As shadows grew and thickened in the town, Garux, Arvasia, and Seneusia set off to look for Rawena. On their way toward the gate, Garux realized they had never told Seneusia the news. Now it would have to wait until they found his future sister-in-law.
Garux wished he could ask the druidess where to look for Rawena. The druidess lived beyond the pastures, though, and only her acolyte could visit her. In any case, the druidess would have come to tell them if she’d had any more visions of Rawena.
Vitis was already closing the gate for the night.
To Garux’s dismay, Chieftain Ateran and his demented bodyguard Uxur stood near. Ateran was about thirty, and he had become chieftain after his father’s death last year. While Ateran’s father had been fearless yet impartial and good-hearted, Ateran was a cowardly tyrant who punished every small offense by whipping.
Uxur was Ateran’s second cousin, a drooling ogre who loved to feel the whip in his hand.
“Vitis, wait!” Garux called as they trotted forward.
“What is it, my friend?” Vitis asked, leaving the gate ajar.
“Close the damned gate!” squealed Ateran, but everyone ignored him.
“You have to let us out, Vitis,” Seneusia said. “My Rawena hasn’t come back, and we must find her.”
Ateran stepped closer to Vitis and yelled, “I said, close the damned gate!”
Just like every nobleman, Ateran sported short, spiky hair, curvilinear tattoos on his face, a drooping mustache, and a thick, golden torc around his neck. Those were supposed to make him look fearsome and dignified. But since he had beady eyes, sagging jowls, and an upturned nose with giant nostrils, he looked like a gilt, mustachioed hog.
“My daughter might be in mortal danger,” Seneusia told him. “The druidess said something bad would happen to her. And we are going to look for her.”
“Oh, you aren’t, bitch!” Ateran spat.
Garux felt like punching him in the face. Instead, he took a deep breath and said, “Be reasonable, chieftain. Let us—”
“Listen to me, you greasy ass!” Ateran squealed. “The hunters have seen hundreds of footprints on the merchant road. I bet it’s the Marcomanni, and you would attract them to the town. Nobody’s leaving tonight.”
“Attract them to the town?” Garux said. “But—if you’re afraid of that, we would have to stay holed up in our homes during the day, too, and not even start fires.”
Ateran opened his mouth to reply when Arvasia put in, “Forcing us to stay here makes no sense. If your father were alive, he would start a search party for my poor sister. And you? You won’t even let us out?”
“My father is not alive, is he?” Ateran snapped. “I am the chieftain now. Chieftain! And yes, I forbid you to leave!”
“That’s too bad because we are leaving anyway, cowardly man,” Seneusia said. “And you better not try to stop us, or I’ll break your porcine snout!” She took a step toward the gate, but Ateran pushed her so forcibly she staggered backward.
“Leave my mother alone, you pig,” Arvasia snapped, lifting her hand as if to hit him.
A shadow of fear passed over Ateran’s eyes. He took a step back and nodded to Uxur. So far, Uxur had only drooled and gawked, but now he balled his hand into a giant fist and stepped forward.
Garux knew the ogre wouldn’t think twice about punching a woman—if he could think at all—so he grabbed a spear that leaned against the wall and slammed Uxur’s wrist with the butt end.
Uxur growled with pain. He turned to attack Garux, but Vitis leveled his spear at the ogre’s belly and shouted, “Don’t even think about it, you dumb beast!”
Uxur froze. His dull eyes flicked between the spear’s point and Ateran.
“Vitis!” Ateran shouted. “Leave my man alone and arrest Garux and his two whores!”
Vitis kept the spear leveled at Uxur.
Ateran’s nostrils expanded as if they wanted to swallow his nose like two black holes. “Vitis, I command you as your chief!”
Vitis spat on the ground, and Garux admired his courage. Vitis could face severe punishment for disobeying Ateran, who was his highest commander.
Garux turned to Ateran. “A man who lays his hands on a woman, and who needs a bodyguard to protect him from a girl, is nobody’s chief.”
The confrontation had drawn a large crowd to the gate. While some tattooed nobles shouted at Garux to shut up, the others only grinned, and all the commoners cheered him. Celts prided themselves on being fearless, and they hated Ateran’s cowardice, which they saw as the worst personality trait.
“Arvasia is right,” Garux continued. “Your father was a great man and leader. But you’re nothing but a chicken-shit tyrant.”
“People! Have you heard this?” Ateran screamed, his eyes gliding over the crowd and alighting on the nobles. “Will you let this scum insult your chieftain?”
Some nobles stepped forward, and the commoners glared at them in silent challenge. Nobody drew their weapons, though, and the tension slowly eased.
Seneusia grasped Garux’s wrist. “Come on, brave rebel,” she said. “We’ve wasted the last daylight with that bastard.”
Garux grabbed Arvasia’s hand and followed Seneusia through the gate. He scowled when he saw how black the woods had turned.
As they stepped onto the path, they heard Ateran’s porcine squeal: “You will pay dearly for this! I swear that on my life!”
* * *
The full moon opened its pale eye above the eastern woods and chased away the starlight. As the moon rose, the Earth’s umbral shadow began to nibble on its left edge: it was the night of a lunar eclipse.
From a hillock near the gate, Rawena had been watching the path since she had returned from the basin. She held her breath when three black silhouettes appeared on the path. Her mother and sister called her name over the chirping of crickets.
When Garux’s deep voice also pierced the night, Rawena whispered, “Do you fear for me, Garux? Why did you hurt me so much if you love me? Just wait! Soon you will get your punishment.”
Rawena descended the hillock and followed them, hidden in the blackness of the woods’ fringe. They called her name over and over again as they walked toward the merchant road. The moon rose higher, shrouding the figures in silver light and turning the path into a creamy corridor. But the Earth’s shadow kept advancing over the moon’s pale face.
They stopped by the deer trail.
“We’d better split up here.” Seneusia’s voice filled the night.
Rawena’s heart fluttered. She had been hoping to hear this.
“I think you are right, Mam,” replied Arvasia.
“I’ll go search around the merchant road,” Seneusia said. “And someone should check the meadow and the northern woods.”
“I’ll do it,” Garux offered.
“Then I’ll comb the southern woods and look around the creek and the basin,” Arvasia said.
Rawena took a deep breath. She thought it poetic justice that Arvasia would meet her fate at the place where she had destroyed Rawena’s dreams: It was Arvasia she would bring to the swamp.
Arvasia’s disappearance would break Garux’s heart—and that would be his punishment. And when she saw he had suffered enough, Rawena would be near to cure him.
Rawena guessed they would set a time and place to regroup, but she didn’t need to hear that. She snuck around them and dragged herself through shadowed undergrowth along the deer trail. When she looked over her shoulder and could no longer see them, she stepped onto the trail and dashed toward the creek. She hid behind a boulder and stared at the moonlit basin, thinking how much had changed since she had bathed there earlier that day.
A pack of wolves howled somewhere in the northern woods. She hoped they wouldn’t scent her, and she prayed they wouldn’t hurt Garux.
Fear clenched her soul when she recalled the Marcomanni. What if they came across her mother? And what if they attacked her tribe, tonight of all nights, when Rawena had lured three defenders into the woods?
The Earth’s shadow ate away at the moon. The portion of the moon that was still visible shone with increasing vehemence and began to turn red. The eerie moonlight reflected on the basin and made it look like a giant puddle of blood.
Arvasia called Rawena’s name, about a hundred steps away. A pang of guilt punched Rawena’s heart when she heard the anxiety in her sister’s voice. Arvasia was risking her life in these dangerous woods to find her . . . and Rawena waited in ambush to drag her into a pestilential swamp.
She remembered that as a baby, Arvasia always smiled and kicked her feet in pleasure when Rawena came near. And when Rawena bent over her, Arvasia would squeal with glee and grab onto Rawena’s hair or clothes, and she would cry when Rawena made her let go.
Those memories made Rawena doubt she could go through with her plan. Then she recalled that as she matured, Arvasia seemed to realize that Rawena was strange and different, and their relationship slowly cooled. Rawena knew Arvasia still loved her as before. But the notion that even her sister saw Rawena as a freak hurt her so much that at times she hated her.
“Why did you have to grow up?” Rawena whispered. “Why were you ever even conceived?”
Seneusia had miscarried three times after Rawena had been born, and Arvasia’s birth seemed a miracle. Arvasia had received all of their parents’ attention, and the oversensitive Rawena felt lonely and ostracized even in her own house.
“Why were you always Mother’s pet?” Rawena kept whispering. “Why did you always make me feel like an outcast? And why did you have to steal my future husband?”
That last thought brought on fury.
Rawena reached for her dagger and got up. A twig snapped under her foot. She heard Arvasia gasp.
“Who is out there?” Arvasia asked, tremor rattling her voice. She was still a child. A spoiled and pampered child. Their mother’s favorite.
Rawena stepped out from behind the boulder and let the red moonlight glide over her.
“Rawena!” Arvasia’s voice turned from scared to excited. “Oh, my sister, I was hoping to find you here.” She spread her arms and ran toward her to embrace her.
Rawena leveled her dagger at Arvasia, who froze two steps away from her and lowered her hands. Rawena guessed Arvasia must have turned pale, and yet the crimson moonlight made her face look sunburned.
“Sister?” Arvasia said, her eyes darting from Rawena’s face to the dagger’s blade. “Sister, it’s me, Arvasia. I came to take you home. We’ve been looking all over for you.”
Rawena stepped forward and pressed the dagger’s point under Arvasia’s chin.
“Sister,” Arvasia wheezed.
The fear and confusion in her eyes nearly made Rawena release her. But she had promised Pandemia to bring her victim tonight, and she dreaded what the mad goddess would do if Rawena broke her promise.
After all, Pandemia might not kill Arvasia. She seemed friendly enough, and lonely. Perhaps she just wanted company, and she would keep Arvasia on the boulder or some healthy corner of the swamp, safe from the disease. And Rawena and Garux would be free to leave the town and live happily in the woods.
“Sister,” Arvasia said through gritted teeth, her voice trembling. “Have you been hurt? What happened? Let us go home.”
Rawena didn’t reply.
Arvasia grabbed Rawena’s wrist and tried to pull the dagger away. Rawena bit Arvasia’s forearm and yanked the dagger upwards. The iron point pierced Arvasia’s skin, and she hissed with pain. Her blood trickled over the dagger and stained Rawena’s hand.
“I don’t want to hurt you, but I will if you make me,” Rawena said. “Do you hear?”
Arvasia nodded. Rawena reached for her sister’s dagger and pulled it out of its wooden scabbard. As she dropped the dagger to the ground, Arvasia brought her knee into Rawena’s stomach. The pain made Rawena double over. Arvasia pushed Rawena’s dagger hand away, shoved her to the ground, and dashed into the woods.