Rosemary Sutcliff writes historical drama with such an eye for detail, when you stop reading and come back to ‘real life’, there’s a brief sense of disorientation. Her work is so vivid, the narrative breathtaking in parts – and the storylines are filled with characters you come to love.
And so it is with Frontier Wolf. Alexios Flavius Aquila is a young commander in the Roman Army, despatched to the semi-wild Frontier Wolves north of Hadrian’s Wall following a disastrous command decision in Germany.
“We’ll never make it.” Centurion Clovis forgot the “Sir.”
They faced each other across the table, and after a moment Alexios said deliberately, “Centurion, I am in command here.”
And silence came down between them like a sword.
Centurion Clovis, who had grey hairs in his beard, looked back at this puppy, who with nothing to recommend him save that he was a first-class swordsman (and you could say the same of any gladiator who outlasted three fights in the arena), just because he had an influential uncle, had been promoted over the heads of men like himself, before he had time to learn his job, and said, “I should like to place it officially on record that I disagree with your decision, Sir.”
This takes place in the last years of Roman rule in Britain, and Aquila’s new soldiers are a mixture of native tribesmen and Romans. He has much to learn.
“They may make some kind of man out of you – if they don’t arrange for you to have a fatal accident instead,” said Uncle Marius’s voice in his memory.
Not only does he have to gain respect from his soldiers, he also has to maintain the uneasy peace with the local tribes – the nearest of which is the Votadini. Here at least, he finds it easier. The Chieftain’s eldest son is a similar age and they become friends.
Suddenly laughter caught at them both, eye meeting eye; a quiet laughter – men seldom bellow their mirth in the wild places – but quick and potent, linking them together.
His first Midwinter Night, two months into his new command, brings trouble. The celebratory dancing gets out of control and he has to impose his authority for the first time.
Alexios found that he was shaking a little, and hoped desperately that it did not show, as he looked from one to another of the men about him. And the men in their turn looked back, taking in the fact that their new Commander stood in their midst with one cheek cut and an eye rapidly filling up and turning black. Maybe some of them were pondering the punishment for striking an officer. Well, it would do them no harm to sweat a little.
This is a story as much about forging friendships as it is about Alexios growing and learning his trade. His seconds in command (Lucius and Hilarion), the young trumpeter Rufus, the Quartermaster Kaeso and the Chieftain’s son Cunorix all take their places in your heart. He goes hunting with Cunorix to gain his own wolfskin.
Between the darkly sodden wreck of last year’s bracken and the soft, grey drift of the sky, the catkins were lengthening on the hazel bushes, making a kind of faint sunlight of their own, and in one especially sheltered place, as the two young men brushed past, the first pollen scattered from the whippy sprays so that they rode through a sudden golden mist.
But peace is tenuous at best and things deteriorate during an inspection of the fort.
Montanus raised his voice as Alexios tried to cut in. “These people forget who is master all too quickly. They need to be taught the lesson afresh from time to time.”
“I doubt you’ll teach it them by putting the Chief’s brother up as a live target for javelin practice!”
“It’s a usual enough form of execution.”
The second half of the book revolves around Alexios trying to survive a series of pitched battles with the tribesmen and it’s difficult to tear yourself away from the pages as he throws himself wholeheartedly into the task.
The Dextra gate, well greased in advance, opened without sound onto the windy darkness of the night beyond. And men and horses slipped forward like a long skein of ghosts, one after another through the gate and down the steep track to the ford, the men of the decoy party leading the way.
Most of the story takes place in the middle of winter. I frequently looked up from the pages to see summer sunshine blazing through my windows and felt a moment’s confusion. While I read this book, I was there, with the soldiers, riding a rough pony through the wind and rain.
It’s a delight to immerse yourself in a Rosemary Sutcliff and to my relief, there are still plenty for me to read. 5 out of 5.