30 Hither and Yon

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………………. Continue reading

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29 Beyond

Beyond

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. Continue reading

28 Going Home

Going Home

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. Continue reading

27 Hospitium

My profound gratitude goes to penpractice, every single time she hauls me straight out of the muck and the mire and helps me produce something readable.

I realize these chapters have taken a long time to produce, but my readers deserve the very best and I spit and shine until it is up to my (and your) standards.

Hospitium

Bemusedly Thalia stared alternately into the flames and at the shadowed people moving in and out of the firelight. It had been long and long since she had been part of a group surrounding a hearth. Long and long and long lifetimes ago, it might even have been so far back that she was still human and taken refuge with the other rebels amongst the smoking mountains1 of her home. There had been yellow flowers blooming the last time she had stood in the sun. Continue reading

25 The Blacksmiths

The Blacksmiths

A blacksmith courted me
Nine months and better
He fairly won my heart
Wrote me a letter.
With his hammer in his hand
He looked so clever
And if I was with my love
I would live forever.

But where is my love gone
With his cheeks like roses
And his good black Billycock on
Decked around with primroses.
I fear the shining sun
May burn and scorch his beauty
And if I was with my love
I would do my duty.

Strange news is come to town
Strange news is carried
Strange news flies up and down
That my love is married.
I wish them both much joy
Though they can’t hear me
And may God reward him well
For the slighting of me.

Don’t you remember when
You lay beside me
And you said you’d marry me
And not deny me.
If I said I’d marry you
It was only for to try you
So bring your witness love
And I’ll not deny you.

No, witness have I none
Save God Almighty
And may he reward you well
For the slighting of me.
Her lips grew pale and wan
It made a poor heart tremble
To think she loved a one
And he proved deceitful.

A blacksmith courted me
Nine months and better
He fairly won my heart
Wrote me a letter.
With his hammer in his hand
He looked so clever
And if I was with my love I would live forever.

“The Blacksmith” as written by Christy Moore/Andy Irvine/Donal Lunny/Liam O’flynn

In the slanting light of morning, a soaring hawk watched the mountainside fervent with long-shadowed figures. She paid no mind to the boys that were herding belled goats up to higher pastures. Nor to the larger bells on the cattle clanking as a man chivvied them down towards lusher grazing.

The herder’s whistles and shouts carried faintly on the air. Nearby there was a rhythmic chuck-clink of a hoe as women bent rhythmically to the necessities of a garden.

Rocking on the rising heat from the sun-warmed rocks, the hawk tipped, sliding on the updraft to examine a new figure leading a string of heavily laden ponies up the cliff side cartage. Nothing of interest there, but just beyond the trail-way the raptor spied a rabbit bounding away from the intruder; the hawk folded her wings, dropping faster than a rock flung from a catapult.

The dusty bare-legged figure leading the ponies jerked around when the bunny screamed and the ponies shied. They’d already recognized the home trail and were ready to plow right through the human to get to the safety of their paddock. They’d had altogether enough of the nasty swaying loads clanking in their packs.

The traveler emerged from that tussle even sweatier, dustier and more tired. He glared at the hawk who hissed at him and arched her wings threateningly from atop the rabbit. Gah, drama, and I was almost home. I just wanted to get there, sit down, have a cool one, relax a bit before Lughnasadh.1

The pack ponies’ eyes still rolled and their hooves nervously danced through puffs of dust, they wanted their barn.

He’d placed the younger mare in front where he could keep an eye on her. If any of the string were going to bolt it would be that little idiot, so he hung on to the lead rope for dear life while he shouldered her up the incline to the level step that the Aeturni had carved into the side of the plateau.

The horses had made such a fuss that he hadn’t heard the dogs barking, much less the children playing. That mare was still acting up, more dancing sideways than going forward, and the drover had to lean pretty hard on her shoulder to keep her from skittering over the edge. Once he had gotten the ponies beyond the incline and through the gate to the compound he could take a moment, breathing heavily.

They all caught sight of him soon enough when his head poked up over the bit of wall and terracing meant to keep the home place from washing down the side of the cliff.

Brandr! You are back! Was there good trade?” Ivor pelted across the open area full ready to help with the ponies. His cousin Gia came panting up behind. Her legs not quite long enough to keep up with his.

Brandr looked over at the two other children that had been playing with their Ivor.

Introduce your friends, Ivorix.”

This is Buck and Andy, Bird and Honey brought them back from the big river.

Gravely Brandr bent over to clasp arms with Buck honoring him with a real man’s salute.

Buck slipped his arm around Andy before tugging her forward. “Sir, this is my sister Andala. The elders said that we were to be Aeturni now.“

Unca Marten said we could,” added Andy.

Well, let us put up the ponies and then you can tell me who Uncle Marten is.”

C

Sitting in the shade of the hall, Cunorix called the dogs back to him and waved as Brandr led his parade of ponies and children across the clearing towards the barn. The older man and the dogs were on baby sitting duty. He had dragged his faldstool2 outside to where he could watch the women working in the garden and be close enough for them to feed a hungry baby. Billi’s tiny infant was sleeping inside his tunic in the crook of his withered arm and ‘Mara’s toddler was intent on gouging holes in the dust while explaining to the dogs what she was doing. The dogs were puzzled but polite, cocking their ears and listening closely.

In the shadowy barn Gia and Andy crouched to one side, clutching the pony brushes, while Brandr put aside the packs and handed bits of tack for the boys to hang up.

As soon as one of the ponies was hitched to an upright the girls moved in with the brushes. Like little girls everywhere they chose to work on the same side, advising each other on the best way to proceed, chattering and scolding as much as brushing.

Brandr shook his head as he watched, he didn’t understand girls and he didn’t understand women.

Ivor and Buck tackled another one of the shaggy beasts, one to a side, making rather a contest of it. Brandr watched for a moment, satisfied he then turned back to the girls, shrugged and moved off to start picking hooves.

By the time they were halfway through grooming, the only thought in Brandr’s head was ale and how much his feet hurt. After a bath, no, an ale first and then a bath. He was imagining how good it would feel when he got these boots off when a screech pierced the dusty gloom of the barn followed by a tumult of wailing.

Brandr ran out, armed only with a hoof pick. He squinted, half blinded by the bright sunlight. Midway between the barn and the hall was a flurry of head cloths, faded tunics, and hair pulling. Husband stealer was the least of the audible insults.

Brandishing her walking stick as she hurried from the weaving shed, Verna finally waded into the melee. “Hai, what are you doing here?”

Either the elder, her stick or just that it was now three against one meant the tumult finally settled. Brandr was amazed to see that the woman who had been scrapping with ‘Mara and Bili was Veni, the light-skirt daughter from one of the holdings on the river road.

As soon as she got a look at him she resumed her screeching. “I’ve just heard! This morning, a trader who had passed through Confluentes yesterday. Said, he said.” Tears and mucus were streaming down her face, already twisted and red with passion.

Oh, how could I have loved such a deceitful man? He said that you were bargaining for a wife with the guild of iron mongers.” Veni started tearing at her hair again and wailing.

You lay beside me, got me with child, said you’d marry me and not deny me!”

By this time Brandr had his handsome backside against the barn and the children were peering wide-eyed at the commotion. “If I said I’d marry you, it was in the heat of the moment.” He tossed his hair back defiantly. “Bring your witness, love and I’ll not deny you.”

Brandr the Swordsmith

Brandr the Swordsmith

Fie, Brandr, where are your balls?” Verna shouted, thwacking him sharply on the shoulder with her staff and raising a puff of dust. “She is pregnant! If it is yours you have to at least own the child.”

Taking his other shoulder as a target Verna laid into him again. “You will visit this girl’s father tomorrow and swear you will acknowledge the babe if it is yours. As soon as it turns six summers we will foster it.”

But, I want Brandr to live with us, we have a good farm, our children would inherit the land.” The girl whined. “The Goddess blessed me, she heard his promises.”

Girlie,” Verna sternly laid down her ruling, thumping her walking stick in emphasis. “Brandr is the son of Korisos the famous sword maker; grandson of Essandecotos, known as the Charioteer for his skill; descended from Artevalos our ruler who returned from the battle at Teutoburg. He is of renowned lineage, you should be honored to have him acknowledge your child.”

The matriarch growled at Brandr. “Idiot, why did you not explain to the girl?”

Shamefaced, Brandr picked at a loose thread on his tunic. “I didn’t want to use my ancestors just to have my way with her.”

Well,” and she thumped her staff on the ground several times. “After day-meal we will have Bird escort her home and negotiate the penalty with her father.” and in a whisper “Tell me she wasn’t a virgin3, that will cost us a fortune, or you your life;” back to full volume “and no matter the crime nor what the penalty, you WILL repay the family!

Her father is our neighbor, no man of this clan will litter the countryside with his bastards. We are honorable people and take care of our own.”

Yes, Verna, thank you Verna. May I finish with the ponies now?”

The younger women got to their feet to brush the dust off and tidy their hair. ‘Mara and Bili untied their coarse linen smocks and authoritatively snapped the dust from the billowing cloth.

Many sets of eyes had watched the squabble. Veni’s determined march into their camp, her searching eyes landing on the women hoeing the garden, deciding they must be to blame , ‘Mara trying to prevent any serious damage when Veni attacked the ‘husband stealers.’ Cunorix had enjoyed a close view of the action from his seat in the shade, the toddler had clutched the cripple’s tunic to haul herself up and promptly stuck two fingers in her mouth, sucking absentmindedly and not sure how she should react.

When her mother, ‘Mara, separated herself from the group and seemed to be heading in her direction, it decided the little one and she went from lip quiver to full out howl in a flash.

Bili led Veni toward a bench under the back portico where they could watch and comment on ancient Nemeta’s progress with the stew that was simmering over the outside cook fire. The only time they had to put up with the smoke inside was during the winter.

After ‘Mara had scooped up the toddler and firmly settled her astride her hip Bili extricated the infant from Cunorix’ tunic as she passed by on her way to join the other women. The blood had done wonders. He was better now and had started to nurse more enthusiastically.

Adopting the instinctive maternal sway for a moment ‘Mara calmed her child’s howls, before she sat with the others. As soon as she was sure ‘Mara wasn’t going anywhere the toddler dived under her tunic for a little comfort, awkwardly half climbing on to her lap, her fat little leg hooked over her mother’s thigh.

Iomara ('Mara)

Iomara (‘Mara)

You know,” said Nemeta while stirring the soup, “you are going to have to name that baby soon.”

You mean something besides ‘always hungry’?” ‘Mara tried to laugh it off.

I know you lost a baby after Ivor, but surely this one is past the chance for weanling illness and besides we…” glancing at the stranger, “we have learned a few things since then.”

Ermmm, so Veni, when do you think you might be due?” ‘Mara quickly deflected visitor’s curiosity.

Oh, some time in the month before Eostre,” said Veni, rubbing her belly.

Putting aside their chores, the family drew in, settling on benches, ready for day-meal.

Honey took note of the stranger as she came out of the brew house. She had been so enrapt compounding the herbs she would use to flavor the ale for the feast day, she hadn’t paid mind to the shouting. Drying her hands on her apron she drew close enough to hear the woman’s statement. She frowned a moment, then her thoughts turned inward.

Bird was late, by the time he showed up carrying several braces of pigeons the pitcher of small ale4 had gone around once and the first bowls of stew were almost gone.

Hai, I hope you left some for me. Who’s this? Brandr did you bring me a treat from Confluentes? Wher’d Aia get to?”

Nah, nah. You don’t deserve a treat. This is our neighbor’s daughter, Veni.”

Well my Aia should be along soon, you will meet her then; she was laying out clothes to dry.”

Hai, Bird,” Verna spoke, wanting to settle the situation with the girl. “Apparently Veni fell pregnant and claims that our Brandr is the sire.” Verna’s expression changed from mild disbelief when looking at the girl to glowering disapproval when she shifted her gaze to Brandr.

As our counselor I want you to escort Veni back to her farm and explain to her father why marriage is impossible since Brandr has already entered into negotiations for an alliance with the Parthian Kareni5 in Confluentes.”

Bird looked over at Brandr, “Ooooh, that will be a good match; wonderful traders – they have contacts along the whole route north of the Helvetii, all the way to Pannonia.”

Veni was shrinking into herself, she had been so full of righteous anger when she’d gotten up here. She was going to retrieve her man, and no two-bit girlie was going to stand in her way. Now, she felt as though she was sinking into a pile of manure. Or at least slipping into the chasm that separated this clan and her not-very-large family. Well, she’d take what she could get and fostering would give this child a leg up in the world.

Squaring his shoulders, Brandr was undeniably proud of himself. “Karena has a good head on her shoulders, as a young widow with three strong children, she will make a wonderful partner.” He stretched out his legs, both to ease the ache and to take up more room in his pride. When he caught Veni admiring what he had to offer his eyes sensuously traveled up to hers and he winked flirtatiously.

Veni sat up a bit at the wink. Brandr was a lusty man, maybe she could have her cake and eat it too? There were advantages, oh yes there were definite advantages to a part time liaison. No man to tell her what to do but an occasional bed warmer on tap – plus favor from Brandr’s clan. She could live with this. She would make sure her father and brothers would listen to reason too.

The Aeturnae watched the action between Brandr and Veni. Verna shook her head and pursed her lips disapprovingly, Honey rubbed her face with both hands, ‘Mara rolled her eyes and Bili sucked her teeth.

Bird only snorted and asked who would clean the pigeons while he was dickering with Veni’s father.

With a smile ‘Mara, always the peacemaker, brightly offered to do the pigeons while ‘little miss hungry wolf’ had her nap.

All had another stoop6 of small ale, even the children drained their half-sized mugs while everyone fidgeted and made those little motions of getting up and getting back to work that folk make.

Verna and Bili herded the children back with them to the endless tasks waiting in the weaving shed. They all would work on carding the wool, Andy and Gia could practice their spinning later.

The sword smith was being scolded by old Nemeta and crippled Cunorix. Everyone knew what a tom cat he was and his handsome face got him his way more often than not. But they understood that his randy ways were all in fun and the only thing he really cared about was the craft of sword making. No pretty girl could turn his head when he was in the middle of a project. Funny guy.

C

The sun sloped to the west as Bird led Veni back through the garth, commenting on the age of the various buildings as they passed. The dairy was new and the stone work was smartly whitewashed. Their smithy took up one end of the barn, Brandr had stowed the packs of good steel under cover there. On the other side of the compound Bird pointed out the weaving shed, which was due to be replaced, and the winery, which wasn’t as new as the dairy. Every building was fronted with lavender, chamomile or sage, the air hummed and quivered with bees. When they passed the flax field they could see where the land dropped off steeply into the vineyard and further down to the glittering river.

The girl had been on such a tear this morning that the garth had gone by in a blur. She had known Brandr’s family were prosperous but since they bought so much grain from her father she thought that maybe they were land poor and because of that he might leap at the chance to marry her. Pffft, maybe she should have kept her eyes open and her mouth shut!

Well, Bird, is it?” Veni asked as they made their way down the switchback to the road. “Bird, I was so happy when I found I was pregnant, because of my brother, you see?”

Your brother, why because of your brother?”

He and his wife can’t seem to have any children. We know it is because of him,’cause she already had a baby.” She turned and met his gaze, “Don’t you think it is better to marry a woman who has already had a child, a woman who has proved that she can do her duty by a family? At least that’s what my father always says.”

Blinking, a little overwhelmed by the spate of words, Bird agreed that her father had a point but then deflected Veni a little bit, “I don’t mind that Aia hasn’t had children yet, she has a lovely true voice and I’d partner with her just for that.

My older cousin, Horse, just wed the blacksmith Isarnomarus’ daughter, you know the one with the shop on the Via Augusta facing the big river? But he’s been sweet on Eppie for years, ever since he did his apprenticeship there.”

The girl bit her lip realizing that her timing had been way, way off, she’d missed her chance with any of the men of this clan. Well she’d have to make the best of it. Sure as the Goddess made little green apples she wasn’t going to settle for one of the small time farmers in the area just to get a husband – no matter what her sister-in-law said.

Veni straightened her back, “Well then, if that’s the way of it,” I can be flexible, “fostering this baby will be a good thing.” Maybe my father will appreciate the alliance more than he would a son-in-law.

C

Honey watched as Bird and Veni walked into the afternoon and away from the Aeturni garth. She found herself wiping her hands over and over on her rough work tunic.

Oh, Brandr, what have you gotten yourself into this time. Gave me a thing or three to think about though.

Honey turned her face up to the westering sun. I’m pretty sure that Marten got me with child, may it please the Goddess. Should I wait another week before I say something? I will wait, but I feel different – not bad, just different.

Flicking her eyes back towards where Bird escorted Brandr’s mistress back home, passing the vineyard, Honey’s eyes traveled over the dusty leaves on the vines. They needed some rain but it didn’t look as though it would happen anytime soon. Perhaps they could turn this weather to the good and get the upper hayfield cut. Verna would know if this would be a good time.

The ale herbs had been mixed and put aside, Honey went off to the dairy to see if the curds from this morning had set and were ready to strain. They would make a nice supper.

C

Everyone saw to their chores in the afternoon. Cunorix supervised Quintilius laying the flax to rett7 in one of the low spots alongside the waterfall. He poked at the stalks with the back of a rake, making sure they were all submerged.

They stopped a moment to admire the brilliant orange damselflies darting a handsbreadth above the stream snipping up individuals from the clouds of gnats. The sun was bright, Cunorix stretched as much as he could and ruefully watched Quintilius lead the ponies to the flax field. Half a man and half a mind. Well, together they usually got the job done.

They would begin the tedious scutching and breaking the fibers after Lughnasadh. Their ancestors had figured it all out, each retting pool would hold one wain of flax. On a really good year they would get three wains full and it was more than the women could weave of a summer. In the fall the pools would be filled again with hemp and the process would begin again. On a poor year they would be using nettles – that wasn’t fun. ‘Round back to Oestre’s time and they’d be washing fleeces there.

C

A weary Bird levered himself up the slope with his walking stick just as dusk started to gather in the hollows and between the trees. His mission had gone well. Veni’s father was mollified by the chance to get a grandchild fostered by the industrious Aeturni. He had asked what their clan’s name signified, luckily Bird was able to put him off with a tale of an ancestor’s vow. Thank Lugh for the blessing of a glib tongue. It was true, sort of, mostly, just not what they assumed. Heh!

Tonight would be a good night to retell the tale. That is after Tod and Brandr became acquainted, double heh! Brandr was sure to get a kink in his tail with another male taking the reins. Never mind that Tod was dragur.

Perhaps he wouldn’t have a chance at storytelling tonight; it would depend on how much of a hissy fit Brandr threw.

Bird shook his head and chuckled as he and his walking stick topped the rise guarded by the garth’s gates. He always liked to take a moment to look back over the Moselle, at this time of day the river was a silver mirror hammered by the evening light, but behind the hall the stars were faint in the eastern sky. He took a moment to balance with his staff and knock the sole of his boot against a rock; dust had found its way down between his toes and it was driving him nuts.

The aroma of fresh bread drifted on the air. Good. Just in time for night meal. He was hungry again even though he was offered the hospitality of bread, cheese and ale at that farmstead. Time enough for a quick wash and then food – he was sure old Nemeta would fill him in on the drama.

It was full dark by the time Bird stepped into the hall, in an eye blink he was ready to back right out. You could actually smell the tension – the agitated guy smell with an underlying pong of fear.

His eyes flicked over the family. Bless those kids! Buck and Andy had set the pace when they’d retreated into the darkest corners, the women crouched in front of them, their bodies poised as shields, a few had already unsheathed their knives.

Backed against the carvings of the box bed, Tod’s face was as impenetrable as granite. Only his quivering nostrils gave away his vital status.

When Bird’s regard flicked over to Brandr, first his pallor drew his attention, then his glittering eyes. This was bad.

This was very bad.

If Brandr were still strutting about, red faced and posturing, Bird might have been able to talk him down.

Could Tod contain his anger? He didn’t know Brandr, he didn’t know his fiery spirit, the only thing that smith had patience for was metal working. In every other area he was tinder just waiting for a spark.

Bird made the only move he could. A two handed thwack!!!! Lugh willing he hadn’t killed the idiot. Whatever, it was still better than the bloodbath that been brewing.

C

A blur and a draft marked Tod’s passing.

Everyone’s posture sagged a bit in relief. Everyone breathed a little more easily. Eyes darted around the room as each reassured themselves that all others were whole. The baby hiccuped and wailed, the older girls sobbed quietly, the adults overflowed with tears of relieved tension.

Someone muttered “Fuckin’ Brandr!”

C

The dragur flung himself up the mountain face, consumed with passion. He tore through theVosego silva, the woods covering the Vosges Mountains8, until he stood on the eastern face and could see the snows of his homeland glittering in the distance under the waxing moon. His dead heart remained still even though he was racked with misery.

So close, his sense of his humanity had been within touching distance, and yet tonight he’d learned it was so ephemeral, his inhuman instincts so divisive. He’d thought for a moment he was going to splinter his fangs trying to retain control.

Brandr had paced and strutted, twisted his mouth in distaste, called him a child, disparaged his friends and stretched his forbearance down to its last thread.

The attitude of the Aeturni led him to believe that there was value in this Brandr, what that was, Tod couldn’t tell. He’d also gotten the hint that Brandr had shamed himself that day and was striking out. Tch! He would have to be taught a lesson, Tod would think on what might suit.

Right now he was so tightly wound he was vibrating, he wanted to release and spatter the sky with great gouts of blood. He wanted to fight something worthy of his mettle, not a puling human.

A snap in the forest behind him pulled Tod from the vista. Eahh! The Goddess still loved him. A king amongst red deer, massive, with a crown of new antlers the breadth of a yew tree, the finest of the wood. He would match himself against the great cervid, using only human strength, the battle an offering to Lugh the hard striker that he may set aright the mind of his child and servant Brandr.

Confronting the stag, “Hai, I offer to do battle with you who carry the crown of swords so that bright faced Lugh might be mollified during his festival Lugansah.” It was the least he could do for the Aeturni, for the kindness they had shown him. He was still a priest and it was right that he should sacrifice his strength and this kingly deer for the well-being of his people.

The stag bowed his head in assent and paced towards Tod, the white rimming his eyes adding to the fearsome appearence.

The dragur seized the stag’s antlers in both hands, wanting to measure himself against the great neck muscles of the beast.

Back and forth they surged, churning the ground, the stag whipping Tod to and fro, flattening the undergrowth with the dragur’s body until his ragged skin was daubed with blood and frothed saliva from the stuggling animal. Tod grimly held fast, shoulders straining, muscles rippling under his youthful exterior, knowing that if he slipped and those hooves reached him the damage would be horrendous.

The red deer wearied but Tod was undaunted and pressed the animal until it fell to its knees and Tod was able to seize its nose for the leverage to break its neck.

Lugh, strong hand, this death is for you! Show your favor to the Aeturni this harvest!”

C

Panting more out of habit than necessity, Tod examined the dark tangle of branches above him till he found one that would support the stag’s weight. Rising up he secured the animal through the hamstrings then pinched the great artery in the throat to bleed before ripping open the paunch. I think the old ones would like the liver, I’d better save that, he wrapped it in what was left of his tunic.

C

Sitting, he picked the bits of bark out of his wounds while the last of the deer’s blood pattered and dripped on the forest floor. The air was thick with the smell of death and blood. Tod thought he might as well get going, he wasn’t getting any cleaner sitting here and he imagined Honey wouldn’t be too keen on getting close unless he smelled better. He wanted some comfort this night.

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1Lughnasadh (pronounced LOO-nə-sə; Irish: Lúnasa; Scottish Gaelic: Lùnastal; Manx: Luanistyn) is a traditional Gaelic holiday celebrated on 1 August. It originated as a harvest festival, corresponding to the Welsh Calan Awst and the English Lammas.

3In many places, at this time the taking of a virgin against her will was a killing offense.

4Small beer (also, small ale) is a beer/ale that contains very little alcohol. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favoured drink in Medieval Europe and colonial North America as opposed to the often polluted water and the expensive beer used for festivities. Small beer was also produced in households for consumption by children and servants at those occasions.

5The House of Karen (also Karen-Pahlevi, -Karan, -Kiran, -Qaran and -Qaren) were an aristocratic feudal family of Hyrcania (Gorgan). The seat of the house lay at Nahavand, about 65 km south of Ecbatana (present-day Babol, Iran).

The Karenas, Karan-Vands, or Karen-Pahlevi as they are also called, claimed descent from Karen, a figure of folklore and son of the equally mythical Kava the blacksmith. The Karenas are first attested in the Arsacid era, specifically as one of the feudal houses affiliated with the Parthian court. In this they were similar to the House of Suren, the only other attested feudal house of the Parthian period. Following the conquest of the Parthians, the Karenas allied themselves with the Sassanids, at whose court they were identified as one of the so-called “Parthian clans“.

6Encyclopaedia Perthensis:Stoppa Saxon stoope Dutch A vessel of liquor. Come lieutenant I have a stoop of wine Sbak There’s nothing more in me sir only a stoop or two of wine.

7The fibers must then be loosened from the stalk. This is achieved through retting. This is a process which uses bacteria to decompose the pectin that binds the fibers together. Natural retting methods take place in tanks and pools, or directly in the fields. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Linen

This chapter has taken me a horrid long time. Sometimes I felt as though I were trying to count ants running around an anthill. As usual penpractice told me, kindly but firmly when I was not making sense. Bless her boots and buttons.

Watch Planxty perform ‘The Blacksmith’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VK_caqXhbXU&feature=share&list=FLKlI52rKi0RVMXiOvhxuRDg

24 An Old Beginning

An Old Beginning

He woke in the warm shadows, although it seemed more dim than dark to him. Sounds. Whispers. The clatter of pottery and muffled voices echoing within his chamber, even the brush of fabric. Under that the muted thunder of heartbeats and sussurant sound of air passing in and out of lungs provided a harmonic continuo. Continue reading

23 Welcome

Welcome

Grey Heron, Moselle

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

ergo bibamus.

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.

C

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.

C

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.

C

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.

C

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.

C

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.la tene settlement evening

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. 

fanged gorgoneia close

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.