Length: 4784 words
Rating : g
Summary: What were Esca's family like, and what happened to them? What might the word 'hound' mean to Esca when he says 'I am the Centurion's hound?'
Inspired by: Eagle of the Ninth, has a few nods to Song for a Dark Queen. Also, other Sutcliff works with hounds.
(I know, I know, but apparently I felt the need to write gen from the point of view of a happily-married grandfather who is dead before either begins. Some people just have to be awkward...)
Cunoval son of Cunomor was a worried man. The rain and wind had come too early for the harvest, the oats had rotted and the winter stores were emptier than they should be. Worse, three of the horses he'd intended to sell this autumn had the mud sickness already - so early in the year too! They could not be sold now, or not for the full price, anyway.
And now, here was the dratted bee-slave with the news that another of the precious hives had gone quiet and empty with the wet-rot. Honey is expensive stuff, and now there might not be enough to sell and still have enough for their own use. He waved the bee-slave angrily away. The great hound, Llygad y Dydd, as always by his side, looked up anxiously at him and whined softly.
"You and I, girl, we need some space" he told her. They set off up the valley road together, the great hound loping lazily behind the small man, heading for where the cattle were turned out a mile or so up the hillside away from the turf walls of the dun.
Scratching between the white ears of the great bull, Cadarn, was calming, and the bull enjoyed it too. The huge head leant sideways against the fence rail and the bull heaved a huge damp happy sigh. Cunoval looked up the valley at the mist hanging low over the heather : all too soon it will be time to bring the cattle down into the valley for the winter again.
He heard the sound of galloping hooves before he saw the horses : three of them, two bays and a dapple grey, coming up over the heather-covered slope of the hillside. They dodged perilously close to a browsing group of heifers, causing the young cows to throw their heads up and snort indignantly, trampling. Behind the horses, and easily keeping pace with them, a pair of long-legged rough-coated hounds, and riding the horses ... Oh yes, of course, it would be them, racing about like fools and startling the cattle - his three sons, hair streaming, no saddles, focussed on nothing but the race.
"Oi! Lads! Mind the cattle! " Cunoval raised a hand and waved them off towards the cart track. They thundered past him, unshod hooves flashing, and the youngest, sandy hair streaming, raised his hand in acknowedgement for a moment, face lit with fierce joy, before urging the eager horse forward to take the lead from his dark haired elder brother.
Llygad y Dydd sprang up and raced them down the hillside, easily overtaking the other hounds, her own pups, now grown. But not quite as fine as her, Cunoval thought proudly. None of the hounds of the clan so tall, so strong, so elegantly poised and so fluid in their movement. She caught up with the horses, then, having made her point, she looped round and cantered easily back up the hill to Cunoval's side.
He slapped Cadarn gently on his massive neck and sighed. Some of the heifers would probably have to be sold now to make up for the missing honey and pay the taxes. His heart ached at the thought, for Cunoval loved his cattle and knew every line of each animal back three or more generations - but there was little choice if his people were to be fed and the taxes paid this winter.
By the time he got back to the dun, the clouds were hanging heavy and grey over the hills in the West and the light was fading. A small cold wind had sprung up, blowing sharp between the roundhouses and barns. Some sheep bleated sadly from an enclosure over on the west side - they must have come in ready for the market tomorrow. A small hairy cur-dog sniffed near them, eating dung, but there were no people about. Everyone had already retreated indoors to the fireside, even though the light was not quite gone.
He pushed open the heavy, finely carved door of his house, and paused for a moment for his eyes to get used to the firelight inside, as Llygad y Dydd pushed past him to take up her favorite spot on a sheepskin rug near the fire.
His wife, Angharad, came towards him and put a hand on his arm. The great silver torc with the hounds head finials, that she usually said was far too heavy for everyday wear, glinted around her neck, and she was wearing her best cloak with the heavy gold brooch. Her eyes, once he had blinked enough to be able to see them in the dim light, looked strained.
"Some men have come from Calacum - soldiers" she said. "They will not tell me what they are about. I have told Bri to put their horses in the new barn, and I have given them some of the wine that you bought in Eboracum".
"I will speak with them" he said, trying to ward off the spark of irritation which had dropped away during the quiet afternoon, but now came surging back to sting him.
The soldiers were sitting, drinking from horn cups in the middle of the house near the fire when he entered. Most of his family had retreated to watch them from a distance - Cunoval could see his smallest grand daughter peeping at them from behind the big loom set up near the door. His sons and two of their friends were sitting together with their eyes on the visitors, barely pretending to play dice.
The soldiers stood as he approached them. They were big, even with their helmets off, all in leather and bronze and iron, and they loomed over him like a wall made of men. Llygad y Dydd touched his hand with her nose, she had come to stand beside her lord, not growling yet, but unmistakably there, a warning to these strangers that had come into her home.
Cunoval had a moment of wishing that he had had enough warning to slip on his best tunic and the fine blue cloak rather than this old one that Cadarn had slobbered on. No matter : they would knew who he was, lord of five hundred spears. He stood in front of them, far enough back that he did not have to crane his neck.
"Welcome" he said, politely in slow and careful Latin. "I am Cunoval ap Cunomor, the lord of this land." Best be quite clear about that. Who knew where these men had come from, Gaul or Spain or even Rome itself. They might not even understand plain British speech.
"I see my Angharad has offered you bread and wine. We do not often see unfamiliar faces so far into the hills" That was true enough, though of course he had often seen men like this in Calacum and further afield, and not always as peaceful guests, either. He politely did not ask them what they wanted, but waited to see what they would say.
The man who seemed to be their leader spoke - Latin, but with a harsh accent that Cunoval did not recognise.
" We've come to bring you the details of your tax assessment " he said - very blunt and rude. "You and your people will need to pay what you paid last year, plus fifty more cows to cover the increase in your herds. "
"Fifty more than last year!" Cunoval exclaimed. This was far more than he had planned for. He would not be expected to supply them all from his own herd, but for many of the small villages and isolated farms that owed him their allegiance, sparing an extra cow would be very hard. He would certainly have to make up the shortfall.
" Fifty. You must bring them to market in Calacum within the next moon. Cows, or their value in other goods : they will be sold for silver to be sent back to Rome in any case, so you can send the tax direct in silver if you have it.
There will also be a levy of young men, to make up a new auxiliary corps. You are expected to supply at least two hundred from your lands here. "
He heard Angharad breathe in sharply. This was terrible news. Auxiliaries could be sent clear to the other side of the Empire, and often were. Their families might never see them again.
"I might be able to find twenty younger sons with no farms of their own to tend who wish to travel..." he began, but the bigger man interrupted.
"Two hundred, I was told. If you can't make that, you'll have to take it up with the magistrate in Calacum. My job is just to bring the message to you."
Your job is to make it clear what will happen if we ignore the message, Cunoval, thought, angrily.
"The Legate has graciously allowed you two moons to find the men, so you can be sure the harvest is in and the beasts ready for winter before they leave." The man paused. He added in a less official voice "That's a fine dog you have there. I'll buy her off you for silver if you need the cash."
He sounded as though he actually thought he was doing Cunoval some sort of favour. Cunoval felt as though he had been punched in the stomach. Sell Llygad y Dydd, the noblest of his hounds, for silver to pay a tax? Sell her to some landless soldier? He'd almost rather sell his sons.
" She is not for sale" he said.
"No? As you wish." The man went on to talk of the pay and conditions for recruited auxiliaries, but Cunoval was too outraged to take in the details.
It would have been polite to invite the Romans to sleep in his own house, but he had had enough of being polite. The barn would suit them well enough.
They met to talk over the problem the next day ; Angharad, his sons, the principal people of the village and the farmers whose lands lay close enough for them to be quickly called in. It was fortunate it was market day, so many of his people had come in from the farms that day to sell or buy.
Cunoval laid out the soldier's message to them all, not hiding his own dismay. They threw names about, younger sons, slaves, workers who might be willing to adventure far afield or could easily be spared. Not enough. Nothing like enough of them.
"Where do they think these men will come from?" asked his youngest son, blue eyes angry. "Do they think we grow men like oats in the ground?" Cunoval almost smiled despite his worries. He looked so much like Angharad when he frowned like that : the clever one, thinking for his people as well as himself. He might be the youngest, but Cunoval could not imagine sending him away to serve Rome in some far land, never to return.
The discussion ran in circles, twisting like a hare with the hounds behind her, but coming up time and time again against the hard fact: Rome would have her taxes, and her levy.
At last, Angharad drew herself up, tall and angry. She was the same height as Cunoval, and her grey eyes were hard as flint.
"We will not send my people, unwilling, to serve Rome, who knows where or for how long." she said, and her voice was final. Cunoval loved her like that, uncompromising, strong, the Lady of her people. But sometimes he wished that Rome would agree to talk to her direct. It was no easy thing, being caught between Rome and the will of the Lady.
"You must go to Calacum and make them understand we cannot spare so many, Cunoval" she said. "And we should send word to my cousins, and to your brother. There are many men in Isurium and Eboracum now, it may be that some of them can come to help us with this levy. "
He sighed "very well." he said.
The visit to Calacum was not a success. Cunoval was not good at talking to the men of Rome, and although he tried to bribe his way to a fairer assessment, he must have picked the wrong man, or perhaps the wrong moment. Or maybe someone else had bribed first and more successfully. The tax was not changed at all, and the levy was reduced, but only by twenty men. A hundred and eighty was as out of reach as two hundred, as far as Cunoval was concerned : the loss of so many men would leave every farm in his lands struggling to keep families fed for many years to come.
Cunoval's land was sparsely peopled, scattered farms and small villages in quiet valleys among the hills: at the best of times, there were not many of them, and now there were even fewer. It was not so very long ago that they had followed the call and risen with the rest of the Brigantes to hunt the Ninth Legion into the North. The loss of the men killed or seriously injured in that long, bitter, running fight was still felt. His five hundred spears had farms to tend, families to care for and many of them were not in their first youth. They were brave men who could be relied on to foil a cattle raid or even to follow Cunoval to war for a season, but only as long as they could return in time for the harvest.
Word came back to him from Angharad's cousins : they too had a heavy tax to pay and a huge levy of men to find - not so overwhelming as that expected of Cunoval, in their more populous lands, but still enough that they could not spare many men to help him in this need.
Licinius Asper to Claudius Hieronimianus, Legate of the Legio VI Victrix, greetings
As instructed I have sent out messages to the local leaders of the Brigantes in relation to the planned auxiliary recruitment. These messengers have also carried tax assessments to the same men.
Several of these men have now appeared in Calacum to protest the assessments : I have attached a list of their names.
It is my opinion that these are wealthy men. They appeared with fine horses and jewellery. I believe they can support the assessments assigned to them. I am therefore holding them to the numbers originally planned. I think a little pressure will achieve the results we desire.
I will send a cohort on exercises through these remote lands to remind the barbarians of the majesty of Rome.
As per standing orders, I instructed our messengers to emphasize the benefits available to auxiliaries to make volunteering appear an attractive proposition.
I pray that you are enjoying the best of fortune and are in good health.
Deliver at Eboracum
With a heavy heart, Cunoval returned to his home. He had left Llygad y Dydd at home, reasoning that matters could only get worse if she sensed his inner turmoil and bit some Roman official - not that he did not want to bite all of them himself by the time he left the place again. It was good at least to see her race up the track to greet him, striding ahead of the mob of her grown pups, and a motley selection of other hounds and curs running along behind, barking in excitement.
Angharad had sent out messages to the scattered farms to bring back all those men who could be spared, and to ask for the share of the cows for the taxes. At least he was spared that task, though he still had to go through his own herd and decide which of his own cows would be sent to Calacum, which was hard enough.
She had sent out another message too, and that was a terrible thing. She had called for a Druid, and after a while, word came back. It came quietly, circuitously, not mentioned in so many words, a single leaf of dried mistletoe, passed from hand to hand. Cunoval tried not to think about that. He hoped that he would not need to.
His sons came back from carrying messages, eyes bright and mouths twisted as if by a bad taste, but they obeyed their mother without comment, and for that Cunoval was grateful. It was hard enough having to give up so much without having to fight his family over it.
They managed, somehow to find the cows that Rome demanded in tax - well, not only cows. Much of their silver jewellery, all the honey, some particularly fine sheepskins that Angharad had been planning to use in Cunoval's own house, several bolts of the warm blue cloth that the women had spent two seasons weaving, and thankfully, a little cache of seawashed amber, sent by Angharad's uncle, who had lands on the East coast. Four of the horses that they had planned to sell to buy grain, oil and wine to make the winter a little warmer. At last the full complement of goods needed to pay the taxes was made up. It would be a harder winter than anyone had hoped, but the arrival of the amber at least meant that nobody was likely to starve.
The men were a different matter. They found twenty-seven who were willing to volunteer, with some encouragement - younger sons with an eye to adventure, landless men hoping to earn their way to farms of their own someday. Some persuasive talking and the offer of to share help with the heavy work if it was needed next year produced, somehow, a list of twenty-four slaves who Cunoval hoped would be fit and strong enough for the Romans to accept them. There was some muttering about that, but Cunoval was firm about it, and it died down. Fifty-one men. And that was all.
Angharad would not allow anyone to be pressed to go with them unwillingly, and in any case, Cunoval would have found it very hard to do so. He was very glad that that, at least, was not his choice to make, though he was not so happy about the Druid. The man had arrived on a tired pony from the South, looking like any farmer coming in to market, but Cunoval knew who he really was. He had spoken to Angharad privately. Cunoval had taken care to keep well out of the way, and had no idea what had been said.
The fifty-one went off at first light, not talking, faces serious, bare feet silent on the sheep-cropped turf. They did not take horses, there were not enough to spare, and in any case, they were none of them rich men. It was a damp day, that day, though not cold, and the mists hung low, so that the group were soon out of sight. Angharad and Cunoval stood with some of their neighbours by the empty animal pens, watching the departing men until they passed into the mist. Nobody said anything about the rest of the men required for the levy: they had spared all they could, and more : surely that would be enough?
It was three days before they learned that it was not enough.
They had known that it might not be. In the tall-roofed roundhouses, war spears were sharpened, blue shields checked and repainted, chariot fittings adjusted. Cunoval took the heavy bronze-studded leather war collars that his grand daughter had so carefully rubbed with dubbin, and put them around the necks of his great hounds with his own hands. The hounds were not really bred for war, any more than their light chariots were built for battle, but he knew the hounds would give him all that was in their loyal hearts to give.
He sent Bri's girls, his grand daughters, their mother and a few of the other women and younger children away by boat down the coast, to his cousins. With a bit of luck, that would be far enough to keep them safe. The old men who were too old to fight (and there were not many who would admit that), he sent away into the woods where normally they pastured the pigs, with the sheep and cattle, hoping that they would not be noticed there.
His eldest son Bri himself would not go, of course, and nor would Angharad. He tried to suggest it to her, but she looked at him and smiled so gently - not the flinty look this time, not the great lady, but the girl he had married, more than twenty years ago. The smile was still the same. She smiled, and did not leave, but welcomed each of Cunoval's five hundred spears as they came in, a handful at a time from the outlying farms, or perhaps twenty together from the villages, fathers with sons and neighbours riding in together.
Most of the fifty-one men he had sent to Calacum came back three days after they had left, around mid-day. They were damp with dew and sweat, and it was clear they had been running hard. There were watchers set out across the country all around by then, on every road that led to a Roman fort, and along the river too, so they were seen, and Cunoval,with the Druid on his pony on one side, and Llygad y Dydd in her wide war-collar trotting on the other, rode out himself to meet them.
"Not enough?" he asked - as if there could be any other explanation for the return of the levy.
" No, lord." said one of the men, Owain, breathing heavily - he was a younger son of one of Cunoval's near neighbours. He had been playing with Cunoval's own sons in the river such a short while ago, Cunoval remembered.
"They told us that the full two hundred must come, or that they would come and take them, and more besides. So we remembered what you said, and before they could take us, we ran. We waited a while to see if they would come after us, but they had not set out when the sun set yesterday. So we came back to warn you, and to defend our own people".
"Well done" said Cunoval, and his smile upon the brave young men was warm, even though his heart was cold within him. For nobody should know that their leader is afraid, in war.
He raised his voice so that they could all hear him clearly "Well done, all of you. Those who were slaves and have returned to us to defend your families will be set free, and every one of you shall have land of your own, afterwards, if we prevail. " They cheered - a little half-heartedly, but still, they raised their voices for him. Surely they must know that there would not be many left to farm the land, afterwards, Cunoval thought, but he tried not to let the thought show on his face.
On the way back, the Druid dismounted and walked with the returning men, speaking quietly with a few at a time. He did not make speeches. His voice was calm, steadying, and although Cunoval could not hear what he was saying to them, he knew that he was assuring them that all had been done that was needed to ask the favour of the goddess.
It was hard to believe that Brigantia would be able to bring them the victory this time, but now it came to it, it was good, Cunoval thought, to have the man there, ready to intercede with the gods, ready to guide them west of the sunset. Angharad had been right about that.
The Romans came four days later, just long enough for everyone to be very sick of waiting, and for an optimistic few to start wondering if they would come at all. Armoured, marching as they had seen the Ninth march once, in a great clanking iron-scaled dragon made of men, down into the valley along the main road from Calacum, with a troop on horseback behind them, red banners flying.
Cunoval harried them every step of the way. Riders came flying down out of the hills to attack and fade back before they could be brought to bay, spearmen were stationed in every copse and behind every wall. Attacks came out of the mist and faded into it, great hounds leaped savagely for their throats as spears stabbed unexpectedly from the bushes at any man who paused to relieve himself.
Cunoval's men brought the bridge down, so the soldiers had to stop at the river, and build a new way across. While Cunoval held them by the water, his youngest son swam horses and men across upstream and brought down a wild attack on the rear of the column. It took the Romans alarmingly little time to build themselves a new bridge, despite all of that.
Cunoval used every trick he had learned in over forty years of unquiet peace, everything they had done to shatter the Ninth and more. But this time, he was on his own. Angharad was no Lady of all Brigantia, to summon warbands from across the land, even if any help could have come in time - and the Wall lay North of him, blocking him from both allies and retreat. To the South, the great fortress of Deva held the roads closed. No help could come to them out of the mountains of the Eryri.
He brought out the chariots that he had kept in reserve, once they came over the river. His own team of fine matched greys in the centre, with his own son as charioteer, Bri's blacks to his left, his first spear's bays to his right, and all the horses and riders that were left with them, every one groomed as finely as if they had been going to the races. They hit the Roman flank as a thrown spear takes a man in the gut. Many soldiers died there, and for a moment Cunoval dared to hope.
Then the Romans rallied, trumpets braying roughly through the gloom. They reformed, and the Roman horse came in to their rear, and suddenly Brigantes were going down before the stabbing swords and before long the Roman forces stood together, almost as strong as before. Llygad y Dydd died there, by the river, with a Roman short sword in her chest and her teeth in a Roman throat, defending Bri and his charioteer after their chariot went down. Cunoval was almost too tired to weep for her by then.
His five hundred spears were all he had, and although the force attacking them was far less than a Legion, it was more than enough.
They made their last stand behind the turf walls of the dun, though there were not really enough of them left to hold it by then. Angharad came out to stand proudly at the centre of the defence, in her best red cloak, with the Druid beside her and Cunoval with him, blue shield raised. The Druid had taken off his farmer's gear at last, and was wearing a white tunic,so that all could see him easily. He was unarmed, but raised his voice, calling upon the Goddess to open the way West for the warriors, the hounds of the Goddess, who had fallen and would hunt a new trail now.
The Romans were readying to charge. Angharad put her hand on Cunoval's shoulder. She looked so beautiful to him, even though her dark hair was streaked with white and her hands were trembling a little.
"It's time for me to go" she said to him. He looked at her in anguished denial, but she shook her head "You know what they will do to everyone who is left alive after they come over the wall" she said. "I don't want to wait for that, Cunoval. I won't. Help me die now, and I'll wait for you, I promise."
"I won't be far behind." he said. "You'll wait for me? You promise? She nodded. And then he cut her throat. She made a little sound as she died, and it tore at his heart.
The first Roman who came at him, he killed and made that life an offering to the gods, to let him find Angharad again soon. The second and third came at him from both sides, and while he caught the blow of a tall, darkskinned soldier on his blue shield, the other man's sword found his neck.
I've tried to keep this close to the book (though I did have Jamie Bell play Esca as in the film, and therefore had Cunoval as a fairly small bloke too). Let me know if I've missed something obvious, either historically or in terms of the book setting, I'd be interested to hear.
Auxiliary recruitment. Wikipedia confidently asserts that auxiliary recruitment was entirely voluntary by the second century AD, but one wonders exactly how clear this would have been to all the participants, particularly in the less Romanised parts of Northern Britain. There was conscription in the first century AD (provoking the Batavian revolt under Civilis) and apparently after that there was a rule that auxiliaries were never stationed in the province where the troop was first raised to prevent them rising in sympathy with the local population (though they also seem to have intermarried enthusiastically with the local population, so I'm not entirely sure that worked...)
At any rate, this is a period when the Roman army is expanding in size, and I wondered how many people would volunteer to serve for twenty-five years as soldiers in a place they'd never visited or seen and without ever seeing their families again, even if the money was good. Plus, the thinking seems to be that Celtic culture may have been quite hierarchical, without much emphasis on personal decisionmaking. 'Volunteer' may be a relative term.
Esca does not seem to have been enslaved during a huge general uprising like that of Boudicca : it sounds more a fairly small scale, fast moving thing like the attack on Isca Dumnoniorum. So I wanted a reason why that might happen, and an over-enthusiastic recruitment policy and culture clash seemed like it might work.
Names : I have in general gone for Welsh for names: I know it's a bit out of period but at least there is lots of vocabulary available! Llygad y Dydd means 'Daisy' and is a nod to all Sutcliff's various hounds that are called 'Margarita' or varients on that. (Marguerite is another name for the ox-eye or dog daisy). Angharad means 'beloved'.