The Wise Woman

IdiotCroneSWhen the short northern summer eventually arrived the rain stopped and the sun came out. Gnats also came out, billions of gnats. They were everywhere and got into everything, everywhere that is except Marcus’ roundhouse. The thick wood smoke that pervaded the interior of every native home, generated by slow burning peat in each central hearth, kept insect numbers to a minimum. It hung in the rafters and seeped out through the thatch. It did not, however, have any effect on head lice, nor the mysterious and extremely irritating mite that had appeared to infest both army and civilian population.

Marcus was unable to produce a cure and they were all scratching themselves raw. Tempers became frayed. Herbal medicines were not his field of expertise, but a lunatic old woman appeared uninvited from somewhere on the other side of the heath.

“It’s Nell the Idiot Crone. Always turns up when she’s needed. You take note, young Marcus. She has the gift of healing.”

The ragged spectre stared disconcertingly, babbled incessantly and produced a sturdy black-iron pot in which she boiled up a sticky, purple brew topped with a bilious scum. It bubbled and popped and steamed an ominous steam that crept over the sides of the pot and drifted across the floor. Indicating that all the men should gather the Idiot Nell produced a large whitewash brush and painted the concoction over their bollocks. It stung mightily. She then treated women and children. Soon the treatment had soothed the itching, and slaughtered the mites, though there was a tendency for all the patients’ hair to fall out.

Eventually the hostelry was finished; two stories with accommodation, VIP suite, restaurant and a bar, with real wine. The little garrison fort was given a fine imitation stone gatehouse in the same plasterwork as the walls. It sported a gold painted stucco eagle and inscription above the gates. Inside, the old Head Quarters were rebuilt in stone with the basilica or cross-hall open onto a pressed clay parade ground. The Spanish Praefectus had his own house; there were wooden barracks, a mess, storage barns and a clean, warm latrine block. Just outside the fort two bathhouses were built, one for the army and one for the locals. The latter was viewed with considerable suspicion, shunned, neglected and soon fell into disrepair. There was even a tiny temple to Mithras standing alone on the edge of the highway. Before they left, the construction workers built a general store and an alehouse for the vicus. Rarely coming to the fort and generally believed to have gone native, Marcus had become known as the Little Briton to his boisterous German colleagues.


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