County Galway, Ireland — April 1967
Ciarán rested his head back against the car seat and stared out the window. It had been fifteen hundred years since he last saw his homeland, and so far, nothing bore the slightest resemblance to the land of his youth. Gone were the rambling paths of his younger days, the dirt covered tracks that passed through forests and ran alongside babbling brooks. Instead, black tar roads encroached on thin patches of grass and iron-like rails ran intermittently along their route. Though there were trees off in the distance, none formed anything that resembled a sacred grove. In fact, they could barely be called trees at all, being closer to clumps of straggly bushes. A lump rose in his throat as he remembered the green dales and shimmering streams that had surrounded his local village.
The last year in New York had prepared him to a certain extent, but deep down, he’d hoped the Eriu of his childhood had somehow escaped the harsh progression of time. He let out a long sigh. Apparently, it had not.
“Are you all right?” Caitlin shot a glance in his direction before returning her attention to the road. “Did you see something familiar?”
“Not likely.” Though he huffed the words to himself, he shook his head and flashed a smile in a feeble attempt to ease her concern.
“I’m sorry,” Caitlin said, the hurt clear in her voice. “I am trying not to push too much.”
Had he actually spoken out loud? “No, I didn’t mean to be so short with ye. ’Tis just all a bit frustrating.” He could hear his brother’s voice echoing in his head. This would be a lot easier if you’d just tell her the truth. Aodhán always had been the sensible one.
Caitlin reached over and squeezed Ciarán’s hand. “It’s OK. I know it must be hard not being able to remember anything, but we’ll do it together.” She bit her lip, hesitating before speaking. “From what I understand, the Donnelys are mainly from Donegal. What if we check in at the dig and then head up there for a day or two? I’m sure the professor won’t mind.”
Donegal! Mayo was his home. Why on earth would he want to go to Donegal? The only reason he’d even adopted a last name was because people in this century seemed to have one. But then, she didn’t know that, did she?
“I’m not up for it right now, darlin’, but do yethink we might be getting off the main road for a bit?” He wasn’t sure how that would make any difference, but perhaps it would erase the worry from Caitlin’s face. She was concerned about him, and understandably so, considering she thought a mugging had left him lost and alone in New York, with a severe case of amnesia.
Her expression brightened. “Sure, if you think it would help. We got an earlier flight, so no one will be expecting us on the dig until later this afternoon.”
“That’d be grand then.”
She put her hand back on the wheel and signaled to get off at the next exit, her green eyes sparkling a bright emerald, like they always did when she was excited or happy. Sweet Brigid, over the last year, he’d fallen deeply in love with her, in spite of their rocky introduction. He smiled at the memory of their first kiss, and for a moment, a blanket of contentment settled over him. Only once before had he experienced such a profound and abiding passion. He turned to look out the side window again, fighting to suppress the pain that threatened to erupt as the memory returned.
“Well, anything?” Caitlin asked after a few miles.
“Nothing yet, darlin’.” He cleared his throat, hoping to cover up the heartache in his voice.
“I’ll leave you to it then,” she said, though he could see the anxiety had returned to her expression. “Just let me know if anything triggers even the slightest hint of a memory. We can stop and take a better look.”
“I will.” Breathing a sigh of relief, he leaned over and kissed her cheek. Being back in Mayo was going to be hard enough without having to fabricate memories to ease Caitlin’s mind. After all, lack of memory wasn’t his problem, now was it? He remembered all too well, right down to the moment the elders had sealed him in that cave.
Aodhán’s voice interrupted his thoughts once again. For Brigid’s sake, brother! She’s going to find out sooner or later. Sure, she’d be glad to help you deal with it.
Oh no, he wasn’t ready for that yet. The disappearance of an ancient Celtic priest from the museum had been big news, but to make matters worse, the body in question had been Caitlin’s discovery. He could just imagine her expression when she found out the truth — anger, shock, or worse. He pinched the bridge of his nose for a moment, driving the image away.
Thanks to his new-found friends in New York, he’d managed to conceal his identity — at least for the time being — for no matter how much Caitlin cared for him, she was still at heart a renowned archeaologist, one who had no idea her missing Celt was sitting right beside her pretending to have amnesia.
No, he’d wait on that revelation for a bit longer. He had no desire to end up on a lab table, a study in fifth century manhood. Besides, she hadn’t recognized him yet. Maybe he’d never even have to tell her. People lived with amnesia all the time, didn’t they? As long as he kept his tattoos covered, he should be fine.
With that thought in mind, he settled back once more and tried to concentrate on the passing sights. Getting off the main road wasn’t bolstering his spirit. They’d entered a village of some sort, and the sights and sounds were not what he’d hoped. The buildings were made of stone, crammed together, with paved walkways running alongside. Here and there small patches of grass would peek up from the cobbles or a tree would appear at the side of the roadway, but for the most part, it was drab and depressing, in spite of the bright colors that adorned some of the shops. Was nothing left of the home he once knew and loved?
A stifled moan escaped, and he coughed to cover it up. “Tickle,” he said when Caitlin threw him an uneasy look. Her eyes had darkened to a deeper green now. She was upset, or suspicious. He cleared his throat and turned back to gaze out at the cluttered scenery.
As they got further out into the country, the familiar began to emerge, and he recalled why he’d loved his beautiful island so much. Crystal lakes and silver brooks sparkled amid a patchwork sea of green hills and meadows. He’d forgotten how many shades there were of that one vibrant color. No wonder Caitlin called it the Emerald Isle. Thank his new God, there was still some of it left intact. A contented sigh passed his lips, the tension draining from his shoulers.
“Better?” she asked, clearly sensing the change in his mood.
“It is, mo ghrá.” He snuggled into the cushioned seat, remembering his childhood, and she honored his silence. Every once in a while, she’d pretend to fix the rearview mirror or fiddle with the radio station, supposedly searching for a Beatles song, but he could tell her eyes were on him, checking to see if anything stirred his memory. It did, but he was fairly sure it wasn’t they way she hoped. A wave of homesickness washed over him, the thoughts of those he’d left behind bringing images of his brother Aodhán to his mind once more.
“Do ye think we might be going to that museum ye spoke o’ in Dubliin?” he asked, causing Caitlin’s eyes to widen.
“Dublin!” Her expression reflected her confusion. “But that’s at least three hours east of here, maybe more, not to mention it’s in the wrong direction. We’re supposed to be heading north to Mayo.”
“Can we not take a bit o’ a side trip then? Ye said no one would be expecting us this early”.
“I suppose, if it’s that important to you, but why do you want to go to the museum?” She turned her head slightly, a crease appearing between her eyebrows. “It’s not much different from the one in New York.”
“But this one has the only remaining priest.”
She slowed down, and a horn beeped behind her, so she pulled over to the side. “There’s not much to see, I’m afraid. It’s almost as if he’s encased in crystal.”
“Still, ‘twould be grand to actually get a look at one o’ them, with the other two missing and all.”
Caitlin twisted her lips and tilted her head, gazing at him from the catlike slits that had transformed her emerald eyes to the dark green of a mistletoe leaf. “Why? What are you up to?”
Ciarán held his breath. “Ye still think I stole the one in New York, don’t ye? Maybe ye’re thinking I snatched the one in London as well. I hoped we were beyond that.”
She grasped his hand once more, her expression softening. “We are. I’m so sorry if it sounded like I was accusing you all over again, but you can’t blame me for being a bit suspicious. It did sort of come out of the blue. You never mentioned any interest in seeing the priest before.”
He put her hand to his lips, kissing it, then placed it back on the wheel. “True enough, but now I’m here, ’twould be a shame for me not to at least get a peek at one o’ them, don’t ye think. And ye did take me to see what was left o’ the exhibit in New York. Besides, I thought ye wanted to help me remember.”
“What does seeing a dead Celt have to do with your memory?” She signaled and pulled back onto the road. “Heading to Donegal would make more sense.”
He’d heard quite enough about Donegal. “Oh, so that’s it, is it? Either I agree to go to Donegal, or ye’ll not take me any place else. Stop the car then, and I’ll make me own way.” He reached down to grip the door handle, and she grabbed onto his sleeve.
“Don’t be ridiculous. You don’t even know where you’re going.”
“Sure, it’ll come to me eventually.” Without another word, Ciarán lifted the latch.
“All right! Caitlin slammed on the brakes, swerving off onto the side of the road again. “We’ll go to Dublin. Just close that door. I heard you were a bit crazy, but . . .”
“Ye did, did ye? Well, I suppose I am.” Ciarán grinned, then bent over and kissed her on the lips, a long, loving kiss that infused his sinking spirit with warmth. “I just want to see what ye found,” he said when he finally released her. “Is that so hard to understand?”
“No, I guess not.” She rolled her eyes, but at the next intersection, she made a right turn and headed toward Dublin. “But we’re taking the highway.”
Ciarán nodded. “By the way, who was it told ye I was a bit crazy?”
Caitlin just smiled and kept her eyes on the road ahead.
They sat in silence for a few miles, while she navigated getting back on the motorway, then she cast a quick look in his direction. “I’m only trying to help, you know. And if going to Donegal will do that . . .” He opened his mouth to argue the issue, but she lifted her hand. “When you’re ready. For now, we’ll go to Dublin.”
“Fair enough,” Ciarán said, trying to swallow the ball of anxiety that had forced itself into his throat. He turned to look out the side window once again, at the distant trees and scattering clouds. At least he’d distracted her for the moment. One of these days though, she was going to get a glimpse of his tattoos or study a picture of the missing Celt a little too intently and realize how close to the truth she’d come in New York.
Shaking his head to drive the thought from his mind, he closed his eyes and took a deep breath, letting his body relax. First, he would see Aodhán. He could only pray his betrayal hadn’t been the cause of his brother’s entombment as well. The steady rhythm of the tires drove the tension from his body, and he drifted away to another plane. Soft whispers beckoned him, the memories drawing him in until a sense of contentment engulfed his consciousness.