Horeus had been close to Ateran since they were children, and when the chieftain sent for him later that day, Horeus guessed what he wanted. And he didn’t know what to think.
As the army captain, he often thrashed offending soldiers and helped his half-brother Uxur to bully troublemakers into obedience. As of late, he had also spied on the opposition, just like he had in the longhouse. Murder, though, murder was much more serious.
Horeus frowned when he sent the messenger boy away and walked through the dusk up toward the fort. Then he glanced at Arvasia’s and Seneusia’s house, and he realized that killing that rebellious bastard Garux would solve more than one problem. As he headed for the fort’s ramparts, he decided to accept Ateran’s request.
The two soldiers who guarded the gate didn’t bother to stand to attention when he reached them. They leaned against the wall and looked away as he passed.
“Dogs!” he growled. He swore that after the death of their leader, he would whip his army—and all the tribe’s unruly scum—back under control.
Horeus stomped over a wooden bridge that spanned the moat and entered the fort through a large, arched door. All was quiet on the first floor, where a long hallway led to the prison cell, the jailers’ chamber, storerooms, and the granary. He climbed a winding stairway to the second floor, which had the banquet hall and the bedchambers of the chieftain and his closest family. He knew Ateran would wait for him in the banquet hall, as he did whenever he wanted to discuss something in secret.
Just like the longhouse, the hall was a large room with long tables and benches under a thatched roof. However, the walls were not made of wood planks but massive stones. Oiled parchment covered the windows, and the benches had comfortable backrests. Instead of beer and mead, the fort’s patrons feasted on imported wine.
The tables still brimmed with dirty plates and goblets from today’s banquet. Bones and spilled wine littered the floor.
Uxur sat at the head table, picking his nose and pretending to be drinking out of an empty goblet. Ateran stood alone by a narrow window, with his hands clasped behind his back. Horeus smirked when Ateran jumped at the sound of his footsteps. It was shameful the chieftain was such a coward. But since Ateran depended on Horeus and was easy to manipulate, he was the best leader Horeus could wish for.
Ateran turned around, sighing in relief to see Horeus. “I have a special task for you, cousin.”
Horeus raised his eyebrow.
“I want you to follow that dog Garux to the Marcomannic encampment.” Ateran looked around as if to make sure nobody else was there. Although Uxur couldn’t even understand them, Ateran leaned toward Horeus and whispered, “And I want you to make sure he never reaches it.”
Horeus pretended to be appalled. “You’re asking me to murder him?”
“Yes, damn it. Garux is a careless hothead. He would surely get caught, and if they tortured him, he would tell them everything about our strength and defense.”
Horeus knew Ateran was more concerned about Garux taking over the chieftainship. He wondered how could the dimwitted Ateran come up with such an excuse.
“I’m the army captain,” Horeus said, trying to sound righteous. “I have to enforce order, not break it. Besides, the druidess would burn me alive if she found out.” Only his last concern was genuine.
“That old bitch Agira will know nothing,” Ateran snapped. He didn’t raise his voice, though, and his eyes glided around the hall again.
“How can you guarantee that?” Horeus asked. “She might know more than we think. Why, she might be even spying on us right now through a rite.”
“That old corpse can’t see the tip of her wrinkled nose,” Ateran whispered. “Remember, she threatened to turn me into a hog if I—” Ateran blushed and cleared his throat. “Anyway, she never did. She’s a fraud, I tell you. At times she has visions. And at times they come true. But that’s all.”
“Still, the risk is too great.”
“She will never find out,” Ateran snapped. “Nobody will.”
“But what about my conscience?” Horeus put on a troubled look. “How can I face the Otherworld if I burden my soul with murder?”
“We are facing a rebellion, damn it. We have the right to execute our enemies.”
“Execute, not murder.” Horeus put his hands behind his back and turned to the window. “Really, Ateran, what you’re asking is too dreadful. You can’t possibly expect me to do something like that. At least not without proper compensation.”
Ateran scowled. “What do you want? You know the trade has dwindled because of the Marcomannic invasion of Eastern Bohemia. My coffer is almost empty.”
Horeus laughed. “What I want won’t cost you anything, my dear, stingy cousin.”
“No? What is it, then?”
They both twitched when Uxur started banging the table with the goblet.
“Shut up, you swine!” Ateran screamed.
Uxur froze and arched his lips as if he would cry. Then he lifted the goblet above his head and peeled off a cockroach he had smashed. He grinned and popped the cockroach in his mouth.
Horeus spat on the floor in disgust. He turned to Ateran and took a deep breath. “You were asking what I want . . . Well, I want Arvasia.”
Horeus nodded. He had never cared for common girls, but Arvasia drew him mad with her black hair and swarthy skin, and a flame of passion burning in her dark eyes. He guessed that, behind her quiet façade, she was as wild and stubborn as Rawena and Seneusia, and he longed to discover those hidden traits—and tame them.
A dark pit had opened in his soul when she had disappeared on the eclipse night, and he couldn’t stop thinking about her ever since. He had often dreamed of tying her hands, ripping her clothes off, and exploring her body. And if she were his wife, he could do that every night . . . until he tired of her.
He had been jealous of Arvasia’s love for Garux. But Garux would soon be out of the way.
“So you want that greasy common bitch.” Ateran shrugged. “Go get her, then. You have my permission.”
Horeus shook his head. “You don’t understand, Ateran. I want more than your permission.”
Ateran frowned and said nothing.
“You see, cousin,” Horeus said, staring out the window again, “as a chieftain, you have the hereditary right to force maidens into strategic marriages to seal the peace, form alliances, or reward brave warriors.”
Ateran scoffed. “Nobody has executed that right for decades. Not even my grandfather did, as far as I know.”
“That doesn’t mean you can’t do it, does it? Aren’t you a powerful chieftain?”
Ateran winced, and Horeus saw he had hit a sore spot. Ateran knew he was the weakest chieftain in the tribe’s history, but he still hoped that nobody else had realized that.
“Of course I can do it!” Ateran snapped. “But why do you want to marry her? If you kill Garux, you can simply drag her to the woods and have your way with her. You can even do it right here, for all I care.”
Horeus shook his head. “That wouldn’t be the same, cousin. I want to have complete control over her. I want to do whatever I want with her without having to look over my shoulder. And only you, chieftain, have the power to make everyone acknowledge me as her master.”
Ateran’s fat cheeks puffed with self-importance. “Then so be it,” he said, trying to add depth and gravity to his high-pitched voice. “If Garux never comes back, I’ll make Arvasia your wife.”
“Then we have a deal! But what about her mother, Seneusia?”
Ateran laughed. “Don’t you worry. That mouthy bitch won’t be in the way.”
On the following morning, Garux strode toward the enemy camp. He turned north on the merchant road and headed for a path that split deep into the woods and led to the quarry hill. The hoof prints, heaps of dung, and ruts from the wheels of heavy carts that marked the path looked several days old: the reinforcements hadn’t arrived.
Garux’s heart raced as he walked up the path. Soon he might run into a Marcomannic sentinel and fight for his life again.
The druidess said that in her youth, this kind of danger had occurred almost every day. The tribe had engaged in endless skirmishing against their Germanic neighbors and even joined other Celts in battles against Roman centurions. Many Celtic tribes had returned to Gaul and left Agira’s town isolated, though, and the chieftain, Agira’s late husband, had turned his attention from warfare to trade.
Until the eclipse night, Garux hadn’t done anything more dangerous than hunting a bear, and he felt lucky he had grown up in peace. Although he would happily go on living his old, pacific life, the tribe’s only chance for survival was dispersing the first wave of intruders.
As he neared the quarry, he realized he was too exposed on the wide path. He was about to plunge into the undergrowth and walk on the path’s fringe. But it was too late.
Garux twitched when the beat of hoofs thundered behind his back. As he turned for the woods, sharp pain blasted through his shoulder. An arrow had bored deep into his flesh.
He glanced at the attacker, expecting to see a Marcomannic soldier. To his shock, he saw spiky hair and a tattooed face. The attacker raised the bow again. Another arrow struck Garux’s chest just as he recognized Horeus.
Pain clenched and deadened his upper body. Garux had a dagger and a battleax, but he couldn’t move his hands and reach for them. His legs still worked, though, and he staggered toward the nearest thicket.
The hoofs thudded closer and closer. Horeus leaned toward him from the saddle, brandishing a long sword. The last thing Garux felt was the sharp blade sinking into his neck.
SEPTEMBER 2020 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH / 2020 AUTHOR OF THE YEAR at Spillwords.com
An award-winning author, P.C. has always had a vivid imagination. When he was in kindergarten, he convinced 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'. His latest project, 'Celts and the Mad Goddess', is the first installment of 'The Deathless Chronicle'. His stories have been featured in various publications, and 'A Wandering Corpse' has received an Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. In September 2020, he was Spillwords Author of the Month. P.C. 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. He has settled with his wife in southern Spain, where he goes swimming and cycling whenever he isn’t too busy writing and teaching English.