Kingdom of Connachta, Ériu - 438 A. D.
Ruahán gazed out across the green valley and tranquil lake he’d known since his youth. The world was changing, faith in the goddess of their túath faltering, being replaced by belief in this new Christian god. Many of their priests had already left the fold, beguiled into becoming Christian priests or monks themselves. The rest were regarded as nothing more than poets or bards.
Domnall came to stand beside him. They had been friends since childhood, and he had always held the man’s opinion in high regard, but he feared they had come to an impasse. “I have no heart to argue with you over this, mo seanchara. We both must do what we believe in our hearts. I should be angry with you, but I do not wish to part with ill feelings between us.”
“We have faced a lot together, have we not?” Domnall said. “He leaned up against one of the tall stones that surrounded the sacred altar.
Ruadhán couldn’t keep a smile from blossoming on his face. “That we have. Some good and others . . .” He shrugged. “I only did what was required by law.”
“I know that.” Domnall sighed. “Though I think perhaps you took greater pleasure administering it in some cases than you did in others.”
“You speak of your . . . students, Ciarán and Aodhán.”
“They were my sons.” Domnall too gazed out across the tranquil lake, his eyes glistening with tears. “Can you not even now admit that.”
“They belonged to the goddess. You were nothing more than her consort, her guardian, there to serve her, but you have chosen to turn your back on her.”
“Can you still believe that? A goddess-mother whose seed joins with that of her sons to create yet another child, one of who will do the same.” Domnall shook his head. “Moira was their mother, and I took her from them.”
“Moira was a vessel to bear the goddess’s child, and she was well rewarded for her service.”
“I loved her, Ruadhán, with all my heart, yet I did not have Ciarán’s courage. And so, I took her life as required by law. That is a sorrow I must bear.”
“Ciarán betrayed his goddess-mother, not for courage or love, but for the lust of a woman that had not been sanctified.” Ruadhán couldn’t keep his voice from rising. “His punishment was far more lenient than he deserved.”
“And Aodhán?” Domnall stood his hands clutched at his side. “He sought no woman?”
“Sweet Brigid, a shagart! The children he took belonged to the goddess.”
“They belonged to his brother!”
Ruadhán turned and strode toward the water, its gentle waves lapping along the bank. He had to calm himself, elst the last words he spoke to his friend would be bitter and filled with contempt. He didn’t want their time together to end that way.
“Let us not fight, a seanchara.” Domnall walked up beside him and placed a hand on his shoulder. “What is done, is done.”
“There was a time we saw things through the same prism.” Ruadhán continued to stare out across the crystal water. “Now the glass is cracked and shattered into so many pieces, it is difficult to see anything at all.”
“Join us then. At least hear what Padraig had to say.”
“I have heard the words, and many align with our own beliefs, but there is one demand I cannot obey. When I became a priest, I pledged myself to the goddess of our túath. I cannot now abandon her.”
“What will you do? The village no longer has need of our priesthood.”
Ruadhán knew where his duty lay. But he must tell no one, least of all his dearest friend, lest they try to stop him.
“I could travel the land, singing ballads of the great battles fought by the old gods.” He chuckled. “Your priests still permit them, I hear, though they look on them as nothing more than myths to entertain.” Domnall frowned, and Ruadhán laughed out loud. “Do not look so troubled. I was a fair bard once, if you recall.”
“I do recall. Master Ailbe lamented the day you were taken into the filidh. He was convinced he’d lost his best bard.”
“And so he had.”
The two men laughed. Ruadhán savored the memory for a moment, recalling the brotherhood he’d shared with Domnall, but he could not dwell on the past. “I will manage. Do not concern yourself.”
“We are no longer young man, able to roam the countryside unfettered by aching muscles and creaking bones.”
“Speak for yourself, a chara. My muscles do not ache. Perhaps you should have joined me on my morning walks.”
“Walks indeed. You went no further than that small copse of elder trees, where you rested until an hour’s time had passed.”
Ruadhán shrugged. “I was exercising my mind.” He nodded toward the gnarled branches of hawthorn and blackthorn that formed the entrance to the sacred grove. “Come, let us go before the sun sets and a new day is upon us. Share one last meal with me before I leave you.”
“I will miss you, my friend,” Domnall said.
“We will meet again one day. I am certain of that. Whether it is in Tir na nÓg or the heaven you speak of, only time will tell.”
He led the way through the tunnel. His heart ached at all he was leaving behind, but it was for the best. He would join his friend for one last meal, then be about his task. The goddess of his túath would expect no less.
He moved with stealth around his small hut. As chief priest, he was afforded his own accommodations, but in truth, he sometimes missed the comradery of the communal living quarters where he had spent most of his life. He had been well over forty when the old chief Ailbe had died, and Ruadhán had been chosen as the new one. It pained him when he thought of how he had failed the position entrusted to him, but more than that, he had failed his goddess. Were he still a mere priest, he could join his friends and travel the countryside as a bard, telling tales of great adventures and holding onto his beliefs. But he was their chief priest, and a higher price was demanded of him.
While those that still remained in the compound slept the peaceful slumber of innocence and no responsibility, Ruadhán set about gathering up the sacred treasures. The Cup of Cheartais sat on his bedside table, next to a flask that held the elixir he would need for the ceremony. He had committed all the formulas to his memory long ago. There was no doubt in his mind as to its efficacy. A chill of fear ran through him, but he implored the goddess for courage and continued collecting the items he would take with him.
The Scian na Lúin, of course. The goddess had asked it as payment from Fionn Mac Cumhaill himself, a sliver of his own spear, its power so deadly that one scratch would end in death. Ruadhán had never taken it out of its sheath, but he would take it with him. Who knew what deeds the goddess might call on him to perform? If need be, he would use it to protect her legacy.
He slipped it in his girdle and gazed back at the table. His ring of wisdom, Fáinne Na Eagna, sat beside the flickering lamp. Forged in the Well of Knowledge itself, it was crafted of the finest gold. Picking it up, he gazed at the name hidden within the secret compartment – Cian, the son of Carraig, birthed to the goddess to rule after his father. All who inherited such a ring were born from his direct line, one of each generation always destined to rule as chief priest. Domnall had received such a ring as well, bestowed upon him by their father Ailbe.
Ruadhán shook his head. No, Ailbe was not their father. He was merely the goddess’s consort, and yet . . . had it not been his seed the goddess had blessed? Domnall was the eldest and should have been chosen as high priest, but he had no wish of such responsibility, and so the goddess had bestowed the honor on Ruadhán. He huffed a laugh. No wonder Ciarán was so reckless. And yet, both he and Aodhán had received a ring as well, marked with the seal of Cian.
“And they never knew,” he said to himself, for the knowledge came not with the bestowing of the ring, but with the acceptance into the high priesthood. “Ciarán might have been chief priest one day had he remained loyal to his goddess mother.” He shook his head again, regret and anger mixing in a turbulent stew. Such a waste.
Breathing in the damp evening air, he placed the ring on his finger and frowned, his anger surging to the fore. Ciarán had not been wearing his ring when they placed him in the tomb. Had he done the honorable thing and returned it to his goddess mother? Or had he given it to Bréanainn? But why would he have done either? Because he knew he was about to betray all he had ever believed, no doubt.
Fury flared in his bowels once more. The ring was a sacred item, not to be awarded to one who would soon be taught their mother was nothing more than a hollow myth. Even Domnall had returned his ring once he had made the decision to follow their new god. And as was prescribed by law, it had been returned to the lake, to the mother from whence it came. Perhaps he should seek the boy out before joining the goddess in Tir na nÓg.
No, my faithful one, it is but a ring. You must escape this place until the time when we can reign again.
A calmness overcame him as the goddess’s words echoed through his mind, a soft whisper, like the gentle breeze on a spring morning. He touched his own ring, remembering his duty, and reached for the shroud he had prepared, folding it before placing it in the satchel that sat on his pallet.
Turning, he gazed in the looking glass that hung over a basin of water. A beam of moonlight flashed off the silver collar that covered most of his chest. His hair was early all white now, more of a gray really. The last six years had been hard on him. He straightened the silver circlet on his head, adjusting it so the emblem of his station was centered. It was time. But as he leaned over to retrieve his satchel, a frightening thought occurred to him. What of the Book of Carraig?
The law was firm on the subject. It must never be removed from the Cave of Rúin Ársa. To do so would bring the wrath of the goddess down upon the offender. But how could he leave it undefended?
Have no fear, mo mhac dílis. No one will be able to find the entrance, and should some man stumble upon it, he will rue the day he challenged my power.
Ruadhán nodded and wrapped his girdle around his waist. The Cave of Rúin Ársa was indeed well hidden, far more secure than the tombs in the Hills of ár Sinsear. And who better to guard it than the goddess herself.
Walking outside, he scanned the compound, quiet now in the still of the midnight hour. He waited silently as the moon started its descent, its ethereal glow casting the small, round, wicker structures in shades of cobalt and silver. A raven cried off in the distance, a message from his goddess. It was time for him to put his plan in motion.
Without another thought, he slipped into the wee hours, making his way toward the Hills of ár Sinsear. He would endure the same fate as those sealed in Tuamaí Dearmadta, the Forgotten Tombs, but unlike them, he would not await the judgment of his goddess. Instead, she would watch over and preserve him until she had need of him again. A shiver ran through him as he entered one of the frigid caves. Undeterred by the numbing cold, he lit the four torches that surrounded the limestone burial slab before using his powers to shift the large boulder across the tombs entrance. There was no turning back now. The deed was nearly done.
Laying the Scian na Lúin at the base of the altar, he took up the Cup of Cheartais and placed it on the smooth limestone surface. He pulled the stop from his leather flask and carefully poured the deep red elixir he’d prepared himself. A wave of panic gripped his bowels, but he took a deep, calming breath, knowing his lady would save him from the torments the elixir inflicted upon those destined to be entombed alive for their betrayals. After all, he was doing this because of his loyalty. No, she would lull him into a peaceful sleep until she called on him once more.
He drank deep of the liquid, its effects washing over him almost at once. Fearful he may collapse on the packed earth floor beneath him, he laid back on the limestone altar, covering himself with the sparkling shroud. His body clenched, the goblet dropping from his hands. Was he even breathing anymore? Misty shapes swam around him, calling his name, and he gripped the altar beneath him. Had his lady abandoned him? But no, she was there.
One of the shapes drew closer, touching his cheek. She was as beautiful as he’d always imaged her.
“Sleep, my faithful servant,” she said, her voice no more than a whisper. And so he did.
***Just a note: Italics are missing here and there because the template wouldn't let me put them in the center of the text. This is also a rough draft, so there may be an occasional typo. It hasn't gone to my editor yet, but I wanted to give you a quick look. Hope it peaks your interest.