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
Long road to Calleva 4 : Watling Street
In Londinium, Vatto quickly sold most of the Decangli slaves that he had bought in Deva, and most of his other trade goods too, in exchange for heavy silver coins that he kept in a locked chest in the corner of his warehouse on the outskirts of Londinium. The city seemed to be a place that he visited regularly.
He tried to sell Esca too, first as a gladiator, then as a stablehand, but could not find a buyer willing to offer the price he wanted. There was not much of a market for gladiators that summer, or so Vatto muttered to himself, running his hand angrily through his thin red hair. And Esca's tattoos and clipped ear - and perhaps also the unsettling way he met the potential buyer's eyes - put off the buyers of potential stableboys. Nobody, of course, would be fool enough to buy a painted warrior with a clipped ear as a house-slave: that would be far too risky.
That gave Esca a troubled feeling: he was glad that he was still a threat, not a safe, domestic beast to serve and be ignored. But the wild beast was what the arena might want one day, and he had seen enough of that by now to know that he did not want that either.
One day after they had been in Londinium for a while, Vatto sold Banno, Cunoval's bee-slave, who had walked with them so far, down from the North. Esca was not there to see him go. Vatto had sent him off with Saco and Tasulo, to help with unloading heavy bolts of woollen cloth from one of the mulecarts, and by the time they got back, Banno had already been taken away by his new master. It was strange, how much Esca missed him. The little man was, after all someone whose name he had barely known, in his old life, someone who had refused to help him escape, yet on the long walk South, he had somehow or other become a friend.
There was no talk of selling Elen, although Esca was almost sure by now that Vatto's threat of punishing her if Esca disobeyed had been forgotten. She was set the daily task of buying food for whichever slaves Vatto had with him that day, but she was given no other work, and her cheeks began to become a little round again.
One of Imilco's tasks was to help Vatto keep the books and give Elen the money for the daily ration. Esca was worried at first that he would bother Elen, but she seemed to have decided that Imilco was no threat to her : or at least, when Esca saw them together, she did not seem to be trying to avoid him, and she had given up her habit of asking Esca to walk with her to keep him away.
That summer, Vatto spent his time between Dubris on the South Coast, his home town of Ratae Coritanorum and Londinium, buying and selling other goods than men.
Tasulo had hoped that he would take them with him to see the sea and the harbour town of Dubris, but Vatto decided that while he was buying in silks and spices, he would rent out his slaves, apart from his assistant Imilco, to a group of farms in the lands of the Cantiaci, who were hiring help with the fruit harvest.
On his way to Dubris, Vatto stopped at an inn along the road, where he was meeting a man to discuss the purchase of a quantity of honey. Imilco was given the task of taking the other slaves out to the orchards where they would be working for the rest of the summer.
Although a gentle rain was falling as they left the road and took a grassy track across open meadows, it was warm and not unpleasant walking. It had not rained for some weeks, and the air was filled with the scent of warm, wet earth.
"Luck!" said Tasulo, grinning. "Make a wish!"
"What are these huge apples?" Elen said. She reached out and caught hold of a cluster of three golden-russetted apples, each one almost big enough to fill her hand.
" Have you not seen the Roman apples before?" Imilco asked her, smiling at her hopefully. He was like a little dog wagging, eager to please, Esca thought. "They are like the little apples you have in the North, but they are so sweet you can eat them without cooking them or adding honey."
Elen looked dubious "You can eat them off the tree? Are you making a joke to see me pucker my mouth up when I bite one?"
"No" said Imilco laughing "See, I'll eat one first, then you can see they are safe."
He pulled one down and bit into it, smiling, then offered another to Elen. After that, they all had to try one. The apples were indeed sweet, though they still had an apple taste, and a scent that was stronger and sweeter than the smell of crabapples.
They saw Imilco often, for he usually stopped by when Vatto was going down to Dubris to buy spices. He came, supposedly, to carry messages to the farmer about the apple crop, part of which Vatto was taking to sell in Londinium in part-payment for his slaves' work on the harvest, but Esca thought there was no question about the real reason that he came so often.
One evening when Imilco was leaving to go back to Dubris, Elen walked with him as far as the orchard-gate. When she came back, she was smiling, and her eyes were very bright.
"He asked Vatto if he can buy me, and he said yes." she told Esca. "He's going to take me to live with him in Londinium - to see about the cooking for Vatto, to start with, but Imico says next year he may be able to buy us a little house. "
"Elen, do you want this? " Esca asked her, troubled.
She looked at him thoughtfully, and her eyes grew a little less bright as she saw his face. She sighed.
"Yes. Yes, I do want it. Oh, Esca... I shall not forget my husband Cadwgan, or my little boy how could I? I have made the offerings for them..." her voice broke a little "I will not forget them. But, Esca, Cadwgan is almost a year dead, and I am alive. I cannot spend the rest of my life in mourning. Imilco is a good man, a kind man. "
"And a slave, and a trader in men." Esca said, bitterly.
"A slave like us" she said, and her mouth hardened a little.
"He would have whipped you, and the children too, in Deva" Esca said, remembering.
"And did no man at home ever beat his wife? Or his slaves? But Imilco will not beat me now, I think." Elen looked down at the grass for a moment, then looked Esca in the eye, determined.
"Esca, a year ago, I would have sworn that I would die before I would go with a slave, and die before I agreed to live out my life in these muddy lowlands far from home. But now... Death in defeat is for the great lady of the clan, as your mother died. Escape to life as an honoured exile is for - for people like Tesni, your brother's wife. We were friends I know, but she was always the lady, not me. I am just a woman and I must live as I can and take joy where I may."
"Imilco is a good man. He's not like Motius and Saco and the others... And I think he will not be a slave for long, and then he will marry me, and we will both be free and we will make a life together. I will keep his house and bear his children and they will be born free."
"Please. It would mean much to me if you would wish us joy now? "
Esca's heart was heavy. But after all, if there was a choice here at all, it was Elen's choice to make, not his.
When the apple harvest was done and the leaves on the apple-trees were starting to turn yellow and gold around the edges, Vatto rented out Esca and Tasulo to work in the Roman military stables on the outskirts of Londinium. The stables served the messengers and soldiers of Rome, providing replacement mounts for those who cam we with written authorisations to travel swiftly, and stabling for those who had business in Londinium.
Vatto himself was travelling North with Imilco and Elen, to spend the winter in his home at Ratae Corieltauvorum. He would return and collect his surplus slaves in the spring when the roads were better, Imilco told them.
Esca had thought that the stables would be easier at least than the work of stoking the bathhouse furnaces in Deva, and to begin with, it was. The work was not so hot and heavy as the furnace work had been, and cleaning tack, feeding and exercising the horses was more the kind of task that he had been used to in his old life, though as he said ruefully to Tasulo, he had never spent so much time shovelling such quantities of dung before.
But at least even shovelling dung could be done in company, and through the last warm days of that flybitten Southern autumn, they walked the horses in relays down to the river to drink and swim, and picked the last of the blackberries and hazelnuts from the hedges to eat on the way back, until Tasulo's tunic and hands were stained and sticky with juice, and it felt almost to Esca like a life that he could bear, if he did not think too hard, and if he ignored his dreams.
But later, as the winter drew on it was harder to work in the stables than it had been to mindlessly stoke the furnaces, though hard in a different way. Rome looked on her courier horses as supplies, like grain and lead and slaves. The horses must be ready at any moment when a messenger came in for a change of mount, and must be ridden swiftly and without trouble by any rider with authorisation.
If they proved hard to handle, well, there were tools to force the horse into line that were quicker and easier than working gently with the animal, as Esca would have done, until the horse consented to do as he was bid. And if the horse was spoiled by harsh treatment, well, he could be sold or sent to the knackers : there were always new beasts coming in.
Some of the riders were very harsh with their mounts - not all of them, not even most of them, but enough.
Seeing it put a bad taste in Esca's mouth, and there was nothing to be done about it. He was not even allowed to speak to the riders about the state of the horses, not after the first time, when he almost came to blows with one of Rome's messengers. He was beaten for that, and once he could walk again, restricted to dung-shovelling, until the busy stable manager forgot what he had done, and needed another man to help exercise the horses again.
If a messenger came in with a horse whipped almost to foundering, all he could do was take the foaming, shaking animal away, and bring another. His heart ached at the cruelty and the waste, and as the days lengthened again and the winter wore into a wild and windy spring, Esca became silent and withdrawn and avoided the company of the other slaves, even Tasulo.
Esca had expected Vatto to come for them in the springtime as he had done before in Deva, but he did not. He had no idea whether the stablemaster had heard from Vatto and had agreed to keep them for longer, or if he had bought them, or if they had simply been forgotten: nobody told them, and after the beating he had been given that winter, Esca was disinclined to ask.
"Banno!" Tasulo yelled, happily, and a familiar face peeped over the hedge at them.
It was good to see Banno again. His new master's farm was just up the valley, and he had come down to set up some new hives at the south end of the farm that morning : Esca and Tasulo had passed the road down to that farm a number of times, and Banno had walked past the stables, but they had not seen each other until then. After that, Banno walked over to the stables in the early evenings to see them, sometimes, when he was able to take a little time away from the bees.
It was a dry summer that year, until the autumn came. Then the rain came down like a thick grey curtain, pouring, great heavy drops falling from a swollen, greyish-purple sky for days on end. The land was dry and hard, and the rain ran off it in sheets, pouring into the rivers and streams.
The Tamesis rolled full and brown and turbulent in the wide, shallow valley below the stable blocks, and when the tide came up, she broke her banks, filling the lowlying fields with water a foot or more deep, so that where the river bed lay was impossible to tell: fields and meadows and the lower roads made one great wide lake, over which great flocks of ducks paddled. Trees, bushes and in places, buildings too, rose from the water, showing where in more normal times, field boundaries and woodland and the edges of the town lay, and through the centre of the waters of the wide lake, the hungry main current of the Tamesis roared, swift and deadly.
The water carried things off, too : small boats and coracles at first, not pulled up far enough from the greedy river's banks, then as the river rose and rose, hurdles, baskets, beehives, and the contents of any house or barn that stood a little too low and vulnerable to the brown water, seized and hurried down the river through the city towards the sea.
They ran short of grazing, and had to bring in the horses early, and that made for a good deal of extra work, feeding and exercising and mucking out animals that would normally have been turned out.
Perhaps that was why Tasulo became impatient with the work, towards the end of one long busy day, and stole away to look at the flotsam borne on the floodwaters, or perhaps he simply strayed too close to the brown flood. Esca did not see him fall. But he did see him carried past, not far away, but too far - almost as fast as a man can run.
Esca grabbed the nearest pony and leapt on her - thankfully she already had a bridle on - and urged her on towards the river. He could see Tasulo's head, still above the brown tide, and his arms moving, trying to keep himself afloat, and muttered a quick prayer to the lady Tamesis, though he did not think she was in any mood to be helpful, just then.
He flung himself off the pony, knee deep in the muddy shallows that had once been a field, and looked again, trying to see Tasulo's head above the choppy waters. He had taken the pony downstream a little as he rode, so Tasulo should be coming past him at any moment. The light was already going under the heavy grey clouds, and it was hard to see now that he was down on a level with the water, but Esca thought he saw Tasulo again for a moment, lifting one arm out of the water to wave. He turned to dive in to the water after him, but before he could do so, a hand grabbed his arm. It was one of the Roman messenger riders: he must have followed him down from the stables.
"What are you doing man?" the messenger half-shouted, voice raised above the roar of the river. "He's gone, there's no way you'll find him in that." he waved his other hand at the roaring Tamesis. Esca tried to pull away, but now the man was holding him with both hands, and he could not get loose.
And now, as they struggled, his chance was vanishing : Tasulo must be downstream of them by now, and there was little hope of finding him. A tree came past, carried by the water, still with most of its leaves on, and they both had to struggle backwards in the shallow water to avoid being hit by the branches.
Esca turned on the Roman then, with all the fury of two years restraint unleashed. He was unarmed and the Roman had a sword on his belt, but Esca did not give him a chance to draw it: he smashed the man's long Roman nose first, then punched him in the stomach, which would have felled him if he had not happened to be wearing a thick sheepskin jacket.
The Roman tried to come back against him with a blow to the head, but Esca ducked under it and kicked him in the thigh, and the man fell heavily with a splash into the brown water.
Esca turned back to the river, searching but it was too late. He could see no sign of anyone in the river. Tasulo was lost. He had failed in his promise to Rian, his sister, and now there was nothing left. And now, men were coming, running from the stables, too many to fight, and some of them men he had worked side by side with all this year. He allowed them to grab him and march him back to the stable block.
Looking back over his shoulder as they hurried him away, Esca saw that the Roman that he had knocked down had not been not carried away by the river. It seemed most unfair. The man struggled back to his feet, muddy and streaming river-water and people running down from the stables had picked him up out of the edge of the flood, and helped him back onto dry land, bringing a broken nose and a foul temper with him.
For Esca, it was like going back two years. They flung him into an empty stable and padlocked the door closed, and he sank down, soaked and miserable, cursing himself, and the Roman, and Tasulo for not being more careful, and the bloody Tamesis too.
The next three days were long and bitterly empty and cold. They brought him bread and water in the mornings, but nothing else, and by the end of the third day he was very hungry as well as cold.
When the dark came down again that day, another echo of the past came to trouble him. Banno came, scratching at the door and calling out to him quietly. The door was locked, but the stable block was not new, and there was a cracked place where one of the doors had been kicked by a horse. Banno had brought him a jug of broth, a bag of honey-cakes and a dry blanket, and they managed to get all of them through the gap, with a little difficulty.
Esca thanked him honestly before he ate. It was not, after all, Banno's task, to bring food and comfort to a rebellious slave that was not even part of his own master's household. There was no question in Esca's mind that it was a generous act and a brave one too. Banno had no special permission to come to the stable, and to get there he had walked alone through the dark from his master's farm, across open country where there might be wolves roaming.
"Are you going back tonight?" Esca asked him. "It would be safer to wait till the morning".
"Yes" said Banno "I will do that. I've had a word with Cocca in the kitchen - she warmed up that broth for me, such a nice girl - and she says she'll let me bed down in the scullery tonight. I'll get off back tomorrow first thing before anyone notices I'm gone. "
"I'm glad" said Esca " I would not want you in a wolf's belly, just to bring me honey cakes. Not that they are not very welcome" he added taking a big bite.
"I've brought... something else as well" said Banno, from where he was sitting outside the stable door. He sounded troubled. "It's this - careful, it's sharp".
He slipped something under the door that chinked as it touched the metal of the hinge. Esca put out his hand carefully to feel what it was - it was very dark in the stable, and Banno had put his lantern out, so as not to attract attention - and felt, under his fingers, a slim cold blade and a hard bone handle.
"A knife?" Esca picked it up and felt the blade, carefully.
"Yes" said Banno, sounding worried. "I - I've had that with me for a long time now, and I'd been meaning to give it to you before, honestly. I never meant to keep it. I'd have given it to you in Londinium, only you weren't there when Vatto sold me, and then it was too late. "
"Banno, what do you mean? Why did you mean to give it to me? I asked you for a knife, once before, two years ago, and you said no." Esca said.
" I... I was worried you'd use it on someone and get yourself killed." Banno said, in a rush, falling over his words. "It's your father's knife. "
"My father's knife? It does feel the same shape... I can't see it in here" Esca said, wondering. "How did you come to have my father's knife, Banno?"
"Gwen gave it to me, to give to you, when she was sold - she had it from one of your father's fighting men, I don't know who. She didn't want to leave it with you in case it was stolen while you were ill. "
"Thank you" Esca said. He ran his finger down the side of the blade, remembering. There was a long pause.
"Sir ... if they find it on you, if you kill Vatto when he comes for you, they'll know it was me that gave it to you." Banno said, hesitating. "There are people who know I'm here tonight, even if they are looking the other way. They would know where the knife came from."
"So why did you bring it, after all this time?" Esca asked him, curious. " You could have thrown it in the river: nobody would ever have known."
"I would have known." Banno said, obstinately. There was no trace of the usual smile in his voice.
"And .." his voice was very quiet, "my lord, they are saying that you will go to the arena, now, no matter what the price. It might not even be to fight. They might give you to to the wild beasts to be torn apart. "
"So, I may need a knife" said Esca, and suddenly his heart was light, and he flung the knife in the air and caught it by the handle in the dark as it came down again, because at last, at last an ending was coming. No more choices. No more duties.
"Thank you Banno" he said again, and meant it with all his heart.
Vatto was not best pleased to be called away from business in Londinium by a peremptory military message to come and deal with his troublesome slave, but the message was very clear. They expected him to come and take the problem off their hands right away, or this would be the last slave he rented to them.
Vatto had been planning a trip West to Glevum anyway, and perhaps this was the moment for it. He would call in to the military stables on the way and pick the man up, though it looked sadly as though he was not going to make much of a profit on him, after all.
Esca was not expected to help with the loading. They left him chained to the cart-tail, and ignored him, mostly, though Vatto had ordered that he was to be fed the same food that Motius and Saco were allowed to buy for themselves, which after days of bread and water was a relief. Esca wondered if Elen knew what had happened to Tasulo, and could not decide if he thought it was better if she did not. It was strange and hard to think that the boy was gone, so finally and without a word.
The first town along their route that had an arena was Calleva, and there Vatto bound Esca's hands behind his back before he released the chain from the mulecart, and had Motius hold the chain while they walked over to see the slavemaster there, a man named Beppo.
Vatto had already made up his mind that he would turn Esca into cash in Calleva, even if he had to take a loss on the man, he was too much of a risk to keep with him any longer. Perhaps he had made a mistake buying him. Hairdressers, scribes and bee-slaves were so much easier. But, such are the risks a man of business must take. Having come to this conclusion, the Corieltauvi slavetrader was somewhat surprised by Beppo's response to his sales pitch.
When Vatto spoke about Esca's capture and mentioned the name of Cunoval, Beppo looked genuinely interested. He inspected Esca's tattoos with more than a show of interest, and nodded sagely. They'd cut his tunic to look at them, as Vatto didn't fancy untying the man's wrists while he was not chained to something solid. Not after what Esca had done to a fully armed soldier a good ten years younger than Vatto.
Beppo seemed impressed by that story, too. The price he first offered was more than Vatto had been expecting, and Vatto was so taken aback, that for a moment, he almost forgot to haggle. Only for a moment, of course. In the end, he was well pleased with the price Beppo gave him. As his most awkward purchase for some years was finally taken off his hands and away to the cells, he offered to buy Beppo a drink. One must cultivate good customers when they come along.
In the nearest inn they both took a cup of excellent wine, and as they settled by the inn's comfortable fireside, a singer that Vatto vaguely recognised began to tune his lyre.
Beppo turned to the singer "Oh now!" he said. "You must sing that song that you sang last night for my friend Vatto here! Sing the Fall of Cunoval! "
Vatto smiled, not a cunning smile, but a real one, genuinely taken by surprise for the first time in a very long while.
"Now, there is a song I would love to hear" he said, quite honestly.
Apples : Although there were certainly apples in Britain before Rome, the thinking seems to be that they would be the very sour small sort that we now call crab-apples. The Romans brought in better varieties (and in fact, there's a lovely letter where someone orders apples 'if you can find good ones' . Whether or not they made cider with them seems to be a matter of some debate, but I feel they *should* have done. It is possible that by 140ADish, nice apple trees had made their way north to Brigante country, but given that an apple orchard does take a while to establish, I thought it was reasonable to have Roman apples as a Southern British delicacy that had not yet worked its way North.