The Animal of War


He was trying to wake but his head kept smacking against rose marbled stone and the intensity of his earlier emotions of fear, panic, loathing, and triumph shocked the present from his mind with each blow, leaving a void of clarity. In the absence, the past reared up and caught him in its fiery claws. It was the truth unseen, hidden underneath everything he’d known, everything he’d built on top of the ruins when his sparkling kingdom had crumbled. She’d been gnawing at the rebuilt parts and now she demanded full awareness. Just an inkling of affection for her and the briefest touch of the book holding the pages where he had bared his soul were forcing him to remember. Recollection all the way back to places she couldn’t recall as of yet and he had fought so hard to forget. Back to the origin of their story and the beginning of his ruin. 

Back to the forest where he was still wandering but this time not so alone. Two wolves trotted along his left side, one on his right, all converted to his cause. And this time, they were the hunters not the hunted. The old pack that had harried him for weeks had lost three of their own, two of which were the strongest, best hunters.  They no longer craved his flesh; they protected it. Somewhere in it all, in their heightened senses, their increased endurance, their rapid healing, they had made a bargain with him, one forged in flesh and blood.

And that had turned the odds. He’d wounded the wolves so many times fighting them off that when he’d noticed how quickly some of them healed, he had learned a new sense of dread. But instead of pushing their favor, it had seemed to make them more docile, almost reverent. Who was this man whose flesh they feasted on nightly who grew back each day? As he had gained aggression and will, they reevaluated their prey. And for the two most ardent in his pursuit and consumption, the switch came easily. Almost with a mighty yawn, two had sought him out, followed him, allowed him to pet them, and then finally offered their furry backs to keep him warm at night.

When the pack would again take up pursuit, they would swing their fierce jaws at their old family, and snap and claw. Stay away, they warned. Elba had been the first, a bigger male who was littermate brother to the Alpha male. Then Vega, second only to her Alpha sister, followed. It was Volta who had a different turning. He’d been injured protecting the Alpha female from a vicious counterassault by Vega. She’d latched her jaws deep into the fur about his neck and tore.

As much as Elba and Vega had fought off the pack, the man had still suffered critical wounds; a flowing gash in his thigh, punctures to his throat. Volta’s scream had been enough to convince the others that Vega and Elba were deadly serious in their new alliance and the pack had left the youngster behind to limp and pant and whimper to a protracted end.

But the man took pity, knowing that this young wolf had only sought to protect his Alpha so he weakly picked him up and carried him to a peaceful place under an old tree, alongside a brook. With Volta in his lap, he stroked the wolf fondly, such suffering causing his eyes to tear. He knew by now that his pain would flow through him and in the morning, he would be whole again but this poor wolf would pant and then gasp and then shudder to an untimely end with no such promise.

He leaned his head down over the wolf’s muzzle and murmured penitent words to which Volta, with what strength he had left, raised his head and licked the man’s streaming face as if offering absolution. Elba and Vega even sensed the pathos as they snuggled on either side of the man and licked Volta’s fur clean. The more the man cried out for the life lost, the endless suffering, the sheer emptiness of meaning and purpose, the more Volta licked his face until they both bled out and their bodies stilled together against the ground.

In the morning, a heavy panting sound awoke the man. As he stirred, tongues lapped at his face until he rose up, his arms trying to guard against the canine bath. As he opened his eyes, he saw the younger wolf Volta, his ruddy-grey coat gleaming, laying just beside him. Elba and Vega then left him as they often did in the morning to go hunting or patrol but every morning since, Volta had stayed close by his side, having made his new pact with this man.

The wolf pack had followed him for miles, for what seemed like seasons, far away from where he had first encountered them in the snow, deep in the primeval forest of fir and oak.  After the change in allegiance, the main pack, now down to seven, left him and his three wolves alone, understanding that the numbers had evened up and any damage done would be summarily repaired on only one side of the battle.

The man suspected the wolves were not far, a sense confirmed at night when Elba and Vega called to their brothers and sisters in the wild and he’d hear the calls back. He even believed that their morning jaunts were to join with the old pack to hunt and provide but always they returned and were never gone long. He felt relieved that they had all found some sort of peaceful coexistence in the wilds after so many, many tormented nights.

The détente enabled him time to reflect on the scrawny nature of his being. He hadn’t eaten well for seasons, it seemed but the wolves were good about that. They led him to the bounty of their hunts which he only mildly appreciated. He found all the blood mildly revolting after all the pain and torture he’d endured. Sensing it, the wolves followed their noses and led him to where the fare would be more palatable to him. 

His first bites of human food were attained out of a rucksack stolen from some unfortunate soul. He retched up what he’d tried and the wolves, misinterpreting his actions, thought him all the better for sharing. They didn’t particularly favor the crusty bread or the jerky, but the fruit or cheeses were quite a nice change. He himself continued to try, keeping some down after awhile, finding the bread helped a lot.

Somehow he knew he’d need to get his body to learn to tolerate such sustenance, not just what they could hunt or he could forage.  This led them closer to other humans and the wolves watched and wondered why their human seemed more wary of his own kind than they did. Perhaps it was the question of the why that he searched for, why he wandered.

As foraging, hunting, and stealing eased the burden of eating and the man grew strong again, his thin but capable frame well-exercised from sparring with his companions, the man’s thoughts finally turned to the answers for his very being. He soon found what else ailed in these forests. 

The wolves followed him as he wandered to the edge of towns where torches and arrows guarded the night. He seemed to know where to go, back along the banks of a river that followed the base of the mountains. He retraced steps that he somehow recalled taking many moons ago, searching for familiarity, searching for memories and ultimately the answers to his unmaking. Somewhere, he had been a part of this civilized world and he wanted to remember where. But the journey became more perilous as the forests and hills filled with another kind of violence.

Men had come into the forest, men with weapons and horses, guarding caravans of destruction and war. Normally, he stayed hidden from the sounds of people, made uneasy by the words they made. But he also felt drawn, mostly to their songs and chants, specifically amongst them those robed and not carrying any weapons. They congregated in places that gave him peace, simple dwellings of stone. When he stumbled upon such a place, he would sit just within earshot and listen to their male voices harmonized in song, especially right at sundown. It filled him with calm.

As he continued to travel, he would often follow a lone monk making his way with a humble donkey to some simple place, his only ornament a wooden cross. From how the people treated such a man and how he treated them, the man begun to know this talisman as a sign of goodness and piety. But as the forest filled with more men carrying swords and spears, the simple robed folk seemed less and less. It didn’t take long for him to see the cross borne by men with swords, men who argued from up on horseback with simple folk with little to give, stealing all their cattle, forcing the males from boy to elder to leave their villages, to take up arms, and then began poisoning the waters, burning down homes, farms, scorching the earth, forcing all to flee the destruction.

It made him angry. He knew what it was like to be powerless, to have your will stripped away, to have everything you were laid bare and defenseless. He couldn’t fathom what faith would allow such reckless treatment of home, hearth, and land. But even in his anger, it didn’t lead him to action. He had his wolves to think about, to keep safe.

He’d surreptitiously leave food for some of the survivors or steal a waterskin from a soldier’s horse and secure it to a lowly donkey, some poor wretch’s only property left. It was what little he would do.

But it didn’t settle his growing unease. His wolves seemed happy enough; there were plenty of fresh corpses about to make need for their hunting skills rare. But none of the devastation he saw urged him out of the complacency of the shadows. And the invaders that carried a different talisman and spoke with different words were just more of the same. He couldn’t tell what was worse, the lengths these armies would go to capture land or the breadth of devastation wrought in their efforts to spoil it if it couldn’t be captured.

As the unrest in the valley bearing a strategic town grew unbearable, he and his wolves retreated further up into the mountains, to a place he’d been before, where the sounds of pious men scratching against thin paper filled the days and voices raised to heaven ended each night. It was a most tranquil of places, even though the site had been razed and rebuilt many times during conflicts. There were efforts underway to create a new place of worship, just beside a tower that had stood watch over the domed mountain and provide comfort to the souls of the villagers in the town just below.

But even this place was threatened, a place that humble folk only sought to strengthen as a symbol of their faith, random bandits smelling food stole and terrorized.   And he could no longer let that pass. He couldn’t bear to hear those voices he knew from calm, melodic song raised in terror and fear.

One night after a band had grabbed their fill and headed back down the mountain, he pursued, anger shaking every fiber of his being. And where he went, his wolves followed. The sounds of struggle, gnashing of teeth, yips and growls of the hunt, the shouts and then screams that followed, and finally in the end, a lone just barely human howl of rage caused the monks to huddle together and mumble their praise to their god that they had somehow served Him well and might continue to do so.

But in the morning, through the veil of low clouds, the monks found most of what had been stolen the night before returned, lying neatly stacked on the ground.  Even the food, minus a few choice morsels, had been returned. And all around the moist ground, fresh paw prints over those of boots. The local people soon heard the story and revered the wolves, although their holy book often spoke against the creatures. But here, the monks and the villagers, aching for some goodness in the dark days began to see the wolves in a different light.

When the winds swung providence in either direction, nights with bitter cold and no shelter to be found below the mountain or days of plenty where the smell of fresh bread and roasted meat drew the curious or the cunningly opportunistic, those were the times when the monks and villagers would hear the howls of the wolves and be surprised by a new horse, saddlebags full of coin, or rich objects from some ransacked home far away.

The people spread the word that this place was sacred and safe to only the penitent, under the protection of the wolves. The stories spread but with the tumult in the region, it didn’t stem the flow of new bandits of every order, trying to take what was not theirs in order to fight some perceived evil. There seemed to be an endless supply of these men, bearing symbols of different faiths.

And the rage heard on the wind grew ever more bitter for it.

That’s when I, Marcus Tertius Regulus, known after an age simply as Imperius, entered this story and decided my days dedicated to silence and seeking absolution for my past sins had come to an end. Here was emotion I knew how to sooth and a sign was revealed to me like a break in the morning fog in which I first spotted him.

He looked like nothing that could be saved, wild, disgusted, worry upon his dirty brow. He wore nothing, carried nothing, but stood there staring as my fellow monks gathered what had been left for us after a troubling night of screams. We would pray for the souls of the bodiless men but knew that God worked in mysterious ways, allowing us to continue our work.  As the others turned and hurried inside, the morning chill companion to the underlying fear of this wild pack that provided our protection, I held back, smelling him in all his mystery and ancient blood.

I was used to the older bloodlines, having served one for so many years after my purported death in Rome during the last age of the Empire. My master had been one of the oldest ever known, keeper of a bloodline that I had dated back into the beginning of recorded time. With that blood flowed power that boiled to conquer, to claim, and to protect its own. My master shared some of that power with me through the years, taking me down the dark path of damnation which kept me forever seeking salvation but never able to attain it.

I knew the special scent of immortality and this man, this creature who stood impervious to the elements and immutable to the ways of the world, reeked of old blood. Somewhere in his veins flowed some of the same power that flowed in me and that reawakened my troth. But something else bubbled closer to the surface, something even older and glimmering. An aura was about him that no stain of retribution and vehemence could tarnish. He had my old master’s rage but some other benefactor’s gifts.

As his hazel eyes met mine in a moment of human recognition, I turned my head slowly away, as one might a dog one wishes to greet. One does not stare into the eye of the newly met; one must let the frightened thing, with all its hopes and fears come to you.

I limped along back into the small shack I kept with the others next to the still forming new church, a smile crawling over my face. Sometimes all it took was patience. And the right offering.

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One Response to “The Animal of War”

  1. jozdavis Says:

    Reread this. Like the truth/recollection as physical pain.

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