Into the Valley
The children lasted until the moon had floated free of the haze on the horizon and risen half way in her journey. Honey rigged a sling with her stola and hefted the weary Andala onto her back. It was still warm enough that she was comfortable stripped down to her under tunic. Bless Fortunus, since he carried their packs the adults could carry the children.
The young jackass was extremely pleased with his adventure and had not objected to the girl-child’s kisses or her curious fingers – except when she poked them in his ears. The solemn boy-child was equally interesting and was of a very good height to whuffle which in turn led to an amusing hunch-and-wiggle. No end of entertainment on this walk.
Tod kept pace with the Aeturni, their footfalls accenting the beat of the saga. They were working on the latest stanza.
Forever ravens feasting
on the red cloaks, talons
and the little foxes on the fiercest warriors.
Stood the chance for three to winnow
through Raven’s harvest. To reap the reapers,
to discern a sword that would fit their scabbard
like a lover, far wanderer
to be their home defender.
For a while the children kept the rhythm with dum, dadum, dadum. Andy and Buck waving their arms, but the girl soon faded, sagging against Honey’s back. Later, when they were older they would understand the story behind the raven’s feast and the feud with the red cloaks.
By the time the moonlit gorge of the Rhine was spread out before them the boy was stumbling. He finally let Horse set him in his cloak and tie him securely on his back.
Fortunus spooked every once in a while at the nighttime noises; the foxes were especially busy that night. They’d caught their first glimpse of them tumbling in mock battle across a newly harvested field. Now, there seemed to be a group of half grown kits keeping pace with them. Occasionally one would streak across the road and there would be more yips announcing a new vantage.
Oddly it was Tod who was most unsettled by the foxes, carefully placing himself between the travelers and the latest chorus of fox-song. Bird, who had Fortunus’ lead rope firmly in hand, was being discomfited by the donkey crowding up against his backside. Both Tod and the jack were worried, not good.
The next time the dragur’s gaze slid over him Bird raised his eyebrows questioningly and tipped his head in the direction of the latest set of yips. Tod nodded thoughtfully.
“I fear it may be Clytia’s foxes that are running with the moon. There is a group near here that serves her and relies on her protection – they are mischievous at best, cruel at worst. It is good we are all armed,” he added, reassured by the stout walking sticks the three carried; his lips writhed back from extended fangs, suddenly their fearsome defender. “It has been a while since I’ve been in an all out fight, if Clytia joins in I shall enjoy it.”
Tod drifted along their perimeter while the other three adults conferred. They walked in close formation deciding their best defensive positions if push should come to shove. Bird changed the attachment of the donkey’s lead rope, he would be formidable if permitted to defend himself, or he would escape – either would be better than seeing him hamstrung.
The road1 ran arrow straight a tangent to the curves of the river, sometimes in view of the water, sometimes not and bisecting the odd inky copse of trees.”
The bright moon stirred a bird to chirp, Tod raised reflective eyes, gauging the phase. “It won’t be full for two days yet, perhaps the foxes are only looking for mischief but we’d best be wary when we come within the shadows of trees or through unharvested fields.”
So they progressed, three trudging abreast for some conversation, the jack trailing, ears swiveling and Tod scouting the edges; the group only pausing for rest in the middle of the most closely shorn fields.
Fortunus was getting balky and the travelers were truly footsore when they stopped a bit to let the animal drink and grab a bit of grazing. Tod, wanting to get a long view, rose directly upward until he could see well ahead. He was pleased to see they were close to a caupona (hostel) he remembered as being not too awful. The humans couldn’t travel much further and stay alert.
The moon had slid towards its setting point and the chill of the old dark called curls of mist from the ground. Best they hurry, they would reach their rest as the taberna custos (tavern keeper) was waking, Tod would have just enough time to reach the hills above the narrow flood plain and go to ground.
Landing softly he advised the others that their destination was beyond the next group of trees and they would get there in time to break their fast. They needed to get a move on since the mist was rising quickly and soon they would be stumbling over their own feet.
The foxes seemed to have gone about their business, or at least they’d stopped yipping, nonetheless Fortunus’ continued to crowd Bird, his ears swiveling and his eyes rolling nervously.
The humans plodded on, looking forward to some respite for their feet and bellies.
Of course that is precisely what Clytia’s foxes were waiting for. They sprang out of the shadows and the mist, intent on causing as much mayhem as they could. White tipped brushes and pale bellies flattened to the ground, they streaked in nipping at the donkey’s’ legs.
Who or what-ever had set up this prank hadn’t included Fortunus’ hooves in their plans, nor had they thought on the impact of three quarter-staffs on the bodies of the foxes. Five delicate black-stockinged forms lay scattered, eyes dulling, tongues lolling, jaws agape.
Both children had been jarred awake and Buck peeked over Horse’s shoulder, while Andy, now that her resting place had stopped jumping around, drifted back to sleep. The travelers turned to Tod.
“Why,” gritted Bird, “why didn’t you help?”
“Because Clytia herself did not move against us. She wanted to test your temper – more importantly, mine. I may be young for a dragur, but I have learned something of feint and counter-feint between powers. If I had joined in it would have started a feud with some of the magics of the area. Since I did not strike out she knows I have no quarrel with her. Consider, if she wanted battle she would not have sent foxes.”
“Beautiful little creatures,” Honey turned back to their road, “a pity they couldn’t live out their lives.”
“Small Goddesses can be like that, they take no heed of collateral damage.”
Wearily they slogged the remaining miles to the tavern; the excitement of the scuffle fading quickly leaving them feeling drained, the mist had thickened, clammily condensing on their hair and clothes.
By the time they had gotten to the yard of the tavern, wisps of fog swirled densely and Tod drew them close to confer. “I will have to rest apart from Clytia’s territory, it would not be wise to trust to her good will. I will rejoin you at dusk. Rest well this day, mind the foxes.” He vanished and the wall of fog eddied where he had been.
They could hear the tavern keeper stirring and Horse rapped smartly on the door. They all felt as though they would fall where they stood and waited slumped, shoulders against the door frame.
“Is too early for this shit! Whaaa ya wants?” Rumpled, stained and with gray hair on end, the tavern keeper slouched before them. “How many? Room or food?”
The three cringed as gusts of his nasty breath reached them. Bird wearily requested a room and fodder for the donkey. “We’ll eat later, before we leave.”
Unburdening Fortunus they left him tethered to the porch and dragged themselves upstairs to the room, choosing one on the west corner of the building. Hopefully the afternoon sun would wake them in time.
Horse set Buck down on one of cushions and went to see to Fortunus’ comfort. Honey tucked her stola securely around Andala and wedged her behind her brother then dug in the packs for their bed rolls. Bird had fished out the last of the bread from yesterday and they divvied it out; setting aside the largest portion for Horse.
“I worry about that man,” Honey sighed as she lay down, ”he works too hard, I know he’s strong but he always seems to carry more than his share.”
“You both do. I’ll take care of the children if they wake up before us,” Bird decided as he rubbed his burning feet.
Honey and Bird were already asleep by the time Horse got up to the room. They’d left the lamp burning next to his portion of bread and water, which he ate slowly. It felt so good to sit. Barely taking enough time to finish eating, he pinched out the wick and collapsed sideways onto the bench, asleep even before his head rested on his arm.
The children woke ravenous, in time for day meal. Buck remembered some of the scuffle from last night, but none of the details. Bird promised to explain while they were tending to their donkey.
That beast was king of the paddock – having terrorized the dogs, persecuted the chickens and reached an agreement with the barn cats, he was now having another good roll in the dust. Life was good if your name happened to be Fortunus.
Horse had bargained for a decent curry brush before they left town and Bird had brought the precious item down with him so the children could give the animal a good going over while he saw to the jack’s feet. (He was particularly glad that his fate had not driven him to work in a brush-maker’s shop – he’d rather save his fingers for playing music)
Andy had passed the brush over to Buck and had climbed through the paddock rails to pick flowers. She found it wonderfully funny that Fortunus liked to eat the blossoms.
Bird took over grooming as he explained what had happened last night.
“More of a combination of things, actually. Very close to full moon which sparked up the foxes, they were this year’s kits and full of mischief.” He moved around to the offside and began brushing there.
“You have to remember that our Tod is magical in his nature which stirred the currents in the area.” Bird paused while he bent double to brush the little donkey’s belly.
“So, the genius locii, what the Romans call the spirit of the place, wanted to understand the temper of the strange magic traversing her land and used the foxes to test it out. Kind of like sticking your finger in the soup to see if it is hot.” He paused leaning on Fortunus, “The moon stirs up many things, it is wise to be careful.”
Andala returned with a fist full of flowers for the donkey. Bird made sure she knew to keep her little fingers out of the way since, unlike people, quadrupeds really couldn’t see what was under their noses. “They are also very jittery about anything right behind them, since they can’t see there either, and more likely to kick first and ask questions later. So go around the front if you can, lovey.”
Buck listened solemnly to Bird’s explanations and when Andy had gone to pick more flowers he used the silence to ask what else was stirred by the full moon.
“Since you’ve always lived in the shadow of a castra, you’ve probably not met any of the were. When we come across some I’ll help you recognize what sets them apart.”
It was good that the boy was listening, Bird thought, even better that he was asking sensible questions.
“The were beasts run under the full moon. Not so much around here, but further north. They certainly want nothing to do with the Roman army. Even though they would make good soldiers they could not run with the moon, soldiers aren’t permitted to go missing that way. What if they were on the march? They’d probably be executed for desertion.”
Finally finished with Fortunus, Bird brushed the dust from his tunic.“Now, we all smell like jackasses! Time for a bath.”
The sleepers were absently-mindedly rubbing their faces trying to wake when the children burst in on them.
“We’re going to take a bath, d’ya want to come, can I wear my new tunic or should I stick to the old one? Where’s Andy’s clothes?”
The girl-child barreled into Honey chattering a mile-a-minute about flowers and ‘tunus and c’oze and baths and d’meel.
The men were dumbfounded but Honey casually agreed to find her tunic, said it had been a good idea to feed the donkey and it had been pretty amazing that he liked to eat flowers and that they would join her in the bath before they ate.
Even Bucky was impressed. Honey looked around and said….“it is one of the blessings of the Goddess that women can easily learn to understand child-speak.”
The men nodded wisely, pretending to understand. Bird scooped up the proffered clothes and herded the children out to the bathhouse.
When everyone was clean and freshly dressed they all gathered upstairs to pack.
“I’m not looking forward to colder weather and trying to stay clean, makes me itch just thinking about all the woolies. I like summer much better,” Honey commented.
“At least you’ll be home, not sleeping rough. I hope I make it back for Samhain, or at least Yule, I’d hate to be stuck singing for other clans and miss Yule.”
“Yule? Mama talked about Yule, said it was good to celebrate and there was a wonderful feast with all her favorite treats. She didn’t say much more.” Buck looked down at his hands.
“It is about the same time as the Romans are meant to have their Saturnalia.” Honey explained. “During the darkest time of the year we celebrate the earth turning back towards the light. The further north you go, the colder and darker it is and the more important it becomes.”
“Did we miss anything?” Honey looked around the room. “ No? Good.”
Glancing up from the pack baskets she asked if anyone thought Tod might be up. Andy looked around, expecting one of those odd things that adults took for granted like kittens appearing out of nowhere and just as suddenly vanishing. Buck was a little more skeptical thinking it might be like one of those answer-less questions about the weather.
He was about to shrug it off when Bird looked directly at him and asked, “What do you think? Is Tod awake?”
The boy was totally baffled. “How can I know?”
Andy, sensing her brother felt defensive, edged closer to him. Whatever it was they’d feel better together.
“Tcha! Bird, you are scaring the children.” Horse crouched down to explain. “Remember last night Tod gave us all a drop of his blood?”
The boy nodded solemnly, the girl a beat later, trying to catch up.
“That helps us to find him, we just have to concentrate, think about him and we will feel where he is.”
Ya, one of those odd grownup things, Buck thought. Rather look at those rune pictures Bird had laid out before. Warriors and great deeds!
So they all stood in a group thinking about Tod really hard, except Andy, she was trying to plait her hair. Then she heard Tod say: I’ll fix your hair later lovey.
“He over dere,” she pointed with her chin since her fingers were still tangled, “and he’w do my hair, c’I ha’ honey my bread?”
“Whoa, she’s good!” everyone said, impressed.
“Looks like I found my apprentice!” Honey was wide eyed at her good luck. Some had to wait until they were aged to find one with talent and then all the training had to be crammed into a few short years. As long as something untoward didn’t happen, this was good. This was very good. I’ll have to take her in hand as soon as we get back to the valley.
Horse and Bird stood either side of Buck (who was bewildered by the adult’s meaningful glances), wondering if he were to be a candidate as an apprentice, he was old enough to be taken on.
Horse leaned back to gauge the boy’s frame, would he have the necessary strength? For the finer work perhaps, not a bad thing that.
Considering Buck’s interest in the runes, Bird thought there was potential there – but not so much as a bard. Although his voice was sweet it was not true.
Before rivalry could flash between the cousins a compromise occurred to him. Glancing speculatively between Horse and the boy he mused: “a little bit of both? Something different? Metal, yes, but with the rune’s gift.”
Gravely Horse and Bird laid their hands on the young man’s shoulders. “There is a place for you also, child,” consoled Horse.
Before it all got too soppy, Tod blew into the room. “Where’s the comb sweetie? I’ll braid your hair.”
The girl child retrieved the comb and gravely instructed Tod: “No owies.”
Watching the dragur gently comb through Andala’s baby fine hair, Honey thought on what had happened. “Tod? Did you realize that she,” tipping her head in Andy’s direction, “had the best lock on your position?”
“Ya, she was clearest in my mind. It was almost as though she were next to me.” Tod turned inward thinking on what was growing between them. It was puzzling, in the two centuries since ‘Tura had stolen him from the Romans he had never heard of a dragur having this kind of relationship with his humans. Blood slaves, certainly, but not this give and take. Not equals either, a mutuality? Whatever. “Has that happened before?” he asked.
The three were looking at each other, each shrugged. “This rapport, with only one blood exchange and with a child? Not that I know of. Maybe in an adept after many exchanges? I have heard hints of that in our sagas,” related the bard.
“Much to think on,” Horse said slapping his thighs before standing up, “I’m hungry. Did you feed, Gamli?”
Chuckling, Tod said “Ya, I grabbed a ‘bite’ on the way here.”
The children had no idea why the three kept snickering as they swung up the baskets and followed the children downstairs.
Tod was feeling, he was not too sure what, but he was feeling. Less like a beleaguered street cur? Yes. The more connected he was to the three, now five, the stronger and the more he felt at home in himself. Was this because of the Aeturni? Or was it because he had felt ‘Tura’s final death right before Corbulo jumped him – finally free of their maker’s command not to kill the Raetian?
Tcha! Maybe both.
He wanted to do something with all this energy. They had this thing they’d do when he was human. They’d run down a boulder field leaping up to carom off of the rock faces, going faster and faster. Until someone missed their step and they ended up in a laughing pile at the bottom of the slope. That’s what he wanted. Wasn’t it?
Their boots clattered down the stairs, Bird still herding the children before him, Horse stolidly lugging packs, then Honey with her own burdens and Tod with his share. His eyes sparkled as he crowded on the woman’s heels, quick as a wink he reached out and squeezed a handful of her ass. Turning with a growl and a glower Honey was met with Tod’s grin, he was having so much fun he was even showing fang.
With the moon already stirring up the wild things they hoped to be within reach of Confluentes by morning. None had any desire to be on the road during a full moon, that would be asking for trouble. The town was big enough that they could replenish supplies, earn a little coin, relax for a day and listen to the gossip.
“Hey, remember that place on the edge of town we stayed the last time we were through here? You want to stay there again? They had a decent paddock in the back.” Horse’s first thought was always for the animals.
“Nah, I’d like to be closer to the Market place. It will easier to set up a spot for me and Honey.” A decent venue was Bird’s priority. No audience, no coin.
“I didn’t get to see the gardens at the temple of Asclepias last time, it would make for a nice walk. The children might like the change, can we find something in the middle?”
As they set out Buck was riding Fortunus and the adults were shouldering their own packs.
Tod carried Andy seated on his forearm, gravely conversing. After this evening they seemed to have quite a liking for each other and the girl-child often patted the dragur’s cheek earnestly.
“Wi’ there b’foxes?” (perhaps)
“You scare ’em ‘way?” (oh, yes)
“You ‘care o’ me?” (always)
“You ‘care o’ Bucky too?” (of course), there was a pause while Andy frowned, thinking.
Her pink little mouth pursed in determination, she sighed and finally asked: “See you’ teef?”
“They are sharp, little bit.”
Buck got down from Fortunus’ back and took the lead rope proudly. He kept pace with Bird, only skipping to keep up once in a while. It was hard on his short legs and soon he would resume his perch on the donkey’s back.
Honey and Horse were bracketing Tod, listening intently to his conversation with Andy. She was not about to give up her interest in his teeth. Only occasionally did they have to duck their heads to hide smiles. It wouldn’t do to make the girl self conscious.
“Wanna see teef!” Such a look Tod got!
Deep laughter vibrated in Horse’s chest.
Tod thought that Horse’s laughter was a warm and companionable sound; like an evening’s walk with friends, a dim memory from long ago. It put a layer of ease between him and his suspicion that Clytia wasn’t done with them. She had no love for the creatures of the night.
He blew a strand of Andy’s hair away from his face and reluctantly opened his mouth. What am I doing? A dragur, at the beck and call of a human child? There is something here, new feelings, a kinship; something about her calls me.
“No, see big teef!” Her forehead was practically in his mouth, impatient for the sight of the big teeth.
Reluctantly Tod forced his fangs to extend. It had taken him a while to learn to control them, at first they were no more at his command than his heartbeat had been before. Long boring nights had schooled him in their deployment and reading their signals.
Nodding, Tod sighed. For one who didn’t need to breathe he was doing a lot of sighing tonight.
Her forefinger was more delicate than his fang, plump with a pearly fingernail and thankfully much cleaner than usual.
Tod’s tongue flicked out to capture the drop of blood on the child’s fingertip. Thinking to save the situation he tried to deflect Andy’s reaction.
“Mmmm, yummy! Are all little girls this yummy or is it just you?” Making nom, nom noises into her neck.
She shrugged, “only fa(fair) trade, me, you. See again!”
Intervening, Honey reminded Andala that her father’s sword hadn’t been a toy, neither were belt knives nor Tod’s fangs.
Turning to the dragur she advised: “She’ll be after you all night, if you aren’t careful.”
It was Tod’s turn to shrug. It was a distraction from the prickling of his nerves.
Having the kids ride the jackass saved their backs and they made good time on the road. The foxes sat at a distance watching while the bats swooped overhead and great owls visited the buffet of small squeaky things in the fields.
The moon had risen, minus its final shadowed edge, nonetheless out shouting the stars. The children tipped their heads back as they rode, listening to Bird’s account of the Lady riding the moon and how the stars got their names.
After a while Tod took up the thread, recounting strange tales that he’d heard during his travels. His blood brother Corbulo had held that the moon Goddess was Diana the huntress and her brother Apollo drove the sun chariot. But Corbulo was more Greek than Roman and thought the Romans uncivilized farmers and brigands. There was a story that followed Helios, the Roman Apollo and how the maiden Leucothoë2 loved him. When her spiteful sister killed her because she had won the favor with a God, Helios punished her sister, Clytia, by changing her into the sweet smelling but toxic Heliotrope, condemned to always turn to the sun.
He told what he knew of Zalmoxis, the god that his maker ‘Tura pursued; how she wanted him to teach her the rites for that deity so she could break the ill luck that dogged her heels.
“The source of her misfortune was her own greed and willfulness.” He had learned from her example to stand back and think before acting. Although it had been a late lesson, he knew that if he had learned it earlier he would now be dust and bones. So there was good and bad in everything.
The children had been shifted onto Honey and Horse’s backs and Tod occasionally sprinted upwards to spy out their progress and allay his anxiety.
The moon was at its apex and it illumined enough of the valley to be able to pick out two riders coming from the south. The dragur’s sharp vision even made out dispatch cases slung over their shoulders.
The alternating jog and then trot of a long distance gait meant that they were traveling from a fort not just one of the in between relay posts. Even though the road was in good condition and was sufficiently moon lit for travel, what message was important enough to courier it at night? The pace meant that although it was important, it wasn’t ‘kill-the-horses’ important.
Tod thought back to what he’d learned during the last unpleasant season of his life. What did that message portend? Aha! Probably a big General’s inspection progress. Poor what’s-his-face, Marten, the kids’ cousin. He was going to be up to his eyeballs in spit polish!
The quiet conversation and the night sounds of a few moments ago were being overlain by the nearing messengers. Tod would have to wait until the riders had passed before he could sink back into that calm again. The chink and jangle of their soldiers kit was irritating his already frayed nerves; the scent of metal polish and oiled leather overwhelming the scent of his people. The soldiers tossed ribald jokes back and forth to pass the time, their laughter sawed at his eardrums more stridently than Fortunus’ braying. It felt like it echoed back at him, even if he put his hands over his ears.
Bird turned to walk backwards, watching Tod hover, drifting in the night air. “Something’s bothering our Gamli, he’s kind of curled up into himself and he’s got his hands over his ears‽”
“Shhhush, sshush.” Sharp-eared Honey cautioned. “I hear horses.”
“There are trees up ahead, we’d better make ourselves scarce.” Bird turned and dragged Fortunus behind a screen of brush.
Honey scuttled in behind him and Horse took a position where he could grab the jack’s muzzle to forestall any asinine greetings on his part. They could all see well enough to watch the couriers’ approach.
The three were so enmeshed in Tod’s anger and drive to extinguish the source of his distress it leached through the link until they too shook with the force of it.
The closest messenger twisted to one side and spat in the road which propelled the Gamli’s back in his mind to the horror of his captivity and his abuse at the hands (and fists) of the soldiers. The tide of nightmares washed over all of them leaving the travelers trembling and clinging to each other while the children wailed.
Only Bird had been facing the carnage, unable to look away while their Elder roared and tore chunks off the red cloaks. Only one horse escaped.
That bitch Clytia, couldn’t leave well enough alone!
Heartfelt thanks to penpractice, who enforces coherency and restrains my love affaire with participles.
2Leucothoë: a princess, daughter of Orchamus and sister of Clytia, Leucothoë was loved by Helios, who disguised himself as Leucothoë’s mother to gain entrance to her chambers. Clytia, jealous of her sister because she wanted Helios for herself, told Orchamus the truth, betraying her sister’s trust and confidence in her. Enraged, Orchamus ordered Leucothoë, who claimed Helios had forced her to succumb to his desires, buried alive. Helios changed Leucothoë’s lifeless body into an incense plant. Helios refused to forgive Clytia for betraying his beloved, and a grieving Clytia wilted and slowly turned into a heliotrope, which follows the sun every day . Wikipedia.