Celeres Part 1
Impoverished fishing villages and thorny moors stood as threshold, a wall between worlds, carved not by stone or wood but through bloody claims and Plutonian gifts. Sextus’ eyes languished on the horizon, thinking about promises held by the lands of Taras; the trail was cold but carved clear and deep. He would not let Davinia or Rome down.
He was still Tabula Rasa, he was still bound to Lidia. Promises to childhood friends and civic responsibility aside, he still had Celeres to distribute. He sought for the pillars supporting suffering communities, the attendants of forgotten shrines and those trying to preserve their way of life - despite the tripartite pressure of Tarantum, Samnium and Rome.
Sextus found themselves grateful for the humble southern hospitality, people sharing what little they had and expecting nothing in return; his horse never suffered cold or hunger; he never wanted for heart or roof. The same mood colored each interaction and each new encounter - cordial but apprehensive; the people accepted the odd silver coins with careful gratitude, following Janus’ example and keeping an eye on the past and other in the future. There was little for them here - the settlements and industry of Tarantum made sure of it, - but they were partners on the grand Italian project: many of their young men and women had gone to Cisalpine Gaul for glory and profit, daring to believe they were fighting for a place where they could be pairs and peers, not voiceless serfs groveling and scraping under the shadow of titans.
Lidia’s goals were as inscrutable as they had been months before, apparently as optimistic and joyful as the combination of her personality and the mantle of Triumphant Aeneas would lead one to believe. His master might see this mystical endeavor as paying back the dividends for all that the Italian people had accomplished, leveling the game, Rome giving their allies the social justice they deserved. As he traveled furthered towards Tarantum, Sextus could only question if Lidia’s efforts were misguided and naive; she believed reaching out would create friendship, but the slave knight found little of that in their travel. She was planting seeds of amicitia but only hope took roots on these thirsty scorched fields.
Hope; he felt that if he confided his concerns about hope with Davinia, she would dismiss it without much thought. Was it not virtuous, remarkable and ultimately a good thing? Sextus’ worldview had been tarnished by the inertia of privilege and institutional fatalism; untainted by notions of progress and futile revolution, unfettered as his heart. Hope, trapped and bound, was just another evil - an insidious and subtle one, - one with few equals on earth and sea. Hope was the mother of all anxieties, the prolonging of suffering, the pretense of resistance that only bolstered the established maladies of the human condition. Of little comfort for the restless, the serenity of hope proposed a cruel but interesting paradox.
Only the hopeless could attain a state in which they could fulfill what others hoped for; the acceptance of burdens by the willing could bring comforts that the hopeful masses could just dream of. The illusion of suffering-free hope would only be crueler, sustained a the expense of those clear-eyed enough to be hopeless.
Sextus did not find those words easy to accept; and yet, they resonated truer to him than anything he had experienced in his twin lives. Bitter herbs, they still kept him stimulated as he went through his task; he was entrusting that each act was a step towards change.
Each new Celeres handed was a nod to Elpis.
He just hoped the lid remained closed.
There was a last detour Sextus would have to travel before he could resume the investigation; a harsh and remote place where a hermit attended to an old covenant - an overlooked but important representative of the people before the gods. Sextus had to leave his horse behind; there were no trails or waystations ahead. Even an athletic young adult would find the trek arduous; the shrine laid among ragged cliffs, sharp knives that seemed to twist around. Challenging temporal authority, defilers of the world of forms and what earth and sea should platonically conform to. This adventure was hard on knees and hands, that was for sure. The climb twisted into a natural alcove, delivering Sextus to a secluded depression. The sea rushed underneath, dark and foamy, subdued and yet dreadful in its promise of oblivion; it was enough to make the most confident climber doubt their skills.
Sextus dared to look up from his feet and the rushing darkness below, meeting a pair of large and inquisitive eyes. On the opposing side of the crack a teenager observed him, bare feet dangling over the raging waters. They had an an androgynous round face and wore a long juvenile tunic - torn, salty and laden with dried algae. From his arms and neck ropes dangled, grass and flowers wrapped around them, interlocked with bones and spines. They frowned as Sextus stared back, curiosity giving way to repulsion and hatred.
“I am looking for the shrine.” The wandering Triumphant asked, bearing no annoyance for the impertinent looks. In lieu of an answer, the teenager raised their left hand, pointing slowly to a tiny opening and the crude stairs someone had painstakingly carved generations ago.
Sextus deferred to them with a curt nod and bow, content with resuming his climb. The knight gave a side glance back, feeling the intense gaze of the teenager on his back - finger still raised, now more accusatory than helpful. A shivering more intense than the aggressive winds permeated his being, a cursed feeling lingering as he ascended the steps.
The shrine was on what might have centuries ago been a cave, had its roof not collapsed into an harmonious circle of sharp rocks and natural engravings. Light invaded in irregular patterns, creating spots of nauseous sea water and fertile pockets where wild herbs and persistent plants flourished. Carefully laid crystals described a spiral pattern, marking a safe path for penitents. Even with such assistance a price was still demanded; Sextus was bleeding from a dozen small cuts by the time he reached the shrine proper.
An outer semi-circle of piled stone sheltered the divine secrets hidden inside. No sacrificial altar was beholden to this place; the powers honored here were beyond mortal appeasement - a distance from mundane affairs that explained its unpopularity.
Sextus opened his purse, shuffling around for a single Celeres. Lifting the silver coin above his head, he knelt - ignoring the pain as the ground reclaimed more of his legs. Someone tapped among the walls, accompanied by coughing and slow steps. The Triumphant shuffled his weight, awkwardly turning around. He saw a middle aged woman, skin stained by sun and wind, a single streak of grey hair poking out of the long scarf that covered most of her head and face. Feet and hands were just as carefully bound with torn rags; she emanated a memorable presence of rough strength and fish guts.
“There is no need or want for offerings here.” She clarified, her voice surprising Sextus with its soothing tone.
The knight rose awkwardly, careful to not drop the Celeres.
“I’m sorry for my intrusion, priestess. I come bearing the symbols of friendship and commitment from Roma. As the riders of three hundred people brought security to our early days, Italians helped us brace for the storms and woes that threatened the Urbe and all it represents.” Sextus recited from memory Lidia’s spiel, himself awe-struck by this holy site and its keeper. The slave offered the silver coin.
“That too is wrong.” The woman wrapped her small callused fingers around Sextus’ extended hand, closing it and hiding the Celeres. “I am no priestess, I just live here and stand vigil.”
“Then tell me, how may I address you?”
“Martinisa would be nice, but if you would like to be formal, Witness would be appropriate - for that is my role here.”
Sextus took another look at what Martinisa bore witness to. Earth embracing the shrine, skies and sea given only the minimum allowances - just enough not to not cause offense.
“Why a place that demands constant attention is so inaccessible?”
“A single person is required to officialize and mediate a matrimony; anyone else must be invited or a guest. As for the seclusion, the jealous demand it. Ever since the children of Taras landed on this land, sea and sky fought over the bounty of the earth. We, the people that live off the underworld, needed to keep our covenant with our gods secret and strong. So we sought these sites, where heaven nor waters could claim ownership. These are where our divine vows are remembered and honored.”
His hand still held by the woman, Sextus could not help but feel some odd, sad, kinship.
“It seems like an important and lonely chore. It must take a lot to one’s life for one to end so burdened.”
”Perhaps for others; for me it seemed the natural course to follow, the next step in the dark.” Martinisa shrugged, a faint smile on her chapped lips. “One day a tremor destroyed half our village and I found myself split apart from the life I knew. I had no home, no memories, no living relatives and nobody that relied on me. Like many of my people, I had lost my wife to storms at sea; I bore no particular fealty to anyone else and the underworld gave us decades of marital bliss. It was my turn to help with their marriage vows.”
Sextus could feel an eerie familiarity, an old bond and its harmonious and serene power. It could not be them; he looked away from the Witness and towards the shrine, trying to discreetly peek into the content of the inner walls.
“You can look. They don’t bite.”
Martinisa let go of his hand and silver, offering Sextus the opportunity to satisfy his curiosity. The true shrine was a simple affair of polished stone engraved and painted. Multiple stations depicted the trials of a young woman, a transcendent beauty born of sea, earth and sky that belonged to none of those worlds. She rode alone, until she found a partner in another rider, dark brooding kin from hell. The maiden was no more, she was now a woman that given three choices carved her own path. Waves rose, storms gathered and ground shook; divine rejection is not a dignified thing. The infernal couple stood together, swearing vows before a dark and wise creature, the steward of secrets, the provider of all gifts. There would be harmony, concordia and balance. As long as they stood witness, as long as vows were fulfilled, as long as both riders honored their devotion to each other.
Sextus could feel his eyes turning to gold, his spark touched by the recognition of his own Triumph, reflected back to him. Strings tied to ancient powers, reminding him of his own vows - and how they transcended whatever world he would find himself on. His heart was racing, emboldened as it had never been since Telamon; in tune with who he was, Tabula Rasa rose and turned to a smiling Martinisa.
“I knew I was right to come here. Of all the people I visited, nobody deserves this more than you.” The shiny coin was again on his hand. “Let this be given but never taken, gifted but never traded.”
The Witness raised an eyebrow, loosening her headscarf as she accepted the Celeres. Something seemed to jolt her as she reached for the coin; Martinisa hesitated. She looked at Sextus’ golden eyes; he in turn reassured her with a gentle nod.
As Martinisa took the coin, Sextus felt a sparkle flowing between the two of them, an alignment of infernal proportions. He could feel the tension on the air discharging, the crystal trail shining bright. Martinisa’s eyes resonated as quartz, taking a deep breath as the handing of the Celeres closed the cycle, finishing the last station and carving the myth.
Sextus know who he was looking at.
Dis Pater Obsignator.
The slave knight teared up, recognizing the return of the Celeres as the igniter of Martinisa’s powerful spark. Maybe this world could not be seen as one of losers and winners, of conquerors and subjects. Perhaps it was possible to you could lift others up; Sextus was empowered by the realization that collaborative action was essential to ensure the liberation of either party.
If the gods were good, then maybe even Lidia could be right. If people were good, Lidia would not even need to be right.
The moment of joy was not long-lived. The awakening of a spark and Tabula Rasa’s presence in this shrine caused Sextus to feel the call of something powerful and familiar. Feeling unwanted attention falling on him, he rushed to gather his composure and return to the road.
‘I am so happy I got to meet you, Martinisa; I have, however, tarried too much. I must return to my obligations.”
“Are you sure? I have some fish broth warming up, you can at least take a cup for the way.”
“I would not want to impose and I am terribly late.” Sextus jumped awkwardly over the edges of the crystal path. “Thank you and your acolyte for your help.”
Martinisa shook her head in confusion. “My acolyte?”
“Initiate? Servant?” Sextus guess twice, to further confusion of the Witness. “The youth that I met at the entrance.”
“Tabula Rasa, I live alone.”