… okay, that should just about do it. Can you state your name for the record, please?
Publius Ovidius Naso, is that what you said?
I can’t quite hear you. You’ll have to speak up.
… when I lived in the wood
I was watered with blood …
Is that a poem, is that one of your poems?
... It was quite late when the ship reached port. There was nobody there to greet us. I discovered afterwards that it’s considered very dangerous to go out after dark. Under normal circumstances the arrival of news from the outside world would have brought the whole population down to the shore, all eager to see and hear the strangers from the Great Sea.
The captain ordered me ashore, nevertheless. He had strict instructions to do so, of course – not to harbour this criminal a moment longer than he had to – but I could tell that he rather enjoyed getting the chance to enforce them. He’d resented having to delay his departure from Byzantium, that little town in the straits, for a mere political prisoner.
For my part, I was quite glad to go. He hadn’t actually made me sleep on deck, but quartered me with his junior officers who (for their part) had been nothing but charming throughout. The first shy request to write a letter for a distant girlfriend came a couple of days into the voyage. And after that they shared many a confidence with me.
My particular friend, Rufus, the youngest and least inhibited of them, slipped me a small package before I was hoisted into the little rowboat to be taken ashore (no treadwheel cranes for unloading cargo in the upper Black Sea!)
Depositing me on a small pebbly beach, they gestured vaguely towards the huts a short way further up the strand. “The inn, try the inn,” one of the sailors barked gruffly, trying to conceal his emotions from me.
Rufus's package, when they were far enough away for me to unwrap it safely, turned out to contain a dagger, a couple of crusty bread rolls, a few coins, and a note.God help You. Beware of Witches
was all it said.
There was, of course, no inn.
I spent the rest of that night huddled in my boat cloak under the shelter of a rock (it came on to rain a few minutes after they landed me). The biting cold kept me awake, which is probably the only reason I survived my first exposure to the hospitality of the natives of Tomis.
Not one of them would open a door to me, despite my cries and entreaties.
By morning I was beginning to shake with fever. (At least, I know now that’s what it must have been. At the time I seriously wondered if one of those night-spirits they'd warned me about hadn’t taken possession of my limbs). I was unable to stand up, and I fear that anyone who came wandering over out of curiosity would have heard me babbling in Latin, a language completely unknown to them.
And, to do myself justice, they did look a good deal like demons to my untutored eye: short, dark, swarthy men with feather cloaks and bright tattooed designs all over their faces and bodies.
I heard later that the first sailors coming ashore with trade goods from the ship took pity on me and arranged for me to be taken indoors. They may even have paid for my housing, for the next thing I was really aware of was lying in a rough cot in the corner of a hut, with a basin of water beside me and a cool hand wiping my forehead.
Everything else around me seemed blurry and uncertain, and I realised that the fever was affecting my sight. I couldn’t see my nurse’s face, only the dark fur coat she was wrapped in, and the perfect soft rondure of her hands.
Luckily she spoke a little Greek. She was, in fact, a stranger there herself, she told me. But the closest thing to a doctor the town contained – a trade she’d taken up when her merchant husband had been ambushed by savage tribesmen nearby, leaving her abandoned here with their litter of small children.
“And where are they?” I asked.
She shrugged. Here and there, in and out. They came for their dinner, she gave me to understand, but otherwise were a law unto themselves. The locals had little truck with strangers, even those who’d grown up among them.
I could keep nothing solid down those first few days in Cimmeria (a little further up the coast, but still, as accurate a name as could be found for this harsh stony land of ice and snow, with its tattooed tribesmen and small enclaves of Greek civilisation). She fed me on strong warm draughts of cattle blood.
I gagged when I first learned what I had been drinking, but she told me it was a common thing to bleed the cattle here. Without such expedients one would hardly survive the winter. It was high summer when I had arrived, but already the year was declining into Autumn, the nights were drawing in, and the patches of ice were beginning to appear on the pools and rivers.
Two images remain with me from that time lying, weak with fever, in the woman’s hut. The first was looking over, in the firelight, and seeing her cut a long gash in her arm, letting the dark blood drip down into a bowl beside her feet. It looked like the bowl she’d been feeding me from, but perhaps it was some rite she was performing. Savage gods perforce make savage demands.
The second, and you must remember that my eyes were still weak from the fever, and untrustworthy at the best of times, was a few days later.
I woke to find her children, furry and dark as she, gathered around her as she fed them, their little heads pressed tightly against her belly, sucking at the perfect double row of teats that ran all the way down her body from her shoulders to her hips …