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 neighbour, 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 woollens 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.
. . . . . . The complete story is available in the Askance collection “Saltwater And Other Stories“.
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