The medicus Ruso and his wife, Tilla, are back in the borderlands of Britannia, where he is tending the builders of Hadrian's Great Wall. Having been forced to move off their land, the Britons are distinctly on edge and are still smarting from the failure of a recent rebellion that claimed many lives.
The tension grows when Ruso's recently arrived clerk goes missing and things go from bad to worse when the young son of a local family also vanishes. While struggling to keep the peace between the Britons and the Romans, Ruso and Tilla uncover an intricate deception involving slavery and fur trappers, and it becomes imperative that they solve the mystery of the two disappearances before it's too late.
About the Author
Simon Vance, a former BBC Radio presenter and newsreader, is a full-time actor who has appeared on both stage and television. He has recorded over eight hundred audiobooks and has earned five coveted Audie Awards, and he has won fifty-seven Earphones Awards from AudioFile magazine, which has named him a Golden Voice.
Read an Excerpt
A Crime Novel of the Roman Empire
By Ruth Downie
BLOOMSBURYCopyright © 2014 Ruth Downie
All rights reserved.
It was easy to believe that the rain threw itself at you personally; hard not to feel persecuted and aggrieved when it found its way into your boots no matter how much grease you slathered on them. It blew in veils across the sides of the hills, whipped along the crests, and cascaded in streams down the valleys. The river had burst its banks, and the meadows beside it mirrored the gray sky. Turf squelched underfoot and supply carts sank into the mud, so that whole gangs who should have been building spent the short daylight hours sloshing about, clearing drains and filling potholes. Men pulled hoods over their heads to stop the wet from going down their necks and then had to keep pushing them back to see properly. Inevitably, there were accidents.
Up at the wall, the rain made earth heavier to shift and washed white streaks of fresh mortar out of the day's build. In the quarry, hammers skidded off the heads of chisels. In the camp, tools and armor went rusty overnight. Doors stuck, leather was clammy, firewood was hard to light, and bedding smelled of damp wool and mold.
And then, after another long night in chilly beds, serenaded by a ragged chorus of coughing and snoring, the builders woke to an innocent morning full of birdsong. The sun rose in a sky that had been rinsed clean. Crisp views stretched for miles across hills that rolled like waves toward the north. Men nodded greetings to each other as they lifted the sides of tents and hung everything out to dry.
Some even dared to hope that the worst was over. Most knew it wouldn't be. This was October, and the weather was only going to get worse. Already a strategic retreat was planned for the end of the month: The legions would march south to hunker down in their winter quarters, leaving the permanent garrison to tough it out here along the line of the emperor's Great Wall until the next building season. If the garrison troops were bored or cold up here, there were—as the legionaries were happy to remind them—plenty of ditches to be dug.
And then it happened.
It was a tearing, gut-wrenching roar, like a thunderbolt crashing into the depths of the underworld and shaking the ground beneath their feet. Medical Officer Gaius Petreius Ruso ducked and clamped his hands over his ears, but the cry of "Earthquake!" died in his throat. The noise wasn't how he remembered it. Besides, this was Britannia, not known for earthquakes, and whatever it was had stopped.
Ruso and his assistant straightened up, glancing at one another as if to confirm they had not imagined it. Beyond the stone wall, a panicked flock of sheep was racing across the hillside. Dogs had begun to bark, sounding the alarm in the surrounding scatter of native farms.
Ruso bent to retrieve his medical case, wiping off the mud on the grass at the side of track. Several loose pack ponies bolted past him, narrowly avoiding men who were sprinting down from the camp while grimy and breathless figures were hurrying up to meet them. Somewhere over the chaos, a trumpeter was sounding the call to assemble.
Ruso was already heading downhill when a wild-eyed man in a rough work tunic grabbed him by the arm. "Sir, they need a medic in the quarry! "
The quarry, even when it was full of legionaries cutting stone for the emperor's Great Wall, had always seemed relatively peaceful. The tink-tink of hammers on wedges rang out like the pecking of metal birds above the gurgling of a stream that was swollen by summer rain. Everything brought in by the army—men, tools, work sheds, lines of plodding ponies, lifting gear, wagons—was dwarfed by the raw cliff face that loomed above them.
But now, as Ruso followed the quarryman down the track to the foot of the cliff, he could see that the far end of the rock face had collapsed into a steep chaos of mud and boulders. He winced, reminded of the devastation caused by the Antioch earthquake. Hundreds of collapsed buildings. Voices calling for help from beneath wreckage too heavy to shift.
The quarrymen were lucky: They had only just retreated to eat their midday bread and cheese in the rare sunshine when the land slipped. Another head count was being conducted, just in case; but as far as anyone knew, the quarry was now empty apart from himself, the half-dozen men of the rescue team, and one unfortunate officer. Ruso's assistant was already hurrying back up to the camp to fetch two sensible orderlies, a light stretcher, straps, and warm blankets.
While the rescuers were checking their ropes and ladders, Ruso eyed the full extent of the slide. At the top, a couple of trees hung over the edge as if they were looking down to see where the ground had gone. Below them, torn branches and splintered wooden scaffolding poles lay on the surface or stuck out at odd angles. Several huge rocks had come to rest partway down the slide, as if they were waiting for some fool to free them with a careless movement so they could tumble down and smash into the others at the bottom.
Daminius, the optio in charge, rubbed his forehead with his fist, adding another streak of grime. Then he raised the arm to point. "See that big boulder there, sir, just past the fallen tree?"
Ruso gulped. He had naively assumed that the trapped officer would be lying at ground level. Instead, the limp and muddy shape that he now saw to be a human being was lying head-down on the slope, out of reach. His left leg was scraped and bloody. The right vanished under a massive lump of rock that teetered directly above him.
"Are you sure he's alive?" Ruso murmured, clutching at the hope that they might be too late.
The optio called, "It's all right, sir, hold on! The medic's here."
"I don't n-need a bloody medic," said a voice that Ruso had never heard waver before. "Give me a knife."
Ruso stared. "Pertinax?"
"Prefect Pertinax ... to you, Ruso." He might be seriously injured, but he was still the man who had terrified Ruso ever since one of them had been a very new medic with the Twentieth Legion and the other had already reached the exalted post of second spear.
"Don't worry, sir," called Daminius. "The lads'll get you down. Just hold on a moment and we'll get them organized."
"I don't want ..." Pertinax's voice cracked. He tried again, weaker this time. "Can't risk ... more men. My leg's gone." One bloodstained and filthy hand grasped vainly at the air. "Give me a knife."
Daminius nodded to a man who was approaching with a dripping waterskin tied to a scaffolding pole. Ruso recognized the grubby bandage around a minor sprain of the left wrist, and noted that its owner had abandoned the vanity of being blond since stumbling into the fort hospital a while ago with one eye full of vinegary hair coloring.
Daminius called up, "We're going to get some water to you now, sir.
Try not to move about too much."
"A knife." Pertinax repeated. "That's a ..." He stopped, as if he could not remember the word. "That's an order."
Daminius instructed his man in a voice too low for the prefect to hear, "Gently, eh? If anything moves, drop it and run."
The no-longer-blond man nodded and adjusted his grip on the pole.
"The water's just coming up now, sir."
Pertinax groped toward the skin. Water cascaded down his face before he managed to clamp the opening against his mouth.
Daminius drew Ruso aside. "You see the problem, Doctor?"
"How long has he been asking for a knife?"
"Ever since he realized how things stand."
Ruso said, "If he's up there much longer, he'll die anyway."
"We wondered about getting a rope on and pulling him up ..."
"Not if the leg's still attached."
Daminius nodded, as if he had already thought of that. "Besides, the movement could bring the whole lot down on top of him."
"Can you stabilize the boulder?"
"It's too high to prop, and too heavy for ropes. And we're not going to dig underneath to get him out."
With a feeling that he was not going to like what came next, Ruso prompted, "So?"
The optio looked at him. "Could you cut the leg free, sir?"
Ruso swallowed. "How am I going to get up there?" Let alone, how am I going to perform surgery at that angle and in all that filth? And what about that huge boulder teetering over my head?
Surprisingly white teeth showed as Daminius's filthy face spread into a grin. "That's the spirit, sir. We reckoned if we put you on a rope, you could work your way down and across. Then, once you've got him freed, my lads will come up and get him."
Despite the absence of his centurion—or more likely because of it—Daminius was managing the situation with impressive calm. No wonder they said he would not be hacking rocks out of the ground for long.
Just as this thought crossed Ruso's mind, an imperious voice called, "It's all right, I'm here!" and the rescue party had to stop to salute Centurion Fabius's approach along the track beside the stream. Fabius's horse was being led by his personal slave. His carefully curled hair was in disarray and he was swaying in the saddle. Ruso could smell the drink on his breath as he proceeded to apologize for being delayed, demanded a full update on the situation, and then expressed his shock and dismay. Pertinax, meanwhile, remained trapped.
"We need to make a decision," put in Ruso, who thanked the gods every morning that he had been excused from sharing quarters with Fabius and wished he had not yielded to this morning's request for medicinal wine.
"We need to make a decision," agreed Fabius, lurching to the left and grabbing at the saddle for balance. He frowned at Ruso. "I don't know what's in your medicine, Doctor, but it's making me feel very odd."
"It's up to you, sirs," said Daminius, looking from one officer to the other. "We could do as he asks and give the poor sod a knife."
The waterskin fell from Pertinax's hand, bounced down the rubble, and came to rest just out of reach. The no-longer-blond man poked at it with the pole, and the movement set a couple of stones tumbling down the slope. A loose trickle of earth and more stones slithered to fill the gap, then something shifted above them and a miniature landslide skittered downward. Everyone except Fabius stepped hastily back. It was a moment before anybody spoke again.
"Try not to move, sir," the foreman called, stepping forward to retrieve the empty skin.
There was no reply.
"Sir?" tried Ruso, then, "Pertinax!"
A vague movement of the hand that might have been a wave.
"Oh, dear!" observed Fabius. "He's not looking very good, is he?"
"Prefect Pertinax!" called Ruso, "Are you sleeping on duty?"
"Cold up here," came the mumbled reply.
"A brave man," said Fabius. "Remarkable. Do you think cutting his wrists will work if he's upside down? Or would he have to stab himself in the heart?"
"Won't be long now, sir!" called Ruso, kneeling to check the contents of his medical case and trying not think about the loose debris above him. "Keep him talking, Daminius."
"If anybody goes up there," observed Fabius, gazing up at the loose slope of debris, "it should be me." But the only action following this noble thought was a hiccup.
Ruso turned to Daminius. "Have someone send an urgent message to the hospital at Magnis for Doctor Valens. He needs to know his father-in-law's been seriously injured."
Ruso felt a hand on his shoulder. Fabius's watery blue eyes looked deep into his own. "Good luck, Doctor. You're the only one—the only one who understands."
"Go back to the fort and lie down," Ruso told him. "And no more reading. It's bad for you."
Fabius nodded gravely, and with, "Carry on, Optio!" he allowed his slave to lead him back toward the very small fort of which he was, to the misfortune of its garrison, commanding officer.
Above them, Pertinax seemed to be groping in vain for a dagger that was not there. Daminius called, "We'll soon have you down from there, sir!"
After they knotted the loop of rope around Ruso's chest, Daminius reached toward him and hung something around his neck. "My lucky charm, sir. Never fails. If you're in trouble, just shout, and the lads'll pull you out."
It was kindly meant, although Ruso could not see how he would escape a further landslip unless he suddenly discovered how to fly. Glancing down at Daminius's charm lying beside his identity tag, he saw that the little bronze phallus did indeed sport a pair of wings. He hoped it was an omen. As he tied a borrowed helmet under his chin he said, "My wife's lodging over Ria's snack bar. If I make a hash of this, you'll have to send somebody up there to tell her."
Excerpted from Tabula Rasa by Ruth Downie. Copyright © 2014 Ruth Downie. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
gaul and hadrian walls. falco had so much about antiques thought it was written by another author. Perhaps this is a new series under another pen name. Lacks the historical detail in others or seems less reasearched