Celts and the Mad Goddess, chapter five

The Earth’s shadow obscured the moon completely, plunging the world into the dark. The moon turned crimson, like the sun on a hot summer evening, and painted the woods in gory hues. A small, thin cloud rushed over the moon’s angry face, turning red before disappearing into the sky’s blackness.

Garux had seen no signs of Rawena, and when the moon rose high above the eastern woods, he turned back to meet Arvasia and Seneusia by the gate. As he passed the deer trail, he felt tempted to go to the basin to see if Arvasia was still there. Then he realized she could already be home, and he kept walking straight.

When he reached the town, a shadow poked over the closed gate.

“Garux? Is that you?”

Garux recognized the voice of Vitis. “Yes, it’s me, my friend.”

“Good! I’ve been waiting for you. Just give me a moment. I’ll open up.”

The shadow of Vitis’s head disappeared, and Garux heard him climb down the ladder. The bar grated against the gate, and the gate opened enough for Garux to slide in.

“Rawena hasn’t come back,” Vitis said as they clasped hands.

 “She hasn’t? And what about Arvasia and Seneusia?”

“Not yet,” Vitis said, shutting and barring the gate.

Garux rubbed the nape of his neck with apprehension. The moon passed the zenith, which meant he had returned late. And yet, he was the first to come.

“I’m sure they’ll be here soon, Garux.”

Garux nodded and asked, “What are you doing here, anyway? Hasn’t your shift already ended?”

“Yes, but I sent the other sentinel home.” Vitis grinned.

“You’ve always been like my brother, Vitis. Why don’t you take a rest, and I’ll look out for the girls?”

Vitis leaned against the wall while Garux climbed up the ladder and poked his head over the gate. He yawned, for it was way past his bedtime. The strangely moonlit path blurred in front of his exhausted eyes.

Then the sight of a blackened figure dispersed his drowsiness. At first, he thought it was Arvasia or Rawena, but then he noticed the wide hips and realized it was Seneusia. Apprehension grabbed his throat. So Arvasia was still alone in the woods. And Seneusia hadn’t found Rawena.

Garux climbed down the ladder while Vitis opened the gate.

“Have my dear girls returned?” Seneusia asked as she slipped in.

Garux and Vitis shook their heads.

“Neither of them?” She looked around as if she hoped the girls would jump up from behind a bush to surprise her.

“Not yet, Seneusia,” Garux said.

She clasped her hand over her mouth. Tears rolled down her cheeks, and the crimson moonlight made it look as if her eyes bled. She did not sob, but since Celtic women seldom cried in public, her tears flooded Garux with fear and sorrow.

The feeling of guilt also galloped into his mind. What if Rawena loved him so much she had harmed herself over him and Arvasia? Although the whole tribe knew he loved Arvasia, Rawena had never seemed to acknowledge it, and the truth must have hit her like a mace. What if she was lying on the bottom of the basin? What if she had fled from the tribe and fell prey to the wolves or, worse, the Marcomanni? And what if she hurt Arvasia?

Garux hugged Seneusia and let her tears drench his shoulder. “Maybe Arvasia has found Rawena, and they are returning together,” he said. But he couldn’t make himself believe it.

He cursed himself for staring at Rawena in the basin and giving her false hopes.

“We have to go back out to look for them,” he said.

Seneusia let go of him. Her eyes had dried, and she gritted her lips in stubborn determination. And yet, her face looked crumpled and haggard as if she had aged twenty years while hugging him.

“We’ll never find them alone, Garux,” she said. “And if it’s the Marcomanni who’ve got them, what can the two of us do? I’ll ring the bell and mobilize the tribe.” She glanced at the large bronze bell that hung from a beam by the gate and glistened in the bloody moonlight.

Garux nodded, feeling she was right.

Vitis bit his lower lip. “The bell can be rung only in case of fire or invasion. That swine Ateran will blow up.” Then he climbed the ladder and yanked on the bell’s rope.

As the bell tilted, and the clapper hit the bell’s mouth, the metallic gong boomed through the red night. Vitis pulled on the rope again and again.

Shadows poured out of the houses. Vitis climbed down the ladder and stood beside Garux and Seneusia.

“You should go home, my friend,” Garux told him. “I don’t want you to get into trouble.”

“I want to help you search,” Vitis replied. “Besides, that cowardly bastard Ateran might be deposed tonight. And I wouldn’t miss the revolt for a pile of gold!”

As the tribespeople rushed toward the gate, Garux tried to guess what would happen. Ateran would refuse to let them leave, but would anyone listen?

The tribe had twenty clans, each of about thirty people. Ateran’s clan was the largest and had produced numerous chieftains. Chieftainship wasn’t hereditary by law but tradition, and Garux guessed that older people—even common—would support Ateran. He hoped the young people, even some nobles, would rebel and join in the search. Most nobles would stand behind Ateran, though, as they hated and feared defiant commoners.

The chieftain had a standing army of fifty men. The captain, Horeus, came from Ateran’s clan, but the soldiers were like Vitis: men and boys from poor families lured into a promise of free meals and an easy life that consisted of little more than battle training and taking turns to guard the gate and the fort. Since they despised Ateran, Garux hoped they would rebel against him if a revolt broke out—or at least that they would lay down their arms rather than raise them against their common clansmen.

The first tribespeople reached the gate and demanded to know what was happening. Straw stuck out of their disheveled hair; bewilderment seeped out of their puffy eyes. Garux saw no elders and children: the fear of invasion had chased them behind the fort’s ramparts.

Ateran also came, a step behind his bodyguard Uxur. Beside him strode Captain Horeus, a short man with a broken nose and pockmarked forehead. Horeus was Ateran’s second cousin and the half-brother of Uxur. He was even more unpopular than the other two.

Dread thronged Ateran’s eyes, and Garux guessed he longed to join the children in the safety of the fort. When he saw no enemy, Ateran elbowed his way toward the gate. 

“What’s going on?” he shouted. “Who rang the bell?”

Vitis opened his mouth, but Seneusia spoke first. “It was me!”

“You again!” Ateran roared. But he didn’t step within her reach. “How dare you? Is there a fire, huh? Or an invasion?”

“My daughters are missing,” Seneusia said, loudly enough for everyone to hear. “We have to comb the woods and find them. And if they fell into Marcomannic hands, we have to rescue them.”

“So you woke up the whole town because two poor bitches are missing, huh?” Ateran spat. 

A murmur of protest rose from the commoners. Some nobles sneered, while others creased their tattooed faces into embarrassed frowns.

Garux scowled and stepped toward Ateran, but Vitis put a hand on his forearm. Garux took a deep breath to calm down, realizing they had to negotiate rather than fight.

“And because of two missing common bitches you scared the shit out of—out of . . . the children?” Ateran continued. “Don’t you realize you’ve put the entire tribe in peril?”

At that moment, on the path not a hundred steps behind the gate, Arvasia screamed for help.

Nobody heard her over Ateran’s yelling.

“You foolish cow!” The chieftain’s mean, beady eyes pierced into Seneusia, who met his gaze with a scornful scowl. “Don’t you realize the bell can be heard outside and attract the enemy? Unless there’s an attack or a fire, raising the alarm is the privilege of the chieftain, and that’s me. Me!”

“I don’t care, dreadful man!” Seneusia snapped. “We have to find my girls. And if you aren’t willing to organize a search mission, at least let those who aren’t cowardly go look for them.”

The commoners murmured their agreement. Many of them stepped toward the gate.

“Nobody’s leaving!” Ateran squealed, his nostrils opening like hungry maws as he glared at the tribe. “Nobody!”

Everyone murmured. The commoners looked at each other, not sure what to do. Some noblemen grasped the hilts of their swords. Ateran’s soldiers grouped, staring at Captain Horeus, who watched them with a suspicious frown.

Ateran turned back to Seneusia. “You’ve already broken one rule, and now you’re disobeying me again? I’ll have you whipped like the stubborn mule you are!”

“You would have to whip me first, pig-face!” Garux boomed.

Ateran hid behind Uxur, who scowled and strode forward. Garux reached for his dagger. The crowd shifted as the commoners stepped toward Garux, and the noblemen moved toward the chieftain.

Captain Horeus elbowed his way to the front. He turned to Ateran and opened his mouth to speak, but he froze when a high-pitched screech rose from behind the crowd.  

“Why are you shouting, worms?”

Everybody turned around and stared at Druidess Agira as she shuffled toward them. She had a wild mane of white hair that created a rosy halo in the gory moonlight. Her face was also white, and lined with deep wrinkles. Although set deep inside their sockets, her light blue eyes looked unnaturally large. She was a strange sight even during the day, but the eclipse turned her into an eerie, reddish specter.

Agira was Ateran’s grandmother. She was the mother of the old chieftain, and the wife of his ancestor. As she knew all law codes, mythology, and symbology, she had been making the most important decisions for as long as anyone remembered.

Agira was so old it seemed a miracle she was still alive. Over the decades, she had trained six different acolytes, whom she had instructed on how to bury her. She outlived them all, though, and recently found a new one.

The throng parted as Agira shuffled toward her grandson. It took her a long time: she leaned on her stick with both hands, took a step, rested, then took another step and another rest.

Nobody dared to show any sign of impatience. They watched her in awed silence, hanging their heads when her piercing eyes glided over them. Although she was the frailest member of the tribe, she instilled terror in every soul she crossed. Agira had no teeth—but she could bite.

Seneusia and Garux still stood closest to the gate. Uxur, Horeus, and Ateran were only a few steps away, but they had turned to watch Agira.

Seneusia leaned toward Garux and whispered into his ear, “This could take a while, and the druidess might forbid everyone from leaving. Try to talk her around, and I’ll sneak out and keep looking for my girls.”

She turned to the gate, but Garux touched her shoulder. “No, I’ll go. The druidess will heed you more because you’re the mother. Just remind her of what she told you about Rawena.”

After a short hesitation, Seneusia nodded. “You’re right. Go now, brave boy. And please be careful.”

Garux gently pushed at the unbarred gate and slipped out. As he rushed down the path, he wondered what would happen. He had heard that when she was younger, Agira had slept on a barrow to achieve clairvoyance. Sleeping at such a place was also said to cause madness . . . and Garux believed Agira had incurred a bit of both. While she had always seemed to dislike her grandson, she was so erratic nobody could ever predict her reactions.

The blood moon dimmed, and Garux stumbled in darkness. Then the Earth’s shadow began to recede, revealing a small crescent on the moon’s left side: the eclipse had entered its final phase.

Garux took the deer trail toward the basin, where he found fresh footprints. He tried to follow them but lost them in the shadows of the woods. He called Arvasia’s name, but she didn’t answer. His voice grew hoarse, his heart heavy.

The umbral shadow receded, and the crescent grew. He reached the spot where the creek crossed the merchant road under a wooden bridge. Hundreds of fresh footprints marked the road in the moonlight, just as the hunters had reported. The grass along the road was trampled and dotted with horse and cattle dung.

Garux feared the Marcomanni had dragged Arvasia away, and he felt sick when he imagined what they were doing with her. He wanted to follow them and track them down, but what could he do without the support of his tribe? Rage, courage, two hands, and a dagger were nothing against an army.

He looked around, wondering what to do, when something caught his eye. Three lights twinkled among treetops. He thought they were stars, but then they moved, and he realized they were the flames of three torches. Somebody was walking on a distant hill. Were they enemy scouts? Had they captured the girls? Garux’s heart punched his ribcage as he turned toward them.

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