Locusta woke to scorching and little stings down the back of her body, adding to the steady throb and causing her to cry out at last, though it was a muffled cry. She went to raise herself from her stomach.
“Stay, young woman, stay. You are merely being cared for.” A soothing older male voice, with an unfamiliar accent.
“What…where am I?”
“You are in my shop, in the town by the castrum. I hope you don’t mind if an old man sees your nakedness. There is a midwife in the town, if you prefer…”
Locusta sank gently back down, sniffed the air.
“Vinegar…with a little willow bark mash…”
“Indeed, that’s what I just applied to your skin…But how did you detect willow bark?”
“I can smell it. And it has a feeling on the skin…But why am I so drowsy?” She clicked her tongue and licked her lips. “I remember I was given a drink…Henbane? With mandrake? And some other nightshade?”
Her interlocutor seemed to pause. Then:
“Young lady, I have not spoken anything out loud. Even in your sleep you could not know…”
“Am I right?”
“In fact…yes. Give or take a few ingredients. Quite dangerous stuff, especially the moonflower on an empty stomach, if one doesn’t know the dosage.”
“Oh…yes, moonflower. And one plant can be much more toxic than an identical one growing a few feet away. I examine to see if it has seeded…”
“Hmm, are you then one of these…Druid women of the Morgarita, who deal in charms and spells?”
“No…no. Oh, absolutely no! Don’t think me one of them.”
“Sleep again, in any case. We’ll talk more later. It seems I must ask you more than you can ask me.”
“When you collapsed inside the gate you were brought here by locals whose admiration you seem to have won. A well fed soldier might be able to resist such a beating and return to duties, but an exhausted and underfed child – you seem very young for all your height – could easily die from such treatment. I though it best to sedate you.”
“Of course…but I cannot pay…”
“The locals have paid, and well.”
“No! I must work…”
“Young lady, what you must do is sleep. When you are well, I’ll give you a job shredding willow bark. No more hateful task than that. Should teach you not to make Romans angry, if a lashing with vine branches hasn’t already.”
“You are a pharmacist?”
“Mmm, I am whatever the army surgeons are not. Dentist, vendor of cosmetics, dealer in coloured Morgarita stones…and, yes, a pharmacist. Now sleep.”
A light nudge of her uninjured front shoulder awakened her.
She could smell the food before her eyes opened. A wide stool had been placed just in front of her head, where she could easily reach her dinner without having to do more than raise the front of her body. Seated on a chair behind the stool was an old man, dressed much like a Roman civilian but with darker skin and eyes. His hair and beard were white but, like his skin, showed a healthy gloss. Locusta was trained to look for the health of bodily extremities, even for the pink beneath fingernails: this man was indeed old, but in full vigor.
“Young lady, I’ve been asking about you. It seems you enjoy a good Roman porridge with garum, herbs and hard cheese, so I’ve obtained some from the caterer up the street. He does a good job, even grinding the grain fresh and boiling it up in goat stock. You’ll note he fries a little garlic and adds it at the last.”
“Thank you. If it tastes half as good as it smells…”
“I’ve added fennel to your wine, I’m sure you know why.”
“Yes, of course. A very mild sedative.”
“The less medication the better. But we won’t tell our customers that, eh? For I understand that you are yourself a pharmacist.”
“Yes. But I never over-medicate…”
“Just a joke, lady, just a joke. I’m half Jew and half Greek, so I can’t help joking and twisting ideas. Now, while I go to finish a prescription and then to fetch some wine for myself I’ll let you eat. Then we may talk some, if you feel disposed to talk.”
When the old man returned with his cup of wine Locusta had finished her bowl of farrum, not leaving even a smear in the bowl.
“A healthy appetite! I’ll have you drudging hard for your porridge within days.”
“Patience, young woman. Just sip on your wine. Perhaps we can talk? I’m curious to know how someone of your age can be so educated in drugs and other medical matters.”
“Well, I think I am eighteen or so. I began toiling for my mistress at age three, maybe before.”
“Three! What kind of mistress finds employment for a babe?”
“She wanted fine fingers for picking and emptying all the seed pods of the heath, especially the broom. As you know, great quantities are required and the seeds are so small. Also, my eyes were sharp for finding minor herbs and insects for drying. When I showed aptitude for one thing, she gave me more to do. And so it went. Work is all I have known.”
“But play, affection…all the things a child must experience. You must have been held, embraced.”
Locusta fell silent, dropping her eyes. At last:
“I have never been embraced, unless by parents I cannot remember. My life has been work, and responsibility for many families of the Morgarita. I am respected, I am sure of that, but there is something about me…something forbidding perhaps…”
“I can assure you there is nothing forbidding about you. You are aware of your degree of beauty: all women are. Certainly…there is a great gravity about you, something Roman even. Indeed, you could be a model for the mother of the Gracchi or some such…”
Locusta reared a little.
“I hate Rome!”
The old man’s reaction was unexpected. He chuckled.
“Who doesn’t hate Rome? Still, what would we do without those straight roads, now that we have grown so used to them. No. young lady, we all hate Rome. But I fear we would miss Rome if Greeks and Jews and Gauls were left to each other’s mercies. Or to the mercies of Germans. In any case, there are many fine Roman individuals, among them some of the soldiers you have already met.”
“I hate no person. I don’t hate Romans. I hate Rome.”
“Indeed, indeed. But be careful, young woman. There is a touch of Rome in you. You can believe me. I am very old and very travelled. I know Rome and its empire, I know that mix of staunchness and vision, of wild ambition and hard, solid practicality. I see that in you.”
Locusta, still a girl and ill equipped for such abstractions, did not respond, but fell into intense thought. Then:
“Sir, you said you were a Greek and a Jew. I have heard a little of Greeks, almost nothing of Jews. Excuse my curiosity, but how did you come to be here, of all places?”
“Me? In a little town attached to a castrum which no longer houses a legion? Why am I not residing in Lugdunum, so close and the greatest city of the west? The answer is pretty simple: there are any number of Alexandrian Greeks and Jews who want to kill me. They won’t bother if I remain obscure, but if I win back a little of the fame I once enjoyed they will kill me. No doubt. And this is in spite of the fact that I hold Roman citizenship.”
“But would not Roman authority protect you?”
“Nothing protects from religious zealots. You see, young lady, I am primarily a philosopher, a philosopher of a school which denies the existence of gods. Now, no Greek believes in the gods, not really, but you would be surprised how eagerly they defend those gods. You may worship other gods, you may live as if there were no gods…but you may never deny the existence of gods. However, I did just that.”
“I was raised a Jew. Now there is a people which believes – but in just one god, strictly one!”
“Just one god? That is the strangest thing I have ever heard.”
“Strange to outsiders, but we Jews are imbued with the notion of a single god from birth. It is not a strange belief to us. It is the only belief possible, and nothing must be allowed to run counter to it. A Jew will not try to persuade you to share his belief…but put a sculpture of a Roman god or of the Divine Augustus in one of their temples and you will have to kill all the Jews in the town to keep it there. Which rather defeats the purpose of imposing it in the first place.”
“One god…so strange…But why do the Jews want to kill you?”
“Well, some would be happy to see me as some sort of Greek or Roman who denies the existence of their single god. But enough of a certain extreme sect of Jews know that I am truly Jewish and that I have denied their god. I hope you don’t find me rude, young lady. It is not my wish to insult you or the many gods of Gaul. I was merely explaining…”
“Oh, no…You are right. There are no gods, no demons. Nothing like that.”
“Really? You are so sure? But what of witchery and Druid practises? A herbalist of the forest must surely…”
“Spells are nothing. Empty words. You are right. No gods. There is nothing beyond nature…but so much within nature, so much that is strange and rich. And yet…”
“And yet what, lady?”
“One god…just one god…I have never heard such a thing…”
“It does seem odd. But he’s all for the Jews. Only one, and you can’t have any…Sorry, I’m being flippant. Really, lady, I hope you keep your godlessness to yourself. Take my advice and agree with anybody’s and everybody’s religion. It doesn’t matter if you are an atheist or even if men are sure you are an atheist. What you must never do is say there are no gods. It is altogether too disrespectful. You put people on the spot when you say that. In Alexandria, where I lived, there are always mobs to tear one apart for less. For atheism they’d tear you apart slowly.”
“I’m still so sleepy. So much to think about, but I can’t think now. Let me ask one last thing, may I? A sort of medical question?”
“By all means. But then sleep.”
“When one hears voices, but there are no mouths to speak the words…what would you call that condition?”
“Who knows? Results of a bump on the head…taking no alcohol after taking much alcohol…simple lunacy…”
“But if the voices are clear? If the person is capable, and functioning as a person should in all other respects?”
“Really, I cannot say. There are Greeks of various schools who would offer an answer or explanation. The followers of Pythagoras would no doubt be ready with a theory, something or other to do with music or mathematics, depending on which sect of Pythagoreans. But as a simple philosopher and healer I can tell you nothing. If the sufferer were not having fits or in a fever I would try mild sedation, immersion in cold water, brisk exercise…but I have never encountered such a thing in sane, healthy people. Drunkards, lunatics, fever patients, people subject to severe fits…but never sane people.”
“I see. Thank you.”
“Young lady, you mean that you…?”
Locusta nodded gravely.
“Voices. Clear and definite, as your voice just now. Sometimes they don’t utter words, but rather form ideas. But the ideas are as clear as spoken words. They come from without, not from distempered imagination such as through fever. It’s not easy to describe…”
“And what do these voices tell you?”
“Many things. Principally, that I must seek out a means, begin a process, which will put an end to all this.”
“To all what?”
The old man had stopped smiling and was looking at Locusta almost with alarm.
“Young lady, I think we had agreed you were to sleep. So finish your wine and sleep.”