Some of the braver children actually emerged onto the streets, until he had a following of half a dozen urchins of varying ages and sizes, and both genders. He stopped and turned on them abruptly, and they shrank back. But he had not the heart in him to be fierce with them, and when he saw that several of them were drawn and skinny, he tossed them some hard bread from his rations. They grabbed it hungrily, the eldest taking charge and sharing it out fairly.
Then a tan-skinned, crease-faced woman ran from one of the huts and grabbed one of the children by the hand. She yanked the little girl away, batting the food out of her hand so it fell into the dirt. The girl cried as she was hauled off to her hut, but the mother hurried inside, and with one disgusted look at Oclatinius, slammed the door shut.
Oclatinius looked at the oldest child. “What was that about?” He knew the child wouldn’t understand, but he did his best to look perplexed.
The child pointed to his own face, and stabbed it repeatedly with his index finger. What was he doing? Then Oclatinius realised. He was signifying the rash, this pox that had appeared recently among the soldiers. So the townsfolk were scared of that? He rubbed his own pock-marked face thoughtfully, and continued on to the well.
The few townsfolk who had ventured out for water scattered at his approach. Was it the natural fear of a soldier? Before this last encounter, he would have assumed as much. But now, he wondered, was there another reason? Were the locals familiar with this disease, this poxy affliction, and were avoiding the soldiers like the… plague?