Characters from the bookFrontier Wolf are owned by the estate
of Rosemary Sutcliff. No disrespect is intended by the writing of thie
Castellum is just to the west of what is now Edinburgh, where the village of Cramond now stands. The walls of Alexios' fort can still be paced out, and in 1996, well after Frontier Wolf was written, the Cramond Lioness was dredged up from the river Almond. It lies today in the Royal Museum of Scotland, in Edinburgh.
The Commander's quarters were the same the world over.
Even north of the Great Wall where the Frontier Wolves, the scum and scrapings of the Empire, were the Emperor's own eyes-and-ears against the Caledonian tribes. The Sacellum, at the heart of the Principia. Two small square rooms, half office, half sanctuary. The pay chest. The standard leaning against the wall - the Third Opto's with its green silk and silver-bronze dragon's head was bright against the white-lime plaster. An oil-lamp. A writing table. A bedchamber with a small cot. At Castellum, the native-woven rugs were worn so old their plaid had faded to a winter-heather gray.
All over the Empire men worked and slept in rooms like these, that Roman peace would hold. The Eagles - even the most irregular of the Eagles, at the northern fringes of the known world - rose to Cock-Crow and slept after Late Rounds. At night, in garrisons from Judea to the Danubius and beyond, the duty centurion sat sleepless in the Sacellum with his bared blade before him on the writing table whilst his commander slept.
Even on two day's uneasy acquaintance, it was not a duty that Alexios had expected the Third Opto to uphold.
Afterwards, with the shadow of the Arcani betrayal between them, Hilarion had said, "Did you think it was the tribesmen for whom the sword lay bare?"
But that first night, when he had lain awake in Julius Gavros' bed - it would be weeks before Alexios would think of it as his own - the Frontier Wolves' newest Commander had heard the sound of the duty centurion's footfall on the tiled floor of the day-room and reached for his sword.
Flint struck on steel. The oil-lamp, flared, sent shadows tumbling thin through the gap between curtain and doorframe. Alexios had not known then who kept watch, silent as the crouched stone lioness on the Tribune's grave, sleepless as he.
The second night he left the curtain open a bare half-inch.
"We did not know," Hilarion said. Later. "What kind of man you were."
He was stacking draught-pieces, bone on bone, but there was a smile at the corner of his mouth that said, 'Ours. Mine.'
On the second night Alexios had known to listen for the rustle of a Legionnaires' cloak and the shirr of sword drawn from scabbard. Tall and lanky in the shifting light, the shadow of a man crossed the doorway and settled at the writing desk. Silhouette rough at the edges. Wolfskin. Hands, lying in the pool of lamplight, thin and freckled.
"You would not have been the first Camp Commander to go missing beyond the wall," Hilarion said. "Where nothing moves but the painted people and the Arcani."
After Abusina, Alexios had not slept well. In fitful, broken leavings he dreamed of stumbling down directionless roads; impossible decisions; failure; death, and woke short-breathed and sweating into darkness. At Castellum, he dozed, half awake, half asleep, to the soft sounds of another living creature, the rustle of a wolfskin cloak and the click of draught-pieces playing out a solitary game. Some nights, the sound of a sharp knife paring wood.
He was glad of the company, at night.
It might be that the Frontier Wolves were not sure of their new Commander, but they were nevertheless taking care of their own.
There was one night when Alexios did not sleep at all.
"Did you guess, that first night?" Hilarion asked him. Later.
"No," said Alexios.
He had dressed. In cold air his breath whitened, and he was glad of the warmth of his cloak, and the fullered cloth of his trews. It was before he had killed his wolf, before Connla. Before the woman at the stream with her dead child and her bloodied clothes, although Alexios' hands were already stained with blood not his own and it was those memories that kept held him from sleep.
He had drawn back the curtain and stood in the doorway looking at his own First Centenarius, who had looked back unsurprised.
"It is not always safe, to sleep alone, beyond the wall," Hilarion had said.
"I was not sleeping," Alexios replied.
Hilarion did not sit straight at the desk as Alexios would have done but lounged in his chair, with a half-finished game of fox and hound drawn out before him on the wax tablet Alexios should have been using to tally the Third Opto's missing back-pay. For a moment they looked at each other, not the Dux Britanniarum's disgraced nephew and the Frontier Wolf, but two young men who might become friends.
"Walk with me," Hilarion said.
They had taken not the duty centurion's round of fort walls and barracks, but the short path that led past the shadows of the empty storehouses and the driven stathes of the old port, to the estuary. The tide was out, and the moon near full. At night the mudflats gleamed silver, and the wind from the sea was fresh and salt-scented. Behind them, mist curled in the river valley, but the sky above the sea was clear and the hills across the forth were limned in moonlight. There were geese overhead, skeins against the moon.
"They'll make good hunting, in a week or two," Hilarion said.
"We hunted grouse on the moors when I was a boy," Alexios said. "But not geese."
"There will be salmon, too, soon. Venus! It is something to see the leap of them ...," Hilarion said. And then, his voice slower, "The Commander does not sleep well."
"No," said Alexios. "The Commander does not."
The next night, Hilarion brought dice.
"I thought you would never ask."
Alexios was hardly one of the gilded lilies of the Tribune's staff and Hilarion, for all his mockery, was no fool. And it had to be, here, Alexios who did the asking as he had never had to do before, where these things were understood. With men of his own kind and rank, late at night by the gates of the old coliseum in Calleva or in the bathhouses of Belgae. But then this was a different thing altogether, this thing between him and his own First Centenarius, although he had not guessed how deep it would run on those first nights north of the Wall.
After his wolf. Before the Ferradach Dhu fell. In spring.
"Alexios. Sir." Hilarion had smiled then, the half-familiar irony of his tilted mouth and the flying eyebrows under the smooth cap of his hair the smile of a friend. Nothing more.
But Alexios was sure by then, as certain as he could be without asking, and he had considered asking night after night.
He had reached out, and lain his sword-hand on the brooch that bound Hilarion's cloak. Let it rest, with the emerald seal of the battered signet ring on his finger alive at its heart with lamplight.
"Yes?" Hilarion had asked, and under Aexios' hand his heartbeat leapt, once, and steadied.