“Didn’t I tell you that he should have been unharmed?” Harald said watching critically the bruises on the young prisoner’s face. The gag prevented him from cursing, but the angry light in his bright blue eyes was enough to show his true feelings toward his capturers.
“Next time you’ll need a Roman for your experiments, you’re welcome to join us and take care of the capture by yourself. It took six men just to keep him still enough to knock him out and he broke Gar’s nose in the process. He’s a hell of a fighter. I suggest not to let him out of his bonds or he’ll slaughter you,” was Rolf’s dry answer. The chieftain respected the wizard’s powers, but didn’t mean to be chastened for something that wasn’t his fault. The Roman soldier had proved himself really tough and they had been able to get hold of him only because they had killed his horse under him. When finally they had him unconscious, they had tied him tightly to prevent him from moving a single muscle. It was probably for the best that he’d come to be the target of their hunt, who could say what he was going to become with time.
“If eyes could kill, we’d all be dead by now,” he thought with a grin, at the young man’s glare.
“Keep his head still and be careful not to breathe,” the magician said to the men that were holding the Roman upright. One grabbed a handful of his thick hair and pulled. The captive struggled, but in his present condition, there was little he could do to avoid inhaling the dust that the wizard blew right onto his face. A strange weakness reached down inside of him, making his world vanishing in the darkness.
“Could we borrow some of this dust for the next fight with the Wolfmen?” the chieftain asked watching the young man going limp in his men’s grip.
“It works only at short distance. Put him on the table.”
“How long will he remain out?”
“Long enough for my purposes, which you aren’t supposed to know or care.”
Rolf thought fleetingly that he would have liked to be present if the Roman had managed to get free.
“My reward?” he asked, hiding his true feeling toward the wizard.
“Near your horses.”
Rolf nodded and gestured to his men to leave the place. He shot a last look at the young man on the table, feeling quite sorry for what he was going to be through.
As the warriors left the room, Harald gestured to his two servants that had remained in the shadows. They stepped closer and began to prepare the ritual. They turned the prisoner onto his stomach and cut the ropes, then proceeded to remove the gag and his tunic. When he was wearing only his loincloth, they eased him onto his back, securing his limbs and neck to the table with leather straps bolted in the wood. The Roman never stirred once, neither when they threw a bucket full of water all over him. This accomplished, the servants went outside.
Harald heard the dripping sound of the liquid flowing through the carved wood, while he observed the young man lost in a dreamless slumber. Now that the anger in his eyes had been tamed, he looked so young and innocent. But there was no innocence in his rippling muscles, in the battle scars on his body, in his calloused hands strengthened by wielding a gladius. The wizard smiled at the gift that the fate had bestowed on him. He himself couldn’t have dreamed of a better bait for the trap he was going to set up. He patted the young man’s shoulder, before going on with his preparations.
Maximus’ head was spinning wildly as he regained consciousness. Memories of what had happened returned together with the sensations of his body. First the long ride, then the fall from the horse, the fight and the subsequent run through the woods trussed over the back of a horse had left him aching everywhere and he couldn’t blame his body for complaining. He had an odd feeling on his skin, not unpleasant, just strange. He tried to get up but he found himself restrained. He struggled against the leather keeping him down, when someone spoke to him in Latin.
“Save your strength, Young Man, you’ll need it soon.”
“Who are you? Why am I here?”
“This knowledge will be of no use for you.”
“What are you doing to me?
“Preparing you for a journey.”
“A journey? Headed to where? Why?”
Harald didn’t answer while he continued his work, sensing the Roman’s eyes on him. He could feel his tension, but not fear. The young soldier was curious, but not afraid as most men would have been at this point and the wizard silently praised him.
As the paintbrush continued its way on Maximus’ body, he felt his eyelids growing heavier and a sweet fog taking possession of his sense. He relaxed and it was as if his body had melted with the wood of the table.
Oddly, he felt good.
Exactly when the light of the moon reached his face, Maximus woke up. He was in a clearing in an unknown forest wearing only his loincloth and the paint that the stranger had used on him. Despite the coldness of the night, he felt warm and safe, as if the dark land was his home. He stretched like a big cat and began to walk toward the light of the moon. He had the impression that this was going to be the right one for his purposes.
Harald was observing the Roman smiling in his spell-induced sleep. The young man looked relaxed and absolutely not afraid. As a matter of fact his slumber was so peaceful that the restraints weren’t really needed. The wizard grinned.
Maximus sensed a presence and stopped, listening to the sounds of the forest. He had heard something akin to the sound of steps, not human’s, more like that of paws. He turned in time to see a clear gaze watching him intensely. He was staring at a she-wolf. He went on one knee to honor the symbol of Rome and she nodded her approval. She went closer and nudged him with her nuzzle, while Maximus patted her between the ears.
“Will you come with me, my Lady?”
“Lead the way, Wolfman, I’ll be with you,” he heard in his mind.
Maximus got up, returning on his path toward the moonlight, with the she-wolf at his heels.
The walk, turned into a run, the she-wolf matching his rhythm while they got closer to the silvery light. He was barefoot but the ground was soft under his feet. The blood sang in his veins making his heart beating like a war drum. He felt alive like never before and just wanted to shout his feelings at the sky. Doing so, his voice sounded like a howling.
An expression that on a human face would have been a smile, crossed the wild beast’s nuzzle.
The temple right under the light of the moon was in sight and Maximus wasn’t tired, despite his exertion. Suddenly, darker shadows surrounded him and his companion.
“What are you doing here, Wolfman?”
“I’m headed to the light,” he growled.
“What makes you think that we’re going to allow you to reach it?”
“Try and stop me,” he bellowed, while two gladiuses appeared in his hands. He swung both, balancing their swinging to warm his muscles.
“Who wants to be first?” he asked defiantly.
His magical blades shone as he attacked the dark wall of strangers. The ensuing fight was the most silent one he had ever witnessed. His enemies fought with dark weapons that collided with his without a sound and when they got wounded they just vanished. The she-wolf was fighting with him, as if they were a single soul, watching his back as he watched hers. Despite being outnumbered, their skills and will power got the best on everyone or everything arisen from the darkness.
The wizard was puzzled. The young soldier should have been sweating in the middle of a grievous nightmare, having surely already met some of the dark creatures of the dream world, but he looked good, an amused grin on his face. His body was relaxed on the table, his fingers twitching.
Something wasn’t going according to the plan.
After the fight, the temple under the moonlight seemed nearer and Maximus and the she-wolf reached it in what seemed a heartbeat. The shining whiteness coming from the sky was so bright that it could have been a day with a strange-looking sun. Maximus felt a pull toward the building. His soldier-trained mind was sending him loud warnings against stepping into an unknown place, but he knew that this was his destination.
He got in.
The large room was bathed in the moonlight coming from the opened roof. The she-wolf went closer and Maximus felt the touch of her soft fur on his right leg.
“I saw you coming, Wolfman. I was waiting for you,” someone said remaining out of sight.
The Roman made a complete turn but who or what had spoken was nowhere in sight.
“Do you know why am I here?” Maximus asked to the light. “I knew that I had to be here, but not the reason?
“What do you remember before arriving here?”
“I was tied on a table and there was a man smiling a cruel and cold smile. And….” he paused trying to recall what had happened “.. he covered my body with paint.”
A short laughter came from nowhere and everywhere.
“You’ve been sent here by a wizard who’s playing with fire and who’s about to be burnt beyond recognition. You were supposed to be a bait for me.”
“The wizard that sent you here, Harald, he’s trying to control me and he thought that a Roman, a Wolfman, might have been a suitable prey. I guess that you aren’t exactly what he thought you were, though.”
“Because you’re not just a soldier from Rome. The proof is the she-wolf. She doesn’t give her trust easily and you gained it just showing up here.”
Maximus was puzzled, but the praise made him proud.
“And now?” he asked, sensing that the fact that the wizard had apparently failed in his goal, didn’t mean that he, himself, was out of danger.
“You are in my world now and you must gain your return to yours. I have three tests for you. Get through them and you’ll be back, fail and you’ll stay here, forever.”
“I guess I don’t have a choice in the matter, have I?”
“No. Not since Harald sent you here.”
“He’ll pay for this,” the soldier growled and the light seemed to smile.
“Keep your mind on what you’re going to face. I’ll take care of him on behalf of both of us. Are you ready, Wolfman?”
“As much as I could ever be.”
“I knew it. Good luck. You’re going to need it.”
The disembodied words vanished in a blinding white light.
When Maximus was able to see again, it wasn’t night anymore. A veiled sun didn’t warm the snow expanse. He was cold, wondering how or where he could find something to wear on his naked, painted body. His thoughts recalled the magic that had created the swords in his previous fight and soon he was dressed in a warm tunic and trousers, with a long cape draped over his shoulders and boots.
Once he was warm, he tried to decide where to go but the white landscape offered no clues. Maximus closed his eyes and took a deep breath, banishing all the messages from his senses. He let his mind listening to the winds of the Dream World and they gave him the answer he needed.
He followed the west wind.
The snow creaked under his feet. This and his breath were the only sounds. His companion seemed not to touch the ground at all.
“Where are you going to go, Stranger?” a voice said into his mind. It was sweet and hypnotic and for a moment Maximus felt the urge to stop and listen.
“Where are you going to? Would you stay with me? I can show you things you couldn’t imagine. Will you stay with me?”
The message was tempting, yet sounding false. The she-wolf’ growl confirmed his impression and Maximus struggled not to follow the call. His steps became increasingly difficult, as if the snow had deepened but it hadn’t. The young solider forced his body to follow the direction he had taken, despite the spellbinding song.
“Come and stay with me. Stay with me. Forget about the west wind. Stay with me. I’ll take care of you. Everything will be easy.”
Maximus felt as if his legs had turned into stone. It was harder and harder to make them move one step after the other. It would have been so easy just giving in to the invitation. No more fighting, no more fear, no more will.
“No! No! No!!” he shouted both with his mouth and mind.
“Stay with me. I’ll take care of you. I’ll take care of everything.”
“No! I will not stay!” Maximus said refusing to surrender, fighting to regain control of his own body. Stubbornly he forced his limbs into motion, despite the weariness. Drops of sweat dampened his forehead, while his efforts resulted in an unsteady step, then another. The third bore more strength as he mustered all his will power against the poisoned lullaby still singing in his mind.
“No! No! No! I won’t be anybody’s slave. Let me go!”
The call in his mind rose in intensity and moving became painful. He moved his left leg and it seemed to him that a fire was spreading from his toes up to his calf, burning his limb. He repeated the movement with the other and the flame was now consuming his whole being.
Tears of pain replaced the sweat on his face, but he still refused to give up. His next attempt made his knees buckle and he dropped down on the snow. Trembling, he struggled to return upright, without paying attention to the tiredness and the aches all over. The fire in his body had now turned into the coldness of a winter storm, freezing sweat and tears against his skin.
“Surrender to me. Or do you prefer dying here in the snow?” the honeyed voice said, the tone so sweet that it nearly made Maximus sick.
“No….. You cannot have me,” he said with his mind, because his throat was closed and his mouth wasn’t able to form the words.
“If you die now, I’ll have your body.”
“But not my soul! You will never have my soul! Never! Never! Never!”
Little by little, Maximus’ words gained in intensity, until his mind was shouting. He even managed to pronounce some words aloud. Just a weak croak, but enough to challenge the mesmerizing song. He didn’t give up fighting and the tune in his mind turned into a disaccorded melody, fading to silence.
Maximus strained his ear, but there was no sound. The sensibility returned to his body and he welcomed the tingling sensation telling him that he was still alive. The deep growl of the she-wolf reminded him of her presence and he looked down, meeting her expression acknowledging his feat.
She saw herself reflected in the young man’s eyes and she liked what she read there.
“He could have made a great wolf,” she thought.
Without further ado, she resumed walking with the Wolf from Rome at her side.
The Spirit of the Temple of the Moonlight was amazed by the fight he had just witnessed. The Wolfman had an iron will to match his strong body. A part of the entity’s mind was pondering about the punishment for the wizard.
He could just let the Roman come back to have his own way. But, despite his braveness and anger, he didn’t seem cruel so he would probably just kill the wizard fast. Harald needed a lesson, one he wasn’t ever going to forget.
The shapeless landscape began to change. Every now and then particulars appeared at the horizon. Maximus and the she-wolf headed toward what looked like a small village, actually just few huts. When they reached it, nobody was in sight, either human or not. A whine broke the silence and Maximus turned toward the source. The door of one of the huts was open. Looking inside, he saw a crib dangling from the ceiling, with a child inside.
“Who left you here, little one?” he asked the infant who seemed to be watching him attentively and was rewarded by a happy gurgle.
Puzzled, Maximus returned outside, looking for a clue about what had happened. He found footprints in the snow heading northward and he wondered why everybody had left, leaving a child alone. He knew that sometimes the tribesmen did this with the weaker ones, in order to safeguard the majority, but the baby seemed healthy. He decided to take the child and try to discover what had happened to the people of the village. While he was wrapping the infant in a wool blanket he had found in the hut, the Roman discovered that she was a baby girl and he wondered if this was the reason of her abandonment.
“We have a new companion, My Lady,” Maximus said to the she-wolf who sniffed the small bundle in his arms. The animal nodded her approval and they followed the clues in the snow.
Maximus walked with the baby girl cuddled in his arms. She was so tiny that he barely felt her weight. She was sleeping soundly and he hoped that this would last until he found something to feed her with and himself, too. He had a rather vague idea of how much time had passed since his last meal. He didn’t felt hungry, though. Maybe it was something bound to the magic of the strange world he had been sent to. Just like the light, seemingly frozen in the colors of a winter mid-morning. He went on.
Walking in the snow-covered land had a mesmerizing effect on Maximus who was brought back to reality, or what seemed to be reality here, by the smell of fire. He saw figures in the distance and he headed toward them. A group of people was camped around the fires, preparing a meal. He hurried, eager to find someone who could feed the baby. A woman saw him coming and began to shout. All the heads turned to him and he wondered what could have alarmed them so much. He opened the cloak to show that he wasn’t wearing any weapon and smiled, hoping to prove his good intentions.
“He has brought the baby girl! He has brought the baby girl!” the woman shouted and a murmur passed through the people gathered.
“Why didn’t you leave her there? She’s cursed,” a man said angrily.
“I was looking for someone to take care of her. She’s too young to survive on her own.”
“That’s why we left her there. You should have left her where you found her.”
“But why? She’s just a baby.”
“She’s cursed and you brought the curse here. Let her die.”
“I cannot! She’s innocent.”
Maximus was amazed at the sight of the angry and fearful stares he was receiving. The people behind the campfires started to collect things and threw them at him and the child. He turned to protect her and ran away. He didn’t go far, though, because he received a stone in his right calf and stumbled. He tried to resume his run, but he was reached by objects hitting him everywhere. He felt on the frozen ground and bent to protect the child with his body. The people came closer, beginning to club him, shouting.
“LET HER DIE! LET HER DIE! LET HER DIE!”
“No, she’s a child,” he answered through the pain. He knew that he could have run easily without her but he just couldn’t leave her at their mercy. They hadn’t any. He kept the child close to his body, so that he could feel her heartbeat next to him. He prayed to the Gods to be able to protect her. Someone hit him on the head and he stammered but didn’t let her go. His head was spinning and he fought to stay conscious. A hit on the shoulder made him wince in pain, but – still – he resisted. Seeing him unwilling to give up, the attackers renewed their efforts until they knocked him out. Even so, he managed not to hurt the child with his weight. Everything seemed to freeze as the people from the village watched the young stranger lying in the snow stained by his blood. One touched him with a toe to be sure that he was really helpless, and then when he didn’t move, kicked him. Boldened by the stranger’s stillness, the man removed his cloak to reveal the arms still holding the baby. He met her deep black gaze and froze. Despite her age, her eyes possessed a strength that frightened him, making him jump backward.
“She looked at me….” he blabbered. A woman shoved him away to take a look and when the child looked at her, too, she jumped in fear.
Slowly a glow spread from the tiny bundle, unrolling over the figure on the ground, forming a circle around both of them, the blood that had gushed evaporated while the wounds healed in moments. The magical light became so bright that everybody had to avert their eyes. As they watched again, the Roman was still on the ground, but the baby-girl had been replaced by a warrior-looking woman. She seemed to be the source of the glow rising from her eyes. Anger irradiated from her and the women and men scattered around, backed down in awe.
“You stupid little cowards. You were ready to kill your own blood out of fear. Your stupidity prevented you from recognizing a true blessing for your tribe. It had to be a stranger to try and teach you humanity, but you harmed him. The birth of the child was a test for you and you failed. You threw your chance away and you’re not going to have another,” she said coldly and spat on the ground. She waved her hands and the space that contained her, Maximus and the she-wolf was suddenly empty.
The people remained to look at each other in fear for a long time.
The smell of roasted meat woke Maximus up. He opened his eyes and he found himself near a campfire where an animal was turning on a spit. His stomach growled appreciatively.
“I guess you’re hungry, aren’t you?” someone asked and turning to face the voice, he saw a warrior-looking woman smiling at him.
“Where is the baby-girl?” he asked, sensing that the stranger probably knew the answer.
“She’s safe, thanks to your help. You protected her and now she has found someone who will love and protect her.”
“You know who she is, don’t you?”
“Yes, she is a daughter of mine. I sent her to that village as a gift and a test for them, but they failed to recognize her. You did, though.”
“I just couldn’t let her be harmed. She’s so young and harmless.”
“You didn’t let your fear have the best over you,” she replied checking the meat. Finding it to her satisfaction, she cut a good piece of it and handed it over to the young man on a wooden plate. Maximus took it nodding in thanks and ate hungrily. He was cleaning his hands on the snow, after the meal, when she asked him smiling.
“You didn’t seem curious to know who I am. Why?”
“This is a strange place where I arrived for even odder reasons. If you are so powerful to heal my wounds in one moment, I can be patient enough to wait for an explanation.”
“Wise answer, Young Man. The she-wolf has chosen her companion wisely. I’m the Spirit of the Snow. I decide when to cover the land and protect it from the cold, providing it with pure water dripping quietly into it. I’m in the sky when it turns white and shapeless. I’m in the cold wind greeting the deepest part of winter. People are afraid of me sometimes, because I also bring death, but they respect me and when they do so, I’m just to them.”
“My father used to say that we must be thankful for the snow, because it represents the rest of the land after her exertion during the hot summer days. She needs some time to forget herself to dream her own dreams.”
“He’s right. The Land is a friend of mine. Is she a friend of yours, too?”
“Back home I have a farm where I’ll return when my duty is fulfilled.”
“Do you prefer your life as a warrior or as a farmer?”
“I don’t know. Sometimes I long to return to the fields where I feel that I belong, but when I’m home I’m restless and I feel my warrior instinct screaming deep inside of me.”
“I wish you well for when you’re going to choose.”
He nodded and felt that something was changing.
“It’s time to go, isn’t it?” he asked.
“Yes, your time is not over here. You still have another challenge. Good luck, Wolfman.”
“Thank you My Lady,” Maximus replied and the world vanished in a sweet murmur of falling snow.”
An ice-cold wind abruptly entered the room of the wizard’s house where the Roman was held captive or, better, where he should have been held, because the carved table was empty. Harald woke up startled. He hadn’t meant to fall asleep, but somehow it had happened and now this bait had vanished.
“Oh Gods,” he muttered but a voice interrupted his musing.
“They’re not going to help you, Wizard. It’s just something between you and me.”
Harald shivered recognizing the voice.
“You stink of fear. I’m wondering why. Didn’t you expect that I would have done something to protect myself? Ah, right. You considered yourself smarter than me. Unfortunately you were wrong and your first mistake was to use the Roman soldier as a bait. You didn’t catch a wolfman. You caught a true wolf and this will be your end.”
The voice stopped for a little while, then his words returned tinged with irony.
“Your heart is beating wildly in your chest. Learn from the young man you were ready to sacrifice to have me, he faced the danger with courage and strength and stop trembling, this won’t help you.”
Harald couldn’t help but shake even more.
He saw the bear walking through the wood and even from a distance, he was able to sense his rage. Without knowing why, he was sure that the beast had his mind set to kill, not just to hunt. Maximus called the swords that hadmagically appeared in his previous fight and he succeeded but the blades escaped his grip, landing on the ground. He looked at their shining in the underbrush puzzled, realizing all of a sudden that something was wrong with him.
Why was he so close to the land?
He stared at his feet and he found paws. Wolf’s paws.
He blinked, trying to sort out a meaning from what his brain refused to admit, but when he could see again, he was still in wolf-shape. Testing his strange new senses, he discovered that he had smelled the bear’s anger before seeing him and he had heard the tiny sounds of the creatures hiding in the shadows. His attention returned to the bear that was now closer. He was a huge beast, with dark cruel eyes and Maximus thought that the best move would have been running away while he was still unnoticed. He believed in courage, but facing an enraged bear, probably weighing four times his present shape wasn’t bold, just suicidal. He was starting to pad away on his silent legs when he saw something at the bottom of a tree.
A wolf cub was wailing in front of a den, hidden under the leaves. Unable to speak, Maximus growled to the small animal to return inside, but the youngster didn’t hear him and took a few more steps on wobbly legs toward the unknown.
The bear had heard the tiny cry and was approaching at a faster walk. He was going to reach the small wolf when Maximus leaped next to him, his fangs bare, snorting in defiance. The bear went on his hind legs growling. Maximus observed his attacker, letting his warrior instinct evaluating the odds. The bear returned on all his four, then extended his claws toward the cub. The Roman howled and the bear tried to skewer him, missing the score only thanks to his quick reaction. He turned behind the bear, trying to bite his legs, but the beast was really fast for his size and his claws reached the wolf’s nuzzle, leaving three bloodied signs. Maximus reared a few steps to take a run-up, while the bear returned on two legs. The wolf leaped, his fangs aiming at the bear’s throat. He reached the goal, but he realized that he wasn’t going to celebrate, feeling the bear’s claws seizing his spine. He didn’t let go, though, despite the pain, the blood in his mouth and the darkness closing in. The beast managed to get rid of him, throwing him away like a rag doll. The last thing Maximus remembered was his broken body hitting a tree.
“I’ll take to a journey, Harald. I guess you’re going to find it interesting.”
The wizard felt as if his soul had been ripped from his body and he found himself following the Spirit into a foreign world.
The first thing he saw was the Roman soldier he had sent there meeting the she-wolf and he was able to sense the bond between the two. He understood then the words of the Spirit. He had been wrong, very wrong.
Harald followed the wolfman and witnessed his struggle against the nightmarish creatures. He was amazed to watch him summoning the swords, using the possibilities offered by the magical world and winning.
“Do you see him, Harald? You sentenced him to a horrible death, but you failed and this is not everything.”
The scene changed and the young man was fighting the mermaid song. Harald’s soul shared his pain, but not the release when he succeeded and soon the world turned into void.
The search party had little hopes to find the missing soldier. He was expected to return the day before, but there was still no trace of him. Despite their doubts they had to try and so they were searching the thick underbrush looking for clues.
The snow was so white that the wizard’s eyes hurt, but he couldn’t close them, despite his efforts. The Spirit had prevented him from doing so and he was obliged to watch. He saw the Roman walk in the snow, rescue the baby and meet the angry people of the village. When the young man received the first wound, he wondered why he hadn’t abandoned the useless child to her fate like he himself would have done without a second thought.
“This is the difference between the two of you. Think about this, the story is nearly over.”
They were approaching a small clearing when the heard a tiny wailing. They went closer and they saw a wolf-club trotting in their direction. The centurion in charge went down on one knee to scoop the small animal into his arms.
“What are doing here, Little Wolf? Where’s your mother?”
The animal struggled to be let down and when the soldier obliged, he looked at him as if he wanted to be followed. Puzzled the man complied.
What he saw after a few steps stunned him.
The last scene Harald was witnessing was the struggle between the bear and the Roman turned into a wolf. He was amazed by the courage of the young man, daring to fight against such a formidable adversary. He had no hope, though, and the wizard couldn’t hide a snicker, thinking that all his courage and strength had led him to death and nowhere else.
“Do you think so, Wizard? You’re wrong,” the Spirit’s voice echoed in his mind. “Death is where YOU ARE HEADED TO. Farewell, my Friend.”
The next thing the wizard was aware of was the sensation of the bear’s claws ripping his back apart, then the excruciating pain when he was thrown toward the tree.
The centurion had been summoned by the Emperor himself to narrate the amazing events of the previous day, when they had found the young legionnaire.
“So, what did happen when the wolf cub pointed you in the right direction?” the slender man asked, his clear blue eyes shining with interest.
“We found the soldier lying in a bed of leaves wearing only his loincloth, his body painted with symbols of the Tribesmen’s gods. He was deep asleep but seemingly unharmed, apart from some bruises. We tried to wake him up but to no avail. We took him back to the camp in a stretcher and we were forced to bring the wolf cub, too, because he refused to remain in the forest. We brought them to the infirmary where the surgeons visited the soldier. He said that he was fine, but he didn’t know why he didn’t wake up. The last time I visited him, he was still out.”
“That’s strange. Really. What’s the name of the soldier?”
“Maximus Decimus Meridas, Caesar, he’s from Hispania.”
“Tell me more about him: is he a good soldier?”
“An amazing soldier. Despite his young age he has proved his strength and courage in more than a situation and I think that he’s destined to greatness.”
Marcus Aurelius reflected on the other man’s words and then said.
“And the wolf, where is he?”
“On his bed, refusing to eat.”
“That’s odd. Will you take me to visit him?”
“Of course, Caesar. This way,” the centurion said showing him the direction.
They soon arrived at the infirmary where a surgeon was writing something on a waxed tablet. Recognizing the Emperor he stood up.
“Please go on with your work. I just wanted to take a look at the soldier who was brought here yesterday.”
“He’s down here, Caesar,” the physician said showing him a secluded spot in the large tent.
On a small cot Marcus Aurelius saw the young man sleeping peacefully with the wolf cub slumbering in the warmth of the crook of his left arm. When the animal sensed a presence he woke up with a start, grumbling a funny high-pitched growl, ready to defend him with his whole small being. The Emperor smiled and a few laughing lines appeared on his face.
“I’m not going to hurt him. I just wanted to know him a little better,” the man said in a soothing tone and the wolf seemed to accept his explanation because he calmed, watching the emperor. Marcus Aurelius sat on a chair next to the bed and took a good look at the Spaniard. Despite his rumpled hair, the stubbled chin and the last remnants of his teen years on his face, there was a dignity that was apparent even in his sleep and the Emperor wished that he could see something similar on his own son’s face. Out of instinct he brushed a stray lock away from the younger man’s forehead and was rewarded by an aquamarine gaze staring at him.
“Welcome back, Maximus. Glad to have you back.”
Maximus didn’t recognize the man who was looking at him, but he sensed something in him that made him smile.
“I had a strange dream,” he said and when the unknown man urged him to narrate, he complied.
After a couple of weeks from the capture of the Roman soldier, Rolf was passing near the wizard’s home and decided to pay a visit to Harald. He didn’t like the wizard, but showing a little respect to a powerful man didn’t hurt so he entered the silent house. No servant was around, no rumors could be heard and the chieftain was puzzled. His puzzlement turned into horror when he discovered the wizard’s body in the room where they had taken the wolfman. He was horribly wounded, his corpse abandoned on the ground like a broken toy and what was left of his spine showed though his clothes. Rolf gasped in surprise and left the room on the run. He mounted his horse in haste and returned to the village to spread the word that the house was haunted and nobody ever returned there, neither thieves nor curious people.
Those who dared to come closer reported that, when the moon was high in the sky, a cold laughter could be heard coming from inside, a laughter resembling a wolf’s growl.