There was naught to see but a blur, a sense of movement, a shadow amongst shadows. Neither pallor, nor reflection gleamed from the dripping darkness under the trees.
Alders and willows met over a stream which bounded the route of the cartway up to and across the plateau that separated the Rhine and the Moselle rivers, whereupon it lost itself in a meander between scattered farmhouses and among pastures.
Tod dug his toes into the sodden meadow. The rush of the stream in spate was loud enough to out-shout the droplets pattering the grass and to mute the chorus of frogs. He tipped his head back, not caring that the rain lashed his features, not shivered by the chill, watching the hurrying clouds, wondering if the high winds would part the tatters and make clear the last phase of the moon.
I am free, for the first time, free of my maker, the debauched ‘Tura, free of that abusive letch Corbulo. Free to fight my own battles, to shape my own existence to not be like them. He felt freedom lift his spirit.
The Goddess was in the rain and the soil. No longer should he bow to the fertile aspect of the Lady, but he would serve her other faces. He felt more whole than he had in centuries.
Tod stood as still as only one of the undead can stand, watching the the play of moonlight brightening and dimming behind the clouds. It was an hour or two before he shook himself and sped north and west to seek the smaller Moselle, wondering if his people would encounter more rain tomorrow, if they would need to shelter at the farmsteads, and what they would find there if they did.
He peeled off his tunic, which clung annoyingly to his legs, before he took the time to check out the area. The river was high, but hadn’t overflowed the banks. The cartway was empty but for a small soaked group of traders and slavers camped about a day’s travel upstream.
It wasn’t that far to travel. Not so far that it would tire the children.
Now to find a place to spend his day-death. Uphill, a small distance from from the cartway, there were slippages he could force his way into but it might be safer just to go to ground. Honey would be clucking like an annoyed hen if he got his tunic too muddy. Tod bundled the tunic together and drifted up into a tree to spread the cloth out on a branch. Silently he dropped to the ground and writhed deeply down amongst the roots, eventually to twist himself away from a sharp rock and into a comfortable position to await sunrise.
Roman roads were built to last, no standing water on them, no sir. Unfortunately the more rustic routes were not built to such exacting standards. After a good rain there was a certain amount of squish to be had.
The children were rather chagrined to have to wear countrymen’s sabots1. The clunky wooden shoes had never been needed in town. Fortunately the blacksmith’s daughter had saved her old pair (it wasn’t like they would wear out) and only the straps needed mending after the mice had gotten to them.
At first it was rather fun to go clomping along but the awkward motion soon had them limping on bruised ankles.
Poor Fortunus had to do double duty uphill while Bird and Honey hefted the extra packs. Soon enough they’d crested the last rise and paused to watch the flittering insects dart about the watery meadow.
Since they didn’t want to sit in the mud while they ate their day meal, they followed the streams back towards the well-spring at the source in hopes of finding something dry to perch on.
A few of the clear winged lapis damselflies cruised in their wake as they slipped into the shadows of the forest that encircled the water meadow. The spring itself was surrounded by a hushed grove of vast oaks where clouds of gnats rose and fell within the fingers of sunlight that brightened the mossy ground. A few faded ribbons and rough carvings were fastened to the lower branches that reached out over the spring.
Even the donkey stepped softly, treading on cushions of mint, and the children stopped their chatter looking around them in awe as soon as they entered the grove.
A clump of pale primroses rising late from the moss got everyone’s attention.
“Oh, how lovely. Look at that butterfly settling down on the flowers. I heard Marten call that one Apollo’s eyes. Do you know another name for it, Bird?”
“No, but maybe it has something to do with one of the underworld Gods.” Bird thought a minute. “I did hear something…I’ll tell you as we eat.” Bird took a bite of bread, chewed and swallowed, then cleared his throat.
“Long and long ago there was a Nereid who loved things that sparkled. She would fling droplets from her spring into the air, laughing when they caught the sunlight.” Another bite of bread, chew and swallow. “One day she caught a glimpse of a gleaming golden chariot and was so enchanted that she set out to seduce the driver. Some say that the driver was Hades and some say he was Apollo. Which ever God it was, he had a jealous partner. That immortal had enough power to punish the little nymph for her presumption and so,” This time a morsel of cheese went down and a swig of ale, to moisten his throat (Bird knew well the virtue of pauses in telling a tale). “She turned the Nereid into a low creeping plant to teach her not to get above herself. But no immortal could keep our Mentha from smelling like her own sweet self.”
Bucky wanted to know, “Why can’t we know whether it was Apollo or was Hades?”
“I’ll let Honey tell you, she’s the priestess. Besides,” as he rummaged in the bag, “ I want to eat some cherries now.”
The woman sat upright, dabbed at her mouth, and cleared her throat. “First I have to do the proper thing since I’ve finished eating. I mustn’t forget the hospitality of the spirit of the place. See I’ve saved out a bit of bread.” Honey turned in the direction of the spring whereupon she bowed her head and murmured thanks for the spirit’s kindness as she set the bread down on one of the rocks.
Andy was a tad perplexed. ”Wa’f a bird, it come and eeeet the bread? ‘Zat bad?”
“Who’s to say that isn’t what the spirit wanted to happen? What I see are the signs all around us. The mint underfoot is Hades’ own herb, it is always used when we send souls off to the underworld. That is why we put a sprig a mint in with your mother. But on the other hand this is not a dark place, not inside a cave nor filled with gloom, see how the sun reaches down to the moss and the butterfly called Apollo is here slowly revealing and hiding the eye spots on the wings. So which God is it? Both light and dark are needed.
Both are here.”
After they had eaten and Fortunus had grazed a little, the children decided to try walking a while. Packs were hefted and they swung back onto the cartway through the last bit of the water meadow. The path worked its way down off the plateau accompanied by a slight trickle plashing down towards the river. This land was better drained and the last farm even had a field of flax blooming prettily.
Honey measured the field with a discerning eye, she hoped their own crop would be as good but they really did need more hands at the spinning. Andy wouldn’t be old enough to help for a few years yet and several aunties had the arthritis so couldn’t do the fine spinning anymore. That only left Bilia and Iomara; and Bili’s baby had come early and so needed constant attention.
They’d lost so many people when they’d gone west to escape the Romans. Their ancients had told the stories of the hard trek and miserable winter that followed. The hardship had killed many.
Then, after their Lady had met her final death, there had been a couple of really bad years. Wet, cold summers meant the crops rotted in the fields. Their people starved, and many of the ancients, weakened by hunger, were carried off by illness, so much knowledge gone. Misery ruled their part of Gaul and the lower sections of Germania. The men traveled far to buy grain, but oftentimes the only things they brought back were new illnesses. Then the children died. They had depended on Ancient Semni’s help for strength and healing for too long.
Goddess willing, things would be better. So many babies gone, it near broke her heart as much as the pain of the elders did. Honey knew it was the way of things, but she could do just so much and no more.
Not to think about this now, it was time to pay attention to the switchbacks or she was going to land on her butt.
Bird had cut staves for the two of them, which they used to brace themselves against the wet slope. Honey was amazed at the nonchalant surefooted-ness of the ass as she watched Fortunus’ hooves clatter amongst the speckled gravel. He snorted as if to say But of course, I am Fortunus, born to traverse these rocky slopes. Wisely, Buck and Andala held onto his harness to steady themselves.
After three switchbacks, the pines and beeches opened up enough to give glimpses of the shining river.
Although Buck grimly marched forward, Andy flagged, gripping the the donkey’s girth more and more tightly. Bird thought it might be the right time for a little rest once they had gotten to the bottom of the slope. It was good that hills on the flanks of the Moselle were less steep than the escarpments facing the Rhine.
Digging out the rest of the packet of cherries, Honey offered them to the children. She and Bird had a few sips of water to counteract the panting they had been doing on the way down.
Andy’s eyes were dull with fatigue and Buck’s chest was heaving. It was still a few hours before sunset and Bird thought it might be smart if they could get a fix on Tod’s position. He’d wait until Andy perked up before asking her to locate him. Amazing girl.
Speaking softly Honey and Bird decided that they had less than a day’s journey ahead of them but they would have to go upstream, above Fish island, before they could cross and they shouldn’t attempt that until tomorrow. It would be better to wait until they could see where they were going. Andy had toppled over and slept with her head in Honey’s lap, Buck lay back with his arms tucked behind his head and watched maple leaves as they stirred in the afternoon breeze. Crickets and birds had taken up their songs, but not so loudly that Bird wasn’t alerted by the gruff shouts of men coming towards them from the west.
Oh! Great Goddess! Fortunus decided comments and greetings were necessary. He was sure even Tod in his day death heard the strident braying! What a racket.
The mules, it sounded like there were at least three coming in their direction, just had to answer and the humans caught between were practically deafened.
Bird scrambled down slope to see what had the ass all stirred up. Five heavily laden mules had braced their legs and refused to move until they had finished exchanging comments with the donkey. The two-bit trader and the mule drover looked as though they were about to have fits – both red in the face and whipping at the mules hindquarters. The mules were getting more and more irascible at the interference, until finally, the lead jenny turned and snapped at the drover. Bird had never seen a mule give anyone such an evil look. Give that animal half a chance and she would have her revenge.
He looked back at Fortunus and swore the jack was laughing.
Honey slithered down the remaining slope and came to stand alongside Bird while Buck patted little Andy to soothe her from her startled sobs.
“Oh, hai, what do you carry?” Bird stepped into his role of masculine protector. Honey was content to modestly peer around his shoulder but nonetheless loosened her belt knife in its sheath. The strangers caught the children’s attention immediately and they cautiously withdrew into the undergrowth. Smart.
The older trader was thin with a rather long droopy nose and lank hair straggling from beneath his wide brimmed traveler’s hat. With the appearance of potential customers he suddenly became the fawning tradesman, spinning a long tale about the quality of the tin he carried – from his contacts amongst the Belgae; and the fineness of the sea salt (not that characterless block stuff) carefully harvested from the shores of the storm churned ocean to the west.
Honey perked up at the mention of salt, slipped out from behind Bird and asked to see it. The mule drover, rather the opposite of the trader, younger, rotund, with closely cropped red hair and a crimson face, hustled to pull down one of the waterproofed packs. His face was so terribly red, maybe he’d lost his hat somewhere.
Tasting a smackerel of the salt, Honey was satisfied with the quality. She and the trader began to dicker a mutually satisfactory deal for 20 libera’s worth2. She was able to entice the tall trader with the further possibility of business – should he come back their way. It seemed as though his price was a smidge better than could be had in Confluentes. Like any good housewife she ruefully regretted not picking up salt when they were further south where it was probably cheaper, but that would have meant lugging it all this way and keeping it dry. No, this was better.
Meanwhile Bird had wandered back along the road to check out the coffle of slaves lurking at the tag end of the line. He couldn’t imagine what purpose such a small string had. There had been no conflict, this area was pretty free from bandits, that only left debtors as a source and a puny lot the venalicus3 had garnered. Except for the one girl on the end. She was pretty, and whistling softly, catching Bird’s curious ear.
He stood there, his head cocked to one side, listening to a wood thrush echo her whistle, absorbed in the mystery. The other slaves were so exhausted that they sat quietly, cheek by jowl, with their heads on their knees, the chain clanking dolefully every time one stirred.
Still watching the menage of characters, Bird saw the slaver emerge from the bushes adjusting his clothes, having answered a call of nature. A low growl reverberated to his left. Ooops he’d been thinking about the girl and hadn’t noticed the guard and his rather nasty looking dog. What an odd color, such a dark gray coat, it plainly showed a network of cris-crossed scars. The dog and his owner looked like a pair of aging gladiators. The venalicus swaggering in his direction was no prettier with a long unclean mustache in the Celtic style, an even more unclean tunic and a chipped gilt belt buckle.
“You looking to buy, citizen? No health problems here,” he said, sweeping his hand in a narrow arc. “Perhaps a pretty pony to ride? Natural blonde that one, you can always sell her hair for an additional profit. Keep her healthy and you can get children and a good length of hair every couple of years. The price for naturally blonde hair has gone way up in Rome, very popular for wigs. Only 50 silver. You, girl. Stand up. Let the citizen inspect the goods.”
Muttering under his breath “Citizen, my ass!” Bird regretted his curiosity and cursed the pandering midden-rat of a slaver. Needs must – if I’m to satisfy my curiosity I’ll have to play a part.
“Unhook her from the coffle you idiot. How am I supposed to see anything when she is all crowded up against the rest of your flea bitten stock? Honey, d’ya have a moment? Come see if this one is healthy.”
Curious as to what he was up to, Honey moved passed the mules to take a look at Bird’s find. Really strange, he’s not usually that interested in girls, I wonder what caught his eye? Don’t want to give his game away whatever it is.
“Take off your shift girl, then open your mouth.” Honey sniffed to check for bad breath and digestive ailments and then examined her teeth; felt under her arms and small breasts for lumps.
“Bend over.” Spine good, bruises, not good.
“You’ve used her hard, you rotted dog’s pizzle. And what’s wrong with her eyes?”
“She can see just fine! Just a little cloudiness there.” Stringy mustache was such a weasel. “Can’t do any close work but she can see just fine. That’s why I’m willing to let her go for cheap.”
At that Honey got her dander up, suddenly she looked less like a meek woman and more like one of the Goddess’s hell-cats.
Bird crossed his arms and smiled to himself, so glad I’m not the target.
“Street slime, you might want to consider paying someone to take her off your hands. Not only did you pop her cherry – which would have been one of her main selling points, but now she is damaged goods and too young to breed.” Turning on her heel Honey started back towards their donkey. “I don’t know what attracted your pea brain, or was it your cock, brother, but I’m ready to move on.”
Those on the river road couldn’t see Honey’s face as she started back up the slope, but she made a quick shuushing gesture in the children’s direction and flashed them a smile. Quickly Bucky pulled his sister back up against him and shhhhhed in her ear. Andala looked a little worried but sat quietly.
The slaver was on pins and needles his eyes darting back and forth between the dispirited girl standing prickled with goose bumps and the potential buyers. He had been hasty, or rather drunk, and he’d told himself that the bruises would have faded enough so that he could still pass her off as a virgin by the time they got to the city.
“Brother, don’t forget what is important, we’ve paid for the salt.”
“Ahhh honored matron, obviously a woman of discernment, you manage your household thriftily. Perhaps I can offer you a bargain.” He turned to look at Bird, who hastily smoothed his features. “And you citizen, maybe not a virgin but an attractive bed warmer and useful in other ways. Girl! Tell these good people of your skills! What is your name anyway?”
The last time she’d been slow to answer the slaver he’d punched her so hard her ears had rung for days.
The words came tumbling out, “I am called Aia. I can spin and card wool, I can clean and scrub, sift flour and knead bread, tend children and make baskets.” every bit of the spiel the slavers had beaten in to her.
Reluctantly Honey turned back towards the traders. “Ordinary stuff then, I would like to know what happened to your eyes. Were you born that way?” She hoped it wasn’t something that could be passed on.
“I was very small and there came a big wind. There was a fire where we lived and we ran outside but the wind blew the fire and ash everywhere. The ash blew in my face and stung . I was too young to know not to rub my eyes. The hot ash burned and then I couldn’t see. It got a little better after a while, but I never could see clearly again.”
Bird interrupted, “Were you born a slave?” those duplicitous habits would die hard.
“No, citizen. After my mother died there were none to see to a marriage for me, my mother’s cousins couldn’t be bothered. I was sold for back taxes.” Lifting her chin, Aia indicated the slaver. “He bought me from the taxman.”
Honey wanted her suspicions confirmed. “Do you know how old you are?”
“I think I’m fourteen summers.”
Whap! “I told you to say sixteen!”
The girl was on the ground, holding her ear, tears of pain starting from her eyes.
The slaver looked like he wanted to kick her too, fidgeting with his feet and huffing into his greasy mustache.
“See brother, I told you she was too young to breed!” Turning back towards the slaver.
“She’ll be worthless if she is pregnant. She’s too young to bear safely and she’ll get all ripped up if she tries to deliver a babe of any size. We’ll offer twenty silver, plus we want the usual six month’s guarantee! If I didn’t need another spinner I wouldn’t go that high.”
Blustering but trying to sound like he knew what he was talking about. “She’ll have no problems, take my word for it. My own sister delivered her first child when she was sixteen!”
“We’ll take your word for it, if there is a written guarantee. Six months!” Honey moved closer to the girl and gently nudged her with her foot. “Her hips haven’t even filled out and barely any tits on her.”
Startled, Aia looked at Honey, she hadn’t expected the touch to be so gentle. There was more going on here than she expected.
“How long have you had your hands on her anyway?”
Now the venalicus was even more confused, counting on his fingers. “A five-day, I think.”
“Alright, in that case a double guarantee. One full year. Either that or let me see that your genitals are free from disease. C’mon, drop ‘em now or deal.”
“Let me see the money first.”
A musical chink alerted them to Bird’s unburdening of his purse and counting out ten silver.
Eyes lit up at the sight of the shiny silver argenti tumbling into her brother’s hand. As quickly as the silver had appeared, it vanished as Bird closed his fist around it.
Stiffly the man tucked his tunic under his chin and unfastened his subligaculum.
“Eh! Turn to the light, I can’t see anything!”
The other men started to hoot and make lewd comments. To compensate the slaver shoved his hips towards Honey.
“Don’t you wave that dirty thing at me, it’ll be a wonder if she didn’t catch something. Not the drip though.”
Bird spoke up: “Your verdict, sister?”
“Ten silver with a six month guarantee – in writing!”
Looking like he’d just won something, the venalicus announced that that was patently impossible. “There is no scribe, you’ll just have to take my word for it.”
“That’s all right, we can do it.” Honey bustled over to Bird’s pack and rummaged around until she found his writing case.
“Here you go, brother.”
The slaver’s face went from gloat to appalled in a heartbeat.
Honey and Bird smiled happily as the mules and the slavers moved off downstream. Aia, looking shocked at the sudden change in her circumstances, just sat blinking.
Finally, testing the waters, she offered congratulations on getting such a good deal. “He paid twelve silver for me five days ago when the tax man only really needed to get seven. Hummmpf.” She didn’t get slapped for speaking up, so that was good.
Sitting back down with a sigh Honey beckoned the children out of the brush.
“You were sooo good, thank you. That was really smart to get out of the way and stay quiet.”
Buck nodded solemnly, “Mama taught us this, when there were ruffians about,
to hunker down and stay quiet.”
“Dike mice, itty bitty, quiet.” Andy’s head bobbed in agreement.
“Yes, you had a very smart mama.”
“What about Tod, Andy? Do you have a sense of where he is?”
“Oh, yessss, we sittin’ on him.”
1The origin of wooden footwear in Europe is not precisely known. De Boer-Olij reference to the high, thick-soled boots of the Greek tragedy actors in Antiquity (the buskin) and to the shoes worn by Roman soldiers (the caligae). However, there is a possibility that the Celtic and Germanic peoples from Southern- and Northern Europe were familiar with some sort of wooden foot covering. Archeological finds of these are not known. Wooden footwear often ended up as firewood and, because of its nature, wood will rot away in the long run. The oldest surviving wooden footwear in Europe is found in Amsterdam and Rotterdam, the Netherlands, and dates from 1230 and 1280. These finds look very similar to the wooden shoes as they are still worn in The Netherlands. Wikipedia.
21 libera (Roman pound) = 328.9 g. (11.6 oz,)
Thanks go to the sane and erudite penpractice and to the estimable J.R. Watkins for insight into the causes of blindness in children.