He continued his journey into the forest where a canopy of trees, thickets, and vines snaking from branches obscured the sunlight, making it difficult for him to find the patchwork footpath of gravel and grass. The path meandered around a majestic beech, to a scrubby hazelnut, and between some white willows—trees that provided natural ingredients for his concoctions. He finally spotted the towering oak that rose above the verdure landscape. Near the oak, he yanked some creeping plants away to reveal skulls lodged in carved-out cavities in a wooden gateway. At the bottom were children’s skulls, some of which had been stillborn babies. Higher up were the cracked skulls of unfortunate travelers who Marrock had sacrificed. At eye level, he found his most precious skull wrapped in white linen. He carefully pulled it out, and unraveled the fabric from the cranial bone. He lovingly gazed at its empty eye sockets.
The clenched jaw did not respond. For Marrock, there was something pure and spiritual about the silent skull. It was the temple that encased his mother’s soul before she was brutally beheaded by his father, King Amren.
Marrock recalled the day, almost twenty years past, when his father forced him to watch his mother’s execution. Since then, he recited his mother’s curse word-for-word every morning to emblazon him to pursue his ambition of overthrowing his father. To do so, he knew he had to ally first with the mighty Roman Empire. With Cunobelin and the Romans now wavering on their support for his claims, he was no longer sure if he could fulfill his mother’s curse.
Rubbing the skull’s eye sockets, Marrock again relived the horror when he was an eight-year-old boy watching his beloved mother’s head fly off her body. He should have caught the head, not the dim-witted Agrona who let it slip through her hands and thump on the ground. When Marrock knelt to touch his mother’s head, rivulets of blood stained his hands.
Emptiness rotted away Marrock’s soul. Two weeks after the execution, he dug his mother’s head out of the refuse heap. The sight of maggots slithering in and out of the nasal cavities, eye sockets, and teeth made his stomach roil with disgust. The putrid rotten-egg odor made him retch.
Then a compulsion to remove the filth from his mother’s head took control of him. He polished her skull as brilliant as the full moon at its zenith. Using vinegar-soaked cloth, he wiped the greenish-black slime away from his mother’s face and rinsed her head in healing pond water. For a week, he soaked the head in a vat of urine to remove any residual filth away from the bone, then meticulously scraped off all the hair with a knife and polished the bone with a whetstone. This was the first head he enshrined in the Gateway of Skulls.
Until he was a young man, Marrock believed his mother’s soul resided in the skull, but Agrona informed him otherwise. “Queen Rhan’s soul possessed me the instant her severed head slipped through my hands. I am your mother, Rhan.”
Marrock at first refused to believe Agrona, but he slowly accepted the Druidess, the same age as him, was indeed the essence of Rhan. Although Marrock knew the skull was an empty vessel, rubbing its smooth surface soothed him before joining the wolf pack. He sat down on thick grass, crossed his long legs, and placed the skull on his lap. Eyes fixed on the setting sun’s crimson light filtering through the trees, he chanted:
Red Wolf, join my soul.
Forge my thoughts and body into wolf form.
Take me forward to the sunset of my father’s demise
And to the dawn of my rising.
Reveal the portal from which I will reap new powers.
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