Council of Teilte, Hibernia, May 563
Late in May of the year of the Lord 563, in a vast hall lent to the men of Christ in Hibernia by her ard-ri, her high-king, a prince, an abbot, Colum Cille, or Columba, as he was known in the tongue of his Church, stood trial on suspicion of murder.
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. There, with sick revulsion and a psalm on his lips, he had watched Dermot strip himself bare and ascend the stool to take the mare from behind. Spent, draped over her broad rump, Dermot had then wrenched back the poor beast’s head by the mane to slash her throat with a sacred knife pressed into his palm by the chief of the druidi. The mare had fallen, blood was everywhere, drenching the white-robed druidi, drenching Dermot, and then he had bathed in the stewing cauldron, in the mare’s body and blood.
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. Then everyone had eaten of the mare’s flesh and had drunk of her blood, acquiescing to his ungodly reign. Everyone but Columba and his cousin Ainmire.
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 Mochta and Bec Macc-De! And—and!—by Patrick, not so very long ago. Think on it! Patrick! I, for one, have seen a very bright column of fiery light over Columba, and holy angels as his companions traveling over the plain! He is such a man as we should not dare to spurn! Remember: Columba is rigdomna; he is king-worthy. He could be ruling the Cenel Conall Gulban. He could be ruling the whole mighty federation of the Northern Ui Neill. Should he choose to, he could be high-king … ” He cast a chary glance at Dermot. The high-king’s countenance was fiery with outrage. “But instead, he has renounced worldly power to devote his life to Christ. Everything he does, he does for our God. 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.
Excommunication. To be driven from the Church, from Christendom, shunned by all the faithful, even unto death. The most severe of the Church’s punishments, reserved for the gravest of sins. It was a perilous fall for one who had climbed so high and so fast, and the men in the hall were stunned as they considered it.
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!”
He pointed at the hall’s doors. They 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?” Brendan demanded.
“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 …
The toes of his boots peering over the precipice, Aedan mac Gabran was pondering the rippling waters of the loch below, so distant, so dark, his thoughts far, far away, when a sound he had not heard in many long weeks caused him to snap instantly alert: the sigh of wood winging through air.
This caught him by surprise. Few things did. Wilderness, this heartland of the Caledonian Picts, stretched vastly around him, unkind and menacing. He had climbed to the woods which cloaked the hillside above this grey loch to find the most isolated spot to brood with his memories, of her, and of the baby and his kin, and he thought that he was quite alone.
But, after countless years on the battlefield, he knew this sound: a spear splitting the air. As soon as his quick mind recognized the threat, he was spinning around. It was indeed a spear, hurled by a Pictish horseman lurking in the safety of the tree-cover. The weapon arced for his throat, vulnerable between breast-plate and helmet.
Aedan cursed. He was a fool to have let down his guard, here, deep in Caledonian territory where no other Scot dared to go, with his back now to the precipice and his only haven the dark water of the loch too far below. He thrust out his shield just in time. The Pict’s spear-point deflected off the toughened wood, then skittered along the stony ground before kicking up and tumbling over the cliff’s edge a hundred or more feet to the awaiting water.
Nearby a hound was barking frantically—Aedan’s wolf-hound, Ceo. Ceo! Where was she? This was odd: she was never too far away. Snapping down his visor, Aedan grabbed for his own spear, sunk into the thin soil beside him. But the Pict, who had kicked his excited horse into a gallop, was already hurling his heavy axe. Aedan thrust his shield up again and, as the axe embedded with a thunk, the muscles of his shoulder reverberated, absorbing the energy of the blow. The axe hung from the shield, weighing it down, rendering it useless. With another curse, Aedan flung it to the ground before him—anything that might buy him some time. With luck it would trip up the Pict’s mount.
He hoisted his spear, studying the Pict sourly. He was fit, young, about Aedan’s own age, wild brown hair flying freely, his teeth, sharpened to points, a grimace over the horse’s rippling mane as he wheeled it about. His face and limbs swirled with the fantastic, be-magicked symbols of the Picts. Able to read the blue tattoos, Aedan scowled. He knew his attacker: it was Drust, son of Bridei, king of the Caledonii—Aedan’s brother-in-law.
Aedan smiled at the long, ugly scar which rippled across Drust’s forehead: it was a wound he had put there himself, many years ago now, back at home in Dal Riata; and then he steadied himself.
Drust had caught him unawares, it was true, but he was ready now. Waiting until Drust galloped within range again, he hurled his spear with a grunt. But Drust’s shield came up, deflecting the missile easily. Drust grinned, a flash of white on a blue-tattooed face. He was enjoying himself. Bastard. His sword drawn overhead, Drust continued his charge, whooping.
Panting in anticipation, Aedan crouched, waiting it out, diving to the side at the last possible moment, just as the horse was bearing down on him. His brother-in-law’s triumphant sword-swipe cut only air.
With a roll, Aedan came to his feet. His helmet tilted, momentarily obscuring his vision. With another muffled oath he righted it. The damned thing needed adjustment. It was a hazard. He was a fool not to have taken care of it sooner.
The horse wheeled, its hooves scattering rock and clumps of dirt over the cliff’s drop as Drust circled Aedan, backing him up step-by-step, herding him back to the edge. Feet from the precipice, Aedan stumbled, landing heavily on the stony soil. Down snapped his visor again. As he righted it, he judged the distance left between them. He would not be able get to his feet in time to repel the next charge.
He did the only thing he could: he stayed down. Anything else would have been suicide. Seeing this, grinning that damn grin again, Drust dismounted in full gallop. He hit the ground at a run and leapt over the discarded shield, sword held high in both hands, whooping in triumph.
Aedan gave his own grim smile. Although a beautiful display of his brother-in-law’s horsemanship, among the best Aedan had ever encountered, Drust had just made a mortal miscalculation. There was little Aedan, or anyone, could do against a mounted warrior, but in hand-to-hand combat Aedan had yet to meet his match, even when arse-down in the dirt. Drust should have remained on his horse until he had driven him over the edge. So Aedan let him charge, leaving his chest unprotected to entice him even closer. When the sword slashed down, Aedan grabbed Drust’s arm and, using his own momentum against him, heaved him over his shoulder. Drust slammed into the ground, grunting in shock. Aedan twisted and on bent knee jabbed the point of his sword at his brother-in-law’s throat.
Breath heaving, Drust gaped up at him, brown eyes wide, the tattoos of the elaborate sunbursts inked onto his face elongating with his surprise at being bested. His sword clattered to the ground. Hands raised in defeat, he panted in a heavily accented version of Aedan’s own speech, “I concede!”
“Damn right you do,” Aedan growled, pressing the point of his sword into the center of a sun on one of Drust’s cheeks.
“If you cut me,” Drust warned, “my sister will have your head. Once was enough.”
Drust’s sister. Aedan’s wife, Domelch. The mother of his son. The thought of her brought a wry smile to his face. “She would, wouldn’t she?”
And, offering a hand to his brother-in-law, he hauled him to his feet …
Oh! Dear God!
There! There! The boys!
The boys will die!
Not much time now. No time to race to them through the crush, to intercede, to step between them and those slashing swords. To save them.
Except … they are no longer boys. They are not as they are now. They are men. Valiant, vibrant men, in the prime of their lives; vital and strong. Look at them on their bright steeds! At the fore of the vanguard, laughing! Just as their father Aedan had taught them. Just as Aedan had done.
Aedan, Columba’s friend, his soul’s companion. His anam cara. None more dear.
These boys? These men! They are invincible! They will live long lives. No spear can reach them, no arrow; certainly not those horrible, relentless, hacking blades. They are safe from harm. Free from pain.
No. Blood is dripping from their beautiful faces. They are ripped from their horses. Their enemies have them now. They loom over them, taunting and laughing as they torment them.
He is too far away to save them. He will not be able to reach them in time.
He knows what is coming. So do they. There is anguish in their eyes as they look for one another; one brother reaching for the other.
Oh! No! No! No!
There go their heads.
It is too much. Columba forces open his eyes …