Contains: Book!Esca with alarming Celtic facial hair. Three quick and scribbly charcoal drawings. Writing (probably dodgy) from the point of view of a small child. Hero-worship.
Summary: Small Flavius finds that writing a letter to his great uncle Aquila is hard work, even when he has the BEST day out ever to write about. Esca helps him tell the story. Inspired by a photo of the White Horse of Uffington in the ninth-eagle fanmedia challenge.
I think this is probably a children's story. For children from the 1950's. So why did I write it in 2012? Absolutely. No. Idea.
“To his Great Uncle, Flavius sends greetings
I hope that you are well. I am well. I hope that Sassticca and Stephanos are well. ”
Flavius stopped for a moment and sucked the end of his stylus with great concentration. This letter writing business was harder than it looked. All that thinking and only two lines!
“I hope your foot is better” he added, on a new line. That was the same as the first sentence really, but he thought he could get away with it.
“Mam, I wrote my letter!” he said, experimentally.
Cottia resettled little baby Cara in her arms, and leaned over to look at the few scratches on the wax tablet in the warm lamplight. It was a day of heavy cloud, and the small farmhouse atrium was already dim enough to need the oil lamps, even though it was only mid-afternoon.
She shook her head at her son’s hopeful face.
“That’s not a proper letter, is it? That’s just the beginning of one.”
“I can’t think what to write.” Flavius said, dolefully. He could send wishes that Marcipor was well, he thought, but he didn’t want to. Marcipor was all grumpy and a useless slave anyway.
The door swung open with a bang and Flavius looked up to see Father and Esca half blown in through the door, with a great gust of wind and rain following them. Father shoved the door to again with his shoulder, shutting the wet grey world outside. They were carrying Minna’s saddle and tack, and their hair and shoulders were dark with rain. The great shaggy wolf, Cub, who had been dozing in the warm spot on the red wool rug near the fire, got up and went over to greet Father with an outthrust muzzle.
Esca put the heavy saddle down carefully, and nodded in Cottia’s general direction as he settled by the raised hearthplace in the middle of the atrium and stretched out his hands to the glowing logs. “Pouring with rain now. We’ve left the leeks to fend for themselves. Time to polish tack in the dry and get warm.”
Flavius jumped down from his stool and trotted over to Esca “Can I help?”
“Flavius!” said Mam “You are supposed to be writing to your great uncle. You like Great Uncle Aquila, don’t you? Why don’t you want to write to him?”
“ I DO!” Flavius protested. “ I do want to write to Great Uncle Aquila, Mam. But can’t I help Esca first?”
Esca smiled at the hopeful Flavius, but shook his head.
Flavius could see Father was looking at the abandoned wax tablet, lying on the table. He was smiling. Perhaps he thought the letter was long enough already? But no.
Flavius climbed back onto his stool, drooping slightly.
“Why don’t you write about something you’ve done?” Father suggested - quite helpfully, Flavius thought. “What about our trip to the fair? You had more than enough to tell your mother about that.”
“It’s different when you have to write it down.” Flavian took up his stylus again, glumly.
“Tell it to us as a story, then write it down after, like a bard making a song,” Esca suggested, passing the pot of dubbin and a spare rag across to Father, who took them and started applying the waxy stuff to Minna’s bridle.
Flavius liked the idea of being a bard. “Will you play your crwth?” he asked Esca.
“Not just now, we have all this tack to do first. But you must make your story before you can set music to it anyway. If you tell us your story and then you write it down for your great uncle, I will play the crwth for you while you read it back, later.”
Flavius got down from the stool again, and sat on the floor on the rug next to Cub, between Father’s feet and Esca’s. Cub rolled over lazily, demanding with an imperious poke of his long nose, that Flavius should rub his long grey belly.
Flavius thought hard while he rubbed.
“We rode two days and we slept at the inn. I had a sausage for breakfast.”
“Who rode?” Esca asked him.
“Me and Father and you and Belcati and Minna and Trinnus...”
“Now stop,” Esca said holding up his hand “ You must tell which of these are horses and which are men, else listeners to your song will not know man from beast. And don’t forget to give the names properly.”
“I can tell it!” Flavius exclaimed, annoyed.
He tried again, this time standing up for effect and declaiming like a bard:
“I, Flavius, and my father Marcus Flavius Aquila, and Esca mac Cunoval, set out on our horses Minna and Trinnus. We led Belcati and Little Minna all the way, so they would be fresh. We rode three days to the Vale of the Sun Horse. ”
Flavius paused. Declaiming like a bard was hard work and he was slightly out of breath. Mam and Father were smiling at him, but Esca looked gratifyingly serious.
“There were all kinds of people there for the fair.”
“What sort of people?”.
“ALL sorts! Children and men and women, soldiers and Iceni like Mam, and Dobunni like Peti and Atrebates and Cat... cato...” Flavius’s eyebrows knitted together in concentration.
“Catuvallauni” Father supplied, shifting the bridle round so he could get to the other cheek-piece, and making it jingle.
“Yes, them. Cat-u-vall-OWni. They roll their r’s like this : Rrrrrrrr - so you can tell that’s who they are. Everyone comes from miles around for the festival and for the races. You could hear them all talking and dancing and singing for miles before we got there.”
“We couldn’t see the Sun Horse at first. It runs across the side of the hill, cut into the chalk, and the fair is on the top. So you can’t see the horse until you go down to make your sacrifice on the Dragon Hill, and then you can see it up above you, running along the very edge of the sky. ”
“I had honey and apples and then Esca rode Belcati in the horse-race, and he WON. And there was a race where everyone had to chase a cheese rolling down the hill - imagine, a whole big round cheese, bouncing down the hill with everyone running after! I thought the cheese would come to bits, but it didn’t.”
“ But it was very steep and I didn’t see who won that in the end because I fell over. And then we sold Little Minna for lots of money, and lots of people wanted Belcati to make foals for them and Father made a list of them all. And we bought two yearlings and Esca bought a crwth. Then we came home.”
He paused, feeling that somehow his account lacked something. He had described it all, everything they had done - yet the flavour of the day, with the warm wind blowing over the summer hillside, dotted with the blue pincushions of the scabious, and the bright clouds of little tortoiseshell butterflies, and the crowd all dressed in their best, from togas to paint and heron feathers, and the movement of the Sun Horse against the blue sky, and the thundering hooves and the magnificence of Esca on Belcati crashing across the finishing line, with the other horses trailing behind - all of these were things he could not put quite into words.
But Mam and Father and Esca all clapped, so perhaps it was all right.
Later, when Flavius was curled warm and sleepy in his bed, the sound of voices and the crwth being played quietly drifted reassuringly through from the atrium. He thought about his tale again, and wondered if he should have said something in his letter to Great Uncle Aquila about Father’s face, just after they had watched the chariot race.
He remembered the sound of cheering and the smell of horse-sweat and dung and sun on the warm grass, and the taste of honey in his mouth, and looking up, and seeing Father’s face looking so sad, so sad - as if he had lost something very important. And Esca had looked over and seen it too, and put his hand on Father’s shoulder, and Father had smiled.
But that was another thing that is was hard to find the right words for, and perhaps anyway, Father would not like him to write about it.
A crwth is a Welsh stringed instrument, like a sort of small, portable harp or lyre. It may be a little out of period here, but I don't think there's any reason to suppose Esca definitely couldn't have one.
In the eighteenth century, people used to have cheese-rolling races as part of the fairs held at the White Horse. So I've pushed it back a loooooong way to have them already rolling cheeses in the second century - but the unlikelihood of this is absolutely dwarfed by the unlikelihood of a continuously maintained chalk figure as old as the Horse, and that definitely exists.
I have no reason to suppose the Catuvellauni rolled their R's. I made that up. :-P