13. April 2012 · Comments Off on Intro & Prologue · Categories: Death Speaker Preview

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Note to Readers 

Once upon a time, Celtic tribes populated most of Europe. The tribes had different names and customs; some were more warlike and powerful than others. Over the generations, they fought with each other and with outsiders—like the upstart Romans from the south.

In this story, the village of Samarnum is just a bit east of the present city of Amiens, France. The river that runs by Samarnum is the Somme. The story moves along the Loire (or Liger) River to the French province of Brittany, around the Morbihan Bay. To date, no one has located the Veneti capital city that I call Venetona but without a doubt, there was such a place. And there were such people.

 

The eighth day of Elembiu

Emyn never thought before she spoke. Maybe that was why the dead had such an easy time speaking through her.

What were the ghosts saying as she stirred? The words faded, but battles had raged in her sleep. Emyn remembered seas lit with flame; men shrieked as they ran out of the water. There she stood in the middle of it all, unable to look away as waves lapped at her feet.

She heard the dead chattering over the rustle of leaves and muttered, “No one listens to you.”

The boy curled beside her, then shifted and rolled his head onto her arm. Emyn  didn’t move. She had seen too much death in her twenty-three years, but so had Gorio in a lesser span. She let him sleep and soon she dreamed again.

The skull temple burned around her. Roman soldiers trampled and smashed the bones until only a circle of broken skulls remained—a sacred circle that no one could cross.

Was time a line or a circle?

Emyn jerked awake, sure that a real voice had asked the question. Gorio slept on. She stared at the stars, the only side of the world left unchanged. They shone like the year’s first snow dusting a field.

Questions raised in dreams had no answers, did they? How could time be a circle? The druids said it was, but they could argue the stars into daylight given the chance.

Time had no end and no beginning, the wise said.

That was silly; everything began somewhere. She’d been born. You philosophers, Emyn told a druid once, you are tricksters who play with words and tell lies that wouldn’t fool a child. He tried explaining time to her, but she was stubborn and didn’t want to understand.

“Our lives continue in a circle; they don’t end.”

“But when you make a circle you begin it,” Emyn had insisted. “You start somewhere. Don’t laugh . . . .”

She could almost hear his deep voice in the darkness. “Rebirth, over and over. We’re in this world or the next. We are never nowhere.”

The druids were wrong, Emyn decided. There were beginnings and endings, even to time. Her own people were gone and Rome had destroyed the last hope of the Veneti yesterday. Her death was near; she knew that as if she’d caught its scent on the breeze.

The holy places, the secret gods and stories known only to the people of Samarnum—all this existed only in her mind. No one would tell her story when she died; it seemed important to recall it now.

13. April 2012 · Comments Off on Chapter 1 · Categories: Death Speaker Preview

Where did she begin?

The ghosts were the only reason anyone noticed Emyn. Her story began with them.

When Emyn was six, she followed her brother Esmios and his friend Almer as they hiked to higher ground west of their village. Weeds but no grass grew there, and pits and rocks were scorched. She picked up a stick and dug a few exploratory pocks into the ground, exposing charred earth below.

The boys found charms here. They said they found bones once, but quickly covered them with dirt. All children knew better than to disturb the honored dead or any spirit that guarded their remains.

As Emyn crouched and scratched the loose dirt with her stick, Esmios whispered to his friend of a place beyond this one, a place with ruined and smashed huts where metal had been worked over fires and hammered into knives.

“This was a road.” Esmios led Emyn and Almer down a slope and away from the dead earth. A long stone marker lay between clumps of dandelions, carved on one side with a horse. Flecks of white paint still clung to it. “That means that our people lived here,” her brother said. “Viromandui. They put that up. Then enemies came and shoved it down.”

“And they killed the people who lived here. Slit them open and burned them.” Almer swung an imaginary sword at Emyn. “I bet there’s more bones around. You’re probably standing on some now. Are you scared?”

“No.”  Emyn meant it. Why should she be afraid of bones, when she hadn’t stolen from them?

Disappointed, the boy pivoted from her, jabbing and grunting. Emyn looked up at her brother. “Don’t take charms off the bones. Or they’ll come after you—“

“I know that,” Esmios scowled. “Everyone does. But I want to find out who attacked this place. Was it the Ambiani? It was a long time ago. Maybe there’s an enemy we don’t know about.”

Almer menaced them again, this time with an invisible ax. “Maybe they’re still around.”

Esmios rolled his eyes. “Iomat probably knows.”

Iomat was a tall woman who gathered plants and brewed potions for people when they were sick. That Esmios named her confused Emyn; their father was the person who answered their questions. “Did you ask A’er?”

“He doesn’t know. Will you ask Iomat for us?”

Emyn blinked at him. “Why don’t you just ask her?”

“You’re the one who’ll be staying with her.”

“I’m not going to stay with her,” Emyn protested.

“Yes, you are. A’er said so.”

“When?”

“In three nights, he said.”

“Liar!” She’d never lived anywhere but with her own Ater. Where would she sleep? Who would feed her and sing to her? Esmios and his friend laughed and called her a baby, so she threw rocks at them and ran away.

She wasn’t a baby. If she were big or a boy, they wouldn’t mock her. They wouldn’t dare.

Another path branched away from the old road and wound into shadows. Emyn followed it, watching the ground carefully so she wouldn’t trip on roots or rocks. The boys’ voices faded. They stopped laughing and began yelling her name, but she didn’t answer. Because now she knew: people waited for her at the top of the hill.

How Emyn knew that, she could never say. As far as she remembered, that afternoon was the first time she stood among the oak trees of the sacred grove; the first time she’d seen the dead king and the white ladies. She felt she knew them and they certainly knew her, so maybe they had met in dreams. She sat and listened as they told her wonderful stories and showed her pretty things, magical things that she could never quite describe or make sense of later.

“We will stay with you,” a silvery woman said. “We will sing you songs.”

Emyn rubbed her eyes. “I want to go home now.”

The ladies giggled and began to dance. Emyn dozed and when she woke, she was alone.

The sun had set and no moon was out as she stumbled back down the path in darkness. Little sparks of light danced before her, showing the way; the display seemed funny, but not impossible. She wondered if the new month had begun. That happened when the moon rose too late for her to see. Esmios said the month was unlucky.

Emyn heard her brothers and neighbors call her name and ran toward the sound. Someone scooped her up; by the light of a torch she recognized her oldest brother. “Tell my father!” Nonicos called out as he squeezed Emyn tight. Water filled his eyes. “He’s at the river—“

His voice broke. “You brat,” he muttered into her ear. She giggled at the hot air from his mouth and the tickles of the little hairs of his new, golden moustache. “You worried us all! Where have you been?”

Emyn stopped giggling. “Between the trees. I fell asleep.”

“We’ve been calling and calling.”

She hadn’t heard. More people joined them; Emyn had never seen so many torches except on holidays. Everyone seemed anxious to give her a hug or a pat and then scold her. She and Nonicos were almost home before her Ater pushed through the group.

“She says she fell asleep in the trees,” Nonicos told him.

“In the trees?” A’er’s voice grew loud. “Little girl, you know how dangerous that is! There are wolves—did you think of that? You don’t go off alone!”

“The ladies said I could.”

“Prettiness . . . . “ Her father buried his face in her hair. “Don’t ever run off like that again.”

Emyn’s father pulled a cask of ale around to the front of his house, and all the men and women who’d been out looking for her—everyone she knew and some she didn’t—drank heartily from bowls and cups. The moon smiled as it rose in the dotted sky. The fire pit outside was filled with branches and split logs and the flames danced up to touch the stars, sending out little red, glowing stars of their own. She and Esmios sat leaning against the house as it grew late.

Esmios, she noted with satisfaction, was subdued and pale. But he hadn’t been lying. The ladies had told her that she was going to live with Iomat at the headman’s house, and Iomat would show her how to make medicine and read the stars.

“I know the name,” she said to Esmios. He’d been crying earlier and his eyes were red. “Sadonu, the place we went. Men made swords there. They made swords for kings. I saw some of them.”

Esmios wiped his eyes. “That’s wicked, Emyn. You’re telling lies and teasing me.”

“I am not. You wanted to know—“

“You are too.”

“Am not—“

“Can’t you two sit together without fighting?” Ater pushed himself between them. He tried to glower, but the firelight danced in his eyes as he smiled. People would tell Emyn later that she had her father’s eyes, large and quick to express emotion.

“Emyn’s making up stories,” Esmios said.
“I’m not. It’s true. I saw the king’s sword, and I saw where they made it.”

“And where was that, prettiness?” her father asked.

“At the forge, but it’s all broken now.”

“Then how did you see it?” Esmios demanded.

“The ladies showed it to me when I was between the trees.”

“You were dreaming, then, if you’re not lying.”

She opened her mouth to answer, but her father shushed her. “You should be dreaming, both of you. That’s enough for one night. To sleep, now.”

 

Within three days, Emyn traveled with her father to stand on planks over the river. They said prayers as A’er tossed two offerings into the water: a carved cup and a smooth rock with designs cut into it. One to bless her new life with the healer and one to thank the gods for letting her stay in this world a little longer. It was sad for a child to die too young to earn a place of honor in the next world.

Emyn lived with Iomat in the headman’s large house after that. She followed Iomat on walks in sunlight and darkness, reciting after her the names of flowers that they passed. The woman showed her paths and hidden shrines that Esmios probably never dreamed of, swearing Emyn to secrecy. Iomat chopped up plants and Emyn washed down the wooden boards afterwards. Her hands were busy and her head full.

Her father’s home was near, and no one made a fuss if she picked up her softest fur and walked back to A’er’s when darkness fell. Maybe they half-expected it; she was still very young.

Before the moon got full again, all the grownups went off to shear sheep. Those not old enough to help were ordered out of the way. Esmios tried to follow their father to the sheds but was sent back, so he wandered by the headman’s house. Emyn brought him inside and pointed out the boxes and pots that held Iomat’s plants. The drying branches that hung from the rafters were mostly hers as well. Her brother grinned when she whispered that the headman snored.

“I wasn’t lying about Sadonu,” she told Esmios very seriously. “That’s what it was called and you said you wanted to know. Robbers came down the river in ships. The robbers burned the houses and workshops seven generations ago.”

Esmios rolled his eyes, but before he could say anything, Iomat’s voice rang out from the other side of the half-open door. “Where did you hear that?”

“Now you’re in trouble,” hissed Esmios.

Emyn bunched up her skirt with her fist. “I’m not lying.”

“I didn’t say you were,” said Iomat. “Where did you hear that?”

“The ladies told me. When I was between the trees.”

“When she was sleeping between the trees,” Esmios corrected. “When everyone was looking for her.”

“Well, I want you to tell me about that. What trees, to start with?”

Emyn described the tall oaks that ringed the top of a hillock beyond the dead town where she’d run from her brother. Iomat asked Esmios if he knew the place, then took him to the door and sent him home. Before he left, Iomat warned the boy in a hushed voice to stay away from the hill with the tall trees on it.

“Is it a bad place?” Emyn asked when Iomat came back.

“For some. Not for you, apparently.” Iomat leaned against a post. The distaff that held her wool was tucked in her belt as always.

“So.” The woman began to spin thread. “Tell me about those ladies. What did they say?”

Iomat’s face bounced between amusement and concern as Emyn talked and the spindle whirled. She told of the ladies and their sad sighs, and the embroidered edges of their gowns that sometimes hung in tatters. “They had shiny metal circles. The ladies held them in their hands, and I could see their faces, like water.”

“Mirrors.” Iomat gave the spindle a flick. “They made mirrors there as well as blades.”

Emyn spoke of the king who commanded the town and the forge. She jerked in surprise when the king appeared beside her, but Iomat didn’t seem alarmed. The king whispered the names of tribes who sent emissaries and reminded her of the ships that brought metal from the islands down the river to the forge.

“Tell her this, too,” he ordered.

“Why don’t you tell her?” Emyn could see right through him to the sunshine outside the door.

“You are my voice. You must do as I say. Tell her that soon this village will need help. I will provide that help so that all will know my power.”

Emyn repeated the words to Iomat: when the village needed help, he would tell them what to do.

“Oh, indeed?” Iomat sounded skeptical. The king didn’t argue or scold; he simply vanished.

Emyn wondered what else she should say. “They were very nice, but they didn’t have any food.”

“Of course not,” said Iomat, leaning down to catch up her spindle and wind the new thread. “Dead people don’t eat.”

And that was when she began, really: the day she learned that she could speak to and for the dead. That gift would carry her far from home to speak before the wise and the foolish alike. After that day, Emyn heard the word Gutumaros whispered when she passed: Death Speaker.

 

You can read more chapters here, or you can purchase the book now–in multiple ebook formats at Smashwords, or in print at CreateSpace.

13. April 2012 · Comments Off on Chapter 2 · Categories: Death Speaker Preview

Emyn missed her A’er, but people said that it was not fitting for a girl to grow up in a house full of men. Someone had to teach her the things a girl must know; Iomat needed to pass on her skills as well.

On their walks Iomat taught Emyn how the moon told roots to grow deep on certain days, how new leaves were favored at other times, and what words to say as she cut or dug up plants. At night, if they felt like staying up late, Iomat explained the stars.

Once that summer Iomat woke Emyn, wrapped a shawl around her, and led the half-awake girl down the road and through unfamiliar pastures to a house. There a suffering woman poured curses on her husband and all his ancestors while Emyn dozed until Iomat shook het roughly. “Stand up and learn!”

Emyn saw a baby born that morning. The creature emerged from an impossible location, becoming an infant out of blood and ugliness as Emyn watched, amazed. Days passed before she recalled that her own mother had died giving birth but it wasn’t hard to believe that such an ordeal could kill.

 

As summer passed and dampness crept back into the air, an old man came to the village and stayed with A’er. Emyn was summoned and introduced to her grandfather.

He studied her face in the afternoon light, peering at her from up and down and both sides before grunting, “You don’t look much like your mother.”

He nodded at A’er. “Pretty girl. Don’t spoil her.”

The old man had masses of hair the color of rain clouds on his head and face. His pale, runny eyes fixed on her for a moment. Then with a snort, he rose and walked out of the house.

What had she done? Nonicos, her oldest brother, touched her shoulder and said quietly, “Your grandfather came a long way to see your mother. He didn’t know she was dead.”

Emyn’s mind tripped over “your grandfather.” Hers, not Nonicos’. She’d always known that her brothers had a different mother. Now she realized they must have different grandfathers and maybe other cousins and aunts and uncles as well.

The next day her grandfather asked Iomat if Emyn could walk with him. He did the same thing the following day and whenever the weather was dry.

Her grandfather didn’t talk much, so Emyn recited some of the stories she’d heard from A’er and from the ghosts—tales about brave men who died and were brought back to life by magic, or about loyal sons who were cheated out of their birthright and forced to live as outlaws without home or clan.

“He wasn’t really alive,” she mused after telling of a warrior who had been decapitated and whose head continued to entertain and sing to his companions for many years. “He never got to be a grandfather.”

“Heroes live faster than farmers,” the old man grunted. “You never heard that?”

“No. Why?”

“The blood runs hotter. It’s a better life.”

Emyn thought about that. Grandfather came from another tribe, the Nervii, and they were supposed to be very brave. “Do you know heroes?”

He snorted.

Maybe not everything people said was true. She’d heard that Nervians didn’t drink ale, but Grandfather was more than happy to share a cup with A’er or the headman in the evening.

One day Emyn sang with the white ladies and another spirit who played a lyre and said he was a bard. Grandfather was surprised but not afraid. “You hear ghosts, do you?”

“Yes.”

“My grandfather used to hear ghosts. They told him where to find game.”

Emyn thought of how the headman’s dogs whimpered and crawled away whenever she passed. No dogs came near her lately. Iomat said they feared the dead.

“Were dogs afraid of your grandfather?”

“Ha! Of all the things to ask. . . . they were, they were. I remember.”

Grandfather taught her Nervian songs after that, saying that the words to the white ladies’ tunes were foolish. His songs were mostly about courage and never giving ground.

Once he told her about the time her mother had fallen and skinned her knees and how she’d walked all the way home without shedding a tear. He was very proud of her that day; she wasn’t any older than Emyn. She asked if he missed his daughter.

“Her choice. She knew it would be a long time between visits.”

 

A spring fed the wood-lined well in the center of Samarnum, which was what people called the village when they needed to name it. The source of water was important; Samarnum would not be where it stood if the water gurgled up in a different spot. The well filled with rainwater daily so no one noticed its lowering at first.

One day, the water nearly disappeared.

Buckets and basins appeared outside every house to catch the rain. Folks gathered in small groups and walked through the fields, tracing barely-discernable paths of water on the muddy ground. The river was close, but if the well went dry, Iomat told Emyn, they’d have to accept it and move.

“Where?”

“The ancestors will show us, one way or the other.”

Emyn was still six. The ice and storms of winter kept her grandfather from returning home but he no longer called on her to walk with him. It was too cold.

When the rain paused, Emyn played outside with Cesua and Sinia, sisters who were her best friends. They chased white-faced black ducks and dangled worms to tease Sinia, who hated crawly things.

Cesua nodded toward the headman’s house. Two figures crouched outside the door. “Bet he’s hungry.”

Emyn looked closer and saw a third person. A toddler rested in Almer’s lap as he sat next to his father. Last summer the man had helped A’er build a cart. . . Hentios, that was his name. He was a cousin to her brothers, though not to her.

“Why is he hungry?” Sinia asked while Emyn was puzzling this out.

“He can’t eat.”

“Why not?”

“He can’t eat because he’s doing troscad. Troscad means you can’t eat till you get justice.”

“Can Almer eat?”

“Of course. So can Micco.”  Cesua, a year older than Emyn, knew almost as much as Iomat about the goings-on in the village.

“Why—“

“It’s simple, goose.” Her tone made Emyn glad she’d kept silent and let Sinia ask the questions. “Headman Volio took Hentios’ mallet and tools because he owed him work that he never finished. So Hentios can’t work even if he wants to, because he’s got no tools. Now Hentios sits at the headman’s door all day. He won’t leave and won’t eat until the headman says he’ll do what a judge says. That’s troscad.” Cesua took a deep breath.

“A’er says Hentios is a drunk and wouldn’t be working anyway,” said Sinia.

“That doesn’t matter. Troscad is sacred.”

Emyn stared above Hentios where three skulls sat on a shelf over the door of the headman’s house. One whispered to her, “Your people need water.”

“What are you looking at?”

Emyn shrugged. “Who gets to be the judge?”

“A druid, silly. He has to come from far away. What are you looking at?”

Iomat spoke of druids as skilled healers; Emyn didn’t realize they were also judges.

“The well has nothing left to give,” said another skull.

“They’re ugly, aren’t they?” Cesua followed Emyn’s gaze towards the skulls but Emyn knew she couldn’t hear them. It began to rain again, hard, and everyone ran to their homes.

Hentios grinned up at Emyn as she passed. “Tell the headman I am still here.”

 

Inside, women talked and rain pattered on the thatch. Ghosts murmured too. Iomat put Emyn to work shaking and thumping thick stalks, coaxing the seeds in them to fall on a cloth spread out before her.

“I wait to be asked,” the dead king announced suddenly.

Emyn straightened; she could see his outline before her. “For what?”

“For help. Your people need water.” The image wavered though his voice remained strong. “I am a king. The chief must ask.”

Did he mean the headman? “But he can’t see you.”

“You will tell him. I wish a sacrifice. He has several bulls. One of them will serve.”

Emyn giggled. “You can’t eat a bull!”

“The aroma is mine, insolent child. The meat may be shared.”

He faded as Emyn said, “I have to ask Iomat.”

“Ask me what?”

Emyn jumped. She’d spoken too loud; men and women stared at her. Some looked angry.

“Ask me what?” Iomat left the cookfire and took the dried branch out of Emyn’s hand. “Tell me what you heard. You’ll have no peace till you do.”

Emyn repeated what the ghost wanted.

Iomat seemed unimpressed. “Is he listening, this king?”

Emyn looked around as the women at the cookfire turned away. “I don’t know.”

“No headman is going to butcher a good bull on the word of a little girl.” Iomat spoke loudly, her hands on her hips. “If your ghost was a king, he should know that. A headman is no different.”

Women gasped when Iomat said the word ghost; she ignored them.

“No one else sees or hears him. When he was a living king, did he listen to children?” Iomat shook her head. “If he wants a sacrifice, he’ll have to prove himself first. Tell him to refill the well or find us a new one and he’ll get his bull.”

The ghost was angry; Emyn could feel it. Shadows grew and pressed around Iomat, pulling darkness from the corners and roof beams. Emyn held her breath . . . but the shadows did nothing.

“I won’t be shamed by a drunk!” The door flew open and the headman stomped toward the fire.

“If you’ll let me—“ Volio’s sons huddled close and their voices dropped.

Iomat exchanged looks with the other women.

“Don’t!” Volio’s voice cracked through the house like the snap of a whip. “I tell you: no. You touch Hentios and I’ll be blamed.”

“Petty fools,” the dead king whispered, suddenly very close. “Tell him now!”

Emyn looked up at Iomat. “The dead king–”

“Shhh.”

There was no question of whom to obey. Iomat was solid; the dead king a noisy shadow. Emyn hummed softly to drown out his voice.

 

“He’s gone,” Emyn said in the morning as she followed Iomat out of the house. Emyn held a basket for the mushrooms they hoped to find while the sun shone.

“Hentios? He got his tools back,” Iomat said. “Volio is too smart to let that troscad go on.”

“Hentios can eat now?”

“Eat and drink and wasting no time about it, either. Look at him, laughing like a crazy man. . . .”

Hentios stood in the doorway of Cesua’s house, inviting two other men inside as they passed. Iomat sighed. “I’ll tell headman Volio what your ghost said today.”

Hentios was often at Cesua’s house. Cesua’s parents brewed ale and called Hentios a drunk. It made sense in an unpleasant way.

 

The headman’s big voice startled Emyn. “So you talk to ghosts?”

“Yes.”

“Do you see them?”

Emyn had been dozing by fire and jumped to her feet. “Sometimes.”

“What does this ghost say?”

Emyn knew better than to announce he wanted a bull sacrificed. “He says there is water that moves in the rock. He will show us where.”

“If . . .” The headman raised his eyebrows and winked at Iomat.

“Lead him,” the dead king commanded. “Toward the white horse.”

“He’ll show us now!” Emyn ran to the door and pushed it open. The rain drizzled beyond the overhanging thatch.

The only white horse Emyn knew of was the fallen marker near the ruins, so she pointed in that direction “That road behind Cesua’s house—“

“Sonios’ house,” Iomat corrected, naming Cesua’s father.

“There’s water that way?” The headman squinted. “How far?”

The land sloped gently behind Cesua’s house and wound eventually to the ruined and burned iron works.

“Water flows along it all,” said the king.

White shapes beckoned from Cesua’s doorway. Emyn’s legs propelled her forward before Iomat could holler, “Wait!” She kept going, then huddled under the thatch outside Cesua’s home until the headman and Iomat caught her.

Iomat started to scold just as the rain surged and began to pound.

Cesua’s mother opened her door and looked at them all, confused. “Where’s Hentios?”

“Hentios?” Iomat sounded puzzled.

“Hentios. He said he—“

A long, wailing cry rose over the noise of the rain. They all turned in time to see Hentios slide off the thatched roof as if he were trying to fly like a bird. A mallet and knife flew out of his hands as he slammed onto the ground.

Iomat’s fingers dug into Emyn’s shoulder and held her as she tried to run forward. Cesua’s mother screamed; Hentios did not move.

The headman said a word Emyn did not expect as they all stared. “Now I’ll be blamed for his murder,” he muttered, pulling his cloak over his head.

He shouted for help and plunged into the downpour. Cesua’s father and uncle burst forward; the three men carried Hentios by the shoulders and legs back into Cesua’s house.

“Drunken fool,” Sonios growled as he passed.

Iomat followed the men inside. Left alone, Emyn peered through the rain to where Hentios’ mallet had flown. In spite of the wetness, light paler than fire shone at the spot.

Emyn walked toward it, her feet sinking deep into the mud. The mallet had broken into several pieces after striking a large rock.

“Here,” the dead king boomed.

“Emyn!”

She bent to look at the mark left by the mallet and smiled. Above her the sky spilled out enough water to fill a well.

“Here,” the ghost said again.

She was hoisted and carried into the house. Cesua’s mother pulled Emyn’s dress away, wrapped her in a dry blanket, and set her by the fire, flanked by the two sisters.  Across the flames, the adults clustered around Hentios, now awake. Their voices made Emyn think of honking geese.

“Hentios said he would fix the roof,” Sinia whispered.

“Where it dips,” Cesua added and leaned very close. “A’er wouldn’t give him any more ale so he said he’d earn it.” The girl shook with laughter. “Now A’er says he won’t be able to sit on his butt for a month!”

For this afternoon, at least, Hentios got his ale. Sonios filled and refilled a large cup as it passed from hand to hand. As the scolding voices softened and everyone—even Hentios—began to make jokes, Emyn held the blanket tight around her and stood.

“I know right where the well should be,” she told the headman.

Hentios’ troscad was forgotten and the new well dug by the time a druid arrived. He’d come to judge a troscad; instead he presided over the slaughter of the headman’s bull. Everyone told him their version of how the well was found and why the water was so sweet. Time and ale turned it into a tale of marvels that Emyn barely recognized.

After that, druids visited the small village regularly.

You can read three more chapters here, or you can purchase the book now–in multiple ebook formats at Smashwords, or in print at CreateSpace.

13. April 2012 · Comments Off on Chapter 3 · Categories: Death Speaker Preview

“Dead trees!”

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.”

“Spartacus.”

“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

“For what?”

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.

“Sequani.”

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.

“And the Sequani will pay them with land?” the druid asked. “Sequani land, or land taken from the Aedui?”

“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.

“Is she?”

“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—“

“When?”

“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?”

“No, sir.”

“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?

You can read two more chapters here, or you can purchase the book now–in multiple ebook formats at Smashwords, or in print at CreateSpace.

13. April 2012 · Comments Off on Chapter 4 · Categories: Death Speaker Preview

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.”

Sinia snorted.

“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.

“Ask him—“

“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.

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13. April 2012 · Comments Off on Chapter 5 · Categories: Death Speaker Preview

 

Golden light and tall shadows spilled across Sadonu’s wreckage as Emyn and the druid walked quietly from ruins to the surrounding trees. Their steps drove the tiny, pale petals of pear and apple blossoms into the mulch.

“How sad that the fruit trees go untended here,” Bodocnos murmured.

“Iomat says it’s best to leave the land of the dead to the dead,” Emyn said.

“She is right, but I am a sentimental old man.”

The trees swallowed them up, blocking most light. Birds called from every direction. Emyn had not been to the grove since she was six and didn’t know what to expect when they arrived.

Bodocnos spoke after a long silence. “Gutumaros, when were you born?”

“Close to Beltane, fifteen years ago.”

“So you are just fifteen. What day exactly?”

“The sixth after Beltane, four hours after darkness fell.”

The master hummed to himself as he worked through calculations far more complex than the simple rules Emyn learned from Iomat. He would know all the paths of the stars and every nuance of their meaning. As a midwife, Emyn had learned only enough to give a few words of promise to new parents when settling an infant into their arms.

What had Iomat said to Emyn’s own A’er, fifteen years ago?  “Isminos, your new daughter will find death wherever she turns in her short life. Already, her mother has died.”

That was what the stars promised, but Iomat would never burden a father with such cruel words.

“Isminos, the Morrigu watches over your daughter and marks her for a special purpose.” Yes, that was probably what she said. Softer to the ears, though it hinted at the same thing.

Bodocnos strolled ahead of her as if he knew the path. “Master, have you been here before?”

“Yes, earlier today.” When he turned to answer, the sun flashed against the bronze circlet on his head. “Your headman told me the way. I’ve sent Rialos and Cothuacos ahead to prepare and invoke blessings–”

“Who?”

“My students. Coath, you probably call him.”

Rialos. She repeated the name to herself several times. “What tribes are you from, sir?”

“I am Bellovaci, to the west.” Each time Bodocnos turned his head, the light hit the band; it dazzled her. “Rialos has no tribe, though that will no doubt change once he is a druid. Coath’s family is Carnute. . . .”

No tribe? Was Rialos an outlaw, then? Emyn let her breath out slowly, afraid the master would notice.

“He cannot walk away, this druid.” The bard ghost was beside her. “He served the lords of the skull temple.”

Bodocnos prattled on about the blond student but Emyn didn’t follow his words.

Spirit whispers filled the air. “Such service never ends.”

“He craves peace. . . .”

“Peace of the mind.”

“Peace for the land.”

“He cannot have both.”

“He heard the dead.”

“Emyn!” Bodocnos’ voice struck her like a slap. “Emyn, take my arm.”

She lifted her hand, not sure where his arm was. The bronze band blinded her. She felt his larger hand take hers and guide it to his arm as if tethering her.

“Why do you stare at my forehead?”

“It is bright with the sun.”

“The sun is over there, Emyn.” Her spoken name was warm. Like the arm that she held, it steadied her.

“No, the sun . . . reflects from the band.”

“What band?”

“The bronze band on your brow.”

“I wear no band.” Bodocnos’ voice was as quiet as the breeze that ruffled the willow branches before them.

“He cannot remove it,” a ghost said.

“He took it up in the twelfth year.”

“He took up the knife in the twelfth year.”

“I wore such a band once, at a temple,” Bodocnos sighed. “Do you often see things that aren’t there?”

“I see visions.” Emyn shook with the implications of this question. How would she know if little things weren’t real?

He patted her hand where she held him. “Perhaps your spirits wish to remind me of the service I performed when I wore that band. Do not worry. We’ll keep walking; we are near. I can tell by the bluebells. See? They are thick through the entire grove; it is a lovely place.”

The twelfth year, Emyn remembered, was one of great sacrifice. Such a year approached; it would begin in the fall after Samhain. Bodocnos’ bright clothes, his wild beard, his quick and merry smiles, were all a sham. They hid the druid’s true nature. The service performed in a twelfth year was to offer sacrifice.

Why had he come to see her?

 

Bluebells flooded the grove and Emyn sank into them. She had no chance to look for the dark-haired student and no time to think. The press of bodies nearby was sudden and warm and she slipped down, watching the bluebells shake, wondering if the ground would stay the same.

It didn’t. Oak leaves crunched in her hands and an icy chill surrounded her. How could the ghosts drop her into another season?

“You were born to us here,” whispered the white ladies, and for once they did not giggle or sing. “Will you die here as well?”

He would like that.” The dead king joined them, pointing a long arm towards Bodocnos. The ghost had not seemed so real, so near to flesh and blood, since she was six years old. “His knife craves blood.”

Bodocnos’ voice rang out. “What is revealed, Gutumaros?”

“I am not here, not at the grove I walked into.” Emyn looked up and around. “The moon is in the wrong place. The dampness feels like autumn. The people I see wear serpent’s eggs and rich clothes, beautiful clothes. Fur . . . antlers on some heads. The grove is large . . . ,” she counted quickly, “three handfuls of tall trees, three handfuls on each side. The wise assemble. They wait. You are among them.”

“All of us?”

Emyn hesitated. She did see all three, the druid and his students, but Coath stood alone in this large grove, dazed. He’d been pushed to the center of the gathering, and a woman offered a cup to him. “Someone drinks from a goblet. A cup etched in spirals–the moonlight dances in them.”

“Prettiness.” The word came from Coath’s mouth but in her father’s voice. Emyn leaned away as Coath offered the cup to her.

The dead king still pointed. “He would deliver you to the dead if he could find one imperfection.”

“What do you see?” the druid asked.

“I hear the dead king. He says you wish to sacrifice me. Is that why you’ve come?”

“Your ghosts play with us,” Bodocnos said. “I am warned, then. Tell me what they show you.”

Coath was gone; Rialos stood in the center of the grove holding the cup. Emyn gasped.

“Ah. . . .” The dead king croaked out his laugh. “This one, then.”

“Gutumaros—” Bodocnos prompted her.

“A man drinks from the cup,” she told him.

“Young or old?”

“Young.” Bodocnos was too eager. She would not name the man in the center. “A fair man, with red hair.”

The dead king made a sound of disgust behind her. “Liar.”

“He drinks and falls to his knees. No. . . he is lifted up.” Emyn closed her eyes. What should she say? How could she think this through with so many people whispering and shuffling around her?

When she looked again, Rialos’ clothes were being carried past. He stood naked, and Bodocnos helped him to kneel. Rialos’ hair looked soft and clean, as if he’d just come from bathing. Moonlight glistened on every muscle and sparkled on the dark hair that covered his chest, hair that narrowed to a single line below his navel, leading her eyes down.

Emyn had never seen a young, healthy man naked before. She didn’t now, she told herself. This wasn’t real; the ghosts teased her. They enjoyed teasing her.

“Gutumaros, what do you see?”

“Master, I see lies. The ghosts have never shown me what the future holds; I do not believe them.”

“Let me judge their stories, girl!” Bodocnos snapped. “Give us the words.”

Emyn shivered. “A fog creeps through the crowd. The man is on his knees now, naked. A knotted cord falls around his neck. Some of the masters back away and others come close.” Emyn shook her head, unwilling to watch. “This is enough. . . .”

“We are not finished!” The dead king’s voice screeched.

Before her eyes, torchlight glinted off the blade of a knife. A pale hand flexed and adjusted itself around the bone handle. The smallest finger vanished beneath a sleeve but not before Emyn saw a second, stunted fingertip growing from beside the nail.

Such a deformity marked a man. How could he hold a sacrificial knife? He was marred, judged by the gods themselves.

“The wrong man holds the knife!” Emyn’s breath came fast.

“What do you mean?” Bodocnos’ voice rang from her right, but she could see him before her in a different place, holding his student steady as the knife came closer. He wasn’t going to save Rialos, just the opposite.

“He is the wrong man! He is marked! The knife. . . .”

In the illusory grove, someone handed Bodocnos a thick branch; he pushed it through the cord around Rialos’ neck and began to twist. Rialos, perched on his knees, did not fight. He seemed asleep.

The cord tightened. Rialos jerked and fell forward, but Bodocnos caught him and forced him upright. The other man slashed with the knife and blood sprayed over the ground.

Emyn choked and covered her eyes.

“Master, stop this.”

The male voice was soft and Bodocnos outshouted it. “Gutumaros, tell me what you see!”

“You must tell him!” The dead king hissed.

“Then show me truth!” Emyn demanded.

Bright daylight stunned her eyes, pouring through the doors of a stable. The smells of hay and dung filled her nose. Rialos saddled a horse as the man with the knife ran up behind him, striking. She saw the deformed finger again as the knife cut deeply into Rialos’ neck.

Emyn covered her face while the dead king’s laughter scratched at her ears.

She opened her eyes to bluebells. Rialos’ body lay on the ground, white in the moonlight. He was dead; his blood soaked into the ground. No basins had caught it, no fields or rivers would be blessed by it. A waste.

“Tell them—” the ghost said.

“Tell them what?” Emyn turned towards the voice. “What do you want in return for this death?”

“Nothing!” The dead king roared, triumphant.

“Gutumaros, you must—”

“Then why?” Emyn ignored Bodocnos’ voice; she wanted answers. Hands clutched at her and she pushed them away.

“Because this must be done.”

“No! It won’t do any good, that’s what you mean!”

“It still must be done,” said the dead king.

Bodocnos shouted, “Gutumaros, we do not barter with such a death! It is offered without conditions. Tell us what you see.”

Emyn held her head, unable to think. The flowers were gone. She was in a stable again; daylight filtered in around loose boards. Rialos had been left to lie face down on the straw and dirt.

“Stop this or let me—” That was Rialos’ voice. He wasn’t dead; this wasn’t real.

“No!” Frustration shot through Bodocnos’ words. “We must know: should there be a sacrifice?”

“If there is, it will be the wrong man.” Emyn shut her eyes tight. “The man marked at birth holds the knife. The blood spilled is wasted on the ground, no sacred vessel catches it.”

“Nothing can be changed,” the dead king said. “You will all die, and your bones will be scattered on the ground.”

“Nothing will change, sacrifice or no,” Emyn repeated for Bodocnos, then screamed at the dead king. “Is that the worst of your threats, that our bones will be scattered?”

“Such insolence from a puny child! Do you question–”

“Shut up!” Arguing with the ghost never did any good. Only one threat might sway him: “I will not give out your words!”

“You cannot withhold them!” Bodocnos cried. Emyn felt his hand on her arm at the same moment that the ghosts—all of the ghosts, all of their visions and sounds—evaporated around her. “You are their messenger.”

She stared into the blessed darkness, then bowed her head. “They lie. You know they lie.”

“Men lie as well. Lies mix with truth, and they’re damned hard to pick apart. Deliver your messages, Gutumaros, and let the wise puzzle over which parts are true.”

Only Bodocnos’ voice sounded in the grove. What had driven away the ghosts?

A sea of bluebells rippled in the moonlight. The breeze was cool against her face; Emyn’s pulse slowed as she took deep breaths.

“And you,” Bodocnos spat above her. “How dare you disobey me?”

Emyn looked up at Rialos’ face—his real face, lit only by the moon. Why was the master angry with him?

“She asked—”

“Yes, and I ordered! Who is your master?”

“You teach us never to ignore those who plead for help.”

“I’ve taught you—” Bodocnos’ tirade ended abruptly as all three men turned toward the far edge of the grove, alerted by a squeal too high-pitched to be an animal.

“Who is there? Stop!” The druid jumped forward and waded through the bluebells to the edge of the grove, where two figures cowered. “Run away now and you will face greater dangers than my anger. Don’t you know where you are?”

A girl burst into tears. In spite of the distance and darkness, Emyn recognized Sinia.

 

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