Word Count: 20566. Blimey! Also on AO3
Summary: Marcus Flavius Aquila returns to Isca Dumnoniorum, where an old friend talks him into taking an unusual job. Before long he finds himself deep in trouble...
This is the story I've periodically wittered about, where I try to make the real archaeology of Dumnonia work with the plot of Eagle of the Ninth. I'm not sure I've succeeded, partly due to the iniquity of archaeologists, who keep digging things up, the bastards. but - well. I gave it a damn good go.
Completed for smallfandombang, without which deadline I suspect I would never have got the damn thing finished, and kindly and very helpfully beta'd by carmarthen and hedgebird.
The spring came rushing up and across the downs that year, bright and urgent on a wind from the sea. Small clouds chased each across the pale-blue sky, while in the valley, playful fox-red lambs leapt across valley slopes flushed green with new grass. Marcus looked out from the terrace and smiled. The lambing had gone well. After the first wet spring, he had almost despaired of being able to keep sheep. But these new little red sheep that Cottia had found were thriving. Of course it was easier now that they had the lambing pens set up and the hedges in good trim, and could afford to keep a shepherd as well as a herdsman for the cattle.
Over near the byre little Cara, her small dark face solemn with concentration, was feeding scraps to the hens. She was so small that the fierce little black hens came up to her knees, so she fed them very carefully, a scrap at a time, throwing the food well away from her feet. It was good, Marcus thought, that the children were all old enough to help out now, even the littlest, but how quickly it had happened! It seemed only a month ago that Cara had been a crumpled red angry scrap of a baby, screwing up her tiny fists to let out a yell bigger than she was.
He looked down at the letter in his hand, and, half from habit, read it again. It told of Isca Dumnoniorum rebuilt. Temples, baths, law courts, paved roads and bustling shops – all rising on the ashes of the old British town. Grafting the new slip of Rome onto an old stock, and making sure the graft took this time. A complex task for his old friend Cassius, and one not without risk, but it sounded as though Cassius was making a great success of it.
Marcus almost envied him – would have said that he did envy him – only of course that was not the way for a man to think who was lucky enough to have land of his own and a family and friends about him. There was, after all, still so much to do on his own farm.
Still... the things that were left to do were important, of course, but deep down, he felt that the shine had worn off the doing of them for the first time.
He looked again blankly at the wide strips of birchwood covered in Cassius’s sprawling handwriting, his dark brows drawn. He did not see the letter anymore, but rather the road down to Isca Dumnoniorum from the western hills, and the fort on the Red Mount looming over – what? A new Roman city?
Marcus’s farm would never be more than just another little native farm, tucked away in the quiet downs. What Cassius was building at Isca would be something more. If things had gone differently, if Marcus had gained his shining goal and become Legate of an Egyptian legion...then Marcus would have been the one to build new cities and roads to bring law to the provinces, another man helping the Empire prosper.
He sighed and walked in from the terrace to the kitchen of the farmhouse, where Cottia was making bread. Cub lay near her feet, his old muzzle more white than grey now, but still keeping half a yellow eye open for crumbs. Cottia’s heavy red-amber hair had come loose and trailed down her back as she pounded and stretched the creamy dough with a practiced hand.
Marcus leant over and kissed her ear. The Legate of an Egyptian legion could not hope to see a finer sight, he thought. And soon Esca would be back at the farm after his winter away, and when the three of them were together, Marcus’s discontent would vanish away like the mist in the morning sun.
Cottia turned and kissed him back, holding her floury hands away from his clean tunic.
“I see you have Cassius’s letter there,” she observed. The letter had arrived ten days ago. Marcus had read it a number of times already.
“Yes – he has much to say about the extended basilica and the work on the roads to improve the silver trade. I thought I might send him some of our dried damsons as a gift with my reply...”
Cottia looked at him, eyes narrowed in amusement. “Why don’t you go to visit him?” she asked, in the voice that meant she was being terribly sensible and practical. “The farm can spare you for a few weeks, and it would do you good to see your old friend.” She smiled, teasing. “And it would do me good to get you out from under my feet!”
“There is far too much to do around the farm for me to go all the way to Isca Dumnoniorum on a whim! It’s at least three days’ ride. The spring planting….”
“Esca will be back from Canovium very soon. And Senecianus has offered to lend us his sons to help with the spring planting this year, had you forgotten? Flavius is old enough to help this year too. We shall have more help with the planting than I know what to do with. ” She thumped down the lump of dough into the big earthenware bowl. Her sharp face was thoughtful. “Marcus, I’ve been thinking. Before you went away to the North you used to talk about your life with the Eagles often – almost as often as you spoke of your farm among the olive trees. But now – now you never mention the Legions at all. It was your ambition all the time you were growing up, but now you never speak of it.”
Marcus looked a little surprised. “But you never liked the Eagles much yourself.”
Cottia turned to Marcus and gave him an awkward floury hug. She smelled of warm bread, and her body felt a little more of an armful than he had expected. It made a fine change from the lean years, when he could feel the bones in her shoulder too clearly for comfort by the time the new grass came.
“Go to Isca and talk about Roman things with this Cassius,” Cottia told him. “I won’t mind – nor will Esca. Then come back and tell us about it. You worry too much, Marcus.”
Outside the small villa, there was a sudden crashing noise and a distant indignant cry, followed by the sound of a faint but frantic yapping. Cottia and Marcus looked at one another.
“I think your son has fallen out of the apple tree again,” said Marcus, resigned.
“Into the water trough, I think. Why is he always my son when he does things like this?”
“I’m sure he’s not mine,” said Marcus, laughing aloud as they hurried outside, with old Cub’s claws clacking gently on the tiles behind them. “I was a nice quiet boy!”
Under the apple tree, a small damp figure was climbing out of the water trough. Petals from the fallen blossoms stuck to his wet tunic and bare muddy feet. A small, excited white puppy with one black ear and ginger eyebrows leapt up and down next to the boy, yapping furiously.
“Esca always says that only a Roman could create such havoc wherever he goes,” Cottia replied. Marcus thought that Flavius looked more indignant than injured, but he hurried over to check on the boy anyway.
“I think you need to tell Esca more about the history of the Iceni, my love,” he said, over Flavius’s water-damp head, as he bent to look at the impressive scratch along the boy’s arm. “Flavius! What have I told you about the apple tree?”
Marcus had thought, as he rode back down the old road to the West under heavy grey-purple skies, that it would be strange to come back to Isca Dumnoniorum, where the ghosts of so many men he had known might walk. Cradoc, who had begun to be his friend and who he had killed, and who had almost killed him. Lutorius, the commander of the Dacian horse. He tried to remember the names of his own men who had died there, and was a little ashamed to find he had to search right to the corners of his mind to find them.
But when he came over the last rise in the newly-paved road into the wide river valley, with the low afternoon sun sparkling in his eyes under the edges of the grey cloud-bank overhead and glittering on the raindrops caught in the unfurling fern-spirals beside the road, he found that so much had changed at Isca Dumnoniorum that it was almost like arriving at a city that he had never seen before.
The turf walls on the Red Mount still loomed over the town, enclosing the Legio Augusta’s old legionary headquarters which in Marcus’s time had been mostly abandoned. His one cohort had only used a corner of the fort . But where reed-thatched roofs had huddled below the fort without order, looking warily over their humped shoulders at the stone-built basilica and forum, now there were tiled Roman townhouses and shops marching in ordered rows along unfamiliar straight, sharp-cornered streets. There was still that dusky smell of woodsmoke and horse dung, which permeated every British town, but the buildings and the roads looked almost entirely new.
As Marcus rode up, he could see a squadron of auxiliaries sweating to build a new turf rampart and ditch around the new city. Gauls, probably, he thought, noting their height and fair hair. Gauls, like his own cohort, the Fourth that he had commanded for such a short while. He wondered where those men were now. Posted elsewhere no doubt, perhaps in Germania or even farther away by now.
At the gates of the fort on the Red Mount, a soldier who seemed to Marcus quite improbably young and skinny was told to take Marcus up to the Commander. Had he ever been that young? he wondered, looking at the lad’s thin neck as he led the way past piles of timber and stacks of bricks.
They found Cassius in a large room with high white plastered walls. At least, what you could see of the walls was white. Most of them were hidden by a great number of thin wooden sheets, pinned up from head height almost to the red tiled floor. They were covered in careful ink sketches and scrawled notes, some neatly written, but mostly scrawled roughly in Cassius’s rather large and careless writing. More wooden sheets, pens and wax tablets littered the large table that stood in the middle of the room. Behind the table sat Cassius, pen in hand, frowning ferociously at a wax tablet.
Cassius had changed too, though not as much as the town. The languid, elegant young man who had relieved Marcus of his command at Isca Dumnoniorum was stouter now and greying at the temples. He turned to the doorway and frowned as Marcus was shown in, and for a moment, Marcus thought his old friend did not recognise him. Then a broad, familiar smile spread over his face.
“My dear Marcus,” he said in amazement, standing up. “I haven’t seen you in...how long?”
“Twelve years, it must be? Or almost twelve. It was just coming into autumn when you relieved me as commander here.”
Cassius came over and grasped his hand warmly. “Whatever has brought you back to this distant moss-encrusted corner of Britain?” he asked, smiling.
“When you wrote to say that you had been posted here again, I thought I would come and see you. And it does not look as mossy as it used to!”
“Well, we have been working on it,” Cassius said, languidly waving a hand to indicate the building work outside. “Scrubbing, drains – that sort of thing. It sometimes seems that anything one puts down for even a moment begins growing mushrooms. But I am going make a city of this damp old fort or die in the attempt!”
Marcus laughed. “The man who was Commander here before me – Quintus Hilarion, do you know him? He swore that toadstools would be sprouting from my ears by the end of the year. How long have you been back in Britain?”
“Almost a year now.” Cassius elaborately twirled a finger in his ear, looking for toadstools. “Good old Quintus...they posted him to the Rhenus, you know; he was heartbroken to leave Britain.”
“I’m not surprised. He was very fond of his family in Durinum. You were on the Rhenus too for a while, and over in Gaul also, if I remember rightly? Oh, Cassius – did you ever manage to get that lovely team of bays back from Dexion?”
“The team you drove to win the chariot race in the Saturnalia Games for me? Yes, I had them back for a year or so before I was posted to Germania and had to sell them – not the groom though, I’ve still got him. Never found a charioteer to get the best out of them after mine got injured and went off to be a farmer.” He grinned broadly at Marcus.
“You’ll have to complain to the Dumnonii about that,” Marcus said, grinning back.
“Ha!” Cassius said. “I should, at that. It would be something to be complaining to them for a change, instead of them coming to me with a thousand grievances. Nothing we do is ever in the right place and every one of them has an opinion on every plan I make, even the women, if you can believe that. ”
“I certainly can,” said Marcus, laughing. It was so good to see Cassius again, to pick up the old threads as if they had only parted last week. “My wife is a woman of the Iceni.”
“Whew – you’re a brave man! But come, we must catch up! Where are you staying? Can I put you up? I must show you the new Commander’s house; it’s quite a change from your bare old quarters in the old barracks.”
“I left my things down at the new inn in the town,” Marcus replied. “I wasn’t sure if you would be here, or in a position to take guests – what with all the building work.” He waved his hand vaguely at the wooden scaffolding and piles of stone blocks visible through the open door.
“Well, it is a work in progress – but my house is almost finished. I draw the line at sleeping in a building site. You must come to dinner, my dear man, and tell me all about this British wife of yours, and what you have been up to tucked away in the hills all these years.”
That evening Cassius entertained Marcus to dinner in a very splendid room in the new Commander’s house. The warm glow of the oil lamps showed faint patterns on the wall where the clean new plaster was not yet quite dry, but the table was strewn with spring crocuses and the couches were splendid things with red covers woven with a pattern of lilies, and finely-carved lion-feet.
“So you are setting up another town, west of Isca Dumnoniorum?” Marcus asked, as Cassius poured him another cup of excellent wine. “That’s rather out of the way, surely? When I was here, it was a frontier job – keeping the tribes living quietly and the taxes coming in.”
“Silver,” Cassius answered emphatically, and took a sip of wine. “Silver, that’s why I’m here. That’s why everything is happening, out here in the West of the world. Dumnonia, it appears, is richer than anyone knew. Lead too, of course, and iron and tin – we’ve been trading in those for years – but it’s the silver that has got the Senate interested. Straight to the money, our Senators, like a dog on a bone.”
“They have found so much silver then? I thought the Spanish mines produced all we needed.” It was easy, so easy, to slip back into a mode of speech where Rome and all her interests were ‘we’, Marcus noticed.
Cassius blew out his cheeks and leaned back on his couch, looking sideways at Marcus, and then narrowed his eyes so that long wrinkles formed under them, accentuating the tired shadows.
“You can’t have too much silver. But strictly between you and me, Marcus...” He spoke quietly, and Marcus had to lean forward a little to hear him.
“I’ve had reports of gold as well. But I’m keeping that very quiet: I have enough trouble on my hands without rumours flying with every hunter or trader that takes a whim to travel in and out of Dumnonian lands. And the silver – well, there is a great deal of it, and not too difficult to get at either. That is good in one way, but not so good in another. It’s too easy for anyone to pick up the ingots, and these coasts are full of little harbours with boats that can run across to Gaul or Spain in a day. And once in Gaul... well, who is to say the silver came from Dumnonia and is the property of Rome and subject to tax? They say it’s from Hibernia or some other wild place outside the Empire, and sell for their own profit, and there’s no-one will give them the lie.”
Marcus nodded, seeing the scale of the problem in his mind’s eye. “Can you not patrol the coastline from the sea?” he asked.
Cassius quirked his mouth, ruefully. “I have as much of the fleet as they will let me get my hands on, patrolling the Oceanus Britannicus trying to keep the smugglers in check. I have people across Dumnonia too, right the way down to the lsle of Ictis. Nemetio Statio, Uxelis, Durocornovio, Tamaris by the great river and Novocrepidis on the coast... But – well, everyone needs men, and the Wall is the priority, I’m told.
“I don’t have the troops to occupy the land the way it was fifty years ago, before the line of battle Legions were moved North. A town – no, let me be more realistic, a Roman village – west of the river will help to serve the tin trade. There will be a market to bring the tribes down from their hilltops – encourage them to trade peacefully rather than raiding each other – or us, of course.”
Marcus had a sudden, very clear vision of Cradoc’s wife, Guenhumara, and her brown baby. Cradoc’s son would be almost grown to manhood by now, he thought, if he had survived the revenge taken by the Legions after the revolt, the huts burned and the fields laid waste.
“What do the Dumnonii make of it?” he asked Cassius. Cassius raised his eyebrows and looked quizzical.
“Well, they are not happy, but then, when were Britons ever happy? They were working the tin themselves, as they always have, and shipping it out by sea. But we need the silver here in Britain, and the tin too, so we have had to put a stop to that. I’ve put in some of our own administrators to keep records now, and of course that meant troops to protect them and the silver.”
“I have my work cut out here, keeping the local chiefs in order – not to mention trying to keep on top of everything that is going on further West. Some of the tribes down there had half-forgotten they were part of this little island of Britannia, I think – let alone the Empire.
“The tribes are officially disarmed, of course – no swords, no weapons of war – but as you know better than anyone, that doesn’t stop them making trouble if they get in the mood for it. Particularly if the harvest is rained into the ground, as it was last year.” Cassius took another sip of wine.
“But Marcus, here I am talking about work again – I must be boring you rigid. You promised to tell me all about this terrifying Iceni woman of yours!”
Marcus smiled. “Please do not put it that way if you meet her!” he said, and began to tell Cassius about Cottia, and about Flavius falling out of the apple tree.
A couple of days later, Marcus rode out in the spring sunshine, accompanying Cassius to inspect the new little town he had established in the West. The houses and barns spread out, new and raw across the open pastureland, which swept green and smooth down to the little river winding between stiff green reeds and little copses of oak and willow.
The headman of the new town came out proudly to greet them as they rode down the green way that led from Isca Dumnoniorum. He was clad in a thick tunic of brightly dyed local cloth and wore British braccae, but Marcus spotted the helmet-gall under his chin. The disciplined stance of the man as he stood spear-straight to greet Cassius was all Rome, and that made Marcus think of another tribesman with a helmet-gall to mark him, away North of the Wall – maybe dead by now, and maybe not.
The houses were built in the native style, round, with tall roofs of new golden thatch hanging close to the ground, but they stood neatly in Roman lines around the new marketplace. It was little more than a clear space as yet, but Cassius called it a forum.
There was little enough to see, in truth, but Cassius inspected it all gravely, from the well-stocked storage barns, to the old grey hawthorn tree with the bright green spring leaves just showing that leant crookedly over the new drainage trenches, right down to the round-faced tabby cat patrolling the grainstore. Marcus could see how his old friend had managed to achieve so much at Isca Dumnoniorum. Cassius was interested in everything, noticed everything, and took every problem seriously. He seemed to Marcus just the kind of man who might be able to pull together the loyalties of Roman and Briton and begin to build this odd little corner of the Empire into something that would be new and wonderful. Once, Marcus had hoped he might be that kind of man himself. It was good to see that Cassius had the trick of inspiring loyalty without bitterness.
As they came back out of the last barn to be inspected, out into the fading spring sunshine, Marcus heard hooves in the distance – the sound of a horse running fast, coming from the west. No trader or hunter would ride down on a settlement like that.
From his leather shirt and the helmet strapped to his saddle, the man was an auxiliary, and his horse bore the brand of a post-horse, although he was coming from a direction that had certainly been well outside of the range of the official postal service when Marcus had served in Isca.
Cassius stepped out and waved the man down as he pelted down the final slopes of the valley side, heading for the trail towards Isca. The man’s eyes widened as he caught sight of Cassius, and he reined his sweating horse in sharply and slid off, coming smartly to the salute as he hit the ground.
“What is your name, soldier?”
The auxiliary’s freckled face bore an unmistakably guilty air under his close-cropped cap of fiery red hair, but he answered readily enough, “Vallaunus, sir!”
“So, Vallaunus. What is so urgent that you must risk a valuable horse on these slopes at such a speed?”
“Sir, despatches from Centurion Decimus, sir!” Vallaunus turned and pulled a sheaf of reports bound with a leather thong from the saddle bag. “He did say it was urgent, sir.” he added, hopefully.
“Hmm,” said Cassius as he flipped open the folded wooden slats and cast an eye swiftly over the contents. “If your horse breaks a leg then the despatches will not arrive any the sooner.”
“Sir, the slope is not so very steep,and Lovernisca knows the way well.”
“Be more careful in future,” Cassius said absently. Something in the report had taken his attention, Marcus could see. His old friend frowned, unusually serious-faced, at the close-written ink.
“Something urgent?” he asked his old friend.
“Well, not entirely urgent, but delicate, at least,” Cassius said to him, frowning “Decimus sends news from west beyond the moors that I would very much like to look into myself. He has a whisper of... well, something that could cause us a great deal of trouble, if we have another wet autumn like the last.”
A pair of small children ran past, chasing a scrawny, long-legged pullet with a great deal of squawking, and Cassius closed the letter with a decisive snap.
“Still, there’s nothing to be done about it. I can’t go West just now; I must get back to Isca. Old Vindiorix – do you remember him? Wily old brute, chief of all the country along the Nemet river? He’s arriving in Isca any day now, and I must be there to talk to him.”
Marcus nodded, remembering. “I had a centurion who used to say ‘When trouble bubbles up in Isca Dumnoniorum, you can be sure that it has been brewed up in the groves of the Nemet’.”
“Too true, too true... I wish I had more seasoned men here!” Cassius said in frustration. “Half of them are young idiots like Vallaunus here, without the least idea of discretion or caution!”
Vallaunus grinned at them with a transparent innocence, and Marcus could not help smiling in return.
On the short ride back to Isca Dumnoniorum, Marcus carefully kept to small talk. He did not wish to ask indiscreet questions that might presume upon his old friendship with Cassius. But that evening, Cassius was flatteringly eager to tell him about it.
“It is good to have an opinion from someone who I can trust to be discreet!” he told Marcus as they sipped cups of hot spiced wine in the atrium. “And you are not only a friend, but – well, I heard just a little about that business in the North, you know, through dear old Great Uncle Clodius.”
“I thought the Senate were supposed to be keeping that quiet,” Marcus said, although he could not help quietly feeling a little pleased that Cassius, who was achieving so much, had heard of his own small achievement.
“Well, I’m afraid dear old Clodius was never the most discreet of Senators,” Cassius admitted, smiling. “At any rate, there is no question but that you are to be trusted.
“Now, I’ve had Decimus and a few others keeping an ear open for trouble, and when word of trouble does come, there’s often a mention with it of this thing called the White Hare. My thinking is that it is one of the Sacred Things of the Dumnonii. Perhaps a war standard in the form of a silver hare? Or it may be a name we have not heard before for Mars or Jupiter, or a new war dance, for all we know.”
“All these ideas sound possible,” Marcus agreed cautiously. “You know no more about it? No details?”
“Oh, it’s all very thin – no more than a whisper, a rumour that rises with the hill mists, and just as hard to grasp. But I’ve been working on the assumption that the White Hare is a real thing, not just a story. It’s the kind of thing that could cause trouble if it’s allowed to sit out there in the wilds, in the sacred places of the tribes. A failed harvest, or trouble over the silver-tax or the price of tin, and it will become a dangerous rallying point,”
“If it is a standard, we need to get it up to Isca where we can put it into a proper shrine in the new temple here. If it is a new name for Mars, we will perhaps build a joint temple to him and good old Hadrian – that would strike the right note, I think. They know Hadrian, here in Britain, and since he has only just been deified, I am sure that the good people of Isca Dumnoniorum could be convinced to raise a subscription to fund it.”
“Anyway, whatever the thing is, Decimus has sent word that he’s heard from a reliable source that it will be found in a particular place at a particular time. If I could only get away, there’s a chance I could at least find out what it is and who is controlling it.”
Marcus said, “And I don’t suppose our hairy friend Vindiorix will be too helpful if you ask him? Is he still roosting up there on the river Nemet like an otter in his holt?”
Cassius snorted with laughter. “Vindiorix? I’m sure he knows plenty about what’s going on in the West but catch him telling me anything that he thinks I might find useful! He calls himself a magistrate now, if you can believe that – but what he means by it is that all the small chiefs in his lands can shut up and listen to what he has to say,” Cassius smiled, broadly. “Hmm. If we end up having to build a new temple for this thing, then Vindiorix is right at the top of my list of people who I shall expect to subscribe handsomely.”
Marcus frowned, dark brows drawing together. “And there’s nobody else here in Isca who you can send to find out what it is and try to bring it back?”
Cassius looked thoughtful and leant back, half-closing those tired eyes consideringly. “I don’t suppose you would consider extending your visit and doing a little work – for me, and for Rome? I could use your experience. You have served here before, after all.”
Marcus thought of the farm. He needed to get back – but not, perhaps, right away? Cassius’s regard gave him a pleasant warm feeling, which mingled pleasingly with the glow that the wine had given him. It seemed to him that it would be good to help Cassius, to feel that he had added a little to the work being done here in the West.
“If I am needed, then I am here!” he said with a smile.
They rode out in the grey morning the next day, just as the trumpets sounded the morning watch. The mist was hanging low and damp over the heavy shadow of the Red Fort, almost hiding the dim sun, and the walls and road were wet. It did not seem an auspicious start.
Marcus’s head ached a little from last night’s wine and the early start. A part of him was wondering why he had been so eager to volunteer – he a man with a farm to keep and a family to feed. But since he had committed to do the job, he would do it as well as he could. And there was another small part of him that remembered the young centurion marching down to Isca in the joy of his first command, and was uncomplicatedly delighted.
The auxiliary Vallaunus, his red hair covered by a thick hood, led the way with exaggerated care, keeping his horse to a gentle pace as the hooves thudded hollow on the bridge over the Isca river. Behind them rode a pair of Cassius’s astonishingly young auxiliaries, as an escort. Marcus found himself thinking of them as ‘the boys’ and had to stop himself. They were, he told himself, not more than a year younger than he had been himself, when he had first come to Britain and seen the long white sands and the low green hill of Rutupiae standing above them against the cloudy skies.
They rode out of the circle of the raw unfinished red walls through the Western gate, and clattered over the wet dark timbers of the low bridge over the river. When Marcus glanced back, the fort on the Red Mount was no more than a dark shadow against the mist.
It took a full day to ride from Isca Dumnoniorum to the little settlement of Uxelis, tucked into a green valley under the tawny shoulder of the great hills to the South, and Marcus was stiff from the riding by the time they rode down the unmade earth track, with the low sun dazzling in his eyes as it dipped down into the treetops that filled the gentle curve of the valley. Marcus began to turn his horse towards the walls of the old legionary fort on the rise ahead of them, but Vallaunus shook his head and pointed to the cluster of small round houses lower in the valley. Thin trails of blue smoke were rising above them.
“Nobody up there now, sir,” Vallaunus explained. “The old walls are still standing, but the Second Augusta pulled the barracks down when they left for the North. Centurion Decimus has a house in the town here.”
“Of course,” Marcus said. “They would not want the old forts held against them. And you are on attachment to Centurion Decimus? ”
“Me, and a few other lucky souls, out here in the middle of nowhere.” Vallaunus grinned ruefully as they came towards the huddle of houses. “When I joined the Eagles I thought I would get to see Eburacum, Londinium, maybe Lugdunum or even Rome. And here I am: rain, hills, sheep…. I might as well have stayed at home!”
“And where is home?”
“Oh, I’m from the hills around Venta Silurum, I am. Very much like this, only our mountains are bigger – hey, wait, you foolish beast!” Vallaunus broke off as his horse pulled towards her familiar stable.
Decimus was a small man, with bristling dark brows and a soft lilting voice that immediately identified him as as a man of Hispania. He did not seem at all pleased to see the prefect’s representative. He gave Marcus a frown and spent a long, dubious moment examining Marcus’s letter of authority.
“I thought the prefect would want to come himself,” he said at last, looking sulky.
“The prefect has other tasks to do,” Marcus said, rather shortly, for the ride had been longer than he was used to these days, and the old leg wound was aching a little. “He has sent me to discover what may be discovered. I shall report to him, and then he will decide what must be done.”
“And you are...?”
“An old friend of the prefect,” Marcus said, “and a magistrate.” He fixed Decimus with the hard stare that had meant that he had rarely needed to use more extreme measures when disciplining his raw Gaulish auxiliaries, all those years ago.
“Very well, very well!” Decimus said, suddenly warming into belated hospitality. “Would you care to have a sleeping place here in my house? The auxiliaries have a little barracks-room over the way, but it’s a bare enough place... not right for an old friend of the prefect’s. And perhaps you would care for a mug of hot spiced beer with honey?”
“That would be very welcome,” Marcus said gratefully, and sat in the place that Decimus showed him.
It seemed that Decimus had a family of a sort here, although such a thing must of course be strictly unofficial. There was a loom set up near the doorway of the low, thatched house, where it would be easy to carry outside into the light, and half-hidden behind a soft striped curtain at the back of the firelit room, Marcus saw round dark eyes in a small solemn face watching him. But there was no sign of the woman of the house, and in his official capacity, Marcus did not feel he should ask after her.
He asked about the White Hare, instead, as Decimus warmed a little ale in a tall tin jug in the embers of the hearth.
“It will be south of here, along the river – or so the tale goes,” Decimus answered, speaking quietly and glancing over toward the door before he replied. It seemed a little strange to Marcus that he was so nervous, but then, living out here in the hills, surrounded by the tribes, the man must have a good sense of what might cause trouble.
“The precious thing moves around with the seasons, but I’ve been told this year it will go to the tribe along the Tamaris for their Spring festival, at the next full moon.”
“If I can find out who is looking after it, that would be a start.” Marcus said. “Then we can start talking to them about where they keep it. Do you have any idea what I’m looking for?” He was privately doubtful that anything other than force would convince the Dumnonii to meekly surrender one of their Sacred Things to the temple at Isca, but perhaps Cassius would find a way. He could be terribly persuasive, as Marcus had cause to know himself.
“Silver,” said Decimus, with certainty, pouring out the ale into leather cups. “Everything’s about the silver, down here. That’s what they make all their sacred things from: they even play a game with a ball made from the stuff. Silver’s white. It’s a silver hare-thing the size of a man’s head, that’s what I reckon.”
The ale was weak and a little sharp, but the warmth was very welcome: Marcus hoped that Vallaunus and the other auxiliaries had found themselves a hot drink and a fire too.
“But still, nobody has seen it?” he asked, sipping thankfully.
“Nobody that I know of,” Decimus admitted, looking down at his cup. There was still that vague sense that the man was on edge, somehow, but it was nothing that Marcus could quite put his finger on. It might be something as minor as a little petty thieving, and a worry that the prefect’s friend might find out about it. But still, it would be worth keeping an eye on Decimus.
They came for Marcus the next morning, in the darkness before dawn. There was no warning, only a hand across his mouth, hands grabbing at him – two men? three? Still half tangled in a confused dream, Marcus tried to struggle, kicked the feet from beneath one and got in a blow to the stomach of another, but then something came crashing down on his head from behind, and he fell back into dark dreams.
He woke on horseback, his arms and legs tied with rope around the fat, shortlegged pony’s neck and stomach. His stomach roiled at the movement, and he gulped hard to try to keep himself from vomiting. There were other horses ahead and behind him, and they were riding along a lane among thick woodland. It was impossible to tell where they were, or even what direction they were travelling. There was no sign of Decimus, or Vallaunus or the other auxiliaries. Marcus remembered the child peeping through the curtains in Decimus’s house, and hoped with all his heart that the raiders had come and gone swiftly, and done no other harm.
They brought him at last to a high-roofed house, built round and thatched in the British style but greater and taller than was usual, with a pair of antlers from some great deer above the door. It was set above the others on a long sloping sheep-grazed hillside. The men dragged him from his horse and threw him onto his face on the floor inside.
Marcus looked around cautiously as his eyes adjusted to the dim light, trying to catch his breath. The ride had been hard, and his head was still swimming a little.
There were several men lounging about the wide hearth in the middle of the tall room, which was hung about with long woven curtains. A tall warrior with long braids falling around his sharp face strode over and kicked Marcus in the stomach.
Marcus grunted loudly and doubled up, screwing up his face in pain. In fact, the kick had been a glancing one and his wide leather belt had taken most of the force of it, but there was no point in playing the hero. With a little luck, if they thought the first kick had hurt, they would be less likely to kick him harder, and he would be the better able to take the chance to escape if one should come along.
“Talk!” the braided man demanded. “Where is the prefect?”
“In Isca Dumnoniorum!” Marcus replied “Where else should he be?”
“How many men with him?” That was a smaller man, round-faced and dark haired, with a worried look to him.
“A couple of cohorts,” Marcus replied, trying to sound confident, and added, “and the Second Legion only three days march away in case of trouble. Which may well come, when I am treated so discourteously. But let me go now, and I’ll speak on your behalf to the prefect.”
In fact, Marcus knew that there was only half a cohort of auxiliaries at Isca Dumnoniorum now, and they were busy building the city wall. The city was supposed to be at peace, after all. But there seemed no reason to admit that, if the tribesmen did not know it already.
Why didn’t they know? Marcus wondered, from his position on the floor, watching warily for another kick. The people of Isca Dumnoniorum must know how many soldiers were at the Red Fort – but ah! That was it! These tribesmen were not men of the city. These were men of the far West beyond the moors, and clearly they had little idea of what was going on beyond their own hunting-runs.
“Will they come after you?” the dark haired man began to ask, but the braided man exclaimed angrily and waved the question aside.
“Will the Eagles march, when they see that there is no more silver coming out of the West?” he asked.
“I... I don’t know,” said Marcus, honestly taken aback. “Probably they would come, although perhaps not straight away….” It was a weak answer, and both of them knew it. The braided man swung away with a gesture of disgust.
“That’s all the word we truly need, and this….” he gestured dismissively at Marcus. “He doesn’t know. He’s not important enough. The prefect might know for sure, but not this one.” He turned away to the men who had brought Marcus in, fingering the long knife that hung from his belt.
“What did you bring this one for?” he asked angrily. “You were supposed to bring the prefect himself.” Nobody replied.
“What do you want with me?” Marcus asked loudly, trying to sound both confident, and important enough to be not worth the trouble that might come from killing him. “I am the prefect’s representative! If you wished to speak with me, all you needed to do was come to Uxelis and ask me!” He decided to risk struggling to a sitting position: it was hard to sound important lying on your belly.
“Who is in authority here?” he demanded, but the men were not looking at him any more.
To Marcus’s relief, the braided man strode out, followed by two of the others. He glanced around the big, dimly-lit room, looking for opportunities for escape or advantage. There were still far too many people to think of making a run for it, and more of them outside, but at least nobody was kicking him, which was a definite improvement.
Two women were sitting near the hearth, with a child between them in a soft nest of deerskins. One of the women, a dark haired, round-faced girl wearing silver gilt brooches on her shoulders, was tending some bannocks on a griddle at the edge of the hearth, turning them lest they burn, and at the same time, she was playing with the babe, who caught at her finger and giggled.
But the other woman was sitting quite still, watching Marcus with sharp brown eyes. A tall woman of middle age, with hair paler than was usual among the Dumnonii, somewhere between barley-yellow and ash-grey. Although the brooches on her shoulders were of silver gilt, the necklace around her neck surely was of gold. She was looking at him with an air of amused curiosity.
“Who are you, really?” she asked, and her voice had a thick burr to it, stronger than that of the braided man.
“Aquila,” he answered, with a cautious look at the men watching him from the doorway. “The prefect’s representative.”
She smiled. “And is that important? Being the prefect’s representative?”
“Well, it is to me,” Marcus replied with some feeling.
Although not being important enough to be worth kicking had a great deal to recommend it, Marcus knew, with a feeling like a cold breath on the back of his neck, that if he was not important enough to be a source of information, that someone might well decide that the easiest way of getting rid of him would be to slit his throat and drop him in a bog.
Only Cassius’s authority could protect him from that, here in the far West where nobody knew him: Cassius, and any small advantage he could prise for himself.
“You know who I am – could I ask who is my hostess?” he asked the woman, trying to sound polite.
“I am called Gwynnarloedhis,” she said, “and this is Moruin and the little one there is Bryok. Why did you come here, Aquila the prefect’s representative? The prefect has never sent us anyone like you before. He has sent us taxmen, and soldiers, and all of them have come to take what is ours and tell us what we may do, and what we may not do, and to threaten us that the Eagles will return, if we do not obey.”
“That is the Empire,” Marcus answered cautiously. “The Empire comes and it lays down the law, and it offers roads, and peace, and trade.”
“And so, you bring us roads, and peace, and trade, do you?” she asked.
“No, I came...” Why had he come? he thought, a little desperately. “I came to listen to the Dumnonii and to learn more about them. We heard that there was some god or banner – a thing called the White Hare – that was important to the people, here in the West. We wanted to offer it a place of honour in the great new temple of Isca Dumnoniorum.”
Both women looked at him, and laughed in obvious amusement at such a ludicrous idea. Marcus could not entirely blame them.
Many days later, Marcus sat on the floor in the hut where he had been kept for some time now, scribbling on a flat green bit of slate with a crumb of a chalky pebble: an eagle, a horse, a bull for Mithras, who might yet be able to get him out of this mess. There was nothing else to do: they would not even allow him his knife to do a little whittling.
The inactivity was strangely tiring. Marcus had not sat quiet for so long since he had been ill after he was injured in the battle at Isca Dumnoniorum so long ago. The day-to-day work of the farm, which had seemed so routine, seemed now in memory a happy time, and he asked himself repeatedly what on earth had possessed him when he had agreed to travel west, instead of returning directly to the farm on the downs as he had planned. Cottia was bound to be worrying about him by now, and there was nothing at all he could do about it.
Suddenly there was a shout, and the sound of hooves galloping, and splashing, as if the horses had gone for the river. Marcus edged to the door and looked out with caution. He had tried peering out around the ill-fitting door before, and had got a spear-butt in the stomach for his pains. But this time there was no sign of anyone in the limited area he could see through the cracks. He strained to see, wondering if it was worth the risk of opening the door and running for it.
A good deal of splashing and shouting still came from the direction that Marcus knew the river lay, but he could not see what was going on.
He had just made up his mind to go out and risk it when the door swung open. Marcus blinked as the sudden flood of spring sunlight caught him full in the face, and he did not recognise the figure that stood, outlined dark against the light, until it spoke, in a half-whisper.
“Marcus! Let us get away before they return. But quietly – do not run, there are eyes watching all around this place.”
“Esca!” Marcus breathed, and caught his breath.
They slipped away around the side of the little reed-thatched building and away up the slope.
There were few people about, although here and there were signs that the people were not far away: a loom left propped against a wall with half a bright red and blue checkered cloth taking shape; a pile of firewood with the ax still stuck in the last piece to be split; a heap of hazel saplings that someone had begun assembling into a hurdle.
They dipped behind a barn to stay out of sight of a small boy far above them on the close-cropped green grass of the hillside, watching the sheep graze, and walked quietly past an old grandmother, fast asleep in the sun with a tiny brown child beside her, playing busily with pebbles and mud. The child looked up as they passed, looking at them with wide, dark, curious eyes, but she made no sound, and they went on, walking quiet and unnoticed through the scatter of houses and barns. It was almost uncanny, to walk through such a settlement and be seen by no-one.
“What on earth did you do?” Marcus whispered, as they left the open pastureland after what seemed like an age and ducked into the welcome shelter of a hazel coppice.
“Stole a stallion and sent it into the middle of their mare-herd,” Esca whispered, showing his teeth in a grin. “Two of the mares are horsy. He and the king stallion of this place will be battling it out in the river for some time yet, if I am any judge at all. Some of the herdsmen are trying to stop it, and most of the rest of them ran down to watch.”
There was a sharp cracking noise among the trees up ahead. They both froze, barely breathing for a moment. Then a young deer came out of the bushy young trees and crossed the open glade ahead.
“We’d best keep walking and talk later,” Esca breathed, signalling the way with a wary hand. The sounds from the river had faded behind them, but there was the scent of smoke on the air, and far enough away that Marcus could not quite pick out what they were saying, the sound of voices. It seemed clear that not everyone had gone down to the river.
They scrambled up a steep bank and threaded their way cautiously through the coppice, soft green leaves dappling the sunlight and the scent of bluebells dusky and delicate on the air. They walked through the wood for a while, climbing all the while, and then came at last up onto an open hillside, scattered with purple heather and starred with the golden flowers of the gorse. Above them, invisible against the blue, larks were singing.
Esca slackened his pace a little and looked around cautiously. “I think they will not find us here, not quickly,” he said. “I do not think there will be many people passing this way yet, not until the time comes to turn out the sheep on the high pastures. See, the path has been well trodden, but not since the winter.”
Marcus looked cautiously around. There was no smoke or sound nearby, although in the distance against the sky to the north and west, a single tall hill loomed tawny in the spring sunshine.
“Is that a fortress, do you think?” he asked, pointing. Esca followed his finger and squinted at the distant hill.
“There is something happening up there,” he agreed. “Those are earth ramparts, surely, giving that shape to the top of the hill – and people are coming and going on the eastern side; I saw them when I passed there, following your trail. I think there must be one of the old strongholds on the top. But unless they have the eyes of eagles, they will not be able to see us here – they must be three miles away or more.”
Esca led the way, on up a gentle slope, keeping close to the edge of the trees. They were not yet all in full leaf, but the soft green lacing of beech leaves was enough to hide them from prying eyes.
“But what under all the stars are you doing here, and how did you find me?” Marcus asked. “I am very glad indeed to see you, but I thought you were in the North still, or at least back at the farm with Cottia. Following my trail South after I was carried off from Uxelis must have been a puzzle even for a Hound of the Brigantes”
“Oh, well,” Esca said. “That was not so hard. I got back to the farm only two days after you left, and so when you were overdue to come home, it came to my mind that I would ride down to Isca, to see if you were still getting drunk with your friend Cassius. In Isca there was no sign of you to be found, and the whole place seething like an ant hill that has been poked with a stick, so I scented adventure and followed my nose.”
“Seething? How so?” Marcus was diverted.
“The silver wagons were late – or that was the word going around the forum when I was there a few days ago, at any rate. There was supposed to be a consignment coming out of western Dumnonia around the time that you left, but it did not come, and no other wagons have come from the mines, and if the man I spoke to told the truth, no other word either.”
“They asked me about that – the men who took me captive,” Marcus said, thinking hard. “I suppose they must have already decided to stop the shipments then. I told them that the Legions would come...I wonder if that was true.”
“They are saying it is true, in the forum at Isca Dumnoniorum.”
“It is a matter of silver, after all. The Governor is more likely to bestir himself for that than for poor, forgotten Valentia.”
“I think Valentia is not entirely unhappy to be forgotten, ” Esca said and there was that sharpness that sometimes came into his voice now, that Marcus had forgotten about while Esca had been away. “But no matter. There was no sign of you in Isca, and when I enquired at the Red Mount, your friend Cassius bid me sternly to be quiet and go home and wait for you. But he did tell me that you had gone west, and the West was where all the gossip of the forum said that the thunderstorm was brewing. And so it seemed likely that you had found some trouble for yourself, and I was eager to find out what it might be this time. “
“You went to Uxelis?” Marcus asked.
“Yes, there I spoke to the little dark centurion.”
“Aye, very likely, I forget the name,” Esca ducked under a shining branch of new beech-leaves. “He was very loud in his lamenting that you were not there, and said he had sent word to Isca. I don’t know if he had, though, there was something moving behind his eyes that I thought was not quite honest, and the rest of the troop that had been stationed there were gone,”
“Were they?” Marcus said thoughtfully. “I wonder where they are? They were good lads, the ones I met, and they had no orders to withdraw to Isca. And they could not have hoped to hold Uxelis against an enemy that came with any force.”
Esca shrugged. “I did not see them. I told Decimus that I would go back to Isca – he watched me go, back along the Eastern road, so he may even have believed me – and then I waited for a while on a hill outside the town, until I saw a man ride off in a hurry to the South, and I followed him here. Then it was just a matter of watching and waiting, and keeping out of sight, and making a plan.”
“And now here we both are, thanks to you – and I cannot tell you how much thanks I owe you.” Marcus said. “I had no idea I was running into such a nest of vipers. Cassius sent me to find out about some sacred thing of the Dumnonii – a hare, a white hare. He thought it would be a rallying standard for the tribes.”
Esca laughed, a short laugh. “Where have I heard that before?” he asked, drily.
“Well, this is a British thing, not a stolen Roman Eagle,” Marcus said, a little sheepishly. “He seemed to think that if it was approached the right way, the tribal leaders might bring it to Isca themselves – ” He broke off with a half-laugh. “The truth is, I still can’t remember exactly how he talked me into it. And I have no idea what to do next – whether to go on looking for this Hare – and I don’t know where to look – or whether to just give up and head back to Isca with my tail between my legs.” He sighed.
Esca shook his head. “Surely you cannot hope to persuade the Dumnonii to give up this sacred thing to you now? They seem to be almost in open revolt. They will not listen to one Roman who comes alone.”
“It seems unlikely, although I suppose there is still some hope I can find out what the White Hare is, and whether it is really likely to be a threat. At the moment, I don’t even know what I am looking for...do your people have stories about white hares?” Marcus asked, rather helplessly.
Esca thought “Not any that I know of, not from the tribes of the Brigantes – but this is the first time I have ever come into Dumnonia. Even the voices of the people are different, down here in the toe of Britannia. The only stories we had about hares involved stew.”
“That seems unlikely to be the answer,” said Marcus, smiling. “Nothing else?”
“I knew someone, once, who believed that hares were lucky, that you should make a wish if you saw one.” Esca said, his face distant. “I don’t think he was right about that though.”
Marcus looked at him and did not ask. That reserve of Esca’s had come over his face, the kind that said as clearly as if he had said it out loud, that asking any more would be a walking in without leave. Even after all these years, there were some places still raw, some walls that had not come down. They walked on, quietly, through the spring woods. A little cold wind blew down past them from the high moors to the East.
“How were your brother’s wife, his daughters? It must have been good to see your family again,” Marcus said politely, as if to a stranger. Esca’s face was shadowed by the trees, and although he was walking not far away, somehow there still seemed a great distance between them.
“Well. They were well.” Esca said, “and it is good to know that they are safe and happy. Tesni – my brother’s wife, she was once – she has remarried.” He turned to look at Marcus and smiled wryly.
“As to whether it was good to see them again – well. It is what Guern said once, do you remember? There is no way back through the waters of Lethe…. For them, I died long ago. They were kind enough, but it was like...like being a ghost. I was glad to get back to the Downs, and only sorry to find that you had gone gallivanting off to Isca Dumnoniorum without me.”
“I am sorry,” said Marcus, smiling broadly, for suddenly the distance between them had gone away and it was just the two of them: Esca and Marcus again, as it had been for so long.
On to Part 2 »