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Cullen's Cub

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It was the sheep that had tumbled the wall, Servius’ new flock of long-legged, dark-coated ewes, as stubborn and as strong-willed as goats and just as agile. It had taken four men and two dogs half a day to herd them back into the in-bye, on a spring day sodden and grey with rain, and it was raining still. The sky was shading into darkness, and the stones scattered onto the grass were slick with water and slippery with moss, and Justin’s back was aching and his knuckles bruised. Yet from Flavius’ side of the wall, the chinks and scratches of the sound of limestone slotted back into place were as steady as when they had started. Justin’s side lacked a double hand span of layered stone, but Flavius was already slotting his coping stones into place. He was whistling through his teeth as he worked, an old marching song that Justin knew well but heard only in snatches between gusts of wind and rain splattering against the wall. “Citizens, keep an eye on your wives, we're bringing back our bald adulterer, he's fucked away the gold in Gaul that you loaned him here in Rome... ”

Flavius sounded almost cheerful. Straightening, rain dripped down Justin’s nose and trickled down his back: his rawhide boots were long since swollen with water, his borrowed cloak soaked through. Almost within arms-reach, an unrepentant and equally water-logged ewe regarded the rebuilt wall with a baleful, yellow-slitted eye.

“The Gauls have laid aside their trousers, put on the broad purple stripe... ”

Sourly, Justin thought of the well-built bathhouses of any legionary posting. From Numidia to Susa, from the mile-forts of the Wall to Rome itself, any legionnaire – a Medici Legionis, a Praefectus Castrorum – could be assured of warmth, clean water, and soap. But the old bathhouse on the spring line had finally cracked apart, the winter past and indeed, were it not for the sheep, he and Flavius would have been spending this, their first leave since autumn, digging out the foundations for the new. Tonight they would be bathing from buckets on the cold stone slabs of the atrium floor, and Justin winced at the thought of it, although afterwards there would be warmed wine and roast duck, and Great-Aunt Honoria’s preserved figs to follow. At the idea of eating, his stomach cramped, sustained by nothing but bread and cheese over the course of a long day.

Bending, he picked up the next stone, the one with the sheared-off angled corner that fitted against the last stone he had laid, that fitted against the one before that, and the one before that. On the other side of the wall, Flavius had stopped whistling, and for a moment, as Justin bent in the lee of the wall, the wind was silent.

Something moaned.

It could have been the wind, but for Justin, his ears trained to the sounds of the injured and ill inhabitants of a military hospital, the noise startled his head up and still as a questing hound’s.


Caesar vanquished the Gauls, Ceasar - I believe we may vanquish these stones by sundown,” Flavius said, on a note of deep satisfaction.

“Flavius,” Justin said, scrambling up his side of the wall to peer over the top.

Flavius glanced up at him, his red hair tangled and knotted, and a smear of mud across his cheekbone. Thus, he looked no more than the boy he had been when Justin and he had first met, not at all kin to the polished military commander in his scarlet and bronze he now was. “You had the deeper side,” Flavius said, his hands still busy at the wall. “Lend me one moment to finish here, and I’ll join you.”

“Do you hear that?” Justin demanded.


“That,” said Justin, and even as he spoke he could hear the noise again, a low, pained moan that sent his hands searching instinctively for the polished case of the tools of his surgeon’s trade.

“It’s the wind,” Flavius said, and set the last but one of his coping stones into place along the summit of the wall.

“I don’t think it is,” said Justin, head tilted to the sound. There was a break in the escarpment, a little further on, and the wall fell with it into the long-disused hollow way of a trackway older than both farm and village. Beyond, the uncleared scrub and the woodland beyond covered the moor and bent to touch the far side of the wall, but the dip within was small and sheltered enough to conceal half a herd of ewes.

Setting the last stone into place, Flavius looked up. “Do you shout for me, then, should it be a sheep benighted. Move: I’m coming over.”

Limber as he had been ten years before, although just a little thicker through the waist, Flavius swung himself over and set himself to bring order to the tumbled stones, and Justin set his face to the weather and walked swiftly along the line of the wall. He heard nothing more, but it seemed to him that despite the small stinging shower of rain and the whistle of the wind in the trees, the land was waiting on him, a cautious expectation, in the same way that he had felt the farm welcome him, when he had swung in through the gates for the first time with Flavius at his shoulder.

So, it was less of a surprise than it should have been, when he crested the small rise of the track and stood looking down into the dip, and saw huddled against the wall the ragged, battered figure of a boy. An injured and frightened boy, one hand pressed hard against his shoulder, where the dull red bloom of old blood and the scarlet stain of new sprung from under his fingers, and the other gripping a Saxon saex too big for his hand and unsteady. Under the rat-tailed, wet-ribbon streaks of his hair, his eyes were narrowed and so fiercely afraid that he could have been any wild animal caught alive in a trap.

“Sa, sa,” Justin said, sliding down the bank with both his hands stretched wide to show his lack of weapons, for who would have thought that that any Saxon raider would be this far inshore, two days from the coast and so near to Stane Street? And he and Flavius had expected this day to deal with nothing but sheep and stone. “Sa, see you, there is nothing to hurt here... ”

But as he came down into the grass of the hollow, the boy caught himself back against the wall and bared his teeth, and the dagger in his hand steadied.

“Do you but let me look,” said Justin, in the same tone he used with injured legionnaires and tired horses and small children. He was cursing the lack of his belt-pouch, already thinking of the hearth-fire and clean water and linen. “Come now, sweeting...”

“Justin!” Flavius shouted, above him.

Flavius must be standing on the top of the bank. Flavius with his upright stance, and his broad shoulders, and the tilt of his head that marked him beyond all doubt as Roman, and of the Legions. There was nothing but stark white fear on the boy’s face, and in an instant he was turning and scrabbling at the wall, desperate as any cornered animal, and all Justin could think of was that injured shoulder and the bright scarlet blood under the boy’s hand. He started forward, unthinking, and behind him he could hear Flavius shout.

When the boy turned, dagger in hand, Justin was already reaching for that shoulder. The boy’s teeth were bared, his eyes fever-blind, and the dagger was fixed in his hand and a hand-span from Justin’s throat. Justin flung up a hand instinctively, the boy screamed as he thrust the dagger forward, and the stone Flavius had cast from fifteen paces away whistled past Justin’s ear and slammed straight between those unseeing eyes.

“Name of thunder, Justin, what do you think you were doing?” Flavius shouted.

But Justin was already bending over his unconscious patient. He was thin, under-clad in a faded, patterned tunic of Gaulish weave, and his legs were bare and mottled with cold under the ragged hem, although his skin was over-hot when Justin laid his fingers to the unsteady pulse in the boy’s neck.

“There’s a hurdle still by the gate,” Justin said absently, as his hands folded back the tunic and laid bare the ugly gash in the boy’s shoulder, torn open and bleeding and yellow-black bruised around the wound.

“What?” Flavius said.

“The hurdle,” Justin said. It was a spear-thrust, he thought, no more than two days old, but although old blood and new rusted the scar of it no threatening red streaks of infection ran under the boy’s skin. “Quickly.”

“You do not mean this,” Flavius said. He was closer, standing over both of them. “Justin. He’s Saxon.”

Justin’s hands stilled. He turned around, and Flavius was still the man he had stood shoulder to shoulder with the past ten years, his kinsman, his companion in arms, his greatest friend. Flavius, with his red hair beaten into dark sodden strands and his hand on the dagger Justin had not even noticed he carried, and his face set and white.

“Should I leave him to die like a beast in the field?” Justin said.

“Him and all that comes with him?” Flavius said. “Him and his father and his brother and the warband behind them? Bind the boy’s shoulder if you must, but leave him for his own kin. For the gods sakes, think you we can hold off half a ship’s company, us and Servius and Cullen and Vindex and Gallus? Would the healing be worth the price when it is our roof in flames?”

“Fetch the hurdle, Flavius,” Justin said, and knew that his own face was set and pale and his throat tight around the words.

For a moment Flavius stood looking down, his brows drawn tight and the frown between them sharp as the blade of a spear, and then, clumsy and stiff as Justin had seldom seen him, Flavius spun away and scrambled up the bank towards the gate.

“So,” Justin said to the unconscious boy under his hands. “So.”

The binding was rough, fashioned out of scraps torn from Justin’s borrowed cloak – he would be going cap in hand to the weaver in the village, once this was over, Justin thought – but it held long enough. The boy was light, too light for the length of his limbs, and his worn, big-boned hands and feet dangled loosely from the hurdle, but Flavius and Justin were both tired and sore. It was a long and awkward journey they made of it, struggling over the short grass and hummocks of the pasture and down the track to the farm, in silence, Flavius’ shoulders hunched under the wet folds of his cloak and Justin’s eyes on his patient and not on his feet, but when at last they reached the open gates no fresh blood had seeped from the makeshift strapping. Clumsy, awkward-footed in their wet boots on Marcus Aurelius’ worn, tiled floors, they carried the boy inside and set him and the hurdle both down in Cullen’s place in front of the fire.

Flavia said from the doorway, “Water?”

“Hot,” Justin said, kneeling already. “And do you bring my case, and linen – clean linen. Flavius -” he said, and looked up, “Flavius -”

But Flavius was gone.

It was Flavia, still as pale and quiet and steadfast as she had been when Allectus’ Saxon wolves had broken their chains and laid waste to Calleva, who knelt beside Justin on the hearth and passed him his knives and the cleansing rags, emptied the bloodied water from the basin and brought fresh. Who, unflinching as she had been then, held both sides of the cleansed wound together while Justin stitched it with catgut, and the heavy beaten bronze needles Flavius had paid thirty sesterces apiece for, two winters past. Behind them, beyond the curtained door, men’s footsteps thudded backwards and forwards and Flavius’ voice spoke harsh and loud and exact as it did on parade ground and battlefield alike, but Justin did not hear, concentrated as he was on the boy’s hurt, and Flavia did not understand. It was Cullen, silent-footed, with his hound’s tail swinging low behind him, who lit the lamps and brought wood for the fire.

He never knew how long it took, that first, sharp healing, but by the time Justin was done Cullen was a silent huddle against the legs of the couch and Flavia’s eyes were wide and black and bruised tired under the long line of her eyelashes. The boy at least lay easier, clean and sleeping, but Justin himself was so tired his hands, so steady on the needle, were shaking now, and his heart was sore.

“Sleep,” he said to Flavia, and his voice too was low. “Go you with my thanks, and sleep. I need to keep a guard on that wound.”

“You will not,” said Cullen, uncurling himself. “My lord will sleep himself, and his hound keep watch.”

In lamplight, his face was tilted, stubborn, and very sure he had the right of things, and Cullen convinced could not be shaken. Guiltily thankful, Justin stood on legs that were a little shakier than he expected, and said, “You will call? If anything happens?”

“I will call,” Cullen said.

He did not. Justin woke late, to the sun streaming in the window above his bed already bright and the jingle of harness and the thud of horses’ hooves in the yard. He struggled upright, uncertain for a moment where he was and convinced that he was still in his cubicle off the valetudinarium in Venta Belgarum, and he had missed sick parade and his rounds and quite possibly Flavius’ morning briefing. Then he remembered the boy’s face, all fear and anger, and the surprising whiteness of the bone under his flesh, laid bare, and Flavius’ set jaw and his silence.

Cullen had not called. He might have fallen asleep. Flavius could have – but Justin put that thought aside, for although he still flinched from Flavius’ words, he could not believe that Flavius would be anything other than honest in his dealings. His patient waited: dressing in haste, Justin did not even pause to grab a mouthful of bread from the kitchen, but went swiftly to the tablinium. He was startled enough to linger, though, for in the colonnaded courtyard the hangings had vanished from the walls and the garden was stripped bare of Great-Aunt Honoria’s pots and planters: the stack of firewood by the door had vanished, and men’s muddy, sandaled footsteps crossed and re-crossed the stone. And the gates, the great oak gates, black with age and hard as iron, were closed, as Justin had never seen them before. He blinked at them, mazed, and then someone clapped him hard on the shoulder.

“Never you fear,” said Brentus cheerfully, “We have you safe. Half the village is a-watch in the fields, and the other half out with your Flavius. A fine lad, for a Roman. Ceasars might come and go, but we look after our own.”

Justin, braced under the weight of Brentus’ arm, for the village smith was twice his size sideways, half a head taller, and all of him muscle, blinked.

“It’s been too long,” Brentus said, and he was grinning, and at his belt hung the war axe Justin had only glimpsed hidden under the thatch of the smithy with the spear heads and native short swords Flavius pretended not to notice.

So. He had been asleep, and Flavius had called the men to arms. Justin shook his head, could find nothing to say to Brentus bar a twisted grin less blood thirsty than rueful, and stumbled past the stacked spears with their new, ash-white shafts and the piled brushwood and the stacked braziers to his Saxon.

They bred tough, those Saxon wolves with their blond braids and their blue eyes and their vicious war-packs. When Justin ducked through the doorway, his patient was awake, lying on the rugs in front of a banked-up fire and watching, bright-eyed, Cullen. Cullen, who was sitting cross-legged, his hands busy with a complicated, interwoven tangle of threads that even as Justin watched resolved into a ten-pointed star, one point for each of Cullen’s fingers and one for his thumbs. The boy smiled, Cullen shook himself, grinning, and let the pattern fall apart, and Justin took a deep, thankful breath, and walked forward.

At his footstep, the boy’s head came up, as swift as a hawk’s. The smile was gone in an instant, and the hand that fumbled at the blankets was all too surely searching for the saex Justin had laid safely aside the night before.

“Hold still,” Justin said sharply, and then, gentler, “It is only the wound I wish to see.”

But the boy’s face did not clear and he had caught himself up, was trying to struggle to his feet, would tear apart Justin’s careful stitches and his healing flesh alike.

It was Cullen who said something sharp and guttural and coarse, words Justin did not know, although he knew the accent of them and the pattern of the phrasing. He had heard them all too often in the streets of Calleva, held uneasy on Allectus’ leash, and he had heard them in skirmish after skirmish along the Saxon shore, as Rome sought to re-draw its boundaries and the long-ships with their black sails and their sea-wolves sailed again and again against the shore forts.

“Sa, sa, cubling, sitte,” Cullen said. “Sitte. Friund.”

The boy hissed through his teeth, and Cullen said something else, equally harsh, gesturing at the linens that bound the boy’s shoulder.

It was then that Justin remembered that Cullen, brave, absurd little Cullen with his hound’s tail and his self-effacing cat-like movements, his swift angers and his deep contentment: Cullen had spent six months the plaything of Allectus’ wolves and lived. Had that been him, he doubted, he could not have looked at the boy as Cullen did, half-amused, almost tender, for the Saxons were not gentle with their playthings.

Then Cullen grinned, wicked and sly, and said something else, and after a moment’s astonished silence, the boy ducked his head and smiled. It was a small smile, but real.

Justin walked forward and knelt at Cullen’s side. “Can you say that I need to see his shoulder?” he asked.

“I can,” Cullen said, and did.

The boy would not look him in the eyes, but to Justin’s eyes the gash was still clean, and no fresh blood marred the linens. “Tell him to keep it still,” he said. “Tell him not to pick anything up with that hand. If there is blood, I must know. Tell him -” Justin said, and Cullen flung up a hand.

“Enough!” he said, and growled out a series of words to which the boy nodded seriously.

Then Flavia was setting down a bowlful of broth and a spoon, and Justin bethought himself of his own empty stomach and stood, smiling at his patient. Cullen reached for the bowl, and Justin left them to eat and turned to the door.

The curtain was pinned back. Flavius stood in the doorway, Flavius in the stiffened leather jerkin he wore for practice with his short-sword belted at his side, Flavius with his jaw still set and no smile to match Justin’s. Justin opened his mouth to say something – he knew not what: it had been so long since he and Flavius had needed more than a nod of greeting or a swift smile between them – and his Camp Commander ducked away from the doorway and was gone.

The boy healed. Slowly, for he was underfed and weak with it, and the wound had taken more than it should have done from a boy his age. From Cullen, Julian learned that the boy was the son of a man bound in his lord’s service, and by the old bruises and the duck of the boy’s head gathered that service had not been kind. The raiders had been far from their ships and hungry, when they had encountered an unexpected patrol. Justin surmised a cohort of the Twentieth. The fight had been bloody and scattered, and when it was done the boy found himself alone. He had only vague memories of the next two days, stumbling through woods, alone and terrified and hurting.

Flavius, told, had refused to withdraw the patrols he had organised from the unmarried men in the village and the farm workers, retired legionnaires to a man, although they were lessoned. The spears were still stacked in the atrium. The braziers stood ready, and the gates closed: Flavius did not lay aside his sword, and in the evenings would sit silent, Flavia at his feet as she so often was. In front of the fire Cullen and the boy exchanged words – “Thank you,” he had said shyly, accented, to Justin that morning – and Justin tried and failed to find solace in Horace. It seemed to him that they would return to Venta, he and Flavius, further apart than they had ever been, the silence between them deep and cold and unbreachable. “I did not doubt you,” he wanted to say, as the boy healed, and it seemed to him that Flavius too wanted to reach out and could not find the words.

There were but four full days of their leave left, the evening Justin came in from the byre, from a mare who had endured her first foaling, and nearly walked into Flavius as he stood half-concealed in the atrium. Wearily, Justin started to apologise, and was stayed by Flavius’ hand on his arm. They had not touched since the wall, and the feel of Flavius’ hand was a warmth in his heart: he looked up, and Flavius was not looking at him. Instead, he was looking at the courtyard, where Great-Aunt Honoria’s pots and planters, returned, were piled haphazard and tumbled. The sun came soft through the early evening mist, and the courtyard was tracked with earth and green with herbs, and in the centre of it Cullen poked dispiritedly at a drooping willow in a cracked stoneware bowl and the boy was playing with a kitten. It was a kit of the half-wild cats who tenanted the farmyard, thin and fierce and earning their keep by teeth and claws, but in the boy’s hands the kitten lay half asleep and purring, tummy upturned and paws curled. The boy was smiling, and even as Justin watched he said something to Cullen. Cullen did not smile back, but there was a softening to the harsh, thin lines of his face that Justin had never seen before.

Flavius said, “Come out to the gate with me.”

Their stride had always matched, and Justin swung into place behind Flavius’ shoulder as he always had, although there was grey now amongst the red of Flavius’ hair and Justin’s eyes were not as clear sighted as they had once been. The sun was setting, and the long, gold light of it reached across the cleared pasture of the valley to the woodland, and just as he felt that first time, as every time since, Justin felt both welcomed and at home in this place, this small Downland farm in this outlying province.

“I’m sorry,” Flavius said. “I should have trusted you.”

There were long shadows across the grass, and the sheep were half asleep under the single oak tree, and from the wood a dog fox barked, once. The bats were out, swift shadows against the darkening sky.

Justin, eased, weary, let himself lean forward. Under his hand, Flavius’ shoulder was as warm and strong as it had always been, and although Flavius was not smiling there was a tilt to the corner of his mouth that was almost joyful.

And in this, as in most things, they were one.