[Decided to write one yarn without planning much. I’ll publish it in parts, leaving the reader in suspense at the end of each part. Cliffhangers are actually easier than twists, so I won’t have to rack the brain so much.
April Update: I’m ready for Part V and my protagonist still hasn’t left the Auvergne. The yarn wants to become a long serial. Oh well, I always wondered how to write long.]
Locusta was a Gaul, one of the Arverni, a tribe once famed for leading the other Gauls against Roman power. Many of the Arverni were now like Romans, part of its great Provincia, or Provence. Some continued old ways while accepting Gaul’s Roman destiny; a few were impotent rebels, conjuring the ghosts of beaten heroes like Vercingetorix while paying Roman taxes, depending on Roman roads, aqueducts and commerce, and even serving in the armies of Rome.
But in the poorest and wildest part of the Provincia, the great Morgarita Forest, where giant pines dominate rafts of purple granite, lived Arverni hostile to all external power. They blurrily remembered Julius Caesar as a raging storm across regions further west, something neither to love nor hate. The Arverni of the forest lived without history and reserved their hate for all who intruded or brought change in the present, be they Romans or Gauls. When tax gatherers or military recruiters or bandits ventured into the Morgarita they had to decide whether to go in force – in which case the populace evaporated along with their paltry belongings and stock – or to go in small numbers and risk impalement on split saplings or death in the jaws of the high country’s legendary wolves.
In that rock-strewn forest on its high, dry plateau bounded by gorges, mountains and the Trout River in the east, birth and survival were rare. When a woman had a child and died, the baby would be given away if not exposed by its father. Locusta, who knew neither father nor mother, was fortunate to be passed on by a helpless sister she also never knew.
She was not given over to another family but to a druggist of the region, the childless widow Alana. This aging woman, thought to be something of a witch, lived on the fringe of the Morgarita, a location from which she could gather the many herbs and roots of the slopes and open heath, as well as fungi, barks, and gums of the forest.
The druggist contracted a wet-nurse to give suck to the infant, paying her in drugs and in fine specimens of tourmaline rock which could be traded with Romans. Locusta was only a few years old when Alana was able to send her out to find mountain herbs and gather the tiny seeds of heath shrubs. The child’s nimbleness and sharp vision were what her adoptive parent had wanted all along.
When Locusta – fully articulate by five, pale, with devouring eyes, high forehead and black hair like a tight helmet – made a rare complaint, her indifferent guardian muttered one of a few standard replies:
“And how do you think I became a druggist of renown beyond the forest? By play? By rest?”
“There is always death to be chosen.”
Most terribly of all:
“One day you also will need to rid yourself of a husband or two.”
The girl had hurried but constant dealings with neighbours when she delivered parcels of drugs. She was also required to memorise and repeat instructions for the use of the drugs, and to deliver messages and enquiries back to her mistress. She actually relished these contacts away from the cramped hut and her peevish guardian, though dread of the notorious Morgarita wolves lessened the pleasure of rambling alone. By age ten Locusta, who had never used the language of a child, had the demeanour of an adult.
The older she got, the more she was required to do. As well as finding and gathering plant material in all weathers and doing deliveries, she was obliged to measure, grind, ferment, concoct, parch, pickle and store. Firewood and fire maintenance were other daily burdens put on her at an early age.
At last, as Locusta’s body began to take the shape of a woman’s, the now feeble Alana introduced her to practical medicine and pharmacy, describing all the commonest conditions and the timing and strategy of cures. The grave Locusta, who had seen smiles but never given them, attended to these lessons with an expression which was blank apart from the furrowing of her large forehead. Alana had sensed her pupil’s uncommon intelligence early – somehow giving herself the credit – then had begun to fear it a little.
The one thing Alana could not achieve with her pupil was to interest her in incantations and spells. Though she sometimes berated her over her irreligion and the consequent lack of a finish to her education, it was also something of a comfort to Alana that Locusta was numb to this extra source of power, confining herself to the physical side of the profession alone.
As for Locusta’s strange bouts of abstraction, when she seemed to meditate on nothing for minutes on end, Alana put them down to eccentricity. Why should an orphan who had not experienced a single day of childhood not be a little mad?
Alana, as was inevitable, fell ill. In the Morgarita Forest, dry, cold and wind-thrashed, many common diseases were rare; but failing lungs at the end of a fierce winter are a universal cause of death in the elderly. Alana was able to instruct Locusta as to what potions and foods she required for her comfort, but the end seemed inevitable before spring.
Yet when spring came, Alana lived on. When she remarked to Locusta that her science was now proven on her own body, Locusta merely stared, surveyed the face and eyes of her mistress with curiosity.
One evening, as Alana, drowsy from much wine and amantilla root, had finished quaffing her bitters sweetened with sharp honey of the heath, she began to make smacking noises with her lips.
“The bitters seem odd…the flavour…”
She turned frightened eyes on Locusta, who examined her then said almost absently:
“It will end soon. You have been kept without fits or great breathing discomfort, but I can do no more. I have just given you an excess of broom-seed purgative and nightshade, more than enough to kill, along with scutella and some of that eastern resin sold by the Romans, these last two for your greater comfort. I find if I roast the resin in barley cakes then grind them, the soak water produced is the best of sedatives. You may have vivid dreams before the toxins do their work…but it will be a good, easy passing for you…”
“But who told you of…how…” Alana’s voice was almost extinguished.
“Oh, I practise on animals, some of our patients. For some months I have practised on you, mistress. You have been comfortable…but now…”
The end had not been quite painless, but Locusta knew to lie when necessary, even to those few who should know better. Yet why should death not be painless? Alana had talked once of powders and seeds imported from the ends of the empire, pain-killers of enormous potency. Locusta resolved to find them out, even if it meant close contact with Romans and Gauls of the town.
That spring night, the night of Alana’s death, there were snow flurries about the high country. Locusta stood outside and breathed in the cold, breathed it in hard, like a purgation.
She looked up and about, with a freedom never enjoyed till this moment, observing the skies, the swaying pines, the driven snowflakes, the glint of Morgarita granite when the moon flashed through a gap in the driving clouds. One thought suddenly overpowered her: the thought that all things had reserves of power. Even the dust from the granite rubble underfoot, when touched by a practised hand, a hand guided by a knowing brain, was potent. The thought would never leave her.
Power. Sway. Potency. How she understood the Romans! Though she had barely glimpsed one of them, though she detested them, as all must – yet she understood them.
It occurred to her now that she was free to stand outside all night; free to go inside and work through the night on her recipes without secrecy; free, as mistress and pharmacist, to become something much more than mistress of a hut and pharmacist to the coarsest of the Arverni – though she knew not what.
For the first time in her life, Locusta smiled, just a little.
She did not mention the death of her mistress except to one or two incurious neighbours. For the most part, she acted as if nothing had changed in the hovel and pharmacy where the forest bordered the heath.
Locusta continued to develop her recipes and potions, employing iron concentration in every free moment. And she practised killing with a sling till she could hit an approaching wolf by hurling one of a few carefully chosen and smoothed granite stones. Hours, exertions and frustrations meant nothing to Locusta when she was in search of a new skill she deemed essential. Little showed strain but that furrowing of her high and capacious forehead.
She searched for herbs in places no one would go, up and down the most exposed slopes of the heathland. Locusta suspected that plants and trees which faced the most extreme conditions had extra reserves of force in their saps, seeds, barks and exudates. On finding something new she would decide on its potential by smelling, tasting and checking its astringency or its ability to make soapy bubbles when mashed. A newly developed lotion might be tried by applying it to the hide of an injured or infected goat; other medicines could be tested by giving them to the dying, in those cases where cause and effect become blurred and death is often desired.
One idea was prominent: the best and most effective remedies were so because they were potent enough to kill. The true pharmacist was a handler and modifier of poisons.
One afternoon Locusta had ventured near gorge and wolf country in search of bindweed berries for drying and pulverising. She trod where few had ever trod, her sling at the ready. From out of a draw leading into a gorge came a sound of strangled voices, human for certain.
Following the sound, she came in sight of two men tied upright to separate pine trunks. At their feet were fresh animal skins, still bloody. Their bodies were bare below the waist, but the throats and necks of the men were completely protected by heavy leather collars. Locusta had never seen the arrangement before, but she knew this was an execution, a local style of execution used by bandits and rebels. It was a way to kill with the maximum of terror. The protecting collars meant that the wolves attracted by the skins could not kill the men quickly, following instinct, but would tear away at their legs, stomachs and groins.
Locusta, balancing her sling, stone at the ready, made her way down slope to the men, then stood silent before them, inspecting. It was clear from their remaining clothing and their hair that they were Roman legionaries. One spoke, with an accent not far removed from the local dialect:
“Ah, thank Jupiter. Quickly girl, before the wolves come. Bandits have done this to us. I am Narbo…”
“You are Roman. Both of you are Roman. You have been caught by rebels whom you yourselves were trying to catch. They have done to you what you would have done to them. And they are my people, you are not.”
“Rebels…bandits…Whatever you call them…Can they give you roads and water and public order? Will they protect you from Germans? Of course I am with the legion. But I was born not far from here. My friend is also a Gaul, from the north. You must help!”
“Why? Because if this becomes known our general will order a punitive sweep through the whole forest.”
“Then I should leave you here, so it remains unknown. I can help you to die with little pain, before the breeze shifts and the wolves come. It’s what I do. I am a pharmacist…”
“If you are a pharmacist then you need protection. Emperor Tiberius has decreed an end to all remaining Druid practises. The Gallic nobles are in agreement. The Provincia will have no witchery or divining. You would be in serious trouble if…”
“I know nothing of Druids or witches or divining. I dispense drugs.”
“Our general will not care about such distinctions. Help us and we will help you. We will introduce you to the Greeks who are permitted to work with herbs…Help us quickly, girl, before the wind shifts.”
Locusta stared a little longer, assessing, weighing. Then she drew a flint knife from her shoulder bag and walked round the back of the tree. Narbo was pinioned chest-high and hard with heavy rope; his arms had been drawn back and up before tying, though his legs were left free so he could kick out and extend his pain.
“I will help you. Not because you offer to protect me or because I fear the legion. I will help you because…I do not know why. Perhaps because it is foolish of the rebels to give the wolves a taste for human flesh. I will help you because this is a foolish death they are giving you.”