On the seventh day of training after receiving their centurion's crests, those who had been chosen already spent the morning in combat drills, learning how to modify their basic maneuvers and formations so as not to accidentally trip over or stab 14 stone of snarling wolf. Those who had not yet been chosen did group drills and endurance training, and worried in private whether they would ever have a mate. Full centurions were not required to be soul-bonded, of course, but the unmated were limited to training grunts, pushing paperwork, or overseeing the army slaves.
"You're up, Aquila.”
Marcus leaped to attention, saluted the wrestling trainer and stripped down to his braccae, all while trying to look enthusiastic. Privately he hated the close-combat matches, especially after a morning of running with a 7-stone pack and the late August sun pressing down on his neck. But that didn't matter—he was a soldier, and a soldier did as he was told every time without hesitation or complaint. Empty yourself and be filled, with discipline and strength and honor.
He and his opponent, a cheery red head who had to be at least half-Celt, both dusted off their bare arms and shoulders with dirt and crouched down in position. Wolves paced around the edges of the ring, watching with disinterest.
He started out well enough as they grappled one another in an almost friendly way, but his endurance has been weakened by the morning run and after a single mistake the Celt's easy grip hardened to steel around his torso. Marcus could do nothing but brace himself for the inevitable hook to his legs and hard landing.
“What did I just see, Aquila? A pile of shit. Get up. Secundus, you give him a go.”
So Marcus tried to shake himself off and focus while Secundus, as dark and grim as the Celt had been light and cheerful, scrubbed down and spat onto his palms almost gleefully. Maybe if he kept out of arm's reach and fought with speed rather than … no.
After being nearly tenderized by Secundus, who apparently preferred to toy with his opponents in cat-like fashion before pinning them, all Marcus wanted was to slip away long enough to catch his breath and calm back down. The wrestling trainer would have none of it. And so he struggled on, fight after fight, trying to remain willing and dutiful. Finally, after seven straight losses, the trainer gave up in disgust and Marcus slunk off to sit under a tree and lick his wounds.
He could not understand why he had been made to fight so many times in a row—not that there had to be a reason. In theory, a good soldier would leap off a roof if ordered. The fact that why still mattered to him was only one more indication that he was not yet a good soldier. So as Marcus sat he tried to lean into the pain rather than flinch away, tried to accept and be grateful for the lesson rather than sulk. No wolf had chosen him; few had even shown in interest after the first halting introductions, and perhaps this was why. They could sense the lack of discipline, the raw emotions. No wolf wanted to bond with a centurion who wasn't even alpha of himself.
For a quarter of an hour Marcus rested in the shade, feeling the various aches and strains as they flared up with each tiny motion of his body. Wolves and soldiers trotted past, occasionally pausing to glance at him curiously or (in the wolves' case) give him an exploratory sniff. He was on the verge of feeling calm when a silver-gray wolf walked over to him with an expectant gleam in its eye. Marcus went tense but held out his hands politely, palms up so the wolf could become acquainted with his scent.
As the wolf continued to snuffle around his arms Marcus grew more and more anxious, until finally he blurted out “I can't smell very good after all that exerci—”
Shhh! Do not talk so loud. It hurts my ears. The wolf looked him straight in the eye, an experience all the more unsettling since they were at eye level to one another.
“Sorry!” he whispered. The wolf shook its head—her head, he realized. She-wolfs were known, but rare.
Talk with your mind instead, like this. I can hear you just fine.
Marcus' heart sank. Being chosen was even trickier than he had been lead to believe. And if the wolves could sense everything on his mind, he didn't see how there was much hope for him becoming anything other than a paper pusher.
You look upset, Soldier.
C an you read all my thoughts?
Her tone softened slightly. No, no, not at all. Only a soul-bonded wolf searches through his mate's mind, and even then I could not and would not do so unless you allowed it. But it does not take a soul-mate to see that you are worn and sad.
Marcus hung his head. I do not mean to be so obvious. A stronger man would shrug it off.
But you are very strong, and a fearless warrior, and have a brave spirit.
That does not mean I am special! Every single man here is strong and fearless and brave. One cannot become a centurion otherwise.
Perhaps. Now tell me what has made you so sad today.
But how to explain his foolishness and weakness to a wolf? They were so superior. None joined the army until they were alpha of their pack, and even the youngest were (in human years) older than their mates and generally far more wise. Maybe soldiers felt less inferior once they had a mate to teach them proper behavior.
It has been a hard day and a hard week. I guess I thought that after receiving my crest things would become … easier, somehow.
Good heavens, no. Becoming a centurion is just another beginning. It is the end of your training, true, but the start of a much longer struggle.
I never thought of it like that. It makes sense, I suppose, but I was so focused on getting to the top of this hill, and now that I am standing on the peak I see nothing but a higher, steeper climb ahead of me, and I—
Marcus broke off in discouragement. He didn't want her to think he was complaining.
Well then, you've had a week full of disillusions and a day that left you with nothing but bruises. What do you want to do about it? She looked directly at him, and he wanted nothing more than to come up with a good answer, an answer that would please her.
I want to stand up, try again, try and understand why I'm not wrestling well today so I can succeed tomorrow.
Marcus stiffened with shock; it had been years since anyone questioned his honor so baldly. He took a deep breath, leaning into the liar to see what he could gain from it. In the end, he had to glance away in shame. The word was true.
I'm going to ask you again, Soldier: what do you really want to do right now?
He thought for a long moment and then blushed. I want to scratch you behind the ears.
Her tail twitched in surprise. Interesting answer, entirely unexpected, and much more honest. But what on earth would you gain from it?
I've never seen a wolf so close before, and your coat is such an … unusual shade of silver, and it looks very soft. His blush grew hotter and he hurried on from the thought. And if I scratch you behind the ears maybe you'll enjoy it, and then I won't be a complete failure because at least I made a wolf a bit happier today.
She did not answer; instead, she dropped straight to the ground and settled her head into his lap. So what are you waiting for, Cub?
Marcus scratched behind her ears until she was pawing at her nose and sneezing happily. Then he worked his hands down to her back and she arched under his touch, tail thumping the dirt and legs splayed out almost comically. The underfur hidden by her coarse outer coat was even softer and thicker than he had imagined, and slowly Marcus realized that his bruises no longer ached as sharply, or perhaps he simply didn't feel the need to fret about them. He had more important things on his mind, things like admiring the wolf rolling in the dust next to him.
Finally, when his fingers were on the verge of cramping, she stretched out and gave a loud whine, almost a sigh, before relaxing back into limp contentment.
Mmmm. Thank you. That was nice.
I'm happy to do so! Marcus said, and for the first time in days he actually meant it.
I have seen you leaning against this tree several times before, and some days you seem almost lazy. There is one like you in every pack of cubs, one who would rather nap in the sun than fight for bits of meat and drops of milk. Do you think this is a true description?
He almost laughed. My commanding officers certainly think so. I love to spar and have no trouble running 10 miles in the heat, but I do like a nap from time to time.
Oh good. I also would rather nap then strut about or squabble. All these cublings spend their time trying to fight for dominance—what they don't yet understand is this: when you're an alpha, and you know you're an alpha, you don't need to waste any time proving it to others. The hard work is done. Take a nap.
She went silent for so long that Marcus wondered if she had indeed fallen asleep on his lap. He wished he could drift off himself, but everything was beginning to ache again. As he shifted to ease a particularly sore spot off the ground, she stirred and nipped softly at his hand.
Why are you squirming, Cub? Just lie still and rest now.
I'm sorry, I'm trying. But I lost seven straight wrestling matches today, and I'm pretty banged up. I think every single inch of me is bruised.
I know. And I should be the one to apologize—it was my fault.
I asked your trainer to do it. I've had my eye on you for some time now, but I wanted to see what you would do if you really got the stuffing knocked out of you and just had to stand there and take it. It says a lot about a person, how they respond to that.
Marcus went still with mingled anxiety and joy. Did I do as you hoped? Did I pass? Does that mean you're choosing me?
So many questions! Yes, Cub, you passed my unkind little test. And yes, I'm choosing you. But the decision is not just mine to make; mates choose each other. In other words: do you choose me?
He could only nod. He didn't understand how he could need her so much already, but from the moment he sank his hands into her fur she had seemed the finest wolf in the entire camp and although intimidating, she did not make him feel inferior. The thought of being apart or even breaking contact made him uncomfortable.
What choice is there to make? None of the other wolves can even hold a candle to you. I would never want another one.
Good. That's how it ought to feel, I think. We will be well-bonded, you and I.
I'm—that is, my name is Marcus Aquila, he stammered out. Do you want to know that? Does it matter?
Of course, Cub. Names are very important to you humans, and if it's important to you then I will make it important to me. My true name might be hard for you to pronounce— she made a noise halfway between a yip and a growl— but if you'd like to give me another one I would be honored by the gesture.
The idea came so easily to him that Marcus knew in his heart it was good. What about 'Ferox'? It means 'war-like' and is a feminine word as well.
You divide your words into male and female? How strange. But I like the sound of it. Ferrrrrrox. It could almost be a snarl if you said it right. Now make yourself comfortable, Cubling Marcus Aquila, because I still want to take my nap.