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Buried Too Deep
He lay sprawled in the farm cart, as still as a statue. His flushed face and the bloodstains on his cloak grew lurid in the red sunset. He looked half dead, and I said to myself, I doubt if he'll live to see the dawn.
Out loud I was more cautious. "I wonder who this is?"
I was standing on the paved forecourt in front of my mansio. I'd been out there for some time, trying to snatch a bit of peace and quiet after a busy afternoon in the bar-room. Trying, but not succeeding, because a customer had come outside for a breather too, and he was in the mood to chat. He was one of our overnight guests, which meant I couldn't just ignore him, and I couldn't think of a polite way to ask him to push off and leave me in peace. So I said "yes" and "no" and "really?" now and then as he rattled on, while thinking my own thoughts. It's a skill all innkeepers learn, otherwise we'd go mad having to listen to our customers' ramblings.
This talkative fellow was Curtius, a short fat Gaul with brown hair turning to grey at
the sides. He was already reasonably drunk, but quite amiable. He was a private trader on
his way north to do business with the natives across the frontier, which made him different
from our normal run of guests. Being an official mansio, we mostly get travellers on imperial
business, soldiers and government officers and army contractors, even the occasional spy. A
private trader was unusual, and I'd made the mistake of saying so. Now he was convinced I
wanted his life story. Oh, me and my big mouth!
"…Yes, Aurelia, I see a lot of the world in my job. I travel all over Northern
Britannia, selling Roman goods to the barbarians, and buying up native arts and crafts…"
"Really?" I could imagine his stock-in-trade: flashy knives that broke if they cut
anything stiffer than cheese, gaudy mugs with not-quite-perfect glazes, imitation-gold
trinkets, in fact all the usual cheap tat that Romans hope will impress barbarians. It does
impress them, but nothing like as much as in the old days when our legions first conquered
Britannia. Even here on the Empire's edge, the northern tribes are developing some
semblance of taste. They mostly can't afford luxury items, but they are insisting on a better
class of tat.
"The tribes beyond the frontier are only too happy to trade, and you'd be amazed at
some of the high quality goods they have to sell…"
"Really?" Actually I wouldn't be in the least amazed, but it was too much trouble to
say so. I've lived in the province of Britannia for nearly twenty years, and I've long since
realised that the natives here, still barbarians in so many ways, can also be fine craftsmen.
"…Beautiful gold jewellery, silver and bronze as well, wool cloaks and rugs. And
then the novelty items, carved antlers, wolf-pelts, beaver-skins…Really good stuff, and dirt
cheap. You know the sort of thing I mean?"
"Yes." I thanked the gods that he was on his outward trip, otherwise I felt sure he'd
insist on trying to sell me some of his "really good stuff."
"…and there's always a market for anything a bit different, especially among the
soldier-boys in the forts. I say to them, if you want an unusual present for the little woman,
or even the wife," he gave an exaggerated leer, "just ask old Curtius, he'll always see you
right. It was one of the lads from the Ninth Hispana who suggested I should stay here, you
know. He said to me, 'If you're travelling east, stop a night at the Oak Tree, it's not a bad
little place at all.' So here I am."
Thanks, soldier, I thought. I'd have preferred your recommendation to be a bit more
enthusiastic. "The Oak Tree is the best mansio and posting-station north of the River
Humber," is what I usually say myself. But it was a compliment of sorts, so I gave him a
"…And you wouldn't believe what this lad wants me to get for him this trip? For his
wife's birthday! You'll never guess in a hundred years…"
"No." And not much point trying, if it's going to take that long.
"Oh, go on, have a guess! Shall I give you a clue?"
But that was when the farm cart came into view on the main road, and turned down
our track onto the forecourt. Until it came close, I thought it might be yet more thirsty
customers. Our bar-room had been busy since well before noon, and no fewer than five
guests were staying with us overnight, including this non-stop talker.
But as the cart rolled towards us, I realised its occupant was in no state for drinking.
He lay flat out with his eyes closed, breathing loudly through his mouth. His tattered cloak
was thick with blood, not all of it dry, and crawling with flies. He looked a typical native, tall
and fair, and he was strong and sunburned, a farmer probably.
I said, "I wonder who this is?"
The cart's driver was another native, barely more than a boy with only the
beginnings of a beard. He pulled his mules to a stop and spoke to us in broken Latin.
"Which way is doctor, please? They said he live near mansio. I need hurry. Belinus has leg
I pointed to a narrow road leading off to the left, and replied in his own British
language. "It's not far. Follow that track about three hundred paces, till you come to a group
of farm buildings. The biggest one is a house, newly painted, with a shrine to Apollo outside
it. That's the doctor's."
"Thank you, lady." He relaxed a little, relieved not to have to struggle with Latin. He
raised his whip, then lowered it again. "I nearly forgot. Belinus said he wants to talk to
someone called Aurelia Marcella. Do you know her?"
"Yes, I'm Aurelia Marcella. I'm the innkeeper here. I'm afraid I don't recognise
your friend though. What's it about?"
"I don't know. Will you talk to Belinus when he wakes up? Please? He made me
promise to find this Aurelia. If you can talk to him…"
"Of course I can, whenever he likes. But I don't suppose he'll wake up till the
doctor's seen to him. Get him along there as quickly as you can."
"I will. You won't forget? He said it's important."
"I won't forget, I promise. The doctor's a good man, he'll do everything possible.
I'll come over to his house very soon, and make sure to see Belinus when he wakes up." If
he wakes up, I thought, as the boy drove off.
Curtius the trader had been following our conversation. "You employ a doctor here?
What's this, the latest in mansio services for your customers?"
"I'd like to say yes, but the truth is I don't employ him, he just lives close by. He's
married to my housekeeper, as it happens. He's got a good reputation, and people come
from miles around."
"Aha! So if you serve your customers bad wine or dodgy meat, you've got
someone handy to put them on their feet again!" He laughed loudly at this, but when I didn't
crack a smile, he subsided. "Sorry, don't mind me. Only joking."
That sort of joke I can do without. But you can't pick and choose your guests. We
get all sorts staying at the Oak Tree, and we do our best to look after them, but there's no
law that says we have to like every last one.
"You must admit it's unusual," he persisted, "a doctor in the wilds of the country like
this, miles from anywhere. It's not as if you're near a town. Eburacum's the closest bit of
civilisation, and that's sixteen miles away." He rubbed his backside. "I should know. I've
ridden from there today, and got the saddle-sores to prove it."
"I wouldn't call Eburacum particularly civilised, though," I answered. "It's just a
provincial dump, full of legionaries getting drunk and crooks trying to rip everybody off."
Actually that was rather unfair on a perfectly ordinary garrison town, but he was beginning to
"You reckon the countryside is better, do you? Well, so do I. Better for my sort of
trade, anyhow. I'm heading east to the coast tomorrow, then I go north to the frontier zone.
I haven't been across the wolds for a while. Natives still friendly, are they?"
"Yes, they are." I've always liked the wold country, it's gentle and peaceful, and
I've got to know it quite well since my sister and her husband bought a farm there.
The bar-room door behind us swung open and my housekeeper Margarita came
hurrying out. She looked, as always, calm and unruffled, but her fair hair was flopping
untidily over her face, a sure sign she'd been busy. She pushed it out of her eyes. "Aurelia! I
wondered where you were."
"Sorry, I didn't mean to leave you holding the fort for so long. Is everything all
"Everything's fine, don't worry. I just thought I'd warn you…" She stopped as she
saw the retreating cart. "Is that another patient for Timaeus?"
"Yes. He has an injured leg, so his friend said. He didn't look good – unconscious,
and there was quite a lot of blood."
"Blood everywhere," the joker beside me agreed. "Makes you see red, doesn't it?"
Margarita ignored him. "They always look bad when they first arrive. But Timaeus
can work wonders, if the gods are with him."
"That's what I told the lad who brought him. I didn't recognise him, or the patient
either, and I think I know all the natives in the Oak Bridges area. They must have come a
She smiled proudly. Her husband was a fine doctor, and not, like most of them,
employed to care for a single rich family. He was prepared to treat anyone who could pay
him, (and, I suspected, some who couldn't, but that was his affair.) "That makes three men
who've come for treatment since this morning. He's had a busy day."
"He's not the only one. We seem to have been going non-stop today. We haven't
had so many customers for ages. It must be the good spring weather, and the market in Oak
Bridges. Not that I'm complaining, of course. Are you managing all right?" That was a silly
question really. Margarita was brilliant at running the mansio, and could cope with the whole
Ninth Legion on manoeuvres, or the Imperial court if Caesar decided to drop by.
"It's not over yet, that's what I came to tell you. One of the overnight guests has just
decided he's giving a party."
The comedian beside me looked interested. "Really? Which one? I bet it's one of
Margarita smiled at him. "You'd win your bet. It's the tall lanky one, dark hair, who
came in riding a good grey horse. It's his birthday apparently, and he intends to celebrate.
He's started already, and now he's inviting everyone in sight to have a drink with him, and
even telling all the natives to bring their friends along."
"I love a good party," the trader said. "Count me in. And if we all drink too much
and make ourselves ill, it's nice to know we shan't have to go far to find a doctor." He
chuckled as he headed into the bar.
"The gods preserve us from customers who think they have comic talents. I assume
the birthday boy can afford to buy drinks for half the province?"
She touched her belt-pouch. "He can. I insisted he give me some money now, to
keep the wine and beer flowing for a good while. We're keeping a slate for him, so we'll
know when it runs out."
"Good. I'll come in and give you a hand as soon as I can. I'm just going over to
Timaeus' to take a look at the latest patient. His friend says he was asking for me, though
I've no idea why. He's in no state to talk now, but if he comes round, Timaeus can send one
of the lads over to fetch me."
She went back inside, and I set off along the narrow road that led past my private
garden, past one of the vegetable plots, till it reached the cluster of old farm buildings. Most
of them were hardly used now, except for the big square house that Timaeus had built for
himself, his family, and his patients.
Before I'd reached it, I met the young native driving his empty farm cart back.
"Are you waiting to take Belinus home again tonight?" I called out to him. "If you
are, take your mules round to the stables and the boys there will see to them while you have
a bite to eat."
"Waiting?" he said, in a mixture of surprise and irritation. "No, I'm not waiting, I
haven't time. The doctor says he'll care for Belinus overnight and send a message tomorrow
or next day. I can't hang about here."
"Have you far to go?"
"About fifteen miles east, up the Long Hill and into the wolds. Good road most of
the way, but slower in the dark, which it will be soon. And the mules are tired." He stood up
in the cart and stretched his shoulders and arms. "Can't be helped. I've got to get home as
soon as I can."
"That's a pity. One of our guests is throwing a birthday party, everyone invited. I'm
sure you deserve some refreshment, after bringing Belinus all this way. Are you a relative of
his? Where shall we send to, when he's ready to come home?"
"Just a neighbour. I've told the doctor where his farm is. White Rocks it's called,
there's a pile of them by his turning off the main road. Anyone'll give directions. I'll try and
come down again in a couple of days to find out how he is. I'm sorry I can't do more for
him, but the way things are now, I don't like to be gone from the farm for long, especially at
night. You never know what's going to go wrong, when your back's turned."
"Oh? Have you had trouble?"
He shrugged and sighed. "Life seems to be one long trouble these days. Well, I'll
bid you good-night." He cracked his whip, and the tired mules set off for home.
I paused as usual at the little shrine outside Timaeus' door, with the fresh flowers
and beaker of wine he always placed there for Apollo the healer. I offered a short prayer to
the god and his sister Diana, my own guardian goddess. Timaeus always said it isn't the
gods alone that heal mortals, it's medical skill as well. Perhaps, but as my grandmother used
to say, a prayer doesn't hurt, and it makes whoever's praying feel better, even if nobody
else does. Poor Belinus needed all the help he could get.
I found the doctor in the large, light room he used for diagnosing and treating his
patients. He was bending over Belinus, who lay on a high bed in the centre. There was a
wide table alongside it, and his two assistants watched from the bed's foot, waiting for
"What do you think, Timaeus?" I asked. "He isn't too good, is he?"
He didn't raise his head, but grunted, "Wait while I finish examining him, Aurelia.
Come and look for yourself, if you like."
I stepped forward cautiously. I'm not unduly squeamish, but doctors tend to forget
how gruesome their work can appear to the rest of us. Belinus was still unconscious, still
flushed, and now I could hear that his breathing was ragged, and catch an unpleasant smell
that I couldn't identify. His stained cloak was gone, and he was naked. His chest was badly
bruised and some of his ribs looked lop-sided even to my untrained eye, but there was no
blood there. That had come from his left thigh, which had a deep gash near the top, right
down to the bone at its upper end. It was caked with dried blood, was still bleeding, and the
leg was swollen to below his knee.
One glance at all this was more than enough for me. I stepped back and waited for
Timaeus to speak.
He straightened up and shook his head. "This leg wound's a mess. His neighbour
said there'd been some sort of accident with a sickle, but if that cut was made by any kind
of sickle my name's Hippocrates. It's completely the wrong shape. It's a sword cut, if you
ask me. Look, boys, you can see it was made by a straight blade."
The two lads looked eagerly where the doctor pointed.
"Nobody's tried to clean him up at all," Timaeus went on sadly. "They've just
covered the cut with that dirty old cloak. So the wound's inflamed, and from the smell of it,
there's gangrene there. And the thigh-bone may be damaged."
"He's got some broken ribs too, Master," the elder of his two assistants put in.
"And the jolting about on the journey here will have made them worse, won't it?"
Timaeus nodded. "Yes, Phokas, it will. Of course it's flattering that people are
coming to see me from so far away, but usually it would be better for the sick folk to get
help nearer home."
Well perhaps, but I didn't blame people for beating a path to Timaeus' door. There
wasn't another healer like him for many miles around. "Can you do anything for him?" I
"We'll do what we can." He turned to his two assistants, who were both young, but
as different in appearance as chalk from cheese. The elder, Phokas, was a slave whom
Timaeus was training, about eighteen, stocky and strong, with broad shoulders, powerful
hands, and intelligent brown eyes which missed nothing. The younger boy was Timaeus' son
Spurius, a slim, handsome lad of only eight. With his fair curls and fine-cut features, he
looked too delicate for the hard physical work of a doctor, but he was determined to follow
his father's profession, and had a child's callous lack of squeamishness concerning blood
"Well, boys," Timaeus said, "this is the second bad wound I've had to treat today,
and it's serious because the patient is unconscious, and has clearly lost a lot of blood
already. Let's see how much you've learned. Phokas, what's the first thing we need to do?"
"Find out if the bone is broken," the dark lad answered promptly, "because how
you treat the wound will be different if you're dealing with a fracture at the same time."
"Quite right. And then?"
"Wash the cut with vinegar, to get rid of dirt and dried blood." The thought of how
painful that would be made my stomach tighten, and I was glad Belinus wasn't conscious.
"Good," Timaeus agreed. "What next?"
Spurius said, "Cut away any of his leg that's in – in…"
"Inflamed," Phokas supplied. "Especially any flesh that's dried up, which might
"Yes, inflamed," the boy agreed. "Inflamed flesh is bad and will stop the good flesh
healing up. Clean it all again, then stitch the edges of the cut together with wool thread, like
you did that man's arm this morning."
"No, not stitch," Phokas objected, "the cut's too big. We must use some of the little
metal clamps to fasten it. But I don't think we should clamp the wound tonight. It's sure to
need cleaning again in the morning, and there might be more gangrene. We should make a
temporary dressing of lint, then bandage it but not too tightly. And bandage those ribs too,
and try to make him drink something to give him calm sleep. Look, he's started tossing
about like a ship in a storm."
Timaeus smiled. "That last suggestion will be easier said than done, but otherwise
you're quite right. If we fasten up a bad wound permanently straight away, we run the risk
that there may be tiny pieces of dirt, or even bone, or perhaps a blood clot left in there still,
which will fester overnight and poison his whole body."
Spurius asked, "Papa, do you really think that's a sword cut? How did he get it?"
"Let's not worry about that now. Get busy, both of you, fetch everything I need
onto the table. A bowl of vinegar, a sponge, clean cloth, lint, bandages, a small hook, a
knife…and what do I rub into the bandages? Spurius?"
"Honey. And you want a spatula to spread it."
Timaeus turned to me, smiling. "See what a useful pair of apprentices I've got,
Aurelia? Soon they won't need me at all."
I smiled back, trying hard not to show how queasy all this was making me feel. Yet
at the same time, a part of me was fascinated by the doctor's skill. I knew he wasn't callous
about his patient, just detached and professional. I also knew that if anyone could save
Belinus, Timaeus could.
I watched as the boys collected what they needed. All the instruments and
medicines were neatly ranged on stout wooden shelves around two walls of the room. There
were the medicines themselves, clay flasks of liquid and alabaster jars of ointments and
powders, each one neatly labelled, along with a variety of cups, bowls, dishes spoons and
small jugs. There were rolls of bandage and pieces of lint, balls of wool, piles of cloths, and
trays of small instruments, clean and ready for use. The larger tools, mostly fearsome in
appearance, hung on the third wall. I recognised knives, hooks, forceps, a bone-saw and a
drill. I couldn't identify all of them, and preferred not to try.
"Timaeus, I don't want to be under your feet while you're working, but there's
something I need to tell you. The young man who brought him in said his name's Belinus,
and before he lost his senses, he asked to speak to me. Made quite a point of it apparently,
although I can't think why, because I'm sure I've never seen him before. But I promised I'll
talk to him, so if and when he wakes up, could you let me know, and I'll come straight
"Of course. The lad said much the same to me, so it must be something important.
But I don't see Belinus regaining his wits any time soon. What if it's in the middle of the night
when he wakes?"
"Send for me anyway. I don't want to miss…I mean if there's only one chance to
"I will, I promise."
"Will you watch by his bedside?"
"Probably, if his fever doesn't improve. Phokas and I will take turns. Ah, good,
you've got everything ready, boys. Then we'll begin."
They began. I left.