The thriving (Yes, I wax sarcastic) market town of Apollonia Minor looked like it was asleep that morning. We had come cross country from the southeast and camped for the night on the outskirts. After a hearty breakfast of what was left of last night’s chicken, which wasn’t much, we wandered into town. It was big enough to have a forum, which was empty when we went through it early in the day. There was a wooden temple of Jupiter, a bakery, a wine shop, a tavern, and a few other buildings. There was a shoddy-looking public bath, and a nicely kept house built around an atrium that I guessed was the mayor’s. Everybody else’s houses weren’t very big. They reminded me of the old beach cottages that were giving way to condos and pricey developments like Bayside in my reality stream. There was a livery stable and a campus martius, where the troops lived when they were in town.
A handful of minutes later we were wandering out of town on the Roman road. If you blinked, you missed the place, even afoot and not in a hurry. There weren’t many sights to see.
Say what you will about the Romans, they knew how to build a road. Via XLI ran straight as an arrow, relatively, from Apollonia Minor to Apollonia Maior, which lay across the Chesapeake Bay from the mainland. The Eastern Shore is the “mainland” as well, to Ocean City, but to prove it you have to trek to the north for four or five days, turn west past where Havre de Grace is in our realm, and then trek south again even further to get where we wanted to go. Best to go hard west and take the ferry from what’s basically a big (DelMarVa – Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) peninsula. Via XLI was also referred to by name as “Cassillianus,” for a local judge who had ruled against something or other once in a career of about eighty years. Before that it had been named “Verae Amicitiae,” which means “Of True Friendship.” Cassillius pegged out with his toga on and they had to name something for him, and Route 41 was closest at hand. I guess they didn’t need the True Friendship that naming it a hundred or so years before had demanded anymore. I think the politics comes with that patch of dirt, regardless of who lives on it, since they did the same sort of thing where I came from. Everything was named for politicians nobody had heard of.
The road was easier on the feet, at least at first, than walking cross-country had been. Once the day got going we had to stay out of the way of wagons, carts, coaches, and the occasional patrol of cavalry. For company we met people walking the other way. It took a while for those traveling from Apollonia Minor to catch up to us, and then it was the horse and carriage traffic for the most part. We’d occasionally be joined, usually just for a few miles, by people from farms or hamlets along the road, walking on business. They were voluble, friendly folk, chattering away at each other in Saxon-English, Lenape, and a variety of vulgar Latin that sounded sort of like Portuguese spoken in a Swedish accent, only with K’s for all the C’s. (Caesar actually came, saw, and conquered and pronounced it “Wenny, widdy, winky.”) An old man with a big gray mustache that grew below his lower lip to meet his chin whiskers walked with us for quite a few miles, herding three swine with the help of a stick and a dog we were all afraid to approach. He spoke to Nannakussi in pigeon Lenape and to Nevianne’s mother in pigeon Saxon. He didn’t address Nevy or me because she was an unmarried maid traveling with me, her intended, and I might be jealous. Intendeds sometimes are, especially if the maid is really good-looking, like Nevy. Nannakussi told him the story of how he had come to be a servus, and the old guy eyed me even more warily. When I wasn’t looking, Nevy caught him making the sign against the ochius malus, or evil eye, toward me. Intendeds are sometimes really jealous, especially if the maid is really good-looking, like Nevy, and the intendeds are demons.
Nevy snickered. So did Blæda. She’d already forgotten trying to faint at the sight of me two whole days previous.
“This evening,” Nevy told me, and I translate again for conciseness, “we will be at the crossroads. There we can get lodging and some money. I don’t think we can get enough horses for all of us.”
“We’re going to have to kill or steal something to eat on the way,” I told her, worried. I was pretty sure they didn’t take MasterCard at the occasional kiosks along the road.
“Expect to share it with our fellow travelers,” she warned.
I gazed upon one of the old fellow’s pigs and she poked me. “Better not,” she told me. “You’ll scare him to death! Nannakussi’s telling him about the length of your claws!”
“Have I told you today that you’re beautiful?” I asked, turning my attention from pork butt to her. I used wunderschön for beautiful, since I wasn’t sure what the Saxon word might be and I didn’t think super had been invented in this realm. It’s last week’s slang in Bremen or Munich or someplace.
She managed to figure it eventually. The word I wanted was Saxon or Olde English ælfscíene, which was long gone by my time. The scíene part morphed into the German schön, which also means “pretty,” which was inadequate to describe my girl. The ælf, or “elf” part, sadly died somewhere along the years, so I hadn’t met it. Nevy thought wunderschön was an elegant turn of phrase. “Nay, my lord,” she replied, revealing dimples I could have fallen into lips first, “but feel free to call me such any time!”
She gave my hand a squeeze, since Mother was watching us closely. Public displays of affection are frowned upon in that society. Holding hands was okay, kissing wasn’t. I wondered what the Saxon or Olde English word was for “duenna.”
I tried my eleven word Lenape vocabulary out on Nannakussi, gave up, and had Nevy ask him if he wanted to go hunting with me, or more accurately, take me hunting. “Aye,” he answered with a grin. I got that pretty easily.
We left the road and went a-tromping, he with his bow, me with a knife and the remains of his sword, which was going to turn into a poorly balanced knife, with a long handle, and a short blade. They didn’t throw many things away in the Really Later Roman Empire. The strip on this part of the left side of the road was designated as game lands. Theoretically, the game lands were Imperial hunting preserves. The Emperor didn’t get out that way often, so he had to count on us locals to keep the game from getting out of control.
As we tromped, I’d point to this or that, and Nannakussi would tell me what it was in Lenape and I’d tell him, or try to, what it was in English. “Hitkuk” was trees, plural, one tree was “hitkunk.” Good start. I could remember that. Then we went into a little detail. A white oak tree was “wipunkòkuk.” A hedge tree was “wisaokw” – no “kuk,” just a hint at the end. That “kw” sound was more like a “kng” to my ear. A box elder was “wisaitunas” and a honey locust was “kawënshuwik.” There weren’t any “kuks” to be found there either, since each kind of tree had its own name.
“He stood under a tree” was “Ekwi hìtkunk nipu,” but “He set fire to a tree (I’m not sure why he would) was “Nòxkwsao nèl hìtko.” “I walked around the tree” was “Okai mpëmska na hìtkunk,” but “I went around the tree,” which to me was just about the same, was “Nòkahëla na hìtùkw.” Grammar, if any, was as yet a total mystery to me. I’m pretty sure Nannakussi remembered a lot more of my language than I did of his, though I did retain “hitkunk” and “hitkuk.” I remember them to this day. I just didn’t know what to do with them at the time.
The word for turkey was “chikënëm." Nannakussi saw it way before I did. His bow came up in a quick, fluid motion as the bird hit the air, and it flew right into the arrow. The arrow went through its neck, it did a kind of in-the-air stumble, and fell to the ground, flopping for a bit before it gave up the ghost. We did a little war dance together, laughing like a couple of six-year-olds, emitting “yee-hoo’s,” which were the same in both languages. I gutted the bird, leaving the head and the entrails for the scavengers, and we took turns plucking it on the way back to the road.
The plural form of turkey was “chikënëmuk.” I learned that because the second one ran right in front of us, when we were not a hundred yards from the road. It broke out of nowhere, with a a couple inches of lizard hanging from its beak. Nannakussi took him just as effortlessly. He took two steps, caught him by the head, and wrung his neck. Another minor war dance ensued, with me telling Nannakussi he was the world’s mightiest hunter. He probably had no idea what I was saying, but he was pleased that I was pleased with him. Now we each had a chikënëm to carry and pluck, and we had enough to share with strangers, which was the Lenape custom.
We found the road, and we found the ladies by following the trail of crap the piggies were leaving. We could tell by its freshness when we were getting closer. The swineherd looked a little more friendly toward me, so I guessed that Nevy and her Mom had explained to him that for a demon I wasn’t so bad. “Chikënëmuk!” I hollered as we approached, probably sounding more childish than demonic.
When we had rejoined them I clapped Nannakussi on the shoulder and proclaimed to anyone who’d listen that he was a hunter who had taken two turkeys with a single arrow, and I held them both up as evidence. There was general applause (after translation) and he got a “my hero” look from his wife and daughter. There’s nothing better for a man’s soul than a wifely “my hero” look, no matter how good he is routinely.
There were little plazas built every couple miles, rest stops for the foot weary. They were a part of the road system. Often there were kiosks there, selling food or sandals or moccasins. Everyone but me was walking barefoot, conserving their footwear. I wore a pair of Nike knockoffs from Walmart that were good for two or three thousand miles. The locals all had pretty tough feet. I was a product of my society. If I’d gone barefoot, I’d have been leaving bloody tracks in a mile or two.
We stopped at the next plaza and there was a barbecue pit and firewood there, plus benches to sit on. Nevy told Nannakussi to go and gather some more, to replace what we burned. I went with him, even though he tried to shoo me back; gathering firewood was slave’s work, he told me in a halting mishmash of Lenape, Saxon dialect, and Latin. I was tearing down my status by helping him. I resisted, then gave up because he looked so distressed. I skulked back. Tearing down my status was tearing down his and Nevy’s as well, probably Mother’s and Blæda’s too. It was a matter of family honor.
I really didn’t like being a slave owner. I liked poor Nannakussi and his family, even if I had fought him and killed his crew a couple days ago.
Someone had gotten the fire going while I was off not being allowed to gather firewood. It was roaring pretty good. It would have to burn down almost to ashes before we put the birds on. I noticed the swineherd had put his pigs in a makeshift pen and had parted his mustache in the middle, turning up the ends into a handlebar. He was smoking a pipe and watching the girls go by with a lascivious eye. One of the carters was hanging around as well. He produced three big bottles of wine. A thick-bodied Lenape woman lugging two baskets slung from a length of wood across her broad shoulders contributed about five pounds of potatoes to the feast, lightening her load a little but not much, only two and a half pounds a side. We soon had a chattering crowd with us. I wondered if two Chikënëmuk was going to be enough.
The birds weren’t going to be roasting for four hours. No one had time for that. Nevy, Winky, Blæda, and Leofgif butchered the birds into smaller pieces that would cook more quickly. They did the same for the potatoes and for a contribution of squash. Our Little Bird sat in my lap and watched, learning, getting up to run errands as necessary.
Once chopped up, the birds got a quick bath in wine. Salt was heavily taxed, so the birds were seasoned with some kind of pepper, maybe cayenne, garlic cloves, maybe basil and some other things I didn’t recognize. The potatoes and squash went together in chunks, doused with some honey, water to thin the honey, cumin, and salty fish sauce – there are ways to get around those taxes. It all went on the grill together and it looked more like Chinese cooking than Italian or English, though it had its own tasty odor. I wondered briefly if they had pasta yet in the Much Later Roman Empire. Maybe that was what the fighting was about over on the other side of Persia, for the Secret Formula. They had flour and eggs. If they didn’t have pasta I’d invent it for them.
Someone produced a couple round loves of crusty bread, better than a foot across, still fresh from that morning. Someone else provided flatbread. We used these as trenchers, to eat from, mostly with our fingers. I shared with Nevy. Her Mom and Blæda shared, and the Nannakussi family ate from theirs. Chulëntët would come by and help us clean our plate now and then. The wine wasn’t nearly as bad as the stuff Nevy had given me, but it still had more pucker to it than I’m used to getting out of a cup. The birds, mostly sparrows and blackbirds, but a few passenger pigeons, came to help us eat, grabbing anything anyone dropped and flying off with it. I was curious about the passenger pigeons, which are extinct in my reality stream. They didn’t look much different from mourning doves, but mourning doves don’t hang out in flocks so big they’ll darken the sky. We were a little too far inland for sea gulls, which was probably just as well; they’re pretty aggressive bums. Sometimes they don’t wait until you drop something, and the fare was exceptionally tasty, which would just make them bolder.
There weren’t any dishes to wash. We ate them. Everyone settled down for a nice siesta. The swine were already asleep, snoring. I hadn’t heard pigs snoring since I had been a teenager. Somehow the sound was comforting.
Nevy and I found a nice, shady spot, out of range of the piggy smell. They’d already eaten the remains of the turkeys, mostly bones and back meat. The carter had eaten both the necks, claiming they were the best part, “spitooing” the bones over the fence for the swine to argue over. No accounting for some people’s tastes.
We snuggled together, which was nice. Blæda had lots of people to chat with and give her the latest news. Nevy’s mother had the grace not to come with us, despite her worries about her daughter’s virtue in company of the Lord of Lust. I was actually feeling pretty lusty about then, even though I was looking forward to a nap. She was no more shy about feeling me up than I was shy about exploring her by now. We were engaged, by the witches’ and warlocks custom. A bit of messing around was to be expected; she just had to retain her maidenhead until the job was done.
“And that thing is supposed to fit inside me?” she asked in translation, squeezing it through my shorts.
“I don’t have one any smaller,” I pointed out.
“I’ll have to get used to it,” she sighed, giggling.
I gave her a hug, promising to be gentle with her, followed by a kiss. It was affectionate, not passionate, because I still retained a few shreds of self-control. To take my mind off it, I asked, “So how did you get the fire started?”
“I’m still a witch,” she pointed out. “When you left with Nannakussi, I waved my hand and there was flame.”
I was surprised. I wished I had been there to see it. But apparently it was something I wasn’t going to see. “Indeed?” was all I said. “No gunpowder?”
My intended – I confess, my beloved; it had been love at almost first sight – turned on her side to face me: “You really don’t believe it works?” she said, surprise and hurt in her voice.
“What works?” I asked.
“Uh… yeah. Really. I don’t.”
“Hwy?” she demanded. That’s not a misspelling. It’s the Olde English word for “why.”
“Because waving your hands and mumbling won’t make fire.”
“How do you know?” she demanded. “And I don’t mumble. Mother would switch me.”
“I’ve never seen it done,” I defended. “Hand movements and words don’t have anything to do with ignition. Your breath isn’t hot enough. Or do you kiss the wood? Your kisses are scorching!”
That poke in the ribs left a bruise. “It can be done,” she said indignantly. “Lots of people are able to do it. I was a little girl when I did it the first time. When you weren’t around, I was able to teach Chulëntët, but you wouldn’t be able to see that (poke!), would you?”
“Hwy?” I asked her.
“Because you don’t believe in it! How can you possibly be a demon and not believe in magic?”
“I told you, I’m not a demon!” I reminded, trying to sound reasonable. “I’m just a man. I’m nothing special. I sell sea shells by the sea shore!”
“And ice in the wintertime!” she griped. “What kind of dummy buys sea shells at the sea shore? I called you, my lord, my true love! And you came! I called a demon and I got you! I did everything right! Thou (poke!) art (poke!) my (poke!) DEMON!”
“I still stepped out of the Devil’s Trap,” I pointed out, rubbing the remains of my ribs and then trying to dig out the earwax she had loosened hollering in my ear.
“Aye, my lord. That you did. You were able to step out because you didn’t believe in the magic that brought you to me!” There were tears brimming in those enormous blue eyes. “But thou art here. Can’st thou not believe it, for my sake?”
There was a desperate appeal in her voice. And I was there beside her. Something had certainly brought me to her Devil’s Trap, so far away I wasn’t sure I could find my way back. She had told me that she had known my face when I showed up, though I as a demon hadn’t been quite as big as she had expected; she was expecting something more like eight or nine feet tall. Nor was she expecting me, myself, as the demon. She had told me she had been in love with me since she had been a little girl. I had fallen for her like a ton and a half of bricks shortly after meeting her, making up for lost time. Maybe that was magic too. Or it could be simple science: Nevianne could drown me in pheromones from twenty feet away. I had spent that very first night wallowing in them.
If – and it was certainly a giant economy size, XXXL if – magic did work here, that would imply I’d gone somewhere where the physics I knew either didn’t work or worked differently. Or maybe they coexisted somehow. The IED’s I had constructed worked as expected. If I built a cannon, or a solar still, or a steam engine, I expected it to work just like it would on Fenwick Island. So here the laws of physics accommodated magic too.
Could I believe that? For the sake of a pair of big blue eyes, a heart-shaped face with pretty pink lips, and a sense of humor that somehow managed to transcend the need for translation?
I could at least try to suspend my disbelief. If I could suspend it enough, maybe I could actually see her wave her hand and the fire erupt from a pile of oak logs. If she could do that, maybe I’d get to watch our Little Bird do it.
Hell, maybe she could even teach me!
That was going pretty far. I couldn’t see myself as Harry Potter, even if she did see Palégos as Lord Voldemort.
“I will try, my love, my sweetheart,” I told her, kissing salty eyelids. “I promise I will give it a good and honest try. Okay?”
“That is all I can ask,” my love told me. “I want you to reach your full measure as a demon.”
“Hah!” I told her. “In that case, keep me disbelieving.”
“Huh?” I think she had picked that up from me. It wasn’t Saxon-Olde English. I don’t think it was Lenape either.
“If my disbelief suppresses magic, all I have to do is walk up to Mister Wizard and conk him with my magic log.”
“That would be after you fight your way through a few hundred of his henchmen, my lord,” she pointed out.
“You worry too much, my lovely lady.”
“Nay, sir. ‘Tis you who worry not enough!” she responded. Then she kissed me and I thought my toe nails were going to melt.