The carcass looked fresh, and Vulna’s heart sank. Here in the mountains, the cries of an adult lynx fighting for its life should have carried for leagues, yet the messenger had heard nothing. He prodded the meat with a naked finger and confirmed his suspicions. Not warm, but not frozen, despite being half-buried in the deep snow.
Vulna sat beside the carcass, hoping that the smell of the torn animal would hide his own, at least partially, and considered his position. It seemed hopeless.
The animal appeared to have been bludgeoned to death, torn open by the repeated impact of a blunt object as opposed to gashed by claws or teeth. This ruled out the most obvious reason for the lynx being out in the open snow: a territorial dispute with another of its kind. Vulna reflected that it was a strange world in which they lived, when the lack of big cats in the vicinity was less comforting than the alternative.
But his hope of hearing it coming was a foolish one. If he’d been unable to hear the death cries of the lynx, there was no chance of hearing the stealthy footfalls of the thing that stalked him. The winds, unhindered by trees, howled through the high reaches of the Alps like an army of lost souls, drowning out any merely mundane sound. Vulna’s hearing had become accustomed to it an hour after he broke from the tree line and the screeching disappeared, to be replaced by an illusion of the deepest silence.
A silence that hadn’t been broken when this cat, the most feared hunter of the mountains, had fought bitterly for its life.
He wouldn’t have a chance if he couldn’t hear it coming. It came down to that. In the daytime, he could spot it approaching, notice its contrasting darkness against the bright snow as long as he didn’t descend into the trees. But not at night. Then, the abomination would simply be another shadow navigating the inky blackness.
But Vulna’s true preoccupation lay in the fact that he’d reached the kill of a monster that he was convinced he’d been running away from.
He’d spent the last six hours walking in circles.
The temple looked ragged, worn. It was shameful that the house of one of Etruria’s most important goddesses – technically two of them, since Manus and Mania ruled the underworld jointly – could have been allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair.
Shameful though it might be, it wasn’t surprising. Like the once-proud empire whose people worshipped there, war had left this place in tatters. Silk curtains that had once billowed elegantly in the evening breeze lay on the ground in soiled heaps. The walls were scarred where jeweled fixtures had once been embedded.
Bile rose in Vulna’s throat as he surveyed the damage. Such a scene might have been expected if he were standing in the deep Etruscan south, where the conquest had been complete, but not here. No Roman army had ventured this far north; the damage he saw had been done by Etruscans, fleeing the inevitable.
The messenger wondered about the wisdom of a person who’d be willing to deface the temple of the mistress of the underworld in that way. The earthly value of what they’d taken paled in the face of the prospect of spending eternity under the thumb of a wrathful deity.
“Messenger!” A sharp voice brought Vulna out of his reverie. He turned to see a black-robed priest, striding imperiously toward him. The man’s clothes were as tattered as his temple, but his eyes and manner suggested that it would take a lot more than a horde of frightened farmers to break him.
Vulna dropped to one knee. “What are your orders, lord?”
“Get up. I am no lord and we don’t have the time for formality. The enemy advances, and they will not stop until our empire is nothing but a province.”
Vulna got to his feet and the priest studied him critically. “Yes, you look like you will do. Tall and healthy, good Rasna stock. My only question is whether your heart is strong enough for what lies ahead.”
“I would give my life for the greatness of Etruria without hesitation. More than once, I’ve ridden into the jaws of the enemy. More than once, I’ve returned.”
The priest snorted. “Every messenger says that.”
“In my case, it is true.”
“Very well. Take this. Inside that pouch is a scroll offering the Eluveitie tribes to the north an alliance against Rome.”
“The Eluveitie?” Vulna spat. “They are sworn to the destruction of the Rasna. We cannot lower ourselves to such levels.”
“We have no choice. The tribes might be barbaric, but they are not stupid. They know that the Romans will not stop advancing just because they reach the foot of the Alps. You must find an Eluveitie headman and hand-deliver it. Read it if he has no letters. Translate if he has no Rasna.”
And Vulna understood why he’d been chosen. His mother, from the foothills, spoke the language of the tribes, and had passed it to her son.
He saluted and turned, but the priest’s voice called him back.
“In the pouch, you will find a small skin. If things are truly desperate, you must drink it. The power of Mania is in that draught, and with it, the spirits of the Etruscan dead. They will lend you strength.”
Vulna nodded, but as soon as night fell, he dismounted and overturned the skin. Wind, his roan mare, immediately began to chew the wet grass where he’d dumped the vile underworld concoction. He was about to lead the horse away when it occurred to him that perhaps it would be best if the lords of the underworld knew that their beverage had been consumed. And besides, Wind would never drink something that wasn’t good for her.
He sat down as she browsed and looked north toward the mountains, wondering what he would find there, and whether he could breach the tribesmen’s defenses unseen, to find a warchief who’d be able to make a decision. It would be hard, cold going, but he’d been given difficult tasks before.
The only difference was that this one was more important.
Vulna stood and turned away from the dead lynx. The best he could do was to try to make his way down from the mountains. Perhaps he could find some village in which to take refuge, somewhere with enough strong men among its inhabitants to vanquish the thing that was following him.
But as he turned, he saw a flash of grey out of the corner of his eye. Before he could react, he was in the air. He landed on soft snow instead of bare rock, but felt himself begin to tumble down the steep slope. His arms flailed as he rolled and slid, bruising himself on the sharp outcroppings.
He parted ways with the pouch containing the priceless treaty after a few tumbles, but though he tried to reach it, it lodged in a drift and stuck there, getting ever more distant as Vulna rolled down the mount. He laughed bitterly to himself; there was no reason to try to recover the missive. It would never be delivered.
Mercifully, the slope leveled off and he was able to get his wild roll under control. He got to his hands and knees, and was struggling to get back on his feet when the snow that had been dislodged by his passing caught up to him and the world went white, and then black under its crushing weight.
It took Vulna some time before he remembered what had happened to him, and when he did panic threatened to overcome him. Given a choice, he would have preferred to be torn to shreds by the obscenity hunting him than to die from asphyxiation under a pile of snow. He tried to rise, attempted to tear his arms free from the embrace of the crushing pile, but he could only move them a tiny distance.
It was this that saved his life.
A sound came through the snow above him. A snuffling, scratching noide like that of a pig rooting for truffles. Vulna froze and held his breath, willing himself to be silent. The sound had seemed to be right beside him, which probably meant that he wasn’t buried too far in the mound of snow. Which, in turn, meant that he might survive, but only if the thing didn’t find him.
He reversed his efforts and pressed himself into the cold, wet surface, allowing the melt to seep into his clothes. He soon lost all sensation in his feet, in his hands, in his face, and still the sound of a determined search echoed. Several times, he felt the snow move, as if something pressed into his body. He was certain that he’d been discovered, that his next sensation would be the deadly blow of a sharp hoof.
But the blow never came. The sounds of the search moved to his right, and he hoped that the avalanche had been wide enough to create a large debris field. Maybe it would hide him after all.
Of course, there was no reason to believe that his tormentor would leave. Perhaps it would stay there forever – after all, neither cold nor exhaustion would affect it.
Unlike Vulna, who was already shivering uncontrollably.
As Wind began to climb, Vulna took comfort in the sky. Crossing the Alpine passes was never easy in the best of situations, but would have been impossible in a storm, even in late spring. Fortunately, there were no clouds to be seen.
He stroked the mare’s warm flank, remembering everything they’d been through together, the times the noble beast had saved his life, either by her amazing speed through broken terrain or by knowing when to stay completely silent without a command from her rider. He regretted having to ride her over the mountain, a task more suited to a pack mule, but he had no choice.
They made good progress on the rocky trail until they reached the tree line, and then the snowline. But as they moved, Vulna began to feel a growing unease. There was something very wrong somewhere, but he couldn’t quite put his finger on what it was.
He studied the mountains. Endless expanses of snow, a distant glacier and the occasional vertical outcropping, but no sign of activity, no sign that someone watching from afar was the cause of the itching between Vulna’s shoulder blades. The sky itself was also innocent of any possible responsibility, with no indication that the bright, beautiful day would turn on them, stranding them in the upper valleys with no shelter.
And yet, something wasn’t quite right.
He absently touched his heels to Wind’s flanks, not a sharp prod, but a soft reminder to keep walking.
At that moment, he knew what had been bothering him. The gentle warmth that always emanated from the horse’s sides, comforting his calves as he rode, was gone, and had been gone for quite a while. He reached down with his hands, and felt a cold slab – not just the superficial cold of wind-chilled pelt, but a deeper sensation that penetrated far into the animal’s muscle.
Vulna dismounted, worried not for himself – he knew he could make it down the mountain with relative ease – but for his companion. Releasing the reins, he moved forward and stood looking into Wind’s eyes.
His heart sank. The mare regarded him with a dull expression, eyes filmed over as if the horse had been dead for a week. Vulna tried to pat its head, but Wind responded with a desultory attempt to bite him.
“What’s the matter, girl?” he said. “We’ll turn around. We’ll find you help. The treaty can wait.”
The sound of Vulna’s voice seemed to drive the mare into a frenzy. She suddenly reared up, all her despondency gone, and struck out at his head with a forehoof. Only lightning quick reflexes saved him from death.
But the attack didn’t end there. The horse pushed toward him, teeth snapping as though it were some kind of predator as opposed to a simple herbivore who’d known and loved him since she was a colt. Her lustrous roan coat had faded as well, becoming dull and grey.
He took a step back, and then another. What was happening?
With a cry, he remembered the spilled potion, remembered dismissing it as something that, calculated to aid a man, would have no effect on the larger body of his horse.
And then he remembered the stories the troops told about the temple of Mania and its unholy rites. How dead soldiers were turned into walking abominations through appeals to the rulers of the underworld and obscene rites in dark temples. The wights were sent to the front lines to strike fear into the heart of enemies and allies alike – their indestructible nature caused the Romans to tremble before them, while the knowledge that they could share the fate was enough to give Etruscan soldiers nightmares.
He concluded that the foul priests of Mania had somehow managed to imbue the draught with the magic of the underworld, hoping to turn Vulna himself into a walking corpse, able to shrug off blows that would kill a man not already dead.
His blood rose. He’d been willing to lay down his life in aid of the cause, but nothing could have prompted him to accept the twilight existence of the undead – he had a right to an honorable afterlife.
The price of their presumption was the life of the one creature on Earth that Vulna cared for, the single entity he’d been able to trust for years. He swore to Uni, god of the light, that they would pay for it – even unto his last breath.
But his rage had distracted him from the immediate problem. Wind, the thing that had been Wind, struck with savage precision. Blunt teeth designed to tear foliage up by the roots ripped a handful of hair from his head in a searing explosion of pain, missing his right ear by a finger’s width.
There was no choice. He had to come out from under the packed snow or he would die just as surely as if the undead beast managed to get to him. Small movements that he’d allowed himself – certain that each would be his last – has permitted him to ascertain that the snow around his head was only a hand’s width thick, and that one of his arms could be punched out with a modicum of effort.
He did so, pushing snow aside, certain that the sound of his exertion would carry all the way across the Alps, but he’d forgotten about the wind. As soon as his head was exposed, it howled into his consciousness like the torn spirits of the dead. It would disappear as he grew accustomed to it, as it had before, rendering the mountains silent as the tomb.
Even so, he tried to make as little noise as possible as he pulled himself, shivering, from his hole. He grimaced with every handful of snow that he dislodged and sent rolling down the slope. As soon as he stood, the gale cut through his wet clothes as though they weren’t there. Unless he got moving quickly, he would die from the cold.
But which way to go? There was no doubt in his mind that Wind would stop at nothing to find him, but the avalanche had torn the pristine surface of the slope so badly that it was impossible to identify tracks in the snow.
Vulna decided that his best bet would be to walk downhill, that way, at least, he would be nearing civilization. He set off, making his way slowly through the deep pack.
As he walked, he thought about Wind. The undead soldiers he’d heard about always retained a fierce loyalty to the Rasna and to their comrades at arms, which made the horse’s homicidal bent all the more puzzling. After all they’d gone through together, all the care they’d given one another, Vulna would have thought that the horse, even in her current state, would have done anything to protect him. The betrayal hurt him most of all.
He trudged down the hill, still seeing evidence of the avalanche as the sun made its way towards the horizon and the shadows lengthened more and more. Vulna knew that if he wanted to live, it was imperative to get as far away from the monster as possible.
He crested a ridge and stopped. Standing in the path in front of him, no more than ten paces from where he stood, and slightly below, Wind was investigating a mound of snow and debris. The horse’s pelt, already grey, was now mottled where chunks of hair had fallen out, showing flesh, also grey, beneath.
It was the moment he’d been waiting for. Vulna pulled his single long knife out of its sheath, and advanced, using the gale in his face to hide both the sound and smell of his passage. He knew that even if Wind truly was dead – and it certainly looked that way – he could slow the horse down, possibly even stop it altogether, by the simple expedient of cutting through its hamstring. Even dead horses used their muscles to pull their legs.
The smell of rotten flesh was so close that he could barely breathe. A single swipe of his arm would suffice to cut through the muscle in Wind’s right rear leg. He adjusted the angle of the knife, steeled himself to drive the blow home… and paused. Could he really maim her, leave her struggling in the snow to be consumed by the carrion-eaters of the mountain, who probably wouldn’t wait until her awareness faded to start stripping the rotten meat from her bones? Was that how he wanted to remember her?
It occurred to him that he didn’t have to maim her. All he really had to do now was to strike off in a different direction. Perhaps he could reach a village at the foot of the mountains before she found his trail. Lose himself among the scent of his fellow man.
But, perhaps, putting her down was the merciful thing to do.
His thoughts took too long. Whether something remained of the instincts that had made her the perfect messenger’s horse, or some small shift of the wind betrayed his presence, he never knew, but Wind, with a speed that belied her condition, turned to face him.
Her eyes – one filmed over, the other clouded and beginning to rot – fixed on him, and her huge, grazing teeth snapped towards him.
This time those teeth caught his neck and didn’t let go.
There was little left of the man he’d once been, but in a way Vulna was thankful. There would be no more agonizing about whether Wind had been unfaithful.
He now understood that she’d been doing her duty to the Rasna. The horse had realized – with the help of the underworld? – that there was no use in her going on alone; the Etruscan people needed him to deliver the treaty, and Wind had known how to get him back on the mission. He was dead, but he had never known more love for the cause.
Now, ignoring the grey skin of his hand and no longer feeling the knife-like wind, he went in search of the treaty he’d lost in the fall.
And he did so the way an Etruscan messenger should always travel: astride a mount that was completely dedicated to the mission.
BIO: Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who has recently published two novels: Siege (2016) and Outside (2017). He has nearly two hundred short stories published in fourteen countries. Many of the stories are collected in Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011). The Curse of El Bastardo (2010) is a comic magic-realist novella. You can read his latest news at www.gustavobondoni.com.