Servius Placidus, the youngest of that great Roman family, yanked at the small wooden door. It was stuck. He had to use his good arm to give it a second pull. Then he caught his breath in shock.
There were men standing there in the dim storeroom, outlined dark against the pale light from the small window, a centurion in his crested helm, and two soldiers. His heart pounded, his stomach rose in sick protest. They had come for him, the emperor’s men. They had found him.
Then the centurion’s head turned its crest, uncurled itself and became a black cat with a white chest, jumping down liquidly from the shelves, and the figures of the soldiers dissolved into boxes and baskets. He closed his eyes for a moment and took a long relieved breath. Just imagination -- imagination and cats. Nothing to worry about.
He took another stack of accounts, close-written on thin birchwood slats, back to the makeshift table in his tiny, lime-washed room and began to go through them. They made no sense. He frowned ferociously at his wax tablet. It didn’t help. The numbers still would not tally.
The older records were close-written in a precise, military hand, and stacked neatly in order, but the more recent ones were full of scratches and scrawls in cheap, gritty-looking ink. Placidus regretted having volunteered to bring them to order. It was the one thing on the farm that he knew he could do well, where his weak arm would be no hindrance. But Jupiter! It was such a mess!
He sorted what was probably the most recent stack into what he hoped might be date order.
“That’s as much as I can do on my own,” he said to the fat red-and-white cat. The cat sat in a patch of sunlight on the bed, watching him with unblinking yellow eyes. “I’ll have to tackle the old lady if I’m going to get any sense out of these.” The cat yawned, unimpressed.
The old lady sat outside, in her chair on the raised terrace looking over the small sunny Downland valley that was her own domain. Her long silver hair hung in a thick plait down her back. Cottia, everyone called her, although some of the records in the storeroom named her Flavia Aquila. Her sharp, wrinkled face was animated as she spoke to the woman sitting opposite her.
Placidus hesitated, wondering if he should duck back inside before the stranger saw him.
The visitor was a little younger than Cottia. She had a round cheerful face with the apple cheeks of a peasant, but her improbably-red hair was caught up into a complicated style that Placidus remembered seeing women wear last time he had been in Rome. Probably it was the very latest thing, here in Britannia. The glass beads on her hair pins had clearly been carefully chosen to complement her pale blue stola .
Cottia was wearing the kind of old-fashioned British dress, chequered red and yellow, that you only saw old women wearing, here in the civilised South of Britain. But today it was held in place with a pair of red enamelled brooches in twirling dragon-shapes, and Placidus noticed a silver snake-bracelet as well as her usual gold earrings. Clearly this visitor was a person of importance.
“Come and meet my old friend, Marcia,” Cottia said, noticing him before he had a chance to bob back inside without being noticed. “Marcia’s husband is one of the Carvillii -- they hold the farm to our south, you know, and his people are one of the great families of the district. She has come bearing all the gossip, so is even more welcome than usual. Gossip is something we can never have too much of. Marcia, this is... Felix. One of my grandson’s Roman friends. He has come to stay here for a while for his health.”
That last was certainly true, Placidus thought, greeting Marcia politely, and taking a seat on the bench. His visit to the farm truly was vital to his health. His father, Servius Placidus the elder, had died supporting the imperial pretender Clodius Albinus. There were standing orders across Britannia to eliminate Placidus and all his family and friends.
Felix, he thought. Lucky. Not the most dignified name for a Servius Placidus of a great senatorial family -- but an accurate one under the circumstances.
“So, you are a friend of young Flavius?” Marcia asked, her eyes sharp with curiosity. “I did not realise he had friends from...?” She paused enquiringly.
“Thrace,” Placidus said firmly. He had had a Thracian tutor, and he was fairly sure that he knew more about the place than anyone who had lived all their life in Britain. “I met Flavius when he was on leave, and I was staying with my cousins,” he improvised. He had a vague idea that Cottia’s grandson was serving as a centurion in Lusitania.
“Flavius told Felix here all about the farm -- poor love, he must be homesick -- and so when Felix found himself unwell in Calleva, he wrote to me and I said of course he must come to stay,” Cottia added.
“I have been doing some work on the farm accounts,” Placidus added -- there, that made him sound like he must be some dull little secretary, but it also made it clear that he wasn’t a complete invalid at least.
Anyone looking for him would probably know about his leg, so it was best not to mention that. He didn’t think she would have spotted it, not from seeing him walk a few steps. Anyway, he had had enough solicitous enquiries after his leg and his awkward arm to last three lifetimes. “In fact, that was why I came out just now, I have a few questions...”
“We will discuss them later,” Cottia said firmly. “You have been working all morning: take a cup with us and have a rest!”
She poured him a cup of small beer from the jug. Placidus eyed it with private alarm : it was murky and an odd brown colour, but he took the cup politely anyway.
“So, tell me all about Thrace!” said Marcia brightly and Placidus hastily racked his brains for stories that a young secretary would reasonably know and could tell a pair of elderly ladies from Britain.
He managed what he felt was a creditable description of the imperial city of Hadrianopolis, with its towers and its bright boats on the three great rivers. He improvised enthusiastically around memories of a visit he had made when he was ten, and thought he sounded quite convincing. But it was clear that Marcia had really come to talk about the people and places that she knew herself, and the talk soon turned back to the Downs.
“And that girl of Senecianus’, you know the one, the girl that danced with Biccus at the autumn fair --”
“Senovara, I think,” Cottia said
“Senovara of course! Anyway -- she’s pregnant and won’t tell anyone who the father is. I don’t think she even knows, myself.”
“Really? You don’t think it might be Biccus?” Cottia asked.
“Young Biccus, or Biccus the Horse? You must mean Young Biccus, surely. “
“I can’t imagine Biccus the Horse with any woman,” Cottia put in delicately.
“True, true... Anyway, everyone knows Young Biccus has a woman in Regnum and won’t look at any of the country girls now. And anyway I’m sure he has more taste than to take up with Senovara. Such a weak chin, and she will wear green which is really such a mistake with her colouring don’t you think?”
Cottia nodded fractionally, looking out over the valley. Marcia took this as encouragement.
“Such a pity because her mother was quite a beauty in her day, and much run-after. Although, I believe she is a very talented dairy-maid, which I suppose is a blessing of a kind. Senovara, I mean, not her mother, because the mother was from a brewing family in Regnum and I don’t believe they even had any cattle. “
“I believe not,” Cottia confirmed, smiling slightly.
Marcia’s headlong train of thought continued, “But here I am going on! I really came over to ask if you might be able to spare some of your chickens.”
“Chickens? But I thought you had all those big Gaulish birds with the...” Cottia waved her hands, conveying an impression of a puffed up crown of feathers.
“Well, we did, and very fine they looked, but something took one, and after a while another and another and in the end we lost six, and now the rest have stopped laying, or at any rate, they aren’t laying nearly enough. We just aren’t getting enough eggs.”
“A fox?” Placidus asked, feeling that he should contribute something to the conversation.
“Nasty things! ” said Marcia, wrinkling her nose, “So smelly! And yes, such a terrible menace to the hens. We thought it was perhaps a dog at first, but the new fence didn’t stop it - and then we found some red hairs, so it is certainly a fox.”
“We have got a couple of fox-dogs now and the men have been rushing about madly waving spears in all directions, so I’m sure they’ll catch it soon. In the meanwhile, I’ve given orders that the boy must be much more careful about making quite sure to shut them up before dusk. I don’t think we will lose any more.”
“They’re clever beasts,” Cottia said. “How odd that one should come right into your farmyard at this time of year. The woods are full of birds’ nests and small squeaking things.”
“A fox with expensive tastes, perhaps? Anyway, I wondered if you might be able to spare a few of your hens, Cottia? I know they have a fine reputation for standing up for themselves and laying despite the weather. Perhaps half a dozen, in exchange for some of our hay?”
“The chickens are my great-granddaughter’s charges,” Cottia said, “We had best have a word with her. Felix, have you seen Cara? She was in the barn a little while ago.”
Placidus seized the opportunity to escape. “I’ll go and look,” he offered.
Andecara was not in the barn. She was in the paddock behind it, perched high on a prancing grey colt that appeared to be as excitable as he was large. Wisps of red-amber hair which had escaped the plait that bounced on her back formed a halo around her freckled face, which wore an expression of intense concentration.
Placidus looked at them with caution. Neither girl nor horse looked particularly safe to approach.
Cara wheeled the colt, and brought him trampling and snorting up to the gate.
“Were you looking for me?” she asked coolly. Placidus was not sure what she thought of his sudden appearance as a guest at the farm. The grandson, Flavius, must be the official owner of the place, and if this was the old lady’s great granddaughter, then she must be Flavius’s daughter, and might reasonably look askance at someone whose very presence put the place at risk.
But no, Flavius was not married, he was sure someone had said, and besides, was Flavius old enough to have an almost-grown daughter? This was his niece, perhaps. But everyone seemed to refer to the farm, and everything on it, as belonging to the lady Cottia.
“Your great grandmother wants to talk to you about some chickens for the Lady Marcia,” he told her. “They are waiting for you at the front of the villa, where the old lady sits in her chair.”
“What!” her eyes went wide in alarm. “I can’t see Marcia Carvilia like this! I’d never hear the last of it!” She slid from the horse’s back and waved expressively at her clothes.
The short simple tunic that laid bare her legs and arms was rather pleasing, Placidus thought, even if it was sweaty and stained with grassy horse-slobber. But he had to admit that the expensively-dressed Marcia was unlikely to see it in quite the same way.
“She said she wants some chickens to replace those that were taken by a fox,” he explained. “She offered hay in exchange.”
“Hay for chickens!” Andecara was indignant. “It would have to be a great deal of hay to be worth exchanging for chickens.”
“I think that was what your great grandmother wanted you to say,” Placidus said, amused. He had decided that he liked Andecara, although he was not sure she returned the compliment. “Hay was being sold at a denarius for three pounds last time it is mentioned in the accounts. Chickens would be, what, forty the brace? And surely the farm produces more than enough hay?”
“We use a good deal of it in the winter, for the horses. Rearing horses for riding doesn’t come cheap. But six chickens! Six! ”
“What do you think she should offer?”
“Piglets” Andecara said instantly. “Piglets and the promise of some of their cider, later in the year. They have good orchards, the Carvillii.”
“Not cloth? You’re short of weavers. There’s a stack of wool on the books that’s not been woven, spun or sold for three years. You could trade that with the chickens for finished work.”
“We can weave what we need. Who do you think we are, buying cloth! We aren’t all rich and idle!”
Placidus was taken aback and a little hurt. “You don’t seem to be spending much time spinning,” he observed.
Andecara’s face went bright pink, and Placidus realised that mentioning the large bales of unspun wool might have been a little tactless. Virtuous women were supposed to be enthusiastic spinners, after all.
“We don’t need the cloth!” she exclaimed. “Oh, I can’t stand here talking. I must get changed...” She looked at the horse, clearly wondering what to do with it. Placidus looked at its arched neck and mischievous eye, and did not volunteer to take it from her. But perhaps there was another way.
“You are busy. Would you like me to tell Marcia that you would prefer piglets and cider? How many piglets, would you say? ”
She looked taken aback. “Well, I suppose... I ought to rub him down really, not just leave him standing here sweaty. Perhaps three? Three for six chickens would be a very good price. Or two, and a couple of jugs of cider, maybe?”
“Three. Right. Let me see what I can do,” he said resolutely.
Negotiating for piglets was not something he had ever done before, but fortunately it could be done without actually having to handle either piglets or chickens. Placidus was fairly sure he would not be much good at that.
Whereas flattering and persuading people who were not quite as Roman as they would like to be thought? Well, that was something that the only son of the Legate of the Twentieth had been brought up to from his earliest days.