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| It was a beautiful August dawn, the best sort of summer weather. The only thing that spoilt it was the body.
I didn't notice him at first. I unbolted the front door and strolled out across the forecourt, and up the short track to the main road, enjoying the fresh morning air. The market day traffic was coming down the hill, heading into town. I watched three farmers leading donkeys loaded with baskets of vegetables, then a creaking ox-cart piled with sacks, and two barefoot girls carrying a cage of chickens and driving some goats. The goats scattered as one of our neighbours trotted past in a smart Roman two-wheeled gig, calling out “'Morning, Aurelia,” and I gave him a wave. A gang of native field-slaves shambled into view, driven uphill by a couple of mounted Roman overseers with whips. One of the natives turned and spat in my direction when the overseers weren't looking. The low sunlight coloured everything gold, even the scruffy slaves.
I could spend all day watching the world go by. Except of course I couldn't, because I had work to do. There’s more to being an innkeeper than standing around collecting the customers’ money, and getting free samples from the wine-shippers, although those are two of the pleasanter parts of the job. So I turned back to the house, surveying the wide paved area where our customers would park their animals and vehicles later. It was empty now except for the giant oak tree in the middle, and under that, in a pool of deep shadow, was the body.
I'm sorry, I know this isn't the proper way to start an official report to the Governor of the province of Britannia. But I've never done one before. Some people might say I shouldn't be doing one now, it's not woman's work. But my brother has asked me to write down the details of this whole business, so I'll do my best, and you'll just have to tidy it up before it gets to His Excellency’s desk.
I should start with the date, I suppose. Right then. It was the tenth year of the reign of Domitian Caesar, on the fourth day of August, the day before the Nones. I know the date for certain, because on the first day of each month we get a delivery of wine from our wholesaler, and this was wine-day plus three. Selling wine to thirsty customers is part of what I do for a living, so that sort of thing sticks in my mind. I'm Aurelia Marcella, the innkeeper of the Oak Tree Mansio, which is about fifteen miles from Eburacum, and just up the road from the small town that we Romans call Oak Bridges. I run the best guest-house and posting-station on the road from the River Humber to the garrison at Eburacum. Well I would say that, wouldn’t I?
At first I thought the man was dead, he lay so still. I saw a tall figure huddled up in a travelling cloak, with a huge lump on the back of his head and his fair hair matted with blood. He was a Roman, by the look of him; yes, definitely Roman, and well-dressed, and apparently stone dead right outside my front door. Just what I needed to start the day, and me with a hangover that wouldn't have disgraced the whole ninth legion.
Then I looked more closely, and realised he was still breathing. Just. So perhaps he might be a drunk left over from last night's party. We'd had quite a wild time – well, wild for a remote corner of northern Britannia. Two young military tribunes were staying with us, on a spot of hunting leave from their legion at Eburacum. They'd had a successful couple of days, and were celebrating by buying wine for themselves and beer for the locals as if they’d had a win at the races.
But I didn't recognise the good sheepskin travelling cloak, nor the light riding-boots sticking out beneath it; and when I gently turned his head to see what he looked like, I didn't know his face. There was blood all over it, from a cut on his cheek, and his whole face was a mass of bruises. I bent over and felt beneath the hair, touching his neck. He was still warm, but not very.
“You need to be inside, my friend,” I said. “And I need some muscle to help me get you there.”
I listened for the usual morning noises: horses trampling in the stable yard, chickens protesting as someone searched the hen-house for eggs, and, yes, good, the sound of hammering and whistling coming from the workshop near the stables.
“Taurus!” I yelled. Taurus is my handyman. “Come here, will you? Quick!”
Taurus came ambling round the corner. He’s a big man and never seems to hurry, but he can move quickly when he wants to.
“'Morning, Mistress Aurelia. Something wrong? Oh, Saturn's balls! Is he dead?”
“Not quite. Give me a hand to get him inside, will you?”
He stood staring down at the body for a few heartbeats, then he said, “Somebody didn't like him very much.”
“No, really?” Well, Taurus isn't the brightest of my slaves, and there’s no law against stating the obvious. “Let’s move him indoors. You pick him up gently, I'll steady his head.”
He bent and lifted the limp body carefully in his arms, making it look easy, and I held the head steady, feeling the sticky blood on my fingers. We carried him through the front door into the bar-room, which was empty this early in the day, and still full of last night's wine-smells.
“He must've been there all night. There's been a mist, and a heavy dew as well. Not good for a wounded man to be out in the open.” Taurus laid the stranger down with great care on one of the benches near the window. I opened the shutters, letting in the light and a draught of cold air.
I tried to remember when the party finished last night. “He wasn't here when the last of the customers went home. I locked up about midnight, I think...I don't recognise him, do you?”
He shook his shaggy head. “No. Nice cloak. Good boots, too. They look like army issue. Rather messed up though.”
They certainly were; the uppers were scuffed and muddy. The front of his cloak was slimy too, and his hands were filthy. I opened the cloak out near the hem, and sure enough, his fawn wool leggings were covered in mud and grass. He'd been doing some crawling, whoever he was.
I bent closer for a look. He was around thirty, with fair wavy hair and light eyebrows, and a mouth that looked as if it could have a nice smile. I unfastened his belt and loosened his cloak. His blue wool tunic was well-made and warm, and fastened by another thinner belt, which had a fancy bronze buckle with a dolphin on it. Carefully I felt him over and moved his arms and legs. Nothing seemed to be broken, but he was cold and pale, and lay like the dead. He'd certainly had a hard knock on the head.
I debated searching him for some sort of identification, but decided to leave it for now, or he would get even colder. First things first.
“Fetch Albia, will you, Taurus. Tell the kitchen girls to bring blankets and put some water on to heat. Then get a brazier in here to warm the place a bit. He's chilled to the bone. We'll clean him up, and see if we can wake him.”
He ambled off, and almost at once Albia bustled out through the kitchen door.
Albia is my half-sister, and also my housekeeper at the mansio; I call her my chief of staff, and I freely admit I couldn't run the place without her. People don't believe we are sisters, because we each take after our respective mothers. I know that behind our backs we're known as “the pretty one” and “the tough one”. Albia's certainly pretty, small, dark, and slim, with bright brown eyes; she's always cheerful and busy, and she isn't nearly as fragile as she appears. Neither is she as stupid as some men think. I don't know why there's a general assumption that women who are pretty and happy are also dim. Men don't make that assumption about me, but I can't work out whether I should be pleased or not. I'm tall and big-boned, with fair hair that waves on its own whether I want it to or not, and green eyes like my mother’s. And I don't even look fragile.
Anyway Albia's a great person to have around in a crisis. We've been through a few of those since we came to the Oak Tree. I didn't know then that we were at the beginning of another.
“'Morning, Relia, what's….Holy Diana, who's this?” She knelt down beside the man. “He looks a bit the worse for wear! Where did you find him? I thought we'd chucked them all out.”
“We did. I found him outside. I don't know how he got into such a mess, but as Taurus just said, somebody didn't like him very much.”
“I've seen him before, I think.” She frowned thoughtfully, pushing the hair out of her eyes as she bent closer to look into his face. Albia has a marvellous memory for faces. “I just can't place him, but I'm sure.....oh well, it'll come.” She stood up. “Robbed, I suppose, and beaten up, and managed to crawl here in the dark. It comes to something when a man can't travel the roads at night....ah, wait though.” She stopped. She'd just caught sight of the ring he was wearing on his left hand, a gold one with a large emerald in it.
“No self-respecting robber would have left that behind,” I agreed. “So either the robbers were interrupted, or it wasn't a robbery at all.”
We heard footsteps in the hallway just then, and Junius, one of the young officers from last night's party, poked his head in through the hall door. He looked as fresh as the morning dew, which gave me a twinge of envy.
“’Morning, Albia….Aurelia. Any chance of a bite of breakfast? I could murder some bread and cheese and a cup of wine.” He stopped, seeing the new arrival on the bench. “I say, who's this? Someone didn't make it home last night?”
“We think he's been attacked,” Albia said. “He's got a bump on the head the size of an egg.”
“Really? So that was it.”
“That was what?” we both asked.
“There was a noise, a couple of hours after we turned in I think. I'd got up to find my water-flask. Bit of a thirst.” He grinned. “I’ve still got a mouth like a sand-pit, actually! Anyhow there was this odd sort of scuffling, dragging sound, and I looked out from my window, but it was pitch dark and I couldn't see anything. I sent my servant across to the stables, to make sure nobody was trying to pinch our horses.” He looked at us in turn. “You didn't hear anything?”
Albia shook her head, and I said, “No, I slept like the dead. Your man would have gone out of the door from the guest wing to get to the stable block, not the main front door from the bar-room. So if the noise was this poor fellow being beaten up, or dragging himself here, he wouldn't have found the body. Anyway, as you say, it was pretty dark.”
“Oh I told him to take a torch and patrol round all the buildings, naturally. He reported back that everything was fine.”
“Well he would,” Albia chipped in. I gave her a warning look to shut her up. The officers' two servants had had a real skinful last night, and if either of them had stirred himself to patrol efficiently all round our sprawling complex of buildings in the dark, then I'm the Queen of Brigantia. But customers are always right, especially military ones.
Junius just laughed. “Quite right! My man should have seen him. Lazy slob! I'll cut down his wine ration, that'll teach him.”
He came over and looked down at the motionless figure. He touched his shoulder and shook him gently, but the man didn't react at all. “Dead to the world, isn't he? I wonder if he's been robbed.” I shook my head and pointed to the big emerald.
Junius pulled back the travelling-cloak further than I'd done. “It looks as though his money-belt is still there as well, under his tunic. Wait a bit though, what's this? What do you suppose....” He pointed to a small bone disc, attached by a crude bronze pin to the front of the blue tunic. Just an ordinary looking object, some kind of official medallion or pass perhaps, the sort couriers often wear. But when Junius unpinned it and began to read it, he caught his breath, and when he turned the disc over, he swore.
“What is it?” I held out my hand and took the little disc.
On one side was a rough drawing of a skull, with the words “Shadow of Death” written below it. On the other were a few crudely scratched Latin words:
ALL ROMANS WILL BE KILLED
We stared at it blankly. It might have been in Carthaginian for all the sense it made. It sounds strange now, but at first it didn't seem frightening, just weird. Of course if I'd known what it meant, if I'd had any idea of the trouble it would bring us.…But how could I? How could any of us?