Length: 6732 words
Rating : still gen.
Summary: Esca wakes up after his injuries, as a slave. He is bought by a slave trader, his ear is clipped and he is taken South for sale.
Warnings: child death, threatened child abuse, general grimness.
This started out as a short stand-alone fic about Esca's name, so again, sorry for the repetition for those that read that. Then it grew and grew. I promise I have stopped fiddling with it now!
They came to make a list of the prisoners, not long after Cunoval's youngest son woke up. Maybe it was a morning, maybe a day. A big man with a sour face and black hair curling from his Roman nose, a brisk little man with a stylus and a wax tablet, and a couple of soldiers behind them. They looked at the Brigantes as a man might look at cows going to market, if they were not very good cows.
It was hard to tell how long it had been. Maybe it was two days before the Romans came? His head hurt too much, and there was a sound in his ears like waves on the shore that didn't seem to come from anywhere.
It was cold, too on the floor of the barn where they had put the prisoners after the battle. And it was so hard to stay above the waves of sleep for long. His head hurt so much, and anyway, it was hard to care much about time. There had been a cart, somewhere, jolting. Then the floor. And cold. His clothes were wet, he must have been knocked into the ditch. Outside the barn, it was raining. Somewhere at the back of the barn, where he couldnt' see, someone was sobbing, very shrill. He wished it would stop. It made it harder to stay under the waves of sleep.
An unqualified period of time later, one of the women gave him some water in a leather cup. Gwen, she was called, it came to him his brother Bri had kissed her once, so long ago, at last year's Beltane fire. It seemed a hundred years ago, in another world. Her hands shook a little when she gave it to him. There seemed no point in drinking, but after all, he was so thirsty.
There were not many other men in the barn, and none of them from his own village. They had all gone down in that final rush as the Roman soldiers came in through the last barricades, his brothers, father, his friends, all gone together on the warrior road, west of the sunset. Even his mother. Leaving him behind. Leaving him somehow, bitterly, alive. Alive, and a prisoner of the Romans.
The big man with the nose walked around the barn, stalking quickly on his long legs, counting. The little man with the stylus had to add a skip to his step to keep up with him. It would have been funny, except that nothing was funny any more.
The big man came to Gwen, sitting near the door with another older woman.
. "Stand" he said, in Latin. She stood. "Turn" - she looked confused, so he took her shoulder and turned her round, looking her up and down with that cattle-market stare again. "Name?" She didn't answer, so he took her shoulder and shook her pointing at her with a long finger.
"Gwen" she said, and started to say something else, but he had already turned away to speak to the little man and one of the soldiers came up instead pulled her, not unkindly, to stand against the far wall.
It was somehow very difficult to turn and look around at the sobbing person at the back of the barn when the big man went back there. Nobody looked. They looked at the ground, in case they should catch each other's eyes, when the sobbing person would not stand or turn, and was beaten. The sobbing stopped after that.
When the big man came to him at last, he stood, just about. The throbbing in his head almost took him back under the waves, but in the end, the waves retreated enough to let him get to his feet. When the big man told him to turn, he lunged with his fist for his big hairy nose, but somehow it was a very long way away, and he could not move as fast as he had thought. And the soldiers were there, suddenly, competently holding him back. He couldn't even fall over, they held him too well.
"Hmm" said the big man. "Not fit enough with that wound to send off with the recruits. Slave. Needs a few lessons to be saleable. Young though, and strong, if we can get him over the head wound. Lead mines, or the arena? " The big man looked down his long nose at the little man, who nodded and made marks on his tablet.
"Name?" No answer. The thought of the burning smell you got around the lead mines was filling his mind and making it hard to think. He'd ridden past a mine once, three years ago, with his father. It wasn't a place you'd want to go back to, not at all, even riding free on his own bay mare. It wasn't a place you'd want to go back to as a slave.
Not a prisoner, not even an auxiliary recruit, a slave.
One of the soldiers slapped him . Not hard, but it was enough to send him back under the waves again.
When he awoke again, most of the clansmen and women who had been in the barn had gone. Someone had moved him to lie on a pile of straw and there was a blanket over him. Someone had taken his good thick tunic too, and left him with an old one, patched and thin.
His hands were chained. He wished Gwen would come and bring more water, but he couldn't see her any more.
"Name?" The big man was back, and so were the soldiers. Somehow it didn't seem worth the effort of trying to hit him again, and anyway, it would be awkward to do it with his hands like this.
" Ysgafnyny bôn ap Cunoval"
"Cunoval?" The big man paused and looked at him with more interest - as a man might look at an unpromising horse with a good pedigree, perhaps. He turned to the man with the stylus " Severus! definitely the arena for this one. They'll pay to see a son of Cunoval fight for his life down South, I'll warrant. Get that red-headed trader with the stupid name to have a look at him once he's patched up. "
He turned back "What was the rest of that mouthful?"
"Oh, for fuck's sake, British names! Esca? Near enough. Write him down Esca mac Cunoval, Severus"
Ysgar, he thinks. Ysgar. It means, Enemy. A new name for this new, broken life. As good a name as any.
A while later, a little dark man came to bring him bread and a bowl of soup. He told Esca his name was Banno. He seemed somehow familiar, but Esca could not place him.
Esca's head was still throbbing painfully, but he didn't feel nauseous any more and the soup smelled good. "I'm to bring you food and look after you for a while, till you can look after yourself again" Banno told him. Esca wondered why they bothered.
"They don't miss a trick, these Romans. They don't want you dead, they want you fit and on your feet again" said Banno, smiling. He seemed to think this was encouraging news.
Esca looked at him again, and realised that he was one of his own father's slaves, one of the farm workers that his father had kept. Not one of the fifty-one men that his father had sent to Calacum, but an older man. He wondered how Banno had ended up here, but it was too much effort to ask. He curled up on his straw again and went to sleep instead.
It seemed that Banno was allowed to come and go freely from the barn. Nobody seemed to expect that he might run away or choose not to do as he was ordered. Still, he was something familar, and that was a little comfort.
Banno was a talkative man, and that drove Esca almost wild at first. Esca didn't want to talk to anyone just then. But he was a kindly little man in his way too. He washed the old blood off Esca's face, and brought spare bandages to wrap around Esca's wrists to stop his wrists being rubbed raw by the hard edges of the manacles. Once he brought a lump of bread with honey on it from the kitchen, and stayed for an hour to tell Esca in maddening detail about how he'd charmed it from the cook.
Esca's head got better all too quickly. He didn't want to feel better. As long as he could barely stand, that meant there was still some space between now and the future, and no need to think about the past. But before long he was able to stand and walk without swaying, and now the future was right ahead of him and there was nowhere else to go.
" Will you help me get away?" he asked Banno, urgently, when he came to bring a bowl of soup that evening . "They'll let you through the door, if you came back at night you could ..."
The little man shook his head. "No, lad" he said, quite gently, but very firmly.
" You could come with me?"
"Well, where's the sense in that?" Banno replied "I'm a bee-slave, I've got skills. Soon these Romans will send me South to some estate and I'll tend the bees there. " He smiled, hopeful.
" Maybe I'll even have a house of my own there. They say that some of the Roman beeslaves have their own little houses to stay near the hives... I've never had a house to myself. Maybe I'll find a woman there and bring up children to help me with the bees."
Esca felt cold. "You are happy my father fell" he said, blankly.
Banno looked at him, and shook his head.
" Your father was a good enough master, and I'm truly sorry that he is dead. But life goes on. They say in the South the sun is warmer and they don't have all this trouble with damp getting into the hives in the winter. I'm looking forward to that"
"Well then, help me get out of the barn? I'll make my own way if I can just get out. Or bring me a knife?"
Banno looked at him for a long moment. "This barn is in the middle of a fort full of soldiers, sir, and a good twenty miles south of your old lands besides. And there's nobody left out there will help you now. I can't. You know what they'd do to me if they knew, and you too as soon as they caught you, which most likely they would. They'd crucify the pair of us, and how would that help?
No, you get well and behave yourself and with a bit of luck they'll sell you somewhere where the food is good, and you can get yourself a trade, like me"
Esca turned away and buried his face in his arms. Banno patted him gently on the shoulder and went away.
Being a slave was humilating, but it was also very boring, Esca soon decided. He was not trusted outside the barn, and although most of the other slaves that slept in the barn went in and out, there were long periods when he was left on his own. The barn door was kept locked with a padlock on the outside, and two guards in sight when it was open.
After a while, once he was sure he had got his balance back, Esca tried hitting one of the guards with a pot, hoping to be able to slip past the other one if he could knock the first one out. It didn't go well. The pot wasn't heavy enough to do any real harm, it was difficult to hit either of them with his hands restrained, and the other man grabbed him. Then the one who had been hit with the pot punched him in the stomach. After that, they dragged him back into the barn and took turns kicking him for a while. Eventually they left him lying in the straw exactly where he had started.
The barn had no windows, so there was nothing to look at, and nothing to do. There were a few chinks in the roof where you could see the sky. It was grey, mostly. He had never sat idle for so long in all his life.
"What happened to the other men that were here, the ones that were captured with me?" he asked Banno one day. He hadn't wanted to know, but the days were so grey and empty that in the end, he wasn't able to not ask. And his mother would have thought that he should know where the rest of his people had gone, even if there was nothing he could do about it.
"Already sold" Banno said. "There weren't many, and there were two traders through here before you woke up - woke up proper, like. One of them was going out of Britain, I think. Someone said ... Dubris? Is that a place?"
"Dubris - it's a port. Somewhere in the South. They bring the wine from Eboracum that way." Esca told him. "How many were there?" Unspoken, the question : how many had died?
"Oh, not many." Banno answered "Maybe twenty, I didn't count... Magunna - she's the potwasher, lovely girl, always has all the gossip, such a pity she has that birthmark I always think when I see her, because her nose is very pretty - told me she heard from one of the tribune's house-slaves that they were quite annoyed about that. They'd wanted prisoners to go for soldiers, but most of them were dead, apart from the very old men. And the ones left mostly injured or too old for soldiers."
"Twenty!" Even fewer left alive than he had thought. "And the women and children?" Esca asked
"A few are still here - well, you know that - but some of them were sold hereabouts, and some were sent off to Eboracum, and some to Londinium, or at least, that was where I heard that trader was going. Your friend Gwen, she was bought by a Roman family who are moving up to one of the Wall forts, seemed like nice people. She asked me to keep an eye on you, when she went."
Esca had feared this, and now he knew for certain. Broken and lost, what were left of his mother's people would be scattered to the four winds . Even if he was free to look for them, he would never be able to bring them back together again. He hoped that they were not all feeling as miserable as he did. He hoped Gwen's new owners would be kind to her, as she had been kind to him.
It was, if he had not lost count, rather more than a moon after he woke up, that they came for Esca. The bruises from the beating had almost gone, anyway. The big man with the Roman nose, the little man with the wax tablet, and some red-headed bastard of a Corieltauvi Briton, from his accent. And two soldiers, just in case. It was almost flattering.
Esca tried to hit the big man first, with both hands together. The big man dodged and overbalanced. Then Esca got in a knee in the groin of the Corieltauvi, which was very satisfying, before turning to the open door.
But then one of the soldiers grabbed his shoulders and the other thumped him in the stomach, once, twice, three times, and then he was too winded to try anything else. He'd hoped that they might get angry enough to just run him through and that would be that. Surely that would count as death in battle and the gods would let him pass along the warrior road, even late and alone as he was? He'd hoped so, anyway.
But they didn't even bother with their swords, just gathered him up and dragged him like a sack full of so many turnips. This time they held him down and put an iron collar round his neck, attached to a rough-edged iron chain. The collar was heavy, and very cold at first. They fixed it in place with a bent iron rivet that was hammered into place, while Esca lay on the floor with a pile of heavy soldiers on top of him and concentrated on trying to breathe, and the Romans and the bloody Corieltauvi dusted themselves off and talked about how well Esca had got his strength back and whether this should affect the price the Corieltauvi was paying for him.
They took the shackles off his hands then, which was a relief, even if they were only doing it because the shackles were military property. He tried to focus on the wrists, and ignore the collar, but it was hard. When he got back to his feet, the weight of the chain pulled the collar forward so that it was hard to hold his head up.
It seemed very bright outside the barn after so long, and he could feel a light rain on his face. He squeezed his eyes almost closed against the the light, still trying to get his breath back. A little group of people were standing around a loaded cart. Women, children, a few men - he recognised Banno, who shook his head reprovingly when Esca caught his eye. The soldiers pulled Esca over to the cart and fastened the heavy iron chain which ran from the ring around his neck to a staple on the back of the cart, as if he were an ox being brought home from the market. Only when you bring home an ox, you don't have to use a chain and padlock, Esca thought.
The red headed bastard came and stood in front of him - a safe distance away, he noticed. That knee in the groin must have hurt. Good.
He brought out a small, sharp knife and showed it to Esca.
"My name's Vatto. I'm your owner now." He smiled, and the smile was vicious.
"I'm going to clip your ear now. That's a message, down South where you're going.
It says, this man is an untrustworthy slave, he might be on the run. Don't let him have food, don't give him a place to sleep, hand him in, there might be a reward.
So,there's no point running. No hiding. Everyone will know what that ear means, as soon as you show your face. "
He turned to the soldiers "Hold him a minute, would you lads?"
The soldiers held him. He tried to push them off, but they both seemed to be made of solid oak, tough and heavy with it.
"Stay still, or I might take your whole ear off" Vatto said, and there was something in his voice that said that he'd be happy enough to do it too.
It bled like fury, for a small wound. After he had cut it, Vatto hacked his hair back as well so it could be clearly seen.
"We aren't going to kill you, so don't bother trying that again." he said "You're worth nothing to me dead, not even a carcass to sell to the knacker's yard. Behave, and we won't make your life miserable. I might even look for a decent buyer for you if you're lucky. Mess me about and you'll pay. Understand?"
Esca said nothing, standing silent and chained to the back of the cart, but he met the Corieltauvi's eyes steadily as the blood ran down over his shoulder.
The Corieltauvi turned away to the men who were waiting with a group of mules behind the cart.
"Normal rules for prisoners of war for this one" Vatto said, waving a hand at Esca "watch him, he thinks he's a tough one. I don't want him getting loose, I don't want him killing himself, I want him safe and sound and ready for sale." he paused for a moment and added as an afterthought "I don't want him killing any of you lot either, it would wipe out half my profit on him".
"These five" he pointed "are skilled, I want them looked after carefully. These three are virgins, I expect them to stay that way, got that? Saco, Motius, did you hear me? I don't want any repeat of that business in Eboracum. Imilco, get them to tell you what they did in Eboracum and why they are never - going - to - do - it again." The men nodded, looking bored. It was fairly clear that they had heard all of this before. Esca looked round at the group, taking note, now that the dazzle had gone out of his eyes. None of the other slaves, mostly women, were chained, but they didn't look as if they were intending to run away. They stood in a sad group, unarmed and poorly dressed, carrying small bags and parcels, with Vatto's men with their knives and long sticks behind them.
Vatto swung up onto his horse - it was one that had belonged to one of his father's spearmen, Esca realised, a flashy chestnut mare, with rather weak hocks. She snorted and bridled, and Vatto struggled with her for a moment before she calmed and went through the gate. Not used to the savage Roman bit the man was using, Esca thought, before the mulecart started to jolt forward, pulling him forward unexpectedly.
The journey was not easy, even though it was slow. The cart bumped slowly along winding lanes between grey stone walls and hawthorn hedges, through small woods where pigs rummaged among the fallen leaves, or between small upland fields where sheep grazed grass that was tired and brownish with the oncoming winter. These were roads that Esca had ridden along in the past on visits to friends or relatives. They looked different now: emptier of people, and unfriendly.
The unenthusiastic mules moved along slowly enough that the grown slaves on foot could easily keep pace with them, but among the group were several children, and a woman carrying a baby. After a couple of miles they became tired and started to lag. The baby began to cry, a thin sound, tearing at the ears.
The baby's mother had been a friend of Esca's brother's wife, and she had often visited their house. The child was named Owen, after his grandfather, Esca remembered, Black Owen they called him, because there was already an Owain in the dun who had brown hair - and his mother was called Elen. He thought that he should perhaps say something to her, but no words came to him.
Banno went to speak to the cartman, and the woman with the baby was pulled up to sit on the tail of the cart.
I should have done that, thought Esca. I should have been the one to speak for her, not Banno, he's just the bee-slave. But the cart was loaded high with wrapped bundles of furs behind the carter and Esca's chain was too short for him to approach the front of it. And in any case, it was very clear that Vatto's men were far more willing to listen to Banno than to hear anything that Esca said.
After a while, two tired, dark-haired children joined Elen, perching on the back of the cart next to Esca. He thought he recognised them, but he did not remember their names or who their parents might have been: they were not from his own dun. They looked suspiciously at him, particularly at the drying blood from his ear. It had soaked into his tunic and made a dark sticky patch. He tried to smile reassuringly at them, but he seemed to have forgotten how to do that.
When they stopped near a village in the evening, Vatto bought bread, and bowls of hot fatty lamb stew for both the slaves and his men to eat. The children were sent to bring Esca his stew and bread while he waited at the cart tail. That made him feel like an ox again, with no choice but to wait, tethered, to be fed, but he thanked them for their help and asked their names.
The girl, perhaps nine years old, was Rian and the boy, a little younger, Tasulo, they told him. They were brother and sister and the children of one of Cunoval's liegemen and a peasant woman, from an isolated farm up in the western hills. Their father had died with Esca's, and they had no idea where their mother might be. They seemed to be both horrified and excited by their first journey : neither of them had ever been more than a few miles from their home before. Neither of them could tell him their exact age: probably, he thought, nobody had bothered to keep count too carefully, or thought that it mattered.
It took them twelve days to get to Deva, and it rained most of the way. Everyone was cold and miserable. Vatto's men handed out spare cloaks and coats from one of the mule-packs to those who did not have them. The cloak Esca was given smelled of mould, and he had to tie it awkwardly to keep it in place, for there was no brooch on it, but he was glad of it none the less, for autumn was turning to winter now, and the wet sucked the warmth from him. He had wondered whether to let the cloak drop and let the cold take him, but that was a slow death, and no death for a warrior, and in the end, he did not do it.
The cart bogged down in the muddy ruts, and every time it did, it had to be shoved and lifted until it clear. It was impossible to dry their clothes when they stopped for the night, though with ten people crammed together into the shelter of each of the shabby leather tents, it was at least bearably warm after a while.
At least two of Vatto's men always slept in the same tent as Esca, to keep an eye on him. He thought of trying to creep away at night, but if he moved, someone was bound to wake. His chain rattled, and anyway he had no confidence that the other slaves would keep quiet if they saw him leaving. Banno certainly would not, he had already made that clear, and with the baby nearby, coughing or wailing thinly, nobody slept deeply.
After the second day they were out of the country that Esca knew well. Vatto took a road that climbed up over the edge of a long, low moorland hill to creep slowly along among the yellowing grass and brown autumn heather. The mist hung heavy over the hilltop that day, and it was hard to tell if the soft mizzle was rain, or if they were walking through the skirts of a cloud.
"Look what I found!" Tasulo said, bouncing up to the cart from the side of the road that morning. "It was over there, just next to that wall!" He was holding out a red deer antler, a good big one, to show Esca.
"That is a fine one" Esca replied. "Five tines! he must be a good big animal. "
"Do you want it?" Tasulo asked, holding it out to him. Esca almost smiled. It was a strange feeling, his face seemed to have forgotten how to do it.
"No, you should keep it." he replied "They make very good knife handles out of those, and dice - you might be able to sell it."
Tasulo looked at the antler with increased interest. "Who can I sell it to?"
"Vatto, perhaps, he is a rich man and a trader, he has coins to spend."
Tasulo looked down at his feet as he walked along. "I don't like him" he whispered.
"Well, I can certainly see your point there" Esca said ruefully, almost touching his ear and remembering just in time that that would hurt. "What about Imilco then? You could ask him to sell it for you"
Tasulo nodded, and sat down in the heather by the side of the road to wait for Imilco's mule. That mule was a rather slow one and always seemed to end up behind all the others. Despite this, Imilco didn't beat it, and for that, Esca liked the man.
When they came down again from the moor's edge, they joined a hard-surfaced Roman road, running straight and uncompromisingly South. There were more and larger farm buildings here, forts along the Roman road and as they went still further South, sometimes villages with Roman-looking rectangular buildings with tiled roofs among the roundhouses. The land became flatter and more open : Esca, born and bred in the hills, felt uncomfortably exposed and ant-like as Vatto's group crawled slowly across the muddy flatlands. A cold autumn wind moved uneasily through the hedgerows, and the dry leaves rattled.
The baby, Owen, died early on the ninth morning they were on the road. He'd been getting weaker each day, even though one of the women had lent his mother a leather bag to try to keep the rain off him, and Vatto's man Imilco had given her an extra blanket. But Owen coughed and coughed, and eventually did not wake.
When Imilco came to tell Vatto about the baby's death that morning, he was standing by the cart, checking that the rain had not got through the wrappings on the precious furs. He did not seem concerned that the child had died.
"The mother will be the easier to sell without it, and after all, they are only worth a few sesterces at best, at that age" he said. "Toss the body behind a bush when we leave".
"I will dig him a grave" Esca said to him. "Give me a spade, and I will dig one. He was a warrior's son: he deserves a grave."
Vatto looked at him in some surprise : it was the first time Esca had spoken to him. "There's a couple of words missing, there" he said. He hit Esca once, hard, in the face with the back of his hand. "Try again."
Esca licked his swelling lip and imagined for a moment, in bloody detail, exactly what he would do to Vatto if he had his spear to hand. Or a dagger. A dagger would be enough: Vatto was no warrior.
"No?" said Vatto. "Very well. Throw it into the bushes, Imilco."
"Please, sir, let me borrow a spade to dig the child a grave" Esca said, hating.
Vatto raised his eyebrows, amused. "Very well spoken. Imilco, get Saco, find this slave a spade, and watch him while he digs."
It did not take long to dig such a small grave in the wet soil. Elen laid the tiny body in the grave herself, and Esca filled it in. They said no words over his body : there seemed to be no words to say.
"No, it's not a fire" said Saco, whose mule was next behind the cart. "Those are the steams of the salt-pans, where they boil up foul water and make it into salt - somehow, I don't know how but it seems to need a deal of boiling. We're stopping there tomorrow, master Vatto will be wanting to buy salt and sell on some of those furs - maybe sell some slaves too if there's a buyer."
"What is this place called?" Banno asked him.
Saco laughed and pointed to a milestone by the road. "It says it there: Condate. But you ignorant barbarians don't read do you? How do you know where you are, in a strange place?"
Banno was not offended. "I've never been to a strange place before!" he said, smiling. "But now I am abroad, I shall ask people."
"And if the people don't speak your tongue? In the South they don't speak like you ; some people only speak the soldier's Latin."
Banno looked surprised "How d'ye hear the words of these speaking stones then?"
Saco rolled his eyes. Esca said to Banno: "The lines on the stone carry the message. It is like... perhaps a little like the language of the bees that you were telling me about. You watch where the lines go, and that carries the message."
"Can you understand it, lord?" Banno asked him.
Esca looked at him. "Banno, my name..."
"Yes, I know - Esca. Sorry. Habit". Banno looked apologetic. Esca stretched his neck back and wriggled his shoulders, shifting the collar against the drag of the chain.
"Could I learn it, this writing?" Banno asked him.
"Well, perhaps - the writing is in Latin, so you would have to learn that too. The Romans use it a great deal : they write on wood and on wax. That's why they put such a high price on the wax you make - made - for my father. "
"I can understand it a little. I can read the milestones, anyway. My mother was better at it." - a flash of memory, his father's knife at his mother's throat. He shook his head to clear it, and tried to think about something else.
The road here was busy : traders with carts and loaded mules or oxen: farmers with small herds of pigs or flocks of sheep, messengers on horseback, thundering past just off the road on the cleared softer ground at speed and reminding Esca of his bay mare. He wondered what had happened to her, and hoped her new owner wasn't spoiling her good soft mouth with a Roman bit.
They saw a troop of legionaries that afternoon, marching down the Roman road from Deva through the soft drizzle, guarding heavy ox-wagons laden with soft grey pig-lead and great wooden chests bound with iron bands. Full of silver, someone had said to Banno, and he told Esca, voice full of wonder. Banno had never owned so much as a single silver coin in his life, and he wondered greatly to see such great boxes filled with the stuff.
Condate seemed to be boiling like a kettle, puffing steam in all directions. Great smokes and steams were rising from fires all around the town, but Saco had told truth, there were no buldings burning and people were going about their business as if all the smokes and steams were quite ordinary.
Condate had no grand buildings, no forum or grand basilica like the ones that Esca had seen on a visit to Eboracum, and no straight squared-off Roman streets, just houses, barns, sheds - and fires warming great boiling pans full of water, spread out in no particular order along the roadside. People in muddy brown clothes tended the boiling pans and carried bundles of wood or water in buckets to the fires, and a pair of soldiers strolled between the pans, checking on them and making notes.
Vatto gave the order to stop just outside the town, even though it was only midday. He dismounted near where Esca was helping to heave the cart out of the red sticky mud ( the mules had, as usual, pulled it into an awkward spot when they came off the road, and managed to get it stuck, and this lowland mud was thick stuff: it sucked). Vatto watched Esca thoughtfully as he shoved at the cart and Saco swore at the mules and pulled hard on their halters.
"And if you really annoy me - or if I can't find you - or if you kill yourself - I'll give the kids to Motius, and tell him to do - what he did in Eboracum again. And keep doing it until we get to the lead mines : they'll buy what's left. Lead mines are always in the market for children to work the small tunnels : I don't normally sell to them, but I will if you provoke me. And I'll let the help take turns with the woman: I don't allow that normally, it's bad for discipline, but I'm sure they'd enjoy it. "
"So? What do you say?"
Esca was silent, and Vatto pulled the short whip from his belt, and turned towards Tasulo, who cringed back against the cart, away from him, looking at Esca with wide eyes. His sister Rian put her arm around him protectively.
"Yes, sir." Esca said heavily, looking down at the mud. There didn't seem to be anything else he could say.
"Very well" said Vatto, smiling like a fox with a newborn lamb. "My men will be watching you. Everyone will be watching you."
It was a relief to be able to move away from the cart rather than be jolted along next to it, and to be able to hold his head up without an effort again. It was even something of a relief to have something to do other than trudging slowly behind a mulecart and occasionally helping to shove it out of the mud. But he felt almost more weighed down than before.
He followed Vatto when he was ordered to do so, unloaded some of the bundles of wrapped furs, and carried them to a shed. A fat bald man, wearing a heavy leather cloak and hat against the heavy rain that was beating down on the shed roof now, carefully unwrapped and checked each one before signing for them. Two of Vatto's slaves had been sold too, and they were signed over, just like the furs. Then Esca helped to load a borrowed handcart with heavy pots filled with salt, and pulled it carefully back to the mulecart. But his mind was not on the work : it was whirling, trying to find a way out.
He had thought he still had a choice : to be a slave or die, even if he had lost the chance for death in war. As slavery was impossible, death was only a matter of time and opportunity. And now that choice had been taken away too.
When he got back to the mulecart with the salt, Elen was sitting next to it, with Rian and Tasulo, eating stew. Tasulo smiled at Esca, but he could not bring himself to smile back.