In her panic, Arvasia had gotten lost in the woods while running from Rawena. When she heard the bell, she dashed toward the sound for help.
Rawena had also heard it, though, and she must have guessed Arvasia’s intentions. She had caught and overcome Arvasia near the gate shortly before Garux sneaked out to look for them.
Rawena made her walk back to the creek, grasping her hair and pressing the point of the dagger against her back. Arvasia wondered whether it was the eclipse that made her sister so mad yet so cold-blooded.
Rawena often threw tantrums, but they never lasted long. She would screech, break things, pull her hair, and scratch her forearm, and then she would grow remorseful and apathetic, as if her fury flowed away along with the blood from her broken scabs. Arvasia would expect her to lash out and threaten her, and calm down and apologize the next moment rather than leading her around the woods at knifepoint.
Arvasia hoped Rawena would come back to her senses when the eclipse passed. She didn’t think Rawena would hurt her, despite her bizarre behavior, as she had never been cruel to her, not even when they were little. Rawena had taught her how to clean mushrooms, scrape fire from a flint, and use a fishing rod, and she had always turned the lessons into games to make them more fun. When Arvasia had found nothing during her first mining expedition, Rawena had dropped a large opal into her bag and told her to tell everyone she had found it.
“Oh, Rawena, why are you doing such things?” Arvasia asked. “Scaring your sister like this . . . Don’t you love me anymore?”
To her surprise, Rawena sobbed.
Encouraged, Arvasia turned her head to her to plead with her, but Rawena yanked on her hair. When she titled her head back to ease the pressure, Arvasia noticed three little torchlights twinkling against the low sky.
She took a breath to call for help, thinking it was Garux and Mother, with perhaps Vitis walking over a hill and looking for them. Then she realized it could be the Marcomanni, and she swallowed the scream that was forming in her throat.
* * *
Seneusia was still by the gate, pleading with Druidess Agira to organize a search mission, and arguing with Ateran, who refused to let anyone out. Agira listened in silence, her tiny but alert pupils darting from Seneusia to her grandson. Suddenly, she swayed and rolled her eyes upwards, and everyone fell silent. They had seen her like this before: Agira was lost in a vision.
“I see three black figures . . . and another three!” she said. She spoke so softly that only those standing around her could hear her, and it seemed she was talking to herself. She kept moving her lips, but her voice faded below a whisper.
Seneusia watched her with a held breath. Druids could communicate with the entities of the Otherworld and peek into the past and future, and Seneusia wished she could see through Agira’s mind’s eye.
Agira shook her head and rolled her eyes back down. “One girl can be saved,” she said. “The other is enveloped in a strange, dark fog that my mind cannot penetrate.”
Seneusia gasped, wondering what it meant. She hoped the druidess would tell her where to search.
Agira turned to Ateran with a glare. He cringed and stepped back as she shuffled closer to him.
“Step forward, worm!” she screeched. “Don’t you dare run away from your grandmother!”
Ateran froze and hunched his back. His porcine face paled with fear. Agira took another step, grabbed his ear, and twisted it. Seneusia’s hopes soared.
Ateran screamed. “Nanny! My ear!”
“I crap on your ear, worm!” Agira screeched, twisting his earlobe harder. “Why do you have to be such a chicken? Huh? Now listen, listen carefully. You’ll take the soldiers and volunteers and start looking for the girls. You must lead them downstream along the creek, beyond our hunting territory. I’ll be watching you from my shrine, understood? Cowardly you act, and I’ll turn you into a hog!”
“Yes, Nanny,” Ateran ground through his teeth.
Vitis and the soldiers erupted in cheers. Most of the commoners grinned and volunteered to come along.
Agira turned and winked at Seneusia, who realized Agira had been bluffing . . . although she guessed the druidess could really watch people through ritual or meditation, and turning Ateran into a hog wouldn’t take that many magic skills.
Agira turned to the crowd and called, “Everyone who wants to go, make sure you are well armed!”
“Thank you for everything, revered woman!” Seneusia called as she rushed to her house for her late father’s battleax.
* * *
A dim shadow still obscured the right side of the moon, but the moon had recovered all its silvery splendor. The lights of the three torches got a little closer, then they receded, and Arvasia wasn’t sure whether to despair or rejoice. Rawena didn’t seem to notice them. She kept leading Arvasia along the creek, pulling at her hair and pressing the point of the dagger between her shoulder blades.
Something scurried in the bushes. Arvasia felt a pair of eyes following their every step.
Rawena murmured under her breath, but Arvasia couldn’t make out the words over the bubbling water. Then Rawena led her away from the creek to circumvent a sprawling thicket, and Arvasia understood: “She might not kill her, oh, I pray she won’t. She’s just mad and lonely, and curious about humans. Perhaps she won’t let the evil disease of her swamp murder her.”
Terror clenched Arvasia’s soul. Had the dark powers of the Otherworld possessed Rawena’s mind? Was she taking Arvasia as an offering to a female ghoul or malevolent goddess? That thought made her scream.
Rawena jabbed her spine with the dagger, and Arvasia’s scream ended in a groan of pain.
A man called in the distance. “Arvasia?”
Arvasia’s heart leaped with hope: it was the voice she had longed to hear.
Rawena gasped and let go of Arvasia’s hair. When Arvasia felt that the dagger’s point no longer pressed against her back, she skipped forward and ran toward Garux’s voice. She only took a few steps when Garux rushed into the moonlight from behind a row of trees.
“Please help me, my love,” Arvasia exclaimed, clasping his forearm with both hands. “She kidnapped me!”
Garux winced at the blood on Arvasia’s throat. Then his eyes shifted to Rawena and the weapon in her hand.
“I could kill you for that, Rawena,” he said, drawing his dagger.
Rawena laughed. Brimming with despair and insanity, her laughter fitted that terrible night. She walked toward them, and Arvasia felt Garux’s body tensing. Thinking that Rawena would attack him, Arvasia let go of his forearm and spread her fingers like claws, ready to scratch her eyes.
Rawena halted a step away from them. She raised her dagger and—dropped it to the ground.
“So you want to kill me for kidnapping my sister, Garux?” she asked, sorrow straining her voice. “That’s what you want to do? Then do it!”
Garux stood still.
Rawena spread her hands. “Do it! Do it!”
“Sister, please,” Arvasia muttered, tears stinging her eyes.
Rawena grabbed Garux’s dagger wrist, lifted his hand, and pressed the point of the blade against her heart. “Do it, my love,” she said with an eerie smile on her moonlit face. “I love you enough to die for you. And such horrors I have seen that I no longer want to live.”
Garux swallowed and shook his head. He twitched when Rawena uttered a shrieking laugh. Arvasia pressed her hands against her ears to block the dreadful sound. Rawena laughed again. Then she thrust the dagger into her heart with all her force.
Her eyes bulged, and she coughed up blood. She staggered backward, blinked, and looked down at the hilt, as though she couldn’t believe what she had done.
When Rawena collapsed, Arvasia shrieked and dropped to her knees. She stared first into her sister’s staring eyes and then up to Garux, as if to beg him to revive her.
Garux also kneeled. The horror and the moon turned his face deathly white.
Arvasia pressed her ear against Rawena’s chest. The silence told her Rawena’s heart had stopped beating.
* * *
A Celtic woman wasn’t supposed to wail, except during a funeral rite, but Arvasia couldn’t help it. She cradled Rawena’s corpse and drenched the staring eyes and paling face with her tears.
“I forgive you, my dear sister,” she sobbed. “I forgive you. Please come back.”
Garux hugged Arvasia to stop her shaking. “I didn’t mean to do this,” he murmured, his voice trembling. “It was she who thrust the dagger into her heart. I didn’t think she would really . . . Oh, poor Rawena. She didn’t deserve this, despite what she did to you.”
They froze when they heard a rustle. Arvasia wiped her tears and saw a pair of yellow eyes staring at them from behind the bushes. The eyes shone unnaturally in the darkness, like two embers of an Otherworld fire.
“What’s that?” Garux asked.
“It might be an evil spirit,” Arvasia whispered, remembering what Rawena had muttered about swamps and evil diseases. “Creeping around to capture our souls!”
She gasped when Garux pulled his dagger out of Rawena’s chest, making the corpse move as if she hiccupped. Arvasia sprang to her feet and leaped for the dagger Rawena had dropped. Garux got up, and they faced the bushes. Then the eyes disappeared.
A moment later, crashing sounds came from behind their backs. Three figures rushed at them with a bloodcurdling war cry. Arvasia realized it was the Marcomanni, likely the same men whose torches she had seen. But instead of torches, they grasped swords.
Garux arched his back and raised his dagger, ready for a fight, but Arvasia knew he stood no chance.
“Run, you fool!” she screamed, tugging at his forearm.
They dashed into the woods, with the Marcomanni at their heels. Arvasia’s thighs and calves screamed in protest against the renewed exertion. Her terror was much greater than when Rawena had ambushed her—but she had much less strength after a night of running and marching through the woods.
They reached a moonlit meadow full of fallen trees. As they crossed the meadow, Arvasia tripped over a log hidden in high grass and fell. Garux stopped and outstretched his hand to help her up—and the Marcomanni pounced on them like wolves. Two of them rushed at Garux. The third one turned on her.
Arvasia swung Rawena’s dagger at his face, but he dodged the blade and kicked her feet from underneath her. As she fell, he dropped to his knees, grabbed her by the hair, and pressed his sword against her throat. He shouted something to the men, who were pointing their swords at Garux.
Garux still grasped his dagger, unwilling to give up, but when he glanced at Arvasia and saw the enemy blade pressing against her throat, he dropped the dagger and let the men pin him against a tree trunk.
The third man lay on top of Arvasia. She turned her head away from him, and he bit her cheek. He breathed hard with excitement, filling her nostrils with the smell of raw onions. His free hand ground her breast. His erection pressed against her stomach.
As she took a breath to scream for help, vomit surged into her mouth. She coughed it out, but that didn’t repulse the man. He pulled up her skirt and wheezed in her ear. The blade of his sword still pressed against the skin on her throat.
Arvasia heard Garux pleading, threatening, and then pleading again in a voice that brimmed with fury and anguish. From the corner of her eye, she saw one of the men punch him in the stomach to shut him up.
Then someone called her name from the woods. Arvasia’s heart tolled with hope when she recognized her mother.
Arvasia parted her lips to scream for help, but the man clasped his hand over her mouth. She bit him, and he groaned in pain and pulled himself to all fours. She rammed her knee into his testicles. The man gasped, and his eyes bulged so much she thought they would pop out of their sockets and fall on her face.
She saw Garux punch one of the distracted Marcomanni, making him stagger back. The other man raised his sword at Garux. Then the thud, thud, thud, thud of fast footsteps made him turn his head.
Seneusia crashed through the undergrowth and ran toward them. She swung her battleax at Arvasia’s assailant. The blade sank into his neck, and he slumped on top of Arvasia, peppering her face with his blood. As she shoved him off her, Arvasia saw one of the two remaining Marcomanni turn from Garux to Seneusia.
“Mam, behind you,” Arvasia screeched, scrambling to her feet.
Seneusia turned around and raised the gory battleax. The man raised his sword, but then someone else dashed into the meadow. Arvasia couldn’t believe her eyes when she recognized Chieftain Ateran.
“Watch me, Nanny, watch me!” Ateran screamed in a hysterical voice, making Arvasia think he’d lost his mind. “Watch me!” he screeched again, brandishing a sword.
Then the man turned toward him, and Ateran squealed with fear. The air filled with the stench of feces: in his fright, Ateran had got mud on his backyard. He threw his sword on the ground and ran away.
The man wrinkled his nose and gaped in disbelief as Ateran disappeared into the shadowed woods. Something swished through the night, and the man screamed in shock and agony when a spear bore into his chest and came out through his back. As he groaned, stumbled, and fell to the ground, Vitis rushed out of the dark.
The last Marcomannic soldier turned around as if to find a way to escape, and Garux grabbed his sword wrist and punched him. Blood gushed out of the man’s mouth and nose. As he tried to raise his sword, Garux kicked him in the stomach, grabbed his head, and slammed it against the tree trunk. The man staggered and fell, dropping the sword.
The meadow filled with other tribespeople. They encircled the man, who lay on his back with his hands raised, like a dog facing a wolf pack. Vitis pulled his spear out of the other man’s chest and handed it to Garux.
Arvasia knew the man was about to die, and she couldn’t help feeling sorry for him. Celts rarely took prisoners, though, and the man would have surely raped and murdered her if he’d had the chance. Besides, he was lucky: If the druidess had been there, she would have ordered he was taken back to town, smeared with tar, and burned alive in a wicker cage as an offering to the gods.
The tribespeople cheered when Garux raised the spear and ran it through the man’s throat. The man groaned and fell silent.
Garux pulled the spear out, handed it back to Vitis, and walked to Arvasia. As she hugged him, she felt that the horrors of the night were finally over. Then Seneusia placed her hand on Arvasia’s shoulder and asked, “Where is Rawena?”