The swamp could no longer poison Rawena. The sludge didn’t swell and rot her legs, and the toxic vapors didn’t make her sick. But her soul withered with hatred for that foul, murky wasteland.
Although she couldn’t die of thirst or hunger, her throat hurt and her stomach cramped, and she felt dizzy and lightheaded, but there was nothing to drink or eat there. Rawena knew she couldn’t stay in the swamp without losing the last shreds of her sanity.
On the sixth day after her resurrection, she woke up in the hole in the mud—which Pandemia called a nest—with the rat-woman’s filthy belly pressed against her back and her four-fingered hand resting on Rawena’s hip. Pandemia’s rancid breath wallowed over the back of her head. Her snoring and wheezing scurried into Rawena’s ear and made it hurt.
Disgust crept up Rawena’s stomach and reached for her throat. When Pandemia pressed the wet, cold tip of her nose against Rawena’s neck, Rawena screamed, scrambled out of the hole, and ran toward the waterfall.
The ground sloped, and Rawena’s feet sank into sludge, which she had to cross to reach the waterfall and climb up to the world of mortals. As she waded forward, she heard Pandemia plunging in and swimming after her. The sludge reached Rawena’s hips and slowed her down, and the goddess caught up with her before Rawena reached the boulder where they had first met.
“What are you doing, darling?” Pandemia chittered, tugging at the hem of Rawena’s underdress. She scrambled to her feet, and the sludge reached her flat chest, for she was shorter than Rawena.
Pandemia gasped and swayed. “But why?”
“I can’t stand it here anymore!” Rawena clawed at her forearm as she looked around and saw nothing but steam coming from yellowish sludge. She hissed when she ripped her scabs: although she could only die by fire or beheading, she still bled and hurt like every other mortal. “I hate every moment I spend in here!”
Sadness descended on Pandemia’s eyes. “But what’s the matter? Are you hungry? Thirsty?” She rubbed her hands, and her eyes brightened. “Of course you are! And that’s what makes you grumpy. I will turn the waterfall clean again so you can drink from it as much as you can. And I will go to the woods and bring you some nuts and berries.”
Rawena shook her head. “I can’t stay here. I just can’t! You said you would show Garux mercy if I spent a few days with you here. But you can’t keep me here any longer.”
Pandemia scratched her ear with quick, jerky moves. “Yes, but the woods are dangerous for you.” She shuddered and giggled nervously. “They are full of enemy troops. And you know you cannot go back to your people, darling, for they would think you’re an evil spirit!”
“I don’t care where I go!” Rawena screamed so loudly Pandemia recoiled. “I hate you, don’t you understand? You’re the most disgusting creature in the world. You are my enemy, and the enemy of every human. You are the tool to my doom. I hate the way you look and smell and squeak. Everything about you makes me sick. And I hate this damned swamp and the hole where you make me sleep. I would go completely mad if I stayed here a moment longer!”
Rawena coughed as she stared at Pandemia. The screaming had made her throat worse. To her surprise, she saw tears spring out of Pandemia’s eyes and roll over the fine white hair on her cheeks.
“So I gave you safety and immortality,” Pandemia said, her voice brimming with pain and bitterness. “I shared my nest with you and treated you like my sister. And you repay me with hatred. It’s typical of humans, isn’t it?” A shadow of wrath passed over her wet eyes. “But your kind will get its due!”
Pandemia blinked away her tears and turned to go back to her nest.
“I didn’t ask for any of this!” Rawena shouted. “I want to be mortal! I want to live and die with my tribe and my Garux!”
Pandemia turned back to her. Her face had become unreadable stone. “We cannot undo what’s done,” she said in a bitter voice. “Good luck to you, Rawena. Be careful up there, in the world where you no longer belong. And remember you will never escape the game, no matter how far you go.” Pandemia plunged into the sludge, transformed into a white rat, and swam back toward her nest.
Rawena waded the other way. She struggled against the creek’s current and climbed a pile of slimy stones by the waterfall up toward daylight. It was early morning, and the shadows were thick and long. Strands of filthy fog slithered like serpents in the weak sunshine, which limped through the branches of the dead trees. The light bothered her, and she squinted as she walked upstream.
When she reached the place where the creek cleared, she dropped to her knees, scooped the water up with both hands, and drank. The first mouthful seared through her parched throat, and she winced in pain. The next gulps brought pleasure, though, and she smiled as if the pure water made her tipsy.
Rawena took off her underdress and rubbed it against a boulder on the bottom of the creek. Once she got rid of all the sludge, she hung it on a branch.
Although she longed to bathe in the basin where she had kidnapped Arvasia, she wouldn’t dare go so near her town, so she lay down in the creek and let the shallow water rush around her body. She rubbed her skin until the cold chased her out. Once the rising sun had dried and warmed her, she put her underdress back on. The feeling of freshness and purity made her smile.
Then she burst into tears.
Although she had rubbed away the filth of the swamp, she would never banish the curse. Although she no longer stank of the Otherworld, she was an intruder in the world of mortals.
She recalled the tears in Pandemia’s eyes. Only Pandemia knew she was alive, and she loved Rawena like a sister. Wouldn’t it be better to rush back to her and seek the safety of her nest?
Rawena dried her eyes and looked at the sun-gilded creek and forest. She inhaled the scent of sap and pines, and of the tiny yellow flowers that grew along the creek and smelled like honey. As she listened to the chirping of birds, she realized she loved this world too much to give it up. It was still her world, the world where she had been born and where she had died.
It wasn’t her fault that Pandemia had brought her back to life. Rawena refused to spend eternity in stench, filth, and murkiness.
She walked on, chewing her tongue when she passed the spot where she had thrust Garux’s dagger into her heart. A little later, she found a bush of raspberries. She was still hungry when she picked it bare, but the sweet fruits soothed her nerves and eased her stomach cramps. As she looked around for more berries, she froze when a loud crashing sound came from the woods.
Rawena ducked behind the bush and listened, her heart galloping toward fear. The crashing came again. As most animals only made rustling sounds, it was probably a bear or a human. She hoped it was the former: if her tribespeople caught her, the druidess might burn her alive as a malevolent spirit—and Pandemia would turn her into an eternal rat and trap her in that horrid swamp.
Her tribe’s hunting territory was still far away, though, and she guessed it was the Marcomanni. If she fell into their hands, they could also burn her alive if they tried to kill her and realized she wouldn’t die by steel. And if they pierced her heart, she would have to unleash a plague on the next lunar eclipse.
The sounds came closer. There was no time to run, so she covered her face and plowed into the raspberry bush, trying not to groan as the thorns clawed at her skin. A dog barked. She froze with horror, thinking it had sniffed her out. Then the barking stopped.
Wings fluttered, and a shadow glided over her head. She glanced up and recognized the long tail and flashing colors of a pheasant. An arrow came from the woods. It missed the bird by a hand’s breadth and glided into tall rushes behind the creek.
Another arrow sank into the pheasant’s chest. The bird cartwheeled and fell on top of the raspberry bush, just above Rawena’s head. The bush’s leaves and twigs shuddered as much as she did.
The barking came closer. A large black dog with yellow eyes and floppy ears ran to the bush, stood on its hind legs, and snatched the bird. Dropping back on all fours to bring the catch to its master, the dog noticed Rawena.
“Good doggie,” she whispered as the dog froze and stared at her. “Please go away!”
The dog didn’t move. Although its teeth still clenched the pheasant, a growl rose from its throat.
Impatient shouts came from the woods. Rawena recognized the guttural language she had heard while spying on the soldiers: the hunters were Marcomanni, providing game for the army. She feared they would come for the dog and find her.
The dog ignored the shouts. The fur bristled on its hackles, and its round, black pupils bored into Rawena’s. The pheasant’s eyes were still open as if the bird also watched her.
“Go away, doggie,” she whispered. “Please, go to your master.”
The dog growled more angrily. Drool trickled out of its mouth and over the pheasant’s colorful feathers. Rawena’s heartbeat roared in her eardrums. She trembled so much she feared she would make the branches rattle and alert the Marcomanni.
The calls came again, louder and threatening. The dog gave her a suspicious look and trotted away.
Rawena’s lungs began to burn. She realized she’d been holding her breath, and she opened her mouth and gasped for air. The men talked loudly and excitedly, and she guessed they admired the pheasant. When their voices receded, her head spun with relief. She dared leave the bush and rub her scratched skin.
Rawena wondered what the Marcomanni were still doing in her tribe’s woods. She couldn’t help fearing for Garux and her mother, and even for Arvasia, whose memory unleashed a tempest of emotions that whirled and collided in her soul.
Now that the danger was over, her hunger pangs returned. Rawena recalled a cluster of boletus that always grew along the path leading to the quarry. Her mouth watered when she remembered how they smelled while Mother fried them in lard. Fresh tears sprang into her eyes when she realized that Mother would never cook for her again. Still, she was so hungry she could eat the mushrooms raw.
Rawena found the path and followed it westwards, away from the quarry and toward the merchant road. She kept her eyes on the ground, looking for the boletus and—she saw Garux.
He lay behind a shrub in a circle of dried blood. An arrow stuck from his shoulder; another from his chest. A deep slash ran across his throat.
“No!” Rawena screamed, falling to her knees. Tears blurred her sight. Moaning, she put her hands on his cheeks . . . and felt they were warm.
She gasped as if his skin had burned her, and she stared at him in disbelief. The arrow wound in his chest was probably mortal, and nobody could survive such a cut to the neck. Had the sun been keeping his skin warm? That made no sense.
Although his blood had long dried, he showed no signs of putrefaction. No flies, bugs, and ants scurried around his mouth and nostrils, and the body was limp rather than rigid.
Her hand shook as she pressed her forefinger against his jugular vein, mimicking what she had seen Druidess Agira do to Rawena’s dying grandmother. Garux’s pulse rose and fell against her fingertip.
Rawena gasped and pressed her hand over her mouth.
He was alive!
She was about to rejoice, but then she understood this was the punishment Pandemia had been talking about. The rat-goddess had made Garux deathless to witness the annihilation of the human race. That realization brought new tears to her eyes.
“Oh, Garux,” Rawena sobbed. “How much you have suffered. And how much you will suffer still. Who did this to you, my love? And how long will you stay like this?”
Her tears fell on his face, and he moved his head and moaned. Some of the tears ran through his beard toward the leering slash on his neck. As they reached the place where his skin, muscles, and veins had been severed, the wound began to close and scab, until it looked like the pursed lips of a large catfish.
Rawena cried even harder as happiness poured into the cauldron of her emotions. Her immortal tears were an elixir to Garux’s wounds! It could only mean they were destined to become eternal lovers.
She pulled the arrows out of his body, wiped her eyes, and touched the wounds with her wet fingers. The holes closed. She smeared her tears along his neck and turned the gash into a plump, ragged scar. His eyelids quivered, and he sighed. Then he started to shiver.
Rawena stripped naked and lay beside him, covering them both with her underdress. Pine needles poked at her skin, and an aerial root jabbed at her hip, but she didn’t mind. She threw her leg over his thighs and hugged him to keep him warm.
Garux groaned. His hands and feet twitched as though he were having a nightmare.
“Hush, my love,” she whispered, kissing his ear. “Everything will be good. I’m with you now, your deathless lover. We will roam the world hand in hand, forever and ever. We will never die, and our love won’t die either. You will learn to love me, Garux. And you’ll love me eternally.”
He groaned again. Sweat drenched his shirt and braies and stuck them to her skin. His fever made her sweat, but she sensed it would help him get better.
“Soon you will be well, my lover,” Rawena whispered. “Your healer will never leave you.”
Garux mumbled and moved his head. His eyes were still closed, but she guessed he would soon open them. Would he think she was an evil spirit? Would he still resent her for kidnapping Arvasia?
Rawena was determined to stay by him and smile even if he beat her. He would never be able to kill her, and she would relish the pain if it was Garux who caused it. She longed to show him how much she could suffer for him.
While Pandemia had made them immortal as punishment, Rawena felt an eternity with someone she loved was a gift. She only had to make sure nobody ever pierced her heart.
Rawena put her hand under his shirt to caress the skin on his belly. The feel of his hard stomach made her sigh. She circled her fingers around his navel and then her hand slid down under his braies. His penis was silky and even hotter than the rest of his body. The way his testicles moved around in her hand gave her an unexpected thrill. A tingling spread through her crotch as she pressed her body firmly against his.
She recalled overhearing girls from her tribe, who had said boys squirmed with pleasure when they sucked them. How nice would it be for Garux to wake up and feel her mouth embracing him! He would surely fall in love with her then, as she doubted that anyone had done it to him before.
“I will do it for you, my love,” she whispered, kneeling up. “I’ll do it!”
Rawena pulled down his braies and lowered her face to his penis. Her breath stuck halfway from her lungs as she opened her mouth. Then she noticed a long, black hair sticking to his foreskin.
The shock was so great she didn’t know how to react. She pulled his braies back up and looked at his face in disbelief. Tears returned a moment later.
“Arvasia,” she ground through her clenched teeth. “Arvasia!”
Garux sighed at the sound of the name. Then he smiled, and his eyelids quivered as if Arvasia had entered his dreams.
A wave of fury made Rawena lift her hand and outstretch her fingers to claw his eyes out. Then she grabbed her underdress, sprang to her feet, and ran blindly through the woods.
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.