Gauls, wearing wooden masks and little else gyrated to a cacophony of fifes and drums by the light of two blazing pyres. Most engaged in blatant seduction and howled like animals into the late autumn night, their shadows stretching across the ground in demonic parody.
I turned from the spectacle and focused on Weylin, my host. “You promised me King Midas, old man. What is this?”
Weylin’s smile reflected the same mix of contentment and implied prescience that I’d found so vexing when we first met. “This, my Roman friend, is Samhain,” he said and winked. Thin white hair showed bare wisps of the blond mane he once had, and a life’s worth of experiences had stooped his gaunt frame, but his eyes, blue as Grecian seas reflected intelligence and accustomed power.
The druid chieftain stretched back upon a bed of thick furs laid out on the short grass. “What is your opinion, Antonius Invenius?”
His civility and ease gave me hope. Since my arrival, I’d felt like a prisoner, free to roam the small trading village, but unable to leave.
Despite his repose, Weylin’s eyes bore down on me. He expected an answer and I looked back to the festivities. Twin fires roared like living beasts, tongues of flame stretching up to lick the stars, burning as Rome must have burned, probably sacked by the very ancestors of these displaced Gauls.
“We Romans celebrate Cerelia,” I said, my tone neutral. “The festivals appear similar.”
Weylin chuckled. “This is more than mere festival. This is a celebration of life, and death.” He stuck the stem of a clay-bowled pipe between thin lips and inhaled. After a moment two streams of smoke expelled from his nostrils and the air filled with a sickly sweet aroma. He offered me the pipe.
I took the pipe and raised the stem to my lips, then paused and asked, “What does your Samhain have to do with King Midas? Remember, you promised to show me his tomb.” I handed the pipe back without imbibing.
Weylin regarded me as though bemused by my feint. “When you first arrived, you presented yourself as a historian and I thought, what a gruff looking man for such scholarly endeavors. I see through your lies, good Antonius. You are a common treasure hunter, a grave robber.” The chieftain bit down on the pipe stem and inhaled. “Midas might have ruled these lands, but that was long before our people, yours or mine, existed. He lived. He died. He was buried. But where exactly,” Weylin shrugged.
“So, you’ve been lying this whole time.” I rose to my feet, but I felt no anger from his deception. Weylin might have been old, but he was no fool and correctly guessed my true calling. Fate had turned its back on my once prosperous family when I was still young. I escaped a life of indentured slavery for impoverished freedom on the streets. Once educated in Rome’s finest Ludus, back alleys had become my teacher where survival depended on wits, guile, and brutality.
It was during this time that I stumbled upon my present occupation. Witnessing the entombment of a minor nobilis with all his acquired wealth I couldn’t help wonder what good all that gold was to a dead man? Raiding tombs had its risks, but no more than any other kind of thievery. And it was here that my formal education had become a boon. With a civil tongue I was able to ask the right questions. With a knowledge of the land, I was able to venture further afield than the local Roman burial grounds. And in the right company I learned of legends. Some true, some fantastic. The greatest being the treasure horde of King Midas.
“With your permission,” I bowed low to my host, “I shall continue my search without your help.”
“As you wish,” said Weylin. “Until then rest and relax.”
Something about Weylin’s tone made me look up. His blue eyes raged like an angry ocean, his invitation more a demand. The revelry of hundreds of Gauls reminded me how alone I was. “What choice do I have? I’m your prisoner,” I lowered myself back to the ground.
Weylin’s smile returned and he looked to the stars. “The father of my father’s father, a chieftain of great renown, led his people to this land at the behest of a king no longer remembered to fight a war long forgotten. When the fighting ended, my ancestors found the land favorable. Eschewing their nomadic ways, they cultivated the earth and established trade with neighboring tribes.
“Our people have found wealth and contentment here, but we’ve also lost much of ourselves. We’ve always been outsiders, surrounded by tribes easily conquered but never completely vanquished. Our men marry local women with brown eyes, dark hair, and olive skin. Their male offspring mate with our fair lasses, furthering change.
“Some of our older clans have striven to keep our bloodlines pure, but to continue in that vein is folly. Blood is like soil, if not properly cultivated, it will lose its fertility. We must breed with the other tribes, even though with each new generation our true heritage fades to memory.”
I considered Weylin’s words. “Many times over, Rome has nearly lost herself. My grandfather often talked of your Gaul Chieftain, Brennus, how his conquest of Rome nearly unraveled all that we had gained. Yet, with each defeat we’ve become stronger. Now, we are the conquerors, vanquishing nation after nation. Still, despite this, we remain Roman in our hearts.”
“You’re Roman because you separate yourselves from your subject states despite the inevitable mixing of blood. Tell me, dear Antonius, should Rome ever conquer Gaul, would she allow a man like Brennus to govern her people? Would she shun the worship of foolish gods in favor of our teachings? You Romans have always thought yourselves entitled, destined to rule forever. Vanity will be your ultimate undoing.”
“Yet, mine is not the people facing annihilation,” I countered.
“Annihilation?” Weylin’s snowy brows peaked. “Look around. Do we look annihilated? No, Antonius, we are strong and will continue long after you.” He offered me his pipe again, his insistence unmistakable.
Taking the pipe, I stared into its glowing bowl unsure if Weylin meant his people would continue after me, or after Rome. Placing the pipe’s stem to my lips, I inhaled and immediately coughed smoke from my lungs.
Nearby Gauls laughed and a grinning Weylin reached out to retrieve his pipe but I waved him away. Having recovered, I inhaled again, battled the urge to expel the acrid smoke burning my lungs then released in a long relaxed exhale.
Weylin and his cronies laughed again, this time with appreciation and respect. I returned the pipe to Weylin. He seemed further away than he was moments before, and my surroundings appeared rounded as though seen through water.
“The milk of the poppy,” said the druid. “A potent medicine. We use it to open our minds so that we may commune with the spirits.”
I chuckled. “You mock me.”
“Go to all this trouble for a jest?” The druid snorted softly. “Samhain is more than a harvest festival, it’s a chance to talk to the dead, welcome good spirits and shun evil. As I said, we celebrate life–and death.” He held out his pipe again, and this time I took it without trepidation.
The poppy smoke entered my lungs more easily, and when I exhaled I was overcome with a euphoria of contradictions I’d never known. Intoxicated, yet I had drunk little wine, my mind raced with wild imaginings, yet at its core felt completely lucid. I smoked again and again until I realized Weylin no longer waited for his pipe’s return, but puffed on another.
I pushed myself to my feet and stumbled through the grass toward the pyres until heat seared my skin and sweat dampened my woolen tunica. Masked men and women unashamed of their nakedness twisted and turned, laughed and sang. Many found partners to further express their carnal desires and I watched, aroused, for my journey through Galatia had been long and without company. Soon, my attention returned to the two great columns blazing in the night like a gateway.
Like a drunkard, I lurched along while unknown hands stroked my arms, caressed my chest, rifled through the curls of my black hair. Somehow my tunica had come undone and floated like a giant leaf into the flames. The sight filled me with such joy I threw back my head and joined in the singing. Not the crude barbarian chants, but songs to Jupiter, Ceres, and that old god of mischief, Bacchus. A wooden goblet appeared in my hand and I drank down the wine in one gulp, tossing the cup into the perpetually hungry flame.
Naked, I no longer distinguished friend from foe, only man from woman. I became a satyr, seizing the nearest maiden, feeling the softness of her skin against mine, savoring the taste of wine on her lips, and the poppy smoke on her breath. The girl, a handsome creature with small breasts and long dark hair, pushed me away, laughing, and moved deeper into the throng. I didn’t follow. There were too many from which to choose, all willing, all lusting in equal measure.
A thunderous crack like a bolt of Jupiter’s lightning quaked my bones and the left pyre crumbled a little upon itself sending a swarm of ember fireflies into the air. Jolted into purpose I couldn’t explain, I stepped between the two infernos. Their embrace was like a kiln and I saw the fine hairs of my forearm curl and fall away from the heat. Was this what Weylin wanted, to have me cooked alive?
We celebrate life–and death.
Why such an elaborate death when a sword to the belly was simpler. No, the old druid wanted something more from me, or for me.
Samhain is more than a harvest festival, it’s a chance to talk to the dead…
“Midas,” I called out. “King of Meshech, show yourself!” Laughing at the ludicrousness of it all, I spread my arms wide and howled defiance to the heavens, challenging the fire and the dead.
Then he came. Midas. Floating like a shimmering eddy, he wore robes shadowed in umber, and a sword sheathed at his waist. His hair was crimson fire lapping at a molten face. Eyes, golden as the noonday sun bore into me with regal bearing and despite myself, I dropped to my knees and bowed low.
When I looked up again, I found the great king standing before me, waiting, his manner impatient.
“Great King Midas,” I said. “I seek your place of rest. Discovery of your tomb would gain me renown among my peers.” Even in my stupor I knew enough to exclude my true desires: a villa in Rome, servants to tend my needs, and comfort to the end of my days.
Midas said nothing. He was but a shadow, and shadows have no voice. More spirits joined him, a man and a woman, and between them a young girl of about twelve years. They stood before the great king, their eyes dark pits of accusation.
“What do you want?” I shouted at them, my courage fueled by poppy smoke. “Why do you look at me like that? Leave me be. I’ve no quarrel with you. Go find peace in whatever barbarian underworld welcomes you.”
The trio didn’t reply. Suddenly, Midas’ fiery hand snaked through the man’s hair and a blade of ember drew across the exposed neck. He did the same to the woman, and the child, who opened her mouth in a silent scream. I watched transfixed as life poured from them, not the crimson hue of blood, but gold, rich and liquid, transforming into a cascade of coin. Then one by one, Midas’ victims collapsed into cinder and disappeared, leaving me cold, and unsettled.
The murderous king watched me for a time, as if gauging my worthiness, before stepping back and disappearing into the bonfire.
Panting, I raced from the conflagration, the cold night air like a salve on my scalded skin. I made my way back to the sanctuary of furs at the vale’s edge and searched for Weylin, hoping he might explain this vision. The chieftain wasn’t there, but further afield I spied a gathering of his Gauls. Wrapping a pelt around my naked body, I headed toward them. As I approached I heard Weylin’s familiar voice, deep and resonant, the timbre of ceremony. Standing before the old druid was a man, a woman, and a small girl. They clung together as though their lives depended on their embrace.
And before them was a pit. Damp soil assailed my senses like foreboding.
Weylin had ceased his chanting and reached out to me. Balanced in his open hand was a dagger, the blade the color of morning sunshine. “To rob a grave,” he said, “first it must be filled.”
I stared at the weapon, but didn’t move. Far from a good man, circumstance had made me cruel. Yes, I’ve killed, but always for purpose, not random atrocity. Disgust more than outage finally loosened my tongue. “What manner of demons are you people to be so prideful of this Samhain? Tradition, ritual, wear whatever masks you wish. You’re murderers and nothing more.”
Weylin’s ubiquitous smile faded and the hard lines of someone intimate with death etched his face. “We are not demons, Roman, but flesh and blood like you. When you danced, you danced with my people. You drank, you smoked the milk of the poppy, you fondled our women without discern. You entered the fires and purged your soul. You communed with the dead. I watched you. I saw the joy on your face. Did you not find what you were seeking? Did you not see Midas?”
“No–yes–” The image of the king was still fresh in my memory, as were the three dead ghosts. I laced my fingers through my hair and pulled down to clear my thinking.
“Then you understand,” continued Weylin. “There is a price, Antonius. As in all things, to achieve desire requires sacrifice. Do you not offer sacrifices to your gods, Roman? Like you, we give thanks for what we care about most, a bountiful harvest, livestock, and community.”
“You would kill a family to give thanks?”
The lines of the druid’s withered face softened. “We gain life, and lose life, but our spirit will echo in our bones long after my people and yours cease to matter. What does matter is what we do with the time given to us. The fulfillment or waste of our lives is what gives our existence resonance.” Weylin spread his arms as if to embrace the man, woman, and child. “Their fates are immutable, their deaths merely delayed. But their lives were empty, slaves with no purposes other than to serve. You, Antonius, have a great opportunity. Offer them as sacrifice to Midas and give their lives the gift of meaning. Their memory will live forever.” Wordlessly, he stretched out his hand again to offer me the golden dagger. “And you will have your riches.”
“You’re mad,” I said. Gauls, men and women, naked except for their masks, surrounded me but I no longer found allure in their open sexuality. They’d become what their masks represented, animals–monsters. “All of you are insane.”
“No more insane than offering perfectly good food to a marble statue,” said Weylin, “or burying untold treasures with lifeless corpses.”
I winced as though struck in the face for this last bit of reasoning was too much like my own. Robbing the dead was a victimless crime. No spirits rose up to stop me. My greatest enemies tended to be competing tomb raiders. Midas was to be the reward for surviving a life I never wanted and didn’t deserve. Months spent tracking down his burial site, listening to legends, matching them to geography with only a promise of possibilities to fuel my covetousness. Now, here I stood my search on the cusp of fruition. I need take but one step.
In a flash of inspired recklessness I considered snatching the dagger from Weylin, drive the blade into the old man’s chest and fight my way out of the village, the slave family in tow. Absurd folly, and to what end? I would die, as would the family. Their deaths were the only common denominator. Who were they to me? Slaves to live and die at their master’s whim, and Weylin had assured their demise. It was only a matter of who did the butchery.
Wordlessly, I took the dagger and slipped behind the man. My fingers reached into his filthy hair, pulled his head back. He didn’t struggle, but the woman and girl whimpered at the violent motions. I ignored them and instead touched the golden blade to the man’s throat. With a quick motion, I pulled the blade across and let him drop into the pit. Quickly, before I lost my resolve I did the same to the woman. By the time I reached the child tears blurred my vision and I only heard her body land in the pit with a hollow thump.
I cleaned blood-slickened hands on my fur wrappings, enough to wipe my eyes clear and look down on my handiwork. A cry hitched in my throat. The bodies lay upon a pile of gold, a king’s ransom covered in crimson as three heartbeats pumped out the last of their life’s blood. And there was more. Scattered among the dead and gold were bones, hundreds of them broken and chipped. How many had been killed in this way? How many more would die?
And still the gold remained.
I noticed the dagger still in my hand and brought it before my eyes. The handle was made of a stag’s antler. Carved in its surface was a man of noble countenance dressed in long robes and a sword belted around his waist. Midas. This was the King of Meshech’s own dagger. How Weylin came to possess the weapon was not important, only its purpose.
At once I understood Midas’s fiery message was a warning; the price of my avarice was my humanity.
“It is yours,” said Weylin. “Take as much as wish. I offer you chests and mules should you need them.”
Sucking in great draughts of air, I whirled on the old chieftain, the dagger’s tip inches from his eye. “I choose this,” I said, barely a whisper. “I choose to end it.”
Weylin’s blue eyes opened wide and for the first time I saw surprise in his aged face, then understanding.
Snatching the dagger away, I spat defiance into the grave. Neither man nor spirit answered my challenge, and as I push my way toward the rising sun, away from Weylin, his Gauls, his Samhain, I wonder what echo my bones will make.
Originally from Kitchener, Mike Rimar now lives in Whitby, Ontario with his two daughters.
Despite its contrary spelling, Mike pronounces his last name as rhymer. Beyond that he is a man of mystery, even to himself. He is an official Scottish lord and associate publisher of Bundoran Press.
You can find his work in OSC’s InterGalactic Medicine Show, Tesseracts 15, Writers of the Future XXI, and more recently in Masked Mosaic: Canadian Super Stories, Black Treacle, and When the Hero Comes Home 2.
Social Media: twitter @mikerimar, website http://www.mikerimar.com, & facebook https://www.facebook.com/mike.rimar.