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The House of Women, Coria (Corbridge) AD 208
The girl knuckled away a tear from one large blue eye that would have melted the hearts of most women, but apparently not this one. She looked up with a growing respect at the lady Dania in whose spacious entrance hall she stood, noting again the woman's elegance and intimidating dignity that were not quite what she had expected when she arrived. She had been treated courteously, but the answer was still no.
'It's not only that you're too young, Lepida,' said Dania, 'and it's not that you don't have the looks. You are on the way to becoming a beauty, I'm sure of it. But this is not the way to punish your parents, nor do I need to be dragged before the magistrate to answer charges of procuring under-age girls, let alone kidnap. Had you thought of that?'
'No, my lady.'
'Then what had you thought?'
'Well, that I'd prefer to live here...the excitement...the parties, pretty clothes and hair, and no parents telling me what not to do.'
'Yes.' Long fair lashes, damply spiked, swept her cheeks. Dania smiled and glanced sideways at Etaine, the woman who had come with her from Boar Hill six years ago. 'It's not quite what you think,' she said, kindly. 'We have to work, too.'
'Oh, I know what happens,' said Lepida, using one last flutter of her eyelashes to convince her audience. 'I know why men come here. I'm sure I could...'
'Lepida,' said Dania firmly, 'this is not an orphanage, nor is it a place for young daughters of officers. It's a house of women. And you're going home. Now, Etaine and Albiso will escort you, and your parents need know nothing about your visit here. If you still think the same way in five years' time, when you're nineteen, then you can come to me again and we'll talk. No promises, mind.' With a look, she summoned the man who stood apart over by the pink-washed wall, placing a warm hand on Lepida's bony shoulder and easing her towards him. 'Go home, my dear.Your parents need you there.'
'Yes. Thank you.' The liquid eyes lingered appreciatively over the panels of pink, ochre and white, the shrines alcoved in the walls, the shining mosaic floor whose imagery she only half-understood. The glimpse of a sun-washed garden on the far side of an adjoining room was all light and glamour and a far cry from the noisy squabbling of her siblings at home. 'It's beautiful here,' she whispered, turning away.
Wistfully, Dania watched the slender young Lepida glide along the verandah, cross the cobbled courtyard and disappear into the passageway between two shops that led into the street. Weaver Street, just off Dere Street, was set on the quiet outer edges of Coria, the town that some were already calling Corbridge after the stout wooden bridge built by Roman legionaries across the Cor. There had been ancient settlements here since anyone could remember, but once the great fortified Wall had been built across Britain from coast to coast, Coria had become an important supply base for the army, growing steadily and attracting traders of every kind, integrating local civilians with the foreign military. What had once been a remote settlement of thatched huts, animal compounds and plots, was now an organised network of stone-built garrison blocks and storehouses, workshops, temples and granaries, large merchants'houses and living quarters for all those who serviced the troops along the Wall, all seventy-three miles of it. Including the House of Women.
Dania's establishment had grown from very modest beginnings that were quite unlike young Lepida's innocent imaginings, different in fact from those of all but a select few of the now extensive household. Except for her closest henchmen, no one in Coria knew that the lady Dania was a Brigantian woman from nearby Boar Hill, or that her brother Somer was the chieftain of that local tribe.
It was early morning, a time of rest for the women who worked late and slept late, a time when Dania attended to the business of the house and to the shops on each side of the passageway fronting on to the street. A weaver and a tailor. This morning, however, there was another matter that needed her attention after the business of the volunteer Lepida. Passing through the outer door, she turned on to the covered verandah where Ram and Astinax stood side by side watching the departure of the trio. They stood to attention as she approached, bowing deferentially as she stopped before them. 'How did that child get in here?' she said.
The two men, ex-gladiators from Verulamium, were built like house-sides, but to Dania they represented security, reliability, never letting anyone unsuitable slip past their guard. 'We believe she got into the kitchen, my lady,' said Ram, 'when the cook's lad carried the supplies in earlier. We've spoken to him. Shall you dismiss him?'
'No, Ram. But it mustn't happen again. This is no place for children.'She looked away into the sunny courtyard where tubs of lavender, violets and pansies were already alive with fumbling bees. Climbing roses twisted around the wooden columns that held up the upper storey, and the tree in the centre of the space dripped with white may-blossom that spiralled like snowdrifts beneath the stone benches.
Dania held up a small oblong piece of paper-thin beech-wood. 'I've had a message from the garrison commander,' she said. 'What am I going to say to him about the man's arm you broke?'
Astinax was bald and genial at this time of the day, bald and threatening by evening. 'To Claudius Karus, my lady? You won't need to say much to him,' he said, facetiously.
She held back a laugh. 'I can't quite understand why he needs to pursue the matter,' she said, 'unless he's been told to, of course. Karus knows we don't allow bad behaviour. He's been here often enough.'
Ram, the shorter of the two giants, fended off an inquiring wasp. 'You'd better let one of us go with you, my lady. The streets are swarming with extra troops. I heard that the emperor himself is expected any day now, him and his son. The builders are preparing that big place on the side of the Stanegate for him and his retinue.'
'The emperor?'said Dania, staring at him. 'Are you sure?' Ram, one would have thought, would not be too moved by the sight of a lovely woman after all he had suffered. He had been taken from his family in southern Britain, forced to be a gladiator and, excelling at that, had been granted his freedom. He had worked for Dania at the House of Women for the last three years and, so far, had shown not the slightest interest in the women themselves, and only Dania was able to thaw, one by one, the ice crystals that encased his heart. Unable to ignore the beautiful languid curves of her back under the long cotton tunic, he released his breath slowly as her green almond-shaped eyes opened wide with surprise. 'Yes,' he said. 'Septimus Severus, no less. We'll find out more today, and still more tonight. I'll come with you to see my lord Karus, since I know what happened and, if I keep my eyes peeled and my ears open, who knows what we might discover between us?'
Having picked up a good working knowledge of several languages during his time at Verulamium, Ram would be a useful escort in more ways than one. Dania looked down at her bare toes, aware of his singular protectiveness. 'I'd better go and put something on my feet then,' she said.
Ram swiped a hand around his chin. 'And I'd better go and have a shave in case I bump into the emperor himself.'
'And I'll hold the fort,' said Astinax, grinning through the gaps left by missing teeth. He wore the resilient and not unattractive expression of a battered man whose spirit was still intact.
'Thank you, Astinax. I don't suppose we'll be long.'
'What shall I do if your friend the lady Julia arrives?' Pertly, Dania looked over her shoulder. 'If you can keep an eye on things at the same time, entertain her. The bath-house will be empty.'
'Hah!'said Ram, scathingly. 'He'll not get a word in edge-ways.'
'Good,'said Dania. 'So just listen.As a centurion's woman, she should know what's going on. Be nice to her, Astinax. Yes?'
The grin widened.
No Brigantian woman, let alone one of the Boar Hill tribe, would have needed to enquire too deeply into the reason for a personal visit of a Roman emperor at this time, for it was well known by now that the occupying Roman army were having a hard time of it in this far-flung northern outpost of the empire on the Wall. Ha-drian's Wall, they called it, begun by the Emperor Hadrian to control the flow of tribes and traffic, taxes, tribute and trade between the hill tribes on the southern side and the barbarian Caledonians on the northern side. The British hill tribes, the Briganti, had never split themselves into two sections as neatly as the Wall would suggest, for some of them were scattered on the far side, too.
Over the last six years, the resistance against Roman authority had grown more successful than anyone could have foreseen; anyone except Dania herself and her brother Somer, now chieftain of Boar Hill. Had it not been for the amazing success of her venture, her people would still be in the sorry mess they'd been in when she left. But for her courage and foresight, the whole of the Brigantian fighting force would have remained ignorant of the Roman army's strengths and weaknesses, their movements from fort to fort and all the changes that enabled the hill tribes to strike, time and time again, like satanic fiends in the night, disabling, wounding and even thrashing them on more than one occasion.
Eventually, the Roman command had decided that more must be done to reverse the tide and, having acquired at last an emperor with a reputation for fearlessness, had sent more reinforcements than ever before from all parts of the Roman world to deal with the problem. The emperor Septimus Severus and his eldest son were to see to it personally, using the regional headquarters at Eboracum and Coria as the main supply base. Extra cohorts of troops were pouring almost daily into the town, hastily building new barracks, covering the surrounding fields with tents of hide in tidy rows, drilling the men well into the evening of each day, crowding the streets with their silver-scaled clanking bodies, demanding produce and 'requisitioning' horses and waggons. To Dania's annoyance, some had even made a nuisance of themselves at her house.
The House of Women, open only from late afternoon onwards, was always popular with those soldiers and citizens who could afford it. Never had the competition for admittance been so fierce, and never before had the inmates had such an opportunity to discover what the chieftain Somer and his Brigantian compatriots needed to know. Looking, sounding, and living as a freeborn but local citizen of Rome, Dania had taken great care in the preceding six years never to disclose her origins. Only two people had come with her from Boar Hill, one of whom was Etaine, her woman; the other was Bran, son of Brigg, who had been renamed Brannius. Romanised Briton by day and Briganti messenger by night, Brannius was now twenty years old, only two years younger than his half-sister and utterly devoted to her, tall, comely, and proud of his dual role.
He stood by her side as she concluded her ritual at the small shrine of Diana, where a painted figurine of the goddess of woodlands and hunters reminded them both of their beginnings. 'I feel some unease about this meeting,' Dania whispered to him, adjusting the beeswax candle in the alcove. 'I don't know why.'
'Don't be,' he whispered back.
Turning to share the personal nature of the advice, she touched his smooth chin with her knuckle and a smile that made him wish they were not related. 'We've come a long way, Bran, son of Brigg,' she said. 'I think we may have redeemed ourselves, after our six successful years. I'm sure you're right. What is there for us to fear?'
Bran could have explained, but now was not the time for that. Six years ago they had been brought here to Coria to establish a small weaving shop, just as she had suggested. They had not been left penniless or ill equipped, but nor had they found that first year easy, for they could scarcely make the beautiful hooded cloaks of waterproof wool fast enough to keep up with the demand, and they had taken on two local women to help them.
The sudden eviction from close-knit family into the vast bewildering strangeness of town life had been even harder, especially for Dania who, as a chieftain's daughter, had expected to retain her high rank for the rest of her life. Now she was, if not exactly a nobody, an ordinary citizen subject to a host of restrictions far more irksome than any she'd been used to. Romanised British women, she discovered, did not enjoy the same status as hill-fort women, and the closeness that had sheltered her at Boar Hill had disappeared overnight. It was a terrible loss she had not anticipated when she had bargained for her life, for her parents and Somer had been her world to whom she had never needed to explain anything. Somer had stood up to protect her against Mog; he had been the one to arrange her new life. He was her hero, and it was to each other that they owed their existence. Daily, her scorn of the Roman invaders remained intact while she strived to rob them of every slip of the tongue that would help to build Somer's status as the most fearsome chieftain ever.