Originally posted as part of the Speak Its Name Advent Calendar event for 2012
Frost On The Thorn
The balnea in Massilia was well appointed with all the usual facilities. Quintus had had his swim, a rub down, a massage from one of the bath house slaves whose skills could have graced any of the great thermae in Rome, and now he was waiting for his own personal attendant to bring his lunch. He should have been warm and relaxed, but today he found himself on edge, an unease increased by the amused chuckle of his companion.
“Let this be a lesson to you,” Lucius murmured, his voice barely carrying over the chatter of other diners and the raucous shouts from the frigidarium. “Never go shopping for a house slave when …”
“When drunk. Yes, I know.” Quintus glared at Lucius who grinned back unabashed. “I was having a bad day – wine helps. And since I have to go to the arse end of the back of beyond to see to family business I thought it would pay to learn the language. For that I needed a native.”
“Britannia in winter! The gods must hate you, Quintus. I understand your reasoning but you could have bought a British girl. A pretty, neat little red-headed maid to fold your togas and fetch and carry with a smile, but instead you bought … that.” Lucius waved his hand towards the man who was approaching with Ptolemy, Lucius’ current favourite, protesting at his heels.
“His name is Cunedda,” Quintus said, trying not to smile
“That is not how you do it,” Ptolemy was saying. A doe-eyed Eqyptian, he was becomingly flushed as he waved a tray. “You should use this.”
“Might be necessary for you with your little lady hands but I don’t need it!” The heavily accented Latin was easy to understand, as was the wide grin Cunedda directed at Quintus when he realised he was observed. Cunedda had two cups and a jug of wine and water in one huge blunt fingered hand and was balancing several plates with their midday bite in the other. He hurried to put them down on the low table, not spilling a drop or losing an olive. “Sorry, boss, I’d’a been quicker but the little feller got underfoot.”
Lucius shot Quintus a sharp glance but Quintus had long since come to an understanding with Cunedda about exactly how much familiarity he would accept. It was close to Saturnalia, anyway – a time when slaves enjoyed greater licence – and Quintus felt no need to dignify himself at Cunedda’s expense and certainly not at the expectation of one such as Lucius. At their master’s gestures the two slaves seated themselves, Ptolemy perching on the foot of Lucius’ couch and leaning to pour their wine, Cunedda squatting flat-footed with his arms folded across his knees. Lucius chattered about horses he hoped to buy, exclaimed over news of his imperial highness Nero’s extravagance and speculated upon a scandal concerning the latest profligate wife, but he only garnered part of Quintus’ attention.
Quintus’s damaged leg was cramping, the wine was sour and the echoes in the bath house made his head ache. It was at times like these that he missed the hot stillness of the east, though he missed the poisonous sting of Parthian arrows not at all. To distract himself he looked at Cunedda. His cropped head showed a more coppery sheen than the wiry growth on his arms and calves. Quintus wondered how red his hair would be if he allowed him to grow it out. Cunedda shifted, his fierce blue eyes fixing on Lucius, and, heeding the warning, Quintus turned his head.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “You were saying…”
“I was saying that since you are such poor company, and I have an appointment to meet Lucilla, I have to eat and run.”
“Her husband is rusticating, I presume.” Quintus nodded. “Very well. It was nice to see you Lucius and I apologise for being such poor company. Let me know how you get on with your horses.”
“Let me know how you get on with your travel plans. Rather you than me. No business is worth that privation. Stay until spring! At the very least stay through Saturnalia. Come to dine with me. I have bought an excellent cook.”
To refuse the invitation would have been churlish. Once Lucius had gone, Ptolemy at his heels laden with cloak and oil flask, tweezers and scraper, tablet and stylus and purse, Quintus beckoned to Cunedda who stood with the effortless ease of the supremely fit. He seated himself on the foot of Quintus couch and laid his hands on the knotted scar tissue of Quintus’ calf.
“Is it paining you, lad?” he asked in his own tongue.
“Aye, that it is.” Quintus admitted and Cunedda grunted and reached for the oil.
With Cunedda’s strong hands working the cramp from his calf, Quintus considered the journey ahead of him. Family business apart, it was necessary – Rome had become dangerous for men such as he.
“Winter in Britannia,” he said, dropping back into Latin as he spoke his thought. “Is it really that bad? You may speak freely. It’s almost Saturnalia.”
Cunedda’s hands stilled for a moment and Quintus turned to look over his shoulder. The slave’s face was held in carefully bland expression but he could see the hot hurt wistfulness in his eyes.
“Not bad for those born to it, no,” Cunedda replied after a moment. “Now, that friend of yours – he and his little pullet wouldn’t last a week, except maybe in Londinium. But you – you’ll do.”
Their eyes met, man to man, not master to slave, and Quintus was shocked at the warmth that flooded through him at Cunedda’s approval. He’d do. Praise indeed for a man who in the spring had been carried off a ship at Ostia not expected to see another Saturnalia, let alone embark on a hard journey to a troubled province at the worst time of year. Praise indeed from a man who, according to Cunedda’s vendor, had to be netted like a lion to get the slave chains onto him. The calluses on Cunedda’s wrists would never fade, just as Quintus would always limp.
Cunedda reached for the oil again, the bulla that marked him as Quintus’ property swinging free from the neck of his tunic. To do Cunedda honour and to show that he was trusted, Quintus had had it made in bronze, with a wash of silver picking out the details, but it still marked him as owned, as unfree. Cunedda had accepted the bulla with a wry smile and had worn it ever since, knowing that it was a safeguard. That he had scratched something of his own into that little disc of bronze was a surprise.
“Tell me about the wheel,” Quintus said. The rounded British vowels came more easily to him now and it seemed fitting to hear this story in Cunedda’s own tongue.
“The wheel?” Cunedda glanced down at the bulla. “An old tale of little interest, I’m sure.”
“Tell me,” Quintus ordered, trying to keep the plea out of his voice. He turned onto his back, head propped on his arm and locked eyes with Cunedda again. “It’s a tale of which I do not tire.”
Cunedda straightened up, squaring his shoulders, though his hands still warmed Quintus’s scars. “It’s the sun. As the sun wheels across the sky there’s no great or small, nor man nor woman, no difference between slave and free – it shines on us all. The sun in heaven and the sun on earth. I had the tale from my father who had it from one who was there. He saw, the old man said, he saw the sun rise, the sun on the tree.”
Quintus caught his breath, remembering how he had heard Cunedda’s story on a day when he was burning with fever and the softly spoken, abominably pronounced Latin had given him something to cling to. Truth was truth no matter how mangled the telling of it. He had first heard the story in a very different place from a very different man but he felt again the sharp certainty of belief sink like a fish hook into his soul. “Go on,” he said.
“The old man, a trader Da said, had been there to see the death and had seen him rise again. ‘As true as I’m standing here’ he said all bundled up, huddled against the cold. And they laughed and he said ‘All right, you disbelieving sons of polecats, if I’m telling the truth, which I am, there’ll be a blossom on that there tree, even if you do have to brush the snow off to see it’ and my Da went and looked and there it was.”
“A miracle,” Quintus whispered.
“No – a flower.” Cunedda’s eyes, which had been seeing times long past, Quintus assumed, focussed on him, creasing at the corners as he laughed. “In amongst the black thorns, whiter than the frost in the red morning sun. I saw it myself. Every year after the longest night it blooms, and next year I will show you, and you and I will drink a toast to the sun and the maiden mother.”
A louder shout from the frigidarium made them both start and, when Quintus looked back at Cunedda, the slave’s gaze was lowered again. “I will show you, should my master be interested in such a thing and should it be convenient for us to be in Dumnonia at that season.”
… no great or small, nor man nor woman, no difference between slave and free – it shines on us all.
“I will make it so,” Quintus promised and nodded towards the empty wine jug. “A refill, if you please, Cunedda. Half and half and more honey this time.”
Cunedda reached for the jug. “Or should I take the tray?” he asked. “That being the proper way to do it?”
“You don’t have little lady hands,” Quintus said and smiled as his slave strolled away.
This story was inspired by the story of the Glastonbury Thorn, and the notion that the ancient world, while much larger than ours is, could still arrange for fortuitous meetings.
I hope that Quintus and Cunedda will have their own story in time. It is partially planned and will be called The Hounds of the North.