The next night the waning moon rode high – to the dragar it was as bright as mid-day. It had not risen until late in the evening, presaging the sunrise by only a few hours. The air was clear with only spectral bits of ground mist drifting along the river gorge.
Thalia and Tod were feeling satisfied, relieved and mischievous after having erased the rogues. Time for a little amusement to wash away the deaths.
They’d hoped not to lose any of their own but it was inevitable that Nemeta would die. She was human, she had been incredibly old, yet she still had the strength to die a hero. Tonight they had buried her in a grave dedicated to those who served the Goddess. She would live in memory, his and Thalia’s too.
Tod truly did not want to think about the battle last night. Some parts were exciting, yes, and he’d gotten to relax his grip on his anger and just let it fly. That felt good, but it still left a bad taste in his mouth.
No, not the anger, Nemeta’s blood. She’d gotten badly hurt when she’d impaled the knob jointed minions, they hadn’t died immediately and she’d gotten thrown about. Brave woman. When he offered her his blood to heal she’d said no, she was ready to move on, it was time for her to explain the last ritual to him.
“You are to drain me, so that my blood lives on in you. Our Semni gave me her blood when I was born, you are to take it as I die.”
He was already full; full of regrets and anger. He wanted to do her honor. Perhaps……now that he was the priest of endings, even though he no longer could initiate life but he could surely gently take it and ease the soul onward.
“I can do this. Have you said farewell to your kin?”
“Yes,” she whispered, “I will greet our fore-bearers and kiss Ancient Semni on both cheeks.”
Tod bent low to murmur “Salute the Ancient One for me. Look at me Nemeta, you will go be with the ancestors gladly and you will feel no pain.” With which he bent even lower and put his lips to her neck, after a moment she sighed one last time and was still.
As Tod eased Nemeta’s passing, Quintilius wailed and tore at his clothes. The racket was deafening. Thalia led him off to a corner, quickly seized his meager will and left him sleeping. Even Thalia could only stare at the patterned light and dark while repeating “They always die, all of them. Sooner or later they all die.” The dragar retreated into the shadows to let the humans do what they must.
Verna grunted at the effort it took to lever herself up by pressing against her thighs. It had been a long day and a longer night and she’d gotten stiff sitting, waiting for the end. People were milling about, knowing there was work to do yet mostly too wrung out to do it. It was up to her to take charge now.
“In the morning, the men will dig her grave in the morning. Now we will lay her out in the bath house – it is cool there.” She turned to Honey using a more elaborate address due to the formality of the occasion.
“Disa now that you represent the Mother you will help, and you Maiden Andala will help also.
“Iomara, as her direct granddaughter, search out the shroud she wove for herself and I’m sure you know where to find the grave clothes and the ornaments she’d put aside.
“Cunorix,” indicating her partner with her chin, “will decide which pig will be slaughtered for the funeral feast on the third day.
“Tomorrow children, with the help of the the Maiden we will show you which plants to gather to help the old one’s journey. Even the littlest must have a part. Billi, help them tomorrow, be sure to cut enough yew and cypress. Have Andala pick both yarrow and vervain – as much as you can easily find.”
The babies had already burrowed under the covers of their bed places, their elders were sagging where they sat.
The Aeturni settled down as they understood that no one was to be left adrift, they all had their part to do tomorrow.
On the way back to their resting places Tod and Thalia decided to scout quietly along the cliffs. Fairly quickly the tell-tale ammonia scent of accumulated bird droppings led them to a colony of rock doves. Perfect timing, there were plenty of barely feathered squabs to be had. Tod drifted downwards to capture more than a dozen. They made an odd writhing lump in the gathered up front of his tunic, whilst behind him the parents fluttered and cooed agitatedly.
Clouds of dust and scree followed Thalia in her downwards scramble, if she’d needed to breathe she would have been sneezing up a storm. Towards the base of the cliff Thalia’s form cleared within the roiling particles just before she turned and jumped free of the cascade.
Once they’d found the right basket in the pantry they’d tucked the squabs away and stored them in the cool room at the rear of the long house.
“It is Brandr I don’t trust,” Tod had growled, staring toward the other end of the house, “I liked resting with Honey or Bird, it was quite nice. Never Brandr.”
“You. Rested. With. Humans?” Thalia reared back and gave him a have you lost your mind look. “What on the face of the Goddess’s green earth possessed you to do that?”
“Oh, I didn’t tell you?
“They found me staked to a cliff face. It was almost as if they’d gone to a market looking for me – they were that pleased by their find.”
Thalia’s nose actually twitched, “Over the past seven centuries I thought I’d seen some strange things. Never anything this odd. The Fates spun a long many colored thread when you were born. The kinks and bends are all part of its making.”
“My uncle called it my wyrd, cast by the three Ladies – much the same as the Fates – I was a priest mostly to the Mother and the Maiden when I was human. They must love me well.” Tod sighed and smoothed the dust with his sandal. “I seem to be meant to serve the Crone now.”
“Be that as it may, Tod, why did you rest with the humans?”
“Oh that. I was pretty damaged.
“You see my eye? Still a little scarred, it was taken. My hand and both feet too. Maliciously Corbulo even pulled my fangs. One or the other of the humans rested with me to be sure I was safe and to offer me blood as soon as I woke.
“My brother’d made sure I couldn’t survive on my own. The three gave me their own blood until they could find a better source. Often they would bring me back a breather that needed to vanish or had been gravely injured.”
“Tod, it is almost dawn, if it weren’t I’d stay and force you to tell me the rest.”
Thalia had vanished in a swirl of leaves, Tod fled in the other direction just as the sky brightened over the dark forests to the east. .
The next was an in-between sort of a day that didn’t start well for Verna. Everyone was exhausted from the fight and even more exhausted from the let down afterwards. But still they had to pull themselves together, get ready for the Old One’s burial that evening and then prepare Andala to put on the Maiden’s robe the next evening. She and Honey/Disa would step into their robes too.
Poor child she was over young for the responsibility, six or seven would have been better. Verna thought she herself was young for her new responsibilities as the Crone. Well, needs must, even if she was younger than Nemeta and didn’t think she’d ever learn enough to fill the role. So much to do right now.
Then more to-do the day after since it would be third-day after Nemeta’s death and they would have to gather for the feast and make offerings for her shade’s easy passage.
Son of a dildo “What trickster left this basket in the walkway? Right smack in the middle where someone would stumble over it!”
The basket burbled.
Verna’d just woken up, barely had her eyes open, she hadn’t even pissed yet. Then she’d barked her shin and the stupid basket burbled at her! Maybe if she went back to bed………..no, not with the way her bladder ached.
Stolidly she picked the basket up and carried it to the doorway where there was more light.
“Pssssht, squabs. Must have been Tod.” Her posture relaxed and the corners of her mouth quirked up, she never could be angry with him very long. He had a way about him.
“First things first.” and Verna determinedly set out for the latrines and the rest of her day.
Verna woke Quintilius next – he would be tremendously upset if she had forgotten how important his job was. Goddess forfend, she had no time to soothe an upset Quin today.
“Quintilius, Quin, you must get up. It is late and you haven’t told the bees our important news. Hurry, you know you must be the first one out there. You have so much to say you’ll be there until afternoon.”
Quintilius was blessed with a luxuriant beard and formidable eyebrows, more than enough to make up for his bald pate. Trying to wake he rubbed them all briskly until he looked like a brush pile before peering around, confused.
“Mama, where’s Mama? I have to help her in the mornings. I’m her helper.”
“She’s dead, Quint, you have to tell the bees.”
“Yes, I have to tell the bees or they will be angry and leave. No more honey. I have to tell the bees.” Righting his clothing as he stumbled out the door, heading for the bee skeps.
Right what’s next?
“Bilia, as soon as you all come back from the gathering please show the children how to make the wreaths, Andala must be the one to weave the cedar with the yarrow and vervain. I will help Honey twist the Mother’s wreath and she will show Andy how to weave the flowers for the Maiden.
The women had been in no shape to deal with the body last night. This day Verna gathered all of them, all ages together to help prepare the one who had been Nemeta for the grave. The rigor had worn off by the time they came together in the bath house, the children with robust herbs, ‘Mara with her grandmother’s grave clothes, Honey brought the entire kist filled with sacred things since she wasn’t sure what would be required. Neither Honey nor Andy had seen the ritual for the burial of a priestess and it was her place to instruct them. All of them.
“Mind Bili, mind the draft!” Honey sheltered the lamp flame with her palm. The girl-children and their bouquets were silhouetted against the noonday sun before Bili shooed them into the room.
“Aia light those lamps, we will need them for our work.
“Honey? Will the wax be ready?”
“Just about Auntie, it seemed a little stiff before, I think I need to add a few more drops of oil as it heats.”
She had the bowl on a trivet over a lamp which gave off just enough gentle heat for Honey to mash at the contents as she added the oil, one drop at a time. Soon the room smelled as much of beeswax and almonds as it did of strong herbs and death.
Honey stared into the dim room permeated with the unmistakable, unforgettable, scents. Long ago she’d helped to prepare her father’s body (he’d died avenging Semni), he was the first. Years later, her mother. Although by that time Mama didn’t look like Mama any more, she’d just looked old.
She who had been Nemeta was easier, she’d never known her when she wasn’t old, so she didn’t have to make peace between what she touched and saw before her and what she remembered. Gloomy, I’m supposed to be glad she died a hero. Huh!
Honey set aside the wax for after the mold was finished and rubbed her hands on her thighs.
“Are you ready for me Auntie? Is her face all greased? Andy, come watch. You will need to help some day.”
The girl pulled a face, “Smell bad!” but she drew closer.
Verna sniffed, they’d all been a little weepy, “Dead things do, that is why we use the strong herbs and bury them quickly. She who was the crone will soon be resting in the ground and it will be fine.”
“Here you feel a bit of this wax, first we must make a plaster mold so that later we can make the funerary mask to place with the images of the ancestors.”
Andy was fascinated by the greasy, slippery waxy feel of the lump. She was even more entranced when she found that she could flatten it out onto her palm and then peel it off in one sheet.
Turning to the task at hand, Honey rallied. “’Mara, bring me that sack of plaster and the bucket of water. Gather the feathers and leave the little rabbit tail brush.”
“Pay attention dearie, hand me that cloth. That’s right, the wispy one.” Verna stretched out her arm to snag the gauze.
“Stirring stick! ‘Mara, start stirring whilst I sift – slowly.”
Fine plaster trickled from Honey’s fingers, handful by creamy handful, as ‘Mara steadily moved the stick round the bottom of the bucket. Everyone’s tongue was furred with the salty chalk drifting around the room and soon their nose hairs were coated with it.
“Slow, slow don’t break it. Stop! Before it sets. Here we go.”
“Verna – the strips ready?
“Now, Andy listen, first Verna puts wool oil on the face so that the plaster mould comes off easily. Next we dip the strips of gauze in the plaster and lay them across, just so. Then another layer criss-crossing that. Place them so that the crosswise of the fabric wants to bend around the eyes and over the brow. Tap gently over the lips so the plaster can catch the spirit of her face – but not so firmly that you mush her features. There that will hold the mold together nicely.
“See, I blow on the little bubbles so they don’t mar the mold
“Now you can help Andy, take a feather, dip it in the plaster and paint it over the mold. I’ll do some too.”
They worked quietly for a moment, Andy rather liked painting with the gloppy stuff.
“Ooops, this is setting let me hurry this up a bit.” Honey scooped handfuls of the solidifying mixture and patted them over the surface until suddenly it began to crumble off in chunks.
“Well, that’s all we are getting out of this batch. Let’s go wash up and eat our day meal while this cures.”
As they left Andy and got a look at the body with the scary white lump on her face and she shivered.
The girl was quiet during the meal and only picked at her food. ‘Mara noticed and sat closer, “What is it lovey? You aren’t eating. Are you upset?”
The dark cloud of curls bobbed, “Yesss.” She continued to stare at her knees.
“Are you tired?”
The curls swished sideways.
“Are you sad?”
Her shoulders lifted.
“Are you frightened?”
Andy’s head bobbed again. “Scary,” she mumbled into her tunic.
“What is scary?”
“Da body with the white stuff onna’ts face.
“Issa ghos’! Don’ wanna go back in ‘der.”
“Alright love, we’ll talk to Honey, she’ll help you.”
Honey sat further down the bench, finishing her sketchy repast. Everyone had been too busy to make a proper meal so they had a soup with greens, some soft cheese, green onions and bread. It was enough.
“Hey ‘Mara, what’s going on with our little maiden there?” She bent lower. “Not so happy. Tch, tch,” she clicked her tongue.
“Today is difficult, we have lots of work to do before she who was our Crone can be buried and we can get on with things.”
“Shush, don’t say that name, you might call her back. She has begun her journey.” Andy looked even more spooked and Honey tried to soothe her.
“After the ninth day we can speak to her again since she will have transmuted into one of our manes.1
“Our Tod will talk to her then and we will show you how to tell her important things.”
“Nooooo, she’s ghos’, she will bring me ba’ dreams.”
“Oh, lovey not our oldest, she is one of the good manes, she is our lares, we are giving her proper respect and a good burial; she will look after us from her place in the underworld.
“When it is our turn to make the journey to become manes the oldest will meet us and show us the way. We will all be there waiting for you.”
“Even our Tod?”
“Not exactly, Tod is our Penate, the spirit of the Aeturni. He has one foot in the underworld and one foot in the world of the living – so he is both. He is the anchor for our bridge to the di inferi.2
“We stand on the sunlit side of the bridge and Tod stands with the moon and stars.”
Andy was blinking gravely and frowning through the whole explanation.
Bucky had sidled up after he had noticed his sister was worried. “Our Mama was afraid of the wandering souls. She said they would suck the life from us and leave us empty shells doomed to wander too.”
“She said.” Andy echoed.
“I must warn you that all dragur are not like Tod, there are some bad ones, the untethered. They are known as the lemures3 and they are frightening creatures. Tod is not, he is our own, the Crone is not, we show her affectionate respect and she will help Tod protect us.”
Andy bobbed her head decisively. “Later, you will ‘splain it me again?”
“Yes lovey, I will
“Time to get back to work.”
One by one the Aeturni fed the last bits of bread and soup to the dogs and turned back to their preparations.
It was time to raise the plaster from the face of she who had been their matriarch.
Kneeling, Verna positioned herself on one side of the head and Honey on the other. The new matriarch always seemed so perfectly calm and composed.
Honey wiped her forehead against her arm before resettling her headscarf. She never could get that thing to sit right, it was always getting knocked one way or another and sliding off the back.
The women’s eyes flicked back and forth between each other and the mask. “Ready, lift!” They said in unison.
“Not bad, we got good detail. Come look!”
“Even the eyelashes.”
“Now we let it dry, then tomorrow we cast the clay.”
Verna busied herself cleaning the old woman’s face of the plaster smudges and crumbs, using a soft cloth to absorb the wool grease that remained.
“Iomara, the grave clothes!” They had been specially made by the old woman herself. She would add bits of embroidery and decoration as the fancy took her. Each embellishment was part of her story, illustrating more than a century of tales. Even in some places illuminated by precious silk thread. Now where did she come by that, it is worth its weight in gold.
The long tunic opened at the back so that it could be easily slipped over the arms.
‘Mara and Honey lifted the frail body while Verna and Billi unfolded the shroud to lie beneath it.
“Andy, come help us arrange this beautiful dress and I’ll tell you what the pictures mean.”
Laying out the belt and her grandmother’s favorite jewelry ‘Mara looked up at Verna, “What d’ya think? I know she wanted the belt, but which earrings would be best?”
“Well niece, she always wore the twisted gold, but she told me that it was because the discs were too delicate to wear every day.”
“I think the armband her father, Marobodunis, the Big Raven, gave to her should be on her wrist. She cherished that.”
“Nah, she told me that she wanted you to have it, to keep it within her lineage. Pass it to your daughter.”
Soon there was nothing left to arrange, the herbs had been tucked within the folds of her skirt, a coin for her passage was slipped between her lips, yew and cypress had been hung from the lintels of each building. Now they sat waiting while everyone filed in to pay their respects.
Still they waited.
At dusk Tod and Thalia appeared at the door of the bath house, and bowed briefly to the former Crone’s remains.
Verna motioned them to accompany her over near the edge of the plateau where once the earth giants had struggled, pushing one great block of stone into the other, bracing pink rock up against gray. Something about the strife within parts of the cliff felt odd, disturbing.
“Elders, I should have brought this to your attention earlier, you might, perhaps find this useful at some time or another.
“Here along the sacred path lie the holy ones, their faces to the setting sun. They stand watch over this entrance to the chthonic realm. It also serves as a safe place to keep the death masks of our ancestors. It is where we come to beg for intercessions from our manes.
“Our Semni said it was quite deep and she’d never come to its end.”
A look of startlement flashed across Thalia and Tod’s faces. Inaudibly they whispered why didn’t we look over there? It is a wonder we weren’t ended! An unprotected flank.
“Do not blame yourselves for not seeing this. Semni had a most skilled witch lay a ‘don’t see me – turn away’ spell over this corner. We learned how to renew it every year.”
“May we go inside Verna?” Tod hesitated and looked over at Thalia, “We won’t need a lamp, I think we are just going to take a look.”
They didn’t need a lamp, although they would, even with their spectacular vision, if they went much beyond the triangular entrance.
The first ‘room’ was filled with shelves and steps from the layers of rock slipping, one past the other. Someone had taken the time to level the floor and some of the shelves. Masks ringed the walls; faces of the ancestors slept eternally, looking inward. Runes had been scratched into the living rock to give names to the masks that rested above them.
Verna had slipped in behind them carrying her lamp. “Elder, your task is to mark the names of those that have passed. With your great strength it should be easily done.”
“Beyond that rock fall, Semni said that the cave goes on quite a distance.”
With wide eyes the dragar regarded at the circle of masks. They seemed to float in the darkness just above shoulder height.
“We refresh the paint on them regularly to keep them with us. It would be sad to forget any of our own.”
They paused, absorbing the silence, smelling the ancient dust.
“Well, we should be getting on with things Verna.” The small clicking of pebbles against rock echoed eerily as they shuffled out of the cave.
“Tod, the new Maiden has the Aegis waiting for you. It is usually best to hang it above the cave since there is to be a sacrifice over the grave.”
Tod absently nodded as he looked around for Andy.
The men had carried the woman’s body over on a wide board. The shroud had already been sewn closed except for the bit that would cover the face. The remaining cloth would not be drawn over her face until she was in the earth. This way they could all say that they’d all seen her buried and there would be no mistake in their minds that they’d shown her proper respect.
Verna had coached Tod on the ceremony. It was similar to those that he’d attended as a stripling.
As the people drew close to the grave they instinctively stood away from the sacred path running between the entrance of the cave and the western edge of the plateau. Tod led Andy and Honey to take their places fronting the crowd; Verna was fussing with the wreaths over to the side. When she walked back she brought four wreaths with her.
Excitedly Andy said to Honey “I ma’ dat one wit’ da wheat, I put da fowers innit.”
“Ya, it is beautiful, lovey.’
From Verna, Tod took the wreath that was a mass of wildflowers, the bunches punctuated with stalks of green wheat and a few sprigs of cypress. Moving to crouch before Andy he spoke softly.
“Here is the wreath of the Maiden. The joys of your maidenhood are bound by your responsibilities, the wheat is to signify that you are moving towards fruitfulness and the cypress is to remind us all that out of death comes life and life proceeds towards death, ad infinitum.” with which he placed it on her unbound hair.
Andy’s eyes rolled upwards in an effort to get a look at what was poking her forehead.
D’ya remember what to say lovey? Honey whispered.
Tod scooped the Maiden up so she could extend a second wreath over the tightly braided crown of Honey’s hair.
“Here is da wreat of da Motha, the time of yo’ Maid’nhoo’ ‘s dun (Honey kept whispering her lines) Yo’ wear wheet ’cause a’ yo’ fruitfi’ss.” At which point she gave up and buried her face in Tod’s chest.
“Try some more lovey.”
“Fro’ da’ Maid’n cums da’ Motha and new lif’.” rushing forward, “fro’ deaf cums lif’, ad somtin’.” and The Maiden scrunched the wheat and flowers down over Honey’s braid before bursting into tears.
With the Maiden’s head buried in death’s shoulder Tod moved to his place alongside Verna in time to hear Honey intone:
“Here is the wreath of the Crone, your peace and serenity is bound by your responsibilities, The cypress and the yew signifies that you stand on the threshold of becoming one of the di inferi, the scattered stalks of wheat are in memory of your fruitful time and the few flowers are your memories of maidenhood. These are reminders that out of death comes life and life proceeds towards death, ad infinitum.” Honey settled the wreath on Verna’s tightly coiled silver hair.
Now it was Verna’s duty to rest the wreath on the Elder’s head. Raising the circlet of dark evergreens that had been threaded with late blooming golden asphodel and scarlet cords. I hope I remember this right.
“Here is the wreath of our chosen Gamli, our Elder, our guide to di inferi. The evergreens symbolize your unending existence, the asphodel is for the waters of memory and the plane of our meeting. The scarlet cords represent our blood tying you to the human experience and binding you to your responsibilities. As death you balance our triad of life.”
Tod set the Maiden back on her feet next to the Mother. He stepped to the fore.
“It is time for us to send our beloved old one on her path to di inferi. Blood will strengthen our manes to guide her and see her on her way.”
Bird and Aia set up an eerie cadence with their instruments. Wardruna – Ár var alda – YouTube.
All present set their hand to filling in the grave. The children watched doubtfully until it was their turn. Each added dirt according to their natures; Ivor and Buck bravely strode up and each added their shovel’s full, Addy and the baby held hands, Addy winced as the dirt landed – the baby managed a handful. For this occasion Andy was counted an adult even though she wasn’t yet four so she took her turn with the other two priestesses.
Cunorix, Quintilius and Brandr had gone to maneuver the sacrifice. Deftly wielded hurdles and some adroitly placed bait was all it took to get the fine black sow to stand over the grave. Happily she grunted over her treats, she never saw Tod flash along side of her and she certainly didn’t feel the knife slashing her throat.
Quickly springing away from the torrent of bright blood, Tod thoughtfully cleaned the knife. Thalia, from the shadows behind him murmured “good kill, clean.”
The funereal music ceased.
Nodding his thanks he turned to Verna for direction. Softly she spoke his next scene.
“The sacrifice of blood will strengthen our manes and encourage them to welcome our eldest who has come to dwell with them.”
He extended the patera under the gaping throat of the sow to catch the last gush of blood as he leaned on her ribcage.
“I will trace the path her spirit must follow to rejoin her ancestors.”
Holding the patera at a cautious angle Tod dripped blood along the sacred path way and in through the cavern’s entrance and all the way to the gap in the rock fall at the end.
“Water!” a bucket was brought both the patera and the knife were sluiced off. It would never do to confuse the shades.
Honey felt a little overwhelmed with her new title, and to be honest with the idea of a baby. She did what she had always done, she took comfort in ‘Mara’s company. Together they stood off to one side, arms around each other’s waists watching the crowd shake off its tension while being a May pole for the toddler.
“Why don’t you name her Idunna for your mother? If this one is a girl, she will be Suicca for my mother.”
“Will you sit with me when my time comes?”
“Of course, you were there for me.”
They stood quietly while the toddler went round and round.
Thalia and Tod stood together watching the people drift off to serve the funeral meats.
“Truly, I don’t know how they made all these preparations in such a short amount of time.”
“They have all of daylight, Tod. They have all of daylight, all of their short lives.
“I miss it too.”
“Tomorrow is third day, and the Aeturni will want to offer a feast in honor of the departed. We should at least stay for that.”
He turned his head scenting the wind.
“But I find myself yearning for the snows.”
The clan was still excited when Thalia and Tod had risen with the new dark. After the funeral they had chattered on about who had done what and did ya see the other happen, until the dragar were ready to flee.
Only Verna and Honey noticed the restless energy that practically crackled around Thalia and Tod as the two threaded their way amongst the people, finally Verna shooed them from the cypress wreathed hall. Speaking as softly as she could Verna suggested: “You are still under the sway of blood-lust, it would be best for everyone if you released it on the plateau.”
The night walkers needed to purge their anger and the lingering battle lust out of their blood. A few challenges, and some undead amusements would settle their tempers. Not that last night wasn’t amusing in its own way, some hand to hand and a few righteous kills always improved a dragar’s mood. Good times.
Thalia had giggled (a fearsome sound, not many had heard it and survived). Shocked, Tod’s eyebrows had jerked upward until he caught the sparkle in her dark eyes just as she jabbed her finger in his ribs. Playtime she’d mouthed, and tore off in the direction of the cliffs.
Tod had poured on the speed just as soon as he had seen where she was headed, a race huh?
In a blink they were spidering up the cliffs, Thalia, the older of the two, was faster and arguably the better fighter, but Tod had the mountains in his bones and just flowed right up the rock like water drawn uphill.
If anyone had been there to watch it would have seemed impossible, the two shadows smoothly zigzagging up the cliff face, from minute toe hold to tenuous finger grip. Swing and reach, stretch and scramble. Thalia might have been faster but Tod could find a hold where there seemed to have been none. The shadows laughed when they reached the top and collapsed against each other. Neither could claim a win.
Now, after having scootched around a bit the dragur each swiped grit from a patch on the same overhang to permit them to sit shoulder to shoulder. Thalia facing south, south east, Tod, brushing off his knees and hands, settled peering directly to the south east, searching for his own snow crested mountains. The high-riding third quarter moon was almost directly over their heads and on its way to the horizon behind them.
Thalia flicked her braids back from her face. “D’ya ever want to go back Tod? Just to settle things in your mind? Y’know, see what happened.”
“Maybe….” he waggled his head from side to side “and maybe it has changed too much. Maybe there will be nothing left.
“I always like to think of my family as they were, my father bluff and weathered, chest hair silver, his arm rings and golden torque all agleam as he passed judgment. My friends wrestling in the dust of the oppidium or making eyes at the sun browned girls.
“My mind knows that these things are gone but I hold on to them. For two centuries I have held on to them. Tchaaa!” he sounded disgusted with himself.
Thalia kept her eyes to the south while she mused “Syracuse, my birth city, we wept as we fled across the marsh after the rebels rose. My family were Gamoroi, part of the aristocracy, and when the lower orders struck out they were merciless towards us. I had never thought about the justice of our system, I was young, I knew no other way.
“After we gained refuge in the hills I grew up quickly, seeing your family fall one by one will hasten that. After my parents died I learned to fight, even took a lover while I cried vengeance time and time again. My maker found me sleeping in the arms of that man. I was pregnant when I was taken, my lover was drained, and that five fathered dog’s turd raped me until the baby came early, and then drained my child too. They both died. Everything that held me there had died. They always die, all of them. Sooner or later they all die.
“It was seven centuries ago I first rose to this existence, as soon as I was clear of the dirt he’d buried me in, that rotten flyblown catamite dragged me to the mainland and then over to Greece to follow the Persian armies wherever they fought. Unfortunately Artaxerxes did not have the thirst for battle that Xerxes did and everywhere we went it seemed as though somebody else had just signed a peace treaty.
“Old maggot mouth always insisted that the next city would have armies going at each other and we would be wealthy. Ha!
“Finally we encountered one roving band of unemployed mercenaries too many and he lost his head. Even though he’d commanded me not to kill him I may have been the one to push him into the sword swing, just a little push.” Thalia shrugged and pushed her lower lip out. “But I thought I’d earned that revenge for my baby.
“ We were traveling along the Diolkos4 on the Isthmus near Corinth. It was forever amusing to watch the workmen haul ships of all sizes – even the great triremes– back and forth across the rocky Isthmus. Sailing on a bouldered sea! At least I spoke the dialect so I could get along reasonably well there, it was easy to be mistaken for a lady of the night and satisfy my other hungers too.
“The best part of being near a crossroads like Corinth was that I got all the gossip. Ravenously I listened to the travelers recounting the flowering of Syracuse, my homeland’s defeat of the Athenian navy, the achievements of her engineers and poets. But I couldn’t bear to go back, I didn’t want to see that our house was long gone or that there were other children playing in the squares.” Thalia lifted her head as though she were checking for sunrise.
“Phillip of Macedon was interesting, or at least the gossip about him was. His wife was a witch, you know.”
Tod looked away, not to embarrass his elder with his skepticism. “No, I hadn’t heard. What do you know about them, witches, I mean? My maker, a superstitious bint if there ever was one, was terrified of witches and curses. Sometimes I thought she was turned part way through the embalming process and was actually half pickled. Very cunning though.
“She thought I had magical powers because of my tattoos (you tell me what I was doing as a slave if I had powers) and she turned me because she wanted me to undo a curse that been placed on her.
“‘Tura was forever going off on one hare brained quest after another. The century she’d turned me it was all about the curse her mother had laid on her. Then she’d heard gossip about a mightily powerful witch from the Hebrides who had three sons who were called Malice, Anger and Fear. With the merest threat of unleashing her children, kings would bow to her.
“She thought she was well on the road to being as powerful and as influential as that witch. She had two out of the three. Corbulo, my older brother was malicious enough for a doubled nest of vipers and I was so steeped in anger I was sure no one could ever exhaust that well spring.
“So the task was to find fear. She didn’t even have the sense to wonder if she should look for a fearful being or if she should be looking for someone fearsome. Cunt.” Tod huffed in irritation.
“I can’t believe how far she dragged us looking for her prize. Back and forth across Gaul, up and down through Germania. On road and off. Every time she reached a dead end she threw a tantrum, if it got past the foot stomping stage we were in for it and could only manage to limp along for several nights.
“If there wasn’t enough to eat Corbulo and I did without. Didn’t improve our tempers any.
“Somewhere along the line ‘Tura decided we were slowing her down and after her latest tantrum she’d damaged me enough so that she left me to Corbulo’s tender mercies and took off on her own.” Tod lapsed into silence, his expression grew stony as he looked into the distance.
“Well kid, don’t leave me hanging, what happened then. How did you get rid of Corbulo?”
“This is the embarrassing part, I didn’t get rid of him – he got rid of me.
“It was our maker’s doing, when she left she cautioned Corbulo to take good care of his brother, since she’d really made a mess of me that time. She ordered me to obey Corbulo in all things.
“That is what screwed me. I couldn’t not do whatever stupid thing he commanded and he maliciously ordered me to do any humiliating act he could think of. Fortunately that hadn’t much variety since he wasn’t the sharpest knife on the bench just the nastiest.
“He soon became bored with a slave that was compelled to do anything he desired. Even I was bored with being jerked around like a poppet.”
“I stopped reacting; my heart was dust and by that point I was looking forward to my final death. I was pretty sure that Corbulo would slip up and end me in a fit of rage. Every night his anger grew and he was more and more out of control. He seemed to think that if he was in charge he should get the same respect as a magistrate.
“He could order me around all night long – I still had no respect for him.
“Finally Corbulo could take it no longer and he had a couple of his thugs crucify me and leave me laid out to wait for the morning sun.”
“The Great Mother and Metis must have protected you or you would not be here now.”
“It seems so, I never will understand why but the Triune Goddess still wanted me as a priest since she moved the Maiden, Lugh of the clever hand and the Bard to rescue me.”
“Wait, wait – Lugh moved Brandr to be there?” Thalia gathered her braids in her fist and perplexed, tugged at them.
“Nah, it was his cousin, Eldjárn called Horse, who traveled with Honey the Maiden and Bird the songster. They were searching for me….or at least someone like me.”
“You are still confusing me; I thought Honey served as the Mother-priestess not the Maiden.”
One corner of Tod’s mouth rose in a smirk and his eyes sparkled. “Ya, she did, I took care of that!”
They took off chasing each other through the woods laughing, glad to shake off the bitterness.
1In ancient Roman religion, the Manes or Di Manes are chthonic deities sometimes thought to represent souls of deceased loved ones. They were associated with the Lares, Lemures, Genii, and Di Penates as deities (di) that pertained to domestic, local, and personal cult. They belonged broadly to the category of di inferi, “those who dwell below,” the undifferentiated collective of divine dead. The Manes were honored during the Parentalia and Feralia in February.
2The di inferi or dii inferi (Latin, “the gods below”) were a shadowy collective of ancient Roman deities associated with death and the underworld. The epithet inferi is also given to the mysterious Manes, a collective of ancestral spirits. The most likely explanation of the word Manes is from manus or manis (more often in Latin as its antonym immanis), “good, kindly,” a euphemistic way to speak of the inferi so as to avert their potential to harm or cause fear