The Wall at the End of the World

 

“The painted people!” The legate shook his head and spat into the fire before reaching for the cup and taking a swallow of the wine I’d brought with me.

“I’ve spent too many years fighting them to spend my off-duty time talking about them.” He looked at the cup appreciatively. “Good Roman wine this. The stuff they make here is vinegar.”
 
“That’s what I heard. It’s why I took the precaution of bringing a supply.”
 
The legate snorted with laughter, spraying wine over the woollen tunic he had wrapped around himself. “Maxentius told me you have a whole wagon stuffed full with amphorae.”
 
“The previous tribune brought an amphora of British wine back to Rome. I tried some when I met him to talk about the posting.”
 
The legate stared into the cup. “What did he tell you of me?”
 
“He said to bring you some decent wine.”
 
The legate laughed again, but it was a bitter laugh.
 
I was young though, and inexperienced. I did not hear the bitterness, only the laughter, and keen to ingratiate myself, I offered the legate what I had brought from Rome.
 
“It’s from one of my family’s vineyards,” I said.
 
The legate shook his head. “My family has vineyards too. They cluster on the hills around Arretium like grapes. I haven’t seen them in thirty years.”
 
I nodded. I knew the legate had remained in his post far longer than usual. There were rumours, in Rome, as to why he had never returned home. I had alluded to these when I met the previous tribune, but he had ignored my probing. I poured some more wine, its deep red catching the firelight and glowing.
 
“It brings the warmth of home with it, Legate Chlorus” I said, handing him the cup.
 
The legate took it and held the bowl in his fingers, looking down into its depths. I said nothing, but poured myself some wine, and swallowed it. Anything to keep the damp of this climate out of my bones.
 
“I wish I was back there,” said the legate, “not here, limping up and down the length of this gods’ forsaken wall.” Chlorus looked up at me, a fierce grin replacing the momentary reflection. “Socks, that’s what I really need. Socks and drawers, woollen drawers. Wine’s all very well, but even good Etrurian wine won’t keep you warm when the wind turns to the north east. I don’t suppose you brought any spares with you? Every tribune brings me gifts of wine, but what I really need is woollen socks.”
 
I pointed down at my feet, bare and white in my sandals.
 
“You’ll wish you had brought some soon,” Chlorus said.
 
“I already do. My feet are tanned – they’ve gone this colour with cold.”
 
Chlorus laughed. “Well, shove them nearer the fire boy, that’s what we all do. They call the legions up here ‘leather soles’ and that’s for the way the men tan their feet in front of the fire after patrol.” The legate pointed to a stool. “Sit down. Warm feet are the greatest pleasure you can have up here.”
 
“The greatest?” I asked, sitting down beside him.
 
“Yes,” he said, simply.
 
Having kicked off my sandals, and holding my feet up to the flames, I felt the warmth of the fire penetrating my skin and soaking deep into my bones – as soothing a heat as the steam room, although admittedly less encompassing. For the first time since I had crossed the encircling ocean and arrived upon Britannia, my feet felt warm.
 
I nodded at the legate’s feet. Unlike me, he had them tucked under his stool, away from the fire. “You must be used to the cold by now?” Chlorus had not bothered to remove his footwear; leather bags, tied around the ankles, from which the odd twist of straw peeped.
 
The legate shook his head. “These are what have enabled me to endure thirty winters here, Tribune Verus. I saw the painted people wearing them, and many of the tribes south of the Wall, before they began trying to be more Roman than the Romans – there’s nothing funnier than seeing a painted Votadini stumbling through his Virgil – wore them as well. The leather is waxed, I stuff the inside with straw and, so, dry, warm feet. You’d do well to get some leather stitched and waxed too.”
 
“I will.” Outside, I could hear the wind, lashing the tree tops and, suppressing a shiver, I drew my cloak around my shoulders against the draughts that fingered my flesh.
 
“That’s Septentrio’s touch,” said the legate. “Once the god gets his fingers into you, you’ll never be free of him.”
 
“Oh, yes, sure,” I said, grinning at the legate. But he did not smile back in shared mockery, and my grin dried away.
 
Chlorus turned away from me and stared into the fire. I waited for the legate to speak again, but he said nothing. I reached into my satchel and took out the chits.
 
“Would you like to see my orders and accreditation?” I asked.
 
“Leave them on the table,” he said. “I’ll look later.”
 
“Shouldn’t you check?”
 
The legate glanced at me, before returning to his inspection of the fire. “Oh, I can see you’re a tribune. Just like the last one and the one before. They all had the same orders. I doubt yours will be any different.”
 
“Very well.” I stood up. So the rumours about Legate Chlorus and his decades long posting in Britannia were true. He’d been left here because he was so lacking in ambition as to be safe. As general of legions and governor of a province, a legate, in his area, was the emperor. It did not do for the true emperor to leave any legate in one place for too long, lest he bind his legions to his cause and raise the standard of insurrection. But Legate Chlorus had remained in Britannia for decades, never moving, always loyal, and the emperor had never seen fit to recall him. “I will inspect the men.”
 
“Sit down, boy,” said Chlorus. “Septentrio is blowing, the men are huddled up, this is no time for an inspection.”
 
“I had not expected such laxity here on the border of Empire,” I said, remaining on my feet.
 
The legate shook his head. “You really don’t understand, do you, boy.”
 
“I am Tribune Marcus Annius Verus and I have come here at the emperor’s order to do my duty. Part of that duty is to inspect my command.”
 
The legate looked up at me, and his eyes were as cold as Septentrio’s breath. “Here, in these lands, I am emperor – you do what I tell you, boy.”
 
I hesitated. I was still young, and although I no longer believed in the gods, I believed in the emperor and Rome.
 
“Do you want to know why we built the Wall, boy? The real reason, not what they tell you in Rome?”
 
I suppose my expression gave me away. Later I would learn to keep my face in check, but then I was too eager to hear not to give some indication. The legate pointed to the stool, and this time I sat upon it.
 
“There have been rumours…”
 
“And what do these rumours consist of?” asked Chlorus, filling his cup again.
 
“The Lost Legion, the painted people and, and something, some horror at the end of the world – none of it makes any sense.”
 
“What’s the official story these days?”
 
“That the emperor decreed the limit of Empire here, at the Wall; that what lies beyond is not worth the taking.”
 
“I have some sympathy with that; but then, what worth is there in Pannonia or Belgica? But we took those.”
 
“I always believed it was our duty, as Romans, to take the whole world and remake it as a place of order. That is why I do not understand why we have stopped here, at the Wall. It is as if we are afraid of what lies beyond.”
 
The legate looked at me, then away into the fire.
 
“We are,” he said.

“The painted people? But they are barbarians; fierce, yes, but no more terrible than the other peoples we have conquered and made into Romans.”
 
“No, it is not them. They are an irritation, nothing more.”
 
“Then what is it?”
 
The legate stared into the fire. The wind blew – I would learn during my time on the Wall that it almost always blew – around the fort, threading through its solid Roman walls and running cold nails down my back. Chlorus took a sip of wine.
 
“It was like this…”
 
#
 
The exhausted remnants of the 9th Legion staggered over the mist-wreathed hills. The fog had come down as the shattered legion attempted to withdraw over the mud tracks and trails that passed for roads in this sodden, sodding land. When it had first come, laying its veil over the survivors and concealing them from the painted people, Chlorus had offered ragged thanks to whatever god had sent it. But now, after it had remained for the best part of three days, he was not so sure that it was the gift of a benevolent god. Through the days, and the nights, men had disappeared, silently, without trace. At first Chlorus thought they were deserters, men whose nerve had gone and who slipped into the mist to meet their death – he had seen it happen before: soldiers who had run down their reserves of courage and endurance so far that an end, any end, was preferable to continuing onwards. But if that had been his suspicion at first, it gave way to other, more terrible fears, when they found the remains of the first of the missing men, on the second day.
 
Centurion Titus Annius, of the first cohort of Tungrians, was a veteran, only two years away from retirement. He’d served with the 9th through its postings around Britannia as the army slowly brought the barbarians to an understanding of the benefits of the Empire. Chlorus, as legate, had given Annius dispensation to marry the previous year – a native woman but clean and with not too thick an accent; the legate had been able to understand her responses when he asked her willingness and suitability to marry his centurion. Annius had talked of taking her back to his native Syria but Chlorus knew that, in the end, they would settle upon a parcel of the woman’s tribal lands, farm it, build a small, rough villa and raise children. Only, there would be no children now, and the woman – the legate had never learned her name – would find it hard to be taken back into her tribe after taking a Roman into her bed.
 
“Cut him down.”
 
The words were thick with the mist that swirled around the gaping, silent soldiers. None of them moved at the command.
 
“Cut him down!” Chlorus shouted.
 
Started into action, one of the two remaining centurions cuffed a legionary around the back of the head, sending him stumbling forward.
 
“You heard what the legate said, cut him down.”
 
The legionary looked back at the centurion and the legate, his face preternaturally pale in the never-ending mist.
 
“How?” he asked.
 
Chlorus shook the memory of that first of the impaled men from his mind. He had seen too many more in the days since for it to still shock him, but the first – he knew that if he lived to escape these gods-cursed mountains he would wake, sweating, from dreams where Centurion Annius turned his head towards him from the tree and spoke, his voice thick with the wood that pierced his body. But he would live with those dreams and they would pass, for he knew that nightmares withered, grew old and died as men did. Only the Empire endured. And the gods.
 
Throughout the long retreat they encountered the disappeared men, impaled upon the rusty red trunks of the native pine trees. Fear stalked them, noiselessly, from the shifting banks of fog, throwing grey arms upon detachments of legionaries and lifting them to reveal a man missing, without voice or alarm. Now, the remnants of his army clustered close together around the eagle as if its golden presence could repel whatever hunted in the fog.
 
But, finally, on the third day, the fog began to lift: gleams of light shining fitfully through from a glimpsed sky, then brief views of distant hills and even, yes, a shifting, blessed sight of sea. The galleys of the navy had come north with the legion, running supplies up the coast, ready to take the prisoners of battle south as slaves to sell in the markets of Eboracum and Londinium; Chlorus had intended the campaign to be profitable as well as glorious. Now, it was neither. But if they could get to the coast, they could signal the galleys to take them off this cursed land.
 
Chlorus signed his remaining centurions; they had learned to pass commands in silence and by gesture through the desperate flight of the past few days. For although the hunter in the fog had picked off some of the men, others had been lost in fierce, fast skirmishes with hunting parties of the painted people. The Romans had learned to listen hard to the sounds of bird and wind, straining to tell whether the whistle came through human lips or from beak and air. But by moving fast and leaving the dead and wounded where they fell, they had been able to keep ahead of the painted people. The occasional scream, muffled through fog, marked when a wounded man, mind too fogged to use the knife that had been left unsheathed beside him upon the tussocky grass, had been found by the trackers of the painted people. There were fewer screams now. Those men who fell by the wayside barely waited for their comrades to pass out of sight; or asked a friend a final favour before the remnants of the legion moved on.
 
Chlorus looked around. The lifting mist meant that, at last, he could get his bearings upon the sea but it also removed the cover that had brought the 9th this far. His eyes were good, but the very air seemed to glow with light as the mist lifted, leaving him dazzled and unsure. He signed to Centurion Decius, in the rearguard, pointing to his eyes and then around. The centurion nodded, then pulled a young legionary to his side and whispered fiercely in his ear.
 
Young eyes. Chlorus nodded. Decius was a good man and better legionary. While the centurion and his chosen pair of young eyes crept back towards a rocky outcrop, where they might better scan the land around, Chlorus surveyed ahead. A defile opened up ahead, offering a potential route down to the glimpsed gold of sand and blue of sea. Out there, beyond the land, far from the mountains, the sun shone, a sun so bright it might have been the same god as shone on his home in Liguria. But the clouds shifted their skirts and the view was lost. Chlorus shook his head. Even if it was the same god that shone upon the far sea, it was a different one that climbed above these mountains and hills.
 
While he waited for the centurion to return, Chlorus started directing the men, lying in exhausted heaps upon the sodden grass, towards the defile. Few of them had eaten anything for the last two days. The legate grimaced; at least there was no shortage of water. If this had been Syria or Parthia, they would have died from thirst a day past. But, spent as they were, they picked themselves up and started moving in the direction he wanted them to go. Exhausted, hungry, defeated but not beaten, never beaten, they were still legionaries and he was proud of them.
 
Of the five thousand men Chlorus had led into these mountains, only a hundred or so were left. But the survivors followed the eagle, forming into ragged line and marching on the sheep-worn paths down through the grass and stunted, wind-blasted trees towards the gully. If the painted people should catch up with them, the sheer walls of the defile would funnel the hunters towards the raised shields and short stabbing swords of the legion. Chlorus nodded grimly to himself. He would get them out, the last of the legion, and raise replacements among the chancers and gamblers and bankrupts who always made their way into new imperial territory; and when he had his legion again, he would come back and the grass would run red with the blood of the painted people.
 
As the last of the legion limped towards the gully, Centurion Decius and his young pair of eyes scuttled back towards the waiting legate. From the way they moved, keeping low, Chlorus knew they had sightings to report.
 
“Hunters,” whispered the centurion. “Moving in pairs.”
 
“How far behind?”
 
“Half an hour. If they don’t speed up.”
 
“Enough. Just.” Chlorus turned to go, but the centurion pushed his scout forward.
 
“Legionary Samuel has something else to report,” he said.
 
The legate turned back.
 
“What?”
 
The legionary pointed ahead, towards the defile the legion was making for. “As we were heading back, I thought I saw movement up ahead, sir. Only, it didn’t look like the painted people.”
 
Chlorus turned to stare at the blank, slate grey walls that opened upwards from the gully, then back to the legionary.
 
“If it wasn’t the painted people, what did you see?”
 
“I – I don’t know, sir. An animal, maybe.”
 
“We could do with some meat.”
 
“It didn’t look like any animal I’ve ever seen, sir.”
 
“What did it look like then?”
 
“I – I don’t know, sir.”
 
The legate shook his head.
 
“We’ve got the painted people pursuing us and you’re worried about an animal?”
 
The whistle came then, low and haunting, from the east, and it was answered by another, from the north. They could have been birds, the lonely birds of mountain, crying to each other, but the legate exchanged glances with his centurion. Those whistles carried all the warning and excitement of hunters who have caught the track of their prey.
 
“They have found us,” the centurion whispered.
 
Chlorus nodded. “The gully will protect our flanks. Get the men into it. I will hold the rearguard.”
 
Centurion Decius eased backwards, putting the lip of land between himself and any observers, then rushed towards the defile, gesturing the men forward. The legate gathered Cohort Gaius Julius to him with signs and quiet commands; they were the fittest and strongest of the remaining legionaries, those most likely to stand with him in rearguard.
 
Forming the line, Chlorus pulled the cohort back to the start of the defile, where the path began to dip between two slow swelling ridges. Hunters, alone or in pairs, could easily flank them up either ridge and catch the men further on, but they would do so in too small numbers to inflict many casualties. Any serious pursuit would have to come down the path, and the small number of legionaries the legate had with him were enough to hold and block the way.
 
They waited, breath misting around faces. The mist had drawn down again, moving in long, shifting rollers over the ground they had traversed, swelling out of the hollows to spill over the surrounding ridges. The legate silently cursed this wet, cold land. Decius would send word as soon as the legion was safely down into the gully; then he could pull the last men back.
 
He might get out of this alive.
 
The thought, when it came, was as much a shock as the ambush that had first caught the 9th, exposed upon the narrow ways through a wasteland of marsh. The painted people had known all the tracks and tussocks that a man might stand upon and not sink, but Chlorus, attempting to deploy the cohorts to meet the attack, had sent men to choking, muddy deaths, dragged down into the bog by the weight of their own armour. No wonder the painted people fought all but naked, the livid marks on their skin supposedly providing them magical protection. While the tattoos did nothing to stop a legion sword spilling a man’s guts – Chlorus had killed enough himself to know this was true – he had also seen the painted people fall into the marsh that had swallowed his own men and, spreading their limbs wide like spiders, paddle their way to rejoin the battle, smeared and reeking but alive.
 
He might live. Chlorus realised that, sometime over the past few days, he had abandoned all expectation of living; his sole purpose had been to delay death, to force Mors to come after him for he would not give himself up to her. But now, this sudden rush of hope meant that fear returned full force too. He glanced sideways at the men in line with him and saw, from the sudden outrush of breath and the tension in muscles and necks, that this hope and fear had spread among them. They were legionaries, one and all, and knew that when they took the Emperor’s pay they accepted death in service too. They were tough men, they had looked despair and death in the face and given no ground, but now, with an escape route behind them and the fog lifting, they all knew that they held the line for their comrades.
 
Centurion Decius had the eagle with him. Chlorus glanced behind, once, briefly, to see its brazen head disappearing down into the neck of the gully. They were getting away. Soon, very soon, he could give the signal to pull back but as the legate looked front, he saw a man emerge from the fog. The mist had covered his approach and he emerged into sight not more than fifty strides away, stepping into vision as suddenly as a ghost. But Chlorus had heard tell of no shade who stood naked, his skin covered in whorls of red and blue and green, his head shaved so that even his scalp was livid with colour. The man carried a short spear and he pointed it at the waiting Romans, then put his fingers to his mouth and the high fluting voice of a bird came from his lips, to be answered by others from the dwindling strands of mist.
 
More men, the scouts of the painted people, emerged from the fog, standing in silence and staring at the waiting legionaries.
 
“Hold, men, hold,” said Chlorus, fighting the desire to check behind for the messenger from Decius. Even a glance backwards might be sufficient to break the nerve of one of the men and if one broke – he could feel it in the tremor of tense muscle and the rapid puffs of mist from the men’s breathing – then all would.
 
From deep within the fog bank, but hardly muffled by the mist, there came a shout in the barbarous tongue of the painted people. The first scout whistled back, to be answered in kind.
 
The warriors of the painted people, who ran across the turf and hills of their homeland like a flock of goats rather than with the measured tread of the legions, were coming closer.
 
“Hold!”
 
Chlorus could not stop himself; he glanced over his shoulder and saw the defile empty and bare – his men gone but still no sign of a messenger from Decius. Maybe the messenger had been ambushed. Possibilities, images, scuttled through his mind, and he saw one of the painted people leaping upon the legionary as he scurried up to the legate, cutting his throat before the man could cry out.
 
Surely the men must have got far enough by now.
 
The legate turned to give the order, but the words died in his throat. From the fog, silent and pacing like a wolf pack, the runners of the painted people emerged. Some were naked, as the scouts, but others wore kilts and rough furs, their heads merging with the animal they bore upon their back so it seemed that man and beast were one creature. All carried spears, short throwing spears very different to the legions’ pilum, but many were also armed with the spoil of battles: looted legionary swords, the spathae of cavalry auxiliaries, some even brandished Roman daggers. But whatever weapon they carried, the warriors of the painted people moved silently, like shades emerging from the underworld.
 
Along the line, Chlorus heard the intake of breath, and muttered invocations to gods and spirits and mothers, while some of the men, from behind their shields, made the sign against the evil eye. The silence of the painted people unnerved the men – it unnerved Chlorus too, but he knew he had to hold his men together.
 
“Yah!” The legate yelled and, stepping forward, he jerked his hand up in the fig gesture at the silent, watching men. The men on either side, seeing him, shouted too and added their own gestures, each obscene, from the reaches of the Empire.
 
“Hah, they’re too stupid to even know what they mean!” Chlorus called to his men. “Barbarians!” And he spat on the ground.
 
As if that was the signal, the warriors of the painted people broke their silence, but their sounds were like nothing the legate had heard elsewhere in the Empire: wails and hoots and grunts and barks: the sounds of animals, not men. Then, as suddenly, the painted people fell silent and one among them stepped forward, a man cloaked in raven feathers, with a staff of bone and strung around his waist the shrivelled, dried totems of his enemies. Making the rough, guttural calls of the raven, the man swooped and danced in between the two groups of men, shaking the rattles that hung from the end of his staff – rattles made from the bones and teeth of men, Chlorus saw – at the waiting line of legionaries. His own men hooted and shouted back, keeping up the stream of obscene gestures and unveiling some that not even the legate had seen before. But then the raven priest stopped and turned to face the legionaries. Standing tall, he spread his black arms wide.
 
“Hold,” said Chlorus. “Hold.”
 
The raven priest brought his arms together, and coughed, the guttural croak of the bird of slaughter. As one, the warriors of the painted people broke forward, arms drawing back, ready to throw spears, teeth bared in fury.
 
Chlorus glanced right, left. He had not even had to issue orders; the men had automatically locked shields, their muddied and battered scuta bristling with the clean steel of swords.
 
“Hold!” Chlorus yelled, as the painted people closed upon them.
 
“Hold!” When meeting a charge, legionaries did not stand static but, at the moment before impact, stepped forward themselves, crashing their shields against the oncoming enemy and crushing them.
 
“Hold!” They were closing, and Chlorus could see the livid face of the man who ran at him, features contorted, mouth yelling a war cry he did not hear.
 
But then, in between the two lines of men, a shape arose, as if flowing from a depression in the ground, an outline at once human and animal, standing half as tall again as the legate, with the body of a man, but upon its head were the horns of a great stag, and its feet were hooves.
 
The rush of the painted people came to a staggering, stuttering stop. Men fell upon their knees, upon their faces, sending up howls and tearing their hair and flesh as the horned one turned its gaze upon them. The raven priest, crawling, mewling like a new-born babe, wormed his way towards the horned man, keeping his face pushed against the wet grass.
 
“Look at me.”
 
The voice sounded thick and unnatural, as if a beast spoke through lips not made for voice, and Chlorus heard him speak and knew the words though the sounds of them were alien to his ears.
 
The raven priest moaned, and around him the warriors of the painted people, alike in turning their faces from the horned man, echoed his cry.
 
“Look at me.”
 
The words were louder and clearer, but still thick with unnature.
 
The raven priest moaned again, then turned his face up to look upon the horned one. Chlorus, watching, saw the man’s eyes widen in wonder as he stared upwards at the figure standing above him, and his lips move in silent praise. Tears streamed down the man’s cheeks and then, in sudden convulsive movement, he plucked his eyes from their sockets and held them up in offering to the horned one.
 
The horned man ignored him. He pointed into the distance, to where the warriors of the painted people had come from.
 
“Go,” he said. “They are mine.”
 
Eyes averted, faces turned away, the painted people scrambled and ran and fled, two men dragging the blind raven priest between them.
 
Then, the horned one turned and looked down upon the legionaries.
 
Chlorus saw a creature in the outward shape of a man, but painted in whirls and whorls and spirals that moved and shifted even when the skin beneath was still.
From its temples grew antlers, many tined, trailing tatters of velvet, and its legs ended, not in feet but in hooves.
 
“This is my hunting ground,” the horned man said, in a voice thick with earth, and blood, and death. “I will spare one among thee, that thou may take word to thy emperor. I am the god of these lands and I hunt here alone.”
 
Then the horned god threw back his head and howled, and there was nothing thick or unclear in his voice any longer.
 
The men broke. They ran, and Legate Chlorus ran with them, throwing his shield aside, but the god laughed and ran upon them, and the hunting, the hunting was good…
 
#
 
The legate drained his cup, then held it out. I refilled it without a word. Smoothly, his throat working, Chlorus drank the wine off, then stared into the cup’s empty depths.
 
“Even good Roman wine doesn’t warm me any more,” he said. The legate turned to look at me. “That is why we built the Wall. That is why the Empire ends here.”
 
I nodded. There had been rumours about Legate Chlorus in Rome, whispers about his length of service, and they were obviously true. He was clearly mad. The problem was, I had to serve under him for the next five years.
 
“You must have been very eloquent. Remind me to look up your rhetoric teacher when I get back to Rome.”
 
“Eloquent?”
 
“To persuade the Emperor that the world should end here. Until we built the Wall, we were going to make everywhere Rome. Now, no longer.”
 
The legate shook his head.
 
“Eloquence did not come into it.”
 
“Well, you must have told your story well.” I got up. I was young, strong, and knew that there was no enemy I could not face, and match, with my sword and my legion. “Thank you for telling it to me, Legate Chlorus. Now, I must inspect my men.”
 
The legate looked up at me, his eyes old with years spent upon the Wall, looking out beyond the end of the world.
 
“It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of a living god, and live.” Chlorus shook his head, and his face was suddenly old, older than any man I had ever seen.
 
“It was not my words the Emperor believed. There is a reason I have remained here, upon the Wall, these many years. There is a reason I will never return to Rome and see again the land of my father and run my hands through the vine I planted before I set off for Britannia, a young man: strong, confident, ambitious. Like you.” The legate leaned forward and began unlacing the cords tying his boots.
 
“I was the last. The horned one hunted me, laughing, as I ran, demented, blind with panic, not caring where I went, only that I got away from him. The mountains are no place to run like that. I fell. When I woke, he was standing above me. My hand went for my sword but I had lost it in my fall; I no longer even had a dagger. Not that I would have tried to kill him. Better to stab a rock than try to kill a god. I would have made an end for myself. But the horned one did not allow me death, quick or long. Instead, he bent down and lifted me as if I were a kitten and told me again what I must say to the emperor. Then he laughed.
 
“‘Lest your emperor not believe your words, I will put my mark upon you,’ he said, ‘so seeing it, he will believe.’”
 
The legate finished undoing the thongs and unwrapped the leather bindings that covered his calves. I stared, not understanding what I saw, as wooden blocks carved into the likeness of feet fell to the floor.
 
Chlorus looked up at me. “He left his mark on me, and I can never go home.”
 
Where the legate’s feet should have been, there were two dark hooves, cloven and animal.
 
#
 
I remained upon the Wall for five years. In that time, Legate Chlorus and I never spoke of the horned one again, nor did he ever again remove his boots. When my term was over, I rode home, leaving the legate upon the Wall, staring out beyond the end of the world.