Read The Mark of the Horse Lord Online

Authors: Rosemary Sutcliff

The Mark of the Horse Lord

BOOK: The Mark of the Horse Lord



Title Page

Historical Note

1. The Threshold

2. Corstopitum by Night

3. Midir of the Dalriads

4. The House of the Fighting-Cocks

5. Frontier Post

6. Eyes!

7. The Road to Dun Monaidh

8. The King-Slaying

9. ‘You are not Midir!’

10. The King-Making

11. Royal Hunt

12. Golden Plover’s Feather

13. War-Dance

14. Chariots in the Pass

15. ‘Begun Among the Spears’

16. The Last Weapon

17. The Protection of Rome

18. The Whistler in the Dark Woods

19. The Dirk-Thrower

20. The Hostage

21. The Mark of the Horse Lord

Also by Rosemary Sutcliff



Everyone knows that at one time Scotland was inhabited by Picts and Scots, but most people are a little hazy as to the difference between them. Broadly (very broadly) speaking, they started out the same; both part of the great Western drift of peoples who rose somewhere in the great emptiness of Asia and spread across Europe in succeeding waves through the last two thousand years or so before Christ. The Picts were a confederacy of tribes whose ‘Master Tribe’, the Caledones, settled in the land that later became Scotland. The Scots were the tribes who went on farther to make their homes in Ireland and, long after, returned – some of them – to settle in the Western Islands and coastal districts of Scotland. At the time of this story, the Caledones had begun to be great among the tribes, but the Pictish confederacy did not yet exist; while ‘Scot’ or rather ‘Scotti’ was the Roman name for a people who called themselves Gael, or Dalriad. So in
The Mark of the Horse Lord
I have written of Caledones and Dalriads, and not of Picts and Scots, but it comes to much the same thing in the end.

In the years since they parted company, the Gael had become a Sun People, worshipping a male God, while the Caledones had held to the earlier worship of the Great Mother, and like most people with a woman-worship, they traced their family and inherited even the kingship through the mother’s side. (Even in medieval Scotland it was quite common for a king’s eldest son to find his claim to his father’s throne after him indignantly denied by his sisters’ husbands, who claimed that they were the true heirs by right of being married to the Royal Women.)

The traditional founder of the Dalriads is the Irish Prince Cairbre Riada, who, driven out from his own land of Munster by famine, led his kinsmen and followers first north into Ulster and then overseas to the Western Islands and Highlands, in the year A.D. 258, which is quite a bit later than the date of this story. But there are traces and traditions of Irish settlement on the West Coast in A.D. 177, in 200 B.C., and even 300 B.C.; so that the answer would seem to be that no one knows quite when they came, but that they probably arrived in waves over several hundred years, and the most famous Irish leader would come in time, in the usual way of folklore, to have the credit for all the rest.

You will not find the Cave of the Hunter anywhere; but on the coast, close by Oban, there are caves that show clear traces of Stone Age occupation, and the coastline has changed so much through the ages, that the cave with the Horned One daubed on its back wall might have been among them once, and been claimed by the sea.

Nor, at present, will you find the ruins of a Roman Naval Station at Dumbarton Rock; though a strong tradition says that there was once one there, and that it was called Theodosia.

But if you go looking for it a few miles south of the head of Loch Awe, not far from the modern Crinan Canal, you will find Dunadd, which was once Dun Monaidh, with the traces of its five courts cropping through the turf, and in the highest court but one, the great Rock of the Footprint, where Phaedrus the Gladiator (whom you will not find anywhere outside this book) was crowned Horse Lord and King of the Dalriads.


IN THE LONG cavern of the changing-room, the light of the fat-oil lamps cast jumping shadows on the walls; skeleton shadows of the spear-stacked arms-racks, giant shadows of the men who crowded the benches or moved about still busy with their weapons and gear; here and there the stallion shadow of a plume-crested helmet. The stink of the wild beasts’ dens close by seeped in to mingle with the sharper smell of men waiting for the trumpets and sweating a little as they waited. Hard to believe that overhead where the crowds had been gathering since cock-crow, the June sun was shining and a fresh wind blowing in from the moors to set the brightly-coloured pennants flying.

But the man in the farthest corner, who sat hunched forward, arms crossed on knees, seemed lost to all that went on around him, deep sunk in his own thoughts. One or two of his fellows glanced at him in passing, but left him alone. They were used to Red Phaedrus’s moods before a fight; he would come out of it and laugh and turn tiger when the trumpets sounded.

Phaedrus was indeed very far away, back beyond the four years that he had been a sword-fighter here in the Gladiators’ School at Corstopitum, and the two years before that; back in the small, pleasant house in Londinium on the night his father died . . . Ulixes the Arcadian, importer of fine Greek wines. He had never owned Phaedrus for his son, only for a slave, the son of Essylt who kept his house for him. But he had been fond of them both, when he could spare a thought from his business; he had seen that the boy got some schooling; he had been going to free them, one day. But in the end he had died too suddenly, slumped over his office table with a half-drafted letter to his agent in Corinth under his hand, and the autumn wind whirling the leaves of the poplar-tree against the window.

Everything had been sold up, the household slaves included. Everything but Phaedrus’s mother. ‘I am too old to go to a new master,’ she had said on the last day before the sale, and she had sent him on an errand into the town. And when he came back from the errand, he had found her in the arbour at the foot of the narrow garden, where the master had liked to have his breakfast on fine summer mornings. She had used the slim, native hunting-dagger that had served Ulixes as a papyrus knife; but there was not much blood because she had stabbed herself under the breast, not cut her wrists as a Roman woman would have done. Phaedrus, not yet come to his fourteenth birthday, had changed from a boy into a man that day.

He had been sold off next morning, along with the part-Lybian chariot-horses, for he had the makings of a charioteer – and after changing hands a couple of times, and learning something of sword-play from his last master who wanted someone to practise on, had been sold into the arena to help pay a gambling debt. (‘It’s you or the team, and it won’t be easy to get another pair of matched bays,’ his master had pointed out.)

At first he had been wild with loathing of his new life, but in four years it had become part of him, so that whether he hated or loved it no longer mattered. It ran in his veins like the fiery barley-spirit that the tribesmen brewed: the roar of the crowd that set one’s pulses jumping, the warmth of sunlight and the sweetness of cheap wine and the fierce pleasure in one’s own strength and skill, all heightened by the knowledge that tomorrow, next week, in an hour’s time, it might all end on the squared point of a comrade’s sword.

Four years. Not many lasted so long at the deadly trade. If he could last another year or so, they might give him his wooden foil with the silver guard, and he would be free. But his mind never got beyond the first triumphant moment of gaining his freedom, any more than it got beyond the sting of the deathblow, because he had been born a slave and knew no more of what it would be like to be free than he knew of what it would be like to die.

‘Wooden foil?’ Somebody’s voice exploded beside him. ‘You’ve been dreaming, lad!’ And the words, striking in so exactly upon his own thoughts, splintered them apart and brought him back to the present moment and the scene around him.

‘I have not, then,’ said Lucius the Bull, leaning back and stretching until the muscles cracked behind his thick shoulders. ‘Someone is to get their wooden foil, earned or no. Trouble and expense no object in these games, so long as the Province remembers them afterwards and says, “Good old Sylvanus!
old Governor Sylvanus! Gave us the best games we ever had.” I heard the Captain talking to Ulpius about it – neither of them best pleased by the sound of it; Ulpius was cursing by all the Gods he knows.’

‘Well, you couldn’t expect any arena master to be
,’ someone said. ‘Maybe he reckons he’s going to lose enough of his little game-cocks without losing that one more.’ And there was a burst of reckless laughter from those near enough to overhear and join in.

Phaedrus stooped and rubbed his palm on the sanded floor, an old trick when one’s sword-hand grew sticky. In the moment of silence that followed the laughter he heard the rising murmur of the crowd, and from the beast-dens a wolf howled, savage and mournful as a lost soul; they knew that it was almost time. Without meaning to he glanced across the crowded place to where Vortimax stood under a flaring lamp, preening the crest plumes of his helmet before he put it on. The big-boned Gaul turned his head in the same instant, and their eyes met. Then both looked away . . .

In the ordinary way, the master of a frontier circus could not afford to use up his gladiators too fast, but SylvanusVarus, the new Governor, who was giving these games to celebrate his appointment, had paid for four pairs of sword-and-buckler men to fight to the death. Four pairs – including Phaedrus and Vortimax. Phaedrus still could not quite believe it. They had come up the School together from the first days in the training yard. They knew each other’s sword-play as well as they knew their own; they had shared the same food-bowl and washed each other’s hurts in the same water; and in all the School, the big fair-haired Gaul was the only man Phaedrus had ever counted as a friend.

A forceful step sounded in the corridor, and Automedon, the Captain of the gladiators, appeared in the dark entry. He stood an instant looking down at them, and the livid scar of his own gladiator days burned in a crimson brand across his cheek, as it always did in the moments before the trumpets sounded.

‘Time to helm-up, lads.’

Phaedrus got to his feet with the rest, catching up his plumed helmet from the bench beside him, and stepped forward from his dark corner. The light from the nearest lamp showed him naked like the other sword-fighters, save for the belted leather loin-guard and the sleeve of supple bronze hoop-mail on his sword-arm; a young man with hair the colour of hot copper, lithe and hollow-flanked as a yearling wolf, the tanned pallor of his face slashed across by red brows and a reckless, faintly smiling mouth.

He put on the heavy helmet and buckled the chin-strap. Now he was seeing the world through the long eye-slits in the moulded mask, and thought, testing the buckle, ‘My last sight of the world will be like this, looking out at it sharp-edged and bright from the darkness inside my helmet.’ And then he pushed the thought away. It wasn’t lucky to have that kind of thought, going into the arena. That was the way one’s nerve began to go.

Automedon stood in the entrance, watching from the vantage point of the two steps that led up to it, while they took down spears and heavy, bronze-rimmed oblong shields from the arms-racks and straightened themselves into roughly ordered ranks; then looked them over with a nod. ‘Good enough. Now you know the order of events for the day: The Wild Beast show first, the boxers and then the General Fight; the Net-and-Trident men, and to wind up with’ – his glance went to Phaedrus and Vortimax and the rest of the rear rank, and his voice was grimly sardonic – ‘you lucky lads in the place of honour . . . For the rest of you – I don’t want any more careless casualties like we had last month! Casualties of that kind don’t mean courage – nought but slovenly sword-play, and the circus doesn’t pay for your keep and training for you to get yourselves hacked to bits before it has had its money’s worth out of you! Any man who comes out of the arena today with a hole in his hide deep enough to keep him out of the Consualia Games will have to account for it to me, and if I am not satisfied with the accounting’ – he smiled at them with narrowed gaze and lip lifted over the strong, yellow dog teeth – ‘both he and the man who gave it to him will wish they had never been born! Understood?’

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