“The elder Roman, who was helping to carry off his table by two of its legs, didn’t bother looking back. ‘Yes, but I’m sure her relatives will find her before the first snowfall. Twenty-five hundred denarii.’
“‘Done,’ the elder Briton replied.
“Slowly, the elder trader nodded to his son at the opposite end of the table, and they set the cedar legs back down into the muck of ancient Britain. He turned, and from beneath his robe came a leather pouch. Slowly, he approached his fellow haggler, and counted out into that man’s hand one hundred gold coins.
“The Briton took each of his five handfuls of gold, and placed the treasure in a pocket of his tunic under the watchful eye of a distrusting partner. Then the girl was shoved into the arms of the elder trader, and he handed her to his son for deposit on the ship, with instructions to hurry back.
“Only when the son, the girl, and the two slave sellers had departed did the elder trader acknowledge our presence for the first time (I have the distinct feeling to this day that he was aware of our presence from the moment we passed through the compound gate). ‘What do you want?’ he asked as he and a returned crewman proceeded to lift the table out of the muck once more.
“‘We sell you slave,’ my original captor declared in hesitant Latin with a hand on my right arm.
“The trader laughed. ‘Ha! We have no need for another slave. You saw that I just wasted twenty-five hundred denarii on a glorified nightshirt.’”
“I looked aside, and saw that my captor understood not a word of the reply; his one sentence in Latin had been carefully rehearsed. It was then that I spoke up. ‘I speak Latin, and know arithmetic,’ I told the Roman.
“The gray-headed trader (like the other three Romans, he was completely clean-shaven) made a point of putting the table down slowly once more. When he turned to look at me, it was with feigned anger. ‘Why would I want to buy a slave who dares to speak out of turn?’ he asked me. ‘And where did you learn such muddled Latin?’
“I spoke quickly, knowing that if the sale was not closed before these men departed for the Continent, I would be murdered by my original captor for making him look like a fool. “I come from Ierne,’ I told the Roman, using the ancient name for Ireland. ‘I learned my Latin from a shipwrecked sailor from Hispania. I can read and write the language better than I speak it.’
“‘You still haven’t answered my first question,’ the trader replied, to my relief not disputing my fanciful origins. ‘But no matter,’ he added, before turning to my original captor. ‘Tell him I’ll buy you for a thousand denarii.’
“‘I don’t know his language,’ I told him.
“The elder sighed, put his hands on his hips, and rolled his eyes heavenward. ‘Mercury have mercy on me,’ he swore. Then he rolled his eyes earthward, and jerked his thumb in my direction while pulling out his leather pouch. Into my captor’s outstretched hand fell forty clinking coins, and both men nodded in quick succession.
“And thus it came to pass that I fell into the possession of Varius Varinius, a trader from Italy on his annual profit-seeking venture through Gaul and Britain. But such details of my new owners I would not learn until later. Upon the conclusion of my sale, the two Celtic tribesmen departed without so much as another look upon my person, and I was ordered to help carry the table back to the waiting ship.
“Once all six of us were aboard, the girl was stuffed into an enormous, empty, and lidless amphora as a precaution, and I myself was ordered to help oar the vessel away from the dock. Varius steered us into the middle of the Severn, steered us downriver, and we four oarsmen unfurled the vessel’s single sail so that we could drift towards the open sea with the aid of both wind and receding tide.”
“The girl,” Carter interjected, perhaps with more interest than taste dictated. “What happened to the girl?”
“Yes, the girl.” The stranger smiled at his listener’s interest, and then the smile vanished. “The first hint of the girl’s future in the Roman Empire came with nightfall, when we entered what would one day be called the Bristol Channel. It being a clear and moonlit night, Varius ordered Cassius to steer the vessel along the shore with the aid of the two crewmen (whom by this juncture I perceived were both freedmen, along for the journey of their own free will, even if that will was circumscribed by economic necessity). Then the father of one and leader of all proceeded to distribute the evening meal, a meal which consisted of cornbread, beef jerky, and wine, an odd combination of victuals that the others seemed grateful for.
“Once the tillerman had received his repast, Varius scuttled back to the center of the ship and removed one of the bundles of hides which supported the large amphora just aft of the mast, before slowly lowering the jar onto its side and ordering the girl out. The poor creature, bound by the wrists as she was and confined in a small space, pulled herself out by means of forearms on the deck, after she had pushed herself halfway out with her legs.
“Then Varius’s hand was on her arm, and he pulled her to a standing position before dragging her past me and towards the bow to set her and himself against a mound of hides bound for a Gallic market. Placed just forward of the mast and told to watch for rocks, I was well-positioned to observe Varinius’s attention to his new possession that night.
“With one of his arms around her shoulders, and rope still around her wrists, he forced her to eat a cake of bread and to drink wine from his flask. He himself partook of the evening meal, a slice of jerky included, then stared off at the moonlight reflecting off the coastal hills, his arm still around his second-to-last purchase.
“I, filled with equal measures of fear and curiosity, darted another glance backwards, around the base of the mast which formed my backrest. Cassius the son remained immobile at the tiller (save for his arms), keeping his eyes on the two horizons of the land and the sea and acting as if nothing of consequence was transpiring towards the bow. The two freedmen were even more studied in their lack of apprehension, both studying the dark waves all around the ship with their hands ready at the ropes to turn the sail in the path of the best wind.
“I looked forward once more, making a point of feigning interest in my food, and watched as Varius made first use of his investment. My fellow slave kept repeating ‘haud’ from the moment Varius leaned his mouth toward her young neck, but the old man refused to take ‘no’ for an answer.
“Down upon Varius’s cloak on the deck, with his weight, they sank, and I saw no more of the copulation from my position on the opposite side of the stacks of merchandise. Up and down upon the seawaves the bow rode, and the girl’s ‘haud’s became more anguished as the old man’s grunts became more audible.
“Then Varius’s head was back above the hides of animals stacked upon the deck, above the slave girl apparently still lying upon that deck’s wood. He looked past me and at his son, who looked not at him, and then the father was making a point of standing erect. Cloakless, the old man shuffled back past me to the stern of the vessel, leaving the girl where she lay, then took the tiller from his son’s hands.
“The son handed the father his own cloak, then made his way, a slight more sprightly, towards the bow. Below the level of the animal skins he himself descended, the girl began to cry out once more, and the cycle repeated itself.
“Twice more, with the two freedmen and not myself, the cycle repeated itself, before the girl, scratched and shivering, was taken to a position just behind me, just behind the mast. There she was wrapped in the elder trader’s cloak and bound by the arms to the mast’s wood, to ride out the rest of the night safely away from the waves which might beckon to a young girl in such a predicament.
“I dared not lean against the mast once more (instead taking a stack of skins as a new backrest), dared not try to comfort my fellow captive with a word which could be overheard or a touch that could be misunderstood. Instead, I kept my hands on the animal skins all around me and my eyes on the horizon which remained beyond my reach.”
“It was three days and three nights later that we arrived in the Roman town of Lutetia. Our vessel arrived at dawn, as the sun rose before us, and I immediately discerned that this town spread over a midstream island and one bank of the river was the future city of Paris.
“There was discussion between the Variniuses as to when the forum market opened, and more particularly where the best spot to sell a slave would be. I was momentarily gripped with the fear of the unknown, but realized in the next moment that, with my proven knowledge of Latin, such a discussion would not occur before me if I were its subject; Tegwen the slave girl was to be sold at market.
“We arrived at a second dock, and both myself and Tegwen (still clad in her deerskin tunic, but healed of her cuts and bruises) were ordered to help carry elk hides up the hill overlooking the south bank of the river, while one of the freedmen was ordered to stay behind on guard over the ship and the remainder of its cargo. I staggered under my peculiarly heavy load all the way up the hill, but my peculiar condition allowed me to maintain such an effort, and I noted with satisfaction Varius’s admiration of my stamina: a valuable slave was generally a well-treated slave.
“Five of the six passengers on the small ship which had sailed from British shores climbed the last stretch of a narrow (yet clean and paved) street to the town’s economic heart, and we arrived in the forum’s large open square where the two traders (who had carried loads of skins themselves) set to their work.
“Varius rented two tables from a representative of the local aedile, tables at opposite ends of the forum which was beginning to fill with morning shoppers. I experienced another case of apprehension when Varius instructed myself and Tegwen, the two slaves, to follow him to one table after ordering his son and the two freedmen to the other table with the piles of skins.
“Again, my fears for my self were unfounded, for I was merely to assist in the sale of my fellow slave. Tegwen was led by our master to the table in the furthest corner of the forum, and the brave girl did not cry out or utter any sound as she was prepared and put on sale.
“Varius did not change the girl out of her deerskin tunic, even though an easily removable robe would have better displayed her womanly features. I deduced that the master trader judged her exotic costume to be an enticement to purchase, an enticement reinforced by the white chalk mark on her foot which I later learned designated a slave to be from beyond the confines of the Empire. He had already prepared a small wooden sign that morning with a short rope attached to two ends, a sign which described the girl as from ‘Albion,’ and noted her lack of virginity. Varius marked the girl’s foot, hung the sign around her neck so that it rested upon her bosom, brushed her dark hair from a frozen face, then nodded to me to help lift her onto the table.
“Once Tegwen stood upon the rickety wooden table for all the world to see, men of all ages converged upon her spot, and the bidding began. But first, Varius Varinius launched into a litany of the girl’s virtues, while leaving her lack of virtue for the sign to tell. During his litany, more than one man approached the low table and ran a hand up a creamy thigh. The girl remained brave to the end, not crying even as one man pulled her forward by the arm to insert a groping hand down the front of her tunic.
“Varius, in his role as auctioneer, started the auction at three thousand denarii, a full five hundred more than he had paid for her. I, standing at the opposite end of the table from Varius in a loaned tunic, was able to watch as an observer while that price was bid, then bid up to thirty-five hundred denarii.
“While the first two bids were by Roman citizens in togas, the third bid (of four thousand) was by a man in a palla cloak, a provincial non-citizen. Varius was a bit taken aback by an offer from one he did not expect to possess the funds, but he accepted the bid after a moment’s hesitation, and the price for Tegwen the slave girl immediately reached forty-five hundred at the hand of the togaed man who had first bid for the girl.
“It was the strangest of strangers, the one in the palla cloak, who made the final bid of five thousand denarii. After a higher bid failed to materialize, Varius looked at the smiling man with dark, piercing eyes. Then, with a psychic shrug, he opened a palm in the man’s direction and declared, ‘Sold! To the man in the cloak, for five thousand denarii!’
“The buyer, showing no feeling of slight at having been addressed merely as ‘man,’ retained his smile as he approached the table and helped Tegwen down. Varius took one step forward, and another leather pouch appeared, this one from beneath the stranger’s cloak. Two hundred gold coins were counted into Varius’s outstretched hand, and then, without further ceremony, the smiling stranger led Tegwen the slave girl off into the bustling crowd of the forum.
“Varius started the recount of his coins on his rented table as soon as the stranger had turned his back, then swept the gold into a quickly-disappearing pouch of his own. When he looked me in the eye, I realized it was for the first time since he had purchased me. ‘Be a humble slave before your master, young man,’ he intoned, ‘and perhaps you or your son shall gain the freedom to progress as that man has done. Rome, be what she may, knows how to reward talent with pleasure.’”
The stranger smiled at his still-attentive audience. “I have remembered old Varius’s maxim to this very day.”
“I will not bore you, my friend, with the details of our journey to Rome, ‘we’ being myself, my master, my master’s son, and the two freedmen. Once we had disposed of the elk hides at a profit more handsome than that which Tegwen had fetched, we ventured forth by horseback on a road along the Sequanus the following morning.
“Yes, all roads may lead to Rome, but this particular road first led to Lugdunum. After a journey of four days to that capital of Roman Gaul, we changed our tired horses for fresh ones, but it remained unchanged that I, the sole slave in the party, rode in the middle, behind master and son and before the watchful eyes of the two freedmen. Another two days on horseback, and we arrived at the seaport of Massilia, where we traded in the second set of horses and booked passage on a sailing ship for Rome.
“Ah, my friend, how do I begin to describe Rome?
“Once our little ship, also a single-sailed vessel, crossed a sandbar into the port of Ostia, things moved quickly. The five of us, plus a citizen Varius had made acquaintance with aboard ship, took a horse-drawn carriage into the city of seven hills. I, being a mere slave, was set in the carriage between the two freedmen facing the retreating port from their seats, and was thus denied the splendid view of Rome afforded to the remaining three. And I, being a mere slave, dared not turn my head to gaze upon Rome’s wonders before they had passed, as I sensed the new precariousness of my position now that we neared that city’s great slave market.
“But much I did see from that rented carriage, after it all had passed: the Wall of Servius Tullius (which we passed through by means of the Appian Way), the Aqua Marcia aqueduct, the Circus Maximus (intact, my friend, intact!), the temple atop the Capitoline Hill, and, lastly, the Forum Romanum, which we arrived at as the sun began to set below the Palatine Hill.
“It was there, in the shadow of the last-mentioned mount, as I followed my master and the other three out of the arrested carriage (the acquaintance of Varius had been dropped off before his villa outside the city gates), that I observed to Varius, ‘I am to be sold at market.’
“‘That you are,’ Varius replied, with equal bluntness. ‘Cartaphilus,’ he said to me (for that was the Latin name which had been given to me by the mythical shipwrecked sailor), ‘you will make a natural scribe, but I have no need for a scribe.’