Title: Very Far from Home
Inspired By: Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth, with a nod to Gillian Bradshaw's Island of Ghosts, another nod to Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees by Roger Deakin and most immediately, this photo.
Length: 2,422 words
Summary : When Marcus Flavius Aquila arrived at Isca Dumnoniorum to take command, there was an auxiliary troop of Dacian light cavalry already there, led by Lutorius, who struck Marcus as 'reserved to the point of sullenness with all men' until the tribal revolt where Marcus was injured, and Lutorius was killed. This story tries to explain why Lutorius was so grumpy, how Marcus dealt with that, and why Marcus had so many problems with arguments between his Gauls and the Dacians...
It was raining again, as Lutorius and his Dacians rode up from the river-meadows where they had been carrying out exercises. A grey sheet of damp was hanging over the fort on the Red Mount. Presumably somewhere, away over the river there, the sun was setting, but you couldn’t tell, Lutorius thought. The sky was grey, like the rain, and the river. Only the mud had colour, the puddles around his horse’s feet, opaque reddish brown. It was a miserable place, this damp corner of a primitive little island tucked away in the far corner of the world.
Even the trees seemed small and stunted here, and beyond the curtains of fog, Lutorius knew, the small hills rose only into barren and empty moorlands, drear and forbidding, where no tree could grow, and beyond them nothing but the cold, undrinkable water of the empty sea.
As they clopped wetly in through the gate, he remembered again the bright city on the hill, Sarmisegetusa of his childhood. He remembered looking down from the back of his father’s house in spring, out over the endless woods, brilliant green with new leaves. And later, that last autumn before the end of it all, running down the hill outside the city with his big brother, through woods roofed and floored with green and gold, to the plum trees by the river, laden with small sweet yellow plums. You never saw plums like those in Britain.
Lutorius sighed and led his wet muddy horse through to the stable block.
When the new spring grass came in, and Lutorius was concerning himself with the need to take care the horses did not overeat and give themselves colic, there came a new commanding officer and a change of infantry troops. A green boy, a very Roman Roman, one Flavius Aquila, small, dark and slight with heavy black eyebrows which twitched critically when he saw something he disapproved of. He came in one evening, leading a cohort of tall, yellow haired Gauls: fierce, yes, but barbaric, and almost greener than their commander.
Lutorius could not help hunching his shoulders as he greeted the man. It was a habit he had fallen into around Romans: he always felt too tall. He himself had once hoped for promotion, a higher command beyond the squadron of Dacian auxiliary cavalry he led. But it was clear by now, that would never happen. The appointment of this latest commander confirmed it: the man must be at least five years younger than Lutorius, and Isca Dumnoniorum was his first command, yet there had not been any whisper that Lutorius might be considered for promotion.
He wondered sometimes, if his looks were against him: his height, his hair too fair, his eyes too blue: the kind of man that Romans saw as a mere barbarian.
Or perhaps it was just too soon, too soon after the ruin of Sarmisegetusa for any Dacian to be trusted, even in so remote a posting as Britain? Lutorius had no illusions about the reason that he and his little troop of cavalry had been posted so far from home, but after all, they were volunteers, and none of them had been more than children when Dacia fell. They were all Romans now, wasn’t that what everyone said?
Surely it was nothing about himself. He knew himself a competent commander : perhaps he was not the most popular of leaders, but his men were disciplined, and most importantly of all their horses were in superb order.
Lutorius had cut his hair short in the Roman style for many years. That summer, it seemed too much trouble to do so any more. He let it grow instead, and bound it into a knot on top of his head as he remembered his father doing when he was a boy.
This newest cohort of Gauls were green and foolish as new spring grass, fresh from some tiny barbarian settlement in the wilds of upper Gaul. The idea that there were other ways of speaking, other gods and other traditions was unfamiliar to them, and when the usual suspects among his Dacians began as usual to tease and provoke the country lads, Lutorius simply could not bring himself to care. He left it to their new commander to intervene. Let the lad learn how his men thought: he was getting the pay for it, after all.
Instead of making his presence clear around the fort, where his men would see him and know they could not go too far, Lutorius retreated more and more often to the stable, or to his sleeping cell, where he read and re-read the Sayings of Salmoxis, the old book that his father had read to the family in the quiet evenings under the blue Carpathian skies, so very long ago, at home.
The familiar words were precious to him for their memories, but that spring their message came to him with a new urgency.
“In your hearts ye shall not die, but change thy place and station. And, so, fear not, but go to your deaths happier than on any other journey.” Lutorius read, and thought of bright, lost towers, and the quiet sacred leaf-roofed halls of the woods, above which soared mountains with peaks of eternal snow.
Sometimes he slipped outside the fort altogether to visit his British woman, Enica, in the little house she kept in the lane behind the basilica. He had first met her a few years ago, when he had ridden into Isca Dumnoniorum for the first time. The town had not seemed so much of a trap then, and Enica was warm and welcoming. Now Lutorius’s son was almost six, and he went there to see the lad as much as his mother. Once he took the Sayings of Salmoxis with him, but the boy was more interested in begging Lutorius to lift him up onto his tall horse and hold him there than some old book of beechwood-strips.
One evening in the early summer, as the sky, clear for once, was shading to a darker blue, and the scent of roses came in through the open window of his sleeping cell from the rose-bush in the great stone wine-jar outside his window, Lutorius found the bottom of his cup of wine before he expected it. That had happened more often, lately.
Slipping along quietly in the fading light to the latrines, he almost bumped into the Cohort Centurion, Flavius Aquila, who was coming out of the doorway to the commanding officer’s quarters.
“Lutorius” Aquila said “Just the man I wanted a word with”. Lutorius wished he had not taken the wine. His head felt heavy and he had no desire at all to talk to his commanding officer.
“You’ll take a cup of wine with me? I think we should have time before Late Rounds.” Aquila gestured him into the narrow room without waiting for a reply. He turned to the jug standing on a small table by the door and filled out two cups. The wine was good, and well watered too, Lutorius noticed thankfully. The last thing he needed was to get falling-over drunk in front of this Roman stripling with his judgemental black eyebrows over stern brown eyes, alarmingly devoid of doubt or weakness.
“Have a seat, Lutorius. I’ve been wanting to ask your advice about these problems we’ve been having with fights between the Dacians and the Gauls. I’ve not even heard of this god that they are all getting themselves so worked up about! Do you know anything about it?”
Aquila’s eyes were honest and worried under his dark brows, and unexpectedly, Lutorius felt a liking for the younger man. Not that he showed it openly, of course, but he was moved to offer a little help.
“The Dacians are seasoned men, and the Gauls are still somewhat raw.” he hinted carefully.
Aquila turned to him with a look of relief. “Now that’s just what Drusillus says : he reckons the Dacians are baiting the Gauls! I thought experienced men would have more sense - after all they must know it will end up with all of them doing punishment duty?”
“They do.” said Lutorius. “But the game is in getting more of the Gauls into trouble than Dacians. I don’t let them take money bets on it, but it’s impossible to stop them altogether. They get bored with exercises: they are looking for something more dangerous.”
Aquila laughed incredulously “My poor Gauls! But Lutorius, I really must do something about this. One of the Gauls that came in to me to be disciplined today had a knife cut right down his arm, he’ll be out of action for weeks and it’s only luck that he still has a hand that can hold a sword.”
That news worried Lutorius. Things had clearly gone further than he’d realised. He should have stepped in earlier. Foolishness. Weakness. His men would make themselves more trouble than they realised if they carried on like this. All he could do was try to patch things up - and quickly, too.
“Punishment duty won’t do it” Lutorius replied. “Put cavalrymen on to digging ditches all day and they’ll be all the more bored and all the more trouble afterwards. Let me deal with this?”
It was a question rather than anything more certain, but Aquila took it as a firm offer “That would be very good, Lutorius. If you can smooth things over from the Dacian side, I’ll make sure the Gauls have other things to think about.” He smiled, and almost forgetting himself, Lutorius half-smiled back. It felt strange, as though his face had almost forgotten how to smile at another person, rather than a horse.
Aquila was as good as his word. His Gauls barely had time to think of quarrelling, what with parades and fatigues, double patrols, stables, and extra arms drill.
For Lutorius’s part, he took his whole small squadron out for an extended exercise. They rode down the river as far as they could, skirting the bogs and riding wary, for strange birds hid in the reeds along the estuary and would take off almost at your horse’s feet with wild despairing cries.
All the way down the strange half-salt estuary with its odd, unreliable tides, they rode, along the grassy herders’ road, to the sandy beach at the rivermouth by the cold salt sea. There they slaughtered a calf and roasted it. Two men came to blows at the fire that night - some half-forgotten family feud from Dacia long ago, and Lutorius bloodied both their noses for them and shared his wine with them afterwards while they sang old songs from home into the wild salt wind that was so different from anything at home.
The next day they rode wild, whooping races along the empty sands, ignoring the undependable grey hissing sea, and half-forgot that they were Roman auxiliaries on a misty island far from home.
And when they rode back into Isca Dumnoniorum, it was as an ordered, quiet and disciplined unit, with horses to tend and duties to do - all much more important than teasing green young Gauls.
The harvest was poor that autumn, and Lutorius had already had to order in extra grain for his troops horses, to ensure they would stay in peak condition for the winter. The rain that had rotted the local people’s barley gave the Dacians lush green grass for their horses, but the mud was everywhere, and mud fever was a menace.
Lutorius was in the stables, checking his own bay’s legs for signs of infection before turning in, when he heard it: the quiet rustle of men arming and moving up to the walls. Aquila had turned out his whole cohort. Something was going on.
Then, as he gave Kotiso a final pat and a slice of apple, he heard it, a light smother of sound, weapons hitting weapons, still distinct against the quiet of the night, and then, splitting the dark it came, the bray of a British war-horn. The tribes had risen with the river-mist.
He rubbed Kotiso’s ears thoughtfully. “Looks like we might get some real action at last, my lad” he said. The bay lifted his head and whoofled affectionately in Lutorius’s ear.
Many Years Later.
The visitor peered into the empty room. The house was more or less finished now, but some of the floors and the fine wall-paintings that would grace the walls of the new Commander’s residence were still being worked on. In this room, fine plaster walls were being marked up with bold charcoal marks in preparation for painting.
It was the charcoal that had caught the visitor’s eye as he passed the doorway. Although it was a rough sketch, you could see the pattern coming to life, a war scene, vivid with action. The artist was working on a detail of struggling figures of infantry with shortswords in the foreground. Up behind them, a shape in the background that was surely the square, solid shape of the fort on the Red Mount. A few bold clear lines suggested chariots sweeping around the side of the fort.
Above the infantry, streaming wildly across the very heart of the picture, un-Roman in the curving freedom of the lines, there galloped a sweeping line of men on horses, at their head a tall man, and above him, the sweeping lines of a Dacian dragon standard flying free.
“That’s a picture full of life” the visitor said. “Surely that is the Red Fort there?”
The artist turned - he was a young man, tall, dark haired, with sharp cheeks and bright blue eyes, and dressed in the British manner. His hands were dirty with charcoal and he rubbed them clean on a rag as he spoke. “Yes sir” he said, responding to the manner and appearance of the visitor, who seemed to be a military man, though he was not dressed as a soldier. “It is the attack on the Red Fort, fifteen years ago. My father fell there, defending the fort and rescuing his commanding officer. He was very brave. And look! There he is, leading the cavalry.”
The visitor smiled at him, and looked back at the picture, searchingly, for a long time, as if seeing something very far away. “It is a very fine thing” he said, at last. “I look forward to seeing it finished.” And he went away to the atrium to greet his host, limping just a little as he went.
Notes : I hope my picture of Lutorius's remembered Dacia isn't too far off though I wasn't able to find a huge amount of information about pre-Roman Dacia. I found some information that suggested that people from some parts of Dacia were distinctively blond and blue-eyed (I believe some Romanians still are?) so I believe that bit is authentic.
Dacia was conquered by Rome in 106AD - about 20-25ish years before the book setting, so well within the memory of any Dacians stationed at Isca. During the 106AD campaign, the capital of Dacia, Sarmigetusa, (which I have made into Lutorius's childhood home) was ruined and abandoned, and the Emperor Trajan set up a new Roman Sarmigetusa to rule the new province.
This is what the site of Dacian Sarmigetusa looks like now :
The fall of Dacia is commemmorated on Trajan's column, which shows the Dacians with dragon standards like this.
and also shows the Romans capturing Dacian children - perhaps Lutorius among them? and setting fire to Dacian buildings, like this :
Later on, the Dacian dragon-standards became Roman standards and were widely used across the later Empire (EG in Sutcliff's later book 'Frontier Wolf'.) Dacians historically did serve in the Roman army, Sutcliff didn't make that up. I think it's interesting to think about how the Dacians thought about that, and how it felt to be a Dacian serving in a Roman army not all that long after Dacia was conquered.
I made the book 'The Sayings of Salmoxis' up, but the quote is a re-worded version of what Herodotus says (according to Wikipedia!) about the beliefs of the Dacians, and Zalmoxis. We don't seem to know exactly who Zalmoxis was (or even how to spell him!) He may have been a god or a philosopher or an ancestral king - but whoever he was, it seems the Dacians thought he was quite important.