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Wolves of Viroconium

A Quintus Valerius story by Jacquie Rogers

The road to Viroconium Cornoviorum passed arrow-straight between fields dotted with strawstacks. Farmworkers moved in rows, spreading dust as they scythed. Not far ahead was the paved ford over the river Sabrina, and the walls of the city beyond. A lone hump-backed hill rose to the east.

Tiro yanked up his neckscarf to mop his chin.

‘Too bloody hot for September.’

Senior Beneficiarius Quintus Valerius grinned at his scarlet-faced British optio. ‘We’re back in Britannia, Tiro. You’ll soon be moaning it’s too cold.’

It had been a hard ride north from Aquae Sulis. An outbreak of violent banditry in Britannia’s fourth largest city had culminated in the kidnap of a magistrate’s son. It was an urgent investigation needing the province’s best, so Governor Rufinus sent Quintus and Tiro.

Tiro turned his head, yelling as he spurred his horse, and now Quintus saw labourers running towards the road ahead. A confusion of people — bodies— sprawled across the highway. Quintus urged his tired horse on, heart racing.

Five corpses were scattered like broken dolls, with gaping bloody wounds. A covered carriage lay upturned in a ditch on the road’s edge. Beyond, a haze raised by galloping horses slowly settled.

‘Tiro, check the road to the ford!’

Quintus dismounted. Four of the dead were wearing the leather breeches of troopers. A hexagonal cavalry shield lay in the dust. There were no signs of horses or weapons. The fifth body made him swear. It was an older man, wearing a fine white toga with purple-striped edging, now blood-smeared. He was still alive — barely — drawing ragged breaths above an ugly wound. He was obviously in great pain, but trying to speak. Quintus sank to his knees and leaned in close.

‘Sir, who attacked you?‘

‘You’re too late, Governor’s Man.’ It was panted between clenched teeth. ‘They took the gold —’ he broke off, groaning. Quintus cradled the man’s head. His breath rasped horribly. ‘Mercenaries … not Bulla. Tell Avita. Warn the wolf —’

The man choked on a final gush of blood. His head lolled. Quintus covered the dead face with a fold of the toga.

‘Sir?’ A girl, tall, straight, slid off a heavy-breathing horse. She wore hunter’s dress: tunic, leggings, boots, and carried a bow with an empty quiver. She crouched down by the dead man, reaching with a shaking hand. ‘My lord! I shouldn’t have left you…’

Quintus gently raised her to her feet. ‘You know him?’

‘This is — was — my master, Decurion Julius Senicus.’

Quintus felt a pulse of anger. It was Decurion Senicus who had written to Governor Rufinus: a vital witness lost.

The girl dragged a hand over brimming hazel eyes. ‘We were returning from a business trip in Cambria. I rode into the fields, hunting rabbits. I saw the attack — too late. I shot at them but they got away, Diana curse them!’

‘You saw the leader?’

‘Not close up. He wore a mask. A big man, in soldier’s uniform.’

‘You are the Decurion’s slave?’

‘Yes … and I’m his daughter. Avita Senica. I act as his companion and help manage his business.’

Quintus was taken aback. It was not unprecedented for a wealthy man to promote his slave offspring’s welfare. But her poise and presentation were certainly unusual.

She raised her chin. ‘I am my father’s only child. He took no new wife since being widowed. My mother became his concubine. He promised to free us when I attained my majority … or wished to marry.’

There was a note of bitterness. With Senicus dead, her future was far from secure.

Hoofbeats heralded Tiro’s return.

‘No luck, sir. The horse-trail leads to the ford, then disappears. Perhaps they bypassed the city walls, heading to that hill.’

‘That’s the Wrekin, our tribal hillfort of old.’

Tiro’s eyes widened as he took in Avita. He addressed the girl eagerly. ‘I’ve heard werewolves live there. Nobody goes near the hill at the full of the moon, isn’t that right, miss?’

Quintus ignored the superstition. A different memory was flitting across his mind.

‘The men who attacked you — were they the bandits led by one called Uiroku?’

Her lip curled. ‘No. Despite the wolfmask. They looked more like soldiers, well-fed and armed. And they killed my father, as well as taking his gold. Uiroku never kills except in self-defence.’ She picked up her bow, turning away before Quintus could ask about the dead man’s warning.


Quintus and Tiro left the Viroconium mansio and walked west to the high street. The colonnaded entrance to the forum boasted an elegant dedication to Emperor Hadrian. Further on was the military station, where they would find Mansuetus, the local officer.

The messroom din hit Quintus like a jab in the face. Men were sprawled round a large table littered with oyster shells, gnawed chicken wings and a hacked beef shank. Jugs sat in puddles of wine and beer. One man lay snoring under a chair.

Tiro lifted his boss’s ceremonial lance and slammed it hard onto the table. The babble stopped and heads turned abruptly. A grizzled man, strong but running to fat, pulled himself to his feet.

Quintus waited. His silence should have been a warning.

‘Who the fuck are you?’ The grizzled man wiped his mouth.

‘Your superior, Centurion Mansuetus. And by Mithras, you’ll stand to attention and salute me!’

‘Screw you and the horse you rode in on.’ Mansuetus made the mistake of trying to draw his sword. Tiro was sober, and quicker. He grabbed the man’s arm, jerking him forward and kicking his feet away. Mansuetus lay groaning on the floor. ‘But it’s the Emperor’s birthday … near enough,’ he slurred.

Quintus’s grey eyes narrowed. ‘The Emperor will forgive me. Four men from your station are dead, along with Decurion Senicus.’

In a short while the rapidly sobering Mansuetus had plunged his head into a horse-trough, sent a wagon to fetch in the bodies, and led Quintus and Tiro into his office.

‘There have always been tales of the Wolfman, leader of bandits,’ he explained. ‘The city is named after him. Uiroku the Werewolf god, the city’s protector and friend of the poor. They say he turns wolf at the full moon. From time to time merchants are robbed on the roads. Never too much taken, no one hurt, and a steady flow of alms gets to the poor. So the council mostly turns a blind eye.’

‘You never investigate?’

‘Not worth my while. We never catch them.’

Quintus raised an eyebrow.

‘The bandits are said to live in the hillfort. But every time the magistrate orders a patrol, all we find is the old place deserted. Spooky, it is. My men don’t like going there.’

‘Tell me about Magistrate Gaius Mannius. His son is still missing?’

‘Young Domitius? Yes. Since the trouble in Corinium last year, we’ve had several bad cases of brigandage. Travellers beaten up. Domitius kidnapped. And now Councillor Senicus and his escort killed. Don’t seem like the Uiroku of old.’

‘No, indeed. Any ransom?’

‘I never heard of one. Funny, it was. Magistrate Mannius reported his son missing and authorised us to track down Uiroku. I hadn’t even got my patrol sorted when he sent for me, all of a lather. Said you were coming from the Governor, and I’d be under your command.’

Mansuetus looked resentful; Quintus couldn’t blame him.

‘I’m relying on your experience and local knowledge, Mansuetus. We’ll need both shortly. Stand ready to mobilise your men.’

Tiro grabbed cold meat, a flask of wine and half a loaf off the feast table. The soldiers made way respectfully, and their mollified centurion saluted as they left.


‘We need to split up. I can’t keep Magistrate Mannius waiting, and I think you’ll get more from that girl than I did.’ Quintus had caught the admiring look his optio had sent Avita Senica. ‘She knows more than she’s telling.’

Tiro departed for the Senicus villa while Quintus, carrying a lantern, headed to the basilica. Just past the temple to Diana, he almost tripped over someone sitting by a tiny shrine to Asclepius. Plaster votive eyes littered the little altar.

‘Kick a blind soldier when he’s down, would you, Governor’s Man?’ A hoarse voice broke into a chuckle. ‘Don’t be surprised; I hear everything. Blind I may be, but not much escapes Belletos.’

The man had slashing scars running across his thin leathery face. Both eyes were missing. A wolfhound of sorts lay quietly next to him. Quintus had often found kindness to dogs the way to strangers’ hearts, and leaned over to greet the dog. The hound growled low. The beggar grinned, and the lantern light caught a flash of surprisingly good teeth. Quintus saw another scar on that raddled face, one not put there by an enemy. He caught Belletos’s hand with his thumb curved in, receiving a like grip in turn.

‘So — a Brother of Mithras. From the cave at Isca Augusta?’

‘Yes. Invalided out long ago, sir, but I keep my ears — both of them — well opened.’

Quintus squatted down by the malodorous beggar.

‘Brother, I’m looking into the murders on the south road. I hear there are sometimes attacks by bandits, led by the god Uiroku. But tales of a revered wolfman who gives away his plunder do not match the bloody scene I came across. Can you read this riddle?’

The beggar laughed. ‘Easily. Two wolfmen: two bandit gangs. The real question is, why does a second dog prey on the city of wolves?’

Quintus had no answer. Belletos said, ‘Come, Beneficiarius, you saved Britannia from the usurping Gaius Trebonius, as I hear. Use the eyes you’re blessed with. You have not far to seek. Think on Cicero’s words.’

Cui bono? Who benefits?’

Belletos grinned in parting, his teeth glinting as he bit into the Governor’s Man’s silver coin.


The message from Gaius Mannius told Quintus to come to the basilica. He noted fresh graffiti on the imposing wall of the baths gymnasium, mostly about the upcoming curia elections. Cuspius Pansa will ensure the water supply, promised one. Another slogan urged: Julius Senicus for Magistrate. Quintus winced; Senicus would never now be elected. A more obscure inscription warned: Do not re-elect the thief. His boasts are as empty as his purse. The baths complex was partly obscured by scaffolding, the boards sagging with age. Quintus knit his brow, reflecting on elections, vanity projects and empty purses.


‘Held to ransom, robbed, attacked, murdered! They’ve even taken my son. What are you going to do about these bandits, Beneficiarius?’

‘I will investigate, Magistrate. That’s my job.’ Quintus’s mouth hardened. He had swapped a foul-smelling scarred beggar for a loud-mouthed politician. He preferred the former.


The magistrate’s toga was of high quality British wool, chalked the blinding white of election season. The man inside the toga was less impressive. His stomach stretched beyond elegance, and he repeatedly ran damp fingers down the draped garment.

‘Yes. I uncover the facts before I lay plans.’

The magistrate looked uneasy. ‘No need for plans. Just attack that Uiroku in his lair and rid us of his skulking criminals.’

‘Gaius Mannius, when did your son go missing? I’d like to see the ransom demand.’

A frown crossed the shiny face. Fingers creased more pleats of toga.

‘As to when he was taken, how should I know? Boys these days play truant whenever they like, riding round hunting with … whoever. And his useless tutor — mind, I paid a high price for that Greek. Nothing but the best for my boy.’

Quintus let the silence drag out, rubbing his scarred leg. He watched colour come and go on the councillor’s face. Eventually Mannius admitted he had not kept the ransom letter. He’d been told to pay a sizeable sum in gold aurei at the full moon, to a masked man who would present himself at the old hillfort. Tomorrow night, by Quintus’s reckoning.

‘And the ransom?’

The fat man bridled. ‘I expect you to intervene with full force, Beneficiarius. Not a single coin will I pay that thug!’

Quintus found himself disliking Mannius.

‘Indeed, sir.’ He saluted, leaving the magistrate in sole possession of the council chamber.


Tiro spooned too much peppery stew into his mouth. He choked and washed it down with a generous swallow of local beer.

‘Well?’ demanded Quintus

‘You were right, sir. Decurion Senicus was both political rival and near neighbour to Magistrate Mannius. Their country estates border each other. His daughter says he was increasingly unhappy, suspecting corruption in the curia. Senicus decided to run as magistrate to stop Mannius being re-elected. She told me Belletos the blind beggar used to receive a regular stipend out of public funds to supplement his tiny army pension. Since Mannius became magistrate that money has gone. Now he has to beg his living. You saw the unfinished extension to the baths?’

Quintus nodded, chewing spelt bread dipped in stew. Tiro continued, ‘All to buy votes. But Avita says Mannius ran out of money. For months the baths stayed half-built. People began to mock. Then today, the builders are back. Where’s the money come from?’

Quintus looked grim.

The mansio door crashed open and a young boy, barefoot and shabby, ran in. He thrust a rag at the Governor’s Man.

‘You be the soldier with the fancy lance? This is for you.’ He pushed the dirty cloth into Quintus’s hand, and ran out again. The uneven inked message read: Galerius Lupus, centurion of the sixth cohort, Legio II Augusta. Left Isca secretly, heading north after the Battle of Corinium with twenty men. B.

Tiro stared. ‘Sir, isn’t that a blood stain?’

Both men jumped to their feet, the meal forgotten. Quintus drew his gladius as they raced to the shrine of Asclepius.

‘Too late — again!’

He crouched down to check for breath. Belletos was a mere bundle of rags, limp and pale except for the livid marks round his neck where the life had been choked out of him. The bloodied knife in his bony hand was evidence he’d fought back.

‘That’s someone else’s blood on the cloth, Tiro.’ Tiro nodded, clenching his own dagger hard. A coin dropped out of his tunic sleeve, clinking on the paving. A gold aureus.

‘Oh, yes.’ Tiro breathed heavily. ‘I found this hidden in straw, in a wagon in the courtyard of Avita’s neighbour —‘

‘ —Gauis Mannius. Deodamnatus!’ Quintus cursed. ‘But we will have vengeance, for Julius Senicus and Belletos. Tomorrow is the full moon, Tiro.’


It was cold on the Wrekin, even under army cloaks. Tiro shivered, catching his superior’s eye.

‘Right again, boss. I am cursing being back in Britannia.’ They crouched under a prominent crag buttressing the abandoned Cornovian hillfort.

Neither of them heard him approach. As the harvest moon lifted over the hill, a figure wrapped in gauzy mist appeared above them. A tall man, with the head of a wolf.

Hecate!’ Tiro swore.

‘No, I think more likely this is our werewolf,’ said Quintus. His voice was even, but Tiro caught a hint of amusement. The beneficiarius stood, holding his short sword upright. It was embellished with a tassel of sheep’s wool, a token of parley. ‘Bulla? Or do you prefer Uiroku?’

Now Tiro saw the figure clearly. His long hair was topped by a wolf skull tied on with narrow thongs. A gold torque hung round his neck. He was dressed British-style, in a long tunic belted over loose trousers; a green mantle flung across broad shoulders.

The Wolfman laughed aloud as two others climbed into view. Dark-haired Avita, slim and athletic, and a younger boy, clumsy but beginning to fill out. A cowlick of chestnut hair drooped over his forehead. He looked shyly at the two soldiers.

‘Uiroku I am called, certainly,’ the Wolfman said. ‘I would be honoured to be named Bulla too: a man of the woods who robbed the rich to give to the poor.’ A familiar wolfhound ranged alongside the man. Tiro looked entranced. Quintus preserved his restrained Roman manner.

‘We understand each other, Uiroku. And Domitius Mannius, I think. Are you guest or hostage?’

The lanky boy blushed, but spoke up in a voice gaining confidence.

‘My father would tell you Uiroku took me for ransom. I was forced by Father to hide with his mercenary captain, Galerius Lupus, to make it look like a kidnapping by the Wolfman. But Father doesn’t know I am a follower of Uiroku —’

‘And me,’ broke in Avita, fiercely. ‘My father knew and approved. We have helped the Wolfmen for months, while they did their best to stop Lupus and his bloodthirsty crew.’

‘Avita found me in the barracks Father built to shelter Lupus’s men, and got me away.’

‘He’s been our guest here since.’ Uiroku smiled.

Quintus glanced at the brightening crag.

‘Moonrise. Everyone but Uiroku — hide.’


Soon they heard a score or more horses scaling the hillside. A large armed man led, followed by the clumsily mounted magistrate.

‘Where is my son?’ Mannius shouted at Uiroku. ‘I’ll have you dragged off your dunghill and crucified in the forum. The legend of the Wolfman ends tonight.’

Galerius Lupus lifted his long cavalry sword, urging his men on. His other hand was bandaged. Before they could move, Mansuetus and his hidden century of troopers scrambled into view, standing guard around Uiroku. They were joined by the outlaw Wolfmen.

‘What do you think you’re doing, Mansuetus?’ called Lupus in a menacing tone.

‘What I should have done from the start, Lupus, when you and your filthy turncoats crawled into our city, escaping defeat at Corinium.’

Mannius twitched in his saddle as Domitius and Avita appeared. The mercenaries looked around uneasily, but Mannius recovered.

‘Double pay, men. This barbarian and a bunch of auxiliaries are no match for the Augusta legion. Senicus’s gold is waiting for you.’

A cool voice spoke out. ‘Thank you, Magistrate — the final piece of evidence needed. I arrest you and Lupus for armed robbery and murder. Mansuetus!’

It was a brief, sharp scuffle. Uiroku and his wolfmen raised their long yew bows, shooting barbed arrows into the strung-out line of ex-legionaries. Then Mansuetus and the Viroconian troop raced down off the rockwall, swords darting and jabbing at anyone still upright. Quintus and Tiro, mounted, attacked from the flank, with Avita and Domitius whooping and hollering close beside.

Mannius surrendered, gibbering and sweating, but Lupus held out to the last with a handful of men. He knew what punishment awaited him. He seemed relieved when Quintus made the killing stroke, ending the skirmish.


As Mansuetus passed with the two youngsters, nodding to the Governor’s Man, Quintus paused them.

‘Your father’s lawyer says you and your mother are freed by his will. Julius Senicus left his entire estate to you, his beloved daughter. You’re a wealthy woman, Avita.’ She looked shocked, but Domitius managed a shaky laugh.

‘Any chance of a loan, Avita? I think I should finish the city baths.’

Quintus lingered a moment. ‘And you, Wolfman?

The tall man smiled. ‘I am Uiroku, the eternal Wolfman of Viroconium. I am always here for my people. But perhaps I may rest now, for a while.’

Belletos’s dog howled to the moon as they left the hillfort, heading back to the city of the wolves.



Author’s Note

Bulla Felix was a bandit leader recorded by historian Cassius Dio. He may have been a composite personage. He was a figure of some nobility, with an early pre-socialist ideology, said to be the Robin Hood of his day. He did not kill his victims, but took a part of their wealth before releasing them, which he then redistributed among the needy.


Read more about author Jacquie Rogers and her work here.

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