The moon is dark; the stars are smothered by clouds. Autumn is upon us now. This morning the rain rushed down the hills like silver snakes, yet nothing is moving tonight. Even the mice and moles cower in their burrows. The earth holds her breath as if waiting for disaster, but the disaster has already happened.
Civilization has collapsed.
Lucius Plautius, who studied with the Athenians, would say I am suffering from depression. He could be right.
Dinas, who laughs at everything, would say there is no such thing as depression. He could be right.
* * *
Cadogan leaned his shoulder against the door, braced his feet and shoved again. Nothing happened. The oak planks did not even creak.
The door was like the woman on the other side. Obdurate. The woman who had slid the bolt across the door. There was no other way in. The walls were constructed of solid logs. The few windows provided ventilation and a modicum of light, but they were too narrow to admit an intruder. In cold weather they were shuttered with two planks.
Cadogan stepped away from the door and rubbed his shoulder. He was weary to the bone. He had been riding for most of the night. Alternately trotting and cantering through the haunted darkness, up and down hills, splashing through streams, dodging trees at the last moment only to be slashed by low hanging branches. Trusting his horse to take him home.
In years gone by a traveler might have found a comfortable inn along the way. In such an establishment Cadogan would have enjoyed an ample meal and a flagon of the local brew while the hosteler rubbed down the bay mare and gave her a heaping measure of oats. A few coins more would have purchased a dry bed for himself—with a minimum of fleas—so he could resume his journey in the morning feeling refreshed.
There were no comfortable inns anymore. No lantern’s gleam to welcome weary travelers. Windows were shuttered if any shutters remained. Doors sagged from rusting hinges; arrogant weeds thrust through floorboards. Business was very bad indeed.
The bay mare would have no oats tonight. Cadogan had removed her saddle and bridle and turned her loose to graze, knowing she would not wander far. She was too old and too wise to stray. This was the only home she had known for two years and she was content.
He could hear her tearing up mouthfuls of dry grass.
Cadogan stopped rubbing his shoulder and stood deep in thought. Then he walked around to the rear of the building, where he had stacked a quantity of firewood along the north wall. Heavy branches had been chopped into neat lengths, ready for burning. Kindling was wedged between the logs and the wall to create an added layer of insulation. Cadogan reached in and pulled out a handful of sturdy twigs. Ignoring the protestations of his aching body, he crouched and set them on the ground. Quietly.
His night-adapted eyes could make out general shapes but no specifics. Still crouching, he ran his hands over the nearby earth until he found several thick clumps of grass. Dying grass left from summer. He ripped them up, roots and all, and carried them with the kindling to the west side of the building. The side nearest the forest. A single narrow window was set in the wall.
Cadogan turned his back on the window and took two measured paces forward. He rolled the clumps of grass together until they formed a loose ball, which he placed on the ground before him. Loosening his linen underpants, he dribbled a few drops of urine onto the grass, just enough to dampen the center while leaving some dry tips. He used the twigs to fashion inward-leaning walls around the grass to hold it in place. Next he took a set of flints from the leather pouch on his belt and began striking sparks over his construction. After several tries, the dry grass tips ignited in a sizzle of red and gold.
Cadogan crouched and blew gently on the blades to keep them burning, then sat back on his heels and waited.
Although light was visible through the window, he did not call out to the woman inside. Not again. After taking care of his horse he had hammered his fist on the door. Called out his name. Expected her to welcome him. Instead she had bolted the door before he could push it open and enter.
Obviously another method of communication was required.
The smoke began to seep out of its enclosure like a timid creature poking its nose out of a burrow. Cadogan waited until it formed a pale cloud, dimly lit from beneath. The small ball of grass was too damp to fuel a substantial fire, but perfect for making smoke. He leaned forward and blew again. Sat back with eyes narrowed, calculating the exact moment when a final, well-placed breath would send the cloud upward.
When the column of smoke had thickened sufficiently he stood up and unfastened his hooded cloak. Waving it in front of him, he began wafting the smoke toward the window.
Some distance away, the mare raised her head and snorted.
A nightingale called among the trees, immediately answered by another. Even in the dark territories must be defined and boundaries respected. Nature’s laws were strict.
Cadogan moved back and forth, almost dancing on the balls of his feet as he directed and redirected the smoke. Even something as diaphanous as smoke could be controlled with persistence.
The woman inside called out, “Are you still there?” Her voice was unpleasantly sharp, with an edge like a knife. It was almost the only thing he remembered about her.
He continued shepherding smoke.
“Is that you, Cadogan? What are you doing?”
Weave and twist, draw patterns in the air. Try to ignore the sudden stitch in his side.
“Cadogan! You said I could stay here. You said!” Her voice shrilled upward. She could smell the smoke now. In summer the lightning, the random finger of God, set trees ablaze to renew them. And the trees were very near.
“I’m in here, Cadogan!” she cried. “Answer me!”
He flung his cloak over his shoulder like a toga and walked around to the front of the building. Flattening himself against the wall beside the door, he waited.
He heard her groan as she lifted the heavy bolt and set it aside. The iron hinges, which he never greased, protested loudly when she pulled the door open. She thrust her head into the night. It was too dark to see anything. Holding her breath, she listened for the crackling of fire. Was it coming nearer? What should she do?
She ducked back inside. Looked wildly about the room.
The smell of smoke was growing stronger.
When she ran through the open doorway Cadogan lunged forward and caught her. He could feel how thin she was beneath her gown. All angles, with no comfort in her body to offer a man. Strong, though; she fought like one of the savage wildcats from Caledonia. Screeching, squalling, writhing in his grip and trying to scratch his eyes out.
A plague on the wretched woman! thought Cadogan. He immediately repented, reminding himself that he was a Christian. But even Christ had lost his temper with the money changers.
By the time Cadogan managed to pinion her wrists they were both panting.
“You said I could stay, you said I could stay!”
“Only until my cousin came back for you,” Cadogan replied. He had been told his deep voice was “reassuring,” but his next words were anything but reassuring. “If Dinas hasn’t come for you by now he’s not going to.”
“You don’t know that!” she shrilled.
“I know him. You’re not the first woman he’s abandoned.”
“He hasn’t abandoned me, he never would! Dinas adores me. Many men have said they loved me, but none are as passionate as Dinas. He swore he’d throw himself on his sword if he ever lost me!”
Cadogan began to feel sorry for her. And sorry for himself, for his aching body and leaden weariness. Sorry that his life—which only a month ago had been filled with a hermit’s simple pleasures—was being torn asunder through no fault of his own.
“You should go inside now,” he said, releasing her wrists.
“But there’s a fire coming!”
“Don’t worry, you’ll be safe. There’s no real fire, only damp grass smoking.”
She caught her breath. “Do you mean … did you trick me?”
“I had to make you open the door.”
She furiously pummeled his chest with her fists. “You’re a terrible man and I hate you! Hate you, hate you, hate you!”
“That’s too bad.” He captured her wrists again and started to force her into the house. Thought better of it. Pulling her after him, he went around to the back of the building.
She made no effort to free herself. Instead she kept up a running commentary on his failures as a human being while he stamped on the fire. “You’re worthless compared to your cousin, do you know that? Dinas is a twelve-pronged stag and you’re a pile of goat dung. Goat dung with flies on it!”
Cadogan noticed that she had begun drawling her vowels. “Dinas is twice the man you are, he has balls like melons and a prick like a stallion. What do you have under your tunic, a dead eel? The first time I saw you I knew you were nothing. If Dinas was here you couldn’t treat me like this, because he would knock your teeth out.”
“Dinas likes to fight,” Cadogan said. “I don’t.”
“So you’re a coward as well.”
He ignored the insult and continued extinguishing the fire. It took a while to hunt down and crush the last tiny spark. When he was satisfied there no danger of the blaze flaring up again, he took her back inside. Still yammering at him. Her voice was seriously beginning to grate on his nerves.
A bronze oil lamp on a three-legged table supplied the only light. The draft from the closing door caused the flame to gutter, flickering as if it might go out. Cadogan released the woman so he could slide the heavy bolt across the door, then he took a large tin ewer from beneath the table. When he lifted it his heart sank. He thumbed back the lid and peered inside anyway. The ewer was empty. She had burned all the herring oil.
“There isn’t any more,” she confirmed. “I already looked.”
He turned to find her sitting on the bed. The only bed.
“Why did you have to burn all of it?”
“What did you expect me to do, sit in the dark? You’re not much of a host, Cadogan. In fact I don’t like anything about you. Not your splotchy face, not your flabby body, not even your feet. You’re the ugliest creature I’ve ever seen.”
The man to whom she spoke was above average height, with a sturdy body sculpted by hard work. He had a clean shaven, affable face that still retained a smattering of boyish freckles, and wore his thick brown hair cropped in the Roman style.
Puzzled, Cadogan asked, “What’s wrong with my feet?”
She did not answer.
He rubbed his shoulder again. “I’m tired; I’m very tired. I’ve had several bad days and I need some sleep, so I’m afraid you’ll have to sit somewhere else.”
She raised a pair of overplucked eyebrows. “Why should I perch on a stool when there’s a comfortable bed? Dinas never told me you were brutal, Cadogan. He said you were kind. He said I could rely on your kindness.”
“Dinas says too thundering much and none of it true,” Cadogan growled. Taking her by the elbows, he moved her off the bed. She hung like dead weight in his hands. When he released her she flounced over to a stool and sat down. “I hate you,” she said flatly. “I always have and I always will.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“That makes it easier.”
Cadogan stretched out on the bed and folded his arms behind his head. It was easier to ignore her than have a conversation with her. His eyes wandered around the room. As always, his handiwork gave him a sense of satisfaction in spite of his somber mood.
Seen from outside, his home was unimpressive. A rectangular timber building with a steeply pitched roof, it melted into its forest setting. To the casual observer it might have been a woodcutter’s cabin, though it was too large for one. It more nearly resembled a small fort.
That had not been his original intention. During construction the house had seemed to choose its own shape. By the time it was finished he realized what he had wanted all along was a fort. A building sufficient to protect its occupant from the intrusions and abrasions of the outside world.
His first choice for the exterior walls was stone and mortar, his second choice was brick. Stone was impossible for one man to quarry and transport, and the nearest brickyard was many miles away. That left only the raw materials at hand. Cadogan had felled the trees and sawn the wood himself, learning the necessary skills as he went along. Trial and error. Axe and adze and plane. Use the mare to drag the heavy logs into place. Laboriously raise them one by one, chink the gaps with mud. For two years he had pushed his body to its limits, promising himself he would correct his mistakes later. When there was time.
The interior of the building showed a certain refinement. It consisted of one large room whose unpeeled log walls were covered by smooth planks. The roof was supported by tree trunks shaped into columns. The clay floor had been pounded until it gleamed, then incised with patterns imitating mosaic tiles. In the center of the room was a raised stone hearth surmounted by andirons decorated with boars’ heads. Above this was a smoke hole, cleverly concealed within the angle of the roof.
One end of the room was given over to storage. Crates and bags and boxes of various sizes were neatly stacked beside an assortment of tools, some of them handmade, all of them well maintained. Cadogan’s clothing was hung on pegs. Hunting spears leaned against the wall with their feet ensnared in fishing nets. A large iron cauldron complete with flesh hooks was stored beneath a row of shelves. The bottom shelf was crammed with tin cooking utensils and everyday plates and cups cast in pewter. The shelf above this boasted a complete set of glazed red tableware, plus a single, exquisite glass bottle the color of emeralds. The top shelf was fitted with cubbyholes designed to hold Cadogan’s cherished collection of manuscripts. Scrolls of Athenian poetry, Alexandrian maps, books of Latin history and theology. The books had been written on thin sheets formed by pounding together crisscross slices of the pith of a sedge called papyrus.
At the opposite end of the room was a wooden bedstead, held high off the floor by oak stumps. The bed was equipped with a horsehair mattress, a rather grimy sleeping pad stuffed with goose down, an equally grimy linen sheet and three woolen blankets. Near the bed a naturally formed stone basin was set atop another broad stump. Cadogan had found the object in the river the preceding autumn, when the water was low enough to allow for easy fording. Over many centuries the river had shaped and polished the stones in its bed as it slowly changed its course. Following the way of least resistance.
The remainder of Cadogan’s furniture consisted of a brass-bound chest inlaid with silver and copper, two brightly painted wooden stools, a battered campaign table with folding legs, and a larger oak table. The lamp on that table had been one of his mother’s treasures. When he was a child she had guided his chubby fingers around the swirling acanthus leaves engraved on the bronze surface. “See how beautiful, Cadogan?” He had loved beauty ever since.
The woman followed the direction of his eyes. Where he saw achievement she saw failure. Crude construction and a dirt floor covered with chicken scratches. Most of the furniture looked as if it had been hacked out with an axe. Sacks of grain and dried meat were hanging from ropes slung over the rafters to protect the food from rats. Although she could not see them in the dim light, she knew there were spiderwebs in the corners. Worst of all, the place had a damp, musty smell, as if moisture were seeping up from the earth below. She had wasted the last of her tiny vial of perfume trying to sweeten the air.
“It’s cold in here,” she complained.
“There’s no fire on the hearth,” he pointed out.
“You’re out of firewood.”
“There’s plenty stacked behind the house, didn’t you look back there?”
She said indignantly, “I’m not accustomed to bringing in firewood. Why are you hiding in this miserable hovel anyway?”
“This isn’t a miserable hovel, it’s my home. And I’m not hiding.” Cadogan wanted to close his eyes but he couldn’t, not with her staring at him. “I live alone out here because a solitary life appeals to me.”
“You want to make this pitiful hut a hermitage?”
“That’s not what I said. I said the life appeals to me, I didn’t say I wanted to be a hermit. There’s a difference.” He was too weary to explain the difference to her, even if he could. His need for isolation had come on him gradually and would, he suspected, fade in time. Of one thing he was certain: he had not wanted it interrupted by a crazy woman. “Put out the lamp,” he said. “It will be dawn soon anyway.”
“I’m not going to sit here in the dark. You might abuse me.”
He almost laughed. “Abuse you? No fear of that … What’s your name? I don’t even know your name.”
“Don’t know my name!” She sounded as if it were the ultimate insult.
He tried to be patient. “You may recall that I left here shortly after you and Dinas appeared at my door. The brief conversation I had with my cousin was not about you, but something much more urgent. He never even mentioned your…”
“His horse is dangerous, you know,” she interrupted. “It’s killed people. I myself am a splendid rider, but Dinas wouldn’t let me ride behind him because he was afraid I might get hurt. He insisted I walk; it proves how much he loves me.”
Cadogan responded with a noncommittal grunt. Felt the pressure of her eyes on him. He must make more effort; hospitality was a virtue. “Dinas didn’t tell me your name,” he explained. “He said only that you needed shelter for a couple of days. Perhaps I should have questioned him further but…”
“My name,” she interrupted again, “is Quartilla.”
“It’s a perfectly good Roman name! My father was a centurion.”
Cadogan was by nature a kindly man, but the woman’s attitude was becoming intolerable. Before he could stop himself he said, “Any number of people make that claim these days. And even if your father was a centurion, I doubt if he stayed around long enough to name you. Tell me what your mother called you.”
She lowered her eyes and gnawed at her thumbnail. “I don’t know,” she said sulkily. “She died when I was born.”
He was instantly remorseful. “I’m sorry.”
“Why? You didn’t know her any more than I did.”
Cadogan’s head felt hollow and his eyes were full of sand. The conversation was going nowhere. With an effort, he propped himself on one elbow and tried to smile at her. “Let me rest for a while, Quartilla, and I promise we’ll sort this out in the…”
“Did you bring anything to eat? I’m hungry.”
“There were adequate supplies here, what about them?”
She shrugged. “I guess I ate them.”
“I ate everything that was fit to eat, but not those dreadful dried things. I would have eaten those wretched chickens but I couldn’t catch any. And then that wretched rooster bit me. On my leg! He took a whole piece out of it!”
“Kikero was only protecting his family.”
“His family?” Quartilla sounded scandalized.
“I don’t eat the hens, I eat their eggs,” Cadogan tried to explain. “If I ate the hens they’d be gone and I wouldn’t have any eggs. Did you at least throw some corn to them?”
“I don’t tend livestock,” she said icily.
“They’re not just … I mean … in the morning, Quartilla.” Cadogan gave a deep sigh. “In the morning.” He fell back on the bed and put one arm across his eyes.
She moved her stool close to the lamp so she could examine her fingernails. They were bitten and broken but still stained with henna. She began picking at the ragged cuticles.
Something skittered in the rafters. Quartilla shrieked.
“You’re not afraid,” Cadogan informed her without opening his eyes. “You must have heard that a dozen times since you’ve been here.”
“Of course I’m not afraid! I’m not afraid of anything. It startled me, that’s all. I’m not used to vermin in the house, even if you are.”
Ignoring the implied insult, he willed himself to lie still. Relax. Yet he could not stop the silent uproar in his whirring mind. Fear and frustration, remorse and regret jostled with one another in a bid for his attention. After a while he gave up trying to sleep and watched Quartilla covertly from under his forearm.
She was certainly no beauty, he decided. As bony as a fish and slightly cross-eyed, as if she were about to sneeze. Her prominent, high-arched nose could pass for Roman, but Cadogan suspected it simply had been broken at some time in the past. Her coppery hair was obviously dyed. The linen gown she wore might have been pleated once; it might even have been white once. Now it was as dirty as her sandals.
Her voice was the worst thing about her; a crime she compounded by sporadically attempting a Roman accent. When she drawled her vowels her speech was almost unintelligible.
Whatever possessed Dinas? Is the creature a discarded camp follower? No, a common harlot would never use that accent. Perhaps she really is a legionnaire’s daughter fallen on hard times.
We’ve all fallen on hard times, one way or another.
A woman in the house. Would that be so bad? Admit it to yourself, Cadogan—you’ve been lonely. This is the first time in your life you haven’t had other people around you, even if they were only servants. While you were building the fort you were too busy to notice, but since then you’ve sometimes longed for the sound of another human voice.
Not that voice, though.
The flame in the lamp guttered again and drowned in the last smear of oil. The room went dark. Quartilla put one arm on the table to cushion her head. Within minutes she was snoring.
Cadogan lay rigid with resentment.
So much to think about; I need a clear mind. Why does she have to be here now? It’s too late to go to sleep and too early to get up. Too late for yesterday and too early for tomorrow. The ride to Viroconium was a waste of effort, it was all over before I got there. If only Dinas had brought the warning earlier … but that’s Dinas, selfish to the core. After he dumped the woman on me I’m sure he never gave her another thought. He does what he wants when he wants and …
Cadogan’s thoughts were interrupted by an unexpected sound from outside. The sudden, anxious neighing of a horse. He jumped to his feet and hurried toward the nearest window. In the dark he stubbed his toe and swore under his breath.
“What’s wrong?” Quartilla asked groggily.
“There’s somebody out there.”
“How do I know?”
“What do they want?”
“They want to know why you ask such stupid questions!” Cadogan snapped. “Keep your voice down and be still.”
“It’s Dinas come back for me, I knew he would! Open the door for him at once.”
“It’s not Dinas. My horse knows his horse, they would have whinnied to each other. What I heard wasn’t a greeting.”
“Horses can’t talk,” said Quartilla. “Do you think I’m a fool?”
Cadogan wanted to throttle the woman.
Ignoring the throbbing pain in his toe, he peered through the narrow window. She crowded close behind him. He could feel her scrawny breasts against his back. Her breath fanned his cheek; an unpleasant smell, as if she had a bad tooth. “If it’s not Dinas, who is it?” she asked. “What’s happening? Tell me!”
In the gray light of dawn he saw a band of men approaching the house on foot.
“We’re about to have company,” Cadogan said grimly.
Copyright © 2013 by Morgan Llywelyn