Vindolanda was not exactly a cushy posting. It was on the edge of nowhere, days away from any vestige of civilisation, in the middle of the bleakest landscape he had met anywhere on his travels with the army. When it was not freezing it was raining and the locals spoke Latin with such a thick accent that no one at the fort could understand one word in three.
“We require four dozen eggs and two freshly slaughtered pigs, my good lady.”
“Weyeye hinny.” What sort of reply was that? ‘Certainly sir, right away sir’ or ‘up yours’? It could mean anything.
Marcus had picked up some medical knowledge from a Greek doctor when he was a lowly footslogger on a posting in the South of France. Later he had helped treat horrendous gaping head wounds in the Dacian wars, inflicted by the barbarians’ dreadful war-sickle. The falx was curved, heavy and could punch a hole through shield or helmet to reach the soldier behind. He still wore the reinforcing bands across the top of his galea that the armourers out there had improvised as a form of defence. If he must die, it would not be with that pleading, hopeless stare in his eyes and his brains dribbling out between his ears. In Egypt most of his patients had bellyaches and diarrhoea, though he had learned to cure infections with the mouldy-bread poultice favoured by the natives. Here, close to The Wall, the commonest complaint was chilblains.
Being a medical orderly did not protect him from being hacked at and skewered whilst he defended the Pax Romana against the tattooed and moustachioed barbarian, but in more peaceful times it did excuse him from endless drilling and cleaning. At Vindolanda he had felt he was working the system quite well. Then a troop of Germans passed through his region and he was transferred. They were short of a doctor. He was an indifferent soldier and an average health-carer. His unit decided they could spare him.
The Germans were blonde giants with no sense of humour. He was two foot shorter than any of them. They did not need a medical orderly. What they needed was a vet. They cauterised wounds that would kill a normal human being, with a red-hot gladius, and treated most ailments with an alcoholic drink that gave you the squits for a week. It seemed to work though, if you survived the cure.
Vindolanda fort had not been a cushy posting, but much of it was stone built and it was well supplied. Marcus had left it at dawn, accompanied by a detachment of some seventy men who did not respect him, and was charged with ensuring they all arrived at a camp he had never heard of, a day’s march along the shoddiest road the Empire had ever been responsible for, through the dreariest landscape this island could devise. They were, his charges, singing loud, ugly drinking songs.