THE WOLF IS COMING
by Shreyas Adhikari
It was raining that fateful day. The downpour splashed down in torrents like the piss of the gods and turned the earth frothy brown. Cows and sheep ran bleating back to their byres as the herders jogged alongside, spitting vile oaths. The pasture was ruined now. They would have to venture into the depths of the forest the next day for cutting mast, and the forest was never a welcome place. Old folk warned of strange, hungry things that lived in its dark bosom. Preying on the unwary and ignorant.
But it was a different kind of spirit that arrived at the village that day. Composed entirely of flesh and blood, clad in circular metal strips lashed to leather straps over spotless tunics. Scarlet cloaks billowed out of their shoulders like a fountain of blood while helmets of hinged cheekpieces half-obscured the fierce, cold faces. Even the horses they rode on seemed to breathe volcanic steam. Ten men slowly ambled through the flimsy gates in double file. Discouraging any attempt at a sudden charge from the flanks.
Out of the two soldiers leading the party, one was clad in the hide of a freshly killed wolf and bore in his arms a tall, gilded sceptre. An eagle perched on the top. Wings outstretched to take flight.
People began emerging from their huts in ones and twos. First the men, grim-eyed and with weapons concealed within thick cloaks, then the women and children who were prepared to run. Nobody murmured. Even the beasts were silent, as if they had somehow sensed the sudden chill in the air. After a few moments had passed the oaken doors of the mead hall flew open with a bang, startling the villagers, and Adalwulf strode out, surrounded by his loyal thanes. He was a huge man with wild red hair and eyes forever bright with rage. Rumour had it he had slaughtered a bear with his bare hands during his adolescence.
“What is the meaning of this?” he thundered after shouldering and pushing his way through the throng. “We have already paid our taxes! There is nothing more to give.”
The centurion of the Romans urged his stallion a few steps forward to tower over Adalwulf.
He seemed unfazed by the display of temper. One of his men even yawned. Another spat to show what he thought of the grimy, sweaty peasants around him.
“Chatti,” the centurion began in accented but fluent Germanic. “It has come to our attention that you have been withholding grain and meat that rightfully belongs to Rome. Hoarding food, so to speak, and delivering to the garrison only a pittance.”
Adalwulf’s cheeks flamed crimson in shame and anger. He was the one who had given the order a moon back, at the onset of winter. Unexpected blight had taken half the wheat grown this season while wolves regularly raided the pens and carried away lambs. People had to eat. Or they would soon start turning on each other, which eventually ended in disaster and ruin. “My people are starving,” he growled. The Romans unnerved him with their stern discipline and detached methods of killing, but he could not afford to appear weak in front of the others. “This winter has been especially hard for us.”
The other man smirked. “What kind of a reik are you, eh? Even the beggars in the alleys of Rome have enough denarii to buy every hovel in this stinking shitpot.”
Adalwulf suppressed an unnaturally strong urge to whip out his long knife and open the centurion’s throat, but he merely swallowed his pride and looked down. At his worn boots.
At the earth between the boots. Had this been one of the Chatti, or Marcomanni, or any other tribe, his thumbs would have hooked inside the bastard’s eyes and squeezing jelly out in rivulets.
His adversary suitably humiliated, the centurion turned back his attention to the rest of the villagers who had all gone pale with realization. “I give you three days to fulfil the rest of your tribute. If you fail to comply, I will unleash my entire century upon you and scour this village from the face of the earth. Your bleached skeletons will be hanged at every crossroad across the length and breadth of Germania as an example.”
He flicked the reins and turned his horse around, leading the legionaries out of the village without any further words. The contempt in the gesture was palpable. Adalwulf gripped the arm of a young thane who offered to spear the retreating centurion through the back, even as the Chatti behind him exploded into stricken whispers. A woman started sobbing and clung to her two daughters like they were about to be sold to the Romans as part of the tribute. Cyneric the blacksmith argued loudly that they ought to gather all the able bodied men and assault the fort itself, driving the invaders off their lands. A hundred voices rose and melded in shrill cacophony around the chieftain as the threat of ruin dangled over their heads like a veritable sword.
Only Eofor laughed. He clapped his little hands together in glee and danced around the faint embers of a dead fire. He smeared his face and golden locks with dung and howled at the grey sky like a wolf, soaked and sodden to the bone. The rest did not pay him any mind. They all knew Eofor was touched by the gods and lingered in a world far away from their own. The poor child was not like others of his kind and thus they left him to his own playful, mad caper. There were more sombre problems at hand.
Eofor was happy. He knew the Romans and he knew their centurion. Wodan, master of war and death and blood-sacrifice, had appeared to him in a dream and whispered his name in Eofor’s ear. The man was marked and would soon die. This was written. But he was also happy because the coming of the legionaries and the ultimatum served also meant he could now visit his best friend. The only man who had ever understood and loved him.
Uttering a last yelp of delight, Eofor skipped over the embers and darted out of the village. He made for the forest everyone was so afraid of. Nobody watched him go. Nobody missed him.
The axe descended upon the fowl’s neck and separated it from the twitching body. He held it over a bucket until every drop of blood was sluiced out, then squatted to begin plucking out the feathers one fistful at a time. He was lucky enough to stumble upon the bird in his foraging mission. Most of the game nowadays was either being hunted by the garrison or simply seeking greener pastures because of the loss in habitat and drying up of watering holes. Tonight would be different. He would at least get a respite from the boiled turnips and radishes.
The man ceased in his bloody work and looked up. A little boy barely ten summers old was hurtling towards him with the speed of a thunderbolt. Even from this distance he could see that the wall of thorny briar had scratched his arms and cheeks red, but the boy did not seem to care. He smiled. Eofor was special. The Chatti thought he was born that way because his mother had offended the gods, probably taken another man to her bed when her husband was away. But it was simply an affliction of the mind. Dagmer had seen such people before in the glittering cities of far Assyria.
“What is it, my friend?” he asked when the boy had come to a halt beside his hut, panting like a race hound. “Someone giving you trouble?”
“The red men!” Eofor squealed. “The red men are coming! I hid in the trees and saw them come to demand wheat, but Adalwulf told them they would have nothing.”
Dagmer frowned. The Romans were back in the village so soon? He recalled watching their huge cart roll out of the fort and start down the rutted path, wheels creaking ponderously, returning laden with the required sacks of food. What were they playing at? He reached out and gently grabbed Eofor’s thin shoulder to bring him close. The boy did not even flinch at the musk emanating from him.
“Who leads them?” he asked. “And how many were they?”
Eofor held up all his fingers. “It was that pig-faced one, Dagmer. The one everyone calls Swine-Eater.”
His heart throbbed faster, shooting hot blood up his head. Metellus. Centurion in the Legio I Germania. Professional soldier and amateur warlord who ran his little corner of the continent almost like a quasi-state. His men wandered into Chatti and Cherusci holdings uninvited to carry away women and wine as they pleased, while often entire flocks of sheep would vanish only to appear turning on Roman spits the very night. The few who dared oppose him were thrown in the dungeons if the centurion was feeling merciful. If not, he set his vicious hounds upon them or had them shot at point blank range with a siege carroballista.
If Metellus himself had come demanding tribute, it meant he was planning something big. Perhaps his ambitions had finally boiled over and he sought an excuse to expand his domain. Dagmer wondered if he was supposed to do something. Fighting off a contubernium or two was no herculean feat for him, though a full century well dug-in with heavy artillery and cavalry could be a thorn in the side. But he had sworn an oath. An oath never to draw sword or fang ever again as long as he lived. The Chatti would have to fend for themselves.
He went inside his hut and came back with an apple. One of the last of the season. This he tossed to Eofor who turned it around, smiling like he had just been entrusted with a precious artifact. “Eat up,” Dagmer told him. “They aren’t feeding you much in the village nowadays, it seems to me.”
The boy bit into the apple but did not retrace his steps back home. Many a night he had spent at this desolate hut in the middle of the forest, sleeping with the sole livestock Dagmer had; two stubborn, long-horned bulls to till his millet and barley patch. Eofor was safer here than the village. Nobody chucked stones at him or tried to bugger him behind the alehouse. Or snare him for a sacrifice to the gods.
Dagmer breathed deeply and closed his eyes for a long time. Inhaling the sweet, cold scent of pine and fir all around him, listening to the song of crickets in the underbrush. He could feel the sun in the distance too, an orb of warm light striving hard against the gathering pall of winter. The thatch he had replaced a few days ago which now crawled with mice and provided owl with its perch. The walls hewed from pinewood and the rafters of oak, rich with parsley, garlic, pepper, aniseed and a variety of spices he had recently acquired from an Indian merchant. He tasted them all on his tongue. They reeked of a lonesome life.
Five summers ago Hagdan, the son of the Chatti reik and a brash young man, decided he was going to present his father with the skin of the largest wolf in the forest. Despite the warnings of the seer and older folk he ventured out with three of his friends, camping the night near the ruins of a Roman fort where trappers frequently sighted giant beasts. They dug a pit a few paces away and filled it with sharp stakes, then covered the mouth with mould, loose earth and a few bits of artfully arranged mushrooms. Hagdan shot a couple of hares and left them lying near the pit. In the dead of the night the hunters heard a pitiful howl and rushed to see what manner of wolf they had had killed. The prince turned ashen when he peered down.
Adalwulf was livid with rage when his son and his shamefaced companions bore the bloody corpse of the woman inside the mead hall. He slapped Hagdan so many times his cheek began to swell, then stabbed another hunter straight through the eye.
“You maggot! You goat-fucking shit-for-brains!” Adalwulf bellowed. “Do you know what you have done? You have doomed us all. He will come here and he will murder everyone! EVERYONE!”
Dagmer had wanted to do exactly that when he understood what had happened to his mate who had gone out in a fit of fiery hunger and never returned. He had scoured the forest for her scent, which ultimately ended up at the reik’s doorstep. She had been with child. And now both were dead, mangled by a dozen sharp stakes. It was only after Hella the seer begged him for the lives of the Chatti that Dagmer relented. The swordsmen Adalwulf had mustered to defend his idiot son were nothing to him; he could have easily torn them apart within minutes. But the gods were still watching. And Hella could talk to the gods. He had no desire to be roasted like a common grouse by a sudden bolt of lightning while he ploughed his land.
He smelled her coming from a mile away now. Or rather, he smelled the dried faeces and goat’s blood on her robes and the pungent herbs she had braided her hair with. Amulets clanked around her scrawny throat in rhythm to the pounding of her heart. Dagmer squatted again and resumed plucking the chicken. He had almost finished when she came to a stop behind him, bare feet rustling against the grass.
“If you have come to kill me, you will be sorely disappointed,” Dagmer said.
Hella grinned and rattled a string of bones which dangled from her gnarled staff. “I can simply ask Thor to strike you down, beast. Nay. I am not here to kill you. You are far more useful to the Chatti alive.”
Dagmer sank his teeth into the succulent flesh and tore it from the bones. Raw, stringy and full of grease. This was how the ancestors of man had eaten their meat and this is how he preferred it. Oily drool dribbled down his chin. He turned around and sat facing the seer, his back propped up against the hut.
“What? You want me to herd a few stray sheep like an obedient hound, is it?’ he sneered. “Or collect a few Marcomanni innards for your stews?”
She sighed. Hella had been old when the village was young. Nobody could tell her true age, and to Dagmer she had always resembled the bole of an ancient tree. Withered and yet powerful. Three jet stripes ran down from her scalp to chin like scars while her lips were daubed with chalk paste. Her eyes glowed like amber balefires, eyes that could bore right into a man’s soul and see all his transgressions.
“Adalwulf calls you to his hall,” she intoned. “We are in grave danger. The Roman scum threaten to burn us all at the stake.”
“Then why is he not here instead of you? Grovelling before me, as is right?”
Hella tapped one clawed finger on the crooked tip of the staff. The rain had stopped and the sky was a rare blue, though the ground below had been churned to a thick slurry. Horses laden with armoured men would have difficulty moving across this terrain for another day or so. Same with carts or ballistae. A breeze whispered of macabre portents in their ears. Eofor raised his head and smiled, as if he understood the breeze.
“Look at him,” the seer spoke at last. “I know you care for the boy, even if you don’t show it. Three days hence he could be nailed to a cross and having his guts pulled out, one length of rope at a time. Three days hence your people could be gone.”
Dire words. Dagmer chanced a look at Eofor. Indeed, in his innocent features and playful nature he could see the hazy outlines of the child he had lost. After his mate died, he had spent endless nights gazing at the rafters of his house and conjuring up ghosts. Imagining a life spent cavorting in the vast forests and valleys of Germania. He would have taught his cub how to catch salmon from fast moving streams, hunt boar and buck, mark his territory with piss and defend it against bears and wolves. A life full of joy and vigour. Long turned to dust and scattered to the winds. Others of his kind often took another wife, or several wives, after the first died, but Dagmer had loved Lysina with all his heart. He had cut it out and placed it dripping before her, so to speak. No other mate could ever fill the aching gap that lay in his breast.
He thought of Adalwulf. Once a warrior of great repute, he had stood against the Marsi and the Romans in many a shield wall, cleaving skulls and hacking limbs like a god of war. He was crotchety now. His rage remained, but it was like a sputtering fire inside the grate. Hagdan, his son, showed some remorse for accidentally killing a woman but remained sour for the fact that he had been a hair’s breadth away from being spattered on the pillars and walls of his mead hall. The others, Cyneric and Hilda and Athling and the rest of the Chatti who lived and toiled in the village, simply kept a polite distance. They knew what he was and wished no part of him, apart from the occasional trade which involved him dropping a deer carcass at someone’s door and getting a basket of bread, goat cheese or a cloak in return.
Was he really responsible for keeping them safe? What stopped him from abandoning the tribe and taking to deeper country, where nobody could find him and he could shed his skin till Ragnarok claimed the world? The Romans would come and slaughter every last man, woman and child if they did not find their tribute waiting outside the fort gates. He had seen them do that—and worse—in all the other provinces. Syria, Gaul, Carthage. Kingdoms and fiefdoms of proud men, where huge elephants ambled across the earth while gilded temples stood beside gushing waterfalls, surrounded by worshippers and wild beasts in an eclectic admixture. Rome had marched inside with its endless legions, taken the crowns off the native kings and smashed them with the Aquila. What was a smoky little barbarian village to them?
If the Chatti fell, the other tribes would be next in line. And then the Empire would inevitably come for him. Rome was progress. Rome was civilization. Men and women who dwelt in the twilight of an older time were an impediment and needed to be scoured with fire and sulphur. He had a brief, fleeting vision; a long line of stakes stretching all the way from Germania to Gaul, mounted with the heads of his people. Crawling with fat worms. Jackals leaped up to snag tiny portions of gristle and ravens pecked out the eyes one after the other.
Dagmer shook his head. When he looked up, Hella was gone. A pair of butterflies danced around each other in her place. A crow squawked overhead, and Eofor snarled at it as if it had uttered some vile oath.
The Romans came after three days, as promised. During that time, not a single sack of grain had been filled, not a single loaf of cornbread baked nor a cow or set aside. On the contrary, the smithy had belched fire and smoke day and night to produce new shanks for spears and arrowheads. The men armed themselves and paid a visit to the shrine. Hella called down the blessings of Wodan upon them and marked the warriors with chicken blood. If they died in battle, they would join their ancestors in the feasting halls. Metellus merely raised an eyebrow at the shored up defences and sent his men surging forwards. He had brought another two contubernii with him today who advanced in a slow phalanx to ward missiles and present a formidable front to the hundred Chatti gathered in the streets, watching them with hostile eyes. Rotten cabbages and spoilt eggs were hurled from some huts and splattered on the rectangular shields.
Adalwulf, having emptied half a barrel of ale and not slept in three nights, came roaring like a lion out of his mead hall with naked sword. Cursing the Romans with boils and plague, clap and consumption. His thanes had to bodily restrain him before he could spit himself on the bristling steel like a fowl.
“First rank, present pila!” Metellus called out. A line of spears went down like a crab’s pincer and inched nearer to the clump of Chatti waiting for the melee to begin. They were not as organized, blocked on both flanks by their own hurts and pens. The only way was forward onto the phalanx, where some of the strongest men would have to try and pull back the shields and score an opening.
The centurion wanted to finish things as soon as possible and get back to his tent. His favourite Pict whore waited half naked and perfumed for him, eyes moist with the promise of a passionate night. A curse of Mars upon these dirty barbarians for making things more difficult than they already were. He put one hand on the golden hilt of his spatha and waited for the legionaries to mop up the meagre resistance.
Someone tugged at his tunic. Metellus looked down to find a small boy with golden hair looking up curiously. He held a limp object in his right fist. After a closer glance he frowned in disgust to realize that it was a dead snake.
“What do you want, pup?” Metellus asked.
“You should not be here,” the boy whispered. “The wolf is coming.”
Another of the dark, meaningless prophecies the Germanic tribes peddled. The wolf will devour the sun. The serpent will devour the world. They were little more than beasts and thus their myths also revolved around beasts of the field and fen. Metellus decided if he had to make an example for the rest of the settlements in the province, he had better start with this simpleton. His dagger rasped out of its scabbard as he reached out for the boy with his free hand.
A black shadow detached itself from the threshold of a hut to his left. The centurion balked and paused, watching the sudden disturbance intently. It was a man, though such a man he had not seen before in this village. Tall and brawny and dressed in the hide of a great black bear whose fanged head acted as a helmet for him. His eyes were iron grey like the heart of winter and his shaggy beard was matted with a substance that looked like—blood?
“Gaius Metellus,” the man snarled in perfect Latin. “Leave this village and go back to your fort. These honest folk are under my protection. Lay a finger on them and not even your great doors and siege engines can protect you from my wrath.”
Metellus felt a primal fear bloom in the pit of his stomach. It was the fear a lamb was born with, for the wolf. But he remembered he was a Roman officer above all and some of the arrogance seeped back into his face. He slipped the dagger back and drew his sword.
“How do you speak Latin?” he asked. “And how do you know my name?”
“I was present at the birth of Latin, fool,” the barbarian smirked. “I hunted deer and occasionally men when Rome was little more than a burgeoning outpost on the banks of the Tiber. Your ancestors slept in mortal terror of my brothers and sisters, and five of your precious Imperators have felt my hot, stinking breath upon their faces more than once. I’m called Dagmer the Thorn, Roman. You? I know the names of your entire century, for you have trespassed on my hunting grounds more than once.”
Metellus suppressed the twist in his guts and pointed the spatha at the other man. Terrifying or not, he was still composed of flesh and blood, and could die. Good steel always took care of every nightmare, real or imagined.
“How are you going to stop me?” he inquired, with the ghost of a smile lifting at the corner of his mouth. “My men are already at the Chatti’s throats.”
Dagmer shrugged. “I’ll have to distract them, then.”
He grew. Before Metellus’ horrified eyes, he increased in size and girth like a seedling in spring. His face boiled and bubbled just as water in a pot suspended over fire would, the nose elongating to form a muzzle that further sprouted pitch black fur. The lower jaw followed suit as the scarlet tongue lolled out from between twin rows of sharp white fangs. Sinews cracked and popped, fingers bent and lost skin, the feet arched like a master archer’s bow. A bushy tail shot out from above the bony pelvis and brushed the muddy ground. Within moments the barbarian called Dagmer was gone, replaced by a half-animal from the first troubled dreams of man. Huge and fearsome, grinning savagely at the Romans in anticipation. The bitter musk of blood and piss charged the air.
To his credit, Metellus tried to swing at the creature. But Dagmer was too fast for him. He caught hold of the descending arm and ripped it clean out of the socket in a magnificent shower of gore. Eofor shrieked happily and began his caper as Dagmer stood up on his hind legs and hurled the torn limb straight at the legionaries. It hit a helmet, then showered another man with bits of flesh and finally bounced off a shield to come to a rest before the first rank. Metellus look at his gushing stump, then at the werewolf before him. And he decided passing out was the best choice.
His men were far braver. They did falter for a moment when turning in unison to see if the barbarians had launched a stealthy attack from the rear. They found their centurion slumped on his stallion’s neck, armless, and a gigantic beast from legend hunched over him. But then a legionary yelled “Roma Victrix!” and launched his pilum at him. The others hollered fit to rouse the dead and added their javelins to the volley.
Dagmer turned aside as the first spear snaked past him with a swish and snapped the next out of thin air, breaking it in two. He bounded forth before the mass of pila reached him. Such a large number of weapons would have simply pierced his flesh and pinned him to the ground. So onwards he rushed through the tunnel of wood and pig iron, howling in joy as he went. He tasted the Romans’ fear before he pounced for their throats. It was sweet and fresh like summer fruit, gamey like beef, warm like the sun. He was going to battle again and there was nothing that could stop him.
He smashed through the phalanx with sheer brute force. Shields and spears went flying everywhere as Dagmer bore the man who had roared the battle cry to the ground, teeth seeking his throat. The crunch of cartilage could be heard above the din of clashing metal and shrieking men. Blood spurted. The legionary’s eyes rolled wildly. His companions swarmed the wolf and slashed him with swords. Dagmer felt hot pain in his side and blood trickled down. He rent another man’s jaw with a swipe, tongue and teeth spraying, and swept an approaching enemy off his legs. He whirled and snarled and snapped, fighting with the strength of the animal and wile of the human. The Romans realized they could not win a contest of strength, and formed a kind of circle around him. Poking and prodding. Trying to bleed him out. This was how the lanistae captured beasts for games in the arena, and the legionaries adopted it in the heat of the battle. But the Chatti had been emboldened by now with the arrival of their protector. Adalwulf managed to shake his thanes to action with a drunken but loud invocation of Wodan and charged the Romans, waving his sword indiscriminately. He killed one man and sliced a pair of hamstrings, then went down on one knee to avoid being decapitated by a desperate swing, and stabbed the wielder, a boy of barely nineteen summers, in his gut. Loops of intestine spiralled out of the hole. The rest of the Chatti joined the melee alongside their reik a minute later.
Dagmer ended the battle soon. Human soldiers had never been any match for him in small numbers, though even as he was dispatching the last of them he thanked the gods the Romans had brought any of their dreaded ballistae or simply the entire garrison. One bolt thrown from an adequate distance by an experienced soldier and he would have exploded in a cloud of gristle and gore. But Metellus was an overconfident man. He had dismissed the local legends as hogwash and moonshine. And now his party lay shredded and destroyed in the middle of a barbarian village.
Dagmer reverted to human form. The bones cracked and ached from disuse, making him wince. How long had it been since he had last changed? Five winters. Maybe more. He knew not. But Dagmer felt more alive than he had these last few years. Bathed in so much blood it looked like he had taken a dip in a lake of gore. All around him lay legionaries like pathetic rag dolls, shredded and battered as if by a violent storm. He grinned. What a fucking mess. Thousands of denarii wasted.
A hand clamped on his shoulder. Dagmer turned to find the reik looking at him with sorrowful eyes. The anger had gone out of him. His usually braided hair hung loose and dishevelled about his broad shoulders, his beautiful blue tunic was wet with foes’ blood.
“Thank you,” Adalwulf said gravely. Then scratching his beard, added, “I’m sorry about your mate.”
Dagmer stared at him for some time. Memories of a lost age swirled around his head, ringing with laughter and tales told around a fire. Then he shrugged and stooped to unclasp a legionary’s cloak. Winter in Germania was cold even for a werewolf to walk around naked. He knotted it around his waist and squared his shoulder, looking east towards the sprawl of trees.
“Just keep a cow out for me. Wodan be with you. Farewell, my king.”