The flames lept and crackled, licking at the resinous wood feeding the small fire. The boys had raced each other up the mountain, bounding over logs and boulders; the track up to the pastures was as familiar to them as the path to the midden heap. When they were young, one of their chores had been taking the meal-trash out to the midden; middle sized children ran errands for the aunties and fetched and carried for the uncles. Now that they were almost-men (not yet wed) they watched the herds at night, bragging of girls fondled and honey mead purloined.
That night, since a wolf had been harassing the ewes, Uncle-the-Bull and Uncle-the-Cat joined them, crouching thick jointed amidst the sprawling young bucks. Tarvorix and Cat idly exchanged news. Cat commented on the lowlanders who had attached themselves to the farmstead on the south slope, Tarvorix said he was moderately pleased with the price he’d gotten for that barren black cow; She’d been a good cow and he’d gotten some nice calves out of her, but now the only thing the Romans would get out of her was meat, her udder sagged so badly she was forever stepping on it. Maybe that was the only thing the Romans were good for- buying elderly livestock. He certainly wasn’t too happy about the road they were building, he’d have to be sure that the herds were pastured well out of sight of travelers or there would be more to worry about than the occasional wolf.
Cat grumbled about the foreign Gods and foreign goods pulling the young people down to the Roman settlements alongside the roads. That was no way to live. A proper oppidium should be on a defensible high spot. It is as though they didn’t care who showed up outside their gates.
Gradually the boys rearranged their bodies, mimicking the adult’s posture and serious expressions. Impatient, young Rufus fidgeted, retied the leather strip holding back his amber mop and finally blurted out “Why don’t we chase them out? It’s our country!”
The Uncles frowned, “What and start a war?” Cat continued: “there are only losers in a war, lives, children, territory. Rome has many men with little to lose, willing to die, we have few people now, and much to lose. Do you want your mothers and sisters to die while being raped by Romans? Do you want to see the little children carried off into slavery? We can pull back into the mountains, live our lives, honor our Gods, and wait.”
The focus moved to Stud when his nostrils flared and he tipped his head back, sneering. “There’s no glory in that!” He looked something like a tall goblin – large watery pale eyes, thin lips and rat-ears showing through his greasy brown hair. Nonetheless he fancied himself as the most dashing and handsome of the group, a natural warrior.
Tarvorix smacked him upside the head. “Hush balls-for-brains, you don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Little Button, the youngest of the boys, blinked nervously. Suddenly he half shouted “The loudest rooster meets the stew pot first.” The rumor was that he’d been dropped on his head as a baby, but he was a good help to his mother and most were kind to him.
Kit held back as he watched the other young bucks tussle and fake punches. He’d taken his first steps alongside Tarvorix’s sturdy son called Artos – the little Bear. Yes, his summers were spent on the alp with Uncle Cat but they all wintered further down-mountain with the rest of the clan. He could barely remember when Rufus was born, he was just a bit younger than them; they ran and scrambled together over and around the benches of his father’s house, Rufus’ bright hair a flame in the gloom.
The women said Button had come too early and during the bad winter right before Kit’s mother had died. Everybody had been hungry and the cold was brutal. Kit remembered staying in bed for days at a time everyone huddling together, trying to stay warm.
Button was a funny pale little thing. He cherished a sawn off piece of antler that he had been given to teethe on; finally someone had bored a hole through it and strung it on a cord – it still hung around his neck and he often fingered it. But it was the new chickens that finally struck a spark in Button. His poor mother had begged a start for a flock and she tended them carefully. Button adored those chickens, he carried them everywhere. Poor Button, poor chickens.
Kit shifted and re-clasped his hands around his knees, holding his watchful posture; Stud returned to his loose limbed pose at the light’s edge, his pale blue eyes hooded, his expression cocky. Wisely he had moved out of Cat and Tarvorix’ reach; neither of them had much patience with stroppy boys.
Everyone knew that he had been chased out of the market town down near the edge of the valley. Something about the daughter of an important man who had not really been receptive to his advances and someone with a knife who had been eager to teach him manners.
It hadn’t helped that he looked like his father, who’d relocated from the troubles to the north along the Rin (Rhine). His taller snake hipped figure set him apart from the rest of the fair skinned, sturdily built boys in the area.
He’d tried his tricks on the local girls, but they weren’t as gentle as the town dwellers and he’d been pitched into the midden pile a couple of times.
Finally, Tarvorix had explained that all the local men were very experienced with the short sharp knives used for castration and that they would be careful to cauterize the wound. He’d live. Stud had left the girls alone for a while, but the laughter had cut deeper than any knife and he’d had a gut full of anger ever since.
Cat and Tarvorix moved off to check the herds. This time around, Kit and Artos went with them, leaving Button, Stud and Rufus grumbling around the fire.
Stud was the first to voice his anger, “No mistaking who’s important around here! Won’t even let us track that wolf, I’m as good a tracker as Kit and certainly a better scout than that lead footed Artos. I betcha I’d have that wolf in no time.”
Rufus looked dubious, but Button piped right up “Quick as a hen on a bug! Quick as a hen.”
Thinking on what the men had been talking about, Rufus hunched further into himself, and began shredding a clump of grass. Eventually he muttered:”But what can we do about the Romans? They’re everywhere now.”
“Down in the village, that’s all the girls will talk about; Romans this, handsome legionaries that, it’s all about the flashy red tunics. They sure aren’t talking about us!” This was something new! Stud was usually more likely to boast of his conquests than complain about the competition.
Cat’s figure was a slight shadow against Tarvorix’s bulk as they ghosted across the alp. The boys were searching out the dips in the landscape making sure no cow had sought out privacy for calving. There were still several yet to freshen; first year heifers were especially spooky when it was their time.
The men waited while the boys made the rounds; they’d all known each other so long that the comments that passed between them were mysterious to outsiders but carried whole conversations.
“Stud, trouble,” offered Tarvorix.
“Hothead, Rufus,” replied Cat.
“Him too,” was the reply.
Trouble, more than trouble. Before it was over, they’d wish them dead – and see it done.
Not long afterwards Artos and Kit took an afternoon to check out the girls at the market. After the day-meal they had put on their second best tunics (already a bit short, since they’d both hit a growth spurt), fastened their freshly oiled wrist guards declaring their status as archers, and tied back their hair with richly colored ribbons.
Slipping away they skittered along the track, through stands of mountain pines, down to the market-town, playfully slamming into each other and slap boxing the whole way. In the last bit of woodland before the clear-cut surrounding the town they dusted themselves off, pulled combs from their belt pouches and in general got themselves fit to catch the eyes of the maidens.
With heads high, and bored expressions they entered the gates of the town, prepared to impress.
The central market place was empty save for the vendors clustered along one side. The new Roman cart ways had drained away much of the trade; the merchants followed the money, which followed the trade routes. Now there was hardly enough custom to make market-day worthwhile. Still there were girls, carrying baskets for their Mamas, lingering over ear-bobs and bright ribbons….and boys.
As soon as the feminine glances slid in their direction Kit struck out with a rigid finger to poke Artos in his most ticklish spot. Success! Burly Artos doubled over with a yelp. Ha! That drew attention. Unfortunately it was Button who’d first noticed their antics and trotted right over, he’d come with his mother to sell eggs.
The image at the front of Button’s small brain, however, was the splendid rooster he’d seen. “He, he, he had, boots! Feather boots! An, an, an a fair ruff! Tail was black!” Button gestured with both arms to demonstrate how magnificent the rooster’s tail was. “Our old rooster is just dirty brown.” A small sniff came from him. The rooster that he had once loved, he was now ashamed of.
Offering comfort, Kit rested his hand on Button’s shoulder, Artos said: ”Button, man, you know Brownie is a good rooster. He covers all the hens and there are as many chicks as your Mom wants to let hatch out.”As a diversion, Kit asked Button to show them where this fabulous bird was. Happily Button trotted off turning to make sure they were following him.
A pair of Roman legionaries in faded red tunics chose that moment to step out from the crowd, poor Button careened right into the knees of the younger one. It would have been funny ifthe embarrassed soldier hadn’t kicked little Button with his hobnailed boot. Artos and Kit acted in concert, almost as if they’d rehearsed the move; Artos went in fast and low to scoopButton up and out of the danger zone, Kit grabbed the tail of soldier’s cloak and ran in the opposite direction. As he darted into the crowd someone yelled:”Pick on someone your own size, you big bully!”
The older legionary coldly stared at his downed and dusty partner. “Told you to watch your temper, you’ve got as much sense as a dead cockroach. You act as though you’ve got the other seven guys in your contubernium (the eight man squad he belonged to and bunked with) behind you.”
Both older boys patted Button reassuringly as they felt him over. Beyond being really shaken, he seemed to have a couple of cracked ribs from the kick, a bloody nose, and someother promising bruises on his face from the way he’d landed They agreed that it would not be wise to venture back into the marketplace until the soldiers were gone.
One of the women brought them some bread and cheese, another some weak small-beer1. Quietly, the local people ducked back to check on the boys; several reporting to Button’smother that he was fine but not to draw attention to him. As soon as the glint of the Roman armor had disappeared he scurried back to the stall where she still had a few pullets to sell.
Dusting each other off, Kit and Artos resumed their tour of the market, ruefully commenting that they hadn’t had much success in their girl watching venture, the pretty ones had all been hustled off as soon as things had gotten rowdy.
“Wait, wait,” called a woman, hurrying towards them, a plump baby bobbing happily on her back. “I just saw that you were here.” Startled, Kit was at a loss for her name.“I wanted to thank you, you and your Uncle, for interceding for me with the Goddess.” She slid the wide eyed baby around so that they could get a better look at her. “A fine gift from the Goddess! I will be by soon with a thank offering. Will you give her the Goddess’ blessing?”
Artos’ regard flicked back and forth between the feathery haired, gray eyed baby and Kit, he ducked his head to hide his smile.Kit blushed, his fair skin quickly showing color, but he bent down to murmur a few words and kiss the baby’s forehead; her gray eyes opened even wider and she responded by smacking her lips, making little kissy sounds.
The woman bustled off, her daughter looking over her shoulder, her gaze wondering.Artos finally doubled over with laughter. “Kit, I should have known,” he was gasping for breath, “here we are trying to get a glimpse of some girls and, and … How many are there anyway? What was her name?”
“I can’t remember!” Kit gritted out. “And I can’t talk about the mysteries, even if I could remember.” He blushed even more furiously, his ears cerise.
After a long pause in which he detected a hint of jealousy beneath the mocking of his friend he admitted, “There’s a few.”
Tod pulled back for a bit into his present self, considering the many ways he had satisfied the Goddess: the children in her honor and by her design, protecting young Button, respecting his elders and celebrating the year festivals. These God-laws he had obeyed and fulfilled before his wyrd had seized him.
So much of his story had been encompassed by the first three runes:
his youth and the ending of it.
The fire that ignited young men burned in their bellies; it had driven them to strike out at the Romans, their darker impulses ended with him in chains. He’d decided only the cautious and the lucky survived youthful passions. He’d lost everything; he’d thought he’d accepted his wyrd – but his wyrd had devoured him and stripped him of everything he imagined he was. Hero, priest and princeling. No longer.
Separation: O reversed
Possessions: A reversed
His mind drifted back ……
Kit had sifted through his kennings, his deepest understandings of the God-stories Uncle Cat had taught him. Bright images of Gods and Goddesses, battles and warriors, fortune and ill-luck flickered through his mind. He’d thought their sortiewould be most most likely to succeed directly after first harvest and the bull feast.
There was always a great ceremony when the old herd bull was sacrificed (Not Tarvorix’ prize, the great red bull, he had his own pen and the cows were brought to him) and the new young sire brought in to cover the cows that didn’t take on the first go-round. They would need the luck attached to the festivals of Lugus -returned-to-his-throne. The time of the waning moon would be a lessening of power and caution, an ending.
When the new dark of their great adventure finally arrived, they prepared themselves like the heroes of old: Hair tightly braided and knotted up unable to snag on the arrows in their quiver; a full complement of those arrows, carefully made, and true, bronze heads sharpened to a razor edge; flexible sandals, suited for grip on an uneven surface. There’d been whispered arguments as to how many arrows they should take and whether or not a shield would get in the way. Lazy Stud thought they didn’t need to bother, cautious Artos wanted to carry a round targe – he didn’t fancy getting a Roman gladius in the gut. Kit, archer at heart, thought you could never have too many arrows.
Even though he was as nervous as a bridegroom, Kit had had a sense of inevitability about his actions. Artos would go wherever he did, Rufus just wanted to get going and Stud was itching for a fight. They kept Button out of it.
Is this what his dream quest foretold? How can you die three times? His uncle had explained to him that the dreaming and the visions could count as one death, because he was remade as the Goddess’s priest with a new persona.
The shining young warriors headed out, down to where their paths would intersect with some of the Roman auxiliaries scouting for provisions.2
They were in luck, or their wyrds were in force, after dozing for the darkest part of the night they set out through the gloom on the spruce needle littered track to the pass3 just as birds started to run through a few trial twitters. They were quiet enough, able to hear the legionaries chatting as they went to collect the live stock the auxiliaries on provisions detail had seen the day before. The boys meant to go in, inflict some misery and get out as quickly as possible.
Rufus jittered, restless, while they strung their bows and held arrows at the ready; Kit and Artos took deep breaths and looked at each other. They knew that this moment would be a turning point in their lives; a slow lowering and raising of their eyelids was all it took to acknowledge Fortune before Rufus launched himself, yelling. They skittered down the needle slippy hill to save the kid from his foolishness.
Quickly they burst through the remaining brush at the edge of the track, taking their aim at the handful of auxila forming a defensive line.
They each got off a couple of good shots Kit actually hitting one of the soldiers under his arm as he raised his pilum (spear with a detachable head, like a harpoon) to skewer Stud who was still up slope. Artos’ arrow lodged in someone’s thigh. Rufus was able to scramble back from the melee but he had a nasty gash in his leg from the thrust of a gladius. Why he had run full tilt into the squad, no one will ever know but it was not surprising, fool hothead.
Both Artos and Kit set their feet and fired arrow after arrow seeking a gap in the segmented armor (lorica segmentata)4or a bare leg showing behind a shield (scutum). They were close enough to aim at feet and nailed a couple that way.
Rufus was holding his bleeding leg as he crab-scuttled away from the action, but one of the soldiers, seeing his opportunity for profit escaping, snaked an arm out and grabbed Rufus’ foot.
One of the last things Kit remembered was Stud standing there mouth open and his bow dangling from lax fingers.
1Small beer: is a beer that contains very little alcohol. Sometimes unfiltered and porridge-like, it was a favoured drink in medieval Europe (Wikipedia)
2 The term is generally used to refer to those lighter armed, non-citizen, infantry who do the riskier work for about eighty percent of the pay. p39
….the auxiliaries earn their keep, as they work in forage parties, seeking out where the villagers have stashed their herds…. p 147 Legionary The Roman Soldier’s UnofficialManual, Matyszak, Phillip, Thames & Hudson 2009
3The Roman Road traversed the Alpes Graiae (Gray Alps) starting at Augusta Praetoria Salassorum (modern Aosta in Italy) and traced the ancient trail through the pass [circumscribing the western borders of Raetia (the modern pass of St. Bernard)] traveling eastward along the shore of the Lacus Lemannus (Lake Geneva) to connect with the roads paralleling the south-western flow of the Rodonos (Rhône ) to the west and the north eastern direction of the Rhine. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_roads