
“Whew!” Marcus agreed, pulling it over his head. “It certainly does. I hope I have not forgotten how to play the part of Demetrius of Alexandria. At least my beard looks considerably more convincing this time.”
“It certainly does,” said Esca, looking at him with some amusement, “We brought the box of eye ointments, too.” He handed a small, rattling box over. It was not the original box, of course – that box of medicine sticks Marcus had carried with him across the North of Britain that had cured so many sore eyes. That had been lost long ago in the wild rush South, with the Eagle of the Ninth tied in a bundle of torn cloak and all the North howling at their heels. But there were sore eyes in the Down country too, and Marcus had long ago bought more remedies and a new medicine box.
“I am not sure I like you so well as Demetrius of Alexandria,” Cottia said, looking at Marcus dubiously as he oiled his beard. He flashed her a grin, trying to look Greek. “But perhaps it is the smell.” She laughed, wicked as a vixen, and set off ahead of them over the rise of the heather-bank. “Come along, dear husband!” she called grabbing Esca by the hand and towing him after her. “Come along, Demetrius! We must go and find our horses.”
And they went away over the long green field, east towards the river, as the sun went down into the west behind them and their shadows stretched before them, long and fantastical.
Gwynnarloedhis of the Coronavi looked out over the great turf-curve of the walls of the hillfort on Bre Skowl, over land flushed golden-red by that same flame-coloured sunset. The land looked empty in the still evening light – a silent, golden land of heather, hill-pasture and thin woodland, and no sound but the sound of the larks overhead – a lull in the noise of the day before night fell. But all across the wide hillside and all the way down to the distant river-mouth where the sea caught the light, thin blue lines of smoke rose to the still blue sky.
All the people of the land of Belerion were cooking supper, all of them save for Gwynnarloedhis, who had her women to do the cooking for her, and need do nothing that she did not wish to do. A thriving land full of mines and farms and fishermen. Her land. Not a place for the Eagles to come and take, and order according to the desires of Rome.
But still, it would have been better to go unnoticed, Gwynnarloedhis thought. If we had been able to continue undisturbed, half-forgotten and hidden behind our moors and bogs, to do things in our own way. The sense of unease that had been following her for days was rising with the evening shadows.
Rialvran came out from the huddle of buildings that nestled within the fortress walls – raw and new, most of them, with pale fresh daub upon the walls – and walked up to stand beside her. The red light caught on his long braids, and dyed his silver cloak-pin to a royal gold. He looked princely there in the sunset light, for all that he was only the leader of the warriors of this one cantref, and no trueborn Chief of the people.
“Looking for eagles?” he asked her, lightly.
“Aren’t we all looking out for Eagles?” she replied. “That battered old bird who escaped – and his friends from the east too.”
“We’ll get word from Uxelis long before we can see them from here,” Rialvran said – as if he were reassuring a child or a fool, Gwynnarloedhis thought, feeling an annoyance that she must not allow to show on her face. “One lost Roman – he won’t get far. He’s got a limp, no friends, no horse and an accent that could polish granite.”
“And yet it seems he has the ability to make his guards lose all sense, and run off to watch a horse-fight,” Gwynnarloedhis said pointedly.
Rialvran looked annoyed. “They won’t be doing that again – not after I’m through with them. And the rest are under strict watch. Up here, we can keep a closer eye on them. It was a good idea to set this place back into defense. We’ll pick our stray Eagle up in a day or so, if he doesn’t fall into a bog – and if the river doesn’t take him?” There was a faint question in his voice.
“I do not think the Lady will take him,” Gwynnarloedhis said, and without thinking, her voice deepened a little as it always did when she was speaking as the Voice of the River. “It’s not her season, and not her concern. She may help us if the Legions come – perhaps – but not against one man alone.”
Rialvran dipped his head in unwilling acceptance. “And you still mean to offer the prisoners to the God?” he asked, and there was definitely an edge of unease about him now.
“Yes,” Gwynnarloedhis confirmed, heavily: it would not do to seem uncertain about this. “It’s not something I choose willingly, but if we are to go light of foot and slip from the Roman net, then it is Nodens’ help that we shall need, and the blood of our enemy is what he will ask in return.”
The sun was almost set now, showing just a rim of brilliant red along the looming edge of the western hills, and above them the sky was a deepening blue. A small cold wind blew across the hillside now, and Gwynnarloedhis pulled her cloak closer around her.
“They will not come,” Rialvran said and the hope was so strong in his voice that she was almost convinced. “It’s our tin, our silver, to trade as we want, not theirs to take and give nothing in return. They’ve got plenty of other places to worry about: plenty of tin and lead, for that matter. We’ve not had any word out of the east since we stopped the wagons, only this one man, and he’s nothing.”
“The Tekter has come back safe, I heard today, in harbour with a good load of Gaulish wine,” Gwynnarloedhis observed.
“Well then! As soon as we have a few more ships ready to slip quietly across the Channel to Armorica, we’ll be buying Gaulish goods with our tin, and silks out of the Levant with our silver, and who’ll be the wiser?”
“I’m sure the Empire is wiser than that!” she said, letting a little of her irritation show. “They will surely notice. The traders don’t come to our shores in the way they used to do in my grandfather’s day, the Empire sees to that. The question is: will they stop us?”
“They will do nothing,” Rialvran said, with confidence. “Come, it’s getting dark – shall we go down to the fire?”
“In a little while,” Gwynnarloedhis answered, and he walked away, leaving her alone on the hilltop, far above the land stretched wide beneath her feet.
It was good that the lifeblood of the land was no longer draining away, that the war-leader took care for such things. But still...to risk the anger of the Legions was bold indeed.
Gwynnarloedhis looked south again, where the sea and the rivermouth caught the light of the rising moon, then turned, straining her eyes in the failing light towards the great dark hills that ran north to south, tall and strong, cutting off the rest of Britannia. They were a strong defense, those hills – steep, trackless, beset with mists and strewn with black bogs to trap the unwary – but were they strong enough? If the Eagles came in force, they would come that way, marching west from Caer Uisc, past the town and the old fortress at Uxelis to the north and then south along the river – the way they had come before, long ago.
Gwynnarloedhis wished the Lady River would speak to her directly, that she could ask her what to do. But the River did not speak so plainly, had never spoken to her Voice in words. What would come, must come. There was no point wishing it away.
As she turned at last and walked quietly down the path down from the turfwall, behind her the mist began to steal upwards from the river – quietly, delicately, swathing the land in a blanket of silent white.
Esca woke early. He could smell the wetness of the fog outside before he opened the rough barn-door. Outside was blank whiteness: only a few feet of wet ground were visible. The farm where they had left the horses was a faint darkness within the fog.
Esca had been worried that word had reached the farm that there was a Roman on the run. Would the new member of the party be greeted with suspicion?
But there seemed no doubt in the farmwife’s face, and – there was no question that Demetrius of Alexandria did not, in any way, behave like Marcus Aquila, a man who was in hiding and on the run for his life. Marcus had taken to the part again with great delight. They could only hope that the disguise would be enough to hide him from the eyes of the Dumnonii for another day while they looked for news of the missing auxiliaries.
The fog blew swift over the open hillside, muffling both sound and vision: dark jags of gorse and the brown stems of dead bracken faded into blank whiteness, mist ghosts fled into nothingness.
“Why does this fog not just blow away?” Marcus said, half under his breath.
Cottia answered, “Perhaps it does. Perhaps there is new fog coming in, all the time. The fort has to be up this way, but I can’t see it at all. Perhaps we should come back another day.” She sounded disheartened, Esca thought, but then this was all very new to her.
“This fog is a gift from the gods, a hunter’s mist,” he told her, encouragingly. “It hides us and dampens the sound of us, too.”
“But I don’t know where we are!” Cottia exclaimed, and then put a hand over her own mouth in alarm.
“Nor do they!” Esca grinned. This was the sort of thing he loved. “That tree we came past, that you can just see over there, that’s about two hundred paces past the road we could see yesterday, the one that leads up to the gate.”
Cottia squinted doubtfully at the tree, just visible as a dark shape vaguely outlined against the white.
“Do you think we can get up to the fort without being noticed?” Marcus asked him, the perfect image of the commander taking advice from the expert in the field.
“On my own, yes,” Esca told him with confidence. “But with a soldier and a woman and a wolf in tow... I think not. In this weather, I am sure I can walk right up to the place, if I go alone. They will never know I’m there.”
“Very well then,” Marcus said, reluctantly. “We will wait here, with Cub. You go and find out what may be found.”
Esca ducked his head. “I’ll come back and meet you later – under that tree, I should be able to find that again.”
“Good luck,” Cottia said, her face pale and eyes wide and determined.
It was almost like being at home again, moving up towards the crest of the hill through the fog, with the moisture starring on his eyelashes. The same thin soil and heather over hard stone, the same distant sea-smell on the wind-driven fog.
It reminded Esca of cattle raids, long ago, creeping through the mist, alert for the least sound that might warn him that defenders were ahead, in that long-ago time when raiding had been nothing but a sport – a dangerous sport, and one that might kill a man, but nothing more. But that was before red death and dishonour and slavery had cut across everything. It was strange to remember being such a fool, now.
The fog was a fine refuge, but he did not know this land well – only what he had seen from a distance over the last few days. That dull rumbling – was that a cart moving up the road, or stone being moved from the mine on the western flank of the hill? Esca crouched and held still for a moment. A standing man would be easier to recognise through the mist. Yes, the sound must be from the mine. It was hard to judge what you were hearing when the fog blew past in veils, unpredictably thick or thin.
Someone had been cutting gorse here: the hillside under Esca’s feet was studded with stubbly gorse-stems. For firewood, or to open up the line of sight for spearmen? Both maybe. He peered cautiously through the mist: the ditch and rampart could not be far away. Would they have men watching outside the walls in such conditions?
Voices. Voices in the fog. Ahead and...to his right? Yes, definitely off to the right. That could be the gate. And now he could see a darkness in the ground ahead – that would be the ditch, and behind it for a moment as the blowing mist thinned, the mass of a great wall. The ditch had been cleared recently, and the spoil piled on the ground, but fortunately there had not been enough rain for it to fill with water.
Esca ducked down cautiously into the wide sunken trench and inspected the wall. It was sheer but grass-grown: an awkward climb, but not an impossible one, not if he took if carefully. The fog folded around him quietly, as if Manannan himself had cast his cloak of mists around him. Esca began to climb.
Esca slipped over the wall into a damp and dubious spot behind a woodstore. He had been expecting to find something like his father’s Dun, in that last month or so before the Legion of the Boar had torn their way into it: a rallying point for five hundred spears, busy with chariots, slaves, servants and supplies. He had been ready to slip into the bustle and look busy.
But this was a smaller place by far. He could see much of it despite the fog and the smoke that leaked from the rooftops and mingled with it: a few round stone buildings, two barns, and near Esca’s woodstore, smoke cured through the thatched roof of a rough wooden building which must surely be intended as the Great Hall of the place. Esca was fairly sure that his mother would have called that a barn, too.
There were people about: a couple of women – probably slaves, from their dress and bare feet – huddled near the warmth of a bake-oven, a few men unloading sacks from a small cart pulled by a very shaggy pony. He could hear people inside the buildings, too, but where were all the warriors? The place did not look lived-in. The buildings looked new enough, but it was too clean. No house had its own patch of leeks and onions growing by the door, and there were no bean-poles. This must be a place that was only used from time to time: it could not be anyone’s home.
Esca pulled the hood of his cloak over his head. It was lucky that he had worn his shabby old hunting cloak. His shoes would not do – they were old, but had clearly been expensive. He took them off and made them into a bundle with his socks and slung them onto the back of his belt where the cloak would hide them. They made a bit of a lump, and his feet were far too white, but there was no helping that.
Esca hoisted a bundle of firewood onto his shoulders, slumping a little as he walked, just another slave doing another dull routine job.
There were perhaps twenty men practicing with javelins on the other side of what Esca had decided to call the Great Barn, but no sign of any force that could hope to stand against even a century of auxiliaries: they must, surely be keeping their main force elsewhere. And no sign of the auxiliaries from Uxelis. Esca would have to risk looking further.
With his eyes lowered submissively, he pushed the small side door ajar, and shuffled inside cautiously, trying not to walk like a man worried about stubbing his toes. The doors were closed to keep the damp at bay, but there were oil lamps burning inside, and a red light from the raised hearth. He stepped to one side for a moment while his eyes became used to the smoke and the dim light.
There were men in the wide dark space, talking in low voices around the fire. Some of them had looked around when they saw the door open, so Esca shuffled forward, slavelike, and began adding some of his load to the fire. Nobody seemed to think this odd, so he began carefully stacking the rest of it near the fireplace.
No, they were not all men, he could see more clearly now his eyes were accustomed to the light. In the place of high honour on the far side of the hearth was a woman, and it was clear at once from her clothes, the patterned rug at her feet and the way that the others deferred to her that she was a woman of high rank, perhaps even a queen.
The others around her – mostly warriors it seemed, mostly men, and one of them, a thin man with a dark, mobile face, was telling a story of the hero-god Belenus for her entertainment. The tale was being well told, and the audience were clearly enjoying it.
Esca scanned their faces, and was brought up short. There was one face here that he knew well, a face from far away, a memory out of the distant past, and a name attached to it from that past winter that he had spent with his brother’s wife and her new family. Smertrius. Smertrius son of... son of Trougos, that was it, Smertrius, lord of the Gabrantovice.
What could a man of the Gabrantovice be doing here in Dumnonia so far from home? He sat next to the queen, clearly held in high esteem – an envoy, perhaps. Esca looked down hastily, lest his eyes be caught, and stepped back away from the firelight. Smertrius would probably not remember him but it would be best not to take risks.
He had been here too long. Everyone ignores the busy slave and sees the idle one: you only noticed that once you were on the other side of it. He picked up a guttered-out oil lamp and began walking back to the door. This was the hardest part: he could feel the imagined eyes on his back, was sure that someone was about to call out, to stop him. Walking slowly and with a slouch was hard, for he wanted to run. But nobody spoke. Outside again and hidden from view by the woodstore, he leaned against the wall and breathed hard.
Far above, the sky had a hint of blue through the haze, and the wind had dropped. The fog was thinning. Not far away from where Esca stood, some women had come out of a building and were starting to grind grain with a quern. He saw them look over at him: time to move, before they started either asking who he was, or wanting help turning the grindstone. He was still holding the empty oil lamp, so he made a small performance from pulling out the remains of the wick and then set off purposefully, in the manner of a man looking for more oil and a fresh wick.
Esca could hear raised voices near the open gateway. He moved towards the gate – perhaps if the fog was vanishing, the safest way out would be to simply walk out, as if he were going to fetch water. The guards would surely be looking for people trying to get in, not people walking out? He mustn’t hesitate though, must not attract attention. At any moment someone might demand to know what he was doing here. .
Then he froze: he recognised one of the voices at the gate, that distinctive mix, an Iceni burr with a sharper Roman edge to it. It was Cottia. He listened intently, but they were just too far away to make out words clearly.
He could not hear any voice that sounded at all like Marcus. Did the Dumnonii know that Marcus was with Cottia? Had they caught both of them? Cottia alone would be in little danger: Cottia with Marcus – that could be more dangerous.
Cottia was just outside the gate, head up and standing tensed, clearly ready for battle, for all that she was unarmed. Four Dumnonii warriors were attempting to hustle her through, though they were clearly reluctant to get too close to the menacing shape of the wolf by her side. The long dark hackles along Cub’s back were raised, his muzzle low, and even at a distance Esca could hear the deep, resonant growl that said very clearly that the first man to lay hands on his mistress would regret it. The morning sun was shining on them, making a bright outline against the darker clouds that lined the southern sky, and flaming bright on Cottia’s red hair.
As Esca hesitated, watching, Cub’s head went up and he lifted his head to sniff. Esca realised in alarm that he was downwind, as Cub stopped growling and trotted over, with the dignity suited to an elderly wolf, to greet him.
All four of the Dumnonii were looking at him now, and now there were more behind him, strolling over from their spear-practice. There was no way to bluff through this: the only hope was the direct approach. He strode over to Cottia’s side, Cub at his heel.
“We demand to speak to your queen!” he said. Cottia’s eyes widened a little in surprise, but she picked up his lead and responded immediately, swinging round imperiously to the nearest of the Dumnonii.
“Take us to see your queen at once!” she said. Her voice was commanding. Usually, Cottia’s voice had a gentle back-country burr to it, but this time it was full of the sharp aristocratic note that Esca had often overheard her aunt Valaria nagging her to use. She sounded like a queen herself, and Esca could see the confused warriors react accordingly. They were glancing at each other clearly wondering what to do.
One of the Dumnonii, who seemed to be the leader of the group, spoke “Who are you, and why would our Lady wish to spare time to speak with you?” He looked Esca up and down, disdainfully, and Esca wished he had not taken off his shoes. He could think of no reply, and now he wished that Marcus was there. Marcus could always think of something to say, even if it was not always the right thing. But then if Marcus were there, that would be difficult in other ways.
“I am Cottia of the Eagles and the Iceni,” Cottia said, in that strange sharp voice, “And this is my companion, Esca son of Cunoval, of the Brigantes. Your Lady will wish to speak to us. Go you, and tell her that we are here.” And she crossed her arms and stood waiting.
The leader of the little group of Dumnonii wilted in her glare. “ I will take you to a place where you can wait, while I ask the Lady if she will speak with you,” he said.
They took the three of them, woman, man and wolf together, to one of the smaller houses, windowless but with the wide door standing open now, as the pale sun was starting to make faint shadows on the ground, and inside, a red striped rug and sheepskins to sit on. Clearly, Cottia’s glare had made a considerable impression. A guard was set to watch them, but he waited at a distance, eyeing Cub cautiously.
“What happened?” Esca asked, sitting down on the rug to put his shoes back on.
“They walked right into us in the fog” Cottia said “We were just standing waiting – the fog was still thick down there, we couldn’t see them until they were almost on top of us. Marcus tried to tell them he was Demetrius of Alexandria, but one of them recognised him right away – he was one of them ones that took him prisoner before, I think.
“ There were eight of them: we could not have fought them – could we?”
“There was nothing else you could have done.” Esca said, trying to reassure her. “Where is Marcus now?”
“Some of them went off in another direction with him. He told me to keep Cub with me, and look after him. I have been thinking about that. I think they have taken him to the auxiliaries they are holding prisoner – they said ‘with the others’ and something about digging. Do you think they could be at one of the mines?”
“Of course! Why didn’t I see that before? These are a mining people, of course they would put their prisoners to work. The rumour we heard must have been from when they brought them here for questioning first. We should have been looking for mines, not fortresses... but that will have to wait.”
“Wait – for this queen. Esca, what on earth are we going to say to the queen of Dumnonia? She’ll probably have us sent to the mines too, if she doesn’t just sacrifice us to bless her victory.”
“We have to talk to her about peace,” Esca said, and hesitated. He looked straight at Cottia, considering. “What I tell you now – you must not tell Marcus, you understand?”
“You don’t trust Marcus?” Cottia exclaimed, with an edge of incredulity in her voice.
“I...of course I do. I have served Marcus since the first day I met him, and not because I had to, but because he is Marcus. But sometimes there are...other loyalties, you understand? Wider loyalties. I am loyal to Marcus, and I would not see him hurt. But for that reason and others, I cannot tell him this, and you must not tell him either, because it is not my secret to tell. Do you promise?”
“I – don’t know,” Cottia said. “You believe that telling him could hurt Marcus?”
“It could hurt a good many people, including me,” Esca said, watching her steadily.
“I – well then. I promise.”
“I will not ask you to swear the threefold oath,” Esca said “I will trust you.” He turned his back to the door where the guard sat, and spoke quietly so that only Cottia could hear.
“The Brigantes are going to rise against the power of Rome. Next year, or perhaps the year after. Not just one clan, but the whole tribe, across the whole of North Britannia, and beyond the Wall, and their allies in the mountains of the west. They hope to sweep the Eagles south into the old Corieltauvi territories, and make a new frontier from the Sabrina to the Trisantona rivers, and cut Britain in two forever.
“Can they hope to win?” Cottia asked him. The idea had clearly caught at the half-lost Iceni part of her.
“I don’t think so,” Esca told her, and it hurt him more than he had expected to say it. There was part of him, too, that wanted to believe, would have thrown away all he had done and learned and become over these last ten years, to be a painted warrior among the rest, throwing himself onto the Roman spears on the warrior’s road west of the sunset. But life was not that simple any more.
“I saw this queen of the Dumnonii just now. She did not see me, but I saw the man who sits by her right hand. That man is called Smertrius of the Gabrantovice, and he is not to be trusted. He speaks to the Legate in Eburacum, he speaks to the Governor of Britain, promising that rising can be easily checked, and then the favours given to the Brigantes in honour of the great Queen Cartimandua by the emperor can be withdrawn. He is planning for the rising to fail..”
“You think that he has betrayed the Brigantes?”
“I know he has.” Esca said, simply. “I have spent most of the winter trying to get the people who still remember me among the Brigantes to change their minds. But I am a dead man walking among them, and they will not hear me.”
“Even if the rising was not betrayed by Smertrius from its very start, there are three Legions in Britain – three, Cottia! And then there are the auxiliaries, and more men waiting in Gaul and Germania. The Legions have all the riches of Italy and Egypt and the East behind them. I wish I could believe the rising could succeed, but I cannot,” Esca looked down, and rubbed the rough hair on Cub’s neck.
“They will throw themselves on the Roman spears. Then Rome will burn their fields and their children will grow up with a heavier service and a harder tax, and their fathers dead, and where’s the honour in any of that? But Smertrius would rule what is left, after the Romans set his foot upon our necks. Can you see now why I cannot tell Marcus any of this? The few who are left of my family are in the thick of it. And there is still time for them to change their minds.”
Cottia said slowly “So you think – this Smertrius is trying to get the Dumnonii to join the attack, and he will betray them in turn? Are you sure, Esca, really sure? Marcus’s life could depend on this.”
“I can think of no other reason why Smertrius is here,” Esca said.
The guard, who had been squatting at ease against the wall of the house opposite the doorway, rolling dice against himself in the spring sunshine, sprang to his feet. There was the sound of voices, approaching from the centre of the fort. Esca and Cottia got to their feet, as the Lady entered, with some of the warriors by her side.
“Well” she said, looking at them curiously. “This is a fine way to catch my eye. When this wily old fox Rialvran comes to me and says that there is a woman with hair like fire at the gate, with a wolf by her side, and a great rainbow in the sky behind her, it is as if one of the old tales has come to life. Have you come bearing the cauldron of life, or only silver apples of forgetfulness out of the sunset?”
“We have a message for the Queen of the Dumnonii,” Cottia said, her face white and serious. “Are you the Queen?”
The tall woman raised her eyebrows. “Dumnonia has no queen. The Dumnonii are not all one people, and we do not all serve one man, or woman. We are no Empire. But I speak for the goddess here, and for the people – in so far as the people have one voice.”
Esca began to reply, but Cottia shook her head slightly.
“In that case, my message is for you,” she said. Esca could see the tension in her, almost vibrating, although it might not be so clear to anyone who did not know her well. Cub had picked it up too. The old wolf was standing beside her, one step in front, ears pricked and alert, like a statue of a wolf guarding a shrine.
“I have brought you a warning,” Cottia said. “Do not rise against the Eagles. Do not join with the men of the North. They will betray you.”
The tall woman’s eyes widened in surprise. She turned to the men who had come in with her “Go!” she said. “Rialvran, keep people away from here until I call, would you? I want to talk to this woman in private – no, there is no danger. Go.”
She settled on one of the sheepskins, and Cottia followed her lead, with Cub at her feet. Esca sat leaning against the wall, watching.
“The Eagles have not come west of the great moors since my grandmother’s mother’s day. Who are you to come to us, and tell us what we should, and should not do?”
“I am Cottia of the Eagle, and of the Iceni,” Cottia said steadily. It was an odd way of putting it, Esca thought, but it seemed to fit this new serious Cottia. “And this is Esca map Cunoval of the Brigantes.”
“So? We have heard of the fall of Cunoval, just a little, even here in the west, and most certainly we have heard of the Iceni. I am called Gwynnarloedhis. I am the White Hare of Dumnonia and the Voice of the River of Belerion – that is the proper name for all this land west of the river, Belerion. Dumnonia is what the Romans call it, but properly that is only the land further east... Now tell me, why should we agree to give in tribute what used to be bought and paid for?
“We made a peace that our people have for the most part held honourably. We have not meddled in risings in the East, and we have traded our tin and silver fairly. Now they come with sword in hand to take what once they paid for in trade. Tell me, Cottia of the Iceni,” she asked sharply, “what do I say to my young men when they ask why they should not fight for what is theirs?”
Esca stirred in the corner, but he did not speak. Cottia looked down for a moment, her sharp face taut with strain.
“Tell them that greater prosperity lies in peace. That while they live, they can rebuild what is taken. Tell them their mothers and their children do not wish them gone,” she said.
Esca said flatly “Tell them they cannot win.”
“Boudicca of the Iceni fought them and she won great victories,” Gwynnarloedhis said.
“Yes,” said Cottia, her face remote now, calm. “But Boudicca died. And her daughters, and her kinsmen, and many, many of her people. The Iceni were broken. Our lands laid waste, our people disarmed, our treasures seized.. What is left of the Iceni now is neither British nor Roman, but only a remnant. I grew up near Venta Icenorum. It is not a happy town, even now. ”
“They are like waves on the sea,” Esca said, forcefully. “You cannot fight them. They are too many, and they never stop coming. ”
“So. The woman of the warrior Iceni says to me: submit, lest the fate of Boudicca be mine. The man of the great and warlike Brigantes says: submit, for there is no way to defeat the Legions that threaten me. And yet,a man of the Gabrantovice came to me, and he says: Join us, and we will win a great victory and sweep the Legions back into the sea forever.”
“He is lying to you,” Cottia said, steadily. “Esca has heard him speak to the Legate of the Legion at Eburacum. You cannot trust him.”
Esca said “He is hoping that the Dumnonii will take the brunt of the attack, I think.”
“He may hope that if the Dumnonii can be brought into the fight, then perhaps the damage to Brigantes lands will be less?” Cottia suggested. “That way he may hope to gain Roman support to dispose of his enemies in the North, without losing too much himself.”
“That sounds... not unlikely” Gwynnarloedhis said, with some reluctance. “I had wondered why he came so far himself to do us honour. And I confess, I cannot like the man. He’s like an eel, all slime and sharp teeth.”
She paused for a moment, thinking. “The time is near for me to make the offering here and move on, to my place at Tamaris by the sea. I chose to wait, hoping for an omen.
“I choose to take your coming and your words as that omen. I will not let my people, my fishermen and small farmers and miners, go down into defeat. We know a little of the waves of the sea, here in the West. The tide comes, but the tide also goes out again. We will let them wash over us, and we will endure.”
“And ... the men you are holding prisoner?” Cottia asked. Esca could hear the tension in her voice.
“Ah. That is difficult.”Gwynnarloedhis said, thoughtfully. “We can hardly let them go running back to Isca Dumnoniorum. The Eagles may be hovering in the hills already, coming to take the tin and silver that we have stopped sending east. That would be inviting them in. But they would not be the first Romans to trip into a bog in the hills and be lost... No? I thought so. They mean something to you. Why?”
“One of them is my husband, Marcus Flavius Aquila.”
“Ah! Marcus Flavius Aquila! Aquila the prefect’s representative... Aquila means ‘eagle’ in their language, is that true? And so you are Cottia of the eagle... He is the one who told me that he came to carry off the White Hare to a temple in Isca Dumnoniorum!”
She looked across at Esca. “It is a name that we have heard before, coming to us out of Dumnonia. The commander of the fort at Isca Dumnoniorum, my old friend Vindiorix tells me. We have long memories here.”
“He broke the chariot-charge,” Esca said, “It’s a brave man that can do that: there was not a Roman among those that attacked my father that withstood us like that. Not on the first charge. They wore us down with time, but not one of them could stand against the chariot charge. He’s a man worth more than to vanish into the bogs.”
“But do you trust him? And you Cottia, he may be your husband, but do you trust him?”
“Yes,” said Cottia immediately.
For a moment, Esca hesitated. “I would trust him as a friend, to the furthest ends of the world.” he said. “And I would trust him as an enemy, to treat his enemies fairly, and with honour. I trust that...that he does not want to smell Isca Dumnoniorum burning again. On my father’s name, I swear it. Only, I would not ask him to betray his people for me, and – I do not think he would ask it of me either.”
Gwynnarloedhis smiled a wry smile. “And anyway, we have no chariots here, only carts. Hmmm. ”
She stood and looked outside. “Go and fetch one of the prisoners,” she told two of the warriors who were waiting. “The older one, the prefect’s representative. Tell him – tell him we have his wife here. That should make sure he comes without making any trouble. Rialvran! I need to talk to you.”
“What about the others?” Cottia asked her
“We will see about them later,” she said, and swept out.
Marcus came in with the two warriors behind him. He looked dusty and worried, but otherwise unharmed, Esca noted with considerable relief. Cub rushed over to him and rubbed his long snout up and down the side of Marcus’s leg.
“Name of light, Cottia! I was imagining terrible things! Cub! enough of that – Esca, thanks be to Mithras that you are both in one piece!”
“We could say the same to you! But Cottia has been talking to this Lady Gwynnarloedhis -”
“We have both been talking to her” said Cottia firmly. “And Marcus, I think it will be all right. I think she wants peace, really, she does not want to fight the Legions. But we need a way for her to make things up with your friend Cassius somehow. She doesn’t want to let you go: she thinks that you will tell Cassius to come here with soldiers, and they will take all the tin away, and maybe take her back to Isca Dumnoniorum and...”
They were interrupted by Gwynnarloedhis. She was wearing a great heavy cloak of white hare-skin – the white fur that hares here in the south never wore, that must have been brought from the far North. A ceremonial cloak, it must be, for the day was becoming warm. The man with the braided hair, Rialvran, stood behind her.
She held in both hands a red Samian-ware bowl. It was brimming with a dark liquid, and finely decorated with a complex pattern of leaves and hares. It was the kind of thing that might have graced a Legate’s quarters in Eburacum, and would not have looked out of place in Rome itself: it was strange indeed to see it here.
She went first to Marcus. “Drink now as our guest, and forgive us the insults we have done you,” she said to him.
Marcus gave her a long straight look under his dark brows. “Tell me first, what is your meaning when you offer me this cup? For I would not wish for any misunderstanding.”
Gwynnarloedhis met his eyes. “I would renew the peace that my grandmother’s mother made with your general Vespasian – he who afterwards became Caesar of Rome.”
Marcus looked troubled. “I do not have the authority to decide that. You have taken prisoner soldiers of Rome, and perhaps more, at least to the Senate – you have withheld the agreed tribute. I would not lie to you and pretend that all is well.”
“Trustworthy, indeed, even as an enemy. So you will not drink the cup with me?”
“I cannot drink it as an envoy of Rome – not without consulting with the prefect. If you wish it, I can speak to him on your behalf. But I am not your only prisoner here. You have soldiers of Rome labouring in your mines; you must release them. For myself, I would forgive you freely and drink your cup of peace – but tribute and taxes are demanded by Rome, not by me. ”
Gwynnarloedhis narrowed her eyes, but it was, Esca thought, not in anger, but more in the way that a gladiator might look at an opponent who fought well. “The tribute is heavier now than we have ever paid before,” she said. “The amounts were set down by Vespasian himself, but now we are asked to send double, triple the amount, and get nothing in return. The miners cannot work for nothing, they must be fed, and their families fed and housed while they work. They cannot work in rags and on empty bellies.”
“You seem to expect your prisoners to work like that,” Marcus said with a flash of anger. “Those poor lads you took prisoner have not been treated well. But let that pass. I cannot change the tribute. But I can speak to the prefect about arranging supplies of grain and salt for the miners, and I think that he will listen to me. He has no desire to see war come to Dumnonia.”
“I am glad: trade is better than war. Grain, salt, wine and oil, perhaps raisins: these are the things we need most of all. We have always bought these things in trade for tin and silver, they are hard to come by here. If your prefect can provide them – it will be easier by far to hold back my young men from foolishness if their bellies are full in the winter. “
“I will do what I can,” Marcus told her, and he took the bowl and took a long sip. Then he passed it to the braided warrior. Rialvran paused a moment, glancing at the Lady, but then he too bent his head and drank, in token of peace, before passing the bowl to Cottia. Esca released the breath he had not realised he was holding, and came forward to take his turn.
“There are other things that we have always traded, that now we cannot find, because the ships no longer come to our ports. Silk, spices, dyes... ”
“I will do all I can, but I do not think that the prefect will send you silks or dyes for your silver,” Marcus told her, troubled.
“No? Then perhaps in return for other things.” Gwynnarloedhis took a fine deerskin pouch from her belt and gave it to him. “Give him this, as a gift, and a token that... that there are more ways to catch a hare than setting out to hunt her with hounds in full cry. There is gold here, in the secret places of the rivers. You will never find it without our help.”
Marcus took the soft pouch and carefully loosened the drawstring. Inside were a collection of small lumps of unshaped but shining gold.
The high-fronted trading ship, built for the wild western seas, coasted gently up the river towards the tall new walls of Isca Dumnoniorum, and beached on the river-shore. The tide was falling, and once they had all climbed down from the deck, they had to squelch across the mud in order to reach the river-gate.
The red-haired auxiliary, Vallaunus grimaced as his bare feet came down into the mud. “First thing I’m going to do once I’ve reported in is buy shoes,” he said. “Those were my good riding boots that Dumnonii bastard had off me!”
“I was not going to start arguing to get your boots back, Vallaunus,” Marcus told him, following him down onto the mud, and balancing carefully so as not to slip as Cottia followed him. “The lady Fortuna smiled on us to get all of us out of there in one piece: be grateful for that!”
“I thought you were going to start a fight over those boots and get us all killed,” young Lucius Mancus said.
Vallaunus grinned at him and waggled his ginger eyebrows. “The Battle of Vallaunus’s Boots! Five auxiliaries against the Dumnonii horde! We would have lived in song forever!” He was clearly in a very good mood. “Whereas now I must tramp through the mud of the Isc, with worms around my toes. Still, at least I’m out of Uxelis. What an armpit that place is. The mines of the Tamaris were almost an improvement. I bet we get posted straight back there.” The other auxiliaries groaned loudly.
“If we do,” Vallaunus continued “I’m at least having a bath first. Boots, bath, and then I’ll feel strong enough go back to Uxelis and find out if the bloody Dumnonii have had my horse as well as my footwear.”
“I do not think the prefect will sent you straight back to Uxelis,” Marcus told him. “That will wait until the silver and tin come in, and even then – I think there will have to be some reorganisation. Either no men in Uxelis, or a full half-cohort. You will probably be in Isca Dumnoniorum for a while. I hope it is ready for you.”
Esca lifted Cub over the edge of the ship and handed him down into Marcus’s arms. As soon as Marcus put him down, he began to bound up and down joyfully like a puppy, sending splatters of mud in all directions.
“Well, now we all need a bath!” Cottia exclaimed. “Cub! Stop it! I know you didn’t like the boat, but there’s no need for that!” Cub stopped bouncing, and grinned at her, tongue lolling, dripping slime from his belly.
“I know just how he feels!” said Vallaunus. “No more Uxelis and a stay in Isca! I could almost bounce in the mud myself.”
He looked as if he might be about to do it too, and Cub was clearly keen to join him. “No!” said Cottia, speaking to both of them at once.
They found Cassius inspecting the last section of the new town wall, which had clearly just been completed. There was a smart new marker on it, showing the name and number of the unit that had done the work, and the Gauls were all drawn up in a line, as Cassius congratulated them on a job well done. Marcus gestured to his own small party to wait until the Prefect was ready to speak to them. He did not take long.
“Marcus! I had no idea you had returned. What news from the west?” His eyes travelled past Marcus, along the line of faces, with an air of considerable surprise.
“You seem to have brought most of my Uxelis garrison back with you – and not dressed in a state that does credit to their unit. And a gentleman of.. the Brigantes is it? And a wolf... and surely this cannot be your Iceni wife? Cottia, I am most delighted to meet you! Marcus, by the name of Jupiter, what on earth have you been up to?”
“It’s quite a long story...”