Over the Hills
Roads traced the course of the Rhine, skirting the spillways at the source in the alps, paralleling its rush and hurry to fill the long lake and then along its debouchure at the western end. These ancient tracks had been overtaken by the miracle of Roman technology. Marvels they were, these new roads, either boldly clinging to cliff faces or cautiously drawing their skirts away from an expanding river. Conduits, the roads, the rivers, all channeling wheat and glass and metals and slaves to feed the clamorous belly of Rome.
Mule trains plodded towards the hinterlands with pouchfuls of gold for the legions and bribes for the kinglets; often overtaken by the messengers1 speeding outwards to chat up the Consuls and direct the business of an empire.
Great barges drifted downstream to the provinces; only to be drawn back through Germania Inferior and Superior2 loaded with the harvested gold from the breadbasket of Gaul. The Romans wanted their bread.
At the headwaters of the Rhine the Gaulish bounty was packed overland to the southbound Rhone and thence down to Massalia3 to be transshipped to great Rome herself.
As liquid treasure, the sweet pale wines of the Moselle and the Rhine fetched a premium from the merchants. Wagon loads of amphorae4, each carefully nestled into a straw-cushioned grid, bumped and groaned down from the vineyards to the docks along the river, whereupon the clay5 vessels were tenderly repacked aboard the waiting barges.
The easiest route for the wine-makers to use was a float down the Moselle to where it joined the Rhine. Confluentes; Such a practical name for a place where all the wines of the region were gathered before being transshipped to Rome. Where every bargee and broker took their cut of the profits.
Could the Aeturni cut out a few of the middlemen and keep enough coin to invest in their vineyards? Perhaps, if they could use the shortcut across the neck of land that separated the Moselle from the Rhine near Rhen, it might be possible.
The matter was debated by the six figures disposed about the meal fire. The two women were of a more conservative disposition. Neither the red head nor the honeyed blonde thought they should venture all of one season’s vintage, but instead proceed by steps – test the waters as it were.
The grizzled blacksmith waved the smoke away from his face and offered to make inquiries amongst his neighbors. Perhaps one of the local water-men might be interested in such a venture.
Coughing, the slight bard, sputtered out that he favored a bold move – nothing ventured, nothing gained. Horse leaned back away from the smoke and averred that he preferred to think on it for a while. Cautious Horse.
The tattooed youth on the other side of the fire knew the business of wine well. His homeland produced the prized Raetian vintages and he agreed with the bard that it might be profitable to break the hold Confluentes had on the vintner’s trade.
Blinking, her eyes tearing, Honey wondered aloud if it might rain, since the smoke wasn’t rising properly and they might do better by lamplight.
The rain did start, drops first pattering on the front stoop, then random leaks through the thatch spat and hissed when they landed in the fire. Duly the wicks were tended and three lamps were lit at the fire before they resettled and returned to their original topic. All agreed on the benefits of an alliance between their clans.
The grizzled smith coughed and cleared his throat. Extending one palm and then the other he indicated the younger master smiths. “I am no longer as able as I once was and I need more help to keep the shop running well.”
“It would be a shame not to maintain a smithy in this location, it is quite profitable. I propose that Horse stay here during the summer, in exchange this could be a way station for your wine trade.”
The humans exchanged speculative glances, but ended up looking to the Gamli for a definitive gesture.
A brief nod indicated he was amenable to the solution.
Tod’s liminal power shimmered across his skin. The three cousins had gotten a hint of his auctoritas6 when he officiated at the funeral of the leman Tigurina, but his cloak had hidden much of the luminescence. Here and now, where much of his skin was bare, he seemed to grow larger and was lit by an inner light. Of course they knew that dragur could do this when they gathered their power around them, but they’d never before been privileged to see it.
Finally the Gamli spoke.
“Eldjárn Aeturnos, do you wish to take this woman Epasia the Smith as wife?”Horse straightened his back and raised his chin. “Epasia’s family willing, that is my intent.”
“Epasia the Smith, do you wish to take this man, Eldjárn Aeturnos as husband?” Brushing off the front of her tunic, Epasia cut her eyes at Horse and firmly stated “Eldjárn Aeturnos’ family willing, that is my intent.”
“The Gamli turned to the elder smith “Isarnomarus, are you willing for this branch of the clan of Weyland7 be joined with the Aeturni?”
“As Weyland’s spokesman here, that is our intent.”
Weighing the truth in the souls around him, Tod added: ”As Gamli, I judge you good people, good craftsmen, and true assets to the Aeturni. I agree with this joining.”
Horse slipped his arm around Epasia’s shoulders and drew her close enough to lean on him.
Puzzled, the elder smith drew his brows together. Why was the young Aeturnos the spokesman? Why was he addressed as Gamli? How could he be Elder? Yes, his auctoritas was formidable (was he God-touched?), but other than his tattoos he held no badge of office. His eyes shone like electrum (he must be God-touched).
Wait and watch, watch and wait. Horse is a good man so that part would be all right.
Slapping his calloused palms down on his knees Isarnomarus told Epasia to fetch out the rest of last year’s mead. “Celebrate! My girl has a new striker8 for her anvil, hah! Drink up, drink up all.” Bawdy comments were shouted as the group drank to their good fortune “Time to bed your bride lad, let’s see how well you wield your hammer.”
All chimed in with cheers and advice on proper bedding while the couple was chased up the ladder.
The crickets held sway for only a few heartbeats before the thumping and groaning began. All clapped in rhythm as though they were setting the time for oarsmen on a barge.
When the serious noises began the audience began to chant: go, go, go, in time with the slapping flesh.
The grand finale arrived with a great shout followed by a squeal and a smack.
“What’d you pinch me for then?”
“You weren’t making enough noise. Unless we make a racket they won’t leave us alone.”
Laughter rolled around the small house while the mead was finished. The children had nodded off at some point and had been moved aside, wrapped in blankets, to sleep out the night
The older smith banked the fire before reclining with his head propped on his hand. Honey bustled around a bit before she pinched out the lamps, drew a cloak around herself and curled up around the children.
The floor was an excellent vantage point from which to watch the conversation between the bard and the Gamli (whatever he was). Usually he didn’t like to mix it up with the deities’ business, but with his Eppie hooking up with this group and his favorite apprentice already involved it seemed as though he had better pay attention.
Where had he seen skin like that before? ‘Twas that girl he saw when he was young, pretty sure she was a sprite. Then there was that woman, ten years ago was it? She drifted through town with the Greek trailing behind her; they were both kind of glow-y, gave him the creeps.
At least the boy’s skin had dimmed to a soft luminescence and his eyes no longer looked like bright metal, they’d resolved to a light gray. Not the gray of a broken iron ingot, closer to the hue of snow clouds.
Tod, that’s what they called him when it wasn’t Gamli. It had been a bit unnerving when little Andy had made that bow to him, her brother too. Cute, but also spooky.
Tod’s eyes frequently flicked over towards the recumbent smith. The smoke bleared gaze held steady, weighing him.
“Smith, do you have a question for me?”
Several blinks preceded, “Maybe.” He heaved himself upright. “What are you? You have a glow about you.”
It was Tod’s turn to blink. In a rush of air that caused the sparks fly up from the embers the dragur was crouching next to Isarnomarus. “What are you, that you can see this?”
If this man was truly one of Weyland’s kin, Tod did not want to offend the God by offering violence to one of his own.
“May I taste your blood so that I might understand?”
The smith’s eyes widened, flashing bloodshot white around the iris. “Are you incubus, then?” and his face paled “or a revenant?”
“Neither, Weyland’s kin. My maker called us night walkers, the Aeturni name me dragur. May I taste your blood?”
The smith froze in place, perhaps even blanched further; only his eyes darted about the room looking for weapons.
Bird jumped in: ”Here Tod, have some of mine, show the smith how it is done.”
The dragur raised Bird’s arm gently towards his mouth all the while keeping his gaze fixed on Isarnomarus’. The older man was enrapt as Tod slowly massaged the cephalic vein with his thumb, the spell broke with the soft click of his fangs and the smith twitched a little.
Drawn to the swollen vein under his thumb, Tod neatly pressed his fangs to the proper depth all the while holding the eyes of the smith.
After swallowing, the dragur swiped his tongue over his teeth and held out Bird’s forearm for the darkly welling punctures to be examined. A lick and the bleeding stopped then he carefully demonstrated how a dab of his own blood would heal Bird’s wounds.
“Ahhhh.” The smith leaned back again. “How many things will your blood heal – will it do burns?” His mind was leaping ahead to the possible advantages of an alliance with the dragur.
“Almost anything up to a beheading, of course some are more difficult than others, and there is a time limit….”
Tod and Isarnomarus sighed as they permitted themselves to relax and recline on either side of the fire, ready for an in-depth discussion.
Although sleepy, Bird picked up the mantle of instructor. “Many generations ago the women of our clan found a gravely wounded dragur. Compassionately they tended her and ancient Semni was forward thinking enough to see how this could be an advantage. Her first thought was to keep us as pets, but we were many and it was hard to maintain a hold on all of us. Slowly we all fostered a different kind of relationship and by the time she was healed (which took a very long time) we had learned much about each other. It was apparent that an affiliation could be molded to everyone’s advantage.
“Time went on, she’d missed the human life her maker had torn from her, and she enjoyed the children and companionship of an evening. Unfortunately she was also driven by her nature, made restless with the need to hunt and a taste for wild blood. The Roman drive for dominion over Gaul provided many opportunities for her to indulge her fancy. She wasn’t one to turn down a good fight, either.
“Anyway, it became our habit to celebrate the solstices together. The darkest winter was good because most people were housebound with the cold and snow, which was usually hard on our Lady. Then in high summer there wasn’t enough darkness for her to be out and about. She was also old enough to rise early by that time and could safely sit with us in the shadows of the long house.
“The children grew up playing at her feet and listening to the ancient tales she told. She healed what needed healing and eventually our dragur was there when their children were born and she rocked them,” here Bird’s voice roughened, his gaze turned inward“and sang to them as she had their parents.
“If the winter was harsh she would bring us food, if because of illness or war there were too few outlanders to sustain her we provided what she needed, if any came against us, then she fed well.
“A decade ago our dragur was attacked and ended by a seethe of twelve wanting her feeding grounds. We sought our revenge at dawn. They were careless, we were not. The Aeturni brought final death to all twelve.
“We were bereft without our Lady, our eldest members had been bound to her so long that they died of the shock and of broken hearts. We three were raised to the task of finding another dragur. After years of seeking we had the good fortune to find Tod. As the last generation trained by ancient Semni in the old ways, we were the only ones that had a chance; without that training the search would be too dangerous.”
This was the first time Tod had heard an uninterrupted version of the Aeturnos’ quest. Well, there had been the saga, which was layered with meaning in the old style. This straightforward account was another thing entirely. Their intentions became quite clear, it wasn’t so much that they were to be his humans but that he was also to be their dragur. Oh. Something to think on. Would they have dominion over him?
Isarnomarus brow twisted in puzzlement, “Why do you call the dragur Gamli?”
“Because he is our elder, barring misadventure, dragur grow to be quite old. Do you know how old you are Tod?”
“I was turned the year after Tiberius Augustus became Caesar.” He missed the frozen shock on the smith’s face, he didn’t really want to remember the celebrations that year; everyone seemed to want to prove themselves conquering heroes.
The smith, by now fully grasping that the stripling before him was four times his own age, broke into his thoughts: “You need my blood to understand?” Tod brought his focus back to the old man.
“Yes, there is much knowledge to be had in a few drops.”
“All right, then, you may sample my blood.” Isarnomarus straightened his back and proffered his massive wrist.
Tod repeated the preparations he had used for Bird, digging his thumb deeply into the pale ventral surface to massage between the two arm bones. The top of the smith’s arm was threaded with white burn scars from his work with metal and even though the back of the man’s hands writhed with fat veins it would need finesse, if the man jerked it would make a huge mess. Better and safer to use the forearm and go a little deeper.
A touch alkali perhaps, with smoky overtones, but rich and meatily pungent with a salty savor. It was the smoke and alkali that tasted like the essential forge; yes Weyland’s own. Not fae magic, but the sapor of earth.
Tod licked the little wounds until they closed. “If the Gods are their attributes, you taste like the belly of the earth. The great forge at the heart of our world, you carry that in your veins. That is your magic.”
Isarnomarus blinked, he was satisfied; huh, I have my own magic. I always thought there might be something lacking in the other smiths, maybe that was the missing ingredient.
Tod retreated into downtime while Isarnomarus and Bird murmured of other magics they had seen.
He wanted to think about ancient Semni, the one who loved the Aeturni and how she would grow restless and go in search of wild blood. The blood of the red cloaked messengers certainly was wild, the flavor was jagged with fear. When ‘Tura had first made him night walker she had pushed him to give into his instincts and pursue his prey. She and Corbulo would laugh and laugh at his victim’s antics when they tried to escape. He never could join in that laughter, it seemed shameful to find humor in someone’s misery.
But that flavor was exquisite, it reminded him of the difference between the flesh of a fallow deer and hand raised rabbit. The same, yet worlds apart.
The hearth fire had burned down to a few lambent coals beneath a heavy blanket of ash, the murmuring of his companions had ceased and they slept where they lay. With each exhale the old man’s beard ruffled. Bird had pillowed his head on his arm.
Restlessness stirred his belly. He rocked from side to side, one butt cheek to the other, until he was wound as tightly as a crossbow and he shot to his feet and out the door. He knew he was spun up but there were none to tell him that his eyes had gone to a narrow encirclement of silver around an impossibly wide iris, or that his face had twisted into a savage rictus.
Tod caught himself licking his fangs which itched and ached ferociously. Like the First Lady of the Aeturni he was driven by his nature and craved the taste of wild blood. This time the only thing that had set him off was thinking of his years as a fledgling but he was determined to sate his appetites on some faex9 and not lose control. He would find ways to harness this monster.
The dragur sped north through the rain towards the nearest slum, looking for a lowlife on which to vent his irritation, someone no one would miss. By the time Tod had gotten to the outskirts of town the rain had eased to mist and it was late enough that the wine shops had long ago pulled up their counters. Dim cressets, their fuel almost expended, lit the closed doors of taverns. The last drunks steered a path along the glistening cobbles of the alleys around the occasional sodden figure.
He had only to take his pick. The one in the gutter was indeed faeces, he did not need to stoop so low. The drunks though, promised good sport. Tod hounded them, flashing his fangs as he appeared before them, then vanishing in a whirlwind. Hanging one from a tree branch whilst chasing the other in circles. Ohhhh yes, their blood had that sapor that he craved. He still felt mischievous after he had gorged and so tossed their heads over a garden wall on his way out of town. It made sense to disguise the bite marks even though the group wouldn’t be traveling back that way.
Tod was poised to return to the blacksmith’s when it occurred to him that there was no reason to go back to the Aeturni. Why would he, a vampyr of two centuries, trot obediently behind humans like a loyal dog? The notion bruised his pride. That was not in his nature.
But being night walker, no matter what his maker had said, was not part of his original nature either. When ‘Tura had stolen his life, Charun, the demon of death, had not taken his spirit. He himself was still here. The dark magic had bound his anima10 to this existence.
Right now the magic, the monster riding his soul, saw another victim. A lone carter returning from a late job, or maybe he was a link-boy11 finally getting home. No matter.
Tod ran his hand over his belly, he was still tight as a tick from his earlier meals. That taste, his fangs extended, his groin stirred, he still craved that wild blood. There was time for one more hit from fearful prey. Get the heart pounding, the cold sweat pouring. Mmmm, a little salt on his snack too.
He crept through the stygian alley brushing against walls, kicking a few scattered shards out of his way, vanishing every time the man whipped his head around trying to catch a glimpse of his stalker. Soon a olfactory banner of fear trailed the human. Tod inhaled to gauge the intensity of his prey’s panic, easing off a bit when it seemed as though the human would bolt. Playing the stalking game that ‘Tura and Corbulo loved so well.
They adored getting the new dragur all spun up too, working him until he’d been overtaken by his appetites. They would laugh and laugh at his loss of control; they especially liked it when he’d maimed what he pursued, not knowing how to feed properly. Making the same kind of mess a baby would paddling in a bowl of porridge.
Even though his maker pointed and snickered at the poor human’s efforts to escape and Corbulo laughed at his ineptitude Tod was driven by the unrelenting thirst of a new vampyr. No matter that he wept with shame, when he was new to the dark magic he had no restraint.
What had his nature become since then? The funeral and the marriage ceremonies had demonstrated that he was still a priest and able to reach out to the Gods. The children and the three Aeturni had proved that he could form ties to the human world. The incident that was ignited by the messengers on the road proved that his human past still vividly existed within him and tonight he’d acted out the inner monster that ‘Tura had created.
All of these things? He must think on it. Meanwhile he would leave this prey and return to the blacksmith’s, he truly didn’t want to disappoint his friends. Yes, his friends. It had been centuries since he’d had anyone who cared.
There was at least an hour until sunrise when Tod slipped back into the blacksmith’s house. He decided to wake Honey since she’d probably had the most sleep.
“Husssssh, Honey, it is only me”, Tod breathed, his mouth close to her cheek. “I’ve decided to go ahead towards the Moselle. I was out looking around and I found good access between the cliffs. It is just past Bray and a little north of where the Lehr river empties into the Rhine from the east. I will find you at sunset along the track.” Abruptly Tod reached out and pulled Honey close enough to rub his face in her hair and nibble at her ear. “I will find you tonight. Tell the children.”
Honey smiled sleepily and offered a kiss as her eyes drifted closed again.
They were all awakened by a customer thumping on the door needing some chain repaired, it was well after sunup. Time to stir.
Stumbling around back of the house Honey and the children went for a pee and a wash. There was a short flagged path to the bank of a narrow stream that chuckled en route to the great river. Honey and the children washed the sleep from their eyes and filled the buckets they’d brought.
Inside, Eppie had blown the meal fire coals to life ready to reheat last night’s porridge. She smiled softly as she worked, occasionally glancing at Horse.
Horse looked more contented than Bird had ever seen him, which was an excellent thing. The pair were well wed.
Honey swept into the room toting two buckets of water. “Go on Bird, wash and whatever. There will be food soon.” She turned to tidy up the bed rolls and arrange the packs.
Crouching before the fire she asked: “Eppie, love, is there any milk for” her eyes got wide as she l eyed her new sister/cousin , ”… the children?”“Ooooh, nice amber necklace! Was that your morning gift?”
Epasia ducked her head and turned as red as only the fair skinned can. “It was a surprise. She shyly kept her eyes focused on her hands. I didn’t expect anything, since it was all so sudden.” I do think there is enough for a couple of mugs-full, Honey. If not, the milk man will be bringing his cows by later and we can get more.”
Having placed the olla12 next to the fire, Honey made sure their bronze paterae13 were clean, before setting them out alongside wooden spoons. Bird was good at carving spoons, they had such a comfortable shape.
“Horse when did you have time to get the amber?” She asked.
“When we were in Borbetomagus, while you were busy with Marten, before we found the children. I traded some work for it.”
“You got a good deal. That’s beautiful amber.”
“I always meant it for Eppie, I just didn’t know I was going to get to see her this soon.” His smile was full warmth.
When Bird brushed through the door and back into the room, Honey cleared her throat to catch everyone’s attention.
“Tod woke me last night to say that he was going to run ahead and would meet us near the banks of the Moselle. I think we should leave pretty soon, I’m not too sure how long it will take us to get there.”
Mixed feelings swirled around and between the group. Horse was sad to see his brother/sister/cousins go, it was heart wrenching to leave. The children were excited to be on the road again but Bucky wanted to spend more time with the wonders of the blacksmith’s shop.
The new couple made plans to visit the Aeturni after the equinox when the harvest would be done and their busy season over.
Bird thought he would be traveling long before then and he would be sure to stop by to visit.
It was only when they led out the donkey that Andy’s excitement turned to worry. “Where my Tod?” she demanded. “We no leavin’ him?”
“No lovey, he went to look over mountain for a good place to sleep. We will see him with the new dark.” Honey was concentrating on repacking one of the pack baskets more neatly.
“Him find uuussss?” Andala drew out the word worriedly as she rocked from foot to foot.
Horse had gotten Fortunus harnessed, Bird dragged out the baskets and the men fussed with ropes, distributing the weight evenly.
After kissing and hugging her new in-laws, Eppie happily leaned against Horse, who wrapped his arm around her, resting his hand on her hip as he absentmindedly rubbed her flank.
While hammering out a new link in the chain for that morning’s customer Eppie had alerted her father that the Aeturni were leaving.
Bird and Horse did the forearm grasp thing as did Isarnomarus who then leaned against the door post of his shop to see them off, saluting them with the tool he’d been using.
1Two postal services were available under the empire, one public and one private. The Cursus publicus, founded by Augustus, carried the mail of officials by relay throughout the Roman road system. The vehicle for carrying mail was a cisium with a box, but for special delivery, a horse and rider was faster. A relay of horses could carry a letter 800 km in 24 hours. The postman wore a characteristic leather hat, the petanus. The postal service was a somewhat dangerous occupation, as postmen were a target for bandits and enemies of Rome. Private mail of the well-to-do was carried by tabellarii, an organization of slaves available for a price.
2Of course Germania Superior was the closest to Rome, not the northernmost.
4Amphorae varied greatly in height. The largest stands as tall as 1.5 metres (5ft) high, while some were under 30 centimetres (12in) high – the smallest were called amphoriskoi (literally “little amphorae”). Most were around 45 centimetres (18in) high.
There was a significant degree of standardisation in some variants; the wine amphora held a standard measure of about 39 litres (41 US qt), giving rise to the amphora quadrantal as a unit of measure in the Roman Empire. In all, around 66 distinct types of amphora have been identified.
6An essential concept of Roman political life and not the same as English “authority”, auctoritas referred to the general level of prestige a person had in Roman society, and, as a consequence, their clout, influence, and ability to rally support around one’s will. Actoritas is the ability to make people do what you want, just by being who you are. The auctoritas is more than advice and less than command, an advice which one may not safely ignore.
8A blacksmith’s striker is an assistant , whose job it is to swing a large sledge hammer in heavy forging operations, as directed by the blacksmith. In practice, the blacksmith will hold the hot iron at the anvil (with tongs) in one hand, and indicate where the iron is to be struck by tapping it with a small hammer held in the other hand: the striker then delivers a heavy blow with the sledge hammer where indicated Wikipedia.
12Olla is a generic word for a cooking pot, such as would be used for vegetables, porridge, pulse and such. Wikipedia
13Patera: shallow bowls for drinking or eating.