As I have told you, I had seen Centurions several times in my life. Always they had born that same haughty scowl of the first of their kind I had seen while a little boy. All of them, always, the same expression of disdain and superiority.
Before that night on the river, their faces revealed by flashing orange lantern light, lit up like masks in a Grecian tragedy, I had never before seen an expression of fear on a Centurion’s face. On that night, all their faces betrayed fear.
I had reckoned at least two nights remained before my next transformation. The only explanation I can offer is that the Doghead, held down, repressed by the poison fed to me in my food and drink, and now free of these, would not submit to containment any longer. It burst free earlier than usual, this fact proving unfortunate for the Romans.
When Dalmontenes credited the werewolf’s early arrival to a boon from his heathen gods, I could not disagree. My own God, the one true God, I am now convinced, had nothing to do with it. I have stated, however, that God can make use even of the works of the Devil to accomplish good, and so I believe He did on that night. By the unholy acts of the beast’s teeth and claws, God preserved the lives of innocents.
Dalmontenes and the others had gotten me bound up before I’d turned, lucky for them. I remember thrashing around on the deck of the ship, trying to break free. While I was doing this, the Medusa’s Kiss sped along in pursuit of the Roman boats. There were enough survivors to man two boats, whereas Dalmontenes said the Romans had three. Thus outnumbered, the only chance of success for the Marmorca hinged on the Romans having not yet reached the coast and the sea. Traversing the narrow river by night, a night made thicker by the mist rising off the inky black water, carried not inconsiderable risk, thus Dalmontenes hoped to catch the Romans at dock and unawares. By God’s providence, this happened.
The Romans, moored a mile or so from the open water, must have anticipated pursuit and potential attack from behind, for they had stationed the ship containing only fighting men in the rear. The captives they had divided up between the two ships in the lead. God’s providence. Because of the narrowness of the river, no more than two ships abreast could pass, and at this particular juncture, where we caught up to them, they had to pass in single file. More providence.
The Medusa’s Kiss reached the ship laden with soldiers amid shouts and flying arrows, and on the deck of the former I lay, now fully a beast, straining against my bonds. I did not know, the Romans did not know, that on this night Dalmontenes would wield the werewolf as his greatest weapon.
The Marmorca had extinguished their torches. Roman arrows flew blind, finding targets by mere happenstance, before the Medusa’s Kiss rammed its prow into the stern of the Roman vessel. Lying on the deck I felt the impact.
“Now!” I heard Dalmontenes yell.
Many hands seized me. I felt myself lifted, hoisted into the air, and then hurled over the prow of our ship and onto the Roman deck. An instant after I hit, still bound, snarling and writhing in my efforts to free myself, a body landed on top of me. I did not see him but recognized him by his scent. Dalmontenes. Knife in hand, he sought the rope that held me. The Romans, taken aback for an instant by the sight of my shaggy form landing amongst them, did not react in time to stop Dalmontenes. His knife bit deep into the rope, enough to weaken it. My strength, the strength of the beast, did the rest. Then it was too late for the Romans. I, it, the beast, was free.
I did not see it when Dalmontenes leapt overboard. I remember only a riot of angry, fearful faces and sword blades flashing in the flickering lantern light as I, the beast, struck at anything and everything within reach of my claws. The armor of the soldiers served them little; it protected their torsos and heads from my claws, yes, but their arms and legs, their faces were not armored. Their throats had no protection. And even the shiny engraved breastplates of the Centurions became dented by direct blows from the beast’s fists, shattering the ribs and breastbones beneath. Myself, I scarce felt the Roman swords hacking into me. Enraged, more than it had ever been before, the creature struck down man after man, berserk in its fury, a hell-born engine of destruction.
Then the Roman Centurions, scourge of the known world, renowned for their fierceness and bravery, began to leap overboard, screaming like terrified children, splashing, cursing and shrieking, praying to their gods for succor. No god heard their pleas that night. The werewolf jumped into the water in pursuit. Several men offered their lifeblood to the river, torn apart by the beast’s claws. Reaching the riverbank, it spent the better part of the night hunting down the survivors, one by one or in small groups. By morning, none survived.
As noted, the Romans had placed the larger portion of their men in their rear boat, the boat I attacked. With them out of the way, Dalmontenes and the other Marmorca, no longer so outnumbered, swarmed the remaining two Roman vessels and freed the captives; the latter took part in the battle, using the chains that bound them as weapons. Before gray dawn began to brighten the horizon, all the Romans had been slain and cast overboard as food for the crocodiles. The Marmorcan dead had been avenged. The living were free.
They found me the next morning, lying naked and bleeding a half-mile from the river’s edge. In the heat of the beast’s fury, I have said, I scarce felt the wounds inflicted on me by the Romans’ weapons. As the beast I had no concept of just how serous were my injuries. I came to, finding myself half chopped to pieces. The wounds were already healing, yes, but they were numerous and the cuts were deep. I had lost much blood. Roman iron had not been enough to stop the rampage of the beast, but it had damn near killed Reprobus the man.
I passed into and out of consciousness, the beast no longer there to keep the pain away with its gnashing fangs. I slept; I woke, awash on a sea of pain. I was told later that ants had found me there before my comrades and were feeding at my open wounds. When I awoke that last time, it was to Elsora’s sweaty, mannish, angelic face.
“Elsora?” I managed.
“Lay still, my lord. We need to get these cuts cleaned out and bandaged. Damn Romans did a fair job of carving you up, looks like.”
Elsora told me of our victory, of the freeing of the captives.
“Samaethea?” I asked.
“Don’t worry. Your little sweetheart is fine. She’s waiting for you.”
I slept. The Marmorca carried me back to our village. I recovered.
This was how the legend began. Though we had left no survivors that I knew of among the Centurions, none to tell tales, yet word began to spread. Throughout the Roman navy, throughout the Empire, even to be repeated on the seven hills of the grand city itself. A story of something, a people, race, a calamity, the land itself, alive and demon-haunted, something that lived, that waited, on the coastlands west of Egypt, that took and swallowed up the fine Roman fighting men sent against it, Rome’s unconquerable soldiers lost, never heard from again.
The legend of the Werewolf of the Marmorca had begun.