The boy tried to hold back the tears prickling the back of his eyes. His mother stood next to him, holding his hand while they nailed his father to the cross. Five other crosses were being lifted up in the field just outside the town. He covered his ears against the screaming of the women as they tried to rush forward to their men folk, who were being crucified.
He looked up at his mother standing calmly and with dignity, knowing hysterics would not help her husband, nor her small family. He tried to ignore the screams from the men as the nails were driven into their flesh.
The boy understood little of what had happened, but he knew a man named Julius Civilis led a rebellion against Rome and the Roman Legions that were left on the Rhenus went to put it down. He knew his father and other men took advantage while the soldiers were away and launched their own attacks across the Rhenus and even laid siege to the town of Mogantiacum. He understood the legions coming back from the north had relieved the siege and now the Romans had come to punish them. What he did not understand was why.
The Romans lined all the men up and took every tenth man to be made an example of and then set about making crosses for their crucifixion. The Romans pushed the boy along with the rest of the population to this field to watch.
The commander of the Romans told them they must see what happened to those who challenged the might of Rome, even though they were not in the Empire.
The boy pushed back the tears forming in his eyes. His little sister was crying and hanging onto their mother’s leg, burying her face in her skirts, but she was only four, so she could be excused. His baby brother slept in his mother’s arms blissfully ignorant of what was happening.
The boy was seven, and the eldest, so he had to show courage. A slight breeze ruffled his ash blonde hair and he raised his hand to push it back out of his eyes. He didn’t want to see the horrible death his father was undergoing, but he felt, somehow, he owed it to his father to watch and remember.
After the soldiers raised all the crosses, the people turned away to return to their homes. A legionnaire approached his mother. She stopped and shook him off as he touched her arm.
‘These are your children?’ he asked in their language.
His mother looked scornfully at him. ‘Of course!’ she snapped. ‘I wouldn’t bring anyone else’s children to a crucifixion.’
The legionnaire reached out to the boy and touched his hair. The boy pulled back, not wanting this man, who had been complicit in his father’s death, to touch him. He shivered as the strange man smiled at him. The boy thought he looked like a wolf.
The legionnaire spoke to his mother again.
‘I’ve never seen such pale hair. I see your little girl also has it. They’ll make a fortune on the block.’
Their mother looked at him in confusion.
‘What do you mean, “on the block”?’ she asked.
‘Oh, we’re taking a few of you as slaves. We always need more and it will teach you not to attack Rome in future.’
‘You’re taking us as slaves?’
The man laughed. ‘Oh, not you. Just these two children. You’re not particularly valuable, but these…’
‘No! You can’t take my children,’ cried the boy’s mother. ‘Take me, but leave my children alone. You’ve taken my husband and put him to death. Isn’t that enough?’
She grabbed onto the boy and his sister, nearly dropping the baby as she did so. The legionnaire pushed her away and roughly took the boy and his sister by their arms. The boy struggled, understanding he was being taken away from his mother. The legionnaire pushed them in front of him towards where a group of crying children and screaming mothers stood.
His mother’s composure broke then, and she began to scream along with the others as she tried to wrest her two children from the officer. It was to no avail. Seeing his mother crying broke the child’s resolve and he broke down into sobs, struggling against the man. He was no match for the strong Roman soldier, though and the man pushed him towards where other prisoners were being held.
No matter how much he struggled, he could not escape the firm grip of the soldier holding him. He turned and tried to bite. The man laughed and said something in Latin to him that he did not understand. His mother tried to come to him, having handed the baby to a neighbour, but a centurion knocked her to the ground. The boy heard him speaking in their language.
‘Don’t try that again or you’ll regret it. Your tribe deserves all the punishment we mete out after your attack on us. Those children will bring a fortune with their light hair. Never seen hair like that. Almost white. Romans will go mad for them.’
Then he understood escape would be very unlikely and there was a very good likelihood that he and his sister would be separated. Would some rich Roman buy them as pets? What would happen to them when they were no longer pretty children?
The legionnaire dragged the two children to where the boy saw a small group of others being guarded by more soldiers. This group consisted mainly of young boys and men over the age of ten, with a few of the prettier teenage girls. They were the only small children.
One of the girls, whom they knew quite well as she lived near to them, came and picked his sister up, soothing the sobbing child as best she could.
‘Hush, hush,’ she whispered to the little girl. ‘I’ll take care of you and your brother. I’m sure no one will hurt you.’
‘They killed my father,’ sniffed the boy, wiping his nose with his hand and then smearing it over his face as he wiped his eyes.
‘Yes, but they were punishing him for attacking their city. You haven’t done anything, so they won’t hurt you.’
‘Then why are they taking us from our mother and little brother?’
‘You’re both very pretty children, you know. They haven’t seen anyone with hair as light as yours, I don’t suppose, and they think you’ll bring them a lot of money.’
‘Then we’re to be slaves!’
‘Yes, I’m afraid so.’ she replied. ‘So am I, and these others too. They’ve taken all the boys of an age that might decide to try to take revenge, as well as a few of us girls.’
Just then, his mother managed to break away and she rushed towards the little group of slaves, calling out his name.
‘Adelberht, Adelberht. Look after your sister. Don’t let anyone hurt her.’
‘I won’t, Mamma. I’ll take good care of her. Odila’s here. She’ll help us.’
They crossed the river to the Roman fort of Mogantiacum. Adelberht did not notice much about the place, concerned as he was about their situation. He knew there was a good chance that he and his sister would be bought by different people, and wondered how he could fulfil his promise to look after her.
He felt a growing hatred for the Romans. They had first crucified his father, a terrible death for the young boy to witness, then taken him from his family, home and friends. He thought he would also have his sister taken from him at some time, so he subsumed his sorrow and fear by building his hatred of his captors.
The soldiers took the prisoners to a compound in one corner of the fort and locked them in. His sister, Avelina, had stopped crying and clung to Odila. He was glad of that, but wondered what would happen when she was not only taken from her, but from him too. Where would they take them to be sold? Would they be sold here or taken elsewhere? Maybe even to Rome itself. What was his mother doing? Was there any chance there would be a rescue party? Could he make a break, somehow rescue his sister and get back across the river? All these questions went through his head as he sat in the compound.
Soon, a legionnaire brought some food for them to eat and water to drink. He picked at the food, but drank some water. Odila tried to persuade Avelina to eat something, but the little girl still sobbed between the small mouthfuls the older girl managed to get into her mouth.
Eventually she fell asleep in Odila’s arms while still eating. The day’s events had all been too much for her. Adelberht himself began to feel tired, but before he went to sleep, he enumerated the reasons he hated the Romans.
‘They crucified my father: they took my family away from me: they took my home from me: they took my friends from me: they will probably take my sister from me.’
The next day Adelberht woke wondering where he was. Then it all came flooding back. Tears again pricked at his eyelids, but he determined he would never again cry because of a Roman. One day he would have revenge for all they had done to him. One day he would be free again. He would also find his sister and free her too, if they were separated. He did not think about how he dould carry out these plans. He would just take any chance he could when it came.
They sat in the compound all that day. The commander of the fort came and looked them over. He took a couple of the girls out and marched them over to his rooms. Adelbehrt wondered what was going to happen to them. Were they going to be sold separately from the rest? He thought about it for a while, then forgot about them as he tried to comfort his sister, who had begun crying again.
‘Don’t cry, Avelina,’ he told her, ‘Everything will be all right. Somehow we’ll get away and go back to Mamma.’
The little girl looked at him trustingly, and a half-smile appeared on her face.
‘Back to Mamma?’ she asked him. ‘I miss Mamma.’
‘Yes, so do I. It may not be soon, but one day we’ll escape these horrid Romans.’
‘I don’t like the Romans. They killed papa.’
‘No, I don’t like them either. We’ll get away sometime, I promise you.’
He did not know how or when he would be able to keep his promise to the little girl but he was determined to do so, whatever the cost. He smiled to see his words seemed to have comforted Avelina somewhat, and that she had dried her eyes and sat more quietly.
Towards evening, the two girls, whom the commander had taken, returned to the compound. They were crying. Adelberht wanted to ask them what had happened, but Odila kept him away from them. He wondered why, but she managed to distract him by talking about Avelina. The little girl had once again started to cry, seeing the tears of the two older girls, so he did not find out what caused them to be so upset. He did notice one of the young men, who had been courting one of the girls before they were taken prisoner, became very angry and some of his friends held him back as he tried to attack one of the Romans.
Two days passed. Avelina cried less, but called for their mother in the night, every night. She also began sucking her thumb again. She had almost stopped that childish habit before their capture. Adelberht also missed their mother, but he stuck to his resolve not to allow the Romans to make him cry.
Each day, the commander took one or two girls and they returned crying. Sometimes one of the legates or centurions took a girl. They took Odila on the second day. When she came back, Adelbehrt asked her what happened, but she refused to talk of it. She seemed withdrawn after that, and sat in a corner with the other girls, not talking, but staring into space.
On the third day of their captivity, a civilian man came with the commander of the castrum. He looked the slaves over and called for Adelbehrt and Avelina to be brought to him. He asked a few questions in Latin, which Adelbehrt did not understand, but assumed they were about him and his sister. Then the man smiled. The two men walked away, talking.
On the following morning, some men came and took all the slaves to the baths and stripped them. They washed them all thoroughly and took their clothes away. What was going to happen now? That question soon had an answer.
First, the men who had washed them took them to a building in the market. The man who looked them over the previous day came in. He ordered the girls, with the exception of Avelina, to be taken out. Avelina cried out to Odila and tried to run to her but one of the slaves who had bathed them, grabbed hold of her as she ran past. There were seven girls in total, and shortly afterwards, a slave brought two of the less pretty ones back into the room.
Adelbehrt heard them saying the others had been bought by a brothel. He did not know what a brothel was, and the others deflected his questions when he asked. He decided, when he saw the looks on the faces of the remaining two girls, that it was not a good place. Something else to hate the Romans for. He mentally added ‘Taking Odila to a brothel’ to his list of reasons to hate them.
The man, who seemed to be in charge, hung a board around the neck of each slave. Adelbehrt later learned it gave some information about the slave, including his likelihood of running away or committing suicide as well as his name and where he came from.
They took the slaves out one at a time. He could hear noises of people calling out something outside, but could not understand. When a man brought the slaves back in he took them to a different part of the room where another man sat at a table. People came into the room, handed over money to the man at the table, and then left with their purchase.
Eventually it was their turn. They had been left until the last, and as they were led outside, Adelberht realised they were being sold as a single lot. He sighed in relief. He was not going to have to break his promise to his mother to look after his sister.
The warm air met them and the sun felt warm on their naked skin. Adelbehrt felt embarrassed to be nude in front of the crowd filling the market place. He looked round and wondered at the large numbers of people still left since all the slaves had been sold except the two of them.
The auctioneer picked Avelina up and another man did the same with Adelbehrt and held them so everyone could see the two children. The auctioneer spoke to the crowd and pointed at the children’s blonde hair.
A few aahs came from the crowd, then people began to call things out. Adelbehrt thought the people were making bids for them.
It seemed they were a popular lot, if the number of bidders was anything to go by, but soon almost everyone dropped out leaving just two men in the bidding. Eventually one of them held up his hand and turned away, this indicating he was dropping out of the bidding. The man who had brought them out led them back into the room and gave them tunics to put on.
Their purchaser walked over to the man at the table and handed over a purse of money, which the cashier counted carefully, nodded and handed a paper to their new owner who then came over to them, took each by a hand and led them out.
Adelbehrt looked at their new owner. He was a tall, clean-shaven man with an aquiline nose and dark hair and eyes. He did not look unkind, but still the sort of man you would not mess with. He spoke to the children in a light tenor voice, but they did not understand him, so he called to a man standing near the door.
‘This man says he’s your master now and wants to know how old you are,’ the man interpreted.
‘I have seven summers and my sister four,’ answered Adelbehrt, quietly, looking down at his feet.
The interpreter spoke to their new master in Latin and then interpreted the next few sentences.
‘He says you are to be gifts for his wife and daughter. He’s on his way back to Britannia and you’re going to accompany him there. You’re to call him ‘Dominus’. That means ‘Master’, or ‘Sir’. You now have your first word of Latin. You’ll soon learn to speak it though, so don’t worry.’
‘I’m called Adelbehrt, and my sister is Avelina.’ Adelbehrt told him, not knowing his name had been on the scroll round his neck.
‘Well. Adelberht, you’ll be all right just as long as you do as you’re told, and show proper deference to your master and mistress. Good luck.’
And with that, he left them.
‘What’s going to happen now?’ whispered Avelina.
‘We’re going to Britannia. We’re presents for his wife and daughter, that man said. We must call the man who has bought us ‘Dominus’ and do as he says.’
Avelina began to cry. ’You said we’d go back to Mamma. You said you’d escape and take us back.’
‘We will still escape,’ he told her. ‘Somehow we’ll get away, but I can’t promise you it will be soon.’