After scrambling along clogged and granite-strewn forest trails, the detachment, with Locusta as prisoner, reached a clearing where they joined a larger group of soldiers with two other prisoners, both Gauls. One of the Gauls, a slight and ragged man, was known to Locusta from a recent medical emergency: an infected foot which she had cured by herbal compresses and strong garlic stew. She noted the man’s lower leg now appeared sound.
The other man, a hairy giant, was unknown to her. He had the kind of powerful, hurdling frame which no clothing will ever fit; his face, by contrast, was intelligent and wore a savage calm. While the smaller man only had his hands bound in front, the giant was bound behind, with rope biting hard round his upper and lower arms.
After discussion and orders in Latin, a language not yet known to Locusta, the whole group began to trudge west through clearer country and away from the Morgarita fringe. It seemed likely to Locusta they were now headed to the Roman castrum, the garrison settlement west of the forest on the main road to the great city of Lugdunum.
As they progressed, Locusta kept her breathing steady and sought for matters to busy her mind and cram the mental spaces which would otherwise be occupied by fear. She studied the Romans: faces, weapons, clothes, gait. Their easy coordination gave most interest. The only method and uniformity Locusta knew till now were her own habits of mind; now she saw the physical manifestation of these things in the way the soldiers moved with a minimum of hesitation and conferring. The Roman way. Her way, in a sense.
Yet Locusta knew this was not a time to be overwhelmed, absorbed like the rest of Gaul – the rest of the world, perhaps – into Rome’s greedy vortex. No. She would turn her thoughts back to her own sources of power. And Locusta turned her thoughts deliberately, with relentless focus, as she did all things.
She began to observe the flatter, more open country, wondering about every live thing or mineral, about what gave the soil of the level land more energy for food production but less for most pharmaceuticals.
At last, in defiance but also out of interest, she turned and spoke to the smaller of the two Gallic prisoners:
“Gela, I see your leg is sound enough. Have you kept up the hot brews of mountain garlic?”
Almost immediately Locusta felt a scalding lash above her shoulders and around her neck. Rather than wince or raise a hand toward the point of pain she stayed completely upright and kept walking. Only when she felt sure there was no second lash coming did she turn carefully, wary of eye damage as she was wary of any physical injury, to herself or anybody. There was the rodent-faced Roman she had saved, sneering in his usual manner, a short whip in his clasp.
The soldier was waiting for a reaction which did not come. Locusta faced front with an expression of indifference and walked on.
Some hours later they came to the main road which ran north to the castrum and Lugdunum beyond. Locusta knew she was barely repressing terror, yet one part of her busy mind was genuinely stimulated by curiosity about these places which once seemed so distant to a child of the Morgarita.
Waiting where the track met the road was a caged wagon guarded by two soldiers. Two horses were grazing nearby in fettles. One of the guards immediately opened the back trap of the cage.
The legs of the prisoners were soon bound, and all three were forced into the cage, which was then closed and locked.
“The witch rides while Romans walk!” Rodent Face spoke in Gallic.
“They ride like poultry. You can ride with them if you like, Virio. But whatever you elect to do, keep your whining mouth shut. At least these wild Gauls have shown some courage.”
It was clear that the officer in charge was as disdainful of Rodent Face as was Locusta.
“A joke, sir, just a joke…”
“The only joke is when a Roman comes back to his castrum shoeless with a bare bum. And you’d best hope your story about being drugged by a witch who poisoned your comrade has at least a smack of truth to it.”
“I am no witch. I am a pharmacist. I drugged no-one. I saved this man’s life then spared it after his comrade tried to…”
“Never mind. You can make your case to the commander. The rest of you men, speak Latin and don’t address the prisoners. Especially you, Virio. Just try to keep your bum covered this time.”
After some laughter, then a brief rest and drink for the soldiers, the horses were attached and the Romans formed up before and behind the wagon, as well as one to each side of it.
When the rattling of the cart was loud enough to cover his voice, little Gela hissed at Locusta:
“You? It was you who saved the Romans? Why? What did they offer you?”
“Nothing. I found them and released them. That’s all.”
“I…keep wondering. I don’t know. If they had been killed quickly it would have been different…Perhaps it was the idea of feeding a common enemy with the pain of humans. The Morgarita wolves have killed more of us than have the Romans.”
“Romans have killed Gauls by the thousand. By a thousand times a thousand. Julius Caesar alone…”
“I was speaking of the Morgarita. I hardly know a Gaul from beyond my forest. Those I have met are just like Romans to me. Even the Arverni.”
“Locusta, we are your people, even those who live out here…”
“Oh, leave it be, Gela.” The giant had spoken quietly, so as not to draw the attention of the guards, but he had resonance in his voice which matched his frame. “I’ve heard of this lady. She’s cured many. Now she may cost a few lives through her error. Leave it be. It’s over.”
“Matra…when…when will you…?”
“Further on we leave the fields and pass through a narrow rocky stretch which is dark from the trees and overhangs. We’ll do it there.”
“You are planning to escape?”
“Escape? You might call it that. I suppose that’s as good a word as any.”
“Will you…help me to escape?”
The giant snorted gently, smiled and said no more.
They came to the area described, a descent through a narrow pass which was dark by that time of day. The two soldiers on the flank went forward to assist with the horses on the tricky surface.
Locusta watched her two companions.
After a slight nod from the giant, the diminutive Gela slid down the side of the cage so that his head was between the bars and the back of the other man.
The giant shuffled forward slightly on his buttocks and the small man thrust his head in the gap.
Next, those massive hands were around his throat, and squeezing.
After some sputters and writhing, Gela was lifeless. All this while the giant was fixing Locusta, waiting for a reaction which did not come.
“You are wondering why?”
“Not curious? That may be best.”
“I know why you did it. Perhaps for the same reason I released those two Romans.”
“Not quite. Little Gela was not sure he could withstand when questioned. You see, unlike me, he really is one of the rebels.”
“You are not a rebel?”
“No. I’m a woodcutter with a bit of a reputation. I attract trouble like many big men who avoid trouble. I was arrested for being Gela’s nearest neighbour, and for that reputation.”
“Perhaps they will release you.”
“Even if I had not killed a prisoner, technically army property, they would not release me. But at least when questioned I will have nothing to tell them.”
“Is it so certain they will…question you?”
The other nodded, then added:
“Lady, while we still have time…do you wish to escape also?” As he said these words he cast his eyes down ruefully on his friend’s corpse.
“No. Thank you, but no.”
“You realise we are dead in any case?”
“No, I won’t die. Not for a long time. But by tomorrow I suppose I’ll wish I were dead. You don’t have to be discreet. I know more or less what the Romans will do to us.”
“Yet you are sure you won’t die? You killed a Roman, lady. You ask me not to be discreet. You killed a Roman. If you put your head now where Gela put his…”
“No. Thank you.”
“You expect to live…How can you…have you some god or demon with you? Are you truly a witch?”
“There are no gods, no demons and no witches.”
“You’re so sure? And so sure you will live past tomorrow?”
Locusta merely nodded.
“How do you know all this?”
“I hear voices.”
“Voices! Where do they come from, these voices? Have they mouths, tongues?”
“I deal in observations and effects, not explanations. Scholars explain, usually wrongly; a pharmacist brings things to effect with or without explanations. My old mistress taught me that, though she scarcely needed to. My voices are real sounds, though the product of a disorder of sorts.”
“But if there are no mouths to make the voices…”
“Yet there are still ears to hear them. My ears. And even if my ears don’t hear, that part of my brain which receives sound from the ear can hear. Because voices usually proceed from mouths does not mean they must always do so.”
The procession emerged from the pass onto wide road. The guards moved back to flank the cart. They looked in and were not surprised to see Gela apparently asleep on the floor of the cage. It had been a long expedition for all.
Some time later they arrived in sight of the castrum, large enough for a legion gone long ago to the Belgian frontier, now a generous garrison for a much reduced peace-time force in a world as Roman as Italy. Already it was turning into a town, with clusters of shops and rough dwellings beyond its fortifications.
“Well, girl. There it is: a great big piece of Rome. What do your voices say now?”
“Nothing, woodcutter. They only speak to me at times.”
“And what have they told you in the past?”
“That I am to seek the end of all this. That I am to bring it all down.”
“Rome, woodcutter. Rome.”
The man laughed as heartily as he might in the circumstances.
“You know, you are a fine looking girl. You are also strong, intelligent. But do you realise you are completely mad?”
“What I have is indeed a disorder. I treat it with drugs, as much as I can. But it is not madness. It is something which is related to madness, but…”
“For my last laugh on this earth, tell me how you are intending to bring down Rome.”
Locusta looked straight at the man, searching in his eyes.
“You won’t tell? Even when questioned?”
Now he broke into frank laughter.
“I won’t tell, lady. Really.”
“I am a pharmacist. That is how I will do it.”