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[personal profile] tanaquiljall
Title: Not at all the adventurous kind
Fandom: The Silver Branch – Rosemary Sutcliff
Rating: General
Contains: Nothing beyond canon
Words: 2715 words
Summary: On the foreshore at Portus Adurni, Paulinus meets a kindred spirit who reminds him of the past. Written for [personal profile] firerose for [community profile] sutcliff_swap
Disclaimer: This story is based on the Rosemary Sutcliff novel The Silver Branch. It was written for entertainment only; the author does not profit from it nor was any infringement of copyright intended.
Author's Note: Thanks to Scribbler ([personal profile] scribblesinink) for the beta.

oOo


The gulls wheeled overhead, shrieking insults at each other, and the waves slapped against the shingle, endlessly breaking and drawing back. The merchant's voice rose and fell in counterpoint, as constant as the surf and almost as harsh as the gulls, as he bemoaned the taxes and port fees that were due on his cargo.

"Money to be paid when we load, and money to be paid when we land, and money to be paid in the market...."

Paulinus, tallying the jars of oil passing before him and only half listening, murmured soothingly, "The Fleet must be paid for. Would you rather pay all of your goods in 'tax' to the Saxons?"

The merchant snorted contemptuously. "The Fleet? They're quick enough to arrive once the Saxon ships are labouring home with their bellies full of plunder. But where are they when the Wolves are sweeping down on our defenceless lambs?"

The captain of the ship from which the oil was being unloaded—a small, slim man with a blue faience drop in one ear—remarked softly, "'Tis easier to find the Wolf when you have certain news of where he has run his keel aground than when you must beat many miles of sea for him, or nose in and out of every cove and inlet where he might lie hid."

"That may be so." The merchant inclined his head. "But I think it suits our little emperor to catch the Wolf only when he has already made his kill. Then he can take not only at the loading and the landing but what remains even after that!"

Paulinus, now counting bales of wool heading in the other direction, raised an eyebrow. "You think Carausius cares nothing for the burned farms, that will give no more grain or Corn Tax—or for their slaughtered folk?"

The merchant's face twisted into a sneer. "Why should he? When do great men ever care about ordinary folk. They are safe in their palaces, with naught to do but live comfortably on what they can grab from the fruits of our toil."

Something made Paulinus glance away from the wool bales to the ship's captain. The man looked very much like he wanted to say something but had bitten his tongue. The merchant was, after all, paying his wages, and the wages of his crew.

The last of the bales stowed away, Paulinus made a final tally of the numbers and the monies due. He showed the account to the merchant. The man grumbled some more under his breath, before giving his assent. Then, with a few final words to the ship's captain, he stumped away.

Paulinus, who had been packing away his writing tools, glanced up at the sea-captain. "Our—ahem—friend there seems very fixed in his opinions, does he not? So hard to live one's life, I think, when you consider all the world against you."

"Aye." The captain's face broke into a grin. "To my mind, there's ill weather and mischance enough against you without making your own—or accusing others of conjuring up a storm to send your way."

"Indeed." Paulinus finished buckling his satchel closed. "It is, I think, another two hours before the tide turns and before you sail. Would you care to pass the time with a cup of wine to chase away the chill?"

The captain considered him for a long moment, and then nodded. "Do you know the Dolphin?"

Paulinus smiled at him. "I have not had that pleasure. I am but recently come to Portus Adurni. Please, lead on."

When they were settled in the Dolphin—a cheerful enough place, if a little rough—and the introductions had been made—the sea-captain's name was Phaedrus—and their wine cups had been set before them, Paulinus said carefully, "You do not believe the tales that Carausius lets the Sea Wolves through to make their raids, so that he may fall on them once they are heavy with spoil on their homeward way?"

Phaedrus shrugged. "I think there are reasons enough—and simpler ones—for the fleet to mostly take ships that have already reached the coast and turned for home again, that there is no need to account for it with treachery and greed. I gave explanation enough to our friend the merchant." He took another pull of his wine. "And do men ever speak of those times, and they must be many, when the Sea Wolves have been chased away before they can make landfall?" His tone turned amused as he added, almost to himself, "How often does a sharp-eyed captain catch sight of one of the great galleys and puts his stern to her before she can become aware of his low decks among the wavecrests? No, the Fleet draws as fine a net as any man could make and cast, but the gauge can never be fine enough to catch every fish, except with a hundred times the ships—and for that, you would have to tax every grain of corn in the land twice over."

Paulinus gave Phaedrus a sharp look, wondering how often the man had evaded a Roman galley on patrol—and the reason for it—but said nothing. He had not sought out his companionship in order to trap him into the kind of admission that would interest Paulinus's masters in the Customs Office. Though he rather hoped that Phaedrus might eventually be persuaded to share some insights that would greatly please a quite different master.

He realized with a start that Phaedrus was observing him with equal attention. "You do not believe the stories either?"

"I think men are—ahem—apt to accuse others of what they themselves would do—or wish to." Paulinus smiled apologetically. "And it suited the Emperor Maximian to believe such tales, whether they are true or no. But I do not think Carausius cares so little for this land and its people as to let them be plundered for his own enrichment. No, I do not think that at all."

His mind was running back, as he had not let it down at the jetty, to the day he had first met Caurausius. He had been then merely an Under-Secretary in the tax office at Regnum, and Carausius only Commander of the Fleet. The past week had seen a series of those damnable Saxon raids on farms not far along the coast, the last just a day or so before. Carausius, striding into the tax office, had demanded a scribe, to accompany him while he toured the farms that had been laid waste and make a record of what they found.

The Under-Secretaries had looked at each other and, not wanting to leave the brazier-warmed office for the mizzle rain of a cold spring morning, had elected the most junior of them to the task. So it was that Paulinus found himself, a half hour later, astride a cavalry mount and riding along behind the great, tall horse of the Commander, with a couple of Marines on either side as escort.

It was not the miserable weather that made Paulinus dread the day ahead but the pitiful sight of charred roof timbers collapsed drunkenly on top of heaps of fire-reddened and smoke-blackened brick and stone. In places, you could still see the painted garlands that had adorned the walls of a dining room, or catch a glimpse of the running knotwork of tesserae that had edged a tiled floor.

At the farm that had been the latest to fall victim to the Wolves, dull-eyed women were picking over the remains, salvaging what they could, while their menfolk rounded up the few cattle and sheep that had been scattered and not driven off or slaughtered. At two of the other farms, raided earlier, there had also been survivors, now huddled in the makeshift shelter of lean-tos thrown up against the few remaining standing walls. Paulinus had never been quite sure whether his heart had been pained more by the sight of these unhappy wretches—at least they could rebuild!—or by the eerie silence, save for the wind, of the places where there were none left to begin again.

After Carausius had finished questioning the third group of survivors about the raids—as far as they were willing or able to tell—and given Paulinus directions as to what to note on his wax tablets, he had stirred a fragment of red-hued wall-plaster with his toe. "They must give me more ships and men," he had declared, his gaze fixed on the ruined houseplace. "It is all very well to speak of unreasonable burdens when they sit safe in Londinium, but what burden is there greater than to lose all to the Saxon Wolf? And why remind me of the dangers of the wild North and the need for men there, when the unrest in the North is no more than the shaking of a rough May wind, and not the raging sea-tempest that batters our southern shores. If they will not see, I will make them come and see, see with their own eyes...."

Paulinus did not think Carausius spoke the words for his ears, or for the ears of his escort—waiting too far away to hear, in any case. They were for himself alone, stiffening his resolve to do all he could to ensure there were no more burned farms or weeping women or grey-faced men.

Coming back to the present and the chatter of voices in the Dolphin and the wine cup in front of him, and Phaedrus looking at him with curiosity, Paulinus added, "I met Carausius, you see. Even worked for him, for a little while."

That had been part of the strangeness of that strange day spent following in the footsteps of the Commander of the Fleet as he strode, with his rolling seaman's gait, across the hard-packed dirt of farmyard after farmyard. At last, when they had worked their way some miles from Regnum, and dusk was not far off, and Paulinus was just beginning to wonder where he would spend the night, they had turned in at the gate of a farm that had so far escaped the raids. The owners seemed to be known to Carausius and he had claimed hospitality, as an acquaintance and as Commander of the Fleet. And when Paulinus and the Marines had bathed and eaten supper, Paulinus alone had been called to the atrium with his tablets.

The room was filled with the scent of apple-wood from the brazier that stood close to a chair and writing table. Lamps cast a pool of light over the table, and over the man who leaned on it, weariness in every line. He looked up with a tired expression as Paulinus approached. "You have your notes?" When Paulinus held out the tablets to him, Carausius shook his head. "Read them to me. The accounts of the survivors."

He waved Paulinus into a second chair and Paulinus opened the tablets and began to read aloud, adding now and then a stumbling embellishment from his own memory—"You will remember, sir, that the old woman said they fired the barn first"—that he had not scratched down onto the tablets at the time. His voice grew a little hoarse and he had to clear his throat once or twice.

When he was done, he looked up to find Carausius had risen and was offering him a goblet of wine. He took it gratefully and sipped at it.

"Can you give me an accounting of the total losses of corn and livestock and lives across all—how many farms did we visit today?"

"Six, sir." Paulinus set down the goblet and quickly turned the leaves of his tablets, tallying the figures for each commodity in turn and noting them at the end. When he was done, Carausius waiting with no sign of impatience, he read them out. Too many losses for a single week.

Carausius reached for a pen and pulled a sheet of paper towards him. "How to make our noble Governor understand?" He hesitated, the pen poised above the paper.

And went on hesitating, the furrow in his brow deepening. For the first time that day, Paulinus saw, Carausius was clearly at a loss as to what words to use—because on these words might hang the fate of every farm and every man and woman along the coast. Perhaps the fate of the whole of Britain.

Paulinus quietly put down his tablets and cleared his throat. "Sir?" When Carausius looked up at him, still frowning, Paulinus held out his hand and added, "If I may...?"

Carausius regarded him in silence for a moment and then, with a slow, straight-lipped smile, held out the pen.

Paulinus took it and redipped the nib, even as he turned the paper to the correct angle. "To Quintus Bassianus, Governor of Britain, from Marcus Aurelius Mausaeus Valerius Carausius, greetings. Today, I made an inspection of some of the farms not far from Regnum that have been laid waste by the recent infractions of the Saxon raiding parties."

He spoke the words aloud while he wrote them down. So far, simply protocol and fact. But as he reached again for the inkpot with the pen, he went on speaking, carefully feeling his way with the words, and yet knowing they were the right words, and looking up at Carausius for confirmation: "I would that you could see them as I have seen them."

Carausius considered Paulinus's suggestion, his eyes sharp and thoughtful, and then nodded his agreement—seeing that there was more than one meaning in the words, and a rebuke that was mild enough to be denied if Quintus Bassianus took it ill, and yet strong enough to be unmistakeable. "Yes: I would that you could see them as I have seen them."

And Paulinus wrote down the words, and many more words: tallying the sorrow of loss of life and loss of grain and loss of future tax, with none to till the fields. And when they had written the letter between them—though, in truth, Paulinus had the greater part in the wording—and it was sealed and set aside for dispatch in the morning, Carausius had poured another goblet of wine for each of them and said thoughtfully. "It seems to me, Paulinus, that your talents would be better used elsewhere than in the Regnum tax office...."

And now, now that Carausius wore the purple in Britain and had the ordering of ships and men entirely in his own hands, and the Corn Tax, too—now, Paulinus's talents would be better used elsewhere than in Carausius's secretariat.

"I need eyes and ears," Carausius had said to him, signing the order to post Paulinus to the Customs Office in Portus Adurni. "I need to know where our enemies are gathering and where they may slip past our guard. Not just out there." He had gestured towards the sea, breaking far below the great bay window, and towards the spark of the Gesoriacum light that now was visible and now was gone. "Or among the inlets and the coves and the reedbeds and the mudflats. Oh, that I would have you discover, too, if you can! But it is the enemy in men's hearts and in their tongues I fear. Those who would make peace with Maximian and Constantius and let Rome take back this province—and let Rome drag her down when Rome herself falls."

"And if men speak against you, sir?" Paulinus had asked, accepting the signed commission.

Carausius laughed. "Let them. They may curse me if they find me a poor Caesar. But I would know the reason for their discontent, and its merit—and its source, if it is without merit." He had laughed again. "But tell me indeed if you hear young Constantius is beaching his transports in some hidden bay!"

Well, Paulinus had certainly heard enough, both for the Emperor and against, in the short weeks he had been in Portus Adurni. And now, in Phaedrus, finishing his cup of wine in the rough surroundings of the Dolphin, perhaps—perhaps!—Paulinus had found a kindred spirit. Another willing to put his wits and his talents to the service of the Emperor.

Their own Emperor, who had sought the purple so ruthlessly only that he might hold Britain and her seaways and her people safe in his loving hands.
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