Sweat poured out of Garux’s burning skin for the rest of the day and deep into the night. As the sun sprang up, the fever dropped, and he opened his eyes. The light of the new day nearly blinded him, and he shaded his eyes and squinted. His head hummed, pain seared through his throat, and his muscles felt torn and bruised.
He sat up with a groan and looked around, trying to remember where he was and what had happened. When he saw the two arrows lying beside him, memories of the attack sank into his mind.
“Horeus!” he wheezed. “That filthy dog.”
Garux pulled down his shirt collar and looked at his shoulder and chest. Only two scabs bulged in places where he had expected gaping holes. He looked around the woods in confusion. How long had he been lying there?
As he recalled the blade of Horeus’s sword, his fingers flew to his neck. A fat, tender scab ran across his throat like a horseshoe whose ends almost touched at the nape of his neck. How could he have survived such a dreadful blow? What magic had sealed his wounds?
Fluffy white clouds glided over the blue sky. The leaves and twigs above his head flitted in a gentle breeze, and the forest brimmed with beautiful smells and colors. Garux recalled Arvasia and her dimpled cheeks, and he felt happy to be alive. And yet, a vague premonition had planted a seed in his mind.
He needed to ask Druidess Agira what his miraculous recovery meant, and to settle scores with Horeus. He only hoped the druidess wouldn’t think he was a spirit… and that Horeus’s treachery wasn’t the result of a wholesale conspiracy of the nobles.
Garux scrambled to his feet and turned for home, but then he remembered his mission. As he was too near the Marcomannic encampment to go back without the report, he headed for the quarry.
Weakness and dizziness made him shuffle at first, but he felt stronger as he walked on. The sun poured vigor into his veins. He ate a few handfuls of sorrel to moist his parched throat.
He walked along the fringe of the path, in the cover of the woods. When he smelled smoke and saw a few grayish columns coil above the trees, he skulked forward and climbed a young birch. Through the branches, he saw a cluster of large leather tents standing in a clearing among carts, wagons, and chariots. Horses and cattle grazed everywhere. The pitted hill of the quarry loomed above, casting a monstrous shadow over the encampment. Two sentinels passed along the edge of the clearing.
A few fires blazed in the center of the encampment. Men in sleeveless tunics hauled firewood and roasted game on spits. Closer to the foot of the hill, pairs of soldiers practiced with swords and battleaxes while others sat in the grass, watching them and cheering them on. He estimated there were between four hundred and fifty and five hundred people in the camp.
Garux’s tribe had about six hundred people. Celtic women were expected to engage in battles, and only elders and little children would stay in the town. It meant that a little over four hundred people could march on the Marcomanni. With an element of surprise, the Celts had a chance to win. Garux wondered whether Agira would rule in favor of the attack.
Until the last moment, Arvasia expected that Garux would return and save her from the marriage to Horeus. All her instincts screamed at her that he was alive. In the darkness of the prison, in the gloom of her heart, she hoped he would kick the door open and break hers and Seneusia’s tethers. But he never came.
The day before yesterday, she had overheard Horeus speaking with Ateran by the prison door. Apparently, Vitis and his friends did not believe Ateran’s claims that she and Mother had left the town to look for Garux, and they suspected the women were in prison. The hope that the commoners would raid the fort and that Garux would return was a light that guided Arvasia and Seneusia away from despair.
Horeus and Ateran had unshackled their right hands, and their chains were long enough to let them sit on the cold floor. They couldn’t lie down, though, and they had to keep their left hands raised. They spent days tethered like animals, with little food and water, condemned to perpetual dusk.
When the key grated in the lock on the fourth day of their imprisonment, mother and daughter scrambled to their feet, thinking it was Garux or the rebels coming to rescue them. But it was Horeus walking in with Uxur.
Arvasia pressed her back against the wall when she saw that Horeus had put on new leather shoes and a new silk tunic. It could only mean one thing.
“No!” screamed Seneusia, who had also grasped the implications. She tried to get closer to Arvasia, but her chain was too short for that. She tugged on the chain, groaning with rage and despair.
“The time has come, my bride,” Horeus told Arvasia, confirming her fears.
“Please, no!” Arvasia pleaded, nausea creeping up her throat.
Horeus’s broken nose flushed with anger. He stepped closer to her, cupped her chin, and squeezed her cheeks. His grip was so strong she thought he would break her lower jaw.
“You better smile and go on with the rite,” he growled. “Unless you want to see your mother die.”
Arvasia froze, but Seneusia screamed, “Leave her alone, dirty man! I told you I’d rather die than let you marry her.”
Horeus nodded to Uxur, who rushed at Seneusia and rammed his enormous fist into her face. The back of her head hit the wall with a sickening thud.
“Mam!” Arvasia screamed, fearing that Uxur had cracked her skull.
Seneusia staggered and sat. Blood gushed from her nose and mouth, and her head lolled and her eyes dimmed as if she were losing consciousness.
“Oh, Mam . . .” Arvasia groaned.
She had never seen her mother so stunned and helpless. Seneusia had always cheered her through their ordeal, but now she looked broken.
“I’ll marry you,” Arvasia screamed at Horeus. “But don’t let that monster hit my mother again!” She glared at Uxur, who stood above Seneusia, licking her blood off his knuckles.
Horeus chuckled and patted Arvasia’s cheek. “I knew you would come around, my beauty.” He grinned like an evil spirit when he untethered her.
“They will soon let you free, Mam,” Arvasia called as Horeus and Uxur dragged her out of the prison.
Arvasia wasn’t sure whether Seneusia had heard her. She gave her one last look before Uxur kicked the door shut.
They pushed her up the stairs and into the banquet hall, where about forty nobles sat around long tables. Ateran stood at the bottom of the hall, wearing a checkered ceremonial cloak, and Arvasia guessed it was he who would wed them.
In the summer, weddings normally took place on a wooden platform by the creek, with Druidess Agira presiding over the rites and the entire tribe in attendance. Horeus and Ateran were keeping the wedding secret, not only from the commoners but also from Agira. Since Ateran was the chieftain, Arvasia feared the wedding would be valid even without Agira’s blessing.
All the guests were members of Ateran’s clan. Horeus and Ateran kept even the unrelated nobles in the dark, then, and Arvasia couldn’t believe how thorough they were in their wickedness.
She noticed that most of the guests frowned and scowled when Horeus led her toward Ateran. The women glared at Horeus in disgust and looked at her with pity. Even their own family was getting sick of Ateran and Horeus, and the forced wedding could be the final straw. Arvasia wondered how many of them would try to save the chieftain and his captain if a rebellion broke out.
Horeus led her down the aisle among the tables. When they reached the bottom, Ateran blurted out, “We gather here in peace for the sacred occasion of the nuptial rite between Horeus and Arvasia.” He spoke fast, and Arvasia guessed he wanted to rush through the ceremony so he could mollify the guests with food and wine.
“Hail spirits of Mother Earth, who holds and feeds us . . .” Ateran rattled on, and Arvasia felt her bowels turning liquid.
In a moment, Ateran would make her Horeus’s wife and ruin her life forever. And then, Horeus and Ateran would have no reason to keep Mother alive.
That realization rammed into her stomach and made her gasp.
She swayed and rubbed her forehead, and Horeus clenched her upper arm. “No foolishness, you bitch!” he hissed into her ear.
Arvasia forced herself to stay calm and think. She had to act now, but what could she do? She thought of screaming, but her throat was so tight she could hardly breathe. Besides, Uxur stood just a step behind her, and his fists would silence her before she could make anyone hear her. Horeus’s ceremonial dagger was within her reach, but he would surely prevent her from unsheathing it.
Her eyes alighted on a large golden brooch that fastened Ateran’s cloak. The pin was sharp, and as long as her forefinger. It wasn’t much of a weapon, but it would have to do.
Ateran said, “Horeus and Arvasia, are you ready to declare your sacred vows?”
Horeus inhaled through his broken nose, and an excited smile played on his lips. His grasp on her arm eased.
Arvasia tore herself out of his grip and rushed at Ateran, her head lowered like a charging doe’s. She glimpsed shock in Ateran’s eyes just before her forehead crashed into his face. The world exploded in bright colors.
Ateran squealed, staggered, and sat on the ground. She stumbled over him and fell, but she sprang to her feet and lunged at him. He held both hands to his nose and didn’t counterattack. Blood gushed through his fingers and dribbled on his clothes and the flagstones. Some of it stained Arvasia’s hands as she ripped the brooch off his cloak.
She grabbed Ateran’s spiky hair and raised the pin to his eyeball. Chairs and stools scraped against the floor as the nobles stood. Uxur stared at her with his dull eyes swimming in confusion. Drool dribbled out of his gaping mouth. Arvasia didn’t notice that Horeus no longer stood in his spot.
“I’ll never marry that pig Horeus,” she screamed so everyone could hear her. “And if you don’t let my mother out of the prison, I’ll force this pin into Ateran’s brain!”
“Oh, please, Arvasia, don’t hurt me,” Ateran begged. “It was that bastard Horeus who made me do this!” When she didn’t reply, he squealed to the guests, “Help! Somebody help me, dear relatives. Don’t let me perish at the hands of this madwoman!”
None of the nobles moved. Uxur wiped the drool off his chin and stared at his wet hand. At last, Arvasia thought of looking for Horeus. But it was too late.
Horeus had crept toward a spare stool, grabbed it, and flung it at her. She raised her hand to protect her face, and the stool crashed into her forearm.
The pain made her drop the brooch. Horeus charged at her with a furious roar, and Uxur followed a step behind him. She shot to her feet, and Ateran scrambled away like a lizard. Horeus drew his dagger.
Then the door opened, and a wheezy screech darted through the hall. “Stop it!”
Everyone froze and turned toward the door. Agira stood there, her shriveled chest heaving from climbing the stairs, and her white hair streaming over her face.
Horeus dropped his dagger and kicked it under a table. Uxur drooled and gawked.
“Agira!” Arvasia exclaimed as she ran to the druidess and flung herself into her arms, making them both stagger. “Oh, Druidess Agira, they want to marry me to Horeus. And they are keeping my poor mother downstairs in the prison. And I think they killed Garux!”
Agira pushed her away, and Arvasia realized with a shock that nobody ever touched the druidess, let alone embraced her. Arvasia thought Agira would scold her for the transgression, but Agira turned to Ateran and screeched, “You thought I would never find you out, worm?”
Ateran scrambled to his feet. His bloodied lips trembled in mute terror.
“Speechless like the snake you are. Huh?” Agira spat on the ground and turned to Horeus. “And you, dog! The wedding was your idea, wasn’t it? What do you have to tell your druidess?”
Horeus’s face turned crimson under the tattoos. “I didn’t do anything against the tribe’s laws or customs,” he said.
Arvasia was about to accuse him of lying when footsteps clapped down the corridor. She turned around and saw Garux rush into the hall. Vitis and his other friends ran at his heels.
Arvasia’s heart leaped with joy. She turned to run into Garux’s arms, but she froze when Horeus screamed in horror. Everybody looked at Horeus as he swayed.
“A spirit!” he shouted, pointing a trembling finger at Garux. “An avenging spirit!”
Ateran fell to his knees and whimpered. “Oh, gods, have m-m-mercy!”
“Shut up, both of you!” the druidess shouted. She turned to Garux. “And you, tell everyone what happened.”
“Of course, druidess,” Garux said. His face was flushed, and his shoulders rose and fell with his heavy breathing. He pointed at Horeus and shouted, “This swine attacked me near the Marcomannic encampment. He attacked me from behind like a coward, charged at me from horseback while I was on foot. He shot me twice with his bow and slit my throat with his sword.”
Arvasia noticed Garux’s scar and gasped. Could he really be a spirit?
Garux walked to Horeus and raised his hand to strike him, but Horeus staggered back and fell. The fingers of terror contorted his face into a hideous mask. He foamed at his lips and convulsed as if the floor was burning his back. His eyes bulged as he stared at Garux. He groaned in pain and clenched his evil heart. Then his hands slid down to rest on the flagstones. His eyes were still wide open, but he could no longer see anything of this world: his fright had murdered him.
The wedding guests had kept their mouths shut and their heads down, as if they hoped the druidess wouldn’t notice them, but now they murmured and craned their necks for a better look. Many of them contemplated Garux with fear in their eyes.
Ateran burst into tears and crawled to Garux. “Oh, don’t take me away, spirit,” he bawled, trying to embrace Garux’s legs. “Oh, please, don’t take me away! Please, have mercy!”
“Mercy?” Garux stepped away from him in disgust. “I’m sure it was you who orchestrated all this!”
Agira shuffled to Ateran and prodded his ribs with her stick. “I swear this is the last time you’ve cast shame on this tribe, worm!”
Vitis and his friends stepped closer to bask in Ateran’s doom. The guests surrounded the crying chieftain and demanded an explanation.
“Is it true, you bastard?” a hoary noblewoman screamed.
“You ordered Horeus to kill a fellow tribesman now when we are on the verge of war?” another one shouted. “You call yourself a chieftain?”
Arvasia first thought they were putting on an act for Agira, but their outrage seemed genuine. Perhaps they weren’t that bad.
Agira pointed her stick at Horeus. “Throw this scum to the hogs. And release Seneusia and jail the swine of my grandson in her stead!”
A cheer rose from almost every mouth, noble and common. Vitis grinned as he grabbed the collar of Ateran’s tunic to take him away.
“Nanny!” Ateran squealed, his jowls trembling. “We’re the same clan!”
“I crap on this clan!” Agira snapped, glaring at the nobles, who lowered their heads.
As Vitis pulled at Ateran’s collar, Uxur stepped forward and growled.
Agira pointed at him and yelled, “Throw this sadistic beast in with his master!”
A few commoners rushed at Uxur. He tried to fend them off, but they beat him to the ground. He bawled and gawked as they dragged him out, and Arvasia was sure he didn’t understand what was happening. She would feel sorry for him . . . if she didn’t hate him for punching her mother.
Arvasia longed to see Seneusia and make sure she was well. But Agira turned to Garux and gave him a long, quizzing look, and Arvasia rushed to his side, fearing that the druidess would accuse him of being a spirit.
Agira peered deep into Garux’s eyes, and for the first time in her life, Arvasia saw her puzzled. Then, to Arvasia’s relief, she smiled and said in a kind voice, “I’m glad you’re back, you rascal. We will have to speak soon, you and I. But first we will deal with the prisoners and appease the gods.”
As Agira turned around and shuffled out of the banquet hall, Arvasia clasped her hands behind Garux’s neck and pressed her lips against his. When she felt his warm arms embrace her waist, she knew he was no spirit. The drumming of his heart against her collarbone filled her with peace and bliss.
“They told me you died, my love,” she said, trying not to stare at his scar. “They told me you were dead.”
Garux gave her a troubled look. “Dead . . . That I should be.”
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.