Rawena thought she had heard the name Pandemia before. It filled her with a vague alarm, like the memory of a nightmare.
“But—but what are you?” Rawena stammered.
“I’m the goddess of pestilence, the queen of rats and rodents.” Pandemia touched her golden hair as if it were a crown. She pressed the palms of her hands against the boulder and leaned closer to Rawena.
In horror, Rawena tried to get up, but her legs had gone numb.
“Do you think I’m pretty?” Pandemia asked.
Bewildered, Rawena nodded.
Pandemia giggled and clapped her hands. “A queen has to be! I think you are very pretty, too, darling, with that mane of auburn hair and large, violet eyes.”
Pandemia sniffed and scratched her cheek. “There were very few humans like you when I was younger. Most of the people who lived in the woods outside were short and stout. They had sloping foreheads and large, wide noses and no chins, and they were quite ugly. Fortunately, the disease of the swamp killed them off. I thought the disease would annihilate your kind as well. Obviously, I was wrong.”
Fear turned Rawena’s bowels liquid. What was that horrid creature talking about? She felt as if something crawled up her thighs. When she looked down, she screeched in terror, for her legs had swollen to twice their size. Her feet and toes resembled flattened udders, and her toenails had turned black.
Rawena pulled at her hair in despair. Tears gushed out of her eyes and made two ruts in the mud on her cheeks when she realized that the swamp would murder her.
While many Celts saw the passage from life to death as a journey to a new existence, the thought of dying petrified her. The Otherworld was the home of monsters; the fear of entering that realm rammed into the fragile pillars of her sanity.
“Oh, please save me!” Rawena cried, grabbing Pandemia by her four-fingered hands. “Please don’t let me die. I’m so scared. Oh, please, no!”
Pandemia outstretched her other hand and stroked Rawena’s hair, and Rawena shuddered with repulsion.
“So pretty you are, darling,” Pandemia said, her eyes clouding with sadness. “You’re even prettier than I am, although I prefer my legs to yours. It’s a shame the pustules will soon cover your whole body.”
Rawena couldn’t speak for tears. She would never leave this horrid place and see Garux again. They would never get married and live in a small cabin deep in the woods as she had envisioned. Her dreams would perish in the swamp.
Pandemia took Rawena’s hand and scrutinized her five fingers with curiosity. Then she giggled and shook her head. “I suppose I owe you a favor for waking me from that long, long sleep, darling. Do you think I should let you live?”
“Yes, yes!” Rawena lifted her head and blinked the tears out of her eyes. “But how?”
Pandemia scratched her nose. “I could turn the waterfall from purulent to cleansing.” She nodded toward the hiss of the falling sludge. “And I could let it wash away the disease of the swamp. But I am very curious about your kind, and I can’t just free the first human who stumbled into my realm in ages.”
Pandemia tilted her head and bored her eyes into Rawena’s.
Rawena knew she was waiting for her to speak, and she rummaged through her reeling mind for something to say. She let go of Pandemia’s hands and scratched her left forearm, making it bleed again. Her blood blended with the sludge and fell on her swollen knee. She gasped when she saw that pustules had sprung up all over her legs. Some of them burst and oozed yellowish puss as if her skin released the sludge it had absorbed.
The tension of the moment made Rawena tremble. How could she persuade the rat-woman to let her survive?
At last, she got it: what if she promised to bring someone instead of her to the swamp?
Pandemia squealed with laughter. “You humans are so predictable!” she exclaimed as if she had read Rawena’s thoughts. “I knew you would think that, I swear I did! Well, it is acceptable, provided that you are serious—and that you do it tonight.”
Rawena’s heart tolled with hope for survival. Who could she bring to the swamp, though? She would love to give Pandemia one of the soldiers who had chased her, and she would gladly bring the whole Marcomannic army. But how could she ever find them and lure them here?
She hated the idea of bringing someone from her town. Although most of the six hundred tribespeople ostracized her, Rawena didn’t want them to come to harm. What was Pandemia planning to do with the person, anyway?
Pandemia looked toward a shadowed region of the swamp and said, “I’ll go on a journey, darling. And what I see along the way will decide that person’s fate . . . and the fate of all humanity.”
* * *
The magic waterfall healed Rawena’s skin and reduced the swelling, but the horrors of the swamp still blistered her mind as she followed the creek back home.
The fog dissipated, and the sun warmed her body. The forest became lush again, and jaybirds sang to her from the treetops. Grasshoppers leaped away as she walked, and butterflies fluttered around wildflowers. As the sun began to descend, she entered her tribe’s hunting territory and walked through woods where she felt more at home than in her town. Still, the world seemed an ugly place that brimmed with venomous swamps and dreadful creatures.
The stench of the sludge still clung to Rawena’s skin and made her feel filthy. When she reached a place where the creek pooled in a deep basin, she decided to take a bath. She would banish the stench and clear her mind. And she could even seduce Garux with her naked body.
Garux would soon return from his hunting expedition, and he always bathed here on hot afternoons. She had to make him hers at last, and give him her virginity if necessary, for she needed his help with Pandemia.
Rawena knew she wouldn’t have the mental strength to lead a fellow tribesperson to possible death. Garux might help her hunt down a Marcomannic scout, though, and drag him to the swamp.
Slanted sunrays fell on the basin, and the pebbles and twigs at its bottom formed a sharp, clear mosaic. A trout darted behind a stone. A frog croaked.
Rawena took off her underdress, hung it over a branch of a thicket, and carefully stepped over the slippery stones into the basin. She clenched her teeth when the frigid stream of mountain water embraced her calves. Once the water reached her waist, she plunged and rubbed her hair and skin until they felt clean.
The chill made the veins on her hands and feet contract and hurt. Numbness crawled up her limbs and gnawed its way toward her bones, but she was determined to stay in the water until Garux came, even if she got ill.
“See how much I suffer for you, my love?” she said, as if he were already there. “You will protect me, won’t you? I’m so scared! Only you can help me!”
Garux was kind, gentle, and caring, unlike most other tribesmen, whom she found loud, filthy, and brutish. Despite that, he was fearless in practice fights, the perfect man for her, and for all her trouble.
He was three or four years younger, just like her sister Arvasia. While Rawena had ignored him when they were children, she later noticed that the scrawny boy and spotted adolescent grew into a handsome man.
Her mild interest had exploded in a raging obsession. She followed Garux whenever she had a chance, and she would sneak out of her house at night to peek through his window and watch him sleep. To her dismay, he often spoke and joked with Arvasia while he seemed uneasy around Rawena. She made everyone feel awkward, for reasons she couldn’t fathom, but since Garux always smiled at her and never called her crazy, Rawena took his unease for amorous bashfulness.
A twig snapped over the hum of the creek and made her twitch.
“Garux,” she whispered.
A man emerged from the foliage. It was him. He wore nothing but red and blue checkered braies that encircled his waist and hung to his knees. With his fair hair sprawling over his wide shoulders and muscular chest, and his strong hand grasping a spear, he looked like the warrior god Lugus. The sun had painted his nose red, and his beard was still ridiculously thin, but she found even that appealing.
Garux was so surprised at seeing her that he dropped the fox he’d killed. The spear slid through the fingers of his other hand and fell to the grass. He turned to leave, but then his eyes landed on her small but firm breasts, and he seemed to freeze in the summer heat.
The hungry look in his eyes seared her body with an unknown flame. It made her remember that, as they were growing up, she had often caught him staring at her changing body with curiosity.
“You always loved me, didn’t you, my future husband?” she called at him.
Garux gasped as if she had smacked his face with a trout, and Rawena dug her fingernails into her forearm. She remembered Mother telling her that talk of love and marriage could spook even the bravest men.
“The water is wonderful, Garux!” She changed her tactics. “Didn’t you come to take a dip?”
Garux blushed and rubbed the nape of his neck. Although he tried not to stare at her breasts and erect nipples, his eyes always alighted there before taking off again like a pair of fidgety sparrows.
“Are you a coward, Garux?” she called, knowing that an accusation of spinelessness would whip every Celtic man to action.
“Coward? N-no!” He lifted his foot to step closer. Then he put it back down and turned his head as if he had heard something.
A bright, female voice came from the woods. “Garux? Are you there, my love?”
Rawena scowled when she recognized the voice of her sister. What did Arvasia want in here? And why would she call him “my love”?
Garux blushed and looked around as though he wanted to find a place to hide.
Arvasia stepped out of the bushes, beaming, but she raised her eyebrows at his uneasiness. When she saw Rawena, her eyes opened wide with shock and surprise.
Rawena said, “Leave us alone, Arvasia.”
Garux only blushed and gawked, looking like a sunburned simpleton.
Arvasia stared first at him and then at Rawena. She parted her lips to speak, but then she clasped her hand over her mouth, turned around, and ran back into the forest.
“Arvasia, wait!” he exclaimed, turning to go after her.
“Come back, Garux,” Rawena called, her voice brimming with despair.
He plunged into the forest without giving her another glance.
Tears gushed from Rawena’s eyes and burned her frigid cheeks. At last, she accepted the truth she had been blocking out since her obsession with Garux had begun: Garux and Arvasia were lovers.
“No!” Rawena screeched as she slammed her hands into the water, making it splash and ripple.
So her little sister had stolen the man Rawena loved. But how? How could it be?
The sisters looked different from other Celtic girls, who mostly had fair hair and green or blue eyes. But while Arvasia had black hair and dark eyes after their late grandmother, an emancipated Grecian slave, Rawena’s hair was auburn and her eyes were violet.
Rawena thought she was prettier than Arvasia. Her lean, naked body was ready to accept Garux, and yet he had turned away from her. He would never be hers; he would never help her fulfill the promise she had given Pandemia.
Rawena looked down at the water surface. Wouldn’t it be better to escape the rat-goddess and punish Garux and Arvasia by drowning herself? She smiled when she imagined Garux pulling her bloated body out of the basin, tears of remorse pouring out of his eyes.
Would he care, though? What if he laughed at Rawena’s madness? What if Arvasia rejoiced that her rival was dead? Those thoughts made Rawena scream with fury. Before her screams faded, she knew who she would take to the swamp tonight.