Read an Excerpt
The Saxon Shore
On a blustery autumn day a galley was nosing up the wide loop of a British river that widened into the harbour of Rutupiae.
The tide was low, and the mud-banks at either hand that would be covered at high tide were alive with curlew and sandpiper. And out of the waste of sandbank and sour salting, higher and nearer as the time went by, rose Rutupiae: the long, whale-backed hump of the island and the grey ramparts of the fortress, with the sheds of the dockyard massed below it.
The young man standing on the fore-deck of the galley watched the fortress drawing nearer with a sense of expectancy; his thoughts reaching alternately forward to the future that waited for him there, and back to a certain interview that he had had with Licinius, his Cohort Commander, three months ago, at the other end of the Empire. That had been the night his posting came through.
“You do not know Britain, do you?” Licinius had said.
Justin—Tiberius Lucius Justinianus, to give him his full name as it was inscribed on the record tablets of the Army Medical Corps at Rome—had shaken his head, saying with the small stutter that he could never quite master, “N-no, sir. My grandfather was born and bred there, but he settled in Nicaea when he left the Eagles.”
“And so you will be eager to see the province for yourself.”
“Yes, sir, only—I scarcely expected to be sent there with the Eagles.”
He could remember the scene so vividly. He could see Licinius watching him across the crocus flame of the lamp on his table, and the pattern that the wooden scroll-ends made on their shelves, and the fine-blown sand-wreaths in the corners of the mud-walled office; he could hear distant laughter in the camp, and, far away, the jackals crying; and Licinius’s dry voice:
“Only you did not know we were so friendly with Britain, or rather, with the man who has made himself Emperor of Britain?”
“Well, sir, it does seem strange. It is only this spring that Maximian sent the Caesar C-Constantius to drive him out of his Gaulish territory.”
“I agree. But there are possible explanations to these postings from other parts of the Empire to the British Legions. It may be that Rome seeks, as it were, to keep open the lines of communication. It may be that she does not choose that Marcus Aurelius Carausius should have at his command Legions that are completely cut away from the rest of the Empire. That way comes a fighting force that follows none but its own leader and owns no ties whatsoever with Imperial Rome.” Licinius had leaned forward and shut down the lid of the bronze ink-stand with a small deliberate click. “Quite honestly, I wish your posting had been to any other province of the Empire.”
Justin had stared at him in bewilderment. “Why so, sir?”
“Because I knew your father, and therefore take a certain interest in your welfare…How much do you in fact understand about the situation in Britain? About the Emperor Carausius, who is the same thing in all that matters?”
“Very little, I am afraid, sir.”
“Well then, listen, and maybe you will understand a little more. In the first place, you can rid your mind of any idea that Carausius is framed of the same stuff as most of the six-month sword-made Emperors we have had in the years before Diocletian and Maximian split the Purple between them. He is the son of a German father and a Hibernian mother, and that is a mixture to set the sparks flying; born and bred in one of the trading-stations that the Manopeans of the German sea set up long since in Hibernia, and only came back to his father’s people when he reached manhood. He was a Scaldis river-pilot when I knew him first. Afterward he broke into the Legions—the gods know how. He served in Gaul and Illyria, and under the Emperor Carus in the Persian War, rising all the time. He was one of Maximian’s right-hand men in suppressing the revolts in eastern Gaul, and made such a name for himself that Maximian, remembering his naval training, gave him command of the fleet based on Gesoriacum, and the task of clearing the Northern Seas of the Saxons swarming in them.”
Licinius had broken off there, seeming lost in his own thoughts, and in a little, Justin had prompted respectfully, “Was not there a t-tale that he let the Sea Wolves through on their raids and then fell on them when they were heavy with spoil on their h-homeward way?”
“Aye—and sent none of the spoil to Rome. It was that, I imagine, that roused Maximian’s ire. We shall never know the rights of that tale; but at all events Maximian ordered his execution, and Carausius got wind of it in time and made for Britain, followed by the whole Fleet. He was ever such a one as men follow gladly. By the time the official order for his execution was at Gesoriacum, Carausius had dealt with the Governor of Britain, and proclaimed himself Emperor with three British Legions and a large force from Gaul and Lower Germany to back his claim, and the sea swept by his galleys between him and the executioner. Aye, better galleys and better seamen than ever Maximian could lay his hands to. And in the end Maximian had no choice but to make peace and own him for a brother Emperor.”
“But we have not k-kept the peace,” Justin had said bluntly after a moment.
“No. And to my mind Constantius’s victories in North Gaul this spring are more shame to us than defeat could have been. No blame to the young Caesar; he is a man under authority like the rest of us, though he will sit in Maximian’s place one day…Well, the peace abides—after a fashion. But it is a situation that may burst into a blaze at any hour, and if it does, the gods help anyone caught in the flames.” The Commander had pushed back his chair and risen, turning to the window. “And yet, in an odd way, I think I envy you, Justin.”
Justin had said, “You liked him, then, sir?”
And he remembered now how Licinius had stood looking out into the moonlit night. “I—have never been sure,” he said, “but I would have followed him into the mouth of Erebos itself,” and turned back to the lamp.
That had been almost all, save that at the last Licinius had stayed him in the doorway, saying, “If you should at any time have speech with the great man himself, salute him from me, and ask him if he remembers the boar we killed below the pine woods at the third bend of the Scaldis.”
But it was scarcely likely, Justin thought, that a Junior Surgeon would have the chance to give any message to the Emperor Carausius.
He came back to the present with a jerk, to find that they had entered a world of stone-and-timber jetties, ringed round with sail-lofts and armourers’ shops and long-boat sheds, threading their way among the galleys that lay at anchor in the sheltered water. The mingled reek of pitch and salt-soaked timber and hot metal was in his nostrils; and above the beat of the galley’s oars and the liquid rush of water parting under the bows, he could hear the mingled myriad beehive hum of planes and saws and hammers on anvils that was the voice of a dockyard all the world over. And above him towered the ramparts of Rutupiae; a grey prow of ramparts raw with newness, from the midst of which sprang the beacon-crested tower of the Light.
A while later, having landed and reported to the Commandant and to the Senior Surgeon, having left his kit in the lime-washed cell in the officers’ block that had been assigned to him, and set out in search of the bathhouse and lost his way in the crowded unfriendly immensity of the huge fortress, Justin was standing close before that tower.
The thing was no match for the Pharos at Alexandria, but seen at close quarters it was vast enough to stop one’s breath, all the same. In the centre of the open space rose a plinth of solid masonry four or five times the height of a man, and long as an eighty-oar galley, from the midst of which a tower of the same grey stone-work soared heavenward, bearing on its high crest the iron beacon brazier that seemed to Justin, staring giddily up at it, almost to touch the drifting November skies. The gulls rose and fell about it on white wings, and he heard their thin, remote crying above the busy sounds of the fortress; then, with his head beginning to swim, brought his gaze down as far as the top of the plinth. Curved ramps for the fuel-carts led up to it at either end, and from them roofed colonnades ran in to the base of the tower itself; and now that he had got over the stupendous size of the thing enough to take in the details, he saw that the columns and cornices were of marble, enriched with statues and splendid carvings, but that they were broken and falling into decay, which was strange, here in the midst of a fortress so new that in places they were still at work on the walls. But there was broken marble everywhere, some of it roughly stacked as though for use at a future time, some clinging yet to the stark grey walls that it had once covered. A small piece that must have fallen from its fellows when being carried away lay almost at his feet and, stooping to pick it up, he saw that it was part of a sculptured laurel-wreath.
He was still holding the fragment of marble and gazing up at the great tower from which it had fallen, when a voice behind him said, “Pretty, isn’t it?” and he swung round to find standing at his elbow a very dusty young man in Centurion’s uniform, with his helmet under one arm; a stocky, red-haired young man with a thin, merry face and fly-away eyebrows, who seemed friendly.
“It is half ruined,” Justin said, puzzled. “What is it? I mean, I can see it is a pharos, b-but it looks as though it was meant to be something else as well.”
A shadow of bitterness crept into the young Centurion’s voice. “It was a triumphal monument as well—a triumphal monument to the might of Imperial Rome and her conquest of Britain. Now it is just a pharos, and we break up the fallen marble for rubble in the walls that we build to keep the Saxons out…There’s a moral somewhere in that, if you like morals.”
Justin glanced down at the fragment of marble laurel-wreath in his hand, then tossed it aside. It fell with a little sharp clatter, raising a puff of dust.
“Would you be looking for anyone or anything?” enquired his new acquaintance.
“I was looking for the bathhouse,” Justin told him; and then, by way of giving an account of himself, “I am the new Junior Surgeon.”
“Are you so? Well, truth to tell, I thought you might be.” The other glanced at the uniform without armour, which Justin wore. “You have reported to the Commandant?”
“And to the Senior Surgeon,” Justin said, with his rather hesitating smile. “He called me a fledgling butcher and turned me off until an hour before sick parade tomorrow.”
The young Centurion’s eyes had become dancing slits. “Vinicius must be in rather a mellow mood; he called your predecessor a ham-fisted assassin and threw a pitch-pot at his head, so I’ve heard. I wasn’t here myself then…Well, if it’s a bath you want, you had best come with me. I’m just going to shed this harness, and then I’m for the bathhouse myself. We’ll just have time for a plunge and a splash about before dinner if we’re quick.”
Retracing his steps with his new acquaintance, between the busy workshops and crowded barrack rows, it seemed to Justin that the great fortress had all at once put on a more friendly face; and he looked about him with a quickened interest. “This place seems very big and busy to me,” he said. “I spent my year as a surgeon’s Cub at Beersheba, and that is a single Cohort fort. It could g-get lost in this one.”
“They’re all monsters, these new Saxon shore fortresses,” said his companion. “They have to be; they are fort and shipyard and naval base in one. You’ll grow used to it after a while.”
“Are there many of them, then? Great new forts like this?”
“A good few, from the Metaris round to the Great Harbour; some of them altogether new, and some built over old ones, like Rutupiae. They are all part of Carausius’s defences against the Sea Wolves.”
“Carausius,” Justin said, with a touch of awe in his tone. “I suppose you will have seen Carausius often?”
“Zeus! Yes! This is his headquarters, though of course he’s all over the province too, in between whiles. Not one to let the turf smoulder under his feet, our little Emperor. You’ll see him yourself this evening, in all likelihood; he most often feeds in mess with the rest of us.”
“You mean—he’s here now?”
“Surely. And so are we. Come up and sit on the bed. I shall be but a few moments.”
And so, a short while later, Justin was sitting on the edge of the cot in a lime-washed cell exactly like his own, while his newfound acquaintance laid aside sword and helmet and set to work on the straps of his breastplate, whistling softly and very cheerfully through his teeth as he did so. Justin sat and watched him. He was a friendly soul himself, but he was always gratefully surprised at any sign of friendliness from other people, and with his gratitude, his liking went out, hesitant but warm, to the red-headed Centurion.
The other slipped the last buckle free, and broke off his whistling. “So you’re from Beersheba, are you? A long march, you have had. Ah, thanks.” (This as Justin reached and took the heavy breastplate from him.) And his next words were muffled in the folds of his leather harness-tunic as he dragged it over his head. “And where before that? What part of the Empire do you spring from?”
“Nicaea, in southern Gaul.”
“So this is your first sight of Britain?”
“Yes.” Justin laid the breastplate down on the cot beside him. “But my people are from Britain, and I have always had a mind to c-come back and see it for myself.”
The young Centurion emerged from the leather folds, and stood up in his uniform tunic of fine crimson wool, looking, with his red hair on end, suddenly much more of a boy and less of a grown man. “What part of Britain?”
“The South. Somewhere in the Down Country towards C-calleva, I believe.”
“Famous! All the best people are from the Down Country; the best people and the best sheep. I am myself.” He eyed Justin with frank interest. “What is your name?”
“Justin.—Tiberius Lucius Justinianus.”
There was a moment’s silence, and then his companion said very softly, “Justinianus.—Is it so?” And with a swift gesture pulled something off his left hand and held it out to Justin. “Have you ever seen anything like that before?”
Justin took the thing and bent his head over it. It was a heavy and very battered signet-ring. The flawed emerald which formed the bezel was darkly cool, holding the surface reflection of the window as he turned it to catch the light, and the engraved device stood out clearly. “This Dolphin?” he said, with a dawning excitement. “Yes, I have, on—on the ivory lid of an old cosmetic box that belonged to my grandmother. It was the badge of her family.”
“That proves it!” said the young Centurion, taking back his ring. “Well, of all the—” He began to do strange calculations on his fingers, then abandoned the attempt. “Nay, it is beyond me. There have been more marryings than one between your house and mine, and it would take my Great Aunt Honoria to unsnarl such a tangled skein,—but we are undoubtedly cousins of some kind!”
Justin said nothing. He had risen from the cot, and stood watching the other’s face as though suddenly unsure of his welcome. It was one thing to take casual pity on a stranger and bring him back to one’s quarters on the way to the bathhouse, but it might be quite another to find oneself saddled with him for a kinsman.
That unsureness, though he did not know it, was one of the things that years of being a disappointment to his father had done to him. He had always been miserably aware of being a disappointment to his father. His mother, whom he could scarcely remember, had been beautiful; but Justin, always unfortunate, had continued to be both very like her and very ugly, with a head too large for his thin shoulders, and ears that stuck out defiantly on either side of it. He had spent a good deal of his childhood being ill, and as a result, when the time came for him to go into the Legions, as the men of his family had always done, he had failed to come up to the needful standard of fitness for the Centuriate. He had not minded for himself, because he had always wanted to be a surgeon; but he had minded deeply for his father’s sake, knowing himself more than ever a disappointment; and became even more unsure of himself in consequence.
And then it dawned on him with delight that the red-headed young man was every whit as glad of the astonishing discovery as he was himself.
“So, we are kinsmen,” he said. “And that is good. And I am Tiberius Lucius Justinianus—but still I do not know by what name to call you.”
“Flavius,” said the red-headed Centurion. “Marcelus Flavius Aquila.” He reached out and caught Justin by the shoulders, half laughing, half incredulous still. “Oh, but this is most wonderful that you and I should meet like this on your first day on British soil! It must be that the fates mean us to be friends, and who are we to fly against the fates?”
And suddenly they were both talking together, in breathless, laughing half-sentences, holding each the other at arm’s length the better to look at each other, caught up in delight at the thing that had happened, until Flavius broke off to catch up the fresh tunic which the orderly had left for him on the foot of the cot. “This is a thing that we must celebrate royally by and by; but if we aren’t quick we shall neither of us get a bath before dinner—and I don’t know about you, but I’ve been on wall-building duty all day and I’m gritty from head to heel.”
The mess hall was already crowded when Justin and Flavius entered it, and men stood talking idly in groups, but as yet nobody had taken their seats at the long tables. Justin had been rather dreading his entry alone into a hall full of strangers. But with Flavius’s arm across his shoulders he was swept at once into a group of young officers. “Here’s our new Junior Surgeon—what Vinicius has left of him, and he’s a kinsman of mine!” And immediately appealed to to take sides in an argument about oysters, the plunge was over almost before he knew it.
But soon after, the hum of talk in the long room fell abruptly silent, as steps and a quick voice sounded outside in the colonnade, and as every man straightened himself on his feet, Justin looked with eager expectancy toward the door.
At first sight the man who entered with his staff officers behind him was a disappointment. A short, thick-set man of immensely powerful build, with a round head set on a neck of extraordinary thickness, and crisp brown hair and beard as curly as a ram’s fleece. A man who looked as though he would have been more at home in leather frock and seaman’s bonnet than the fine linen he wore, and who advanced into the hall with the unmistakable rolling step of a man used to a heaving deck under his feet.
But I have seen the like of this man a score of times—a hundred times before, Justin thought. You can see him on the deck of any galley in the Empire.
The Emperor had halted at the upper end of the room, his gaze moving over the faces of the men gathered there; and his eyes under their thick bar of brows met Justin’s. “Ah, a new face among us,” said the Emperor, and crooked a finger. “Come here, boy.”
He heard the Camp Commandant speak his name and position quickly to Carausius. Then he was saluting before the man who had risen from a Scaldis river pilot to be Emperor of Britain; and suddenly he knew that he had been wrong. He had never seen the like of this man before.
Carausius set a hand on his shoulder and turned him—for it was dusk by now—to get the lamplight on his face. After a long unhurried scrutiny, he said, “So you are our new Junior Surgeon.”
“Where did you serve your Cubhood?”
“With the third Cohort of the Fretencis, at Beersheba in Judea,” Justin said. “Fulvius Licinius, who commands the garrison, bade me salute you from him, and ask you if you remember the boar that you and he killed below the pine woods at the third bend of the Scaldis.”
Carausius was silent a moment. Then he said, “I remember that boar, yes—and Licinius. And so he’s in Judea, is he? He was senior to me in those days; and now he commands the garrison at Beersheba, while I wear this”—touching the mantle of Imperial Purple that he wore clasped by a huge ruby at the shoulder. “There’s naught so odd as life. Maybe you haven’t noticed that yet, but you will, you will, if you live long enough…So my brother Emperors send me a Junior Surgeon from the Fretencis. There have been several postings from overseas to the Legions here in Britain, lately. Almost like old times.—Yet they showed themselves none so friendly this spring, as I remember.” Voice and manner were musing, nothing more, the hand on Justin’s shoulder barely tightened its grip, there was no change in the blunt, straight-featured face so near his own, save that perhaps for a moment the eyes seemed to grow a little paler, as the sea whitening before a rain-squall; and yet suddenly Justin was cold afraid. “Can you read me the riddle, I wonder?”
Somehow he held his ground under the light, deadly hand on his shoulder, and gave back the Emperor’s look, without wavering.
A voice—a pleasantly cool voice with a laugh in it—protested lazily, “Excellency, you are too hard on the boy. It is his first night among us, and you will put him off his dinner.”
Carausius paid not the faintest attention. For a few moments he continued that terrible raking stare; then a slow, straight-lipped smile spread over his face. “You are so right, my dear Allectus,” he said; and then to Justin, “No, you have not been sent to play the spy, or if you have, you do not know it.” His hand slipped from the young surgeon’s shoulder, and he glanced about him. “Shall we begin dinner, my friends?”
The man who had been called Allectus caught Justin’s eye as he turned away, and smiled. Justin returned the smile, grateful as always for kindness, and slipped back through the crowd to Flavius, who greeted him half under his breath with a swift “Eugé! That was well done!” which warmed him still further.
And a little later he was sitting between Flavius and another Centurion at the foot of the table. His right-hand neighbour was too busy eating to have any conversation, and he was free to give his whole attention to the highly irreverent account of the great ones at the upper end of the table, with which Flavius was favouring him under cover of the general hum of talk.
“You see that one with the sword-cut down his cheek?” said Flavius, dealing with pickled herring. “That’s Arcadius, the captain of the Caleope, our biggest three-bank galley. He came by that mark in the arena. A bright lad, Arcadius, in his young days. Oh, and the melancholy fellow beside him is Dexion, a Centurion of Marines. Never,” said Flavius, wagging his head, “never shake the dice with him unless you want to lose the tunic off your back. I don’t say he doesn’t play square, but he throws Venus more often than any mere mortal has a right to.”
“Thanks for the warning,” Justin said. “I’ll remember.”
But his eyes strayed with an odd fascination, as they had done more than once before, to the man whom the Emperor had called Allectus, who now sat among Carausius’s staff officers near the head of the table. He was a tall man with a cap of shining fair hair greying a little at the temples; a man with a rather heavy face that would have been good to look at but that it was too pale; everything about him just a little too pale—hair, skin, and eyes. But even as Justin watched, the man smiled at something his neighbour had said, and the smile, swift and completely charming, gave to his face all that it lacked before.
“Who is the tall, very fair man?” he murmured to Flavius. “The Emperor called him Allectus, I think.”
“Carausius’s Finance Minister and general right-hand man. He has a vast following among the troops, as well as the merchants and moneyers, so that I suppose after Carausius he’s the most powerful man in Britain. But he’s a good enough fellow, in spite of looking as though he’d been reared in a dark closet.”
And then, a few moments later, something happened; something so slight and so ordinary that afterward Justin wondered if he had simply let his imagination run away with him—and yet he could never quite forget it, nor the sudden sense of evil that came with it. Roused perhaps by the warmth rising from the lamps, a big, soft-winged night-moth had come fluttering down from the rafters to dart and hover and swerve about the table. Everyone’s attention was turned toward the Emperor, who was at that moment preparing to pour the second Libation to the gods. Everyone, that is, save Justin and Allectus. For some unknown reason, Justin had glanced again at Allectus; and Allectus was watching the moth.
The moth was circling wildly nearer and nearer to one of the lamps which stood directly before the Finance Minister, its blurred shadow flashing about the table as it swooped and spun in dizzy spirals about the bright and beckoning flame, closer and closer, until the wild, ecstatic dance ended in a burst of shadows, and the moth spun away on singed wings, to fall with a pitiful, maimed fluttering close beside Allectus’s wine-cup. And Allectus, smiling faintly, crushed out its life under one deliberate finger.
That was all. Anybody would crush a singed moth—it was the obvious, the only thing to do. But Justin had seen the pale man’s face as he watched the dancing moth, waiting for it to dance too near, seen it in the unguarded instant as he stretched out the precise forefinger to kill.
THE SILVER BRANCH Copyright © 1957 by Rosemary Sutcliff.