A shadow slipped through the pre-dawn darkness. Tod had opted to explore the cleft that opened inward from the sacred cave. It was almost completely umbral even to his vision but his other acute senses rapidly sussed out his surroundings. Bats, it smelt distantly of bat droppings and sounded of both dripping water and the susurration of leathery wings. The night-flutterers were returning from their evening feed, they flicked past him as they headed for the echoing space beyond this corridor.
This had potential as a place to rest – a high ledge would certainly do in an emergency. A high ledge without bats, and inaccessible to scavengers would be ideal. Tod rose, letting his body lightly drag along the grain of the stone. It didn’t take long to reach the roof and begin a sideways drift. An encounter with a slick plank of wood caused him to snatch his hand back in surprise. Cautiously Tod re-extended his fingers to gauge the dimensions of the object’s height and breadth. The chest (for chest it was), as large as a king’s sarcophagus, had a simple pair of handles set to raise the peaked lid. Given enough time he would be able to work out the carvings that ornamented every surface – a lamp would help, it was dark even for him, not the smallest glimmer of light penetrated this far underground.
The contents could be deduced to have belonged to Ancient Semni, his fingers discerned a lamp, a stoppered jug that smelt of oil, steel and tinder for making fire, layers of cloth, goose down cushions, and writing materials. They all carried the same dry musk that he recognized from her robes. A true treasure trove.
There was some oil left in the jug and Tod thoughtfully shook it, did he or did he not have time before sunrise to have a look? Better not risk it, too many flammables. Tomorrow eve, I’ll have a look around then.
It was a comfortable space boasting an inward latch that would draw the lid into a tight seal. No scavengers could disturb his day-death. Barring the collapse of the mountain, it was a safe place to rest.
As Tod relaxed into the cushions they released a greater complexity of scent. Not just the signature that betokened dragur but also the grace notes of the Aeturni and the undertone of the vital feminine. All of these signaled Ancient Semni. This day he would add another chapter to the sensory record. After he rose he would light the lamp and learn more. He pulled the cedar lid closed and secured the latch whereupon he focused on inhaling Ancient Semni’s story one more time before his consciousness flickered.
And he exhaled into the new dark, One more inhale and Tod was able to pick out his favorite three as toddlers, still powdered with baby smells. Others, so many others, young, then old, then dying blood; Semni’s thread wove through them all. Is this what it would be like for him? A continuity rather than endless loss? Fated neither to Corbulo’s malicious madness nor ‘Tura’s endless quest for a magical release. He breathed again. It smelled like hope.
He rose and closed the resting place, taking up the oil bottle to refill before gliding to the floor.
Slipping through the rift in the mountain’s body, he stood in the gloaming watching the busy humans as they tided away the last of the third day funeral feast. They’d bid Nemeta’s spirit a proper farewell then, good.
Men put up the trestle tables, children scurried with the last of the serving platters, to and fro between Verna who saw to the contents and the young women crouched over tubs, each wielding a short bunch of scouring rush.
To spare their good clothes, the women had put aside their festive dress and worked in their linen under tunics – which were soon wet and mostly transparent everywhere that they pulled tight over feminine contours.
Bird had taken a break and was admiring the back ends of the women. Apparently he was particularly taken with Aia’s lithe form and he stood hypnotized by her bend and stretch as she handed off the clean platters to an older child.
Tod came to stand next to Bird, the oil jug still dangling from his forefinger, and was soon wearing the same foolish smile his companion was. Both Honey and ‘Mara were well endowed, their rumps broadly muscular, promising an energetic ride.
As soon as Bird noticed his companion he tipped his head and mimed his delight at the view with closed eyes and pursed lips.
Tod replied with hands extended in a gripping, weighing gesture while exhaling: Ummmm umh.
They chuckled before Bird offered a, “Good rising Gamli.”
The women whipped around to balance on a single knee. “Good rising Gamli,” they chorused, while taking that moment to push stray bits of hair out of their faces with wet arms.
It took a while for Tod to answer he was rather focused on the breasts pressing against the wet linen: the small blood knives dangling between ‘Mara’s bountifully milky breasts and Honey’s ripely pregnant set, a pendant tickling Aia’s maidenly hand’s-full. All delicious. Gah!I’m seriously horny he thought as he wet his lips.
Only Aia blushed.
‘Mara winked and dimpled, Honey grinned. Oh myyyyy. The women stretched their backs and rolled their shoulders before getting back to the scrubbing. They may have given an extra wiggle before bending over again.
Bird clapped him on the shoulder as he doubled over laughing.
“They do fancy you, my man, y’know they those two have always done everything together ever since they were wee-little.” Gasping a bit from an excess of mirth. “You might find yourself with a double portion some night!”
Brandr shot the two a black look as he and Quintilius strode past, towards the barn porting the trestle boards.
As Bird and Tod turned to remonstrate, the space where their heads had been was transected by a neatly aimed arrow which thrummed as it embedded itself in the board.
“What the Imperial fuck!” Shouted the bard (he was a well traveled man and his curses were always colorful). “Down, every body down!” Bird lunged forward to grab Aia’s ankle and pull her down with him.
Three more arrows shusshed into the dust and another clanged against the cook pot before dropping into the embers beneath it.
Tod had vanished before the scent of singed feathers from the charred arrow reached their noses. Two sets of screams followed hard on the dragur’s flight, which quickly attracted a Thalia sized streak of light, promptly followed by a squishy thump and gurgle near the first set.
“Stupid people” was every one’s assessment and the universal grumble about having landed in the mud.
A smiling Thalia was a fearsome thing, a bloodied fully fanged Thalia was truly terrifying, a blood bedaubed, fanged and giggling Thalia was beyond nightmare.
Even though the Aeturni were all strong stomached and iron nerved, they swayed dizzily when they realized that Thalia had hooked two of her fingers through the man’s neck muscles and was proudly dragging him like a blankie. Aia fainted.
By the time most everyone had gotten themselves upright Tod had hauled his targets down mountain and held them out grinning, so that every one could admire his catch.
“Street trash, all three of them, didn’t put up much of a fight. Just brave enough to attack women scouring pots after a funeral meal– from a distance at that.”
Tod examined each of the men, peering closely whilst giving them a shake. “Look at that, decked out in gimcrack, painted like Roman dandies.
“Ooooh, this one might have enough spark in him to say something.” He dunked him repeatedly in the dishwater.
No one could spare Aia a glance until the present threat had been dealt with. Finally the slave had roused herself enough to get to her knees. She peered at the battered men. “Cousin? What were you thinking? What are you doing here?”
Roughly shaking the barely-conscious figure until his baubles jangled, Tod demanded that he answer the girl.
“Uncle oughtn’t have sold you, Auntie can’t cook and won’t clean. Ought to have kept you t’home for us. Wasn’t right, we have needs too.”
Aia scuttled backwards moaning, “No, no, no. A deal’s a deal. Can’t go back on it.
“Bird, I’ve been good, I’ve done everything you asked, I’m a hard worker, aren’t I Mistresses?”
Honey took a moment to reassure the girl with a brief pat on the shoulder. Thank the mothers she was not prone to hysterics.
Bird was appalled by the situation. One moment he was he was joking about the women’s sweet asses with Tod and in not even a heartbeat his friend had become a ravening monster tormenting his prey.
It is not as if they hadn’t seen Tod’s fangs before, he and Honey’d been with him the night of the Roman messengers – he’d gone thoroughly mad with blood lust then. This was different, this was a cold glee.
The Gamli even bitten them a time or two – politely – but this reminded him more of that time in Confluentes when he’d gone to the circus. They’d set a leopard on some slaves just to see if it attacked differently than wolves would. It did. It was a fearsome spotted bundle of nasty, playing with its victims. At this moment there was something of the leopard in Tod. A smug satisfaction in his bloody kill.
‘Mara and Honey pressed their lips together in the face of the carnage. Oh, they’d done their share of butchering and during the battle with the rogues were proud of their kills, but this was the embodiment of the Gorgoneia and this was the first time they had been close to it. Well then, they thought, there it is, the whole ball of wax.
An uncomfortable silence had settled over the scene and the three of them swallowed, almost in unison, and straightened their backs.
Pressing their hands together they bowed from the waist, the others followed, even Brandr and Quintilius, still lurking in the background, made obeisance.
Bird intoned, “A righteous kill, Elders. Your sortie brilliantly defended our home. Our thanks to our guest/friend who fought on our behalf and to our beloved Gamli.”
Even though Bird’s pretty little speech was short, Brandr thought he might gag. They’d all been doing fine, why did they have to import a new dragur and mess everything up? Not that he minded moving to the city, it would probably be better for his business. Brandr just didn’t like being told what to do.
Tod’s delight began to dwindle under the impassive gaze of his humans. He whipped his head around to catch Thalia’s mouth writhing upward in a sneer. The young dragur just wanted to share the fun with his people but their blank expressions clued him in that he was pushing the limits of their acceptance. The beast that now lived within had come out to play and the humans were frozen by the otherness.
She knew that would happen – mere humans couldn’t get their heads around the brutal world that the dragur inhabited. They could accept ruthless Roman justice, the savagery of the Gods, even the grim realities of daily life, but something about the bloodthirsty inhumanity of their kind sent tremors through their souls. Thalia turned her face away.
She imagined it was as if the humans were actors on a stage and the dragar were observing, ranged waiting in the shadows. Their lives were such a brief act with a merciless conclusion. it did not make sense for a dragur to get involved with them. It only led to pain.
Faugh I’m getting philosophical in my old age. I should leave that to old men in wine-shops. Descending from hope to this cold pain in less than an hour is hard on his spirit.
While the six humans, three corpses, and two dragar were immobilized by the awkward situation, Verna came bustling up rearranging her stola. Translating decades of experience with small children and their trophies, she immediately began exclaiming over the bodies.
“Thalia, that was neatly done. I venture he didn’t even have time to blink!
“Thank Toutatis, Tod. He surely guided you both this evening to protect us.
“You are brilliant warriors. Have you had your fill? Yes, yes, good. There is a tree over here where we hang offerings to the God….usually just trinkets…but this will be a fine display of our gratitude.
“Are the dishes all scrubbed ladies? Let’s get it finished so we can make a dedication. Bird – you help.” She turned and trotted over towards the ancient white oak that stood sentinel alongside the gate.
Bird had brought a torch to battle the darkness under the wide branches. “You know I think we might have to use those fish traps I was working on – I think we only have one proper man-basket, and an old one at that.” He turned aside and asked Quintilius to fetch the wicker work baskets from the loft.
“Perhaps the God will forgive us in exchange for the freshness and the number of the sacrifices,” temporized the ever practical Verna. Toutatis knows we are doing the best we can.
Thalia and Tod nodded solemnly, they really had no interest in what happened to the men once they were dead. They both thought that a sacrifice to the protector God might be a good thing, he had been generous recently, thanks were in order.
Quintilius was a little stressed, muttering under his breath as he dragged the basketry back to where they stood under the tree. Verna knew the signs and suggested that he might want to get ready to sleep now.
The suggestion, though gently made was enough to set the man off. “Quin do this, Quin do that, go here, go there.” He was flinging his arms in the air and spitting with the vehemence of his shouts. “Until I can’t remember anything – an’ I make mistakes –an’ somebody YELLS at me!”
“Now Quintilius, you have worked very hard today, would you like a cup of ale and another bit of honey cake before you rest? ‘Mara get him some ale please.”
He was winding up to a full fledged hissy fit when Thalia caught his eye. “Husssssh, go to rest now, go with ‘Mara.”
Quin stood there glassy eyed, still breathing hard, a thread of spittle hanging from his red lips and his bald head shiny with sweat until ‘Mara took his arm and led him off towards the hall.
“Thank you Ancient, that was a kindness.”
Thalia huffed, she’d never been accused of kindness before.
Verna and Bird had their heads together figuring out what was needed to hang the baskets from the tree and how quickly they would be able to extend the smallest trap.
Although he had been distracted by the contretemps, Tod kept his eyes fixed on the branches above. He was trying to appear absorbed in the study of the overhead branches but perhaps gave himself away by blinking too frequently. Actually he was trying to deal with the boulder of sorrow that had settled in his gut. He’d thought he was getting closer to his people, getting a grip on his vanishing humanity. He hungered for the feeling of home and a sense of belonging. An illusion, there had been a whisper of terror across their faces then a chill distance in their hearts.
Honey could feel Tod’s pain, and she was drawn to stand close until he noticed her body heat on his back. She could tell he knew she was there even though he kept his head tipped back staring into the tangle of limbs above them.
“Tod,” she waited a moment. “Tod, thank you for taking care of those scum. You were so fast, I didn’t even see you….Um, would you like me to start the bath for you?”
Not looking at her, their Gamli nodded brusquely. Tentatively she reached out to his shoulder, but he shrugged off her touch.
“Thalia, what about you?” Honey turned her head but stayed leaning towards Tod, reluctant to touch him again.
“Si, might I have the rosemary oil?”
“You, Tod, the usual?”
Alone in the bath house, immersed in the routine of starting the fire, warming the water, setting out the oils, Honey chased thoughts around in her mind, finally able to get an elusive feeling hammered into shape.
Slowly she leaned back on her heels, not daring to form a word until she’d looked at it from all angles. There it was. Tod would leave soon. There was a restlessness about him, like a bird getting ready to migrate. Ever since the battle he hadn’t been able to settle on any one thing.
Settled in her mind, Honey slapped her thighs as she knelt there and nodded firmly. Well, yes, he’d probably be back to celebrate Samhain, if not, for sure by Yuletide. He swore he’d stand father to the baby, but that wouldn’t be until Eostre.
Right now the Lady Goddesses were stirring in her belly, craving the dance of the beast with two backs. She needed to celebrate life. Mmmmm little sweet talk was in order.
As she chucked another log into the fire-box, the murmur of her family came closer and she stood, ready to help Tod undress. She’d have to move cautiously, Honey didn’t want to irritate him. She did want to know what had gotten his undies in a bunch.
Muddied or bloodied, everyone pulled off their tunics. The heap quickly slapped together in a corner ready for the laundry tub. It would take some doing but they would be clean by morning.
Three double-wicked lamps were burning brightly, shedding more than enough light for Verna to unravel Thalia’s braids. The pale sard of her lean body and twisted onyx strands of her hair were a vibrant version of a pale figured kylix. She could have been carved from sardonyx’s russet tones. Rolling her shoulders, she tipped her head back so Verna could start working soap into her scalp. This was the best.
If Thalia’s body was forever twenty three, Verna’s shape had devolved from generative to senescence. Her body was long done with baby making and everything needed for it had been tucked away. Her ropy muscles and knobby joints completed every task with brisk efficiency and her sharp eyes cataloged everything around her. When Verna was done with Thalia’s mass of hair, she’d unbind and wash her own lengthy iron gray strands.
Verna kept watch over Aia as she tended to Bird, wetting, soaping and re-wetting the places where blood had matted the strands together. So slender, you’d think she was a boy. Her fine blonde hair often slipped into wisps around her face and was almost impossible to keep confined. So pale, although with the better food and regular meals she looked healthier and would no doubt start her menses again. Hopefully her breasts would fill out behind the pale pink buds and she could overcome some of her earlier deprivation.
‘Mara and Honey worked together to slip off Tod’s tunic and massage soap into his skin and hair.
“Hey, Aia.” Honey’s hands kept on digging into and massaging Godric’s lower back automatically. “Who were those creeps?”
Aia had gotten to the part where she was rinsing Bird’s hair. “Wait a bit….keep your eyes closed Bird…not really my blood cousins. My father’s step brother’s by-blows. They were always trying to bunk with us and half the time would make off with any spare coin their father had.”
She heaved a great sigh. “Trouble from the get go, always trying to get me into a corner, pinching me and trying to get their hands up my tunic.”
‘Mara chimed in, “I bet you aren’t the only one glad to see the end of them.”
Snort “Even their mothers will be glad!” She turned back towards Bird.
“Why don’t you have a soak while I wash my hair?
“Is this the chamomile soap Honey?” she asked as she lifted the lid and sniffed at the contents of a buff colored jar. “Smells like it.”
Honey had her hands full, sponging warm water over Tod’s back before lightly slapping his butt. “Eh, turn over so I can get your legs.
“C’mon Aia, why would their mothers want them to disappear?”
“Don’tcha know, they were bad for business,” she poured a little more warm water on her head, “no whore wants her grown sons hanging around her doss.”
Everyone doubled over with laughter. Bird slipped under the water and came up sputtering, Thalia was flailing her hands in the air and crying, “Stop, oh, stop.”
Honey had a firm grasp of Tod’s thigh but had stopped massaging and was rocking back and forth with laughter. He had covered his face with both hands and wheezed and snorted into his palms.
“Ooooof, that felt good!” ‘Mara shook her head as she poured a steady stream of water over Thalia’s head.
The oldest of the Aeturnae leaned back and stretched a bit. She didn’t think the joke was that funny but they all needed the release, the catharsis of a good laugh.
Thalia’s ivory hands gathered her waist length mass of hair and wrung it out before climbing into the tub to soak.
Verna suggested that ‘Mara and Honey wash now while she plaited Thalia’s hair. She loved doing the long tight braids, loved the way they looked streaming out behind the dragur when she put on some speed. Getting down the rosemary oil, she poured herself a palmful and got to work rubbing it into the Syracusian’s scalp, fingering it through the tangles. Thalia sighed with pleasure. What luxury.
Tod smoothly sat up. “Honey, go, it is your turn to wash, I’m ready to soak.” Really that was the only decent thing to do since Honey was jiggling with laughter and he was all too aware she had her hands close to things better left unexplored. It was getting harder every moment (mustn’t say that), to pull his eyes away.
The dragar and the bard were chest deep in the hot water, it was dark enough so that he could watch the women wash and pour water over each other’s hair without the public embarrassment of a visible erection. The lift and reach of their arms and breasts was a lovely thing. Aia did have the most graceful neck but he found himself drawn to Honey’s warm skin and juicy figure. Later, they’d get together later.
“Alright, your hair is done!” Verna used both hands to gather the plaits up. “D’ya want me to bind it up to keep the dirt off?” She reached for a dark length of linen as Thalia twisted her head around to look.
“That indigo one would be good, I’d rather not wave a flag where ever I go.”
After twisting the strands up into a knot she draped the cloth across the dragur’s forehead and tied it securely at the back making sure to pin the braids up under the tail before snugging that away.
“All set. My turn to soak.”
Verna didn’t much care about the remaining dark streaks in her hair, but it was nice when the silver and snow looked bright. She’d stopped using the rosemary wash years ago and stuck to the chamomile. Well at least it got her hair clean and smelled nice – what more could you ask for.
Since the bard had his eye on the maidservant all evening, Thalia though she might go see if grumpy Brandr wanted to play for a while; he looked as though he might have some stamina.
Honey was walking back towards the house when Tod sped up alongside her and caught her hand in his. She moved closer to him, resting her head on his shoulder.
“I will miss you.”
He spun so quickly to face her that she lurched sideways. “What?”
“I can tell you’ve gotten the wander lust,” she explained, knitting her brows defiantly, and looking into his eyes. “I can tell!”
“How can you tell? I’ve said nothing.”
“Every time I looked at you are facing towards your mountains, almost leaning in that direction. It’s all right. We knew you would set out sooner or later.” Honey toed the dust, making lines.
“Just come back for Yule. By then folk tend to keep close by their fires. It’ll be harder for you to feed.” She watched her feet and pressed her lips together.
“At least come back when it is time for the baby.” Honey looked up to catch his eyes.
“How long have you known?” The night walker pulled away from her, and squinted speculatively.
“Since the battle, not that it really was a battle, we should probably call it a skirmish.
“We knew you and Thalia were getting restless. It is in your nature.
“Our Ancient Semni would be taken with the need to wander but she would always come back for the Solstices and usually for the Equinoxes. We would catch up with the gossip and share blood before she would be off again.”
“Oh, I was afraid that your people would think me ungrateful. That makes it easier – that you expect me to go but that I will be welcome back again too.” he reached out and stroked her face with his forefinger.
“Yes, you are our Gamli, we are always here for you, our blood is yours.”
As always profound thanks go to penpractice.