Shortly before the festival of Beltane the old Siluran king laid his cards on the table. As a gesture of respect to the mountain tribe he asked me to marry a Siluran noblewoman. The marriage, he argued, would symbolise the unification of our people and strengthen our common purpose. ‘My legitimate heirs lie alongside their mother’ he said. ‘Any offspring from your union will be raised to inherit a joint Siluran-Catuvellauni throne.’ He spoke of a distant future when the island would be ruled by a single king – a king born and bred in the Black westerly mountains.
The choice of a suitable queen proved difficult. The Silurans are, in the main, an unattractive breed. Their lives at that time, spent in the isolated valleys, saw them shun the luxuries available in the south – the fine imported cloth, the jewellery, powders and oils that young southern girls use to entice a potential mate. The Siluran women were coarse in their habits and speech. Few had many teeth. It was a trait that they platted their hair with rabbit skulls and sheep bone. Their women rarely washed themselves nor their children. What’s more they spoke a strange, irregular dialect, the rhythms of which rose and fell like a swallow in flight.
I chose as my bride a seventeen year old who answered to the name of Ralla. The story of her arrival at court and our subsequent marriage is worthy of Ovid.
In line with Siluran tradition, all prospective brides and their fathers were assembled for inspection in the king’s great hall. Ralla and her father, a tinker-lord from the western coast, were the last to arrive. The previous day news had reached that far away region of the territory that a wife suitable for the Catuvellauni king was being sought. The tinker-lord promptly clad his only daughter in his best cloth, tied her hands around the neck of a horse, and rode with her through the early hours where he presented her for the ‘exiled southerner’s pleasure.’
I inspected the grotesque parade of possible brides (one of whom busied herself by going through the seams of her tunic for lice). I stopped before Ralla and looked her over. ‘What are your daughter’s strengths ?’ I asked her father.
Ralla’s features were strong and her eyes wild. Despite her father’s assurances that she was obedient and respectful it was clear by the bruising around her left eye – barely hidden by a layer of kohl - that she had been brought under duress. ‘She is loyal, blessed king’ he answered ‘and she carries her mother’s beauty, may the gods cherish her everlasting soul.’
I asked the girl to swear an oath of loyalty to me. She spat on the floor, drawing a gasp from the many onlookers who had come to observe. Yet, out of the thirty women assembled on that day it was Ralla who intrigued me. There were many reasons: her youth, her obvious pride, and, as Piran was only too quick to point out, her resemblance to the Brigantine queen.
After walking the line of women who would be my wife I retired to my quarters to sleep and consider my choice. Before doing so I drank from a cup presented to me by the priests of our tribe. The liquid – a concoction of mead, herbs and honey – would reveal to me the one best suited to such an uncertain future.
The concoction did its work, although not without presenting a warning. I dreamt that I was walking through a wheat field in brilliant sunshine. Ralla was in the distance riding a horse – the most beautiful white mare. Her hair was platted and she wore a crimson cape edged with gold. She brought the horse to a halt, waiting for me to approach her. As I did so a large creature with wings – half bull, half dragon - swooped from the sky and hovered above her. I drew my sword and ran in her direction. But the monster remained tantalisingly out of reach. Suddenly it swooped and lifted Ralla from the saddle, mocking me with shrill laughter. It was then I was woken by Piran: ‘My king. The tribes have assembled. It’s time to announce your decision.’
When I made known my choice Ralla’s father fell to his knees and kissed my feet. Two of the Siluran king’s personal guard had to prise his hands from around my ankles, such was his joy. I left Piran to handle negotiations. Having assumed the title of Father of the Catuvellauni Queen the tinker-lord was expected to be granted the courtesy of living amongst the tribe as a nobleman. However, he refused, preferring instead to return to his coastal home with a selection of gifts, and for this I was grateful.
At dusk Ralla was made ready. The noblewomen of my tribe dressed her in a simple green shift, symbolising earth, and a blue embroidered cloak, symbolising water. Chimes were fastened into her hair so that the wind might offer up its praise, and red jewellery and ochre revealed the fire that burns within every new queen of our tribe. The Siluran priests blessed us with mistletoe and the blood of a freshly-killed beaver. Then, after a Druid priestess had placed a newly fashioned crown on her head, Ralla was passed, as is the custom, through a birthing stone. I took her trembling hand and kissed it and the priests announced us as man and wife. Ralla looked at me in frightened despair.
Later, as I watched my bride’s drunken father dance round one of the many bonfires lit to celebrate our union, I began to doubt my choice. ‘Perhaps I should have chosen an older woman’ I told Piran. He laughed. ‘She’s pleasing to the eye. And, say what you will about her father, for him to ride across the barren countryside in the faint hope that his daughter would become the wife of the Catuvellauni king – it is a blessing from the gods, I’d say.’
‘A blessing for her father, perhaps. As for the husband, I’m not so sure.’
Piran slapped me on the back. ‘My king - You’re too bloody serious’ he told me. ‘Always worrying about this, that and the other. Go and dance with your bride! It’s a wedding not a funeral!’
I did so, accompanying Ralla into the centre of a great human circle which had opened up for us. As we danced I wondered about the dream and about the strange beast that had appeared. I wondered too about the travesty that was my life – a king in name only, without land or many of his subjects. I thought of these things as I looked into the eyes of my young wife. Who could blame her for her unhappiness ? Her husband was a shadow-king.
The day following our wedding Ralla’s father collected a bag of gold pieces along with a herd of cattle – the dowry offered by Siluran and Catuvellauni nobles to the provider of a suitable daughter. For him it had been a most profitable business. ‘At last, she is safely out of my hands’ he declared, as he attempted, still drunk, to mount his horse. ‘Good luck to you, Caratacus – you’re going to need it!’
He rode off, laughing - drinking from a flagon of mead.
Ralla sat moodily throughout the second day of feasting. Between the long bouts of drinking and eating I glanced in her direction in hope that some contact might be made, only for Ralla to look away.
She expected to be beaten – expected me to force myself upon her. It had happened to her mother and her sisters – to herself, too, I learned much later. And now my bride was supposed to be grateful for having been made wife to a king – a sham king destined to be hunted by Roman legions like a wild dog. So, after she had been led by her handmaidens to my dwelling, the unsheathed sword lying on the floor among the pots and skins was the most natural thing for her to pick up. She pointed it at me – the man who was now her husband. On our first night together she threatened to kill her king and master. Calmly, I took off my cloak, boots and tunic. ‘Go ahead’ I told her. ‘Kill me. Then the Siluran gods will either banish you to their Netherworld or place you upon the vacant Catuvellauni throne.’
She stood her ground, holding the sword. I saw the eyes of a wounded animal and heard the wind sweep through the sandstone valley that was our home. ‘Well’ I said ‘if you’re not going to kill me then at least allow me to retire to my bed.’
Encompassed in Ralla’s form was a fire spirit – the same spirit I had seen inhabiting the Brigantine queen. All the same I laughed. I lay on the floor, covered myself with sheepskins, and turned my back to her. It had been a tiring day.
‘She hasn’t spoken’ I whispered to Ordic.
‘Never ?’ he asked.
I shook my head. ‘Not a word. Have you heard her speak ? Has anyone ?’
Ten days had passed since my marriage. I was sitting in the sun watching games staged in my honour. Two warriors, one from each tribe, were wrestling. The Siluran won, lying on his opponent’s back, pinning him to the ground.
‘I’ve been tricked’ I said under the cheering of the crowd. ‘I thought it was the silence of a shy young girl. Now I’m not so sure.’
The wrestler knelt before Ralla and offered the victory in her honour. Flowers had been weaved into her black hair and she was dressed in a yellow shift. Ordic giggled and rocked to and fro: ‘So she doesn’t speak! Prince - you’ve married unspoken beauty. Take comfort in that.’
Ralla’s silence continued. I did my best to ignore her sulky demeanour but it weighed heavily on my pride.
Andocos once told me: ‘A king’s power is transferred to him through the gods. It is their breath that gives a king his life. If a king orders his subject to sing his subject dishonours more than just their own person if they remain silent. A refusal to sing – a refusal to reciprocate the sweet breath of life - shows disrespect to the gods as well as the tribe.’
I ordered Ralla to sing. She remained silent.
Our noblewomen kept her in their sights. She accompanied them into the forest to oversee the harvest time collection of fruit and flowers and the trapping of small fowl. But Ralla slouched alongside them, grinning if an animal slipped through a hunter’s net.
Then she began to run away. Sometimes it was at daybreak, other times it was in the dead of night. She disappeared into the forest for days at a time only to be hunted down by Catuvellauni warriors who, on my orders, trussed her like a wild boar and carried her back as if she were ready for the spit. ‘Perhaps you’re right and she has no voice’, Piran said, and I shivered at the thought: silence was a sign that dark spirits lurked within. Whenever she was forcibly returned I had her untied and settled at my feet. Then I ordered her to sing. And because she refused, I punished her by locking her in our dwelling. The priests advised me to punish her until she sang.
At night she slept in the far corner. Occasionally I would be woken by the sound of her shifting in her sleep. Never did I raise my hand against her: she was a Catuvellauni noblewoman now and such actions were against tribal law, even for a king. Instead I decided to wait until the darkness which had claimed her spirit was driven out. Only then would she come to me. Only then would she sing.
At the end of the warm season, and the equinox of Mabon, Ralla stopped disappearing into the forest. She started helping the peasant women collect autumn fruit. She bore cereal and pitchers of water to the dwelling. This was uncommon conduct for a queen and many in my tribe were offended. I spoke to them frankly: ‘What harm can it do? It is an unfamiliar custom, a legacy of her harsh coastal upbringing – nothing more, nothing less.’ My words pacified Ralla’s critics and I allowed her to continue with her labours, even though it pained me to watch.
When I left the mountains to scout Roman forts in the east she seemed saddened by my departure. I gave her jewellery on my return – a bronze torque shaped in the form of a cat – which she wore above her right elbow. And when the cold season arrived after the festival of Samhain she moved steadily away from the corner of our dwelling until she lay barely an arm’s length from me.
She spoke to me with the first snow – not with her voice but with hand movements and with her eyes. Slowly, and with great pain, she told me how, as a girl, her voice had been taken after the killing of her mother, a brutal killing which she had witnessed. It was not a dark spirit that lurked within her but a chasm filled with pain and regret. And to prove it she came into my bed for the first time and spoke to me with her body.