PICTS

by Ann Ewan

The whole first day he ran lightly, quickly, under a soft drizzle of rain. He soon realized that being alone was going to be even worse than being with the others. Homesickness burned in him like a fever. When he looked at the fog-shrouded hills, he imagined them bright with flowers. When he caught a glimpse of the choppy grey sea, he imagined it brilliant blue. And he had thought he was homesick when he first joined the army! That had been nothing compared to this, this constant sickness inside, this passionate longing for a warm sun and a blue sea.

Although he was homesick and already lonely, he was not yet afraid. He thought he would get to the outpost and have a chance to see his friend Tiberius again. He thought they would share a drink and talk about old times.

At first there were landmarks, places he recognized. Here there had been a skirmish, there they had camped. He recognized, with an increase of sickness, the place where Lucius had received the wound which eventually killed him. Some said that the painted people used poison on their arrows, but he saw no reason to believe it. No poison was needed to kill a man on this island. Everything rotted here, everything went bad, in this place where it was always damp and there was never a chance to get warm.

The first night he dreamed of home, and that made the waking worse. In his dream the sun was shining. He awoke shivering, as he always did here, and paced around to get warm. He did not feel as confident as he had the day before. He had an uneasy feeling that things in his camp had been rearranged, though there was nothing he could be sure of.

The second day passed like the first had done, in the same drizzle, under the same cold, unrelenting sky. Sometime during the afternoon he became sure that he was being watched. The feeling prickled up and down his spine, making him turn his head hard and often. He saw no sign of the watcher or watchers. He covered more miles that day than he had the day before, pushing himself. His running was less easy now, less graceful and more urgent.

The second night he slept badly, lying with his swordhilt under his hand, ready to spring to his feet at the first sound. Several times he was disturbed by movements in the trees, probably small animals about their own business. Early in the morning he was awakened by a whistle.

The whistle was shrill and unmistakably human. He jumped to his feet and whirled, his sword cutting a swift circle in the air around him. There was no one there. He walked into the wet trees with his sword out, slashing at the bushes viciously and pointlessly.

As soon as he gave up and turned away, there was another whistle, this one from ahead of him, making him jump. Then there was another, on the left. They were all around him! He broke camp quickly, trying not to look as panic-stricken as he felt. For a few minutes the whistlers were silent. He heard one more whistle as he resumed his run, and it took all his will not to look back. He was tense, expecting to feel a shaft between his shoulder-blades.

He heard the whistles twice more that day, and both times shied like a frightened horse. They knew where he was. They were tracking him.

That night he built an altar to Mithras, and prayed for a long time. Mithras was a soldier and would understand. Mithras would protect him if anyone would. He was afraid to sleep, and most of the night he lay wakeful, waiting tensely for the whistling to begin again.

Before the sunrise - not that there was any real sunrise is this dismal place - there was a movement in the bushes, directly in his line of sight. He scrambled to his feet. There was another movement, as if whatever it was had retreated, though perhaps not far. Then it came closer again. He waited, sword ready, heart pounding. He was almost sick with fear. This was much worse than the waiting before a battle, when at least he could see the enemy.

"Come out!" he shouted, suddenly. "Let me see you! Come out and fight like men!"

The shout was more to relieve his own feelings than because he expected any response - of course the painted people would not understand Latin - but almost at once the bushes parted, and a great shaggy wolf came walking into the clearing, a darker shadow on the dark. He almost collapsed with relief. For a moment his knees were weak. The wolf stood looking at him, its eyes somehow catching gleams of faint light, its heavy head swinging slowly from side to side.

He was not afraid of a single wolf. By the way it stood bright-eyed, gazing at him, he guessed that it had once been someone's pet. When he spoke to it again it came closer, tentatively, eager and half-afraid. He tried a few simple commands. The wolf did not seem to understand Latin any more than the painted people did, but it looked at him with interest and cocked its head. When he sat down in his sleeping-place again it lay down beside the dead fire.

Soon he was able to sleep, while the wolf lay with its head on its paws, watching him. Perhaps, he thought, Mithras had heard his prayer and sent him the wolf as protector. After all, wasn't it a wolf that had suckled Romulus?

His sleep was refreshing, but too brief. The whistles woke him in less than an hour. This time they came from all directions, as if the painted people had formed a circle around him. This time he saw a shadow as well, a small human figure slipping quickly from one tree to another. He sprinted into the trees with his sword out, but he was far too late. The whistles began again.

To his disappointment, the wolf was gone.

Cold, tense from lack of sleep, he forced himself to exercise, staying where he was until some of the stiffness had left his body. They could kill him here if they chose, but this time they were not going to force him from his camp. The whistles stopped while he was still exercising. He sheathed his sword at last and resumed his run. Today he should reach the outpost.

For the first time since he had started the journey, the rain had stopped and the sun was shining palely through the clouds. Although it was good to be dry, the sun somehow made everything worse, more gloomy and less familiar even than before. His run was less easy, his shivering more intense. Sweat formed and dried on his body.

I will never get home, he thought suddenly. His feet paced it out hollowly in the rhythm of his run. Never get home, never get home. I will die here, under this dead sky, in this place of dripping trees and slow murder.

No wonder the wolf had left him. It, too, belonged in this wet and hostile country.

In the late afternoon he found the first body. At first he simply stared at it, uncomprehending. It had been hung upside-down from a tree, directly in his path, over the track. It was horribly mutilated. After that he walked slowly, staring at all the bodies as he came to them. His stomach kept heaving, but he could not be sick. He could not stop shivering either.

When he found Tiberius' body he stood still and looked at it for a long time. He knew that he should start cutting the bodies down and gathering them together. He should build a great fire and let it consume them. It was not right that they should be left like this, mutilated and abandoned for all to see, under a hostile sky, victims of the rotting rain.

He did not do it. He walked away from the outpost, what was left of it, and back the way he had come. He walked past all the bodies again. When the shivering overpowered him and he could not walk any more he collapsed where he was, on the track. Little spasms shook him. He did not think he slept.

In the morning, near his head, there was the print of a bare human foot.

He stared at it and licked his lips. He did not think it had been there the night before, but he could no longer be sure. He was no longer sure of anything. His body burned with fever and twitched from lack of sleep, and his eyes saw movement everywhere. The rain was grey and constant, the trees dripping sullenly on all sides of him as he walked. Drip, drip, drip.

When he stopped suddenly, he was certain he heard footsteps. They stopped an instant later. He went on.

Now that he knew what to listen for, he was sure he heard them, the padding of bare feet, on his left. Someone was shadowing him, moving as he moved, stopping as he stopped. Pad, pad, pad. Drip, drip, drip. His control broke altogether and he turned toward the sound, hauling at his sword.

"What do you want from me?" he shouted into the dripping forest.

Later he heard the same footsteps on the right; bare feet pad, pad, padding along the ground, keeping pace with him. Twice he ran into the trees, screaming defiance, but there was never anyone there.

In the early afternoon he gave up. A man cannot fight forever against an enemy he cannot see. Let the painted people keep their country, he thought; it was never worth fighting for. Briefly, painfully, he remembered warm sand and blue sea. He prayed to Mithras one last time. Mithras was a soldier and would understand. Then he lashed his sword to a tree at the side of the track and ran onto it.

After a while there was silence, except for the rain. The wolf, which had been shadowing him all day, came out from concealment and padded over to investigate. Then it returned to the wet woods.


- Back to the front gate.
- Back to Rob's wagon.
- Read a story about the rescue of a wizard.
- Choose another story.