Authors: Ruth Downie
Tags: #dpgroup.org, #Fluffer Nutter
They would have been even more surprised if they had known it was somebody else’s.
Ruso was barely through the door of the hospital at Parva when he heard raised voices. He left the door open, dumped Candidus’s kit in front of Pandora’s cupboard, and followed the sound. A cluster of legionaries were blocking the far end of the corridor.
The cries of “No visitors!” from Gallus, Ruso’s baby-faced deputy, were barely audible above the various voices demanding to be let in on the grounds that they were his mates, he would want to see them, they would cheer him up, and yells of “You all right in there, old son?” and “Chin up, mate!”
The shape of the group shifted. They were trying to drag the protesting Gallus out of the way.
Doors opened. Several staff hurried down to join the fray, and a couple of patients stumbled out to see what the commotion was.
“Out!” ordered Ruso, pointing toward the exit. The noise of protest died down.
“You,” said Ruso, choosing one and looking him in the eye. The others fell silent. “Name?”
The man straightened. “Peregrinus, sir. Century of Fabius.”
“Why are you causing a commotion in my hospital?”
“Regulus is in there, sir. The natives have been at him and we want to make sure he’s all right.”
Gallus, breathing heavily, was still stationed between the outside world and the door latch. His whole face was now as pink as his cheeks. “It’s the kidnap victim, sir,” he explained. “The tribune says no visitors and no passing on information.”
An orderly approached to announce that Prefect Pertinax wanted to know what all the din was and when he was going to get some crutches.
“Tell him it’s under control,” said Ruso, ushering the reluctant gang of legionaries toward the street door with a promise to send on news when there was any.
Back in the corridor, inquisitive heads disappeared and doors closed.
“And the crutches, sir?”
“Absolutely not!” Seeing the expression on the orderly’s face, Ruso added, “Just be brave and tell him I said no. He can’t catch you. He’s only got one foot.”
Another figure still loitered in the doorway. Ruso recognized the once-blond soldier who had passed up the waterskin to the trapped Pertinax. The bandage on his wrist was even grimier than before. He was poking at the loose end with his forefinger, trying to tuck it back in.
“You’re not one of his friends too?”
“No, sir. Mallius.”
“From the quarry.”
“Yes, sir. I was wanting a word with your clerk.”
“Is it about a hen?”
It was. The deal had been struck the day before Candidus disappeared and the delivery had been made on time. The payment had not.
“He was definitely expecting it yesterday?”
“Yes, sir. He said it was his turn on cook duty and he wanted something tasty.”
It was not Ruso’s business to wonder how a quarryman might have obtained a hen. He paid up to get rid of him, then turned to Gallus. Did you say there’s a tribune here?” This morning the legate, this afternoon one of his tribunes. More important guests in one day than they usually welcomed in a month.
“Tribune Accius brought the patient in, sir. But he’s gone now.”
It was a pity. He might have gleaned some sense about the kidnap from Accius, with whom he had worked before. He dismissed the rest of the staff and said quietly to Gallus, “How is he?”
The medic scratched his head. “I’m not really sure, sir. But he’s well enough to tell you himself.”
Regulus the plumber, alone in Room IX, was a sorry sight. This was hardly surprising, since he had, by his own account, been jumped by a gang of natives the night before, stripped naked, bound, and then strung up on a branch by his feet and dangled head-first over a woodland stream. If the road patrol had not heard his faint cries for help this morning, he would be hanging there still.
“Starving and freezing, sir,” he added, scratching his ribs with one blotchy hand and reaching with the other for the cup on the table beside his bed. “And being eaten alive. Even in October. The whole bloody place was swarming with things that bite and sting. And that was before the rats.”
Ruso said, “You were bitten by rats?”
He shook his head. “I kept moving and shouting to frighten them off, sir.”
Given last night’s rain and nighttime temperatures on the border in October, the man was lucky to have survived.
“I wondered if they put him over the stream deliberately because of the insects, sir,” put in Gallus. “They smeared dog dung on his face and honey on his privates.”
The victim squirmed, either at the memory of the smell or the humiliation, while Ruso deliberately avoided catching his deputy’s eye. It would be interesting to see whether the official attempt to keep this story quiet had any effect. He said, “As far as you know, were you the only victim?”
“I was all alone, sir. Just me and all them barbarians jabbering away in their own language.” Regulus looked up. “They didn’t get somebody else, did they?”
“Not as far as I know,” said Ruso, hoping they had not, and catching a waft of wine that was presumably medicinal. “Finish your drink and let’s take a look at you.”
Beneath the linen sheet Regulus was indeed covered in red lumpy insect bites. He did not seem to have been beaten, but there were abrasions around his wrists and ankles. The ankles were slightly swollen and he winced when they were examined. He tried and failed to bend his ankles or wiggle his toes when instructed. Ruso pressed on the nail of each hairy big toe. The pink color returned immediately. “Stand up for me, will you?”
A pained expression passed over the blotchy face. “Just give it a try,” Ruso suggested.
Regulus swung his legs over the side of the bed, placed his feet gingerly on the rush mat, and gasped. “I’m sorry, sir.”
“That’ll do,” Ruso conceded, crouching down to look again. “How does it feel when you put weight on them?”
“Like . . . like somebody’s sticking knives in my ankles, sir.” Regulus’s voice was weak with the pain.
“All right,” said Ruso, “you can get back into bed now.” He added, “Try not to scratch,” although he knew he might as well have told the man to hover three feet above the bed all afternoon.
“Thank you, sir.” Legs limp in front of him, Regulus bottom-shuffled his way back up the bed toward the pillow. He closed his eyes, exhausted. Then he lifted one knee and raked at the opposite calf with his toenails.
Ruso pulled up the sheet. There was much here that he did not understand, but there was no doubt that the lad had been set upon. “Have you any idea why they did it?”
“Not a clue, sir.” Regulus shook his head sadly. “They just went for me. Like a pack of wolves.”
“So where were you when this happened?”
Regulus reached under the sheet to scratch, caught Ruso’s eye, and rocked from side to side as he tucked both hands under his buttocks. “I was lured onto native property, sir. They had a terrier bitch with pups ready to go. I’d got one reserved, see? So I went inside to collect him and that’s when they jumped me.” Unable to scratch, he writhed against the bedding. “You can’t trust them, sir.”
“So these were people you’d met before?”
“That’s the thing, sir. They was all right when I went to see the pups the first time. Then they turned nasty. I told them, ‘Keep the money.’ I said, ‘I don’t want no trouble,’ but they didn’t listen. I tried to put up a bit of a fight, sir, but there was lots of them.” He gazed down at his feet. “Will I walk again, sir?”
“I don’t see why not,” Ruso assured him.
Regulus retrieved one hand and rubbed his wet eyes with his fist.
Ruso handed him a cloth from the shelf by the window.
“Thank you, sir.” He blew his nose into the cloth. “Sorry, sir. I’m just glad to be alive, really.”
“I’ll tell your friends you’re doing well,” Ruso told him.
“Thanks for keeping them out, sir.”
“Tribune’s orders,” Ruso explained. “It’s a pity. We could have charged admission.”
Fabius leaned back, winced, and readjusted his cushions before patting his hair back into place. “I’m definitely not well, Doctor. I feel extraordinarily tired, and I have pains all over.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” Ruso helped himself to a seat and indulged his regular fantasy of ransacking Fabius’s house for medical textbooks and burning them. He kept his own scrolls well hidden from patients with a tendency to diagnose themselves, but since the visit of a traveling medicine-seller Fabius had found himself warding off an alarming variety of diseases. For some reason he thought Ruso might be interested.
This was in sharp contrast to Tilla, who had dismissed the only Latin medical text Ruso possessed as useless. Her patients could not indulge themselves with special diets eaten at particular hours of the day, arranged round gentle walks and set rest periods. Most of them were lucky to have food at all.
Unfortunately there was no one in the fort who had the authority to tell Fabius to be ill on his own time and not the Legion’s. Ruso’s assertions that there seemed to be nothing wrong with him had been met with surprise: Surely a modern doctor like himself was aware that looking healthy could be a sign of impending sickness? Did he not realize that Fabius had already cheated death several times by taking to his bed and giving up work, food, and sex at the first sign of symptoms?
Faced with this unassailable evidence, and suspecting the kitchen maid would be glad of the rest, Ruso had given up arguing and done his best to avoid him. But today there was no choice. While Fabius settled on his day couch, Ruso gave him the news that Regulus was as comfortable as could be expected.
“I would have gone to visit him,” said Fabius, looking almost genuinely sorry, “But the tribune doesn’t want him disturbed.”
“I don’t think he meant you,” Ruso said, but Fabius was too busy thinking up a better excuse to notice the tone. Not optimistic, Ruso explained about Candidus: “I thought he must have just gone absent without leave, but I’ve been through his kit and he hasn’t taken the things you’d expect. Plus, he’d made commitments.” In the shape of a chicken.
“Perhaps he left on impulse.”
“Your man was kidnapped. It’s possible mine is also being held somewhere against his will.”
Fabius leaned sideways and straightened the fringe on his rug. “Surely the quarry camp should be looking for him?”
“They can’t find him. And he’s supposed to be working for me, here.”
Fabius ordered his clerk to make a note of the name, but instead of writing, the point of the stylus remained poised half an inch above the wax. “Candidus,” Ruso reminded him.
“Full name, sir?” enquired the clerk.
Fabius frowned. “We do want to be looking for the right man, Doctor.”
It was commonly assumed that the Sixth had offered Fabius’s services to the undermanned Twentieth in order to get rid of him. Possibly his family had felt the same way, since he seemed to have been lowered into the centurionate from a great social height, rather than battling his way up to it through the ranks. With luck he would soon be given a medical discharge from the Legion. Unfortunately
did not mean this morning.
“Since he’s my man,” Ruso pointed out, “he’s technically under the command of Prefect Pertinax. So I’ll be keeping the prefect informed about the inquiry while he’s in the hospital.”
Even lying gravely injured in a hospital bed, Pertinax had the power to impress. Fabius said, “Ah,” as if he were seeing the situation in a new light. He examined his interlaced fingers for a moment, then looked up. “What do you think we should do?”
“Make urgent inquiries of our local informers,” Ruso told him, wondering why Fabius’s fellow centurions had not arranged for him to be transferred to the lead mines. “And have the kidnappers questioned, assuming we’ve got them. If you send a request to HQ, they can start this afternoon.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose they could.”
Ruso had intended to ask only for official notices to be sent to the other forts, but Fabius’s attitude so annoyed him that he added, “And if the quarry work is on hold until the landslide’s sorted out, there must be spare men who could go out to search.”
“Ah.” Fabius turned to his clerk again. “I should think you could draft a suitable sort of letter to HQ, couldn’t you? Tell them we’ve lost somebody.”
Wishing he had the authority to order it himself, Ruso said, “What about a search?”
Fabius pondered that for a moment, then seemed to find inspiration. “Daminius!” he said. “He’s your man. Daminius will have nothing to do while the quarry’s closed. Why don’t I ask him to see to it?”
“Yes,” agreed Ruso, finding himself mimicking the tone. “Why don’t you?”
Fabius turned to his clerk. “Could you find out where Daminius is, do you think?”
“He’s doing something for the chief engineer in the quarry, sir. Then he’s due to report to you afterward.”
Fabius’s face brightened even further. “Excellent! When he gets here, tell him to go straight to the doctor instead. They can all go and look for this missing man.”