Series: Roman Pony Trilogy: Book 1
By K. M. Peyton
The foal lay out on the saltings where it had been thrown by a Roman soldier. It was very weak, near dead, which is why it had been abandoned. The distraught dam had been ridden out that morning on a raiding party and was now far away. The foal was alone. The crows circled overhead, waiting to peck out its eyes, and the tide was creeping up. The foal struggled to get up, but was too weak. The ground beneath him was cold and wet. Instinct told him that he lacked the vital needs to live, and he fought against it. His heart was large but his body weak.
After the useless struggle he lay still and closed his eyes.
A crow landed on his ribs and cawed with anticipation.
Minna looked down from the wooden quay which lay on the seaward side of the fort where she lived and saw the crow sitting on something that feebly moved. Minna had eyes like a hawk (she was used to being called by one of the lookouts to check a movement out at sea, although she was only a girl). She could make out the movement of the crow and knew its intention. She picked up a stone and threw it, hard and accurate, and the crow flew off with a squawk. The foal jerked as the stone hit it.
“Why, it’s a foal!” She had thought it was a strayed sheep, fallen on its back like the stupid things often did. But a foal!… She jumped down from the quay and ran along the path under the wall, shouting for her brother Cerdic. He was collecting driftwood on the high-tide line and looked up at her shout.
“Come quick! Look!”
The alarm in her voice moved him and he followed her curiously across the saltings. They reached the foal together and could see immediately that it was dying.
“Poor thing! Whoever threw it here? The pigs!” Minna was outraged. She dropped to her knees and cradled the small head in her arms. The eyes opened, soft with exhaustion.
“We must carry it home, poor little thing!”
“It’s rubbish – that’s why it’s been thrown out,” said Cerdic. “Leave it.”
“They won’t have it in the fort, you idiot.”
“We’ll take it to our hut in the vicus. Our mother won’t throw it out.”
“It’s got no dam. How can it live?”
“I’ll feed it milk and honey. I will make it live! And then it will be ours! Don’t you see, they can’t possibly ask for it back if we save it. We’ll have a pony of our own.”
Cerdic was swayed by this argument, she could see. He had always wanted a pony, to be like the soldiers in the fort. They were a cavalry legion and he could scarcely wait for the day when he would be old enough to enlist and ride with them. His best friend was the young Roman auxiliary, Theodosius, at seventeen three years older than himself.
“It’s going to die, you can see. But it won’t hurt to try, I suppose.”
“We must take it now – the tide’s nearly here. Can you lift it?”
Cerdic was strong but a foal, however sickly, was no light weight. It was some way to the vicus – the straggle of domestic huts and shops that lined the road that led inland away from the fort. One of them belonged to the children’s family but they did not use it much, living in quarters inside the fort where their parents worked. It was used mostly for storage and animal feed and to house the plough and oxen harness – and the oxen too in the winter.
Cerdic kneeled down and between them they managed to lift the foal onto his shoulders. It made no struggle and lay so still that Minna was afraid it was already dead. She helped Cerdic stagger to his feet.
“It needs shelter. The wind is freezing.”
She pulled her shawl round her shoulders, anxious now. Her mother would help her, she guessed, but her father ... best he did not know. He had no reason to come to the vicus, busy at his work in the blacksmith’s shop inside the fort. He was not given much to kindness.
“If this foal lives,” Cerdic said through gritted teeth, “it will be mine. Remember that.”
“Yes, yes. I don’t mind. I shall make it live.”
Minna did not heed the words, only too pleased to have got her brother to help. They came round the corner of the fort and onto the road from the gateway. This was the only way across the deep moat in front of the fort. The road here, as it led away inland, was lined with shops and houses, drinking dens and workshops, but Cerdic led the way through them to one of the huts that lay behind, built in the old style, half sunk in the ground, back to the wind, thatched heavily in reeds. This was their long-time family base, from the days when their great, great and more great grandparents eked a living selling farm produce to the garrison. Sometimes Minna wished they still lived here in the peace and quiet. But now their family was a part of the fort as much as the soldiers themselves and had living space allotted inside. Minna’s parents had earned the authority’s regard by their allegiance and the good work they turned out and they had proved they were a cut above the rabble that lived outside. But the hut was retained; it was warm out of the wind and there was a bed of thick straw where the oxen had been – not too dirty. Minna ran to a timber chest and pulled out some old blankets. Cerdic lowered the foal onto the straw and Minna wrapped it in the blankets.
“Ma’ll kill you,” Cerdic said.
“No. She’ll help me. Will you tell her, if you’re going back?”
Cerdic nodded and departed, scornful of women’s things. Minna got down and lay against the foal to give it warmth. It was breathing. She could see its thin flanks fluttering, its little nostrils widening with the shallow breaths. She wrapped her arms round it, shedding tears as her cheek lay against the soft, cold fur. They had no heart, those soldiers. Theo was as bad as the rest, always beating his little mare to keep up. None of the cavalry horses were more than ponies, most only just big enough to keep their riders’ feet off the ground. They called them horses, all the same. The men were proud of being cavalry rather than infantry, and slept with their horses inside the fort.
“Maybe your mother died?” Minna whispered. To bring up a foal without a dam was much too time-consuming for a serving soldier. But it was such a weakly thing, she could see. It would be hard to save.
“What’s all this? Cerdic came with some tale about a foal…oh, gracious me! What have you got?”
It was her mother, thank goodness!
“They threw it out! It was lying on the saltings.”
“Poor little duck. It’s a pretty thing, but it will die for sure.”
“Oh no! I will look after it, I promise. Please…”
“Oh, you silly child –”
But Minna knew her mother. For all her brisk manner she was soft inside like a honey cake. She would rescue birds from snares and butterflies from webs. Young homesick soldiers in the fort knew her kindness, for she understood how it was for an innocent young man to be thrown into the rough and tumble of barrack life, where cynical and embittered old soldiers enjoyed a newcomer to bait. She wasn’t above scourging the older men with her tongue and taking the newcomer home for a quiet rest by their fireside. She was everyone’s nurse at times of sickness and an inspired binder of wounds.
“It needs its mother’s milk,” Minna said.
“Yes, of course. But look at it – so puny! No wonder they threw it out. The dam has either died, or gone out on patrol as usual. I heard a deal of whinnying this morning when the patrol left, so I guess that’s what happened. They took the foal away and forced the poor mare on her way. They have no heart, some of these boys! We’ll do our best, Minna.”
This meant fetching milk from the neighbour, warming it over the brazier in the metalwork shop, diluting it with water from the well, stirring thin honey from their own store into the jug and then, with infinite care, dripping it into the little mouth. Minna held the foal’s head up and its mouth open, and her mother dribbled the food in very slowly. It seemed to take ages, and Minna, with a slightly sinking heart, knew that it was going to have to be repeated many, many times if the foal was to live.
Even then ...
“It’s not the same as its own dam’s milk. Don’t bank on its living, Minna.”
All the same, her mother did not chide Minna when she said she would stay by its side.
“It needs my warmth.”
“You’re a silly girl, but –” She laughed. “I can manage without you today. I’ll tell your father I sent you on an errand.”
“Cerdic’s not working!”
Her mother laughed. “That’s the way of the world, my dear.”
“I’ll sleep out here tonight.”
“Yes, but don’t be too upset when it dies.”
She would ask Theo to help her when he came back, Minna decided. He could get her mare’s milk from somewhere. He only had to command. He was like that, proud and bossy, cut out to be a commander – anyone could see that. Although he was so young, he was already in charge of eighty men. He was a stopgap, true, until someone older was appointed. The commander of the fort had been his father, but his father had died suddenly of an infection, and Theo had taken his place. It had seemed quite natural, as he had always been his father’s shadow. And the men accepted him. They were a rough lot – auxiliaries from Africa and beyond, mostly black, some from Gaul, some from Rome, some from who knows where? – but he commanded and they obeyed. He too was from North Africa. He had another tongue besides the usual Roman and Celt. He had the nose of an Arab, the silky brown skin of an Egyptian, the black laughing eyes of a Roman girl and the poise of a Greek god. Minna adored him. She went giddy when he was near. Cerdic mocked her: “She’s in love!” Minna was going to marry Theo one day, if only he knew! She would die otherwise. Unfortunately he wasn’t interested in girls, only in being a soldier. Just like Cerdic.
The little foal slept. He wasn’t dead, Minna could tell by the faint flutter in his nostrils. She tucked the blankets round him and lay all along his back, her head resting on his flank. She could feel the feeble rise and fall of his ribcage against her cheek. He might breathe away into death, she thought. Soon she must rouse him to another drink. She kept the pottery jug of milk and honey against her stomach under the blankets to keep it warm, but so soothing and quiet it was that she fell asleep.
She was woken by a convulsive shake of the foal beside her. It squeaked and threshed its poor legs in a hopeless effort to get up, thrusting Minna away. She started up, astonished, and was immediately aware of a shouting and commotion outside. A wild whinny rent the air. Minna thrust the blankets aside, knocking over the milk jug as she did so, so that she swore, but then ran without trying to rescue the precious food.
Outside she saw a cluster of people laughing round a loose pony. It was saddled and bridled but its gear was all awry, broken reins trailing, and it was almost white with lather. As someone caught it up and jerked at its bit to stop it, it flailed out with its back legs and sent people flying. It whinnied again, and Minna knew exactly what was happening: this was the foal’s dam. She saw with one glance that it was a mare, and that milk was running from her in a stream down her back legs.
Minna ran to her head and caught the bridle. She shouted the stupid boys away, but turned to one, Stuf, she knew and said, “Help me! She must come to my hut, she’s after her foal and it’s in there. I’ve got it.”
“She’s from the patrol, she’s dumped her rider,” Stuf said. “Good on her!”
He helped Minna lead the mare to the shelter. Perhaps she smelled her foal, for she came willingly, trembling. Minna was terrified the foal might have died in its throes to get up, it was so weak, but when the mare came in through the door she saw that, although it was still down, its head was lifted. The funny little squeak came from its throat, to be returned by the mare with a frantic deep whickering, over and over. She pushed her captors aside and stood nuzzling at the foal, licking it and pushing at it quite roughly with her nose.
“It can’t get up. We must help it,” Minna said.
She couldn’t believe this was happening: like a gift from the gods! Wham, the return of riches, of succour, of life! Thank you, thank you, Zeus, Mithras, Jesus and all! She got her arms round the foal’s chest and Stuf lifted it bodily from behind – he was a strong lad, built like an ox – and between them they pushed it to the mare’s udder. It couldn’t stand without their help and its suckling was almost too weak to take the milk, but the little mare, as if she understood, stayed quiet as an old sheep, only turning her head to gently lick the little foal’s skinny flank.
“Don’t let go,” Minna said.
Was the foal too weak to suck? It was touch and go as to whether Minna must milk the mare herself and trickle the milk into the foal. But even as they stood there awkwardly they could gradually feel confidence seeping into the fragile newborn. Its sucking grew stronger: it had found at last what it had been yearning for!
“I’m sure it’s going to live. It has such a will,” Minna said.
“But it’s such a puny thing! Of course they threw it out.”
“Its body will grow. But it’s got a big heart already, you can see. That’s what matters.”
“They won’t let you keep the mare. Whose is it anyway? Someone’s got a long walk home.”
Minna did not want to think about this, because she was pretty sure the mare was none other than Pesrut, the mount of Theodosius, no less.
“I think it’s the centurion’s.”
Stuf snorted with laughter. “Poor Theo! But of course, he won’t walk. He’ll take someone else’s mount. But did he not know she’d foaled?”
Minna had told him days ago that she thought Pesrut was in foal but Theo had scoffed and said it was impossible. She hadn’t been near a stallion. She had got fat and lazy because he fed her too well. He had to beat her to keep her in her rightful place at the head of his soldiers. He had told Minna he was going to order a better animal.
Minna knew that it wasn’t uncommon for a mare to foal unexpectedly. She had lived in the fort all her life and, being obsessed with horses, she had spent all her spare time in the stables. She knew them all by name and character and had soaked up knowledge from the old army horsemaster. She knew far more now than any devil-may-care soldier and far more than Theo, who only knew how to ride. His slaves cared for his mare. The soldiers had the privilege (Minna thought it a privilege) of sleeping beside their horses in the stables. Not Theodosius, of course – being the commander of eighty men he had his own house and slaves to wait on him. But that didn’t make him any less stupid, Minna thought, not heeding what she had told him.
Minna longed to own a pony, but knew it would never happen, not to her. The family owned two oxen, which they used to till a small piece of land her father had inherited beyond the vicus, but they were boring animals. Nice-natured but boring. Cerdic had a hunting dog, like most boys. They ganged up and took their dogs into the forest to flush out deer and boar which they tried to spear, mostly unsuccessfully. It was a red letter day when they actually came back with a warm carcass. But Minna had nothing. I want this foal! she thought.
“The centurion will want his mare back,” Stuf said “Drink up, little foal. It’s probably your only chance.”
Not if I get my way! thought Minna.
“I’ll keep the mare in here until they come back,” Minna said. “I’ll hide her.”
“Not for long. Everyone knows what’s happened.”
Stuf went off, laughing. The foal was standing now on its own but, full of milk, it soon gently collapsed at the mare’s feet. Pesrut started licking him all over. Minna took off her saddle and bridle and started to brush away the sweat, smoothing the dark chestnut coat. The pony’s name meant “red cloak”. She was a cut above most of the cavalry animals, clearly with blood in her from the horses imported from the same country as their dark-skinned riders. Most of the ponies were native Britons, many from the North by the wall Hadrian built, bigger than southern ponies, rough things but very strong. But Pesrut had the pretty head and large lustrous eyes of the hot-blooded foreign horses. Perhaps her skinny little foal would take her beauty to add it to its willing heart, and become a great horse!
For Minna knew now that it would live.
Minna is just a blacksmith's daughter, yet she succeeds in raising a sickly abandoned foal, turning him into the pride of the Roman cavalry. Her stubborn determination and fiery nature burn brightly in the quiet fort of Othona and soon attract the secret admiration of the proud commander, Theo. When strong-willed Minna rescues an abandoned foal, she does not realise that he will become the pride of the Roman cavalry, nor the part they will play when her town is threatened by bloodthirsty pirates. Minna risks all as she sets out on a perilous journey to save her people. A gripping tale of passion, courage and adventure set in the vibrant historical setting of Roman England. With internet links to find out more about life in Roman Britain.
“'everything a children's book should be' ”
Newbury Weekly News
K. M. Peyton had her first novel published at the age of fifteen, "Sabre, Horse of the Sea". She has gone on to write more than 50 novels, including the award-winning "Flambards" tetralogy, for which she won the Carnegie Medal for "The Edge of the Cloud".
Visit www.kmpeyton.co.uk/ to find out more.
Read the following reviews or write one of your own.
“Minna's Quest No Turning Back Far From home”
The best children historic book I've ever read! I love the main character's stubborn admiration that encourages the commander is go through the whole story. And the thrilling adventures she had with her horse is fabulous. Actually I have no words to express my feelings about the whole series of these 3 books. It's magnificent and well written. Nice piece of work!!!!
This is a fabulous book. A real page turner! I loved the action and adventure of the book and found it thrilling. I would definitely recommend it to anyone. It is a teen Romance, Historical, Adventure, Pony Fiction Book. Fabulous!!!!!!!!!!!
“If I am completely honest I was fairly sceptical when I first picked up Minna’s Quest, the first book in a new series written by KM Peyton (famous for award winning ‘Flambards’). It seemed to revolve around horses - a creature that makes my eyes itchy and my skin red and lumpy. However, having enjoyed ‘Flambards’ I gave it a go - and I am very glad I did. Set in Roman times, ‘Minna’s Quest’ is a gentle but fast-paced story about a 14-year-old girl, something which I could relate to, who finds an abandoned and sick foal. Nursing it back to health, Minna’s foal soon grows into a beautiful and strong pony. But Minna’s village is under invasion from blood thristy pirates. Can Minna and her pony Silva save their fort? The blurb to this book sounds a little dull, but give it a chance, you won’t be disappointed! I can’t wait to read the next book. I’d recommend this to girls aged 10 - 16 years, for a fun read.”
Flapjack - Celeste Vey (age 13)
“'exciting, dramatic, occasionally tear-jerking and everything a children's book should be' ”
Newbury Weekly News
“K. M. Peyton is a prolific writer of pony stories and this is a pony story for a mature teenage girl - with the difference that is set in Roman times. ... This book gives a good picture of Roman Britain in the last days of the Roman Empire. The set-up of the Roman fort with the native village just outside is clearly explained. The opulence of Camuloden is contrasted with the simplicity of Othona. But the love of Minna for Silva and of Cerdic for his dog will mean that this book has a special meaning for animal lovers. Comes with a glossary and a map. For animal-loving teenage girls. ”
Historical Novels Review - Issue 46, November 2008
“Romantic and beautiful. It's brilliant. One of the best books I have ever read.”
Hannah Pizer - Student's review for Lancashire Book of the Year Award
“"This book shows courage, inspiration and determination."”
Kirsty Goodwill - Student's review - Lancashire Book of the Year Award
“A delight to read... I know for sure that my adolescent self would have loved this book... There is suspense and excitement of the kind that made me read the book in one sitting.”
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