He lay sprawled in the farm cart, as still as a statue. His flushed face and the bloodstains on his cloak grew lurid in the red sunset. He looked half dead, and I said to myself, I doubt if he’ll live to see the dawn.
Out loud I was more cautious. “I wonder who this is?”
I was standing on the paved forecourt in front of my mansio. I’d been out there for some time, trying to snatch a bit of peace and quiet after a busy afternoon in the bar-room. Trying, but not succeeding, because a customer had come outside for a breather too, and he was in the mood to chat. He was one of our overnight guests, which meant I couldn’t just ignore him, and I couldn’t think of a polite way to ask him to push off and leave me in peace. So I said “yes” and “no” and “really?” now and then as he rattled on, while thinking my own thoughts. It’s a skill all innkeepers learn, otherwise we’d go mad having to listen to our customers’ ramblings.
This talkative fellow was Curtius, a short fat Gaul with brown hair turning to grey at the sides. He was already reasonably drunk, but quite amiable. He was a private trader on his way north to do business with the natives across the frontier, which made him different from our normal run of guests. Being an official mansio, we mostly get travellers on imperial business, soldiers and government officers and army contractors, even the occasional spy. A private trader was unusual, and I’d made the mistake of saying so. Now he was convinced I wanted his life story. Oh, me and my big mouth!
“Yes, Aurelia, I see a lot of the world in my job. I travel all over Northern Britannia, selling Roman goods to the barbarians, and buying up native arts and crafts…”
“Really?” I could imagine his stock-in-trade: flashy knives that broke if they cut anything stiffer than cheese, gaudy mugs with not-quite-perfect glazes, imitation-gold trinkets, in fact all the usual cheap tat that Romans hope will impress barbarians. It does impress them, but nothing like as much as in the old days when our legions first conquered Britannia. Even here on the Empire’s edge, the northern tribes are developing some semblance of taste. They mostly can’t afford luxury items, but they are insisting on a better class of cheap tat.
“The tribes beyond the frontier are only too happy to trade, and you’d be amazed at some of the high quality goods they have to sell…”
“Really?” Actually I wouldn’t be in the least amazed, but it was too much trouble to say so. I’ve lived in the province of Britannia for nearly twenty years, and I’ve long since realised that the natives here, still barbarians in so many ways, can also be fine craftsmen.
“…Beautiful gold jewellery, silver and bronze as well, wool cloaks and rugs. And then the novelty items, carved antlers, wolf-pelts, beaver-skins…Really good stuff, and dirt cheap. You know the sort of thing I mean?”
“Yes.” I thanked the gods that he was on his outward trip, otherwise I felt sure he’d insist on trying to sell me some of his “really good stuff.”
“…And there’s always a market for anything a bit different, especially among the soldier-boys in the forts. I say to them, if you want an unusual present for the little woman, or even the wife,” he gave an exaggerated leer, “just ask old Curtius, he’ll always see you right. It was one of the lads from the Ninth Hispana who suggested I should stay here, you know. He said to me, ‘If you’re travelling east, stop a night at the Oak Tree, it’s not a bad little place at all.’ So here I am.”
Thanks, soldier, I thought. I’d have preferred your recommendation to be a bit more enthusiastic. “The Oak Tree is the best mansio and posting-station north of the River Humber,” is what I usually say myself. But it was a compliment of sorts, so I gave him a smile.
“…And you wouldn’t believe what this lad wants me to get for him this trip? For his wife’s birthday! You’ll never guess in a hundred years…”
“No.” And not much point trying, if it’s going to take that long.
“Oh, go on, have a guess! Shall I give you a clue?”
But that was when the farm cart came into view on the main road, and turned down our track onto the forecourt. Until it came close, I thought it might be yet more thirsty customers. Our bar-room had been busy since well before noon, and no fewer than five guests were staying with us overnight, including this non-stop talker.
But as the cart rolled towards us, I realised its occupant was in no state for drinking. He lay flat out with his eyes closed, breathing loudly through his mouth. His tattered cloak was thick with blood, not all of it dry, and crawling with flies. He looked a typical native, tall and fair, and he was strong and sunburned, a farmer probably.
I said, “I wonder who this is?”
The cart’s driver was another native, barely more than a boy with only the beginnings of a beard. He pulled his mules to a stop and spoke to us in broken Latin. “Which way is doctor, please? They said he live near mansio. I need hurry. Belinus has leg hurt bad.”
I pointed to a narrow road leading off to the left, and replied in his own British language. “It’s not far. Follow that track about hundred paces, till you come to a group of three farm buildings. The biggest one is a house, newly painted, with a shrine to Apollo outside it. That’s the doctor’s.”
“Thank you, lady.” He relaxed a little, relieved not to have to struggle with Latin. He raised his whip, then lowered it again.
“I nearly forgot. Belinus said he wants to talk to someone called Aurelia Marcella. Do you know her?”
“Yes, I’m Aurelia Marcella. I’m the innkeeper here. I’m afraid I don’t recognise your friend though. What’s it about?”
“I don’t know. Could you talk to Belinus when he wakes up? Please? He made me promise to find this Aurelius. If you can talk to him…”
“Of course I can, whenever he likes. But I don’t suppose he’ll wake up till the doctor’s seen to him. Get him along there as quickly as you can.”
“I will. You won’t forget? He said it’s important.”
“I won’t forget, I promise. The doctor’s a good man, he’ll do everything possible. I’ll come over to his house very soon, and make sure to see Belinus when he wakes up.” If he wakes up, I thought, as the boy drove off.
Curtius the trader had been following our conversation. “You employ a doctor here? What’s this, the latest in mansio services for your customers?”
“I’d like to say yes, but the truth is I don’t employ him, he just lives close by. He’s married to my housekeeper, as it happens. He’s got a good reputation, and people come from miles around.”
“Aha! So if you serve your customers bad wine or dodgy meat, you’ve got someone handy to put them on their feet again!” He laughed loudly at this, but when I didn’t crack a smile, he subsided. “Sorry, don’t mind me. Only joking.”
That sort of joke I can do without. But you can’t pick and choose your guests. We get all sorts staying at the Oak Tree, and we do our best to look after them, but there’s no law that says we have to like every last one.
“You must admit it’s unusual,” he persisted, “a doctor in the wilds of the country like this, miles from anywhere. It’s not as if you’re near a town. Eburacum’s the closest bit of civilisation, and that’s sixteen miles away.” He rubbed his backside. “I should know. I’ve ridden from there today, and got the saddle-sores to prove it.”
“I wouldn’t call Eburacum particularly civilised, though,” I answered. “It’s just a provincial dump, full of legionaries getting drunk and crooks trying to rip everybody off.” Actually that was rather unfair on a perfectly ordinary garrison town, but he was beginning to annoy me.
“You reckon the countryside is better, do you? Well, so do I. Better for my sort of trade, anyhow. I’m heading east to the coast tomorrow, then I go north to the frontier zone. I haven’t been across the wolds for a while. Natives still friendly, are they?”
“Yes, they are.” I’ve always liked the wold country, it’s gentle and peaceful, and I’ve got to know it quite well since my sister and her husband bought a farm there.
The bar-room door behind us swung open and my house-keeper Margarita came hurrying out. She looked, as always, calm and unruffled, but her fair hair was flopping untidily over her face, a sure sign she’d been busy. She pushed it out of her eyes. “Aurelia! I wondered where you were.”
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to leave you holding the fort for so long. Is everything all right?”
“Everything’s fine, don’t worry. I just thought I’d warn you…” She stopped as she saw the retreating cart. “Is that another patient for Timaeus?”
“Yes. He has an injured leg, so his friend said. He didn’t look good—unconscious, and there was quite a lot of blood.”
“Blood everywhere,” the joker beside me agreed. “Makes you see red, doesn’t it?”
Margarita ignored him. “They always look bad when they first arrive. But Timaeus can work wonders, if the gods are with him.”
“That’s what I told the lad who brought him. I didn’t recognise him, or the patient either, and I think I know all the natives in the Oak Bridges area. They must have come a fair distance.”
She smiled proudly. Her husband was a fine doctor, and not, like most of them, employed to care for a single rich family. He was prepared to treat anyone who could pay him, (and, I suspected, some who couldn’t, but that was his affair.) “That makes three men who’ve come for treatment since this morning. He’s had a busy day.”
“He’s not the only one. We seem to have been going non- stop today. We haven’t had so many customers for ages. It must be the good spring weather, and the market in Oak Bridges. Not that I’m complaining, of course. Are you managing all right?” That was a silly question really. Margarita was brilliant at running the mansio, and could cope with the whole Ninth Legion on manoeuvres, or the Imperial court if Caesar decided to drop by.
“It’s not over yet, that’s what I came to tell you. One of the overnight guests has just decided he’s giving a party.”
The comedian beside me looked interested. “Really? Which one? I bet it’s one of those soldier-boys.”
Margarita smiled at him. “You’d win your bet. It’s the tall lanky one, dark hair, who came in riding a good grey horse. It’s his birthday apparently, and he intends to celebrate. He’s started already, and now he’s inviting everyone in sight to have a drink with him, and even telling all the natives to bring their friends along.”
“I love a good party,” the trader said. “Count me in. And if we all drink too much and make ourselves ill, it’s nice to know we shan’t have to go far to find a doctor.” He chuckled as he headed into the bar.
“The gods preserve us from customers who think they have comic talents. I assume the birthday boy can afford to buy drinks for half the province?”
She touched her belt-pouch. “He can. I insisted he give me some money now, to keep the wine and beer flowing for a good while. We’re keeping a slate for him, so we’ll know when it runs out.”
“Good. I’ll come in and give you a hand as soon as I can. I’m just going over to Timaeus’ to take a look at the latest patient. His friend says he was asking for me, though I’ve no idea why. He’s in no state to talk now, but if he comes round, Timaeus can send one of the lads over to fetch me.”
She went back inside, and I set off along the narrow road that led past my private garden, past one of the vegetable plots, till it reached the cluster of old farm buildings. Most of them were hardly used now, except for the big square house that Timaeus had built for himself, his family, and his patients.
Before I’d reached it, I met the young native driving his empty farm cart back.
“Are you waiting to take Belinus home again tonight?” I called out to him. “If you are, take your mules round to the stables and the boys there will see to them while you have a bite to eat.”
“Waiting?” he said, in a mixture of surprise and irritation. “No, I’m not waiting, I haven’t time. The doctor says he’ll care for Belinus overnight and send a message tomorrow or next day. I can’t hang about here.”
“Have you far to go?”
“About fifteen miles east, up the Long Hill and into the wolds. Good road most of the way, but slower in the dark, which it will be soon. And the mules are tired.” He stood up in the cart and stretched his shoulders and arms. “Can’t be helped. I’ve got to get home as soon as I can.”
“That’s a pity. One of our guests is throwing a birthday party, everyone invited. I’m sure you deserve some refreshment, after bringing Belinus all this way. Are you a relative of his? Where shall we send to, when he’s ready to come home?”
“Just a neighbour. I’ve told the doctor where his farm is. White Rocks it’s called, there’s a pile of them by his turning off the main road. Anyone’ll give directions. I’ll try and come down again in a couple of days to find out how he is. I’m sorry I can’t do more for him, but the way things are now, I don’t like to be gone from the farm for long, especially at night. You never know what’s going to go wrong, when your back’s turned.”
“Oh? Have you had trouble?”
He shrugged and sighed. “Life seems to be one long trouble these days. Well, I’ll bid you good-night.” He cracked his whip, and the tired mules set off for home.
I paused as usual at the little shrine outside Timaeus’ door, with the fresh flowers and beaker of wine he always placed there for Apollo the healer. I offered a short prayer to the god and his sister Diana, my own guardian goddess. Timaeus always said it isn’t the gods alone that heal mortals, it’s medical skill as well. Perhaps, but as my grandmother used to say, a prayer doesn’t hurt, and it makes whoever’s praying feel better, even if nobody else does. Poor Belinus needed all the help he could get.
I found the doctor in the large, light room he used for diagnosing and treating his patients. He was bending over Belinus, who lay on a high bed in the centre. There was a wide table alongside it, and his two assistants watched from the bed’s foot, waiting for instructions.
“What do you think, Timaeus?” I asked. “He isn’t too good, is he?”
He didn’t raise his head, but grunted, “Wait while I finish examining him, Aurelia. Come and look for yourself, if you like.”
I stepped forward cautiously. I’m not unduly squeamish, but doctors tend to forget how gruesome their work can appear to the rest of us. Belinus was still unconscious, still flushed, and now I could hear that his breathing was ragged, and catch an unpleasant smell that I couldn’t identify. His stained cloak was gone, and he was naked. His chest was badly bruised and some of his ribs looked lop-sided even to my untrained eye, but there was no blood there. That had come from his left thigh, which had a deep gash near the top, right down to the bone at its upper end. It was caked with dried blood, was still bleeding, and the leg was swollen to below his knee.
One glance at all this was more than enough for me. I stepped back and waited for Timaeus to speak.
He straightened up and shook his head. “This leg wound’s a mess. His neighbour said there’d been some sort of accident with a sickle, but if that cut was made by any kind of sickle my name’s Hippocrates. It’s completely the wrong shape. It’s a sword cut, if you ask me. Look, boys, you can see it was made by a straight blade.”
The two lads looked eagerly where the doctor pointed. “Nobody’s tried to clean him up at all,” Timaeus went on sadly. “They’ve just covered the cut with that dirty old cloak. So the wound’s inflamed, and from the smell of it, there’s gangrene there. And the thigh-bone may be damaged.”
“He’s got some broken ribs too, Master,” the elder of his two assistants put in. “And the jolting about on the journey here will have made them worse, won’t it?”
Timaeus nodded. “Yes, Phokas, it will. Of course it’s flattering that people are coming to see me from so far away, but usually it would be better for the sick folk to get help nearer home.”
Well perhaps, but I didn’t blame people for beating a path to Timaeus’ door. There wasn’t another healer like him for many miles around. “Can you do anything for him?”
“We’ll do what we can.” He turned to his two assistants, who were both young, but as different in appearance as chalk from cheese. The elder, Phokas, was a slave whom Timaeus was train- ing, about eighteen, stocky and strong, with broad shoulders, powerful hands, and intelligent brown eyes which missed nothing. The younger boy was Timaeus’ son Gaius, a slim, handsome lad of only eight. With his fair curls and fine-cut features, he looked too delicate for the hard physical work of a doctor, but he was determined to follow his father’s profession, and had a child’s callous lack of squeamishness concerning blood and gore.
“Well, boys,” Timaeus said, “this is the second bad wound I’ve had to treat today, and it’s serious because the patient is unconscious, and has clearly lost a lot of blood already. Let’s see how much you’ve learned. Phokas, what’s the first thing we need to do?”
“Find out if the bone is broken,” the dark lad answered promptly, “because how you treat the wound will be different if you’re dealing with a fracture at the same time.”
“Quite right. And then?”
“Wash the cut with vinegar, to get rid of dirt and dried blood.” The thought of how painful that would be made my stomach tighten, and I was glad Belinus wasn’t conscious.
“Good,” Timaeus agreed. “What next?” Gaius said, “Cut away any of his leg that’s in—in…” “Inflamed,” Phokas supplied. “Especially any flesh that’s dried up, which might mean gangrene.”
“Yes, inflamed,” the boy agreed. “Inflamed flesh is bad and will stop the good flesh healing up. Clean it all again, then stitch the edges of the cut together with wool thread, like you did that man’s arm this morning.”
“No, not stitch,” Phokas objected, “the cut’s too big. We must use some of the little metal clamps to fasten it. But I don’t think we should clamp the wound tonight. It’s sure to need cleaning again in the morning, and there might be more gangrene. We should make a temporary dressing of lint, then bandage it but not too tightly. And bandage those ribs too, and try to make him drink something to give him calm sleep. Look, he’s started tossing about like a ship in a storm.”
Timaeus smiled. “That last suggestion will be easier said than done, but otherwise you’re quite right. If we fasten up a bad wound permanently straight away, we run the risk that there may be tiny pieces of dirt, or even bone, or perhaps a blood clot left in there still, which will fester overnight and poison his whole body.”
Gaius asked, “Papa, do you really think that’s a sword cut?
How did he get it?”
“Let’s not worry about that now. Get busy, both of you, fetch everything I need onto the table. A bowl of vinegar, a sponge, clean cloth, lint, bandages, a small hook, a knife…and what do I rub into the bandages? Gaius?”
“Honey. And you want a spatula to spread it.”
Timaeus turned to me, smiling. “See what a useful pair of apprentices I’ve got, Aurelia? Soon they won’t need me at all.” I smiled back, trying hard not to show how queasy all this was making me feel. Yet at the same time, a part of me was fascinated by the doctor’s skill. I knew he wasn’t callous about his patient, just detached and professional. I also knew that if anyone could save Belinus, Timaeus could.
I watched as the boys collected what they needed. All the instruments and medicines were neatly ranged on stout wooden shelves around two walls of the room. There were the medicines themselves, clay flasks of liquid and alabaster jars of ointments and powders, each one neatly labelled, along with a variety of cups, bowls, dishes, spoons and small jugs. There were rolls of bandage and pieces of lint, balls of wool, piles of cloths, and trays of small instruments, clean and ready for use. The larger tools, mostly fearsome in appearance, hung on the third wall. I recognised knives, hooks, forceps, a bone-saw and a drill. I couldn’t identify all of them, and preferred not to try.
“Timaeus, I don’t want to be under your feet while you’re working, but there’s something I need to tell you. The young man who brought him in said his name’s Belinus, and before he lost his senses, he asked to speak to me. Made quite a point of it apparently, although I can’t think why, because I’m sure I’ve never seen him before. But I promised I’ll talk to him, so if and when he wakes up, could you let me know, and I’ll come straight here.”
“Of course. The lad said much the same to me, so it must be something important. But I don’t see Belinus regaining his wits any time soon. What if it’s in the middle of the night when he wakes?”
“Send for me anyway. I don’t want to miss…I mean if there’s only one chance to talk.”
“I will, I promise.”
“Will you watch by his bedside?”
“Probably, if his fever doesn’t improve. Phokas and I will take turns. Ah, good, you’ve got everything ready, boys. Then we’ll begin.”
They began. I left.
Back in the bar-room I helped myself to a beaker of red wine without adding any water, to quieten my quaking stomach. The party was now cheerfully noisy, with toasts to the birthday boy, and to practically everyone else in the room. As the night wore on, they even drank to me, so of course I had to return the compliment, but by then I was adding water, and plenty of it. It was all very respectable really. Here in the wilds of Britannia we don’t go in for the exotic orgies they claim to have in Rome. They spent enough, and drank enough, to make it a good birthday, and about midnight we shepherded the locals off home, and our own guests across the courtyard into the guest wing.
There was still no message from the doctor, and as I got ready for bed, I sent a quick prayer to Apollo to give Belinus a restful night’s sleep.