Celts and the Mad Goddess
written by: P.C. Darkcliff
On the following morning, Garux went to the woods as usual. He managed to kill two hares, although he kept thinking about the eclipse night and hardly focused on the hunt.
At times, he felt as though that night had never happened. The gory moonlight and the eyes shining by the creek had the attributes of a nightmare, as did the lifelike gleam in Rawena’s pupils. As he walked through the northern woods, clenching a spear in one hand and the dead hares in the other, Garux wondered whether she had really died. Then a rustle jolted him from his reverie.
He halted and listened. The breeze brought the sound of voices, and the words weren’t Gaulish.
Garux crept toward the sound and saw two men. They wore beige, sleeveless tunics, just like the men who had ambushed him and Arvasia. So the Marcomanni hadn’t left his tribe’s territory. That’s what everyone had feared.
The two men walked in line, carrying a spear on their shoulders like pallbearers. A dead roe deer hung between them, its legs tied to the spear, its head swinging through the high grass. The men chatted in their strange, guttural language and paid no attention to their surroundings. Garux guessed they were returning to their encampment. And he decided to follow them.
They were so loud he could keep well behind them and follow their voices. As he crept through ferns and underbrush, hiding behind trees whenever he thought they had halted, Garux wondered about their commander’s intentions. Was he going to attack and besiege the town?
Garux’s bowels turned watery when he remembered the soldier lying on top of Arvasia. In case of invasion, something like that could happen again. And again.
The voices led Garux deep into the northern woods. He realized they were approaching the hill where the tribe’s grandfathers had quarried stone for the town’s houses and fortifications, and where Rawena and Arvasia used to mine opals and amber.
A little later, he smelled smoke. The quarry hill rose on the horizon. It resembled a pockmarked face, with pits and holes showing under a stubble of grass. Garux could only see its upper part over the trees, but the smoke could only mean the Marcomanni had encamped in the clearing under the hill. He rushed home to tell his tribe about his discovery.
Chieftain Ateran refused to admit Garux to the fort, where he held a banquet for the nobles, so Garux invited the commoners to the longhouse to share the bad news with them. Garux sat near the entrance, with Arvasia and Seneusia on each side, and with the two hares he’d killed lying on the table. Rawena’s death had shattered the women’s souls; the expression on their faces was similar to that of the hares.
Many commoners were already there, seated on stools and benches around long oaken tables, playing dice and chatting. The longhouse was a large wooden building with small unglazed windows. Those who sat at the farther end were drowned in shadows, despite the torches blazing on the walls and candles flickering on the tables, but Garux had learned to recognize people by their outlines.
Most of the gathered men wore checkered shirts and braies. Some of them had full beards like Garux while others sported drooping mustaches that nearly reached the table. The women wore colorful yet simple linen underdresses. The older ones had decorated their garments with jingling trinkets. The younger had weaved flowers into their plaits and braids.
Since nobility usually hung around the fort, the longhouse was the place to grumble about Ateran’s chieftainship. As of late, however, a growing number of tattooed nobles also frequented the longhouse. They sat there today, too, in an isolated group yet showing their support for the opposition with their presence. It was an encouraging sight, especially since Ateran held that banquet at the fort.
Garux frowned when he saw the captain, Horeus, sitting among them. Horeus was Ateran’s friend and second cousin, so why wasn’t he feasting with the chieftain’s supporters? Had he changed sides because of Ateran’s mishap in the woods? Everyone knew the chieftain had soiled himself. It was an embarrassment to the nobles, and oil for the flames of the opposition.
As the army captain, Horeus would be an important ally, but Garux hated him for his arrogance . . . and for constantly leering at Arvasia.
Men often eyed her, as she had a beautiful body, exotic black hair, and a gentle dark face, but they lowered their eyes when they saw Garux watch them. Horeus, however, ogled her all the more when Garux was near, his lips stretching in a proprietary smirk. That strengthened Garux’s dislike for Horeus, and all the rich and powerful.
Today, Horeus paid no attention to Arvasia as he chatted to a nobleman who sat beside him. Only once did Garux catch him glancing their way. It seemed that Horeus looked at him rather than at Arvasia, though, and Garux wondered whether he had come to spy.
The longhouse filled quickly, with those who came late scattering around in search of free stools. A stout man rolled in a barrel of beer, which he’d brewed out of fermented wheat.
Garux lifted the two hares and called to the man, “Hey there, Atrec. Pour my friends as much beer as these hares are worth, will you?”
The Celts had their coins, similar to those of the Romans and Grecians, except that they featured horses rather than eagles and lions. They only used them for large, intertribal transactions, though, and all the trading within the town was done in the form of barter.
Atrec came over, raised the hares toward a torch for a better look, and said, “Sure. These fat boys can get you a few tankards.”
An old woman who sat across the table licked her lips. Her husband reached over to pat Garux’s shoulder.
A little later, Atrec’s buxom wife brought the beer. Garux didn’t know what to do with his eyes when she bent over and placed a tankard on the table. He knew that the tops of her large breasts were showing as usual. Although he would normally take a peek, he suspected that Arvasia was watching, so he rubbed the back of his neck and stared at the table as if he wanted to count all its knots and lines.
He knew he had to be stronger when it came to women. At times, he had the horrible feeling that Rawena might have killed herself because his staring at her naked breasts had given her false hope. He shuddered at the thought that Seneusia might discover it was his dagger that had plunged into Rawena’s heart.
Once the beer had been served, Garux stood and called, “Listen to me for a moment, my friends. I’ve got important news.”
As he told them about what he had discovered, all smiles froze on the faces around the tables. The dice stopped rolling, and stunned silence flushed all chattering out of the longhouse.
“Instead of marching on northward, as we might have hoped, the Marcomanni have settled in our territory,” Garux continued. “And we can safely expect Chieftain Ateran to do what he always does: nothing. He will hide in the fort and hope that Marcomanni will go away . . . which they probably won’t.”
Garux looked at Horeus, who rubbed his tattooed cheek and stared back. Garux knew his words could get him killed, and yet he couldn’t stop now that everyone’s life was at stake. “Ateran should have sent scouts to the woods to see whether the Marcomanni departed. Instead, he wanted to ban us from leaving. And that’s almost as bad as treason!”
The commoners shouted their assent. The nobles nodded and murmured. Horeus shifted and fidgeted.
Vitis came over and clasped Garux’s shoulder. “Well said!” he shouted to the crowd. “Ateran is weak, inept, and indecisive. What’s worse, his cowardice throws a shadow of shame over our tribe and puts us all in danger.”
Vitis smiled as if he had an idea. Then he said, “We should have a new chieftain, someone who is proactive and courageous. And the new chieftain should be Garux.”
Garux’s jaw dropped in surprise. Although he had been among the first to defy Ateran, and his courage on the eclipse night had gained him respect, he was just a hunter, and common people never became chiefs or druids.
His amazement grew when about half of the commoners cheered and clapped their hands. Others, especially the elders, frowned in confusion, and Garux guessed they weren’t ready for such a radical change. Arvasia looked at him with admiration, and Seneusia smiled, for the first time since Rawena’s death. Despite that, he wasn’t sure he would like to be a chieftain as he had always thought all people should be equal.
The nobles whispered among themselves. Horeus got up and walked outside, slowly and casually, but with tension tightening his lips. Garux guessed he would soon return with Ateran and his demented bodyguard Uxur.
“Friends, friends,” Garux called, lifting his hands for silence. “I’m sure many of you would make better chieftains than I do, but that’s not the point. We have to discuss what to do about the Marcomanni. Any suggestions?”
A murmured debate surged around the tables, and Garux often glanced at the door.
“Someone should break into their camp and murder their damned king Marobod,” a female carpenter shouted from the back.
An elderly fletcher shook his head. “The traders say Marobod is happy with his seat in Eastern Bohemia and doesn’t want more wars. I bet it’s Ortaver, his cousin and high commander who brought the troops here. I heard that Ortaver speaks fluent Gaulish—but he hates all Celts to death.”
“That’s because he grew up as a hostage in a Gaulish tribe that had killed his parents,” a former soldier said. “And ever since his escape a few years ago, he’s been after the Celts.”
“All Marcomanni are land-grabbing bastards,” said a retired weaver, one of the oldest women in the tribe. “I bet they want to take over entire Bohemia and unify their seat in the east with the Germanic lands in the west.”
“And we are right in the middle,” Arvasia said, anger seeping into her voice.
“But how do you know the Marcomanni are going to attack us?” a blacksmith asked. “They must have seen the path to our town as they marched up the merchant road. Why did they pass it and went on to the quarry?”
“Maybe they are just resting before going to Germania?” a trapper offered.
“Or waiting for reinforcements to finish us off more easily,” Garux said.
That comment unleashed a fiery debate. Garux expected the outspoken Seneusia would give her opinion, but she stared into oblivion, plowing once again through her world of sorrow and bereavement.
He was about to ask her whether she was well when a group of children rushed inside and shouted, “Caca-run is coming!”
The people tensed. Caca-run was a moniker the children had invented for Ateran after learning about his unhinged backdoor.
“Is Horeus coming, too?” Vitis asked.
“Yes. And a lot of tattooed grownups!”
The longhouse fell silent, except for the crackling of Atrec’s cooking fire. Two dogs barked outside. Sparrows chirped in the trees, and a cow bellowed in the pastures.
Ateran rushed into the longhouse, along with Uxur, Horeus, and about forty noblemen. As there wasn’t enough room for them, they lined the wall. Garux spotted more spiked heads and tattooed faces outside: the nobles had barred the exit.
“What’s going on here?” Ateran squealed, fuming and glaring at the crowd.
“We want a new chieftain!” an apprentice tanner called from the back. A cheer rose toward the ceiling.
Ateran trembled with fury. His giant nostrils opened and closed like the mouths of two stranded fish.
When the ruckus faded, Garux told him, “Never mind that now. We need to discuss ways to deal with the Marcomannic crisis.”
“The crisis is none of your business, you greasy bastard!” Ateran shouted. “How dare you, scum, meddle with the affairs of the nobles?”
“Affairs of the nobles?” Garux boomed. “Are you saying the problem doesn’t concern the whole tribe? On the contrary! I’m sure the common people would be the first to starve and suffer in case of a siege!”
The patrons thumped the tables to express their agreement.
“Don’t vex him, Garux, or he’ll release a brown monster!” the apprentice tanner called, and the crowd erupted in laughter. A few days ago, the commoners would have thought twice about laughing in the chieftain’s face. Now they had lost all restraint.
Garux was relieved that Uxur hollered when he saw everybody else laugh. The ogre would make no trouble, at least not now.
Ateran was saying something but nobody heard him over the noise.
Horeus roared, “Shut up and let your chieftain speak, you scum!”
An old widow with a whiskered chin stood up and called to the crowd, “Yes, let’s hear Ateran out.” Then she smirked and added, “Let’s see what comes out of him this time!”
Another salvo of laughter burst forth in the longhouse.
Horeus shouted over the raucous crowd, “That’s it! Vitis and the other soldiers! Come over here!”
Vitis whistled, reached for a tankard, and took a long drought as if he hadn’t heard.
Horeus’s ugly face turned red. He stomped his foot and roared. “Vitis! Summon the other soldiers at once! It’s an order from your captain.”
“All the other soldiers are already sitting here, you ass,” the carpenter shouted.
Horeus roared and drew his sword. He glared at the carpenter, but as he was too far from him, he turned his rage to Vitis. “You insubordinate dog!” he screamed, raising the sword.
Garux reached for his dagger, fearing that Horeus would attack Vitis. Instead, Horeus brought the blade down on the tankard. Fragments of broken pottery rained on Vitis’s face and chest along with a splash of beer.
Vitis drew his dagger, as did Garux and most of the other commoners. The stools scraped against the floor as they rose. The nobles by the wall drew their swords. The two factions glared at each other in silence.
Ateran shouted in a trembling, hysterical voice, “How dare you, scum, insult your chieftain and the nobility? How dare you threaten us with your filthy daggers? I’ll order my men to lay torches to this stinking place and destroy the greasy vermin that plagues this tribe!”
Ateran’s nostrils flared so much it seemed his nose would take off. He kept shouting and flailing his hands, unaware that everyone’s attention had shifted to look past him. Garux held his breath when the nobles behind Ateran parted and made way. It could only mean one thing.
A moment later, Druidess Agira shuffled in. Her white hair streamed over her shoulders; her large, deep-set eyes flashed with fury. As she shambled to the yelling Ateran, the nobles and commoners sheathed their weapons.
Agira poked Ateran’s back with her cane, making him jump up like a hare. He turned around, cringed, and pressed his hands against his ears so she couldn’t twist them. She lowered the cane, grasped it in both hands—and rammed its butt end into the toes of his foot.
Ateran howled with pain. The commoners cheered, and even many nobles snickered.
“Nanny!” Ateran squealed. “My foot!”
“I crap on your foot, worm,” she snapped, leaning on her cane to increase the pressure. “Although I heard you already did it yourself. Now you’d better tell me why you threaten people like this, huh? What was all that talk about burning the longhouse?”
“Those rebellious bastards want to overthrow me!” Ateran said in a high-pitched voice, his fat jowls trembling in pain.
“Don’t squeal!” Agira screeched. “Can you honestly say you blame them?”
She released his foot but slapped the back of his head as if to make sure he didn’t think he was safe from her. Then she turned to Garux. “And you are the leader of the rebels?”
“L-l-leader of the rebels?” Garux stammered as he glanced around. A sea of encouraging nods, smiles, and winks, made him say, “I suppose I am, druidess. But I don’t want to depose your grandson. I just—”
“Step forward,” Agira interrupted.
Garux complied. The top of her head only reached his chest, but she awed him as if she were an armed giant. Although he expected her to twist his ear or crush his toes, she raised her hand, grabbed his beard, and pulled his face close to hers. Her cloudy, celestial eyes peered at him from folds of white, dying skin. Powerful energy flowed from her pupils and embraced his skull. Her mind prodded deep into his.
“A handsome young rascal,” she said, releasing his beard. “And lucky! So you have seen the Marcomannic worms?”
“Yes, druidess,” he said. “They are encamped by the quarry.”
Agira nodded. “I’ve also seen them,” she said, “albeit only in my mind. They have razed all the towns, posts, and villages in the south, and now they have reached our territory. I bet the bastard Ortaver wants to take over every place along the merchant road, and then the whole of Bohemia, including us.”
That confirmed Garux’s suspicions. He said, “That could only mean they are waiting for reinforcements, druidess. Our town is one of the largest on the road, and the Marcomanni must have lost many men during the battles in the south. They must have also left soldiers to keep control over the occupied towns and posts, so they are now shorthanded.”
Agira nodded. “That’s feasible. And I bet you are thinking of attacking them, aren’t you?”
Garux rubbed the back of his neck. “I think it’s the only solution, druidess.”
Agira chuckled. “A handsome rascal, indeed. But a little foolhardy. Do you even know how strong they are?”
“How strong? Well, I don’t know,” Garux blurted. “But since they seem to be waiting for reinforcements to attack or besiege our town, they must be weak.”
“But you don’t know how many they are, exactly? And when the reinforcements are coming?”
“He knows nothing, Nanny,” Ateran shouted. “He’s just a greasy fool!”
Agira shot him a murderous look, and Ateran shut his mouth. She turned back to Garux. “If you are missing this crucial information, why do you want to attack them?”
“If we attack now, we will have fewer enemies to deal with when the reinforcements come,” Garux said. “If we disperse them, the reinforcements might not even find them, and Ortaver’s plan will fall through. But if we do nothing and wait, we’re done for.”
“We will be fine!” Ateran dared protest. “Nobody can scale the cliff and reach our town from the river. And the battlements protect us everywhere else. It’s safer to stay here and keep quiet.”
“But what if they lay siege to the town?” Garux replied. “What would we do then?”
“We withstood the Hermunduri siege fifty years ago,” Agira said. “Perhaps we can do the same?” She turned to Garux, and he realized she treated him as an equal, the leader of the opposition.
Horeus jumped in. “That’s right! We are perfectly self-sufficient. We’ve got enough cattle and supplies to last for months.”
“But—what will we do once the months are over?” Garux asked. “Besides, the summer has been hot and dry, and the well is empty. If the Marcomanni thought of diverting the creek away from our town, we would die of thirst in days.”
“You know nothing about warfare, pup!” Horeus snapped. He emphasized the last word, although he was less than ten years older than Garux and had never lived through a siege.
Agira raised her hand. “That’s enough! Chatter and arguments won’t drag us out of this trouble. I will try to perform a rite to learn the enemy’s exact strength and intentions. But as the stars are not always favorable, someone should go to their camp and see for themselves.”
Agira looked at Horeus, who averted his eyes. She ignored Ateran and turned to Garux.
“I will go gladly, druidess,” Garux said, thinking he should have done it when the hunters had led him to the quarry earlier that day.
The commoners cheered, and Arvasia and Seneusia beamed with pride. Ateran and Horeus smirked, as did most of the other nobles who had been close enough to hear the conversation.
Agira turned to Garux and nodded. “You will leave tomorrow morning, you brave little rascal. If you bring a satisfactory report, we will decide what to do.” She patted his forearm and added, “May the gods keep you safe.”
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