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Literature / Frontier Wolf

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Black sheep in wolf's clothing.

Frontier Wolf is a 1980 Young Adult Historical Fiction novel by Rosemary Sutcliff. A company of Roman scouts are caught in the British uprising of 343 CE.

Centurion Alexios Flavius Aquila has made a terrible error in judgement that resulted in the deaths of half his men. Posted beyond the frontiers of Roman Britain to finish his career in quiet disgrace, he must earn the trust of the disreputable Frontier Scouts, called the Wolves, and their equally lawless neighbours, the Votadini tribe – before he finds himself once again facing the same terrible decision.

Frontier Wolf is the third novel in The Dolphin Ring sequence. The Frontier Wolves also make appearances in The Mark of the Horse Lord (1965), The Capricorn Bracelet (1973), and The Shining Company (1990).

Frontier Wolf contains examples of:

  • Animal Motifs: The Frontier "Wolves", obviously, who jokingly refer to themselves as a pack. Each Scout kills a single wolf to wear its skin as a cloak, and never hunts wolves otherwise, whom they call their "four-footed brothers." The tribesmen half-suspect they're werewolves.
  • Anyone Can Die: And they mostly do!
  • Army Scout: The Frontier Scouts are a bunch of expendables stationed as sentinels in the abandoned province of Valentia forward of the Roman frontier proper at Hadrian's Wall. Their job is to give the frontier advance warning of attacks from the north.
  • Artistic License – Geography: "Castellum" (Latin for 'fort') is an invented name for what is now called the Cramond Roman Fort in Cramond, at the mouth of the River Almond on the western side of Edinburgh, Scotland.
  • Artistic License – History: Though Castellum is a real archaeological site, it wasn't occupied anytime near the period of Frontier Wolf in 341-3 CE.
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: The Frontier Scouts are partly a dumping ground for anyone the regular legions don't want, like Alexios. Other than him and Bericus "the emperor's hard bargain", it's unclear what any of them did to deserve their reputation.
  • "Ass" in Ambassador: Glaucus Montanus, the new Praepositus of the Frontier Scouts, comes up to inspect Castellum and meet-and-greet the Votadini, but he doesn't bother to conceal his contempt for the Wolves or the tribes, and offends Cunorix and Connla by disparaging their horses. He isn't a General Failure, though – he's a competent soldier, but a bad diplomat.
  • An Ass-Kicking Christmas: Two of the book's action set-pieces take place at Midwinter, when the Frontier Wolves celebrate Christmas, Saturnalia, the birth of Mithras, and sketchy tribal gods. In Alexios's first winter with the Wolves, they start recalling their ethnic feuds during their Midwinter knees-up and Alexios wins their respect by breaking up the ensuing brawl. On his second Midwinter with the Wolves, Alexios fights a Duel to the Death.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: Cunorix emerges from the Chieftains' Death Place as the new chief after Ferradach Dhu's funeral. At his chief-making feast, is wife gives birth to their son, the Wolves beat the Votadini at pseudo-polo, and Alexios hears the first whispers of the Pict-Attacotti alliance.
  • Band of Brothers: The Wolves are "the Family" to whom recruits theoretically transfer their undivided allegiance. Alexios is aware that it isn't really that simple.
  • Batman Gambit: The Votadini's casually-mentioned dislike of fighting at night (lest their ghosts get lost in the dark) is a critical point in both the evacuation of Castellum and Alexios's plan to stall for time at Bremenium.
  • The Big Bad: The Picts, the powerful tribe that lives beyond the Northern Wall and organises the invasion of Valentia with the Attacotti of Ireland, who are partly redeemed by joining the Wolves after they're taken prisoner, and are responsible for the massacres at the Rath of Skolawn and Bremenium. The direct antagonists, Cunorix's clan, join the Picts only because of the diplomatic incident between Connla and the Wolves.
  • Big Brother Instinct: Cunorix does not allow harm to Connla to go unpunished.
  • Bilingual Backfire: Ferradach Dhu and Connla both comment disparagingly on Alexios's boyish looks before discovering he speaks British. Neither of them is remotely abashed.
  • Birth-Death Juxtaposition: Cunorix's son is born in the middle of his chief-making feast, right after his father Ferradach Dhu's funeral.
  • Bittersweet Ending: The Frontier Wolves make it and Alexios redeems himself, but many Wolves and Votadini are dead, and Rome is leaving its lost province for real and ever this time.
    "Alexios’s gaze followed the road that led on and on, out of sight and still on, through forts that were dead now, empty to the wolf and the raven. Habitancum and Bremenium, Trimontium that had died a long time ago; Castellum. The road and the hills ….. They had seemed so different the first time he had looked out over them, and assuredly not because of the fire of autumn burning in the gold of birch leaves and the russet of bracken had given them warmth. They had been the wilderness of desolation waiting for him, then. Now they were the hills of his lost wilderness among which he would not go again."
  • Break the Cutie: Connla is the carefree, impertinent younger son of Ferradach Dhu. He steals a horse as a prank and ends up getting executed for the deaths of two Frontier Wolves sent to retrieve it.
  • Bring Help Back: The critical factor in Alexios's decision to abandon Abusina is that the messengers carrying the distress call to headquarters were intercepted. One of them got through, but the Marcomanni killed someone else in order to show his severed head to the garrison.
  • Bring News Back: Later, Castellum is given last-minute warning that the Picts have come over the Northern Wall by a single mortally-wounded Arcanus who rides in to tell them.
  • Call-Back: The Frontier Wolves first appeared in Valentia in The Mark of the Horse Lord, and were linked with Castellum in the story "Frontier Scout" from The Capricorn Bracelet, where it's called the Cramond fort. A Pict king named Bruide and a scout called Bericus also appear in that story.
  • Cargo Cult: The garrison of Castellum pay their respects to a tall stone called the Lady standing beside the ford by brushing its poll every time they ride by. Alexios reckons that he'll have truly gone native when he starts doing it without noticing. It takes about six months.
  • The Cavalry: A lone patrol of the First Ordo that happened to be out when Bremenium fell and unwittingly returns to find the Third Ordo under attack.
  • Celtic Mythology: The Votadini find the woman from the Rath of Skolawn bathing her dead child, and she vengefully points them down the trail of the Pict warband. She's so creepy they momentarily take her for the Washer at the Ford, a forerunner of death.
  • Chased by Angry Natives: When Alexios abandons Abusina, then again when he withdraws the Frontier Wolves from Castellum in the face of the Pict invasion and the Votadini hunt them back to Bremenium.
  • Chekhov's Hobby: Alexios's skill with a sword is fairly irrelevant until he has to fight a duel.
  • Chilly Reception: Alexios replaces a well-liked commander in Julius Gavros, his promotion smacks of nepotism, and the Wolves are perfectly aware of his record of getting his men killed.
    "They knew—their old Commander had been right—how and why he came to be there; and what they saw did not look to them promising. But more than one of them had murky patches on their own past records, and for the present they were prepared to withhold judgement….."
  • Chromosome Casting: There are only about three women with lines of dialogue in the entire novel, none of whom could be described as a major character.
  • Coming of Age Story: Alexios is in his twenties and five years into his army career, but the story chronicles his growth from a young officer not ready for independent command to one who is.
  • Continuity Nod: Prior owners of Alexios's family signet ring include the heroes of The Eagle of the Ninth and The Silver Branch.
    "He found that he had dropped his gaze from the distant fort, and was staring down at his bridle hand; at the flawed emerald ring with its intaglio-cut dolphin on his signet finger. An old and battered ring that had come down to him through a long and proud line of soldiers. And the only thing he could do for them now, having utterly failed them, was to take his beating in a way that wouldn’t shame them still further. The engraved stone was dark and secret, giving back nothing but the cold surface reflection of the autumn sky. It had nothing to say to him."
  • Cool Horse: Ferradach Dhu's favourite part-Arab mare, and the Praepositus's stallion, whom Cunorix wants to borrow for stud.
  • Cycle of Revenge: Connla borrows the Praepositus's horse as a prank because the Praepositus insulted Cunorix. The Praepositus has Connla executed for theft because the horse is killed. The Votadini attack the Frontier Wolves because Cunorix now has a blood feud with them. Alexios can end the feud by defeating Cunorix in Combat by Champion, because he's the man who actually executed Connla. Alexios notes that if he's defeated, the Wolves will try to avenge him.
  • Dance Battler: The Wolves' "weapon dance" drills. If the Dalriads and the Votadini are dancing the Bull Calves, it might end in actual battle.
  • Dated History: The most notable artifact from "Castellum", a piece of sepulchral statuary called the Cramond Lioness, makes no appearance in Frontier Wolf, as it was not discovered until 1997.
  • Death of a Child: The Sole Survivor at the Rath of Skolawn kills somebody with the spearhead she pulls from her baby's cold little corpse. Not even kittens are immune.
  • Died in Your Arms Tonight: Lucius holds the Votadini off the bridge on the Roaring-Water but takes a spear in the neck just as the Wolves pull it down. He goes into the water, then dies of blood loss on the riverbank, leaning on Alexios.
  • Downer Beginning: Alexios has screwed up, at heavy loss of life; his career is over; and he's considering falling on his sword.
  • Due to the Dead: Alexios and an escort of Wolves attend Ferradach Dhu's burial, sitting all night on the edge of the Long Moss while the Votadini burn his body in the Chieftains' Death Place. On the retreat, Kaeso and Lucius's bodies are carried on to the Wolves' next camps and buried with the rites of their respective religions, while the wounded who die in the night are left in their foxholes.
  • Duel to the Death: To spare their men, Alexios and Cunorix settle Connla's blood debt one-on-one. Cunorix puts Alexios in hospital for a week, but Alexios kills Cunorix.
  • The Emperor: Co-emperor Constans turns up in Onnum in time to see the Valentian garrisons' arrival. He functions as the Big Good, deploying the legions to break up the invasion and officially commending Alexios's conduct.
  • Ensign Newbie: Alexios isn't actually a rookie, but he's young to be third-in-command of his fort in Abusina, and was promoted over more experienced men because his uncle is a general.
  • Equivalent Exchange: The Frontier Wolves are convinced that crossing through the Chieftains' Death Place will require a death as payment for the others' safe passage.
  • Everybody's Dead, Dave: The Third Ordo from Castellum make it by the skin of their teeth to their expected refuge at the next closest Roman fort, the headquarters of the Frontier Scouts at Bremenium. . . where they find the gates opened from within and the First Ordo slaughtered.
  • A Father to His Men: Julius Gavros, Alexios's predecessor at Castellum, and eventually Alexios himself, who frets over their rations and pay and makes a Heroic Sacrifice for them. Quartermaster Kaeso, the longest-serving officer in Castellum, is something of a 'father', but more of an alcoholic uncle.
  • Finger in the Mail: The couriers sent to Bring Help Back to Abusina have their heads chucked back over the fort wall.
  • Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Connla the terminally irresponsible Fiery Redhead, and his quiet, serious older brother Cunorix the future chief.
  • For Want Of A Nail: Invoked. Connla actually steals the Praepositus's horse twice – the first time, the Wolves got it back with no harm done. The second time happens because someone laughed at him about it.
  • Foreshadowing: Alexios and Cunorix pursuing a wolf into the ruins of a Roman fort, where Alexios must kill it alone, foreshadows the Votadini and Picts running the Wolves to ground in Bremenium, and Cunorix fighting Alexios alone while the Picts stand back.
  • From Bad to Worse: Just...every time. Abusina: the Marcomanni attack–the messengers are dead–the commander dies. Castellum: Connla dies–the Arcani desert–the Votadini attack–the Praepositus dies–the fort is untenable. Bremenium: the fort has fallen–the Votadini arrive–Cunorix dies–the Votadini attack.
  • Going Native: Despite being an Army of Thieves and Whores who have been Reassigned to Antarctica, Frontier Wolves are expected to put aside family and tribal loyalties and form a Band of Brothers. Each one has to kill a wolf and wear its skin, and Alexios fears he'll be superstitiously touching their good-luck rock before he knows it.
  • The Great Wall: The Frontier Scouts patrol Valentia, the lost province between the Northern (Antonine) and Southern (Hadrian's) Walls. After Bremenium falls, the surviving Ordos have to Run for the Border represented by Hadrian's Wall.
  • His Story Repeats Itself: At Abusina Alexios is You Are in Command Now during The Siege and orders a costly Tactical Withdrawal. Reassigned to Antarctica for his poor judgement, he finds himself facing the same situation.
  • How We Got Here: The first chapter opens with Alexios in a cell awaiting court-martial. The Abusina disaster is framed as his agonised reminiscence.
  • I Choose to Stay: For his handling of the retreat, the emperor Constans offers Alexios a fast track to promotion on his personal staff, or the command of five hundred raw barbarian recruits to the Frontier Wolves. Alexios signs up for the barbarians.
  • Interservice Rivalry: Frontier Wolves like to look down on the regular Legions, while the legions and everyone else look down on the Wolves.
  • It Has Been an Honour: Alexios doesn't actually tell them as much, but he thinks it:
    Alexios: If we don't get through – if I don't get them through – if I don't get out of this – by the Lord of the Legions I've known what it is to command men worth the commanding!
  • Job Title: It's their "fond-name", technically.
  • Kill the Ones You Love: Alexios has to Mercy Kill Connla after the Praepositus sentences him to death by javelin for stealing his horse and killing two Wolves sent to retrieve it. This embroils the Frontier Wolves in a blood feud with Connla's brother Cunorix, Alexios's closest friend. To spare his men from a massacre, Alexios tells Cunorix that he was the executioner and offers him the chance to kill him in single combat. Alexios kills Cunorix.
  • Kindhearted Cat Lover: Alexios wins the loyalty of his first Frontier Wolf, junior trumpeter Rufus, by teaching him how to suckle a lost kitten like a lamb.
  • Latin Language: Certain Latin military terms are given for verisimilitude, but function pretty much like modern equivalents. An Ordo ('order'), at two hundred men, is essentially a company, and is commanded by a Ducenarius (two hundred leader, more or less a captain) and two Centenariuses (hundred leader, basically lieutenants.) The three Ordos of Frontier Scouts make up a Numerus ('number') led by a Praepositus ('placed in front'), basically a regiment. Optios ('chosen') are sergeants, and Arcani ('secret, hidden') are spies or intelligence-gatherers.
  • Leaning on the Furniture: Modus operandi of Alexios's vaguely insubordinate second-in-command, Hilarion, who is frequently described with the verb "to lounge".
  • The Mole: Druim and the Arcani are Castellum's spies (this seems to consist of going on longer patrols, since they obviously operate from a Roman fort). They fail to inform Alexios of a rumoured Pict-Attacotti alliance, except for a single loyal Arcanus who gets a knife in the back, and desert en masse the night Picts come over the Northern Wall. When the Third Ordo finds Bremenium opened from within and the garrison slaughtered, the Sole Survivor points to the First Ordo's Arcani. The Wolves never find out precisely why the Arcani betrayed them.
  • My Greatest Failure: Alexios's career (and nearly his life) are over after he chooses the wrong course of action when the Marcomanni tribe besieges his fort in Germany. His superior officer is killed and he overrules the standing order to hold the fort, believing that their messengers are dead. The retreating garrison is caught and cut to pieces by the tribesmen before The Cavalry arrives and he is relieved of command.
  • My Greatest Second Chance: After his terrible misjudgement at Abusina, Alexios is Reassigned to Antarctica, out of the way of serious responsibilities for the rest of his career. The Natives Are Restless in Castellum too, however, and he is horrified that once again You Are in Command Now while Trapped Behind Enemy Lines. The example is slightly unusual in that he not only revisits the same situation, but has to retain enough confidence in his judgement to make the same choice, which was disastrous the first time around, but the right call now.
  • Mystery Cult: Christianity has recently become the empire's official religion, co-existing with paganism. Lucius, Anthonius, and the Praepositus are Christians, but Alexios and Kaeso keep to the soldiers' cult of Mithras, celebrated in a "cave" in Castellum.
  • The Natives Are Restless: Unluckily for the Frontier Wolves, their falling-out with the friendly Votadini coincides with an invasion of the Picts, the Attacotti, and the Damnonii. The Romans seldom have any idea why the tribes revolt when they do, but suspect it often originates at a piss-up.
  • The Patriarch: Ferradach Dhu, the clan chieftain of the local Votadini and father of Cunorix and Connla, is a gigantic old warrior who eventually succumbs to his chronic illness, leaving Cunorix as chief.
  • It's Personal: Cunorix's clan joins forces with the Picts for the sole reason that the Wolves killed Connla. Alexios reflects that if not for his death, the Votadini would have been arming against the invaders, who may still have devastated their territory in their absence. The upside of the blood feud is that it can resolved directly between the two people personally involved, Cunorix and Alexios, who was the executioner.
  • Post-Victory Collapse: Alexios drops from the infected wound in his sword-arm the moment they get to Onnum.
  • Proud Warrior Race Guy: Cunorix, and the other Votadini. The Praepositus sadly fails to appreciate this.
  • Reassigned to Antarctica: Alexios is technically Kicked Upstairs to the rank of Ducenarius after his pardon for Abusina because his uncle is the commander of Britain, but it's with the Frontier Scouts at the ends of the empire and his uncle reflects cheerfully on the possibility that they might cause him to have a fatal accident.
  • Recycled In Space: The "retreat with unreliable troops across hostile country in the face of a native uprising" scenario was inspired by an incident in the Third Anglo-Afghan War in 1919. Sutcliff apparently learned about it from fellow novelist Wallace Breem, to whom Frontier Wolf is dedicated, and who wrote a more direct dramatisation of it called The Leopard and the Cliff.
  • Ridiculously Difficult Route: A huge bog, the Long Moss, with a secret path through it to the Chieftains' Death Place that the Frontier Wolves don't actually know. They expect Short Cuts Make Long Delays.
  • The Rustler: A sympathetic version, in which livestock theft is a tolerated aspect of local culture – even their favourite sport is called Tain Bo, Cattle Raid – and the inflexible new Praepositus of the Frontier Wolves destroys Castellum's good relationship with Cunorix's clan by punishing it mercilessly.
    Hilarion: I don't count horse thieves, that's a gentleman's sport in these parts
  • Sacrificial Lamb: The older but junior officer at Abusina, whose completely correct advice Alexios disregarded.
  • Sarcastic Devotee: To Alexios's surprise, Hilarion, perhaps because they've become Fire-Forged Friends. He applies for a transfer in order to stay with Alexios in his new command.
  • Shorter Means Smarter: Alexios is slight, while Cunorix is shorter than Connla.
    Connla: [on meeting Alexios Flavius Aquila] That's a fine big name, but maybe you'll grow into it in time.
  • Shout-Out: Connla's "two inches in the right place" are a maxim from Vegetius's On Military Matters (De rei militari).
  • The Siege: At Abusina, while the commandant is away, and at Castellum from the morning after the Picts come over the Northern Wall and Connla dies to the next night, when Alexios decides to do a moonlight flit.
  • Snow Means Death: The snow begins to fall on the second day of the retreat and is falling when Lucius is killed at the bridge, when they reach the garrison at Bremenium, and when Alexios kills Cunorix.
  • Sole Survivor: Two: the woman at the Rath of Skolawn, and the wounded artilleryman at Bremenium.
  • A Storm Is Coming: A literal storm destroys the Votadini's harvest in the chapter "Thunder Brewing", and Alexios likens his misgivings about the rumoured Pict-Attacotti alliance to "a feeling like thunder at the back of my neck." On the retreat, the Wolves sense snow coming that materialises on the day that they meet the war bands.
  • Tactical Withdrawal: Alexios's decision at The Siege of Abusina, which proves disastrous, and again at the siege of Castellum. His superiors at Habitancum are surprised to hear that the messenger carrying their orders to abandon Castellum made it through, and even more surprised to learn that he didn't, and Alexios repeated the same risk on his own initiative.
  • Take It to the Bridge: The bridge over a river called the Roaring-Water is their pursuers' last chance to ambush the Wolves before they reach the safety of Bremenium. Lucius pulls a You Shall Not Pass! in the Rear Guard while the other Wolves pull the bridge down.
  • The Tell: Alexios jerks his shoulders straight whenever he's mentally squaring up to something. Everyone he's ever met knows he does it, but he doesn't.
  • This Is Something He's Got to Do Himself: His friends can help him hunt it, but each Frontier Scout has to kill his own wolf for his wolfskin cloak.
  • Trading Bars for Stripes: The Attacotti taken prisoner by the legions are given the option of slavery or service. Five hundred of them sign up for the Frontier Wolves.
  • A Tragedy of Impulsiveness: Relations between the Frontier Wolves and the Votadini collapse and dozens of people die, because Connla couldn't resist borrowing a horse.
  • Trapped Behind Enemy Lines: The Frontier Wolves have to steal out of their fort under cover of darkness and take a secret road away, then find that the Picts have already overrun the neighbouring Selgovae through whose territory their retreat path runs. The Bremenium fort has been compromised, and the Habitancum fort is on the point of evacuation, leaving no safe refuge between Castellum and the Wall.
  • Turbulent Priest: Morvidd the Oak Priest, or druid, is a bitter fanatic who lost face to Alexios's predecessor Julius Gavros and does his best to sway Cunorix's clan against the Romans. He accompanies them on the warpath and when the feud seems resolved, tries to inspire them to fight on after nightfall, contrary to their custom.
  • Very Loosely Based on a True Story: The emperor Constans did visit Britain in the early months of 343 CE, and there was some kind of tribal unrest that year, in which Bremenium (High Rochester), Habitancum (West Woodburn), and Castra Exploratorum (Bewcastle Roman fort) suffered damage. Castellum is the Cramond Roman fort on the west side of Edinburgh, but was abandoned before the period of the novel. The adventures of the Frontier Wolves were based on 20th century Indian Scouts.
  • Waking Up Elsewhere: Alexios wakes up from wound fever in the Onnum infirmary, which he doesn't recognise per se but which looks exactly the same as every Roman army building the length and breadth of the empire.
  • We Used to Be Friends: Cunorix and Alexios, before Alexios has to stab his little brother to death.
  • "Well Done, Son" Guy: Subverted. Alexios's uncle the general washes his hands of him, his mother despairs of him, and he feels he's disgraced the line of soldiers who wore the family signet before him. Later Alexios reflects that he acted to keep faith with his men and his own integrity, not an abstract idea of his ancestors.
  • What Are You in For?: Averted. Alexios got half his men killed, Bericus is a troublemaker, and Hilarion is slightly raffish, but what the rest of them did to merit the name of "scum and scrapings of the Empire" is never explained.
  • Xanatos Gambit: Alexios offers Cunorix a chance to kill him in Combat by Champion. If he kills Alexios, the Frontier Wolves will try to avenge him, but if Alexios kills him, the rest of the war band will leave the Frontier Wolves alone. He accepts this not particularly enticing offer, despite his numerical advantage, because they have a religious prohibition against possibly getting killed after sunset (and because Alexios calls him chicken.)
  • Yank the Dog's Chain: The Dwindling Party makes it to their fallback position at Bremenium. . . where Everybody's Dead, Dave.
  • You Are in Command Now: At Abusina, the fort commander is away and the senior centurion is killed at the beginning of The Siege, leaving Alexios in charge. He gets half his men killed. At Castellum, Alexios resigns his command after Connla's death, but the Praepositus is killed at the beginning of the siege and Alexios is reinstated. This time, he gets slightly less than half his men killed, a resounding success.