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A Strayed Cow

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Ambling down the river, Guern the Hunter kept fiddling with the necklace his wife had given him on their wedding day. He had asked her about the future many times over during the past days, and she generously chose to inquire her gods. But Lugh, Brigantia and Taranis seemed to have no interest in things that occupied Guern's mind and heart. Apparently, his concerns were insignificant to them, as were the people who had sparked such vivid disquiet and compassion in Guern.

That was only proper, of course, and Guern could not fault the gods. He did not participate in the tribe rites and send fervent prayers to the altars of Lugh, Brigantia and Taranis because he expected something special, only his fair share. Standing at the altar with the cow, the sword or the wheel, depending on the ritual, Guern was only doing his duty. What plagued him now was clearly an old man's fancy. An old soldier's wounds.

It was in Guern's heart that a young chieftain's son, who looked so much like someone his sons might resemble in a few years, and the young initiated in the mysteries of Mithras could find a way to survive on their desperate mission.

And yet, all common sense and even the local gods suggested that they were doomed to fail. If Guern was going to be so sentimental, Murna kept saying, he would have to find a way to save them himself. And Guern knew that she, in her infinite wisdom, would accept his folly should he choose to leave in order to protect the two, but would that be right? Was that what Guern the Hunter wanted?

No, it was not. But was there another way?

That morning, he had taken the cow that had stood beside him during the solstice these past three years, and walked with it away from the village. Now, the day had much advanced, and Guern felt underneath his skin that the moment was right. Murna and her gods knew no other way, and Guern might not, either.

But Mithras knows everything.

Guern heaved a heavy sigh and caressed his bead necklace with his fingers. Slowly, he let the moorland and the marshes melt away, and kept his silence until the spirits of stags and serpents shrunk back into milky mist. He had to be another now, and grant a kindness to a fellow man of Mithras – but to a fellow man of the tribes, too.

The cow stared at him with her warm, liquid gaze and, shifting her considerable weight, approached him to press her heavy, moist lips into his shoulder. Thoughtful, Guern wrapped his hands around the cow's thick neck and rested his head against the cow's. The gesture was as far away from the Mithraic mysteries and the ritual bull-slaying scene as anyone could possibly imagine.

Guern closed his eyes and felt the vast, shimmery green and gold of stretching grass fields and farmed land tremble in turmoil, transformed into a flaming crown. The cow breathed next to him, agitated but steadfast and determined, accompanying Guern into a space far removed from any Selgovae rite the animal rightfully belonged to.

The flaming crown shone brighter, and Guern caught a faraway impression of two men carrying blazing torches, one pointed upward, one pointed downward. His mind and heart on the crown of Sol, one with the sun, Guern was aware of the men's torches turning into shepherd's crooks, and the men themselves shedding years like snake skin, until their form and features turned familiar. One was the son of Cunoval, lord of five hundred spears, the other a young decommissioned centurion, and the shepherd's crooks clutched in their hands became replaced with the golden eagle standards.

The eagles multiplied and multiplied, until there was nothing but thudding ground underfoot, the grind of metal and the sound of marching. And yet somewhere in the grisly golden mob, Guern knew there was a raven. A young Corax, barely initiated in the mysteries of the cult: Marcus Flavius Aquila. One would think that, given the shortness of Marcus' service, Mercury would have barely extended his blessings upon him, but in his infinite mischief and mercy, the god had lavished gifts aplenty on the unsuspecting Corax.

The magic of travels to faraway lands, and victory against all odds, finding the right path. The miracle of healing when recovery seemed impossible. The miracle of conversation, camaraderie and, eventually, friendship with an unlikely companion. Who but Mercury would guide one on such a surprising path? The twists and turns of voyage in a strange land under a disguise. The vicissitudes of travel and pursuit. At last, speed and guile to avoid capture and cover great distances when, by any law of nature, they should have long been captured by the best of the Epidaii warriors on their trail!

Guern felt his heart pounding, blood rushing to his head, and only the steady presence of the cow in his embrace tethered him under the onslaught of the immense knowledge of the flaming crown of Sol. Breathing deeply, he sought to align himself with a more peaceful vibration, listening for Luna. Where was her ox-driven biga, rolling across the sky?

Guern sensed a wave of white touch the infinite metallic ocean of golden eagles, and as he found his self reaching for the silver moonlight, he understood that Luna was here, closer than ever. His cow, his courageous companion, was one of the beasts driving the biga of the goddess, and Guern was astride, holding onto her neck and nostrils in a parody of tauroctony that nevertheless did not feel blasphemous.

Soaking up the warmth of the cow's pelt, Guern realised this was the moon's favour, a way to marry the mysteries of Mithras and his life with the Painted People. Gently stroking the cow's neck, he looked up to find the son of Cunoval, Esca, standing by Marcus' side, striding through a river of moonlight.

This was how it should be, then.

The biga turned slowly, its finely crafted wheels skidding along the edges of the gigantic flaming crown that kept growing, absorbing the insignificant, puny eagles, transient powers and concerns swallowed by unimaginable, eternal might. The flaming crown tilted and the biga began to gradually ascend skyward, following the crown's ornaments.

The cow grew agitated once more. Guern sensed the deep rush of her blood beneath his splayed palms, the disquiet of her heart. Turning around, he gazed past the crescent moon steering the biga and sought the two familiar faces again, pushed further behind by the eagles. He could barely make them out in the distance, fluid and changing.

New dangers approached Marcus and Esca, hot on their trail: dogs chased them, licking up the blood traces left by their wounded feet, and large snakes followed with susurrations of delight. The golden eagles not yet swallowed by the immense flames of the crown turned into scorpions and hastened in the direction of the young Corax and his Brigantes companion.

The moon kept rising. Guern peered through the fire and saw two ravens battling, flapping their wings at each other. One was the Corax, Marcus Flavius Aquila. The other raven was Marcus also, though different. As always, the most vicious battle is one against oneself. Marcus the centurion versus Marcus the travelling eye doctor. Marcus the master versus Marcus the friend. Marcus the son versus Marcus his own person. Marcus of the past versus Marcus of the future. When two ravens are battling, only one will win, and it never matters which one. For the raven always wins.

But will the raven live on? Will Mercury protect him on yet another sharp turn of the road? Or will the mad dash across the moors and fields to the Wall be his last one? What and who will he lose along the way? Will the two friends, two shepherds, two torch-bearers, be parted?

But Cautes and Cautopates can never be apart.

Guern was far away from them now, the biga teetering on the edge of the flaming crown. He was always going to be far away from Marcus, because a Miles is far away from a Corax. Marcus had been a tiny bird barely able to spread his wings when he left the mysteries of Mithras behind, and no jokes of Mercury could change that. Guern had been a Miles, a soldier. That was all he ever was. Mars had favoured him from the beginning, and reaching the status of Miles, Guern had found himself. That was his calling, his true self, and it remained unchanged even as he changed allegiance from Rome to the Selgovae. Blood does not change colour, and steel does not lose its sharpness when one changes the sheath.

Guern was a Miles. He heard the deafening sound of drums as a chest plate bloomed into existence on him, a lance appeared in his hand that had been grasping the cow's humid nostrils moments before, a belt sluiced along his body and clasped his waist, and a helmet wrapped itself around his burning head. A Miles, favoured by Mars, in all the glory of the cult. And although Guern had no power, Mars and Mithras had strength beyond imagination. Beyond human frailty, jealousy and vengeance, beyond human strength and determination. Mars would not permit that some mortals turn out to be more vehement and successful than he; how could the Epidaii snag a Corax if Mars refused to will it? How could they be fast enough, strong enough, cruel enough, to reach and slay? That was not their decision. Mars decided about blood and war.

As the cow stepped over the edge with the other beast driving the moon up, Guern reached for the pouch strapped to his belt, tore it off and threw into the flames.

The biga rose into the sky, the flames turned into stars and sickles, and Guern could not see Marcus and Esca anymore, but he knew them to be safe and together, somewhere further into the future, in a place of peace and contentment, farming and being friends in an easy way that had nothing to do with oaths or obligations, rituals or revenge.

Guern had done his duty to a fellow follower of Mithras. Guern had beseeched and Mars had favoured him. And Luna had favoured them all.

Stripped of the attributes of Miles, Guern blinked back tears of exhaustion and found himself holding on to the neck of the cow once more, whispering prayers into her silvery pelt. He watched the curve of the sickle moon on her flank, the fading gold of the sun smeared across her hooves.

The cow pulled back and licked the side of his face unceremoniously and Guern laughed. No harm was going to come to the Roman Corax and his chosen companion anymore. There was no need for Guern the Hunter to accompany them, to risk everything and abandon his life with the Selgovae. He was free to stay and live on, and pray to his new gods, serve Murna the High Priestess who had generously gifted him with her kindness and many sons.

Bless Mithras, the mightiest of gods, who can reconcile the irreconcilable and find solutions when the problems seem insurmountable.

Guern the Hunter kissed the cow between her eyes, like he did every summer during Murna's solstice rite, and prepared to play the very last part in the play: the thin veneer of human intervention over the sure touch of Mithras. He heard footfalls and began whistling softly, prepared to be seen by the two unsuspected escapees. The cow led and Guern followed, breaking into a catchy song:

Oh when I joined the Eagles,
(As it might be yesterday)
I kissed a girl at Clusium
Before I marched away.

Further ahead, the rowan branches parted.

Well met, young Corax. You shall live.