bunn (bunn) wrote,

Horses of the Chalk

Title: Horses of the Chalk
Length: 5218 words
Rating : g
Summary: In which the great grandson of the Tribune Placidus sets out one fine May morning to buy a horse, meets an old enemy of his house, and makes some friends who later prove invaluable. Cottia makes a number of cutting remarks and saves the day.
Set around 55 years after the Eagle of the Ninth (Sutcliff), on the farm founded by Marcus, Esca, and Cottia.
Any stupid mistakes or historical inaccuracies, please let me know!

Inspired by: Eagle of the Ninth, The Silver Branch


The tale I shall tell you now, happened many years ago when I was little more than a boy. I found myself in need of a new horse... Shh, you little ones! I will tell you all about the horse in a while.

Thanks to the generosity of my father, I had the funds to buy my horse right away, for he was a wealthy man, my father. It seemed so important then : I was young and the money was burning a hole in my money pouch. Now I’m old, buying a horse no longer seems a matter of such urgency.

I spoke to the stable-hand who looked after my old mare Minna - no, not like our Minna! Our Minna is a bay. My old Minna was a grey mare, with speckles, and she was not the fastest of horses, but she had kind dark eyes, very gentle.

We will not get very far if you all keep asking questions! Shhh! I asked the stablehand where might be a good place to find a new horse. He gave me the name of a farm not too far away that had, he said, a fair name for good reliable beasts. I was in a great hurry, so of course I had to set out right away.

It took me a while to get there - Minna was an old lady by then, and she liked to take her time strolling along the winding British lanes, even on a sunny May morning.

I remember that it was a glorious blue-sky day, and as I rode up over the open downs, yellow with shining buttercups, I could hear larks filling the skies with song all around me. I craned my neck trying to see one, and I remember Minna snorting reprovingly as my weight shifted. She was a very opinionated horse, and believed riders should sit still and be carried.

We got to the farm early in the afternoon, Minna and I. It was a well set up place, with bright plastered walls reflecting the spring sun and a fine red-tiled roof on the small square main building, which stood in front of two well-thatched byres. The steps at the back of the terrace led up to three rows of vines, newly planted, I thought, by the rawness of the soil, and just bursting into silver leaf.

There were no horses to be seen at all, and nobody about when I arrived, save one big strong-armed woman wearing a long apron, who came bustling out of one of the side buildings in a great hurry when she heard me call. She looked me up and down, dubious. I was wearing one of my fine-woven summer tunics, with an embossed belt with a gilded buckle that I was rather fond of, and a gold signet ring. No doubt I made a strange picture on a British farm.

I told her why I'd come, and she looked at me sideways, with narrowed eyes under her heavy eyebrows.

"The horses will be for sale at the Midsummer Fair in the Vale of the Sun Horse, as they always are" she told me, in fair Latin, though with a strong British accent.

"But I have no wish to wait till Midsummer" I told her. “I want to buy one now.”

" Were there no horses for sale in town, that you came here to seek one?" she asked.

"None that pleased me" I said and she looked at me with her head lowered, that dark look that the Britons give you sometimes, when you cannot tell quite what they are thinking.

"And someone told you we had the finest horses here?" she said. Her voice was flat.

I was seized by that awkward way my tongue has sometimes, when I start out telling the truth, and it doesn't know when to stop. It’s bad enough in an old man, but it was a torment as a youth, I can tell you.

"No" my stupid tongue said "They told me that you didn't have the best horses in Britain, but you breed and train good sensible beasts and wouldn't rob me blind, and that's what I want."

This seemed to please her "Well then", she said "Do you wait for the men to get back from the hills this evening and we'll see if we have a horse to suit you then."

"But if I wait then I won't be able to get back to the villa tonight" I said, feeling foolish.

"Well, the horses are all up in the high pasture just now, and I'm busy with the cheese, myself. You'll need to have a word with my man Hunno, but he won't be back till later. Unless you want to ride up to the high downs and find him there?”

I looked at Minna. She was drooping somewhat, and I was not sure it would be a good idea to take her all the way back to the villa that day anyway. And I would be glad of a drink and a rest myself.

“Is there somewhere I can get her a drink and give her a rub down?” I asked.

“I will show you. Do you take her over to the paddock, then you can wait and sit with the old grandmother while I get on with the cheese. She frets if she has nobody to talk to and I have enough to do here in the dairy. I’ll bring you a drink and a morsel now - and no doubt we can find you a bed for the night. "

I had told my father’s people - oh so proud of my new independence - that I might be away for a day or so, so I was in no hurry to get back. I took off Minna’s tack and once I had rubbed her down and checked her feet - I was always careful about that, even as a young man - I turned her out into the paddock that the woman showed me.

While I was caring for Minna, the woman brought out a jug of watered wine - always a welcome sight! And a plate of barley bread and soft white cheese too.

Then she shooed me round the side of the building. A very old woman was sitting there, hunched in a big wooden chair with a striped woollen blanket across her lap, and wearing one of those long native dresses, chequered with bright colours like a peasant.

She was as bent as the old grey apple-tree that leaned over her, laden with white blossom against the blue sky, and wrinkled as a last year’s apple, but she looked up at me with sharp grey eyes that showed no sign of the clouds of age. By her feet a old hound with a long wolfish grey muzzle dozed and twitched, feet moving as he hunted through dreams.

“And who are you, my young Roman, and what brings you to my humble farm?” she asked me, in good Latin, though with a hint of an accent.

“This is your farm? I thought - the woman mentioned someone called Hunno?”

She pushed herself up straight, and her eyes were suddenly stern.

“Hunno? He’s one of the herdsmen. Looks after my ponies. Vinna’s man, he is. Vinna’s the dairywoman. But the farm is mine, for a little while longer at least. “ She sounded very firm, and I muttered some apology.

“I will tell off that chit Vinna for not introducing you properly” she said “I am the owner, since my husband died. After me it will go to my grandson, Flavius. He’s off with the Eagles at the moment, of course. This place was busy once, when my husband and his …. dear friend were living here... and my children and their children, running about the place, climbing the apple trees and getting into trouble riding horses too big for them. Ten grandchildren, and my grandson Flavius and Andecara my granddaughter’s child are all that are left now. It was a cruel time, the plague.”

She paused for a while then and her sharp face was bleak. I didn’t know what to say.

“I’m talking too much.” she said suddenly, surprising me “ You must forgive an old woman. It’s too easy to wrap the past around me like a blanket... Sit down and tell me why you came here.”

And she looked at me suddenly with those bright grey eyes, suddenly very present and immediate and full of curiosity.

“I am going to buy a horse” I told her, and all my importance came back to me. I sat down on the bench against the wall, patting my money pouch, which felt reassuringly full, and took a swig of wine.

The old woman laughed. “Are you now? Can you handle one of my horses, you, a fine Roman princeling?” She didn’t look at my bad arm when she said it, but I hunched over it anyway. You get used to everyone thinking you can’t do things.

“I have a horse already, and I can manage most things” I told her. “Though it needs to be a horse with some training, so I can direct her with my legs. I can’t hold a young horse back.” I looked away. It was difficult to admit it.

In truth, my right leg is not too strong either, but in those days I tried to keep quiet about that - though no doubt more people saw the truth than I realised. It was hard enough on my father having a weakling son that in other families might have left out for the wolves. He never said so, but you could see it in his face sometimes. I have always tried very hard never to make that face myself.

“My husband had a weak leg” she told me “ so we train them all to respond to a light touch. Or at least.... we used to. I don’t ride any more” I could tell that it was hard for her to admit that from the way she tensed when she said it. She was the kind of person that finds it hard to admit weakness too, I could see, and I warmed to her, despite her stiff-necked pride and her age.

“Tell me about this horse of yours” she commanded me. So I told her all about Minna, how my father gave her to me when our family came to Britain, and how she was seventeen years old now, the same as me, and still sound, but had begun to find long rides tiring and was a little small for me now... I daresay I went on a little, as a young man will when he is talking of his first horse.

“I used to know a man who had a horse named Minna, long ago” she said, and I could see she was looking back across the years to horses and men long gone. “That was an ex-cavalry mount.”

“My Minna wasn’t an army horse, she used to belong to one of father’s civilian friends. She is descended from the royal stables of the Iceni” I told her, very proud.

She laughed “And aren’t they all! Do you know her lines, by any chance?” I didn’t. She smiled at me “No, you Romans never do... And what is your name, my dear?”

“Servius Placidus” I told her.
“I am pleased to meet you, Servius Placidus. I am Cottia Aquilae” she said very grandly, bowing her wispy grey head very slightly, as if she were wearing a crown.

“And you are Servius Placidus! Are you indeed? I half wondered, when I heard your voice. I met your grandfather once, or would it be your great grandfather? Many years ago, when I was a girl in Calleva and he was a young Tribune serving his three years with the Legion of the Victrix. If I may say so, I think you are a great improvement. ”

I didn’t know quite what to say to that, but “Thank you” seemed safe, so I said that, and ate a little bread and cheese while I thought about it. It was very good cheese. I offered the old lady some, but she said it upset her stomach.

“I think that Placidus would be my great grandfather” I decided. “I believe he once served in Britain. My grandfather spent most of his time in Rome, when he was not in Egypt or Syria. He used to say Britain was too wet for him.”

“So, your great grandfather. How old that makes me feel! So why has the much more pleasing great grandson of the most obnoxious Placidus come to Britain? And how long are you staying here?”

“I came with my father when he was posted here”

“And your father is?”

“Servius Placidus. He was with the Second Legion, but he is on the governor’s staff in Londinium now. Well mostly. Sometimes he’s in Corinium or Glevum or Isca Dumnoniorum, so he got me an apartment at the Villa Regis so he can come and visit me sometimes.”

“Your father is also Servius Placidus. Of course. Servius Placidus of the Second Augusta Legion. And did it not come into your head, O Servius Placidus, son of Servius Placidus, that the son of such an important Roman, wandering about all all on his own in Britain with a full money pouch, might be something at risk? There are thieves on the roads. And I mind me now that I have heard something of your father, and for you there is another threat too. “

“Do you not know that your governor Clodius Albinus, has enemies? They would use you, Placidus, son of Placidus, as a weapon against your father.“

It hadn’t occurred to me at all. Of course I knew of the turmoil of those last years. Three Caesars had died within a handful of months, and when they were all dead, there were yet three more self-made Caesars, competing bitterly for the supreme power of Rome. One of them was Clodius Albinus, the Governor of Britain, my father’s commander and friend.

I knew, too, that while Clodius Albinus had waited and watched like a great eagle from his eyrie in Britain, the other two Caesars had fought a bitter war in the East. Twenty thousand men had fallen at the terrible battle of Issus. Now that war was over, and the governor’s alliance with the other Caesar, Septimius Severus, the victor of Issus, was wearing thin.

I knew that the governor was wary of assassins. My father had been tasked to organise tighter security which kept him very busy: that was why he had not found the time to visit me at the Villa Regis for almost two months.

I had just not realised that all of these great matters could have anything to do with me.

Cottia went on, and her old voice was brooding and dark “He may have gathered his Eagles all about him, but even here, deep in the Chalk we hear things... I hear the ravens are gathering for Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain, gathering as they gathered for Commodus, and Pertinax, and for Pescennius Niger too. When the Eagles start tearing each other to pieces, the ravens are the only ones who get fat. Even here we know that.”

She must have seen the stricken look on my face. “Na, na” she said quickly. “We are all friends of Rome here - did I not say my grandson Flavius is away with the Eagles himself? You will be as safe here as you would be in the Governor’s own villa.”

“ I wonder if I should send word of where I am” I said “I did send to tell them I might not be home tonight when I left this morning.”

“There is no-one here to send, I fear - not until the evening. My woman Vinna has a fine hand with the cheese, and you’ve never seen anyone milk a goat dry so fast, but a horsewoman she is not, and never will be. We shall just have to hope that your father does not notice you are missing and come riding after you like one of Jove’s thunderbolts thinking that we have stolen you away.”

“Do you not have many slaves here?” I asked. The place still seemed quiet and empty, save that I could faintly hear a discordant whistling from the direction of the dairy.

“None” Cottia told me, with a decided jut to her chin. She must have been a formidable woman in her younger days, I remember thinking. “All our farm folk are free - and as you see, some are up in the high pastures just now, and others are off about their own affairs. Years ago when we set up the farm, I and my husband resolved that we would keep no slaves here. It has been hard, sometimes, but I would not wish to change.”

“I’ve never heard of anyone doing that before!” I was really surprised. “I thought all farms used slaves, at least for the worst jobs. How do you get the people to stay and work?” I was very young.

She laughed dryly, and looked around at the flowering apple orchard behind the house. I still remember it now: I had seen it as a rather dull little place, though pleasant enough - but she looked upon it as if she was a queen in her hall, and suddenly I saw it as if through her eyes, a place of peace in the spring sunshine, roofed with the shining flowers of the apple tree. A couple of sheep were cropping the grass by the wall of the barn, and the thatch shone golden in the westering sun. A petal fell from the apple tree and landed on the old hound’s nose. He snorted in his sleep and blew it off. The hound's name was Lucius, if I remember rightly.

“And does life on this quiet farm seem so unbearable to you?” Cottia asked “Ah, what it is to be young. But I was never one for the life of towns, even in my youth. I have a town house in Calleva, you know, as well as the farm, but it’s all shut up, we haven’t used it in years. Perhaps Flavius will use it again when he comes home. But even in the days when we used the Calleva house, there were no slaves there, not for many years.”

Her voice warmed, and I could see her looking inward into a beloved past - even as I am doing now - and she told me the tale.

“Long ago - this was when we first met in Calleva, before the farm... In those days, my husband had a dear friend - he soon became my dear friend also - who was bought at first as a slave, though he was the son of a great man among his own people. My husband freed him when they became friends, and they travelled together, far to the North, beyond the Wall even, and they carried out mighty deeds, and saved each other’s lives, as men do.”

“And when they were closer than brothers, they both swore that they would neither of them keep a slave again, and neither of them ever did. But as to me? I have always hated cages, cages and chains.”

She cocked her head at me, with laughter playing in the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes. “ I think I would have had my way anyway. I usually did. We set up the farm together, the three of us, and we hired free men and women to work the land.”

“My people here get their food and lodging, and I pay them what we can afford. They are free to come and go, and they seem to find it a fair bargain. Some of them have gone today to the fair in Regnum - that’s your Roman Noviomagus Regnorum. They call the place Regnum, here in the countryside. That is why it is so very quiet today. Nobody to show you your horses.” She smiled at me, and I had to smile back. My hurry to buy a horse seemed less important here under the apple tree than it had in the bustle of the morning. I drank the rest of my wine.

Those of the farm folk who had not gone to the fair came down from the high pastures at the end of the day: Hunno, a short dark man, broad in the shoulders with bandy legs that seemed made to fit a horse, riding a great red horse that I knew at a glance would be far too much for me, and behind him his brother Biccus, much taller and quieter with huge soft brown eyes, on a sensible dun gelding, and with them, Andecara, the old lady’s great grand daughter, thirteen years old, covered in freckles, with hair like a flame, dancing along on a fat little skewbald pony that seemed almost to bounce down the hill like a ball. The old dog Lucius heaved himself onto his paws and went to meet them, wagging.

What was that? The pony’s name was Blatero, but I didn’t know that at the time, of course.

So, I spent the evening sitting in the atrium in the warmth of the raised British hearth of the farmhouse - we lit a little fire, though it was not a cold evening - talking horses with Hunno.

Well, I say we talked - mostly I listened as he went over the names of each of the farm’s horse-herd, and a good few of the animals from the neighbouring farms too. He came up with a great many fine points of each of them, so that every beast seemed more excellent than the last.

I was almost thankful, by the end, for my weak arm, for I knew that I could not risk taking on a horse I could not easily handle. Otherwise, I fear I should have ended up spending a very great deal of my father’s money and been thrown as soon as I got out of sight of the farm, no doubt. And also, I was mindful of what old Cottia had said to me, that all horses were descended out of the royal stables of the Iceni. She meant that Romans did not know any better than to believe it, so I kept my ears open and my mouth shut.

The old go to bed early, particularly here in the country, where the dark comes down like a blanket and all you can hear at night are the voices of the owls, so I did not speak more with Cottia that night. But when the sun came creeping up the wall of the small room they had given me, and I woke to the sounds of people moving around in the small, smoke-stained atrium of the farmhouse, I found that the old lady was already up and about. I could hear her imperious old voice speaking to young Andecara in some local dialect that I could not quite make out. Something about hens, I think.

After I had checked on Minna, who was well recovered from her long ride and eating hay, I had a bite and a drink, while Cottia, sitting in her big chair like a queen, consulted solemnly with Hunno about the horse I had come to buy. The discussion went on for some time, and went rather over my head. I was rather pleased when Andecara came and demanded that I help her find a hen that had gone broody and hidden herself - we found her tucked away in a corner of the thatch in one of the barns in the end (I had never searched for a hen before, it was more difficult than I would have imagined).

I suppose Andecara saw that I was looking lost between Cottia and Hunno: she always had a warm heart.

Most of the horses on the farm were youngsters, who would be sold at the market later that year. They were too young and frisky to make a good mount for me, but the farm had something of a speciality in training up horses for riding, and the horse that Hunno finally led out to show me was one of these. Nini was a gentle, solid looking mouse-coloured beast, with long eyelashes over his huge olive-dark eyes. But he was willing enough (which is to say, not too willing for me!) and with the gift of a carrot, we were soon very good friends.

Having agreed a price with Hunno, I went to give my thanks formally to Cottia Aquilae for her hospitality.

“Biccus will ride with you back to the Villa Regis” she told me decisively. “He will lead your other horse, and make sure that you get home safely. “

I started to object that this would leave her only one man to look after the farm, but she stopped me. “I have no wish for the Eagles to come down on my head here, if you are lost somewhere along the road South.” she told me firmly. That had not occurred to me, and I was silent. She spoke again, just as I was about to leave.

“Young Placidus, son of Placidus, I find that I like you. You are perhaps the fourth or fifth Roman to whom I have said that. I fear that the path ahead of you may not be smooth. If you ever need a friend here in the Chalk, remember that we are here.”

“Thank you, I will” I said, and turned away to find my new horse and my old one.

I forgot about Cottia and her farm once I got home and bade farewell to Biccus, save for congratulating myself at having found a fine new horse - even if he was not descended from the stallions of Prasutagus!

I tipped my friend in the stable who had given me directions to the farm a couple of sesterces for his help. Once I had got to know Nini well, I and my friend Rufus rode up to Londinium to show him off to my father. My father thought him a fine choice, and I was delighted with him all over again.

That winter at the palace of Clodius Albinus, my father’s security precautions were tested, and tested again. Septimius Severus Caesar sent men with long knives, with ‘secret orders’ for the governor of Britain. Albinus refused to see them. The information extracted from these first assassins allowed my father to catch the poisoners that Severus Caesar sent next. It was clear that the other Caesar was not going to give up. Even Britain was no longer safe. Albinus named himself Imperator, and set to preparing ships.

I went to see my father, just before Clodius Albinus led his three legions to Gaul. He looked thin and strained. The constant fear that more assassins sent by Severus might be close at hand was wearing on all the governor’s staff, but it weighed on his closest advisors most of all.

We met for the evening meal. For him, I guess it was a couple of hours snatched from troop logistics and high politics, for me, a rare chance to hear from my father about the business of war and the politics of Empire. I remember the sound of the wind-driven rain beating against the shutters, and inside the room, the golden crocus-flame of the oil lamps, and the glow of the braziers blooming against the warm reds of the elegantly painted plaster walls.

I remember my father’s voice, speaking eagerly of the chance to take the Empire from Severus and make a new thing of it, a new dynasty founded by the Governor of Britain. To have a ruler who would not throw the Purple carelessly from grasping hand to grasping hand, but would treasure all the farflung lands of Rome and bring them peace.

I never saw him again. Within a month, Severus had crushed the Legions of Britain outside Lugdunum, and sent the head of Clodius Albinus Caesar to Rome. I believe my father died in the battle, and did not live to be executed with the rest of the officers. I hope he did, anyway.

I was at my quarters in the Villa Regis when I heard. I was lucky there: Severus’s men went to Londinium first, to clear out what was left of the administration of Albinus and begin again.

If I had been there, I would almost certainly have been executed, just as Severus had already killed the friends of Pescennius Niger and their families, and as he killed many of my friends. He wished, I think, to fill us all with fear, so that no-one but his own family would ever dare to take the name of Caesar. And he was right, too in his own way: the great men of Rome have not, since then, dared to support any other claimant, and that has brought us peace of a sort, even if it is the peace of the iron fist.

But as I was saying, I was at the Villa Regis, in my apartment with the painting of Venus on the wall, and the balcony that looked out over the sea, when the news came to Britain. The word came to us first unofficially, from a fishing boat that came beating down the coast, risking the February squalls... It was a good thing for me that it was a mild winter that year and the sardine boats were out! That gave me a breathing space, time to run. I only wish Rufus had been there too, but he was in Londinium still, and I heard later that they charged him with treason and took his head. Poor Rufus: I’m sure he never had any notion about politics.

I gathered up all the money and jewels that I had to hand, and bought an old sack from my friend in the stables to put them in. He sold me his cloak too, and a bright striped woollen tunic. I thought I looked a terrible sight, but it was a fine disguise: nobody would be expect a young Roman nobleman to be riding about Britain dressed up like a tribesman in green and orange.

Then I saddled Nini, took Minna on a lead rein, and rode up into the Chalk, hoping to find refuge. And thanks be to Diana, goddess of hunters and hunted things, that great old lady Cottia took me in. Nobody ever came looking: I suppose they did not expect me to have anyone to run to, here in Britain. Our family's strength was alway in Illyricum, we had only been in Britain for a short while.

And that was how I first came to Cottia’s farm - Andecara’s farm now- when I was young and foolish and had no idea at all how to find a hen or grow onions.

Now I am off to bed, for I see the sun is almost down, and the little ones are already dozing... And if you have any sense you will do the same: we’ll need to be up early for hay-making in the morning!


The year is 196. Clodius Albinus, governor of Britain, is allied with Septimius Severus, who is currently campaigning against other claimants to imperial power in the East of the Empire. At the point when this story starts in May 196, Albinus has been made Severus’s heir, but as Severus has two sons, this arrangement seemed unlikely to last. In late 196, Severus declared his son to be his new heir, and sent assassins against Albinus. Albinus responded by formally taking the name ‘Imperator’, and took his three British Legions into Gaul against Severus, who defeated him with considerable carnage at the battle of Lugdunum in Feb 197.
So much for the history. So far as I know, Albinus did not really have a senior staff officer called Servius Placidus!
Cottia is aged 72, which is very old indeed in this period, though not unheard of. As the owner of what is now a successful farm and a town house, she is quite well off and would presumably get good food, nursing if she is ill, and hired labour to do most of the hard work.
She has been lucky enough to survive the Antonine Plague - the smallpox epidemic of around 165-180. Or possibly unlucky - although she survived, most of her family died, and the farm is somewhat understaffed.
Placidus junior had smallpox as a child and survived it, but complications from the virus gave him problems with arthritis in his arm and right leg.
Tags: eagle, history, writing

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