Versipellis!

‘My name is Flavius Furius Aquila, first born of Vibius Furius Aquila and lately of Camulodunum in Britain.

I have served for several score years in honour and valour with the Legio II Augusta, that most noble company of men who, under the command of the young Vespasian helped bring order to the shores of Britain some 285 years previously.

This epistle, scratched hastily on a sodden scrap of parchment, is to comprise my final words…’

* * *

“Something is following us,” Quintus Ulpius Silvanus hissed, his face waxen beneath his helm and his gestures anxious.

“Only the spirit of Liber dogs you, friend Quintus,” Aulus Labienus Lepidus remarked, striking his comrade on the shoulder and laughing heartily.

“Plutus take you, Aulus,” Silvanus spat, his eyes twitching as they scoured the barren, snow-laden trees about them for signs of movement, “I swear something has been following us these past few leagues. I can feel its eyes burning into me.”

He quickly averted his eyes, staring instead at the endless fields of snow before him.

“I tell you all, mark my words, there is something following us. It’s travelling in the trees, watching us, a wolf or some other beast.”

Lepidus roared with laughter, clutching at his sides with his bare hands.

“Wolves don’t travel through trees!” he cried out in mirth. “Or are we to believe, dear Quintus that the wolves have suddenly taken to flight like birds?”

“Gentlemen, gentlemen, let us not quarrel,” Aquila called back from the head of the line, “have we not enough reason for discord at present without compounding our sorrows with tales of wild beasts and fears of being hunted?”

Bitter Februarius winds ran across the barren lands behind them, bearing down from the daunting range of the monstrous Alps that rose up from the snow-covered fields before them. They were seven in number, wounded and separated from their century by the whims of Alpine bandits who had struck at the rear of their guard.

The fighting had been bloody and barbaric, the snow darkened by the blood of friend and foe as they had fought with desperate ferocity against the enemy. There had been ten of them to begin with, each man, save for Aquila and Lepidus, as raw as the other, unbroken by the rigours of war.

The barbarians had made short work of them, falling upon them with long swords and spears, shattering their link with more experienced colleagues and encircling them amongst the frozen tundra far from the cradle of civilised Rome.

Aquila winced at the memory, feeling both the pain and the indignity of the recollection.

A cry resounded in the twilight, running through the thin trees and echoing amongst the godless mountains. The older Roman flinched, his blood running cold as he turned to glance back towards the sound.

Silvanus stopped at his side, breathless with both fear and the wound in his side. He leant heavily upon a spear taken from one of the felled barbarians; blood sodden rags bandaged his right eye.

“I told you,” he hissed in terror, his sole remaining eye wide and swollen, “I told you something was following us.”

Ahead of them, Lepidus had also stopped short in uncustomary silence.

“It’s out there,” Silvanus whispered, his breath as ragged as the bandages that covered his face, “crawling beneath the snow, tracking us, following us. It’s out there, Flavius, I swear.”

Aquila strained his eyes in the twilight, struggling to make out any detail amongst the endless snow and crooked trees. He reached down with a hand and took hold of his sword hilt, turning slowly to face his wounded comrade.

“If you breathe another word of this,” he hissed in the young soldier’s direction, “in front of me or any of the others, or spread any other kind of dissension, then I promise you, Silvanus, I will cut you down where you stand.”

His nostrils flared, breath pale and crystalline in the stillness that seemed to settle on them. Neither man spoke, until, with customary violence, the winds gathered again, casting snow over their armour and howling in their ears, breaking the stalemate into which they were locked.

Without further comment, Silvanus turned away, leaning heavily on the spear as he struggled to catch up with the remainder of his company.

In the icy fields at the base of the Alps, Aquila stood alone, hand on hilt and eyes staring blindly into the falling snow.

* * *

Night fell as the reached the torn rock of the lower mountain range, roots of stone descending beneath the earth like those of an aged tree.

During his travels, Aquila had seen whole nations of ice amongst the waves, rising up out of the ocean like the mountains before him and concealing a greater shape beneath the surface.

Perhaps, he reflected, the Alps were akin to those floating ice countries, uncharted by even the bravest soul in the Empire, perhaps beneath the soil they walked upon was another nation of expansive rock, inhabited only by the souls of the lost and the damned.

He shuddered, drawing his cloak further about his armour and trying not to dwell on the matter, instead turning his mind to more current issues of politic and faith.

The Emperor, now seated in his vast and shining city of Nova Roma, leaving the old Rome to rot amongst dissension and division, had made several concessions to the new faith made in the name of the Nazarene.

Slowly, Christian concepts had begun to find their way more and more into the notions of populist thought, even if many resisted, like the Emperor himself, the stigma of publicly

naming themselves as adherents to such beliefs. Aquila wondered, staring down at the cold rock beneath his sandals, how the Christians would identify the notion of a world beneath their own.

What philosophy, what gnosis would a Christian present to explain the horror he felt at such an idea? What would be the words of comfort from their saviour at the dread that crawled up his spine as the last rays of the sun sunk into the self-same soil and perhaps even now shone upon that land of rock below?

He was distrustful of the new faith, not because of the persuasive sway it seemed to hold over so many but because of its zealous intolerance of other beliefs.

He had seen Jerusalem and had no desire to see the Empire gripped with the kind of religious anger that kept the Jews seething in rage beneath foreign dominion.

The sound of Lepidus snoring broke his train of thought. He glanced over his shoulder and pulled a grimace of distaste as his face met the snow that gathered upon his shoulder. Swiftly he brushed himself free of it, turning away from the landscape of crooked trees to more readily study the slumbering forms of his six comrades, sleeping soundly within the mouth of the small cave.

Lepidus slept where he sat, his legs still wide apart and his chin upon his chest. Before him was the fire, burning brightly within the darkness and casting the shadows of the slumbering men large upon the jagged walls of the cave.

Beside Lepidus, Spurius Valerius Pacilus slept, wrapped up in his ragged cloak. Next to him rested Gnaeus Sergius Silanus, his nose crooked and bloodied from the blow he had received in the face, and Gaius Iulius Albus, laying upon his back and so pale that for all the world like he looked as if he had already passed away.

This should not have happened, he thought bitterly. They were soldiers of the mightiest empire to ever have risen up from the soil of the Earth; those wretched bandits should not have been able to inflict the damages they did.

He felt his lips quivering in a snarl, his expression darkened.

Though he would never admit it, there was a small fraction of his mind, a part of himself that he could never admit to, that blamed their centurion for not having noticed the attack upon his flank.

Every century of every legion should be as a living beast, conscious at all times of every part of its body. The fact that the bandits had managed to drive a wedge between the ten men at the end of the century and the main force was testament either to the tactical brilliance of a band of savage outcasts or the fact that Rome’s noble army was placing unworthy men into positions of authority.

Yet the lion’s share of his wrath he reserved solely for himself. He should have seen what was happening about him, Mithras knew he had been involved in enough skirmishes with Gauls and Goths alike to know when an enemy was attempting to outflank him.

What was it then that had made these bandits, driven out from the cradle of civilisation and into the desolate mountains, so effective in their ambush?

He shook his head, cursing softly beneath his breath. As he studied the shadows cast by the sleeping soldiers within the cave, he suddenly realised that someone was missing.

Quickly, his eyes darted over each man and, then, with a terrible stab of fear in his gut, he realised that Silvanus was gone.

Almost as soon as the realisation formed in his head, a shrill howl rang out through the desolate night, too human to be the cry of any animal. It was a broken, barking sound, a screech amongst the dead trees of the plain below. It was as if the very soul of the wind and snow had taken the form of a man and cried out in pity of its condition.

“Silvanus!” he hissed through teeth clammed shut, “Silvanus!”

Behind him, he heard the startled cries of the men within the cave and their scrabbling movement as they hastened to their feet and reached for their weapons.

“Lepidus, bring me a light!” he shouted over his shoulder, unsheathing his sword.

Within moments, the other man was at his side, armed and carrying a blazing branch. His face was pale and his eyes bloodshot. They exchanged wordless glances and then Aquila snatched the branch from him, shielding the flame from the billowing wind and rushing out into the endless snowfall.

The monstrous howl rang out across the fields once more, stirring the snow that had settled higher up the mountains and causing a further rain of frozen soil and ice to fall upon Aquila’s shoulders as he sprinted into the darkness.

There was blood in his mouth. Though he had no recollection of biting the inside of his cheek, he could feel the sour taste of blood beneath his tongue and between his grinding teeth. He felt the hair on the back of his neck stand on end as his body went rigid, the sweat upon his back turning as cold as the snow beneath his feet. In his chest, he felt the pounding of his heart, a sensation of unreserved horror welling up within him.

He turned slowly, nostrils flaring with every breath and eyes wide as he saw Quintus Ulpius Silvanus standing some way up the mountain, his arms thrown wide and his head back as he howled into the darkness above.

Aquila cursed loudly, his words lost amongst the cries of the wind and the madman above him. He sheathed his sword and ran forwards, almost barrelling into Lepidus and Pacilus as threw himself at the rocks, clawing his way up hand and foot, staring directly into the billowing winds and falling snow.

Within moments, he was within reach of Silvanus. He reached out and snatched hold of the other man’s ankle, pulling him down hard against the jagged rocks.

The howls died as the wind rushed from Silvanus’ lungs, his body crashing against the mountainside and his bare feet losing their grip. With terrible inevitability, he toppled, crashing into Aquila and sending both men spiralling down and backwards.

They hit the ground with a thud, the calmness of the snow exploding outwards from their impact as surely as if they had hit the water.

Aquila hauled himself up from the ground, his legs trembling and his eyes wide with rage. On the ground next to him, Silvanus moaned, a trickle of blood running down his face. Savagely, Aquila raised his foot and brought it down on the fallen man’s breastplate.

Silvanus cried out suddenly and Aquila slammed his foot down again, and again, and again, each blow eliciting further cries of pain as hideous as any wolfish howl.

The cold night air came alive with the sound of Silvanus’ sufferings and the terrible, precise accuracy of Aquila’s blows.

A long moment passed and he raised his foot no longer, standing trembling in the snow, sweat and blood standing out on his forehead as Silvanus wept at his feet.

“Does any other man here wish to play the fool?” he shouted, his wide eyes staring at each of his pale faced comrades, “Does any other man have a wish to make light of our situation or maybe invite the attentions of bandits and murderers?”

No one spoke. Save for the muffled cry of the wounded man and the howl of the wind, there was silence amongst the small group of soldiers.

“No,” Aquila snarled with disgust, “no, I didn’t think so.”

Pushing past Lepidus and Pacilus, he ducked down low and strode purposefully towards the dying fire.

* * *

They continued their journey the following day in silence, the terrible winds bellowing in their ears so as to make any conversation impossible. Silvanus limped more so than he had the night before, his back hunched like a common cripple and his face twisted with a scowl.

For his actions, he had given no account, and neither had any of the party asked. Instead, they had simply risen at dawn and began their journey in silence, each one harbouring private doubts about the path before them.

The day wore on, the snow falling ceaselessly and covering their armour and cloaks in a blanket of perfect white. No one spoke. Even Lepidus fell silent, his broad frame now hunched, as they all were, beneath the weight of supplies and snow.

The cracks were beginning to show, Aquila reflected sourly. The youthfulness and inexperience of a great number of those survivors left them unprepared for the hardship of labour in the Alps…labour they should never have experienced.

Once more, he cursed the distant centurion beneath his breath.

The day wore on and Lepidus eventually recovered something of his mirth, jesting quietly with Silanus and placing uncouth bets as to the manner and date upon which Albus would die and whether the limping Silvanus would beat him to the grave. Once, Aquila would have considered it his duty to sorely beat the both of them for their ill-timed humour but the treacherous weather and the steep and unforgiving terrain of the Alps had stolen from him any desire for such retribution.

The bright sun above continued to burn their eyes, illuminating the snow as fiercely as if it were iron cast into the furnace.
Despite the cold, he felt sweat trickling down his back and staining the hair beneath his arms, the weight of his burden conspiring with the elements to increase the pressure upon his back.

A sudden cry of fear ran up through the train of wounded soldiers, chilling the blood in his veins. He turned violently, almost overbalancing on the narrow mountain pass and falling back into the ravine. Aquila did not pause to dwell on the closeness of his death, his eyes instead straining to see what was happening.

With all his strength, he shrugged free of the weight of snow and rushed backwards down the trail, rotting sandals of leather and fur slipping upon the rock as he made his way towards the source of the commotion.

“What’s happening?” he cried in desperation, seizing hold of Silanus and all but pulling them both down.

The other man, the wounds on his face still weeping despite the cold, shrugged free of him but gave no condemnation of his actions, instead pointing fiercely behind.

“Lepidus!” he cried, “Lepidus has found a body!”

Aquila cursed loudly and pushed the other man aside, slamming him hard against the wall of rock and rushing forwards. He slid and staggered, falling to his hands and knees and tearing at the dirt and snow with his bare hands as he clawed forwards.

He was on his feet again in moments, shoving aside the pale Albus and crippled Silvanus, and pushing by Pacilus. He caught sight of Lepidus, crouched down and investigating some place in the wall of rock where the ground had seemingly given way to reveal the make-shift grave of a fallen man. He reached out and took hold of Lepidus’ shoulder, pulling him up and away.

Their eyes met and, in that moment, both men knew of the other’s secret fear.

“Is it the centurion?” Aquila cried above the roar of the wind, “Is it one of our number?”

Lepidus shook his head in solemn silence, instead simply pointing down into the ragged ditch carved by unknown hands in the dirt and rock.

Aquila shoved him away with disgust and crouched down, once more on his hands and knees amongst the snow as he shuffled forwards, bowing his head beneath the great weight of the Alps and staring into the ditch. The sight that greeted him churned his innards, the stench bringing acrid tears to his eyes.

Buried in the side of the mountain was a man, his clothing like that of the bandits that had attacked them in the fields below. Yet of any other detail, it was impossible to tell, so disfigured was the body.

The face was shredded, the sides of the head and neck punctured and torn, as if the jaws of some fantastic beast had tried to tear it free from the shoulders. Likewise, the clothes had been torn from his chest and his organs savagely ripped free, leaving a clear view of the bloody mess within him and the snow and dirt that had settled in the empty hollow.

Hastily he tried to work out how long the body had been lying within the mountain. The wounds seemed fresh and there were still bloody stains surrounding the half-chewed organs abandoned, for whatever reason, on the ground about him. Of predators, there was no evidence. Even rats, those eternal scavengers, had shied away from the ruin of the hastily interred corpse.

“What in the name of the gods could have done this?” Lepidus whispered, crouching down at his side, “What animal can not only attack a man but likewise bury him in the dirt?”

“The Greeks talk of a beast named crocotta,” Albus whispered as the two men rose up from the sight of the grave, “they say that this beast waits in the forests, listening to men and, when it spies a lone farmer, it cries out the names it has learnt by listening and lures them to their death.”

The small company of men exchanged nervous glances but none spoke of the silent fears, none save for Silvanus.

“It was not a beast that killed this poor wretch,” the cripple spat, his nostrils flaring as he glared in Aquila’s direction, “rather it was a man.”

* * *

Night fell once more and they retreated into the narrow confines of a cave. Darkly, Aquila found himself reflecting on how little difference there was between the cramped confines in which they sought shelter from the elements and the grave in which Lepidus had earlier discovered the body of the dead man.

He tried to comfort himself with faith. As a soldier and devotee of the Mithraic mysteries, he was no stranger to the ceremonies of the damp rock beneath the soil. He understood well the comparison between the depths of the cave and the vastness of the heavens, yet here, in these godforsaken mountains, divided from their company and hounded by bandits, Flavius Furuis Aquila could find little cheer in the metaphysical precepts of his religion.

The image of the crocotta, conjured by the sickly Albus’ words earlier, kept returning to him. Was it possible that, in these inhospitable mountains, such a beast could be haunting the narrow passes? Surely, such a thing was impossible; no predator would lie in wait amongst such desolation when the fields below and the encroaching villages offered such a rich supply of both man and beast as prey.

No predator, as the accursed Silvanus had noted, but man himself.

With such morbid thoughts occupying his mind he fell at last into a fitful slumber, shivering beneath the ruins of his ragged cloak and blanket.

* * *

He awoke to the sound of hushed whispers and a firm hand shaking his shoulder. Slowly, his eyes opened, looking out on the world with confusion. Lepidus crouched before him, the lines of his face folded in anxiety.

Somewhere at the back of his mind, Aquila registered that, beyond the mouth of the cave, it was still dark.

“What is it?” he asked sourly, his lips dry and his mouth feeling as if some rodent of a kind had made a home beneath his teeth.

Lepidus hissed angrily, lifting a finger to his lips. His eyes seemed to bulge and his nostrils flared as he spoke.

“Albus has gone,” he gasped in quiet, fitful breaths.

Aquila nodded but kept his peace, disentangling himself from the rags he slept within and rising up. As quietly as possible, he took hold of his shield and helmet and together they left what little warmth the cave had to offer.

The wind hit him instantly, biting into the bare flesh of his face and the exposed skin of his legs. Hastily he adjusted his helmet over his dark hair, momentarily regretting leaving his cloak bundled with the blanket he had slept in. Waiting for them was Silanus, the wound that disfigured his nose looking rancid and infected in the fierce light of the full moon.

Aquila looked from Lepidus to Silanus, his gaze dark in his pale, frostbitten face.

“What happened?” he demanded.

Silanus shrugged and swallowed hard, his cloak flapping wide open in the billowing winds and revealing the tarnish and dirt that stained his breastplate.

“We were…” he began, swallowing hard again, “we were casting lots…as to whether we should leave the sick behind…”

He paused, turning his gaze away from Aquila.

“And…and as to whether we should abandon you…” he said at last.

The other looked again from Silanus to Lepidus and back again.

“I see,” he said at last, his voice a whisper beneath the howl of the wind, “What grounds have I given you that you should decide such a fate was warranted?”

“Oh, come on, Flavius!” Lepidus roared, “Are you blind? Can you not see? The centurion has abandoned us!”

“Legio II Augusta does not abandon its soldiers!” Aquila shouted in response, the blood rushing to his face and spittle staining his lips.

His nostrils flared and for a moment, no one spoke.

“Tell me,” he began once again, “tell me before you disgrace yourselves further, what has happened to Albus?”

Again, Silanus looked uncomfortable.

“Albus overheard us drawing lots,” he said, his voice betraying the shame he felt, “he said nothing to us but instead, with his head held high, began to march away from the camp and further up the path.”

“We called after him and gave chase,” Lepidus added, “but to no avail. Whatever affliction he was struggling to hide from us, it was not one that impaired his speed.”

Aquila regarded both of them with cold disinterest, the wind rising up from behind the side of the mountain and the sharp drop into oblivion. Whilst he would never admit it, Flavius Furius Aquila was thankful that, this night with the howl of the winds so loud in the air, his back was close to the wall of the cave.

He sighed and rubbed the bridge of his nose.

“We’ll have to give chase, no matter what,” he remarked, “it is not befitting for a Roman…”

His words were cut short as, from the mountains above, a hideous black shadow descended, lurching forward against the stark white of the snow and bright moonlight, its jaws wide open and its watery blue eyes shining like precious stones.

Unable to help himself, he cried out, flattening himself against the wall as he watched the shadow pour down from the mountain above him, soil and snow instantly following in the trembles of dread avalanche.
He staggered, watching as the shadow broke against Silanus with a force that drove him backwards and over the edge of the path.

With a cry of despair, the soldier, his chest blackened by the weight of the enormous shadow, desceneded into the dark. His cry echoed up from the depths, haunting the stark night and drowning out the sorrowful wail of the wind.

Lepidus screamed like a madman, throwing himself at the ground and then pulling himself up and charging at the wall, hammering his fists against the rock until his hands bled. He turned to Aquila, his eyes wide and, despite himself, the other found himself uncannily reminded of his glimpse of those precious stones buried in shadow.

“We’re cursed!” he cried out, “Cursed!”

Pacilus appeared at the mouth of the cave, pale skinned and armed and Lepidus instantly threw himself at the other’s mercy, weeping and crying. Repulsed, Pacilus stepped backwards and Lepidus fell to the ground.

“What in the name of Mithras, what terrible force, what monstrous nature has been unleashed not in our favour but rather against our weary hearts?” he wailed, beating his hands against the ground, “Silanus! Friend Silanus, no more!”

“He speaks as if he were a lunatic,” Silvanus hissed, emerging from the warmth, swaddled in blankets like a newly born child, “yet there is truth in what he says. This many miles, a foe has stalked us. I tried to warn you,” he lifted his head and glared at Aquila, “but none would listen.”

“Silence!” he hissed, “There’s a voice…”

At once the group of four soldiers fell silent, their faces turned to the howling wind, attentive and fearful. Beneath the roar of the elements came the bleating, fearful cry of a man in danger.

“S-Silanus?” Lepidus stammered, pulling himself to his feet and calling, with more urgency, “Silanus, is that you?”

He staggered forward but Aquila held his arm out to prevent him from passing. Lepidus turned his head and the two men glowered at each other for a moment before, hastily, he pushed away and rushed forward again, falling up his knees and peering down into the abyss.

“Silanus! Silanus, is that you?” he cried.

The weak, bleating voice called out once more and Silvanus shook his head, his eyes widening.

“That’s not Silanus…” he whispered.

Lepidus peered down into the darkness and, with a cold stab of fear, felt warmth upon his face – humid, stagnant warmth. In the shadows, a pair of stark, blue eyes opened and then, with a snarl, the shadow leapt upwards, mouth open and claws ripping through his breastplate.

Through the twisting wind and falling snow, Aquila struggled forwards, shrugging free of the dislodged loam and holding his shield before him. As he grew closer, he began to distinguish details, the texture of the shadow revealed as fur the colour of soot and ash, the yellowing teeth and the watery eyes located either side of its long snout.

Lepidus screamed out in pain, that same snout burrowing between the cracks of his shattered armour and tearing his flesh and Aquila began to move faster, his pride as a soldier obliterating the fear in a rush of pure adrenaline.

He lashed out with his sword, carving a line along the beast’s side and spilling the animal’s blood in the snow. Pools of darkness formed in the perfect water, steam rising as it melted through the compacted ice and sunk down into the soil.

The beast flew backwards, blood running down its hind legs as it moved. It turned its eyes towards Aquila and, in horror, he realised just how much like a man’s eyes those watery orbs truly were.

With a display of strength not diminished by its wound, it leapt forwards.

There was no time for Aquila to react, no time for him to think, he simply staggered back and hit the wall. The snarling teeth of the animal grew closer and then, all at once, Pacilus sprung forwards from the mouth of the cave, stabbing his sword between the animal’s ribs and slamming his shoulder hard against it.

The beast howled in rage as the impact sent it slamming into the ground and off the edge of the path, tumbling down the mountainside and into the abyss from which it had sprung.

For the remainder of that night, its screams and howls echoed up from that distant pit, carrying by the callous wind to the ears of the trembling soldiers, huddled about the fire and unfit for sleep.

* * *

Dawn broke and they were once more upon the trail before the sun had fully risen, their number diminished by two.

They marched onwards into the swirling storms not because they still somehow felt they would be reunited with their century, but instead from fear of the monster at their backs.

In the space of a night they had gone from being soldiers of the Empire – weary soldiers but soldiers none the less – to quivering fools, each man locked within private fears and doubts.

Aquila could sense their unity dissolving, he knew that whatever beast it was that stalked them, it had already won the most decisive victory; it had shattered confidence in one another. Rather than being a division of a century, they were now simply individuals upon the same ruinous path.

“We have to fight it,” Pacilus croaked, his eyes wild, “we have to find some way we can fight it.”

Silvanus laughed a barking, hollow laugh.

“Have you lost what little sense the gods granted you?” he sneered, “Has the futility of our situation not penetrated that thick skull of yours? We are but four men, two of us wounded. How are we to fight such a foe?”

Lepidus gingerly traced the open scars on his face, staring darkly ahead into the ceaseless snow.

“Pacilus is right,” he whispered, his voice a low growl, “whatever is out there, we must fight it. I want to see that bastard animal hurt, I want it to hurt as bad as I am now. I want to tear its flesh with my teeth, to taste its blood upon my tongue. I want to see it suffer and die in this withering wasteland. I want vengeance.”

An uncomfortable silence fell upon them, the weight of Lepidus’ words dividing each man further and forcing him back into the private recesses of his own pain. None wished to challenge the blatant, animal rage displayed openly in Lepidus words and expression yet none of them were uncomfortable with the way he spoke.

It was as if a small part of whatever the beast was had somehow entered into his blood through virtue of the wounds it had inflicted.

Aquila grunted at last, nodding his head as if he had been privy to some further conversation on the matter, advice granted which none but he had heard.

“Tonight we will set up a defensive outpost and, should the beast attack again, we will find ourselves prepared against its coming,” he paused and looked directly at Silvanus, “I expect each man to play his part in this, each man to stand his ground and bring honour to the armour he wears.”

Visible beneath the snow and rags was Silvanus’ breastplate, dented and cracked by both the element and the cruel blows dealt by Aquila. The message was clear to each of them; Flavius Furius Aquila had become impatient with ignoble fate.

“They’re just dogs,” Lepidus murmured, drawing his sword and looking down at his ravaged reflection, “dogs bleed, dogs can be killed. Pacilus proved that if any of you were in doubt. A dog, like any other beast, feels pain at the cut of the sword and may be crushed by a fall from a mountain. Whatever has turned its sights upon us, it is, at its heart, just a dog…and dogs are meat, and we can eat dogs.”

Aquila and Pacilus exchanged concerned glances.

“No one is to eat of the flesh of the animals we kill, Lepidus,” he said carefully, “the beasts are obviously riddled with disease. The one that attacked you has eyes like a man. No animal I know of has an aspect such as that. It is obviously a complaint that could well be translated to you if you eat it.”

Lepidus laughed with cold dispassion.

“My eyes are already those of a man…my face however…my face is no longer a man’s face…”

“We can find you a physician once we cross the Alps…” Pacilus began but fell silent as Lepidus raised his head up, turning his face to the falling snow.

“My face burns with every movement, friend Pacilus,” he hissed, “I can feel that animal’s teeth in me, I can feel its dank breath seeping into the pores of my skin, feel its claws rending my breastplate…it is always with me…no physician can cure me of that…”

“There is a story of an ancient king of Pelasgia named Lycaon,” Silvanus said, his eyes eagerly studying the seeping wounds on the other’s face, “who, by deceit, attempted to serve Iuppiter a meal of sheep and goat intestines intermingled with the guts of his young son, Nictimos, murdered by his eldest sons.

“Iuppiter was so enraged by this that he cursed Lycaon and his sons to be transformed into wolves and sent down a thunderbolt to destroy his household.”

Pacilus laughed nervously.

“And would you have us believe that the beast which attacked Lepidus here, the beast which I struck with my own sword, was a son of this antiquated Greek king?”

Silvanus looked up, cracking a wicked smile of broken teeth.

“Such things have not been unheard,” he replied.

There was a moment of quiet and then Lepidus suddenly roared with rage, turning upon his fellow soldier and driving his blade through the other man’s throat. Silvanus’ eyes widened and blood spewed forth from his mouth as, panting like a lowly dog, the enraged Lepidus drove the sword further into the flesh, skewering it completely.

Too late Pacilus and Aquila threw themselves forwards, tearing Lepidus off his victim, his bellows filling the empty and desolate mountain passes of the ancient Alps.

Silvanus’ head fell from his shoulders, dropping into the white snow like an over-ripe fruit. His body followed the head down to the ground and, with a blow to the temples, Lepidus’ savage barks were silenced.

There was quiet once more and then abruptly, from every direction, the howls of beasts resounded through the air, calling out to one another amongst the rocks and snow of the ancient mountains.

“Mithras preserve us!” Pacilus whimpered weakly.

“We have to go!” Aquila hissed, his voice a whisper and his lips parched and dry.

“Where?” Pacilus cried in frustration, letting go of Lepidus’ arm and pushing the stunned man towards Aquila.

Upon the path below, something was moving beneath the thick snow, snaking upwards and disrupting the blanket of white like a serpent beneath the surface of the water.

Anywhere!” Aquila roared, shaking Lepidus until the wounded man lifted his head, “Hurry!”

Pacilus shook his head, tears streaming down his face, as the movement grew closer, snow, rock and dirt erupting from the ground as something moved upon swift legs towards them.

He took a step back and then another and then finally turned and sprinted up the mountain path.

Aquila yanked on the other man’s arm and, suddenly realising the danger he was in, Lepidus tore free and sprinted after his retreating companion.

Without hesitation, the eldest of the three men followed, throwing his shield to the ground and pumping his arms as he sprinted into the billowing veil of descending snow.

The howls of unseen animals grew louder about him, seemingly calling from every nook and crevices of the treacherous mountains. Desperately he struggled to remain ignorant of them, focusing only on putting distance between him and whatever it was that pursued them.

He lost sight of both Lepidus and Pacilus, their forms drowned by the heavy snowfall and then, with sudden treachery, his feet gave way beneath him and he staggered, falling down and slamming hard against the frozen soil beneath the snow.

Swiftly, he rolled onto his back and the blood in his veins froze as, sailing over him, he caught sight of a terrible animal, its ragged black fur smeared with blood and snow. He felt his control upon his bladder slip, warm urine staining the snow beneath him as his heart pounded a terrified tattoo of horror.

The beast crashed down and kept running, sprinting forwards into the blizzard and disappearing from sight. Seconds later, screams filled the air once more.

With trembling hands, he reached for his sword, drawing the blade despite the fact that he could see no target. He staggered forward, throwing his head back and staring up at the mountains as his feet took him in small, decreasing circles.

“Lepidus! Pacilus! Answer me!” he shouted into the endless snowdrift, his eyes wild and his legs damp with urine, “Albus! Silanus! Silvanus!”

He struggled to remember who had died and who had not, his face turning pale as the recollection of every harm afforded them since the attack of the bandits resurfaced afresh in his mind.

On the mountain above him, dark, ghastly shapes with human eyes and animal fur were gathering, swarming upon the mountains in search of food.

He opened his mouth to cry out in despair and then suddenly caught sight of Pacilus sprinting for all his worth back down the path and gesturing wildly with his arms.

The other soldier’s face and aspect were drenched in blood, his armour cracked and ruined by what looked like a series of vicious hammer blows. Aquila shook his head wildly, unable to come to terms with what was happening.

“Versipellis!” Pacilus roared above the wind, tears streaming from his eyes, “Versipellis!”

Aquila stared dumbly back at him, unable to move or comprehend. His mind struggled to fit the experiences together, Pacilus’ cry, the terrible animals that called to one another upon the cliffs and slopes above and those pale, blue eyes.

“Versipellis,” he whispered to himself with a frown, “turnskin?”

Pacilus barrelled into him and the two men crashed to the snow covered ground, rolling down the slope. Within moments, Pacilus was scrabbling his way up again, the broken nails of his fingers digging into the frozen soil and thick snow.

Without heed for the gathering beasts above them, Aquila took hold of the other man’s arm and pulled him back down.

Where’s Lepidus?” he shouted.

Pacilus’ eyes were wild and feral.

“Where’s Lepidus?” he cried once more.

Pacilus’ arm jerked out, his finger pointing back the way he came and Aquila relinquished his grip, slowly pulling himself up from the snow and taking several steps forwards. Behind him, he heard the frantic sounds of Pacilus as he fled, his feet pounding against the ice and dirt and his legs slipping. Several times the other soldier fell down amongst the snow and several times, he hauled himself up and continued his frantic run.

Of all this, Flavius Furius Aquila was oblivious, his eyes fixed upon the distant figure of Lepidus, feral and beastlike, a ring of snarling animals pacing in a circle about him. Their lips pulled back and their ears flat against their heads and, in the bright light of day, Aquila knew them for what they were at last.

The animals that haunted those lowly mountains were wolves, monstrous wolves that had grown fat preying upon bandits. There could be no other explanation.

In the distance, Lepidus snarled, grinding his teeth together and roaring loud enough to shake snow from the jagged, overhanging rocks. He lunged forward at the nearest wolf, spitting and hissing and the wolf backed off slightly, though not enough, Aquila observed, to break the continuity of the ring around their intended victim.

From behind Lepidus, one of the wolves gathered courage and took a step forward, snapping at the soldier’s heels. Instantly Lepidus whirled about, bending and clawing at the ground but catching only a handful of fur as the wolf elegantly darted back to its place in the circle.

Aquila staggered forward in the snow and froze, his heart suddenly reticent in his chest, unwilling to beat, unwilling to push blood through his veins. He felt the cold enter him, the weariness and terror of all they had seen, of all they had done.

Lepidus threw his head back and howled and, in the dim light and the ever-falling snow, it looked to Aquila as if some monstrous change were coming upon him.

Yet before he fully understood what was happening, the wolves had attacked. They leapt upwards at the sight of his exposed throat and tore at him, bringing him down by sheer strength of their number.

Aquila watched as his friend struggled desperately to throw them off and failed, a sea of black and silver fur engulfing him. Without being able to control himself, he found that he was staggering backwards, eyes fixed on the scene but feet carrying him away.

Lepidus howled again, a muffled, gurgling choke that faded beneath the din of snarling animals and tearing flesh and Aquila physically turned and fled, giving himself fully to the instinct that had spurred his initial retreat.

He ran and ran into the snow, unknowing of where his feet were taking him. The images of Lepidus, beast-like and haggard, surrounded by an endless circle of wolves remained in his mind, an image burnt forever into his memory.

He sensed warmth at his back, the pounding of clawed feet following after him in the endless white of those disquieting mountains. Their howls filled the air, intermingled with the screams and shouts of Lepidus as they tore him to shreds.

These beasts, these hideous and barbaric beasts, had stolen from Lepidus something as essential to a Roman as the art of breathing; they had stolen his sense of civility, his place amongst the civilised peoples of the world.

He sensed something dark and fierce in the billowing snow behind him and lashed out, running all the while, never pausing to look back as the cries issued forth and warm blood splashed against his heels. He ran, like never before he ran!

* * *

Time seemed to fray at the edges and, amongst the empty snow and ancient stone, he lost conception of how long he had been running. The snow abruptly parted before him and something dark staggered into view, ragged and haunted, blood streaming from its wounds.

With a cry, Aquila collided with the ragged figure and they both toppled to the ground, the snow obliterating their features so that, as they rose up from the earth, they were little more than spectres drawn upon the landscape.

In the distance, the wolves were silent.

Slowly, Aquila turned towards the other frail ghost and, beneath the smears of blood and ice, he recognised him for Pacilus.

Weeping bitter tears, he seized the other by the shoulders, rasping his name over and over but the will had gone out of Pacilus, his energy drained by the terrible fate of Lepidus and the horror of the wolves that had brought them such sorrow.

“Pacilus…” the old Roman gasped, “Pacilus, answer me.”

The other soldier simply shook his head sorrowfully, tears dried upon his frozen face.

“Albus…” he whispered after some time.

“No, Pacilus, it’s me! It’s Flavius!”

With a trembling hand, Pacilus pointed behind him to the disturbed snowdrift and the open mouth of a hole in the mountainside and slowly, Aquila began to understand that Pacilus, unluckiest of souls, had discovered the remains of Albus.

For the second time, Spurius Valerius Pacilus had found a body amongst the snow.

Understanding flooded Aquila, his mouth opened but he could find no words to say. After a long moment, Pacilus finally broke away from the other’s grasp, staggering onwards into the snow. Aquila did not stop him.

They never met again.

* * *

He sat alone in the dank cave save for the corpse of Albus, mauled and disfigured beyond belief.

Outside of the relative quiet of his sanctuary, the snow began to fall more heavily, the sun fading beneath the mountainous horizon and the cries of the wolves once more resounding in the twilight.

With trembling hands, he scratched the last of his words into the parchment and closed his eyes, allowing the paper to slip from him and fall to his side. He was weary, his body wracked by pain and exhaustion.

The wolves had been silenced by the onset of true daylight, he reflected. It was only now, with the sun sinking once more, that they called out again to one another, summoning their numbers from shadow and cave, gathering afresh amongst the mountain passes.

He thought once more of what Pacilus had cried out – versipellis – and of Silvanus’ talk of Lycaon and Albus, who now sat so silent nearby, and his comments of the crocotta. He struggled to make sense of it all, struggled to understand what power they had offended to bring down such horror, such terrible, terrible suffering upon them all, but his mind was blank, clouded by pain.

As the sun set beyond the mouth of the cave, Aquila felt his mind slip into the realms of blank, dreamless sleep.

The last thoughts that ran through his mind before he tumbled into blind sleep were that his legs were in pain, as if the claws and teeth of pursuing wolves had torn the flesh there. It was almost as if his very legs were changing shape, the bones pushing backwards as hair sprouted from beneath his flesh.

With a tentative smile and a sudden hunger in his belly, Flavius Furius Aquila fell suddenly and abruptly into sleep.

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