It was past day-meal by the time they rose. Bucky seemed to lapse into bemused silence whenever young Andy stopped chattering at him like a finch; even while chirping she never let go of her fistful of Honey’s tunic.
They trooped down to the latrine together squinting at the midday sun. Horse, Bird and Buck lined up staring at the wall in front of them as they pissed noisily while Honey held Andy’s hands so she could balance her little butt on the rim of the seat.
There was a rough bath a few steps from the latrine – no frescoed walls or mosaic floors for this tavern. Honey lit the lamp that had been left in its niche and set the stack of clean second-best tunics on one of the benches.
Thankfully the boy was old enough to clean himself with a soapy sea sponge – although Bird and Horse did keep a half an eye on him while they scrubbed each other’s backs and took turns rinsing with buckets of fresh water that was a little cooler than anyone would have liked.
“C’mon guy, the water in the bath is still warm – you are all over goose bumps.”
The girls were still coping with their hair; Honey had gently washed Andala’s but had to keep a firm grip on her arm when she tried to dance away from the chilly rinse water.
“Col’, col’, col’, Bucky! I col’,” the girl called to her brother.
“Here, all done, let’s pop you in the bath and you can warm up,”
Andy skittered over to the edge of the bath, teeth chattering, and Horse rose from the water, steam coiling from his broad shoulders to lift her over. He placed her between her brother and Bird so they could steady her if she slipped.
Honey finished rinsing her hair and rested on the edge before sliding into the bath as well sitting next to the boy.
Knowing there were no ears nearby to hear what they shouldn’t, Bird spoke first, telling the children that they all would be leaving at dusk. They would have a chance to say goodbye to their cousin Marten and would have gotten their new shoes before they left.
Horse picked up the narrative, telling Buck about the men and boys where they were going, what they all did and farmed and built, reminding him that once he learned his way around he could choose who he wanted to ‘prentice himself to.
Andala was still focused on splashing and playing nibble fish, seeing if she could startle Honey or Bird with little pinches. She knew better than to pinch her brother – he’d pinch right back.
Then it was Honey’s turn to describe their valley. “We run almost crosswise to the sun’s path.” She swept an arc with her arm, flattening her palm and smoothing a transverse plane. “So one side of the hills faces pretty much towards the setting of the winter sun and is very good for the growing of grapes, the other is well forested above the pastures. Our brother/cousin Horse sometimes sees to the health of the animals when he isn’t at the forge.”
Buck’s ears perked up and he turned a speculative gaze in the smith’s direction before he looked back up at Honey. “But what do you do, Mistress? What do you see to?”
“I see to the matters that the Lady Goddess touches, growing things, babies and the cycle of life. Or at least I will when we return.” She looked down at the swirling water. “If I am considered worthy.”
“You’ve earned your chops, Honey, no one can say you haven’t,” interjected Bird. “As have I. I’ve gotten our whole history by heart, plus all the sagas.” he turned to the children. “Aeturni all have to learn the parts of our saga. We recount our history at each season, at Yule the children recite it for Gamli right before the great feast.”
“Our elder and defender.”
“I don’ unnerstan’, like a Gaffer or like a guard dog?”
“Not quite, Buck. You know the little God figures your Mama had over on the shelf? Like that, but not just watching us or holding our fortune, very strong, very present.”
“All right Master Query, time to get dressed,” with which Bird lifted him dripping out of the water and he rushed to the heap of cloth, his butt twinkling in stark contrast with his tanned back.
Honey held the girl’s hand as they pushed through the water and up the steps to where she could lift her feather weight up and over the edge.
Andy danced and side skipped over to her brother, energized by the water; she wiggled like a fish while Honey tried to get her dry and Bucky found her tunic. This was way too short and left quite a bit uncovered.
With a sigh, Honey asked, “Is her underwear in the pile? Where’s your panties love?”
Andy hopped from foot to foot singing, ”I don’ know, I don’ know, they too sma’.”
Bucky shrugged, “Mama was makin’ her new ones.”
Honey had tossed yesterday’s linen into the wash bucket she’d put to one side. “Guys, would you comb out their hair while I deal with the clothes? There is some almond oil in a flask underneath the tunics, if you put a little of it on the comb it’s easier to tackle the knots.”
She grumbled to herself as she knelt down before the wash tub and started punishing the cloth between her knuckles. “Foo, I’m never going to get dressed at this rate! Not only my clothes, oh, no, but the kid’s clothes and their nasty tunics too. They are going to owe me big time! You hear that slackers? You owe me!”
Finally she was satisfied that enough of the stains had been vanquished, at least what she could see in this poor light, for her to wring the cloth out and fling the contents of the bucket into the sluice, rinse and repeat. “Sunlight will do wonders for the linen, I hope it will be enough to make it presentable.”
Honey’s litany of complaints was the alto line to Andy’s squeals and tears as the tangles were removed from her hair. Bird had tried but finally could no longer stand the high pitched wails and turned her over to Horse – who probably should have been first choice to tackle the mop.
Buck watched with interest, only commenting that Andy had always been a terror about getting her hair combed and it wasn’t their fault.
Finally, dressed and (mostly) combed, Honey laid the clothes out atop a sun baked wall and they all went in to eat.
Fortunately the tavern keeper still had lentil stew, bread and cheese on offer, and was willing to serve them mid-siesta. They were just finishing up when Marten made his appearance. “I got leave to wrap up my cousin’s affairs today and cashed out his last pay chit. There will be enough for clothing and shoes for the kids and either a donkey or a dowry for Anadala and a ‘prentice fee for Buck.”
Little Buck made paths and walls out of breadcrumbs on the tavern table while the grownups talked and his sister rubbed bits of cheese on her teeth to make them squeak. If anything the boy looked even sadder after his cousin’s announcement. He was being booted willy-nilly into the next stage of his life. But still, any road would be strange, and at least these people seemed kind. He knew it could have been much worse, he had already seen much worse. One of his friend’s father had needed money and sold the boy as a slave. He had been black and blue the next time they’d seen each other.
When everyone started to sort them selves out, noisily moving stools and benches, brushing bits of bread and stray lentils from their clothes, Buck sighed and got on with life.
After Honey had collected the mostly dry clothes she helped Andy with her panties. The child started wiggling at the feel of the slightly damp material, “Ick, wet.”
“Well, little lovey, it is better than getting dirt in your sit-me-down. Honor the Goddess. Stay clean, stay healthy and take care of the body you have.”
They walked by way of the alley where the children had lived to check if they had forgotten anything. Honey also wanted to take a moment to hang out the somber yew branch warning people away from a place that death had visited.
The little gods were still in their place on the shelf, Andala wanted to take them with her for her new home. They were wrapped up in her mother’s faded blue headscarf and tucked away for the journey.
After pointing Honey in the direction of a second hand clothes store, the men decided they wanted a barber and said they’d take the boy with them. She stood, arms akimbo, and huffed at their retreating backs. “Guys! Why do we get stuck with all the boring details?”
Andy copied Honey, gesture for gesture, huff for huff, “Guys!”
“Boo, izzer boo?”
Remembering Andala stroking the cloth wound around the clay gods, Honey figured she meant blue. “We’ll see, lovey. For sure they have pink.” Everybody had pink, any time a legionary’s red tunic got mixed in with the regular wash the rose madder dye bled and everyone wore pink. Even the soldiers who supposedly wore white. It paid to use a good laundry, but accidents happened and then there were some pretty good deals all in pink at the rag man’s. “Let’s just see what they have close to your size.”
The merchant had beenfinishing his nap on a pile of fabric in the back of his shop when Andy ran up to riffle admiringly though the stacks of clothes. Honey followed more slowly arriving at the counter as the shopkeeper emerged scrubbing at his grizzled face with his hands.
“I need four children’s tunics, please, two in her size, two larger. Plus some underwear.” Then they were off, examining seams, checking for rips and worn spots in the predominantly pink items. Honey was able to gauge Buck’s size and picked out several she could hold up to his shoulders when he was done at the barber. Andy quickly grew bored and started poking in corners looking for bright bits of color; after much digging she emerged triumphant from a basket of belts. “Boo, iz boo!”
Sure enough there were bits of blue woven into the narrow sash that Andy was rubbing against her face, crooning “p’tty!”
A desultory haggle began between Honey and the scruffy merchant, they would get into the true spirit of the thing after she’d made her selection. At the moment she was tch-ing at the quality of everything she came across. If the fabric was worn he praised its softness, if it was harsh he extolled the longevity, if the seams were ripped, well that was her good fortune, because he was such a generous man he would reduce the price for her.
Holding them at arm’s length Honey complained that the garments were stained and crawling with vermin and she would have to go to great lengths to get them clean, besides it looked as though the dye was a cheap lot and came off on her fingers.
Marten had wandered over to watch the bargaining volley back and forth between Honey and the merchant; smiling as one or the other scored points. Reaching around to where Andy crouched looping and rearranging the bright strips of fabric he was able to fish out a sash in a handsome pattern for Buck and untangle Andy from her gaily woven choice.
Looking sternly at the owner Marten pressed “How much?”
Standing firm while seeming to shrink back contorted the seller into a curious posture leaving both Honey and Andy looking rather amazed. Marten drew his brows together even further.
“What she said, Centurion,” his eyes darting away from the auxiliary and managing to shrink even further into himself.
Looking positively stormy Marten crossed his arms, displaying his biceps to good advantage and firmly stated: “I am not a Centurion, never have been, and Gods willing, never will be. Flattery will not shift me.”
“What she said.” Resigned to having to accept the woman’s offer
Marten smartly snapped down the coins. Gripping the rag-man’s shoulder, “Good man! You have anything I might want, put it aside. I’m sure I’ll see you later.”
The freshly shorn and shaved men showed pale areas along their hairlines and jaws, they would darken within the day but for now they looked odd. Buck stood tall, proud to have been included in the masculine ritual.
The group swirled and reformed moving in the direction of the rather stinky leather worker’s alley. Something acrid and something of the tannery clung to the walls. Fortunately, since the best shop was able to afford the choicest location the shop they wanted was the one closest to the square. The cobbler had several sizes already made up and Marten inspected the inside seams carefully to be sure they wouldn’t rub.
Andy lucked into a pair of red sandals that had never been picked up (no one really wanted to know why) and Buck a dark pair sturdy enough to almost be called boots. They were warned that they would need breaking in and to only wear them a bit at a time.
The children raised a clamor as soon as they saw the baker’s boy making the rounds with a tray of sweets. He’d been very clever and had hung little bells on the rim of the tray, which chimed sweetly, drawing the customers in. Marten treated them all and they paused to sit on the lip of a fountain where they could rinse their fingers after licking off as much honey as possible.
Recognizing Bird from yesterday, the late afternoon shoppers gathered to ask for a tune and he obliged, tootling away until all were clapping along and coins chinked into his cup.
The two other men stood apart and discussed the best course for the children’s future; where Marten would be able to find them, how a message was best sent, how often they visited the nearest Roman settlement …
It was provisionally concluded that a pony might be a good investment for the kids. They could ride if they got tired and it could either be sold or kept to increase as part of their inheritance. They let Honey know that they were going to investigate what the hostlers had in their paddocks.
Well, small town, one hostler seemed to be the rule. Horse thought he might want to amend that to small town, one hostler and slim pickings. There were three horses for sale, two elderly and one snappish gelding; none of which would serve to increase anyone’s wealth.
The air was suddenly filled with blue curses and a clatter of wooden planks and buckets as a young jack came tearing out of the stable with a feed sack between his teeth.
“Witch’s minion! Wait till I get my hands on you! No more high-jinks, it’s passed time for you to get some sense beaten into you!”
The hostler halted abruptly when he saw the men in the paddock – he recognized the soldier but hadn’t seen the other before.
“Hai, what can I do for you gentlemen? A packhorse for your troop Primus?”
At least he had the wit not to call me Centurion. “No, my friend here is looking for something.”
Practically wiggling at the possibility of a sale, the hostler started praising the fortitude and surefootedness of these mounts and the heart and strength of the youngest of the animals.
Horse’s rejoinder was that could see for himself the bravery of the two older geldings – since they were still standing though obviously at death’s door. The younger horse seemed to be demented, possibly because he had worms in his brain; he did not expect him to be at all useful.
All the while he had kept his eye on the mischievous jackass who at that moment was quietly stepping up behind his owner. In a lightning move he seized the back of the man’s tunic in his teeth and took off in the opposite direction with half the tunic wildly flapping around his muzzle. The hoofed thief seemed to enjoy this enormously, especially when the horses shied away from the odd apparition.
His owner, hot on his tail, afforded them all the unlovely view of his remarkably hairy arse. Marten and Horse grabbed each other to stay upright while wheezing with laughter.
Gasping, Horse said: “How much do you want for the clown?”
“You pay me a little extra and I can geld him now. He’s too rammy to be useful.”
“Absolutely not, we are leaving this afternoon and he won’t be fit to work. I’ll take care of it when we get where we are going.”
“That miserable old man charged us extra for the lead rope, he should have been the one forking over the money for us to take this trouble maker off his hands. What do you want with him anyway?” Marten asked as they headed back to find the others.
“Ya know,” Horse explained, ”this is a smart animal, smart is good. He was bored stuck in there with the old horse meat. We Aeturni have hill ponies that work with us but mules would be better in the vineyards. A good mule is a wonderful thing, not as fast as a pony, but steady and smart. This one is a good size to put to the mares and we can put the stud fee aside for the kids.”
Fortunately the jack was more interested in the sights than in pulling any more pranks and they got back to the square in good time and good humor.
Honey had bundled up the clothes in the largest tunic and waited for them at the fountain. The children sat cross-legged amongst the swaying group enthralled by Bird’s music.
Horse and Marten stood waiting until Bird finished his set. The donkey was curious enough to push between them, flicking his ears appreciatively.
Andy squealed at the sight of those long ears and flew in their direction. Horse watched to see the jack’s reaction, but apparently it was equally intrigued by the churning legs and flailing arms that windmilled towards him, although he had bunched up a bit, ready to wheel and run.
Marten caught Andala before she crashed into the beast, “Whoa, girlie, don’t damage the donkey. You’ve got a powerful tackle there.”
Looking suspiciously at their new steed Honey wanted to know if it was saddle broke.
“He’ll be fine, I was leaning on his back the whole way here and he didn’t even twitch.”
By this time Bird had disentangled himself from his fans and poured the contents of his cup into Honey’s hand. Waving his arm magnanimously he suggested, “Get some more supplies for our trip.”
Honey looked at him astonished, “Get them yourself, you know as well as I do what we need – unless of course you’d rather do the laundry. I’ll trade.” She extended the bundle to him.
“No, no, no, I’ll get the supplies. The water will ruin my nails, I won’t be able to play.”
“Well, see if you can get some carrots or early turnips for the soup. Nice to have some flavor to it.”
They headed back to the tavern in the fading day to wash the new-to-them clothes, see if they could get the children to have a little lie down, and pack up. There was maybe an hour or so until dusk. Honey hustled, she wanted to get the stuff washed and laid out long enough to dry.
No-name the donkey was tethered behind the tavern while Horse worked on fashioning some sort of harness for him. Straps for a girth and chest piece – that he had, rings…..rings, what could he use for rings. All the ones he had were half the size he needed. Rope harness then.
So far the beast’d been merely curious about anything Horse was doing, snuffling and whuffling over his clothes and lipping at his boot laces. Someone clever had already gentled him and Horse wondered how he’d ended up in the rough hands of the hostler. He scratched around the attentive ears and whispered his thanks for their good luck. “Fortunus, a good name for you.”
The children were ushered up the stairs to rest on the cushions while Bird packed and sorted. Honey had stopped to dump the clothes in the tub before she trotted upstairs for some soap.
It was almost the last bit in the jar, “I’m not going to pay for someone else’s soap, not when I can make my own just the way I like it. We’ll have just enough to get us home.” Muttering to herself, as usual, about other’s lack of thrift, Honey trotted downstairs to stomp out her annoyance in the wash tub.
So Tod found her, skirts kilted up around her hips, flashing thighs treading out the grime, keeping time by humming one the tunes Bird had played that afternoon. He leaned against the door jamb to watch her step out of the tub and heave it up on its side, her defined shoulders straining, her damp muscular buttocks bunching with the weight.
“Woof, what a woman. When she wraps her thighs around you, you could ride all night.”
“Eeep! You startled me again!” Honey sketched a small bow. “Did you see the donkey that Horse got?” she asked over her shoulder as she turned back to the laundry. “Just let me get this wrung out.”
The damp tunic clung to Honey’s breasts as she twisted each piece out over the drain and put it aside, Tod stayed, watching. “Show it to me when you are done.”
Shivering a little with the evening air Honey strode out to the still warm wall hoping it would dry the clothes enough for them to be packable. Tod admired what the chill did to Honey’s breasts too but had sense enough to wait until she’d done laying out the clothes before suggesting that she air out her tunic a bit to get the damp out.
“Can you help me? It is all twisted and stuck to my skin.” Honey knew very well the game they played as they slipped back into the bath house to make use of one of the benches.
Her fingers dug deeply into the muscles of his back as she held him between her thighs, steady as the earth when he plowed forward, supping at her neck while they rocked against each other afterwards then healing the wound with a drop of his blood. Wishing she could cradle him this way through the night, wishing she had longer to stroke his cool back and flanks.
Horse was resting with the children while Bird foraged for supplies. Most of the vendors had packed up but some of the shops were still open for last minute purchases. He returned triumphant with two bunches of carrots, a sack of turnips and three handsfull of green onions.
Earlier Horse had scared up some ratty pack baskets that he had been able to mend enough to last for the the few days they would be on the road. After that the donkey could eat them for all he cared.
Three put their heads together while the fourth watched drowsily. They all agreed that Buck and Andy should have Tod’s blood and his command before they left – just in case. The road could be a dangerous place, children could stray.
They were all packed when Honey roused the children, urging them to have a little weak ale before they traveled. The youngsters blinked sleepily at the sixth person in the room.
They would all (or the humans at least) nibble on their bread and cheese as they walked. The plan was to get halfway to Confluentes before they rested.
Once Andy and Buck were on their feet, Honey led Buck to stand before Tod first. Arms circling him, she pressed his hands together whispered: ”Now bow a little, and say ‘good rising Gamli!’”.
Tod returned the bow with a nod of his head andreplied: “Good rising Aeturnus.”
It was Andala’s turn next. Horse’s large hands lifted her to stand in front of Tod and helped her press her palms together. As one they said: “Good rising Gamli.”
The reply was, “Good rising Aeturni.”
Tod caught the children’s eyes. “Know that you are mine now. What happens between us is part of the mysteries, these can only be shared with other Aeturni, you cannot speak of these things to outsiders. Now you will take a drop of my blood to keep you safe.”
And it was so.