Emyn’s screams sliced through the quiet of the night. Iomat calmed and shushed her as the rest of the household grumbled. A nightmare, they all agreed, and not the first.
She was sent outside the next morning as the headman listened and talked. It was a silly ruse; she heard the grownups clearly from outside. No one bothered to lower their voices.
“The girl talks half the night, Volio,” shouted one man.
“Or sings,” said another. “All hours!”
Emyn kicked at the dirt. She didn’t sing. She hummed, and it was as quiet as she could make it. The others would hum too if ghosts chattered at them night and day.
“She’s not the only person with nightmares,” Volio’s son said. “The dead creep in to all our dreams since she came to live here!”
“You can’t blame the child for your bad dreams!” Iomat snapped.
How far would Iomat go to defend her? Maybe Emyn would be sent back to A’er’s house. That wouldn’t be so bad; Iomat could come too.
Emyn did not hear Volio’s wife, even though she could shout as loudly as any of the men when provoked. Two days ago, Emyn had seen her grandmother standing by the woman as she cooked. “She likes the smell,” Emyn told her. “She’s always right there when you cook.”
Why didn’t Volio’s wife join Iomat in defending Emyn? Didn’t people want to hear from their grandparents?
“Men arrive,” the dead king interrupted her thoughts. “Men of importance.”
Emyn stepped away from the house so she could look down the path. The sky was a brighter blue than ever before. The trees were shorter, the grass disappeared, and a road made of stone stretched before her.
The overly bright sky reminded her of the nightmare. But she was not dreaming now, and roads were not made of stone. It could not be real. If Emyn was seeing things that weren’t real, the ghosts were to blame.
Her grandfather wouldn’t think much of a girl that cried over something that wasn’t even there. He had returned home months ago, but his lessons remained. Emyn was brave; she was half Nervian.
She stepped onto the stone road and took a few steps. The rocks felt smooth beneath her feet. The air was heavy with the scent of sweet and unfamiliar flowers but she caught a whiff of something unpleasant as well. She knew the smell.
Throughout the summer, a piglet and a pup from each litter born was tossed into a pit to rot until Samhain when they were brought up, mixed with other offerings, and fed to the fields. The children dared each other to look into the pit at the dead animals. On hot days the stench soaked into their skin and made Emyn sick. Decaying flesh; that was the smell that flowers couldn’t disguise.
The dirt on either side of the stone road was dry and covered with stubby bushes. A beam of wood sprouted from the ground as if it had been planted there.
“Look up,” ordered the dead king, and she did.
High above, another beam crossed the first, like two thick branches sticking out on either side of a trunk. Emyn used every bit of courage she owned to hold back a scream.
A dead man hung from the beam, held there by nails and ropes. His clothes, streaked with dried blood, were as ragged as his flesh. Blonde hair sparkled in the sun the way Nonicos’ hair did. The man’s arms stretched over the crossbeam and were tied so that his wrists hid behind the wood. His shoulders and head leaned out, right over her.
Emyn didn’t scream but she couldn’t stop herself from vomiting. She turned and ran. Another post rose before her but she stared straight ahead, refusing to look up. That didn’t help; right in front of her eyes, iron spikes drove through a dead man’s ankles, one on each side of the trunk, nailing them to the wood.
“Crassus did this,” the dead king said. “Pray he never comes here.”
Emyn threw her arms over her eyes and ears and ran until she hit something hard. Her mouth exploded; she wondered if the ghosts could throw rocks. Arms held her up. A’er spoke and Iomat pressed a cool, wet cloth against her mouth.
“Open your eyes.”
She wouldn’t. She mumbled into the cloth, trying to tell them that dead men hung from trees.
“That was a dream, child.” Iomat reminded her.
“No,” Emyn shrieked. “They’re here!”
They promised there were no dead men but Emyn couldn’t trust their words. They didn’t know. Finally, she squinted at the ground with one eye, saw dirt instead of stone, and looked at her father. The sky above him was white, not blue.
“You’re going to have quite a bruise.”
Emyn realized that the cloth was full of blood, and then she cried. Only a little, only until her A’er held her.
“Are they still mad at me?” she asked Iomat.
“Who? Oh, them.” Iomat waved her hand towards the headman’s house. “Nothing is decided. Volio has visitors.”
Men of importance, the ghost had said. Emyn knew without being told that she had to talk to them. If the visitors had come yesterday, the vision would have happened yesterday.
She wiped her face clean with the cloth then stood with her father until the headman’s door opened. The visitors emerged: two men wearing fine, striped cloaks.
Every family in Samarnum owned sheep and spun wool. Emyn knew these cloaks were costly. The thread was tightly woven and dyed in bright colors. She liked the way the stripes rippled as they draped and fell.
“Speak!” the dead king roared.
She ran forward and bowed. Before anyone could stop her, she described the rock road with wooden trees and the corpses hanging from them.
No one interrupted. The dead king whispered more words and Emyn repeated them: a Roman named Crassus had tortured thousands of men this way.
“Thousands?” One man turned to the other, as if he might make sense of this. He did not sound angry but hurt—as if her news were painful. “Thousands?”
“Tell us the name again,” said the other visitor. “The name of the leader.”
“Little girl,” said the second man sternly, “who told you these tales?”
“The dead king.”
“She hears voices . . . ,” the headman began as Emyn’s father pulled her away. The dead king whipped up a flurry of pale, tiny petals from the ground.
“Isminos!” Volio called to her father.
A’er pushed her toward Iomat and walked back to the men.
“If you want to keep what you have, keep it to yourself,” Iomat muttered as Emyn woke.
The headman snorted at her. “Women’s fears . . . .”
“Never mind,” Iomat said when Emyn asked about her words. “Too late for that, anyway.”
For once, most whispers around Emyn came from real people, not ghosts, but they were no easier to understand. She spent her time outside in the sun as A’er and Nonicos worked behind the headman’s house for three days.
“Do not fret,” cooed the white ladies but Emyn had learned over the past year how silly their advice was. One by one they began to chant. “Men will come.”
“They’ll bring you pretty gifts.”
“They’ll sing songs.”
Emyn waved at them the same way she waved at buzzing insects.
“It’s settled. We’ll have our own hearth,” Iomat announced at the end of the third day. “You and I. Your father built real walls around the shelter in back of Volio’s house and we’ve swept out the geese and their smell. The roof is new; it’ll be a fine place.”
“I’m sorry,” Emyn mumbled
Emyn looked at her small pile of clothes next to Iomat’s pots and baskets,. “It’s my fault. They don’t want me here, so you have to leave too.”
“Leave? We’ll be behind his house. He even thinks it was his idea.” Iomat’s voice was low but cheerful; she kept her eyes on the thread she spun. “We’ll still be eating from his pot, if you want to know. And we won’t have to listen to his snoring. This is a gift.”
“A’er has room for us—“
“Your A’er isn’t the headman. Volio wants you under his protection, just as he does me. Even if you do scare his sons. . . . I’ve scared his sons, too, you know.”
Emyn watched the spindle twirl as it hovered over the ground. Did Iomat mean last winter when everyone whispered about her prediction? Emyn knew the words so well they sat like a memory in her head.
“None of you here assembled will die in your homes. Samarnum will perish before any one of you.”
Emyn hadn’t really heard the words; she’d fallen asleep after the story of her great grandmother. Nonicos had carried her home as the sun rose, home to A’er who was sick and could not leave his own hearth, not even for the solstice feast.
Iomat set down her spinning and made Emyn look at her. She was more than a healer and midwife. She saw the future in quick peeks and could read the signs left by magical beings.
Her face was stern. “We have a quiet little home to ourselves. This is a gift but there’s a warning too. Listen to me: men hate what scares them.”
Emyn was confused. “Should I be afraid of the ghosts?”
“When you see them every day? Of course not. Neither should anyone else. A life lived afraid is no life.”
By the time she turned ten, Emyn sat quietly at the headman’s hearth whenever he had visitors. She listened to arguments over debts and boundaries, insults, feuds, and gossip, and knew better than to fidget or interrupt. On occasion, the dead king offered news, or other ghosts put forward a word to visitors. Emyn the child had nothing to say at such gatherings; Emyn the Gutumaros could speak at will.
Today, a druid and two companions sat before the hearth. They came from the Viromanduan king in the east and had spent four days traveling along the river on horseback. Their journey, from the sound of it, had been full of fine weather, races, songs, and generous meetings.
Visitors often gave the headman or even A’er a gift, but these men brought something for Emyn: a linen dress with a bit of fringe on the sleeves. She had never worn anything but wool before; she was used to the way it clung and warmed her body. This fabric slid all over her arms and trunk and chilled her skin as if she were naked. The guests were pleased that she wore it though, and told her she looked pretty.
The headman served choice mutton and wine from the south to his visitors. If the Viromanduan king ever decided that it would be easier to house Emyn himself rather than send men to hear her words, Volio would lose his oracle and the prestige and trade she brought. Worse for Emyn, she might never see her A’er or Iomat again.
Everyone made sure that visitors enjoyed their stay. Samarnum was a small place; any aggressive tribe could seize it. Generous hospitality and secrets from the dead were Volio’s defenses.
Even the dead king cooperated, divulging his best news after the visitors had eaten their full.
“Alliances are made,” he hissed, and Emyn repeated his words. “Kings promise land to warriors from across the Rhenus River. Land—green fields and pastures. Thus they entice foreigners to fight with them against their ancient enemy, the Aedui.”
“Who? Who hires these mercenaries?” the druid asked. They all leaned forward to hear more.
The visitors hung on every syllable. Emyn supposed that being the first to announce news—especially news of war—gave them stature before their king.
“The Sequani promise much, but hope to give little.” the ghost answered. “The foreigners bring their wives and their children across the great river. They come to stay.”
“Are the foreigners German or Celt? What tribe?”
“They come to stay, to own the land promised by the Sequani.”
Emyn repeated the words, and then waited for the ghost to say more. The Aedui and Sequani were large, important tribes, but they lived far away. Why did it matter what they did?
After a few long seconds, she sighed. “That is all the spirits say.”
The druid watched her without speaking.
“Do not move. He is clever, that one.” Emyn recognized the bard ghost, though he rarely appeared as more than a light and a clear voice. “He creates silence. Men will say anything to fill such a void. He learns much this way.”
Emyn stared into the fire. Could the druid tell she heard more than silence? Volio coughed and clapped his hands. “The cup is empty. More wine!”
Emyn knew—as all children did—that the fate of each individual was controlled by the stars. Even the patterns in the sky at one’s birth were important. The stars gave strength, virtues and weaknesses, and also determined which deities would watch over a person.
Iomat taught her to calculate the predictable movements of large stars, and what was meant when paths crossed. Stars told of meetings, health, marriages, and partings, but their routes were complicated to figure. They frustrated Emyn.
“You’ll learn.” Iomat, who carped and yelled when Emyn burned the morning cereal, showed unusual patience as the girl counted up months, got lost, and had to start over again. “Stars don’t change, and they don’t lie. They’ll be there every night for you to watch.”
The stars could be a refuge against nightmares, Emyn found. On clear nights, seeing them sparkle over the quiet houses comforted her, whether she could understand their meaning or not.
Seasons passed and Emyn’s dreams grew worse. She saw the Sequani and their fur-clad allies tear through homes, their swords drawn and bloody.
At farms and villages, Emyn saw the strangers take what they wanted and burn the rest. How much of it was real? Once they barred the doors and left a family trapped within to die in flames; the screams were horrible.
“You are weak,” the dead king mocked, as she stood outside, shivering beneath a blanket and staring up at the stars. “Warriors fight.”
“Those were not warriors,” she whispered.
Nothing Emyn saw in dreams was anything like the tales told of warriors during feasts. There were no chariots or armored heroes, only men swinging desperately with axes and sticks.
Nervian or not, if these were battles, Emyn hated them. “Why don’t the tribes choose a hero from each side to fight alone, the way stories tell?”
“Your head is full of women’s tales!” the dead king’s voice echoed in the still night, then softened a little. “That was once the way, long ago. But men are weak. There are no more heroes.”
Emyn entered the headman’s house to find a young man by the glowing hearth. His companions stood behind him. They were important enough to be granted privacy for their meeting with the oracle.
Cesua had said he was handsome and strong; she hadn’t exaggerated. Brown, glossy hair fell over his shoulders. A serpent’s egg as well as a heavy torque circled his neck, marking him as both druid and warrior. His loose tunic left his muscled arms bare; no doubt he swung a sword around frequently.
Dumnocos. He was a prince of the Aeduan tribe—the ones who fought the Sequani and the foreigners. Maybe meeting this prince would sort out the different tribes in her mind and make their fights and alliances less confusing.
Dumnocos barely glanced at Emyn when she entered, but when she planted her feet before him, his brows arched over gray eyes. “You cannot be the one I came to see.”
Laughter erupted behind him. The warriors sputtered like children. Dumnocos’ eyes flashed as he uncrossed his arms and turned.
“You find this amusing? Three days out of our way and three days’ ride back for a few moments of snickering?”
His glare settled on a bearded, blond man who stood as tall as the prince. “Yes,” the other managed between snorts. “Amusing it is.”
Dumnocos clenched his fists and set his mouth. The two men stared at each other for as long as it would take Emyn to walk out the door, go to the well, and come back. In the end, though, Dumnocos’ jaw and cheek started to quiver, and finally he burst into long hoots of laughter.
“Oh, Camulos, serves me right!”
“Sir, you did say a maiden—“
“I never doubted you, damn you! Oh, I’ll be revenged for this one. . . .”
Forgotten entirely, Emyn watched the men slap each other on the back and laugh till there were tears in their eyes.
“He will be consecrated king.” The soft voice—a man’s—emanated from the wall where a red shield sat propped up, a serpent embossed on it. “He is chosen for this time.”
There were rituals that went with kingship, Emyn knew: a man must couple with the goddess. She could be any age, but to consecrate a chosen prince such as this, the goddess would certainly be beautiful and young. Did Dumnocos expect to meet such a goddess here? Was that why he came?
Emyn smarted. If she had curves like Cesua’s and if she were a little taller, he might not laugh so hard.
The men finally calmed and wiped their eyes. Dumnocos bent to smile at Emyn, his hands on his thighs. “Well played, little one. I hope my friends gave you something pretty for your part.”
“I haven’t told you what the dead have to say.”
“Oh?” Dumnocos winked at the blond man. “Tell me, by all means.”
He thought his friends had given her words. The dead king’s message was not funny, and no one was here to defend her if Dumnocos got mad.
The shield with the serpent now leaned against her shoulder. No one had moved it.
“Speak,” said the soft voice. But Emyn knew the shield was a ghost image and could not protect her.
“Speak!” commanded the dead king in his scratchy tone.
Emyn began. “The ghosts name your brother Divi . . . Divico—“
The dead king screamed the name at her at the same time the prince pronounced it: “Diviciacos.”
“Diviciacos.” She took a deep breath. “Diviciacos envies your position. The desire for power burns in him though you have been chosen.”
The smile faded from his face. Emyn plunged on. The shield’s weight pressed on her; she touched the wood and the leather strap. It felt real. “Great battles lie before the Aedui. Your enemies are strong; many of your kings will fall. Your brother watches for his chance. He binds the Aedui to strange gods and death.”
Only Dumnocos had the sense to keep his mouth closed; the other men gaped and one touched his sword. Emyn’s voice wavered. “The dead tell me this.”
“Do they indeed?”
Dumnocos grabbed her wrist, yanked her arm up and pressed her hand against his serpent’s egg. The shield fell to the ground. “Who gave you these words, girl?”
Her small fingers poked through strands of wire to rest against the stone itself. No one could lie while touching a druid’s amulet.
“The ghosts.” Emyn watched him; if she was going to be hit, she’d just as soon see it coming.
Dumnocos released her arm and turned to his friend. “I see no humor in these words. Explain yourself.”
“I . . . I don’t know what to say, lord,” the blond man stammered.
“She is a Gutumaros, my prince,” said a man behind Dumnocos.
“Yes, sir, but we didn’t think she had anything to say. We just thought it would be funny—after what you said the other night—“
“This has gone too far.” The last man pulled a knife out of his belt. “She’ll tell us—“
“Put that down!” Dumnocos snapped. “Do you think a child threatens me?”
The man tried to apologize, but Dumnocos waved him away and turned back to Emyn. “Tell me again what this ghost says. And stop shaking; I’m not going to hurt you.”
Emyn felt empty like a hollow, burnt log, ready to collapse. “Great battles lie before the Aedui—“
“I don’t know.”
“Will my father fall?”
“I don’t . . .” The dead king hissed at her and Emyn listened. “Your father is brave and his chariot will be first in any fight. It is likely that he will fall in battle.”
“And then what?”
“Your brother envies your position,” she repeated the earlier words. “The dead king tells me Diviciacos seeks allies, but his judgment is flawed. He binds your people to death.”
Dumnocos knelt so that his eyes were level with hers. “Can I change this?”
There was no sound. Emyn waited and wished desperately for an answer; it was a wise question.
The ghosts gave her no more words; she could only describe what she saw. “A red shield with a serpent in the center is lifted onto your arm.”
“Your father’s shield?” The blond man stepped forward. “What kind of an answer is that?”
“It’s clear enough.” Dumnocos’ voice rang with authority, but his face was calm. “Go find the headman or her family and make decent payment, all of you.”
The prince sat on the bench as his companions left. For the first time he spoke gently. “Is there anything else you have to tell me, little Gutumaros?”
“Then I will tell you something. Before the Morrigu who watches us all, I am sorry we mocked you. I’ve seen many faces of that great goddess, but truly, she has surprised me here.”
Through many seasons, Iomat taught Emyn about the deities that aided healing, that touched certain plants with powerful magic, or that responded to the helpless. Emyn knew who to thank when she found a rare plant and who received the offerings that she and Iomat tossed into the Samar River.
Dirona and Ancamna were especially kind to the young. Briginda watched over women when they gave birth. Borvo, Dirona’s son, protected warriors, and even in quiet Samarnum he helped men who got cut in fights or accidents. There were many others.
When Iomat had done all she could though, and her patient lay on the crossroads between worlds, it was the Morrigu who brought death. She sent a raven or shrieked in the wind till the blood of mortals froze. The Morrigu was violence and pain, picking the flesh from the dead before it could rot.
Iomat scolded Emyn when the girl shied from praying to such a goddess. “The Morrigu guides us through change. Death is change. You can’t be afraid of her, not if you expect to do good for anyone.”
The changes the Morrigu brought were imbued with suffering; to avoid them seemed good common sense to Emyn—like ducking when someone threw a rock. Emyn prayed that the Morrigu would ignore her and her village.
The Morrigu was a beautiful girl with a nose just like Emyn’s, but her hair spread like dark wings in the wind.
The Morrigu was a loving mother and a leathery crone as well. Like all powerful deities, she changed appearance at will.
When Dumnocos chased his chosen goddess through a summer’s evening, which face would the Aeduan prince see?