Through summer and autumn they had worked to exhaustion, hiring workers, cutting wood, raising fences, building walls and buying the first three cows, the sheep, chickens and the great bristle-haired sow that Esca had named The Belly.
None of them had done anything quite like it before, and it would have been hard work even for those who were accustomed to it, or so Marcus told himself. There was nothing wrong that was more than not being used to the work.
Before they even looked for it the autumn winds were sweeping across the downs, setting the golden leaves of the trees along the valley dancing and rattling. Soon the hired workers were gone, paid with firewood, with the squealing piglets that The Belly had proudly produced and led out into the oakwoods to fatten on acorns, and with a few of Marcus’s precious and dwindling store of sesterces. Then Marcus, his new wife and his armour-bearer were alone on the farm, with the winter ahead and the cold wind blowing over.
The land now was too wet for much to be done in the fields. The autumn sowing had been done, though how much of it would survive the winter was another matter. The rain beat down, grey and endless, filling the lane to the new house with pale rivers of mud, and the nights grew long.
Standing outside the house after the sun set, Marcus could see no light anywhere in the long, shadowed valley that fell away below him. There was only the firelight that showed in the cracks of the shuttered windows behind him to break the absolute darkness of the cloudy night. He could hear no human voice. It was as if the busy world of men and light and Legions had gone away, leaving only the little house and Marcus outside it, alone in the dark with the wind blowing. He turned and went inside.
He and Esca fought a long, silent battle with the mud, that autumn, endlessly washing and drying the horses’ legs and feet, trying to defeat the mudfever. Moving horses from field to field, trying to keep the drainage clear enough to keep the land from becoming a swamp under the cutting hooves, and coming in worn out and soaked time and again, as the light faded.
Marcus cut withies to strew across the new yard, patched and repatched the leaking thatch, and with Esca’s help, cleared the over-burdened drainage channels that funneled the endless rain down to the swollen stream.
Watching the jackdaws flung on the wind across empty skies at the end of another fleeting grey day, Marcus wondered yet again if taking up his land in Etruria would not, on balance, have been a wiser choice.
Then they lost a filly, the promising chestnut that Esca had specially favoured, when the young horse spooked at a shadow on a wet slope, slipped and broke a leg. After that, the pregnant sheep began to lose their lambs.
Marcus began to wonder secretly if the farm was cursed with ill-luck, although he did not speak of it to Cottia or to Esca. One does not risk attracting the disfavour of the Lady Fortuna by speaking ill of her - and after all, he had never expected farming to be easy. Still, the thought weighed on his shoulders.
Only Cottia and Cub still seemed in good heart. Cottia carried firewood, fed the great pig, and cherished the bedraggled red hens roosting crossly in the new-built barn with a smile on her narrow face. She even smiled as she scraped mud from boots and coats and carried heavy baskets of sodden but more or less clean laundry back from the stream.
“Farming suits you, Cottia” Marcus said one evening as he and Esca sat, exhausted, by the raised fireplace in the centre of the newly built atrium, listening to the rain drum down on the thatch. She turned and smiled at him, and across the small dark room, the red firelight caught and shone in her amber hair, and glinted on the golden drops in her ears.
“It is like being a little girl again” she said “Like going home... I used to feed the hens when I was a child in my father’s house. ”
She came back to the fire with three wooden bowls in her hands, walking carefully across the darkened floor, for they were saving oil, and so there was only the fire to light the way.
“Of course” she said to Marcus, very solemnly but with a spark of mischief in her eye “ Aunt Valaria would be very shocked. I have not told her that there is nobody here this winter but us. ” She looked ruefully at her cracked red hands. “Not that it would not be pleasant if someone else would do the washing.”
She began to ladle out food from the big iron pot. Cub, sprawled by the fireside, looked up hopefully from gnawing on a bone.
“None for you, greedy one!” she said. Marcus stretched out an idle hand and rubbed the soft place behind his ear. Now Cub was fully grown, you could just about see that he was not quite a full blooded wolf, he thought. There was something - something about the ears, and the shape of the muzzle that hinted that some great hunting dog had gone visiting an ancestor of Cub’s in the greenwood a few years ago. It was no bad thing, or so Esca had said : the wolf was the steadier for it.
Next morning when Esca went out with Cub in the dim grey of the morning to check the horses before breakfast, he found that some beast had forced the barn doors open and killed three of the chickens. Cottia was outraged.
“It didn’t even eat them!” she said, appalled, turning over the limp feathery bodies. “What sort of animal kills three hens and then goes away without even eating them?”
“A badger, I think” Esca said, running his fingers down the long scratches on the outside of the door, as Cub sniffed around it with interest, growling softly to himself.
“Can you tell where it went?” Cottia asked him, frowning, as she tried to coax the remaining frightened cackling hens down from their roost. She was trying to keep her voice calm to reassure the chickens, but Esca could see her angry body was as tense as a bow-string.
“Let us see what Cub can find out” Esca said. He pulled a strap through Cub’s heavy leather collar and set him onto the scent. With Cottia and Marcus behind him, he followed Cub down to the muddy, swirling stream. There, after a few casts up and downstream, Cub lost the scent. Esca could make out no mark or sign to show where the badger had gone next. He thought the animal had taken to the water. Defeated, they climbed back up the muddy hillside to the barn.
“I am not going to let it get the others” said Cottia, angrily, rattling the damaged barn door crossly. “Esca, what can we do to keep it out?”
“There is not much can keep a badger out of a place, if he has decided that he wishes to go inside “ Esca told her, baffled. “Those big claws can break wood. But I do not know why this one has chosen to break into the barn. There is plenty of easier meat for a badger in these woods.” He prodded the bottom of the door again: the light wood had been pulled so hard that it had cracked clear across, and it was clear it would need replacing.
“Perhaps he is a Roman badger and wishes to be out of the rain” Marcus said, making a thin joke of it. He ducked inside the barn as another gust of wind drove a cloud of stinging raindrops up the valley.
“Whether he is a Roman badger or an Atrebates badger or a badger of the Belgae, I am going to stop him!” Cottia said, following him in. Esca went with her. Marcus was rummaging in the pile of offcuts for a suitable piece of wood to repair the bottom of the door. It was a little warmer in the barn, out of the wind, and the great black sow grunted a greeting to them. Esca scratched her behind her ears absently.
Cottia’s thin face was fierce under the green checkered scarf she had wrapped around her head against the wind. She picked up the discarded pieces of wood and moved them out of Marcus’s way, dropping the smaller pieces in a corner with an angry thump.
“Cub will help me get rid of the badger, won’t you Cub?” she asked the great wolf. Cub looked up at her, head on one side.
“ Cub is not trained to take badger” Esca pointed out. “ He could get hurt. I think I know a better way to catch a badger. I’ll need some apples and some apple-cider, and some honey too if we can spare it.”
Marcus looked up from his work on the barn door. He had removed the broken wood and was checking the size of the broken piece “Senecianus has an orchard: he probably still has apples in store to sell.” he observed.
Outside the open barn door the light suddenly dimmed as if a curtain had been drawn across the sky. There was a loud crack of thunder, and began to hail. Cub retreated to the back of the barn, whining miserably. Esca sighed. Cottia gestured in frustration at the door with the length of wood that she still held in her hand.
“Hail, now! What next! And just when Esca needs to ride over to Senecianus’s! Marcus, have you thought that there may be an evil spirit in this place? Everything we do goes wrong and has to be done again. I am beginning to think it it is listening to us and deliberately making mischief!”
Esca looked at her in alarm. It was the very thought he had been carefully avoiding.
Marcus laid the piece of wood that he was shaping down, deliberately, his dark face serious. “I wonder” he said, very carefully. Esca could see that he was thinking about who might be listening. “We have made the sacrifices, but I wonder if the Lar of this place is still displeased with us. Or perhaps there is some other spirit here that is unhappy for some reason. What do you think, Esca?”
“I have had the same thought” Esca admitted. “This land... it was overgrown when we came here, but the land we have cleared does not feel like old woodland. I am thinking that others have lived here before us, and it is in my heart that the spirit of this place remembers them, and is not well pleased to see us here in their place.”
Marcus’s black brows drew together in concern “I don’t know who the land belonged to before it came to the Legions for assignment. It must have been empty for a while, but I have no idea how long. But I suppose that doesn’t really matter. The practical problem is :if there is an angry spirit in this place, how can we win its favour?”
“A sacrifice” said Esca at once. “ Or at least, that is the proper way among my people. We say you must win the land with blood or pay the blood price... It is preferable to pay with someone else’s blood, of course. An enemy’s blood is best”. Cottia nodded in agreement.
“Well, I would rather give it an enemy’s blood than mine!” said Marcus surprised. “But sadly I have no enemies of my house to sacrifice. ”
He looked at Cottia, standing poised fiercely with the length of wood in her hand like a spear.
“ I refuse to allow Cottia to go out raiding to get one!” Marcus added.
They all laughed, a little breathless as people are when they are speaking carefully of the sacred.
“At home” said Marcus, then paused and started again, speaking more carefully “In the land where I grew up, we would give a spirit bread and wine, or perhaps a ewe lamb, or a pig to win their favour. But I wonder if here in Britannia the spirits are fiercer.”
“ That badger is my enemy” said Cottia,with a frown. “It killed my best hen! Perhaps we can offer that to the spirit?”
“That is a fine thought, Cottia.” said Marcus but Cottia suddenly looked doubtful.
“You will not..not keep it in a cage before you kill it, Esca?”
“No need” Esca reassured her “That is why you use the cider. The badger gets very drunk and sleepy.”
“Perhaps” Marcus said, thinking it through “perhaps we should offer a pig to Saturn, and ask him to speak to this spirit for us. I think Esca is right, and it may be an old spirit that is angry. But if the Lord of Grain will take our side then perhaps we can win him over. ”
“ We do have the one piglet left” said Esca “ though he is not the fattest. But it will take me a little while to catch the badger, so perhaps we can fatten him up”.
“Very well” Marcus began to smile now that he could see a clear path before him at last. “Esca shall go to Senecianus - no!” he held up a hand to stop himself “hold on, Esca, you stay here and build a badger trap.”
“I shall go to Senecianus as soon as I have patched up this thrice-cursed door, and I will buy as many apples as we can get into the cart. Cottia can come with me and flirt with Senecianus to help me get the best price, and push the cart if it gets stuck in the mud. That way I can keep an eye on her and make sure that I shall not return to a row of my enemies’ heads on spikes...”
Cottia pulled a face in mock outrage and Marcus grinned at her, feeling lighter at heart than he had been for over a month, and went on:
“The piglet shall have as many apples as he wants - and I’ll get a few more bags of nuts as well, if Senecianus can spare them. Next year we should store more acorns for the pigs, I think...”
“It is Saturnalia in five days. I confess I was not at all feeling in a mood for celebrating, but we must do the gods proper duty or we shall never get things right here. ”
“Do you think that this spirit will be pleased that we celebrate the Saturnalia, if it is an old spirit of the land?” Esca wondered, cautiously. “He might be more pleased if we kept the solstice, in the old way, with fire”.
Marcus looked doubtful for a moment. Esca knew, although Marcus had not said so in so many words, that he had planned to ride south to the Villa Regis for the longest night of the year, the night when the old year went down into the dark. There was a temple to his strange bull-god there. Then Marcus’s dark face firmed in resolution.
“You are right, I think. We must prove that we belong here. We will see out the long night with fire, and as for the Saturnalia ... well, I think if we crack open that amphora of red Rhaeticum that my uncle gave us for a house warming gift, and we open a new barrel of beer, and if I get some cider from Senecianus, we may convince this unfriendly spirit that we are not so bad. ”
“I think my uncle Kaeso might send us some mead if I write him a letter in my best Latin script” said Cottia, hopefully.
“Mead! Perfect! Cottia, you are inspired! I never knew a Briton yet that wasn’t friendlier for a cup of good mead. Go and write to your uncle now, quickly and we will find someone to take the message over to Lucius’s villa, he owes me a favour, he will get the letter to Calleva.... But Esca! We must get that badger! ”
“We shall have him” Esca said, confidently.
The next five days were busier than those which had gone before. The work of the farm must still be done, and now they had a badger to catch, a pig to fatten and many other preparations to make to prepare for the festival.
Esca had other preparations to make too, but they were not things that he could speak about, even to Marcus. He was almost sure that it would be quite safe for him to tell Marcus, if the need arose, even here in the South. Almost sure that Marcus would not stick to the letter of the law, if Esca asked him not to. But there was no need to take the risk until he knew more. He waited until Marcus was busy cutting holly down by the stream before he saddled a horse and quietly slipped away.
Esca’s preparations took him a few miles west to the little thatched village that still squatted, half-abandoned, under the side of the great hill where long ago the chiefs of the Belgae had made their homes. The chiefs were long gone, to Venta Belgarum, to Aquae Calidae and further afield, yet still some of their people clung to the old village on the hill.
There he asked after this man and that, and bought a quantity of bad beer, some of which he had to drink. He feared at first that none of them would talk to him at all. Their mumbling voices were hard to understand and they did not mark their squat bodies as the Brigantes did. They cut their hair like the Romans. He felt like a deerhound in a nest of bullterriers.
But when he spoke a certain name, recalled from very long ago, they bowed their round heads and sent him on to a particular house, where a fat white cat squatted on the rim of the low thatched roof, scowling disapprovingly at Esca. Inside the house, an old bald man with very bad teeth questioned him, and then sat for a long time, staring at him silently through narrowed eyes.
Finally, and for no clear reason that Esca could see, the old man seemed to make up his mind. With a jerk of his head, he gestured to Esca to follow him, and shuffled through into the second room of the little house, where a plump, soft-faced woman in a long dress chequered green and orange was chopping onions.
“Wait” said the old man in Esca’s general direction, and shuffled out. Esca waited. The soft woman put her onion-knife down.
“I understand you have some trouble with a spirit” she said, in a voice that was very clear and precise. Esca looked at her in surprise. He had expected a man, a Druid, not this quiet doughy-faced woman. But perhaps they did things differently, here in the South. He explained the troubles at the farm.
“This is not a thing I should be speaking to you about” the woman said, disapprovingly. “This of the filly, and the hens, and above all, the ewes losing their lambs, this is a matter of the Woman’s Side. Is there no woman of the house to see to this?”
“Yes” Esca admitted. “But she is very young, and has lived most of her life in Calleva among Romans.”
“Hmph” the woman said. “That is no reason. If she is old enough to marry, she is old enough to take up the duties of the woman of the house. And as to Romans... they have their problems with spirits too you know. And there is no need to go behind the law to deal with them, with your mistletoe and golden sickles... no need most of the time, anyway.”
She leant forward over the onions “We have found Rome an easier neighbour to live with than you have, son of Cunoval. Oh yes, I know who you are, Brigantes. You, and the Roman, and the Iceni girl. And we do not remember the Iceni with great love, here in the South.”
She scooped the chopped onions briskly into a pot and then began to wash her hands in a bowl of water that was standing ready on the table.
“But that is, after all, all over long ago, and now you are our neighbours. One cannot have too many friendly neighbours, particularly Roman ones. They are good for business. ”
“I will sell you an instruction to take to this Iceni woman of the house” she decided. “An instruction and a kitten. There is nothing like a she-kitten to win over a spirit that is out of sorts. Powerful for good they are.”
And that was how Esca came to be riding back to the farm through showers of cold December rain, while inside his head, carefully going over the instructions for Cottia, so he did not forget them. Every so often he was interrupted by the need to push an inquisitive kitten-head, green-eyed and splashed equally white, black, tawny and red, back into a leather bag which she seemed utterly determined to climb out of.
He felt a little ridiculous, but on the whole, he thought, it was better to be ridiculous and be able to ride back safely to tell Marcus and Cottia all that he had found out, than to be dignified,and to have to find a lie to hide a dangerous truth.
Being a Druid, seeking help from a Druid, aiding a Druid... all these things were forbidden, and Esca had seen all too clearly that the penalties that Rome enforced were real. Having to ride home through the rain with a disobedient kitten and a simple prescription from a perfectly legal healer was a much better end to the day than the one he had feared.
As his horse splashed through the water that was once again turning the lane down to the little farm into a shallow stream, Esca saw that bunches of bright berried holly and trails of dark leaved ivy had been hung over the windows and doors of the little farm in preparation for the coming Saturnalia.
Although the day’s end was already turning to blue dusk, the shutters were not yet up and yellow light shone warmly from the windows, and poured comfortingly through the door as Marcus opened it and came out to help him rub down his wet and tired horse.
Cottia had never had a cat before. Her aunt Valaria considered them dirty beasts. That alone would have been enough to make Cottia warm to the kitten, but even without that, the way the kitten climbed with enormous dignity out of Esca’s bag and smacked Cub on his giant, surprised nose would have won her over. She named the kitten Prasta, and carried her everywhere, balanced on one shoulder.
Esca’s news that the spirit was very likely a matter for the woman of the household to deal with was less welcome than the kitten, but once Cottia had considered the matter she was secretly a little excited - as well as afraid.
She knew spirits could be dangerous if mishandled, and this one, from its actions, was clearly both powerful and angry. But she had a task to do and would do it, just as Marcus had had a task to do with the Eagle, and had done it despite the risk. Marcus and Esca were relying on her. She had to get it right.
The next morning, the day before the Saturnalia, one of Uncle Kaeso’s slaves arrived, carrying messages and parcels from Calleva. Rather ceremoniously, he handed Marcus a wooden box, in which was carefully packed with lots of straw, a very large, fine red Samian-ware jug. The lid was sealed with wax, but the jug was very heavy. Marcus smiled at Cottia “I think your uncle has done us proud with the mead.” he said.
“I have these for you, too” the slave said to Cottia, and gave her a small wooden box and a large flat parcel wrapped in waxed linen. She put them to one side, unopened. She could guess the kind of gifts that would be inside.
“Will you stay with us for the holiday?” Marcus asked the slave politely. The man did his best not to look horrified, but it was quite clear that the sooner he was on his way back to the comforts of Calleva, the better pleased he would be. Only with difficulty did they manage to persuade him to take a bite to eat before he rode off.
The morning of their first Saturnalia feast dawned grey and misty and unpromising. Cottia could barely see the other side of the valley through the low cloud. She could see though that Marcus had resolved that no amount of rain would dampen his spirits. Cottia could hear him over by the barn, whistling as he rigged up a makeshift shelter with an old patched leather sheet that looked as if it might once have been part of a military tent. She pulled a scarf over her head, and ran over to help.
Even news from Esca, squelching back from the top of the valley, that another of the pregnant ewes had lost her lamb, did not deflect Marcus’s determination to enjoy the holiday. Cottia found herself swept along, helping Marcus prepare the sacred fireplace, the focus where the sacrifices would be offered. They decorated it with garlands of evergreen ivy and bunches of prickly gorse, starred with golden flowers that glowed in the mist like a remembrance of summer sunlight.
Marcus began the ceremony with a libation of Uncle Aquila’s Rhaeticum wine. In the dull morning light it looked almost black, but as Esca went to fetch the piglet, the cloud began to part a little and as Marcus filled three cups from the bowl of wine which had been set to warm by the fireside, a gleam of watery sunlight turned the bowl ruby red.
“A good omen!” Marcus said, delighted, and presented Cottia with her cup with a flourish.
She had feared that the sacrifice of the piglet would be hard to bear, but Marcus did it swiftly, as the little pig was munching an apple, and it was over almost before she had caught her breath.
Marcus made the offering to Saturn. Neither Cottia nor Esca knew the words to say, but they watched and helped as they could. Then Esca dressed the piglet and set the remains of it to roast on the iron spit which they had brought out into the yard for the occasion. While it was cooking, they hurried to finish the daily jobs which could not be put off until another time.
Cottia took the kitten Prasta with her, perched on her shoulder as she fed the chickens, lest it try to steal the piglet from the fire and be burned.
Another cup of wine in honour of the household Lar, and a cup of mead in honour of Saturn’s wife, Ops the Lady of the Harvest, and now Cottia’s head was light. She danced with Marcus to a song that Esca sang - neither she nor Marcus could make anything of the words, which Esca swore were an old winter carol of the Brigantes, but they all knew the tune.
Then Marcus’s leg was tired, so he went and sat down and made a drumming with his hands on his knees and Esca and Cottia danced to that for a while. It was rather muddy, dancing in the farmyard, but not too slippery as long as you were careful.
By then the pig had begun to be cooked, so they cut off slices of the sizzling crackling and the outermost well-seared flesh, careful not to cut too deep, and Cottia made an offering of the first slice and a cup of warmed cider to any spirits of the land that might be listening. Then they ate a great deal of the rest of the pig, with slices of yesterday’s left-over bread, as nobody had been in the mood to do any baking that morning.
After that, they all had to have some cider, warmed and sweetened with honey, and then Cottia danced alone for a while, and then they all danced together, even Cub and the kitten - although the dancing was somewhat uneven by that time and there seemed no need for any music. It began raining again a little by that time, so they went into the barn and danced in there for a while.
By then, Cottia was feeling very tired and somewhat dizzy, so Esca and Marcus made a dry place for her to lie down just inside the barn door, near the fire, and she watched Esca try to teach Marcus some fiendishly complicated dance which seemed to involve drawing lines on the ground with a stick and dancing between them, though the way they did it it also seemed to involve quite a lot of falling over and laughing helplessly.
Marcus and Esca were both rather bleary-eyed and slow-moving the next morning, Cottia thought. She herself had never felt better. She went out to check the badger trap, but it was still empty, so she went and found the remains of the pig where Esca had hung it last night, out of the way in the storeroom, and sliced off a good thick piece to have with her morning meal.
The trap stayed empty for several more days, until the morning of the day for building the Midwinter fire. Cottia was letting the big black sow out of her stall in the barn, when she heard the most extraordinarily loud snuffling snoring noise. It sounded, she thought, rather like Uncle Kaeso, when he had got back rather late from a dinner and gone to sleep in his chair. Then she realised it was coming from the trap.
Inside the trap - barely inside it - was an enormous grey bulk, heaving slightly as it snored. Cottia stared at it for a moment, caught between triumph and alarm. It was huge, covered in thick coarse grey hair, and she could smell it even from where she was standing. It smelled wild. The badger was caught at last.
The instructions that Esca had carried to Cottia had been quite clear on one thing. The offering to appease the spirit that was troubling the farm must be done by the woman of the house, and that with no man or male animal present. But the badger was large, and the trap was heavy. Esca and Marcus carried it for her down to the place where the stream that ran along the valley below the farm came out of the hillside and formed a small pool, overhung with tangled trees. Cottia carried the kitten with her.
The water in the stream had run milky pale with mud earlier in the autumn, but now winter had come it ran clear and cold, with a blue green tint as it hurried over the pebbled stream bed. The sun was only just starting to peep over the curve of the hill, down here in the valley, and although the sky was almost clear for once, there was a small cold mist hanging over the rushing water.
The badger had woken briefly and staggered to its feet as they struggled down the steep and muddy hill, but when they got to the bottom and put the trap down, it lay down and began to snore again.
“Are you sure about this?” Marcus asked Cottia, looking worried. “You will need to be very quick. If you cut it and don’t take the life, those claws...”
“Yes” Cottia said, more confidently than she felt. “I can do this, Marcus. You showed me what to do.”
Esca silently handed Cottia a pair of heavy leather gloves and a long knife.
“Go on” she said. They both looked worried, but Esca turned and began to climb back up to the little farm. Marcus hesitated. “Go!” Cottia said, fiercely. “It makes it harder, having to wait for you!” Marcus turned and started back up the hillside.
The sun was rising: already the light was on the tips of the trees above her. The job must be done now, and it must be done quickly. Cottia started to put on the heavy gloves, then she dropped them on the ground. The leather was stiff and heavy: it would make it hard to use the knife. It would be better to do without.
She detached the kitten with some difficulty from her shoulder, and put her down in the wet grass. The little cat danced sideways, trying not to get her feet wet, then gave up and sat down, watching Cottia with round green eyes. Cottia hoped the spirit was impressed.
She had forgotten the words she was supposed to say. It didn’t matter. The words were not the important part. She gripped the knife in her hand, and opened the top of the trap.
Afterwards, her hands were sticky with the badger’s blood.
She let the kitten run up her arm to nestle on her shoulders and bent to wash them in the stream. The sun had lifted over the shoulder of the hillside, and in the trees along the stream, the sunlight caught and glittered on the wet trunks and the droplets caught on the bare twigs raised against the blue of a clear winter sky, and shone gold through the few leaves still caught there.
Once her hands were clean, she took the small gold drops from her ears and weighed them in her hand. They were the only jewellery she owned, and they were not very large, but she hoped they would be enough. She pulled the backs off, and looked at them one last time. They were quite plain, and now she looked at them, a little scratched too.
Aunt Valaria had given them to her during that long, terrible stay at Aquae Sulis, when all she could think of was to worry whether Marcus and Esca would ever come back, and whether Cub would be starving himself to death without Cottia there to feed him - and every day she looked for news, and there never was any news. She had begged Aunt Valaria to let her go back to Calleva, at least but Valaria had said no. She lifted her hand and threw the little things hard into the deepest part of the stream.
"There you are." she said. "Now leave our lambs alone. Please." And she turned on her heel and started the climb back up the hill.
They were piling wood for the fire that night when she came back up the hill to the farm, with the low sun catching on her eyelashes and making a blur of light. It was only her eyelashes, nothing more, she told herself, sternly. Nothing more. She had carried out the sacrifice in the proper manner and now all would be well.
Marcus started towards her and took her in his arms. It always felt so safe when he did that. And now Esca had taken her by the shoulder and was hugging her too, and all was well, and all would be well.
“Did you never open the Saturnalia gifts that your aunt and uncle sent you?” Marcus asked, later that day. The fire was built ready for the long night ahead, all was in readiness, and Marcus had poured out hot wine for all of them.
“No!” Cottia answered him. “I had forgotten all about them” She put down her cup and went to get the two parcels, which had been lying forgotten in the store room. Marcus and Esca waited for her in the atrium, where they had lit the small fire for a while, just to warm the wine. They were rolling dice, the hand-carved dice that Esca had made for Marcus as his Saturnalia gift. They had rather a tendency to come up Venus, but they were undeniably very pretty.
Cottia opened the small wooden box first. Inside were two very beautiful, rather old-fashioned gold earrings. They were scored finely with a swirling pattern that sometimes, when they caught the light, looked as if there was a running horse in it. There was a brief note in the box too.
“Don’t tell your Aunt I sent you these, she won’t approve of them. Your loving Uncle, Kaeso”
Cottia put the box down on the table, and opened the other parcel. Inside, there was a much longer letter, written in the clear, flowing script of a hired letter-writer. Underneath it was a very fine soft blue mantle, just the colour of the summer sky, embroidered around the edge with tiny golden flowers. She picked up the letter:
“Don’t tell your Uncle I have sent you this mantle, as we are supposed to be making economies! But I saw this and thought that it would cheer you since you insist on spending the holidays in the middle of nowhere!”
Cottia skipped through the rest of the letter - half gossip about people she had already forgotten meeting, and half advice that she thought she might read more carefully when Marcus was not standing right there next to her... It was signed “With all my love, your affectionate Aunt Valeria”.
She held up the mantle, careful not to snag the fine fabric on the roughened skin of her fingertips. It was, she thought, very beautiful. Utterly impractical, of course - utterly the wrong thing to give someone who needed to get her boots on and go out to feed the pig, who had sore, cracked fingers and a kitten attached like a cocklebur to her shoulder, and who had had to kill a badger, all alone that morning.
But after all, she did not have to wear it, unless she wanted to. And tonight was the longest night, and the time had come for making the fire to call back the sun for the new year.
Cottia pulled the beautiful blue mantle over her shoulders, slipped the earrings on and picked up her cup of wine. And she went out to see the old year go down into the dark, and after that, the new dawn rising.
if you are wondering why I've made Cub turn out not quite a full-blood wolf, my monstrous over-researched post about that is here.
So far as I know, there is very little known about British religion and beliefs, though we do know they threw things into water (so did the Romans). So I've made up all the stuff about enemies and sacrificing the badger. The Saturnalia celebrations and pig sacrifice I *think* is more or less right though I've left a lot out - all the info I could find about Saturnalias seemed to come from very rich men in urban situations, and obviously this is an anachronistically-egalitarian small rural situation, so it's bound to be different.
The household Lar is one of the little household gods that would be kept in a special little shrine and offered small offerings of food etc. There was probably another little god kept in the store room as well, like a sort of supernatural mouse-trap. :-D
The sacrifice to Saturn should really be a boar but that sounded expensive and potentially rather dangerous so I decided they would be cheap and use a pig.