Inspired by: Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff
Summary: A short story about Guinhumara, the wife of Cradoc the hunter, and Cradoc’s son after Cradoc is killed. Marcus thinks Cradoc is his friend at Isca Dumnoniorum before the revolt, but when the rising happens, Cradoc is the driver of the first chariot at the head of the charge. Marcus kills him.
Afterwards while Marcus is unconscious, the fort is relieved by a force of legionaries, who burn the houses of Isca Dumnoniorum and salt the fields* as a punishment for the revolt. I’ve always wondered what happened to Guinhumara. I really wish it hadn’t turned out to be so sad.
Warnings: No real warnings, but this is rather a depressing story I am afraid.
Word count: 1161
There’s a quiet grassy track leading up over the hill, past a wind-stunted, sheep-nibbled thorn-tree under silver grey clouds. It’s a peaceful scene, but in the distance when the wind blows from behind you, you can hear shouting, the clash of metal on metal. There’s a scream, suddenly cut off. You can smell smoke: not woodsmoke, but the mustier smell you get when old damp tarry reedthatch is burning.
Up the track comes a tall, dark haired girl, carrying a baby in a sling in front of her. and leading a mule. She’s British, skin sunbrown, wearing a long dress of chequered green cloth and a bright blue cloak, fastened with a brooch set with a lump of polished amber. She’s looking back over her shoulder, fearful, as she clutches the child to her awkwardly with one hand, and urges the mule onwards. The mule has been hastily laden and stamps uncomfortably under the uneven load. Two tall hunting hounds follow at her heels.
Behind the mule, more people, all hurrying, all fearful. An older woman, dressed in grey, holding the hand of a young boy, an old man with a grey beard and a pitchfork in his hand, a weeping girl, very pregnant and carrying a hunting spear, two little girls, perhaps six years old, leading a small, patient dark-eyed cow between them. They look back often.
They pass over the crest of the hill and disappear from view. Nobody follows.
Seventeen years later, a dark pool, reflecting the fire-red berries and slender grey trunks of the rowan trees, and behind that, the deep blue sky of a summer evening. Pieces of dyed wool, blue, green and orange have been tied to the lower branches of the trees, and daisy-chains hung about them. This is a sacred place.
By the pool stands a woman. You can see that it is the same person as the girl who led the mule, but time has not been kind to her. Her skin is coarse now, her eyes suspicious and her hair is starting to be streaked with silver. Her mouth looks as though it is not used to smiling often. She’s holding the amber brooch in her hands and looking down at the pool. Her eyes look inward, focussing on the past, and she speaks. Her voice is low and resonant, more beautiful than she is now, and she has the soft accent of the Dumnonii, rolling like the hills of the West.
“My husband Cradoc - he was a kind man, a fine man. He was a horse trader and a master of men. I remember we pledged our troth in the springtime under the blossom in the Island of the Silver Apples where I was born, and I thought myself blessed.”
“We built us a fine house of our own in Isca of the Dumnonii, Cradoc’s home, and a stable too for Cradoc’s beloved team of chariot ponies. Black they were, and shone like jewels in the sunlight. Each of them knew his own name and came when we called them, and every morning I would call them over and give them a sweet crust or an apple while they nuzzled my palm with their soft dark noses.”
“Truly, we were rich then... Cradoc gave me this amber brooch to pin my cloak - he bought it for me at Isca of the Silures when he took a draft of horses to sell to the Red Crests there. Soon after that, he gave me a child too, and I was happy.”
“There was always the shadow of the Fort of the Red Crests lying long and dark over us all. Cradoc used to complain about the levies of horses and cattle, and when the harvest was poor - well, we were never really hungry, my man Cradoc and I - but many in the town were. It comes hard to rely on the corn-dole from the fort to live through the winter, when you could be eating cheese and have butter for your oatcakes, if the Eagles had not taxed away your milch-cow.”
“If it hadn’t been for the little one, I would have been there with the rest on that last day. I know how to use a bow! Before Nodens failed us and drew away his mists, I served my turn and fired an arrow that caught one of the Red Crests in the arm. I, Guinhumara, of the Island of the Apples, I also have taken up weapons against Rome!”
“But on that last day, I was caring for my little one when my man led the charge and when the Red Crest brought down his chariot, and he fell. My cousin Kati saw it before he ran from the battle, the coward, and he came to me and told me before he fled West. So I had time to take the mule and my baby boy and be gone from our home before the soldiers came to fire the thatch and do their bloody butchery...”
“We fled through the quiet back roads, over the hills back to my parents in the Isle of the Apples. And there I raised my son, and taught him of the courage of his father. I raised him to hate Rome, to know that soldiers took his father. To cling to his own people and our own ways.”
She is silent for a long moment, staring at the brooch. It is a still evening and the mirror-surface of the pool, pricked with the firy reflections of rowan berries, shows no ripple.
“But now... now it all fades away like the autumn leaves, crumbling into the mould.”
“I don’t remember now why we rose. I don’t remember what Cradoc told me, about why it was so important to fight. I can’t remember his face any more.”
The woman by the pool buries her face in her hands, still holding the brooch. She speaks thickly through the mask of her fingers.
“I took the washing down to the river today and a slave woman asked me where my son had gone. I told her he had gone to fight, and she said... her face was all kind and soft... she said that I must be so worried. She asked me when I expected him home, and I did not know. I did not ask him.”
“I forged my son into a spear to seek the heart of my enemy. I forged him in my anger and I quenched him with my hate and I sent him out to kill.”
“What if he never comes back?”
“Oh, Lady Nemetia, mother of our clan, be kind and protect my son, my only son! Send him safe back to me, I pray you!”
She takes the brooch in both hands and with some effort, bends and then breaks the pin, then throws it with an effort into the silent pool. It vanishes with barely a ripple. There is no answer.
Note:The title is from what Esca says when he tells Marcus about how he was enslaved :
Marcus (somewhat insensitively, I can’t help feeling) : “Mithras! What a story!”
Esca (rather pointedly, in my view) : “It is a common enough story still. Was it so very different at Isca Dumnoniorum, do you suppose?”
*They probably didn’t really salt fields. In Britain, I think it’s far too wet for salting fields to make them infertile even for a year - and salt isn’t cheap! Maybe they burned the crops and pulled down the fences or something.