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Chapter 52: The Attack

As the short stay at the home of Bellianus lengthened into a week, Sahelis offered to undertake some duties for his hosts, Priscus and his wife Galla. Galla was a short, spare woman, lean as a hound, who moved about the house with an almost stealthy grace. She was efficient and neat, and as Sahelis observed her (which he often did) he noticed that she managed a huge number of tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, at the same time as she kept the younger children out from underfoot and occupied with various diversions. Placidia Gratiana kept to herself and at a distance from Sahelis, and seemed only in evidence when she was helping in the kitchen or in bathing or in other ways tending to her brothers. After three days of comparative idleness, Sahelis managed to get assigned to tasks of procuring vegetables at the market for Galla and obtaining parcels and messages from the Lyceum for Bellianus, work that was usually consigned to a servant.

It was on one of these journeys, this time to obtain vegetables, that brought Sahelis past the East Gate and the place where he had met Claudia Fausta, and he was reminded afresh of her messages to him. Struck by a sudden curiosity, he followed a familiar path down a lane to the guest house. He moved quietly down the narrow lane to the rear door, and to his surprise, found the latch undone, and the door ajar. He stepped into the gloom.

A slight sound arrested his attention, and he paused, listening. There was someone within, in the farther room where he had lain with Claudia Fausta. He heard what sounded like a soft moan. He felt around him for a lamp - but there was nothing within reach of his hands. He moved forward with caution into the impenetrable darkness, feeling along the wall for an opening that might indicate a window. At last, his fingers touched a tapestry which he moved aside, admitting daylight. In the sudden light, he saw a form on the bed beyond that moved slightly, accompanied by another, louder moan. It was Claudia.

Dropping the tapestry, he plunged forward to her side and pulled aside the blanket that covered her. "Claudia, it is Sahelis. What is it, what has happened?"

"Who?" she murmured. He had found the lamp next to the bed, and struck the flint lying next to it. The light came up dimly - it was almost empty of oil.

"Claudia," he said again, patting her face. There was a dark shadow across one side of her face, obscuring one closed eye. In the lamplight, it was difficult to tell the nature of the shadow, but the swelling around the cheek and eyelid was unmistakable. She had been beaten. Dried blood was crusted beneath her nose and on her upper lip, and she did not appear to waken when he touched her, but rather fell back into semi-consciousness. He had to get help, and he dared not move her. Setting the lamp securely on its stand, he said "I am going to get some help. I will return."

Not knowing what else to do, Sahelis hurried back to Galla Bellianus, who was awaiting his arrival with food for their dinner. Bursting in through the front door, he called for her and she came out rapidly, wiping her wet hands on the ever-present towel wrapped around her waist.

"There is a girl injured, she needs a physician right away."

"In the marketplace?" she asked, shaking her head in confusion.

"No, Lady… in a house down the lane. I stopped there and found it awry, so I went in. It is a girl of my acquaintance… the daughter of Verginius Cestis. She needs help!"

Galla Bellianius stripped the towel off, suddenly businesslike. "I will come with you, we will get Rufinus. He is a leech. What is the matter with the girl?"

"She was beaten, she was in a swoon.." Sahelis puffed along side the woman, who raced out and down the street to a small house on a side lane. She beat upon the door with her fist.

"Rufinus!" she shouted. "Get out of your cups and open the door! This is Galla Flavia, and I will beat down the door if you don't answer! Someone has need of you!"

Within seconds, it seemed, the door was opened a crack. Bellianus's wife pushed her shoulder into the opening and widened it., and it suddenly gave to the pressure. Beyond it a small, grizzled man with a long beard stood, bare-chested, pulling on a tunic. "What is the clamor?" he whined, blinking at the sudden sunlight, his eyes coming to rest on Sahelis standing on the doorstep. "Someone in childbirth, Galla Flavia?"

"No, worse. Get your things, and come along." The old physician shuffled away, and returned a few minutes later. "Lead on, Sahelis, to wherever we are going," she commanded.

Sahelis led them back east, to the lane that led from the East Gate. As they neared the guest house, his fear rose that she would be gone when they arrived, or worse - dead. But conditions were much the same when they entered the house - Galla Flavia pulled aside the tapestries covering the windows, and daylight flooded into the room. The girl stirred slightly. Rufinus the leech set down his kit and murmured to her, then set to work.

Galla Flavia left them as soon as she was satisfied that things were well in hand, and told Sahelis that she would send a servant for Verginius as soon as she returned home. To Rufinus she said "her father will pay you when he arrives, so it behooves you to stay." The old man nodded wearily, dabbing with a wet cloth at the girl's head.

"What is wrong with her?" Sahelis asked cautiously.

"You see this?" Rufinus pointed to the side of Claudia's head where the bruise ran dangerously dark. "That is where she was struck. Probably by a candlestick or something…" he looked around the room… "it is probably on the floor here somewhere. "Something quite heavy. Her brain has swollen from the blow. I am trying to make her wake from her swoon, or she may not wake at all. It is a dangerous sleep to fall into. Otherwise, there does not appear to be anything else wrong. Did you do this?"

"Me? Of course not!" Sahelis was outraged by the leech's suggestion, but upon second thought, he realized that he had no defense against being accused, unless Claudia Fausta were to awaken and name her assailant. What would Verginius Cestis believe, when he arrived to find his daughter ill with such an injury? His heart began to beat fast in his chest, and he felt an urgent desire to escape. But there was nothing else to be done: he had done right to seek help for Claudia Fausta, and he would not run away from the consequences. He stood stock still, waiting in utter dread, for the arrival of Claudia's father, and watched Rufinus hold a cup, hands trembling, to the mouth of the unconscious girl, patting her cheek to make her stir enough to take a sip.

Before an hour had passed, Rufinus had managed in his slow, patient way to get Claudia Fausta sitting up, her good eye half-open, and accepting small sips of the draught he had hastily compounded from the flasks in his medical bag. She still seemed only partly aware of her surroundings, but her breathing was steady, but she was, for the most part, awake. Her face was gruesomely swollen along her left temple, which pulled the edge of her mouth left in a sort of tilted half-smile. A small trickle of blood would leak from her nose from time to time, and when she began to sniff, the attentive Rufinus would dab at it and wipe it away. Sahelis felt a powerful sympathy for the girl, and once again, found himself thinking of Saheris, lying feverishly unconscious in Maeotis. He did not hear the footsteps outside, or the front door open directly into the room where he stood.

"Ho there," said a deep and familiar voice. "I know you - Sahelis the Bithynian. What is this? Claudia!" Verginius Cestis towered above him suddenly, snapping Sahelis to sudden attention.

"Yes, Lord," Sahelis replied politely, wringing his hands. But Verginius had lost interest in Sahelis and knelt beside the bed, placing a gentle hand upon his daughter's undamaged cheek.

"What happened to you?" he said, his voice now gentle. "Who has done this?"

Claudia Fausta blinked, then stared stupidly at her father, as though the words had not as yet penetrated her mind. "My… head," she rasped.

"Yes, your head. Who did this to you?"

"She has suffered a serious blow, Lord," said Rufinus. "She has now had a draught which should waken her somewhat, but will need more. And she should be walked to shake off the swoon. It is not safe for her to sleep for many hours."

Verginius turned to the elderly leech. "You can attend her?" The old man nodded. "Then I will pay you to attend her. How long is she likely to be in danger? A night, two? Stay with her as long as you think there is danger, and I will send for whatever you need."

"As you wish, Lord."

"Now what have you to do with this, Sahelis El Maduc?" Verginius turned once again to Sahelis, whose heart leapt in his chest. "Did you see who did this? You would not be here if you had struck the blow…"

Sahelis shook his head. "No, Lord. I did not see. I was passing in this lane and heard moans within…" a little exaggeration could not hurt, could it?

Verginius interrupted. "And her good fortune that you did! Daughter, please, tell me what who has done this brutal thing." Claudia Fausta once again fixed a curious, dull gaze upon her father, and her dry lips opened.

"L-lucius.." she whispered.

"What?" her father snapped, leaning his head closer.

"Lucius," she said, more clearly. And Verginius straightened up, his face drained of all color. Sahelis let out a breath. Lucius was Claudia Fausta's oldest brother.

Verginius stood. "Here, Rufinus, take this for what you have done so far. I will send a servant to conduct what errands you need done. Until then, young Sahelis, will you stay as his assistant until I can send my boy to him?"

"Of course, Lord." Sahelis made a brief gesture, the Roman bow he had learned from his short stay in the house of Bellianus.

"I will send a message to your hostess for you that you will be late upon return. Please be patient."

And so Sahelis sat with Rufinus as he gently coaxed the battered girl to wakefulness, and helped her rise to shuffle about the room, and keep from falling back into her swoon. Late afternoon had turned to misty darkness when at last a knock came at the door and a servant entered to relieve Sahelis of his duty.

"Lord Verginius wishes for you to call upon him tomorrow at dinner hour, Lord Sahelis," he recited in a reedy voice. The boy was no older than himself, but thin and hungry-looking. He carried with him what looked to be a pack of provisions and a bedroll. He had come prepared to stay, and brought a flask of wine and several loaves of bread. Rufinus reached immediately for the wine.

"One flask," he muttered, taking a long draught on its neck. "You may go now, Sahelis. Before you collapse on your feet." With a final glance at the injured and distracted Claudia Fausta, Sahelis departed. In the hours he had attended her, at no time did she look him in the face or appear to recognize him at all. It was this fact, rather than the lurid black wound on the side of her head, that distressed him the most.

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