“Barbarians!” He pointed frantically towards the northern horizon where over the whole hillside, several hillsides, arms and armour were glittering in the early sunlight. The centurion dashed towards the principia, shouting. NCOs emerged from their quarters and began shouting. The praefectus was shouting from the front doorway of his villa whilst he struggled into a cuirass that he had obviously outgrown.
“Where’s my gladius? Someone get me a gladius.”
The caligati, the army’s rankers or grunts, stumbled onto the parade ground in their underwear. They did not shout, but muttered amongst themselves.
“Stand to!” The vexillarius planted the regiment’s banner firmly alongside his commander. A cornicen began to blast out the strident Call to Arms, but there was an impossibly short space of time between the alarm being raised and the arrival of a crazed hoard of Picts and Geordies at the settlement, wielding an assortment of dangerously sharp-edged implements. It was a hectic time, a panic stricken scrabbling for war gear time, too short a time for the completion of defensive preparations. Battlements were manned by half ready troops, torsion ballistas loaded with iron tipped bolts, Palmyran archers crowded onto the roof of the gatehouse. Fire-buckets were filled and someone was dispatched to find Marcus, the nearest thing they had to a field surgeon. The doomed lad was pierced through with a broad, leaf-bladed Pictish spear before he had crossed the street, and was trampled under foot as a tightly packed mass of barbarians crashed, screaming into the vicus, firing the buildings and slaughtering all before them.
Terrifying, fair skinned, naked warriors, unstoppable in their blood-rage, led the assault on the fort. Ornate bronze helmets and gold torques flashed fire. Long iron swords slashed against soldiers’ scuta, gaudy lozenge shields, like outsize knuckle-dusters, battered into soft tissue. Roman blood spattered onto blue painted, barbarian flesh, and soaked darkly into their woollen plaid short capes and long trousers, stained the ground crimson. Individual screams melded into a homogeneous roar of pain, and greedy ravens gathered in expectation of the carnage.
By the time a relief column of the Cohors I Tungrorum arrived from Vercovicium fort the barbarians had moved on. The would-be rescuers found a butchers’ shambles. Large areas of charred earth and rubble stretched back from the roadsides. No identifiable building stood above ground except the burned out shell of the hostelry and the wreck of the principia. Tatters of clothing and flesh hung in the gorse, picked over by ominous black birds. Smoke rose still, from the smouldering peat.
First Tungrorum also had a medicus ordinaries, with the unlikely name of Anicius Ingenuus. He had accompanied the auxiliary column in the hopes of tending to the wounded, but there was no work for him. Nothing lived. If there had been survivors these too had long since dispersed.
Over time the community around the staging post grew, and despite changes to the garrison Marcus stayed on. He even managed to extend the range of his medical skills. He could not admit it to any of the Romanised military units, but he had picked up a few tips from the local, somewhat eccentric, wise woman and had a notebook full of plant drawings and descriptions of their efficacy.
Soon after yet another change of personnel at the fort Marcus entered the local alehouse. He preferred the tepid malt brew drunk by the sturdy natives to the fort’s cheap wine that had joggled all its way up the Great North Street from Portus Dubris, especially when the ale was fortified with a dram of the amber distillation that the locals knew as chwisgi.
“A pot of your finest brew, fair lass, and a chwisgi chaser if you would be so kind. The barmaid was new to him, slender with wild hair as had black as a raven’s chuff and haunting, sad eyes.
“Owt to eat with that, your ‘ighness? We got toast and dripping on the go.”
She was not local, drawing out her A’s and dropping her H’s.
“I can’t think of anything finer. Two thick slices please. You’re not from round here? I’m Marcus.”
She turned and shouted through to the back:
“Two mucky fats. Door stops, for this ‘ere gent.
“Nah, I come up with the army, part of some legion or other, from Londinium. Names Queenie.” She wiped a hand on the front of her skirts and held it out, “Pleased to meet you, I’m sure.” She glanced down at his army issue tunic worn over woollen tartan trousers, “You that Medicus I been ‘earing about? Yer not really a Briton?”
Yes he was Marcus the Medicus and no he was not a native Briton. Though he had been in the army so long he could barely remember his homeland.
“Long story. I’ll be over by the fire when that toast is done.”
As the seasons passed and the monotonous routines of Army life behind the walls of the castra followed one on another, as ever plodding, unchanging through a mundane eternity an intimate relationship developed between Marcus and his barmaid in the cosy native alehouse. He moved his surgery into the Snug and from the pub’s doorway he could see straight through the gateway of the fort where soldiers on Sick Call would line up at six o’clock each morning and march across the street for his attention and a nifty pint. The couple set up home, first in a spare room in the attic, eventually in the landlord’s apartments. One winter the proprietor had contracted a terminal case of the ague and Queenie inherited the business. Now officially married they had a child, a girl, Priscilla Alastríona, indistinguishable from the other village urchins, except that her Latin was somewhat more fluent. Life, for Marcus and Queenie was proceeding along a surprisingly satisfactory path.
When 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.
missi ad hospitium cum Marco medico
faciendum structores numero xxx
ad lapidem flammandum numero xviiii
ad lutum uiminibus castrorum faciendum traces…
The next morning saw Marcus and his men lined up in front of their tents while a skinny centurion whose helmet kept slipping forwards over his eyes waved yet another of the flimsy wooden tablets at them.
“These are your orders dated for the seventh of March and delivered to our Praefectus by the medical orderly. They are for the building of a hospitium, a roadside staging post. Stone and timber have already been delivered and are stacked up to the west of the camp. We have begun making tiles so that you will not be held up. The ground floor is to be constructed of dressed stone with a course of tiles at regular intervals. Meanwhile your carpenters can fashion the framework for an upper floor. Thirty of you, these instructions are very specific, will burn limestone for the making of lime mortar. Nineteen of you will be producing clay for the wattle fences of the camp. You will begin at once.”
Across the road from the camp was the vicus, an untidy cluster of round houses with tall, conical, thatched roofs, occupied by native hangers on, camp followers and dodgy tradesmen, an inevitable accompaniment to any Roman fort. Whilst work began on the construction of the hostelry an ox was commandeered from the locals along with a small child, the only person that could get it to perform as required. In a shallow pit it trod the local mud into a quagmire, mixing it with its own dung to make daub. This would be pressed by hand through the woven willows of wattle panels. Wattle walls, backed by a sturdy earth rampart were to replace the palisade of the fort. Once the outer coating of daub had been smoothed, scored in imitation of stonework and whitewashed it would look impressive enough to the casual viewer. When the building work required, wattle and daub would also provide the infill between the timbers for the upper story of the hospitium.
After barely surviving his first week in a tent Marcus did a deal with the local blacksmith and moved into one of the disgusting thatched hovels across the road from the camp. He shared it with the smith’s family, four adults whose relationship was obscure and a horde of grubby children. He also shared with an assortment of livestock, but he was warm enough to sleep through the night without waking. Each day he held a surgery for the army, but much of his time was taken up with the natives. He pulled teeth, sewed up innumerable head wounds and lanced boils. They all had boils. Mostly he was repaid with gifts of chickens that he traded with the garrison quartermaster. There had on one occasion been a duck, which he had kept. It was a good layer and the children looked after it.
By the time they arrived at their destination it was growing dark and drizzle had penetrated every item of clothing. On a bare patch of mud at the roadside an overgrown ditch and dilapidated palisade encompassed the sad castra. Marcus strode to the front of his men and past Hermann, who was just about to hail the guard.
“I’ll handle this.” The auxiliary trooper on guard duty looked down from a watchtower above the gate. “We are the construction detachment. Your commander is expecting us.”
“His eminence will be in the principia, probably. Make yourselves at home. Welcome to The Swamp.” The guard paused and then added, “…sir.”
As the gate was already propped open Marcus waved his men forward.
“Come on chaps. Form up and wait for me inside. I’ll present our orders to the commander.” Within the defences were tents, leather tents laid out in rows on the same bare mud as was everywhere under foot. There was a row of lavatory pits, open to the elements, being utilised by three sullen squadies. With little enthusiasm Marcus approached the only building on the site. It hardly deserved the title principia being a wooden structure, its roof ridge barely fifteen feet off the ground. The main, east, door was approached through a small courtyard inhabited by chickens. A tan coloured sow grubbed in the doorway of an outbuilding.
Inside Marcus stood in a hall that extended the full width of the building, Facing him was a pierced screen beyond which he could make out a shrine and the unit’s standard. To each side of this sacellum were doors to adjoining rooms. The one to his left appeared to be locked, but to his right the door stood ajar and someone beyond it had a nasty cough. Marcus called out.
“Could someone direct me to the unit commander?”
“Who’s that?” The reply was in Latin spoken with a thick Spanish accent and the figure that appeared in the doorway was short and a little overweight. He was wearing breeches under his tunic and a long sheepskin coat that had seen better days, or perhaps it had not. “You look bedraggled. What do you want?”
“The unit commander.”
“You’re talking to him. So…?”
“Sorry sir. Er… Sir…
“We… I have just arrived with the construction detachment. I believe we are expected. Our orders…” Marcus ferreted around in his satchel, produced a number of tablets and handed them over. The first of the thin wooden diptychs, hand written in cursive Latin script, introduced the bearer to the base commander. A Second tablet named the members of the detachment and detailed any particular skills. And yet another tablet laid out their mission. The men were to build a hostelry to a standard plan. This site was to become a staging post on the road to… To where? The road led from Nowhere to Nothinghere.
“Thank you. You are a medic I see. That could be useful. Most of my men are Belgians, hailing from some bog no better than this. But I have Syrian archers that have never taken to the climate. Always going down with something.
“I’ve already had tents erected for you and your men, over by the west wall. Get yourselves sorted out. And get over to the mess tent while there’s still something hot on the go. Report back in the morning.” The Spaniard turned back into his room without acknowledging Marcus’ salute. The forlorn orderly squelched out, leaving a pool of water on the flagstones where he had been standing.
Marcus the Medicus is suffering from a surfeit of Bratwurst. Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.