The Country for Farming
It was good to be riding North by Marcus’s side, Esca thought. Away from Calleva, away from straight streets and high walls, and walking three paces behind his lord. A bright day, a good horse to ride, a friend by your side and a task to do: what more could one ask?
At Durinum, Marcus had collected the gear, and just a little of the lore, of a quack-salver of eyes, from Rufrius Galarius. The old surgeon was much taken with Marcus’s quest, which Marcus described to him in vague and intriguing terms, and was more than a little inclined to take the credit for the fact that Marcus’s leg was strong enough to undertake such a journey. The art of the travelling oculist could not be learned in a couple of days, he told Marcus, reprovingly. But there were a couple of simple techniques that could be easily learned, and were unlikely to make any eye problem worse...
And then at last they had set out on their long journey North to the Wall. They rode at first through the high downs around Durinum, along quiet tracks white with chalk. The thin spring sunshine filtered through the brilliant green of new beech leaves, and on either side of the road spread wide seas of bluebells, filling the air with a delicate scent.
“A good rich country, this” Marcus remarked, looking up from the road at a gentle curving hillside where heavy-bodied russet-red cattle with great long horns were grazing.
“It is good grazing land” Esca agreed, and then he laughed abruptly, as their horses rounded a clump of trees and he was able to see the full sweep of the hillside above them “A very fertile land too, it would seem! Now, there is one very happy man!” He waved a hand at the huge chalk figure of a naked man cut high in the hillside above them.
“A fruitful land indeed, this one!” Marcus said, laughing too.
Heifers and Elephants
The sky was an unexpectedly deep and cloudless blue, and warmth still lingered in the spring air although the sun was sinking.
“Esca, shall we camp by the road tonight?” Marcus suggested. “The bed at that inn last night was a dreadful thing, I am still scratching. And the weather has turned dry at last.”
“A good thought” Esca answered, cocking his head and looking west towards the hills “I do not think we shall have rain before the morning. Let us not stop here though: we should go on a little way.”
“What is wrong with here?” Marcus asked, reining in Vipsania and looking down at the broad meadow that spread out on one side of the road, which seemed to him an excellent campsite.
“Heifers!” Esca answered “Over there, look, behind the fence?”
As if in answer to Esca’s words, the young cows in the field behind the closely woven hazel hurdles were getting to their feet and as the two riders passed them, they began to moo loudly. Soon all of them were standing facing the road, mooing all at once, some calling with deep voices, some braying shrilly as the horses passed by. Vipsania gave them a deeply suspicious look and broke into a trot, and Esca on Minna followed.
“I see your point!” Marcus half-shouted over the din. “Mithras! Who knew cows could be so loud!” As they got a little further away and could hear each other speak once more, Esca said:
“They are fresh from market, I expect. At that age they are often noisy! I thought you grew up on a farm?”
“I did, but we do not keep so many cattle in the Etruscan hills as you do up here in the North. Our farm was mostly olives. Well, olives and wheat, vines and goats... Mithras! I can still hear them! They sound like a herd of elephants!”
Esca looked curious “What are elephants?”
“Elephants...” Marcus laughed “How to describe an elephant? They are big grey animals with long noses that they use as hands. Very big, like a building walking. They have them at the Colosseum in Rome, sometimes. I met one there once : it picked a cake right from my hand with its nose, and then it trumpeted like those little cows, only even louder.”
“You are joking? Hands on their noses?”
“Honest as the sunlight... they have a hand on the end of their nose. And feet like treetrunks.”
Esca gave Marcus a very dubious look. “This would be a fine spot to stop.” he said “Much more peaceful.”
“No, really! Elephants. Very noisy.” Marcus unloaded his kit from Vipsania and began to collect wood for a fire, while Esca rubbed down the horses and checked their feet.
Later, after they had eaten, and the sun had fallen below the hills in the west, leaving only a golden glow along the edge of a deep blue sky where the first stars were pricking into light, they sat for a little while by the fire, talking, before it was time to sleep . Marcus returned to the subject of elephants. He peeled a flat piece of bark from a chunk of firewood, and with a burnt stick from the fire, tried to draw an elephant on the smooth white inside of it.
He held it out to show Esca in the reddish flicker of the firelight. “An elephant!” he announced. He drew a rough stick-man standing next to it. “This is how tall they are. Huge things. ”
“ You are joking with me” said Esca again, leaning forward to look. “Nothing is that big. Is it?”
“They put armour on them, here, and here” Marcus jabbed with the charred stick. “and sometimes they put a little house on their backs as well, with archers”.
“The Eagles use those things in battle?”
“Oh yes. I never saw one fight but the word is they are terrifying. Not the safest ally to have on your flank, but much worse to be facing them. The Divine Claudius rode one when he invaded Britannia.”
Esca leant forward and delicately measured the height of the stick man with his fingertip against the roughly drawn elephant.
“Clychau uffern!” he said. “ No wonder he won!”
The weather held mostly dry as they travelled, and they made good time, not pressing the horses and stopping at roadside inns for the night. There were many of these along the wide road which ran straight all across the belly of Britannia, from Isca Dumnoniorum in the West, straight North and East to Eboracum and beyond it, the great Wall. The road was busy with traffic of all sorts: traders with carts full of furs or bolts of brightly coloured cloth and well-wrapped pottery, hunters with great hounds striding by their sides, messengers flying by on swift post-horses and troops of legionaries. Esca noticed Marcus looking long at these last as they swung along in the regular pace that is second nature to every soldier of Rome, and would carry them, through rain, fog or sunshine, the regulation twenty miles a day.
As Marcus and Esca approached Eboracum they found themselves riding close behind a little knot of brightly dressed Britons on horseback. They were accompanying an older man who was clearly the leader of the little group, riding a superb chestnut mare which had a pace so smooth and elegant that Esca was filled with envy. Not that Minna was not a sound horse in her way, but she was nothing to compare with this fine animal, with her skin of silk and mane that flared in the fresh spring wind like a flame.
“Now there is a fine horse indeed!” he commented to Marcus, who nodded admiringly. The rider of the chestnut horse heard him too and half turned to reply to the compliment.
“She has turned out well, this one” he said, stroking her neck casually with the back of a gloved hand.
“She looks as if she might be one of Cartimandua’s own mares stepped out of a tale!” Esca said enthusiastically. “What is her breeding?”
“Well, I will not say that horses out of the Royal stable have never strayed into our horse-runs, now and again” the old man said solemnly, but with a glint of amusement in his eye. “But her father was one of my own stallions, Eiran, he is called, out of the lines of the Eastern Brigantes, and I brought the mother up from Iceni country, years ago. This one is named Cocca, for her red coat, you see? Does she not shine like fire? My man here manages my little herd, over on the East coast. I rely on him completely. ” The man indicated crooked an eyebrow in amusement, somehow conveying that this was news to him.
“But here I am running on about the mare. For myself, I am called Boduoc” the old man told them, sociably.
Esca felt as if he had been abruptly punched in the stomach. The name was familiar, and now he looked again, so was the face. This chance-met traveller on the road was his great-uncle Boduoc, who he had not seen since he was a little boy. And here he was, alive, well - and riding down the road towards Eboracum with his own men about him, prosperous and free, as though nothing had happened, as if the world had not ended. How could he? When the whole clan was gone, and Boduoc an old man, whiteheaded. How could he be here when so many others had been lost?
Distantly, he was aware of Marcus introducing himself as Demetrius of Alexandria, a healer of eyes. He seemed to be enjoying playing the part. Suddenly Esca was called back from his thoughts by the mention of his own name. He found Boduoc looking at him curiously, eyes half-closed as if he were trying to remember something.
“Do you remember me? ” Esca asked him, throat suddenly dry. His voice came out a croak. “Boduoc, whose sister’s daughter was Angharad, do you remember her son?”
The old man’s eyes widened in sudden recognition. Sensing her rider’s disquiet, the chestnut mare skittered sideways, and he had to wheel her around to get her back onto the road. The other riders scattered out of his way.
“Esca!” he said. “I had no idea you were still alive!” He paused for a moment, seeking for words “ Where have you been?”
That was a question that needed a week’s answer or none - particularly with Marcus at his side, dressed as an eye doctor, with saffron bracco and a greasy Phrygian cap of scarlet leather perched rakishly on the back of his head.
Esca gaped for a moment, and settled for “In the South”.
There was an awkward pause. Esca could feel Boduoc’s men looking at him sideways. He ignored them, and looked his great-uncle full in the face for a long moment.
“Well, it is good to see you again, kinsman.” Boduoc said at last, a little lamely, as they rode along together “I thought you were lost with the rest. We had heard there were no survivors. I had enquiries made, but we heard nothing.”
Esca’s face was set, and he did not answer.
“Are you travelling far?”
“I have a fancy to travel beyond the Wall, and Esca comes with me ” Marcus replied, giving Esca a curious look. “I, Demetrius of Alexandria, will bring my Invincible Anodyne for Sore Eyes to the furthest limits of the world! Even unto the remote peoples of the Smertae, who I am told, are descended in part from sheep! ”
“You are like Alexander himself then, in search of fresh worlds to conquer? Are there not enough sore eyes here in the North that you must go seeking them beyond the Wall?” Banuoc asked him in amusement, and for the next mile or so, Marcus was given ample opportunity to practice his oculist’s disguise.
When they reached the low, many-spanned stone river-bridge which crossed the river into the centre of Eboracum, Boduoc reined in his mare.
“Here we part” he said, speaking directly to Esca, who had been riding, deep in thought and almost in silence by Marcus’s side. “I have business in the town, and I hear you are pressing on North.”
Esca nodded, warily.
“If there is anything that I can do for you - anything that lies within my ability to aid, then you must call on me, Esca. If I can help you then for the sake of your mother Angharad, and my sister, who was her mother, I will.”
He looked at Marcus then, a long, level look. “Look after the lad” he said to him directly, speaking slowly, so that Marcus could understand his words, for he was not yet used to the dialect of the Northern tribes. “I have none so many nephews living any more that I can afford to spare any more”. Marcus nodded, unsure how to reply, and the old man took his leave.
They went on past the ragged outskirts of Eboracum. Thin, muscular pigs rooted by the roadside, and along the roadside, busy people were tending small, untidy fields and gardens full of onions, leeks, young sprouting barley and the curling stems of peas.
“Now what was that all about?” Marcus asked Esca, once he had persuaded Vipsania that the pigs were quite safe to walk past. She was a horse with a peculiarly strong dislike of pigs. “You meet a long lost relative in passing on the road, and he barely speaks to you, and you look at him as if he were a week-old stinking fish? Strange customs you Brigantes have!”
“It was not an easy meeting” Esca said, and paused to think about how to explain this to Marcus, whose thinking went all in such straight lines. He sighed “He and his men believe that I should not have lived, I think. That I am here and whole - well, they would not say it aloud on the open road, but they think I am a coward, I expect”.
“Nonsense!” said Marcus, so quickly and emphatically that Esca had to smile a little.
“And... for me, I am not so happy with the part my uncle played, three, no, almost four years ago now. When my mother called for aid, and was answered with a message and a gift... If that old crow had flown down from his nest and brought some of his own spears with him when we needed them - well. Maybe things would have been different.”
“He seemed pleased to see you though” Marcus said, baffled. “And he said he had enquired after you and thought that you were dead.”
“Enquired!” said Esca, hotly. “Yes, I am sure he enquired. One of his men was riding my brother’s horse! I recognised her once I had taken my eye off that flashy chestnut... He must have bought her when they sold off the loot. Pecking over the bodies of the dead for bits and pieces of their belongings - Would you speak with him?” He shook his head, angrily, trying to dislodge the memory of the last time he had seen his brother riding that same mare.
Marcus looked at him, black brows drawn together in careful thought. “Yes” he said. “ I would speak with him, if he were my kin. Esca, if he had raised his men and come riding to your aid, Rome would only have brought in more troops. They would bring the entire Sixth into the field if they needed them, and there are more Legions in Britain than the Sixth. His people would have died with yours.”
And then, very gently “It was not a battle that could be won, Esca.”
Esca had known that, known it in his heart for years now. And yet, somehow it was easier to accept, hearing it from Marcus, who was his friend, and had been a soldier, and knew how things were done in Rome. He sighed, and let go of the hilt of his knife, which he suddenly realised he had been holding painfully tightly. He looked at Marcus, at his face dark with worry, and his ridiculously un-Alexandrian nose, under that absurd charm that concealed the scar of his strange religion on his forehead, and nodded gravely.
“Perhaps you are right” he said. “Maybe one day I will pass this way again, and ride over to visit old Boduoc... Now we had better hurry, had we not? It is getting late in the day, and we were supposed to get to Verbeia tonight.”
1) Before they can go North, they have to go to Dorchester to get oculist equipment. Very probably the Cerne Abbas giant is not really old enough for Marcus and Esca to have seen him. But as they would have gone right past where he now is, it seemed too good an opportunity to waste. And anyway, Romans do seem to have really *liked* phalluses even if the gentleman in question IS later. Oh, you want to see the Cerne Abbas Giant? I thought you might.
2) Esca is swearing in Modern Welsh. I’m sorry about that, but Brythonic swearing dictionaries seem to be unaccountably missing from the internet. :-D It means ( I hope) ‘Hell’s Bells’.
3) Boduoc is a name that means (I hope) 'crow'. Yes, I have given Esca a great-uncle Crow to match Marcus's Uncle Eagle. :-D