Wolf Haul

A short story of long ago

It was a wolf that preserved the treasure for the nation. The splendid parade helmet that was unearthed at Ribchester, and that can be found in the British Museum, would not be there were it not for the actions of a she-wolf and hence the helmet was stolen but not taken. The Romans were robbed, and Britain gained a keepsake.
     When the Romans arrived at the river Ribble it was as a vanguard of a brutal occupation, but they left deviously, not in retreat, but in an untidy withdrawal, neglected by their paymasters, derided by the locals, and witnessed by wolves. 
     It was the middle of a particularly harsh winter. The land was covered by a crust of frozen snow and the Bleasdale wolf pack made desperate expeditions to the settlements of Bowland in search of midnight lunches. During the heyday of the Roman occupation, the village by the boundary wall of the Bremetennacum fort would have been well defended against all predators but now the soldiers were dispirited and their duties neglected. The majority were not real Romans at all, but mercenary legionnaires from elsewhere in the crumbling empire, and they just wanted to go home. The wolves could not know this, but they sensed vulnerability and opportunity.
     Wolf names cannot be spoken and Nightshade, in common with all her compatriots, was known by her scent. She was unruly but sufficiently fierce to be tolerated on the fringes of the pack. She had four infant cubs, old enough to run free but still learning how to hunt. They were hungry. This was their fifth night without food. 
     The homesteaders were wise; their animals were secure, but Nightshade had seen flaws in the frame of the fort. The gate was shut, but her whiskers said she could squeeze through a gap near the base.  As the moon rose up, she slid under. Her two daughters and two sons followed, grinning stupidly, but slinking wisely, with almost no sound. She was following her nose in the direction of a fowl smell. She did not need to see the hens to know they were there.
     The air also spoke of burning. There were aromas of woodsmoke that worried her. She angled her ears and heard mostly natural noises, but a sudden scuffling stopped her in her tracks.  She froze, then sank to the snow, and her offspring followed suit, in part from juvenile mimicry, in part from ancient instinct.  She saw a human pressed against a wall, clutching a hide bag and wheezing hot breath. His scent stung with apprehension. She considered him as possible prey, but experience reminded her that she should stalk closer before breaking cover. She watched him scan his surroundings, and knew he had not seen her. She held her position and gasped a warning to her kin to do the same.
     Another sound betrayed a new presence and a second human came around the corner of the wall. He carried a head that flashed in the moonlight. Even at that distance she could smell the metal, though its airborne trace was threaded deep beneath the fearful sweat of the men. The second human passed the head to the first who wrapped it in the hide, then both made off, away from the eye of the moon.
     Nightshade swallowed her disappointment and fought off her impatience. Only when the sound of running had faded and the scent of the men had settled, did she relocate the smell of fowl and recommence her hunt. Her progeny pawed after her.
     The coop erupted with calls as she dug, squirmed and kicked under the fence. The wicker gave way and soon she was among the hens along with her brightest two pups. By the time human shouts were heard, the wolves were already galloping back towards the gate, with feathered prizes in two of their mouths.  The two chickens were hardly a wholesome meal for a family of five and she let her four apprentices demolish the bulk of them before muscling a mouthful for herself, but at least they’d had something, and she knew where she could find more.
     When they went back later, however, the gap in the gate had been blocked. She set off to circle the boundary rampart. She did not discover any other ways in, but close to another sealed entrance she found a scent she knew.  It was the aromatic pattern of the men that she had seen inside. She traced it down the slope of the rampart to the bowl of the ditch. The snow there had been broken and then replaced and was freezing afresh. Through it she could smell not only the memory of men, but the presence of sand and wood and metal. Something was buried here, but not anything that could be eaten, so she left it alone. When the darkness paled, she collected her cubs and set off uphill to lie low. They’d fed but were far from satisfied.

When Nightshade and her family returned the following night, they found the gate wide open and the fort deserted.  The occupants had gone, and taken almost everything with them. The riot of scents suggested the villagers had scavenged the rest. Her cubs had a free run of the place, but found little they could eat until one pounced upon a rat close to the far gate which was also gaping open. While they squabbled over their catch, Nightshade paced out of the entrance to be confronted by a scent and a sight she knew. There, hacking at the ground were the two men she’d seen the previous night. They saw her at the same time, and their terrified attempt to scare her away ignited her instinct to protect her cubs. She charged down the rampart and launched herself at one of the humans. The other fled into the night, but her victim became food for her family and for others of the pack who followed their noses to find them.
     Their feasting churned and resealed the ground above the box of sand and treasure that had been accumulated by the thief that Nightshade had caught, and there it would remain for fourteen centuries until the son of a Ribchester clog maker unearthed the copper helmet and mask. People were puzzled as to its purpose, and why it had been left behind, but eventually deduced that it was something ceremonial; a symbolic reminder of a victory.

This story was first published by the Lancashire Post on Saturday 4th February 2023

For the historical background see: The legionnaire by the lavatory

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