Full realisation of why a member of the Frontier Scouts did not kill his wolf a second time came the first time Alexios went out on summer patrol. He left the fort with confidence, laughing at Hilarion’s cautions, dismissive of reminders that the hills held hidden dangers. Three days later his skin felt itchy; they had ridden in boggy country late that afternoon so he blamed midges. The next day he was increasingly irritable as dusk approached, and struggled to be civil to Bericus when he passed him bannock still warm from its baking over the fire. Three pheasants had been roasted on spears – rich eating for a patrol and the cook offered him the choicest parts. It took all his discipline not to snatch a whole carcass.
A full moon was rising on the horizon when he went into the bushes to relieve himself before retiring for the night. He never made it back to the banked fire. He had loosened his clothes when the change came upon him, and he writhed on the ground, jaws snapping and an agonising howl torn from his muzzle, helpless as skin changed to fur. He rose on four unsteady legs to meet the eyes of a pack of watching wolves – different sizes and colours, but recognisably his pack. He ran long and hard that night; there was good hunting in the hills and he gorged on rabbits, warm from being fresh killed rather than any fire. Dawn found him changing back into human in a valley three miles from the camp made the night before. The pack, now human, swam, cleaning the blood and dirt that streaked their skin from the night’s wild hunt. Silently, Bericus built a signal fire and when the rest of the troop caught up to them, Alexios thanked the standard bearer who, solemn-faced, handed him tunic and cloak. He learned much about woodcraft from his pack over the next few days; and when they returned to the fort at the end of that ten day patrol, he could read the same knowledge in Hilarion’s face when he greeted the returning patrol as it passed through the Praetorian Gate.
Lucius’ face looked no different though. And, as always, in every free moment, he sat engrossed in his copy of the Georgics.
“He doesn’t change, does he?” Alexios commented one night to Hilarion.
“Not all do.” Hilarion shrugged. “It’s a question of how you killed your wolf,” he explained. “If you looked in his eyes as he died, or held him, his spirit passed into you, found a resting place in your heart, found a new life within you.”
The next full moon saw Hilarion sent on an urgent errand to Habitancum while Alexios remained in charge of Castellum. That night he surreptitiously let himself out just before the gates locked for the night. The change was easier this time and he soon sniffed the night air and snarled at the rank odour of too many humans living in too small a space, then ran along the river and circled the near hills, howling at the moon, before returning to where he had stashed his clothes just before dawn. Quietly he let himself in the West Gate and made his way to the Principia, where he found Lucius on his knees, praying. He rose swiftly when Alexios entered, thanking God for his safe return.
“I was not sure you knew,” remarked Alexios quietly, “and, if you did, I did not feel confident you could accept.”
“We are all God’s creatures,” said Lucius solemnly, “each of us with our own role to play in the defence of Empire,” and bowed his head slightly before leaving Alexios to the day’s slates and tablets.
The next month, Lucius was out on patrol while Hilarion minded the fort. Alexios had also expected to be on patrol, in a different direction from Lucius, but two days out his horse had come up lame and he had returned, unexpectedly, one day before full moon. He was exceptionally edgy this time. In the morning he paced back and forth inspecting the men drilling on the Dancing Ground, until he finally realised his tension was making them nervous. After an early midday meal, he retreated to the bathhouse, before trying to lose himself making the figures balance in the company ledgers.
The sunset was glorious that evening: golden and scarlet, framing the hills to the west of the fort. Once again, Alexios slipped out of the fort as silently as possible. He knew the men expected him to go out for a run, just as several of them would; nonetheless he felt conspicuous. He was the Commander, after all; had Julius Gavros bonded with his wolf too, or was this a departure for the leadership? He stood by the river for a long time watching as the last streaks of colour faded into purple, then black, before he loosened his clothes. He hid them behind a rock, changed, and set off at a brisk pace, right angles to the river, heading away from the fort. The air was clearer the further away from humankind he went; and, as he crested the hill he caught a new scent. He stopped, lifted his head and howled, then set off again, in a different direction, hunting that delicious trace.
Alexios caught up with her by rockfall that half-hid a shallow pool: a beautiful pale grey bitch with lovely feathery tail. She bared teeth and growled as he approached, then bounded away. He was after her like a flash, and they tumbled together, playing, nipping, circling and ambushing one another, and – in the end, as a wolf’s primal instincts took over – mating. Alexios woke at dawn the next day, curled round the form of his Senior Centenarius.
“I didn’t know a man could bond with a female wolf,” said Alexios when Hilarion opened his eyes.
“As far as I know, I’m the only one,” Hilarion whispered. “It’s why I usually send the bonded out on patrol when the full moon nears, while I stay at the fort, to avoid…well… what just happened.”
Alexios nodded. He could see the potential problem: one dog wolf trailing the scent of a bitch was one thing, but a pack of them could only lead to trouble. But the two of them together: a mated pair... he bent his head to Hilarion’s neck and sniffed, then tasted. “Together, though….”
Hilarion’s smile filled his face. “Together, we rule the pack.” And he offered his throat to his leader.