“Do you hear the wind blowing in the thatch, child” said Grandma. “It was blowing like that when the emperor Julius was sent back across the sea with his tail between his legs! At least that’s what my grandmother told me” She laughed at the old memory and turned to the bronze pot hung over the fire where she was warming some fresh milk ready for turning into cheese. I sighed. I had been told by my mother, that on no account was I to mention the latest rumours that were spreading through the land of the Brigantes. Rumours about a second Roman invasion with thousands of foreign men clad in steel and almost invincible in battle. Grandma was nearly 50 summers old and the news might kill her.
Grandma continued to fuss with the milk. I took the chance to slip away out of the solid, stone and thatch round house that was home to me, my mother and father, my two brothers and my grandma. You hardly noticed the smoke from the ever burning fire when you were inside the gloomy house. Once outside I breathed a couple of lung-fulls of the breezy summer air just to clear it all out. I could smell from the air that the year was getting on and it would soon be time to start bringing our cattle down from the hill pastures for the winter. Our lord who ruled from the hill fort on Ash Scar had asked for the gift of a barren cow for the autumn feast that was coming up. Father was off choosing it with the rest of the men of the family who lived in the huts nearby.
Grandma didn’t need any help with the cheese so I decided to walk up the valley to a place where brambles grew. The berries were probably nearly ripe so I thought I’d check and see. Some would be dried for eating over the winter and others might be used for dyeing the fine white wool mother collected off our sheep. I took a basket woven from hazel twigs by my brother last spring. He was still learning so it wasn’t very neat, but I knew if I lined it with the moss that I could gather on the way that it would do.
I set off past the beans and peas that we tended in the plots nearest to the house and then worked my way round our little square corn fields. The harvest was nearly all in now, just a few oats left to cut and thresh ready for the winter. Stacks of straw had been piled on wooden platforms dotted around the fields, ready to feed the cattle we were to keep over the winter. I’d once been caught burrowing into one of the stacks on a cold day and my cheeks went red just at the thought of the telling off I got. Now I understood how important these winter stores were for us all, with no food we had no cattle and with no cattle, we couldn’t keep our lord happy or feed ourselves.
As I walked along I wondered what our chief would do if the Roman army really was on its way to conquer us, the way they had conquered the rest of the world. My mother’s family had come over the sea from Marne in France, many years ago and the relatives left behind were now under Roman rule. They had long ago given up burying their chiefs with chariots but it seemed hard that they had to give up everything else as well. I wondered what ordinary farmers like us would do. Would the Romans be like our chief and want cattle too or something else? I’d heard tell that they prized metals like gold and silver. We had only the soft, dull lead that we found in amongst the scars and crags along our valleys, would the Romans value that as well?
I shook my head and tried not to worry. I decided to make a slight detour to visit the waters of the goddess. This spring was a very holy place to all the local families and we took care not to foul it when driving sheep or cattle nearby. All of us, at one time or another, had taken our troubles to her and today it felt as if I needed to as well. I had been taught to stalk and kill birds and other animals by my father, so I naturally walked very quietly even when I wasn’t trying very hard. This was why, when I came up to the spring the man that was kneeling down beside it didn’t hear me coming. Shocked, I stopped dead and just as silently dropped down behind a nearby rock.
I had recognised the man from the magnificent bronze scabbard he carried his sword in. My father had shown it to me once up at the hillfort. It had been hanging beside the skulls of two of the chief’s enemies, killed in a battle long before I was born. The sword scabbard had been decorated with leaves and swirling veins of bronze that took my breath away they were so beautiful. They had reminded me of a tall silver birch tree bending its branches towards the earth, its delicate leaves shimmering in the light. Only an important warrior could own a sword and scabbard like that and it was one of the reasons that my father and the other men paid tribute to the chief. We all knew that in time of war, our chief was the bravest of them all and would protect us from cattle raiders and war bands with that sword.
As I hid I started to shiver with fear. The chief was not a man that you annoyed and I daren’t move away in case he heard me. He continued to kneel and then I saw with amazement that he was unbuckling his precious sword in its scabbard and laying it down beside the spring. He then started to make his prayer and I listened in horror as the story unfolded. It seemed that the Romans had arrived and had already sent people north to talk to the most powerful chiefs who would listen to them. The head of our tribe, the Brigantes was our queen, Cartimandua. It seemed that Cartimandua had met with the Romans and agreed not to fight them in return for being left as queen of our people. The Romans required a tribute of cattle, lead and slaves and this was why our chief had come to the spring.
He and others like him including Cartimandua’s ex-husband were refusing to agree to these terms and were preparing for battle. I suddenly felt sick, remembering that when my father and the others left, they had looked grim-faced and had packed far more food than they really needed. I knew that my mother hadn’t believed their story about choosing an offering for the chief, but even she hadn’t guessed the real reason. They had been marching off to war against the Romans.
I felt the tears pricking my eyelids as I watched our brave chief offer his beautiful sword to the goddess of the spring in return for a victory that we all knew was impossible. He said a brief prayer and then dropped the sword in its gleaming scabbard down into the dark water at the foot of the spring. It sank without a sound. Our chief stood for a few more moments then spun round and hurried past my hiding place without a backward glance.
When I felt safe enough I crawled out from behind the stone and sat beside the spring and cried my eyes out. My tears mingled with the waters and the goddess sang gently to me to soothe them away. I had no offering like the chief’s sword so I laid my brother’s simple basket down by the water’s edge instead. Through my tears I prayed to the goddess that my father would be brave in battle against the foreigners and that they would be merciful in victory should it go that way. I prayed that my father’s life would be spared whatever happened. Above all I prayed that we would not be made slaves to spend our lives serving others and crying for our old lives in the hills.
The goddess murmured to me but I couldn’t understand what she said. I wiped away my tears, feeling that the chief and I had done our best and that now it was in the hands of the gods and goddesses who watched over us all. Blackberries forgotten, I turned and walked slowly back to the village, pulling my cloak tight as the wind began to get colder and stronger.