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Authors: Ruth Downie

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BOOK: Terra Incognita: A Novel of the Roman Empire
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“Yes, sir.”

“Despite anything you may think you find during your examination.”

“Yes, sir.”

“So just to avoid any confusion, Metellus will help you with your report. Now, what I really wanted you for in connection with the murder is something else. Tell me what you know about treating madness.”

Ruso realized, too late, that he was scratching the back of his ear instead of replying. At length he said, “Not a great deal, sir. I’ve met some cases in the past. I can offer comfort, but I can’t promise a cure. Frankly, I think anyone who tells you they can is lying.”

“Hm.” Evidently this was not what the man was hoping to hear. “Your predecessor, Thessalus, is locked in his rooms convinced he’s the one who did the murder. Which he isn’t, but he does seem to know more than he should about the details. The natives are a bit overexcited at the moment with this Stag Man business, and if they find out we’re charging one of their people with murder when one of our officers has confessed, it won’t go down well. Metellus has questioned him but can’t get any sense out of him. So, we need to get him to withdraw his confession before anyone hears about it, and find out who told him how the victim was killed. See if you can settle him down, will you?”

“I’ll do my best, sir,” said Ruso, hoping his voice did not betray his lack of enthusiasm. He had arrived here with one patient and a few questions about visions of the gods. Now he had a sloppy health service to shape up, a politically sensitive postmortem to carry out, and a deranged colleague. The holiday was definitely over.

10

I
CARRY OUT
special duties for the prefect,” explained Metellus as Decianus’s guards stepped smartly aside to let them out of the official residence.

“Special duties?” inquired Ruso.

“Whatever he wants done.”

“I see,” said Ruso, admiring this splendidly evasive reply and failing to trace Metellus’s origins from his neutral accent, or to detect any sign of character or background in an even-featured, unmemorable appearance that was only marred by a few flakes of dandruff on the shoulders of an ordinary blue tunic.

Metellus led him away from the headquarters building. As they were passing a line of men waiting for rations outside the granaries he said, “Haven’t I heard of you somewhere, Ruso?”

“I doubt it.”

“Really? I’m sure the name . . .” the man shrugged. “No matter. Where are you from?”

“Gallia Narbonensis. You?”

“Rome,” said Metellus, with the casual air of a man who has no need to prove his superiority. “Appointed by the governor.”

“The new one?”

“No, Bradua. I’ve been here for four years now.”

Ruso wondered what the Batavians made of having a governor’s man foisted upon them. And how secure Metellus’s position now was, since the man who had appointed him was no longer in charge. No doubt he would be anxious to make the right impression when the new governor came to visit.

“Four years is a long time to spend this far from Rome,” observed Ruso.

“It’s not as remote as you think,” said Metellus. “Londinium keeps a close eye on what happens up here. And Hadrian’s known for taking an interest in the provinces. If a man does well here, it’s noticed.”

Presumably if he didn’t, that would be noticed too.

Just inside the west gate they turned and crunched along the gravel of the perimeter road, passing the din of a metal workshop and a yard where men were stripping down a heavy mechanical bolt launcher for repair. Behind it, a line of wooden spear shafts were propped against the wall, ready to have their iron heads attached.

They clattered up the steps to the top of the ramparts and Metellus said, “Take a good look.”

A faint waft of boiled cabbage drifted past as Ruso rested his elbows on the rough wood. Twenty feet below him, a couple of tethered horses were grazing pale spheres in the grass of the security zone. A line of carts was waiting to be allowed entry through the gates. Beyond them lay a jumble of civilian buildings leading down to the bridge. On the far side of the river, three vehicles were crawling along the thin streak of road that led along a valley dotted with grazing animals and the odd cone of native thatch.

It struck Ruso that the whole of Coria could have been picked up and set down within the stout walls of Deva’s legionary fortress and there would still be room to spare.

“This place is sometimes described as a brown oasis in a desert of green,” said Metellus. “A lot of the men from the forts up in the hills come down to enjoy their leave here. Coria is where the north and the east–west roads meet.”

Ruso wondered what sort of posting would lead a man to think of a road junction as an exciting holiday destination, and scanned the bridge for any sign of the Twentieth’s arrival. “So where’s the border?” he asked.

“Just turn a little to your right.”

Ruso frowned. All he could see was another road, with a dispatch rider just out of the west gates urging his horse into a canter.

“That’s more or less it,” said Metellus.

Looking from one side of the road to the other, Ruso failed to discern any difference. He felt a faint slump of disappointment. Was this what he had traveled all those miles to see? “Where are the barbarian hordes?”

“The tribes just across the border are officially friendly,” explained Metellus. “And just to make sure, we offer the usual incentives.”

“Which are?”

“We’re giving some of their sons a free education down in Londinium, and we send advisers to their meetings.”

“I see,” said Ruso, assuming that the sons were effectively hostages and “advisers” meant “spies.”

“In exchange, we ignore the odd cattle raid and their head men get invited to dinner when the governor comes to visit.”

“It’s not quite how I’d imagined it.”

“Oh, the hordes are out there, believe me,” said Metellus. “On both sides of the border. Sulking and skulking, most of them looking like perfectly innocent hill farmers. According to my informers, this Stag Man business has them all very excited. That’s why this murder has come at the worst possible time, and why the prefect’s being scrupulous about investigating it. We have to make it clear that the culprit’s getting a fair trial. We don’t want to give them an excuse to dig out the weapons they aren’t supposed to have and march on the nearest fort demanding justice for Our Poor Innocent Boy chained up by the Evil Romans.”

“I’m beginning to wish I hadn’t gotten involved in this.”

“Frankly, my view is that the fewer people involved the better,” agreed Metellus. “But a report from a medical officer won’t do any harm. We can be seen to be taking the inquiry seriously.”

Ruso watched the dispatch rider growing smaller in the distance. A road patrol was approaching in the opposite direction. As they passed, he saw arms raised in greeting. He wondered how many soldiers were holding the string of isolated forts and watchtowers that must lie out along that border road, compared to the number of sulkers and skulkers lurking in the surrounding hills—although why anyone should bother to fight over land that seemed to contain nothing but a few peasants and sheep was a mystery.

“I had imagined the border would be more . . .” he paused, searching for a word. “Watertight.”

“We don’t want it watertight,” said Metellus. “We want it porous. We want long strings of well-laden merchants traveling in and out of the province paying border taxes. We station men here to run the customs posts, the men spend their wages, and that gives the locals a chance to turn a profit. It all works very nicely as long as everybody behaves themselves.”

“I see,” said Ruso, wondering what the northerners could offer to sell or afford to buy. “So this business with travelers being ambushed—”

“It’s making things very difficult,” said Metellus. “There’s been an interesting change in language up here lately,” he said. “Travelers are no longer talking about
arriving
at their destination. They’re starting to call it
getting through
.”

“I’m told there are people who think the Stag Man is some sort of god,” said Ruso, not adding that his housekeeper was one of them.

“The locals are a superstitious bunch,” explained Metellus. “They think stags are messengers from another world. You don’t have to go back too many generations before you find human sacrifice and all manner of magic and mayhem in the name of religion. That’s another reason for keeping a watchful eye on their get-togethers.”

Ruso decided this was not the time to request a gate pass to allow Tilla in and out of the fort.

“Not everything you’ll hear about the Stag Man is true,” continued Metellus. “But as you’ll find when you’ve been up here awhile, what’s true is less important than what people believe.”

“Well, I believe I’ve got a body to examine.”

Metellus turned to head toward the steps, and waited for a man to lead a mule laden with firewood past before continuing, “So, we don’t want our men putting all that together with the murder and imagining there’s some sort of mad Druid revival going on right outside the gates.”

“Where their families live.”

“Exactly. It would cause unnecessary alarm.”

It would also cause a serious discipline problem. The fine balance of the border would be a distant memory, and so would Metellus’s hopes of making a good impression on the new governor.

As he followed him back toward the shambles that called itself a medical service, Ruso pondered the man from Rome. Average height, average weight, age somewhere between late twenties and midthirties. Being so unremarkable made him the sort of man who could notice things without himself being noticed. The sort of man who would have had written on his recruitment documents, “no distinguishing features.” An ideal man for special duties.

“The trouble with the Britons, Doctor,” Metellus continued as they approached the twin gods of the infirmary, “is that you can never quite rely on them. But fortunately for us, the tribes have a long tradition of falling out with each other. In addition to which, some of them don’t take much notice of their own leaders.” Metellus paused. “So the last thing we need is a troublemaker who’s going to unite them.”

11

R
USO HAD ALREADY
guessed from the shape what he was going to find when he pulled the sheet back, but it was still a shock. He dragged the sheet down to the end of the table and folded it with unaccustomed neatness while he struggled to control the urge to walk out of the incense-filled mortuary and fill his lungs with fresh air. He had been a fool to open his mouth in the prefect’s office. He should never have got himself involved in something like this. He understood now what the prefect had meant about Metellus helping with his report. This was some sort of ritual killing, and he was being asked to help cover it up.

The wave of nausea passed. Regaining his composure, he turned to Metellus. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Security,” said Metellus. “You never know who’s listening.”

“So,” said Ruso, turning back toward the naked corpse which had been so thoroughly washed that any incidental evidence would be long gone, “Where
is
his head?”

“We’re hoping to find it when we get hold of the murderer,” said Metellus. “Just tell us what you can from what you have here.”

Ruso walked slowly around the table, examining what remained of the body from all angles, and glancing at the polished military belt and dagger that had been laid out beside him. “I’m not going to be able to do much with this,” he said. “Who cleaned him up?”

“Audax.”

Centurion Audax had gone to fetch the bowl of water and cloths Ruso had asked for, and which he now realized were superfluous.

Ruso flipped open a note tablet and reflected that it was just as well Albanus was still some miles back on the road with Postumus and the other men from the Twentieth. The clerk would be deeply offended to find Ruso writing his own notes.

“The victim’s name is Felix,” prompted Metellus, “And the cause of death is
head injuries
.”

Ruso glanced up. “Without a head to examine, that’s rather difficult to prove. For all we know he could have been poisoned. Died of natural causes. Choked on a radish. This could have been done afterward. How much blood was there?”

“The cause of death in the report needs to be consistent with the statements already made. With no mention of anything missing.”

“What’s true is less important than what people believe?”

“You were the one who asked to be involved.”

“If I put down the cause of death as head injuries,” pointed out Ruso, “And then the head turns up—”

“If it turns up, Doctor, particularly if it turns up in native hands, your professional reputation will be the least of our problems. Now if you have everything you need, I’ll leave you with Audax. As you’ll appreciate, I’m having a rather busy day.”

As Ruso was wondering whether he could possibly write a postmortem report that left out “cause of death” altogether, Centurion Audax entered, bringing the water and a welcome waft of slightly clearer air from the corridor.

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