Together, this unlikely pair travels the breadth of a lawless, divided realm, each in search of his own kind of unity. Their path is fraught with blood feuds, lost love, sacrifice, miracles, dark gods, and monsters. Beset on all sides, their only hope is to become allies—and to forge a daring alliance with the pagan Picts. For both, what begins as a personal imperative becomes a series of events that lead to the foundation of the monastery of Iona and the kingdom of Scotland—events that literally change the world.
Outside the hall, rain lashed. Inside, the air was thick and close, the mood fevered. Clerics crowded about, so many that the stout benches had been removed. Bishops, taking pride of place, stewed in their silken finery, priests fidgeted close behind, and all the way around the hall’s outer edges, abbots stood in their simple, white wool cloaks. There were unkempt hermits, too, the unprecedented spectacle coaxing them from their inaccessible rock-stacks or their solitary forest musings. Presiding over them all with an imperious disdain was the high-king, Dermot mac Cerball, his rich red cloak a swirl in an otherwise muted company, his gold glimmering where all save the bishops eschewed finery as a manifestation of pride.
And then there was Columba, tall, grey-eyed, grey-haired, determined to keep hold of his dignity, a tree unbent by storm, even though his rough linen tunic stuck to his skin and sweat trickled down his spine.
Men were speaking, some to condemn, others to defend. First Budic, Columba’s childhood companion, now the high-king’s bishop, fleshy and bejeweled. “My friends!” Budic cried. “In your love for Columba—in your desire to spare him a fate he wholly deserves—do not forget that which is demonstrable! Remember the charges against him!”
And old man shuffled forward in defense: Brendan the Elder, the abbot of Birr, Columba’s anamchara, his soul friend, his confessor, bent nearly double now with age. “You claim to speak of facts, brother Budic,” Brendan said, his ancient face soft and conciliatory, his hand out to Budic in supplication, “but there is no proof that Columba intended that the counselor die.”
“The high-king’s counselor was gutted by his own dagger!” Budic countered, his arms lofted in protest, sweat staining in pools under his arms. “By whose hand? Whose hand? Clearly, not his own!”
“By Columba’s hand … ”
“It is a question of intent, Budic: had Columba not acted, Ainmire would be dead.”
“Ah, yes! Ainmire! Mighty king of the Northern Ui Neill. Columba’s cousin,” Budic sneered. “We can believe neither of them: the one speaks to protect the other.”
“No! Columba is a man of God, beholden to the higher law. He may be a prince of the blood, like his cousin, but he is not above us.” Brendan’s hands swept the muttering clerics, including in his statement even the lowly hermits who nodded, honored to be included in such vaunted company. “Make no mistake, my friends!” he continued. “There is more at stake here than the life of one unfortunate man, one would-be assassin, whom it is convenient for Budic, here—and the high-king—to say that Columba has murdered. So much more! The faith of Christ, ablaze after our beloved apostle Patrick, sputters like a torch about to go out! Soon it will either sweep the land like a cleansing fire or be extinguished like a puff of smoke, its light too weak, too transitory, to dispel any darkness. You know this! The people know this! It is why they love Columba. Why they crave the life he offers them, inside the monastery’s gates. He is a beacon, a fire-arrow, a torch held aloft at the end of a defile. They know—as should you!—that this is a matter above the petty squabbles of kings!”
At Brendan’s impassioned words, Columba’s heart stirred with longing. Daire, Daire of the Oaks, his own monastery, his beloved home. To return to her, clean again, a forgiven man! Daire was heaven—or as close as one might come to it this side of the veil.
But the kings? The men of power, like Dermot, the ard-ri?
Columba sought him out. His palm was on the pommel of his sword, the only weapon there. He glowered back, his hatred of Columba so evident it was nearly alive. Once again, Columba marveled at the chancy good fortune which had spared the high-king death on that battlefield.
Columba knew about men of power. He was one. Theirs was a different path. With his mouth, with his tongue, with his words, Dermot made love to Christ. But with his body, with all his torn soul, it was the Old Gods for whom he lusted, for the earthly power they promised him. To take the high-throne of Hibernia, had he not bathed in the white mare’s blood in the great iron cauldron before all his people, naked as a new-born babe, pale skin luminous in the bloody broth, and eaten the floating chunks of her flesh?
He had. Not two years ago, Dermot had, as had every high-king before him. At the Feast of Temair, Columba had witnessed this still insistent tug of the old pagan ways. Thus was Dermot made high-king—Dermot, whose conversion to the faith of Christ Columba now understood to be false, meant to appease the people.
Oh, yes. Columba knew about men of power.
“My friends!” Brendan was crying. “You must remember that Columba is a man who has been predestined by God to be a leader of nations into Life! His coming was prophesied by Patrick, not so very long ago. Think on it! Patrick! He is such a man as we should not dare to spurn! It would be utter foolishness for us here, today, to sacrifice him, a soldier of Christ, an intimate of kings, for one man lost to war. He must be allowed to continue his mission!”
Some of the southern bishops, the high-king’s bishops, nodded, but not Budic. He paced furiously, his voice risen to a fever pitch, the jewels on his fingers flashing with his wild gesticulations. “If we permit this travesty, our churches are next! If there is no difference between a warlord and a priest—if we, the bishops, do not enforce a distinction—the tribesmen will wipe Patrick’s Church from the face of Hibernia! You know that they shall! It is not so long ago that this island had no Christ! The Old Gods persist! Their druidi wait for us to falter! Which is why Columba must be held accountable for his crimes! Come, brothers! Come! Let us vote!”
Brendan shot forward, hand outstretched. “Before we do, I ask that the council hear from Columba himself.”
Although the crowd, whipped into a frenzy by the men’s arguments, fell silent, the better to hear, Columba suspected that their minds were already decided on the matter—indeed that, in the case of the southern bishops, their minds had been decided for them by the high-king.
In his own mind, the flash of the dagger, it embedded in the body, the blood, Crundmael fallen, dead. What could he say? “Only this: If I could trade my breath for Crundmael’s, I would do it. But I can not raise the dead. I have asked for our Lord’s forgiveness. I now ask for yours. I trust that your voice reflects the tangible voice of our Christ in the saeculum. I will submit to you.”
“Yes, you shall,” Budic cut unkindly. “Now, brothers! Let us vote!”
With much muttering and conferring back and forth, they did. One by one, the bishops stepped forward to place a ball within the proffered bowl: white for innocent; black for guilty. And then the votes were counted, settling evenly, white and black, white and black, white and black, until only one ball remained.
It was held up. The crowd gasped.
The ball was black as night, black as the encroaching darkness, a blight which Columba now feared he had had a large part in ushering in.
Then the clerics, absorbing the enormity of the verdict, began to shout in horror. Columba looked for Brendan. Anguish twisted his old friend’s face, but there was no time to go to him because suddenly, from the other side of the hall’s stout wooden doors, they could hear shouting as word of Columba’s excommunication swept through his supporters. The crowd began to cry his name and beat against the doors.
Over the melee a voice thundered, “Columba!” It was Dermot. The high-king was surging through the crowd, his chest heaving as he scattered clerics. “You!” he spluttered at Columba, his face as red as his cloak. “You! For love of you, Ainmire tried to take my throne! Mine! For love of you, they rise up against me!”
The hall’s doors reverberated ominously, as if they would shatter at any moment. Uncertainty creased Dermot’s face—stupidly, he had left his retinue outside.
“They need to see your clemency!” Brendan put in loudly.
At first, the high-king’s glare was furious. Then his eyes narrowed in thought, his head tilting. “Yes,” he finally said. “Yes. Excommunication will not work.”
There was a cry. Budic sprang forward to grab the high-king’s arm. “My lord! You forget yourself! We have excommunicated him! You may not overrule … ”
“Budic!” Dermot growled. “I have decided.”
“No, my lord! Where is the Rule of God? We might as well apostatize! Let us worship the Old Gods like the people do! Let us lie with animals! Let each of us—you! me!—take seven wives and rape our slaves and fornicate with whores!”
“Budic! I said, leave it be!”
“My lord! My lord! If you love me … if you love Christ … I forbid it!”
“You forbid it?” Dermot’s nostrils flared as he fell backwards to draw his sword, iron screeching against scabbard. A ring opened around him as men scrambled to get out of the way. “I do love you, Budic.” The high-king’s tone was white-hot. “But take care! I have spoken, and this man,”—the point of his sword swung around until it was level with Columba’s eyes—“this man should get down on his knees and kiss my boots for my clemency. But he will not. No, he will not—not him. Not our dear, brilliant, precious Columba.”
Dermot sheathed his sword with a furious snap, the iron rasping. “But the abbot is right,” he said. “Excommunication will not work.”
He cut short the outcry with a swipe of his hand. “I shall exile him instead.” More calculation. “To Dal Riata.”
The crowd gasped. “To which Dal Riata?”
“To Dal Riata in Caledonia,” the king replied, his smile as mean as a knife’s edge. “And if he ever steps foot on these shores again, I shall hunt him down and disembowel him myself.”
Heathen Caledonia! Across the waves!
As Budic triumphed, and the clerics roared, and Brendan sagged against a wooden table, poor support for his horror, a chill overtook Columba, as if someone had just kicked over the soil in which his bones would eventually be laid to rest.
Last night, his cousin Conall, his ruiri, his king, had summoned the retinue and they had laid plans for the raid until the fire in the Great Hall lay dying. Last night, his cousin had welcomed his advice. He usually did. Aedan had not spent his youth fighting for his father against the Picts to learn nothing. He knew a thing or two about the art of war; whether or not he liked it, it was one of his specialties. And although Aedan did not relish yet another punitive sortie against the men of Ile—they were, after all, not enemies, but fellow Scots and kinsmen—he knew that a ruler maintained control in part through swift retribution. So he hadn’t shared his thoughts. His father had taught him both things: that a king must keep order; and to keep his own counsel if the king happened to be someone other than himself.
Instead, Aedan had offered what tactical advice he could, which would mean that the hosting would unfold according to his plan. So, Conall would raid the cattle-pens of the Cenel Oengussa which lay on this side of the sound and fire one farmstead there as a token, but in no way many or all of them. Aedan hoped against hope that Conall would follow this last piece of advice most faithfully—to spare life if they could—but, since it was hardly in his cousin’s nature to do so, he doubted the success of that part of the plan. Still, Conall had seemed to accept the rest of his counsel. There was nothing new in that. Aedan might not be a lord of high repute or, indeed, have any status to speak of, but he was the king’s fennid, his battle-smiter, his champion. When weapons were required, he was the first one in.
Which is why, when the fire had reduced itself to red embers and the drunken men had begun to stagger off to bed, Conall’s order to stay behind and tend to the exiled Christian had stunned him. His cousin had stood, hands braced on hips, fingertips at rest on the pommel of his sword (no doubt to make the point that it was still there and that he knew how to use it, as Aedan well knew), and had ordered him to stay behind. This, even though Conall had no idea when the man planned on showing up. No second message had come from the high-king’s bishop; they had received no indication by either boat or bird that the abbot had finally left Hibernia. The man could be anywhere—foundered, drowned, or lost.
It was a fool’s mission, to wait for a man they were not sure was even coming (an abbot no less! What possible use could his cousin hope to make of an abbot?) when the might of his cousin’s muster rode out to battle. It was a steward’s task, and he was no steward. It was a wife’s task, and Conall’s wife would not have minded the task overmuch, if Aedan was any judge of Eithne’s character, which he had every reason to think he was. It was as if Conall sought intentionally to humiliate him—again.
He had fought hard to still his rush of outrage at Conall’s command, a task made more difficult when Conall’s men got word of his order. Backing Conall on the far side of the fire, their faces suffused with flickering light and their voices thick with ale, they had taunted Aedan. The ridicule had rung to the rafters.
The men of the Cenel Gabran, Aedan’s brother’s men, had not liked it at all. A fight had simmered in the air; he could feel it, a living thing, seeking form and focus. And while he stood there, flushed and shamed, he nearly let it loose. One motion of his hand, one flick of a finger was all that it would have taken. In fact, a response was expected of him: they were a prideful people; a man’s name, his status, his reputation were his very honor, his enech, his “face”. Skirmishes, indeed wars, had been waged over less than the insult his cousin had just given him.
Yet he knew that a brawl in his cousin’s hall would accomplish nothing. As fennid he might be called in to fight now and again, but in truth he had little authority, especially amongst his cousin’s men. With his father, the ruiri, dead these five years and his brother Eogan more fit for pleasure (or, perhaps, contemplation) than for battle, there was little he could do. Aedan was a servant of lords, a hired sword. He was the servant of his brother and of his cousin, the over-king. He could not rue his fate since he was to blame for it: it was as if he himself had hacked off his father’s head.
No. There was nothing to do but to submit to his cousin’s command; this command, and the countless ones that would come later. So he did.
For that had been his abiding impression from his youth, that the god of the Christians was a soft god suited to courtly life, not to the hardships of the frontier, such as was Dal Riata. The Christ was a weak god, killed on a cross by his enemies without a struggle, yet they worshipped him. He was a god sacrificed to those enemies by his own father, yet they worshipped both him and the father. This made no sense to Aedan. The priests in Gododdin had tried manfully to convert him—he, the son of the pagan Scots’ king would have been a fine, boast-worthy, prize—but he had rebuffed their repeated overtures as respectfully as he had been able. There was essentially one reason he did so, a belief learned as he had come of age on the truest of testing grounds, the battlefield, which time had only solidified. That was that south of his people, south of Dal Riata, lay civilization, or what scraps of it the Empire had left to her British underlings when she had scurried home to Rome in the face of chaos. And that north of her lay that chaos: the Picts. His people, the people of Dal Riata, were the ones that held the door against the darkness. If the Scots did require gods, they required not Christ, but strong ones, gods capable of standing firm in the face of anarchy to protect the precious things that cowered behind.
A god of peace! What good was that? When had they ever known—when would they ever know?—such a thing as peace? His people required gods. He understood that. But he did not. He had stared evil in the face and no amount of prayer—for he had prayed! With his father’s head under the blade, how he prayed!—had held that evil off.
The Picts. The Picts.
It was because of the Picts that he was the son of a slain king, a hired sword, and a godless man.
Beholding Columba that day, these thoughts came to Aedan, because in the man he saw a warrior more than a monk, one as large and as solid as many he had met on the battlefield, almost as large as he himself. And, though Aedan had little use for men who made a study of the divine, he began to wonder what fate had led this particular man to Dal Riata. He wondered what the abbot had done to anger those in power in Hibernia, what crime he had committed to have been exiled here, for there was no surer sign of two things: they needed him out of the way; and he was too powerful to be killed outright.
As the abbot climbed onto the dock, Aedan found to his vast surprise that he was actually intrigued. So, when, with the first blow, the guard awaiting the abbot unbalanced him and, with the second, sent him sprawling over the dock’s edge, Aedan, despite himself, was moved to intercede on behalf of a man for whom on any other day he would have had absolutely no use at all.
He could go home, he had thought suddenly, to his parents, the beloved countryside of his childhood. Maybe there sense could be made of it. Order the madness in his mind. A man had been alive and now he was dead! Weary beyond reckoning, he had swayed in the saddle all that wild ride from the battlefield, rain falling, the leagues racing by, feeling nothing even when the showers subsided and the hills rolled out wetly before him in spring’s full bloom. He was in a place of darkness, his senses deadened and all rational thought deserted. If he did pray, he did not remember it.
Until, finally, his mare heaving with exhaustion, he had crested the hill-ridge above the place where he had been born, a gentle valley embracing a little loch. That was where he had swum as a child, his hound paddling valiantly beside, helping to keep him afloat. The water glistened below him, blue-grey in the dawn’s light, so still, so inviting, beckoning him back. There, on the far hillside, was his childhood home, a rath of sweet-smelling stone, large, sprawling. His eyes feasted upon the farmstead enclosed within its thick stone wall. Pigs snuffled about, chickens, the family’s hunting dogs. Smoke rose from the central house, its door open to admit the slanting sunlight. Inside, with age-old rituals, the servants would be stoking the fire to heat stew in the cauldron and fry oatcakes on the griddle. His mother would be at her loom, his father regaling her with tales of the latest horse he had won at bet at the local fair, the best yet.
Columba hesitated. How could he go in?
Then somehow he was at the door. He was calling out. His mother was holding him. His father was shouting.
Then, darkness in his mind, and it was unkind.
“It is true, Crimthann?” she whispered, using the childhood endearment he permitted only them. It meant fox—as a boy he had been full of mischief and very, very clever.
He looked away, unable to reply.
Her hands convulsed around his and she nodded grimly. Rising stiffly, she left him. He sat up and looked around. His mattress was soft, the best goose-down, a fire crackled in its brazier, the same rich furs he remembered from childhood hung on the walls, keeping out drafts, keeping them warm. There was a faded but unmistakable elegance to the chamber and its furnishings, which he saw with new appreciation. In his youth Columba had known only surfeit and ease. He had been one of the lucky ones. At the time, however, it had been, simply, home.
When his mother returned, she brought with her food and drink: cheese rounds wrapped in linen, smoked fish strips, the half-eaten bread loaf from the breakfast table. His father was with her. Columba had no appetite, but under their regard he forced himself to eat. His mother sat with him, a hand on his leg, his arm, any part of him, her soft, wrinkled palm a comfort. Columba looked with love upon her, her grey eyes cloudy with age, her skin lined by time and fear—for him. With a long stick, his father poked silently at the peat bricks in the brazier. The embers hissed.
There was a prolonged silence from which he drew solace. Whatever he had done, he was safe here, with them. Un-judged, he could not be found unworthy.
When he had finished his meal, his father stilled at the brazier, cradling the stick in his palms. Without turning from the flames, he said carefully, “Son, you should go to the flagstone”.
He recalled it so clearly, as one is wont to do those moments that mark and turn a life. It was a day much like any other. He had been tending the cattle in the field and they were lolling about him in the intermittent sun and the high green grass when he had come upon the flagstone embedded in the turf. He had bent down and poked his fingers in the water-filled holes, disturbing their still surfaces. Then he stepped upon the stone, just to make it in some sense his own, as any child would.
On that day, he had turned and turned about, faster and faster, carefree and giggling, until the fields about him blurred and he became dizzy. Abruptly, the cloud-cover broke and a shaft of sunlight beamed directly down upon him. It blinded him momentarily and he fell backwards onto the stone. Water from the stone’s cup-holes seeped into his tunic and he was about to get to his feet again when he suddenly heard a voice in his ear, gentle, like the sighing of the wind or his mother’s and father’s voices blended, and it said, Be still, Little One.
Aside from the cattle he was quite alone. But instead of fear, he was filled with happiness. He felt so full of love that he thought his heart might burst. It threatened to spill right up out of his throat.
He had never felt such a thing before. That is, he loved his mother and his father and his brother and sisters, and he loved to run and to sing. He didn’t even overmind the chores to which he was put. But this sort of love? He hadn’t the words for it then, but it had been encompassing, as if it were both within him and seated next to him on the stone at the same time.
He looked all around, still finding himself alone. He asked the wind, “Who are you?”
It answered, I am.
He ran home to his parents. His mother was bustling about the rath, doing motherly things, his father was whittling a yew rod into a bow before the fire. When they smiled at his tale in a distracted way, he repeated himself to make them listen. His father ruffled his hair, saying teasingly that perhaps he had seen a god.
A god. Yes, it had rather felt like he supposed a god might feel. “Which one?” he asked them.
Still believing it a game (graced with a sharp, nimble intellect, Columba was ever-so-good at games, and his parents encouraged them), his father said, “Which god, you ask? Well, Crimthann, that would depend. Was he dark and terrible?” His father pulled a frightening face. “Did he growl and drool and try to snatch you up? If so, it was Arawn. If you see that one again, son, run the other way as quick as you can. He is lonely in his darkness and wants us living ones for company.”
“Or,” his mother said with a quelling frown at his father, “it might have been Lugh. Was he terribly beautiful? Shining? So bright you had to look away?”
Columba considered this for a moment. “It was bright,” he agreed. “But not terrible. Gentle, like a friend. Or like you, Mama. It might have been Lugh. I know Lugh is good at many things. But does he love?”
“Love? What do you mean, love?”
“It made me very happy.”
His parents shared a confused look as they realized that for him, at least, this was no game.
“And it spoke to me.”
They were suddenly very still. “What did it say, Crimthann?” his father asked, his knife at rest for the first time.
Very slowly, his mother sat herself down, her hand over her heart. Laying aside the unfinished bow, his father stood up. And Columba knew not only that, at last, he had their attention, but that they seemed to be full of fear. For him.
It took him many years to fully comprehend why: he had been given a glimpse of a deity profoundly different from the ones that either of them had known. It was not that they were godless. They were as fervent in their devotions as any two had ever been. Rather, it was the nature of their gods, for the deities of his people were found in the natural world about them. They dwelt in the hollows in the hills, and in the seas, and the streams, and the woodlands. Their gods and goddesses loved secret caves welling with water. They loved oak groves. They loved, they inhabited, mountaintops and the ocean’s depths. They controlled the harvest and the hunt, battle-fury and fertility and sex. They were young and beautiful and had sons and daughters and were everlasting.
But neither his mother nor father had ever communed with any of the gods directly. No—for that they required the intercession of the learned ones, the druidi, who were the custodians of the gods’ lore, their prophecy, and their sacrifice. For, as Columba was later to discover for himself, the gods were capricious, vindictive, and tricky. They fought incessantly amongst themselves and, like willful and malicious children, delighted in confounding and tormenting their devotees. If a sacrifice displeased them, they would ruin a harvest. If a prayer sounded sour to their ears, they would take the life of a child. They could turn the tide of battle, they could bring flood or famine, they delighted in death and in anarchy. And it was difficult to appease them. Only the druidi knew how to propitiate them—and by their own admission the druidi, too, often got it wrong. This was the nature and the power of their gods and the lives of his parents—of all of them—were ruled by their whims.
But on that day, when the color had returned to his mother’s cheeks and his father had put aside his bow and his knife, not to take them up again until long after Columba was abed, his parents had told him of the new god, the one preached by Patrick. The one called the Christ. And when the name was uttered in the rath he heard again a voice which said, I am.
Standing over the flagstone now, the horror of the battlefield, of the white tent, the impulse, the flash of blood-spray, still echoing in his mind, he prayed. For his God to speak to him. To show him the way. That he might be forgiven. Orans, shoulders thrown open and head back, arms splayed, mouth crying wide to heaven, he beseeched his Christ.
He prayed as the sun crept down the sky. He prayed as it set. He prayed deep into the night, but was granted neither vision nor a visitation by his God. Exhausted, he finally wrapped himself in his cloak, lay prostrate upon the flagstone, and fell into a dreamless sleep.
But then, radiating from the presence, he felt malice and despair. He was instantly alert. It did not feel like his God. Whatever it was did not wish him well.
He wrested open his eyes. He realized that, though still prone, he was no longer lying against the cool, pockmarked stone. He was above it, hovering inches over its surface. He tried to shout, but was in the throes of some consuming malady—his arms were clamped to his sides. He could not move them. The only thing he could move was his eyes. Against his will—with all his heart, he did not want to see what it was that had taken control of his physicality—he looked down at his feet.
He tried to scream. No sound emerged. His throat was constricted by some invisible force.
Looming over him, staring down at him, was a dark, man-like, mass. Except that it was not a man. Where its head, its shoulders, arms, torso, legs should have been, was disfigured blackness, as if it was attempting to don the shape of man but was clumsy, wholly unfamiliar with corporeal form. Though the sun was gently rising in the east behind it, the entity cast no shadow. It did not so much block out the light as consume it. It was the absence of light.
The dark shape hovered there. It did not touch him. It did not move. It did not speak. Columba knew that it was waiting, but for what he knew not.
Then he heard it. It never moved, no mouth formed from the void where lips should have been to speak the words, but nevertheless Columba heard a guttural whisper in his mind.
Come. Be mine.
Columba was never able to say precisely what happened next. The thing was watching him, waiting; simply waiting for him to give himself over to it. He inhaled fresh air. He considered what it sought. Had he sunk so low? Was he damned? Behind it, the dawn bloomed.
Then, words again filled his mind, his own words which, until they arrived to ward off the evil, he had not known that he knew.
No. I still have hope.
With a clap like thunder, and a shriek, the thing vanished and Columba crashed back down upon the stone. Instantly, he scrambled up, brandishing his staff and whirling about.
He was shaking violently. He wiped the sweat from his brow. He sucked in breath but could not steady himself.
He had attracted evil. Worse: he had been propositioned by it. In his darkest hour of need, it was not his God which had come for him. His God was nowhere to be seen.
In the east the sun cleared the hills. Below him, light filled his family’s loch. It had been impulse to come home. He had wanted comfort from his kin, to see their beloved faces, but now he could also admit that he had secretly hoped that they could help him avert the course he had foolishly laid for himself, that what would undoubtedly come next might yet be undone. Now, he knew that it could not be, and that he had a choice: to submit either to whatever his God would require of him, or to the darkness.
At that moment his path became clear to him, as bright, as blinding, as dawn: the light might now be denied him, but to the darkness he would never willingly go.
“Hold!” Aedan shouted at the guard, perplexed. Hadn’t the abbot been given safe passage?
The guard knew him and obeyed. But the abbot did not pop to the surface as Aedan had hoped. He had come too late. Rather, the abbot sank farther, arms outstretched as if he were upon the cross of his god.
This was going to require a bit more effort than Aedan had expected to expend. With a heartfelt curse, he dove belly-down onto the dock, leaned over the edge and fished around until he managed to grab hold of one of the abbot’s hands which had floated up, a last grasp for the light.
With a grunt, he hauled the abbot onto the dock. The men in the boat were shouting. The abbot lay there, unseeing, his mouth agape very much like a dead fish. With more invective, Aedan flopped him over with a squelch and pounded on his back with both hands.
There was no response. Aedan cursed again—he was meant to tend to the abbot, not to oversee his demise: what was this mischief?—but he kept pounding until, finally, sea-water gushed from the abbot’s mouth. His eyes fluttered open and he inhaled sharply. His body was taken by violent coughing, water continuing to dribble unceremoniously from his lips until he was at last able to gulp in air.
Masking his irritation, Aedan looked up at the guards looming over him and asked as casually as he could so as not to scare them into closing ranks, “Grillan, did Conall tell you to drown him?”
“Why, yes, my lord, he did,” Grillan replied. “More or less.”
“More or less?”
“We were told that when the Christian came, we should take care of him,” Grillan answered. The other men were muttering their displeasure that their sport had been so summarily halted. “And here he is,” Grillan exclaimed, “or my old mam’s a sheep: look at him! Shiny forehead, and that ridiculous helmet of fuzz.” Grillan pointed to the abbot’s shaved forehead, the tonsure of hair that grew from ear-to-ear over the top of his pate, in the Hibernian fashion, rather than around the back, in the Roman, splayed crazily now on the dock. “And the crossed sticks at his neck. Bah! Nothing but trouble, my lord. A good a gift as any to Manannan. The sea-god likes the holy ones best: so full of themselves they are, good fodder for his sea-steeds, helps ’em pull his bloody big water-chariot. So why bother yourself over it? Leave him to us.”
“Would that I could, Grillan,” Aedan said, settling back on his haunches as he eyed the abbot, taking in the details of his face: hair, blond once, now greying with age; grey eyes, sharp and clear, like the sea; face weathered, but strong and well-defined; a long nose, a mouth which looked more apt to smile than to scowl.
Columba looked as if he might live. Aedan got to his feet. “Would that I could. But what did Conall say to you, precisely?”
“It wasn’t him, my lord. What I mean is, one of his men came all the way down here last night, all the way down the river to bother us over our ale, saying that a Christian would be coming and that we were to take care of him.”
“Yes, but you know how he said it. He said that we should take care of him.” Grillan gave an exaggerated nod, winking one eye widely. Just in case Aedan had somehow mistaken his meaning despite his broad efforts, he repeated the gesture.
Aedan sighed. There was a mistake here, but it was unclear exactly who had made it. “Right,” he said. “Well, you have done that, to be sure. Best leave him to me, now. I will take care of him, and his men. Manannan shall have to wait for other sea-gifts: these men are for the king.”
Though the young man spoke with a very formal dialect, an older form of Columba’s own speech, Columba could easily understand him. Breath labored, throat tortured, lungs screaming in pain, nonetheless a sense of hope shot through Columba as, still coughing, he got to his feet unsteadily: the ruiri had received notice of his coming, by whom Columba did not know, and had put him, and now his men, under the care of this young man.
But who was he, this stranger who had unaccountably saved them? Columba looked rapidly for signs. He was tall; they were of a height, in fact. He looked to be in his late twenties. His eyes and brows and long hair were as black as a raven’s. His cloak was unremittingly black, too, his short jacket the color of the sea after a messy storm: grey, with an angry undertone of deep green. His trews were faintly striped brown and black, and his calf-high boots, also black, were so well-worn as to fit like a second skin. The overall effect of his attire was to accentuate the blackness of his eyes. A great two-handed broad-sword was slung in a wooden scabbard over his back—the sword would have scraped the ground if he had worn it at his waist. From his belt hung a short sword; in his boot nestled a dagger.
A warrior then, but otherwise unadorned; he did not seem to favor the ostentatious gold and silver jewelry beloved by Columba’s people and, Columba had to presume, his own. These were literal signs of status; by them, one man or woman knew the precise worth of another. Nor did he favor the long mustaches which Hibernian warriors sported almost as a rule. He was clean-shaven, with high cheekbones and full lips, and there was a forbidding look in his black eyes.
He was a warrior, that much was clear. But of how high a status? This Columba needed to know, but he could not say. Were the young man a high lord, his clothing would have been far more gaudy: back home, in Hibernia, a slave was permitted to wear only one color, and a farmer two, but a king could sport as many as six colors at once. This man before him? By the signs, not so high as that. Yet, despite his patent lack of display, Columba could almost believe that before him stood the ruiri himself: there was an air of ability and command about him. Despite what they had understood to be their orders, when the young man had spoken, the guards had instinctively obeyed.
“Who are you?” Columba croaked. “Where is the ruiri?”
“I am Aedan mac Gabran,” the young man said with a curt nod. “The king, my cousin Conall, is away. Gather your things. I am to take you—all of you—to Dun Ad.”
At the hall’s center, its heart, was a great cooking pit, kerbed with slabs of dressed and ornamented granite. A fire crackled within, a fire which was never allowed to go out, and over that fire meats roasted on spits continuously, pork and beef and mutton, for, as his father had always said, on his hospitality is a king famed. Over that pit, suspended on iron chains from thick oak roof-beams, cauldrons bubbled and hissed with stews. Torches sputtered in sockets on the walls, and here and there oil lamps smoked on tall iron stands. The walls were lined with furs and wool tapestries, woven into intricate patterns in shades of sea and earth, hill and tree. Fresh rushes were strewn underfoot, and all about were couches and benches covered with the furs of beaver and sheep and seal. All these Aedan remembered with longing from his childhood: all these had been his father’s.
The hall was filling with people: the women of the Cenel Loarn, and the old men, now past war. Hunting dogs snuffed about, and children; and grumbling servants and slaves who by the whip had been taught over the long desperate years to serve in silence. But, save for himself, tonight there were no young men: they had been called to the hosting with Conall.
A woman, young, lush, regal, waited by the fire at the hall’s center, her gaze level and direct as they approached—Eithne, rigain, queen of Dal Riata. Her eyes were blue, her hair golden as wheat tufts, softly curling and long. She wore a gown of white linen trimmed with blue silk, a rare and precious commodity from the east for which his cousin had had to pay dearly. The silk was the color of a calm sea where it meets the strand—ultramarine and shimmering: the very same blue as her eyes. On her neck was a string of river peals; on her head a diadem of gold.
She caught Aedan’s gaze immediately, as he knew she would, and then her eyes never left him as he led the monks to her. With motions she meant to be imperceptible but which he, as familiar with her ways as anyone could be, read for the self-corrections they were, she arranged herself to her best advantage. She smoothed her gown with taut fingers. She fingered her gold rings until their jewels faced outwards, the better to catch and to reflect the torchlight. She breathed deeply. Settled, perfected, she achieved an arresting image; she always did.
With long practice, Aedan schooled his own expression, adopting the manner he always took with her now, becoming as remote in affection as the cold, bleak mountain fastnesses to the north. He did this to protect himself because she was the first—the only—woman he had ever loved.
When Aedan presented Columba and Columba his monks, Eithne accepted their oaths of friendship with a graciousness Aedan was certain she did not feel. Rather, she seemed peevish tonight, but also fevered, as if lit from within by a restless fire. Aedan suspected its source: lust and need. He could feel it emanating from her, like waves of a turmoiled sea.
Eithne offered Columba and his monks the hospitality of Conall’s hall, at least for the evening. It was formulaic, expected. She was the queen. As always, she followed protocol to the letter. It was not her place to offer them her husband’s protection, however. For that, Columba would have to wait for Conall’s return. That was a boon which Aedan was uncertain the king would bestow—while Conall had commanded him to attend the abbot, he had in no way revealed his plans for him. Indeed, the mere presence of this new company in the hall was causing their people unease. They were eyeing the monks as if they were sea-creatures washed up from the deep, still thrashing. Columba was an abbot of the Christians, a disturbing faith that offered its adherents no discernable rewards in this life, a faith which the Scots had no wish to follow. Moreover, he was a Christian from Hibernia, whose claim on their dominion they sought ever to avoid.
Yet Aedan thought he might comprehend Conall’s reasons for allowing this particular Christian an audience. The Picts harried them, year after year. They raided incessantly; from the petty warfare with the Picts they had no peace. Their prospects had not improved after the death of Aedan’s father, Gabran, despite Conall’s promises to their people at his acclamation. If anything, they had gotten worse, although this was an observation which Aedan would never willingly share with his cousin. Dal Riata needed a strong king, and it was not yet clear to him or, he believed, to any of them, if that man was Conall.
What was more, they had overzealous overlords on every other border. The Britons to the south and to the east, of Strat Clut, and Rheged, and Gododdin, demanded more tribute every year.
They needed allies, plain and simple, as many and as powerful as they could get. The abbot might yet prove useful. Until the man had been tested, it was impossible to say. Who were his people? Who cared for his life? Most importantly, what might he be able to offer Conall in exchange for it?
Until Conall revealed his full mind on the matter and either took the abbot and his men under his protection, or cast them out, or killed them, both Aedan and Eithne had best tread carefully. And so, Aedan asked for a place for Columba at her table and she assented. But, as they made their way to the food-laden table, she put a hand on his arm and deliberately held on. He held himself very still. She stole these intimacies from him whenever she could. Against his skin her hand was warm and firm, but it also quivered, as if she were a ravenous animal, shackled against its will, with the red meat of a kill just beyond the length of its chain.
He glanced about surreptitiously—they would be watching; all the women of the court, eager to be the first to bring proof of Eithne’s infidelity to the king, which was a thing Aedan would not permit. He would not allow Eithne to harm herself, or to be harmed so, under the pretext of taking his own seat, he gently removed her hand. But when she took the seat beside him, resting herself against him, her thigh to his thigh, down the whole length of it, just as she had used to, he knew what she was thinking: it had to be tonight. Conall was not here. Neither were his men.
Their opportunity was at hand. Would he take it?
She turned blue eyes to him. “I did this, you know,” she whispered, so softly that had to lean in to hear it.
He wanted to ignore her, but there was a subtext to her words which he found disturbing. So he faced her and, in his silent regard, she read permission to continue.
“Last night,” she said, eyes aglow, “after Conall took me, after he planted his seed in me—he always does, you know, before he goes hosting; and when he does it is always you I think of—I told him what to do. Which of you to leave behind to see to the Christian, he had wondered? Whom to spare?”
She beamed at him triumphantly. “I pretended indifference, but when he pressed for my opinion, I told him. Aedan will take it the hardest was all I had to say. And you have, haven’t you? You hate this.”
She giggled, not precisely to hurt him, he was sure, but because she was full of the sense of her continued power over him. “Of course the idea pleased Conall—he knows to fear you, though he does not fully understand why. Honestly, he makes it too easy. But, you must understand that I did it for you. For us.”
For us. There is no longer an us, he wanted to shout. Except in memory. Looking at her, at her luminous beauty, her hot gaze, Aedan replayed in his mind the decision she had made, not for the first time. He would never forget it. Before he had gone into the wild glens at the fore of his father’s army, Eithne had promised to wait for him. He had gone to war so full of hope. But then … but then … His father’s body, broken, befouled. Abandoned in the glen. Their army, their men. Aedan shuddered. Strewn. Wasted. He, staggering home, mad with despair. Chaos, here, at the foul news he bore. Their ruiri, dead. Who to acclaim king? His befuddlement when it was Conall chosen. Of all people! His cousin.
But Eithne, his beloved Eithne. She had kept her promise; the one true thing. She had come to him in his dark hut, in his madness, and loved him.
The memory of that last time came unerringly to mind. It never took any effort on his part: it was seared there. He had held onto her desperately, so very thankful to be proven capable of feeling. She was the proof that he was alive, that there were things for which he must continue to live. But after taking her fill, as she lay on him, she had whispered in his ear that, in his absence, even while his father was being stolen from him, his own cousin, Conall, had come calling. That that morning, after his acclamation, Conall had called for her again. That he wanted her and he would make her rigain, if she would have him.
Love or position? Passion or protection? With the death of his father, Aedan was so reduced in status as to be barely a lord. He had not a single client of his own and no cattle. But Conall had become the ruiri of Dal Riata. Of course it was Conall she had chosen.
Five years on, Aedan could no longer fault her for that. What he could fault her for was what had happened next. Aedan could still be her love, she had said, as long as what had been open and free and full of youthful joy became hidden.
Gutted by her betrayal, he had shoved her off him. She was stunned by his rejection, so she tried to hurt him, to turn him. It was a mistake. “You have given me the only peace I have ever known! The only joy!” she had cried. “This is your father’s fault!”
She pounded his chest, her radiant blond curls flying wildly about her face. “Foolish, weak man! You were so close to having it all! Ruling us all! And gladly would I have submitted! Daily would I have submitted! But now you are nothing!”
He had held her at bay by the wrists. She had not liked it. She hated any sort of imprisonment. It was a fear she carried with her from childhood. Remembering this, unable to truly hurt anything he loved, he released her. She bared her teeth. “He deserved it!” she snarled.
“Deserved what?” he had asked, knowing even as he did so that it was a mistake, because it was his father she was speaking of. He ought not open himself to her, to give her the opportunity to wound him further. But he was young and unschooled in these matters: he loved her and he was in pain and he could not help himself.
“He deserved to pay with his life! For sundering you from me!”
That was it. Out of pity and need, Aedan had been prepared to concede her many things—perhaps even her union with his cousin—but at that moment it became very simple: there would be no forgiving. Even now, five years later, as she caught and held his gaze for a long moment, then gazed even longer at his mouth, her craving for him palpable, a heat on her skin, he could not forgive her. He never would.
But she refused to see. It was not herself she blamed for her present predicament; rather she believed that the only impediment keeping them apart was his pride—that he would not stoop to lay with a woman who serviced his cousin.
She said, licking her lips, “I crave your mouth, the warmth of it, anywhere on me. You can put it anywhere you like. Let us leave this feast. Let us love under the stars, like we used to. Do you remember? How you craved me? And I you?”
He could not help but blush. He fingered the food on his trencher to avoid having to look at her, but not before he caught her knowing smile. “Aedan,” she whispered. “I am rigain now: I can protect us.”
“What about Dunchad?” What about her son by the king, the son who could have been his?
Her eyes narrowed. “Dunchad?” she asked. “Conall would never hurt him.” Then she leaned into him again, her smile seductive. “Come with me outside. I know you still love me.”
He looked her steadily in the eye. By the gods, it was not false: he had loved her. Their love was the sweetest thing he had ever known. But in one thing she was wholly correct: there was an impediment to his submitting to that love again, but it was not his pride.
It was his honor.
He was just about to tell this her when, suddenly, with a rending crash, the door of the Great Hall burst open and guards rushed in, shouting at the top of their lungs.
Eithne struggled to make sense of it. He was quicker. He was on his feet, drawing his sword from over his shoulder with a rasp, light glinting off the blade.
He focused on the shouting, tried to make sense of the words as the hall erupted in pandemonium.
Dear God, the Picts! Who more fearsome? Who more barbaric? None: the Picts, Britannia’s First People, were the only ones whom during their long occupation of this island the Romans had never subdued. In fear of them, across Britannia’s neck the Empire had stretched not one, but two Great Walls, of stone, of turf, Columba knew not, though he had heard that they spanned hundreds of leagues, formidable barriers against the chaos in the north. To no avail. Over those Walls the Picts still streamed to plunder, to reave, or around them by boat they sailed, and all to the south despaired.
The stories about them astounded even him—he who had lived in miracle daily. The Picts, it was said, were ruled by women, and mated with animals, and, after death in battle, re-animated to fight again. Each tribe possessed a great cauldron into which corpses were submerged for just this purpose. This is what made them so formidable an enemy—they fought to the death, a death of which they seemed to have no fear. How could one prevail against a foe for whom life had no value?
His breath rasped loudly in his ears, its syncopated cycle irregular with fear, like the beat of his heart. The cries of the men below were borne up to him on the wind, bitter with smoke and the reek of burning flesh. Already, he could smell death.
The queen, Eithne, scrambled up to join them. The rich folds of her tunic brushed his cloak as she clawed through her people for the best view of the fighting below. He caught her scent—lavender, an incongruous aroma which he always associated with far-off lands where, he had heard, civility once ruled hand-in-hand with Rome. But under that scent was the stench of ash and smoke.
“How do we fare?” he demanded.
Eithne fixed him with a blunt, assessing gaze. Her hair, as it brushed his arm, was as soft as silk, and her eyes were impossibly blue. What is impossible is that such beauty should exist where Christ has no hold, he thought. He found her so beautiful that he had a hard time meeting her gaze.
“Under normal circumstances, it would take a host ten times that size to breach our walls,” she said. Then, she gasped, crying out, “Oh, no! No! Look!”
A column of Pictish horse riders had broken away from the main host and was galloping towards outbuildings huddled under the lee of Dun Ad’s walls. By some miracle, these buildings had thus far escaped the flames. The lead riders flung torches into the air. The torches spun end-over-end, rotating wands of fire. Unerringly, they found the thatched roofs. With a roar audible from the walls, the buildings burst into flame.
Wails of fear and horror for the Scots trapped within those outbuildings rose from the watchers on the gate: the fortress could not open its gates to give them sanctuary lest the Picts also gain entry.
Pity welled within Columba. “And these?” he asked her.
“Our fighting men are away on a hosting, so we are weak to the point of ruin. Yet, even with their number,”—she indicated with a lift of her chin the Picts below—“they can not hope to succeed with a direct assault. What can be their purpose? Dun Ad has never been taken from without! Not in all its days! Or since the sons of Erc built it, or records began, which in this case is the same thing. Surely they know that!”
She said these things hotly enough that Columba believed her. Besides, though she spoke as if to a child who knew nothing about the art of war, he did. Quite a lot. It was clear to Columba that as a fortress Dun Ad was nearly inviolable.
Then a spurt of fighting on the battlefield reclaimed their attention. Out on the plains, another building burst into flame.
“This is incomprehensible!” she cried. “The Picts do not siege, they raid. Why have they attacked us here, tonight? Why this night?” Fear and uncertainty creased her brow. “Thank the gods that Aedan is with us!”
“Aedan?” Columba asked, unable to keep the skepticism from his voice. It was an extraordinary proclamation. What could one man do against so many?
She huffed: it was as if he had insulted them all. “How well do you know … what do you call them, your praise-poems to your god—”
She shrugged. “No doubt you know them inside-and-out. It is the same for him. He has made a study of war: he has had to. He is canny. And yet he is an animal. It is a deadly combination, I assure you.”
“But there are a hundred Picts out there,” Columba pressed. “And the host is away with the king. How many men does Aedan have?”
“He led through the gates thirty-or-so … ”
“Warriors? Fighting men?”
“Old men and … and boys.”
For a timeless moment he and Eithne simply stared at one other, unable to speak.
“When does the king return?” he asked.
“Not tonight,” she whispered.
She spun about, her tunic swirling as she clambered off the rampart. “The women must be armed!” she cried, running headlong up the path, screaming for her servants as she went.
Unbidden, then, on the ramparts with terrified Scots about him, muttering with fear, there came to Columba dark memories of another battle, and other bloodshed, and other men weeping. In those memories, he stood not on a rampart watching a battle which threatened to engulf him, but knee-deep in the muck of one, with men hacking one other all around; and then a tent of beautiful white linen and one man, one tricky, eager man, bearing down on him, determined, a mad light in his eyes; and in Columba’s hand was not his pastoral staff but a dagger which had felt to him meet and righteous and good.
Sweat broke out on his brow. But there was no escape—no escape from that bloodshed or the blood now before him; no escape from the bloodshed that seemed to stain his soul.
Not knowing what else to do, he prayed, a reflex of the divine communion which he had lost. That had been torn asunder with one true, slashing arc of a blade.
Deo adiuuante … with God’s help …
He knew not for whom he prayed. He did not pray for the Scots, or for the Picts. He did not pray for his monks, or for himself.
He supposed it made no difference: so he prayed for none of them; he prayed for them all.