It was not that simple, of course.
They returned to the ill-maintained shelter above the road. Brunneis was still there, hobbled. He had knocked his empty feedbag askew and munched down all of the grass within reach. His ears twitched happily when he saw Lavinia. She patted his head, refilled his bag, and picked her clothes up off the ground. They were dry now, but dirty.
Lavinia carefully folded and set aside the blanket of grass and flowers, the naiad remaining silent just beyond the curve of the grotto. Pulling on her clothing, she dug sturdy boots out of her bag, and an extra cloak with fur lining. Caseus snuggled tighter around her throat, his tiny breaths puffing against her skin.
Fully garbed, her bags repacked, the woven blanket tucked carefully into a pouch, Lavinia freed Brunneis and picked up the reins. Rolling her shoulders, she turned the donkey towards the summit of the mountain.
They climbed for three days. The naiad led the way, after a fashion. Never saying a word, she preceded Lavinia up the mountain, slipping easily between the trees and shrubs. Sometimes, she would disappear without a sound, only to reappear further up the slope. At night, she kept far away from the fire, despite Lavinia’s assurances that the holy flames would cause her no harm.
The temperature dropped rapidly. Lavinia’s breath fogged and her nose got cold. She hiked the cloak higher around her shoulders and kept climbing.
Once, she heard the distant trill of pipes.
Twice, she heard the jangle of harnesses and the sharp scrape of hooves against rocks. Then she pulled Brunneis deep into the shrubbery and held still, low to the ground. The horsemen got so close that she could smell the blood of freshly-taken heads. She covered her mouth with her hand, held her breath, until the sounds and the smell faded.
At sunset of the third day, they reached the treeline.
At some point in the immemorial past, a massive, flat slab of rock had fallen from the side of the mountain, crushing trees and compacting the dirt. A spring bubbled up from cracks in the stone, ran along the flat slab for a short distance, tumbled over the edge, and disappeared back into the ground again. Long before Roma existed, the people of the mountains had chiseled tall, fat stones and set them in a rough circle on the ledge near the stream. From there, the people could see the setting of the sun and the wheel of the stars. Their names and their rites were long lost and forgotten, but the stones remained — and they had been claimed by a góēs.
Foul, tainted, vile magicians, their powers born of pain and murder, not faith in the Gods.
Trying to calm her breathing, Lavinia stopped in the shadow of the trees. The naiad knelt among the roots of an oak, arms wrapped around her legs.
A leather and fur tarp had been strung across several of the stones, creating a rude shelter. A low fire burned in the center of the circle, ringed by strange triangular stands. More animal skins and bundles of feathers hung from other stones — and cages. Wooden cages filled with birds and foxes and rabbits, most dead, some barely alive. They all rattled and rolled in the wind.
Lavinia felt bile rise in her throat. First, she would kill the góēs. Then she would find the horsemen’s heads. Then she would free the animals and lay to rest those who had died to fuel the góēs’ foul magic.
But how to kill the góēs?
Her eyes darted around the ledge. The tarp was certainly flammable. If he was within, perhaps she could set it aflame and bring it down on him —
A shadow of movement, and Esuries the góēs stepped forth from his shelter. He moved towards the small fire pit, a rounded bundle in his hands. As he drew closer to the hearth, out into the fading light of sunset, Lavinia got a better look at him: matted hair and beard, dirty tunic, bare feet. He muttered low under his breath, his words incomprehensible.
A head. Esuries held one of the horsemen’s heads.
Lavinia’s breath caught and she stared in horror as he set the head on one of the tripods, so that it looked not unlike a sibyl upon her holy seat. One by one, Esuries moved back and forth from his shelter to the fire, each time returning with a head, until all seven sat in a circle, backlit by the flames. They faced outward, eyes closed, mouths closed, the lead spikes dark blotches in their foreheads.
The sun slipped beyond the western sea and the heavens darkened.
Esuries backed away from the fire and raised his hands towards the sky, a long spike in one, a rectangular metallic plate in the other. This time, his words were clearer. “Hortensii! You who can see things and hear things and know things from the depths of the underworld that are unseen, unheard, and unknown to mortals! Speak! Tell me of the Great She-Wolf! Tell me where she sleeps!”
One by one, eyes opened. The Hortensii stared out into the night, gazes bright.
“Speak! I have observed the rites of old, made all the necessary sacrifices, spoken all of the necessary words. Now you will reveal to me that which I would know!”
The mouths of the seven horsemen opened. A loud, skin-crawling moan filled the air.
Lavinia lunged towards the naiad, frantic, her words and thoughts tumbling. “Your stream!” she hissed. “Summon your stream! Tear his feet from beneath him, knock the breath from his lungs, drown his ears with the sound of your waters!”
The naiad tilted her head at Lavinia, blinking dark eyes.
She smiled at Lavinia, and the ground shook.
It started as a low rumble, so subtle that Lavinia could barely feel it in the soles of her feet. But then it grew louder, stronger. Brunneis shuffled and whined. Caseus’ tongue flicked against her skin. The rumble grew and grew, the trees swaying. Loose rocks spilled down the mountain slope.
Esuries had stopped speaking. He looked around, then down.
Water pooled around his feet. Slowly at first, then faster and deeper. The spring surged, a geyser erupting from the rock. The sound echoed, and the birds and foxes who still lived in their cages whined and shrieked.
Esuries howled. He yelled terrible words and the spike in his hand erupted in a sickly white flame. It stuttered and slithered, a cold fire. The letters on the tablet in his other hand took on a similar hue, like glowing worms wiggling in the dark.
Esuries whirled in place, his eyes wild. “Show yourself, crea —”
Lavinia stood, chanting, calling on Vesta and her holy flame. Hand extended, she took command of the fire in central pit, spinning it up and out. The flames singed the moaning heads, reaching for Esuries.
The góēs howled again, swatting at the fire with his lead tablet, and Lavinia felt the cold and the hardness of it in her bones. She staggered back a step, caught herself, and lunged forward, towards the circle of stones.
Step by step, she pushed herself towards the góēs and his foul rite. She pulled and pushed at the fire, shaping it into a hand to swipe at Esuries. He stabbed and carved at the flames with his spike, and she felt the wounds appear on her body. Blood ran down her arm.
Gritting her teeth, Lavinia chanted louder, summoning the sanctus ignis, the very fire of creation itself. The hearth roared, flames shooting high towards the stars. The leather and fur tarp caught and began to burn, and the moaning heads tumbled from their tripods into the water. The naiad’s flood turned to steam, hot vapor curling around the stones and rolling down through the trees.
Esuries shrieked. “Witch!” he cried. “Hag! Viper! You repulsive, abhorrent — woman!”
Lavinia reached the edge of the stone circle. The flat ledge was hot beneath her feet, and the steam soaked her cloak and gown and hair.
“I am virgo vestalis, dedicated virgin and priestess of Vesta, she whose fire burns for all of Roma. And I denounce you Esuries, foul góēs, magician who lives on fear and pain and death. I denounce you as an enemy of Roma, and of the Great She-Wolf who sleeps and dreams and must never wake. I denounc —”
He screamed and threw his dagger. The sickly white flame flashed and reached for her.
Lavinia lifted her hands, pulling Caseus from around her throat. With one hand, she waved the sanctus ignis into the path of the dagger. The two fires clashed, consuming one another in an instant. Only a tiny flicker of white remained when the dagger sliced into her shoulder.
She bit back a cry of pain and, with her other hand, flung Caseus at the magician.
The serpent’s bright green scales flickered, his tongue snapped, his fangs extended. Emerald flames erupted along the length of Caseus’ body and he slammed into Esuries’ chest, singing the dirty tunic. Wrapping his lower body around the foul magician’s throat, he lifted up, sinking his fangs into Esuries’ face, over and over and over again.
The góēs cried out, flailing. He tried to hit Caseus with the lead tablet, but only succeeded in slamming the metal against his own head. He staggered, bleeding, limbs shaking.
Caseus dropped to the ground, hissing in anger and satisfaction.
Lavinia fell to her knees, panting. She felt dizzy, and the sting from the dagger spread through her arm. It was cold. Blinking rapidly, she forced herself to focus as Caseus streaked across the stones, through the shallow water, to her side. He climbed up her back and side to once again loop around her neck.
There was a weird gurgling sound.
Lavinia looked up.
Esuries wove and stumbled on his feet. His face was a mass of bite marks and blood. His tongue was swollen and protruded from his lips, and his eyes were so large that they bulged from his skull.
He gagged and gurgled again. The tablet slipped from his fingers and splashed to the ground.
And then he fell, fell down, and he did not get up again.
The naiad disappeared. She walked past Lavinia without a word, her long hair gleaming. She cast a single glance at Esurius’ corpse, and then stepped into the spring. She melted into the water, sinking down and backwards into the rock and was gone.
Gathering her scattered thoughts, willing her exhausted body not to collapse into sleep just yet, Lavinia summoned the sanctus ignis one last time.
“Holy fire, hearth round which creation revolves, answer my call. My body is desecrated. Poison consumes this priestess of Vesta. Burn the toxin. Sanctus ignis, answer my call.”
She clasped her hand over the dagger wound, whimpering. Flames crept across her skin, sank into her blood and bones. Lavinia tightened her grip. The whimper turned to a moan, and then a scream as the fire burned through her, consuming the poison, devouring the tiny white flames that chilled her down to her soul.
When she looked up again, when she could focus her mind and her eyes clearly, the horsemen stood before her.
They remained just outside the circle of stones, horses pale in the moonlight. They sat still, not so much as a twitch.
Gritting her teeth, Lavinia stumbled to her feet, fell, pushed herself up again. She found the nearest head, its eyes and mouth still open. With shaking fingers, she reached between the cold lips, beneath the tongue, and pulled out the small lead tablet. She tossed it into the fire pit, then wrapped her fingers around the spike. Swearing and huffing, she dug and pried at the spike until it finally pulled free. It landed with a clatter atop the tablet.
Her feet were numb.
She staggered to the edge of the stones and held up the head, hands clasped on either side of it.
One of the horsemen rode forward. He reached out, took the head from her, and settled in back on his shoulders. As he did so, the heads tied to his saddle fell to the ground; the hair simply unknotted itself and slipped loose.
The equestrian nodded to her in silent thanks, and turned his mount away. The horse whinnied and flicked its tail as it disappeared among the trees.
The second head followed, then the third. Her hands slipped, grew slick. It was harder and harder to pull out the spikes.
By the time she stood at the edge of the circle with the seventh head, her entire body shook with exhaustion and pain. Her clothes were wet and cold again, and she had to clench her jaw to keep her teeth from chattering.
As the final horseman rode into the woods and down the mountain, she found herself standing amidst a heap of heads: young and old, men and women, long hair and short. She used the remnants of the leather and fur tarp to gather them all up. Her mind fuzzy, she freed the animals from the cages, laying the dead in the fire pit. She didn’t have the strength left to retrieve Brunneis or light the flames. She dropped to her knees, curled up on her side, and sank into a deep, dreamless sleep.
Four days later, she walked into Gelleia. Everyone stared at her, the town’s small urban cohort running out with their swords and bows to make sure that she wasn’t some strange threat.
Maybe it was her bedraggled appearance.
Maybe it was the bags of heads.
Brunneis had not particularly liked it when she loaded those onto his back.
Only when the priests of Iupiter and Iuno came out to meet her and read her letters of introduction did they let her pass. Junior priestesses from both temples were dispatched to help her clean up in the privacy of her rooms at the temple of Vesta, and a medica from the tiny Aesculapium was summoned to tend her still-visible wounds. She stuffed her face with bread and cheese and lentils while the priests listened to her tale, their expressions changing from shock to horror to relief. They told her that the horsemen had been plaguing the mountain communities for three months, that a cohort had been sent out and never returned, that the priest of Mars Pater had gone out and never returned, that Calpurnia the Vestal had gone out and never returned.
Lavinia wept, and then she slept again.
When she woke, it was the eve of Parentalia. She was pleased to see that, even without her guidance, the priests and people of Gelleia had returned the known deceased to their families and constructed small stone mausoleums for the unidentified heads; they were simple structures, but there would be wine and honey and words even for these unknown dead.
After both the private rites within each household, and the public rites in the central square, had been concluded, Lavinia lead the priests and priestesses and the junior acolytes in a solemn procession out of town and down the road. The priest of Iuno was old, and his steps slow, but he was determined. Eventually, they reached that place where Lavinia had been forced off the road by the horsemen. They climbed down carefully, holding hands, holding onto ropes and trees, until they reached the small meadow.
The horsemen had returned to their graves. Lavinia could see their bodies through gaps in the dirt.
They set the marker to rights, cleaning it off. They pushed the dirt back into place, and covered the graves with stones. And then they poured wine and honey and sang the names of the eight Hortensii, who had lost their lives defending Roma against Carthage, and then had the peace of their death violated by a foul magician. One by one, the priests of Iupiter and Iuno and Mars vowed to maintain rites in their honor until the sun and the moon were no more in the sky.
Lavinia dispatched a letter to the Virgo Vestalis Maxima in Roma, detailing her entire encounter with Esuries. She made certain to include his desire to locate — and possibly awaken — the Great She-Wolf. Such a danger could not be allowed to go unreported; the Collegium needed to know.
A month later, she finally received a response. It was short, and left her wondering what the Maxima’s plan had been all along, and what — exactly — Lord Silvanus had relayed to Vesta, and how much Vesta had seen for herself.
You have accorded yourself well in this matter. I am pleased to see that my judgement as to your strength of faith and character was not incorrect.
Depart at once for Pisae. There is a small matter there with which your sister priestesses require you assistance. A replacement has already been dispatched to take over your station at Gelleia. Report to me accordingly once the issue in Pisae has been dealt with.
Your sisters miss Caseus. Next time, ask.
Vesta watch over you always.
Virgo Vestalis Maxima Amalia
Lavinia dropped the letter onto her desk. She lifted a hand to stroke one finger over Caseus’ smooth head.
“It appears that Lord Silvanus was right: she doesn’t hate me.” Lavinia paused. “I hope it doesn’t rain all the way to Pisae.”
[Rebecca Buchanan is the editor of the Pagan literary ezine, Eternal Haunted Summer. A complete list of her published worked can be found there, including poetry, fairy tales, fantasy, romance, and science fiction.]