by Paul L. Mathews
The sun rose over Germania with an escort of birdsong and the crisp kiss of spring air. As it ascended forests of bare boxelder and birch slumbered below, and a midget looked down upon a valley known as Till. Wrapped tight in a thick cloak and bowed by the weight of a huge pack upon his back, he leant heavily on a thick walking stick. He narrowed his eyes and scanned the valley where a stoic tower lay besieged by a Roman legion. Rising out of the morning mizzle, the tower’s large, irregular stones were highlighted in delicate yellows and oranges by the sun.
Within the Roman encampment camp fires guttered, their smoke absorbed into the morning mist, and the camp shivered in the light from the ascendant sun. Flags and maroon tents fluttered, and the chatter of birds bubbled and prodded at the air, urging the sleeping soldiers to awake. Guards on the periphery of the camp made forlorn, sideways glances at the tents and looked forward to their sleep, whilst those already incumbent in the tents groaned, farted and put hands over their eyes as centurions bade them rise.
The midget looked back toward the tower and peered at its large, irregular stones, its lack of windows and its solitary door. His eyes narrowed in suspicion. Then, with a shake of his head a sigh, he set off down the foothills toward the camp.
The leader of the Roman force--the Legate--had ever been grey, scarred, and built to last. Strong and heavy, little could bring this man to his knees. Yet a legionary found the Legate knelt in prayer.
The legionary paused before speaking, taking a deep breath. “Sir,” he said, his voice a nervous vibrato, “there’s someone here to see you.”
The Legate opened his eyes and a growl escaped his throat. Rising from his prayers, he clenched his fists. “Who?”
Laiverius paused, eyebrows arched in surprise, as the midget appeared from behind the legionary. His weathered Arabic face creased with a wide grin, and with a wink of his dark eyes, he waved at the Legate. “How are you today?”
“Rish? What are you doing here? It’s been years! How...?”
The midget smiled. “And I’m pleased to see you too.”
As Laiverius and Rish moved through the bustle of the camp, the midget admitted to himself they made an odd pair. Laiverius towered over those around him, and Rish’s bandy legs had to work hard to keep up with the Roman. Whilst Laiverius skin bore scars of war--and Rish knew each one told enough stories to thrill an auditorium--Rish’s only bore sun-burns and insect bites.
Presently he looked about the camp. Blurry eyed legionaries gathered around bubbling pots and pans as cooks doled out bread, boiling water, and fruit. Spectral smoke haunted the camp, and disembodied calls from guards and centurions drifted by. The nip of the crisp spring morning bit at ankles and the ground beneath the feet was hard and frosty. Rish saw animal skins and sandals, armour and shields, swords and spears. He saw everything he’d expect a besieging force to possess...except siege equipment.
Strange, he thought. He stopped and peered about him. No. None.
He looked at the soldiers. Some ate from steaming plates with an air of listlessness, and their idle conversation had a flat, monotone aspect to it. Others sharpened weapons with lack-lustre strokes, and most merely gazed into space. These men, Rish thought, are neither nervous nor afraid: they are bored.
“So,” Rish said as he jogged to catch Laiverius, “how long have you been here?”
“Since mid July.”
“And have you spoken to him?”
Laiverius stopped. Turning away, he looked toward the tower as it loomed in the distance. “I don’t need to.”
With that the Legate set off again.
Rish frowned. Hadn’t spoken to him? That was even stranger. He called after his friend, “What about Kevana?”
“I don’t need to.”
“What about Shamira? Or Judith?”
“Don’t you think you should?”
There was no further elaboration, and Rish watched Laiverius stride toward a knot of slouched sentries on the periphery of the camp. With his hands on his hips, his eyes narrowed and his lips pursed, Rish shook his head.
This made no sense at all.
Rish spent the rest of the day repairing sandals, working diligently to furnish queue upon queue of legionaries with either repairs or new footwear altogether, his backpack easily holding enough leather and twine to meet the demand.
By the time night stole into the valley, he was both tired and hungry, and the Romans were only too glad to let him eat with them. Famed across the Empire not just for his superlative skill with footwear but also for his boundless imagination and powerful oratory, it was Rish the Storyteller who now entertained--and entranced--the gathered soldiers.
“And so,” Rish said, hands and facial expressions working hard to illustrate his narrative, “with the Alchemist’s army of stone having decimated the Governor’s forces, with hundreds of legionaries smashed against those stone soldiers like waves against rocks, the Alchemist and the Governor came to an uneasy understanding. The Governor would release the Alchemist’s daughters and leave him be, and the Alchemist would retire to the wilderness and see out his days alone and in peace with his daughters.”
“But why would the Governor do that?” asked one of the gathered legionaries--a Gaul with bad teeth and worse breath. “The Alchemist had the Governor by the balls. Why didn’t he just kill him?”
“You misunderstand the Alchemist,” Rish said with a smile. “The Alchemist’s dabbling in the darker sciences, in the more macabre mechanisms of our reality, were not inspired by a need for power or blood lust. He too had a sick daughter, just like the Governor.”
“So the Alchemist did all this, all this magic and stuff, just to keep his daughter from dying?”
“Can you think of a better reason?”
A hush fell on the assembled soldiers as they reflected on this, and Rish looked beyond them to see, on the fringes of the throng, Laiverius studying him. Reflected firelight danced in the Legate’s eyes, possessing them of a radiance both amber and feral.
Rish continued. “The Governor accepted the Alchemist’s terms with two caveats: he would allow the Alchemist to leave, but only if he promised to heal the Governor’s daughter, Marcella, and then abandon his black practices.”
“And did he?”
“To a degree, yes. The Alchemist furnished the Governor with the recipe for a dark, viscous potion that would keep the Governor’s daughter alive, and then he left Rome, vanishing into the dark lands of Magna Germania with his stone army and his three daughters, never to be seen again.”
“But what about the alchemy? Did he give it up?”
“And what about the Governor’s son? Did he ever get his revenge on the Alchemist? Did he ever get his leg over with Kevana?”
Rish looked up again as the gathered legionaries laughed. Laiverius had gone now, slipped away into the darkness.
“That, my friend,” Rish said as his voice dropped an octave, “remains to be seen.”
Laiverius, Rish guessed, must have been stood on the edge of the camp for a while by the time Rish found him. The Roman stared toward the tower. The fading August night was burdened and troubled with low cloud through which the moon--one night shy of its full bloom--peeped occasionally.
A wolf-pelt sat across Laiverius’ right shoulder, and the head of the dead beast--lovingly preserved and set in a snarling, glaring countenance--also stared at the tower. Laiverius gently stroked its muzzle.
“Rish,” Laiverius said, “you smell far too bad to sneak up on anybody, let alone me.”
Rish laughed and emerged from the darkness with a shrug. Yes, he should have known better. He’d never been able to sneak up on Laiverius, even when he hadn’t been tramping across the Empire for months without a bath. He moved to stand beside the Roman and looked toward the tower.
“Nice story,” Laiverius said, his voice a low and throaty growl. “But I doubt the men made the connection.”
“Well, if this siege is going where I think it’s going, I’m sure they’ll make the connection soon enough.”
Rish looked sideways at his old friend. Now, he thought, is the time for answers. “What is this all about, Laiverius? Why have you brought men from all over the Empire just to die here?”
“Because he is in there, Rish. In that tower. And he laughs at me.”
“Laughs? Doesn’t sound like the Alchemist I knew. Why would he laugh?”
“Because he’s started again. Started with his potions--”
“And how would you know?” A note of irritation crept into Rish’s tone.
“Because I can smell his potions. They smell acrid and vile and they make me sick the same way they made Marcella sick.”
“Smell them? All the way from Rome? My, what keen senses you have.”
“Oh, you have no idea.” Laiverius’ voice tailed off as he stroked the wolf’s muzzle, and Rish was sure tears lined the Roman’s eyes. “Every day, Rish. Every day Father made Marcella take that potion, and every day it made her lethargic and stupid and weak, and every day that smell seeped through her skin. Every day.”
“So why come here now, to kill the Alchemist?”
“Because she made me promise, the night she died, that I would stop him.”
“Yes. What he does, what he did to her--prolonging her life, prolonging her agony and keeping her from her true salvation--it’s evil. Ungodly.”
Rish’s eyes widened a little in surprise. “What do ‘God’ and ‘Salvation’ have to do with...?” Suddenly he remembered the sight of Laiverius on his knees in his tent. The he laughed long and hard until there were tears in his eyes.
Laiverius glared at Rish. “What do you find so amusing?”
“So that’s what all this is really about? You’re a Christian now?” Rish wiped tears of mirth from his eyes. “Last thing I knew you were worshipping Mithras.”
“Well, things change. I have changed.”
“Been baptised yet?” Rish feigned a sense of brevity.
“Yes, of course--”
“Well, Laiverius, if you do this, you’re going be baptised again. In blood.” Rish’s tone darkened as his eyes narrowed. “If you attack that tower on a righteous crusade to rid the world of the Alchemist and his little black medicines, then you, and all your legion, will die in that valley and no ‘God’ of yours--or anybody else’s--will be able to save you.”
“Then you had better leave, Rish, because this ends tomorrow. I swear I will not die until I have ripped that bastard’s throat out.”
“Oh yes, Laiverius,” Rish said with a snort as he turned to go, “that’s really Christian of you.”
The following morning Rish stood on the edge of the camp and peered up at the sky. The clouds still lingered, jealously holding onto the rain. They were low and dark, and the valley remained cold and still. The birdsong that had enlivened the previous morning had vanished. Now only an oppressive silence lingered. He shivered. If ever there were a morning to die...
He walked through amongst the tents, through the morning mist and lethargic legionaries, until he saw Laiverius--still on the edge of the camp--staring at the tower. Rish picked up his pace and walked to stand beside the Legate in silence. The Roman looked down, eyebrows raised in surprise. “I thought you would have left by now.”
“Well,” Rish said with a smile, “I didn’t. I want to see how the story ends.”
At that point the Gaul rode up to Laiverius.
“What news?” Laiverius asked.
“No news, sir. The tower’s occupants still refuse to answer and the door remains bolted shut.”
“Then get the men ready,” Laiverius said. “We move against the tower immediately.”
With his horse whinnying and stamping the ground, Laiverius led his men across the open field as they neared the tower. Behind him, his legion--clustered in tight formation with their shields to the fore--followed. Rish rode too, uncomfortable on an ill-tempered and fidgety pony borrowed from the camp's smith. He looked over his shoulder at the men. Their grips were slack about their swords, their shields were low, their gait unbowed and their step nonchalant. Still they yawned and blinked.
“Are you sure you want to do this?” Laiverius asked.
“No,” was Rish’s honest answer. None of this made any sense to him. Laiverius couldn’t have told those soldiers who they were dealing with, surely? Why? And what about that tower? There was something about the stones. They were a funny shape...
Speaking of stones and towers...
“So, Laiverius,” Rish said suddenly, “where is your siege equipment?”
“What?” Laiverius’ eyes narrowed and his lip curled as he tore his glare from the tower and stabbed Rish with it.
“Your siege equipment. If you came here planning to attack a tower, where’s your siege equipment?”
“Don’t concern yourself with things you don’t understand, Rish.”
“Concern mys--” Rish blinked and reigned in the pony. The creature stomped and whinnied as it fought against the leather reins. Rish ignored it and peered after his friend as he carried on, sat astride his strapping charger, the white beast every bit as relaxed as the legionaries. Rish shook his head. No siege gear. No planning. No care. Was this a modern ‘Christian’ soldier? What had happened to the focused Laiverius he’d met in Mesopotamia? Was this the crafty stratgeist who’d made his name in the Kitos War? The same man whose general had called ‘gifted’ and ‘prescient’?
He called after the Roman. “What are you up to?”
There was no answer and Laiverius merely fixed his gaze on the tower, stroking, ever stroking the muzzle of his pelt.
Then, without warning, the tower’s thick wooden door swung open. A woman emerged immediately. Dressed in scruffy, dour clothes and with wild, dark hair and thin limbs, she had the look of an angry raven. Scowling, she crossed her arms and glared at Laiverius and his men.
“Well, well,” Rish murmured. “Shamira.” He looked to Laiverius. The Legate frowned and bared his teeth as gestured for his legion to halt. Had he been hoping to see someone else? Kevana, perhaps?
“Laiverius?” Shamira's shout was shrill and carried far across the valley, sharp as a volley of arrows. Even at this distance Rish winced. Time had done nothing to dull the edge in that woman’s voice. “Why are you here? Business is concluded between our families.”
Laiverius shouted back. “Do not be so sure. They had an agreement, our fathers. An agreement yours now violates.”
“And what proof do you have of that? What evidence?”
“Silence!” He raised his hand. “This is the last warning, Shamira. Either your father abandons his practices immediately, or I come in there and kill him.”
Shamira laughed. “You could try.”
“And who would stop me, Shamira?”
Whatever Shamira’s reply, they never heard it. She turned and vanished into the tower, slamming the door shut behind her. Then a new sound gripped the valley...
At first the Romans didn’t hear so much as feel it: a vibration in the feet that carried up to the pelvis and kidneys. The soldiers looked about them and at the ground which began to quiver under their sandals. Then the slow rumble began. A deep, muttering grumble edged with the sound of stone rubbing against stone.
“That doesn’t sound good.” Rish looked behind him. The legionaries stared about them with wide eyes. Now their faces paled and their knuckles blanched as the soldiers gripped their swords. Now they crouched and knitted shields together. Now, they were awake.
On another day Rish might have laughed. But not today. Today his stomach knotted, and a tide of bile rose in his throat as his heart raced. This, he realised, could only be the beginning on a final and bloody resolution...
He looked at Laiverius. The big man looked unfazed and sat perfectly still as his horse became to twitch-stamp.
Then--slowly at first but with increasing violence--the tower began to sway to and fro.
“Um, Laiverius?” Rish asked. “If you--”
“I know what I do,” Laiverius said, his eyes narrowed, his jaw set.
Without warning the tower collapsed, throwing dust, sod and earth into the sky. The dust cloud swept through the valley, consuming the legion. Rish doubled up as he coughed and spluttered atop his stamping, whinnying pony. He covered his mouth and nose and tried to look around him, tried to see Laiverius. But all he could see were smudges through the wash of his own tears.
Finally the dust cleared, and the truth emerged.
Hewn from stone, squat and heavy golems moved toward the Romans with purpose and poise. Once their curled, foetal bodies--stacked and sleeping with only their backs to the outside world--had formed the tower, but now they were awake and ready to stand their ground.
Silent and immutable, they began to grind their way toward the legion. The Romans readied themselves. Centurions barked orders, arrows were notched, swords and spears were hefted. If they were alarmed, Rish noticed, they didn’t show it. These were men of whom Laiverius should have been proud.
Of the Legate, however, there was no sign.
Rish looked to his left. He looked to his right. But still he couldn’t see Laiverius. He pulled on the reigns of his panicked donkey and his brow furrowed. Why would Laiverius run? He was braver than that.
He had no further time to wonder as the golems picked up their pace and, in eerie silence, crashed against the Roman shields which splintered in showers of wood and metal.
This legion’s story, Rish feared as his donkey reared and shrieked, was about to end.
Rish awoke with a start and regretted it instantly. He grimaced, bleeding heavily from a blow to the head.
Wincing as he clutched the wound, he sat up and the battle rampaged through his memory once more. It had begun to rain as soon as the legionaries had engaged the stone soldiers, and they had fought as bravely as they could, as had Rish. Their javelins and swords were of little use against their assailants, however, and thus Laiverius’ men were smashed against those stone soldiers like waves against rocks. The last thing Rish could remember--before being thrown from his pony and losing consciousness--was the sight of the Gaul having his head hammered flat to the muddy ground by a granite foot.
Rish forced himself to concentrate on the present. Still dressed but missing a sandal, he sat in a damp cell carved out of rock and with a single wooden door. A small hole in the roof let in the only illumination, and a solid shaft of silver light thrust its way into the cell like the Spear of Longious. Through the tiny hole, Rish could just make out the moon, full and brazen now the rain clouds had gone.
“You still live?” The question--growled and hoarse--came from the darkness of the cell. “I was starting to worry.”
Rish started in surprise. “Who’s there?” he asked with a tremulous voice.
“Laiverius!” Rish peered through the darkness and ground his teeth. “What happened to you? Why did you just disappear? Tell me you didn’t run away. You never run away!”
“No, Rish, I didn’t run away. I just surrendered”
Finally Rish’s eyes fully adjusted to the darkness and Rish could make out Laiverius sat in the far corner. His wolf-pelt covered his bowed head, and his body cloaked by darkness.
“Sur...rendered?” Rish frowned. Something was wrong here. Very wrong. The Laiverius he knew would never come this far just to give in without as fight. “Why?”
A jagged chinking of keys thrust in a lock cut off the conversation. Rish looked toward the door as it opened and a dark figure stepped into the room. Within seconds it moved into the shaft of moonlight.
“Shamira.” Rish nodded toward the figure.
“Rish,” Shamira said, nodding back. “I am gladdened to see you’re awake. How is your head?”
“Bad.” Rish winced. That damned voice; like nails being hammered into a crucifix.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I have something that will take care of that.”
“A potion, perhaps?” Rish’s smile was sardonic. “That’s the whole reason we’re here in the first place.”
She wasn’t listening. She now looked toward the far corner. “Laiverius?”
Snarling and slavering, the Roman tore out of the darkness and fell upon Shamira with an astonishing speed. “Surprise,” he growled, pinning her to the floor. He smiled. His teeth were sharp and fanged.
She squealed. Trapped beneath Laiverius, all she could summon was a panicked struggle as, mouth open and quivering in fear, she stared with discus eyes at the creature Laiverius had become--and Rish stared too. It wasn’t the pelt he’d glimpsed in the dark. It was Laiverius. Lean and silver, his body--still clad in his proud armour--was covered with magnificent fur, and his narrow, wolfen head was but inches from Shamira’s face. His eyes--amber and feral--sparkled with an intelligence and cunning that contrasted vividly with his bared, dripping teeth.
“You? You’re a--?” Shamira gulped. She bit her lip and tried to speak. “I never knew.”
“A parting gift from a former lover,” Laiverius said.
“My quarrel isn’t with you, Shamira,” Laiverius said, “but if you try to stop me, then I’ll kill you.”
“Laiverius!” Rish struggled to his feet. He ground his teeth. Now this all made sense. “You planned all this, didn’t you?”
Laiverius moved way from Shamira’s prone form on all fours and fixed his glare on Rish.
Rish staggered toward the door, hoping to block it. He had no idea what was going on, but he had to stop Laiverius. Quite how escaped him. “You planned this! Delaying your attack until today. With no siege equipment you sacrificed your men, had yourself captured and waited for the full moon.” As he spoke, his voice rose in volume and intensity just as his grip on Laiverius’ plan strengthened. His mouth ran dry and his stomach tightened. That Laiverius should do such a thing! That he should sacrifice his men with such callous disregard. Well, he wasn’t getting any further.
“Stay here, Rish,” Laiverius paced and barred his fangs at him. “Stay here or go home. But stay out of my way.” With that Laiverius sprang forward and swept toward the doorway before Rish could stop him. Then the Roman ran from the room, claws scratching against the rocky floor.
The smell of the Alchemist’s potions had a thick, pungent stench like diseased blood. As Laiverius moved swiftly though the Alchemist’s maze of underground tunnels, he forced himself not to dwell upon what he’d done. His humanity. His men. His honour. All sacrificed for revenge. All thrown away for this moment.
He approached a door, and--for all his courage and years in battle--he found himself trembling in both anticipation and trepidation. When this was done what would be left? What would be left to strive for? Where could he go?
Pushing the questions aside, he focused on his certainty that the Alchemist was behind that door. He could smell his foul concoctions.
With a feral snarl, he charged the heavy wood. It splintered instantly.
Shamira and Rish rushed from the cell. Rish tried not to dwell on what he’d seen. Now wasn’t the time for answers. He just had to stop Laiverius.
He paused for a moment as he found himself in a corridor with many tunnels leading from it. Dark and illuminated only by lambent torches, the corridor was fusty and smelt of earth.
Suddenly the air was rent by a keening, low howl as anguished as it was protracted.
She was so still Laiverius seethed. So frail. Besieged and ravaged by illness, Judith--the youngest of the Alchemist’s children--lay upon the simple bed, her deathly state so similar to Marcella’s it made Laiverius weep.
Tears bled from his black eyes as he bent his head and rested his forehead against hers. The smell. It was on her. Her father was using the potion to keep her alive just as it had kept Marcella alive, and now the acrid smell was seeping from Judith’s pores. She may not have been the Alchemist’s daughter he loved, the one he dreamed of, but to see the poor Judith like this...
He turned from Judith and bellowed into the air, body taut with anger.
“No need to shout, Laiverius. We’re right here.” Rish and Shamira entered the small room.
Laiverius’ reaction was instantaneous. He charged at them, throwing Rish to one side with a contemptuous sweep of the arm. He grasped Shamira by the throat and lifted her high in the air. “Where is he?” he asked. “Where’s your godless father?”
“He’s dead, you idiot.” Her snarl was every bit as feral as Laiverius’. “He died in the spring.”
“What do you mean ‘dead’?” Laiverius said. “Then who--?”
“He wouldn’t do it. He wouldn’t break his promise to your father. By the time he died it was almost too late for Judith.”
“Her sickness just worsened once we left Rome. And now all I can do is keep her alive and pray for a cure.”
“But you don’t know how!” As he shook Shamira his body trembled and his heart pounded in his ears. She was lying! Only the damned Alchemist had the knowledge to keep Judith alive!
“I have my father’s books. I’ve been making the potion--”
“But why?” Laiverius shouted now, barely reigning in his desire to tear this heathen to pieces. “How can you make her suffer like that? Haven’t you the strength to let her go?”
“No. But I’ve the strength to keep her alive. I’ve the strength to hang on, to wait, to keep hoping.” There was a pause as they glared at each other. “Maybe if you’d been as strong, Marcella would still be alive today.”
“No!” he howled. “I let her go! I gave her salvation! I entrusted her to the lord! I let her go!” He shook Shamira like he’d shake a dusty cloak, her limbs flailing and flapping about her. What this witch was doing was evil! It had to end! “Let Judith go, Shamira! Just let her go!”
With a yelp he dropped the woman and his hand went to his eye. Pain stabbed through his head whilst blood seeped over his clawed hand. He staggered away from the dazed Shamira and shook his head to try and clear away the pain and the blood in his eye. He blinked rapidly. What had happened? He looked at Rish. The meddling little bastard smiled at him grimly.
“Yes, Laiverius,” Rish said, “let her go.”
Laiverius gasped, confused. “What? My eye?”
“So,” Rish said as he knelt and grabbed a stone from the floor. He fit it into a sling Laiverius recognized as being one of the story teller's many sandal straps, “these Christian friends of yours? Did they tell you the one about David and Goliath?”
In the field immediately surrounding the erstwhile tower, figure dragged her feet as she moved through the mud, head bowed. Her face and slumped shoulders were hidden by an ancient, worn veil. About her the stone soldiers dutifully dug graves for each and every dead legionary, oblivious to the biting cold.
Despite her weariness and throbbing feet, a smile touched the figure’s dry lips. A decent burial, she ruminated. That was so much like Shamira.
Presented with neither obstacle nor acknowledgment by the stone men, she reached the pit where the tower had once been. Now all that remained were the stone foundations: a single, open cellar laid into the ground and lined with a staircase that spiralled from the wet stone floor to the ground at her feet. Gingerly she began making her way down those thin steps.
She was almost there.
Rish only managed one more shot before Laiverius was upon him. Now the man-wolf snarled with bare and bloody teeth as he held Rish down. Pinned to the floor, Rish held Laiverius by the throat. His arms shook and his muscles burnt whilst he strained to keep his assailant at bay. “Laiverius!” Rish shouted. “Laiverius! Please!”
But Laiverius wasn’t listening, and Rish couldn’t keep Laiverius’ powerful jaws from his throat for much longer. The trembling in his arms grew worse, the pain more intense. Spittle and a cry of pain escaped his clenched teeth. Laiverius seemed to grow heavier, and those teeth seemed to grow nearer...
Using his diminutive stature to his advantage, Rish curled his thighs up to his own shoulders and thrust his feet against Laiverius’ chest. His legs--muscular after years walking the Earth--were far stronger than his artisan arms, and he was able to hold Laiverius at bay just long enough to let go of the Roman’s throat. Rish’s free hand shot to a small pouch that had spilled out from his fallen backpack, and within seconds he found what he needed.
The small metal object was a two pronged pick designed to ply thread from sandals. Taking it in his trembling hand, he thrust the pick into Laiverius remaining eye with all the strength he could muster.
Laiverius howled with this new agony and fell beside Rish with both hands covering his lupine face. In an instant, Rish knelt over Laiverius’ body. The man-wolf squirmed and bucked, but Rish pressed on. This had to end before somebody else was hurt. He brought up his hand, but hesitated as he prepared to plunge the pick into Laiverius’ throat. This had to end, but was this really the answer? Surely there was some other way.
“Rish, don’t do it.” The voice was calm and laced with fatigue, but the hand that gripped his wrist was strong and authoritative.
Rish looked up. He recognised that voice! Could it really be...? “Kevana?” he asked she dragged him out of harm’s way. “I wondered where you were.”
Kevana’s narrowed eyes pierced Rish like a blade. “What are you doing here, Rish?”
Rish couldn’t answer straight away. He just stared at her. Shamira stood by her shoulder, silent and head bowed in the deference. Rish’s jaw became slack. Even after all these years Kevana’s face still left him speechless. The eldest of the three sisters, she was a strong, dark and handsome woman who looked very much like her father. She combined majesty with imperious strength and will. No wonder Laiverius loved her the way he did... “I-- I came to repair sandals.”
With a knowing smile--she’d always been able to see straight through Rish--she looked toward Laiverius. Hands still on his face, the Roman squirmed his way into a corner. “Is that really him?” she asked, and Rish saw a genuine sadness in those deep, dark eyes.
Rish looked at Laiverius as the Roman curled up and began to weep quietly, tears mixing with blood. And tears crept into Rish’s eyes also. Laiverius must have been in so much pain, so much grief, since his sister’s death, and Rish hadn’t seen it. Instead, he’d tried to fight the man. Tried to...
“I nearly...” With a profound sadness--and the deepest guilt--Rish looked as Kevana.
She gave his shoulder a squeeze and smiled wanly: a smile that clearly understood just how far someone could go in a moment of terror or anger. “Stay back, Rish,” she murmured as she fixed her gaze upon the weeping wolf.
Rish nodded. Wide eyed he watched as, in silence, she took the veil from about her head.
Dusty and worn, it was a simple, rugged garment that looked as though it had seen its fair share of travel. Rish wondered where Kevana had acquired it. It was obviously very old, but he couldn’t recall seeing her wear it, even as a child.
Eyes never leaving Laiverius, she took a step toward him.
Rish called out “Kevana! Be careful!”
“Just stay back,” she said.
Dutifully, Rish complied and he felt Shamira’s calloused hands on his shoulders. They fell silent as they watched Kevana approach Laiverius. She held the veil in both hands, the fabric stretched as though she were prepared to throw a net. Laiverius stood shakily and his ears pricked forward as he heard her approach. He backed himself into the corner as his head dipped to one side as he bared his teeth.
“Laiverius?” Kevana murmured gently. “It is me, Kevana. I am here to help you. but I need you to trust me.” Then she closed the distance to Laiverius in a swift stride and enclosed his head in the veil.
Shamira’s hands tightened on Rish’s shoulders, nails digging into his flesh as she gasped. They watched the briefest hint of a struggle as Laiverius tried to pull away from Kevana. His head jerked back as his hands shot out and grasped at Kevana’s arms. But the moment passed, and his body lost all rigidity as he collapsed against her. Such was his weight that she took a few steps back to regain her balance but still she held him, the veil covering his head as he continued to weep.
“That’s it,” Kevana whispered. “That’s it, Laiverius, let it all out.”
At first there was a slight stain--a suggestion of discolouration--that seemed to blot the veil, but the stain soon darkened until it was black and foul and crude. Soon the dark stain spread and consumed the whole veil until the light fabric was jet black. The stain even seemed to seep into Kevana’s fingers. All the while Laiverius’ body shuddered as he wailed and sobbed, body racked by the grief and guilt that seemed to be exorcised from his soul and taken into the veil.
Gradually his transformation reversed. The course hair thinned. The claws vanished. Soon Kevana was left holding the silent, still body of Laiverius the man, his head still covered by the veil.
Gently, Kevana laid his body to the floor and removed the veil. He slept. His expression was one of peace, and Rish realised the scars and stubble that had previously blotted his features had vanished, leaving the handsome face he remembered.
Looking to Kevana and her veil, Rish saw the black stain dissipated and vanish.
“What is that?” Rish asked.
“I don’t think you’d believe me if I told you.” Her smile was sardonic and shallow.
“Kevana, please. When you’re this small you learn to love a tall story.”
She paused before answering, and she looked briefly into Shamira’s eyes. “When we came here and Judith’s condition worsened, I set out to find a cure for her. I travelled the entirety of the Empire, I travelled across the Holy Land, and I travelled the frozen steppes to the east.” She held the veil up. “Eventually I found this in Jerusalem, in the home of a greedy man with a metal head. I stole it and came back here as soon as I could.” She turned back at Laiverius. “Just in time it seems.”
“But what is it?”
“A garment, a simple piece of cloth used to wipe the blood and sweat from the face of a young man carrying a cross to Golgotha.”
“Golgotha?” Rish’s eyes widened. No! It couldn’t be! Surely this couldn’t be the fabled veil used to wipe the face of a doomed Jesus as he bore his cross? “I don’t believe it. I thought it was just a myth.”
“Yes, well, we’ve all had our beliefs challenged, haven’t we?” she said with a sad smile, her Semitic features haunted and questioning. Shamira crossed the room to put her arms about Kevana’s shoulders. They exchanged wan smiles.
“So the stories are true,” Rish said. “The veil really can heal.”
“Yes, Rish. Almost everything.” She stepped away from Shamira and knelt by Laiverius. Her fingers traced the lines of his cheeks and jaw with the gentlest of touches. “I’m the living proof.”
“So what now?”
“Now I use the veil to get heal Judith, and then...” Her voice tailed off, and she looked at Laiverius with wide, tearful eyes. She stood and turned her back on his sleeping form. “Take care of him, Rish. You promise me. The veil can only do so much. The rest will take time.”
“Then why don’t you help him? We both know he’d welcome that. Come with us.”
“She’ll do no such thing!”
“Shamira. Please.” Kevana eyes brimmed with tears as she looked at her sister. “Please. Just let me answer.”
Shamira bowed in acquiescence before fixing Rish with a glare. Rish’s cheeks burnt, and he had to look away. Eyes like the wrath of Jehovah, he thought with a shudder.
“After Father died, Shamira resumed some of his other experiments, investigating the means of exploring new worlds and new realities.” Kevana looked at Rish, eyes haunted. “I’ve searched them all looking for a cure for Judith, and I’ve seen things. I’ve even seen the future. I’ve seen the fall of the Empire. I’ve seen wars in Jerusalem. I’ve seen a monster almost destroy my people, and I’ve seen what few survived having to fight for every day they were owed.”
She stopped again, and her shoulders slumped as her head bowed. “I can’t stay. We can’t stay. Once Judith is well we owe it ourselves and all other Jews to find ourselves somewhere where we can go, somewhere where we can hide from the future...
“...Somewhere we can call home.”
Laiverius awoke from an idyllic dream. He’d been home and Marcella was still alive, laughing and mischievous. He’d wept at the sight of her.
But now he was back in camp, the birds beyond his tent gossiping excitedly. He put his hand to his eyes as he realised he was could see again. He was also naked, covered only by his wolf-pelt cloak. He sat up, hand on his cloak’s muzzle. He stroked it ruefully.
“Morning, Laiverius. About time.” It was Rish, sat in the corner and repairing a pair of sandals.
“My eyes,” Laiverius asked, confused. “I can see again!”
“Well, that’s quite the story, Laiverius, and your friend Jesus gets a starring role.”
“What about Kevana?” Laiverius felt light-headed, confused. All he could remember was her. He’d smelt her, felt her hold him. “Where is she?”
“She’s gone. And she’s taken Shamira and Judith with her.”
“Where has she gone?”
“That’s another story altogether, Laiverius.”
The Roman looked at the little man. A flippant remark like that would have usually merited a wry smile from Rish, but instead he was glaring at Laiverius. Laiverius had to look away. It was a long, long time since he’d blushed, yet the skin of his cheeks burned. “Are you...?” The question flailed in his mouth and struggled to escape.
“Am I in good health? Yes, no thanks to you.”
“Rish, I’m-- I’m--”
“Sorry? Come now, Laiverius, you can say it.”
Rish continued to glare, but the Roman fancied he saw a slight evaporation of hostility.
Laiverius scrabbled about for a change of subject. “So, where will you go now?”
“Well, I heard some story about Hadrian building a big wall in Britannia. I thought we might go have a look.”
“Yes, we,” Rish said as he started to put his tools away. Laiverius shuddered involuntarily at the sight of the small pick. “Not my idea, you understand. I’m so angry at you right now I’d happily leave you to the Goths, but Kevana made me promise to keep an eye on you, so...”
Now Laiverius looked at Rish. The notion that Kevana had made Rish promise to protect him knotted his stomach. Perhaps she still cared, after all these years.
“Yes.” Rish smiled sardonically as he put on the sandals he’d just repaired. “You’ve missed your chance there, Laiverius. Still, I guess that’s just something else you can lament over at leisure, eh?”
Laiverius’ fugue began to evaporate. Yes, he had done wrong--a terrible, wretched wrong that could never be washed from his hands--but he wouldn’t be talked to like that! “You’re being a little harsh, Rish.”
“Tell that to the men buried outside. Now put some clothes on before I drag you out of bed.”
They left the camp within the hour, taking one last look from the foothills above it.
Besieged by the morning mist, the camp shivered in the glorious golden light from the climbing sun. Flags and maroon tents fluttered, and the chatter of birds bubbled and prodded at the air, urging the sleeping soldiers to awake.
In the centre of the valley, however, the buried soldiers slept on, their graves guarded by the hunched and seated forms of the stone soldiers. They would, Kevana had told Rish, wait there until Kevana and her sisters completed their search for a land for their people.
Rish could only pray they wouldn’t have to wait forever.
Paul L. Mathews, formerly a professional concept artist and illustrator with credits in TV, video games and magazine illustration, has now swapped his pencils for the keyboard. To date his work has appeared in various magazines, websites, comics and RPG publications. He lives in the UK with his wife, her daughter and other assorted animals.
What inspires you to write and keep writing?
I've never really been sure, if I were honest. Ever since I was little I've had a head full of daydreams and fantasies; as a child I'd express these through play, and then as a teenager/young adult, via Dungeons and Dragons and the like. I guess now I'm (supposedly) an adult I'm just doing the same thing, but in a different way.