An Old Beginning
He woke in the warm shadows, although it seemed more dim than dark to him. Sounds. Whispers. The clatter of pottery and muffled voices echoing within his chamber, even the brush of fabric. Under that the muted thunder of heartbeats and sussurant sound of air passing in and out of lungs provided a harmonic continuo.
Focusing, he could pick out the soothing cadences of familiar voices, tease those threads apart from the unknown, follow the currents of conversation.
There was a ribbon of an unknown rumble, deeper than Bird’s, a quavering elder, the hiccuping cry of a fretful baby; over it all girl voices and the rapid punctuation of a clapping game.
Stella ella ola
Supra, caio, cae…..
Puellulae, cas, cas, cas ……
Dicunt quod sic, sic, sic
Valorae, valorae, omnia chorea
unus, duo, tres, quattuor, quinque, sex, septem!
The star is in the bowl
Resting on the wall
Girls bend and sway, bend and sway
They say: yes… yes… yes…
“No, no, no – other hand. We do opposites now.”
Quickly, quickly, every…one… dance
one, two, three, four, five, six, seven!
He could hear his Andy’s voice as part of the chant, it had the same rhythm as the one he’d heard from the goat-girls. In all this time the rhyme really hadn’t changed much.
Tod shouldered more deeply into the linen bedding to learn as much about the strangers’ voices as he could. The strangers’ habits. The strangers’ everything.
Whilst committing to memory all the sounds and echoes of the great room he dropped his jaw and lifted his upper lip to pull the scents across the sensitive membranes that he’d gained along with his fangs; an added dimension to his understanding.
Food odors drifted in the air, but the night-meal must have been cooked outside, the smoke scent clinging to everything was cold. Oil burning in the lamp, no, lamps. Cold ashes and charred wood, musty furs, dog, oiled wool and last year’s bedding. The only thing out of the ordinary was the scent of people, reasonably clean.
Now that Honey was back with Aia to help, he had a feeling that it wouldn’t be too long before the the musty furs and last year’s bedding was turned out and beaten into submission. ‘Mara and Bili had their hands too full to take on the spring clean by themselves.
Maybe he and some of the others could go hunting. That was always the wisest course when the women set to the yearly purge….his mind drifted for a while on the currents of his memory and senses.
When he decided to rest here he knew that he was risking his existence on a cast of the runes, on trusting that the Goddess or fate had led him aright. He was ready for that, ready for anything, he’d spent years begging the Goddess for an end, the centuries that ‘Tura had her claws in him. 1
He’d gone to his day-rest knowing the result would be either an end or a new beginning. These people could have ended him, he wasn’t even sure he would have realized what was happening. So, a new beginning.
Be that as it may, it was time for the formal meet and greet. He wasn’t even sure how this would shake out, he would start with what he knew for certain. The clan seemed to believe him to be their dragur, come to lift them from their slide into a cold hell, or whatever heroic intervention they expected from him.
Fuck it, he was (according to his Uncle Cat) born to be a priest and by the Goddess he would stay a priest, no matter what their expectations.
He’d heard Andy whisper to Honey “He’s awake.” Alright then, showtime!
The clan had provided him with the best of everything, an abundance of plump down pallets and pillows furnishing the great carved box-bed2. There’d been one like it at home where his mother used to tuck him for a nap. With the carved doors closed it was dark and quiet and warm even in winter. He always felt wonderfully safe.
Pushing himself upright, Tod shoved aside the tangle of bolsters and feather beds, taking a moment to rake his hair into better order before he pushed open the bed-stead. His fingers found holds in the carvings on the frame as he arched his back and swung his legs out onto the fine chest that made a convenient step-bench before pulling his tunic straight and looking around.
The ornate bed and bench had pride of place facing the narrow end of the meal hearth and beyond that the main door of the great room.
Lining the walls and between each of the great staves supporting the roof were platforms, each furnished with bedding and hung about with weapons or personal tools. More than half of them yawned empty or were used for storage.
The carvings were different but the hearth was the same. He and his friend little Bear had learned to walk holding on to benches like those while someone kept an eye on their adventures.
Some clansmen had chosen to embellish their snugs with fanciful woodwork along the edge rails and the bright eyes of small children peeped over the incised hounds and the tails of dragons.
Of course he knew full well how many were there in the main house, he even knew what they’d had for dinner and approximately where they sat. Now to attach the faces and names to the scents and voices.
Honey and Bird approached him first, pressing their fingers together they bowed before pulling Andy and Buck to the fore, so they could make their bows. The four said good rising Gamli.
The eldest of the family, supported by a pair of milky young women (they both smelled sweetly of milk and their nurselings) presented herself next. “I am Nemeta, the fire-tender.
These are our grand-daughters:Bilia and Iomara” All three bowed, ceremonial knives swinging freely from their necks, and wished him good rising. The women helped her back to her seat two niches away.
The crippled man and the stiff-jointed older woman made their way alongside the hearth, introducing them selves as Verna, tree-born and Cunorix, hound-king, moving on to complete their sunwise3 circuit to settle near Nemeta. Tod noticed that each knife as it slipped out from under the wearer’s tunic had a unique hilt, he wanted to take the time to examine all of them.
The last adult to make the circuit was distinguished by an odd loping shuffle and rather large ears. Bushy eyebrows jittered over sad brown eyes as he strove to remember what he should do next. At last he placed his finger tips together one by one and rotated his wrists as if to make sure of their correct placement. Looking up at Tod he broke into a beatific smile and got out “ Good rising……”
“Gamli” someone whispered.
“Gamli!” he shouted.”I am Quintillius! I talk to the bees.”
Tod ducked his head, when he looked up at Quintillius his eyes were twinkling but he merely said: “If you talk to the bees that is a wonderful thing.”
Nemeta stood, a little unsteadily, and announced that it was time for the cleansing; she had lit the fire earlier and the sweat lodge was ready. Her grand-daughters tucked their children into their shawls, a frail baby secured between Bilia’s breasts, Iomara’s toddler settled on her back, before they moved to help their grandmother.
He and his Uncle Cat were wont to do cleansings, it prepared for dream journeys, initiations, before and after battles, anything where your head needed to be clear and you needed to be right with the gods, anything where you touched the curtain between life and death – a birth, a death, a marriage. The mysteries of that curtain could cling and alter one’s wyrd, if it billowed, it could set its roots into your soul and pull you into death or back to life.
Oh, Tod knew about cleansings.
Verna motioned Tod to follow, then she and Cunorix took their places directly behind him.
There was enough moonlight to cast muzzy shadows and for the procession to see their way across the level ground. The dogs had roused, keeping pace with the line of people, orbiting Cunorix and butting their shaggy heads up into his hand for a reassuring scratch.
Although they had been told last night to stand down they were still anxious, trying to stay between Tod and their people, even going so far as to herd the children away from his path.
A trickling spring had licked a channel through the pink sandstone veining the granite mountainside . This spring was the raison d’être of the location of the stronghold. It had never failed and the water was sweet and pure.4
The sweat lodge had been one of the first things built; set against the mountain slope and facing the mid-winter rising sun. Earth, Fire Air and Water, everything needed by celebrants was present. The hof had been enlarged and improved so that there was room and to spare for the fifteen souls of the clan who were there to sit comfortably in the heat.
While Nemeta tended to the stones piled in the central hearth and Cunorix pulled the door neatly closed everyone pulled off their tunics and sorted themselves on the wooden benches. There was the rustle of coarse fabric against fabric as everyone folded their clothing into cushions and settled in the darkened room.
Tod of course was offered the place of honor opposite the door. Honey and Verna came to sit on either side of him, bare flank to bare flank, maiden and mother, while the crone dipped rosemary into the water and flicked it to steam on the rocks.
She intoned: “Three-Part Goddess, open the gates, so that our forebears and our beloved Semni can bless the new Elder fate has brought us. We are here to offer respect and reverence to the three of you. Let it be carried on this sweet vapor, let your benison return on the moisture that clings to our skin and fills our lungs.”
“Your blessing is necessary if we are to fulfill our wyrd, to join with this being so that our whole can be greater than the sum of our parts.”
Slowly the room filled with sweet smelling steam, condensation slicked the rock walls, trickled down the staves and beaded on the rafters, swelling the roof planks. Everyone breathed easily and relaxed into the heat. Tod scented the somnifacient herbs that had been added to the water, the same herbs that he or his Uncle Cat would have chosen.
The Crone’s voice quavered its way through the hof. Binding. A subtle magic was carried with the water droplets. Entwining.
Nemeta stiffly turned to look at Tod, “Bind them to you, all at once. For your safety and ours.”
She turned back to face the hearth and flick more water on the stones.
He remembered the words Honey had used to reassure him and thought that might be a good way to start.
By the time Tod had ensnared everyone’s gaze, his eyes had taken on a silvery hue and his figure was limned with power. Everyone present stared mesmerized by the subtle light.
“You are my people, I am your Gamli. You will not betray me, I will not betray you. I am your sword, you are my shield. You are my heart and I hold you dear.” Tod stood and gestured to his people.
The clan, as one, began the antiphon.5 “We are your people, you are our Gamli. We will not betray you, you will not betray us. You are our sword, we are your shield. We are your heart and you hold us dear. You are our link to the other world and we honor you.”
Everyone seemed to feel something click into place. Tod felt more settled in himself than he had in a long time, centuries perhaps.
Lungs breathed in unison, as though they belonged to a singular organism. The babies first broke the rhythm with a few quick inhales and slowly they became individuals again; finally shifting around, murmuring, signaling that the trance had broken.
Quietly they all filed out of the sweat lodge, Nemeta again in the lead, and walked toward where the spring cascaded down the rock wall. The silence was broken as each took their turn standing under the icy water until their skin tingled, then danced away blowing and slicking their hair back.
Standing apart, the dragur watched his people. Slack breasted, white haired Nemeta, broad hipped Vera (she had borne her share of babies), crippled Cunorix, scarred and withered all along his right side, that arm drawn up across his belly.
He cast his eyes around the moonlit grounds of the settlement. Easily defensible, steep wooded slopes on three sides accessed by a narrow zig zag graveled cartway. Barns and outbuildings were starting to show wear, but still solid. The gardens were well tended and closely planted, the livestock neatly penned. Both like and unlike where he grew up. Almost as if time had stood still.
In the background Bilia and Iomara took turns, first the screeching toddler was unceremoniously dangled under the moon-silvered cascade, then ‘Mara rinsed her long dark hair. Bili passed her tiny infant over to ‘Mara while she took a moment to get clean. Tod’s vision was acute enough to tell that she still bore the marks of her recent pregnancy, her belly not yet tight and her breasts veined and hard with milk.
Quintilius stood under the water as if it were a penance and quickly moved to let the children whoop and dance through the fall. They were out soon enough, teeth chattering and lips blue. Bird and Honey had taken charge of all the children’s tunics and promptly herded them up toward the main house.
It was good this place was so defensible; unlike his home, it was rich enough to need it. After all these years he finally realized that the reason the Romans had fought so determinedly to take his people’s land wasn’t because it was so beautiful but because it sat on the route to even richer places. Rome was greedy. They wanted Gaul’s wheat and Dacia’s minerals, and the tin from Albion. They wanted it all and his people were in the way.
Tod turned from his appraisal of the thickly wooded slopes to follow the sound of Bird’s flute back into the main house.
The dogs had been stationed in the forecourt and moved to bar his entry with pricked ears and deep grumbles. Cunorix stepped out to reprimand the guards with a harsh “Leave it!” and held the inner door open for him.
The people had returned to their niches and were raptly listening to Bird’s flute. The new girl, Aia, sat at his feet voicing a wordless accompaniment to the reedy melody. It was a treat to listen to of an evening, everyone had missed his music.
As Tod slowly walked to his place at the head of the room the people hushed one by one, music and voice, until naught could be heard but respiration and the snuffle of a nursing baby.
Nemeta stood as their Gamli passed, as soon as he was settled the old woman announced that it was time for the celebration of blood.
Honey was close enough that she could hear the snick as Tod’s fangs snapped down and see the suddenly blank expression on his face. He was hungry but he was going to hide it.
“Elder,” she breathed, “I will feed you more later if you still need it.”
His shoulders dropped a hairsbreadth signaling relief.
“As the eldest of the clan, I shall lead and I will demonstrate. First the greeting, then the exchange, and finally the thanks.”
Standing half turned to the clan so that all could witness, Nemeta pressed her gnarled hands together, bowed, and spoke:”Greetings Gamli, I offer my blood.” She extended her hand, palm upwards, toward Tod’s mouth.
He wasn’t at all sure what he was supposed to do next but when the Crone looked meaningfully at him and opened her mouth he opened his. It was a little startling when the old mother pressed her forefinger against his already extended fang but he automatically closed his mouth and savored the blood. He could actually taste traces of Ancient Semni, decades worth of blood exchanges, he could taste age and smoke and sorrow. Lovers gained and lovers lost. A long lifetime of emotions and seasons of hunger.
“Thank you, grandmother.” He inhaled deeply, this part was disturbing, “I offer my blood in return.” Tod pierced his finger and presented it to Nemeta. Her toothless mouth opened like a bird’s and her eyes closed as she absorbed the blood.
The ceremony was repeated with Verna, Cunorix, Honey and Bird. Finally Iomara and Billia brought the children up. ‘Mara’s toddler did just as his mother did, no fuss; Bili’s tiny baby wailed weakly as he was disturbed from his nap but sucked a while on Tod’s finger before dropping off again. Bili’ leaned forward to plead- ”He is not strong, would you gift him with more of your blood later? Grandmother says it will make him more likely to survive.”
Tod nodded decisively before turning to the children. Buck and Andy, old hands at this business, led the way, the older children, Ivor and Addy not to be out done, followed their example. Well, Ivor did flinch a little.
Quintilius reluctantly trailed the parade. “Not right, ‘posed to be our Semni.” He looked right at Tod and proclaimed:”she was good to me.”
So far, so good, all those little bits of blood sparkled in his mind, maybe tickled, and he’d have to spend some time sorting them all out. But even ‘though Honey and Bird were stronger presences they were not distracting. It gave him a feeling companionship when he was out there in the dark. He did get lonely.
Verna brought out a pitcher of mead from the storeroom behind Tod’s resting place. She ducked her head and blushed when he took the time to sniff and comment that it was similar to what his stepmother made. He even went so far as to moisten his fingertip in the mead and touch it to his tongue. He hadn’t tried that in a long time.
They promptly sat on one of the empty benches to compare recipes. This was Verna’s spring mead flavored with sweet woodruff. There was never much of it because there was little honey to spare at that time of the year. They would be harvesting the first honey of the year soon and would have plenty for mead making and preserving fruits.
Tod decided then and there that he would help with the harvest. Bird had recited to him a list of those who lost their lives exacting vengeance for Semni’s murder. The clan had lost fourteen men and women destroying that nest of nightwalkers. Astounding that they had been able to do that at all. Not only that but this happened only three generations after they had lost more than half their people from illness and accident whilst fleeing the Romans and crossing the Rhine. Brave, stubborn people.
The dragur actually smiled (he smiled more this month than he had in the previous two centuries) before he told Verna that he wanted to help with the harvest this year. His strength would be an asset and it was the least he could do after what Honey and Bird had done for him.
Besides it would do his soul good to revisit his youth occasionally.
Verna stood as she saw Bili’ approaching, baby tucked into her stole. “Time for you to do some healing. The scales of our indebtedness will always balance.”
Tod patted the cushion next to him encouraging Bili to sit. “What do you know of this, Bili? I have never heard of healing an infant.”
“Well, when I was little, Ancient Semni healed another child, I didn’t pay much attention at the time, but grandmother Nemeta reminded me and said that a couple of drops every night would make him much stronger.” Bili looked down at the baby and went on in a rush: “She also said that I had something I could give you that you would really like.”
He removed his finger from his mouth where he was getting ready to pierce it. “What might that be – what did Nemeta say I would like?”
Bili continued to look at her hands twisting in the baby’s blanket. “My milk. Ancient Semni used to enjoy it for a treat – woman’s milk. She said it was almost the same as blood, but was sweet.”
Tod’s eyebrows shot right up into his hairline. “Er, emmm, I didn’t know. You are sure?” Wait what was he thinking, just because he had nothing but blood for two centuries didn’t mean …..well maybe it did mean that it was all pretty much the same. Even water gave him a pretty ferocious belly ache. Just the thought of a change…..
“Oh, yes, I’m sure, grandmother said.” Suddenly Bili wanted to convince the Gamli that this was possible. She wanted to be the one to do something special for him.
“You do know I’d help the baby, no matter what?”
“Yes, Gamli, I know you will help us, in turn we will do what we might for you.” Bili reeled that off as though it were something that she had learned by rote. Which she had.
“Why don’t you try, see if it agrees with you?” the girl was so enthusiastic she set the sleeping baby aside and tugged down the neck of her tunic.
He had to admit that this had never occurred to him. Of course he had heard of it, in the fable of Roman Charity and the prisoner Cimon being sustained with her milk. He’d also heard of it when men boasted of the sweetness and abundance of their wives’ milk and what strong and healthy children they had…that boasting always seemed to beckon bad luck – hubris it was.
“Well? D’ya want to try? I’m dripping here.” Bili’s impatience brought him right out of his thoughts and brought his attention to her tightly swollen blue veined breast. Her nipple was dark with its rivulet of thin milk drenching the linen of her tunic.
The best approach seemed to be to reach right across and capture part of the stream in his palm. So warm, but now cooler than blood, pale as moonlight, sweet smelling. Tentatively he touched his tongue to the liquid, he’d forgotten what sweet tasted like. With one sweep of his tongue he made short work of the milk.
Meanwhile Bili had snatched up the baby and the poor thing was sputtering at the onrush of milk. She was muttering about hell on clothes, my tunic is soaked.
Clutching a wooden bowl, Nemeta hobbled towards where Tod and Billi were. “Quit trying to drown the baby, catch your milk in the bowl.”
Bili looked confused a moment fumbling between the bowl and the baby until Nemeta handed Tod the bowl and picked up the now thrashing infant. So tiny, he sounded just like a kitten sneezing.
With her hands now free Bili took the bowl and pressed it just below her teat to catch the overflow, half filling the cup before the trickle stopped.
“Oooof, that feels better. My milk came big time. Maybe next I’ll be blessed with twins.”
Baby and bowl changed positions again. Bilia wandered over to her niche tossing over her shoulder “I’ll be back as soon as I’ve gotten us dry.”
The two ancients sat together. Finally Tod got up the nerve to ask the crone: “Do you know how old you are?“
“Ahemmm,” she began before clearing her throat again. Cough, “Never know what part is going to fail me next.” She thought a little more. “I was young, but I remember when the news came that the Emperor Trajan had died. That puts me over my first century.
“Semni healed me of a grave sickness when I was a young mother. It took much of her blood. Many of us were horribly sick. We were on the move, looking for a refuge from the constant skirmishes. The clan came to a promising valley and we thought we’d look things over. It seemed strange that there were no other people there since it was well watered with good and rich pasture land. One or two of the sheep fell sick, and although we decided that it wasn’t safe to eat the meat we did hope to take the fleece. Then the cows started to drop and we knew there was a curse on that valley and we had to leave. But by then the people were too sick to go anywhere. Those who caught the sickness in their lungs died quickly, others developed horrible charcoal dark sores and hung on longer.
“The whole time we were crying and weeping in our hearts and our Semni heard us. She had been hunting and reaving in the east and it took her several days to arrive. She was able to save my father the Charioteer, his dark haired wife and his brother Vernogenous along with his spouse, Lucky. And of course me. We lost more than half the clan and all our livestock to the cursed valley. We all needed much blood and our Ancient was pale and gaunt when she’d done.
“All of us, the ones who had had so much blood, lived a long time, and bore children much beyond the usual season. I was in my seventh decade when Quintilius was born. A last fling, you understand?
“That was then. So many died so quickly.” Nemeta sighed weakly “But Ancient Semni had already developed a taste for mother’s milk. Especially in the summer when the flavors of fruit and berries were carried so clearly.”
Tod looked straight at the crone, decided to accept what the clan offered and drank the milk straight down. I coated his tongue with sweetness. A blessing.
“She said it reminded her of her human life, without the drawbacks,” the woman continued. “She used to joke with us around Yule – that she certainly didn’t miss having to go out into the snow to have a wee.”
Dragur and human chuckled together, sharing a moment.
1In Norse mythology, the Norns are the demi-goddesses of destiny. They control the destinies of both gods and men, as well as the unchanging laws of the cosmos. They are represented as three sisters: Urd (“fate”), Verdandi (“necessity”) and Skuld (“being”). They live at the base of the World Tree Yggdrasil in the realm of Asgard.
Nothing lasts forever, and even the mighty Yggdrasil is subject to decay. The Norns try to stop this process, or at least slow it down, by pouring mud and water from the Well of Fate over its branches. This magical liquid stops the rotting process for the time being.
In other myths, the Norns were thought to give assistance at birth, and that each person has his own personal Norn.
3In Scottish folklore, Sunwise or Sunward was considered the “prosperous course”, turning from east to west in the direction of the sun. The opposite course was known in Scotland as widdershins (Lowland Scots), or tuathal (Scottish Gaelic, lit. northerly), and would have been counterclockwise.
5a verse or song to be chanted or sung in response
6Lugh is the Celtic lord of every skill.and consort Rosmerta was the goddess of fire, warmth, and abundance. A flower queen and hater of marriage, Rosmerta was also the queen of death. A Celtic goddess of fertility and wealth, whose cult was widely spread in Northeast Gaul. Rosmerta was the wife of Esus, the Gaulish Hermes. Her attributes are a cornucopia and a stick with two snakes.