Series: Roman Pony Trilogy: Book 2
By K. M. Peyton
Minna walked slowly, miserably, along the beach. The autumn day was still and cool, although the sun was hining. The sea was calm, tawny-gold over the sands
and mud, the horizon blending hazily into the sky, and nothing moved on the surface, not even the ship that was bringing the worst news in the world. She lay
two or three miles offshore, her sails hanging, drifting on the tide.
“I hope the wind never blows. I hope they stay there for ever,” Minna said to herself.
But soon, she knew, they would out oars and the slaves would start rowing and the ship would come into the fort. The commander, Theodosius Valerian Aquila, would go out on the quay to welcome it, his dark eyes glittering with joy.
Minna felt her eyes stinging with tears. “Theo, don’t go! I can’t live without you!” She kicked angrily at the shells that crunched beneath her bare feet. Coming the other way, collecting driftwood, was one of the village boys, Stuf. Minna scowled at him, but the amiable Stuf was not deterred.
He nodded towards the ship offshore.
“Are you invited to the party?”
“Only to work in the kitchen, what do you think? I might get to eat some leftovers if I’m lucky.”
“I thought, as the commander’s favourite, you might get a place at table.”
He wanted her to rise to the bait. She was known in the fort as the commander’s favourite because, way back, before his father had died and Theo had been forced into authority, they had been playmates together and Theo, although he was now twenty, still gave Minna access to his villa and confided in her as a friend. Quite outside Roman protocol. Not that Theo had ever been to Rome since his childhood. The cold eastern shore of Britain was the only home he really knew. Now that he was the commander of the fort, his close friendship with Minna made her mother very angry. “It’s not your place to be familiar with the commander. You will get yourself a bad name. And he should know better than to encourage you.”
“He doesn’t encourage me!”
“He gives you access. That is enough. No one else speaks to him as you do.”
But he made no move to flirt with her. He never touched her, nor made her hopeful that he might regard her as more than just a friend. He had given her a beautiful ruby ring from a hoard he had captured from pirates, which Minna had tried to think was more than just a token from a childhood playmate. But now she knew better. He had never referred to it again. Her mother, sadly, had no reason to be uneasy.
Minna loved Theo with a fierce, unrequited passion. But Theo’s boss Tiberius, the tribune from Camulodunum, was sailing in now to arrange Theo’s posting. Theo wanted desperately to be ordered north to where the fighting was, where the wild men from Scotia were forever charging the great wall that the emperor Hadrian had built to keep them out. They were enemies worth his salt. Everyone supposed Tiberius would agree to let him go. Theo was on tenterhooks to have the posting signed and sealed, which would happen over the banquet when the tribune’s ship arrived on the high tide.
“Poor Minna!” Stuf said kindly, taking in her misery. “When he goes, you will forget him. Then you can marry me.”
This made Minna laugh. “You! And sleep on the beach and live on stewed goose! My mother thinks I aim too high, but I don’t think she would consider you, dear Stuf.”
He laughed. Stuf was a beachcomber and lived off his wits. Minna liked him for his independence and good humour. He had no family but was never short of friends, being so amiable and willing to give a hand where needed. Most of the local lads were glad to join the Roman army when they were old enough, but not Stuf. “I want my own life,” he said, even when the gorgeous smell of roasting boar for the soldiers’ meal floated over the fort from the cookhouse door.
“You might not be the only one to regret the commander’s going. He’s too good a soldier to be stuck in a backwater like this. Who knows who will replace him? Some old Roman pensioner from Camulodunum, I bet, who will make us dance to his tune.”
Minna groaned. “He won’t like it here, not after Camulodunum.”
Their fort, Othona, was miles from anywhere, even from a decent road. There was no town, only the fort stuck like a sore thumb on the flat sea marsh, home to eight hundred cavalry and a host of the usual hangerson – local people who had gathered in the huts around the walls to trade and work for the army. Inside the fort, inside its two-metre-thick walls, were barracks, stables, granaries, mess rooms, kitchens, workshops and homes. The commander had his own villa in the centre and his own servants and slaves. It was a small town in its way. But its streets were narrow, its buildings tight-packed, open space non-existent. Quarrels and gossip festered in the confinement. Minna had been to Camulodunum and knew now how other people lived, had seen for herself the great buildings: the forum and the temple of Claudius, the wide streets, the wonderful shops, the amphitheatre and all the fine villas set in beautiful gardens…anyone used to all that would go mad in Othona.
“Perhaps he will like the seaside, the fishing…what else can I think of?”
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.”
It had been fun as children – the freedom, the creeks in the mud to dam to make mock harbours and fill with little ships made of driftwood and seaweed, to make them race on the current. Then when that palled, to turn to covering each other with mud, and then swimming it off. Always swimming; they were like fish in the sea. Theo too had been a part of it when he could get away from his lessons and then he was the leader in their japes, getting them all into trouble. Himself especially. He was regularly beaten, mainly for skipping lessons to play. But now he could converse in several languages and do the accounts for the granaries in his head and draw maps of all the known world, read Ovid and Plato and write his own poetry. His playmates could none of them write and scarcely could they read. Their native tongue came easily enough and their Latin too, because it was the language of the fort, but they couldn’t understand the tongues used by many of the soldiers. They came from everywhere and many were dark-skinned from Africa. Theo’s own family language was incomprehensible. Sometimes he would laugh and speak to Minna in his native tongue, to tease, and she would pretend he was saying he loved her.
“Well, our Theodosius will be well pleased to get away from here, I’m sure,” Stuf said. “The idiot is dying to go off and get killed fighting – there’s no accounting for taste. Praise be to Jupiter I had more sense than to join the army like Cerdic.”
Cerdic, Minna’s brother, had joined up as soon as he was old enough and left his cosy home behind the blacksmith’s shop for the barracks up the street. He had had a rough time, Minna knew, and was now fairly disenchanted with his lot. He was out there now mixing mortar for the wall repairs. How he felt about leaving for the North to fight the men from Scotia Minna had no idea. He had always been a quite
peaceful, if discontented, boy. As she, Minna, was discontented. If she could join the army and stay beside Theo wherever he went, even to the dangerous North, she would be happy enough.
“Cheer up, Minna!”
Stuf laughed. But kindly. He could see Minna had tears in her eyes. She was such a crazy girl! Any man who ever tamed her wild spirit would be a lucky man indeed, Stuf thought. But anyone with any sense could see that the commander was bound to look higher than Minna for a partner, although Stuf guessed that he would be hard put to find a closer soulmate. As children there had been a bond between them which had not broken. Stuf, who was so sensitive to living things, having eschewed the clangorous life of the fort, knew why Theo gave Minna a special respect. In his own way he was bound to her, although he could not admit it. It was love of a kind. Of course, Minna wanted more; she found it hard to appreciate what she already had. Stuf was deeply sympathetic.
“See if you can smuggle me out a bit of banquet, Minna, if you’re serving at table. I’m tired of fish. A few honey cakes and figs in wine – it’s hard to pick up such goodies out here.”
“I’ll do my best.”
She smiled. They walked along the beach together towards where Stuf had his small boat pulled up. He laid fish traps and sold his catch to housewives. He smelled of fish and salt and sweat, and wore nothing but a tattered hessian tunic with plaited reeds for a belt.
“I’ll look you out a better tunic too. The ones the soldiers throw out are better than yours. Winter is coming, after all.”
Out at sea the tribune’s ship was starting to move again, the sails now lowered and the oars being put to work. The tide was covering the marsh and starting to lap at the quayside on the seaward side of the fort. Minna made her way back, as she was soon to be on duty at the banquet and had to change into a decent stola. But she knew Theo would be going out on the quay to meet the ship, and if she contrived to walk home via the quay and Theo’s villa she stood a good chance of meeting him. So she made her way back to the seaward side of the fort and went in at the gate that gave on to the quay. Already the guard was mustering and the ship, under its bank of sweeping oars, was making rapid progress in from the sea. She knew the slaves were chained to their oars and would not be released from their places until the ship sailed again the next day – not even then if the sea was still calm – so what had she to be miserable about? At least she had been born into a free family and even if they weren’t Roman citizens they were free to do what they pleased. Cerdic would be rewarded with Roman citizenship when he left the army in twenty-five years’ time, but Minna didn’t think he would last that long. He was always moaning. But it had been his choice to join the army. No one was pressed. Stuf had his rights and had chosen to be what most people considered a derelict. But Minna thought he was rich in ways no one could count.
The street was crowded with soldiers making to their posts and workmen out to get a glimpse of the important visitors – anything, Minna thought, to relieve the tedium! But her pulse was quickening too, for as she came down the central street she saw that her timing was perfect, for Theo and his entourage were just coming down the steps of his villa to go out to the quay. His own bodyguard, the finest swordsmen in the army, were lined up in their best uniforms, leather and metal shining over uncommonly clean tunics, helmets gleaming, preceding the commander himself in his rarely worn white toga, symbol of authority. The snow-white drapery flattered his golden-dark skin, black hair and even blacker, alert eyes. How splendid he looked! All this to impress the tribune, to get the tribune to give in to his request to go north to where the fighting was…what an idiot he was! Minna thought. A lump came into her throat. If he smiled at her now she would burst into tears.
But he went past without seeing her in the throng, and the trumpets rang out from the ramparts as the slaves shipped their oars and the vessel glided expertly alongside the quay on the other side of the wall. Minna ran for home and was scolded by her mother for leaving it so late.
“We should be in the kitchen by now! Where have you been? Hurry now, get dressed!”
Minna scurried to make herself respectable. Theo would notice her. She brushed out the cloud of her thick hay-blonde hair that she normally confined in braids and quickly rubbed chalk into her too-bright cheeks. Not enough for her mother to notice. Then, with her mother grasping her hand, she was hurried back to the commander’s villa to start work.
When Minna’s true love Theo leaves the lonely fort of Othona for the big city, Minna cannot bear to be left behind and steals away on her beloved pony, Silva, to follow him. But she has no idea that her actions will condemn Theo to fight a deadly duel – with her life as the prize. Passion, courage and determination burn brightly in Minna’s second adventure, from a classic author. Set in a beautifully atmospheric Roman world, this classic story will enchant girls looking for action, adventure and romance. 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.
“**** Four star review.”
“"No Turning Back" is the second in the fantastic Roman Pony series by K.M. Peyton. Set in Roman Britain, "No Turning Back" follows the exploits of daring heroine Minna as she runs away from her home, on her beloved pony Silva, to an exciting and dangerous adventure. ”
“'...exciting, dramatic, occasionally tear-jerking and everything a children's book should be' ”
Newbury Weekly News
“I enjoyed parts of this story but I am not that keen on books set in the past. I liked the fights and the adventurous stuff, but I wasn't too sure about the things that were happening because of when the book was set. This would be a great book for someone who likes reading about the past and likes an adventure story. ”
Teen reader's review in Teen Titles