Inspired by: Eagle of the Ninth by Rosemary Sutcliff ( I keep meaning to have a go at something inspired by one of the other books! Frontier Wolf, maybe, or The Lantern Bearers. )
Cottia has a lot of useful skills to bring to the farm, but baking isn't one of them. Humour.
“There are times” Cottia said, frowning at the sticky mess on the kitchen table “when I could cheerfully strangle my Aunt Valaria”.
“You haven’t seen Valaria in months!” Marcus said, turning to her in surprise. He was sitting on the doorstep of the open kitchen door, pulling on his work boots. Esca was already up and about: they could hear him whistling as he made his way across the yard to feed the horses.
“And for good reason! She has turned me into some useless Roman maiden!” she prodded at the mess of flour and water in the bowl in front of her in frustration. “When I was a little girl, before my father died, I could make bread! I can’t even remember learning how to make bread! "
"But this bread will”
Marcus tried not to smile. “What is wrong with it?”
“Everything! The dough is too sticky, it refuses to rise, it goes into lumps - and that oven! One day it burns too hot and everything goes black, and on the next batch, the middle doesn’t cook through!” She pushed back her long red hair behind her ears with her floury hands, leaving a white dusting on her tunic and along the tops of her ears.
“Would you like me to make the bread?” Marcus asked her, helpfully. “I’ve done it before. In training, in the Legion, we all ground our own grain and made bread...”
Cottia looked at him through narrowed eyes. “NO.” she said. “ I am a woman. Women make bread. Everyone can do this! Even Vatta in the village can, and she’s next to half-witted! Also, I have no wish to eat the bread of the Legions. Iceni bread is much better, if I can just get it right. ”
A little later, Esca poked his head around the kitchen door, and at the sight that confronted him, retreated, swiftly and silently as a hunter who unexpectedly encounters a hungry bear.
“How is she doing?” Marcus asked him, after they had retreated to the relative safety of the barn.
“The dough was up to her elbows” said Esca “and it was hanging in long strands from her fingertips!”
“ I think we might need to look at the fencing in the top field” Marcus said, thoughtfully, glancing over at the house.
Esca nodded, half-solemn, half laughing. “Yes,” he said “A good day to be a long way away, I think.”
“Esca” said Cottia, the next morning, while Marcus was outside by the stream, shaving - they had not yet sorted out any plumbing for the farm, and it was a warm day. “Do you know how to make bread?”
Esca looked at her in alarm “I am sorry.” he said, politely but firmly. “I have never made bread. I do not know how to do it. A bannock cooked on a hot stone by the hunting fire, perhaps, but not loaves of bread in a brick oven like that one.”
Cottia sighed. “ I suppose your family had slaves to do that sort of thing” she said, despairingly.
Esca nodded, a little embarrassed. “Sassticca has many recipes, I believe” he said “Perhaps you could write to her?”
“Surely Sassticca cannot read?” Cottia was surprised.
“I think not - but Marcipor can. If you directed a letter to him, I think he could read it to her and write down her reply”
“Marcipor can read?” Cottia said.
Esca smiled at her obvious incredulity. “ He is a man of many parts, our Marcipor! Of course, mostly what he reads and writes is betting slips, but I think he could make shift to write a letter if he chose”.
“That would take ages though” said Cottia, looking disheartened. “I really wanted to make some bread for Marcus, and I just cannot get it right.”
Esca said gently “You know, Marcus would be happy to show you how he makes bread. You are much better with the ponies than he is, after all, and have shown him many useful tricks.”
“His leg is a little weak, that is all” said Cottia, defensively. “He can ride perfectly well”
“Of course he can” said Esca. “But he did not grow up riding before he could walk, as you did, nor did he know the lines of every horse in the district for twenty generations by the time he was ten years old, or stay up all night to help with the lambing. They don’t let young Romans do that sort of thing in Etruria, or so he tells me. You could let him show you this one thing. I think he would like to show you.”
Cottia’s vixenish face looked suddenly thoughtful.
“Marcus!” said Cottia, as Marcus came back into the house, rubbing his face dry with a cloth. She had flour in her hair again, he noticed, and the expression on her face was particularly pointed and determined.
“Marcus.” she said again. “Will you … will you show me how to make bread?”
“Why Cottia!” he said, quite taken by surprise, but pleased, none the less “ Of course I will. I do not know how to make Iceni bread, but I can show you the bread I can make”.
“We can learn how to make Iceni bread together, once we have made some of your bread of the Legions” Cottia said, decisively, and took his clean hand in her floury one.
Note : I'm not sure if Marcus really would be a ninja baker, but Roman soldiers did grind their own grain and make their own food individually or in small groups, rather than having it provided and cooked for them by the army.