Rawena had felt Arvasia’s tears fall on her face. She had seen her and Garux twitch at the sound coming from the bushes and run from the attackers. She had heard the faint sounds of the skirmish. Then a long silence came, and she stared at the full moon, trying to understand. The moon stared back at her through the branches of an oak tree, offering no answers.
Something rustled by the creek, and Rawena feared that Pandemia would come and snatch her. The rustle ended, and a moment later, numerous footsteps came from the other side of the woods. Her mother rushed into Rawena’s field of view and dropped to her knees, wailing.
Rawena felt her mother’s warm, trembling hands against her cheeks. Arvasia kneeled beside Seneusia, and Garux followed suit. Many tribesmen gathered around them, and Rawena saw, heard, and even smelled them all.
But she was dead. Wasn’t she?
She had to be, as she had thrust Garux’s dagger into her heart. So why did her soul still linger inside her body?
Fear crept through her mind when she guessed the truth: Pandemia had brought her back to life. But why? As punishment for the broken promise?
But it wasn’t my fault! Rawena wanted to scream, but she had lost control over the muscles in her mouth and throat. She wanted to look toward the creek to make sure Pandemia wasn’t coming, but she couldn’t move her eyes. Would her body return to life? Or would her soul spend eternity inside a corpse?
Rawena noticed her sister was contemplating her with alarm.
“Look at her eyes,” Arvasia whispered. “Staring at us, almost as if she were alive!”
Seneusia kept sobbing, and Garux stroked Arvasia’s hair.
Resentment flushed through Rawena’s soul.
“I can’t stand it,” Arvasia said. She stretched her hand out toward Rawena’s eyes, but Seneusia slapped her wrist, and Arvasia put her hand back down.
“Don’t you know that only the druidess can close the eyes of the dead, innocent girl?” Seneusia told Arvasia, her voice drowning in tears. “It brings bad luck to the deceased’s spirit if anyone else does it. Let her be, Arvasia.”
“She does look alive,” Garux murmured, peering into Rawena’s eyes. “But there’s nothing we can do to bring her back.”
The sorrow in Garux’s voice filled Rawena with happiness. Her desperate act had made him realize how much she loved him, and he would return her feelings. They could become lovers yet!
Seneusia wiped her tears and asked, “Who did this to her?”
Rawena saw Arvasia and Garux exchange a nervous glance.
“It was those Marcomannic bastards, Mam,” Arvasia said. “We tried to help her, but they killed her and chased us into the woods.”
Liar! Rawena screamed in her head. Why don’t you tell Mother that you stole my future husband?
“So she died in a fight—the most honorable death,” Seneusia said. She sounded stronger, and her tears dried. “My poor girl has earned a commendable status in the Otherworld.”
The last word made Rawena’s mind squirm with fear. The Otherworld was the home of unearthly monsters. Did they torture those who ended their own lives? And, when they were done with her, would Pandemia come for her and drag her back into the swamp?
Seneusia sniffled and sighed. “We must rejoice that her attacker is dead.”
“That’s true, Seneusia,” Garux replied. “What’s more, I’m sure it was the one you killed.”
That clever lie surprised Rawena. She hoped the other two Marcomanni had also died. Apart from being invaders, they had probably led Garux here while stalking her and Arvasia. If it wasn’t for the Marcomanni, Arvasia would have been in the swamp, and Rawena would be free to seduce Garux. Besides, it was the Marcomanni who had chased Rawena into the claws of that horrid Pandemia.
Seneusia stood up and glanced around. “Let’s take my girl out of here. Let us go back to town before more Marcomanni come.”
Vitis and two other men stepped forward and helped Garux lift Rawena. She wanted to blink or twitch her fingers to show them she was alive, for she feared they would bury her alive in a black, dank grave. Her every muscle was paralyzed, though, as if death had claimed everything but her mind.
* * *
Funerals were a grand occasion in the tribe. In the winter, the dead were displayed in their houses for seven days, surrounded by burning candles, mourning relatives, and commiserating visitors. Although they had buried Rawena on the morning following her death so she wouldn’t rot in the summer heat, they sent her to the Otherworld with all the usual fanfares and ceremonies. Rawena was laid to her grave in her finest clothes and jewelry, with candles and bowls of food and drink to make her journey more pleasant.
But Pandemia wouldn’t let her leave.
As night fell, the rat-goddess swam across the swamp and stopped by the putrid waterfall. She scratched her golden hair with her long fingernails and sniffed. Shutting her eyes, she concentrated on the location of the town’s burial ground until a tunnel cracked open in front of her. She dashed into the tunnel and ran on all fours underneath the forest.
When she arrived in Rawena’s grave, Pandemia sniffed Rawena’s body and the food she’d been buried with. She lifted her hands, and a shaft opened to the surface, sideways to avoid three large granite slabs and a mound of white stones that covered the grave.
She stuck her head out of the shaft. The night air smelled of dogs and freshly dug earth. The burial ground resembled a vast, walled pasture, with barrows of white stones standing around like desolate sheep to mark the resting places of the dead. Some stones had grayed with age, but Rawena’s barrow glistened like a pile of pearls in the sickly moonlight.
Pandemia returned into the grave, grabbed Rawena, and dragged her through the shaft. As they emerged, crickets stopped singing, and plants withered. A dog skulked toward them. Pandemia hissed, and the dog yelped, turned around, and ran. She giggled as it leaped over the creek that separated the town from the burial ground and disappeared in the shadows of the first houses.
She turned to Rawena and removed her funeral shroud. Rawena looked just as she had when Pandemia had met her, only with less color on her face and more jewelry around her neck and wrists.
Pandemia rubbed the hem of Rawena’s underdress, admiring its softness. Then she pulled up Rawena’s eyelids.
The moonlight fell on Rawena’s pupils, and they contracted. Her chest heaved. She opened her mouth and gasped for air as if she’d just emerged from underwater. As Pandemia balled the shroud and threw it into the grave, Rawena moaned and lifted her head.
* * *
The memories of her funeral slithered into Rawena’s mind and made her fight for air. She remembered Garux and his friends carrying her to an open shrine on a wooden platform by the creek, to the shrill keening of the tribe’s women. They still hadn’t closed her eyes at that point, and she had seen Mother and Arvasia toss their jewelry into the creek as an offering for Rawena’s safe passage from the world of the living.
Druidess Agira had slain a goose while beseeching the horse-goddess Epona to lead Rawena’s spirit to the Otherworld. Then the druidess had bent over her, put her toothless mouth near Rawena’s ear, and whispered.
For a moment, Rawena had thought Agira knew she was alive. Then she recalled that the druids always whispered to the dead to guide them toward the goddess Epona. As she didn’t understand a word, Rawena suspected the whispering was just an empty rite. When Agira closed Rawena’s eyes, though, Rawena lost consciousness as if her spirit had truly departed.
As she now sat up and squinted at the burial ground and the moonlit houses squatting behind the creek, she wondered what she was still doing in this world. A scream escaped her lips when she noticed Pandemia crouching beside her.
Pandemia chirped and squeaked. “Welcome back, darling. You and I need to have a chat.”
Rawena shuddered and asked, “What happened?”
Pandemia giggled. “I dug you up and brought you back to life.”
“W-why? What do you want from me?”
Pandemia scratched her ear and licked her split lip. “You didn’t think I would let you die of a stab wound, did you, darling?” She peered deep into Rawena’s eyes and hissed. “You broke your promise and marred my plans!”
Pandemia reached for her neck. Rawena gasped, thinking that Pandemia wanted to strangle her, but the rat-goddess was only interested in Rawena’s opal necklace. She tilted the opal so it shone in the moonlight, and then she lowered her head and sniffed around it. The stench coming from her golden hair brought back memories of the swamp and made Rawena’s stomach turn.
Pandemia let go of the necklace and lifted her head. “Have I told you I made you immortal?”
Rawena felt fever creep into her brain to boil it. Since she was little, she had dreaded the day when she would wither and die, and she had often dreamed of eternal life. However, immortality bestowed by a rat-goddess could only mean endless misery.
Pandemia rubbed her hands. “Oh, yes! You can only die when someone cuts off your head or burns you to ashes. What do you think of that?”
“Why did you do that? What do you want?”
“You convinced me to spare you, darling, and you promised to bring me another human. I agreed, but you failed—so you have to take that human’s place.”
Rawena gasped. “What are you talking about?”
Pandemia giggled and scratched her ear. “You’ll soon find out. Everyone will!”
Rawena winced at the triumphant tone in Pandemia’s voice. “What are you going to do to me?” she demanded, her soul twisting with fear. “What? What?”
Pandemia leaned forward so her nose nearly touched Rawena’s. Rawena noticed for the first time that fine white hair covered her face.
“You remember what happened to you in the swamp, don’t you?” Pandemia asked. “You remember the poison that made your legs swell and erupt in blisters? I let you survive and heal, but the poison still cruises your blood, dormant yet ready to strike.” Pandemia squealed with laughter. “It’s called the plague, darling, plague or pestilence. When unleashed, it floats through the air and kills everyone who swallows it.”
A cloud passed over the moon, and Pandemia’s face became a gray smudge in the sudden blackness. When the moon floated away, and Pandemia came back into focus, Rawena noticed that her eyes had grown hard and cold.
“Now listen!” Pandemia said, leaning even closer and making Rawena recoil. “You’ll cross the creek, return to your town, and spread the plague among your tribe. Then you’ll take a long journey and infect every person, town, and nation you see along the way.”
“No!” Rawena screeched. “Never!”
Pandemia scoffed. “But you must, darling. If you don’t, I’ll turn you into an eternal rat and trap you forever in my swamp.”
That notion brought bile into Rawena’s throat. “Please, no,” she begged, digging her nails into the scabs on her forearm. “Not that!”
“Then do as I told you.”
“Please don’t make me do this,” Rawena pleaded. Blood trickled from her forearm and dribbled onto the skirt of her underdress.
“There’s no other way, darling,” Pandemia said patiently. “You see, shortly before you died, I visited the future and saw what humans did to my subjects. And I still shudder whenever I recall all the atrocities. Yours is a horrid species—and it must disappear.
“It will be more merciful to get rid of you humans now while you are still scarce, and believe me, nobody will miss you. If I don’t stop you, you will breed and breed, and invent ways to make your life easier . . . while killing all my subjects and perhaps all other animals.”
Rawena burst into tears. She grasped her hair, pulled at it, and wailed in despair. Although she heard herself plead with Pandemia, she hardly understood her own words.
In the back of her mind, she understood Pandemia’s resentment. Rawena detested seeing cut trees, animals dying in traps, and furs adorning people’s bodies. She guessed that animals would hate mankind for murdering them and destroying their habitat—if they were vicious like humans and could feel hatred.
One day, people might really kill all that was alive with their cruelty and laziness. And yet, she couldn’t stand the thought that she had been chosen to wipe them out.
Rawena stopped wailing and gibbering when Pandemia’s hand touched her head. She blinked away her tears and saw, to her surprise, that Pandemia’s eyes brimmed with compassion.
“I like you, Rawena,” Pandemia said. “And I can’t see you like this. Calm down, darling, and we will think of something.”
Pandemia waited for Rawena to stop sobbing. Then she said, “We can become best friends now that you are also deathless and pestilential. And since best friends deserve a chance, I’m willing to make a compromise.”
She fell silent and stared.
Rawena sniveled, and asked, “A compromise?”
Pandemia giggled and said, “Let’s play a little game: You will be harmless and deathless, but the pestilence will lay dormant in your blood. And since you died of a stab through your heart, the pestilence will awake whenever your heart is wounded.”
Pandemia’s eyes glistened with excitement. “Yes, yes, I like this! If your heart is pierced again, you will become deadlier than a poisoned arrow. And you will have to infect someone’s food or drink with your pestilential blood to unleash an outbreak of the plague.”
As she listened, Rawena chewed her tongue until it bled. Her head roared with a tempest of thoughts. So she was to become an immortal monster, a bearer of a deadly plague? Although she wanted to refuse, she feared the gruesome “game” was the best compromise the rat-goddess would offer. If she were careful, the pestilence might never be awakened.
Pandemia frowned and scratched her ear. “Of course, the injury will paralyze you, and you will need time to get strong enough to infect someone.” She thought for a while, then she giggled and exclaimed, “I’ve got it! You died on a night of a lunar eclipse, so when your heart is pierced, you will have until the following lunar eclipse to get better and find your victim.”
Rawena stared and said nothing.
“It will be such an exciting game, darling.” Pandemia clapped her hands. “When someone pierces your heart, you must observe the moon, for the pestilence will only awaken on the following eclipse night. And on that very night, you must poison someone with your blood. Your victim will come down with the plague and die within days. But before that, he or she will infect everyone around.”
Rawena prayed it would never happen. It was her own hand that had pierced her heart, so what were the chances that someone else would do it? If she lay low, nobody would attack her.
Where on earth could she find safety, though? The woods brimmed with the Marcomanni, and she couldn’t go home now that they had buried her. The Celts dreaded spirits escaping from the Otherworld to cause evil in the world of the living. If Rawena returned, Druidess Agira might burn her as one of such spirits.
Pandemia must have read her thoughts, for she said, “The swamp will be safe for you now, darling.” She smiled and rubbed her hands. “I told you we will become best friends, even sisters. And to show you how much I care for you, I’ll share my nest with you.”
Rawena recoiled at the thought of returning to the swamp. She guessed that was why Pandemia hadn’t resurrected her before the funeral: she wanted the tribe to believe that Rawena was dead, so Rawena would have nowhere else to go.
But what if she did return to the town? Rawena had nothing to live for, as Garux was with Arvasia, and only misery and destruction lurked in the future. Couldn’t she simply let the druidess release her through ritual flames?
Pandemia frowned and hissed. “Don’t even think about it,” she snapped. “If you try to get yourself destroyed, the punishment will be the same as if your heart gets pierced and you fail to unleash the plague: I will turn you into a rat and trap you for eternity in the darkest corner of the swamp.”
Rawena hung her head, realizing she could never escape Pandemia and her mad game. New tears cruised down her cheeks.
Pandemia smiled and said in a gentle voice, “I know you are not the only one to blame, darling. I know that you couldn’t bring your sister to the swamp because Garux crossed your way. But don’t worry: he will get his punishment in due time!”
“No!” Rawena shrieked. “Please spare at least Garux. It was me who plunged the dagger into my—”
Pandemia raised her hand to silence her. “I’ve made my decision, darling.” She giggled and added, “Garux will make our game much more interesting. If you come with me to the swamp, though, at least for a few days, I might show him some mercy.”
Pandemia sprang to her feet, grabbed Rawena under her arm, and pulled her up. “Come along, my immortal sister. I will take you to safety!” Rawena had no choice but to follow Pandemia back into the grave. As they entered the tunnel and headed for the swamp, the shaft closed like a healed wound, and the crickets sang anew.