About the Author
Rosemary Sutcliff wrote more than 40 novels for young adults, including Black Ships Before Troy, The Wanderings of Odysseus, and The Eagle of the Ninth; five adult novels, including Sword at Sunset; and several books of nonfiction. Scott O'Dell wrote over thirty books, mostly historical fiction, including the perennial bestseller Island of the Blue Dolphins.
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The Mark of the Horse Lord
By Rosemary Sutcliff
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 1994 Anthony Lawton
All rights reserved.
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-beast 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 cockcrow, the June sun was shining and a fresh wind blowing in from the moors to set the brightly colored 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 arbor 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 practice 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, 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 death blow, 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! Jolly 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 pleased," 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 den 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. They both looked away....
In the ordinary way, the Master of a frontier circus could not afford to use up his gladiators too fast, but Sylvanus Varus, 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. He 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 whom 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 swordfighters, 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 color 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 molded 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 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 honor. 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?"
They grinned back, one or two tossing up their weapons in mock salute. "Understood, Automedon! Understood, Noble Captain!"
"That's well." His face lost something of its grimness in a gleam of humor. "This new Governor is fresh out from Rome, and maybe he doesn't expect much from a frontier circus, so show him that even if he has seen bigger fights in the Colosseum, man for man the Corstopitum lads can give Rome a bloody nose any day of the week!"
They shouted for him then in good earnest, tossing up swords and javelins as though to Caesar himself, and while their shouts still rang hollow under the roof beams, Phaedrus heard the silver crowing of the trumpets, and the grinding clang as the Arena doors were flung wide.
Automedon turned on his heel with a rapped-out command, and the Arena guard stood back on each side of the broad stone stairway that led up to the open air. Two by two, the gladiators stepped off and swung forward.
Phaedrus shortened his stride at the foot of the stairway, clipped steps, head up, sword drawn and shield at the ready. The lamplit gloom fell away behind, and the light of day came down to them with the swelling voice of the crowd. They were out from the echoing shadows of the arched stairway into the sudden space and wind and sunshine of the Arena, the yielding sand underfoot, the greeting of the multitude bursting upon them in a solid wave of sound, hoarse under the clash of the cymbals and the high strident crowing of the trumpets. They swung left to circle the Arena, falling into the long swaggering pace of the parade march, past the Altar of Vengeance at which they had sacrificed at first light, as always before the Games; past the mouth of the beast dens, past the dark alleyway giving onto the rooms where the Syrian doctor and his salves were waiting to deal with such of the wounded as seemed worth trying to save, past the shovels and sandboxes and the Mercuries with their little flapping gilded wings and long hooks. Phaedrus looked up, seeing the tiered benches of the amphitheater packed to their topmost skyline: Roman and Briton, townsfolk and tribesmen, easy figures in purple-bordered tunics in the Magistrates' Gallery, and every-where — for Corstopitum was a depot town for the frontier — the russet red cloth and glinting bronze of the Legions. Faces stared down at them, hands clutched the barriers in the excitement of what was to come. The usual flowers and sweetmeats began to shower down upon favorite gladiators. Phaedrus caught a white briar rose in the hollow of his shield, and flashed his trained play actor's gesture of thanks up at the fat woman in many jewels who had thrown it.
Full circle round the wide rim of the Arena, they were close beneath the Governor's box now. Automedon snapped out a command, and they clashed to a halt and wheeled to face the big bull-necked man who leaned there with the glowing winered folds of his cloak flung back from the embossed and gilded breastplate beneath: Caesar's new representative, the giver of the Games. Their weapons flashed up in the windy sunlight, and they raised the full-throated shout, as though Caesar himself had leaned there.
"Hail Caesar! Those about to die salute you!"
Then they were breaking away to take station round the barricades. Phaedrus swung his shield into its resting position behind his shoulder and, straddling his legs, stood with hands on hips, deliberately wearing his courage at a rakish angle. That was what the crowd liked to see; the crowd that had come to watch him or Vortimax die.
The attendant Mercuries were hauling back the bars that closed the dark mouth of the dens, and the proud ten-point stag came flying in, half mad already with fear of the wolf-smell in his nostrils, and a few moments later the wolves were loosed after him. Six wolves in a dark low-running pack. He killed two with his terrible antlers and left them ripped and broken on the bloody sand, before the rest pulled him down to a red rending death amid a great yelling from the onlookers. The bodies were dragged away; a third wolf who lay snapping and snarling with a broken back was finished off by one of the Mercuries. The remaining three were decoyed back to their cages for use another day, and fresh sand was spread over the stains in the Arena. After that came the boxing match, and the big sham fight which pleased the crowd better, especially when blood began to flow — for despite Automedon's orders, there was seldom a sword-fight that did not end in a few deaths and maimings. Now it was the turn of the Net-and-Trident men, and all across the Arena they and the swordsmen matched against them were zigzagging like mayflies in a wicked dance of death.
Suddenly Phaedrus realized that the open expanse before him was empty of tense and running figures, the Mercuries with their hooks were dragging another dead man away, and for the last time the filthy sand was being raked over and the worst of the stains covered.
And he thought in a perfectly detached way, "Our turn now."
The trumpets were crowing again, and, as one man, the chosen eight strode out from their station close under the Governor's box to the center of the Arena where Automedon now stood waiting for them.
They were being placed in pairs, ten paces apart and with no advantage of light or wind to either. It was all happening very quickly now; from the Governor's box came the white flutter of a falling scarf, and the trumpets were sounding the "Set on."
Phaedrus took the customary two steps forward and one to the left, which was like the opening move in a game of draughts, and brought sword and shield to the ready. With that movement he ceased to be aware of the other pairs, ceased even to be aware of the suddenly hushed onlookers. Life sharpened its focus, narrowed to a circle of trampled sand, and the light-fleck of Vortimax's eyes behind the slits of his visor. ("Watch the eyes," Automedon had said on the very first day in the training school. "Always be aware of the sword hand, but watch the eyes.") They were circling warily, crouching behind their bucklers, ready to spring. Phaedrus's head felt cold and clear and his body very light, as it always did the moment the fight began, whether in earnest or in practice. Practice. He had fought out so many practice bouts with Vortimax. The surface of his mind knew that this was different, that this was kill or be killed, but something in him refused to believe it. This could be no more than a trial of skill between himself and Vortimax; and afterwards they would slam the swords back into the arms rack, and laugh and go off to the wine booth together. ... He made a sudden feint, and the Gaul came in with a crouching leap. Their blades rang together in thrust and counter thrust, a fierce flurry that struck out sparks from the gray iron into the windy sunlight. The sand rose in little clouds and eddies round their feet; they were circling and weaving as they fought, each trying to get the sun behind him and the dazzle of it in the other's eyes. Phaedrus felt the hornet-sting of the other's blade nick his ribs, and sprang back out of touch. Vortimax was pressing after him and, giving back another step before the darting blade, he knew that the Gaul's purpose was to drive him against the barricade, where he would have no space to maneuver. He could sense the wooden barrier behind him, some way off still, but waiting — waiting — and side-sprang clear, at the same time playing a thrust over the shield that narrowly missed the other's shoulder. "A feint at the head, a cut at the leg, and come in over the shield with a lunge." Automedon's voice sounded in his inner ear as he had heard it so often at practice. The crowd was crying "Habet!" as a fighter went down; and almost at once the shout was repeated, one wave crashing on the tail of another, and the Mercuries were dragging two bodies away. Only two pairs left now. Phaedrus knew it, on the outer edge of his consciousness, but it had no meaning for him; it was beyond the narrow circle of trampled sand and the sparks of living danger behind the eye-slits of Vortimax's visor. They had returned for a while to more cautious play, and the blades rang together lightly, almost exploringly; but they had no need to explore, they knew each other's play too well. It was that, partly, that made the whole fight seem faintly unreal, a fight in a dream. And the sense of unreality took the edge from Phaedrus's sword-play; he knew it, and tried to break through, and could not.
Excerpted from The Mark of the Horse Lord by Rosemary Sutcliff. Copyright © 1994 Anthony Lawton. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
1 The Threshold,
2 Corstopitum by Night,
3 Midir of the Dalriadain,
4 The House of the Fighting Cocks,
5 Frontier Post,
7 The Road to Dun Monaidh,
8 The King Slaying,
9 "I Stand with My Friends",
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,
Afterword by Scott O'dell,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I first read this book in my twenties, and it remains in my top 10, no matter the intended audience. Her historical fiction is amazing.
I read "Mark of the Horse Lord" when I was in middle school, and it became my idea of perfect historical fiction. Rosemary Sutcliff make ancient Britain move and breathe. You will find yourself rooting for Phaedrus as if he were a younger brother. Details of daily life along with a spellbinding story combine to create a trip to the past from the comfort of an armchair. The ending is perhaps a little sad for a younger child, but it's perfectly in keeping with the realities of those times. This story defines a hero as a hero should be defined -- not as the smartest or most beautiful or luckiest person, but as the leader that puts the good of his group above his own. A great message in our times where greed is admired over truth.
This is a wonderful book my children, wh are all now in their twenties, tell me they still remember vividly the summer that I read this book aloud to them, and that they wept when I read the ending (the ending will break your heart). It is the story of Phaedrus, a half-Briton, half-Greek slave who is sold to a gladiator school in Roman Britain when he is a teenager, and who wins his freedom in a gladitorial contest where he must kill his best friend. When he is given the Wodden Foil, he has no idea what he can do, now that he is free, because he has been a slave all his life. He is sought out by a group of Chiefta from the northern part of the British island, who are Irish Gaels in what will become Scotland. Phaedrus is almost identical in appearance to the former prince of the tribe, Midir, who was deposed by Lidiane, a ruthless Queen who had Midir blinded so that he could not be her successor. The chieftains are plotting her overthrow, and they coach Phaedrus to impersonate Midir and take over the tribe, to become the Horse Lord. He goes north, and learns to love his adopted people as he leads them, and he falls in love with Murna, Lidiane's daughter, who is forced to marry Phaedrus/Midir, but who gradually comes to love him as well. He leads the tribe in battle, and wins, and then disaster strikes. The story is fast-paced, and wonderfully researched. Sutcliff vividly recreates Roman Britain around 200 AD. You really feel that these people lived, and you come to know them as complex characters. Phaedrus especially remains in your memory long after the book is finished. A great book for both children and adults!!