Ashes Under Uricon

Chapter 13. Slavery (364-7)

By Mihangel

Villulam enim prope habuit, ubi ego capturam dedi. Annorum eram tunc fere sedecim . . . adulescens, immo paene puer imberbis . . . et Hiberione in captivitate adductus sum.

My father had a small estate nearby, where I was taken captive. I was then barely sixteen years old . . . a youth, almost indeed a beardless boy . . . and was taken into slavery in Ireland.

St Patrick, Confession

If that was the springtime of our love, the next few months were its high summer. Rain or shine, the world smiled on us. Lucius was now a fully-fledged member of our family, and his parents allowed him to move in with us. But he went home regularly, and reported that his father had turned over a new leaf and was no longer maltreating his slaves. It was at his home, too, in July, that Lucius celebrated his sixteenth birthday and his coming of age. Tad and Bran and I were invited to witness him take off the boy's toga praetexta with a purple border which he had donned for the occasion and replace it with the man's plain undyed toga virilis.

"Rather ridiculous, wasn't it?" was his private comment that night. "But at least I'm no longer impubes." He grinned widely. "I've suddenly grown hair. Look!"

He stripped and displayed it with pretended pride. Indeed the blue chain was part-covered now; and there and then I crossed his threshold once more.

Whatever Maponus' priest had said about independence, however, Lucius remained legally under Pulcher's sole and potentially dictatorial authority. But in practice he was free to do as he liked. Together we behaved, no doubt, as did most boys of our age. Sometimes we discussed profound matters with the utmost gravity, and inexpertly put the world to rights. Sometimes we larked as carefree as eleven-year-olds. Sometimes we disported ourselves in the river or, with the wolfhounds, in the wild; in both cases, to my sorrow, without Bran. He would not hunt with us, pleading his discomfort at killing. Nor would he swim with us; he did not say why, and it was left to me to train Lucius into a passable Cornovian eel.

But the three of us also spent much time helping Tad, and especially on the farm. Summer was a busy season with new calves and lambs, with milking and cheese-making, with shearing and haymaking, and the harvest. One day at the beginning of September, just after I too had turned sixteen and just after the harvest was in, Lucius and I were milking in the further fields. Lucius, still a relative novice in the ways of farm animals, was finishing his last cow when his eye was caught by the bull in the next field. He watched in astonished admiration as its pintle expanded to massive size.

"Oh gods!" he said reverently. "Bitucus, eat your heart out!"

The bull ponderously mounted a cow and began to pump. The cow mooed with pleasure. Lucius adjusted himself.

"Docco, my love. He's putting ideas into my head, or into somewhere. How about it?"

I had no more objection than the cow. We carried the milk-pails to the nearby barn; the same barn, as it happened, where Lucius had lost his virginity.

"Must have a pee first," he said.

"No. Hold it."

I had remembered the fun on the night I acquired my Vergil. How appropriate to repeat it now. Then, I could not take advantage of Bran; not only had I been too young, but with him it had been unthinkable. Now, I had every reason to take advantage of Lucius. In the loft, on the new-stacked hay, he stripped and I positioned him on hands and knees, legs apart. I found an old pail and placed it under him. I gripped his cock, which was half-hard, and told him to shoot. As he did, I pulled and squeezed it just like Bran's so long ago, just like the cow's teat a few minutes before. He was killing himself with laughter and by the time he was empty his cock was as stiff as the bull's, if not so large.

"Stay put," I ordered.

I stripped myself, applied oil from the little flask we always had with us nowadays, and for once mounted him, like the bull, from behind.

"Moo!" he said as I pumped. "Mooooo!"

When he was well served, he served me, and I mooed my pleasure in turn. But for this I lay on my back. That was how he now preferred me, watching my face or filling my mouth with his tongue.

Satisfied, without a care in the world, we dressed and carried our pails through fields which smiled on our love. At the central dairy we stood the milk to settle alongside the churn. Bran was there, working on the cheese press, and he too smiled on us.

Suddenly there was a clatter of hooves in the yard. Curious, because all the farm-hands were busy threshing, I went out.

And I gaped.

Half a dozen men were riding in, bearded, roughly dressed, brandishing swords. Pagenses raiding from the mountains? No, the wrong side of Sabrina. Irish, then -- I had seen their likes four years before, baying outside the walls. Idiotically I ran forward, shouting at the top of my voice. They swerved towards me. Anger turned to fear, and I tried to retreat. Lucius and Bran emerged from the dairy, Ulcagnus and a dozen hands from the threshing floor. Too late. Powerful arms plucked me off my feet and slung me like a sack, face down, over a horse's withers. The whole band, wheeling round, galloped out of the yard, the opposition stronger than they had bargained for. By twisting my head I could see back. Some of the hands were running towards us brandishing flails, some pitchforks. Ulcagnus was disappearing into the stable for a horse. Lucius was rushing forward. Bran was poised on the balls of his feet. My captor bellowed in a language I did not know, and I felt a sword blade across my throat. Fear turned to terror.

The last I heard was Bran yelling "Don't follow! Or they'll cut his throat!" The last I saw was Bran wrestling Lucius to the ground.

We galloped for a while. When we stopped there was no sound of pursuit, and my terror slowly gave way to despair. My captor dismounted, sat me in front of the saddle and hobbled my ankles together under the horse's belly. He was a big man, only in his early twenties by the look of him but wearing all the aura of authority. With his great beard and mane of auburn hair he was not unlike the Gorgon on the temple at Aquae Sulis. He remounted behind me and held me with one arm. We rode further and met up with another band. They had spare horses, to one of which I was transferred, my feet still hobbled, my hands tied behind my back, the reins firmly held by a scarred warrior. We moved north up the arrow-straight Deva road, our numbers swelled by further bands, some with captives such as me, some herding calves, some leading horses, some laden with sacks, some even driving carts of wheat. Since their last big raid they had learned the lesson, it seemed, of striking just after the harvest when grain was plentiful and cattle more transportable.

Slow though our progress was, Lucius and Bran and Tad and home lay ever further behind. By now I was in unknown territory, in more senses than one. My eyes were everywhere, searching forlornly for hope of rescue. But nowhere was there any sign of the military, or of anyone who might help. The countryside seemed placid, but it was deserted. Here and there smoke rose from a burning farmhouse. There were some animals in the fields, but the only human beings were a few seen scuttling into the shelter of woods. The group ignored them all. Then fields gave way to heath and scrub interspersed with bleak peat mosses. We bypassed the small town of Rutunium. Night fell, and all hope of escape evaporated when our band speeded up, pressing ahead of the others. There was no possibility of sleep; it needed my full attention to stay upright in the saddle. We bypassed Mediolanum too, and when dawn broke we had left the main road and were beyond Deva, looking down at a shallow estuary as wide almost as the Sabrina near Abonae.

And there, alongside a creek, we came to a wood. Under its cover I was released from my horse, fed with cheese and coarse barley-bread and water, and allowed to relieve myself, all under close watch. A few other captives were already there, peasants in the depths of despair. They would make no attempt at escape. Nor, at the moment, could I. I was utterly exhausted, and my knife, the prick-handled knife from Maponus, had been confiscated with a great guffaw by my scarred warrior. All that was in my mind was sleep, and I slept, a sleep disturbed by the arrival, in dribs and drabs, of the rest of the convoy.

Then I was hauled to my feet. Six ships, which had presumably been lurking offshore, were nosing into the creek. The wood sprang into activity directed by my auburn-maned captor, and orders were flung around of which I understood not a word. We prisoners were made, by dint of much pointing and waving of swords, to carry sacks of grain into the ships, which were about the size of our Sabrina barge. Calves were coaxed on board, and I had to admit that these men knew how to handle animals. The horses, which it would have been folly to ship, were left behind for, I guessed, subsequent use. They were doubtless stolen anyway.

At dusk we set sail. As we left the shores of Britain my spirits sank yet lower. The moon was bright and we ran westwards, paralleling the ever more mountainous coast. I soon lost interest even in that, for the sea sickness struck again, and I added my contribution to the calf shit and urine slopping in the bilges. It was my lowest point, a nightmare which lasted for two days and ended only when we moored at a crude quay at the mouth of a river, backed by a few wooden sheds and round huts.

Men were there to drive the cattle away. The prisoners were made to unload the sacks of wheat and indeterminate loot into carts, and the ships, once emptied, sailed off for further pickings from the wealth of Britain. Under guard, we drove the carts inland, the convoy dwindling as groups were detached in this direction or that. My route led up into quite high mountains until I reached, perhaps twenty miles from the sea, what proved to be my destination, an unimpressive cluster of huts on a valley floor.

I was a slave.

I do not wish to dwell on my three years of slavery. Nor will I describe my feelings, which can be left to the imagination. Why did I not run away? The answer was the same for me as for Tappo's Irishmen at Onna -- there was nowhere to run to. And my life could have been infinitely worse, such as labouring in the mines under sadistic Roman supervisors. At the same time it could -- though I do not want to strike a note of self-pity -- have been a great deal better. It could have been like Bran's.

The difference, I reflected, was that he had been born into a role which was, I think and hope, an esteemed one, and he remained a slave by choice. I had been plunged in the blink of an eye from freedom into bondage, sundered from friends and from everything familiar, and I knew a loneliness of which I had never dreamt. I did in time make friends of a sort among my companions. But in all those three years I spoke not a word of British, except to myself. At first I spoke not a word of anything, for all my fellow-slaves were Irish; but from sheer necessity I learnt the language. Not well, because my only teacher was my ear, but well enough to get by; it was a language not wholly different from ours. And as time passed I built up a picture of the society in which I was trapped.

My captor and master was lord of a clan of the Uí Garrchon and an under-king to the king of Laigin. His name was Maqqos-colini, which means 'the son of holly.' He lived in his hill-fort several miles away and I rarely even saw him. All my dealings were with Collos his local foreman; not a bad man, who never maltreated us. I had been landed, I gathered, at the harbour of Inberdea, and my job was to herd livestock on the mountains above the Oboca river. I started at the humblest end of the scale in charge of lowly sheep and goats, at first high on the hills, then moving them down as winter descended. It was not wholly unsatisfying. And if I spoke no British, I did in time find myself borrowing from the Eclogues and addressing my charges in Latin. Ite domum saturae, venit Hesperus, ite capellae, I would say to them. Go home, my nanny-goats. You're well-fed. The evening star is rising. Go home. And they went. For me, however, going home, going to my proper home, was impossible.

I had hoped, in times past, one day to gaze westwards from the British shore across the Irish Ocean, beyond which lay the land of Bran. Everything was now the wrong way round. It was from my eyrie high in the land of Bran that I gazed; and far to the east, whenever it was clear, rose mountains from the sea, silhouetted black by the rising sun, stained red when it set. Bitter longing seized my heart, for they were the mountains of Britain. If I remembered my geography aright, they were the mountains of Venedotia. Beyond them lived our rough relatives the Pagenses. Beyond the Pagenses were the Cornovii, and home, and Bran, and Lucius. That was the hardest cut of all, that I could almost see Lucius.

All the way here my mind had been on him. With every step the thread which held us together had stretched and thinned, become a fibre, a hair, a cobweb filament, but had not broken. Throughout those three years I lived off my last physical experience of him, the feel of him inside me at both ends. Above all I lived off my memories of his sparkle, his fun, his warmth, his love. None of those was to be found in our flea-ridden huts by the Oboca. The dozen slaves who were my companions were all herders or dairymaids. They coupled indiscriminately, it seemed, and babies were born, additions to our master's wealth. I coupled with nobody, and was thought strange for it. But they were good and kindly souls, if simple, and spent the dark evenings singing their sad songs to each other.

Were they barbarians? That is a matter of opinion. To the Romans, a barbarian is, at root, one who says bar-bar-bar, a foreigner who babbles in gibberish. That is arrogance, because nobody's language is worse than any other's, and by that token even a Briton is, to a true Roman, a barbarian. The word is also used of one lacking, or not appreciating, the refinements of Roman civilisation. Another value-judgment. True, Ireland was a land of perennial inter-tribal squabbling, a land without towns, without coinage, without roads or mills or water piped to the home. The trappings of life which at Viroconium we took for granted simply did not exist. While the rich might adorn their persons with gold and silver, their wealth was measured by the number of their cattle. But was that much different from the Cornovii? For three years I did not have a proper bath, for three years I did not lie at table but sat on a stool. But was I the worse for that? There was doubtless not a copy of Vergil in the whole island. But did it matter? The Irish had their own equivalents, and their gods were not unlike ours.

From sheep and goats I graduated to cattle. With them, there was less work in the high hills, and more work gathering them into their folds for the night. I tended their ailments and gained some respect from the foreman for my successes. And I came to gain much more. On the valley floor barley and oats were grown. Wheat was a rarity, reserved for the lord. At harvest time everyone who could be spared from other tasks was put to reaping. This was a back-breaking business, protracted and hideously inefficient. The scythe was unknown here, and the only implement a little sickle to cut the heads off, a handful at a time, just below the ear. The straw was left to be trampled by cattle.

By my second harvest I knew Collos the foreman well enough to venture a suggestion. Why not try a scythe which would reap close to the ground in a fraction of the time? The straw after threshing, I pointed out, was invaluable for bedding. I waxed enthusiastic. Hay was not grown here, and in the autumn many of the cattle were slaughtered and their meat preserved, simply for want of winter fodder. Why not grow hay? It would keep many more animals alive through the winter, to fatten in subsequent years.

Collos had never heard of the scythe. He did not even know a word for it. But he was interested and imaginative. Use the services of the smith and carpenter, he told me. Make one, and show him. Irish blacksmiths were skilled, as skilled as ours, and the carpenters competent, and under my guidance they made a prototype. For the precise shape and proportions I had only memory to draw on, and it took much experiment and alteration to perfect. But within a week I had a workable scythe with the long blade I knew. The harvest was still in progress and in a single day, at the cost of fearful blisters, I reaped a field of barley which Collos reckoned would have taken seven with a sickle. He had me train an Irishman to wield this wondrous blade, as he called it, and then he had me make more. By the time they were ready the harvest was in, but I trained more men by practising on reeds on wet ground. Word had reached Maqqos-colini, who came to watch; but he said nothing.

Nor had Collos heard of hay. But he consulted me on which fields to set aside for it, and next June we mowed them by scythe. Fired with enthusiasm, he built winter sheds for cattle, complete with haylofts.

As my third summer in Ireland advanced, it was no secret that more and bigger raids on Britain were about to be launched, and soon plunder began to arrive. Around the time of my birthday -- I had long since lost track of exact dates -- the grain harvest was well under way when Maqqos-colini himself rode up from the harbour, asking for me. I was astonished. Why me?

We talked in the middle of a field. What I looked -- and smelt -- like I can only guess. I had not set eyes on a mirror since leaving home. I was aware that I had grown up. Three years ago I had still been a boy. Now I was a man, or almost. That was certainly true of my mind. I thought I had grown in height as well. My hair was long and ill-kempt, I now had a beard of a sort -- short and fluffy, to judge by the feel of it, and patchy -- and my legs were quite furry. I was even more deeply sunburned. And, as I leant on my scythe, naked to the waist, I was running with sweat.

Maqqos-colini surveyed the orderly swaths extending across the half-cut field.

"Collos tells me," he said, "that your blades work well, and that next year I will have more cattle than I do now. I am grateful. Are you an expert farmer, then?"

"Not expert. But I have worked on our farm at home. With us, blades and hay are standard practice."

"And is it a large farm?"

You should know, I thought bitterly. You've seen it.

"There are larger than ours," was all I said, "in our parts. We have only about four hundred head of cattle."

That, by Irish standards, was substantial.

"So . . . And is it worked by slaves?"

"No. Only by free labour. Hired."

"Have you no slaves, then?"

"Not on the farm. But three domestic slaves."

"And are they all yours?"

"Two are my father's. One is mine." I laughed shortly. "An Irishman, as it happens."

He half-smiled back. "Tit for tat, then. What is his name?"

"Bran, son of Tigernac."

"And is he a good worker?"

"Worker? I do not look at him in that way. He is a friend, the best of friends. I owe him . . . more than I could ever repay."

"Why then have you not repaid him with his freedom?"

"Because he has not wanted it."

Maqqos-colini looked at me consideringly. "I do not like the notion of Irish in slavery to Britons. No more, I suppose, than you like the notion of Britons in slavery to the Irish. If I asked you to free him, would you?"

What lay behind that? Altruistic concern for a fellow-countryman?

"Certainly, provided he wanted to be freed. But I could not do it from here."

"No. But if I freed you and sent you home . . ."

It took time to sink in.

"Go home, Briton. I impose no conditions, except that you ask your slave if he wants his freedom; and if he does, that you give it him. Will you?"

It needed no debate. "I will. I promise."

"My ships sail tomorrow. Be at Inberdea at sunrise. Collos will lend you a horse."

With a nod, he was off. In a daze, I reaped no more. I washed in the river, packed my few belongings in a fold of cloth, and rode to Inberdea.

As we sailed away I looked back at the mountains of my captivity and worked out where my home had been. But the voyage soon became as wretched as the last, and the bilges still stank. Finally we arrived back at the same creek, where Maqqos-Colini gave me a pack of food and three unexpected items.

He took from his finger a gold ring with a distinctive spiral design.

"Keep this," he said, "in memory of your stay with us. And if you are ever stopped by Irishmen, show it to them and tell them my name."

He gave me a horse.

"He is, you might say, not mine to give, so do not thank me for him."

And he handed me a small package wrapped in linen, tied with twine, and sealed with wax.

"Give this to your slave when you see him, as a gift from a fellow-countryman."

Talk about this story on our forum

Authors deserve your feedback. It's the only payment they get. If you go to the top of the page you will find the author's name. Click that and you can email the author easily.* Please take a few moments, if you liked the story, to say so.

[For those who use webmail, or whose regular email client opens when they want to use webmail instead: Please right click the author's name. A menu will open in which you can copy the email address to paste into your webmail system (Hotmail, Gmail, Yahoo etc). Each browser is subtly different, each Webmail system is different, or we'd give fuller instructions here. We trust you to know how to use your own system. Note: If the email address pastes or arrives with %40 in the middle, replace that weird set of characters with an @ sign.]

* Some browsers may require a right click instead