Pax Romana?

Picts&Geordies SIt was a fresh spring morning when one of the sentries in the fort first noticed something glinting on a far hill to the north.

“Cave! Timere!”

“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.

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Queenie

Marcus&Regina SOver 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.

Journey’s End

Geordie FortBy 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.

 

March or Die

comitatussoldier5As soon as the detachment was out of sight of the fortress of Vindolanda they moved to the side of the road. The eight-man team nearest to Marcus cut away a circle of sward and started to build a foot-high, stone wall around the cleared ground. The rest of the troop had split into small groups and were doing the same.

“What exactly is going on?”

One of the Germans had produced a thick dry log from his pack and propped it, upright within the circle. It had a hole drilled down the centre. He looked up.

“Second breakfast.”

As Marcus began to protest the team leader sauntered over. Dressed in a copper scale-armour shirt with a Sparta hanging from his belt, soft leather trousers and puttees, a fox pelt covering his bronze helmet and a heavy gold torque round his neck he made an intimidating figure as he loomed over the orderly.

“We’re all willing to pretend you’re in charge, sonny, but don’t push it. We’ll get you to whatever shit hole we’re headed for in plenty of time. Grub will be up shortly.”

As the corporal walked away Marcus yearned longingly after the retreating boots. What he wouldn’t give for boots like that instead of his standard issue sandals. And a pair of trousers.

Throughout this exchange the huddled group of auxiliaries had been filling the hole in their log with tinder, sprinkling the whole thing liberally with alcohol from a flask of home-brew and now struck flint to steel. There was a spark, an explosion and a plume of choking smoke. Within minutes flames jetted from the hole in the log. A shallow pan appeared and a string of fat, pale sausages. As they sizzled and browned the Teutonic NCO, tesserarius in auxilia parlance, broke up two coarse loaves and called over.

“Hey, Enema, get yourself wrapped round some of this.”

The bread was dry and the sausages composed of heavily spiced gristle encased in the tough intestine of an unidentified road kill. It took some chewing, but Marcus had to admit he felt better with something warm inside him. While he mopped up the last fatty residue with a piece of bread the rest of the company were removing any signs of the temporary campsite and packing away their utensils. Soon they were all back on the road.

As they marched on a persistent, icy drizzle set in. Marcus pulled his woollen cloak about him and watched a pair of ravens circling in the dank, grey sky.

“They’ll have spotted a carcass out on the moor. Dead sheep I shouldn’t wonder. Name’s Hermann by the way. Shall I send a couple of men over to see if there’s anything edible?” The tesserarius’ scale armour and studded baltea clinked as he trudged.

“I’m Marcus. And no, we don’t have time and don’t need to raid some disgusting rotting corpse.”

“Right you are, Enema.”

At midday they stopped for a meal of grey, glutinous boiled cereal. It was spooned out from a sealed container in thick, moist lumps and mixed with goat’s milk and an equal measure of their alcoholic beverage. There was little chance of a fire in the incessant rain so it was eaten cold.

Late afternoon saw them parked at the roadside yet again, eating bread and cheese. Marcus was cold, fed up and had kicked a dry-stone wall in frustration, never a good idea in sandals.

Marcus the Medicus

Vindolanda SVindolanda 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.