A young man with dark, lank hair and a face almost too narrow for his mouth emerged from Cesua’s doorway to stand in the bright morning sun. Emyn stared. He shook his hair back from his eyes: a movement of unbearable grace. Emyn burned inside with something like embarrassment, as if he knew her secrets.
He turned; did he look at her directly? Emyn averted her eyes, nearly dropping her bucket as the door creaked open and banged shut again.
Her father had given her a new dress for her fifteenth birthday; she wished she had it on. Bright blue stripes would catch his eye—
Cesua nudged her. “Your turn.”
Emyn looked toward the man; his face was still and distant. Cesua pinched her arm. “Emyn, fill your bucket.”
Two pails sat at Cesua’s feet, already full of water. Emyn glanced back at the man; his back was turned. She dipped her own bucket into the well.
Cesua sighed audibly. “For once I know what you’re staring at and it’s no ghost.”
Emyn forced herself to watch the bucket as she pulled it toward her. Other figures approached. They must be real because the dead didn’t like water. Spirits were no more than mist around the well and disappeared altogether at the river’s edge.
She needed both hands to lift the bucket and set it on the ground. When she finally looked up, a second youth, taller, with golden hair that fell in curves and curls stood by the first.
A short man with a wild brown beard joined them, and the three walked towards the headman’s house. The blond sent a dazzling smile their way as he turned; Emyn heard Tulia, the headman’s niece, squeal.
Rustling branches and birdsong were the only other sounds as the trio skirted the old well and disappeared into shadows. The dark-haired man was last; Emyn studied the movement of the leather belt that rode on his hips and bit her lip. None of the local boys walked with such sure steps; they swaggered and strutted by comparison.
“Oh, my eyes have eaten well today,” Cesua moaned, and a collective giggle broke the tension.
“That hair,” Tulia breathed. “Did you ever see such hair?”
“On those shoulders. . . .”
“You were drooling, Ludula.”
“I was not!” Ludula, who had married during the spring, sounded properly indignant.
“You were! Very impressive.”
They were smitten with the blond man, Emyn realized. Smitten and as silly as the white ladies, all talking at once.
“Who are they?”
“Did they just stop for the night?”
“How long will they stay?”
The girls turned to Cesua; the men had come out of her house, after all. Cesua shrugged. “They arrived late. I didn’t hear what they told A’er.”
Tulia was bold. “I don’t believe you. Sinia?”
“I was asleep.”
“The old man’s a druid; I saw his serpent’s egg.” Ludula said.
“Why were you looking at him?” Cesua giggled. “I only saw one man.”
“There were two others,” her sister offered.
Emyn could not contain herself. “One had dark hair.”
Tulia jumped at Emyn’s voice; she was not used to including her in conversations.
“He looked mean,” said Ludula.
“For once I agree with Cesua. There was only one man worth looking at.” Tulia grinned. “But if there’s a druid, you won’t get a second night with them. You know they’ll stay in my uncle’s house tonight.”
“Does anyone know why they’re here?”
Eyes traveled around the small circle. Cesua voiced the most obvious possibility. “Maybe they’ve come to see the all-knowing oracle.”
“I’ll learn soon enough.” Tulia shifted her pitcher from her hip and took a few steps towards her uncle’s house, where she lived. “Emyn, if you want to be useful, get sick. That way they’ll have to stay here longer to see you.”
Why was Volio’s door shut on such a warm day? Emyn walked past it for the fourth time, or perhaps the fifth, circling the old well and spinning out thread. Surely the men wouldn’t stay inside for long, not with the heat and fumes of the cooking pots saturating the air. She hummed and watched her spindle dance to the ground like a drunk. They had to come out eventually.
Unless they’d never gone in. Emyn snatched up the spindle and wound the thread around it, then caught the thread in a notch and sent it twirling again. She hadn’t actually seen them enter the house. The three men could be anywhere . . . they could be back on the road, a league away.
Five times—or was it six? Suddenly Volio’s door opened.
Emyn turned her head so quickly that her braid whipped her in the face. The dark-haired young man emerged, and the sun sent red sparks off loose strands of his hair.
He raised an eyebrow when he saw her; she said nothing. His brow was heavy and his nose had suffered at least one break. Emyn was enchanted.
“Wrong one?” He swept by. “Sorry to disappoint you. He’ll be out later.”
Her face burned but her tongue wouldn’t move. The man vanished into Cesua’s house.
He assumed she waited for the golden man! Geese honked as Emyn backed into the yard that surrounded Iomat’s little shelter. In the dirt, a crooked line followed her spindle.
The other girls drooled over yellow curls. If he grouped Emyn with them, then he thought her as brainless as these honking geese. She had to do something. She flung the distaff and spindle onto Iomat’s stool and marched to Cesua’s house.
The dark-haired youth parted from the deep shadow of the doorway as she approached, cloaks draped over one arm and leather bags in his hands. He would bring these to the headman’s house, but he was no servant. Emyn was sure of that.
Her mouth went dry and stupid once more.
“Do you want to ask me something?”
His low voice thrilled her. But his tone was resigned, reminding her that she must speak.
“You do!” mocked the white ladies.
“He’ll give you pretty beads for your kisses.”
“He’ll give you this!” Shadows formed into a man, thrusting obscenely with his hips.
“Ask him,” the white ladies repeated together.
Emyn swung her arm at the ghosts. Too late, she saw Cesua standing beside the path, rolling her eyes at the wild gesture.
He must think her touched. Emyn had no dignity left to lose, so she forced herself to look up.
“I did not wait for the other man, that’s all.”
“Emyn!” Iomat’s call stopped any reply; grateful, the girl ran home.
Small mounds of dough waited to be punched down and carried to the oven. Emyn threw herself into the task.
Volio’s wife s squeezed her arm. “Who’re you mad at?”
Everyone, Emyn wanted to scream, but instead smiled through clenched teeth. She could’ve slapped any person in Samarnum and didn’t know why.
Iomat had been summoned to a house several leagues away to deliver a baby. That was her message when she called to Emyn earlier. The boy who fetched Iomat brought a horse. One horse; he would walk home.
Emyn tried to follow. The boy stopped and made a small speech as he rocked back and forth on his feet, not lifting his eyes from the ground. The family did not want ghosts in their home, not at a birth. He begged Iomat and Emyn not to be angry at his mother; she had lost two babies in three years. “Please. Please do not frighten her.”
Emyn stayed behind. What good were her skills if women didn’t want her near?
She should be glad. If she’d gone with Iomat she might never see the dark-haired man who so enthralled her. But he would know by now that she was the Gutumaros and was probably avoiding her.
She picked up the board with the unbaked loaves and walked outside to the oven. Just a few weeks ago, Nonicos, newly married and giddy, warned A’er that boys would soon be following Emyn everywhere she went.
That hadn’t happened.
As she rounded the corner of the house she nearly ran into Volio’s youngest son.
“Bitch!” He jumped back as if she carried fire, not bread, before her. “Watch where you’re going!”
Men hate what scares them, Iomat had said long ago. That’s what would follow Emyn wherever she went: hatred and fear.
Volio waited until everyone had eaten their fill before calling Emyn toward the hearth to bow to the wild-haired druid.
“This is our Gutumaros, Honored Master Bodocnos. May her spirits provide the wisdom you seek.”
The younger men sat behind the druid on mats. Emyn deliberately avoided the face of the dark-haired one, though she could see his hands resting on his legs, his fingers long and strong. They had small scars, the kind her brothers got when they were learning to whittle.
If she raised her eyes to his face, she might go limp and stupid like a rabbit before a weasel. She stared instead at the basket between the two younger men, half full of cold bread.
They were students, according to Cesua. She even knew the name of the blond one: Coath. He’d looked away as Emyn stepped forward, as most boys did.
The master, a short, middle-aged man with a bronze and leather band around his head, glanced at her, grabbed a rag, and wiped fat from his fingers. “If you are the oracle who foretold the slave rebellion in Rome, you must be older than you look.”
“No, Honored Master.”
Bodocnos lifted an eyebrow exactly as his student had done earlier. “No?”
“I only saw the punishments, not the rebellion” Emyn explained. “I saw the crucifixions along the Appian Way. And I did not foretell it. I saw it when it happened.”
“Ah.” Bodocnos accepted a cup from Volio, drank, and handed it to Emyn. Then he turned away and began talking of his travels. He seemed to forget she was there.
To Emyn, Bodocnos presented an incongruous sight. His hair thinned on top but his beard stuck out at all angles, coiled and thick. Except for the bronze band and his serpent’s egg, he looked a bit silly. He could be a beggar or a fool, or even tend sheep, just as Micco did—Hentios’ youngest, addled son.
Bodocnos looked like anything but a druid.
She recalled the druid who’d come to question her about the crucified men—an especially nice man with red hair and a beard: Nanto. He sat and talked with her, counting her fingers and toes. He’d even let Emyn sit on his lap and ask him questions.
Did all druids have two faces: one to intimidate, and one to amuse and disarm?
Nanto had explained what slaves were, and how the Romans treated slaves who were once warriors. How they forced them to fight and kill before a crowd of gamblers, then locked them up to kill again another day. “That is wicked, is it not—to pervert courage, and punish skill?”
Emyn had nodded. Nanto told her that the slaves revolted but were finally caught and defeated Crassus, a Roman general. To set an example, Crassus had crucified six thousand of the rebellious slaves along a stone road leading to Rome.
“I would never want to tell a little girl about such a terrible thing as crucifixion,” Nanto had said. “Crassus won’t let anyone take the bodies down. He wants them to hang here so all the other slaves will see them and be afraid.”
Bodocnos uttered the word “Gutuatri,” snapping Emyn back to the present.
Gutuatris heard and passed on the words of the gods, as Emyn heard and spoke for the dead.
“This Gutuatri, this holy man far to the south, fears the Latin speakers. Rome’s frontiers are very near. Perhaps he listens more to his own worries than to words from the mighty, hmm?” Bodocnos smiled at Emyn, but his eyes did not relax with the rest of his face.
She said nothing; she could not know the Gutuatri’s reasons.
Bodocnos had been talking of Rome; maybe that’s why her mind dug up the slave revolt and its details. Back then, she’s wondered why the dead king showed her horrible sights from a land so far away. She still wondered, but now Bodocnos seemed concerned with the gossip of Rome as well. Why?
“Another wise man, reading omens and the stars, sees great threats from across the Rhenus.” Bodocnos paused again, but she could not see his face this time. Did he hope to draw out her ghosts with these predictions?
“Threats to whom?” Volio asked. “We heard of the Germani crossing the river years ago. Pigs, they are. The spirits said they fought for the Sequani.” He shrugged. “It’s too far away to touch us.”
“Perhaps.” Bodocnos sighed. “The Germani raid without restraint to this day and their numbers increase. They are no longer satisfied with the land they got; they want more, and other mercenaries cross the river.” He turned to Emyn “Do your voices warn of them?”
The dead king hung like a shadow over Bodocnos.
Emyn said, “There are ghosts here but they give me no words.”
The blond man shuddered and Volio crossed his arms.
“I wonder,” Bodocnos said slowly, “if spirit messages might ring more clearly when heard in a sacred place. Have you been to the heroes’ temple north of here, on the very edge of Viromanduan lands? Where warriors’ skeletons, draped in their armor, hang from the outer wall?”
Emyn nodded. “My father took me once.”
“Would you consider making the journey again? With your father, if you like.”
He was suggesting a long absence from Samarnum. Emyn knew the decision was not hers to make.
“The Gutumaros lives under my roof and answers to our healer.” Volio glanced pointedly at the blond man. “I could not approve her leaving, though I intend no offense against a learned master.”
Bodocnos waved his hand as if his proposal were nothing more than a passing thought. “I take no offense. You protect her as you would your own daughter; that is admirable.”
The men believed no maiden could be safe from Coath’s smile, apparently. Was the dark-haired student amused? He might raise an eyebrow if she looked—but while thinking of him, she lost track of Bodocnos’ words. Now he waited for an answer . . . to what?
“Master, if the spirits do not wish to speak, why force them?” Coath spoke for the first time. His words were cowardly, but his voice sounded like a hero’s, confident and strong.
Suddenly, Emyn remembered the oak grove where she’d first met the ghosts. “I know of a sacred cluster of oak trees on a hill nearby, Honored Master. An hour’s walk from here. Would that do?”
The idea pleased Bodocnos. “We will walk there together before the sun sets again, so that we hear your spirits in the darkness.”
Coath began a word and Bodocnos cut him off. “It is fitting. Our day starts as darkness falls. What is heard then will be illumined by dreams and then the sun.”
The master looked around and smiled at a cluster of children. “Now, who would like to hear a story?”
Emyn lay still on her mattress, facing west to honor the long-gone sun. Nothing stirred the air.
On most nights, she fell asleep telling herself the same sort of story Bodocnos had recited earlier for the children: the tale of a noble son driven from his own tribe by trickery and forced to live as an outlaw. She imagined herself an outlaw; it was her favorite daydream.
She’d heard many old stories of boys and even a few girls, compelled to live in the wild until they found their true place. She could do that. She was strong and could cook and brew medicines, and the ghosts would warn her of danger. Any group would fare better with Emyn looking out for them.
Eventually—as in the tales—her outlaw adventures would end. A prince like Dumnocos would reward her heroic deeds with a fine house and land, or maybe fall in love with her himself. By the time she got to that part of her fantasy though, sleep was close and the details blended into dreams.
Tonight, the story seemed childish. What group would want her? Boys and men feared her ghosts. Even outlaws would send her away.
Useless, that’s what she was, except as an oracle. But as a woman? Useless.
Emyn snorted, got up and shoved hard on the door. It swung wide open and hit the wall. She stepped outside and wedged a piece of firewood under it.
The room was stuffy. Why did she need a closed door? No one would intrude on the Death Speaker.