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(184 B.C.)
Hard Ground

Early on a spring morning in the year after she turned eleven, Lavena’s father said, “Daughter, come with me today. Time you learn the work of men.”

She jumped up from the bench next to her mother at the loom and put on her sandals as fast as she was able. At last, it was her time. All older unmarried girls helped in the trades of their fathers. Her closest friend, Aunia, had already for months pounded hot iron into tools and belt buckles.

They rode bareback on her father’s mule, out and away from their Village on The Cliff. She knew this was the biggest, strongest mule in the region, had to be. Her father ruled over everyone within a half day’s ride.

She peered forward over his shoulder and smiled inside. She would have shouted for excitement, but girls did not do that in the presence of adults. It was time to ride with grownups, even with her father.

They passed goats and sheep, their herders and dogs, heading to that day’s pasture. The men smiled and waved, and her father waved back.

Another good thought tumbled in. Her father might spot his favorite guard dog, Little Bear, and whistle him over. White and shaggy with a black snout, every time Little Bear saw Lavena, he’d run to her, lick her face, and wag his tail furiously. Every time, she laughed out loud and let Little Bear rest his big paws on her shoulders.

Years before she had asked, “May we keep him at our house?”

“No, no. He belongs out here with my animals. He’s slain many wolves.”

But on this morning they did not spot Little Bear.

They reached a fallow plot marked off by low stone walls. An old farmer waited next to a heavy ard, but no animal to pull it.

From the back of the mule, Lavena saw only the top of the highest tower of her village. The distance made her uneasy. She silently scoffed at her fear. Everyone knew herdsmen or scouts farther out whistled warnings of any approaching wolves or strangers, and guard dogs patrolled the boundaries of her father’s territory.

The old farmer welcomed her with a nod, as if he knew she would be coming. He had a kind face, an expression that said he took great joy in preparing the dirt for new seed.  He quickly strapped the mule into a leather harness attached to the ard.

“Off you go.” Her father lifted her up and set her on the hard ground. “Walk beside us and watch, listen, so you can do what we do.”

He urged the mule forward while the old farmer pushed on the ard post to sink the pointed tip into the soil covered by old growth. From time to time, the two men switched places.

The going was slow, two or three paces before the tip stuck, and the mule could pull it no more. They backed up, one of the men tugged at the upturned clumps and dug around them with a well-worn spade. Then they started over.

Some places the soil was loose enough that the men let Lavena lean into the wooden ard post with all her weight and strength. The tip cut into the earth and broke it out and upward. That made her feel useful.

The next day after a line of good progress, Sinorix dismounted and said, “Get up here. You do it.”

Lavena grabbed the mane and pulled herself up. She slapped the reins onto the mule’s neck and kicked its sides with her sandaled heels. It moved out. Over the day it obeyed all her commands to go, stay in line, turn left or right, stop, or stop and back up a step to release the ard stuck again. Sometimes she walked by the mule or in front letting go of the reins, and it followed.

Satisfied, her father left them.

Lavena wanted to ask him to stay, wanted to say that if there was trouble she was too young and untrained. She glanced at the old farmer, who carried a big stick he used for prodding the mule, and again pushed away her fear.

From then on, Lavena worked the mule all day and rode it back to her village every evening. That made her feel a pride greater than she had ever known, not for riding—she had always been good at that—but that her father trusted her with this mule.

When the first plot was done, they moved to another nearby. After days of working with the farmer and the mule, she asked, “Does this hurt resting spirits of the dead before they come out of the ground again?”

He thought for a while, then, “No, no, Daughter of Sinorix. The spirits live down deep, deeper than the deepest silver mines in the south.”

She had heard talk of silver mines. “What’s a silver mine?”

“The spirits of the dead have great power, Daughter of Sinorix, greater than when they come to live among us. They cannot spin wool or cotton. But they turn the deep earth into gold and silver and push it up to the top, close to their kindred and friends. We must dig far down to get it, and clean away the rocks and dirt before it shines and lets us see our faces in it. The place where we dig is called a mine.”

That satisfied her, and she asked no more questions.

Lavena’s hands and fingers blistered, the blisters hardened, and her arms grew stronger from pulling on the reins and helping the farmer loosen the dirt when the ard stuck. Every evening, she wanted to stay out later and later, turn more dirt, until at last they reached the final small untilled corner of the last plot.

She had not seen him before, a solitary rider out of the late afternoon sun. No one whistled, no guard dog barked a warning. This one must have been a herder or scout coming in for the night. Maybe he would go in with them.

When closer, Lavena saw he wore a leather helmet, heavy leather jacket, and a short sword hung from his left side. She had seen men who looked like him, who were dressed the same, but never this close. Her villagers pointed at their backs and whispered—Romans.

“Old man, we’re short of mules. Unhitch it.” He said it loudly, confidently, in their language, but with a strong accent.

The old man said, “Sir, the mule is not mine to give away.”

The Roman looked down from under his leather helmet visor at the old man on the ard post, looked at the mule, slowly as if appraising its health and age, and then straight at Lavena sitting high on that mule. He licked his upper lip, the tongue reaching his nose. “The mule or this one, old man,” he said, pointing first at the mule and then at Lavena.

The farmer moved up between the Roman horse and Lavena’s mule. “Get off our land, you bastard son of a goat.” He clasped his long stick and stood ready to fight.

The soldier leaned forward in his saddle—and waited.

The old farmer jabbed the end of the stick into the horse’s snout, and it backed away shaking its head, snorting.

Lavena glanced in the direction of the village and could make out only smoke rising from late afternoon fires. No sheep or horses grazed near them. No herders or village scouts were in sight, not within shouting distance. A new feeling rose in her. This Roman must have watched them from a secluded clump of trees or a hill far away, and come up to them after all their protectors had left.

“Get away,” yelled the old man, and the horse backed up farther.

Lavena dared not get off her mule, dared not utter a sound. For a moment, she thought the Roman would not approach closer against the brandished pole, that he would leave.

But the soldier’s look hardened. He jumped out of his saddle, pulled his sword, and charged the farmer. The old man swung his big pole hard enough to whip the air. But he missed with first try, and the Roman ducked under the second swing. The hard swings made the old man turn away and exposed his back. The Roman plunged his sword into the old man’s side until only the hilt stopped it from going deeper. The soldier grunted, as the farmer gasped for air.

The old man’s loose gray top blossomed red. He screamed once, a short burst before all strength and air left him. He crumpled to his knees and fell face down onto the dirt. As he fell, the Roman pulled his sword, the shiny metal mixed with red wetness.

The mule kicked, but not high enough to topple Lavena. The soldier’s horse stood calmly. That felt wrong to her, as if his horse had seen this before.

She wrapped the reins tightly around one hand and grasped the mule’s hair with her other hand, didn’t know what else to do despite a great urge to do much more. She felt more than thought that if she held fast right there, this soldier could not make off with her, the mule and the ard attached to the mule. To take the mule, he had to unhitch it. To take her, he had to get her off.

The Roman stepped on the shoulder of the farmer, then on his head, grinding it into the ground. Lavena did not want to look, but could not help looking. It was all too close, and the horror, poised to turn her way, drew her in.

The old man wheezed through his last breaths, blood from his face and mouth darkening the freshly-turned dirt in his mouth and under his chin. Though face down, his arms reached up and out, hands still opening and closing on his stick up above his head and trying to swing it at the legs of the one who had done this.

The soldier kicked the walking stick away and turned to the mule and Lavena. “Eia! Quid hoc?” Then in her language, “Well, what do we have here?” He laughed a laugh of triumph. “From back a ways, I thought you a boy—not a boy, eh? I’ll show you why we keep our women inside, and why your Keltoi men here in Hispania know nothing—stupid barbari—letting their girls out.”

She knew that strangers from far away referred to her people by the Greek Keltoi and her land as Hispania, but that other word—barbari—she did not know. The rest of what he said flashed white hot, flashed of what strange soldiers did to young girls when their fathers and husbands lay dead. She and Aunia had talked of such things, and her mother had many times told her to run from strange men.

She pushed those flashes away. That could not happen, not here, not now, not to her.

The flashes did not go away. They grew brighter, hotter, into a white whirling panic. But she knew she had to do something, anything, to jump off on the other side and run or yell…something.

He strode to the mule and Lavena, dripping sword hanging from his right hand. He reached his big hand for her thigh.

She tried to lift her leg out of the way. His free hand caught her above the elbow, and pulled down hard, harder than any pull she had ever felt. Her tight hold on the shortened reins and hair of the mule prevented her from getting pulled off—though only for an instant.

The soldier hoisted her arm and shoulders up and away. That push, too sudden and too much reinforced by her own pulling away, spilled her off the mule on the other side. Her hands still held the mane and allowed her to stay upright and land on her feet. The tumble, landing on her feet, a moment to think took away the panic.

The big body of the mule shielded her from him. While wrestling boys and girls many times, she had learned that a wall at the back or a horse around which to duck and dodge gave some protection. If he came around, she could duck under the mule and run away from the other side. If he ducked under the belly of the mule, she’d have a head start.

His eyes across the back of her mule, wide open and unblinking, made her say in the firmest voice she could muster, “Here, this place, is the land of my father. You must leave now.” She said it again in her learned Latin, “Excede statim! Ager patris mei hic est.”

He frowned when she spoke in his language, had not expected this. He looked around too. They weren’t that far from the village, with some daylight left. She sensed this killer had not decided what he was going to do next.

She looked for anything on the ground, anywhere, looked for the best route to run. All the stones had been collected up and set along the edges of the field, the nearest line of rocks and boulders too far off. She slid off her sandals, might be able to outrun him to her village. She ran as fast as most of the boys her age and some of the older ones. And this one had heavy boots and heavy clothes and that sword. If she could get a start on him, if—.

The soldier laughed. He had decided, and his laugh was of the kind that had brought on the white terror. He reached his free hand across the back of the mule and beckoned with his fingers for her to come to his side. At the same time he leaned to his right, then to his left and laughed some more as she took a step the opposite way. He leaned up on the mule’s back and said something she did not understand, but the sounds through the words he made—low rasping grunts—how he breathed—short bursts out of his mouth–told her everything.

He brought the sword up with his other hand and jabbed it at her face, snorted, and ran around the front of the mule.

But Lavena had turned away and into a full sprint on the shortest path to her village, yelling, screaming, shouting with all her might.

A new sound, from behind between her own bursts, did not register. Were there more men running her down now? Had he too kicked off his boots? She yelled louder.

A fast shluffing of soft feet on the ground mixed with the clomping of his boots running after her. A deep growl smothered the shluffing, and the clomping of boots ended.

And she got it. The thump of a body hitting the ground, the growling turned to snarling, then big teeth ripping skin, muscle and sinew, a bone cracking and screams of sharp pain.

She dared to slow enough to look back, and then stopped, stared. A giant white dog had him by the elbow and arm, he on his back. The big dog threw him from side to side. With his free hand, the soldier tried to punch the shaggy shoulders and neck, mere slaps on the enraged guard dog.

Lavena turned away and did not stop running until she reached the family house.

Fighters from her village found the mule, the ard, the dead farmer in the same place and reported what they found to the many villagers gathered. Lavena and her mother, Edereta, waited with them.

Little Bear lay by the mule, the soldier’s sword flat under his front paws. His muzzle was bloody, but the rest of him unmarred. They said that, by all the tracks and markings, Little Bear had let the soldier run to his horse and flee when Lavena was safe. One of them said for all around him to hear, “Little Bear grinned at what he had done.”

Lavena allowed herself to imagine Little Bear grinning. The big dog would do that.

Haltingly, suppressing tears of anger and fear, clasping her hands tightly to hide their shaking, Lavena said to her mother and the men and women around her, “He”—she realized she had never learned the old farmer’s name—“yelled at me to run, and I obeyed. He fought that bad man with his mule stick for a long time. That bad man never touched me. Then Little Bear came, and I was safe, and ran in as fast as I could.”

She knew that was not true, not all of it, but she wished it, and it felt better to tell it that way. The old farmer would have done that if he could, if they had both been ready for the killing treachery of the stinking Roman.




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