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The Unlikely Spies

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A pale fat man haggling for wine on the waterfront, that was where the whole affair started. Near three weeks had passed since Paulinus had walked out into the glare of the torches, calm as a man taking a stroll to the baths. The house by the old theatre was not the only one in Portus Adurni that Allectus’s Mercenaries had burned, and when the Emperor went back to Londinium and his Mercenaries went with him, the trickle of men seeking passage to Gaul swelled like a dry mountain burn after a summer thunderstorm. The Berenice could not take them all, even had not her master Phaedrus been fearful of betrayal. So it was that Justin tramped the shores of Regnum Harbour, asking after work but never taking any, everywhere talking of the fierce August sun and the fiercer new taxes, and everywhere seeking another tradeship whose master had no love for the one who set those taxes.

The coast in these parts was crinkled, as if a man had splayed wide his hand and scooped out inlets with his fingers. And if that were so, surely the fortress at Portus Adurni commanded the broad sweep scraped by the thumb, while Regnum was left with the narrow wandering trace scratched by the smallest finger. But Regnum’s straight streets and statues and stone temples lay two miles inland. Its harbour was a mere jumble of jetties and sheds, few even with foundations of the local flint, which straggled along the east shore of the inlet as it meandered towards the sea. For all that, Regnum claimed the title of the oldest harbour in the province. It had served the tribal kings before ever the light of Rome had spilled over these shores, and it would continue to serve, no doubt, if the light of Rome were doused.

Evening was falling, the tide on the ebb. The lowering sun poured molten silver over the newly exposed mudflats, and scattered sparks onto the tips of the wavelets stirred up by the stiffening breeze. Warmth lingered in the wooden piers, and in the boats tied alongside them, and in the sun-bleached timbers of the boat-sheds and warehouses, but the day’s heat had passed. Justin was thinking eagerly of the bread and stew waiting for him at the Salamander at the harbour head, where the sea-traders supped. It was then that he glimpsed the man buying wine. A man in the uniform of the Eagles. A man with a familiar face. Justin turned aside and pretended interest in a catch of mackerel, but the smell turned his stomach, and the black stripes on their steel flanks had the look of the bars of a cell.

It was too late. ‘Surgeon Justinianus!’ exclaimed the man. ‘I’d know those ears anywhere in the Empire.’

Justin hastily moved away from the fisherman, the ears in question reddening.

‘You’re quite right not to buy anything from these scoundrels,’ the man continued. Ulpius, his name was. The Rutupiae quartermaster. He was so fat it had been a standing joke around the fortress that he’d stick like a bung in a bottle when next he visited his cellars. But what in the name of Aesculapius was he doing here, a full 140 miles from those cellars? ‘Falernian, that wine, they said! Faugh! It’s no more Falernian than yonder fish.’ He hefted an arm the colour of lard and rounded as a woman’s, and gestured towards the baskets of mackerel being loaded onto a mule-cart, but his eyes slid over Justin: one lingering glance then away to the quayside. ‘How is life in the north treating our young surgeon? It was the north you were posted to, was it not?’

Justin groped for words, uncomfortably aware that his shaggy hair nearly touched the greasy tunic that topped his native breeks. ‘Conditions on the Wall these days are b-barbarous, Quartermaster Ulpius,’ he managed. ‘You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to get a decent haircut.’

‘Then I give thanks to all the gods that I’ve never been posted north of Deva!’ The quartermaster gave his head a vigorous shake, as if to dislodge the unlucky notion. So thickly sleeked with perfumed oils and unguent were his locks that his half-moon of greying hair scarcely stirred. And, like a plunge into the frigidarium, Justin recalled meeting the man at the entrance to Serapion’s shop. But the greater part of the garrison visited that place for cure-alls and rubbing oils and aphrodisiacs. And if there was ill to be found in hair potions, why then he should never trust his cousin Flavius, whose sleeping cell was always littered with tablets and jars and half-empty pots!

‘And how is your kinsman the centurion enjoying the Wall?’ Ulpius went on, as if he’d plucked the thought from Justin’s head. ‘What was his name? Corvus?’

The man knew the name well, of that Justin was certain. ‘Aquila,’ he said. ‘C-command suits him, I think. But… I haven’t seen him in almost a month,’ he added, thinking furiously. They had never rehearsed a story for such a mischance as this, and Justin was no facile liar. ‘I’ve leave to return home to Nicaea. My father has been struck down with the p-palsy.’

‘Jove protect him,’ said the quartermaster, making the sign to avert ill fortune. ‘But if it’s passage to Gaul you’re seeking, would you not fare better in your uniform?’ His eyes slid over Justin again, a long look this time as if he were sifting through flour searching for weevils.

Justin brushed away the wilted sprig of broom tucked into his belt almost without realising what his fingers were about, and ground it into the pebbles with his boot. Then he cursed himself for drawing attention to the thing. ‘You can’t save on a cohort surgeon’s pay,’ he said, with as casual a shrug as he could muster. ‘Like this, the shipmasters don’t ask as much.’

‘I shall have to try that trick! You wouldn’t believe what the wine merchant wanted for that gut-rot. But the men must have something to fill their cups, or they’ll desert! I jest not. An unruly lot, the Portus Adurni garrison.’

‘You’ve been p-p-posted to Adurni?’

‘For my sins, for my sins… Do you know, the cellars there were so run down that I had to send all the way to Londinium to give the men an extra ration to toast their Emperor…’

Ulpius kept up his grumbling but Justin barely heard him. So the man had been at Portus Adurni when Allectus and his Mercenaries had come! He must know about the Dolphin and the sprig of rye-grass and the house by the old theatre that now stood open to the seagulls. Justin needed to make his excuses and leave. Now. But the words would not come to his lips and his legs would not carry him away. Ulpius’s voice rose and fell, and the little waves slapped and slapped against the boats by the pier, and the oystercatchers scurried back and forth over the foreshore across the inlet, and still he stood there.

~*~

Dusk was edging into darkness at the farm on the Downs when the boy Myron ran up the wagon-way and into the farmyard, scattering the chickens just as they were settling down to roost and flustering the doves in their cote. The farm-hands were still stirring, for it was harvest-time and even the last scrap of daylight was precious. But all the sense they could squeeze from the boy was a gasped ‘They’ve taken him!’ till Flavius and Anthonius came out onto the terrace to see what all the commotion was about.

Flavius barged into the press. ‘Can’t you see the boy’s hurt?’ he cried. He batted away the farm folk, harvest hirelings for the most part, kindly but curious, and cradled Myron to his broad chest. ‘Easy now,’ he said, as to a horse after a hard-fought race. ‘It’s over now.’ And after a time the boy calmed enough for he and Anthonius between them to half-carry him into the cubby-hole off the old atrium that Flavius laughingly called his study. They sat him down on a stool before the hearth where a low sweet fire of cherry wood was burning, for the two men had been talking there after supper.

Anthonius kindled a lamp and held it up to the boy’s face. ‘You’re all over blood,’ he said.

Flavius moved aside Myron’s hair as gently as he could with his big blunt fingers. ‘Ouch,’ he went, then added lightly, ‘Now where’s Justin when we have need of him?’

‘It’s nothing.’ Myron pushed Flavius away and tried to stand up. ‘Justin! You’ve got to help him! They’ve taken him!’

‘Take it slowly,’ said Anthonius. ‘One step at a time. Now who is it that’s taken Justin?’

And between the two men, and Cutha with a bowl of bread and milk, they coaxed the tale from the boy. ‘I was running errands for Justin down the harbour,’ he said, ‘like you asked me to. I come back and the place was crawling with Red Crests! One of them – this great hulking brute of a man – was asking questions of Justin. So I hid meself under a jetty where I could keep watch. But it was no good. It’s never any good!’

Myron remembered the salt-thick gloom between jetty and sea, body tight pressed against the sea-soaked wood, watching, watching, wet feet white and numb, blood blooming on his salt-drenched cheek where he’d grazed it on some barnacles…  Soldiers had terrified him since the time he’d lost his two front teeth for not scrambling out of the way fast enough, even before—

‘What was Justin about,’ he wailed, ‘just standing there, standing and smiling?’

And when the tale was done and Myron had let them sponge the blood from his face and had settled, milk-sleepy as a puppy, into a thick nest of rugs, Flavius said, in a voice very different from the one he’d used with the boy, a voice hard as a flint lodged in the chalk the farm was built on, ‘It’s a good question. What could Justin have been about?’

‘You’ve known Myron far longer than I,’ said Anthonius. ‘Is his word to be – I do not say trusted, but… relied upon? He dreams of terrors every night. Servius complains that his cries wake him up.’

‘More like Cutha’s snores! But you believe this could all be but another dream?’ Flavius wanted to wrap the notion about himself like a sheepskin.

Anthonius shrugged.

‘He’s seen such a thing as no boy his age should have seen,’ Flavius said slowly. ‘And he looked upon Paulinus as his father, remembering none of his own.’ He was staring into the remnants of the fire, the logs black and barely holding their shape—seeing in its place the smoke-black ruins of a house, as he had seen them night after night in his own dreams. ‘But he’s old enough, I judge, to know dream from truth.’

‘I judge likewise. Then we take his report as fact.’

Flavius nodded. ‘Agreed.’

‘So then,’ began Anthonius, ‘a man – who seemed very big to a slip of a boy – talked to Justin for some time – which seemed considerable to a boy crouched beneath a jetty freezing his feet off. Then the man whistled up three others, who arrested Justin and took him away in a mule-cart towards Regnum, with the first man riding alongside.’

‘And Justin made no attempt to evade arrest.’

‘And Justin made no attempt to evade arrest,’ repeated Anthonius. ‘It’s the mule-cart that confuses me most, though.’

‘Why would an uninjured prisoner not be made to walk, you mean?’

‘Exactly.’

‘And why turn onto the Regnum road?’ asked Flavius. ‘There’s no garrison there.’

‘If they were taking him to Londinium…’

‘…Then all is lost,’ completed Flavius. And in his mind was the pale face of Allectus as last he’d seen it, smiling whilst his Saxons sliced into an old mother with their saexes for sport.

‘Perhaps,’ said Anthonius, and his quick grimace said that same scene was in his mind also. ‘But they might just be sending him back to his posting on the Wall.’

‘For the cohort at Magnis to stone him for desertion,’ Flavius said bleakly. His thoughts leaped from disaster to disaster, nimble as the mountain goats he’d hunted with his cousin north of the Wall, when there was no better hunting to be found. And now his cousin was the quarry.

‘Come, come, my friend!’ Anthonius laid his hand on the other man’s arm for a brief moment. ‘The army doesn’t have so many surgeons that it can afford to waste them like that. Every commander knows full well they’ll have need of all the men they can get – and more – soon enough.’

And on that comforting thought, a scrape at the door put an end to the discussion. The two men by the hearth sprang up. Servius poked his head around the door, the lantern in his hand carving out the lines on his face as if in marble relief.

‘Kyndylan’s saddled up three ponies,’ he said. ‘Says he’s coming with you. And don’t you go mentioning the harvest, he says. The wheat’ll grow again next year, which is more than can be said for your—’

Anthonius interrupted the old man before he could say anything ill omened. ‘We are in your debt, Servius,’ he said, with a stiff formality that Flavius thought might spring from shyness. ‘And your son’s also.’

Flavius started, ‘But someone should stay here, in case…’

‘I can keep watch well enough myself,’ Servius snapped. ‘I might be stiff and grey but, the gods be thanked, I’m not yet blind. And there’s plenty here can wield a scythe if these new Sea Wolves should happen to come raiding. Aye, and I’m not so stiff myself as I couldn’t join them.’

Flavius strode to the door and placed his hands on his steward’s shoulders, and said very solemnly, ‘I am sorry – truly sorry – to have brought this on you all.’

‘There’s not a man here who’d have it otherwise, no, nor a woman neither,’ said the old man. His voice was gruff, and Flavius thought he saw a glint of water about his eyes in the lantern glare. ‘Now, get you gone!’

~*~

‘Walk with me,’ said Justin’s companion, and draped one weighty arm across his shoulders.

Justin had just begun to lower his guard. The quartermaster had invited him to ride back to Regnum on the cart he’d requisitioned to carry his barrels of wine, and Justin had deemed it safest to keep the man in his sight. Then it had been the bath-house, then the inn…

‘You look in need of a square meal, my young friend. The Owl and Trident is really quite civilised. Not to be compared with the Londinium inns, of course, nor the Golden Galley in Rutupiae – did you ever have the fortune to dine there? No? Pity. But the Owl is quite the best in these remote parts. Their wine list is rather decent…’

And indeed it served the finest food Justin had tasted since he’d eaten with the Emperor—the old Emperor. The wine had flowed freely and Ulpius imbibed deeply, and they talked of light matters, such as two men with next to naught in common might pass a pleasant summer’s evening over without once disagreeing.

Now Ulpius steered him away from the inn and the temple to Neptune and Minerva that gave the place its name, away from the baths and the basilica and the shuttered-up shops, away from the malodorous rooms above the laundry where the clerk Gallus would surely be cursing him as he waited, away from the workshops by the West Gate where potters fired fine burnished tableware by day, and craftsmen fashioned brooches of enamel, and counters and combs of bone, and down into the broad unpaved streets in the south-west of the town, where the city walls took a sharp turn to run along the river. The houses here were substantial, set well back from the street behind walls higher than a man’s head, and spaced apart from each other with gardens and orchards that must once have run down to the river. They had passed no-one since leaving West Street. It was dark, as dark as it ever got at this time of year, the sky like lead. And when Ulpius stopped, Justin brushed his palm over the little knife concealed beneath his tunic.

Ulpius paid the gesture no heed, if indeed he noted it. ‘In here,’ was all he said.

The gateway was proud, or had been. The emblem of a heron decorated the tablet above the arch, and its stone facing was carved with leaves and fruits. But the gate itself sagged from a single hinge, the ironwork rusty and the wood beginning to rot. Ulpius eased it aside and squeezed his bulk through, taking elaborate care not to snag the folds of his toga. Within was a wilderness that might once have been an orchard. The mossy old trees had laced themselves together until it was impossible to tell where one stopped and its neighbour began, and where the trees had withered, nettles and grass waved near breast high, damp with old dew. The scent of green things growing was overwhelming; Justin found he’d missed it within the walls of the town. Others had been there before them – lovers, no doubt – and there were paths beaten through the tangle. Ulpius took one, and minced his way to an open spot where some long-ago garden slave had once made a bonfire from fallen fruit trees. The broom had got a foothold on the ashy ground. Ulpius plucked a sprig and rubbed it casually between his fingers, without a word.

Justin stared at the man. The moonlight gleamed on his pale face, and his expression was quite clear. The drink had dropped from him like a pebble into a pool. When the ripples stilled, Justin saw that the man he’d been conversing with all evening was no more real than a reflection.

‘The old rye-grass was better, I think,’ the quartermaster said, after a time. ‘Less conspicuous. Easier to find.’

Justin said nothing, cataloguing over and over the ways he’d betrayed them all. The silence stretched and tautened like spider’s silk. Every word he failed to say, every protest he failed to utter, trapped him tighter and tighter in Ulpius’s web. But it was not silent, not quite. A tiny thread of sound tugged him back to the decaying orchard. ‘What is that sound?’ he blurted out.

‘Ah, the river gate. Much more commodious. Shall we?’ The quartermaster’s tone was that of a man proposing a change of seat at the amphitheatre. He ducked under the canopy of an ancient apple tree, its lower branches brittle and barren, and led the way down into the deep dank darkness beneath the city wall. ‘Mind your footing,’ he said. ‘You wouldn’t want to slip and cut yourself on that knife you’ve been fingering.’

It was a fair warning. Justin could barely make out the white of the man’s toga in the murk. He groped his way along the wall, flint rubble joining the brambles and branches and tree stumps beneath his feet. The sound was clearer here – water trickling, murmuring, bubbling – and the chill air smelled of earth and stone and the unseen river. Then, quite suddenly, the sound grew louder, the gloom lighter and something larger loomed – an upturned boat. It was one of the little flat-bottomed punts such as the tribesmen used.

‘Here we are,’ said Ulpius. ‘Why don’t you sit on the boat. It’s quite sound, I can assure you.’

Moonlight seeped through a low narrow slot in the city wall. The little grassy clearing it illuminated had been purged of brambles and nettles, and someone had scythed the grass – since the spring, Justin thought. A sturdy boathouse huddled beside the wall, made squat by its superior height. The heron emblem was carved on a tablet over its entrance, and it was repeated above the opening that Ulpius had called the river gate, where stone steps descended through the wall to an iron grille. And in the blackness beyond, the river flowed placidly through water meadows, still unseen.

‘What is this p-place?’

‘It is rather unique, isn’t it?’ Ulpius settled himself on the punt and patted the place beside him, but the gesture failed to bear fruit. ‘This stretch of the wall was the last to go up,’ he said, quite unabashed. ‘The river, of course. Made it more expensive. Something to do with the foundations, I expect. The fellow who lived here back then – what was it, thirty years ago? – was one of the wealthiest merchants in Regnum. His fingers were in every pie baking in the town’s ovens, not to mention all the deals they cooked up in the council chamber. He’d got the town elders eating out of his kitchens – if that’s not carrying my analogy too far!’ The quartermaster let loose a little giggle. ‘Are you sure you won’t sit down? No? So the man funded the south part of the wall out of his own purse, and the slippery blighter insisted on his own private gate as part of the deal. But the old lecher had got himself this pretty young wife – all of sixteen, and well born, too – and they say she was so put out at losing her pleasant view that she refused ever to set foot in the house again! And the joke is, instead of divorcing the little shrew, he built her a country villa! Can you believe it?’

Justin was inclined to wonder instead about the source of the man’s knowledge, but it hardly seemed to matter.

‘Now the whole estate’s mired in legal disputes,’ Ulpius continued, ‘and it’s come to naught but the local trysting place. Or so I’m informed. Never been much for the women, myself. Still, a pleasant place for a spot of quiet conversation, don’t you think?’

‘If you like t-telling stories by moonlight.’

‘I collect stories. I can tell you another one, if you like. It starts with two – now, shall we call them cousins? – who uncovered a plot against their Emperor…’ And he laid out the tale of their past year and a half just as if he’d been standing alongside them all along.

~*~

So this was Myron’s great hulking brute of a man! The Rutupiae quartermaster was certainly bulky, but he was soft as a sack of flour. Deadly enough in his own way, thought Flavius: a man could suffocate in enough flour. Fat old Ulpius was a drinking companion to all, and a friend to none. And there were blacker rumours about the man, also.

Flavius was belly-crawling along the top of the city wall, not wishing to make a present of himself to the Regnum Watch against the thin summer night, when he heard the voices. He’d scaled the wall beside the hungry river that scoured mortar and devoured flints in its flood, and where the river left off, the local farmers began, loosening stones by night for their houseplaces and cattle byres and grain stores. They left behind a ladder on the river face such as any man with a head for heights might ascend, while trees smoothed the passage to the ground on the town side. Neither presented much of a challenge to Flavius, who’d learned to climb in the green forest on the Chalk, and honed his skills in the stone forest of Aqua Sulis.

‘Ah, Centurion Aquila,’ said Ulpius, as Flavius slithered down from the boathouse roof into the clearing. ‘What a pleasant surprise! How kind of you to, ah, drop in on our little discussion.’

Flavius tugged at his tunic where it had rucked up during his descent. ‘Quartermaster,’ he said. But it was Justin his eyes rested on: Justin alive, whole, free.

Ulpius surged to his feet. ‘I was just congratulating you and your kinsman here on your loyalty to Emperor Carausius, the unfortunate soul—’

‘So I heard,’ cut in Flavius. ‘Cousin! A word in your ear.’ He grabbed Justin’s arm and propelled him into the blackness beneath the trees. ‘Have you taken leave of your senses?’ he hissed. ‘Myron believed you arrested—or worse.’

‘Ah, the p-poor boy,’ said Justin. ‘I wondered where he’d disappeared to.’

‘I’ve got Kyndylan asking at the East Gate about traffic on the Londinium road, and Anthonius riding out as far as Clausentium to put everyone on alert. Roma Dea! Falling in with Ulpius! The man would sell his own sister for a brothel slave if he thought he could turn a profit. What did you think you were doing?’

‘I hardly know…’ And Justin was telling of how the evening had slipped further and further from his grasp till he felt like a man stuck fast in the mud while the tide drifted in, when—

‘Fiends and Furies!’ Flavius cried. ‘The bastard’s sloping off.’

Ulpius proved nimble for a man of his bulk, and he knew ways within the old orchard that he had not shown to Justin. But he could be no match for two strong men half his age. Flavius lost his footing at an old stump, and it fell to Justin to bring the man crashing down in the thick grass near the orchard wall. When Flavius reached them, the quartermaster was struggling like a landed bass.

‘He’ll draw the Watch down on us!’ whispered Flavius. ‘Hold him steady!’ And he knocked him out with one calculated blow from his dagger hilt. Not knowing where else to go, the two men half-dragged, half-carried him back to the steps above the river, to the little pool of moonlight there. They rested wordless for a time, gulping in the cool moist air, while the river murmured, and a little breeze set all the leaves to whispering.

Flavius was the one to break the silence. ‘We have to kill him.’

Justin said nothing, only looked down to where the prone body gleamed very white.

‘There’s no other choice. He knows too much.’ Flavius sighed, a big gusty breath. ‘It’s not just us. My people at the farm… I’ve tangled up all their lives in this.’ He looked across at Justin, the great pale body between them, searching for something in his cousin’s eyes; he wasn’t sure whether it was assent or dissent, but the light was too dim for either. ‘It would be madness to trust him.’

Justin screwed up his face and nodded, one sharp nod. ‘It’s my d-doing,’ he said miserably. ‘I’ll finish it.’ And he reached inside his tunic for the little instrument-case on its sling that still he carried everywhere.

Flavius stayed his hand. ‘This is for me, cousin,’ he said. ‘Keep your tools for the trade they were made for.’

There are soldiers who take joy in killing, who relish the look of surprise on an enemy’s face when the thrust goes home. Flavius was not one of them. He’d seen action, and he’d killed, and ordered others to kill, in the press of battle, without thought or pity. And after, he could eat heartily and sleep soundly, and if his dreams were troubled it was those under his command whose passing moved him. But this—this was different. There was no skill of arms, no heat of action, only the dreadful duty to snuff out this life, that his friends might not suffer, that the work Paulinus had begun might go on.

Flavius kneeled on the cool grass beside the body. He loosened the man’s toga, felt for the ribs through the sweat-damp tunic beneath. A drop of moonlight danced up and down his dagger blade as his knife-hand trembled. He measured the blade with his eyes. Not long enough to be sure of the heart through the rolls of fat, not quite. It would have to be the throat. Bloody but sure. The head lolled at an angle, a couple of last year’s leaves clinging to the oil-sleeked hair. Flavius shuffled round till he could tip the head back into his lap. It smelled of sweet flowers, jasmine and lily, like a woman. He stroked his fingers over the smooth-scraped folds of flesh beneath the chin. The man had been shaved that evening.

Flavius looked up to where Justin was watching, his whole body rigid with the effort of not turning aside.

‘We can’t do it here,’ he found himself saying. ‘Too risky. Someone will stumble over the body when it’s barely cold.’

They could make the thing look like an assignation gone sour – that would be easy – it was not so far from the truth, after all. But even if they buried the body in the undergrowth, the dogs would have dug it up by first light. Nothing to connect it with Paulinus’s cause, to be sure. But it would lead straight back to the man whom dozens must have seen dining with the quartermaster at the Owl. To his cousin.

Flavius sheathed his dagger. ‘We’ll have to get him over the wall, somehow,’ he said.

‘Perhaps not,’ said Justin. ‘I might just have an idea…’

~*~

The river journey would have been enjoyable on this warm summer night, were it not for the death waiting at journey’s end. Justin’s notion had borne fruit: one great key at the quartermaster’s belt unlocked the river gate, and a lesser one opened the boathouse. And, in vindication of Justin’s suspicions, any boat the shed still housed must have been walled in by sacks and barrels and amphorae.

Flavius let out a low whistle. ‘So that’s the man’s game…’

And at that moment, Ulpius came round with a groan – rather to Justin’s relief, for he’d feared his cousin’s blow had been too hard. It proved a simple matter to truss the man up, gag him with a length of his own toga and cover him with sacking. Simple also to launch the punt, when once they had figured out how to drive the capstan. The splash the boat made was a burst dam to Justin’s ears, but the gate guards must have been napping, for they disturbed nothing larger than a moorhen and her chicks.

It was Justin who took up the pole. He’d last punted as a child in Gaul, one summer after his mother’s death when his father was away on campaign and the farm overseer’s son, a youth some six years his senior, had taken pity on the weedy lad and dragged him from his books to go boating on the millstream. At first he was occupied with balancing and steering and not losing the pole every time it stuck fast. Then his muscles remembered the trick of it, and his mind was set free to turn over and over the fate he had brought down on the quartermaster, until each stab of the pole into the mud of the river bottom became a spear thrust into a man’s belly, and the water trickling down his arms turned to blood. And so caught up was Justin in such thoughts that he failed to mark how meadow grass and nodding cow parsley became samphire and cordgrass, and how sweet water turned to salt, as the river wound its way out to where, a century or more back, the sea had swallowed up the pastureland and spat it out as salt marsh.

Then the pole grated as they crossed the stones of the ford. ‘Watch out!’ called his cousin.

It was too late. The tide had the little boat between its teeth. It tugged them into the river’s throat, where the water ran deeper by far than the length of the pole, and thrust after thrust found naught but failure. For a time Justin held onto the thought that all might still turn out well, that the rising tide might drive them to the shallows at the harbour head, that – if truth be told – the quartermaster might somehow contrive to break free. Then the soft grey pre-dawn light hardened into sunrise, and their true plight became clear. They had spent too long launching the punt and negotiating the long dark miles to the sea, and the tide had turned.

And the tide’s ebb, slow but relentless, swept them into the heart of the channel where little waves played, foam at their crests, in the slate-dark sea. Waves thumped against the bows, and the boat bounced till Justin nearly lost his footing.

‘Sit down, you fool!’ cried Flavius. ‘You’ll have us all in!’

On they swept, past galleys at anchor, past jetties and warehouses busy with the dawn tide’s trade, past the tile-works’ chimneys just starting to smoke, past oyster beds and the shallow quiet pools of the salt pans, past mile upon mile of reed beds where naught stirred but heron and curlew. They swung round the inlet’s elbow, the rising sun at their backs painting their shadows along the whole length of the punt. Three shadows, for when the bustle of the port lay behind them, Flavius pulled the sackcloth from their cargo and helped the bound man to sit up. Faster and faster the tide swept them, past one promontory, then another, and out into the broad expanse of water, broken with islands great and small, that the Portus Adurni fortress guarded. Caught on the hook of the tide, the little punt swung south, buffeted now by bigger waves, bigger by far than the low-slung riverboat had been built for.

Then the waves began to break over the bows, over Flavius who sat foremost, till his wayward hair was plastered dark and flat to his head. ‘Name of Thunder!’ he cried. ‘We’ll have to swim for it. This sorry excuse for a boat isn’t going to take much more punishment.’ And without word or thought, one cousin cut the quartermaster’s bonds and the other tugged off his gag.

‘It might not trouble you to know,’ Ulpius began, as soon as his mouth was free, ‘but I fear I am quite unable to swim. If I might suggest… if my friend the surgeon were to yield the pole to me, and you fine strong men were to paddle, we might hope to make land over there.’ He gestured towards a slender spit of sand where sandpipers scurried like ants on an anthill.

And so it proved. The quartermaster was adept with the pole, and those meaty arms hid a surprising strength. He steered hard to starboard, wielding the pole as both rudder and oar, and the two cousins paddled with their arms as though competing for an olive crown, and the little punt grounded on the sandbank with a shudder. But as they lay winded on the damp gravel atop the bank, and the sandpipers settled back to their foraging above the tide-line, and the morning sun coaxed little swirls and spirals of steam from the sea-wet sand, Justin marked his cousin’s hand creeping to his dagger hilt, and all of the sun’s warmth could not save him from shivering.

Was Ulpius to be trusted? Justin still could not be certain. He wished that he had Paulinus’s gift, to look straight to a man’s heart. But he did not need Paulinus to tell right from wrong. ‘We cannot do this thing,’ he said quietly, mastering his stutter with an effort. ‘It would make us as bad as our enemy.’ And he was remembering the Saxon seaman they had captured in just such a place as this, remembering him lying dead in his cell with nightshade on his lips. ‘You say it would be madness to trust him, but this whole venture we’ve inherited is madness.’

‘But he’s a thief,’ said Flavius. ‘And most likely a blackmailer.’

‘And we are d-deserters. But not murderers, not yet.’ His cousin looked stricken, and Justin knew he’d won the point.

‘We can’t just let him go!’

‘What else can we do? We can’t ship him to Gaul, Phaedrus would never t-take him.’

‘I am glad that is settled,’ was Ulpius’s comment. ‘But, really, was it necessary to tear up my best toga? How I am to get a new one, what with the Saxons making a man hesitate to risk the Londinium roads, that is what I would like to know…’

So it was that the Portus Adurni Quartermaster became perhaps the least likely recruit to follow the sprig of broom. And over the months that followed he sent men and information and the occasional barrel of Allectus the Traitor’s wine to the farm on the Chalk. And when all was over, and a new Emperor was proclaimed, the name of Titus Ulpius Ardea was among those commended to the Senate by the Legate Asklepiodotus. The bounty he was awarded enabled him to buy back his father’s house—but as to whether barrels of his rightful Emperor’s wine ever found their way into its boathouse, now that is a tale for another time.