Esca shook his head, as if coming out of deep water. “You served in Isca Dumnoniorum yourself,” he said. “Don’t you remember hearing anything about hares while you were here?”
“Well, I was not there for very long,” said Marcus, “and I don’t think that the people I knew in Isca – the people who might have known about the sacred things – I don’t think they would have talked to me about something like that. Even the people I thought I knew...well, I was very young, and very new to the country.”
There was a rise ahead in the heather hillside, and behind the bank, the ground dipped suddenly forming a wide, square space, open above to the wispy blue sky, but sheltered from the land around by the massive turf-banks. Marcus had seen turf-banks like that before: had played his part in building them once or twice. This must be a marching-fort of the Legions from their campaigns in Dumnonia, fifty years ago or more. It was abandoned now by all but sheep and larks, but still recognisable from its square, imposing shape.
Marcus had a thought. “Didn’t Cottia tell us some tale about Boudicca of the Iceni and a hare, once?” he asked Esca. “Seeing the future in the way the hare ran, or something of that kind? Not that that helps us much.”
“You can ask her,” Esca answered with a glint of amusement in his eye. “It was her idea to steal the stallion. She said she’d wait for us along this way: Cub is with her and we didn’t want his scent to spook the horses.”
“What!” Marcus was taken aback and stopped half-way up the old turf-bank, but Esca walked on.
Inside on the springy sunlit heather, with Cub sprawled grey-brindle at her feet and a russet hood over her red-amber hair, sat Cottia. She jumped up as soon as she saw them and Cub leapt to his feet to follow her, wagging delightedly.
“Marcus! It worked!”
“Like a charm from the Lady of Horses herself,” Esca said, triumphantly.
Marcus followed him slowly. The sight of her was like a cold shock of water in his face. The danger they were in, the risk that at any moment, armed men might appear over the side of the hill behind him seemed much more real, much more terrible than it had done even a few moments before. Cottia was not supposed to be here. Cottia was supposed to be safe, at home, with the children. His leg felt stiff, and his face was cold.
“Cottia.... what are you doing here? It’s too dangerous for you to be here.”
The delighted smile fell from her face.
“What are you doing here yourself?” she flared back at him, her fox-golden eyes narrowing to angry slits. “I thought you were going to visit an old friend to tell stories of the Eagles and drink wine! You never said that you were planning to go off into the West to get yourself killed!”
“Cottia, I never meant to come here...” Marcus said, taken aback.
“You never meant to come to the back of beyond and get yourself captured by angry Dumnonii? Marcus, you utter... fool! How could anyone do that by accident?”
Esca sat down on the heather and began to laugh, almost silently, but quite distinctly. After a moment, Marcus began to laugh as well. He knelt down and put his arm around Cub, who leaned on him delightedly, then turned his white muzzle the other way and pushed it into Esca’s shaggy hair and made a pleased foofling noise.
Cottia made a furious exhalation of indignation. “Don’t laugh at me! I am just as able to travel as you are. I can ride further and faster than Marcus can, I can do everything around the farm, I’m younger than either of you... and I didn’t get myself caught!” Her bright hair caught the sunlight in an amber net, and Marcus thought how beautiful and fragile she was.
“You have no training with the sword,” Marcus began to explain.
“And what good did that do you when the Dumnonii came and took you? What good did it do Esca when the Eagles came for him?”
Esca stopped smiling, and looked at her, thoughtful. Cottia went on: “You don’t even have a sword any longer! How dare you say it’s too dangerous for me, if it’s not too dangerous for you or Esca? Why should you be able to ride off into danger as you please, and I be always the one left behind?” Angry tears were starting in the corners of her eyes.
“Cottia, my love, I am sorry,” Marcus said, his face serious now. “You are right, I had no right to take the risk, and if I took it, then so can you. We weren’t laughing at you, truly – I was laughing at myself. Accidentally getting taken prisoner by angry Dumnonii. You made me realise how absurd it was.”
The smile began to creep back to the corners of his mouth. “And you are right, too, that it is hard to explain how that could happen by accident. I can only say that Cassius has some very good wine, and is terribly persuasive. But who is looking after the children, if you and Esca are both here? And the farm?
Cottia shrugged. “The children will be well enough. Nissa is looking after Cara, and I told Flavius he is to look after both of them, so he is on his best behaviour – or I hope he is! Hunno and Senecianus’s oldest boy are looking after the farm – Oh, don’t look so worried Marcus! I am sure that there will be no permanent damage, and after all, the lambing is done with for the year.”
“Well,” Marcus said, suppressing his fears with some difficulty, “thank you for coming to rescue me.”
Cottia began to smile again. “It was a good plan, was it not?”
“And executed very successfully, if I say so myself,” Esca added. “But we are not out of danger here. We are still in enemy territory. We should get away from here as soon as we can.”
“Yes,” Marcus agreed. “Did you bring horses?”
“Oh yes,” Esca said, standing up, poised, on edge, as if he were eager to be gone. “The danger is only with you, not with us, at least until we are seen together. They know who you are, you see, but nobody is looking for a trader and his wife, come down the coast from Luguvalium. We hired horses to come and see.. what was it we had come here to see?”
“The cattle,” Cottia said. “We have come to look at some heifers, which we are thinking of buying to improve our stock, you know that!”
“Oh yes. Heifers,” Esca said. He was looking around cautiously, scanning the land outside the brown heather-walls of the dip.
“But Marcus, what about the others?” Cottia asked. “Don’t you want to find out if they are really at the fort? Will it be too late, if we go back to Isca Dumnoniorum now to ask for help?”
Marcus looked blank “What others?” he said, looking enquiringly at Esca. Esca looked annoyed.
“You didn’t tell him?” Cottia said, and she frowned at Esca. “Marcus, we think that they have taken the auxiliaries prisoner – the ones that were stationed at Uxelis. They didn’t go back to Isca Dumnoniorum, and the roof on the barracks at Uxelis had been burned, but there were no bodies. We think that they may be held prisoner up at the fort on the hill.”
“They may be at the fort, but what can we do about it?” Esca asked. “That place must have five hundred spears or more around it by now. If they catch Marcus anywhere around here, then he will join them and that will be the end of all of them, once the Beltane fires are lit.”
Cottia caught her breath. Marcus turned to look at Esca in shock. “Once the Beltane fires are lit? Do you mean that they will make a sacrifice of them?”
“I cannot think of any other reason why they have not been killed already,” Esca said, bluntly. “But to make a sacrifice to their gods, for victory in war? Yes, we would have...they would keep them alive for that. They are soldiers of the enemy; they will be killed before the war-host marches out, and their blood will feed the ravens.”
Marcus thought of young Vallaunus, racing wildly across the hillside on his horse, Lovernisca, because he had been posted to dull Dumnonia and not to Rome after all; and of the two young auxiliaries who had ridden along with him to Uxelis, young Lucius and Rufus. They had seemed barely old enough to be allowed out to herd sheep on their own. He thought of them, waiting to die beside the Beltane fires. But then, there was Cottia, and the children – and Cub too, who was no longer the swift young wolf that he had been.
“Cub will slow us down, if we need to make a run for it,” Marcus said, fondling the wolf’s soft ears. “Whyever did you bring him?”
“Last time he was left behind, he nearly starved himself to death,” Cottia said, and the freckles on her face stood out very clear and sharp as her face went stern. “This time, when Esca told me he was going to go after you, I said: neither of us is going to be left behind. Not me, and not Cub. And he is not so very old. He may not keep up with a horse at full gallop, but he can still run – can’t you Cub?” The old wolf padded over to her, and laid his long grey head against her knee.
“Very well,” Marcus said, slowly, reluctantly. “If you and Cub must risk your lives, then I suppose that they are yours to risk. If they are keeping those boys for Beltane, though….”
“If they are waiting for the Beltane fires, then we do not have time to get back to Isca Dumnoniorum and return in time,” Esca said grimly. “And Marcus....” He hesitated, and rubbed distractedly at his forearm, where the blue marks wove around it, tracing the pattern.
“Marcus, have you thought what calling on help from Isca Dumnoniorum will mean for all the people here? They will kill the young men and enslave their wives and servants, if the Eagles come. Not just the spear-bearers at the fort, but they will ruin all the land, too. That boy, watching the sheep, the old grandmother asleep in the sun….”
“It is a rising against Rome already, if they have taken or killed the garrison from Uxelis,” Marcus said, and his dark eyebrows twitched together. “But...it is true that if they call in the Legions, they will not be gentle. I remember the smell of the smoke that hung about Isca Dumnoniorum, after the Relief Force had done their work: the houses burned to the ground and the young men dead there. I do not feel any eagerness to smell that smoke again.”
“Good!” said Esca and he looked younger suddenly, and happier. “But we cannot raid a fort, just three of us, and I do not think that setting a stallion upon their mares will work again. We were fortunate that they held you to the village by the riverside, rather than up in the hillfort. ”
“But you do not know for sure that they are at the fort?” Marcus asked. “In that case, that must be the first thing to find out. We need to know whether they are still alive, and who is watching them. But the risk of being spotted will grow the longer we stay here.”
“The risk should be small, I hope,” Cottia said. “We are only two British traders, after all, and now we have met with our friend, the travelling oculist.” And she pulled out from a bag, a red Phrygian cap, and a faded tunic, chequered with what had once been bright squares of orange and green, and a small glass charm in the form of a blue eye, to hang over the brand of Mithras on Marcus’s forehead.
“I bought them in Isca Dumnoniorum – they call it Caer Uisc here, by the way – when we heard you had disappeared. Esca thought you might need them. The tunic doesn’t look terribly Alexandrian,” she said disapprovingly, shaking it out. “But we got a little bottle of sandalwood oil, so it smells the part.”
“Whew!” Marcus agreed, pulling it over his head. “It certainly does. I hope I have not forgotten how to play the part of Demetrius of Alexandria. At least my beard looks considerably more convincing this time.”
“It certainly does,” said Esca, looking at him with some amusement, “We brought the box of eye ointments, too.” He handed a small, rattling box over. It was not the original box, of course – that box of medicine sticks Marcus had carried with him across the North of Britain that had cured so many sore eyes. That had been lost long ago in the wild rush South, with the Eagle of the Ninth tied in a bundle of torn cloak and all the North howling at their heels. But there were sore eyes in the Down country too, and Marcus had long ago bought more remedies and a new medicine box.
“I am not sure I like you so well as Demetrius of Alexandria,” Cottia said, looking at Marcus dubiously as he oiled his beard. He flashed her a grin, trying to look Greek. “But perhaps it is the smell.” She laughed, wicked as a vixen, and set off ahead of them over the rise of the heather-bank. “Come along, dear husband!” she called grabbing Esca by the hand and towing him after her. “Come along, Demetrius! We must go and find our horses.”
And they went away over the long green field, east towards the river, as the sun went down into the west behind them and their shadows stretched before them, long and fantastical.
Gwynnarloedhis of the Coronavi looked out over the great turf-curve of the walls of the hillfort on Bre Skowl, over land flushed golden-red by that same flame-coloured sunset. The land looked empty in the still evening light – a silent, golden land of heather, hill-pasture and thin woodland, and no sound but the sound of the larks overhead – a lull in the noise of the day before night fell. But all across the wide hillside and all the way down to the distant river-mouth where the sea caught the light, thin blue lines of smoke rose to the still blue sky.
All the people of the land of Belerion were cooking supper, all of them save for Gwynnarloedhis, who had her women to do the cooking for her, and need do nothing that she did not wish to do. A thriving land full of mines and farms and fishermen. Her land. Not a place for the Eagles to come and take, and order according to the desires of Rome.
But still, it would have been better to go unnoticed, Gwynnarloedhis thought. If we had been able to continue undisturbed, half-forgotten and hidden behind our moors and bogs, to do things in our own way. The sense of unease that had been following her for days was rising with the evening shadows.
Rialvran came out from the huddle of buildings that nestled within the fortress walls – raw and new, most of them, with pale fresh daub upon the walls – and walked up to stand beside her. The red light caught on his long braids, and dyed his silver cloak-pin to a royal gold. He looked princely there in the sunset light, for all that he was only the leader of the warriors of this one cantref, and no trueborn Chief of the people.
“Looking for eagles?” he asked her, lightly.
“Aren’t we all looking out for Eagles?” she replied. “That battered old bird who escaped – and his friends from the east too.”
“We’ll get word from Uxelis long before we can see them from here,” Rialvran said – as if he were reassuring a child or a fool, Gwynnarloedhis thought, feeling an annoyance that she must not allow to show on her face. “One lost Roman – he won’t get far. He’s got a limp, no friends, no horse and an accent that could polish granite.”
“And yet it seems he has the ability to make his guards lose all sense, and run off to watch a horse-fight,” Gwynnarloedhis said pointedly.
Rialvran looked annoyed. “They won’t be doing that again – not after I’m through with them. And the rest are under strict watch. Up here, we can keep a closer eye on them. It was a good idea to set this place back into defense. We’ll pick our stray Eagle up in a day or so, if he doesn’t fall into a bog – and if the river doesn’t take him?” There was a faint question in his voice.
“I do not think the Lady will take him,” Gwynnarloedhis said, and without thinking, her voice deepened a little as it always did when she was speaking as the Voice of the River. “It’s not her season, and not her concern. She may help us if the Legions come – perhaps – but not against one man alone.”
Rialvran dipped his head in unwilling acceptance. “And you still mean to offer the prisoners to the God?” he asked, and there was definitely an edge of unease about him now.
“Yes,” Gwynnarloedhis confirmed, heavily: it would not do to seem uncertain about this. “It’s not something I choose willingly, but if we are to go light of foot and slip from the Roman net, then it is Nodens’ help that we shall need, and the blood of our enemy is what he will ask in return.”
The sun was almost set now, showing just a rim of brilliant red along the looming edge of the western hills, and above them the sky was a deepening blue. A small cold wind blew across the hillside now, and Gwynnarloedhis pulled her cloak closer around her.
“They will not come,” Rialvran said and the hope was so strong in his voice that she was almost convinced. “It’s our tin, our silver, to trade as we want, not theirs to take and give nothing in return. They’ve got plenty of other places to worry about: plenty of tin and lead, for that matter. We’ve not had any word out of the east since we stopped the wagons, only this one man, and he’s nothing.”
“The Tekter has come back safe, I heard today, in harbour with a good load of Gaulish wine,” Gwynnarloedhis observed.
“Well then! As soon as we have a few more ships ready to slip quietly across the Channel to Armorica, we’ll be buying Gaulish goods with our tin, and silks out of the Levant with our silver, and who’ll be the wiser?”
“I’m sure the Empire is wiser than that!” she said, letting a little of her irritation show. “They will surely notice. The traders don’t come to our shores in the way they used to do in my grandfather’s day, the Empire sees to that. The question is: will they stop us?”
“They will do nothing,” Rialvran said, with confidence. “Come, it’s getting dark – shall we go down to the fire?”
“In a little while,” Gwynnarloedhis answered, and he walked away, leaving her alone on the hilltop, far above the land stretched wide beneath her feet.
It was good that the lifeblood of the land was no longer draining away, that the war-leader took care for such things. But still...to risk the anger of the Legions was bold indeed.
Gwynnarloedhis looked south again, where the sea and the rivermouth caught the light of the rising moon, then turned, straining her eyes in the failing light towards the great dark hills that ran north to south, tall and strong, cutting off the rest of Britannia. They were a strong defense, those hills – steep, trackless, beset with mists and strewn with black bogs to trap the unwary – but were they strong enough? If the Eagles came in force, they would come that way, marching west from Caer Uisc, past the town and the old fortress at Uxelis to the north and then south along the river – the way they had come before, long ago.
Gwynnarloedhis wished the Lady River would speak to her directly, that she could ask her what to do. But the River did not speak so plainly, had never spoken to her Voice in words. What would come, must come. There was no point wishing it away.
As she turned at last and walked quietly down the path down from the turfwall, behind her the mist began to steal upwards from the river – quietly, delicately, swathing the land in a blanket of silent white.
Esca woke early. He could smell the wetness of the fog outside before he opened the rough barn-door. Outside was blank whiteness: only a few feet of wet ground were visible. The farm where they had left the horses was a faint darkness within the fog.
Esca had been worried that word had reached the farm that there was a Roman on the run. Would the new member of the party be greeted with suspicion?
But there seemed no doubt in the farmwife’s face, and – there was no question that Demetrius of Alexandria did not, in any way, behave like Marcus Aquila, a man who was in hiding and on the run for his life. Marcus had taken to the part again with great delight. They could only hope that the disguise would be enough to hide him from the eyes of the Dumnonii for another day while they looked for news of the missing auxiliaries.
The fog blew swift over the open hillside, muffling both sound and vision: dark jags of gorse and the brown stems of dead bracken faded into blank whiteness, mist ghosts fled into nothingness.
“Why does this fog not just blow away?” Marcus said, half under his breath.
Cottia answered, “Perhaps it does. Perhaps there is new fog coming in, all the time. The fort has to be up this way, but I can’t see it at all. Perhaps we should come back another day.” She sounded disheartened, Esca thought, but then this was all very new to her.
“This fog is a gift from the gods, a hunter’s mist,” he told her, encouragingly. “It hides us and dampens the sound of us, too.”
“But I don’t know where we are!” Cottia exclaimed, and then put a hand over her own mouth in alarm.
“Nor do they!” Esca grinned. This was the sort of thing he loved. “That tree we came past, that you can just see over there, that’s about two hundred paces past the road we could see yesterday, the one that leads up to the gate.”
Cottia squinted doubtfully at the tree, just visible as a dark shape vaguely outlined against the white.
“Do you think we can get up to the fort without being noticed?” Marcus asked him, the perfect image of the commander taking advice from the expert in the field.
“On my own, yes,” Esca told him with confidence. “But with a soldier and a woman and a wolf in tow... I think not. In this weather, I am sure I can walk right up to the place, if I go alone. They will never know I’m there.”
“Very well then,” Marcus said, reluctantly. “We will wait here, with Cub. You go and find out what may be found.”
Esca ducked his head. “I’ll come back and meet you later – under that tree, I should be able to find that again.”
“Good luck,” Cottia said, her face pale and eyes wide and determined.
It was almost like being at home again, moving up towards the crest of the hill through the fog, with the moisture starring on his eyelashes. The same thin soil and heather over hard stone, the same distant sea-smell on the wind-driven fog.
It reminded Esca of cattle raids, long ago, creeping through the mist, alert for the least sound that might warn him that defenders were ahead, in that long-ago time when raiding had been nothing but a sport – a dangerous sport, and one that might kill a man, but nothing more. But that was before red death and dishonour and slavery had cut across everything. It was strange to remember being such a fool, now.
The fog was a fine refuge, but he did not know this land well – only what he had seen from a distance over the last few days. That dull rumbling – was that a cart moving up the road, or stone being moved from the mine on the western flank of the hill? Esca crouched and held still for a moment. A standing man would be easier to recognise through the mist. Yes, the sound must be from the mine. It was hard to judge what you were hearing when the fog blew past in veils, unpredictably thick or thin.
Someone had been cutting gorse here: the hillside under Esca’s feet was studded with stubbly gorse-stems. For firewood, or to open up the line of sight for spearmen? Both maybe. He peered cautiously through the mist: the ditch and rampart could not be far away. Would they have men watching outside the walls in such conditions?
Voices. Voices in the fog. Ahead and...to his right? Yes, definitely off to the right. That could be the gate. And now he could see a darkness in the ground ahead – that would be the ditch, and behind it for a moment as the blowing mist thinned, the mass of a great wall. The ditch had been cleared recently, and the spoil piled on the ground, but fortunately there had not been enough rain for it to fill with water.
Esca ducked down cautiously into the wide sunken trench and inspected the wall. It was sheer but grass-grown: an awkward climb, but not an impossible one, not if he took if carefully. The fog folded around him quietly, as if Manannan himself had cast his cloak of mists around him. Esca began to climb.
Esca slipped over the wall into a damp and dubious spot behind a woodstore. He had been expecting to find something like his father’s Dun, in that last month or so before the Legion of the Boar had torn their way into it: a rallying point for five hundred spears, busy with chariots, slaves, servants and supplies. He had been ready to slip into the bustle and look busy.
But this was a smaller place by far. He could see much of it despite the fog and the smoke that leaked from the rooftops and mingled with it: a few round stone buildings, two barns, and near Esca’s woodstore, smoke cured through the thatched roof of a rough wooden building which must surely be intended as the Great Hall of the place. Esca was fairly sure that his mother would have called that a barn, too.
There were people about: a couple of women – probably slaves, from their dress and bare feet – huddled near the warmth of a bake-oven, a few men unloading sacks from a small cart pulled by a very shaggy pony. He could hear people inside the buildings, too, but where were all the warriors? The place did not look lived-in. The buildings looked new enough, but it was too clean. No house had its own patch of leeks and onions growing by the door, and there were no bean-poles. This must be a place that was only used from time to time: it could not be anyone’s home.
Esca pulled the hood of his cloak over his head. It was lucky that he had worn his shabby old hunting cloak. His shoes would not do – they were old, but had clearly been expensive. He took them off and made them into a bundle with his socks and slung them onto the back of his belt where the cloak would hide them. They made a bit of a lump, and his feet were far too white, but there was no helping that.
Esca hoisted a bundle of firewood onto his shoulders, slumping a little as he walked, just another slave doing another dull routine job.
There were perhaps twenty men practicing with javelins on the other side of what Esca had decided to call the Great Barn, but no sign of any force that could hope to stand against even a century of auxiliaries: they must, surely be keeping their main force elsewhere. And no sign of the auxiliaries from Uxelis. Esca would have to risk looking further.
With his eyes lowered submissively, he pushed the small side door ajar, and shuffled inside cautiously, trying not to walk like a man worried about stubbing his toes. The doors were closed to keep the damp at bay, but there were oil lamps burning inside, and a red light from the raised hearth. He stepped to one side for a moment while his eyes became used to the smoke and the dim light.
There were men in the wide dark space, talking in low voices around the fire. Some of them had looked around when they saw the door open, so Esca shuffled forward, slavelike, and began adding some of his load to the fire. Nobody seemed to think this odd, so he began carefully stacking the rest of it near the fireplace.
No, they were not all men, he could see more clearly now his eyes were accustomed to the light. In the place of high honour on the far side of the hearth was a woman, and it was clear at once from her clothes, the patterned rug at her feet and the way that the others deferred to her that she was a woman of high rank, perhaps even a queen.
The others around her – mostly warriors it seemed, mostly men, and one of them, a thin man with a dark, mobile face, was telling a story of the hero-god Belenus for her entertainment. The tale was being well told, and the audience were clearly enjoying it.
Esca scanned their faces, and was brought up short. There was one face here that he knew well, a face from far away, a memory out of the distant past, and a name attached to it from that past winter that he had spent with his brother’s wife and her new family. Smertrius. Smertrius son of... son of Trougos, that was it, Smertrius, lord of the Gabrantovice.
What could a man of the Gabrantovice be doing here in Dumnonia so far from home? He sat next to the queen, clearly held in high esteem – an envoy, perhaps. Esca looked down hastily, lest his eyes be caught, and stepped back away from the firelight. Smertrius would probably not remember him but it would be best not to take risks.
He had been here too long. Everyone ignores the busy slave and sees the idle one: you only noticed that once you were on the other side of it. He picked up a guttered-out oil lamp and began walking back to the door. This was the hardest part: he could feel the imagined eyes on his back, was sure that someone was about to call out, to stop him. Walking slowly and with a slouch was hard, for he wanted to run. But nobody spoke. Outside again and hidden from view by the woodstore, he leaned against the wall and breathed hard.
Far above, the sky had a hint of blue through the haze, and the wind had dropped. The fog was thinning. Not far away from where Esca stood, some women had come out of a building and were starting to grind grain with a quern. He saw them look over at him: time to move, before they started either asking who he was, or wanting help turning the grindstone. He was still holding the empty oil lamp, so he made a small performance from pulling out the remains of the wick and then set off purposefully, in the manner of a man looking for more oil and a fresh wick.
Esca could hear raised voices near the open gateway. He moved towards the gate – perhaps if the fog was vanishing, the safest way out would be to simply walk out, as if he were going to fetch water. The guards would surely be looking for people trying to get in, not people walking out? He mustn’t hesitate though, must not attract attention. At any moment someone might demand to know what he was doing here. .
Then he froze: he recognised one of the voices at the gate, that distinctive mix, an Iceni burr with a sharper Roman edge to it. It was Cottia. He listened intently, but they were just too far away to make out words clearly.
He could not hear any voice that sounded at all like Marcus. Did the Dumnonii know that Marcus was with Cottia? Had they caught both of them? Cottia alone would be in little danger: Cottia with Marcus – that could be more dangerous.
Cottia was just outside the gate, head up and standing tensed, clearly ready for battle, for all that she was unarmed. Four Dumnonii warriors were attempting to hustle her through, though they were clearly reluctant to get too close to the menacing shape of the wolf by her side. The long dark hackles along Cub’s back were raised, his muzzle low, and even at a distance Esca could hear the deep, resonant growl that said very clearly that the first man to lay hands on his mistress would regret it. The morning sun was shining on them, making a bright outline against the darker clouds that lined the southern sky, and flaming bright on Cottia’s red hair.
As Esca hesitated, watching, Cub’s head went up and he lifted his head to sniff. Esca realised in alarm that he was downwind, as Cub stopped growling and trotted over, with the dignity suited to an elderly wolf, to greet him.
All four of the Dumnonii were looking at him now, and now there were more behind him, strolling over from their spear-practice. There was no way to bluff through this: the only hope was the direct approach. He strode over to Cottia’s side, Cub at his heel.
“We demand to speak to your queen!” he said. Cottia’s eyes widened a little in surprise, but she picked up his lead and responded immediately, swinging round imperiously to the nearest of the Dumnonii.
“Take us to see your queen at once!” she said. Her voice was commanding. Usually, Cottia’s voice had a gentle back-country burr to it, but this time it was full of the sharp aristocratic note that Esca had often overheard her aunt Valaria nagging her to use. She sounded like a queen herself, and Esca could see the confused warriors react accordingly. They were glancing at each other clearly wondering what to do.
One of the Dumnonii, who seemed to be the leader of the group, spoke “Who are you, and why would our Lady wish to spare time to speak with you?” He looked Esca up and down, disdainfully, and Esca wished he had not taken off his shoes. He could think of no reply, and now he wished that Marcus was there. Marcus could always think of something to say, even if it was not always the right thing. But then if Marcus were there, that would be difficult in other ways.
“I am Cottia of the Eagles and the Iceni,” Cottia said, in that strange sharp voice, “And this is my companion, Esca son of Cunoval, of the Brigantes. Your Lady will wish to speak to us. Go you, and tell her that we are here.” And she crossed her arms and stood waiting.
The leader of the little group of Dumnonii wilted in her glare. “ I will take you to a place where you can wait, while I ask the Lady if she will speak with you,” he said.
They took the three of them, woman, man and wolf together, to one of the smaller houses, windowless but with the wide door standing open now, as the pale sun was starting to make faint shadows on the ground, and inside, a red striped rug and sheepskins to sit on. Clearly, Cottia’s glare had made a considerable impression. A guard was set to watch them, but he waited at a distance, eyeing Cub cautiously.
“What happened?” Esca asked, sitting down on the rug to put his shoes back on.
“They walked right into us in the fog” Cottia said “We were just standing waiting – the fog was still thick down there, we couldn’t see them until they were almost on top of us. Marcus tried to tell them he was Demetrius of Alexandria, but one of them recognised him right away – he was one of them ones that took him prisoner before, I think.
“ There were eight of them: we could not have fought them – could we?”
“There was nothing else you could have done.” Esca said, trying to reassure her. “Where is Marcus now?”
“Some of them went off in another direction with him. He told me to keep Cub with me, and look after him. I have been thinking about that. I think they have taken him to the auxiliaries they are holding prisoner – they said ‘with the others’ and something about digging. Do you think they could be at one of the mines?”
“Of course! Why didn’t I see that before? These are a mining people, of course they would put their prisoners to work. The rumour we heard must have been from when they brought them here for questioning first. We should have been looking for mines, not fortresses... but that will have to wait.”
“Wait – for this queen. Esca, what on earth are we going to say to the queen of Dumnonia? She’ll probably have us sent to the mines too, if she doesn’t just sacrifice us to bless her victory.”
“We have to talk to her about peace,” Esca said, and hesitated. He looked straight at Cottia, considering. “What I tell you now – you must not tell Marcus, you understand?”
“You don’t trust Marcus?” Cottia exclaimed, with an edge of incredulity in her voice.
“I...of course I do. I have served Marcus since the first day I met him, and not because I had to, but because he is Marcus. But sometimes there are...other loyalties, you understand? Wider loyalties. I am loyal to Marcus, and I would not see him hurt. But for that reason and others, I cannot tell him this, and you must not tell him either, because it is not my secret to tell. Do you promise?”
“I – don’t know,” Cottia said. “You believe that telling him could hurt Marcus?”
“It could hurt a good many people, including me,” Esca said, watching her steadily.
“I – well then. I promise.”
“I will not ask you to swear the threefold oath,” Esca said “I will trust you.” He turned his back to the door where the guard sat, and spoke quietly so that only Cottia could hear.
“The Brigantes are going to rise against the power of Rome. Next year, or perhaps the year after. Not just one clan, but the whole tribe, across the whole of North Britannia, and beyond the Wall, and their allies in the mountains of the west. They hope to sweep the Eagles south into the old Corieltauvi territories, and make a new frontier from the Sabrina to the Trisantona rivers, and cut Britain in two forever.
“Can they hope to win?” Cottia asked him. The idea had clearly caught at the half-lost Iceni part of her.
“I don’t think so,” Esca told her, and it hurt him more than he had expected to say it. There was part of him, too, that wanted to believe, would have thrown away all he had done and learned and become over these last ten years, to be a painted warrior among the rest, throwing himself onto the Roman spears on the warrior’s road west of the sunset. But life was not that simple any more.
“I saw this queen of the Dumnonii just now. She did not see me, but I saw the man who sits by her right hand. That man is called Smertrius of the Gabrantovice, and he is not to be trusted. He speaks to the Legate in Eburacum, he speaks to the Governor of Britain, promising that rising can be easily checked, and then the favours given to the Brigantes in honour of the great Queen Cartimandua by the emperor can be withdrawn. He is planning for the rising to fail..”
“You think that he has betrayed the Brigantes?”
“I know he has.” Esca said, simply. “I have spent most of the winter trying to get the people who still remember me among the Brigantes to change their minds. But I am a dead man walking among them, and they will not hear me.”
“Even if the rising was not betrayed by Smertrius from its very start, there are three Legions in Britain – three, Cottia! And then there are the auxiliaries, and more men waiting in Gaul and Germania. The Legions have all the riches of Italy and Egypt and the East behind them. I wish I could believe the rising could succeed, but I cannot,” Esca looked down, and rubbed the rough hair on Cub’s neck.
“They will throw themselves on the Roman spears. Then Rome will burn their fields and their children will grow up with a heavier service and a harder tax, and their fathers dead, and where’s the honour in any of that? But Smertrius would rule what is left, after the Romans set his foot upon our necks. Can you see now why I cannot tell Marcus any of this? The few who are left of my family are in the thick of it. And there is still time for them to change their minds.”
Cottia said slowly “So you think – this Smertrius is trying to get the Dumnonii to join the attack, and he will betray them in turn? Are you sure, Esca, really sure? Marcus’s life could depend on this.”
“I can think of no other reason why Smertrius is here,” Esca said.
The guard, who had been squatting at ease against the wall of the house opposite the doorway, rolling dice against himself in the spring sunshine, sprang to his feet. There was the sound of voices, approaching from the centre of the fort. Esca and Cottia got to their feet, as the Lady entered, with some of the warriors by her side.
“Well” she said, looking at them curiously. “This is a fine way to catch my eye. When this wily old fox Rialvran comes to me and says that there is a woman with hair like fire at the gate, with a wolf by her side, and a great rainbow in the sky behind her, it is as if one of the old tales has come to life. Have you come bearing the cauldron of life, or only silver apples of forgetfulness out of the sunset?”
“We have a message for the Queen of the Dumnonii,” Cottia said, her face white and serious. “Are you the Queen?”
The tall woman raised her eyebrows. “Dumnonia has no queen. The Dumnonii are not all one people, and we do not all serve one man, or woman. We are no Empire. But I speak for the goddess here, and for the people – in so far as the people have one voice.”
Esca began to reply, but Cottia shook her head slightly.
“In that case, my message is for you,” she said. Esca could see the tension in her, almost vibrating, although it might not be so clear to anyone who did not know her well. Cub had picked it up too. The old wolf was standing beside her, one step in front, ears pricked and alert, like a statue of a wolf guarding a shrine.
“I have brought you a warning,” Cottia said. “Do not rise against the Eagles. Do not join with the men of the North. They will betray you.”
The tall woman’s eyes widened in surprise. She turned to the men who had come in with her “Go!” she said. “Rialvran, keep people away from here until I call, would you? I want to talk to this woman in private – no, there is no danger. Go.”
She settled on one of the sheepskins, and Cottia followed her lead, with Cub at her feet. Esca sat leaning against the wall, watching.
“The Eagles have not come west of the great moors since my grandmother’s mother’s day. Who are you to come to us, and tell us what we should, and should not do?”
“I am Cottia of the Eagle, and of the Iceni,” Cottia said steadily. It was an odd way of putting it, Esca thought, but it seemed to fit this new serious Cottia. “And this is Esca map Cunoval of the Brigantes.”
“So? We have heard of the fall of Cunoval, just a little, even here in the west, and most certainly we have heard of the Iceni. I am called Gwynnarloedhis. I am the White Hare of Dumnonia and the Voice of the River of Belerion – that is the proper name for all this land west of the river, Belerion. Dumnonia is what the Romans call it, but properly that is only the land further east... Now tell me, why should we agree to give in tribute what used to be bought and paid for?
“We made a peace that our people have for the most part held honourably. We have not meddled in risings in the East, and we have traded our tin and silver fairly. Now they come with sword in hand to take what once they paid for in trade. Tell me, Cottia of the Iceni,” she asked sharply, “what do I say to my young men when they ask why they should not fight for what is theirs?”
Esca stirred in the corner, but he did not speak. Cottia looked down for a moment, her sharp face taut with strain.
“Tell them that greater prosperity lies in peace. That while they live, they can rebuild what is taken. Tell them their mothers and their children do not wish them gone,” she said.
Esca said flatly “Tell them they cannot win.”
“Boudicca of the Iceni fought them and she won great victories,” Gwynnarloedhis said.
“Yes,” said Cottia, her face remote now, calm. “But Boudicca died. And her daughters, and her kinsmen, and many, many of her people. The Iceni were broken. Our lands laid waste, our people disarmed, our treasures seized.. What is left of the Iceni now is neither British nor Roman, but only a remnant. I grew up near Venta Icenorum. It is not a happy town, even now. ”
“They are like waves on the sea,” Esca said, forcefully. “You cannot fight them. They are too many, and they never stop coming. ”
“So. The woman of the warrior Iceni says to me: submit, lest the fate of Boudicca be mine. The man of the great and warlike Brigantes says: submit, for there is no way to defeat the Legions that threaten me. And yet,a man of the Gabrantovice came to me, and he says: Join us, and we will win a great victory and sweep the Legions back into the sea forever.”
“He is lying to you,” Cottia said, steadily. “Esca has heard him speak to the Legate of the Legion at Eburacum. You cannot trust him.”
Esca said “He is hoping that the Dumnonii will take the brunt of the attack, I think.”
“He may hope that if the Dumnonii can be brought into the fight, then perhaps the damage to Brigantes lands will be less?” Cottia suggested. “That way he may hope to gain Roman support to dispose of his enemies in the North, without losing too much himself.”
“That sounds... not unlikely” Gwynnarloedhis said, with some reluctance. “I had wondered why he came so far himself to do us honour. And I confess, I cannot like the man. He’s like an eel, all slime and sharp teeth.”
She paused for a moment, thinking. “The time is near for me to make the offering here and move on, to my place at Tamaris by the sea. I chose to wait, hoping for an omen.
“I choose to take your coming and your words as that omen. I will not let my people, my fishermen and small farmers and miners, go down into defeat. We know a little of the waves of the sea, here in the West. The tide comes, but the tide also goes out again. We will let them wash over us, and we will endure.”
“And ... the men you are holding prisoner?” Cottia asked. Esca could hear the tension in her voice.
“Ah. That is difficult.”Gwynnarloedhis said, thoughtfully. “We can hardly let them go running back to Isca Dumnoniorum. The Eagles may be hovering in the hills already, coming to take the tin and silver that we have stopped sending east. That would be inviting them in. But they would not be the first Romans to trip into a bog in the hills and be lost... No? I thought so. They mean something to you. Why?”
“One of them is my husband, Marcus Flavius Aquila.”
“Ah! Marcus Flavius Aquila! Aquila the prefect’s representative... Aquila means ‘eagle’ in their language, is that true? And so you are Cottia of the eagle... He is the one who told me that he came to carry off the White Hare to a temple in Isca Dumnoniorum!”
She looked across at Esca. “It is a name that we have heard before, coming to us out of Dumnonia. The commander of the fort at Isca Dumnoniorum, my old friend Vindiorix tells me. We have long memories here.”
“He broke the chariot-charge,” Esca said, “It’s a brave man that can do that: there was not a Romans among those that attacked my father that withstood us like that. Not on the first charge. They wore us down with time, but not one of them could stand against the chariot charge. He’s a man worth more than to vanish into the bogs.”
“But do you trust him? And you Cottia, he may be your husband, but do you trust him?”
“Yes,” said Cottia immediately.
For a moment, Esca hesitated. “I would trust him as a friend, to the furthest ends of the world.” he said. “And I would trust him as an enemy, to treat his enemies fairly, and with honour. I trust that...that he does not want to smell Isca Dumnoniorum burning again. On my father’s name, I swear it. Only, I would not ask him to betray his people for me, and – I do not think he would ask it of me either.”
Gwynnarloedhis smiled a wry smile. “And anyway, we have no chariots here, only carts. Hmmm. ”
She stood and looked outside. “Go and fetch one of the prisoners,” she told two of the warriors who were waiting. “The older one, the prefect’s representative. Tell him – tell him we have his wife here. That should make sure he comes without making any trouble. Rialvran! I need to talk to you.”
“What about the others?” Cottia asked her
“We will see about them later,” she said, and swept out.
Marcus came in with the two warriors behind him. He looked dusty and worried, but otherwise unharmed, Esca noted with considerable relief. Cub rushed over to him and rubbed his long snout up and down the side of Marcus’s leg.
“Name of light, Cottia! I was imagining terrible things! Cub! enough of that – Esca, thanks be to Mithras that you are both in one piece!”
“We could say the same to you! But Cottia has been talking to this Lady Gwynnarloedhis -”
“We have both been talking to her” said Cottia firmly. “And Marcus, I think it will be all right. I think she wants peace, really, she does not want to fight the Legions. But we need a way for her to make things up with your friend Cassius somehow. She doesn’t want to let you go: she thinks that you will tell Cassius to come here with soldiers, and they will take all the tin away, and maybe take her back to Isca Dumnoniorum and...”
They were interrupted by Gwynnarloedhis. She was wearing a great heavy cloak of white hare-skin – the white fur that hares here in the south never wore, that must have been brought from the far North. A ceremonial cloak, it must be, for the day was becoming warm. The man with the braided hair, Rialvran, stood behind her.
She held in both hands a red Samian-ware bowl. It was brimming with a dark liquid, and finely decorated with a complex pattern of leaves and hares. It was the kind of thing that might have graced a Legate’s quarters in Eburacum, and would not have looked out of place in Rome itself: it was strange indeed to see it here.
She went first to Marcus. “Drink now as our guest, and forgive us the insults we have done you,” she said to him.
Marcus gave her a long straight look under his dark brows. “Tell me first, what is your meaning when you offer me this cup? For I would not wish for any misunderstanding.”
Gwynnarloedhis met his eyes. “I would renew the peace that my grandmother’s mother made with your general Vespasian – he who afterwards became Caesar of Rome.”
Marcus looked troubled. “I do not have the authority to decide that. You have taken prisoner soldiers of Rome, and perhaps more, at least to the Senate – you have withheld the agreed tribute. I would not lie to you and pretend that all is well.”
“Trustworthy, indeed, even as an enemy. So you will not drink the cup with me?”
“I cannot drink it as an envoy of Rome – not without consulting with the prefect. If you wish it, I can speak to him on your behalf. But I am not your only prisoner here. You have soldiers of Rome labouring in your mines; you must release them. For myself, I would forgive you freely and drink your cup of peace – but tribute and taxes are demanded by Rome, not by me. ”
Gwynnarloedhis narrowed her eyes, but it was, Esca thought, not in anger, but more in the way that a gladiator might look at an opponent who fought well. “The tribute is heavier now than we have ever paid before,” she said. “The amounts were set down by Vespasian himself, but now we are asked to send double, triple the amount, and get nothing in return. The miners cannot work for nothing, they must be fed, and their families fed and housed while they work. They cannot work in rags and on empty bellies.”
“You seem to expect your prisoners to work like that,” Marcus said with a flash of anger. “Those poor lads you took prisoner have not been treated well. But let that pass. I cannot change the tribute. But I can speak to the prefect about arranging supplies of grain and salt for the miners, and I think that he will listen to me. He has no desire to see war come to Dumnonia.”
“I am glad: trade is better than war. Grain, salt, wine and oil, perhaps raisins: these are the things we need most of all. We have always bought these things in trade for tin and silver, they are hard to come by here. If your prefect can provide them – it will be easier by far to hold back my young men from foolishness if their bellies are full in the winter. “
“I will do what I can,” Marcus told her, and he took the bowl and took a long sip. Then he passed it to the braided warrior. Rialvran paused a moment, glancing at the Lady, but then he too bent his head and drank, in token of peace, before passing the bowl to Cottia. Esca released the breath he had not realised he was holding, and came forward to take his turn.
“There are other things that we have always traded, that now we cannot find, because the ships no longer come to our ports. Silk, spices, dyes... ”
“I will do all I can, but I do not think that the prefect will send you silks or dyes for your silver,” Marcus told her, troubled.
“No? Then perhaps in return for other things.” Gwynnarloedhis took a fine deerskin pouch from her belt and gave it to him. “Give him this, as a gift, and a token that... that there are more ways to catch a hare than setting out to hunt her with hounds in full cry. There is gold here, in the secret places of the rivers. You will never find it without our help.”
Marcus took the soft pouch and carefully loosened the drawstring. Inside were a collection of small lumps of unshaped but shining gold.
The high-fronted trading ship, built for the wild western seas, coasted gently up the river towards the tall new walls of Isca Dumnoniorum, and beached on the river-shore. The tide was falling, and once they had all climbed down from the deck, they had to squelch across the mud in order to reach the river-gate.
The red-haired auxiliary, Vallaunus grimaced as his bare feet came down into the mud. “First thing I’m going to do once I’ve reported in is buy shoes,” he said. “Those were my good riding boots that Dumnonii bastard had off me!”
“I was not going to start arguing to get your boots back, Vallaunus,” Marcus told him, following him down onto the mud, and balancing carefully so as not to slip as Cottia followed him. “The lady Fortuna smiled on us to get all of us out of there in one piece: be grateful for that!”
“I thought you were going to start a fight over those boots and get us all killed,” young Lucius Mancus said.
Vallaunus grinned at him and waggled his ginger eyebrows. “The Battle of Vallaunus’s Boots! Five auxiliaries against the Dumnonii horde! We would have lived in song forever!” He was clearly in a very good mood. “Whereas now I must tramp through the mud of the Isc, with worms around my toes. Still, at least I’m out of Uxelis. What an armpit that place is. The mines of the Tamaris were almost an improvement. I bet we get posted straight back there.” The other auxiliaries groaned loudly.
“If we do,” Vallaunus continued “I’m at least having a bath first. Boots, bath, and then I’ll feel strong enough go back to Uxelis and find out if the bloody Dumnonii have had my horse as well as my footwear.”
“I do not think the prefect will sent you straight back to Uxelis,” Marcus told him. “That will wait until the silver and tin come in, and even then – I think there will have to be some reorganisation. Either no men in Uxelis, or a full half-cohort. You will probably be in Isca Dumnoniorum for a while. I hope it’s ready for you.”
Esca lifted Cub over the edge of the ship and handed him down into Marcus’s arms. As soon as Marcus put him down, he began to bound up and down joyfully like a puppy, sending splatters of mud in all directions.
“Well, now we all need a bath!” Cottia exclaimed. “Cub! Stop it! I know you didn’t like the boat, but there’s no need for that!” Cub stopped bouncing, and grinned at her, tongue lolling, dripping slime from his belly.
“I know just how he feels!” said Vallaunus. “No more Uxelis and a stay in Isca! I could almost bounce in the mud myself.”
He looked as if he might be about to do it too, and Cub was clearly keen to join him. “No!” said Cottia, speaking to both of them at once.
They found Cassius inspecting the last section of the new town wall, which had clearly just been completed. There was a smart new marker on it, showing the name and number of the unit that had done the work, and the Gauls were all drawn up in a line, as Cassius congratulated them on a job well done. Marcus gestured to his own small party to wait until the Prefect was ready to speak to them. He did not take long.
“Marcus! I had no idea you had returned. What news from the west?” His eyes travelled past Marcus, along the line of faces, with an air of considerable surprise.
“You seem to have brought most of my Uxelis garrison back with you – and not dressed in a state that does credit to their unit. And a gentleman of.. the Brigantes is it? And a wolf... and surely this cannot be your Iceni wife? Cottia, I am most delighted to meet you! Marcus, by the name of Jupiter, what on earth have you been up to?”
“It’s quite a long story...”