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
Long road to Calleva 3: Winter in Deva
He had felt so very tired, when they had left the amphitheatre, after the Corieltauvi trader Vatto had tried to sell him to fight in the arena at Deva, but as they left the dark city walls behind, the tiredness seemed to drop away a little. When they came to the river, Vatto permitted him to stop and splash his face in the clear, cold water and for a minute or so, it felt almost like freedom.
Vatto's laden mules, with his slave deputy, Imilco, and the Corieltauvi's other men, were waiting for them by the side of the busy Roman road, as Vatto, Esca, and Tasulo crossed the river by the wooden bridge south of Deva. There were two mulecarts now, piled high with covered parcels and packets. Vatto had clearly been busy that winter.
Only a few of the slaves that had walked with them to Deva were there: instead there were long-haired Deciangli, dressed in the long dark woollen coats and stout sheepskin boots of their tribe, and talking among themselves in the harsh accents of the northern peoples of the Cymru.
Elen was sitting on the riverbank beside Banno, and looking at her as they approached, Esca thought that she looked thin and tired.
Last summer, in a time that seemed a thousand years ago now, he and his brothers had teased Elen that she was as round and sweet and golden brown as one of the little round whortleberry cakes that she cooked on her round bakestone at the edge of the fire. Her round dumpling curves made a contrast with her dear friend Tesni, Esca's brother's tall, slender dark-haired wife.
But now Elen's apple cheeks were sharp-edged and there were grey smudges under her tired brown eyes. The little bee-slave Banno, on the other hand, looked cheerful and perhaps a little fatter than before, his face crinkling cheerfully as he saw them coming.
Tasulo ran to greet them like old friends.
"What did you do over the winter? We were in a bath house! The floors were all hot all winter and I had to wear sandals and a white tunic but I've got this new one now and it's much better, look!"
"Very fine! " Banno said to him, smiling. "We were making baskets and skeps all winter long. Easy enough work when you are used to it".
"And where is Rian?" Elen asked Tasulo, looking around. The boy went quiet and looked away.
"The bathhouse bought her", Esca replied for him. "She seemed to like it there, I think she will be well, but it was a sad parting for the two of them, when it was time for her brother to say goodbye to her. Elen, are things... how is it with you?"
"It could be worse : I know how to make baskets from willow now" she said "Banno was very kind and showed me what to do, though I am still not as quick as he is. And you?" she asked Esca, looking him up and down, her tired face looking worried. "You look terrible! "
Her concern was unexpected, but it warmed him. "Oh well, hard work in the winter is a sad change from lazing by the fire, as I used to do" he said, trying to make a joke of it and match her courage. He had never been one for sitting still.
It was a dry spring that year, with days of bright sun and little clouds moving across blue skies, and that made the walking seem pleasant on the way south from Deva. There were so many riders and fast chariots on the road between Deva, the City of Legions and Viriconium of the Cornovii that Esca and the other slaves did not walk along the road itself, but alongside it, on the grass nibbled short by the black, longhorned cattle that grazed the meadows along the banks of the winding young river Dee. The mule carts were no faster this year than they had been in the autumn, but at least it was not so muddy.
Vatto called the halt early that first evening, when the sun was still well up in the sky. Once they had pitched the tents on a small hummock of grassy land between the road and the river, they carried that evening's firewood down to the river and set up their campfire by the water's edge. Most of the slaves, and Vatto's men too, stripped off to splash or even swim in the chill, shadowy brown depths, glinting with golden specks in the light of the westering sun.
When Esca came out of the river, gasping a little at the cold and grabbing for his tunic, he noticed Imilco, Vatto's assistant, staring across the riverbank at Tasulo and Elen, who were both still naked and splashing each other as if both of them were Tasulo's age. Imilco's eyes were wide and he had a hungry look about him. Esca's heart sank. He scooped up Elen and Tasulo's clothes and took them over to interrupt the game.
It was a clean, new place, as though the city had sprouted up all at once like a mushroom bursting from the flat green land, with the road running straight as an arrow right through the middle of the tall houses, past the forum and the huge bathhouse.
"Are these people all Romans?" Tasulo asked Esca, staring at a couple who were looking at bowls at the pottery shop. The portly man was wearing a toga, and the woman had her hair in elaborate curls. "That man's wearing a blanket!"
"I don't know. " Esca admitted. "I thought Viriconium was the city of the Cornovii, but these people look Roman... I think that blanket is called a toga, I saw some men wearing them when I went to Eboracum once. My father" he stumbled on the word, and started again more carefully.
" I was told it signifies that they are too important to ride a horse or something like that. I would not wish to ride wearing one, would you? I think they did not wear them often in Deva, though you would know better than me about that. Perhaps they are not clothes for soldiers."
"They are not" said Imilco. "They are for Roman citizens - for people engaged in public affairs. That man might be a magistrate, perhaps".
Imilco was walking near enough to overhear, because he had taken to leading his mule as near to where Elen was walking as he could easily get. Elen usually walked with Esca, Tasulo and Banno together, making a little group of the four Brigantes who had come down from Calacum and had not been sold in Deva.
Since Imilco had begun doing this, Esca had taken to walking between Imilco and Elen, when he and Elen could manage it. Imilco's interest was not welcome to her, though at least he did not seem to have any desire to force her. Esca was thankful that at least it was Imilco who followed, looking like a lovesick sheep, rather than Vatto. He suspected Vatto would have no qualms about taking a slave woman that he fancied, whether she wished it or not.
One morning as they walked east, Banno gathered an armful of reeds from the edge of a small stream which ran beside the road. He tied them into a bundle and slung them over his shoulder. As they walked, he whistled tunelessly as he stripped out the pith and began to weave the dark green husks together.
"What are you making?" Elen asked him.
"Thought I'd make myself a hat!" he said, smiling at her. "It's just like weaving skeps for the bees, but smaller and you put a brim on it. And these reeds are not as hard on the fingers as that willow we had in Deva... Want me to make you one?"
"I'll see what it looks like, first." she said.
Banno laughed "it will be a thing of beauty!" he said. " Wait till you see it! I make wonderful hats, they keep the rain off your neck and the sun out of your eyes!"
Esca looked at him. For a man who had been born a slave, had lost the only home he had ever known, and was walking into an uncertain future, it seemed very strange that Banno was such a happy man.
"Banno, how do you stay so full of cheer despite all this? " Esca gestured around at the carts, the mules, Imilco behind them and Vatto on his horse at the front of the group. "You still have a smile."
Banno looked at him, face for once thoughtful and serious. He began to speak, then paused, staring at the reeds in his hands, searching for words.
"I ... Being a slave, it's not easy." He paused " Well, of course, it's not easy, living your life by another man's whim. Nobody loves..." he waved a hand full of reeds helplessly "... being poor. Not ... having a voice. Always being in the wrong. Being beaten. All of it. "
" I'm not a fighter, not like you. You know, I had a friend, you probably don't remember him, he was one of your father's cowherds. When the men with swords came to take us slaves, he went for them with a pitchfork. I don't know why: it was all over by that time anyway. They laughed at him as they cut him down. He didn't even get close enough to touch them, and they killed him and laughed."
There was a long pause. Banno was frowning, deep in thought as he walked along, but his fingers were still busy, weaving the reeds into a shape like a small bowl. After a while, he spoke again.
"What I reckon is ... these are the dice I've rolled. I have to work with what I've got. Like these reeds. Straw would make a better hat, but I don't have any straw. " He frowned, thinking.
"So... I can't change my roll of the dice. I could eat myself up inside, all panicky fear and hate, like a wild hare does if you keep her in a box. People do that, they die or go bitter as willowbark and rotten inside: I've known a few go that way. " He looked up at Esca, for a moment, eyes level.
" But to my mind... to my mind that doesn't answer. So I ...I try to float along on the river that carries me along, and accept where she takes me. And if I can, I help those I bump into along the way, just a little, and hope that they will help me."
"And one day, maybe, I'll get to roll the dice again. Perhaps this time, the gods will smile back at me."
His face relaxed and he smiled again. " And if they do, then I shall have a fine house on the South side of a hill, and a good big jug of mead and a flock of sheep, and a woman who can cook roast lamb, with a nice fat arse on her. A man can always hope!"
Esca walked on, troubled. Banno's thoughts called out to a part of him, the part of him that had been lost and bewildered since he had lost his lord, who was his father Cunoval, and his elder brothers, and had been pitched alone into this world of confusion where there seemed to be no right path to walk.
To accept that there was no right path, to accept that it was his fate to be flung about like a feather in the breeze, with no guilt or duty - he did not think he could do it. Surely there must be more shape to the world than that.
Two busy roads crossed there. One was the road that they had walked from Viriconium, which led on eventually, so Imilco said, to Londinium and the coast. The other road ran crossways across the flat and boggy pastures of Corieltauvi country, north and east towards Lindum and south and west to distant Isca Dumnoniorum.
There was a fort there, at the crossroads. Of course there was. There were forts everywhere, all of them straight edged grids of buildings with strong, fortified walls, and soldiers everywhere too, in ones and twos or tens, hundreds or even thousands. Sometimes Esca wondered if even his father could have had any idea of the strength and iron fisted power of Rome. He had certainly had had no idea. Rome was mightier than Cunoval's youngest son could have imagined, just last year, before everything changed.
That evening they stopped by Tripontium, the town of the three bridges. Vatto had heard the word in the town that there was something wrong with the water, and so he had bought a cask of sour barley beer for them to drink.
That was the evening the singer came to their fire, just as the blue sky was deepening and the stars were coming out. There were always bards on the roads, moving from place to place to collect new songs and remember old ones, stopping here or there for a day, or for a season. There had been some fine singers over the years who had come to Cunoval's dun and Cunoval had welcomed them with generous gifts and hospitality, for the songs and news they brought with them.
The slaves camped by the road by Tripontium's third bridge had little to give the man, and it seemed strange to Esca that a man of such skill had chosen their fire to stop at, when he could have pressed on into the town. But they shared their food and beer, such as it was, and thanked him eagerly for choosing to bring his songs to their fire that night.
He was a man of the South, from Gaul, that singer, and he did not only carry the songs in his head, but he carried a lyre on his back as well, to play while he sang. It was a custom in his country, he told them as he tuned the strings, for a man to play the songs as well as to sing them.
First he sang them a sea-song that came, he said, from the sailors who travel the Narrow Sea. That song was new to them all, but it was a catchy thing with a merry chorus and before long they were all joining in - well, all but Banno. "I have a cloth ear" the bee-slave said, ruefully. " I shall listen to you all singing instead, but I will put you all off if I sing too!"
After that, three of the Deciangli sang for the bard : deep and sonorous, a sheepshearing song from their homeland in the mountains, and he thanked them gravely and made a dance around their words with his lyre as he learned the new phrases.
Then he sang alone, to a tune that they had all heard before, a spring song, a song that you sing when it is time to plant the oats and barley, to help the life spring from the seed. It was a song of the death of the hero and the hero reborn, bringing hope to his people, but the words the man sang, picking at his little wooden lyre, were a little different from the ones that Esca knew, and they caught at his heart:
"Out of the mists, back from the land of youth, strong with the sound of trumpets under the apple boughs" it ended. Afterwards there was a little moment of silence before anyone spoke their praise.
He sang well for his meal that night, and seemed not to begrudge the small reward he got from Vatto for the work. After a while the Deciangli began to join in, and a while after that, they did not seem to need the lyre to help them on.
Esca found himself sitting next to the singer, as they listened. The man pointed to the blue designs on Esca's bare arm. "Now, what is the meaning of that painting?" he asked. "Surely that is the mark of a warrior? Were you taken in war?"
It should have seemed a rude question from a stranger, but somehow the beer and the singing and the firelight and the spring stars overhead had brought down Esca's guard a little, and he found himself telling the man a little, and then a little more.
About the chariot charge where his brother had gone down with a Roman spear in his stomach, and his mother's death at his father's hand. About his father and his other brother, and how the darkness had fallen on him suddenly as he ran to help them, and he had thought that it was the end.
"That is a mighty tale" the singer said "a tale that could be a song, I think, the fall of the warrior Cunoval and his clan."
"Not one that Rome would wish to be heard." said Esca, bitterly.
"Perhaps. " the singer said, thoughtfully, running a thumbnail across the strings of the lyre. "I have been to Rome. Romans love tales of enemies brave in defeat, and also, there are many others who would hear such a song and it would lift up their hearts. Would it please you if I made such a song?"
Esca thought for a while, staring into the fire. It was a generous offer, and he had nothing to give the man in return. Such a task should be rewarded with an open hand, but he had no way to do that.
He met the singer's eyes. "I have no jewel to give in return for the making of such a song." he admitted. Indeed, he might never hear the song even if it were made : Vatto would move on the next day, and Esca had no idea where he might be taken next, or how long he would stay there. But that wasn't the most important thing.
"No matter" said the bard. "I will make the song because it pleases me to make it, and because I have a tune in my head that has been waiting for the right story to tell for over a year now. "
"I would be pleased then" said Esca, a little stiffly, looking away into the fire.
I have no idea if people from North Wales really wore long coats and sheepskin boots, or if they sang. But there seemed no reason for them not to.
Elen's whortleberry cakes, in my head, are a very early version of the welshcake. One warning : I have made cakes with whortleberries, which are like small wild British blueberries. The flavour is excellent, but they turn the cake a disturbing grey! So I think Elen might use dried whortleberries to get cakes that come out golden brown. Or possibly she has some other trick that I have yet to discover.
The last line of the song is from 'Sword at Sunset'. I really wanted to put in a scene with a harper and that song, just because I love the scene with Artos meeting Bedwyr for the first time, so much. But when I checked, I found that the only British instruments that I could find evidence of in Britain in the second century were trumpets and horns. Harps become a huge part of the tradition, but they seem to be later. So, the obvious thing to do was to have the singer come up from Gaul with a lyre (which they certainly had, and may be the ancestor of the later British harp and crwth. )
The road that Vatto takes from Deva to Londinium (and beyond to Canterbury) is one of the big trade routes of Britain, and was later called Watling Street, hence the name of this chapter. Nowadays, with a startling lack of poetry, we call it the A5.