The Raven’s Shadow is the source story for my Schattenreich series and takes place at the twilight of the Iron Age, on the cusp of the total defeat of the continental Celtic tribes. Below is an excerpt from the story NEWLY PUBLISHED! in Society of Misfit Stories, February 2019 issue, available at your favorite retailer. * * * Lys ab Gisell had sat this bumpy horse her entire life. After three weeks of riding along dry paths, she was cloaked with the dust and grit of high summer. It invaded every orifice and smelled dry and earthy, but not in… Read More
The Raven’s Shadow is the source story for my Schattenreich series and takes place at the twilight of the Iron Age, on the cusp of the total defeat of the continental Celtic tribes.
Below is an excerpt from the story NEWLY PUBLISHED! in Society of Misfit Stories, February 2019 issue, available at your favorite retailer.
* * *
Lys ab Gisell had sat this bumpy horse her entire life. After three weeks of riding along dry paths, she was cloaked with the dust and grit of high summer. It invaded every orifice and smelled dry and earthy, but not in a pleasant way. All she tasted was sand grains and that wasn’t helped by the stale watered wine.
As some of her entourage and all the slaves traveled by foot, they had been forced to go a slow pace. The trail wound north along the coast before turning inland to the estuary near the walled settlement that belonged to her husband-to-be and his people. Briny sea air assaulted her nostrils on the approach to a small bay. Standing stones in the distance looked like they sprouted from the sand. Some taller than others, they were arranged in rows and marched across the distance.
“What is that place? Are those graves?” she asked her escort. Individual dialects varied widely, but their respective tongues had enough in common that they could communicate.
“Ar menhir of Karnag,” he answered. “They say the spirits of ancient heroes buried under the stones guard the Morbihan—the bay—against invaders.”
They made the turn inland; Lys heard them before seeing them. On the hilltop in front of her, naked, painted men danced and brandished their iron-tipped spears. They welcomed her with loud blasts from long horns in the shape of pig snouts. Dogs ran to and fro, barking wildly. She laughed with joy to see the men with their limed hair sticking up like frost-rimed sedges. To an enemy, their demeanor would be altogether different, a frightening sight. It was a regal greeting. For her benefit. For a queen.
Even before they entered the village, people lined the packed dirt path on either side of her, eager to have a glimpse of their leader’s chosen wife. She let her entourage lead her horse to where a tall man in a richly patterned tunic waited, surrounded by others—noblemen and relatives—and felt an eagerness all her own, her body awakening with promise. This was her future husband. Unable to keep her eyes from him as one of his men helped her from her horse, she let a smile form.
The rumors traded by the older women in her tribe were now confirmed. Iaun Reith was indeed a handsome man. His loosely belted tunic did not hide a trim and muscular body that contrasted nicely with his thick mane of dark hair and well-cared for bushy mustache. He wore an astonishing beautiful gold torc around his neck. Her folk had received gifts over the last few months—evidence of Veneti wealth—but Lys was in awe at the sheer abundance of gold on the men who surrounded their leader.
She could have done much worse. Lys approached and knelt before the Veneti leader, her dry throat now forgotten. His golden-brown eyes sparkled with the brilliance of topaz as he held out his hands to her. She rose to face him, her smile still firmly in place. It was no effort at all.
The urge to laugh and dance and wave to everyone threatened to bubble forth, but she held it in, waiting for a reaction from him. Was she well-formed enough? Was her hair to his liking, her skin? His answering smile as the throng of people cheered in front of them told her all she needed to know.
* * *
The joining had been timed to coincide with the summer solstice. Two days before the fête, Iaun led her to the forest on the outskirt of the walled village where the Veneti holy women dwelled. Her own people had no women so venerated, and she was anxious to meet them. Iaun explained that their approval of the match was a formality, but a necessary one. He wanted it as much as he needed it. She sensed his respect and awe of the women as they drew nearer to the plain thatched huts of the forest priestesses.
“Why do I have to spend the night here?” Lys asked as they approached two young women robed in white waiting patiently to receive her. Their long fair hair covered their faces, and they looked down as Lys and Iaun approached.
“It’s necessary, a part of the ritual. To ensure that we are fruitful,” he said, his eyes darting to her, looking her up and down, and then away. “The holy women’s blessing will fortify my seed.”
His gaze had no need of unraveling. Iaun Reith would not have waited to bed her under ordinary circumstances, but their handfasting symbolized a union, an important one, between her tribe and his. The tradition required of a leader, and he was bound to honor it. Lys swallowed with renewed fear. This union meant survival of the Condrusi. Her people, set adrift from their cousins, the Belgii, had no nearby allies. Her tribe stood to gain more from the union than the still-powerful Veneti: Protection, something her people desperately needed, cut off as they were. They already faced the Roman wolf at the door. Next time, there would be no mercy shown. Only bloodshed.
Iaun left her, and the two women guided Lys through the trees to a willow bower they had already prepared. They were shorter than she was, but not by much, and they sang softly to her while they bathed her with a fragrant mistletoe wash as she stood before them.
“How long have you been in training?” Lys asked.
One woman, not much more than a girl, Lys thought, shook her hair forward as she spoke. “We have just been adopted.”
“It is an honor for our family for us to be chosen,” the other one said.
“Have you no holy men here?” Lys asked as they dressed her in a long tunic of white linen.
They smiled at each other before answering. “No. Not here.”
She lifted her skirts in preparation to enter her bower. Another woman approached her. The portions of gray in hair that hung in a thick cloud around her face and ended in a long braid down her back were in stark contrast to the fair hair of the other women.
“I am Uxía.” She took Lys by the upper arms and then tilted her chin up, staring deeply into her eyes. “You have the eyes of a seer.”
Lys started, and frowned. “How can you know that?”
Uxía nodded. “Experience. I have enough of the Gift to recognize it in others.”
Lys resisted the urge to look away and fought to keep her breathing normal. “I don’t have any scrying talents.”
“Seeing is not only scrying,” she said. “Maybe I should have said that you have the Sight.”
Lys did look away to hide her dismay. Only the most addled of old women in her tribe were attributed with second Sight. “Those women are shunned among my people…they have their uses but are troublesome.”
Uxía laughed. “Do not fear. The Veneti revere their women, holy or not.” She let go of Lys’s arms and stood before her. “Do others of your tribe have eyes such a deep blue that the sea would grow jealous?”
Lys relaxed somewhat at Uxía’s compliment. “My father has blue eyes, but of a normal shade. The color is unusual and is the reason why my people chose me to be the gift of our people. Blue is a color of good fortune.”
“Your father is one of your tribe’s holy ones?”
“He is one of the village elders, the most respected among them. The holy ones dwell apart, as you do.” Lys glanced around again, trying to discern something about how these women lived.
Uxía nodded. “In that case, the goddess will be pleased. She may visit you tonight. If she does, it will be a sign of great favor.”
The women had prepared her a warm drink. She drank it all despite its bitter, unpleasant taste, as they watched, taking slow gulps to get it all to go down without gagging. She felt relaxed but oddly alert. Lys suspected they had laced it with something similar to the fly mushrooms her tribe’s holy men used to prepare men for battle. They stayed with her for a few minutes and then withdrew, leaving her alone with the trees and the deepening night.
Lys swiveled her hips to get more comfortable on her nest of soft grasses within the bower, amidst small snuffling creatures, nighttime hunters and gatherers in the woods around her. She had not slept alone outside since she was a young girl. Even during the days of celebrating the return of the Benevolent One saw her safely in her family’s hut after dark. Her father had not wanted to risk the chance of her deflowering from one of the youths in her village. She was too great a prize to be lost.
A bright cusp of light appeared and danced in front of the bower. It settled in front of Lys, just above her forehead. She fell, pulled into the light as if down a chasm.
It could have been five minutes or a year or her entire life. The sky brightened. Only it was not the sky, but a small area around where she sat. Lys was naked, her long hair loose about her, providing her a scant but welcome covering. She felt neither cold nor heat. She could no longer see any trees, only a dense white fog that pulsed out and in. It made her dizzy to watch.
“You are not known to us.”
Lys gasped. The creature in front of her shifted in and out of dense pockets of shadow that pulsed in time with the fog. First one face appeared before changing into another. One moment a proud young girl with a warrior’s grimace and fierce eyes watched her, the next a motherly face stared out at her, less fierce but no less proud. Finally, a dark-haired woman with black brows and full red lips looked her over. She was clad in black, with metal greaves on her legs and epaulets on her shoulders, a jewel-encrusted sword hilt poked out above and behind it. Her grim countenance menaced.