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It is spring in the year of 118, and Hadrian has been Emperor of Rome for less than a year. After getting involved with the murders of local prostitutes in the town of Deva, Doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso needs to get out of town, so has volunteered for a posting with the Army on the volatile border where the Roman-controlled half of Britannia meets the independent tribes of the North. Not only is he going to the hinterlands of the hinterlands, but it his slave Tilla's homeland and she has some scores to settle there. Soon they find that Tilla's tribespeople are being encouraged to rebel against Roman control by a mysterious leader known as the Stag Man, and her former lover is implicated in the grisly murder of a soldier. Ruso, unwillingly involved in the investigation of the murder, is appalled to find that Tilla is still spending time with the lover. Worse, he is honour bound to try to prove the man innocent - and the Army wrong - by finding another suspect. Soon both Ruso's and Tilla's lives are in jeopardy, as is the future of their burgeoning romantic relationship.
About the Author
Ruth Downie's first novel, Medicus, grew out of a story that won the Fay Weldon section of BBC3's End of Story competition. She is married with two sons and lives in Milton Keynes, England.
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TERRA INCOGNITA A Novel of the Roman Empire
By RUTH DOWNIE
BLOOMSBURY USA Copyright © 2008 Ruth Downie
All right reserved.
Chapter One Many miles south of Coria, Ruso gathered both reins in his left hand, reached down into the saddlebag, and took out the pie he had saved from last night. The secret of happiness, he reflected as he munched on the pie, was to enjoy simple pleasures. A good meal. A warm, dry goatskin tent shared with men who neither snored, passed excessive amounts of wind, nor imagined that he might want to stay awake listening to jokes. Or symptoms. Last night he had slept the sleep of a happy man.
Ruso had now been in Britannia for eight months, most of them winter. He had learned why the province's only contribution to fashion was a thick cloak designed to keep out the rain. Rain was not a bad thing, of course, as his brother had reminded him on more than one occasion. But his brother was a farmer, and he was talking about proper rain: the sort that cascaded from the heavens to water the earth and fill the aqueducts and wash the drains. British rain was rarely that simple. For days on end, instead of falling, it simply hung around in the air like a wife waiting for you to notice she was sulking.
Still, with commendable optimism, the locals were planning to celebrate the arrival of summer in a few days' time. And as if the gods had finally relented, the polished armor plates of the column stretching along the road before him glittered beneath a cheering spring sun.
Ruso wondered how the soldiers stationed up on the border would greet the arrival of men from the Twentieth Legion: men who were better trained, better equipped, and better paid. No doubt the officers would make fine speeches about their united mission to keep the Britons in order, leaving the quarrels to the lower ranks, and Ruso to patch up the losers.
In the meantime, though, he was not busy. Any man incapable of several days' march had been left behind in Deva. The shining armor in front of him was protecting 170 healthy men at the peak of their physical prowess. Even the most resentful of local taxpayers would keep their weapons and their opinions hidden at the sight of a force this size, and it was hard to see how a soldier could acquire any injury worse than blisters by observing a steady pace along a straight road. Ruso suppressed a smile. For a few precious days of holiday, he was enjoying the anonymity of being a traveler instead of a military-
His first instinct was to snatch a last mouthful of pie.
"Doctor Gaius Petreius Ruso, sir?"
Since his other hand was holding the reins, Ruso raised the crumbling pastry in acknowledgment before nudging the horse to the edge of the road where there was room to halt without obstructing the rest of the column. Moments later he found himself looking down at three people.
Between two legionaries stood a figure that gave the unusual and interesting impression of being two halves of different people stuck together along an unsteady vertical line. Most of the left half, apart from the hand and forearm, was clean. The right half, to the obvious distaste of the soldier restraining that side, was coated with thick mud. There was a bloodied scrape across the clean cheek and a loop of hair stuck out above the one braid that remained blond, making the owner's head appear lopsided. Despite these indignities, the young woman had drawn herself up to her full height and stood with head erect. The glint in the eyes whose color Ruso had never found a satisfactory word to describe-but when he did, it would be something to do with the sea-suggested someone would soon be sorry for this.
All three watched as Ruso finished his mouthful and reluctantly rewrapped and consigned the rest of his snack to the saddlebag. Finally he said, "Tilla."
"It is me, my lord," the young woman agreed.
Ruso glanced from one soldier to the other, noting that the junior of the two had been given the muddy side. "Explain."
"She says she's with you, sir," said the clean man.
"Why is she like this?"
As the man said, "Fighting, sir," she twisted to one side and spat on the ground. The soldier jerked her by the arm. "Behave!"
"You can let go of her," said Ruso, bending to unstrap his waterskin. "Rinse the mud out of your mouth, Tilla. And watch where you spit. I have told you about this before."
As Tilla wiped her face and took a long swig from the waterskin, a second and considerably cleaner female appeared, breathless from running up the hill.
"There she is!" shrieked the woman. "Thief! Where's our money?" Her attempt to grab the blond braid was foiled by the legionaries.
Ruso looked at his slave. "Are you a thief, Tilla?"
"She is the thief, my lord," his housekeeper replied. "Ask her what she charges for bread."
"Nobody else is complaining!" cried the other woman. "Look! Can you see anybody complaining?" She turned back to wave an arm toward the motley trail of mule handlers and bag carriers, merchants' carts and civilians shuffling up the hill in the wake of the soldiers. "I'm an honest trader, sir!" continued the woman, now addressing Ruso. "My man stays up half the night baking, we take the trouble to come out here to offer a service to travelers, and then she comes along and decides to help herself. And when we ask for our money all we get is these two ugly great bruisers telling us to clear off!"
If the ugly great bruisers were insulted, they managed not to show it.
"You seem to have thrown her in the ditch," pointed out Ruso, faintly recalling a fat man behind a food stall-the first for miles-at the junction they had just passed. "I think that's enough punishment, don't you?"
The woman hesitated, as if she were pondering further and more imaginative suggestions. Finally she said, "We want our money, sir. It's only fair."
Ruso turned to Tilla. "Where's the bread now?"
Tilla shrugged. "I think, in the ditch."
"That's not our fault, is it, sir?" put in the woman.
Ruso was not going to enter into a debate about whose fault it was. "How much was it worth?"
There was a pause while the woman appeared to be assessing his outfit and his horse. Finally she said, "Half a denarius will cover it, sir."
"She is a liar!" put in Tilla, as if this were not obvious even to Ruso.
He reached for his purse. "Let me tell you what is going to happen here," he said to the woman. "I will give you one sesterce, which is-"
"Is too much!" said Tilla.
"Which is more than the bread was worth," continued Ruso, ignoring her. "My housekeeper will apologize to you-"
"I am not sorry!"
"She will apologize to you," he repeated, "and you will go back to your stall and continue charging exorbitant sums of money to travelers who were foolish enough not to buy before they set out."
Ruso dismissed the grinning soldiers with a tip that was not enough to buy their silence but might limit the scurrilous nature of their exaggerations when they told the story around tonight's campfires. The women seemed less satisfied, but that was hardly surprising. Ruso had long ago learned that the pleasing of women was a tricky business.
By now the bulk of the legionaries had gone on far ahead, followed by a plodding train of army pack ponies laden with tents and millstones and all the other equipment too heavy to be carried on poles on the soldiers' backs. Behind them was the unofficial straggle of camp followers.
Ruso turned to Tilla. "Walk alongside me," he ordered, adding quickly, "Clean side in." She sidestepped around the tail of the horse and came forward to walk at its shoulder. Ruso leaned down and said in a voice which would not be overheard, "None of the other civilians is causing trouble, Tilla. What is the matter with you?"
"I am hungry, my lord."
"I gave you money for food."
"Yes, my lord."
"Was it not enough?"
"It was enough, yes."
She ventured no further information. Ruso straightened up. He was not in the mood for the I-will-only-answer-the-question-you-ask-me game. He was in the mood for a peaceful morning and some more of last night's chicken in pastry, which he now retrieved and began to eat. He glanced sideways. Tilla was watching. He did not offer her any.
They continued in silence along the straight road up and down yet another wooded hill. British hills, it seemed, were as melancholic as British rain. Instead of poking bold fingers of rock up into the clouds, they lay lumpy and morose under damp green blankets, occasionally stirring themselves to roll vaguely skyward and then giving up and sliding into the next valley.
Somewhere among those hills lay the northern edge of the empire, and even further north, beyond the supposedly friendly tribes living along the border, rose wild cold mountains full of barbarians who had never been conquered and now never would be. Unless, of course, the new emperor had a sudden fit of ambition and gave the order to march north and have another crack at them. But so far Hadrian had shown no signs of spoiling for a fight. In fact he had already withdrawn his forces from several provinces he considered untenable. Britannia remained unfinished business: an island only half-conquered, and Ruso had not found it easy to explain to his puzzled housemate back in Deva why he had volunteered to go and peer over the edge into the other half.
"The North? Holy Jupiter, man, you don't want to go up there!" Valens's handsome face had appeared to register genuine concern at his colleague's plans. "It's at-it's beyond the edge of the civilized world. Why d'you think we send foreigners up there to run it?"
Ruso had poured himself more wine and observed, "When you think about it, we're all foreigners here. Except the Britons, of course."
"You know what I mean. Troops who are used to those sorts of conditions. The sort of chap who tramps bare chested through bogs and picks his teeth with a knife. They bring them in from Germania, or Gaul, or somewhere."
"I'm from Gaul," Ruso reminded him.
"Yes, but you're from the warm end. You're practically one of us." This was evidently intended as a compliment. "I know you haven't exactly shone here in Deva, after all that business with the barmaids-"
"This has got nothing to do with barmaids," Ruso assured him. "You know I spent half of yesterday afternoon waiting for a bunch of men who didn't turn up?"
"I believe you did mention it once or twice."
"And it's not the first time, either. So I tracked down their centurion today. Apparently he and his cronies have been telling the men they can go for first aid training if they want to."
"If they want to?"
"Of course they don't want to. They want to spend their spare time sleeping and fishing and visiting their girlfriends."
"I hope he apologized."
"No. He said he couldn't see the point of teaching ordinary soldiers first aid. He said it's like teaching sailors to swim-just prolongs the agony."
Valens shook his head sadly. "You really shouldn't let a few ignorant centurions banish you to the-" He was interrupted by a crash from the kitchen and a stream of British that had the unmistakeable intonation of a curse. He glanced at the door. "I suppose you're intending to take the lovely Tilla as well?"
"That is bad news. I shall miss her unique style of household management." Valens peered down at his dinner bowl and prodded at something with the end of his spoon. "I wonder what this was when it was alive?" He held it up toward the window to examine it, then flicked it off the spoon and onto the floor. One of the dogs trotted forward to examine it. "So," continued Valens. "Where exactly is this unholy outer region?"
"It's a fort called Ulucium. Apparently you go up to Coria and turn left at the border."
"You're going to some flea-bitten outpost beyond the last supply depot?"
"I'm told the area's very beautiful."
"Really? By whom?"
Ruso shrugged. "Just generally ... by people who've been there." He took refuge in another sip of wine.
Valens shook his head. "Oh, Ruso. When I told you women like to be listened to, I didn't mean you should take any notice of what they say. Of course Tilla says it's very beautiful. She probably wants to go home to visit all her little girlfriends so they can paint their faces blue and dance around the cooking pot, singing ancestor songs. You didn't promise you'd take her home?"
"It's only for a few months. There's a couple of centuries going up to help revamp the fort, fix their plumbing, and encourage the taxpayers."
"You did! You promised her, didn't you?"
Ruso scratched the back of his ear. "I think I may have," he confessed. "It seemed like a good idea at the time."
Ruso took another mouthful of cold pie and wondered whether he should have listened to Valens rather than Tilla. From what he could gather, the principal activities of Tilla's tribe were farming and fighting, fueled by rambling tales about glorious ancestors and a belief that things you couldn't see were just as real as things you could. None of this had mattered much down in the relatively civilized confines of Deva, but as they traveled farther north, Tilla's behavior had definitely begun to deteriorate.
Ruso glanced downward. Tilla's muddy tunic was flapping heavily around her ankles. Thick brown liquid squelched out of her boots with every step.
He sighed, and balanced the remains of the pie on the front of the saddle. He reached out and touched her cheek just above the scrape. "I'll clean that up when we stop. Are you hurt anywhere else?"
"It was a soft landing, my lord. I do not see him coming, or I would fight back."
Ruso was not as sorry about this as his housekeeper seemed to be. "Why didn't you buy food before we set out this morning?"
"There was a woman in labor in the night. I forgot."
"One of the soldiers' women?"
"What on earth was she doing traveling in that condition?"
Tilla shrugged. "When a man marches away, who knows if he will come back? He might find a new woman. The army might send him across the sea. Then what will she do?"
Ruso, who had no idea what she might do, said, "So what happened to her?"
His slave jerked a thumb backward over her shoulder. "She is giving her daughter a bumpy welcome on a cart."
"She's a very lucky woman," observed Ruso.
"The goddess has been kind to her."
Ruso retrieved the crumbling remains of the snack and passed them across. "It's a bit dry. Sorry."
She wiped her mouth and hands on a clean patch of tunic before accepting it. "Thank you, my lord."
"There's to be no more stealing from now on, Tilla. Is that quite clear?" He gestured toward the mud. "You see where it leads."
A smile revealed white teeth in the unusually brown face. "I know where it leads." She patted the outside of her thigh. From beneath her clothing he heard the chink of money. Ruso was not impressed. "I had to pay that woman more than you saved to get you out of trouble," he said.
Tilla eyed him for a moment as if she were considering a reply, then crammed the remains of the food into her mouth, dropped into a crouch at the roadside, and began to scrabble about under her clothing. Ruso glanced around to see one or two people watching, and decided the most dignified reaction was to ride on and pretend he had not noticed.
Moments later he heard her running up behind him. He turned. "Was that really necessary?"
She nodded, and drew breath before announcing, "I have been waiting a long time to tell you something, my lord."
A sudden and deeply worrying thought crossed Ruso's mind. A thought he had been trying to ignore for some months.
He had been careful. Extremely careful. Far more careful than his slave, who on first being introduced to modern methods of contraception had fallen into a fit of disrespectful and uncontrollable laughter. He had insisted, of course, citing three years of successfully child-free marriage-something Tilla evidently thought was nothing to boast about. He had finally persuaded her to complete her part by squatting on the floor, taking a cold drink, and sneezing, but over the months Tilla had proved just as reluctant as Claudia to face the chill of a winter bedroom. Her sneezing too had shown a disappointing lack of commitment. He had given up trying to argue with her. Now he supposed he was going to have to face the consequences.
The horse, sensing his tension through the reins, tossed its head.
"Do you really think," Ruso said, "that this is the best time to tell me?"
"No, but you must know one day, and you will be happy."
"Close your eyes, my lord."
"It is nothing bad."
"Is nobody looking."
Excerpted from TERRA INCOGNITA by RUTH DOWNIE Copyright © 2008 by Ruth Downie. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I continue to relate to Gaius Petreius Russo in Downie's second book as I did in the first. His plans continue to go awry. He finds himself at the small town of Coria on the outskirts of the Roman Empire stuck with the onerous job of establishing order from chaos in the local medical service, again trying to solve a murder mystery because he cannot accept the prevailing wisdom without question, and hopelessly trying to understand the logic and actions of a woman he finds it challenging to live with and impossible to live without. Russo is an unlikely hero, but like most of us, he does what he has to do to live with himself whether it be rescuing a mugging victim in an alley or riding into a hostile clan gathering to locate his missing slave/sweetheart. He displays a dark graveyard sense of humor in contrast to the flippant, irreverent, and self-centered sense of humor of his friend and colleague Valens. Russo, also like many of us, again battles those who are concerned with expeditious resolution and their own agendas and have little regard for truth and justice. Rooting for Russo often seems like rooting for myself.
Ruth Downie is a capable writer, but I won't be buying any more of this series. I'm struggling to get through Terra Incognita because all the characters are just so unlikeable. I bought the first book in the series for .99 and it was OK, but there hasn't been any character development or growth throughout the course of the second book. I'd rather spend my money reading novels with characters I can care about.
Interesting turn of events. Enjoyed the unique historical perspective. Managed to blend history and entertainment. I would like to see more.
enjoyed all three of this series. haven't read the last yet. easy read but a very enjoyable series. an unlikely hero where things just go awry sometimes. puts a more human, humorous slant on this time period than some of the vicious stuff on tv that passes for historical fiction.