Read A Pattern of Blood Online
Authors: Rosemary Rowe
Copyright © 2000 Rosemary Aitken
The right of Rosemary Rowe to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
Apart from any use permitted under UK copyright law, this publication may only be reproduced, stored, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means, with prior permission in writing of the publishers or, in the case of reprographic production, in accordance with the terms of licences issued by the Copyright Licensing Agency.
First published as an Ebook by Headline Publishing Group in 2013
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
eISBN 978 1 4722 0506 3
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Table of Contents
Rosemary Rowe is the maiden name of author Rosemary Aitken, who was born in Cornwall during the Second World War. She is a highly qualified academic, and has written more than a dozen bestselling textbooks on English language and communication. She has written fiction for many years under her married name. Rosemary is the mother of two adult children and has two grandchildren living in New Zealand, where she herself lived for twenty years. She now divides her time between Gloucestershire and Cornwall.
‘Rowe has had the clever idea of making her detective-figure a mosaicist, and, therefore, an expert in puzzles and patterns. Into the bargain, he is a freed Celtic slave, and thus an outsider to the brutalities of the conquerors, and a character with whom the reader can sympathise’
‘A brilliantly realised historical setting dovetails perfectly with a sharp plot in this history-cum-whodunnit’
Good Book Guide
‘Lots of fascinating detail about what the Romans ever did for us . . . History with an entertaining if murderous twist’
‘A must for anyone interested in Roman Britain’
‘Libertus is a thinking man’s hero . . . a delightful whodunnit which is fascinating in the detail of its research and the charm of its detective team’
Huddersfield Daily Examiner
‘Superb characterisation and evocation of Roman Britain. It transports you back to those times. An entirely compelling historical mystery’
The Germanicus Mosaic
Murder in the Forum
The Chariots of Calyx
The Legatus Mystery
The Ghosts of Glevum
For my son
I was in Corinium, as it happens, the night Quintus was attacked. Of course, I had no idea then who he was, or how significant that stabbing would turn out to be. At the time I was simply glad to be safely inside the town walls, and away from the dangers of the open road at night.
I had come to the town looking for my wife – or at least for news of her. It was a pleasure I had been promising myself for months, ever since I had heard that a slave woman called Gwellia had been offered for sale at the market there some time before. Naturally, I couldn’t be sure that it was my Gwellia, nor even that if I found her I would recognise her: after all, it was twenty years since we were seized, separated and sold into slavery. But ever since I had gained my own freedom (and with it the coveted status of Roman citizen), I had never ceased to look for her. I was almost fifty now, an old man, and she was ten years younger. I wondered ruefully if she would recognise this weather-beaten, grey-haired creature as the athletic young Celtic nobleman she had once married.
All the same, I had come. Delay after delay had thwarted me until now, but I had done it in the end, though only by leaving my mosaic workshop on the outskirts of Glevum to the mercies of my slaveboy-cum-assistant, Junio, and braving the twenty miles or so to Corinium on my own.
A damp and weary business it had been too. It was raining, and I had been obliged to trudge almost the whole way on the miry edges, since the military road is exactly that – a military road, giving priority to army traffic. I kept a knife at my belt, as most people did in case of having the opportunity to eat, and I had one hand on that as I struggled along, keeping a keen eye open for brigands and wolves. Even the military road is wild and lonely in places, and the stout staff which travellers carry is not merely for support. Without Junio, too, I felt peculiarly vulnerable. Fortunately, just as I was about to seek a bed at an unwholesome inn, a friendly farmer offered me a ride for the last few miles in his bone-juddering cart, though even then I had arrived after sunset and spent an uncomfortable half-hour being questioned at the hands of the town watch.
Now, therefore, I wanted nothing more than to find a cheap, cleanish place to sleep and a bowl of something warm from one of the
– the takeaway hot-drink and soup stalls. Some of them seemed to be still open, their shopfronts open to the street and warm steam mingling with the smoke of oil lamps and charcoal stoves in their shadowy red interiors.
I had no lantern or taper, and my hand tightened nervously around my staff – the streets of a strange town are no place to be wandering alone at night. This was not Glevum, that respectable colonia of retired legionaries, with a handy Roman garrison still in residence: this was a
, a market town, notorious for its vagrants and pickpockets, and the law was evidently less strictly enforced. In Glevum at this hour, the streets would be thronged with creaking carts and lighted wagons – it is forbidden to bring civilian wheeled transport inside the city walls by day. Here the paved streets, though rutted by wheels and stained with recent dung, were eerily empty.
I felt a little shiver of anxiety. It was getting very dark. Only the glimmer of candles behind the shutters of the town houses, the glow of the
and a single blazing torch glimpsed down a side alley gave any light to the streets. Silent too, merely the muffled creak of a distant wagon, the snuffling of stabled horses, faint murmurs and music from the houses and the ringing of running footsteps somewhere nearby, as sandalled feet struck the flagstone paving. I wrapped my cloak closer about myself and quickened my pace.
Suddenly, I heard a noise. I stopped, listening. There was a sort of humming buzz, which resolved itself swiftly into voices. Voices and footsteps, and they were coming towards me. A crowd, by the sound of it, far away down the main street to my left; a mass of men, clattering down the street together, all shouting and singing at once.
‘The blues, the blues, the blues are champions.’ A pair of youths, arms around each other’s shoulders, lurched around the corner into the light of a thermopolium. They had been drinking, by the look of them: one still carried a small amphora and his toga was stained with wine. They stared at me a moment, and vanished into the fast-food stall. There had been chariot racing, obviously, and no doubt the young men had staked on the blue team and were about to spend their winnings. Doubtless the owners of the food stall had stayed open on that very account.
More racegoers were coming into view now with their attendant lantern-bearers. Citizens, mostly – some of them high officials judging by the purple stripes on their togas and the deference with which less favoured individuals stepped aside to let them pass. I closed my free hand around my purse. There are usually pickpockets in a crowd, however brutal the Roman penalty for theft, and chariot crowds are in any case famously belligerent. This was not a good place to be a stranger. I stepped back into a shadowy alcove, to avoid unwelcome attention. My foot touched something soft, and a rat scuttled into the rubbish. My heart missed a beat.
Then a hand from behind me plucked at my cloak.
I could not have cried out if I had wished to – my tongue was cleaving to my mouth. I whirled around, staff at the ready.
There was a woman beside me, almost invisible in the darkness under a huge dark evil-smelling cloak, which covered her from head to foot. She was hidden in the shadows, but I could just make out a white, raddled face, warty and sunken. The eyes were wild and feverish, but the gnarled hand on my cloak fringe was firm enough.
‘Spare me a quadrans, mister, and I will tell your fate.’
I looked at her with distaste. I am not much drawn to fortune-tellers, in any case, and this one looked more like a prophetess from ancient republican Rome than any modern soothsayer I had ever met. Most female diviners these days are respectable, retired Vestal virgins, or proper priestesses at a shrine – a little wild-haired and fanatical sometimes, but generally respectable, sleek and well-fed after a lifetime in the temples. This one looked as if she was halfway to the other world already; she was dirty, smelly and half-starved, and the warts did nothing to enhance her appearance. Not, altogether, a convincing visionary: if she could really foresee the future, I thought, she might have foreseen some way of avoiding her malodorous state.
However, it is never sensible to cross a woman who claims to have magical powers. I freed my cloak and fumbled for a brass coin.
She tested it with her toothless gums and favoured me with a smile. Then she looked up at the moon, dimly visible through the clouds. She seemed about to say something, but at that moment another little group of racegoers passed the end of the street with an evidently rich man among them. Richer than ever now, probably, since he was wearing a blue favour pinned to his cloak.
The woman looked from me to him, and shook her head. ‘I can tell you nothing now,’ she hissed. ‘Come to see me again and I will give you your answer.’ She slunk away, and I saw her accost one of the group.
I laughed inwardly at the transparent trick, and turned my attention to the takeaway stall. The owner was a hairy brute of a man who was looking at me speculatively. I was just passing over my few coins in exchange for a bowl of questionable broth with hoof parts floating in it, when there was a shout from outside.
‘Stop! Stop, thief! Stop that man!’
I dashed into the street, spilling most of my broth – which may have been a mercy. It was hard to see in the darkness, but there appeared to be a disturbance down a narrow alley opposite, between two towering walls. A small tunic-clad figure was lying in the road some way along it, probably a torch-bearer, since there was a blazing torch lying beside him. In its light I could see the wealthy man with the ribband now slumped against the wall. A man was leaning over him, and in the flicker of the torch I saw the glint of a dagger. Another ruffian with a club loitered menacingly in the shadows.
‘Stop them!’ The man I had just seen accosted by the soothsayer had wrested himself away and was running up the street towards his friend, but it was too late. The figure with the dagger stooped, cut free his victim’s purse and the two robbers disappeared like arrows up the empty alleyway into the night. The pursuer was an older man, and there was no chance of catching the thieves. None of the onlookers, I noticed, had lifted a finger to help.
A small crowd was gathering at the entrance to the alleyway. I joined them, craning my neck to see the little drama unfold. The man had given up his chase now, and had gone back to his companion and was kneeling beside him, lifting his head, holding a hand to his heart. He turned to the watchers, and, still panting from his exertions, gasped out, ‘A litter. Fetch a litter. Quickly, while there is still time.’ He picked up the torch and set it against the wall, where it maximised the illumination.
He was a good-looking man, now that the light struck him. Tall and striking, although his head was bald. His face – intelligent and mobile in the half-dark – was remarkable for the intense concentration with which he was taking something from the pouch at his own belt. Herbs, I realised a moment later as he placed them in his mouth and began to chew them. The man was carrying a kit of medicinal herbs and bandages, like a soldier going to battle. Sure enough, a moment later he was parting the folds of the bloodstained toga and applying the improvised poultice to his friend’s wound.