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The End of the World Was Long Ago

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They had all three of them meant to journey to see Cottia’s mother, after the letter, but of all people the Tribune Servius Placidus had quite suddenly appeared at the farm in Cunetio--no longer a tribune, but on the staff of the new governor. The years had changed him little, and Marcus had sighed and smiled and bade Esca and Cottia a safe journey without him.

Esca found as they made their way eastward to the Iceni lands that he rather liked having the time to talk to Cottia in their own tongue, without Marcus to lapse into Latin as often as not. And certainly traveling with Cottia was no hardship, as enduring Placidus’ sly barbs for an entire visit would have been. Cottia seemed at once eager and frightened of seeing the mother she had left when she was only a child, but she was reluctant to speak of it, so they passed the time on the road trading half-remembered stories and songs.

They came up the hill into Lubrinium as the sun was dropping low in the sky, and its rays caught the pale lines of something carved along the ridge of a hill across the vale, long outstretched legs and proud arch of neck. It was at once so painfully familiar that Esca’s heart jumped and he felt a queer pain somewhere in his side, the ache of a long-healed Roman spear wound.

Esca had seen the great White Horse of Lubrinium carved into the hill before, on the journey south to Calleva six years past. He had been aching still from his wounds, filthy, exhausted, and yet curiously detached in his despair as they had gone through town after Roman town, with their straight paved roads and their shining villas with tile roofs, their aqueducts and their bathhouses: all the things Rome had built. And what was he but a coward who had been captured when all his kin had died in battle?

He had sat there in the dirt of a town whose name he did not know, surrounded by other slaves, wishing to die, wishing that he would take the wound-sickness because he was still too much a coward to die by his own hand.

Then before him, across the vale, the clouds had parted; and for a long shining moment the sun lit up the great figure cut into the spine of the hill, making it come alive, free and running across the Downs. It was not so much the substance of a horse in that moment as the very spirit of a horse, one of Epona’s horses that bore the souls of the dead, and the power of it stole Esca’s breath from his body.

Something in Esca’s chest had loosened then, a release so sudden and sharp he could not tell if he felt pain or relief, and he wept: for his kin who had gone beyond the sunset without him, for his mother and brothers and father, for the cousins he had run wild with as a boy and the maidens he had teased.

When all his tears were spent, he looked at the horse again, at the living grace of it, and knew he had to live. Whatever tribe had made this thing, it was everything shining and strong about his land, and what were Roman aqueducts to that?

He was a chief’s son, and it was his duty to die for the land if need be; but it was also his duty to live for it, even in exile.

The horse looked different now than in that shining memory, although the warm late summer sun shone full on it; duller, somehow, not as white, not as clear, its motion stilled.

Esca felt like that, sometimes, on the farm, for although he had sworn himself to Marcus freely, yet they lived between four walls, their sharp corners far from the safe circle of the roundhouse of his youth. Their neighbors spoke Latin and called themselves by Roman names. Always he felt under the shadow of Rome; even, sometimes, with Marcus, whom he loved as his own heart. His run was stilled, no longer the free warrior of the Brigantes he had once thought to become, all that was British in him dulled by that letter from the legate, by the Roman name on his papers, by how Latin came as easily to him now as his own birth-tongue.

He glanced over at Cottia beside him, only to find her pointed chin tilted up, her brows drawn together, and her eyes very bright, as if pride, anger, and sorrow warred and mingled in her breast.

“I saw this before, when--on the journey south from Eburacum, after I was taken,” said Esca. “It was brighter then.”

Cottia nodded. “It would have been. The man at the inn told me it is nearly the festival of Epona, when the Catuvellauni scour the Horse as they do every seven years.” Her voice hardly shook at all; she was a woman now, and had a tighter rein on her passions than she had as a girl, but Esca knew her well enough to tell when she felt strongly about something. “The Downs take everything back, with wind and rain and growing things. And so they must labor to keep it white and clear on the hill, so the gods may always see it.”

And then, very low and fierce, she said, “But it is not theirs,” in such a tone that Esca dared not ask what she meant.

They stayed for the festival, in the end, although Esca still could not tell what Cottia felt about it. She had agreed with a face set like carved Roman marble, revealing nothing.

It was a fine sun-warm day for the work, with a light breeze that caught at their hair and clothes and cooled them as they labored. All of the Catuvellauni had come out for it from miles around, even those who no longer followed the old ways; everyone from young children who brought watered wine for the laborers to the elders of the tribe, crouched on the turf to pull weeds from the outline of the Horse. Esca and Cottia bore baskets of chalk back and forth up the dun to those crushing it into the turf.

The Catuvellauni women sang as they worked, a high chant in an unfamiliar dialect that rose and fell like the green swells of the Down Country, their voices in counterpoint to the ringing of hammers up and down the ridge like the sound of galloping hooves. It made the hair rise on the back of Esca’s neck, although these ways were not those of his people.

The dun was one of those deceptive hills that seemed quite shallow and mild, but went on forever when one was actually climbing it, and felt steeper than it appeared. Esca's back and shoulders began to ache after a time, the muscles in his legs burning and his breath coming in harsh pants. Surely Cottia must have been tired by now as well, but he could see no sign of it in her straight back and serious face. Her hair had come down some time ago and hung in a tangled red cloud down her back. She had pushed it back from her face and left chalk dust all over, streaking her hair and smeared across her forehead.

In late morning they stopped to eat. The children brought around fresh bread, barley beer, and sweet soft cheese. The singing stopped, but no one seemed much minded to talk, so the meal was a quiet affair. Esca looked out over the vale, the shorn fields thick with crows picking through the stubble, the trees beginning to turn gold with the onset of autumn, and wished for a moment in his heart that they had built their farm in a place like this, something like his homeland, even with the Roman camp in the old hill-fort looking down on them.

“Do you miss your homeland?” he asked Cottia, without thinking.

“Every day it is an ache in my heart,” she said quietly. “I am afraid of how hard it will be to leave, once I see it again. But I cannot stay.” She set aside her half-eaten cheese and wiped her hands on her skirt. “Do you know, this was Iceni land once?”

Esca shook his head. So that was why she had looked at the Horse so.

“Long and long ago,” she began, her voice falling into the cadence of one who had heard this story from a bard. “Long and long ago, before my grandmothers’ grandmothers were born, the Atrebates came to Britain, seeking land, and they came upon the Iceni and wanted what we had. They took it, and held our people as prisoners and slaves.

“But there was one among us, a chieftain’s son whose veins ran with the blood of the Little Dark People, who had in him a fire that no one else among his people had. He could draw the spirit of a horse so that all would look upon it and see a horse running, although it was no more than lines in charcoal. The chieftain of the Atrebates, he wanted a sun-horse carved into the hill, that their god might favor them, for they were also a sun people as you of the Brigantes are.

“So the chieftain’s son made the Atrebates their sun-horse, in exchange for allowing the Iceni to go free, but he made it also a moon-horse. The Atrebates did not know what he did under their very eyes, this secret offering to the mother of the Iceni, even as we were forced to leave our land. Most of that clan went north, beyond where the Wall now stands, but some returned to our homeland and told the story, as I tell it to you now.

“And we remember him for it always, although we never returned to this place and these are Catuvellauni lands now.”

Cottia had been looking out over the vale as she spoke, but then she turned to Esca and caught his hands in her own. “The Atrebates could not break the Iceni, nor could the Romans. We are still a proud people, and our kin in the north made that land theirs as much as this one once was, with our work and blood and love.”

Esca could not think of anything to say. Her story had made his chest hurt again; with the old longing for the north, and with his love for her in all her passion and fierce joy in life.

“I do not like living among the Atrebates,” she said, “any more than I liked Aunt Valaria calling me Camilla and fussing over making me a proper Roman maiden. But my dearest friend in Calleva was of the Atrebates, and my husband is a Roman. And if that means I must clear away the turf every so often and remind myself that I am of the Iceni, that is a price I will pay.”

She leaned forward and pressed her damp, chalk-covered brow to Esca’s, so close he could smell the warm woman-smell of her. He felt her breath against his face, her curls tickling his cheek. “And you are of the Brigantes, Esca. I will never forget that.”

And sitting there with Cottia’s hands in his, looking out at the Vale of the White Horse, Esca knew that he, also, would not forget.