Hello! Heres’s the first week of CARPE DIEM, a story featuring Albanus from the MEDICUS series. It’s part of a project by a group of “ancient world” authors offering short story serials as entertainment while many of us are stuck at home, and the links to all the others are here. This was originally published in instalments on Facebook and you’ll also find the other stories on the Authors Without Borders website.
Please freely share the link to the story, but bear in mind that the text is my copyright, my moral right has been asserted (whatever that means) and it should only be shared from one of the original sources. Also – sorry about the layout. It pains me to see the lack of indentation, the left alignment and the gaps between paragraphs, but I can’t figure out how to change it.
Carpe Diem – by Ruth Downie
There were rescuers already clinging to the rocks, but Albanus could barely hear their shouts over the crash and roar of the waves. The wind snatched at his clothes as he scrambled down the cliff path. Gusts of cold rain were slapping against his face and making his fingers clumsy as he tried to steady the rope slung around his chest, which must surely weigh as much as he did.
“They told me to bring this!” he yelled, recognising one of the centurions from the fort. The man pointed to a couple of figures poised to throw ropes from perilously near the reach of the waves. “Down there!”
The rocks were slippery in the wet. Albanus resorted to crawling backwards, using hands and feet. He glanced down to get his bearings and gasped as a massive wave reared up. The two rescuers vanished from sight. Moments later they reappeared, shaking the foam off their heads and crawling back towards the comrades who were holding the safety ropes that had saved them. Albanus delivered his own rope and hastily clambered back to higher ground.
By now the word had got round that there was a ship in trouble trying to reach the mouth of the river. Men, women and even children were gathered along the top of the cliff, peering out to sea in the fading light. The little vessel appeared from time to time, its tattered sails flapping like distress signals, and then vanished again in the trough of the waves. Albanus found he was holding his breath every time it disappeared, but now it had been gone so long he had to gasp for air. The people around him fell silent.
“There it is!” cried a child, and other voices joined in. “It’s still there, look!” and “Holy Neptune, save them! Let them get to tbe beach!” To his surprise he caught a whiff of incense. Even out in this storm, someone was trying to make an offering.
The ship vanished again. He wondered what sort of parent would bring a child to watch a thing like this.
When the dark shape reappeared, the cries of delight swiftly died away. Albanus heard his own intake of breath as he stared at the hull of the ship, upside down.
“It might roll back,” said a lone optimist.
Was that true? Albanus didn’t know. Even if it was, would anyone have survived?
“If they can just get to the sand,” added the optimist.
But it was clear that rounding the headland to reach the long stretch of yellow sand through the surf was no more likely than reaching the safety of the estuary only a few hundred paces further on. A bigger vessel might have withstood the pounding: run ashore and become a place of safety until the storm moved on and the day returned and the tide withdrew so the crew could be rescued. But not this one.
Albanus was distracted by a commotion behind him. Something was being hauled up onto the clifftop. A voice was yelling over the sound of wind and water, “Make way!”
For reasons he could not fathom, the soldiers had brought up an artillery weapon.
“Too late, lads!” someone shouted.
“Are you going to shoot them?” demanded a child’s voice. Under the wet hair, Albanus was shocked to recognise one of his own pupils.
“Lucius? Does your father know you’re out here?”
The boy shrugged.
“Did he say you could come?”
“He didn’t say I couldn’t.”
Albanus moved closer. “I think I should take you home.”
“You can’t!” Lucius stood his ground. “This isn’t lesson time. I don’t have to do what you tell me.”
Albanus was tempted to point out that Lucius rarely did what he was told in lesson time either, but then the soldier, who had clearly recognised the lad as the son of his commanding officer, said, “If the ship had got close enough, young man, we was going to try and fire a rope out to them.”
Lucius’s eyes widened. “Can you do that?”
“Dunno,” the man admitted. “Never tried.”
Abandoning all interest in the stricken ship, Lucius began to engage the soldier in a discussion of the likelihood of ever being able to fire a line from a ballista and how much additional height would be needed to retain the right trajectory.
Albanus returned his gaze to the angry sea. He could not see the ship at all now. He felt oddly guilty that he had let his attention wander. As if he had been holding it afloat by sheer power of concentration.
He counted to ten, then twenty, but there was no sign of life out there on the heaving surface. Finally after he got to fifty he turned away and began to trudge back along the path, descending from the headland cliffs to walk above the strip of sand further along: the comparative safety that the vessel had failed to reach. He wove his way through the crowd, eyes down. He didn’t want to talk to anyone. Still less did he want to listen to them. Which was why the eagerness of the hand seizing his own and the announcement of, “It’s me!” was more of an irritation than a pleasure.
Of course it was me. Who else would it be but Virana?
He was not sure what he had done to deserve it, but after his nephew died the disturbingly attractive Virana had been determined to shower to him with her own peculiar style of kindness, interspersed with alarming sentences that began, “When we are married…” When he had finally mustered the courage to remind her that he hadn’t asked her, she pronounced, “Never mind, I can wait!” Last autumn she had followed him here to Arbeia, found work at the bakery and regularly introduced him to other customers as “My man.” As if that was not enough, last week she had managed to get herself a job in the house where he himself was employed. And now here she was again, bouncing along beside him, chattering in his ear about “Those poor sailors!”
He pretended not to hear, finally giving up when the pleas of “Why aren’t you looking? Are you all right?” became too urgent to ignore. “Albanus, look! What’s that in the water?”
He didn’t want to know. He had seen enough already. But now other voices were shouting, “There’s one!” and “Come on!” and “Throw him a rope!” and finally he took a deep breath of salty air and turned to see what everyone was pointing at.
“Two!” cried someone. “There’s another one! See?”
Then a cacophony of voices was yelling encouragement, as if the little figures being flung about in the darkening water might be able to hear. Albanus found himself caught up in the flow of people scrambling down onto the sand as the dripping rescue team raced past them towards the waves.
It was gut-wrenching to watch, but when it was over he was glad he had. He was even happy to be hugged and kissed and danced across the sand by an exhuberant Virana. Neptune had spat not two but three men, bedraggled but alive, out of the crashing surf.
He was thinking it might be time to disentangle himself from Virana when their celebrations were cut short by his employer’s voice demanding to know what he thought he was playing at.
Albanus pushed Virana away with unseemly haste and turned to address the tall figure flanked by two guards. “Sorry, sir. We were celebrating the, er, the—”
“I don’t mean your unbecoming behaviour with—is that my kitchen maid?”
Virana stepped forward. Even in the poor light Albanus could see the men’s gaze flicker across the outline of her ample bosom. Meanwhile she was beaming at the prefect of the third cohort of Tungrians as if they had just been introduced at a party. “It’s an honour to work for you, sir!”
“It certainly is,” agreed the prefect. Then, returning his attention to Albanus: “What were you thinking, letting Lucius come down here at a time like this?”
Albanus gulped. “I didn’t know he was coming, sir.”
“You should have taken him straight home, man! This is no place for a child!”
“No, sir. Absolutely not.”
“Instead you had a bit of a chat and then wandered off and left him!”
“He—he didn’t want to go home, sir.”
“He’s nine years old! What sort of a tutor are you?”
Albanus said nothing. It was clear the the prefect had already decided what sort of a tutor he was.
The prefect turned his attention to one of his men. “I want the whole area cleared and a guard set,” he said. “We don’t want people down here at first light fighting over salvage.” Noticing Albanus still standing there, he added, “Dismissed.”
“Should I continue with lessons in the morning, sir?”
“Do you think I’ve got time to find another tutor overnight?”
“No. Just get on with it.”
Albanus was in such a hurry to get away that he blundered into Virana.
“He spoke to me!” she exclaimed. “The prefect knows who I am and he spoke to me!”
But Albanus had more important things on his mind. “I should have stayed with Lucius. I should have insisted.”
Virana cupped his face in her hands. “Never mind about that silly boy,” she told him. “Three men have been saved from a shipwreck, and the prefect spoke to me!” She planted a kiss on the tip of his nose. “Shall I take you home and cheer you up?”
He had struggled all the way here from the fort bearing a coil of rope that grew wetter and heavier with each step. He had scrambled down slippery cliffs and nearly been drenched by a wave. He had watched, helpless, while a ship sank in front of him, and surely several men must have gone down with it. Finally—and he was not proud of how petty this sounded—he had been told off by his employer.
When Virana took him by the arm, he offered no resistance. He was indeed a man in need of cheering up.
Albanus woke to find a bright spring sun forcing its way through the tiny pane of green glass above his bed. As he dived into his day tunic he could already hear the tramp of military boots out in the corridor. The centurion’s wife was down in the kitchen, giving orders to the cook. He was late.
He ran the short distance to the prefect’s house and was relieved to find all seven of his pupils still there. He was less pleased to find that none of them was expecting to do any work. The boys were here to listen to Lucius, whose animated account of last night’s adventures seemed to go on much longer than the catastrophe itself. Just when it seemed to be ending, it turned into a lively discussion about the possibility—or not—of using artillery to shoot a rope out to a ship, and whether it would be of any use to the sailors if it got there, and whether you might accidentally hasten the sinking of the ship in the process.
“So,” put in Albanus when he had a chance to interrupt, “what scene in the Odyssey does this remind you of?”
There was a moment’s silence, during which his pupils appeared to be groping inside their memories for any faint recollection of what the Odyssey might be, let alone what was in it.
Albanus said, “Lucius?”
Lucius looked vague. “When they get that giant drunk and stab him in the eye?” he suggested. “If Odysseus had a ballista and a really good aim, he could do it from a safe distance.”
Albanus glanced around his charges. “Anyone else?”
No-one, apparently. “This morning,” he announced, “we’ll look at the story of the six-headed sea monster and the terrifying whirlpool.” He was not sure he wanted to spend the morning thinking about dangers to shipping when there were only three survivors recovering in the infirmary, but at last, thank the gods, he had their attention. There was no limit, it seemed, to the appetite of small boys for gore and ghastliness.
If only he were a natural teacher like his father. Instead, every day he seemed to need a new trick to keep them entertained. On bad days he tried bargaining. He sometimes resorted to threats. He would have considered bribery if he had anything to offer. Today’s trick was to work through the Greek with the promise that they could draw the monster.
“Marcus, don’t write across the wood.”
“There isn’t room in the wax for all six heads,” Marcus explained, holding out his efforts for inspection. “Not if I put in all twelve feet.”
Albanus was about to point out that if he refrained from drawing all the rows of teeth he could make the heads smaller when there was a knock at the door. Virana, clad in her working apron, was beckoning him into the hallway.
Albanus gulped. Virana had been helping out in the prefect’s kitchen for several days now, and he still didn’t know what to make of it. The convenience of the regular housekeeper’s broken ankle was difficult to believe. Was there really an injury under the bandage? Or had she and Virana struck some sort of a bargain, so that one of them could spend all day sitting at the kitchen table with her foot propped up and the other could run around the house poking her nose into all sorts of places that native farm girls never usually got to see?
Reminding himself that the boys could not possibly know where he had spent yesterday evening, he said brightly, “Can I help you?”
“There’s news!” announced Virana
“Thank you for letting me know,” he said. “I’ll come and deal with it after class.”
His attempt to close the door was foiled by her foot. “They have found a body on the beach!”
“Oh.” Sad news, but neither surprising nor urgent.
She leaned closed and hissed, “It is Simmias!”
“Really?” he said, surprised after all. Simmias was not a sailor but Virana’s landlord and former employer over at the bakery.
“What do you think happened to him?”
“Perhaps he fell off the cliff,” he said, hoping the answer would end the conversation.
“He was stabbed!”
Glancing back, he saw that the boys had all stopped drawing and were craning to hear the conversion.
“There is a big fuss. I thought you might be able to help. You are good at finding out who kills people.”
Her foot was no longer holding the door open. “We’ll talk about it later,” he said, closing the door in a manner that he hoped was polite but firm.
To his alarm a hand appeared, grasping the edge of the door. It was swiftly followed by a head. “The Prefect needs to see you,” she said.
Albanus blinked. “Now?”
Silly question. Of course now. So that was what was so urgent. Maybe the prefect had more to say about Albanus’s failure to drag Lucius home yesterday. Maybe he really had found the time to hire a better tutor overnight.
As he finally shut Virana out he heard the scuffle of boys scampering back to their seats and Lucius demanding, “Who’s been stabbed, sir?”
He waited until they were quiet before speaking. “I have been called to see the prefect,” he told them. “I want you to keep on with that drawing while I’m gone, and no talking, because he might want to come and inspect your work.”
The chaos erupted behind him before he was ten paces down the corridor. “Boys!” he muttered to Virana, who had waited to escort him even though the prefect’s office was in the opposite direction to the kitchen. “I don’t know what to do with them.”
Virana had no such doubts. “You should tell them if they don’t behave, you will tell their fathers and their fathers will beat them.”
“But it seems unfair…”
“Would you rather beat them yourself?”
“Well then. Tell them that, then they will behave, and nobody will get a beating and you will have done them a kindness.”
“I’ll think about it,” he promised. Privately, Albanus was not certain that he would have the authority to beat anyone once the prefect had finished with him.