The carts rattled down the dirt track, swaying as the wheels hit potholes and ruts. I hadn’t had much chance to count them, but I guessed there were over 50 carts in our procession. We’d been travelling for days now, the landscape around us changing. Gone were the lush forests of my homeland, and now the smell of the sea hung heavy in the air. Our destination was unknown, and that frightened me. I wanted my mother. I’m only nine so it’s not strange to still want my mother, is it?
Mother and I had been hiding in our home when the Roman men had attacked our village, burning our huts to the ground, stealing our jewels and riches, hurting our men and women. I’d tried to grab my mother, to cling to her so we wouldn’t be separated, but two men had pulled me away from her, another two men held her in place. I’d kicked at the dirt under my feet, struggled to get away, screaming my mother’s name. It had been futile. Tears had been streaming down her cheeks as she’d tried to fight off the men holding her, my name slipping from her lips as she called out to me through the screams and yells of my people as we were pulled from our home. Members of my village were thrown into cages on carts. The gold locket around mother’s neck, a gift from my father, swung around as she struggled. The men had dirtied her emerald green dress as they’d thrown her to the floor when they’d stormed our home. Mother hadn’t had the time to yell at me to seek shelter elsewhere, the men had been too quick.
I was last in, thrown into a cage with several others from my village. I’d screamed for my mother too, but as the cart had started to move she’d grown further and further away, smaller and smaller until she’d disappeared over the hill. My village was miles away now, and I grasped at the metal bars containing me, unable to stop the tears from sliding down my cheeks. “Mother…” I whimpered, overcome with sadness.
A gentle hand on my shoulder had me turning my head to look at the man beside me. Segomaros was our village hunter and he returned from every hunt with plenty of meat. “It will be okay, Godric. I will look after you,” he tried to reassure me, offering me a small smile. I could see through it, though. We were locked in carts, unsure of where we were being taken. He couldn’t make such a promise.
The cart came to a sudden stop and two Roman men approached us. One lifted his spear, pointing it at us. “Back!” He barked in a language I didn’t understand. I’d always been quick to learn, and I’d taken to listening to my captors, but without a translation into Gaulish, it was hard to understand what they were saying. Thankfully, the sharp end of the spear was a universal language. Letting go of the metal bars I moved back, pressing myself against the other members of my village. Segomaros wrapped an arm around me, keeping me close.
The other Roman man unlatched the cage. “Out!” He barked at us in the language we were unfamiliar with. What did the men want? With a gesture of his hand, the Roman pointed to the sand to the side of him. They wanted us to leave the cage? I went to take a step forward but Segomaros pushed me back, going first instead. As his feet touched the soft ground the Roman man clasped two heavy bits of metal around Segomaros’ wrists, a long chain coming from it. The chain had more heavy links on it. Why was he chaining us?
The Roman gestured to me next. I swallowed, taking tentative steps forward. Impatient, the Roman reached in and grabbed me roughly. Squealing at his grasp, I was unprepared as he yanked me forward, toppling me on to the ground. “Careful, he’s just a boy!” Segomaros yelled at the Roman man in our language, only for the one with the spear to punch him in the ribs. Segomaros’ knees buckled as he hit the ground. Why were these men hurting us? We hadn’t done anything to them! I was struggling to understand.
The man with the spear went back to guarding the cage. Roughly grasping me, the other Roman hauled me to my feet. Grabbing my wrists, the Roman clasped the metal around them, and they snicked as they locked. Panicking, I tested them, tugging them and trying to shake them off. Why wouldn’t they come off?
Segomaros rose back to his feet slowly, the chains rattling as he stood. The process continued until every member of my village who had been in the cage was chained, all of us were chained together.
With a tug, the Roman started to lead us, and the sudden movement caused me to stumble. Regaining my footing, I scanned the area. The others in the cages were being chained too, and ahead of us in the harbour sat three huge wooden boats. Painted red, the boats were adorned with two red sails. Embroidered across the main sails were large golden eagles, with golden laurels surrounding the birds: The foresails were plain in comparison. Large wooden oars protruded from the sides of the vessels, and a reptile was carved into the wooden front of the ships.
I’d lived on the coast, sailed a few times with my father, but our boats had never looked like this. Boats only meant one thing. We were leaving the land. Where were we going? What was going to happen when we got to our destination?
Lip trembling, I was pulled onto one of the ships, chains rattling loudly. A man stood on the deck of the ship, dark eyes hard as he watched us trudge on-board. His eyes met mine briefly and then his gaze dropped to the tattoo around my neck. My shirt was too tattered to hide it. His eyes widened. The village elder had given it to me a little over a year ago; he’d told me that the meaning would be revealed in the future. Why had the man looked at it? “The kid is too young to row,” he stopped our group, using the foreign language to address the Roman leading us. Both men turned to look at me. I shrank back, eyes widening. What were they saying? I hadn’t done anything!
The man who had been on deck was adorned in a fine red tunic, heavy leather body armour covering his chest and shoulders. He wore sandals and carried a dagger on a sturdy leather belt around his waist. A big red cape was attached to ornate golden buttons on his shoulders, and a golden laurel rested on his head: It matched the laurel on the sails. This was his boat, and these were his men.
Another Roman stepped forward and grabbed me roughly, causing Segomaros to round on him. A spear was pointed at his chest, though, and I saw my family friend falter, eyes wide.
“Unchain him. He can work the galley,” the finely adorned man spoke in the language I was unfamiliar with. The Roman who had grabbed me produced a key from his pocket and used it to unlock the chains around my wrists. The metal fell free, clanking to the ground. Rubbing at the skin, it wasn’t long before the finely adorned man grabbed my wrist, pulling me from the line. He turned, dragging me down some steps and into the belly of the ship. What was he going to do with me? I hadn’t hurt anyone! Was he going to hurt me? I shuddered at the thought. All too soon, though, he paused, pushing a door open, which he shoved me through.
“New recruit. Make sure he’s fed,” he barked again in his language, pushing me towards the people in the room before he left, leaving me standing in a small galley with two older men who were preparing food.
“He’s just a child,” one spoke to the other and I glanced between them, infuriated that I couldn’t understand them. The language they used sounded different to the one the finely dressed man and the Romans used. Scowling in their direction, the other man spoke as I scanned the room quickly.
“He’ll have to do. Caesar would not be pleased if we complained.” the other man sighed.
The pair approached me and I lunged for the knife on the counter, grasping it with one hand and brandishing it at the pair, an angry growl sliding past my lips, lips curled up to show my teeth.
The two men stopped in their approach, throwing their hands up. Did they surrender so easily? My father had told me that men never surrender, so I tightened my grip on the blade, rocking on the balls of my feet, ready to strike if necessary.
“Menes,” one of the men spoke, turning his hand to point at himself.
“Thutmose,” The other man said, mirroring his friend’s actions by pointing to himself as well.
They repeated the words again, pointing to themselves as they spoke. Together they pointed at me. I scowled. What on earth were these strange men doing?
“Menes,” One repeated as he gestured to himself before pointing to his friend “Thutmose”, then he pointed to me.
Name! They were telling me their names. Why would they be asking for my name? Names were powerful; it was why my mother had chosen my name. It meant ‘power of God’ and it had pleased the Gods greatly: I’d survived childhood.
“Godric,” I pushed my name out, using my other hand to mimic their actions and point at myself.
The two men relaxed, small smiles on their lips. “Godric,” the one called Menes tested out my name, and I nodded as he pronounced it correctly.
“Menus,” I stumbled over his name in return, moving to point to him.
“Menes,” he corrected, and I repeated his name back.
Turning to the other man, I tested out his name, “Thutmosa.”
“Thutmose,” he also corrected me. I tried his name once more, this time getting it right.
I didn’t trust these men. They had told me their names though and, as names carried such weight, I carefully put the knife back down on the counter. The two men nodded, offered me smiles, and then returned to their work. I observed them for a moment or two, watching as they skillfully gutted fish and prepared vegetables. Menes stopped his actions to glance at me. Wiping his hands on his tunic, he pushed a pile of potatoes towards me. Was I supposed to eat them?
“Prepare, like this,” he spoke again in the unfamiliar language, lifting his knife and using it to peel the skin from the potato. Watching carefully, I glanced up as he finished. He gestured to the potatoes in front of me and then to the knife I had brandished only a few minutes’ prior.
They wanted me to remove the skin of the potatoes?
What strange people.
I lost track of time on the ship, days turned to weeks. I kept busy. In the daytime, I would prepare food for the finely adorned man and his friends. Menes and Thutmose taught me some of their language, pointing to objects they had at hand. Thutmose had a special book filled with pictures, and he would point to them while telling me the name. I learnt that the language they were speaking was Egyptian, that they were not Roman. I learnt that we were heading to a place called Egypt, and the finely dressed man and his men had been speaking in Latin.
In the evening I was free to join the others from my village in the hull of the ship. They’d been put to work rowing the mighty oars, and I made sure to take a small portion of fish to Segomaros. He’d eat it quickly so as not to draw suspicion, and he’d thank me with a shoulder thump shortly after. Though I enjoyed his friendship and the familiarity, I missed my mother terribly. Where was she now? Was she even alive? Some nights I would go to the kitchen to think about her, not wanting the others to see me upset. Father had been training me to be a warrior, and warriors didn’t cry.
Menes and Thutmose had given me some different clothes too, a shirt that was baggy and allowed me to cool down after cooking, a pair of loose pants that gave me more manoeuvrability, and some basic sandals. The chains weren’t put back on my wrists either.
As the third week neared an end Thutmose became uncharacteristically excited. “We are near Egypt,” Menes explained to me in Egyptian, gesturing out the small porthole in the galley. I stopped cutting up the fish to glance out of the opening, in the distance I could see the faint outline of land.
“What happens when we arrive?” Their language still felt unfamiliar on my tongue and I tripped over my words a little. It was easier to listen than to speak.
“We rest, then return here for the next expedition. We don’t know what you will do. General Caesar may take you to the palace,” Thutmose explained.
The palace? What was a palace?
Two days later the ship arrived on the shores of Egypt. The Roman who had removed my chains at the start of the voyage met me on the deck. Without saying a word, he put the chains back on me, attaching my chain to a procession of about thirty people. I was the youngest by several years. Hadn’t I earned this man’s trust? Why was I back in chains?
Craning my neck, I caught sight of Menes and Thutmose standing at the top of the stairs to the galley. “We wish you well, Godric,” Menes spoke, both men dipping their heads. With a yank, I was pulled from the ship, forced to trudge behind my fellow villagers. As we disembarked I blinked in the harsh sunlight, unaccustomed to such warmth and the sunshine. My village had been cooler and usually damp.
We’d arrived in some sort of port, and across the port stood a tall building overlooking the ocean. Atop the building sat a furnace. Frowning at the strange structure, I swung my head to look in the other direction.
Rows and rows of houses littered the landscape, the streets bustling with life. It was busier here than my village. Where had all these people come from? Turning back to face the direction we were travelling, I caught sight of the finely dressed men at the front of the procession, aboard a chestnut coloured horse. The people in the streets stopped what they were doing to watch him as he passed, their eyes skipping over the villagers and me.
The sand beneath my feet was hot, its heat permeating through my basic sandals: My fellow villagers were barefoot. We walked along the shore for a short while before the Romans forced us onto a smaller boat. The finely dressed man left his horse with heavily armed Romans.
The boat pushed back from the shore, and several Roman men rowed it across a narrow strip of water towards an island. There, in the centre of the island, sat a huge building. It was massive, magnificent, built entirely of limestone by the looks of it. There were four huge half-man and half-animal statues leading the way to a staircase, two on either side of the path. They had been hand carved by the looks of it and the years of work that had so obviously gone into them made them even more beautiful. We trudged along the path towards the staircase, my eyes never lingering on one thing for too long. It was utterly beautiful here, everything was sandy coloured, certain features accented by bright colours, such as the winged woman that sat above the huge gated arch that led into the compound we were about to enter. During my training to be a warrior, my father had taught me the ways to defend my village and myself. The high limestone walls surrounding this place would prevent any attackers from entering, and it seemed like there were only one entrance and exit. I admired their defences.
Walking through the large entrance gate, we trudged through a passageway carved into the thick limestone walls; markings and paintings on either side of the walkway piqued my curiosity. Drawings of what looked to be Gods and people, cattle and reeds filled the walls.
As we left the passageway, we entered an immense courtyard. The sides were covered, thick limestone columns supporting the heavy rock roof that provided some shade. Numerous other passageways were dotted around, leading to areas I had no clue about. The place was huge. I couldn’t stop myself from gawking at everything around me. We hadn’t had anything like this in our village.
The floor beneath my feet was still sandy. The air was warm and the smell of the ocean filled my nostrils. I could feel the heat from the sun, the light breeze from the air caressing my skin, causing goose bumps to rise. I could hear the sound of birds squawking at one another, and of faint laughter.
Heading to the far end of the courtyard, I could see another huge archway carved into the limestone, the walls even higher to make a grand statement. There were several more carvings this time.
As a group we were led through the archway, entering into a medium sized, shady room. Sunlight was bursting in through the tall, slender window gaps on the left-hand side of the room, throwing light across the whole space, yet the low ceiling and marble flooring kept the room nice and cool. The walls were tiled, painted with beautiful scenes of the country I had found myself in, its Gods and its people.
On the right-hand side of the room stood three golden statues, two of which were life-size while the other was smaller, only reaching about halfway up the wall. They looked to be of the Gods, each holding a protective weapon. What captured my attention the most, though, was the raised platform on the far wall. Three steps led up to it and three chairs sat upon it. On either side of the steps were more golden statues, more Gods that had been hand crafted. Three painted pillars sat on either side of the raised platform, supporting the roof.It was a beautiful room, like nothing I’d ever seen before, and I found it hard to focus on one thing at a time. Was this what a palace looked like? What kind of people lived here?
The latter was answered as I took in the woman sitting on the centre throne. She sat tall, her body slender, with pale limbs and jet-black hair, coupled with endless hazel eyes framed by black kohl, a crown resting upon her head. Was this her home? Her crown was far superior to the one worn by my village’s leader. Did she rule this land? Was this sandy metropolis hers?
Pulled to a standstill, the Roman men arranged us in a line, presenting us for the woman on the throne. “My love, I bring you slaves from the continent for your consideration,” the finely dressed man spoke in Egyptian, stepping forward to bow to the woman on the throne. Slaves? What were slaves? We hadn’t had those in my village.
“Why have you brought along a boy, Julius?” The woman glanced along the row, directing her question at the finely dressed man. I took a moment to look at the people on either side of me, suddenly feeling very nervous. At least I knew his name now: Julius.
“The moon and the stars,” Julius answered, causing the woman to look at him sharply, her kohl-lined eyes widened slightly. The moon and stars Thutmose and Menes had taught me those words one night when I had pointed up to the dark sky, but what did I have to do with the moon and the stars?
A commotion outside drew attention away from me and I sighed in relief. Moments later a young girl, maybe a year older than me, skipped into the room, carrying a little doll in her hand. The Roman men parted, dipping their heads in respect as the girl finally came into view. She’s pretty. My breath caught in my throat. Mother had always been telling me about the girls in the village, teasing me whenever I mentioned spending time with them, asking which one I would like to marry. They had been pretty too, but not this pretty. I watched as she marched up to the woman on the throne, not at all afraid of her or the Roman men: I was enthralled.
The girl crossed her arms over her chest, tucking her doll under her arm. “I want a new friend, Mama, I have no one to play with!” The little girl stomped her right foot, pouting at the woman on the throne. The woman with the crown was her mother? That would make her a princess…oh. I sighed, disappointed. She would never want to be friends with me, though she too spoke Egyptian, my lessons aboard the boat proved useful in helping me understand what was going on.
“Princess, you can have one friend. You may choose from the group here,” Julius gestured to us. This man gave in so easily, and her mother hadn’t told her off! The power she held over them frightened me. She could ask them to hurt me, and they probably would. I didn’t want to be hurt. With her doll still tucked under her arm, the girl started to move towards us.
“Young ladies do not tuck toys under their arms, they set them down or ask someone else to hold them,” the woman on the throne said disapprovingly, staring pointedly at her daughter’s doll.
The girl sighed and blushed slightly at the public reprimand, but she set her doll down on the arm of her mother’s throne and turned back to us. She started at the other end of the line and walked along it, her small feet padding softly on the marble. She was barefoot, a strange sight, I assumed, for someone who was related to the woman on the throne.
Since I was the youngest I closed my eyes and dropped my head, praying that she’d pick me, even though I was frightened of her. She would probably take the chains off me. She’d have to if I were to play with her and be her friend. The sound of her footsteps stopped, and I could hear her breathing. Cautiously, I opened my eyes and lifted my head, hiding part of my face behind my long hair. She was standing before me, her bright blue eyes wide and inviting, and her blonde hair was so shiny. A few girls in my village had blonde hair, but it wasn’t as nice looking as this girls. She smiled at me, her chubby cheeks flushed from the sunshine. Was I meant to smile back? Was I meant to say something? I couldn’t look away from her.
One of her small hands stretched forward and I shrank back. Hurt flashed across her face for a fraction of a second before she slowly continued to reach forward. Her fingers met my chest, the new shirt I’d been given on the boat allowed the ink there to be visible. Carefully she traced the design, seemingly fascinated. Her hands were warm, and a feeling of safety swept over me. I didn’t know this girl, but now that she was before me I felt much safer. Her other hand came up, pushing my hair from my face in a gentle manner. Standing so close to her, I could admire her clothes. She wore a floor-length white dress, the material loose but clinched at her tiny waist. Her eyes weren’t framed by kohl like her mother’s, but across her body, she wore a golden harness, looped over her arms. The centre of the harness contained pretty purple and red gems. I’d never seen anything like it. Why was she wearing a harness? She couldn’t be a slave if her mother was the woman on the throne. Will I have to wear one of those?
Her eyes met mine and I was enchanted.
“You have pretty markings and your eyes match mine, so you’re going to be my new friend. My name is Ata.” She enveloped me in a hug. I froze, my eyes widened. Why was she hugging me? I couldn’t return her gesture, even if I hadn’t been so terrified, due to the chains around my wrists.
Pulling back, Ata frowned. Her eyes fell to the chains around my wrists and horror painted itself on her face. “Papa! Remove them!” She whipped around, addressing Julius. Oh no, her father is the leader? What am I getting myself into? I panicked, my thoughts turning wild. She turned back to face me, sadness replacing her horror, her shoulders dropping. “Do you not want to be my friend?” She asked me quietly as Julius approached, a key in his hand.
The sadness on her face made me sad, and I moved forward a little, the chains tugging at my skin. Shaking my head I implored her with my eyes. “Friend,” I repeated the word. Menes and Thutmose had said they were my friends, and they had been kind to me. Friends were kind.
Her sadness disappeared, a smile lighting up her face once again. I sent up a prayer of thanks to any of my Gods who were listening. Julius handed Ata the key with an indulgent smile and she quickly took them off me, the metal clanging to the marble floor. She reached behind her to pass the key back to her father as I rubbed at my wrists. Once the key was out of her hands I pounced, pulling her towards me in a hug, returning her gesture. My actions spooked Julius, who took a step towards me, reaching for the dagger on his belt. The other Roman men had dropped their spears down, pointing them at me. I clung to her, burying my face in the crook of her neck. She smelt like the sunshine and the sea. If I concentrated really hard there was an underlying smell of flowers. The scent reminded me of my mother: Julius and the Roman men relaxed.
Her girlish giggle pierced my ears as she hugged me back. “The moon and stars,” the woman on the throne spoke to Julius, observing us with awe. What does that mean?
Julius cracked a smile, his features softening.
“He cannot live here, Ata. There are already too many people here who need caring for,” the woman on the throne commented, never once leaving her seat.
“But Mama…!” Ata objected, slowly turning to face her mother. I refused to let go. This girl had unchained me. She wanted to be my friend. She was nice.
“Ata,” Julius’ voice brokered no room for argument. His tone reminded me of my own father whenever I tried to push my luck.
“Yes Papa,” Ata conceded, sinking back into my embrace.
“Do not worry, daughter mine. I shall entrust his care to a close friend. He’ll be well looked after. Go, you should show your new friend around,” her mother dismissed us. Carefully Ata tried to end our hug, and I was reluctant to let her go. As if sensing this, she took my hand. I looked down at our joined hands. Is this what they do in this strange land? We never held hands in the village. Well, mother and father did, but only when father would return from battle and give mother a kiss. Does she want a kiss?
With a gentle tug, Ata pulled me towards the door we had entered through. “Princess,” Julius called out, gesturing to the throne. With a bashful smile, Ata lets go of my hand, running across the marble to the throne, where she scooped up her doll. Pressing a kiss to her mothers’ cheek, she headed back to me. Stopping before her father, she raised her arms. He lifted her effortlessly, held her to his chest and pressed kisses to her forehead. He spoke too quietly for me to hear, but he cast a glance over Ata’s shoulder at me. Back down on the ground, Ata returned to me, her hand taking mine again.
She led me into the courtyard and we went through another passageway. We travelled some distance, the sounds of our feet on the marble the only noise. What do I say?
By the time I decided to speak we’d stopped outside of some large golden double doors. “Thank you,” I tried her language, using my basic lessons from my time on the ship.
“That’s okay. We’re going to have lots of fun together, just you wait and see!” She exclaimed happily. I was able to translate every other word, cobbling together what I thought she was saying. She seemed happy, though, and that was good enough for me.
She led me through the doors and into a large room. On the other side of the room was a large open space, leading out to a balcony. From the balcony, I could see the ocean, ships in the port, and the strange building that had a furnace on top. On the left-hand side of the room was a large bed, made of a wooden frame with linen stretched across it, an elaborately decorated footboard at the end. There were pictures of cats and flowers on it. Numerous blankets covered the bed and several pillows adorned it. A large wooden structure stood to the right of the room, elaborately decorated doors hiding the contents. Small golden treasure chests were scattered around, flowerpots filled with plants and several cat statues decorated the room. In the centre of the room in front of the balcony sat a curved wooden table and two golden chairs. Toys were scattered on the table.
“This is my bedroom,” Ata explained, leading me to the balcony. “You can see all of the water here.” She sighed happily, turning her head up to the sunshine as we stood looking out over the port. I turned to look at her, mesmerised by the way the sunlight danced across her skin. “What’s your name?” She suddenly asked, dropping her head to look at me: Our hands were still joined.
Name. “Godric.” I pointed to myself with my free hand.
“A-T-A.” I sounded out her name, pointing to her.
“That’s right, I’m Ata.” She smiled. “It’s nice to meet you Godric, we’re going to be best friends, I can tell!” There was that word again…friend. This girl would be my friend. I liked that idea.
Smiling, I let go of her hand, moving the sleeve of my shirt to reveal the zigzag tattoo on my arm. “Water” I explained, pointing to the ocean before us and then to the marks on my arm.
Ata’s eyes widened and she moved closer, leaning in to look attentively at my arm. “They mean water?” She asked. Nodding in clarification, I didn’t shy away this time as her hands moved to my arm, her fingers tracing the zigzags.
Her touch was gentle, inquisitive, and I liked her even more. I still felt lost in this strange land, but standing on the balcony with Ata I felt a little better. I still missed my mother, and I was frightened about all the changes in my life, but if Ata wanted to be friends I would be very happy with that, very happy indeed.