Characters: Marcus Flavius Aquila, Flavius Aquila (jr) Cara Flavia(?) Aquila, Cottia, Esca
Written for the ninth-eagle fanmedia challenge, inspire by the photo of the stream, and if I'm honest, also by this song which despite its prosaic origin as an advert for sausages, has got stuck in my head.
White clouds of chalky dust puffed into the air around heavy hooves of the ox, and the cart bumped and squeaked through a hot dusty haze along the rough unfinished chalk road. The sun was bright overhead, and the tail of the ox whisked and whisked against the flies. The dust was worst if you sat behind the ox, so instead they walked ahead of him, even little Cara, who was only five.
Marcus, the children, the cart and all the parcels and bundles inside it were covered in a fine pale layer of dust. It dulled Cara's shining black hair, and drained all the colour from red-haired, frecklefaced Flavius until he looked like a pale ghost of himself.
That morning, the children had run joyfully ahead of the ox, and Marcus had made them hazel-wand swords to fence with as they played at being legionaries defending their ox-cart fortress from the Dumnonii. Yesterday as they walked they had made hobby-horses from twisted willow-withies , and had played at being Iceni warriors, riding down fiercely on a Roman supply convoy.
But now at noon of their third day out from Calleva, they were tired and dusty, and the willow swords and the hobbyhorses had been tucked away in the cart.
Marcus looked at them and wondered whether he should find somewhere for his little party to stop, and go on tomorrow. He had hoped to finish the journey that day, but had not reckoned on the heat of the day, here in Britain where the days were usually so cool.
As he looked at them, considering, little Cara slipped and tumbled onto hands and knees. Marcus reached out a long arm and scooped her up before she could fall under the feet of the ox, who snorted and looked surprised as Cara burst into tears.
“Hey now little one! Watch out for Ollo! He can’t stop as easily as you... Shhhh there, it’s all right. It’s all right. Let me have a look at it - yes it’s just a little graze. Shhhh..”
Cara stopped crying in mid-wail and stared with interest at her own knee. “It’s BLEEDING papa!” she announced, with great relish.
“It’s not bleeding very much,” said Flavius, peering at it, very much the unimpressed older brother.
Cara’s face crumpled into woe. “But it HURTS,” she wailed. There was a raw edge of exhaustion to her voice.
Marcus shook his head reprovingly at Flavius. “Go and look after Ollo, Flavius,” he said, repressively, pulling out a cloth to wipe Cara’s knee.
“Shhh Cara, see it’s only a scratch. Have you got your amulet? Good. Do you remember the charm?”
“Of course I do,” said Cara, twisting to look up at her father with fierce brown eyes through her tousled fringe. “I can do it Papa!”
She passed the amulet over the graze and said the words, frowning seriously in concentration. Everything was always serious for Cara, Marcus thought, looking down on his dusty daughter, sitting in the chalk-pale grass by the edge of the road. Of the three children, she was the one who had inherited Cottia’s inner fire, although Marcus thought in Cara, it might burn steadier than in her mother.
“Is that better?” he asked her.
“Yes,” she said after a moment. The tears had left tracks in the dust on her cheeks, but she had stopped crying. “But Papa, why do we have to go home? Why can’t we stay in Calleva? I loved Calleva. It was so beautiful! All the big houses and the paintings and the shops and the coloured floors. And the bath house! We don’t have a bath house... ” and her eyes began to fill again at the thought of the beauty of the Calleva bath house.
“Don’t you want to go home and see Mama and Esca?” Marcus asked her gently.
“They could come and live with us in the Calleva house! It’s a waste for it to be all locked up and everything under sheets and nobody living there. Great uncle Aquila must have wanted us to live there or he would have given the house to somebody else...”
“Your mother does not like Calleva - and I’m afraid we can’t afford to live there at the moment anyway, little one. Perhaps in a few years, when you are old enough, you can go and stay with your great-aunt Valaria, and see if you still like it there,” Marcus told her. Her small face was woeful.
“I don’t want to live in Calleva,” said Flavius, bracingly. “Come on Car! It’ll be fun. We’ll get home to the farm and we’ll go straight down to the stream and have a swim in the pond, and get all cool and clean. And then we can sit on the mossy rocks where the little stream comes down, and the water goes all flecked with gold where the sun catches the sand, and we’ll look for crayfishes.”
“Will you make me a boat?” Cara asked, her imagination caught and her brown eyes wide, seeing the stream, and almost feeling it on her tired feet already.
“Yes,” said Flavius, magnanimously. “I’ll make you a boat - with a sail - and you can sail it down the stream.”
“Well... All right then,” Cara agreed.
“Come on then little one,” Marcus said, scooping up his tired daughter again. “I think you had best ride in the cart for a while.”
Much later, with both children sitting in the ox cart by now, and Cara half asleep with Flavius’s arm around her, they turned off the road, across the open pasture where sheep were grazing the short summer turf under the sleepy supervision of Hunno the shepherd boy. On over the crest of the hill, past the sun-dappled eaves of the wood, and then they could see at last the little red-tiled house in the valley, basking in the late sunlight, with the trees around it heavy with reddening apples.
Marcus called to the ox, and pulled on the rein to stop him pulling forward too eagerly at the sight of his familiar pasture. Hearing the sound of his voice, Cottia came out from behind the barn. She had clearly been feeding the chickens, but at the sight of them she dropped the feed bucket and came running like a girl. Behind Cottia, but soon overtaking her, Cub came bounding, an old wolf now, grizzled in the muzzle and a little stiff in the legs but still eager to fling himself at Marcus, wagging furiously, and making that strange low crooning noise that he never made for anyone else.
Flavius jumped down from the cart and went running to greet his mother, and across the valley, Marcus caught sight of Esca, coming up from the lower pasture with the warm evening light catching his long hair and lighting it almost to Cottia’s red.
He turned and lifted his sleepy daughter out of the cart, “Home at last, Cara, sweet,” he said.