With their arms wrapped around each other, Honey and Marten wandered out into the fields looking for a good place to watch the waxing moon rise over the river. Robins chirruped their evensong and ring doves cooed as they settled in for the night. By the time the pair had found a spot nicely screened from the town, the new dusk had pooled in the swales of the field. Honey spread out her stole and tugged Marten down beside her
to face the moon rise over the foothills on the other side of the river. Honey commented on the state of the crops and how near to cutting the hay was. Marten remarked on the various barges and patrol boats that had docked for the night and what cargoes they carried. Honey giggled at the bats swooping over the fields and open water.
“Every dip and loop means fewer mosquitoes, and I’m all for that.” Honey scratched absently at an itchy spot.
“It is one of the real drawbacks of being stationed near a river, that and the summer fevers. Last week my cousin, who enlisted with me, died of the summer fever – you know the one that turns your eyeballs yellow? Now his woman and her weans are looking to me for support. Puts me in a tough spot, my family has already arranged a marriage for me with the young daughter of some longstanding allies. I can’t do both.”
“Well,” Honey snorted, “when I get back I’m going to have to formally accept my role as Healer and servant of the Goddess. No more escapades for me, I will have to be content with what I have.”
“Are you to marry?”
“Nope, not part of the package. I get respect, not a family.”
“You sad about that, Honey?”
“Ya, a little. Lonely nights, you know. Even though I have the clan.”
The two leaned against one another more easily, knowing it was just for this moment, and played with each other’s fingers while staring at the moon.
Playing soon led to tickling and tickling led to a nice roll in the almost-ready-to-cut hay. Unfortunately it also led to some very personal mosquito bites.
“Stupid bugs!” Honey grumped as they tidied themselves up with a cloth.
“Honey, I’ve got to get back to the barracks and finish mending my shield cover. I swear that stuff is never ending.” Marten slipped his arm around her in a half hug, letting go reluctantly.
“Tcha! Small things and small bugs will just nibble you to death. See you tomorrow?” She stroked his jaw and smiled wistfully.
“Mmmm, Ya.” Marten turned in the direction of the castra and Honey towards the tavern.
Slipping through the alleyway that gave on to the tavern Honey hoped to get back to their room without coming across Tod. She was getting the feeling that he was not happy with the situation. Jealous? – maybe not so much, more possessive or protective. She smiled to herself as she decided that he was acting like a suspicious sheep dog. She didn’t have long to enjoy the image before Tod whummped down in front of her. Squawking like a chicken she fell back against the stuccoed tavern wall.
Tod was not happy but Honey was so embarrassed she clapped her hands to her face and screeched, “Don’t DO that!”
“Where were you‽” Tod’s expression was incredibly tight, and Honey noticed something about his eyes that was freaking her out. It wasn’t quite a glow and they didn’t really change color … reflective, were they actually reflecting the moonlight?
“Erm, didn’t the guys tell you I was going to watch the, er, moonrise with Marten?”
“No! I looked for you as soon as I rose.” Tod drifted closer, his eyes brighter. “You are mine. It puts me on edge when I don’t know where you are.”
Allll right Honey, you remember how to handle an edgy dragur. Pressing her palms together, keeping her eyes downcast, she bowed slightly; calm, serene, un-threatening, that was the key. Breathe.
You can feel him, you’ve had his blood, gauge the tension. Breathe.
Wait, be patient, breathe. Ahhh, ratcheting down now.
Good. Honey finally made her move, creeping closer, keeping her eyes down, no challenge, inviting possession.
Tod struck, marking Honey with his fangs, rumbling as he fed. Finally massaging her back, toning the rumble down to a purr as he tongued the wounds for longer than usual while he thought over what had just happened.
Stepping back Tod wondered aloud: “How did you do that? I might have killed you!” He had struck with vicious intent, though she remained stoically calm.
“For many generations our Lady conferred with our elders and teachers to work out the surest ways for us to be together. We have all been taught. If we may, we will teach you too.” Honey remained, passive, knowing Todd was still feeling unsettled. When he nodded a little she smiled. “Let us go in, I am more than ready for my night-meal.”
Just like that the alley was empty again.
It was not the first time that Marten had regretted joining the army; yes, the pay was good, there was no chance of having to endure a famine, the retirement benefits couldn’t be beat. Best of all his children would have the protection of Roman law and would be citizens. Nothing to sneeze at. But his gut yearned for Honey. Sigh. Not to be. Instead he was saddled with his cousin’s wife and her weans – good kids and kin, but not his. Still, he knew his duty and would do it.
Just this morning the legate had given one of those team spirit speeches, quoting Marcus Aurelius at them.
Every moment think steadily as a Roman and a man, to do what thou hast in hand with simple dignity.
As he approached the room he had rented for his cousin’s erstwhile family Marten wondered if anyone was there; no lamp was lit, no child chattered.
“Bucky, Andala, where are you?” He peered into the dark room. Sometimes their mother left them when she went to get bread, but not at night. He heard light breathing, smelled fish.
“Cousin!” Small figures tackled his knees, almost dropping him.
“Mama doesn’t feel good, she has a headache,” came a worried voice.
“Fetch the lamp boy. We’ll get it lit then we’ll see what’s to be done.”
Begging a light from the neighbor, Marten was then able to look around the small room as the feeble glow pushed the shadows to the corners. There was naught to be see but a hearth, a pallet and finally a woman slumped against the far wall.
Marten set the light in a wall niche and stooped over his cousin’s leman. She was going the way his cousin had – already her skin carried the taint of jaundice. His first thought was of Honey, maybe she knew of something that would help. Oh, Gods, what would he do with the children?
Putting aside all the chores he had waiting for him when he got back to the barracks, he shepherded the children back towards the tavern. As they trotted after him, wide eyed and struggling to keep up, it suddenly struck him how very small they still were. “I’ll carry you Andala, I know someone who might be able to help.”.
He was by no means helpless, he could deal with a knife slice or a crushed foot just fine but women knew about these things. This sure looked like summer fever but what if it were something else? What if it were woman’s problems? Uuuughh, way out of his depth. He urged little Bucky to move faster.
Some of his buddies were drinking in the same tavern where Honey was staying; seeing him with children set them off. “What are you a nutrix now? D’ya need to supplement your salary with babysitting?”
Andala tightened her hold on his tunic and buried her face in his shoulder. He had to shift her upwards slightly to keep a good hold of her legs drawing more chuckles and mug banging. Oh, fuck it – “Has any one seen the three that I was talking to yesterday? Maybe hanging out with a sickly looking kid?”
When the oafs had done laughing one pointed towards the stairs, “Went that way.”
Switching Andala to his back – she was not even a quarter the weight he was used to carrying, Marten helped Bucky up the stairs (certainly not something the boy was used to, not where he lived). Fortunately it was easy to figure out which room was theirs, Marten rapped on the only closed door, the one with soft voices behind it.
When Bird opened the door all of them, including the boy, were seated close together on the culcitae (sleeping cushions). The one lamp created a chiaroscuro portrait of the four faces. Bucky shyly ducked behind his cousin’s legs and the man could feel the warmth of the girl pressed against his back as his eyes teased out the herbalist in the flickering light.
“Er, I’m hoping you might be able to help,” he stumbled. “My cousin’s leman, the mother of these children, is sick. They are kin, I don’t want to leave them. D’you think you could have a look and tell me what might be the best thing for her?”
At first Honey seemed oddly lost in thought, she didn’t even look his way, instead she faced the pallid boy and reached out to gently touch his face, then softly asked if he would be all right.
That kid has the weirdest eyes along with some seriously spooky tattoos he mused. The auxiliary felt his nerves prickle at the hard look the boy sent his way, but apparently he assented ’cause she scrambled to her feet and grabbed a large satchel that Marten knew held her store of herbs, then they were on their way. At the last moment the big guy, Horse, said he’d come along since he didn’t want her walking back by herself.
The only two remaining occupants of the room were quiet for a moment as they watched the door close behind the others. “That was odd,” commented Bird. “That little girl wouldn’t stop looking at you. Then she had to wave ‘bye-bye’.”
Tod shook his head, still staring at the door. “Yes, odd. Perhaps we will learn more later.” He turned his now silvery eyes on Bird, slipped his arm around him and looked pleased, “But now we have some time to enjoy ourselves,” he said kissing a cheek.
Little Bucky leaned against Horse as he sat in the corner cradling a sleepy Andala. Horse thought it might actually be better for the children to watch. At least they would know they had done all they could to help her and that their mother didn’t die alone.
No herb could help the woman sprawled on the floor. Honey thought water might ease her parched lips but as she turned to ask Marten for some the fevered woman began seizing and choking, her bloodshot eyes rolling back in her head.
Andala wiggled and looked up at Horse. “Mama was aw betta, she was sick, now she sick again?”
“Yes, baby, she’s sick again, very sick.”
“I not baby, I Andy, I big girl. Is she gonna die? Tully’s Mama died last week, then she smelled bad. There were lottsa flies.”
Bucky, his face pale, was frozen in place. “Where will we go Sir? Who will take care of Andy?”
Horse could see that the boy was well aware of the fate of abandoned children; starvation or slavery were likely and Andy was too young to make a useful slave, although sometimes a Madam might take a girl-child as a future investment. As their mother died so would he and his sister follow. Maybe their cousin Marten would pay to have a woman take care of them; but what would happen when he got transferred? Some of the troops were being sent to Pannonia which was all the way to hell and gone. What would happen then?
Marten came and crouched next to him, the children shifted around a bit but returned to their fixed focus on their mother.
Looking at Honey Marten muttered: ”What am I to do now?” He pushed his hair out of his eyes. “My cousin and I sacrificed to Juno Lucina when these kids were safely born. They are the only bit left of my friend, my cousin. It would disrespect his memory if I didn’t see to their care.”
Honey kept glancing from Marten to the stunned looking children and back again.
Soft conversation beyond the door broke the hush the dying woman had laid upon the living watchers.
“They’re in here, find out why they’ve been gone so long and why this place smells of death,” came softly, muffled by the barrier.
A light scratching at the door accompanied Bird’s query “Horse, are you in there? Are you all right?”
Marten’s attention was locked onto the woman who was now unresponsive, Horse was holding the children, so Honey opened the door and explained the crisis.
“Marten? Is it all right if my friends come in?” Honey neatly sidestepped the invitation thing.
“Ya, ya, whatever.” Marten’s glance flickered in their direction and raked his fingers through his hair again leaving it looking even more like a shadowy battlefield.
Tod quietly moved to stand near Horse. “Soon now,” he exhaled. His eyes shimmered, his interest captured by the children. The room might have been dark save for the small double flames dancing in the air currents, but his vision let him pick out the details as if the space had been flooded with moonlight. The children were extraordinary, there was a little something … something about them that drew Tod in … something in their dove colored eyes and thick dark hair.
Bucky’s jaw was squarely set, the girl’s face was softer but already showed hints of her brother’s determination. Both their mouths were formed with the same mobile ornate bow. Oh, myyy, that girl child would be a heart-breaker. They both would.
Reading the mood of his fellow travelers Bird softly asked: “Were you asked to foster these children by their father?“1
“No, I can’t remember. Wait, I think he said something, about making sure they were taken care of.”
“Will you be able to take them with you when you are transferred?” Bird, as was his habit and training laid out the facts as if they were runes.
“No, I don’t see how I could. I can’t marry, my family is expecting me to wed my betrothed when I retire. I have too many responsibilities to my men to have time to cater to a leman. Besides, who knows how she would treat them.”
Looking first at Horse, who nodded brusquely, then at Honey who took the time to retie her headscarf and recapture all the errant strands of hair, before pressing her lips together and dipping her head in assent. The three turned their eyes on Tod who was confused by their tacit consensus.
Bird, understanding how acute a vampire’s hearing was, turned in the Gamli’s direction and breathed, “adoption.”
Forgetting himself, Tod’s eyebrows darted upwards in surprise before he looked speculatively at the children. When he crouched down next to Bucky the boy straightened his back and looked directly at him.
Andala sensed something was going on and sleepily slipped from Horse’s lap, tugging at her too short tunic, to stand next to her brother.
Tod found himself looking at his own reflections, albeit much younger. The same tumble of sun streaked dark hair, the same strongly marked eyebrows, gray eyes and mobile mouth. He returned Honey and Bird’s gazes. ”Yes.” He reached out and smoothed the smoke of the girl child’s hair. “Yes.”
Marten, dazed by his worry, had heard none of this; the companions’ quiet conversation was drowned out by the woman’s stertorous breathing. Everyone in the room had heard that sound before and knew what it meant.
Tod walked over to Marten and laid a hand on his shoulder. “You are paterfamilias for these children?”
The unusual chill of Tod’s hand penetrated into Marten’s daze, as soon as he looked up his will was captured by those gray eyes, so much like his own.
“We will adopt these children, they will be safe with us and well cared for. We will wait until all this is done.”
Tod turned on his heel and moved over to the side of the room where he could squat next to Horse and brace his back against the whitewashed wall. Andy was yawning prettily again. Buck looked frightened.
Honey shifted over to sit in front of Tod and held out her arms. “Come lovey, come have a rest.”
Bird moved to sit on the other side of Horse so that they were clustered together in a compact nest offering refuge to the boy. Holding his hand out he introduced himself: “Bird at your service, good sir. Actually my name is Aðalráðr the advisor, but I am also a bard. I will teach you the old stories of our people. You are now one of us, we are Aeturnae so you will be Aeternos Helicon.”
“Can I still be Bucky too? Papa called me Bucky.”
“Well if people call me Bird, I don’t know why they can’t call you Bucky.”
Leaning forward a bit, “I am called Horse but my full name is Eldjárn Aeternos. Eldjárn is another way of saying blacksmith, it is fire and iron all together. Bucky is your child-name you will earn your man-name when you are older.” He swept his hand around the group, “We all were nurselings together and so our child names come most easily to us.”
The boy twisted around to look at his sister sleeping in Honey’s lap. “Will Andy get a new name too?” His voice was tight with worry, fearing she wouldn’t be included.
“Oh yes, she will be Andala Aeterna, and I’m sure we’ll all call her Andy. I am called Honey, and my name is Disa Aeterna. Disa means both guardian spirit and priestess. We are very happy to share our name with you.”
Tod leaned forward and whispered into her ear, stealing a nibble, “Disa, it is a fitting name for you.”
Since he had been left to die by Corbulo’s thugs, so many goals had crystallized for Tod. At the forefront was Freedom to choose the manner of his existence. After two centuries of slavery and abuse he had little feel for choice. In his belly he always expected someone else to reach out and rip away his power to choose.
The moon had been just past full on that dark and now it was waxing, near full. Almost twenty five darks had passed since the three had found him and this was swelling into the dog moon, when Canis lay on the horizon just before sunrise. Although, since humans were hurrying to get the first wheat in, it was also the moon of first harvest. The bread respectfully made from that grain was one of his favorites when he was Bucky’s age….
He leaned forward again to ask Honey if she could get a loaf made from the new wheat for the children. Affectionately he lipped and nuzzled her neck, while Buck and Horse looked to be in a trance and Bird sagged against Horse’s shoulder, his eyes closing.
What was this collection of humans? They felt almost like the family he’d been surrounded by when he was small. Everyone leaning together, murmuring as they fell asleep in the evenings. Even the smallest tucked next to someone.
Comfort – which hadn’t been within reach for lifetimes while he was being dragged from pillar to post by his maker and tormented by her sycophant Corbulo.
Were they pets? ‘Tura had tried to keep pets once but she found having to feed them through the winter annoying. Their bodies were left somewhere on the west bank of the Danube when they pushed on. Tod remembered they’d both had blond hair and were rather large. ‘Tura thought there’d be more to share out but her disenchantment had begun when she realized it also took more to feed them.
This seemed to be something new, something he’d never heard of, but he was young yet.
Ach, here he was woolgathering again. It seemed to happen more and more often. He didn’t have to hide, he didn’t have to hunt, he could just enjoy the contact with fellow beings.
Even a deathwatch was a thing he remembered from when he was human, it would be finished when the breathing stopped. They would complete this ritual together.
The waiting and the breathing stopped several hours before dawn. They woke to a silent room, or perhaps it was the barking of a fox that alerted them.
Rubbing his eyebrows askew, Marten muttered, “Oh Shit,” before rising to his feet and batting the dust from his tunic.
Hauling himself upward Bird quietly asked if he had a place for burial. They would help him dig. Marten had decided to put her next to his cousin; she had borne him two children and by that had earned a proper grave.
Bucky didn’t want to really look at his mother, as long as he didn’t really look he didn’t have to think about it. He could just float in this in-between place.
Given the hour and the neighborhood Marten didn’t think they would be able to borrow tools from anyone nearby, so he hustled to the gate of the castra to see if he could beg the use of a dolabra2 from one of the guards, if not he would have to run back to the barracks to get his.Everyone else shifted and shuffled their feet until Honey took the reins and asked Bucky if there were any water. He came out of his daze enough to offer to get some, while Horse and Bird, relieved to be away from what was now women’s business, said they’d go with him.
“Your mother would be proud to know that you paid your respects by helping prepare her body for burial. Birth and death, the fabric of life are women’s work, and you are old enough to help.”
Andy’s eyes widened, she’d never thought much beyond playing and clinging to her mother’s stola and here she was thrust into the grownup world of women. “Bu’ I little.”
“Even the littlest have a part to play. Please find a bowl, a washing cloth and some rags if you can; if you can’t we will use straw,” Honey directed. Hard as it was, she knew being part of this would help the girl have a sense of her place in the world.
“It would be better wait until the men have gone to dig the grave before we do this – why don’t we pick some flowers for mother to take with her into the next world … ” mumble mutter. “Now where did I see a yew or cypress growing, we’ll also need a branch for the house, I hope we don’t have to buy one.”3
Waiting for Marten to return with a couple of dolabra, the men had been milling around in the close before they came to rest leaning against the wall, bracketing Bucky. Tod had faded into the shadows near the alley but moved into the moonlight as Honey and little Andy left on their hunt.
“Tod?” Honey raised one eyebrow to signal her curiosity. “Would you like to come with us to find the grave offerings?”
His eyebrows drew together questioning her intent.
“You are a priest, you should help.”
I am still a priest? He thought back to what the great boar Tincus had said to him last night. Resolutely Tod stated, “Yes, I am a priest, I can help you.”
Andy had gotten sleepy again, bored by the grownup’s quiet talk. Honey hefted her up onto one hip and followed Tod.
There was a trio of cypress trees in the next courtyard they came upon, Tod slowly floated upward until he could nip out a few shoots that no one would miss.
Tod carefully landed near Honey just as Marten led the men, carrying the dolabra and Bucky hefting buckets, towards the grave yard. Honey watched wistfully as Tod fell in step with the boy and relieved him of one of the buckets. They were so alike in features and movement, they could almost be father and son.
Marten led them to where he’d buried his cousin only a week ago. The workshop where they carved the markers was overwhelmed with the death count and the stele wouldn’t be ready for a while. He’d have them add a line about the woman.
The men set to digging, taking turns. Tod helped young Bucky remove dirt with the buckets, kindly letting it look like he was keeping up with the men. Of course Martin made swift progress with the dolabra, he’d used it almost every day since he joined the army. With four, make that five, working they were soon done.
As they were finishing up Tod asked Marten where the woman was from, he wanted some kind of name for her.
“She was Tigurini4 from near the lake. I think she followed my cousin here, they were fond of each other – of course there couldn’t be anything official as long as he was an auxiliary.”
They shouldered the tools and started walking back to the room.
“I was trying to get the remainder of his pay for her and the children, I think he had some saved up too. I think I can talk the quartermaster out of it tomorrow so you can buy shoes for them. It would be good if they had shoes to travel. I got Buck a new tunic for his father’s funeral but the baby needs clothes too.” Sigh.
Honey had let Andala wash her mother’s face and comb out her hair while she tended to the more unpleasant bits. There hadn’t been enough rags to absorb the slop over so she had emptied one of the straw filled pallets and shifted the thin body onto that. When that was done, Andy helped her lay out her mother’s stola as a winding sheet just as the men returned.
Honey signaled Tod with her eyes to help her move the body. Marten seemed perturbed and started forward but Horse caught his arm and advised, “Let the priest help, it is better.”
Quickly the body was placed on the stola, her arms laid crossing her breasts. Honey asked Marten for a coin for the boatman which she slipped between the woman’s lips before wrapping her headscarf securely to keep her jaw closed. Andy and Bucky stood wide eyed, Andy only interrupting once to place a few sprigs of sweet herbs in her Mama’s hands.
Horse and Bird decided the best way to move the body was to use the empty mattress ticking as a sling – it wasn’t very far, just past the edge of the canabae. They moved as quickly as they could since they’d already heard first cockcrow and it wouldn’t do for Tod to disappear mid service.
The somber group, children and adults, were stumbling with fatigue by the time the shrouded body lay in the grave. Marten was guided to stand at the head of the trench, Tod and Bucky took the right hand, Honey and Andy the left. The men tugged their cloaks to respectfully cover their heads. Honey poured salt into Tod’s palm which he solemnly shared with the boy-child while she took a handful of soil which she in turn shared with the girl-child.
As another cock finished crowing and a few birds started to chirp, Honey began, ”I Disa Aeturna, priestess of the generative Goddess, pour out this earth to symbolize the clay of your body returning to the mother.” She cast down the mould in her hand, then guided Aeturna Andala to do the same. Tod spoke: “I Death Aeturnus, priest of the third face of the Goddess, sprinkle this salt to symbolize your immutable soul’s journey to its rest in the underworld.” He bent to help Aeturnus Helicon release the salt. The children stared at their hands numbly.
Death and the priestess joined hands across the grave and said, almost as though they’d rehearsed it: “Tigurina, go with our blessing, cross over the rivers safely and meet your joy there.”
1it was common for a dying man to leave guardianship of his children to another man, thus granting him the power of a paterfamilias over what were now effectively his foster children.
2For the purpose, however, of excavating or breaking up the earth (Pallad. 2.1 and 3, 3.21), a dolabra with a straighter pick appears to have been used, as is shown in Fig. a, from a relief on a tomb. Of a similar form is Fig. c, which represents the dolabra used by masons (Isid. Orig. 19.19, 11). The hatchet used at sacrifices ( “scena ab aliis, a quibusdam sacena appellatur dolabra pontificalis,” Festus, p. 318, M.) and by butchers (Dig. 33, 7, 18) was also called a dolabra, and is figured here.
3Nine days after the disposal of the body, by burial or cremation, a feast was given (cena novendialis) and a libation poured over the grave…. During this nine day period, the house was considered to be tainted, funesta, and was hung with Taxus baccata or Mediterranean Cypress branches to warn passersby. At the end of the period, the house was swept out to symbolically purge it of the taint of death. Wikipedia: Funeral.