No Fantasy About These Survival Techniques

A question that frequently seems to occur to readers is whether any research, and if so how much and of what kind, went into the writing of The North Beyond.  This was addressed briefly in the FAQ section of the website and as noted there, I can say that very little, if any, actual research was necessary (I’m a great believer in the power of applied imagination) although certain aspects of the story were underpinned by personal knowledge backed up by reference to a few very useful books whose titles are listed.

It’s true that knowledge of the kind of equipment a Roman legionary, the typical squaddie of his day, would have been expected to carry, the combined weight of this, plus the kinds of physical activity expected on a regular basis while carrying it, underlies much of what the story requires Maesrhon to achieve.

Recently it struck me that some more information on this kind of thing might be of interest to readers – both those who’ve already finished the book and who want more detail, and those currently reading who might like to know more about the exploits of one of the main characters.  Just how was it possible for Maesrhon to travel so far, and for so long, completely alone?

Well, let’s start with those Roman soldiers.  This what each man carried.

Arms and armour: a gladius (this is a two-foot long stabbing sword); a pilum (this is a seven-foot long javelin with a wooden shaft and iron head); a rectangular curved shield (made of wood, covered with leather and panelled in either iron or bronze); a dagger; an iron helmet; body armour made of leather and metal.

Equipment: a saw, an axe, a trenching tool, a metal hook, rope, a wicker basket, a sickle and chain, a bucket and various items of cooking equipment.

Food: three days’ rations for one man; and water.

The total weight of all this has been estimated at somewhere between 60 and 100 lbs, a maximum of roughly half a hundredweight.

Now, their levels of physical fitness.

For a start, they trained with double-weight weapons to build stamina and strength.

They were expected to be able to run at the double, jump ditches and vault fences.

They had to be able to march twenty Roman miles (a Roman mile was measured at one thousand paces, so would have been nearer to the modern kilometre than a modern mile) in five hours of a summer day (in other words, in extreme conditions) at normal marching speed and twenty-four Roman miles at a faster marching speed.

Remember too that they weren’t marching along smooth modern tarmac.  If they were on a road at all, it would have been one built by the army.  Most of the time they’d have been crossing open country (and we’re not talking modern farmland here), frequently hostile country harbouring what we’d think of as guerrilla fighters.

At the end of each day, if still in the open, they didn’t simply pitch camp.  They constructed a fort, however temporary.  This meant digging an extensive ditch and rampart (hence the need to carry a trenching tool) in order to maximise whatever defensive position they had chosen.  Look at any aerial map of almost any area of what was the Roman empire and you’ll see the outlines of countless numbers of these forts – sometimes soldiers even constructed them for training purposes, when out on exercise.

No wonder the Roman army was such a formidable organisation, not just in its own time (when it was effectively unique) but even by today’s standards.  (Incidentally the SAS, when doing their famous or notorious ‘yomp’ across the Brecon Beacons, must cover 37 miles on foot in 20 hours with a half-cwt pack.  Interestingly comparable!)

There are any number of websites about the Roman army, all of which are extremely interesting.  For a quick overview of what an individual soldier carried, take a look at www.lore-and-saga.co.uk and you’ll get the general idea.

Now let’s have a look at Maesrhon.  We can assume he was pretty strong and physically fit, otherwise he wouldn’t have been accepted into the auxiliaries in Caradward during his military service – and he passed out with top honours.  He’d done at least two stints with old Torald, the backwoodsman to whom he was introduced when fostered with Ardeth in Salfgard.  From him he picked up all kinds of invaluable lessons in survival techniques, hunting and gathering, reading the lie of the land, the weather and so on.  There’s lots more on all this in the course of the story, mostly if not exclusively in Book 2.

What you won’t get in the published text is exactly what Maesrhon was wearing and what he was carrying with him on his long solo journey.

Weapons, yes.  We know he had the knife made for him by Ardeth (details about this, and how it was special, are to be found in the story) and two throwing-knives.  He also had his stave, which of course could be used in walking, climbing and vaulting, as a weapon if necessary and as a digging-stick.  In addition he carried a sling, two bowstaves and a quiver of arrows.  The quiver hung at one side of his pack, the bowstaves at the other.  Slingstones would have been collected as required and any surplus carried in a bag.  He didn’t have a sword, for reasons which are explained in the text!

Now, the pack.  Like many of the items Maesrhon carried, this was designed to serve more than one purpose, so as to lighten his total load as far as possible.  It was made of tightly-woven, hardwearing fibre, sealed with waxy proofing to make it waterproof.  He’d discovered these techniques in the course of his contacts with the Outlanders, as well as from Torald – see narrative for more!  The pack was constructed in such a way that it could be dismantled and turned into a basic shelter: a kind of tube-like, one-man tent.  This was done by removing and re-arranging its metal bracing-rods.  These had threaded ends so that they could take points, thus also serving as harpoons and spits for cooking.  In addition they could form a tripod over a fire and could also be used to brace a small windbreak, made of the same material as the pack.  Since the windbreak was also waterproof, with the use of the bracing-rods it could form a protection against rain (in addition to, or separately from, the tent: for example when heating food).

Inside the pack were several soft leather hides, tied into a roll, together with a supply of spare boot soles, a horn cup and spoon, a wooden fork, a wide and shallow metal plate, a spearhead, two coils of rope, and several strange metal objects, cup-shaped with three long spikes protruding from them.  If you’re wondering what these were, and what Maesrhon used them for, you need to read the book!  Also in the pack were the more substantial of the rations he carried with him, selected for light weight and sustenance above savour or taste.  Meal (probably oatmeal), salt, beans, dried cured meat and dried fruit formed the bulk of them.  All these would have been used as sparingly as possible because in most cases, once they were gone, it would not have been possible to replace them.  For exceptions, see the book!

Moving on now to what Maesrhon was wearing.  You can be sure that his garments were plain and without any kind of decoration, but well-made, of good quality and robustly constructed.  They were so designed as to fulfil many purposes: to protect him from cold and wet, while still keeping him from fainting in the heat; and to be readily restored or repaired when there was little time or tools to spare for such tasks. 

His tunic was made of leather, falling to mid-thigh, with a hood of the same weather-proofed fabric as the pack.  When not in use, this hood formed a folded collar.  It had a peak and face-guard, both of which could be pinned back.  The sleeves and also the breast of the tunic could be removed in warmer weather by unlacing the thongs at shoulder and neck, thus creating either a sleeveless jerkin or even simply a harness to protect his back from the pack he carried.  Under the tunic was a shirt of thinner, softer leather, with linen below next the skin. 

Maeshron’s breeches were of supple leather, cross-gartered below the knee to fit into knee-high boots. At the outside of the thigh were pockets stored with items which were light in weight but valuable in a fight for life: a water-tight package of tinder, some snares, tallow and wicks; a small, cylindrical bone box containing needles, waxed thread, some fishhooks and a folding knife; a hank of twine and several leather thongs.  Below these pockets, the lower part of the breeches could be removed in the same way as the sleeves of the tunic.

At the outer side of each boot a holder was sewn into the leather, into which Maesrhon fitted his double-sided throwing knives.  Within, the boots were lined with a layer of soft grasses; and the soles wrapped over the uppers, moccasin-fashion.  They could be removed entirely in order to lace on replacements, or simply loosened for sleep when danger threatened so that the feet were eased while readiness for action was quickly achieved.

Cross-wise from each shoulder to hip, Maesrhon wore two stout leather straps.  As readers discover, he modified these by sewing on to them a series of pouches and containers.  These held snares, fishhooks and gorges, arrowheads, tinder and flints, an axe head, thongs, needles, small knives, slings, a rolled-up leather water-bottle and a whetstone.  Many of these items he purchased secretly from his friend Sigitsinen’s father – see Part 2 for how this came about!  One of the pouches also contained two days’ survival rations, medicines and a small selection of equipment to sustain life in direst need.  At the end of each strap was a stout metal hook.  Attached to one of these was a small bag of slingstones, and to the other an extra water-bottle.  A third length of rope was also coiled around him over one shoulder.

Of course Maesrhon also wore a leather belt.  Here he carried an axe and a second spearhead, both secured in leather holsters; a water-bottle; his sling and his knife in its stout sheath.  At the belt there was also a third pouch containing the items of a basic survival kit.

You’ll notice that he’d done everything he could to guard against being left defenceless in an emergency by carrying no fewer than three separate survival packs in three different places: one at the belt, one on a shoulder strap and another in a thigh pocket.

Fire was something Maesrhon always treated with great respect, only lighting one if he felt it was safe and tending it with care.  Fuel was no problem in wooded country but what about where trees were scarce?  Here he had a trick up his sleeve he’d learnt from Torald.  When possible, he carried with him four carefully matched small logs of hardwood.  He would arrange them cross-wise so that their charred ends caught quickly when tinder was kindled between them; then he would feed with turf the embers which the slow-burning logs sustained, and each day the wood was twisted into the ground to quench it and moved on to the next night’s resting-place.  Like almost everything else he carried, even the firelogs did double duty.  If the ground was wet but the night warm, Maesrhon could set them into the earth, charred points downward, and lay the firescreen on them to make a dry sleeping platform.  During the day, he slung them beneath his pack.

Total estimated weight of what Maesrhon carried and wore?  Minimum 50lbs, maximum 60lbs.  Average daily mileage, on foot and across country, about 20 miles.  Tough going, certainly, but not impossible as our ancient Roman and modern SAS man show.

And of course if you’d like to know how far he walked, where he went, why he went and what he was looking for, there’s only one answer.  Read The North Beyond!