“How’s it going?” he asked.
“Busy.” Curmissus grunted. “Party tomorrow. Cleaning.”
"Another party? Your mistress Valeria likes her dinner parties!”
“It's not the liveliest of households, Aquila's" Marcipor told him. Curmissus nodded and thwacked the rug.
"But that's good - not too much work. Three of us serving just one old soldier, tucked away in his study all day? Pretty sweet! The food's good too - I'll say this for Sassticca - that's the kitchen slave - the woman can cook. And master Aquila's pretty good about letting us take a bit of time to go visiting or to the amphitheatre. Have you been down there yet?"
Curmissus shook his head, and gave the rug another thwack with the carpet beater. He was a man of few words; a squat, hairy-chested man with unexpectedly pale blue eyes, but a good listener, Marcipor thought. Marcipor prided himself on getting to know the slaves in all the neighbouring households.
"Give us a shout if you get some time off and I'll go down the amphitheatre with you, if you like." he told Curmissus, generously, leaning on the broom. "I love a good dogfight, and they'll take one-as bets, if you speak to the right man."
"MARCIPOR! Where are you, you idle donkey?" came a shout through the side door which Marcipor had left half open behind him.
"Oh Vesta! that's Sassticca, I'd best go..."
When old Aquila's crippled nephew turned up one rainy autumn day, invalided out of the army, it seemed to Marcipor at first that he would be no more trouble than his uncle. He wasn't the cheeriest of people, young master Aquila, particularly once he heard his army career was over for good, but he was fairly quiet about it.
Of course it meant more laundry, specially having to boil up all the bandages wrapping the man's wounded leg, and hang them up to dry. But on the whole, he was not much trouble, until the Saturnalia games.
Marcipor had managed to come along to the games to help the ex-centurion up and down the steps. The beast-fights and combat were excellent that year, even if the much talked about fight to the death had been something of a let-down in the end. Young Aquila had stepped in and stopped it before the fatal blow.
Marcipor would secretly have liked to see the death, but of course if your master is signing 'Life' and glances down the steps at you with that dry, sarcastic look, then you have to take the hint, really.
But to buy the defeated gladiator, Esca, as a body slave? Were the Aquilas completely mad? The man was dirt cheap as slaves went - considerably less expensive than Marcipor himself - but there was a reason for that after all!
Sassticca was quite convinced, on the first night that Esca was in the house, that they would all be murdered in their beds - or worse, that both the Aquilas would be, and that she, Stephanos and Marcipor would be left to answer questions about it afterwards.
Marcipor thought she might have a point. The ex-gladiator was not a big man, but he didn't walk like a slave. He walked like a wolf. And he never smiled.
Had Esca seen Marcipor in the arena that day, with his thumb pointing downwards? His eyes had seemed to be fixed on young master Aquila's face, but none the less, Marcipor couldn't help wondering. Esca didn't seem like the forgiving type. Most of the time he looked straight through you, and when he actually looked at you, it was even worse: as if he were wondering whether to cut your throat, or just step on you and squash you like a beetle.
Sassticca got over her nerves after a few days and seemed to come round to the man, but Marcipor wasn't so sure. He resolved to keep well out of his way, so far as that was possible.
When the word went out that a wolf hunt was being planned, early in the spring when the wind was still blowing wild through the streets of Calleva and the fragile white flowers of the blackthorn were just coming into bloom in the woods behind the house, it was clear the Centurion's pet gladiator was just itching to join in. Marcipor reckoned that young master Aquila would have been only half a pace behind him too, if the man had been able to walk further than the atrium.
While he was scrubbing the floor in the triclinium, Marcipor overheard them talking in the next room - Esca's excitement, reporting the plans for the hunt he'd heard in the market place. He'd obviously spoken more than three words to someone then. And young Aquila, so bursting with frustration at not being able to join in that Marcipor almost thought he was going to ask Esca to carry him.
Nobody in the household - save perhaps Esca himself - was surprised that the young master decided to give Esca permission to borrow spears and join the wolf hunt, though when Marcipor overheard the older Aquila wondering aloud to his nephew whether his man would actually come back, he very much hoped his master was right. The Aquila household might have become a less dull place recently, but the presence of Esca was an excitement too far, so far as Marcipor was concerned.
But not only did Esca return - and with his painted barbarian skin in one piece as well - he returned with a gift for the ex-centurion that made Marcipor wonder again if these Aquilas were all completely mad. A live wolf cub - a cub which would one day be a fully grown wolf. And there they were in the atrium, Esca and the young Aquila, feeding it scraps and giving it milk to drink, as if it were a child! The older Aquila was no use. He simply looked at the animal, held firmly in the young master’s arms, scratched it gently behind one of the small grey ears, then retired to his study.
"He barely notices that his house has been turned into a den of beasts!" Marcipor said to the kitchen at large, once Master Aquila was safely out of the way.
Stephanos nodded "That beast will be a wolf all too soon" he agreed "It's dangerous".
"You should be ashamed of yourselves!" said Sassticca loudly. She put her hands on her hips. "Who are you with two sound legs apiece to begrudge the young Master a pack of wolf-cubs if he wants them? "
Stephanos, who was standing nearest put up his hands and stepped backwards
"Nobody, nobody, Sassticca my sweet! I am sure you are right" he said, placatingly. Marcipor picked up his broom and slipped out the back door. It seemed like a good time to be somewhere else.
If life with a potentially vengeful ex-gladiator in the household was altogether too interesting for Marcipor, life with a wolf cub in the house was even worse.
As soon as he was big enough to walk, Cub chewed - everything. Shoes, blankets, furniture, enormous muddy sticks dragged in from the bushes in the garden. He pulled down the laundry, and ran about the house with a long trail of clothes on a line, growling furiously, while young master Aquila fell about laughing and Esca watched with that rare half-smile, and took far too long to do anything about it.
Marcipor was constantly being called for with a bucket of vinegar and a cloth to clear up Cub's little accidents. He darkly suspected Esca of being amused by this too, though he had never actually caught him smiling.
Cub dug a great hole into one end of the old turf bank that curved down from the end of the garden into the woods, and Marcipor had to help Esca fill it in - and then fill it in again, and again, every time Cub got out into the garden on his own, and decided to dig it out again. Why the beast didn't simply run away over the earth rampart and off into the woodland, Marcipor could not understand at all, but for some reason, he did not. Possibly he was just having too much fun making Marcipor's life a misery.
The day that Cub stole Marcipor's sandal was a particular low point. He was actually wearing the sandal at the time, and the beast rushed past him as he walked, grabbed the sandal right off his foot, and ran off with it! Marcipor gave chase, around the atrium, in and out of young Aquila's bedroom, through the kitchen and out into the garden. The beast kept turning round and looking at him, grinning around the leather sandal with far too many teeth.
Cornering Cub just outside the door, Marcipor tried to grab the sandal back. When he took hold of it, Cub snarled and snapped at his hand. Nobody else was in the garden just then, so Marcipor aimed a kick at him, and the brute bit his toe - hard too. Marcipor yelled.
Esca slipped out of the door behind them. He still wasn't smiling, but Marcipor none the less had the distinct impression that the ex-gladiator was laughing at him.
"Worthless one, your master's wolf-whelp has bitten my toe!" Marcipor told him, indignantly.
Esca raised his eyebrows and looked at Marcipor. Marcipor stepped back a pace.
"Then you had best hope that the taste of it will not make him sick" Esca retorted. He went down on one knee to look at what Cub was doing. Marcipor sat down at a safe distance to inspect his injury. It hurt, and blood was running freely from a nasty little wound on his big toe.
"I'll need a bone" Esca said.
"You what?" said Marcipor, blankly
"If you want your sandal back. A beef bone for preference." Marcipor stared at Esca. Esca sighed. "He will only give it back, if I give him something better... never mind." He turned and ducked back into the kitchen.
By the time Marcipor had decided that yes, his toe really had stopped bleeding, Esca had managed to convince Cub to release Marcipor's sandal. It was not really worth the wearing by then. Marcipor looked at the chewed and slimy leather that Esca held out, and huffed to himself.
"Don't try and take anything from him again Marcipor. Not if you value your fingers" Esca warned him. "If he takes something important, get him something better and tell him to swap.”
" And what if he thinks what he's got is better?" Marcipor asked indignantly.
"Ask your master for new sandals" Esca said, and went back into the house, Cub drooling slightly over his new bone as he trotted by Esca's side.
It was the time when Cub got into the kitchen that led to Marcipor being sent out to hire a carpenter.
Cub mounted his raid while the young master, with Esca to attend him, were at the baths. When they counted afterwards, they worked out that he had eaten an entire leg of lamb, two loaves of bread, and a dozen eggs. He also knocked over and broke a mortarium, and an amphora half full of olive oil. Then he lapped up the oil, while Sassticca wailed and told him what a bad wolf he was. Afterwards, he was sick, loudly, enthusiastically, and with considerable volume, right in the middle of the atrium.
"Enough is enough!" said old Master Aquila, who had happened to come down from his study at just the moment when Cub had brought up his stolen meal on the floor. Marcipor's hopes leapt for a moment but sadly, it seemed that Master Aquila did not intend to put an end to the wolf in their midst.
"Marcipor!" he said. "Go and find a man to put a solid oak door and a lock on that kitchen. And while you are at it, we'll have another one on one of the spare bedrooms. "
"On one of the bedrooms?" Marcipor asked, confused.
"Yes man - one of the empty ones. We need somewhere where we can put this young raider from time to time to keep him safely out of the way, otherwise Sassticca will never be able to cook a beef stew again."
Then he rubbed Cub behind the ears - the beast greeted him with shameless joy, rolling over on his back, Marcipor noticed with disgust - and went back to his study.
It was a while before the young master's leg was healed - well, healed according to him, anyway. He still had quite an obvious limp, Marcipor thought. But after a while, he was walking easily and was able to ride with comfort, and by then the beast was definitely a wolf, not a cub any more. They went on calling him Cub anyway.
"Fang would be a better name for it. " Marcipor told Curmissus, on a visit to next door's kitchen. Marcipor had been sent over to bring a gift of some venison that the young master had brought home from the hunt, and was in no hurry to leave again. He took a sip from the mug of broth Curmissus had poured for him.
"Did it bite you again?" Curmissus asked, looking interested.
"No - but guess what? Young master Aquila's off up North - all the way North. He's going beyond the Wall, if you can believe me!”
“No!” said Curmissus with gratifying surprise.
Marcipor elaborated: “ He's taking the gladiator with him but not the wolf. Vesta alone knows why - you'd think the beast would fit right in up there at the end of the world, nobody about but savages and deer. Place is probably swarming with wolves."
"He won't last a week" said Curmissus, with the deep satisfaction of a man who had never been further north than Verulamium, but none the less felt he knew everything he needed to know about the wilds of Caledonia.
"I reckon the gladiator will kill him - eat him as well, more than likely" said Marcipor, gloomily. "It's all very well for you to grin, Curmissus! I've got to take the damn wolf out to trek around the woods every morning and evening while they are away. I'll probably end up eaten myself!
Oh, young Aquila has asked your young mistress Cottia to look after the beast but it's poor old me that will be tramping through the woods in all weathers! I can't see your mistress Valeria sending her niece out in the rain alone with a beast with those teeth - can you?"
Curmissus shook his head solemnly.
Walking with Cub through the woods that summer was less terrifying than Marcipor had anticipated. The wolf usually slipped away through the tall oaks to - well, Marcipor wasn’t sure what he was doing, and didn’t feel inclined to try to find out, but he always came back in the end, and that was the main thing. Marcipor didn’t want to be blamed for losing him.
Marcipor had feared that he would be menaced by wild boars, or eaten by other wolves, even if not by Cub. Young master Aquila had said he was allowed to take a spear with him, just in case, so he always carried it with him, but he had little idea what to do with it and always handled it with a feeling of misgiving. Esca had told him that if he was bothered by wolves, it would be safest to climb a tree. Marcipor had not climbed a tree since he was a young lad, and he did not feel too confident about that either.
Fortunately, the boar and wolves did not seem attracted to the bag of strong smelling dried liver which Sassticca had cooked up for him to carry in a leather bag, to tempt Cub with. Marcipor saw almost nothing of any residents of the woodland - footprints, occasional rustling in the undergrowth, once a pair of roe deer fleeing in panic as he approached.
The quiet oak woods seemed empty, filled with nothing but the deep blue shadow of the trees and the quiet murmuring of the small stream that threaded through them, tawny brown over the roots and shining suddenly golden where a sunbeam peered through the dark leaves. Marcipor sat contentedly by the stream to eat the bannock he had brought with him. Cub trotted out from behind a tree and began to paddle in the stream a little way off. Marcipor looked at him, dark blue-grey fur dripping below into the shadowy stream, sun glancing on his heavy wolf-head, and contemplated his quiet and relaxing morning. Perhaps the beast was not so bad after all.
I wrote this to try to work out what would happen to Cub a few years down the line. During the period covered by this story Cub is a very well socialised juvenile wolf, so is definitely a lot less trouble than he will be once he's really fully grown (at about 3-4 years old). I suspect at that point he'll probably take off back into the wild.