Writer’s Note: This is a historical fiction short story that I started writing back in 2012, but haven’t had the chance to finish because I’ve been too busy to devote time to research. Maybe one day.
The horde was slowing down. Its change of pace traveled down the line of the caravan like a ripple, increasing in urgency as it traveled farther from its source. Iulenna felt the drag before she saw the wagons traveling ahead slacken, gradually rolling to a halt. In the distance, she could hear the faint roar of water as it continued its timeless dance over rocks and silt on its eternal journey towards somewhere and nowhere. Viridorix and his vanguard must have come upon a branch of the Great River then, if not the Great River itself. They will camp here for the night. If he was wise, he will allow the tribe to stay till spring.
Csaridoric had already started unloading their wagon. Iulenna unhooked their only horse, an old skinny nag, from the cart that bore everything that the tribe allowed them to keep. She considered taking the poor animal closer to the water where the grass was thicker and made better fodder. Instead, she decided to wait until later when all the other animals of the tribe had been fed and watered. She could not risk another affray with Viridorix and his men, so she tethered the beast to a nearby tree with a tiny yellowing patch of vegetation surrounding it. It would have to do until dark.
She walked back to Csaridoric, who had started erecting the threadbare scraps of animal hide that they used to cover their wagon by day and as a sleeping tent at night. She drove the pegs deeper into the ground with her boot while her brother tied the knots. Almost as one, they straightened up and surveyed their handiwork for a moment before, satisfied, they both sauntered towards their mother who was already preparing the evening’s meal. A stew of turnips, it looked like. It was almost always turnips. They could not count on how long Viridorix will allow them to live, but they could always count on the turnips. She glanced at the sky. Darkness was falling fast. Already it was too late to catch a hare, or trap partridges. She sighed. Turnips, it is.
They ate in silence. As the day turned to dusk and the sun abandoned the earth, the wind grew colder, crueler. Soon, the snow will fall and the earth will slumber. Soon, even the turnips will let them down.
The three of them huddled closer around the dying embers of the cooking fire. Many yards away, another family gathered around an even larger flame. Old Oric’s family. The wind carried the rich and slightly pungent smell of roasted kid in the direction of the tree line where they had settled for the night. Often, the gods were cruel. Iulenna did her best to ignore the hunger and desire making itself known in her gut. She had long since forgotten the last time they feasted on goat’s meat; surely they must have, once. If they did, she could not recall what it tasted like. For all she knew, it tasted exactly like turnips. She heard her brother snort with mirth at the thought. Her thought, as if she said it out loud. He had always been able to do that, pluck snippets of thought out of her head. It was an annoyance and a comfort both, depending on what she was thinking at the moment.
Once, Old Oric’s brood was the poorest and most wretched in the tribe. They were so reviled that Iulenna and her brother were not even allowed to play with any of his dozen children when they were just children themselves. Now, however, the wheels have turned. Now, Oric’s children dined on goat, while they chewed on turnips.
Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of her mother’s coughing, the loud hacking bark that she had been wracked with of late. Mirannon coughed into her furs, doing her best to hide the growing number of bloodstains, dried and drying, from her children. She did not have long; she knew that much. And she knew that Csaridoric and Iulenna knew it, too. But they were Gauls. They did not speak of such things.
“Come, mother,” Csaridoric said quietly. “You need your rest.”
Iulenna watched her brother slowly guide Mirannon into their sleeping tent. He will put their mother to bed, making sure that she drank the rancid brew that helped her sleep through the coughs. He will wrap her up in her furs and give her most of his, as well. It was a task that normally would have been expected of her, as Mirannon’s daughter. But Csaridoric had always been kinder, gentler, and more compassionate, while Iulenna had a harder heart and an unbending, contentious soul. Even their outward appearances were different. He was tall, fair, and broad, while she was small, dark, and wiry, much like Mirannon, with eyes that glowed green like summer foliage. Indeed, no one could guess that they were even brother and sister, let alone that they shared the same womb. He was light where she was darkness; she was cold where he was warmth.
Mirannon always said that Csaridoric was the very image of their father. Iulenna vaguely remembered a handsome man who looked more Gallic than Roman, with hair the color of sunshine and eyes as dark as the sky before a storm. She remembered sitting high atop his great white charger as she and Csaridoric rode with him at the helm of his massive scarlet army. The vast army that moved with terrifying speed over the Gallic lands like a great, hungry animal that would not be denied. The army that turned Vercingetorix’s short-lived Gallic alliance 14 years ago into dust, leaving the tribes lost and wandering, scattered like so many broken fragments of a dream.
The nag whinnied softly by its tree, as if to remind her of its existence and need. Iulenna stood up and made her way to its tether. The tribe’s animals would have had their fill by now and are likely already safely ensconced within their makeshift paddocks. But she will take the horse further upstream, anyway. Just in case.
Mirannon died the day before the snow fell. Iulenna found her that morning, cold and stiff and unmoving, still swaddled in her furs. The night before, her mother was as she had been for many moons—ill and frail, yes, but living. She functioned. No better, no worse. Now she was gone. There was no warning, nary a single word of farewell spoken. Iulenna decided that that was a mercy. They could go on believing that she met her death as bravely as she lived her life.
She sat in the sleeping tent with her hand stroking her mother’s hair, so much like her own. It was not long before Csaridoric rose from his slumber and found them that way. She needed no words to tell him; he already knew. He sat with her then, and for a long time, they remained unmoving, like figures in a tableau. The dead woman and her twins.
The bleak sun of winter had made its way to the high heavens when Iulenna finally stood up. She had made up her mind.
“You need not do this,” Csaridoric spoke softly in his deep voice, breaking the silence of the tent.
“He has to know,” she responded quietly. She left the tent before he could try to convince her otherwise.
Iulenna walked towards the main camp quickly and with purpose. It was not long before the tribe noticed her presence within the perimeter. Before long, she was surrounded by a bevy of men, women, and children, jeering and hissing at her, dogging her every step. She paid them no heed. She had long since learned to ignore the cacophony of angry words and insults so that every single one of them remained unheard. She was not afraid of mob, either. They were just sheep, the lot of them. It was easier to just let them bleat.
Abruptly, she stopped in front of a sleeping tent, larger and taller than all the others. There were two sentries standing on each side of the tent flap that served as a doorway, both wearing chest armors of boiled leather. The larger sentry carried an equally large two-headed axe, while the other rested his hand on the hilt of the sword strapped to his hip. They eyed her warily as she, without a word, divested herself of her own weapons. Only after she tossed her last blade at the larger man’s feet did she speak.
“I need a word with him,” she said quietly.
“The King is not to be disturbed,” the smaller one replied smugly, puffing up with self-importance. “Especially by the likes of you.”
“I need a word with Viridorix,” she repeated, loudly this time.
Before the sentry could respond, a voice inside the tent called out. “Let her through.”
Without a parting glance at the sentries, Iulenna pushed the leather flap aside as she stepped into Viridorix’s dark tent. As the flap fell back into place, the only light came from the fire burning in a corner, heating up the enclosed space like a furnace. She suddenly very much wanted to be free of her furs. “This place would catch fire so easily,” she thought with mild interest. Viridorix had always been a tad foolish.
In the far corner of the tent, an area that the light from the fire didn’t quite touch, a movement caught her eye. She watched as a massive figure unfolded itself from its repose, stretching as it did so. As her eyes adjusted to the dark, she realized that the figure was naked. He was also not alone. Viridorix gestured for the two buxom women who were lying with him just moments ago to leave the tent. Wrapping themselves in furs, they quickly exited through the leather flap, brushing past Iulenna in their haste, red hair flying past. Old Oric’s daughters. She nearly laughed in spite of herself.
She stood there quietly as Viridorix poured himself a brew from a ready flagon. He took his time swallowing the liquid, slamming his wooden cup down on the table forcefully before pouring himself another. She watched him intently, his sheer size leaving her with no choice. Viridorix was even taller than Csaridoric, all bulk and muscle where her brother was lean and lithe. He always told anyone who would listen that he could squeeze the life out of a man with his bare arms and she very well believed it. Like her, his hair was jet black and thick, very unusual for a Gaul. He still had not bothered to cover himself up at all, and she could see that his hair was just as black and coarse on the rest of his body, and that he was unfailing in his largeness. Finally, after what seemed like an eternity, he brusquely put down his cup and faced her.
“What do you want?” he demanded, his voice gruff and booming.
“She’s dead,” she pronounced, looking him straight in the eye.
He froze. For an odd, brief moment, she expected him to weep. But perhaps she only imagined the grief in his eyes because, in a flash, it was gone. He remained silent and unmoving for a few more heartbeats before he shrugged and reached for his furs.
“And what of it?” he said noncommittally, not meeting her eyes as he wrapped the dead animal around himself. Wolf, probably. Maybe even bear.
“You are king,” she began. “Grant her the proper burial rites. She needs to be buried as one of the tribe.”
Viridorix was silent for a long time. He turned his back to her and poured himself yet another drink from the flagon on the table. “He is thinking, biding his time,” Iulenna thought with dismay. She stood there, waiting for what seemed like an eternity, before he finally faced her again.
“We do not honor whores,” he spat angrily.
It was the response she expected. Still, the words cut her like a thousand knives, ripping her heart, her insides, her organs to shreds. Tears sprang unbidden to her eyes and she blinked them back furiously, desperately. She will not weep in his presence. She felt the hot, stale air of the tent burning in her chest as she breathed in gulps of it, fighting the urge to lash out at him with her fists, her limbs, her teeth. She fought it with everything that she had.
“She was your mother, too!” It was a plea and an accusation all at once.
She was on the floor in half a heartbeat. It was almost incomprehensible to her how a man so large could move so swiftly. The left side of her face throbbed where he had struck her. She tasted blood; one hand instinctively reaching for a knife that was not there. Silently, she cursed herself for placidly leaving her blades with the sentries, though she had had no choice. He loomed over her, casting her small, crumpled form into shadow so that she was almost invisible, nonexistent.
“She was a whore who dishonored my father,” he shouted at her, spittle flying. “One look at that Roman lout, and she was scampering after him like a bitch in heat! He was a king, but she humiliated my father until he died! She humiliated me! Foolishly, she thought that by sharing Caesar’s bed and birthing his twin bastards, he will take her back to Rome with him. But no, you were all but forgotten when he had his victory. And she had the nerve to think that the tribe will take her back, that I will take her back!”
He stopped then, deflated. He straightened up and started pacing, as Iulenna slowly peeled herself off the tent floor, her head reeling from the blow and his words.
“No, my mother died the day the Roman plague set on us.” Viridorix spoke more quietly now, almost to himself. He continued pacing. “That dead woman out there? She was a whore. She will get what whores deserve—nothing.”
“Viridorix, please.” She had to try one more time. But he just shook his head, almost violently.
“Do as you will with her,” he said with finality in his voice. “Burn her, bury her, leave her for the wolves, I care not. But she will not be honored by the tribe.”
She was defeated. “So be it.” She turned to leave. There was nothing more she could say.
“And one more thing.” His voice spoke from the darkness with a chill that stopped her in her tracks. “I want you and your brother gone from the camp by sunrise. The tribe has suffered the presence of Rome long enough.”
She stiffened as the reality of what he had just said sunk in. She waited for the grief that she was sure would come with such a pronouncement, but all there was was a cold detachment. It was curious, but Iulenna felt strangely indifferent, as if the finality of it all did not concern her, even when she knew that it should.
There were many things that she wanted to say to this brother who despised her so much right then, words that died on her lips before they could be uttered. In the end, Iulenna simply nodded once before walking out of the stifling darkness of Viridorix’s tent into the cold light of day.