Inspired by: Eagle of the Ninth
Previous chapters :
Long road to Calleva 1: The Fall of Cunoval
The long road to Calleva 2: Different Kinds of Chains
Title: Winter in Deva
Length: 3433 words
Rating : and still more with the gen.
Summary: Esca and the other slaves arrive in Deva. Esca gets a haircut, has a very unpleasant (but gen!) time in a bathhouse, and proves difficult to sell.
Walking down the main East road towards Deva that cold and windy morning, the huge stone walls of the fortress were visible for miles, dark and heavy in the distance. As they came closer, the strength of the fortified Eastgate, busy with soldiers coming and going, was obvious. It looked even bigger than the fort he had seen at Eboracum, and that had been large enough. Around the great walls were deep-dug ditches. Esca tried to imagine how one might go about an attack on such a place, but he could not imagine how any army could go about surmounting those walls, not if they were defended.
He wondered how his father might have gone about it, and came up short - again, that flash of memory, his father's knife, his mother's throat. He wondered if Rian and Tasulo's mother had died like that - surely she had not? And he wondered if Elen wished that she had, or if she was glad that she had not. He wished again, hopelessly, that his wound had been fatal, as it should have been.
Sometimes it was easier to think like a slave, like an ox. No guilt, no loyalty: an uncertain future, an unimportant past. Nobody expecting you to do anything but keep out of trouble. Esca looked down and concentrated hard on how fortunate he was that whoever had stolen his good tunic had not also made off with his boots.
Thinking that way still gave him an uncomfortable feeling at the back of his mind, where all the things that had made him a warrior lived, growling in the dark like an injured hound, dangerous to the wrong hand. But it was easier, sometimes, to pretend for a little while that his new life was all there was.
Vatto led his group off the road before they came to the Eastgate, among the scatter of houses and farm buildings outside the walls, past lines of stone altars and gravestones lining the road approaching the gate. They stopped a little way south of the great fortress city, and set up their camp a little way from a huge round building that stood a little outside the city walls.
Esca had heard men speak of the great amphitheatre of Deva, but it was taller than he had expected, with many doors and a great flight of wooden steps leading up into it. He had never seen such a thing : not a fortress, or a dun, or a grave, but a great building full of seats for beast fights and sacrifices and games. It seemed a great deal of effort to go to. Perhaps it was necessary to build such a thing because this land was so strangely flat, with no valley sides to sit and look down on the action. Though it looked too small to host a chariot race.
That afternoon, to everyone's relief, the wind dropped and it finally stopped raining. The low sun came out from behind the clouds in the West just as they were starting to put up the tents, and outside the dark shadow of the fortress walls, the wet trees and grass shone gold. Vatto handed his horse to Esca, who fastened her at the picket line and started to remove her tack.
Vatto sniffed and wrinkled his nose, looking disapprovingly at him. "Imilco!" Vatto said. "I'm going into Deva, to the baths, then I'll be staying at the inn in Northgate street tonight, if you need me. Keep an eye on everything for me." Imilco nodded in acknowledgement.
"You can take this bunch down to the river once you've got the tents up : they could do with a wash : they stink. "
"Oh, and Imilco! That girl, Totia, the one who reckons she can cut hair? Get her to give them a trim, Roman style, let's see what she can do. She can't possibly make that one" he waved at Esca "look any worse, and if she's any good we can advertise her as skilled and put a few hundred on her price. I want them looking in good trim tomorrow."
Esca looked down at himself in surprise. He had not thought about bathing for a long while - it had not seemed important - but it was true his clothes were greasy and thick with mud. He had an awkward little beard, and his hair was still lopsided where Vatto had cut it back to expose his clipped ear.
"Oh, and Imilco? Keep them away from the houses, last time I stopped here there was a very annoying business with some silly woman who swore one of my lot had made off with her best goose, so keep an eye on them... Oh, and one last thing - careful with the razors and the scissors, remember. " Vatto shouldered his bag and walked off.
Once Vatto was safely headed towards the Eastgate and out of earshot, Imilco let out an explosive puff of breath . "Oh, and Imilco!" he exclaimed, half under his breath, hands on his hips, indignant.
" He leaves you much to do." Esca observed, starting to rub down the mare.
"He certainly does." said Imilco, sighing. " No matter! He's promised me my freedom and a partnership if the next three trade runs go well, so I'm lucky: he's a hard man, but I reckon he's a man of his word."
"I did not realise you were a slave" Esca said, surprised.
"Oh yes" said Imilco. "Slaveborn and bred, that's me. Vatto bought me in from Gaul to help run the business, he needed an assistant. " He straightened up. "And that I should be doing, not nattering here. Finish off with that horse and then come and help me with the tents."
Then he paused and turned back to Esca.
"That last, about the razors, was for you, you do know that?" he said. "Will you let little Totia tidy you up like a sensible person, or are you going to do something stupid? Because if you do, I will have Motius whip you, and the woman, and those poor kids. Vatto being off in Deva makes no difference : I have my orders. "
Esca stood very still. Somewhere at the back of his head, the son of Cunoval was overflowing with outrage all over again, at such words from a slave. Another slave, Esca told himself. He pushed his anger back, reached for his slave-self and bowed his head.
"I understand" he told Imilco.
He noticed that Imilco and a couple of the others were very much to hand, anyway, while Totia did her work and they kept Rian and Tasulo close while Totia used the razor and the scissors. Esca moved slowly and kept his hands where they could see them. It was strange to be cleanshaven in the Roman manner, with his hair clipped short, and the air cold on the back of his neck.
Vatto came back from the town the next day in high spirits. He inspected Totia's work and pronounced it acceptable, and then announced to his men that he had made arrangements for them to overwinter at Deva, since the weather was so bad this year.
Then he ordered the the mules harnessed up to the cart again, and leaving the tents and most of the slaves with Imilco, he set off with two of his men, Esca, Rian and Tasulo, through the Eastgate, to the river docks south of the town.
The docks were not busy, so late in the year, but there was one large trading ship tied up at end of the long pier that reached out into the centre of the river, swollen, brown and muddy with the autumn rain.
Esca helped Vatto's men unload the parcels of furs from the mulecart, and pass them to sailors, who stowed them on board, while Vatto had a drink and chatted with the owner of the ship in Latin. The ship owner was a tall man with sweeping Gaulish moustaches, who seemed to know Vatto well. Rian and Tasulo had been given no work to do and played along the muddy foreshore, prodding at the quivering mud with long sticks, and peering into the small fishing boats tied up by the wharf. One of them was unloading baskets of shiny black mussels and oysters, which seemed to fascinate them.
On the way back through Deva, Vatto stopped in the street outside the gates of the bath house, busy with soldiers and slaves coming and going. He sent his men on with the cart, and led Esca and the children down a narrow side-street, then entered the building through a low doorway.
Inside was a large room filled with boxes and bundles. A worried looking boy in a very clean white tunic greeted Vatto.
"I'm here to speak with Tertius" Vatto announced. The boy nodded and ran off to find him. Tertius was a thin bald man, who came rushing into the room briskly and greeted Vatto enthusiastically. He seemed like the kind of man who had great difficulty standing still : he was full of fidgets"
"Here they are" said Vatto, as if he were doing Tertius a great favour. "One man, two young ones, as we discussed. You can have the three of them for the winter, standard rate, and I'll pick them up again in the spring".
Tertius looked dubiously at Rian and Tasulo. "They are not very big" he said. "And the man is not trustworthy, you say? I see his ear is clipped."
"He needs to be kept an eye on, but you shouldn't have any trouble with him here in Deva, with the legion all around you" said Vatto, with enthusiasm. " And he's strong enough, and has been well fed, should be able to do a good deal of work. He won't give you any trouble if you take these others, as I suggested".
Tertius looked Esca up and down. "He's fit and well?"
"Take your tunic off, man" Vatto told Esca. Esca looked at him for a moment in silent incredulity, until Vatto put his hand on the whip. Esca took off his tunic.
"Good gods!" Tertius exclaimed. "A painted barbarian! Well, It's not as if I were buying him, after all: and I suppose it doesn't matter what he looks like, down in the furnace room. Very well then, one winter at standard rate: Minerva know we need the help now the weather's turned cold and everything is mud, so they are all coming in every day expecting hot water and clean towels!"
"Very well" said Vatto, pleased. "You three, behave yourselves and do what Tertius tells you. Many thanks Tertius, I'll have my man call in for the money". He left. Esca pulled his tunic back on and looked at Tertius, cautiously.
Tertius wrinked his nose at Rian and Tasulo's clothes, and sent them off with the boy who had first greeted Vatto, to get them something clean to wear . Then Tertius led Esca down the rough stone steps, down to the furnace rooms.
It was a hard winter for Esca. He was not unused to hard work: long days on the hunting trail or helping with the lambing were nothing new to him, but this was a different kind of work, heavy, repetitive and hot. The three great furnaces each must be kept stoked with heavy logs of beech and oak, and none of them were ever allowed to go out, except for repairs. The wood must be unloaded promptly from the carts that came in from outside the fortress and stacked in the yard, then carried in, stacked again, and finally flung into the busy furnaces.
They worked in shifts, six men including Esca. Esca had energy to do almost nothing but try to keep up with the work, and when work ended, sleep an exhausted, troubled sleep in the small, too-warm room just up the steps from the furnace rooms. He never went outside the city walls, that winter, and saw the sky only in hurried glances from the timber-yard. For the first few weeks, his muscles ached constantly and every awakening seemed darker than the last.
Sometimes he woke himself in the middle of the long nights, crying out in the dark, and came back to awareness with a confused recollection of dreams where his brothers, dressed in their best clothes and golden torcs, questioned him about why he was still alive and what on earth he thought he was doing, here in the hot dark in a room full of slaves. He tried to explain, but they turned their backs, and then a great hot wind came and blew them away along the warrior road into the West beyond the sunset like autumn leaves, leaving him alone.
He saw little of Rian and Tasulo, but he was conscious of their presence, an ongoing puzzle and a threat held over him. They had been put to work cleaning the public areas of the bathhouse, he gathered when he saw Tasulo briefly, bumping into him on his way to eat at the end of his shift.
Rian got her wish, and stayed at the bathhouse. Tertius, the bathhouse manager, bought her. They waited outside the door, the three of them, while Vatto and Tertius discussed payment. Rian hugged her brother, who was sobbing.
"You will look after him, won't you?" she asked Esca.
"I will try" he replied, uncomfortable. "For as long as I can. Rian, will you be well here?"
"I shall be." she said, small face resolute. "The ladies are kind to me and I like the work... it's better than the farm! I was never so warm and cosy in winter before... But I shall miss you so much, Tasulo. Come back and see me? Or send me messages at least."
Before they left, Esca gave Rian the name of his brother's wife, and her children, and made her say them back to him, to be sure she remembered.
"If you need help, these my kinswomen were sent away to my cousins near Canovium, before the soldiers came." he said to her. "That is along the coast road from Deva, on the way to Segontium, up in the mountains, nobody will come looking there. If you need it, go to them and ask for help in my name."
He cast around in his mind. Such a message should come with a sign, a ring or a brooch to show the messenger's good faith, but he had nothing of the sort to give Rian. "Tell them... tell my sister that I ask it by the otter that my brother and I raised. She will remember that."
Vatto was so pleased with the price he had got for Rian, that he stopped with Esca and Tasulo on their way out of the city, and bought them both clothes to replace the old ones that Esca had worn all the winter long, and the clothes that Tasulo had been given back when he took off his white bath-house tunic, which were now really too small.
Then Vatto took them to a shed near the amphitheatre, where a square looking man with familiar swirling tattoos on his arms was looking over some heavy-built yellow mastiff dogs, with thick necks and huge jaws.
He turned away from the dogs to greet Vatto. "So this is your mac Cunoval, is it?" he asked, looking Esca over. He seemed unimpressed. "He doesn't look like much. He's too small".
"No! he's agile" Vatto argued. "He'd do well in the arena, and he's painted all right under that tunic. Esca..." he gestured.
Not again, thought Esca. He felt so tired that it did not seem worth the arguing, and as Vatto looked meaningfully at him, he put his hands to his belt, ready to take his tunic off again. Perhaps in the arena there would be the chance to die fighting at least. Tasulo was looking at him, worried eyes wide.
"Hah! that's no good" said the tattooed man. He was certainly from one of the Brigantes clans, Esca thought, from the East coast, from his accent. "I've tattoos aplenty myself but nobody's going to pay to see me in the arena. I bought a couple of good Germans yesterday, I've no use for this one. He looks worked out to me, no fire left in his belly. Nobody's going to pay to see him just for the name of some dead chieftain who sired him. Maybe. "
"Very well then" said Vatto, briskly now "We'll do business another time, perhaps. Good to speak with you."
But Tasulo was there between them, and Esca had heard that any slave that witnessed the violent death of his master would be put to the torture.
He put a leash on the anger of Cunoval's son, and pulled him to the back of his mind, snarling.