Ata had spent some time looking at the tattoo on my arm. She’d gone back to look at the one around my neck too, her fingers tracing the pattern, her front teeth sinking into her lower lip. Does she have any markings?
“I don’t have any,” she spoke as if reading my mind. Pulling her hands from my neck and chest, Ata grabbed my hand again. “Come on, let me show you my toys!”
Ata led me to the table in the middle of the room, which was still covered with toys. She helped me into one of the seats, placing herself on the other. Our legs swung down, unable to reach the floor. A vast array of toys covered the table, made from wood, bone, ivory, and ceramic. Ata picked up an ivory reptile, like the one on the front of the boat I had been aboard. “Crocodile,” she spoke, offering the toy to me. Cautiously, I took it from her.
“Crocodile,” I repeated, earning a huge smile from her. Running my hands over the smooth material, I felt a little button. Pushing it, the lower jaw of the animal dropped open. Spooked, I quickly set the toy down on the table. Ata laughed, a pretty sound, and I watched as she picked up another toy.
This one was made of wood and was in the shape of a horse. As Ata pulled it along the table it rolled, little wheels lodged in its feet. “Horse,” she explained, holding the toy out to me. Again, I took it and examined it.
“Horse,” I repeated.
We continued playing with her toys until sunset, only breaking when a woman came in with some food. The food had been tasty, and it had sated my hunger. I was able to name all of the animals by the time we finished playing. Ata had more toys than I had in the village. I’d had one toy, a little man carved from wood. My father had made it himself. I’d left it behind, though. The thought made me sad.
“Please don’t be sad, Godric,” Ata slipped off her chair, moving over to give me a hug. She understood me so well after such a short period of time, like she was magic. Our village elder had been magic. Did they have magic people in this land?
A knock at the door broke Ata and me apart, and one side of the double doors swung open to reveal a man carrying a spear. He looked different than the Roman men, and he was much younger too. He was probably in his late teens. His clothes were much more elaborate than any others I’d seen so far. “Princess, your mother and father have asked for your presence in the throne room. Bring your friend,” he addressed her in Egyptian, giving me a quick glance. I slipped from my chair, standing beside Ata.
“Khai,” Ata said to me, pointing at the young man. “He’s my guard,” she elaborated, gesturing to the spear.
This man guarded her, and his name was Khai?
“This is Godric,” Ata spoke to the man, gesturing to me. I didn’t know this man, though Ata seemed to trust him. I moved back a little, hiding behind Ata. It wasn’t very warrior-like; to hide behind a woman, but this was Ata’s land and if this man were her protector then he wouldn’t hurt her. He could hurt me, though.
Khai gave me a small nod before he moved aside, standing tall by the door. Ata sighed and took my hand, giving it a gentle squeeze. More hand holding, just like mother and father used to.
Letting Ata lead, we left the safety of her bedroom. Khai fell into step behind us, the sound of his sandals on the marble floor echoing. Together we returned to the throne room. The members of my village were missing, as were most of the Roman men. Ata’s mother still sat on her throne, and her father had taken the seat next to her. Another man was in the room, though. He was tall, had long brown hair reaching his shoulders, and his dark hazel eyes scanned me the moment I walked in with Ata.
Tightening my hold on her, I moved closer, pressing us together. I didn’t like this new man; he had a strangeness to him. “Ata, I hope you’ve had a lovely afternoon with your friend,” her mother addressed her.
“Yes Mama, Godric and I had lots of fun,” she squeezed my hand again, looking at me with a smile. I averted my gaze from the strange man to look at my new friend, offering her a timid smile in response.
“This is Appius, he shall be Godric’s Master,” Ata’s mother gestured to the man. My master? What was that?
Ata’s eyes widened as she shook her head. “But Mama…” She started to protest, only for the woman to hold up her hand; Ata fell silent.
“Do not argue with me, Ata. We have had this discussion. He cannot live here. Appius has assured me he will take good care of him,” she spoke, her tone authoritative.
Ata’s lower lip wobbled and she looked to her father. “Papa…”
Julius glanced at the woman. “Cleopatra, my love…”
“No.” Ata’s mother, Cleopatra, spoke. “I have made up my mind. Now, say goodnight to your friend Ata, he needs to go to his new home. He can come back in the morning and keep you company.”
Appius had remained silent the whole time, but now he stepped forward and approached us. “Godric, yes?” He addressed me. Biting the inside of my lip I nodded, squeezing Ata’s hand for comfort. “My name is Appius. You will be living with me. Let me take you back to my home.” The man, who I now knew as Appius, put his hand on my shoulder and tried to move me from Ata’s side.
“No!” I shouted in Egyptian, tightening my hold on Ata. “Friend!” I clung to her, not wanting to be parted. Was she sending me away? I hadn’t hurt her! I liked her. I’d played toys with her all afternoon.
“You’re still my friend, but you can’t sleep here,” Ata explained, sadness on her face. I didn’t like her being sad. “You can come back tomorrow,” She explained. I could come back? That was okay I guessed, but her room was really big; both of us could stay there.
“Come now Godric. You can return to see Ata in the morning,” the man’s grip on my shoulder tightened. I didn’t want to leave, though.
“I’ll walk with you,” Ata declared, walking with Appius and me to the door and out into the courtyard. The three of us walked in silence towards the palace exit. Ata kept her hold of my hand until we reached the exit. “You need to go and sleep. I’ll send Khai to get you in the morning,” Ata reluctantly let go of my hand, her shoulders drooping.
“Don’t be sad,” I soothed her, seeing the tears gathering in her eyes, mine matched. I didn’t want to be away from her.
“Godric,” Appius’ hand tightened further. “Goodnight Princess,” he said in farewell to Ata, turning and pulling me away from the palace. I craned my neck, watching as Ata stood still and watched us leave. She looked so sad.
“Ata is sad,” I murmured, more to myself than Appius.
“She’ll get over it,” he shrugged, leading me to the mini port on the island.
“Where are we going?” I asked as we boarded a small boat. A man pushed us from the port and started to row. I didn’t want to cross the water, which would put much more space between Ata and me.
“My house,” He responded curtly. We fell into silence as we moved further from the palace and Ata.
The silence allowed me to think. Ata hadn’t wanted me to leave, but her mother had forced me to go with this man. Did her mother not like me? I hadn’t said anything to her! I liked her daughter and we were friends! Didn’t that make me her friend too? “What is a Master?” I asked Appius, taking the opportunity to have some of the blanks filled in. Ata was a good teacher, I’d enjoyed learning about and playing with her toys, but this man was older so he was wiser.
“I’m your Master. I own you. You are my slave. You will work for your bed and food when the crops need tending to, and you will entertain the Princess when you are not required to tend to the crops,” he explained, sparing me a glance.
Slave? Was I a slave? Why didn’t I have chains around my wrists again?
“Crops?” I asked, noting he’d mentioned the word twice.
“Food.” He lifted a hand, pointing to the shore as we neared it. Fields and fields of wheat, barley, and vegetables were just visible in the moonlight. Would I have to collect all that? Would I have help?
The boat came to a stop and Appius helped me off the vessel. Together we started walking through the town, winding around the buildings I’d seen on my arrival. We crossed a very wide road; numerous market stalls were being shut for the evening by their proprietors. All the buildings overwhelmed me, and they were set out in large blocks, several houses clustered together. It looked a lot more organised than my village.
We took several twists and turns until we finally arrived at a large house. The house we stopped at was bigger than those around it and was made of bricks, with high walls. There was one archway in and out: Appius gave me a push through it. I didn’t want to go, a horrible feeling had settled in my gut. “Move, boy,” he barked, leading me towards the front door. To the left of the house was a large body of water, to the right were a low wall and a gate. I couldn’t see much behind the wall other than the silhouette of a low building.
Entering the home, Appius followed behind me. We stood in a hallway, and to my left was a sitting area, a few chairs, chests, tables, and books were in there. There was also a fire with a metal pole in it. To my right was the kitchen, but there was little food visible. Did this man eat? Where did he store his food? The windows and doors of the house were covered with mats, probably to keep the flies, dust, and heat out. We’d had a similar set up in our village to keep animals and the rain out. The walls of the rooms were decorated with wall hangings made of leather and painted murals. The floor beneath my feet was shiny and cold like the floor in Ata’s house. “Keep going.” Appius gave me a push down the hallway. I was frightened to be alone with this man in his house. I didn’t know him! Ata had let me go with him, though, so surely she trusted him? If she trusted him, then I should too. Ata wouldn’t trust bad people.
Following his orders, I moved down the hallway. Appius pushed a reed mat out of the way to reveal a small bedroom. There was a little window that looked out over the back of the property. A straw mattress lay on the floor; a thin blanket was rolled up on it. Several reed baskets littered the floor, and one contained a different change of clothes and some shoes. It wasn’t much. It was a place to sleep, though; I’d be spending my days with Ata in her house.
“This is your room. Under the law of this land you are allowed to own personal items, so you may use the baskets to store them. I will also permit you to paint on the walls, but you must work for your paint. You will be in bed three hours after sunset, and you will rise with the sun. Once you are familiar with the route to and from the palace you will make the journey by yourself every day, and purchase your food from market stalls. I will provide you with a small allowance for this, as I am obligated to feed you. When harvest season is upon us, you will work the fields from sunrise to sunset, but as you are a child you cannot do too much hard labour yet,” Appius set out the rules. There were lots of them and some of the words I didn’t understand. How was I meant to remember them all? I would have to ask Ata what all the words meant. I would abide by the rules though so that I could keep seeing her. Perhaps she’d like to come and see my new room? She could help me paint the walls! Ata had told me all about the paintings on her walls this afternoon. I wanted to paint my walls with pictures of my people, and the symbols our village elder drew when using magic. Ata could paint some cats and flowers; she seemed to really like those.
“Thank you,” I offered. Though I was away from Ata, and this room wasn’t as nice as hers, it was still my own space.
“Now,” Appius’s heavy hand came to rest on my shoulder again. What was it with this man and his need to grab me all the time? He was very strong and his grip hurt a little. “You need a brand.” A brand? What’s a brand?
He led me from the room, back to the sitting area. “Shirt off,” he ordered, plucking at my shirt before turning to the fire. Was I to undress? Okay…
Removing my shirt, I folded it, placing it down on one of the chairs. Appius turned, making a pleased sound. “Come here,” he pointed to space before him. What was going on? Why was I without my shirt?
My hesitation must have angered him, and too quickly for me to comprehend he had grabbed me, pinning me to the floor face first. I yelped at the cold tiles hitting my bare skin and thrashed about. What was he doing? He was supposed to be nice! Had my hesitation angered him so much? “Stop fighting me, boy!” He yelled, immobilising me. Why was he holding me down? What was he doing? I wanted Ata!
I heard a crackle from the fire, but I couldn’t turn my head to see what was going on. I tried to wiggle free, but Appius’ heavy weight kept me in place. Salty tears started to gather in the corners of my eyes. What was going on?
Scorching heat and pain flooded my system and I screamed. My shoulder felt like it was on fire. It hurt more than my tattoos had. Inhaling, I caught the scent of burning flesh, and I cried out at the realisation that it was my own flesh burning. What had this man done to me?! Why had Ata let him take me away to hurt me!? The metal pole I’d spotted earlier clanged to the ground as I continued to scream. The pain was unbearable. Slowly the intense pain started to subside, but my shoulder felt like it was still on fire, and my skin was so sore. Tears were streaming down my face and my vision was blurry. I gathered my strength. I couldn’t stay here. This man was evil!
Appius’s weight moved off me and he left the room, the sound of water in the kitchen could be heard over the crackling of the fire. Sensing my opportunity, I rose to my feet and took off and ran out the front door. My shoulder was burning and my vision was blurry. I sobbed as I ran, not sure where I was going. Why had he burnt my shoulder? Why had he hurt me? I’d done as he’d asked. I’d been grateful for my room.
The sand gave way beneath my feet as I ran, the tears still falling as I found myself at the port. Before I could comprehend what I was doing I had jumped into the water and was swimming towards the palace. The cold water on my hot skin brought me some relief, as did the action of swimming. I had always felt at ease in the water like it was second nature for me to swim. It didn’t take long to swim to the shore of the palace, and I pulled myself up onto the sand. Out of the water, my shoulder ached. Reaching around, I touched my burnt skin. It stung, and I pulled my hand back quickly, traces of blood on my fingers as the wounds were still raw. The heat had cauterised it somewhat, but my swimming had opened it a little.
There was only one way in and out of the palace, and two guards stood to watch. Looking around, I grabbed a small rock and threw it as hard as I could into the sea. It made a large splash as it landed in the water. The guards, concerned about the sound, ran to see what was going on. Slipping through the entrance, I looked around wildly. This was the only place I’d felt safe, I could hide here. Looking around, I spotted Ata’s balcony. My shoulder burned as I ran towards it. It was overlooking the water, and first I’d have to climb the side of the building. I’d climbed lots of trees in the forest around my village; this couldn’t be too different, right?
Grabbing the wall, I pulled myself up, hissing as my shoulder burned. Ouch. How do I make this pain go away? Finding foot and hand holds, I pulled myself up the wall. I used the last of my strength to climb over the balcony, landing with a thud on the floor. I cried out, grabbing my shoulder. The marble floor was cold on my back so eased the heat still radiating from it somewhat, but it still hurt. It hurt so much.
“Godric?” I heard Ata’s timid voice. She was standing in the doorway wearing a loose white nightdress.
“Ata,” I choked out, trying and failing to hide my tears.
Ata sucked in a breath, dashing from her spot in the doorway and tumbling to her knees next to me. “Why’re you crying? What happened?” She asked, trying to help me sit up. Her hands reached around to grab my shoulder, trying to pull me up. The pressure of her hands on my burn made me cry out, and Ata pulled her hands back like she’d been burnt herself. “G-Godric?” She whispered her lower lip wobbling.
She took my hands, pulling me to a sitting position: I couldn’t stop her from moving behind me. A strangled sound escaped her lips as she saw my shoulder. “What happened?” She cried, salty tears starting to roll down her cheeks.
“Appius.” I twisted, wincing at the pain, as I tried to see her. I didn’t want to say anything mean about the man in case he hurt me again, but I couldn’t lie to Ata. Her arms wrapped around me and her head came to rest between my shoulder blades. She was careful not to touch my burn.
“He hurt you?” She cried, her body shaking with her sobs. A few more tears rolled down my cheeks. Ata hadn’t asked him to hurt me? She hadn’t known. I felt bad for thinking she knew. I should’ve known better. I wasn’t ashamed of my tears either. Back in my village, I had been laughed at for crying, and people told me I wouldn’t be a very good warrior. I tried to stop crying whenever they laughed, or I would leave to cry elsewhere. Ata didn’t laugh at my tears, though, but they did make her cry. I didn’t want her to cry.
Ata’s sobs slowed, but she still clung to me. The wind had picked up a little and I was starting to feel cold. I shivered. “We need to clean it,” she whispered, letting go of me. She stood, offering me her hands. Taking them I stood, letting Ata lead me into her bedroom. “Please sit,” she gestured to her bed. Her blankets and pillows were a mess; her doll lost amongst her bedding.
Sitting on the side of her bed, I waited as Ata crossed the room, coming back with a bowl. The room was lit by candlelight and moonlight, and I glanced out the window. What if he comes to get me?
“You’re safe here,” Ata assured me as she set the bowl down on the floor. “Water,” she explained, gesturing to the bowl before reaching out to tentatively touch the zigzags on my arm. Water. Oh no, I’m leaving a wet mark on her bed! My pants were sodden from my swim.
“It’s okay,” Ata soothed, looking around. What was she looking for? Without warning, she grabbed the bottom of her dress. Hooking it over the end of her bed she pulled, the fabric tore. I jumped, eyes wide as I watched her destroy her pretty dress. She pulled at the ripped fabric, tearing off a long strip from the bottom. Dunking it in the bowl of water, she twisted it in her hands to get rid of the excess.
Sitting next to me, she lifted the damp fabric, moving it towards my shoulder. Oh, she’s going to clean it. But she ruined her pretty dress!
“Don’t worry about my dress, I can get another one,” Ata spoke as if reading my mind again. Was she a Goddess? I was starting to believe she was.
Gently, ever so gently, she cleaned my burn. She rinsed the cloth several times, the water turning a light shade of red from the small specks of my blood. “Why did he do this to you?” I heard her voice crack.
“He said it was a brand,” I explained. Ata stopped suddenly, drawing in a quick breath.
“Mama has talked about brands, I didn’t think they were this!” Her voice quivered as she dropped the cloth back into the bowl, her little hands covering her mouth. Her hands fell away and she leant forward, her lips pressing against the burn. It hurt a little, but it soothed me too. What is she doing? Mother and father only kissed on the lips. “I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry. I’m going to tell Mama off tomorrow. I didn’t want anyone to hurt you,” she babbled. The pain in my shoulder had subsided substantially, and now the skin felt tight.
“It’s okay,” I started to shrug but winced at the pain instead. Ata frowned and pulled another strip of fabric from her ruined dress. She tied it around my shoulder, covering my burn now that it was clean.
“You can stay here tonight, sleep next to me.” She smiled, her hands pushing my hair from my face once again. She liked to touch me, but Ata’s touches were soft and gentle, unlike Appius’s. I liked her touches.
“Your pants are wet.” She pointed to my pants, which I remembered had been soaking her bed with ocean water. Embarrassed, I went to stand. “No! Just take them off.” Ata grabbed at the tattered end of her dress. She pulled the fabric over her head, balling it up. She offered it to me “You can dry yourself with it.” I copied her, removing my sodden pants and underwear and leaving them in a pile on the floor. I was cold from the water, but the air was warm. Taking the balled-up fabric from her, I dried myself with it, placing it down on the ground with my clothes when I’d finished with it. Standing awkwardly, I wasn’t sure what to do now. Would I get in trouble for being here? Appius was mean. He had hurt me. He’d held me down. Would he hurt me for this?
“You’re safe here,” Ata repeated, climbing onto her bed and moving her blankets and doll. She patted the space next to her before blowing out the candle on her bedside table.
Climbing onto the bed, I lay on my good side, which just happened to be facing Ata, so we were laying facing each other. She pulled the blankets around us as I thanked her for all her care. I reached for her, needing to touch her. I needed the safe feeling she’d given me earlier. I wasn’t sure why I felt safe around her; I just knew it was so. I was still sad and angry about what had happened to me: I was confused as to why Appius had hurt my shoulder. I couldn’t see what he’d done to me, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to look.
Ata moved quickly, sliding over to curl up against me. She buried her face in my chest, her arms wrapping around me. Her nose was cold. It was cute. I’d never slept without my clothes on before. It was cold in my village and we needed all the warmth we could get, but it was hot in this sandy land so not as much clothing was required. “I’m sorry, Godric. I didn’t know he would hurt you. Please don’t be mad. Please don’t stop being my friend,” Ata mumbled against my chest. I hugged her to me as best I could with my sore shoulder. I could feel the wound sticking to the fabric Ata had tied around it. It wasn’t very nice or comfortable, but at least it was covered: Our village healer had told me to always cover wounds or they went bad.
“Always your friend,” I said quietly as I held her, her cold nose slowly warming up. Feeling safe, I closed my eyes. It had been a very long day, and I was scared about what would happen in the morning if I would be punished for running, but for the moment I was happy.
The sound of scraping woke me. I’d been sleeping on my front, and the cool breeze coming in from the balcony door soothed my sore shoulder. I sat up and looked around, wondering where I was for a moment until I saw Ata pulling a large trough to the centre of the room; it had been tucked into the corner. I watched curiously as she pulled, tugged and pushed until the trough was where she wanted it.
Next, she went to her balcony and I was surprised to see her picking up buckets filled with water: I watched as she poured all the water into the trough. Next, she grabbed a small basket from a table next to where the trough had been: I couldn’t see what was in the basket, though. Ata put it down and turned to face the bed: She jumped, her hand going to her chest. “You’re awake!” She exclaimed, smiling as her hand dropped. “I made you a bath.” She pointed to the trough, moving to the end of the bed. “Do you feel better?” She asked, standing on tiptoe to try and see over me as if she would be able to see my brand.
“I feel much better. Thank you for looking after me,” I offered, reaching around to touch the cloth over my wound. It was a little sticky, and I pulled a face.
Ata moved to stand in front of me, offering me her hands. “Let me help you into the bath. I’ll take the fabric off and put some medicine on it. My healer, Oeri, helped me.” I took her hands, letting her gently pull me from the bed. She’d put some clothes on, a pretty red dress with shoulder straps and little beads all over it. I looked down to the floor, looking for my pants and underwear from the night before, but they were missing. “I took them to be cleaned. I’ll get you some new ones,” Ata explained, walking with me to the trough. The sides of the trough were painted with symbols I didn’t understand but had seen back in the city during my walk to Appius’ house. She helped me sit, the warm water lapped around me.
Letting go of my hands, Ata reached for the little basket. From it, she produced a small jar, filled with little crystal looking objects. Leaning forward, I watched as she removed the lid and tipped some into her hands. “These are salts, they’re good for your skin. Mama uses them all the time for healing,” she explained, gently tipping her handful into the water. I watched as the water fizzed for a moment. The salts disappeared! I ran my hand through the water but couldn’t find them. How strange! Where had they gone?
Ata put the lid back on the jar and returned it to the basket. Then she gently started to remove the fabric from my shoulder. I hissed: the fabric was stuck to my wound. Ouch! Hearing my distress, Ata scooped up some water in her hands and poured it over my shoulder. I hissed again. Ouch! “I’m sorry, I’m sorry! I forgot that the salts aren’t good on wounds.” Ata rubbed my back in a soothing motion. I didn’t hold it against her and instead, I sank back into her touch. She waited a few moments, then started to remove the fabric again, and this time it wasn’t as painful. It was still sore, but not as bad. We remained in companionable silence until Ata had removed the fabric, which she threw to the ground. “Is it bad?” I asked, playing with the water. I didn’t want to know, not really.
Ata was quiet for a moment, “It’s not that bad,” she finally decided. She paused, though. Oh no, it’s bad!
“It’s okay! You can’t see it anyway, and your clothes will cover it.” Ata reassured me, but that didn’t stop my lower lip from trembling. The skin was very itchy. She moved back to my side, picking up a small, waxy looking block from the basket. “I don’t know if you had this where you used to live, but this is soap.” She dunked the block into the water and rubbed it in her hands. It made the surface of her hands slippery. She placed the block in the water and it sank. Taking my arm, she started to rub her hands over my skin. What is she doing? I wondered. We’d had similar blocks back in the village that we too used for washing, but they’d looked nothing like this one. Ours had been made from animal fat.
“The soap removes all the germs on your skin,” she explained. I watched as she splashed some water over my arm. Germs? What were germs? Lifting my arm, I peered at it. Had that block actually done anything? I gave my arm a sniff and recoiled. It smelt sweet!
“I smell like a girl!”
Ata’s lower lip wobbled. “Is smelling like a girl bad?”
My eyes widened and I shook my head. “No! Girls smell good, you smell good!” I stumbled over my words a little, trying to backtrack. I didn’t want to offend her, but I seemed to do that a lot. Do all girls get upset this much? Girls are strange.
Ata’s lip stopped wobbling and she laughed. I scowled at her, earning me a little smile. “Thank you. You’ll smell really good too when I’m finished. You’ve picked up my language quickly.” I softened at her compliment. Mother had always said I was a fast learner. I’d started to think in Egyptian while on the boat, forcing myself to try and adapt to the language. Occasionally I would slip back into my native Gaulish, though. Egyptian was hard, and Latin was even worse.
“Our soap is made of clay and scented oils, so it cleans and makes you smell good.” She grabbed the soap from the bottom of the trough. I sat silently as Ata cleaned me. I felt like a child with her mothering me, but at the same time, she seemed to like looking after me. With her this close, I could really look at her. Her nose was small, and curved upward at the end. Her lashes were long and dark, but her eyes weren’t framed with kohl like her mother’s. She had a small smattering of freckles on her chubby cheeks, and she had the cutest wrinkles on her brow when she frowned in concentration. She still smelt like flowers, too.
Ata washed my other arm, her fingers moving over the writing. “What does this mean?” She asked curiously.
I shrugged my good shoulder. Truth be told, I didn’t really know. I’d only just been learning to read and write, but my village elder had said that the words were special.
Ata frowned, but continued to trace the marks for a moment before moving to clean my legs. She worked quietly, ensuring my body was thoroughly clean before she turned her attention to my hair. Leaning in, Ata sniffed. She recoiled quickly, contorting her face into a look of displeasure. “We need to wash your hair.” She declared, picking up the block of soap again. She rubbed it between her hands, making the surface slippery. This time I took the block from her, not letting her drop it back in the water. I turned the block in my hands, watching as the surface of my skin became slippery too. Her hands moved to my hair and she started to rub, her fingers gentle. “Your hair is very rough. What did you use to wash it?” She asked as she frowned.
I thought about the lime water we’d used in the village to clean our hair. The men had used it more than the ladies. I hadn’t really liked the smell, but my mother had said it was necessary. I wasn’t sure about the word for lime in Egyptian, but I thought hard about it. Ata was magic, she would know.
An indistinguishable noise left Ata as she finished rubbing my hair. Gently she tipped my head back and scooped up water with her hands, using it to wash away the soap. Looking sideways as she worked, it was then I noticed she was missing her harness from yesterday.
“Where did it go?” I asked, lifting a hand to point to her chest. I didn’t want to touch her in case her pretty dress ended up wet. Ata finished washing my hair, pushing it from my face before she frowned, tipping her head sideways as she looked into my eyes. Her features softened a moment later.
“I only wear my harness when I have lessons on being a lady. It helps me sit tall, like Amun-Ra upon his throne,” she explained. Amun-who?
“Amun-Ra is one of our Gods. I’ll tell you about my Gods later. They’re very important. We have lots of stories.” She rubbed the block between her hands once more, this time moving towards my chest. I leant back a little, giving her more access. She cleaned my skin, her fingers tracing my tattoo. She seemed to like it a lot more than the others. I liked that she liked it.
The water was getting a little cold, but I didn’t want to complain, especially with Ata this close. I felt safe. Suddenly, Ata’s head turned to the door and I craned my neck, looking over my shoulder. What was she doing? I couldn’t hear anything.
It took only a moment before the door cracked open a little, though. My eyes widened. Had they found me? Was I going to be kicked out? Punished?
My fears were soothed as a small boy slipped into the room, closing the door behind him. He was about five, and he too carried a doll like Ata’s.
“Nightmares?” Ata asked quietly, drying her hands on a little bit of cloth she picked up from the basket. Who was this boy and why was he here? Would he hurt Ata? I tried to turn in the trough to face the boy, so I could protect her if I needed to.
The little boy nodded and padded over. Ata opened her arms and he gave her a hug. Oh. She must like this boy. She probably likes him more than me. I sighed. It was silly to think I’d have Ata all to myself.
The boy’s eyes focused on me and dropped quickly to my brand. I turned my shoulder away from him, feeling ashamed.
“Godric,” Ata let go of the boy, offering me a smile. “This is my baby brother, Caesarion. Caesarion, this is my best friend, Godric.”
Oh! This boy is her brother.
“Hello,” The boy was polite, but he hid a little behind Ata.
“Hello Caesarion,” I tested out his name. Ata’s nod of encouragement as I pronounced it made me happy.
“What is he doing here?” Caesarion looked to Ata.
“He was hurt. Could you go and get him some new clothes, please? Tell Riei that Khai needs them,” she instructed. Her brother nodded, looking at me with apprehension. “Please don’t tell anyone he’s here?” She asked. Caesarion looked back at her and nodded, padding back out of the room as he made something called a promise. Who’s Riei?
“He makes my clothes. Caesarion is very little, he won’t hurt you.” Ata assured me, answering my question at the same time. She was magic, she had to be. I’d ask soon. Mother had told me it was rude to ask magic people if they were magic without knowing them very well first. I wanted to believe her when she said that Caesarion wouldn’t hurt me, but she’d said Appius wouldn’t hurt me and he had. Moving back to her little basket, she pulled out another jar, this time with a thick yellow substance in it. It smelt lovely!
“This is honey. Little insects make it. We can eat it, but it’s good for healing, too.” Ata scooped a dollop of the thick substance onto her finger. She held her finger out to me. Was I meant to?…
Taking her hand, I slowly put her finger in my mouth, licking the substance off. It was thick and very sweet, and it stuck to the roof of my mouth. It was yummy! I slid Ata’s finger out of my mouth and licked my lips, running my tongue around my mouth to catch any remaining honey. “It’s good!” I complimented, smacking my lips together.
With a laugh, Ata scooped up some more, but this time she smeared it over my shoulder. The skin cooled and the itchiness stopped. Next, she pulled a piece of green and furry bread from the basket– yuck! She moved to put it on my shoulder and I pulled back. I didn’t want that on me! Hurt flashed in her eyes before she spoke. “The green stuff makes the germs die. I hurt my leg a little while ago, see,” she pulled up her dress to show me a mark on her shin. It was shiny and pink. “Oeri put this bread on it and it healed really quickly.” She’d taken care of me so far, and the pain had gone away with the honey.
Nodding, I let her put the bread on my shoulder, securing it with some fabric from the basket. I felt a little silly. If Ata said it would work, though…
Ata’s fingers found my hair again and she played with it, another frown on her face. If she keeps frowning this much, those little lines in her face will become permanent. “We need to cut it.” She decided, rising to her small height. Cut it? I lifted a hand, playing with my hair. It was a little long, matted in places, but otherwise, it was fine. What was the problem?
She looked through one of the chests on her floor and returned with a strange looking implement, a large object with a handle and a flat surface, and a comb. Ata set the large object and the comb down. I reached for the strange looking implement she had been holding and examined it. I put my fingers in the oblong hole which was at one end and held it a little closer to my eyes so I could see the smaller parts better. There were two bronze blades connected at the handles by a thin, flexible strip of curved bronze. The strip seemed to hold the blades in alignment. I moved my fingers, and the blades sprung apart. Startled, I moved back in the trough, the water splashing up the sides and out onto the marble floor. They looked sharp and dangerous!
“Scissors,” Ata explained as she took them from me. With her free hand, she grabbed a small section of her hair, turning it so the ends were pointing upwards. Taking the strange implement, she opened it, placing a blade either side of her hair. She closed the blades with a snip. I watched as the end of her hair fell off. “See, they’re for cutting hair.” It didn’t look painful, so that had to be a bonus, right? Why would she want to cut her hair, though?
“It’s hot, so we cut our hair so we are cooler. Plus, hair is icky.” Ata made a face and knelt beside me. I grabbed her hair, examining where she’d cut it. It hadn’t hurt her, and it looked okay. Ata’s hair was cut, and her brothers’ hair had been short. Was short hair popular here?
I trusted Ata, so I nodded consent for her to use her scissors on my hair. She picked up one of the matted strands of my hair. With a snip, she cut it, catching the clump of hair. “See, no pain,” she assured me. I raised my hands up from the water and formed them into a bowl shape. Ata, pleased with my idea, continued to snip away at my hair, putting the cut pieces in my hands. It only took a few minutes before she was putting the things she called scissors down. She took the hair from my hands and placed them back in the basket for disposal.
Picking up the comb, she started to comb my hair. There were a few knots still, but she worked slowly, methodically. The scratch of the comb on my scalp was nice, and my shoulders slumped as I relaxed. I closed my eyes, focusing on the steady sound of her breathing and the feel of her near me. Father had combed Mother’s hair whenever he’d been home, and Mother had enjoyed it a lot. He’d said that he combed her hair because he liked her. Maybe Ata would let me comb her hair too?
With all the knots gone, Ata swapped the comb for the large object with a handle. She turned it over and it flashed. Surprised, my eyes widened. “It’s a mirror, made of bronze. The sun shines on it. You can see things in it,” she said as she showed it to me. I watched as she tilted it, the sunshine skittering off the surface, throwing pretty light across the room. She held it up for me, tipping it so I could look into it. My eyes widened at the sight. I took in my appearance. I’d of course seen my reflection a few times in the lake near our village, and on my Father’s sword when he’d been showing it to me, but I could look closely now.
My hair was shorter and looked a lot tidier. The cut wasn’t very even, but I didn’t say anything. Ata had tried, and I did feel a lot cooler with less hair. I still wasn’t sure about those scissors, though…
The doors to Ata’s room were flung open and I jumped, dropping the mirror into the trough. Ata was up off her feet and crossing the room. Her mother stood just inside her room, holding Caesarion by the shoulder: He had some clothes clutched to his chest. Cleopatra looked down at her daughter, her lips pressed in a firm line. She didn’t look happy. Oh no!
“Why was your brother asking Riei for clothes?” She demanded. Caesarion’s lower lip wobbled as he looked to Ata.
“I asked him to get some from Riei and say they were for Khai. Godric needs them.” Cleopatra’s gaze shifted to me and I squirmed under her scrutiny. Her eyes dropped to my brand.
“Appius spared no time in ensuring the boy was branded. Good.”
Ata’s hands balled into fists and I saw her posture change. She squared up to her mother. “You lied!” She accused, unfurling one hand to point a finger angrily at her mother. “You said he’d be well taken care of. Appius hurt him! You never said he would be branded, you never even told me what a brand was!” Ata continued to shout. Caesarion pried himself away from his mother, scurrying over to me.
“Ata, ladies do not shout,” she was reprimanded.
“Mother, ladies do not lie!” Ata’s jaw clenched.
I sucked in a breath. I’d never yelled back at my mother. You weren’t supposed to.
“Appius hurt him. I don’t want Godric living there anymore. If you make him do so I’ll…I’ll…I’ll tell Papa and he’ll take Caesarion, Godric, and I back to Rome!” Ata threw down her ultimatum. Oh no, they were fighting because of me!
“You dare to defy my orders, child?” Cleopatra lifted her hand to strike. Caesarion squealed as he watched. Eyes widening, I scrambled from the trough, grabbing the scissors from the floor and running to Ata. Pushing her behind me I threw a protective arm in front of her, rocking on the balls of the feet. Pointing the scissors at the woman I growled, bearing my teeth. She would not hurt my Ata!
Cleopatra froze, her hand still in the air, eyebrows raised and eyes wide as they met mine. I snarled, shuffling back, keeping Ata behind me. Ata grasped my arm, peering at her mother over my shoulder. If I could get her to the balcony she could escape to safety.
Cleopatra’s hand fell, her shoulders slumping. Looking at me with a mixture of surprise and curiosity, her head tipped sideways. What is she doing? I remained on the balls of my feet, ready to lunge if I needed to. I may have cried before, and warriors didn’t cry, but I would protect Ata, even from her own mother.
Her mother sighed, her features becoming sad. “Your father was right, he’s the one.” She acknowledged. The one what? Why were all these people talking in riddles around me!?
“The one what?” Ata asked as her grip on my arm tightened a little.
“You will find out when the time is right, my child.” Cleopatra sighed as she looked at me with such sadness in her eyes. It made me feel uneasy.
“Time, Mama? Why are you speaking in riddles?” Ata made to move past me but I gently pushed her back, signalling with my hand for her to stay behind me. I refused to let my guard down. Ata could still be hurt. I kept the scissors pointed at Cleopatra.
“I cannot say more. The seer who told your Father and me about The Moon and Stars did not say much at all. She was afraid of changing what must be and angering the Gods. All I can tell you is that he must go back to Appius,” Cleopatra sighed.
“I want him here, with me,” Ata protested, her small weight leaning against me. I wanted to stay here too, to spend all my time with Ata. I didn’t want to go back to Appius!
“He can stay here for a few nights until his brand is healed. He must go back to Appius though. He has to.” Cleopatra kept her eyes on me as she spoke to Ata, her sadness still evident. I was frustrated. Cleopatra hadn’t given us any answers!
Cleopatra’s gaze moved to her daughter for a moment before she took in our posture, my arm protecting her child, scissors still in my hand. I was unashamed that I was still naked. Protecting Ata was my priority. Her eyes found mine once more, her sadness almost overpowering.
“Promise me you’ll keep her safe.”
Growling at the woman, I rocked on my feet. As if I’d ever let anything happen to Ata! “Always,” I spat back, not afraid to fight anyone who tried to hurt her, even her own mother. Why would her mother even think that I would let Ata be hurt? What a silly thought.
With a solemn nod, Cleopatra left, the doors swinging shut behind her. Once I was sure she was gone, I dropped the scissors. They clattered as they hit the floor but I turned, grabbing Ata. Running my hands over her I checked she wasn’t hurt before I hugged her tightly. Her mother had been about to hit her because of me. No!
“It’s okay. I’m okay. You protected me,” Ata soothed, hugging me back just as tightly. We stayed that way for a little while, wrapped in an embrace until the sound of little feet tapping broke us apart.
“Caesarion!” Ata pulled her brother to her chest, holding him close. “Did Mama hurt you?” She asked, stroking his face. Caesarion shook his head and forced a smile.
“She caught me. I said you asked me to get them. Didn’t mention Godric. I was good,” he implored. Ata believed him as she soothed him, thanking him for the clothes.
“Will you play toys with me soon?” He turned to look up at me. I thought I was only meant to play toys with Ata? Ata loved her little brother, he was important to her. If he was important to her, then he was important to me.
“Yes, that would be nice.” I smiled. Caesarion grinned, pressing a kiss to Ata’s cheek before he waved at me. He pulled the doors open, sliding out into the hallway before they closed.
“Here,” Ata picked up the clothes Caesarion had been carrying. She looked sad, “You can put these on.” I took the clothes from her, noting that her pretty dress was a little damp from my hug. I pulled on the clothes as Ata tidied away the trough and her little basket of items. The trough was difficult to move with the water weight, so I helped her push it across the room and back to the corner. “Riei will clean it away,” she explained, putting her comb on her table.
She was still sad, and I didn’t like that. Wracking my brain, I tried to think of something to make her happy. “Will you tell me a story, please?” I asked, remembering she had said she would.
Ata turned to face me but she still looked sad. She held her hand out to me and I took it. Feeling brave, especially as I’d done such a good job of protecting her, I kissed her cheek. Father had kissed Mother’s cheek all the time, and it’d made her happy. Ata let out a girlish squeal, her eyes lighting up. “What was that for?” She asked, her free hand coming up to touch her cheek where I’d just left the kiss.
“To make you happy. Father used to kiss mother’s cheek when she held his hand. Is that…is that not what happens here?” I faltered. Had I gotten it wrong again?
Ata shook her head, “I don’t know, I’ve only ever held Papa’s hand before, and Caesarion’s.” She frowned, but her features softened quickly. “I liked your kiss, thank you.” She smiled, showing off her baby teeth. She looked a bit happier, so that was good. At least I got that right.
Ata led me out to the balcony and we sat together on the cool floor. Ata let my hand go as she sat tall, her hands resting in her lap. The sun was high in the sky now, and the air was nice and warm. “Did you see the half-man, half-animal statues at the front of the building?” She asked. I nodded, remembering how huge they were. “They are called Sphinx, they’re creatures with the body of a lion and the head of a man,” Ata explained. A lion? What was a lion? It was a question for later perhaps. “They guard important areas such as tombs and temples, and this palace,” Ata informed me and I nodded, urging her to continue.
“There was once a Prince of Egypt called Thutmose, who was a son of Pharaoh Amenhotep, and the grandson of Thutmose III, who succeeded Queen Hatshepsut.” The names confused me; I had no idea who these people were. Thutmose was a name I recognised, though.
“I met Thutmose, on the boat! He worked in the kitchen!” I exclaimed. I couldn’t believe Thutmose was a Prince! If he were a Prince, why did he work the kitchen, and why didn’t he live here? I frowned in confusion.
“Babies are often named after important people. It makes them special.” Ata explained. “The Thutmose on the boat isn’t the one in this story, but he was gifted his name, which is special.”
That made sense. Names were important. To be named after a Prince had to be very lucky. “Who were you named after?” I asked, not at all familiar with the Egyptian royals.
Ata’s shoulders dropped and she looked sad again. Again, Godric! Stop saying things that make her sad! I grabbed her hands, locking our fingers together. She smiled a little. “I wasn’t named after anyone. I don’t have a special name.”
Why hadn’t Ata been given a special name? She was special! “I’ll give you a special name,” I decided, giving her hands a squeeze. Her smile widened. I glanced around the room, trying to find a drawing on the walls. I knew the word I wanted to use, but I didn’t know how to say it in her language. Ata watched me for a moment.
“What special name will you call me?” She asked quietly. Turning back to her I scowled.
“I don’t know the word in your language,” I explained.
I paused, thinking for a moment. “When you really, really like something, and it makes you all warm inside.” I tried to explain, not sure if I was getting the right feelings across. “When your heart is very happy,” I explained further, my words making Ata smile.
“I don’t know the word in Egyptian, I haven’t learnt that in my lessons yet, but I know the word for your feeling in Latin?” She offered. Nodding, I motioned for her to tell me. “Carissimus.”
“Car-iss-i-mus,” I sounded it out. Latin was difficult. I was finding Egyptian easier, but the word sounded nice and if it described my feelings then it was perfect. Ata’s smile widened as I pronounced it. She likes it!
“What will I call you, though?” Ata pondered, her fingers playing with mine. “I can’t have a special name without you having one too. What’s your language?”
“Gaulish,” I responded, trying to find a word that would match my word for Ata, but it was difficult.
Ata’s eyes met mine again and she tipped her head, a small frown on her brow as she concentrated. What was she concentrating on? She made this face a lot, especially around me.
“C…Cridio?” She spoke softly, uncertainty in her voice. She leant forward, placing her hand on my chest, right over my heart.
My eyes widened. How did Ata know Gaulish, especially the Gaulish word for heart?! That was it; she was magic, one hundred percent magic, probably a Goddess too.
“Cridio,” she spoke again, louder this time and with more conviction in her tone. Her fingers splayed, smoothing over the tattoo on my chest. I felt warmth envelop me.
I liked my new special name. I liked it very much.