I loved it when my father went through the wall. Mother loathed it. Often he was gone for days and she grew quieter and louder the longer he was gone. Fewer words but more clatter.
“Jet,” I said.
She thumped an earthenware on the hearth and it cracked, and she uttered the word that means something dirty. Usually it was around the third day by the time she said it.
“Jet,” I persisted. “I think he’ll bring you jet beads this time. Last time it was amber.”
She chucked some thyme on the broth like it was something to throw away. Then she sighed and her shoulders slumped and she sat still and silent a while. She turned to me and smiled weakly.
“Do you think he’ll bring me a siege engine this time?” I said, encouraged.
“Perhaps.” Ma’s voice was soft, her eyes moist.
My father had told me about the toy the Brushheads made for their children, a miniature version of the weapon with which they had besieged the southerners’ hill forts when they conquered them. The toy shot pebbles hard enough to crack jugs so the wait would be worth it. I had no sense that my father might be in any danger. I did not know that Giric’s pa had died for a slur on a Saxon centurion.
I had climbed Criffel sometimes with my brother Caldredd, and we had gazed over to the east when the murk rose from the land, seeing the shape of the wall: a stone snake slithering towards the interior, dividing us from the Empire, from the thing called civilization.
“It’s better on this side,” Pa had said to our nieighbour, Ninian, the night before he went to the wall. “Here we are masters of our own fate. There is no one to take from us, no one to tell us how to live, what we can and can’t have. We use what we need and leave the rest for tomorrow. For our tomorrow.”
And he was right. We trampled for flounders on sludgy riverbeds. We netted pink-breasted ducks that roosted among the reed beds. Our good bowman could drop a fat goose from a flock on the saltmarsh, and there were cockles galore on the muddy plains when the tides receded. Plump cattle,
stocky sheep – they were all ours. Ours alone.
But, though I was young, I already understood that there were those who disagreed with my father, who thought we would be better within the wall’s bounds, others that we should have nothing to do with the Brushheads at all. And worse, there were those, I sensed, who did not much like my father.
“We’ve been horse traders a long time,” Pa told me. “Our horses are good. There’s nothing like them in the northern empire, the Brushheads need them. They pay us well, but some people are envious.”
Last winter the bull choked on briar and the byre roof collapsed on the same night. Pa said it was the Birth of Solstice Moon and Camulus the sky god liked to make mischief then, but Ma knew the reality of it. The more he went the more there was envy. And when he was absent with no one to look out for us, the envy (or Camulus as Pa would have it) was more likely to come calling.
And Caldredd my brother was as good a watchman as the wooden post that marked the marches. He was good at watching girls as they washed their woolens or bathed, laughing, in their thin shifts in the peat-coloured pools on the Nith, but his hand was busier in his britches than it ever was at work or on weapon. So when Pa said he would take Caldredd on his next trip west to the lands of the Novantans – the horse people – I was as envious as our neighbours. My older brother was being groomed to be the next trader; I would not be ready for two more summers. My cousins and brother would go and the Outcasts who worked the rough bounds would go (for it was only through their loyalty to Pa that they were allowed to stay there), and I would remain at home with Ma.
Pa came home from the wall on the fifth day, panniers bulging, an old sackcloth draped over an angular object strapped to the horse’s loin. Could it be the object of my desire? I sprang across the meadow, yellow flowers dipping in the breeze, larks squirting short calls, rising steeply in song. The scuffling gallop of sheep fleeing, Pa’s pony’s mane streaming in the wind. Pa waving his arm in distant greeting.
I ran to him then turned and jogged homewards next to his pony while the Outcasts dispersed.
“Did you get it?”
His teasing smile.
“Did you go to the fort with the toymaker?”
“Oh the toymaker. Yes. Well, no. Can’t remember, too busy… Got us wine though. And this iron tool with a knife, spike, pick and spatula all on the same…”
But just before I gave myself to despair, I saw his wink, and I trotted home, content, feeling him smiling down on me.
When he dismounted, he turned to me and I threw my arms around his waist. His rough palm ruffling my hair, the other one firm, gentle, on my back. He smelled of ponies, hard riding, of food the Brushheads liked, of metal and leather, smoke and muck and stale, sickly juice that must be wine. I took it all in, the hug, the smells of Pa, then I squeezed out from under his arm, reached up and starting tugging at the sackcloth. He undid the rope and whisked off the cloth like a conjuror… My siege engine!
Through my elation I was vaguely aware of Caldredd’s appearance behind me. His grunted greeting, his muted joy, the relief buried deep inside him. Pa pulled out a dull, warped shortsword. “See, it’s been used in battle,” he told Caldredd, but my eyes returned at once to my wooden wonder.
Inside, broth was ready. Mother smiled briefly but didn’t get up, and Pa had to tramp over our mess and bend to kiss her head. He placed the wine by the hearth, a pouch that must have contained beads or jewelry on the shelf and the strange new iron implement beside it.
“One tool but many,” he said.
Ma looked unimpressed but her relief filled the stone chamber. And we sat and ate as though it were an ordinary night. Any tales Pa chose to share would have to wait until we were alone together on marsh or moor.
When Caldredd went west to the Novantan lands with Pa we felt the void. Just Ma and me and the work to be done, and Uncle looking in on us but too busy with his own paddocks to be constant. And we came to realize that Caldredd hadn’t been as useless as we had thought. The water pails were heavy for me, clearing the hog pen and carting its crap to the kale beds had me gasping. Three ducks vanished one night and Ma said it was a fox, but I’d never heard her tremble so from talking of a fox. And when Pa and Caldredd came home with a new batch of Novantan horses, I felt Ma’s relief in my core.
I stood in the wind beneath the cold cloud of Criffel, watching their sunbeam-lit approach. Seeing Pa and Caldredd safe among the riders, I turned my attention to the horses. A good batch. Piebalds and browns. Greys with dark manes. Low and solid, wide-backed; curious gait, like fast, longnecked bulls. The wildness of the Novantan hills still flowing in their tails.
Soon, their wild energy would be harnessed to bear the Brushheads’ loads, ferrying the Empire’s goods along the wall, between forts and milecastles and south to market towns on the road axes.
Pride. We are the horse-traders. We are Selgovians, masters of the frontier. Guardians of the North.
The riders corralled the horses in the big round paddock; one of the Outcasts closed the gate. I heard hooves like rockfall behind the stone wall, watched flashes of head and mane as horses circled like stirred liquid, unable, it seemed, to recognise journey’s end.
As he passed me I saw the long gash on one of the Outcasts’ faces. Behind him, Caldredd dismounted but he looked away when he saw me. I saw Pa beyond, holding his arm stiffly across his belly, suspended from a bandage of greyed linen. He dismounted slowly, grimacing. I approached Pa, fearful of his injury, but he smiled as I neared and he leaned on the long gate watching the horses as if all was fine. And when I was alongside him he pulled my head to his ribs with his good arm and ruffled my hair. His smiling voice: “A good roundup this time.”
I watched his back, his stiff walk, as he went off to see Ma, and Caldredd joined me in his place.
“It was just a fall,” he said, glancing after Pa.
I pointed at the Outcast with the gash. “And him?”
“Yes, they both fell, all right!?
With this Caldredd walked away.
Ma’s relief at their return was short-lived. The riders set off again next morning to the wall, driving the horses before them. A set of dark tails, swishing the same way in the wind, Pa and Caldredd’s backs and those of the Outcasts. Smaller and smaller, shrinking to fit through the gaps between the stones of the wall. That’s how I thought of it when I was very young. But I was older now and wiser; something lost and something gained. The fading of magic, wafted away like smoke by the steady air of new knowledge. The disquieting awareness of knowledge yet to be acquired.
I no longer sought gifts from the wall; I only wanted Pa and Caldredd to stay, to send the Outcasts alone, to let them have the wine and strange compound tools of knife, spike, pick and spatula. My siege engine sat neglected in the corner, bits broken by the hoglets that came inside with us in winter. What good was a toy that could crack jugs with fired pebbles? Ma had only just stopped short of breaking it before the hogs did.
I awoke in the night, vague awareness of a row. Ma and Uncle sitting, wordless, over the fire. A feeling of something else in the chamber, silent and watching. Their shadows hunched over them, poised to pounce from domed walls.
Ma turned – she’d heard the coarse blanket grating softly as I stirred.
“Go back to sleep, darling.” Her forced smile.
I closed my eyes to the crackle of the fire, the sweet scent of bird cherry wood burning – usually the smell was soothing. When he thought I was asleep Uncle spoke again.
“Caldredd’s been touched by it too but it’s not too late for the young one.”
“I knew how it was when I married him, Coel,” Ma whispered, “how it would be for us… It’s what your father and grandfather did, it’s who he is.”
Their silence followed and I succumbed to the crackle, to the scent of bird cherry.
While Pa and Caldredd were at the wall I learned that Ma had been giving her jet and amber beads to the Outcasts’ wives. When they returned, Pa had a silver brooch for her and I heard her feigned gratitude. I knew that labored smile even if Pa did not.
“You’ve never seen so many people in one place!” A large pimple on Caldredd’s face, set to pop with his enthusiasm. “Music. Some like ours, most not. Meat roasting, the smell of it everywhere, a whole bullock on a spit. And the ground all churned with mud, and hen birds running and flapping. And people… so many voices, different tongues. Coins clinking, cascading like water from hand to hand. There was this fight and right next to it men were making these cock birds fight too and they were more interested in the cocks than in the men at odds behind them…” And on he went.
After that things were never the same. Pa and Caldredd said strange words, there were winks, and Caldredd guffawed and talked too loud until Pa shushed him. One day I upended my bowl – I could stand it no longer – and fled the house, running to Uncle’s. His sons were home so he took me outside, sat me down on the rock with its top glossed from years of sitting.
“What’s troubling you?” His voice was gentle.
But I was too young to articulate, to understand my sense of loss, of isolation.
Uncle sighed. “The horse trade is not for us all… My sons go, they wanted to continue your grandfather’s work, but it was not for me.”
“But I want to go… I want to see behind the wall… I want adventure!”
“But there are dangerous people there.”
“I don’t care! Pa will protect me. Anyway, it sounds like fun.”
“Yes, but the fun can get out of control sometimes.”
“Well, at least he could take me west to the Novantans! I want to see their hills and their horses and…”
“That’s the worst of it!”
Uncle seemed stunned by his own words. “It’s a long ride, a rough trail.” He tried to sound as though that was what he’d meant but his eyes betrayed him. He must have felt my gaze, my silent will, forcing an explanation.
“The Novantans were once our enemies… You know that, don’t you?”
“Yes, but that was long ago. Now there’s peace and trade; Pa buys horses from them.” I heard the pride in my voice.
“We are not traders.” My uncle was staring dead ahead, his voice low and even. “We take what we will. We pay no one… In the taking, our neighbours know that we are their masters, lords of the frontier… To them, we are the wall.”
I gazed at him while his words bedded. We. We are the wall… Pride. Horror. Confusion.
“So… they let Pa just take the horses?”
He sighed, longer than before.
“Remember how your father returned from the west with an injured arm? One of the Outcasts had his face gashed, another did not return at all?”
My sober nod.
“The hill horses are the Novantans’ pride, their stock for trading with the north and west. They do not relinquish them lightly.”
My uncle’s words were mumbles, I could no longer sit, no longer take them; I was already standing, starting to wander.
“Don’t go. Stay, we can talk more.” He spoke louder as I walked away. “Do not be angry with them… It’s just how it is.”
I took the path home until he could no longer see me and I veered away towards the oak wood. The big old oak in the centre, its spreading canopy, translucent; soft green light. There was an assortment of branches leaning against its big trunk, fronds of fern interwoven with them to make a flimsy shelter. It had been a game when I had built it but now it mattered, it seemed as sturdy as my family’s home. More so. I lay inside, listening to the blackbirds’ consternation, feeling the air cool, the approach of night. When it was almost dark, I arose, cold damp on my back, stiffening muscle. The fire was warm and bright when I pulled open the door and Ma and Pa’s tight faces breathed with relief. But Ma’s anger, not quite ready to dissipate: “Where have you been, boy? Caldredd’s out searching for you!”
Pa rose and I backed away from him but he grabbed me and hugged me tight. He must have felt my tense shoulders, my resistance to his need to hold me.
“I am sorry.” His voice smooth. “We must speak of the wall no more. I have said so to Caldredd… Until the day you can come with us.”
His smile. Forgiving. Loving. Smothering. One that was welcome and despised. How could he do it: care but not care? He was two men in one.
The snow fell early that winter, drawing the sound from the air, coating the earth in white silence. The snow time was no time to leave. It must wait until spring.
I spoke little to Pa, only as chores or occasion demanded. He paused often and his eyes encouraged but I could not stand it. I heard his sighs, his weary resignation. He had no words with which to mend us.
I watched him one day after the snow had gone. Little white hills of it only remaining, a bog of muddy meltwater behind a dam of brash and slush. His grunting breath, digging hard to clear it. Feet in freezing water, sweat on his brow. He should have asked me to help but couldn’t. He could ask nothing of me.
I got up from my rock, feeling the chill on my rear. I fetched a spade and waded into icy water.
“You don’t have to,” he said but I was already digging. We were two men working as one. And as the sludge finally gave and the sweet trickle sounded and a skylark rose up in songful celebration, we smiled.
“I know all about the trade, Pa.”
His smile fell from him and he nodded.
“We were enemies.” The excuses came. “They did worse things to us… It’s how we maintain order, how we keep peace… They used to…”
“Pa. I’d like to come west with you.”
He searched my eyes and found sincerity.
He put his arm round my shoulder and together we carried our spades back to our homestead.