Spent, worried that I had gone too far – the shocked faces of those around Caligula seemed to indicate this – I dropped my gaze. Dully, I noticed the crimson pooling in the sand around my left foot. It was trickling from my hip all the way down my leg. I looked at the wound, and wished I hadn’t. Perhaps set off by my fall onto the sandapila, it was bleeding quite badly. It did not matter, I thought, so weary that I had to lock my knees not to drop where I stood. The emperor was about to pronounce some dreadful fate upon me for daring to speak the truth.
I looked up. ‘Yes, imperator?’
‘What do they call you?’
‘Midir, imperator.’ Seeing his face cloud, I added, ‘It is a name from Hibernia, imperator.’
‘Hibernia – is that not a wild isle near Britannia?’
‘It is, imperator. To the west.’
‘Are your people warlike?’
‘After their own fashion, imperator.’
‘Would they all fight like you?’
I thought of the big men in our tribe, those who took the lead in a cattle raid, or defending the settlement from pirates. They had always been figures I looked up to. ‘Yes, imperator, or better,’ I said truthfully.
He smiled, and it was not pleasant. ‘How would they stand up Rome’s legions, I wonder?’ The question was not aimed at me, but more said in a musing tone.
‘They would run, imperator, and hide in the hills and bogs,’ said a heavy-browed man close to Caligula. ‘The way all savages do.’
The emperor nodded. ‘They could not beat the legions anyway – no one can.’
My pride was stung, but I said nothing. Instead I stiffened my back and thought of the Germans, and the tale I had heard in the ludus. Three legions had been wiped out some thirty years before in a brilliantly executed ambush by tribesmen.
‘Are you thinking to take Hibernia after Britannia, imperator?’ asked the heavy-browed man.
‘Maybe. Maybe.’ Caligula looked down at me again. ‘Is there gold in Hibernia? Silver?’
‘A little gold, imperator,’ I replied, horrified to think of thousands of legionaries landing on the shores of my home.
‘No, imperator. Not that I know of,’ grateful for the truth ringing from my voice.
His lip curled. ‘Is there aught of use there?’
I thought with longing of the green, rolling landscape, and the rain, misting and cool, and the simple life I had once had. The arrival of Rome would change that forever. ‘My Latin is terrible, imperator,’ I said beseechingly. ‘What do you mean?’
I swear, he rolled his eyes. ‘Are there cities, and riches?’
I shook my head, and put from my mind the heavy gold torcs worn by tribal kings. Few men were was affluent as that where I came from. ‘No cities, imperator, and little in the way of wealth.’
‘They say the hunting dogs from Hibernia are some of the best to be found, imperator,’ said the heavy-browed man.
Caligula waved a hand in irritation. ‘Hounds are scarcely a reason to invade somewhere.’