Hither and Yon
Patiently Tod waited for his day-death in the comfort of Ancient Semni’s resting place. It was better than anything he had enjoyed as a human, funny that. Huuuumph.
Even so, even with his humans at hand and the comfort under his shoulders, even so, he was looking forward to sleeping rough again and seeing new things with Thalia. She thought they might go back to Corinth to check out her old haunts. Maybe they could visit some of the wilder parts of Dacia and the great river that brought amber. He rather wanted to spend some time in Macedonia to find traces of that Alexander that he’d heard of.
Not too much time though, not all at once, he wanted to get back to his people, back to Hon……………….
Honey sidled through their portal to the underworld while she determinedly clutched the pot of blended beeswax and dragged a stool behind her. After all the excitement of marauding dragar and their ravening skeletal minions (just the thought, bleccchhh) she finally had an afternoon to work on Nemeta’s mask.
The sun was still bright, but the western shoulder of the entrance kept the slanted rays from fingering the interior of the Goddess’ cave. The inside was so shadowed that she was blinded by the change.
She was still pressed for time – her aim was to get at least one layer of the mask done before dusk. In haste her fingers fumbled with the granny knot that secured a ditty bag to her belt and spilled out the bag holding the Goddess’ herbs onto the work bench.
Leaving the scattered herbs, the priestess darted back outside, squinting into the bright afternoon light as she scooped up the plaster mold she’d left in the sunlight. The warmer the plaster, the more easily it would accept the wax; it would flow like honey.
Back inside, already tired from her round of chores, she leaned up against the rough wall waiting for her eyes to adjust so she could see to the lights and the fire.
Rootling blindly around the back of the shadowed bench, Honey’s fingers slipped across the slick surface of the oil jar she’d sought to top off the two pinched clay shaped lamps.
There was a small matter of adjusting the wicks cleverly protruding from the fronts before setting them aside. Next she placed a soapstone patera front and center, charging the shallow bowl with leftover oily wicking and a heap of cedar curls. With a quick prayer to Lugh, Honey struck a series of merry sparks which settled into the wood shavings and caught on the ruffled fiber. In an effort to speed the flame she whispered Lugh, Lugh over the glowing strands, breathing Lugh again, swirling the smoke as it coiled upward and the glow brightened. As soon as the flame licked steadily at the tinder, the wicks of the lamps were gently introduced until they too were alight and the priestess placed them on either end of the shelf of masks.
Next, Honey drew out sprigs of sage, rosemary, thyme and juniper from the tangled herbs and fanned them before her on the narrow bench. Three sprigs of sage for the Goddess’ aid, wisdom and protection; over the sage, a solid branch of rosemary for remembrance and to clear the air of ill intent, then she tightly bound these together, along with the thyme and juniper, using a thread of Nemeta’s own spinning. As the herbs burned, so would the thread – ensuring that the Crone would not remain tied to the pieces of her handiwork still on this earth.
The lavender she put aside for later next to a handful of noble bay leaves and a few lengths of fine gauze.
Pulling the rest of her tools to hand, briskly Honey tonged in some small bits of charcoal amongst the smoldering curls of cedar, blowing softly until there was an even glow. Next a tripod was set in place over the flame and she balanced the handled wax pot atop the spidery iron.
Nodding and whispering to herself, Honey observed the wax as it began to clarify around the edges and release the trapped scent of honey and sweet almonds. Only then did she light the bound herbs to purify the area.
Smudge in one hand and hawk wing in the other, the still whispering Honey carried the smoldering bundle, fanning the smoke into the furthest corners, around and over the priestly tools and ancestral masks until the herbs were mostly consumed, then returning the bundle to the dish to maintain a ward against ill intent. Only good could be incorporated with the wax or it would imbue one of the guardian spirits of the clan with evil. All the Penates (as the Romans called them) were fashioned thus.
By now the beeswax was mostly melted and she could begin to stir it, making sure the few drops of almond oil and their prayers remained blended within the wax.
Just to keep things going, the priestess slipped another pebble of charcoal onto the embers and breathed more prayers to the spirit of the hearth and family until it too glowed and the ash had traveled almost all the way to the top of the smudge. Lifting the wax pot off the trident she replaced it with the plaster, negative side down and set several bay leaves on the coals.
Cold plaster would steal the life from the wax before it had taken a detailed impression and part of Nemeta’s spirit would be lost. Honey’s unending pleas and whispers seemed to pull the family’s Disr in close, the spirits hovering around her workings like warm blessings.
Tod rose early, pricked by muffled words curling around his resting place and tickling his memories, his acute nose picking up some thin whiffs of herbal smoke. So it was with his uncle when he was performing a working late at night. Even when Tod was quite small, rolled up in sheepskins dozily staring into the fire, Uncle would be dancing around the summer hut waving a smoldering branch of sage, sweeping the hearth with juniper.
Unlatching the chest and floating free, he made it silently over to the crevice in the rocks where he could more clearly hear the voice. Ya, it was Honey he’d heard. He edged around the rough rock face until he could watch the ceremony.
Honey had just lifted the mold from the trivet and rebalanced it face up, wedging it in place. Quickly she snatched the ashy smudge from the coals and tapped it sharply over the smoke stained interior of the mask. Fine gray ash coated the ivory surface. Keeping her head turned to one side so that her breath wouldn’t be trapped in the mask, Honey flicked the sides of the mold with her fingers until the ash settled in the low spots; the eyelids, the crease that ran from the side of the nose to the mouth, the minute wrinkles of the aged face and the seam of the lips.
She gripped the pot’s handle and slowly poured a stream of wax into the deepest part formed by the bridge of the Crone’s nose. From there it thickly crept up to the cheeks, rising until it had filled the eye cavities. As soon as the pot was empty Honey began tilting the warmed mold, rotating it so that the cooling wax was evenly distributed, even up into the hairline. Oooof, just enough there, maybe a little extra, it would never do to skimp.
With one more tap of the smudge over the gauze strips she returned the stub of the bundle to the patera to finish smoldering. Quickly the priestess lay the strips crisscrossing the inside of the wax pressing them gently until the fibers were well trapped in the sticky surface.
In the shadow by the crevice, Tod whispered his own prayers and blessings to keep the mask strong. This would be a powerful watcher for the clan.
Arranging the mold just so and re-bracing it all ’round with wedges, Honey stepped away from the bench cocking her head to one side to judge the leveling while absently feeling her tunic and hands for splodges of wax.
“My Uncle the priest made masks like that. He used clay though, had it brought up from the valleys.” A quick breath and a pause before a soft smile touched Honey’s face at the sound of his voice, though she didn’t look up from her self-tidying. She hadn’t really been startled by his presence though she couldn’t be sure when she had first become aware of it.
“Mostly for Chiefs, though sometimes a wealthy old fashioned family would have one done for the paterfamilias. I helped sometimes.
“There was a man in the town near us who did very clever likenesses in soapstone; Uncle would bless them too.”
By this time Honey had finished peeling off the bits of wax from her hands and brushed down her tunic before she turned to watch Tod’s face fall into the familiar distant expression when he was remembering his human days.
He was completely still and his features sharply delineated with lamplight, a chiaroscuro of pensive youth. His hair was burnt umber, Honey bet that it had gotten sun streaked when he was human. Might even have had a touch of red to it. It was hard to remember how old the dragur actually was since the planes of his face were still softened by traces of baby fat and his beard and body hair faint.
There was only a glint of gold now where the lamplight hit the hairs on his forearms. Mesmerized she drew closer and reached out to stroke his forearm.
Tod was drawn in by her fascination and actually shivered when her fingertips made contact with the soft skin of his inner wrist.
“How much more do you have to do here?”
“I should wait until those coals burn themselves out, but that is all.”
Tod slipped his arm around Honey’s shoulders and pulled her close while he leaned against the rock. Soon he began to rub his face in her hair and nuzzle into the warmth under the tent of her head scarf. An easy matter since they were much of a size.
“I always knew that pregnant women smelled good but I’ve never had the time to enjoy it. I wish I could put it in a bottle like any other scent.”
Honey’s mind spun with possibilities. “Is there a spot where the scent is strongest? Maybe I can think of a way….”
Tod’s nose began twitching as he investigated every crevice he could easily reach. “This will never do my sweet, you’ll have to take off that tunic.”
“Well I might as well save it for working in here since it is bound to get wax on it.” She tugged the cloth over her head and hooked it over a peg that had been rammed into a crevice.
Tod was very fond of Honey’s ripening shape, her nipples were darker already and her tummy a little fuller. She was the image of the Mother, his beloved Goddess. He was particularly drawn to the space between her breasts and the scent under her arms. Mmmmm, smells like comfort, like home.
“I think,” and he, overcome, began rubbing like a cat, that’s the old Kit still in me – I thought him long gone. Tucking his nose into her armpit Tod inhaled repeatedly. Forgotten feelings, family, loyalty to my people, the scent of my lair.
“I think, it is a combination of these two that I crave. Yes, there are other areas, but those are for other moods.”
Honey’s work callused hands stroked from his shoulders down to his muscled flanks.
“The coals have burnt themselves out, let us extinguish the lamps to complete this night’s working and then we can think on those moods.”
Honey pinched out the wicks, and smoky darkness abruptly settled around them. There was no color left in the coals, she and Tod felt confident they could leave things as they were and close up the Goddess’ cave.
The purple dusk on the other side of the door was bright and clear after the fug inside, there was even light enough so that they could take the short path to the little waterfall to rinse the traces of the magic off. It was not respectful to mix the holy with the mundane. The spiritual touched both, each thing had its place.
It was comforting to Honey that Tod, in his priestly persona, understood all these things and they could act in concert. Nodding to herself and humming a little, she imagined the ways she would teach Andy so in turn she would be a comfort to Tod.
“What are you thinking about Honey?” The dragur syn-chronically frowned and raised an eyebrow.
“I’m thinking about Andy, and about how she will take my place as the Matron when it is time.
“Will you help me train her? I want her to be here for you, as I am.”
Immediately Tod became rigid. “I don’t want to think about that yet! I have just gotten a sense of my humanity and it will take me time to let it loose again.”
“We must learn to do this – it is hard for me too.” Drawing her shoulders back the priestess seemed to pull on her official mantle. “Gamli! You know, as sworn servants of the Triune Goddess, we are also bound to follow the wheel – Maiden, Mother, Crone. Each has her time and season. You were part of my transition from Maiden to Mother, I must eventually become the Crone and then Guardian. You are death, you stand apart, you form your own triad with the bard and the procreator; we must embrace each other and accept the changes or we do not serve the Goddess.”
Quickly Tod looked away, blinking away bitter sadness. He wanted things to stay the way they were for a while, but the priestess was right and he knew better. They both served the Goddess, and now that he had been forced to take the guise of death their ways would part.
Growing between the stepping stones facing the path to the water ferns and sedges lashed at their ankles. It was too dark to see the treacherous knuckles of moss and slicks of algae. Stiffly Tod held Honey’s elbow as they felt their way under the cascade.
Putting aside their undergarments they stood back to back under the water. The priestess was trying to do the right thing, even though it was painful. Ever since she took her first steps she knew she was destined to serve the Goddess, her life would always be more difficult than her friend ‘Mara’s. Usually she was proud of her responsibilities, but times like this, when all she wanted was a simple life, Tod as her partner and a swarm of children around them, it just hurt.
The Gamli’s feelings were raw too, he’d loved being the priest of life and growth and creation, he’d loved worshiping the Goddess with his body and sharing her blessings. He could feel that Honey hurt too, they had shared blood more often than with his other people and their tie was deeper. He closed his eyes briefly and swallowed, thinking about the sadness to come.
Even though she was all over goosebumps and starting to shiver, Honey still stood, her head hung heavily, weighed down with her wyrd.
Eventually Tod turned and extended his arm to stroke her back. His hand was neither warmer nor colder than the water, it felt as though the liquid had taken on form and had begun to pet her. Odd feeling.
“Everyone will want to feed you before you leave tonight. For remembrance, don’t you know.”
“Feed me here, before we go inside; sit on my lap – face me, I want to enjoy your scent too.”
Honey sat on his lap while he again memorized the scent of her hair, her neck, and her breasts. Everywhere he could reach while he was within striking distance of her neck. Tod wondered if he were afraid that his meal might get away, anticipating the rich sapor……… hovering over the great vessels, inhaling, spinning himself up. Like lightning he struck. Definitively, surgically, deftly. His fangs slipped home and he swallowed the rich bouquet of flavors, in turn releasing minute doses of an euphoric hypnotic produced in glands hidden in the roots of his fangs.
He had learned to control the secretions, not to waste them, they were meant to bind ordinary humans to a dragur, to lock in a food source. These people, however, had taken his blood – forging a nest bond, a totally different proposition than a scrum of warm bodied minions.
This he had learned when ‘Tura and Corbulo had hooked up with some wandering dragar and their minions. They also quickly found out how dangerous it was to be part of a mass – easily discovered and easily killed. It was better to be alone and wary than in company and meet the final death.
Plenty of time to be bored, two centuries to practice the little tricks with his venom. Plenty of time to learn what happened when he didn’t use it. Corbulo never bothered, he said he liked blood flavored with fear. ‘Tura liked the flavor of lust, no surprise there.
He himself had developed a craving for Roman blood, especially if they fought him. He liked the taste of victory, this time he won. They died, he survived. Yes. Again and again.
Tod needed to get on the road. Honey was sweet and warm and delicious, but tonight he couldn’t even relax enough to enjoy her company. He needed to get gone.
Everyone had gathered for his farewell and it was much the same as his welcome. Only small changes indicated the time that had passed. Nemeta was gone and Brandr was there. Bucky had come of age, he was seven now, and had his very own blood knife. So proud, Tod thought he would burst.
Perched on his high seat before the great carved bed, Tod bid each member of the Aeturnae farewell, promising to be back by Samhain. As the focal priest for the festival of souls he needed to be there.
For each farewell kiss a little blood was given and a little taken. Bucky proudly wielded his new knife and Andy pouted a little since she wasn’t old enough to have her own. Finally putting aside her sulk, Andy gave him a ferocious hug and cried a little.
“MyTod, you come back! MyHoney say you be ba’ when d’long ni’s come.”
“Yes, MyAndy, I’ll be back before the feast of the long nights.”
All saluted Thalia and wished her safe travel while reminding her that as their guest friend she was owed shelter and support to the end of her days.
Two of the original travelers, minus Horse, stood under the front portico waving as Tod and Thalia set off. Andala squeezed her way between Honey and Bird, her teary little face screwed up, lower lip trembling. Verna followed the child but stood in the shadows, praying.
“Goddess watch you!” tumbled from their throats.
By this tine Andy was crying so hard she collapsed into a damp bundle lying across the adult’s feet.
Honey shielded the remaining light with the palm of her hand and watched the dragur vanish into the night. Tod only looked back once.
Thalia set off at a ground eating trot and as soon as Tod’s footfalls matched hers, she picked up more speed. Their first resting place would be Isarnomarus’ shop, they wanted to get the local gossip and see how Horse and Eppie were doing. Goddess willing, Eppie would already be increasing.
His companion was a fast traveler but flying was not one of her gifts; Tod spirited her across the Moselle before they scrambled up the side of the opposite plateau. They had already decided to stay to the east of the area where the rogues had hunted. It would be a quick trip at their speed.
Thalia knew they were to meet three of the outlying Aeturni, she’d gotten the sense that Tod was particularly fond of Horse. Perhaps because, when he was wounded, Horse had patiently carried him around and willingly fed him. Good people, they clung to the old ways, the very embodiment of hospitality, Zeus Xenios reward them.
In the ordinary way of things she despised people. Modern men had no honor, the master of the house, the kyrios, no longer protected his family or made sure that his children were provided for. Instead they left them to fend for themselves or sold them to passing slavers like young Aia had been. Thalia’s father had died protecting his household, he had held off the ruffians as she and her mother fled to the hills. There, indeed, was an honorable man.
The drumbeat of her feet kept pace with her thoughts, no honorable men.
Tod skittered alongside, detouring once in a while to vault over fallen trees and leap across ravines. Owls were silenced, crickets stilled. Joy thrummed in his limbs, freedom propelled him further and higher. The first time in two centuries he was able to do what he wanted to do.
Sure, Thalia was with him, but as more of a running buddy than a minder. Joy.
Well before dawn the running dragar came upon the coulée that led from the plateau down towards the Rhine just a little north of the blacksmith’s shop. Tod pointed out Horse and Eppie’s house as they slithered down to the road. Thalia cocked her head downstream towards Brey where she had heard some early risers stirring.
“Let’s stop for a bit to eat so we won’t be too much trouble to our hosts.”
Tod lifted his chin in agreement.
One of bargees was sitting on the quay and scratching his belly, another had already stumbled up towards the dock’s-side wine shop, hoping to break his fast.
Thalia tipped her head, sending Tod river wards while she sprinted towards her clumsy prey almost within reach of the tavern.
The ropes holding the barges were pulled taut as the vessels were drawn north by the current. The small disturbance caused only a muffled thunk as a startled victim caused water logged wood to encounter the quay.
Quick, quick, and their meals were a little lighter and none the wiser. Tod chuckled as he swiped his face with the heel of his hand and Thalia teased him about being a messy feeder, the banter continuing while they strolled the short bit to the blacksmith’s.
Close by, Tod’s nostrils flared. “Our Eppie has the meal fire going. She’s a good one.”
He leaned back against the tree in the dooryard. They had time, the horizon was barely gray.
“Let us not be rudely hammering at the door, we can wait until they come out for their morning piss. They are lazy today……It is getting light
“Where is the old smith, Samognatus, he should be out here by now to light the shop fire? Where is our welcome?”