warnings: late pregnancy is not much fun.
Word Count: 1500
Summary: A very pregnant Cottia realises that marriage to Marcus may not be the escape she had hoped, but talking to Esca helps.
I really should have got this beta'd before posting it, but I wrote it for the ninth-eagle fanmedia challenge, and ended up posting it well after the official deadline and only about 40 minutes before the really really mean it deadline, so there was So Much No Time. Apparently I still have Lots of Thoughts about this book!
It took Cottia two years to realised that the farm was a cage, too.
She was sitting on a low stool outside the farmhouse, sitting in the shade to escape the worst of the heat of the afternoon, plucking a chicken amid a cloud of feathers, and being tormented by her thoughts. The air in the valley was still and heavy, and her heavy belly made her breath come short. Her back ached. Cottia shifted, and shifted again, trying to find an easier position, and wondered whether to walk down to the stream to bathe her feet - but the thought of the steep climb back up the hill was too much to bear, just now. Maybe later.
She had spent six years in Calleva, watching the imprisoning walls go up around the town, refusing in her heart to be named Camilla, longing to go home. When Marcus had asked her to go with him, it had felt like freedom. It had felt as though at last, she had been released.
But being nineteen is not like being nine, and the little farm, hidden in the quiet valley in the Down Country was not like the sprawling, half-abandoned Iceni village where Cottia had lived until her father had died. The village had been shabby, but it had never been lonely. In Calleva she had been lonely and friendless, until Marcus came - but at least there was always things to do and people to talk to.
But now, on the farm, Marcus and Esca were often out in the fields all day with the laborers, and she was too heavy to go with them. In the house there was only Nissa, and really, nobody could talk for long with Nissa and not go mad with boredom. Today, Cottia had got rid of Nissa and her endless fussing by telling her to walk over to the village to buy some honey. So now there was not even Nissa.
A sharp pain in her belly caught her. She shifted and stretched, trying to escape it, and the child within her moved and kicked. Sometimes, she thought, it was as if he was growing into a soldier like his father, was stabbing her from within with his Roman sword, to remind her that she could not be Iceni any more, and would never be a warrior, but must be a good wife and carry a Roman child meekly in her belly.
Oh, but that was unfair to Marcus.... Marcus was not just any Roman, he was kind. Loving too, when he remembered that she existed, even if that sometimes seemed to be only when she was standing next to him to remind him. Lovely, clever Marcus, always so full of his latest idea or new plan that he could hardly think of anything else.
A treacherous little voice said from within that perhaps if Marcus forgot her, that might be no bad thing. Her body was not one on which pregnancy sat lightly. The thought of more children, of being constantly heavy, in pain, unable to ride or move or climb, seemed in that moment a captivity more unbearable than any cage. And there was no escape. Marrying Marcus had been her hope of escape. There was nowhere left to run.
A tear leaked from the corner of her eye, and she dashed it away, furious at her own self-pity.
A movement over by the ox pen caught her eye. Esca was walking slowly towards the house across the sheep-nibbled turf, moving stiffly in the blinding sunshine. She put down the bag of feathers, and waved at him. He lifted a hand in reply.
“Something wrong?” she called. The men had been working on clearing land for a new pasture further up near the cherry-woods. Cottia had not expected them back until the evening. Esca started to shake his head and winced.
“Just that thrice-cursed blackthorn scrub,” he said “I twisted the wrong way to cut a branch, and caught something in my back. It hurts... Ay, hurts like the fires of Yffern! Marcus sent me back to rest.”
He reached the lime washed plaster corner of the house wall, and leaned on it gratefully.
Cottia put the bag of feathers down and pulled herself to her feet, pushing her shoulders back and a hand in the small of her own back as it twinged in sympathy.
“So! Welcome to the place for invalids and women,” she said. More bitterness than she had intended to show came through into her voice, and Esca noticed it.
“I am sorry to get in the way,” he said apologetically. “I would have gone on working, but Marcus said it would be best not to make it worse.”
“Don’t be so silly Esca! Of course he was right. You should lie down and get better. It’s just that I feel so, so..” she could not find the end of the sentence, and to her alarm, her eyes were filling up with tears again.
“It’s a hard task you have, making ready for the son of the house,” Esca said politely.
“It could be a daughter! A daughter would be perfectly all right!” Cottia said, louder than she had meant to, and her voice cracked, and now the tears were coming in earnest, and her nose was running too, and really there was no dignity left, it was all quite hopeless.
Esca slid painfully down the side of the wall to sit propped awkwardly against it on the warm stone of the terrace, “I am sorry, “ he said again, “I thought you hoped for a son.”
Cottia wiped her eyes and nose, painfully with the back of her arm.
“Of course I must hope for a son. Everything is always different for boys,” she said, thinking of her brother, and how nobody had ever suggested that he should be sent to Calleva to live with Aunt Valaria.
“A boy can be a warrior or a farmer, whatever he wants, and look after me when I am old. It is only common sense to want a boy! And Marcus wants one, I know he does.”
“Cottia, Marcus was telling us all this morning as we walked up to the fields, about how, if it was a daughter, he would buy her a little soft white hound puppy to play with, and how we must be most careful in case the Cub should be too big and rough to play with her. I do not think he will be disappointed if it is a daughter. And,” he paused and looked cautiously at Cottia. She smiled at him weakly, to show she was not angry, and he went on.
“A daughter who is not a warrior might not be such a terrible thing? I have been thinking, since I ... came to the South, that although here, the women do not go into the battles, that does at least mean that they do not die in them.”
He took a deep breath and winced for a moment, then went on “My mother... she wanted death before shame. You know that story, it is Boudicca’s tale too. She would not fall into Roman hands. But I have had that shame, and that defeat, and here I still am. And now, I find that it is not so terrible, still to be alive.”
“Boys get to choose, though” Cottia insisted. The child within her kicked, as if in agreement.
“Your son would be able to choose. He would have the farm, and a fine Roman family. But surely your daughter would also? I cannot see Marcus forcing her into a marriage against your wishes. And if, when she is grown, she wishes to ride North to people who expect women to be warriors, who will stop her? Would anyone stop you?"
This was a new thought, and Cottia needed time to think about it, but Esca went on, “Marcus once said to me, that I could live my life as though I had taken a whipping and could not forget it, or I could learn to carry the scars lightly. It was not kind! Although I do not think it had occurred to him that ... how often slaves are whipped. But I think now that he was right. Being angry about what cannot be changed doesn’t help. It only leads to bitterness.”
Cottia frowned, “But how can you know what cannot be changed? You may not change the past, but surely you can change the future! I think everything should be able to change, if it isn’t fair! OW!” for another sharp pain had caught her by surprise.
Esca laughed and slid down very cautiously, to lie on his back, looking up at the deep summer blue of the sky and the swallows that darted across it.
“I think I would like to wait for my back to hurt less, before I set out to change everything,” he said.
“Very well!” said Cottia, and suddenly she was feeling filled with energy again, and her dark thoughts had drawn off to the horizon like heavy cloud in the distance after a thunderstorm.
“ After all, you are only a man! But I shall not wait for my daughter to arrive. I am going to talk to Marcus tonight and make a plan.”
Yffern - Esca refers to Yffern, which is medieval Welsh for Hell, and is thus arguably a thousand years out of time. Whether second century Brigantes really had a concept of a firy netherworld I have no idea, but I'm reasonably convinced that it would be impossible to prove they didn't.
Cottia I'm a bit conflicted about Cottia. On the one hand, by modern standards, she gets very few choices: her mother dumps her on a childless aunt that she doesn't like and forces her to behave in a way she doesn't enjoy, and her only escape is to marry at sixteen, which is now considered at the very limit of what is really safe or advisable for motherhood. I cheated a bit in this story and assumed that the poor kid at least didn't fall pregnant right away.
On the other hand, by the standards of her time, she's extremely lucky. She has rich relatives who care about her, jewellery and good clothes, a holiday in Bath, and a husband with his own farm.
The comparison with Esca is interesting, I think, because Esca started life with all the advantages - a well off family, male, presumably the diet, lifestyle, clothing and possessions that come with a father who is an important chieftain of an undefeated tribe - and lost them all. Cottia, on the other hand, is Iceni - already defeated and from an economically depressed area - and she seems to be from a relatively humble family, apart from her aunt. One feels that Valaria perhaps did rather well for herself by landing Kaeso as a husband.Yet Cottia is splendidly unimpressed by all the trappings of civilisation and wealth.