Whispers. Laughter. The gentle tumble of water over rocks. Flowers and silky cat-tails and soft grass. A reed pipe, the notes high and sweet.
Lavinia groaned and tried to open her eyes. Her back hurt. Her head hurt, and her knees and …. She groaned again. The only thing that did not hurt was her left ear.
She blinked and managed to open her eyes this time. It took her long moments to realize where she was: a low, narrow cave. She tentatively rolled her head. She lay just inside the entrance. Sunlight poured through the opening, revealing a bright blue sky and trees dancing in the wind. A stream rolled from the rear of the cave, past her feet, and then tumbled a short distance down into a clear pool; steam rose off the water, creating a low mist. Tall grasses and fluffy reeds grew along the banks, the water disappearing on the far side of the pond to continue down the mountain.
A naiad leaped out of the warm pool, arced, and dove back again. Mossy hair streamed behind her, and her skin — the same inky blue as the depths of the water — gleamed in the sun. When she rose back up to the surface, her deep black eyes settled on Lavinia. They widened in alarm, and she dropped away again.
The pipe stopped.
Lavinia grunted; the sound had not been a ringing in her head.
She pushed herself up onto her elbows, feeling the comfortable and familiar weight of Caseus around her neck. The serpent hissed contentedly, his head resting in the hollow of her throat.
Pushing harder, she managed to sit upright. Someone — the naiad? — had covered her in a woven blanket of grasses, reeds, and flowers. It was surprisingly comfortable. More leaves were wrapped around her ankle and her elbows, and she could feel others sticking to her back.
“Your injuries were sufficient to cause you discomfort, but not enough to end your mortal existence.”
Lavinia looked up and her heart nearly stopped.
An old man sat just to the left of the entrance to the cave, on a ledge of rock that stuck out into the pool. He was naked except for the deer hide thrown across one shoulder. Gleaming antlers rose from the top of his head. A wreath of leaves, berries, and flowers sat atop his grey hair, and more berries and flowers sprouted from the curls of his beard. A tall walking stick — cypress, to judge by the grain and coloring — rested in the crook of his elbow and he held a syrinx in his hands.
Even as she watched, he lifted the pipe back to his lips and trilled a note.
The naiad’s mossy head appeared just above the line of the water.
“Food and drink for the priestess.”
And she was gone again.
Lavinia gingerly climbed to her feet, muscles protesting. Her back stung and her ankle felt tender. She kept her eyes down and held the woven blanket carefully in place.
The God laughed. “You need not concern yourself, priestess. I have no desire to incur Vesta’s wrath by seducing one of her holy women. And, yes, it would be quite a pleasurable seduction for both of us.”
Lavinia cleared her throat, stumbled, and tried again. “I am honored to be in your presence, great Silvanus, Lord of the Forests.”
The naiad reappeared, water draining from the woven basket in her hands. It held a wild feast: mushrooms, asparagus, onions, strawberries, blueberries, bellflowers and dandelions, and a thick slab of honeycomb. The naiad set the basket on the rock beside Lavinia’s feet, gestured towards it, and then swam backwards until she reached the ledge where Silvanus sat. With a single kick of her legs, she launched herself up and cuddled on the stone beside him.
Lavinia dipped her head in gratitude. Trying not to grimace or groan, she lowered herself to her knees. As soon as the scent of the honey and strawberries reached her nose, her stomach let out a loud grumble.
Picking up a few of the fruits, she set them to the side and gently disentangled Caseus from around her neck. The serpent went willingly, his tail curling around the berries as he settled in to eat.
She ate quietly for long minutes, listening to Silvanus play his pipe. The birds in the trees around them sang along, chirps and trills matching his tune.
When the music stopped, she realized that she had eaten the entire feast. Her fingers were sticky with juice and honey, and her tongue tingled from the onions.
“My thanks, Lord Silvanus. The food was delicious.”
“You are most welcome. When next you speak with your Goddess, please extend my regards and tell her of our meeting, and of how respectfully you were treated in the realm of Silvanus.”
“I shall certainly do so.”
“Excellent. Now tell me of the horsemen.”
Lavinia licked her lips. “I know little of them. I only encountered them this last evening. They are not spirits, but flesh and blood. Dead given foul life. The heads they carry ….” She swallowed. “They murdered Calpurnia, the Vestal who served in the temple in Gelleia. And many others.”
Another trill of the pipes. “Yes.”
Lavinia stretched out her hand and gently rubbed a finger over Caseus’ head. “The Virgo Vestalis Maxima sent me out here to face them. Alone. With no warning. No preparation.” She picked up the snake and looped him over her shoulder. He slithered part way up her neck to curl around her ear. “She does not like me, thinks me unworthy of the veil. She intended for me to die.”
“You believe so? You think your Goddess such a fool as to appoint such a woman as her highest acolyte? The mortal form which hosts her divine essence every Vestalia, blessing Roma and all its peoples?”
“Uh.” Lavinia’s tongue tripped in surprise and uncertainty. “No—”
“No.” The God’s tone hardened, taking on the creak and groan of an ancient oak in a storm. “Show more intelligence and faith, Lavinia of the Vestal Virgins. Your Goddess, and your high priestess, have set you a task. Failure will mean your death, and the deaths of many others.”
Lavinia bit the inside of her lip. She blinked rapidly, the God’s words settling into her mind.
Around them, birds continued to chirp and chirrup in the trees. Foxes barked in excitement and something moved through the underbrush at the edge of the pool. A moment later, a stag with a small harem of does stepped into view and calmly bent to drink.
Lavinia rose up onto her knees, hands outstretched in supplication. “Silvanus, Master of Deer, tell me please. How am I to defeat these abominations, return them to the earth where they belong, and do honor to my Goddess?”
Silvanus lifted his pipes once again and began to play, the naiad still cuddled against his side. He played for so long that Lavinia began to despair of him ever answering. But then he set the instrument aside, wrapping one hand around his cypress walking stick.
“They hunt that which they lack.”
“ … Their own heads …?”
“Just so. And they will only know rest when that which has been taken from them is restored.”
“Great Silvanus, how do I find the horsemen’s heads?”
He grinned at her, his teeth like those of a fox. Or a wolf. “Begin where they ended.”
The naiad led her through the forest. She left wet footprints in her wake. Lavinia shivered as the February cold pushed the warmth of the naiad’s pool from her flesh and bones. She tugged the woven blanket of grasses and flowers up over her breasts again and leaned around a scraggly blackberry shrub.
They did not go far, but Lavinia was still surprised that the naiad could venture such a distance from her home.
A small meadow spread out before them, a narrow ridge where the ground flattened out before dropping steeply again. The trees here had parted enough to allow in the sunlight, creating a field of moss and wildflowers.
It would have been beautiful, if not for the holes.
The earth had been violently cast aside — not from without but from within. Chunks of dirt and rocks, root balls and clumps of moss, dried worms and the husks of insects.
She felt the flick of Caseus’ tongue as he hissed in agitation.
Setting her feet carefully, she moved around the meadow, from one hole to the next. They were large and deep; sufficient for a both a horse and rider.
Her toes rapped against something hard. Sucking in her breath, Lavinia hobbled back and looked down.
A square piece of stone poked up out of the soil, half-buried by the churned earth.
She knelt and brushed away some of the dirt. An inscription began to appear, and she brushed away more of the soil. Twisting around on her knees, she maneuvered to read it more clearly.
Here lay noble brothers
Lost to Hannibal of Carthage
May their names echo into eternity
and the Gods smile upon them
in the fields of Elysium
Lavinia read down the list, one name after another, all with the same nomen: Hortensius. All members of the same gens. Brothers, indeed. All … eight?
She leaned forward, brushing away more of the dirt to be sure that her count was right.
There had been only seven horsemen on the road.
She pushed to her feet, studying the meadow. The naiad waited silently in the shade beneath the trees. The holes were evenly spaced in a triple row; the field wasn’t long enough for them to have been buried in a single line, or even a double column. Three here, three here, but only one ….
Lavinia moved to the third row, where there should have been two holes. But there was only one. Perhaps — just perhaps — the eighth horseman remained safely within the earth, undisturbed.
Through the gift of her holy fire, Vesta granted her priestesses many extraordinary abilities. Lighting a hearth to keep oneself from freezing to death in a storm was not unheard of, but rather frivolous. But the sanctus ignis could do so much more: judge guilt or innocence, burn a lying tongue, eradicate illness, purify a rotten soul, reveal a hidden truth ….
Carefully walking the distance between the holes, Lavinia measured her steps, stopping where the eighth grave had most likely been dug. Then she held up her hand. “Sanctus ignis. Holy fire of the hearth of creation, come to me. Vesta’s flame, round which the universe revolves, come to me. Holy fire, answer my call, reveal to me that which has been forgotten. Holy fire, answer my call.”
Warmth, then heat, then light, and her hand was aflame. She bent down and slowly carved a circle around the eighth grave. The moss and flowers caught fire, but did not blacken and turn to ash; instead, the sacred flames seemed to embrace them, and the air filled with the sweet scent of green, growing things.
When the circle was complete, Lavinia knelt beside it, and began to pray. “Hortensius, your equestrian brothers have been taken from you. Hortensius, your equestrian brothers have been turned to evil deeds by foul magic. Hortensius, help me to free your equestrian brothers and return their souls to the fields of Elysium.”
And then a wavering in the air, the heat from the flames twisting and reforming and taking shape.
The figure who appeared in the center of the fiery circle was nearly transparent: thickened air and light bent to give the soul a visible shape. A young man in full equestrian armor, helmet upon his head, his hand resting in the sword at his side.
“Beloved of Vesta.” His voice was little more than a whisper, a thin sound carried to her by the holy flames. “I pray to all the Gods above the earth and below the earth that you will succeed where your sister failed, or my brothers will be lost to me forever.”
Lavinia sucked in a breath. “Calpurnia called you to the site of your burial?”
“She did. But now you are here, and my brothers have still not returned to me, so I know that she has been lost, as well.”
Lavinia swallowed hard and tightened her jaw. “My sister and your brothers shall be returned to us soon. Tell me, Hortensius, of the foul rites and magic which stole your brothers from Elysium.”
“Three moons past, when Diana was but the palest of crescents in the night sky, a foul góēs, reeking of rot and ambition, came to this place. He recited his ugly words and dug up my brothers’ heads, one by one. He placed spells inscribed on lead sheets beneath their tongues and drove lead spikes into their skulls, and carried their heads back to his lair. My brothers wander now, over roads, over mountains, over fields, unable to rest until they reclaim that which has been stolen from them. And I — I can do nothing but weep.”
As the flames carried his words to her, Lavinia felt her hands curl into fists. Her heart thudded in her chest and angry tears stung her eyes.
“You will not weep for much longer, Hortensius. You have my promise. Now, tell me the name of this góēs, and where I will find his lair, and your brothers’ heads.”
“I pray to Mars Pater and Epona and Vesta Mater that you speak true. The góēs is named Esuries and he holds my brothers’ heads in an ancient circle of stones high on the face of the mountain, just beyond the trees, where the naiad’s water first breaks forth from the earth.” Hortensius pointed up, his nearly transparent arm gesturing towards the line where bare trees gave way to frozen rock.
“Well,” Lavinia whispered, fingernails digging into her palm, “this is the task that Vesta has set me. So be it.” She turned to the naiad, who still stood silent at the edge of the meadow. “Lead the way.”
[Continue to the conclusion in Part III.]
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published poems, short stories, and novellas can be found there.]