Garux dashed after Arvasia up a deer trail. He spotted her as she emerged onto the path to their town.
She stopped but didn’t turn to face him.
“What’s the matter, my love?” he asked as he embraced her from behind and kissed the top of her head.
The sun lit her hair like black gold. Arvasia had weaved wildflowers into her locks, and she was as beautiful as the most precious of them. She turned toward him, but her cheeks didn’t dimple in a smile, as they normally would. Nor did she say a word.
“I’m so happy to see you here, Arvasia,” he said. She was usually at home in the afternoons, making jewelry with the gems from the quarry. “I didn’t expect you to come!”
“I bet you didn’t!” She squirmed out of his embrace. “And you seemed very happy to see my sister, too.”
“Happy to see your sister?” Garux said, blushing. “But—I went to take a dip, and she was there. I didn’t even… You believe me that I ran into her by accident, don’t you, dimples?”
She lowered her head. “Yes. But I’m mad because you looked almost scared when I came. I’m sure you had been staring at her.”
“Staring? But—she was talking to me! Don’t the elders say it’s rude not to look at someone who’s speaking to you? What was I supposed to do?”
Arvasia said nothing, and Garux knew his argument was as lame as an old mule. “Anyway, what are you doing here?” he asked, eager to change the topic. “Is everything all right at home?”
She crossed her arms. “I finished earlier, so I came to look for you to take you to our meadow. But now I’m not sure if I still want to.”
“Our meadow? That’s a great idea, dimples! That way we can make… peace.”
She frowned. “Haven’t you had enough excitement for one day?”
“That’s not just, Arvasia!” Garux said, feeling that her jealousy was making her obstinate. “Why do you keep blaming me for running into your naked sister?”
She said nothing, but after a moment, she took his hand and led him up the path, away from the town. She still pouted, though, and Garux knew she would bring this incident up anytime they argued. Fortunately, they almost never did.
Having neared the merchant road, they left the path and walked through the woods to a small clearing. As they sat in the soft grass, the sun winked at them through the twig of a pine tree, which moved in a light breeze. Small, white clouds ambled over the blue sky, and birds chirped everywhere. The scent of pines and wildflowers was strong enough to make them tipsy.
Arvasia embraced her shins and put her chin on her knees. She looked so lovely and vulnerable with the flowers in her hair and the sadness in her eyes that Garux felt he would die to make her happy.
He thought of the time they had discovered this meadow, about two years ago, and of their little “house” they had made as kids from sticks behind the longhouse, and he couldn’t imagine his future with anyone but her. Although her jealousy had upset him, it also confirmed that she loved him. And he longed to prove that he loved her.
“Do you remember how we played at being husband and wife, dimples?” he asked.
Arvasia nodded. “You invented the game to have an excuse to peek at my fufu.”
“Peek at your fufu? But—the game was your idea. I wanted to play bears and hunters!”
Arvasia sighed. “I’m sorry, Garux. I’m still… So what about that game?” She raised her head. “What are you trying to say?”
“Well…” He rubbed the back of his neck. “Maybe we could, perhaps, get really married, no?”
She bored her eyes into his. “Are you serious?”
“Yes!” he said, thinking it was the best idea he’d ever had.
“And, maybe we could, perhaps, get really married, no, is your way of proposing?”
He blushed and grinned.
She gave him a quizzing look. “You’re not saying that because you feel guilty, are you?”
“Of course not! Besides, I have nothing to feel guilty about.” He was getting annoyed. “Let’s forget it.”
Arvasia smiled and threw herself into his arms so forcibly they tumbled to the ground. They laughed and started kissing.
“Is this your way of saying ‘yes’, dimples?”
“Yes.” She laughed. “Yes!”
Garux fought for breath when she kissed and bit his neck. He moaned and squeezed her breasts. They were small but hard like green pears, and he thought they were the most wonderful things in the world. The memory of a larger pair evaporated from his mind.
Arvasia kissed him with passion, but then she squirmed out of his arms and sat up.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I’m worried about Rawena. You know how unstable she is, and how obsessed she’s with you. She must have finally realized we’re lovers. What if she hurts herself?”
“Hurts herself?” Garux said with a chuckle, but apprehension clutched at his throat. “Don’t be silly, dimples. I’m sure she went back home, and your mother will calm her.”
“I hope you’re right, my love.”
He stroked her hair and tickled her ribs, and she smiled. They lay back down and kissed again. He rubbed her nipples, and she grabbed him by his beard and stuck her tongue into his mouth. He reached under her skirt and ran his hand over her inner thigh toward her crotch. Then she grabbed his wrist.
He lifted his head. “What is it, Arvasia?”
“We have to tell my mother about our engagement!” She sat up and straightened her hair.
“But—but—can’t we tell her later? She might be still talking to Rawena.”
“They never talk long, Garux, and I’m too excited to wait. Let’s go now.”
He wanted to protest, but she stood and brushed pine needles off her underdress. He also got up, trying to hide his erection and disappointment. When Arvasia grasped his hand and led him back toward the path, though, he also got excited about telling Seneusia.
Garux’s mother had died while giving birth to him, and Seneusia was one of the women who had breastfed him, although she wasn’t from his clan. When his father had disappeared along with Arvasia’s father during the trading expedition eight years ago, and Garux had been left alone in his house, Seneusia had invited him to live with them. The adolescent Garux had already fancied himself a man and declined, but he loved Seneusia as his adoptive mother.
Seneusia had always treated him as a member of her family, and he suddenly realized she had likely been waiting for years to become his mother-in-law. The light in Arvasia’s eyes told him she had also been waiting for his proposal, although she’d never said a thing. I’m not the sharpest arrow in the quiver, he thought. Not when it comes to women, anyway. I wish Papa was still around to teach me—and to see what a beautiful wife I’ve got.
As they reached the path and headed for their town, Arvasia shuddered and squeezed his hand. When he looked at her, he saw the smile leave her face.
“Receiving the news will be hard for Rawena,” she said, rubbing her forehead.
“I’m sure she’ll be happy for us,” Garux replied, immediately feeling foolish.
He guessed Rawena would throw a tantrum, like last month, when she had smashed clay dishes, pulled her hair, and screamed and cried over a stolen necklace. They walked on without another word.
The town’s battlements rose above the trees. Garux’s friend Vitis stood on guard by the gate, grasping a spear. The gate had never been manned when they were children, but the Marcomannic invasion of Eastern Bohemia had cast a shadow of threat over the town.
A steep river cliff protected the town in the west, and the battlements embraced it like a horseshoe whose ends reached the cliff’s edges. Even if the enemy managed to scale the battlements, the tribe could find refuge in a double-walled fort. However, the Celts worried that a large army might besiege the town and starve them to death.
“You’re back early,” Vitis called when he saw them.
He was lean but muscular, and although he was about their age, the crown of his head was bald, and his fair hair fell to his shoulders in thin strands.
“Did you two have a nice walk?” Vitis asked with a wink and a grin. Everybody knew what Garux and Arvasia did in the woods—everybody but the mercurial Rawena, who had ignored every sign that could shatter her belief that Garux was hers.
Arvasia pretended to be ashamed, and Garux chuckled and shook his head. “I’ll be back in a moment with some big news, Vitis. But first, we have to see Seneusia.”
They walked up the main path toward the tall, round ramparts of the fort, which loomed on the edge of the gorge above the Isera River. The descending sun already touched the treetops on the other side of the gorge.
On their left, hammers clanged against metal in smithies, and saws grunted in carpentry shops. Behind the workshops, naked children played tag among rows of houses made of vertical oak planks. The dwellings had low, thatched roofs that were elevated only above the doorway. That was where Garux, Arvasia, and other commoners lived.
Closer to the fort, thirty or so large stone houses of the nobles squatted in the shade of tall pine trees. The fort was a massive, round building made of huge blocks of stone.
The creek crossed the town and separated the houses from a vast burial ground on their right. The roofs of the barns, the communal longhouse, and the watermill rose above a thicket farther ahead. Beyond them, herds of livestock grazed on lush pastures, and orchards and fields stretched toward the battlements. A large grove of oaks between the pastures and the back battlements hid the dwelling of the druidess.
Seneusia stood in front of her house. She was black-haired like Arvasia, but with a few white strands around her temples. She often wore a wistful smile and a touch of sadness in her beautiful dark eyes, and Garux guessed she still missed her husband.
Today, Seneusia didn’t smile. Her lips twitched as she rushed toward them and asked, “Have you seen Rawena?”
Garux and Arvasia exchanged a nervous look.
“I saw her bathing in the pool,” Arvasia said. “But why are you so worried, Mam? It’s still light, and Rawena often roams the woods until nightfall.”
Seneusia wrung her hands. “Druidess Agira came to visit me, just a little while ago. And she said she had a feeling that Rawena would come to harm!”
Arvasia gasped and rubbed her forehead, and Garux felt dread embracing his soul. As far as he knew, Agira was never wrong.
Pandemia, meanwhile, swam through the slough until she reached higher ground. Although she’d retained her human form, she ran on all fours, as she found it faster and more natural. She dashed past her nest, where she had slept for millennia until Rawena’s screams had awakened her, and then she scurried over a plain of cracked, steaming soil. A granite barrier rose in front of her: The Wall of Time.
The wall had two tunnels. The left one would take her on an endless journey back in time, to the epoch of furry humanoids, and even much farther to the time when she had been born, along with the first rodents whose queen she had become.
Pandemia wanted to see the future, though, so she entered the right-hand tunnel. The last time she had been there—just before she had fallen into her long sleep—she’d traveled only a few centuries and emerged in a dense forest that showed no signs of people. That had made her believe her disease had wiped out all humans, but Rawena’s arrival proved her wrong.
This time, she would travel much farther through the centuries and search much wider for a human settlement to see what the future with people would be like. Then she would decide what to do with the human Rawena was to bring.
Pandemia dashed through the tunnel, and soon she felt weightless and flew like an arrow. A grinding pressure clenched her temple, and a roar erupted in her ears. A flash of strong light blinded her. She shut her eyes, and dozens of red bolts of lightning danced under her eyelids.
Although she had lost all notion of time, as if time had ceased to exist, instinct told her she’d traveled far enough. She lifted her hands and dug her nails into the tunnel’s ceiling to end her journey. A crack burst open above her head. She shuddered, turned into a small white rat, and dragged herself through the crack toward the surface.
Her stomach seemed to spin around, and she took a deep breath to keep down a wave of nausea. Sunrays prodded into the crack and made her dizzy. When her eyes adjusted to the light, and the dizziness eased, she emerged.
Pandemia found herself squinting in the backyard of a small, crumbling, brick house. Long weeds sprouted among muddy toys and broken furniture. She twitched at the sight of a long, thin snake in the grass. The snake didn’t move, though, and when she skulked toward it, she realized it was just an object made from a strange material. At first, she thought it was a toy, but then she smelled water inside it and realized the humans probably used it to irrigate the rows of vegetables beside an empty chicken coop.
The rat-goddess thought she had entered paradise. Besides the vegetables, the backyard offered old bread, rotting apples, bits of meat and bones, and all kinds of things she’d never seen before but which smelled edible. She was sure that more food would be found inside the house, which also provided shelter against the elements.
When she stood on her hind legs and craned her head over the weeds, she saw rows of monstrous buildings looming like square mountains on the horizon. She guessed that each held at least a hundred humans, who must have proliferated like hares.
Pandemia returned to all fours and looked around the backyard. She guessed that many of her subjects lived happily in such an ideal environment. Perhaps the future with humans wasn’t that bad—or at least not as bad as the past.
Since their first dawn, humans had treated her kind with cruelty. They hunted and ate rodents when they were hungry, and they chased them out of their caverns and killed them for fun when they were full. People were the most vicious and territorial beasts she’d ever seen. That was why she kept plaguing all their species with pestilence: to protect her subjects.
Things seemed to have changed, though. The humans obviously had enough food, and they didn’t need to eat rodents. And they seemed civilized enough to live in harmony with other animals, rodents included.
“I might send Rawena and the other human back home,” Pandemia chittered under her breath. “And then I’ll return to my warm nest to get some more sleep.”
She scurried around the backyard to find someone she could ask about their experience with humans. Then she saw something that made her freeze.
A gray mouse lay on its side in a bed of weeds. His feet twitched, but his body looked paralyzed. The fear and despair in his beady black eyes sent shivers through Pandemia’s soul.
The mouse recognized her and squeaked, “Help me, Queen!”
“I cannot help you, my friend,” she said. “I’m just an apparition, a visitor from the past. But tell me, what happened?”
A shadow passed over them. A falcon circled the sky. Pandemia tensed, but then she realized the falcon couldn’t hurt her, and that the mouse was too far gone to care. The falcon made one more circle and disappeared.
“Tell me what happened,” Pandemia repeated.
“The humans,” the mouse squeaked, his voice much weaker than before. “They must… have poisoned me.”
Pandemia gasped. “Why would they do that?”
“They… hate me.”
“Why? What did you do to them?”
“They hate… all our kind.” The mouse fell silent. The paralysis had tied his feet; his time was coming fast. “They are everywhere.” His glazed eyes glanced toward the tall buildings. “They strew… poisoned food. Lure us into contraptions… that break our backs. They…” A spasm rattled the mouse’s body and choked his words.
“They what, my friend?” Pandemia asked.
The mouse didn’t reply. The poison had murdered him.
Pandemia shuddered with anger. The modern humans treated rodents even more atrociously than their furry ancestors.
Pandemia twitched when a noise came from the front of the house. She left her dead subject behind, crossed the backyard, ran along the house, and halted by a ditch on the edge of a large wheat field.
She squealed in fear when she saw the thing that made the noise: a monster made of yellow metal. Although it was nothing like she had ever seen before, it made her think of a giant crab. It was nearly half as big as the brick house, and it moved along the field on giant wheels. Its gigantic, cylindrical mouth spun round and round, devouring everything in its reach with a set of long, thin, metal fangs.
Pandemia gasped when she peered through the monster’s transparent belly and saw a human sitting inside. At first, she thought the monster had devoured the man. Then she realized the man was controlling it, leading it up and down the field, leaving heaps of maimed wheat stalks in its wake.
A vole dashed out of the field and up the ditch, carrying a blind newborn in her mouth. The vole recognized Pandemia, dropped the newborn, and squealed, “Oh, Queen, my other babies are still in the field. Please help me rescue them.”
The vole dashed back into the field without waiting for Pandemia’s answer. Although she couldn’t help, the queen followed her subject.
Pandemia crossed the ditch and plunged among the tall stalks. The monster’s roar became so strong it deafened her. Having lost the sight of the vole, she sniffed the air. The monster emitted an overpowering toxic stench, but she caught the vole’s scent. She followed it and spotted the vole rushing toward the nest, where five newborns squirmed and squealed in blind fear.
The earth shook. The monster’s mouth loomed above them. The vole leaped into the nest—and a colossal wheel rushed at her and flattened her, along with her babies.
Pandemia ran out of the field, terror bruising her heart. She wept for the massacred family in the field, and for the baby in the ditch, which would die without its mother’s milk. How many families did humans murder during such ruthless harvests?
She ran along the ditch to escape the stench, noise, and horrors. She left the field behind, crossed a dirt road, and scurried past a large building that smelled of cows. Then she followed another dirt road toward a canal.
The canal stank even worse than the yellow monster; it spumed more than the pestilential creek by her swamp. Pandemia rushed toward two rats that lay on their backs on the bank. The rats couldn’t ask her for help: they were dead.
They were so young and muscular she thought they had fallen victims to predators. When she saw no bite marks, though, Pandemia realized what had happened. The canal was so polluted it had killed them, although they belonged to one of the toughest animal species. And she knew who was behind this dreadful pollution and these cases of murder.
Pandemia had seen enough, and so she ran back toward the portal that would lead her home. So this would be the future if she went back to sleep. But she was angry and mighty enough to change the course of history.
Rawena would soon bring a human to the swamp. And Pandemia was going to use that human to wipe out mankind.
SEPTEMBER 2020 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords Press
When he was in kindergarten, P.C. managed to convince his classmates that his grandma was a tribal shamaness. Then he learned his letters, and kidding his friends no longer seemed adequate—so he started to write. P.C. has published two standalone novels, Deception of the Damned and The Priest of Orpagus, and his stories have been featured in various publications. His latest novel, Celts and the Mad Goddess, is the first installment of The Deathless Chronicle. He has lived in six countries and on three continents. While it burned a hole in his bank account, the seminomadic lifestyle has inspired most of his stories and novels. P.C. has settled with his wife in southern Spain, where he goes swimming and cycling whenever he isn’t too busy writing stories and teaching English.