They came from the sea and burned their boat on the shore. They came from the west; I remember because the wind blew up from the water and it seemed the entire world was draped in the smoke. Later, I would realize the boat was not large and almost certainly launched from a passing Roman galley but, to a young man of fifteen years who had never been more than a day’s walk from the house he was born in, it seemed as if a fleet had landed.
The entire village came see. My brother and I, like most of the children, waited just long enough for our parents to finish telling us to stay inside and close the door behind them before we were out the back by our own secret ways. While the adults went down to the shore in a cluster of torchlight, we younger spread behind them in the dark, flanking shadows shot through with suppressed shouts and laughter, as if the whole matter were a great holiday. When we drew closer, our attitude sobered to match that of our elders.
The stones of the shore, worn smooth and speckled pale by the waves, glowed red like hot coals, reflecting the fire. The blaze itself was an ugly, oppressive thing, burning a surly crimson and spitting cinders with pops and hisses. The wood of the boat, built and sealed to withstand the water, surrendered to its fate grudgingly, giving off more smoke than light. The heat sucked the air from my lungs and only ash filled the sky. My head swam and I panted like a trapped animal, hanging on tenterhooks between excitement and panic. I wore only a rough kilt on this night only a few days after Samhain, yet I was wreathed in sweat.
Seemingly impervious to the inferno, a stranger stood patiently waiting, his face almost purple in the fire’s glow. Two others stood behind him but I spared them scant notice, fascinated instead by the ruddy giant. He was a Roman; there could be no doubt with his sharp, dark features, and, though he wore no armor, I felt certain he was also a centurion. He stood straight and tall with his arms loose to his sides, hands relaxed. The man’s hair was the color of granite and cut tight to his skull. His chin was scraped clean of hair but his eyebrows were thick ridges above eyes that looked like black pits in the flickering light. He was nearly six feet in height, and muscled like a bull, a man obviously well fed on meat and molded for war.
He wore an overly long tunic, almost to his knees, belted at his waist with a length of leather. It was white but the fire lent it the russet brown of dried blood; the belt, a violet clot in the center. I was surprised to see he wore boots of soft leather rather than sandals like the handful of other Romans I had seen. In the dancing shadows, the spear slung across his back was almost invisible. He wore it by a simple strap looped around his left shoulder. Its head was black, pitted iron, thin and flat atop a wooden shaft.
“I come on behalf of your governor, Aulus Nepos,” he said when the people of my village drew near. His voice carried over the hissing crackle of the fire like honey. It was higher pitched than I had expected and smooth as a singer’s. We fell silent, waiting for him to speak again.
“Your governor Nepos believes some misfortune afflicts you; bandits who rob you or wolves that prey upon your flocks. Worse yet, he fears a disease afflicts your bodies or plague has stricken your herds, causing great famine. Your governor Nepos has great concern for the well being of your village.” The Roman began to walk forward as he spoke, his eyes fixed on some point just above the horizon. As he advanced, the crowd shuffled back. “Your governor Nepos worries for you because he is a benevolent man. He can think of no other reason why you have not provided Rome with her yearly tribute.”
At this, a murmur ran through the older villagers as a dozen whispered conversations began at once. The stranger waited until the voices rose to the edge of shouts and arguments then cut across them all in the same patient, rolling tenor. “Because your governor Nepos is concerned, he has sent my comrades and I. If there be bandits or wolves, we shall slay them. If there be disease, we shall cure it or send word for those who can. If there should be another reason your tribute has not been forthcoming—” He paused in his speech but continued his slow walk several more steps before coming to a halt and concluding, “We shall see to those matters as well.”
I understood next to nothing of his talk of Rome and tribute, but even the youngest among us knew of the strange blight that shriveled our crops and the frequent animal attacks on our flocks of sheep and single herd of kine. At the time, I was too young to grasp the velvet–handed threat just delivered and thought instead that governor Nepos must be a wise and caring man indeed.
“I am Logan,” his pronunciation was strange to my ears, with a long vowel and soft ‘g’; Law–jan, “Praepositus Salararius assigned to Legio XX Valeria Victrix. I am accompanied by my churgeon Barnabus and Valae the tracker. We shall make our own lodgings at the edge of your village, not within it. For now, we shall provide our own food and ask only the use of your common water source. On the morrow, I shall speak with those representatives you choose. Until such time, please, return to your homes and rest easy, knowing the eyes of Rome watch over you.”
“Fine,” grumbled a voice from closer to the shore, loud enough to be heard all the way to the village, “and who will help me carry all this?”
For the first time, I tore my eyes away from the striding giant to truly look at his companions. It was the churgeon who had spoken, a broom straw of a man with a shaven pate and beaklike nose. He looked to be permanently wrestling his way out of winding robes of red and purple. He stood with a leather pouch cradled in his arms, another larger bag slung over a shoulder, and his foot resting on a wooden crate almost as big as I was.
The tracker Valae stood to one side and slightly behind him, looking amused. With a masculine build and a flat face, it took me a moment to realize Valae was a woman. Her nose spread across most of her face, barely rising from it at all, and her mouth was broad with thin lips. Her black hair was cut like my own, straight high bangs in front and cropped at the nap of the neck. Leather leggings, jerkin, and a skullcap hid any hint of femininity and a recurved bow curled across her back and up from her shoulder.
The warrior Logan frowned, more with his eyes and forehead than his lips, and called, “I need two men.”
“I will!” Even I was surprised by my shout but I was curious and too young to know the dangers of it. I stumbled forward out of the darkness and added, more subdued, “With my brother, I mean. We will. Carry your stuff, sir, if that’s what you need.” I gulped a breath of air and added, “I’m named Rotan, masters.”
Logan looked at me, motioned toward the churgeon with a jerk of his head, and paced away, toward the village. A moment later Valae followed, without so much as a glance in my direction.
“Don’t stand there gaping, boy,” snapped a voice in my ear and Barnabas’ thin, strong fingers pinched into my shoulders. “Come on now, where’s your brother?” The next hour found me trudging up and down the slope between the shore and the campsite Valae had chosen. My nine–year–old brother had taken off running for home before I had finished my first sentence and it fell to me to carry the old healer’s baggage by myself though never alone; Barnabas watched and commented on my every footstep with his precious cargo. He helped with the wooden crate only because it was too heavy for me to do more than drag it. Instead, we carried it, me backing uphill and him following with his end, both of us stumbling under the weight.
He had at least seven small chests, about the length of my arm and wrapped in oilskin to protect them against the seawater, and so many bags of various sizes that I lost count. My excitement waned in proportion to my labor until I worked up my courage and asked the man if he, too, was a Roman. The torrent of sharp instructions changed to a fountain of information.
Barnabas told me he had been born a Jew and come to serve Logan only because of a great respect for the other man. The remainder of Rome he held in disdain and eagerly awaited a messiah who would free his people and lead them to victory over the Romans. “A military leader,” he insisted, “not just a spiritual one.”
“Why did you burn the boat?” I asked, struggling up the slope again.
“Severing symbolic ties,” was his cryptic reply. “Although I think Logan would do it anyhow just to get everyone’s attention.”
He was, he explained, not merely a churgeon but a true “doctor” as well as a “kabbalist”, a term that I took to mean some form of magician or priest. Valae, he told me, thought that my people were trying to get out of paying their taxes, but he was certain something sinister and unnatural was occurring in the area and had convinced Logan to come himself.
“Didn’t the governor order him to come?” I asked and Barnabas laughed.
“No,” he said. “Logan goes where he wants to and at no one’s direction but his own.” When I questioned further, he changed the subject with a dramatic tale of acting as a battlefield medic in Germania.
Their camp was a simple affair a few hundred yards away from the well that was itself only a short way from the cluster of buildings we arrogantly called a town. They shared a tent, most of its space taken up by Barnabas’ baggage, and spent most of their time outside despite the chill. Someone had laid in a small fire edged by stones gathered from the shore. An oil lantern hung from a stake driven into the ground giving enough light to read by, but not much more. I remember even on this first night, while Valae slept snoring on her back and Logan kept watch, staring silently into the dark, Barnabas stayed up reading.
To my great disappointment, the chest contained, not silver or gold or some other fascinating treasure, but simply scrolls and books. It was a disappointment offset by the fact that none of the newcomers bothered to send me off and I fell asleep on the hard ground alongside their tent.
I awoke to a not–so–gentle foot to my ribs and Barnabas with a new round of instructions. While I drew water and gathered firewood, the medic sat quietly studying another of his scrolls, his lips moving silently as he read. The morning was clear and the air colder for it. Valae had left the camp earlier and she returned with two hares and a fat groundhog that she gutted and spitted with brutal efficiency. She let them sear in the flame for several minutes. With a satisfied grunt, she passed a hare to Logan and the groundhog to Barnabas. Her own hare she began to tear apart with her teeth. Logan ate slower, pulling pieces of meat off the carcass with his fingers. Barnabas grimaced and placed the groundhog back at the edge of the fire. Long after the other two had finished eating, he retrieved it and broke his fast, sharing the greasy meat with me.
“I don’t know what manner of beast this is, boy, but my gut tells me it’s against the Law,” he grumbled after a few bites but did not stop eating. “It’s going to be a busy day, so stay close. Valae will be going out to check the flocks so that leaves me to go over the local record keeping. I’ll need you to explain it. Everywhere has their own system and it’s all built on lies, so your job is to answer my questions without knowing why I’m asking. That way I can be sure it’s honest, or near enough.”
“But, I can’t read,” I said around a mouthful.
“I can read. You just answer whatever questions I ask you about what I’m reading.”
“What about Logan?” I asked. “What’s he going to be doing?”
Barnabas shook his head. “Never mind about Logan. He’ll do what he thinks he needs to. Now boil us some water to wash with. Never handle a book with dirty hands.”
As I sloshed back with water from the well, he asked, “Your parents need to know where you are, boy?”
I considered it for a moment then shook my head. They knew what I had done last night, my brother was sure to tell them even if they had not seen for themselves, and they would probably be glad of one less mouth to feed. Logan stood abruptly and strode away, toward the forest pastures further inland.
Once he had washed, Barnabas sent me to the village. “Don’t ask for the person you think is in charge. Don’t think at all, in fact. Just tell your headman or elder or whatever you have that I need to see the man who keeps record of this village and that he should bring whatever reference he uses to keep his tallies,” he told me.
I was surprised when the man who returned with me was not the lead elder, Gunnar, but Fergus the Blind with an armload of tangled cords. I helped him find a seat on the ground next to Barnabas then drew back from the two, listening.
“Ye sent fer me?” Fergus drawled, his hands plucking nervously at his strings.
“You keep the tallies?” Barnabas answered the question with one of his own.
“Aye. I was a shepherd till me eyes went white an’ now I keeps the count of ’em.” He held up the cords. “The knots, ye see.”
Barnabas nodded though Fergus could not see him. “A good system. Now, I want you to read them off for me.”
His fingers skimming the knotted strings, the blind man began to recite the births and deaths within each herd and flock for the past year. Barnabas listened intently, interrupting with the occasional question, and the steady rhythm of Fergus’ lists began to lull me toward sleep.
“Boy!” Barnabas’ voice startled me awake. “Does it seem normal to you for an entire herd of cows to have twins?”
I hesitated a moment, thinking, then replied, “Yes. Calves are twins and lambs are triplets.”
He made a sour, pinched face then asked Fergus, “Do these multiple births survive?”
“Aye, more often than not. At least, unless sommat e’ts ’em.” “And the tallies you’ve been giving me include these multiple births and predatory deaths?” Barnabas asked.
Fergus frowned. “I don’t know what a predatree is. I’ve been tellin’ ye how many were born, how many died, and how many we et to stay alive.”
“That’s fine. Continue please.” Barnabas motioned me toward one of the chests he had placed at the front of the tent. I brought it to him as Fergus resumed his recitation. The Jew dug parchment, quill, and ink from the box and scratched a few quick notes.
We went on like this all day. Once Fergus had finished, it was Brin the Miller and his sons, recounting the grain harvests from small wooden tablets tied together with leather. Then my own father spoke to Barnabas about the fishing, pausing first to give me a stern, disapproving look. He kept no records save his own memory but it seemed to satisfy the medic. The strangest was when the old healer sent me to fetch the village midwife and even I was surprised to learn that almost every child born in the past two years was a twin.
“And this all seems normal to you?” Barnabas asked me when she had gone.
“Not exactly normal,” I said hesitantly, “but accurate. It never seemed strange to me before.”
“Because you’ve never heard it all put together before,” he said, half to himself. “I’ll have to wait for Valae to see if this matches with what she actually sees in the fields, but I’ve no doubt it will.” He flashed me a grin. “It seems I was right. More’s the pity.”
I shrugged. “I don’t understand.”
“Neither do I, not yet. Come on now; give me a hand with the big chest. I’ve a great deal of reading to do before I lose daylight.” We made a quick meal of cheese and black bread and I spent the afternoon toting books and scrolls. Valae returned near sundown, the field dressed body of a yearling doe over her shoulder, and Logan arrived shortly thereafter with a cloth sack of vegetables from the village. Reluctantly, Barnabas packed away his studies and mixed up a hearty stew to hang simmering over the fire. As it cooked, he conferred with Valae in low tones, nodding often.
When they had finished, Logan sat, arms folded, and said simply, “Well?”
“I have no idea.” Barnabas sounded pleased. “This is what we know. On the one side, for at least a year births are unnaturally high, twins instead of single offspring, and in the case of animals that naturally twin like sheep, triplets. This applies to the villagers as well as their animals. The exception to this is the wild game and the fish. These seem to be only a bit above what you would expect, possibly due to the otherwise very favorable conditions. Crop growth is easily twice what it should be.”
Barnabas paused to stir the stew and Logan waited, unconcerned, for him to continue. “On the other side, we have an unusually high level of death and disease. The onset of this is more recent and growing worse. The good spring harvest was cancelled out because worms destroyed about half the crop. The fall harvest was completely wiped out by blight and even the smaller, individual gardens were decimated, apparently by slugs, though I’m not certain on that point. The livestock follows the same pattern—high birthrate followed by even higher losses to predators and sickness.”
“There is more,” said Valae. It was the first time I had heard her speak. Her voice was deep but soft, timid. “In the past month, the animals killed have been savaged but not eaten. It is not natural, even if there were no wild game and entire packs of great wolves were starving in the area. I have heard of great cats in the east that go mad and kill without stopping and without purpose, but there is no sign of such a beast here. The animals that are killed rot almost immediately. A healthy ram slain in the night is putrid by sunrise. It is not natural.”
“What have you been able to track?” Logan asked.
“Very little,” was the tracker’s reply. “It is important what I have not tracked. No large cats, no wolves, no fox. I have found no clear track of any hunting beast.”
Logan drew a slow breath and sighed deeply. “Very well. Valae, after you have eaten, find a herd or flock that has already suffered. Live with them, see what you can see, learn what you can from the herdsmen. If luck is with us, there may be another attack while you are present. Barnabas, consider all this and see what your books have to say. On the morrow, we will talk again with the people of this village.” He paused for a minute, thinking. “Boy, think and ask your friends as well. I wish to know if any people have been injured or attacked like the animals. Think especially, has anyone disappeared in the night?”
I opened my mouth to answer then closed it again and nodded instead, trying to look serious and hide my excitement.
The next morning I was up before Barnabas. Logan sat with his back to the fire; if he saw me go, gave no sign. I was keen to my task, and within hours had interrogated every child in the village and many of the more patient mothers. My excitement grew apace with my worry as I learned that there had indeed been disappearances, several of them, though the adults were loath to discuss them and my peers knew nothing of details.
I returned to the campsite in time to wolf down a breakfast of cold stew and blurt out all I had learned. In the retelling, it seemed disappointingly little but Barnabas listened gravely and took notes as Logan grilled me over every possible detail that I might have forgotten or skipped over.
When I finished, Logan looked to Barnabas. The Jew shook his head. “It is as I expected, but it changes nothing. I thought at first there might be a curse, but the selective fecundity continues.”
“Fecundity?” Logan mouthed the word slowly and raised an eyebrow.
“The fruitfulness and the fertility,” Barnabas explained. “There is some significance in this. It’s not just that the livestock are especially robust or that a single type of crop is prospering; everything is fec—unusually productive. Even the people and, here is the key, especially the people. Only the things directly tied to the people are prosperous; not the soil itself or the animal life or the sea, only what the people directly work at.”
“What does that tell us?”
Barnabas shrugged angrily. “I don’t know. But it tells us something. I have to think on it.”
Logan’s reply was a dissatisfied grunt as he stood and walked away, toward the village. I moved to follow after him but Barnabas waved me back. “You’ll be of much more use here.” He motioned toward the tent with his chin. “Bring me the red book from the chest, the one bound in kid leather. It should be on top, to your left. And gently!”
I knew the book; it was the same one he had been reading from the night before, a thick volume filled with a strange, curling script I had never seen before. I brought it out, and when he did not take it from me immediately, I sat beside him, cradling the book in my lap. He was completely absorbed in his notes, muttering to himself.
Finally, he took the book from me. “Two years, fruitful toil, and always mothers or babes.” I had no idea what he meant and he offered no further clarification, instead paging slowly through the tome. “Ah, this will do,” he said, smoothed the parchment with his hand, and began to read aloud. The language was strange to my ears but not unpleasant, guttural but spoken reverently and like a chant. He stopped, apparently finished, then looked to me and read it again, translating this time. “I shall greatly multiply your sorrow and conception. In sorrow you will bear children—a little forward here—Because of you the ground is cursed. In sorrow you will eat the growth of the field all of your life. Thorns and thistles will it give you. In the sweat of your face you will eat your bread until you return to the ground I made you from. Because you are dust and will return to dust.” He smiled at me and nodded, saying, “A good start, don’t you think? There are other references directly to toiling in the field itself but I think this cuts right to the heart of it.” I still had no idea what he was talking about but I smiled and nodded back. That seemed to satisfy him and he began to read the passage again and again in that strange, chanting tongue. After a few repetitions, he had it memorized and continued to chant it, eyes closed, rocking slowly backward and forward. His hands relaxed and the book began slipping so I eased it from him. Barnabas did not seem to notice. His chanting grew softer and eventually I realized he was asleep.
Careful not to wake him, I returned the book to the chest and set out toward the village. I had intended to find Logan, reasoning he would be the most interesting thing to watch, but as I walked I began to think. Earlier I had been too excited to pay attention but, as I considered it, I saw a pattern among the missing people. I stopped walking and stood chewing my lip until I worked up enough courage, then I began to run before I could change my mind.
Kellum was only a few years older than me. We played together as boys. Surely, I tried to convince myself, he would confide in me if he knew, certainly before he would in the foreigners, if they even thought to ask. One of the missing women was his sister, only a year older than he. If she had known, if she had told anyone…
By the time I reached the field Kellum was working, I was shaking from a mixture of fear that I was right and anxiety that Kellum would pound me into mud just for asking. He saw me running toward him and jogged to meet me.
“Trouble?” he called.
I stopped, panting with my hands on my knees. “Maybe. I need to know, I mean, Barnabas and Logan need to know…” I suddenly did not want to ask. I squared my shoulders and started again. “Kellum, this is important. Was your sister…expecting? Going to have a baby, I mean.”
His mouth shot open and his color darkened until his face was almost purple. His hands drew up into fists and I was certain he was going to hit me. Then, just as quickly, he sagged, looking tired and relieved at the same time. “It’s important, you say?” he asked in a subdued voice.
“Very. Please, Kellum, tell me.”
He nodded silently. “Aye. She was. I don’t know by who, but I can guess.”
“No.” I shook my head to stop him. “It doesn’t matter who, just that she was.” I felt no elation at being right, only a numbing chill.
“Why do the Romans need to know?” Kellum asked, tense again.
I looked at him and tried to stand taller. “I think something bad is happening, something very bad. If your sister was…that way, then everyone who’s gone missing was either pregnant or had just had their baby and they disappeared together. Almost twenty people.”
“And no one has noticed that?” he almost shouted.
“No one has talked about it!” I shot back. Because I was too young to understand, I asked him, “How does this happen? How does nobody notice?”
He frowned in thought. “Who would know? Really, who could know? There have been so many babies and we’ve each been so tied up in our own problems, what with losing the crops and the like, who should know?”
“We should’ve. I have to go. Can you—”
“I’ll talk to the other men,” he interrupted, jumping ahead of me. “We’ll make sure no one else goes missing.”
I was off at a run before he finished his sentence. It was not a pace I could keep up long. I had to stop twice before I got back to Barnabas and my side felt like a knife was plunged into it.
The medic was still asleep when I stumbled into the camp, gasping for air and trying to shout his name. He woke with a snort followed by a violent coughing fit.
“Pregnant,” I said between gasps and he nodded exaggeratedly around his coughs. We stood there together, both wrestling for breath.
“I thought so but couldn’t be sure,” he said, thumping his chest.
“I checked.” I started to explain but he waved me off.
“I’ve no reason to doubt. This entire matter reads like a six but I keep adding up to five.” I was learning not to try too hard to understand everything he said. “I’m afraid our missing women aren’t missing.”
“They’re dead.” I finally said aloud what I had already known for some time now.
“Mothers, newborns, full headed crop for harvest. Rotan—” he called me by name for the first time—”someone in your village killed a pregnant woman.”
“Lots of them.”
“No, boy, I mean to start all of this. Curses are simple. Like to like. Someone killed an expectant mother and now some dark curse is returning the action on the entire village.”
“I thought you said it wasn’t a curse?” I asked.
“I was wrong. Come along; we need to find Logan.” He snatched up his notes and stuffed them into a pouch with a pair of scrolls and a thin book. “Finding a murderer is his kind of work, not ours.”
“What about the curse?” I pestered, following behind him like a tail.
“Avenge the murder, properly bury the victim. Hurry up!” He set out at a jog that soon settled into a fast walk.
“But if it’s a curse,” I argued, “what about the fed—the fecul—the fe—”
“Fecundity,” Barnabas supplied. “That I don’t know about. There might be a second force at work or it might just be coincidence. Either way, we’ve got something tangible that Logan can work with.”
The burly Roman was arguing with Gunnar and the other older men of the village. Together, they formed a cluster in the middle of the muddy path that served as the center of our town and several other villagers had drifted in, hanging on the edges of the disagreement. I could not tell what they were quarreling over but the discussion was growing increasingly heated.
“Fair or not, you will pay your tribute,” I heard Logan say in a tight voice. “That it has been delayed is justice enough.” With that, he turned away from them and stalked to meet us.
Pushing back those too close with a glare, Logan listened as Barnabas explained what he had deciphered. He listened with a deepening frown until the lanky Jew had finished then nodded, once, like a dismissal.
“You speak to me of justice,” Logan said, his voice raised to carry across the crowd, “when it is your own justice that is flawed. There is one among you who is an adulterer and murderer. Bring him to me.”
“How?” someone shouted and Logan blew out his breath in a snort like an angry stag.
“Your methods are your own. I care for results.” He stood, arms folded across his chest, waiting.
Barnabas grasped me firmly by the shoulder and pulled me back toward the camp. “Leave him to his work,” he told me.
“That’s how he’s going to find out who it is? Just demand that they do it for him?” I was disappointed. I had expected something more dramatic.
“It is a small village and people know more than they admit. Someone will know and someone will tell. Notice that no one seemed surprised when he said there was a murderer, just complained about how they would find him. They know more than they’ve told us.” Barnabas shrugged. “I said Logan was good at what he does, not that he was a master of tact while doing it.”
It turned out that Barnabas was correct. Just after sundown, Logan returned, dragging a scrawny ruffian I recognized as one of the herdsmen literally by the ear. Logan motioned with his chin to Barnabas who grabbed up his note–taking supplies and pitched the man to the ground next to the smoldering fire.
The man scrambled to his knees, almost blubbering. “Please master, I ain’t done nothing wrong. I dinna kill anybody.”
“Name?” Logan asked in a bored tone.
“I slept with her sure but she was that way, I mean, with a lot of men. I done that sure enough but—”
“Name!” This time it was a command with no hint of question.
“Sean master. Just Sean.” Barnabas scratched more notes.
“Very well, Sean.” Logan squatted down to stare the man in the eyes. “Tell me why Gunnar gave you to me as a murderer. Tell me who ‘she’ is. Tell me everything you think I might want to know and then tell me some more. And then, if you tell me the truth, maybe you’ll live.”
Sean opened his mouth to speak then shut it again when no sound came out. He struggled a moment to work up some spit and a bit of nerve then started. “I reckon the woman that you think is murdered is my Pinny. She weren’t rightly mine exactly; I’m married and she, well Pinny spread her affections around if you know what I mean, but I’s mighty fond of her.”
“So you admit to the adultery?” asked Barnabas, not looking up from his notes.
“Ah, well, if you’re insisting on putting it that way. Pinny and I tumbled more’n a few times. She watched the herd too and it’s cold and lonely some nights. But I cared for her, I truly did, and I’d a never hurt her none. You gotta believe me, masters, I dinna kill her.”
“I might believe you, Sean,” Logan said charitably, “but if your Pinny whored herself out, why would the good people of this village believe that you, of all her men, killed her?”
“They’s scared! You got ’em scared into near believing anything. An’ that Gunnar, he’s got it in for me too. They ain’t really good people in the village, masters. Thems what live outside the village sure, but them what lives off it like a tick suckin’ on its blood, they’s a bad lot. Gunnar and his folk, they don’t care ’bout nothing but themselves and what’s in it for them.”
Logan stood upright and paced a bit. “Again, Sean, why you? Why not someone else?”
The herdsman moved to stand, then thought better of it and stayed on his knees. “Because I know he’s been stealing, from all of us, the village and the Romans. Every time tax comes due, he takes a little more than he should and sends a mite less and keeps the difference for himself. I caught him at it when we was countin’ the herd. The others know it too but they’s got more sense than me. They keep quiet but me, I cornered him on it and he’s been after me ever since.”
Barnabas spoke again. “You didn’t also happen to be the last man who was seen with this Pinny, did you?”
The color drained from Sean’s face and his mouth gasped open like a fish. “I was? Aye, I probably was but…ahhh, no, masters, it ain’t nothing like that. I swear to you, I dinna raise a hand to her. I couldn’t; I wouldn’t. You have to believe me!”
Logan ran a hand across the gray stubble on his scalp. “Tell me, Sean, with all the women that are missing, why do you think it was Pinny who was murdered?”
The question took him off guard but did not cause the same desperate reaction as the previous one. Instead, Sean looked perplexed. “I don’t really know. I guess ’cause Pinny went missin’ first.”
“How first?” Barnabas asked in a near whisper.
“I don’t understand.”
“I mean,” explained the Jew, “how much earlier did this Pinny disappear before the other women?” He was looking up from his notes now and I knew this was an important detail to him.
Sean scratched at his chin and was silent for a moment. “I reckon about a year–an’–a–half, maybe longer. ‘S kinda hard to tell.”
Logan had turned to face away from the fire but now he twisted back toward Sean, rock scrapping loudly under his boot. “Missing, you said. No body was ever found?”
“No masters. We looked, some of us did at least. Thought maybe she’d fallen in the rocks or summat but we ne’er found anything. Not so much as a scrap of cloth.”
“And these other men you say she’d been with, you will give us their names.” From Logan’s tone, I did not think it was a question.
Sean chuckled. “Be easier to tell you who she hasn’t been with.” He sobered abruptly. “Forgive me, masters. T’was an unkind thing to say. But there be more than a bit of truth to it. I can tell you them what I know but Pinny, she enjoyed living and had an eye for the pretty things too.”
“Barnabas?” Logan asked and the medic shook his head negatively. The Roman returned to stand in front of the herdsman. “Sean, go home. Go home and make peace with your wife and your gods for what you have done.”
“You’re not—you believe me? You’re not going to kill me?” Sean’s eyes were wide with surprise and relief.
“I may still kill you,” said Logan calmly. “But not today. Go home.”
The herdsman tried to stand, run, and kiss Logan’s feet at the same time. He sprawled full length into the dirt then scrabbled away on all fours before finally making it into a true run.
“We’ve found our victim but not our killer,” Logan told Barnabas as he watched Sean rabbit into the darkness.
“Doesn’t have the guts,” seconded the medic. “Although, desperate men…” He let the sentence die unfinished. “Didn’t do much to narrow down the list either.”
“Maybe,” Logan said softly, then louder, “What about the curse? If we know the victim, is there anything we can do without the killer?”
“It’s not a curse,” came Valae’s quiet voice before Barnabas could answer. In her dark leathers, she was almost invisible as she stepped out of the darkness. “It’s a thing.”
Logan took her arrival in stride. “Tell me,” he commanded.
She knelt near the fire and laid three pieces of bloody meat at the edge of it. “Lamb,” she said by way of explanation then continued speaking as she worked.
“There’s been another attack on the animals. Not the flock I was watching but one nearby. I was able to get there fast enough to see the remains and get clear tracks.” She cut away a lump of white gristle from a portion of the meat, inspected it, then popped it into her mouth, talking around it. “Physical attack, most of the bodies squeezed or ripped apart or both. Black ichor around the wounds; rots fast, smells like vinegar. Attack limited to an area just over—” here she stopped and spread her arms to indicate a span that stretched as wide as Barnabas’ was tall. “Easy to track the flock. They scattered from the attack point. No tracks of the predator at all. Assume it flies.”
“But definitely something physical?” asked Barnabas. “Not a supernatural force like a whirlwind of fire or ball of lightning?”
Valae put the meat into the fire and the burning fat created an orange, licking flame. “Crushed. Torn.”
“And the limited area would fit an airborne attack,” added Logan. “Something that swoops down and kills what’s underneath it while the other animals run. No signs of it pursuing them?”
“None. It was fast enough that the shepherds didn’t see it happen. Talked to the other shepherds; same kind of attack.” Valae speared a chunk of meat from the fire with her knife and pulled it out. It was burnt black on the outside but bled when she bit into it. Logan jabbed a piece for himself with a stick and lifted his eyebrows questioningly at Barnabas. The Jew shook his head vigorously.
Valae devoured the meat and reached to take another piece. “It has a soft belly,” she said.
“Explain please,” Logan said, pulling his own meal apart with his fingers.
“Thistles,” she proclaimed. “Thorns, briars, anything similar. The only flocks or fields that are untouched are surrounded by them.”
Barnabas sighed. “Definitely not a curse. Curses don’t care about the local flora.”
“Except that all the elements of a curse are still in place,” replied Logan. “It seems clear there was a murder and that something is exacting its revenge. A curse with a creature.”
“Lycanthrope would have left tracks,” Barnabas said, half to himself. “So would a golem or a ragman. And there would have to be a creator. This is almost like a summoning.”
“You think on it,” Logan said and I realized that he did not understand the medic’s ramblings any more than I did. “Meanwhile, Valae, let us set a trap. Tomorrow, have the farmers drag briars around all the fields and move all the flocks to safe pastures. Except for one.”
Without a word, she stood and walked away still gnawing on a half–cooked chunk of meat. Logan made no move to stop her.
Barnabas shivered beside me. “How does she eat like that?”
Logan smiled thinly. “You’ve done worse.”
“When I had to.” He crouched by the fire and poked through the charred meat until he found a few pieces that satisfied him, then tossed a couple to me. “I wonder if all Mongols eat that way?”
“Ask her,” said Logan, moving out of the firelight to keep watch.
“I don’t think I will. Wake me when you tire.” Logan answered with a grunt. Barnabas waved a hand at me. “Eat fast and get to bed. We’ll have to go through a lot more books tomorrow.”
I nodded and tried not to show my disappointment. It seemed like all we had done was look through books. As it was, that night was the coldest so far and I barely slept at all, finally dozing off near sunrise. When I awoke a few hours later, Logan had already gone and Barnabas was deep in the red book from the day before.
He sent me off with a list of chores that ranged from gathering wood and water to washing clothes on the shore to helping the farmers drag bracken around their fields. It was well after midday before I finished. When I did, Barnabas barely looked up from his reading, a scroll this time, before he sent me off with a crust of bread and another set of errands. My last stop was the communal storage of the village. I was sweating despite the winter chill as I carried a sack of milled grain to the campsite.
Barnabas greeted me with a question. “Did you know that your fellow villager Pinny was a witch?”
“What’s a witch?” I asked. The Jew grinned.
“Exactly. Your people have all manner of animists and spiritual practitioners but witches are not something you would know about. You might have them but you would call them something different. And yet, your headman, Gunnar, not only used that exact word but used it as an accusation as though it were an explanation.” As always, I understood about half of what he was saying, so I guessed.
“You think Pinny cursed the village? Is that something a witch does?”
“I think,” he replied, “that Gunnar is a liar. As for the rest, maybe. It’s not impossible but it still all doesn’t fit together. Nevertheless, it is another odd log to throw onto the fires of our curiosity.” I lugged the sack into the tent then found a comfortable place to sit. “I have been trying to figure out what manner of creature we are dealing with,” Barnabas went on. “Or what physical manifestation of a curse that emulates a creature, if that be the case.
“The best fit for the overall pattern of vengeful activity is a ghost, except that ghosts typically do not attack physically. However, the draugr, which are a type of ghost, do.”
“So it’s a draugr?” I had no idea what a draugr was or why I should care, but I enjoyed the sound of Barnabas’ voice when he talked so strangely. The entire matter took on the trappings of a verbal game for me.
He kept speaking as if he had not heard me. “Draugr are common only to extremely cold places in the far north beyond Germania. The other factor we must consider is the emphasis on reproduction in victim selection, remembering as well that the creature or curse did not begin with people as victims but instead seems to have worked up to them. The latter implies some form of delay in the manifestation of its powers while the former narrows our search still further. As I’ve said before, like to like.”
He took a deep breath to continue then glared at me and snapped, “Why are you grinning?” I swallowed my amusement, apologized, and begged him to go on. He did not require a tremendous amount of encouragement.
“The Malay have a legend of something called a pontianak. I don’t know much about the Malay myself except that they live west of the Empire and south of the Mongols. According to my books, though, their pontianak is a good match— a woman who died in childbirth and now seeks revenge by eating mothers and babies. Not perfect, but close.”
As he finished, Logan walked past us into the tent. “Getting ready for tonight,” Barnabas explained. “The Gordian knot of it all is that we’re too far south for a draugr and too far north and east for a pontianak.”
“So what does that mean?” I asked.
“It means,” said Logan, exiting the tent, “that I must be prepared to fight either or both of them.”
Barnabas nodded. “The pontianak is recorded as being afraid of nails and sharp objects, like thistle and briars, so our trap should work. It’s also always female so Logan may have to face something that, at least initially, looks like a woman. At least he won’t confuse it with Valae.”
“Not funny,” growled Logan. Barnabas continued. “The draugr are immune to weapons and have to be fought bare handed, which also fits with the physical attacks of squeezing and rending.”
I looked to Logan. “You have to fight it without your spear?”
He smiled at me, amused at something. “Not even a knife.”
“You’ll be torn apart,” I cried. “It can crush sheep!”
His smile did not waver. “I don’t think it will be a problem,” he said, putting out his arms so I could see them clearly. I had noticed before that they were oddly colored in places but I had not realized the extent. His right forearm was mottled with large red birthmarks as if someone had crushed blackberries against his skin. His left was as pale as the right was dark, splattered with patches of white skin like the scars of a burn.
The gesture did not fit the words and between the two men, I felt confused and adrift, as if entire conversations were taking place behind my back and I was only hearing bits and pieces of them.
Barnabas laughed. “Don’t let it bother you, boy. It confused me, too, at first.” He stood and clapped me on the shoulder. “You’ve been quite a help today. Why don’t you go home, sleep on a comfortable bed for a change? I won’t need you until tomorrow, and you’ve earned the rest.”
I was halfway home before I realized he had very smartly sent me away just when things were starting to get exciting. It was probably for my own safety, I knew, but I was having none of it.
I knew which fields had been surrounded in bracken; I had helped drag the stuff into place myself that morning. From there it was not hard to guess where Logan would lay his trap. The first two meadows were empty. The sun had set by the time I reached the third, but we were not spread out over that large an area. My fourth choice greeted me with the lowing of short, curly–haired cattle.
I ran toward the pasture when something grabbed my neck and lifted me from the ground. As my feet kicked the air, a calloused hand clapped over my mouth and Valae’s voice growled into my ear, “Be still.” She smelled like sweat and mud.
With quick, long steps she moved to the edge of the field, still carrying me by the steel pinch on my neck. The open grassland was surrounded by a low wall of brush and thistle except for a broad gap at the eastern end and it was into this Valae threw me.
Even as I curled into a panicked ball, I realized she had thrown me, not directly into the wall, but under it. I slid painfully on my hands and knees, thorns clawing at my back, across bare earth to find myself alongside Barnabas in a cramped hunting blind hidden within the bracken.
“Told you,” grunted Valae from the blind’s entrance. I heard the creak of her leather as she moved on.
“Took you long enough,” muttered Barnabas. “Now be still and watch.” There was a gap in the briars, barely more than a ragged slit, that let us see out into the pasture.
Logan stood in the moonlight, dressed the same as he had come ashore, unarmored, wearing simply his belted long tunic and boots. The plain Roman spear was slung across his back and he carried no other weapons, standing calmly with his hands loose at his sides. He looked calm, more disinterested than serene.
“It’s not safe for you to be here,” whispered Barnabas beside me. “We still don’t know what we’re dealing with. This could end up very dangerous indeed.”
I was unconcerned. “He’s out there alone. Aren’t you going to help him?”
Barnabas gave a quiet snort. “Our part of this fight is over.” He twisted inside the cramped space to face me. “That’s really all that Valae and I are here for, to get him to this point and make sure he’s prepared as best he can be. Don’t worry, boy, this is what he does. And he’s been doing it a long time.”
Something moved in the darkness at the gap into the pasture, a brighter spot in the darkness. As it approached, the form resolved into a dark haired woman about my mother’s age clad in a gray shift, plain but pretty. She paused in the opening, inspecting the fields. She cocked her head to one side and looked at Logan in bemused curiosity, then walked into the pasture.
Valae surged up from the ground where she had been hiding and pulled a final cluster of thistle and briar, bound together on a wicket like a gate, to close the gap in the thorn wall.
The woman in gray sneered, her face ugly with contempt. “I can still get out. It’s just a bit more difficult,” she said. Her voice was raw and low, like that of a singer gone hoarse with age, even though she was still a young woman. She advanced on Logan at a sedate walk. “There’s no reason for us to fight, now is there?” Logan did not answer.
Valae wormed her way into the blind with us. Close up, I saw that her near invisibility in the darkness was partially because she was smeared with mud and cow dung. “Pinny?” she asked quietly as she slid between us.
“No way to know,” replied Barnabas and I shrugged, forgetting that she could not see it in the darkness.
The woman turned her head to stare directly at us even though she could not possibly have heard our faint whispers, much less see us in the moonlit shadows. “Yes,” she said calmly. “I was Pinny.”
“Were?” asked Logan, unslinging his spear.
“I’m a bit more now,” replied the woman.
Logan drove the spear blade first into the ground behind him, placing his back to it as if it were a wall or fellow warrior. “The villager Gunnar says you are a witch.”
“And what if I was?” she snapped with sudden venom. “What if I did offer the occasional sacrifice to some minor spirit of the air or seduce a man into spilling his seed on the ground? Maybe I did curse a cow to dryness or make an unfaithful husband unable to be of use to any woman. What of it? They were small things.” Her hair seemed to stand out from her head as her speech became heated and her eyes narrowed to hate–filled slits. “Not like Gunnar. With what he has done, who is he to accuse me of anything?” She made a spitting sound, but nothing came from her mouth.
“Gunnar, what has he done?” Logan’s tone remained unchanged, relaxed and soothing, unnaturally so.
“You want to know, don’t you?” Pinny’s was suddenly coy, her tone playful. “Even though it can’t change anything, you still want to know.”
“Yes,” replied Logan evenly.
“And what will you do for me if I tell you?”
“Nothing. You have interferred with the tribute to Rome and, if I must, I shall kill you.” Logan spoke with no more excitement than if he were reading a list.
Her eyes shot wide in surprise. A moment of fury danced across her face and her hair whipped wildly. “Do you think it as easy as that? I have heard of you, Longines Christkiller, don’t think I haven’t. But you presume too much!” Her voice took on a soft, almost pleading character. “Why do you oppose us? You, who are the greatest of all, who killed the Christ itself. You should be our leader, our master.”
“I am a servant of Rome,” Logan said tightly.
“You are a fool!” Her entire body strained as she shouted, fists clenched at her sides. ” You want to know what happened? I’ll tell you. I was Gunnar’s offering; that’s what happened! While I was wasting my time with charms and petty seductions, he struck a covenant with something stronger, something older than your precious Rome, one of the old gods of the land. And I was his offering!
“I was pregnant with his child. I suppose that just made me a better sacrifice. And no scandal for him, such a high official, dallying with a common whore in the fields.”
“That e xplains the fecundity and the multiple births,” whispered Barnabas excitedly. Valae rapped him on the side of his head with a knuckle to keep him quiet.
Pinny went on. “He took me up on the cliffs over the sea. Told me how happy he was that we would have a child, how he would marry me and we’d have such a wonderful home.” She was smiling now, a rictus, humorless grin that showed a mouthful of spike–sharp teeth and blood flowing freely between them. “Then he said I could fly, slit my throat, and shoved me over the edge.”
The night was suddenly bitterly cold and the moon’s light seemed bitter crystal. My teeth were chattering and I could see Logan’s breath come in great white plumes from his mouth. Pinny’s hair was standing out and her shift was whipping around as if caught in a storm.
“But I was not without friends, not without power,” she yelled. “I flew!”
“Don’t look,” snapped Barnabas. I ignored him.
An invisible knife drew a bright red line across her throat and black blood welled from it. The line became a gap, flesh tearing with a meaty, sucking sound as her head lolled back. It began to rise, lifted by her hair. There was a long, gurgling slurp and a series of wet pops and her innards rose as well, still connected to her head. They were shriveled and black and, at the last, as her intestines crawled free. I could see them moving with a life of their own—spreading, reaching, grasping.
“Looks like something you’d eat,” I heard Barnabas tell Valae, but I was too busy trying to keep from retching to hear if she made any reply. I choked on my bile, coughing painfully. The creature that had been Pinny continued to rise until it was completely clear of her body, intestines writhing like mindless tentacles. Her body, headless, stumbled away but did not fall.
“It took me time,” the abomination said. “I nibbled around the edges; Gunnar’s patron was powerful and his sacrifice much greater than anything I’d ever done. But I found ways. First the crops, then the sheep and cattle. Every day that passed, the power of Gunnar’s covenant faded while my own power grew. Finally I could come for the children, like the child I should have had. I’m taking back what was mine to begin with!
“Is that what you wanted to know?” it screamed. “The whole ugly truth? Does that satisfy you now, Christkiller? Betrayer!”
There was a heartbeat of unnaturally deep silence then, “Yes,” Logan said, “That will do.” His calm tone infuriated her; she screeched in anger, a cutting hawk’s cry that gouged through my ears and into my brain.
The headless body had circled behind Logan and now it charged, arms out, fingers spread as claws. A blaze of golden light strobed across the pasture and the body was thrown suddenly backward. It fell and lay unmoving. Above it, Logan’s spear vibrated in the ground, making a faint humming noise. Its color, now gold, faded slowly back to dull black.
Even as the spear’s glow faltered, the strange head–beast attacked, flying forward. The black intestines wrapped themselves around Logan again and again until I could no longer see his head or upper body, squeezing like giant powerful snakes. But I could see his arms and they too glowed with the same gold color as the spear had, though not as bright. Where his hands touched, the ichorous tenticles withered like plants in the blast of summer’s drought and he tore them aside. His arms rose and fell, casting shrivelled snakeskins and brittle cornhusks to the ground. His lungs fought like giant bellows against the constriction and he exhaled great white stormclouds of breath into the chill night. Soon, he was free of the tentacles and ripping at the thing’s lashing black hair then these too were gone. His fists closed on handfuls of ash where once a face had been. Then the thing was no more and Logan stood alone, his entire body heaving for air like a horse at the end of a long run.
Valae slithered backward out of the blind. Barnabas and I followed.
“That was no pontianak,” the Jew said after Valae had pulled aside the bramble gate. “More like a penanggalan, I think. A real handicap that the Malay are not more specific.”
Logan waited for us, leaning forward with his hands on his knees, resting. When we reached him, he straightened. Pulling his spear from the ground, he gestured with it toward the headless body. “See that she gets a proper burial,” he said tiredly, and walked away without another word.
The three of us buried the remains of Pinny’s body that night; Valae and I dug the grave in the soft soil of the field while Barnabas chanted and sanctified the ground. When it was done, we erected no marker.
Logan was asleep when we trudged wearily back to the camp in the early hours of the morning. Valae stirred the fire into a hearty blaze and Barnabas used a portion of the meal and oil I had obtained early in the day to bake a bland, flat bread for our breakfast.
Logan was awake by then but did not eat. Finally, when we had all finished, he stood and swung his spear across his back. When he did, Valae began to bind the provisions into bundles.
“Take two of the cows as pack animals,” Logan told her. “We’ll follow the coast to the garrison.” She nodded in reply and he began walking toward the village. Barnabas and I followed.
The village was filled; it seemed that everyone in the area had come to see and the village elders blustered out in front to meet us.
“Well,” began Gunnar, “there was certainly no sleeping last night, what with all the—” He stopped because Logan had driven the spear through him. It was a clean thrust, straight in, shattering the sternum and exiting through the spine. Gunnar gasped, eyes wide in shock, and died.
“Behold the justice of Rome,” Logan said disgustedly, jerking his spear free. “Does any man question this?”
No one did, and he turned to leave. I would have followed, but my father’s hand clamped onto my shoulder and held me firm. Neither Logan nor Barnabas looked back. The matter was never spoken of again in my village.
Still, I have often wondered where they went and what they did. And why. Now that I have grown to be an old man, I wonder all the more about the man Logan, that was also called Longines Christkiller. What manner of man must he be, this Roman whose very arms bore the scars of blood and water? What would drive such a man to seek out monsters to slay and by them, perhaps, to seek his own death?
Sometimes in the night, as I lay here and feel age settle upon my bones, when I hear the howl of the wolves and think of the enemies that beset our people, of humans more monstrous than any monster, I wonder if he, or others like him, will return to save my people again. Or was he the last? Are we now on our own against the evils of our own making?
Growing up in a family with a history of military service, M. Keaton cut his linguistic and philosophical teeth on the bones of his elders through games of strategy and debates at the dinner table. He began his writing career over 20 years ago as a newspaper rat in Springdale, Arkansas, U.S.A. before pursuing formal studies in chemistry, mathematics, and medieval literature at John Brown University. A student of politics, military history, forteana, and game design, his renaissance education inspired the short television series These Teeth Are Real (TTAR).
Story © 2007 M. Keaton. All other content copyright © 2007 ByrenLee Press
Art Director: Bonnie Brunish