The gray heron’s goal this evening was to roost amongst the clattering beaks and sussurant feathers of her sedge. Her breast’s reflection floated on the still bright water as she glided towards the rookery, the after glow and the ripples sending tangles of argent light shimmering back into the trees. She wasn’t at all curious about the mixed bag of of humans and pack animals on the river’s shore.
Clustered looking out over the river, the five humans were similarly limned with reflections. They were separately flavored with assorted moods: anxious, tired, curious, even fearful. The donkey seemed to be the only creature merely waiting.
The train of mules blew and whuffed as their larger group shambled eastward. The hastening beat of clanking chains and chinking harness rang their eagerness to get to a caupona, the humans wanted to put their feet up and forget their vagabond life. A little wine, a little song, then they could face tomorrow.
Ergo bibamus, ne sitiamus, vas repleamus!
qisque suorum posteriorumsive priorum
sit sine cura morte futura re peritura
Alas, let’s drink, not thirst any longer, refill our mug
Every single one should be without worries about his future or past,
because of the coming death, all will perish.
Alas, let’s drink.
Aia was both worried and resigned; the worry squeezing her chest, had she tumbled off the griddle and into the coals? The slaver’s abuse had been bad enough, although when she’d been sold she’d expected it. As long as her mother had been alive Aia had hopes for a decent marriage but after she’d coughed her life away last winter Aia resigned herself to a bleak fate and there was no point crying about any of it.
During the time she hauled slops and scrubbed laundry for her uncle’s family she knew it would be only a matter of time before her they’d try to wring some income out of her fresh beauty. Her aunts all looked old by the time they reached their third baby and second decade.
So, the five sat waiting in the dusk, listening to the trader’s rough voices fade into the distance as they continued east. Aia didn’t know what they were waiting for – someone? Tod? Were the children sitting over there waiting for Tod? Sitting meant not walking, which was good, if there were some food on offer it would be better. Gradually she let her head droop in a half doze. It was always better to rest when you could.
The three adults roused to the little girl’s imperious prattle “My Tod, you get up now! You ‘wake! Quit be’n lazy. You come out!” With which Andy slapped the ground. Twice.
Aia thought there was something weird about a child arguing with a damp patch of ground and a tree root. Very weird. No one else thought it strange, Honey and Bird (were those their names?) smiled fondly at the child’s antics her brother seemed interested, as though something might actually happen.
Even though she’d been alerted to the potential, the girl screamed shrilly when a grimy hand wormed up from the earth and seized the child’s ankle. Great Goddess she had fallen in with monsters. Aia did try to scramble backwards. Bird’s hand flashed out and grabbed her wrist before she could run. Each exhale became a scream as she flung herself about, terrified.
She didn’t even hear a voice quietly ask Bird to shut her up.
“I’m so glad I don’t get headaches now– because that noise would certainly give me one.
Aia’s head whipped around to see who was speaking. A very muddy youth stood close by with the girl-child clinging to his bedaubed thigh. His silvery eyes caught her and held her fast while she calmed and thought: Well if that is the worst today has to offer I can manage. Nicely built, with or without the tattoos. Mmmm, smoothly muscled, no stringy starveling. None of them were. Yes, I can manage.
“My Tod, you wash. Me too.”
“Take your dress off, little bit and your panties, then we’ll go in. Tch, let me help.”
Andy was trying to walk and undress at the same time and looked near to tying herself into a knot.
Tod pitched the clothes in Honey’s direction and swung the girl-child up to his hip as he walked into the river.
Aia wasn’t much of a swimmer and felt a little panic as the child was carried deeper into the water. But the calm that Tod had laid upon her held. Everyone seemed to be alright with it.
The boy jumped up eager to join his sister and begged Bird to be permitted to get wet.
“Not for long, we have to move on. A little water won’t hurt you though.”
Buck stripped and jumped into the river and enthusiastically waded after Tod and his sister, aiming on a diagonal to catch up quickly. One moment he was there, the next he’d vanished.
There was a stunned moment as she stared at the widening ripples where he had been been, before Honey shrieked “Buck, get Buck, he must have slipped.”
Bird and even Aia rushed to the water’s edge to look for the boy. Tod spun frantically around, quickly putting Andy’s hand on her nose and shouting “Big breath!” before diving under the surface, the girl still on his arm. There was a moment of stillness, the swirls and eddies of the river’s dark movement hiding any sign of those under its surface before exploding from the current with a sputtering Andy, Tod repeated “Big breath, again!” and vanished once more. This time he surfaced with a flailing Buck over his arm who proceeded to spew up half the river. Andy sneezed repeatedly.
“My man, I think it is time for you to learn to swim.” Tod’s calm words were contradicted by the lingering panic in his eyes . “Next time hold your breath.” Andy sneezed again and Buck coughed and sneezed also. Both children were red in the face and snotty. Honey and Bird muttered thanks to the Goddess and Aia sank to the ground with a sigh.
“Alright, wash your faces, get the snivels off.” A child on each arm, Tod waded to shore and handed them up to Honey and Bird before he pushed off backwards to finish his ablutions.
Tching the adults roughly dried the children, thankful for the clear sky and light from the waning moon.
“Hungry, hungry, izzer bread?”
Aia perked up her ears at that, hoping they would spare some food, yet understanding that they hadn’t planned on her being there. Honey evenhandedly doled out chunks of yesterday’s bread – stale though it was, and a nubbin of cheese. Oddly the man in the river sought none; well, all the more to share up here.
While gnawing the last bit of bread Aia squinched her eyes to watch him amuse himself, disappearing periodically and popping up at a distance. Much more impressive when he wasn’t muddy. Smoothly thewed, none of the gnarled joints nor corded muscle of the hardened laborer. If it weren’t for the tattoos she thought he would look like one of the young aristocrats that lived in the new villas that were cropping up along the river. She could tell how young he was because although his body hair was dark it certainly hadn’t crept out to form the full pelt of a grown man. Not that you could tell on a Roman since they were apt to remove much of it.
Aia’s uncles had gossiped after they’d gone to check out the new baths in town. They’d overheard the patrons talking about one of their number who affected removing all of his body hair and snorted that he was probably harking back to his salad days when he was a patrician’s favored bum boy. Those times would not come again, even his balls sagged and were showing his age. She shuddered and hoped that she wouldn’t be dragged into any Roman perversions. Although, as a female, she was probably safer than that boy who’d fallen in the river. From what she’d heard from the slavers, pretty little boys were a particular favorite in the whorehouses.
Fortunus had been helping himself to browse and tufts of grass springing alongside the road. Bird’d even led him down to the river for a drink. Now he was mooching around looking as though he was ready to settle for the night.
“Eh, eh, eh, master jackass. Time for us to get back on the road.” Fortunus seemed to understand what Bird was saying or even better, Honey’s actions, bumping the pack baskets in his direction, and let out a long disconsolate bray. “Not that much further then you’ll have that harness off and can have a good roll.”
Aia wasn’t about to stand up until she had to, her feet were still killing her. So she listened and hummed along with Bird’s whistle while he slung the baskets into place atop the donkey then turned to watch Honey crouch down to fasten the children’s shoes.
Mytod, or was it just Tod, had emerged from the river and dried himself with the cloth the children had used. He was so pale that his skin glimmered like the inside of a clam shell, inking those tattoos into sharp relief. He was paler even than that albino dwarf that had been dancing in the square. Poor thing, they treated him worse than the dog that was part of the act.
Oh, he caught her watching and turned his head towards her, trapping her gaze again. Aia was quickly snared by the oddity of his eyes intensifying their silvery hue. There was nothing to wonder about there, no need to be curious, he was perfectly ordinary.
Honey bustled over with a heap of fresh clothing and immediately began to fuss over him, retrieving a comb from her belt pouch to tidy his hair, settling his tunic smoothly, then reaching around his middle to fasten a handsome belt. Every motion signaled proprietorship to Aia. Message received, she wouldn’t dare trespass.
Bird seemed to take no interest in the little byplay but still took the opportunity to rub the tattooed youth’s back as he walked by. Tattoo welcomed the attention of both but frowned at Bird’s retreating back.
Hmmmm, interesting. Aia made it a habit to read people’s posture and broad gestures since the details were so vague to her. That might have made her more perceptive than most. It certainly had kept her out of trouble. She knew full well when it was time to make herself scarce.
Again, Honey spoke earnestly to Tattoos, resting her hand on his arm. He shook his head and gestured with his chin up slope. She frowned and waved her hand back upstream, he nodded, she nodded, they parted. Aia couldn’t make heads nor tails of it.
She hauled herself to her feet, ooof, with the general movement of the group up-river. Aia blinked rapidly, her tired eyes gritty. Tattoos had vanished and she hadn’t noticed when.
It didn’t matter so much that it was dusk, the open arc of the sky over the river was still lucent with the after glow and there was enough moonlight reflecting from the water to travel by.
Tod wasn’t thrilled by the addition to their group. She was a slave, and slaves were an untrustworthy lot. He should know; ohhhh, the mayhem he would have created if he had been pushed any further. He’d heard stories and seen the results, Romans were big on punishments that could all be described as fates worse than death. The mines. Amazing if you lasted six months. That would be the best prospect. But every chance he got to sabotage, sicken or slack off, he took with glee. Besides Bird preferred men, he should know. What impulse had seized the bard, buying that girl? Well she was easy to glamour, so that was something.
Honey helped him to dress, making sure his tunic hung properly, it reminded him of the women helping his father, the Apa to dress before he met with others of rank. It made him feel – what? Cherished? Yes. Important in and of himself? No, – but as though the place he held in their lives was important. His flight of fancy spun out, if he had lived to be the Apa he would have stood square between the great carved posts of the door to his hall, Bird would be at his side as his adviser and Honey would have stood at his shoulder backing him with her authority. Fuck! Never, never, never, never, NEVER!
He sped off to relieve his temper on some poor sot.
He flickered in and out of sight of the patrons at one of the small traveler’s stops a few moments quick flight west. He’d found a couple of drovers who were returning from market, beefy guys, well able to spare a draught or two. Strangely unsatisfying.
His belly was full but he felt a little at loose ends. Maybe he should have killed them? They were too nasty to be fuckable, he had developed some standards.
Tod kicked at stones as he wandered back downstream. His mouth was set for something but he couldn’t decide what.
At a loss he lifted up and did a few loop-de-loops.
Then scooping up a stick he flew within a hairsbreadth of the treetops, flailing at the branches as he went, laughing at the startled birds. Nope, that didn’t do it either. His mouth twisted with frustration.
Finally he chose to drift backwards watching the fading gleam of the setting sun on the river until he felt his people were near.
A wraith in the shadows, one minute he wasn’t there, the next the glimmer of his skin caught Honey’s attention.
“Oooof. You just love to startle us, don’t you? Just in time I must say, we are right at the ford. Would you carry the children? Those stones are slippery.”
Bird was coaxing the donkey to follow him down the ramp into the river. They’d packed the salt topmost, wrapped in oiled leather. Honey would be so pissed if water got at it.
The balky problem was solved when Honey smacked Fortunus smartly on his rump and he lept forward before he turned his gaze back on her – all flattened ears and affronted dignity.
Aia was frightened of the crossing:”Mistress, I can’t see that clearly and I can’t swim, what if I slip?”
“Tch, don’t worry, it is quite shallow and well maintained. This is only dangerous in winter or after a big storm. Why don’t you hold on to the donkey’s harness to steady yourself.”
Honey firmly supported Aia down the bank and while she slip-slid across the stones on the river bottom until her hand could grab on to the harness ropes.
“There you go, just hang on.” After a moment, Aia could look ahead to Bird leading the donkey and MyTod carrying the children. Except he wasn’t walking. Whatever he did was smooth, was he in a boat? No, she was afraid again. She remembered thinking he might be a monster when he did something odd before, but she couldn’t quite remember what it was that he had been doing. Oh, her household gods couldn’t protect her here and those were the only ones she was really familiar with. Perhaps one of the great goddesses would take pity on her. Even a small god would be a comfort.
Aia knew she was afraid, she just couldn’t remember why, which was even more frightening. She followed the group dumbly as they climbed the stony slope on the north bank. No one would help her, she had nowhere to go. She heaved a deep breath, tried to square her frail shoulders and kept on.
Bird passed the lead rope to Honey and pulled one of his pipes out to tootle a happy beat for them. Soon he dropped back to walk beside Aia, she couldn’t help setting her feet and bobbing her head in time with the melody. After a while she began a wordless counterpoint. Bird seemed pleased.
The path must have been obvious to Tod since he swung easily along, a child on each arm. He was talking about the rising path and the encroaching hills, every once in a while a word or or two would float back. Snow he mentioned once or twice. It seemed as though he was commenting to them about how high his home mountains were and the great horned Ibexes bounding from crag to crag. Buck loved the stories and Andy was wide eyed.
It was about at the hour mark before Honey first got a whiff of woodsmoke. Of course Tod had been aware of it for a while. “We are almost there Bird!” Excitement and fatigue strained Honey’s voice. The scent of smoke was a sure thing. They were burning cherry and some cedar. Home!
In a huddle Honey checked the children over, smoothing Andy’s hair, brushing Buck’s tunic and making sure their shoes were tied. Turning towards Aia, she gestured with her head and made little shooing motions with her hands to indicate that she was to see to Bird and herself. Finally Honey attended to Tod – brusquely batting at the back of his tunic, pulling the shoulders straight, settling his belt. She had gone too far when she licked her finger and attempted to smooth his eyebrows.
At that point he batted her hand away “Enough, woman.” He remembered his father saying just that thing and he smiled to himself as he turned away.
In good order then Bird led the way up the last bit of path to a small plateau cleaved from the side of the old mountain to the large thatched roofed buildings clustered in its shelter.
There was the sound of scampering feet in the deepest shadows. The corners of Tod’s mouth twitched. As soon as they got close, the great door in the main house swung open. The firelight from within laid lambent patterns on its boards and the stones of the portico. The humans rearranged themselves, Tod was startled to find himself in a reprise of his fantasy. Bird set himself on his left, Honey a half step behind his right shoulder, Andy just in front, clinging to the hem of his tunic and Buck’s left hand firmly held by Honey’s right. Tod stood as tall as he could.
A youth scurried out and set a filled brazier to the right of the door. A barely pubescent girl, her linen shift swirling around her ankles, followed with her hand cupped around a lit spill and carefully introduced flame to the fuel. Before the new blaze could do more than flicker the young people had ducked into the shadows on the other side of the door, their wide eyes gleaming as the licking fire grew to a dancing light on their smooth faces. The sound of crickets swelled to fill the silence.
Three silhouettes moved hesitantly into the open doorway; the first was rounded, perhaps hunched; the second dragged one limb; the third was still tall but walked stiffly. Stepping through the door frame into the portico brought their features into the light.
Ancient. The first hunched figure was absolutely ancient. Her face seamed and riven by so many years and so many wrinkles that she might be a leather purse holding the treasures of their past.
The center form was a terribly crippled male. Some misfortune had crushed his left side pulling one shoulder up along his neck and twisting his leg out of true. A miracle anyone survived such a calamity.
The last person stood straighter, her posture rigid but with an air of discomfort.
There were others, indistinct, small and large, crossing back and forth between the interior hearth and the foreground.
Bird stepped forward a half pace and extended his arm towards Tod whilst bowing to the figures on the portico.
“Honored Elders, we have brought you fortune. We have brought a priestly dragur to join with us. May I present Tod, Raetii near Curia, son of the Apa Samognatus, initiate of the Goddess, formidable warrior and good friend.” Crickets filled the pause.
“We have also fostered two children, apparently of Tod’s lineage, in good health and with excellent aptitudes.” Whereupon Bird drew Buck and Andy forward to be introduced.
“First I want you to meet Aeturnus Helicon, by-named Buck. I also want you to meet,” Bird made a long arm to bring forth Andy, “Aeturna Andala, often called Andy.”
In a harsh whisper Honey instructed the children to “Make your manners.”
Quickly Buck and Andy placed their hands together and bowed, barely completing the salutation before scuttling back behind Honey.
All the while Tod stood there, as still as only one of the undead can be, watching the Elder’s eyes flick towards the children then back to fix on him. He had not been under such scrutiny since he and Artos had been hauled before the Apa and Tarvorix for tipping cows one restless midnight. Ohhhh that had been a beating to remember. Well, he had learned how to stand and let nothing penetrate, he just wouldn’t think about how he’d learned it, only that he had.
“The children come with an inheritance from their father, a soldier of the Cohors II Raetorumc.R., also Raetii, from up near the pass in the Gray Alps.”
Tod’s stomach clenched at that, he hadn’t gotten that bit of information before. Not only did the children look like him, but their father might have come from the same mountain face. I’ll never know for sure, but they might-could be. Mine. Blood kin.
He snapped back to the present with the realization that the eldest human was speaking to him, her rheumy eyes had never left his face.
“Have you, Tod, son of Samognatus, priest of the Raetii, accepted our offer to become the Sword of the Aeturni?”
So quickly they came to the point, so blunt – perhaps given human frailty she had no time for platitudes. He had already decided this.
“Yes, I, who calls himself Tod, a son of Samognatus and ordained priest of the Raetii, will take my place as the Sword of the Aeturni.”
“And have you, Tod, son of Samognatus, priest of the Raetii accepted us, the human heart of the Aeturni, as your shield, your anchor, and your home?”
“Yes I have.”
“Will you, Tod, accept our blood and grant us yours?”
“I will.” Thankfully Bird had warned him about this or he would have been flummoxed.
“Please approach us.” They extended their hands prayerfully and Tod caught a glimpse of gold. Gold? What would they be doing with gold?
Tod stepped closer and bowed his head respectfully. The eldest held out a substantial chain of gold supporting a fearsome medallion and lifted it over his head (she could barely reach) and rested it on his shoulders.
“This was Ancient Semni’s we, recovered it from the seethe that ended her. It is the ceremonial sigil of the Aeturni.
The Roman drinking song is performed on You Tube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5UEmDbcI5HY&feature=share&list=PL0E352DF381AFB593
Bird’s tune http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X83IYWmcEFg&feature=share&list=PL0E352DF381AFB593 or visit the videos under Parallex on You Tube.