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The Cub's Pedigree

I was thinking about Placidus meeting Esca on the wolf hunt in Eagle of the Ninth, and then I started thinking about Cub again, in the context of my thoughts about wolves.  And I started thinking about animals living illicitly in country that is heavily populated by people, like these beavers and for that matter, the wild boar that are out there that I never see. And somewhere, I forget where now, I read an article about how wolves now are at the far end of a scale of wildness, because we have driven them away from people.  They were for so long symbols of ferocity whose presence could not be tolerated, that we have now created wolves which are very far from being dogs, and dogs which are very far from being wolves.

That brought me back to the idea that British wolves, eighteen hundred years ago, living half-hidden among towns and villages and farms, might not be quite the same as wild wolves as they appear to us today, in the remote places where there still are wolves.  And then I remembered that in Eagle of the Ninth, Esca said that three hunters went into the den where the cubs were hidden.  A normal wolf den is a low burrow of a thing, it would be hard to get three men into it, particularly when one of them was the elegant Placidus.

And before I knew it I had written this very short, rather sad story.

The Cub's Pedigree
There is a story behind the wolf hunt and the den where the Cub was born, even though Placidus knew nothing about it, and nor did Esca - though I think perhaps Esca may have guessed.

Long enough ago that nobody can remember exactly, there was a smallholding in the hills a little way from Calleva. It wasn’t good land; it was steep and stony and difficult to get to because of the way the streams ran there, and the way the hill sloped.

In the hills, there lived a shepherd with his family, in one little house, scraping a living as best they could from a few sheep, a few hens, the deer in the woods and the wild birds on the hills.

A hard life, and when the fever came, the shepherd died, and his daughters, and his cousins at the next farm over. Even the tax collector died, though everyone agreed that his life was much less hard than anyone else’s.

For a few years, the shepherd’s wife lived on there, with her hens, and the few sheep that were left, and her big brindle bitch-hound, with the little house becoming a little ramshackle, repaired here and there where she could reach.

From time to time she came down from the hills to sell a few eggs, or a lamb, or the hide of a deer that the dog had killed, but after a while she came less often, because it was a long steep walk and there was always so much to do.

And the new tax collector didn’t want to go all the way up the hill in the mud, and the way to the little holding became brambly and overgrown.

Then, one long winter, the shepherd’s wife died, quietly, with the big brindle bitch lying on her feet, and nobody noticed at all.

And the big brindle bitch mourned her sincerely, as dogs do, and when she became hungry, she ate her body, as dogs do. And then she ate the chickens and the few remaining sheep, for a dog must live.

When the bitch came into season, a male came by, perhaps he was a dog-wolf, and perhaps he was a hound, or perhaps he was a little of both. They raised a litter of cubs there in the old house.

And the woods grew up around the little house, and the roof -timbers slipped, and the name of the holding and the shepherd and his wife were long forgotten, for who would wish to scrape a living in such a poor remote spot, when one could go to Calleva, or Regnum, or Londinium and take up any of a thousand trades and see the world go by?

But the wolves stayed there in what was left of the old house, and they raised their cubs in its ruins, generation after generation. For the shepherd had built it as strong and warm as he was able, and they thought of it as their own place.


( 11 comments — Leave a comment )
28th Apr, 2012 21:18 (UTC)
Oh, this is lovely - so evocatively and simply written. I like the idea that Cub has a backstory and that perhaps there was less difference between the wolves and the dogs back then. And it's so sad that the shepherd's wife was left alone to carry on running the smallholding as best she could, but what other choice did she have? There must have been folk who dropped through society's net, then as now, and I can see it happening just this way.
29th Apr, 2012 22:27 (UTC)
I'm glad you liked it. It was one of those things that sort of writes itself in answer to a bunch of questions all swilling around in your head.

I wanted to write it so the pathos lay with the people rather than the dog, because it's so easy to write sentiment with animals but can be a bit mawkish.
29th Apr, 2012 02:38 (UTC)
I'm not familiar with Eagle of the Ninth, beyond the general setting your entries regarding it conveys, but I read this out of a sense of intrigue about eccentric wolf dens. =) I quite liked it. It is a good explanation of how a man on his dignity might fit into a wolf den, and it's also sad but with touches of humor ("Even the tax collector died, though everyone agreed that his life was much less hard than anyone else’s").
29th Apr, 2012 22:29 (UTC)
Everyone hates the tax collector, right? It's practically a trope.
29th Apr, 2012 16:51 (UTC)
That's a very beautiful but, as you say, rather sad story (though I like the way it reverses the more usual convention, in which the animal dies and the humans go on living).

Maybe Roman wolves were like urban foxes. (There's an article in this week's Radio Times about urban foxes, because there's a 'Foxes Live -- Wild in the City' programme on C4 this week). Or maybe they were like modern polar bears, sneaking into human settlements to scavenge on rubbish tips...

Edited at 2012-04-29 16:52 (UTC)
29th Apr, 2012 22:34 (UTC)
Oh yes, urban foxes that's exactly the sort of idea I was kicking around! Only while we tolerate foxes, wolves are both more menacing, and more complicated because we do live with a species that is close enough to interbreed with them...

That reminds me - I'm sure there's a medieval source from the ??14th century which talks about how Rome has become so ruined and desolate that wolves are seen within the old city itself.
(Deleted comment)
29th Apr, 2012 22:37 (UTC)
Glad you thought it was interesting! I cannot stop puzzling at the mystery of Cub, it seems, even though I was really trying to write about Placidus!

Ijust got to the bit where he goes into the den and I thought, I really cannot imagine Placidus wiggling on his stomach into a hole in the ground that Esca has just wiggled into, it just doesn't seem probable! :-D
12th May, 2012 21:55 (UTC)
Oh. That is sad, but beautifully and sparely written, so that the sadness just lies in the events themselves, and isn't overdone in the style of writing. The last sentence was particularly nicely done, the memory of the old shepherd who had built a house hoping it would last for generations of his own family, and the sadness that they would never see it, but the sort-of consolation of the wolves raising their families there.
13th May, 2012 08:29 (UTC)
It's strange how mostly sentences and plot are all unruly and sprawl about like brambles in all the wrong places, and then just occasionally something like this pops up almost complete in a moment. There is that magic of being able to start a story with 'once upon a time' or something like that too. Always reminds me of Le Guin : "As long ago as forever, as far away as Selidor..."
19th May, 2012 23:15 (UTC)
I've just realised that Cub is described repeatedly as being 'brindle'. I can't find any mention of wolves ever appearing in brindle - I think they just don't come in brindle - brown stripy tiger-patterning is a dog thing (like my lurcher lad Brythen)

29th Jul, 2016 19:25 (UTC)
Oh, that was heartbreaking and yet so good. The fact that she was alone but she didn't leave her home instead making it her own for her cubs and their cubs. Brilliant
( 11 comments — Leave a comment )

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