The Last Sunset
Tod wasn’t dreaming, not really; it was more as though he were mired in a rising reverie. He wondered if it were part of his healing, he seemed to drift off into downtime pretty often.
He knew he would die soon. He’d been dirtied up and dragged out to be on display for the review of the troops. Tod felt the darkness looming over him. His anger glowed white hot like coals in a smithy, there would be no need for a funeral pyre, the flames would burst right out of him.
But still, somewhere, just out of reach, drifted the scent of hope. He was young, his heart wanted the world, wanted just a little more time to be alive, to feel, to experience …
Although, there was probably only today.
He kept his head down and endured the clangor of the armor, the swords on shields, the shouted greetings for the officers and high mucky-mucks. The rotted Romans, to his shame, were celebrating the creation of the combined Province of Raetia and Vindelicia.
Things got worse when he was hustled into the bathhouse to be barbered and scrubbed like a pet dog.
His heart sank when Merulla gently informed him that he was not to eat tonight since he had such an unpleasant habit of vomiting while being sexually abused.
Iberius passed him a mug of unwatered wine in an effort to help him dull the pain of what was coming. Tod wandered outside carrying the wine, and concentrated on the bits of dust drifting in the late afternoon sunlight.
Finally he sat on a stool that had been left in the yard and watched the sun sink into the hills. Beyond, there was rumored to be more mountains and another ocean, cold and gray and foreign lands wrapped in mist, where the new Caesars fought.
He was furious that he would die before seeing these wonders, the fire inside him burned with hatred for the Romans, those who had carelessly stripped his future from him. He would take a knife with him tonight and wreck havoc amidst their little entertainment.
But first he would watch the shadows creeping over the castrum, growing and seeping from the trees, as the sun was swallowed by the hills.
A shape shifted slightly catching his eye, that guy was over there, the one with the creepy eyes that they saw in the canabae. Why was he hanging around the legate’s kitchen yard? It wasn’t right.
“Hai! You there!” Tod was suddenly uneasy and stood. “You should be outside the gates. You don’t want them to catch you around here after dark.”
The intruder tipped his head to one side and smirked. “It won’t be a problem, boy.”
Tod could hear Merulla calling him from the kitchen doorway. As soon as he turned to answer her his arms were seized from behind. He only had enough time for a strangled yell. His mug of wine slipped free from his hand as he clutched at the arm crushing his throat.
There was only a narrow thread of light on the horizon when Tod disappeared.
“Tch,” muttered Merulla, busily setting out the slave meal, “where is that fool boy? None of us would want what he’s got waiting for him, but our bodies are not our own.” Raising her voice a smidge: “Iberius, would you go fetch him before we all get whipped.”
“I’m too old for this shit,” Iberius stomped so emphatically little puffs of dust rose around his sandals. “Tod!” He could just see the spilt wine and the mug rolling where it had been dropped.
”Diana, be merciful – the Legate will kill us!”
They never did find the boy. Of course the slaves were questioned under torture, some quite vigorously. Iberius was indeed too old for that shit and his heart gave out. The Raetian had been secured in the compound after the gates had been closed for the evening, but he not been seen since then. A mystery.
Tod regained a sense of self while choking on the dirt that clogged his mouth and nose. Spitting and snorting he tried to unfold himself from the ground. There was pressure on his back that he struggled to dislodge, finally rising to his knees and then his feet with clumps of earth sticking to him.
Why was a woman laughing?
Blinking frantically to clear his eyes, Tod bent over swiping at his hair and face, eeechhh, he was filthy!
He continued, batting at his tunic and brushing off his legs. I can’t see anything yet. There are a man and a woman close by, talking and laughing. Just because no one has hit me or knocked me down again, doesn’t mean it won’t happen.
Tod braced himself for another assault as he peered into the shadows. His eyes felt odd and achy, although there was no moon the more his eyes ached the more the shadows seemed to lighten. Actually his whole face ached as though there were a big storm coming. He quickly put pressure just below his cheekbones, but that made his jaw hurt too. Arrrgh. Alright, that didn’t work; he snorted violently, but his nose seemed clear.
One solid inhale assured him both that his nose was clear and something was very wrong. What was that odor? It was as though he’d fallen head first into an oddly compounded bowl of medicinal herbs. What the fuck was going on with his nose?
Laughter bounced around the clearing, Tod whirled to confront his mockers. It was that creepy man from the canabae and the fancy whore.
“You make the funniest faces!” declared the woman in the yellow dress. “Come! Now!”
Tod found himself jerked along as though he were on a leash. Had his slave collar been exchanged for the invisible chains of a geas1?
After almost two hundred years he still heard that laughter as he rose. Thank Dis she had been ended. He neither knew nor cared how or why. She was gone and her hold on him had vanished.
No feeding had been as disastrous as that first one though….
He followed the pair down to a stream where the sloe-eyed prostitute ordered him to wash. Tod palmed some water to drink and relieve part of his misery when the laughter resumed.
“Oh let him drink – he’ll learn faster that way.” Followed by more venomous giggles.
Tod’d barely swallowed five mouthfuls before he started to heave and retch, bringing up all the water and what felt like half his stomach. Creepy-man was laughing and gesturing at his misery.
“Wash! And hurry up about it. It is time to feed.”
Tod was dragged along, willy-nilly behind the still snickering pair. “Oh Mistress, this will be so amusing. I remember how much you enjoyed my first attempt.”
“Oh, yes, I remember, you got blood everywhere! It was like walking through a shambles.2”
What new nightmare is this? Blood. A slaughterhouse. What is wrong with my face? The bones ache. What are they talking about?
Although they seemed to be traveling quickly, Tod had no trouble keeping pace with the demonic pair. Soon he scented smoke, then unwashed humans, then something warm and beckoning. Something mouthwatering. He opened his mouth and panted lightly trying to get more of the deliciousness rolling over his tongue. What am I doing? Even his nostrils flared bringing new sensations. Suddenly, not only could he smell and taste what was carried on the air but there was a new sense wedged in there, he could feel-see-smell heat near-by. Tod’s nostrils quivered and he turned his face from side to side trying to pinpoint the source of these sensations.
“Oh, myyy, Corbulo! Look at that, how clever my new childe is! He is figuring it out all by himself.”
At that moment a deep and abiding hatred began to rot Corbulo’s dead heart. Not even one dark old and he’s making me look bad.
“Let’s see how he does, Corbulo. Let’s see how good his instincts really are!”
That poor man. Tod ended up throwing himself on the woodcutter and almost gnawing his way all the way through his neck. He had been barely conscious of the screams. Laughter faded in and out of his awareness as ‘Tura and Corbulo swayed with mirth. He finished by sucking on the bloody gobbets to get at more of that addictive flavor.
“Sheesh, what a pig. Put that mess down. Don’t you look at me that way until you are clean again. I won’t have you spoiling my new dress. Clean! Now!”
Tod was compelled to return to the stream where he sat in numb horror at what he’d just done. Had he become a kobold, a troll, preying on the unwary? How did he get from thekitchen yard of the Legate’s mansion to sitting in a stream painted with a stranger’sblood? His mind buzzed with terror – what had happened?
He lay back hoping he might drown; then, disconsolate that monsters had really sharp teeth and didn’t need to breathe, he wept.
It was only when he rose in company of these three that he didn’t flash back to his first dark as often. They seemed to be a charm against those black memories.
He could hear their soft murmurs outside – ah they were to leave tonight. Tod flexed the stubs of his fingers, then massaged his knuckles working some of the ache out. Just as he was starting to work the stiffness out of his ankles Honey bustled in.
“Let me do that for you, Gamli.” She bobbed a funny little half bow in his direction and reached for his foot.
Their attitude towards him was odd, they showed respect and yet were familiar at the same time. “Honey, why do you bow to me?”
“Because, Tod, we are sure that you will be accepted by the clan. We are the rising leaders, we have chosen and we have a voice in this decision.” She perched on the bench beside him while massaging his feet and continued. “We show respect for you as our sword, our defender; just as you respect us as your shield and protectors.” She smiled at him softly.
“Bird’s been working on the last bit of our saga. I think he said he was almost done – he told us this part today:”
Forever ravens feasting
Bird wandered in and joined in the chant, while Horse softly clapped the rhythm
on the red cloaks, talons
and little foxes on the fiercest
warriors. Stood the chance for three
to winnow through Raven’s harvest. To reap
Tod grinned at the mention of the red cloaks and beat the time out on his thigh.
“Ya! I understand! I have carried a grudge against the Roman red cloaks since I was a human child. My bitterness has even grown.” Tod looked hotly into each pair of eyes. “The only weregelt3 I want is Roman blood.”
Bird added “We’ve had our own battles with the Romans. Because of their political and military pressure against the Saxons we were finally pushed out of our homes and forced to relocate to the west.4”
Horse rumbled his agreement, then turned to Tod. “Can you wait to eat until we are on the road? We are hoping to find a chance for you to have a deep feed.”
Tod looked bemused for a moment, then nodded. “I can wait, easily. I have gotten spoiled with you three taking such tender care of me.”
The three shouldered the leather straps of their basket-packs and secured them across their chests. Their belts were hung about with cups and suchlike and each carried a walking stick. Tod had no doubt that they were all well versed in the use of a quarterstaff and even Honey would be able to give a good account of herself. One good thwack from Horse would be the end of any assailant.
Tod amused himself by floating in patterns around the walkers.
Bird wanted to know Is it tiring? Could he go up higher? Faster?
Until Honey scowled at him and admonished ”Tod is not a toy!”
Bird was so down at the mouth after Honey’s scolding that Tod, to lift his gloom asked to be taught some verses of the Chatti Saga.
By this time they had gotten down to the road and were able to move four abreast. They were repeating the first section in unison.
On the mountain’s shoulder
the Lady’s heart and shield.
Rested undisturbed. Slumbered,
secure in the honor of their defender.
Unencumbered the Sword of the clan roved,
hunted, seeking the fleeting life force of fleeing prey.
Taking joy in thrumming pulse, thudding heart.
They were so busy going back and forth with the stanza that they hadn’t noticed the footpads closing in on them.
“’Ware!” of course Tod had sensed them first.
Thanks be. Their packs blocked any attacks from the rear. Although if any of the assailants had the sense of a flea, they could have grabbed onto the back lip of the baskets and flipped them like turtles.
The robbers must have assumed that their victims were stupid folk to be traveling at night, rather than being well enough equipped to face danger.
“Ha.” The three whipped around and began applying their sticks with elegance and precision. Meanwhile Tod was having himself a good old time riding one attacker like a balky hill pony.
Moments later there was a tumble of bodies, much the worse for wear, and Tod kneeling, pupils dilated, getting ready to feed.
“Anyone have a knife handy? My fangs aren’t up to the job yet.”
He’d learned to feed neatly, but not until ‘Tura had whipped him with silver to remind him that she thought having to get him clean clothes was boring and beneath her. She also didn’t want to be shamed by having a grungy childe. Apparently it mattered.
After a while she got bored with his training and had Corbulo do the whipping, she couldn’t be bothered and he put some energy into it.
‘Tura only had an interest in him as long as she thought he could avert the wrath of Zalmoxis. Quickly Tod had admitted that he’d never heard of that god and that he only knew the rites for his Lady she barely permitted his company. And that only when Corbulo had done something she didn’t like. Or she was particularly horny.
Infrequently ‘Tura let Tod indulge his appetites on a Roman. He learned glamour to keep the red cloak from screaming and then let his anger and humiliation have free rein. It was never enough, he’d still lost everything, and he was still dragur.
They’d hunted amongst the Roman encampments and lines of march. They could no longer blend in with the locals, since Tod was so obviously a Roman slave which seriously cramped Tura’s style. She’d loved the compliments and sparkly gifts she’d gotten as a high class whore and really thought it beneath her to go scavenging amongst the blood beasts.
Even when Tod stayed away from the camps and survived on the occasional wanderer, it was easiest for ‘Tura to blame his proximity or Corbulo’s idiocy for spoiling what ever scam she was running.
Tod eventually came to terms with some of the other side effects of becoming a dragur. His fangs would snick down at the merest whiff of blood, the first aggressive posture signaling a fight, the faintest scent of people fucking. It was like he was twelve again and totally at the mercy of new impulses. That too. Every time he fed he was carried away by instinct. He spent his first decade embarrassing himself. Gah! He’d become such an animal!
‘Tura set commands in place to maintain some control over his impulses, Tod had almost gotten them caught several times and was reined in just in the nick of time. Yaz had warned her – the younger the human when turned, the less likely they were to survive. Completely at the mercy of their impulses and moods, one moment enthralled by their new strength, the next totally morose and alienated.
A maker’s dictum was an amazing thing and ‘Tura applied it frequently and liberally to keep Tod from killing himself, and Tod and Corbulo from killing each other. Eventually they were so hemmed in by her commands they could barely move.
After a generation of humans had come and gone, ‘Tura had forgotten how lonely she’d been and only remembered Corbulo’s incessant whining and hurt feelings and Tod’s unremitting stroppiness. Both of them were a pain in her ass.
Finally ‘Tura decided she needed a little time just to be herself – she was totally bored with this maker stuff – besides the kids were old enough to take care of themselves. Corbulo had been with her for better than two hundred and fifty years and he’d lost his appeal centuries ago, actually right around the time Agrippa had gone head on with the Germani (now that was a feast for ravens). He could take care of Tod, he seemed to enjoy it.
Tod was so full, one and one half humans were all together too much to suck down at one time. He patted his stomach and burped. Nope, he couldn’t fit any more in.
Bird reminded him that he’d said that he’d been through here a couple of decades ago and rested in one of the caves on the mountainside. They were in a good spot, still surrounded by cliffs with a view of the Rhenus floodplain opening up before them.
“D’ya think there would be room in the caves to store the men if we tie them up? If that were possible we could stay in Brocomagnus5. Will you be far enough from the river to be safe?”
“Ya, the caves I remember are only reachable by one such as I. They are very safe. Since I can now float I will take the humans up and tuck them away until next dark.”
Still fretting, as they rolled the bodies into the ditch, Honey wanted reassurance that he would be safe.
The whole town was rather betwixt and between more important places. But there it was. There was a fortified high point, currently garrisoned by Raetian auxiliaries, and a market place.
Vercondos, one of the senior section leaders, had a lot on his shoulders. Ever since his archers had been detached from their regiment to help man this rustic fort at Brocomagnus, everything that could go wrong, did.
No one liked the countryside, it was too flat. An advantage if you were an infantryman, not so much as a sniper. Oh, they were perfectly capable of raining death down from the sky onto the opposition but he personally would rather pick a target and just kill the sucker.
These lands, while good for farming, were rife with pestilence in the summer and he’d already lost a couple of his men – one of them his cousin. Now he had to take on his cousin’s ‘wife’ and children. He’d deliberately put off hooking up until he was ready to settle. He liked a warm bed as well as the next man but he had too many responsibilities to be dragging his cousin’s family around with him. She was nice and all – but.
Still, it was his responsibility, he sighed as he set off on another turn through the market place.
Something new, a musician by the tootling! Excellent! Two new somethings. A girl had packets of herbs laid out on a cloth and was talking to a granny while pointing to various mixtures.
Vercondos strolled in her direction, hmmmm, niiiiice. He hoped that she of the honey colored braids was the tootler’s sister and not his girlfriend. He stood up straighter and settled his cloak in what he hoped were elegant folds. She’s looking, she’s looking at me. My, my, my her eyes got wide when she turned in my direction. All warm and greeny-gold. A smile like sunrise. Stand up, girlie, pleeeese. That’s right, ohhhh, man, I want that ass.
Gotta be polite!
Even though the granny kept asking her questions, Honey stood and stretched her back while keeping an eye on the soldier. Sweet Mother, thank you; I didn’t think this was possible. She remembered telling Tod: “you’d make a great baby-daddy if you were still human.” There he stood, the same gray eyes, a little older, hair a little longer and sun-streaked, skin certainly darker, with a wonderful spark of humor right there at the corner of his mouth.
1 In Irish mythology and folklore, a geis (/ˈɡɛʃ/; [ˈɟɛʃ]; plural geasa) is an idiosyncratic taboo, whether of obligation or prohibition, similar to being under a vow or spell. The Scottish Gaelic spelling “geas” is also seen.
2A term for an open-air slaughterhouse is a shambles.
3Weregild (also spelled wergild, wergeld, weregeld, etc.) was a value placed on every human being and every piece of property in the Salic Code (Salic Law). If property was stolen, or someone was injured or killed, the guilty person would have to pay weregild as restitution to the victim’s family or to the owner of the property.
The payment of weregild was an important legal mechanism in early Germanic society; the other common form of legal reparation at this time was blood revenge. The payment was typically made to the family or to the clan. Wikipedia
4The Chatti successfully resisted incorporation into the Roman Empire, joining the Cheruscan war leader Arminius‘ coalition of tribes that annihilated Varus‘ legions in 9 AD in the Battle of the Teutoburg Forest. Germanicus later, in 15, raided their lands in revenge, but Rome eventually responded to the Chatti’s belligerent defense of their independence by building the limes border fortifications along the southern boundary of their lands in central Hesse during the early years of the 1st century. A major raid by the Chatti into Germania Superior was defeated decisively by the legions in 50 AD. Roman sources identify the fabled Mattium, beyond the Eder, as the capital of the Chatti. Destroyed by Germanicus, its location is not known today but generally assumed to be in the wider neighbourhood of Fritzlar north of the river Eder. Wikipedia