That evening, there were no fires visible as far as Oclatinius could see from his guard tower. As far as they could tell, immediately after the battle, the Parthians had packed up camp and melted away into the desert. Quintillius would not let them reduce their vigilance, but Oclatinius knew the siege was over.
When his watch was over, he went to report to the centurion. He found him outside his tent, in discussion with Fulvius and Cominius.
“So how come we three haven’t caught this pestilence?”
Fulvius shrugged. “I have no idea. I don’t know where it came from, how it spreads, or how it does the damage it does. I have noticed one thing though. Can I ask where you two grew up?”
“In Campania,” said Cominius.
“In a small village in Cisapline Gaul.”
Fulvius caught sight of Oclatinius lurking nearby.
“And you, Oclatinius?”
“On my father’s farm.”
“I think that people who grew up in the countryside have some resistance to the disease. Maybe there is something in the country air that provides protection. But it’s just a theory.”
Oclatinius rubbed his hands over the pock marks on his face. That illness, mild as it had been, had seemed similar in some respects to this much more serious sickness. Was it that that had protected him? He dismissed it from his mind. He was alive, and well, and that was all that mattered.
“How many are left, Fulvius?” asked Quintillius.
“A third dead from sickness or in battle. A third ill, some of whom will die. A third are well. At least for now.”
“Oclatinius, what did you see?”
“No sign of them, sir.”
Quintillius nodded. “It was a good idea of yours, lad. And you knew it would work, just from your observations of the reactions of the townsfolk and the soldiers to the disease? You knew they had seen it before and would fear it?”
Quintillius clapped him on the shoulder.
“I see great things for you, boy. You are destined to be more than just a legionary, I feel. Now go and get some rest. We will spend tomorrow in the town, then we will march again. And hopefully reach Palmyra before the pox or the Parthians take us all.”
“If Oclatinius is right, the Parthians should keep their distance now, knowing we have the illness among us.”
“Let’s hope. Dismissed, legionary.”
Oclatinius wandered through the town, drained physically and emotionally. That the centurion had trusted him still amazed him. But what other choice had he had? If it hadn’t worked, they were doomed anyway.
With that word ringing around his head, he went to check on his friend. Bricius looked spent, but he smiled when he saw Oclatinius. He had a half eaten piece of bread in his hand, and Oclatinius thought he looked a little better in himself. Bricius confirmed this when he was asked.
“I don’t know if it’s the excitement of combat or the disease is waning, but I do feel a bit better. Though when I have finished eating, I’m going to sleep for a week.”
“We made it through, Bricius. For all your warnings. We have made it through disease and war.”
“For now,” said the pessimistic Gaul.
Oclatinius reached under his armour and drew out the winged penis on its leather strap.
“Here,” he said, putting it over Bricius’ head. “You can show this to your mother when you see her next. Tell her you kept it safe. And in turn, how it kept you safe.”
He looked around at the dead, dying and diseased all around them, and wondered what would happen when the infected reached big cities like Palmyra and Antioch. But that was not his problem.
He put his arm around Bricius’ shoulder, and exhaustion finally claiming him, closed his eyes.